27 pages 54 minutes read

Vladimir Lenin

Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1916

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Summary and Study Guide


Vladimir Lenin wrote Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism in the midst of World War I. It was originally published in 1917. Lenin aims to put forth a “composite picture of the world capitalist system in its international relationships” at the turn of the 20th century (8). Lenin identifies World War I as an imperialist conflict that will end in social upheaval regardless of the outcome; capitalist powers will further entrench their ideals into society at large.

Capitalism is a system of systemic oppression and colonial exploitation, Lenin writes. It is in the interest of the very small number of capitalist powers in the world—nations such as America, Great Britain, Japan, etc.—to continue spreading capitalism across the globe, to dominate over developing countries they have entered via conquest and colonization.

Capitalism, as Lenin sums up, is defined by the rapid growth of industry—often at the expense of agricultural prosperity—and the concentration of capital and wealth in the hands of “ever-larger enterprises” and ever fewer individuals (18). The concentration of wealth characteristic of capitalism results in the creation of monopolies. Ironically, this stamps out capitalism’s initial tenets when introduced into an economic ecosystem. The capitalist hallmarks of free competition, free trade, and a free market devolve into monopolies where the very idea of free competition becomes a thing of the past. Capital and the means of production are gathered into single, monolithic entities which remove competition from the equation to maximize profit margins.

Monopolies are unique to the “modern capitalist economy” (20). Once they succeed in taking over their own national economies, they cross international boundaries and become cartels, and influence international relations. The role of banks also increases. Banks become the focus of finance capital, or capital that has been liquidated in the form of money, which allows it to be rapidly moved around the world in immediate transactions. In gaining control of banks, financial oligarchs can influence the stock market and manipulate the economy through a host of different means: inflating the price of company stock, raising prices via industry monopolies, giving false value to companies, and more.

The centralization of capital contributes to exports in capitalistic societies. In the former stages of capitalism the primary exports were material goods shipped out internationally in the global trade economy, such as spices, salt, cotton, and timber. In late-stage capitalism, the primary export has become capital itself. The surplus of capital is not used, under capitalism, to fortify the economy at home or to raise the standard of living, but to provide an influx of liquid wealth into developing, colonized countries that that will provide maximum return on investment due to untapped resources and cheap labor.

Late-stage capitalism, or imperialism as Lenin dubs it, focuses on profit and the centralization of capital alone. The world is divided into territories and colonies and then exploited for financial gain, resulting in violence and war when various powers compete. Capitalism, like any other flawed system, “inevitably engenders a tendency of stagnation and decay” (126). Capitalist society eventually self-immolates as the exploitation of the proletariat results in violent revolution. The peace that capitalist societies may enjoy at times is transient; the struggle for power seethes internally and finally erupts in revolution. “Monopoly capitalism” will prove unsustainable in the end: It values profit over quality of life and concentrates wealth in a way that will trigger the mass’ resentment against the bourgeoisie and the capitalist, imperialist, usurer state (156).

This study guide was written using the digital e-book edition entitled Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, published by Digital Fire in 2021.