Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism (study guide)

Jan 27, 2018

Illustration of V.I. Lenin set against Reuters photos of New York City, and Mosul in ruins. | Photo: Elliott Gabriel / teleSUR

Lenin’s Imperialism remains as one of the most important works for understanding the political, economic, and social consequences of global capitalism. Written in 1916 and published in 1917, the pamphlet is a polemic against those “socialists” who, in word or deed, supported their own governments during World War I. Laying bare the expansionary dynamics of capitalism in its monopoly stage, Lenin shows that war is endemic to the system, rather than the result of particular policies. At the same time, he shows how monopoly capitalism can lay the foundation for socialism, which is the only real solution to imperialist war.

We hope this study and discussion guide will help comrades and friends make their way through the text, reading the arguments on their own terms and with an eye toward their nuances.

The PSL reprinted Imperialism in 2015 as part of our book that revisits and updates Lenin’s analysis for our present moment. Liberation School has two important articles that survey the distinct stages imperialism has gone through since 1917, which you can find here and here.


  1. Why do you think Lenin found it necessary to focus the whole Preface on the way that Tsarist censorship impacted the writing of the book in 1916?
  2. What does this tell us about the context in which the Russian Revolution emerged?
  3. How does that context compare to our era?

Preface to French and German Editions

  1. Why are railways a “summation” of the fundamental capitalist industries? How do they relate to imperialism?
  2. Why does Lenin argue that the treaties that signaled the end of WWI  contributed to an emerging global revolutionary situation?
  3. Why has Lenin deemed it necessary to spend so much time in the pamphlet challenging Kautsky?
  4. Why does Lenin argue that the labor aristocracy are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the labor movement? Does such a stratum still exist in oppressor nations? If so, how are they similar or different today?

Concentration of production and monopolies

  1. How does Lenin connect the emergence of imperialism to the tendency of capitalist development toward the concentration of productive forces?
  2. Discuss how the competition phase of capitalism gives way to the monopoly phase.
  3. How does the ability to make production estimates in the monopoly phase of capitalism already embody a socialist potential?
  4. Why is it significant that the competition between capitalists gives way to the ability of monopolists to over power and choke out capitalists outside the cartels?
  5. Lenin notes how bourgeois economists, desperate to show capitalism in a positive light, argue that cartels are able to overcome crisis. The opposite is in fact true. Why is this so? And why is it so important to understand?

Banks and their new role

  1. Lenin identifies the growing power and influence of banks as one of the primary shifts from capitalism to imperialism. Explain and discuss this process.
  2. Why does Lenin argue that the decline of the significance or importance of the Stock Exchange accompanies the transition from competitive to monopoly capitalism?
  3. How did the Stock Exchange function as a regulator of capital?
  4. Lenin understood education to be extremely important because of the need to counter bourgeois propaganda. As an example of the need to counter the confusion sowed by bourgeois professors, Lenin observes: “The task of a bourgeois professor is not to lay bare the entire mechanism, or to expose all the machinations of the bank monopolists, but rather to present them in a favorable light.” Discuss the contemporary relevance of Lenin’s observation. How were bankers portrayed during the 2008 housing market crash? How many bankers went to prison?
  5. While bourgeois professors and economists work to deceive the masses, their efforts are only ever partially successful. There has always been people in every era that have fought back and refused to accept the official narrative. What does this resistance look like today?
  6. Discuss the process of concentration and its effect on banking.
  7. How did banks (or finance capital) come to dominate industrialists (or industrial capital)?
  8. Lenin points to the way monopolized banks, concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, influence the development of technology and knowledge by funding “technical research societies.” What other industries and sectors of our economy have monopolized banks driven?.

Finance capital and the financial oligarchy

  1. What is finance capital? How does it tend to transform the industrialist and the banker?
  2. Discuss why Lenin argues that the so-called “democratization” of the ownership of stocks or shares actually increases “the power of the financial oligarchy”. Why is it in their interest to permit “the issue of shares of smaller denomination”?
  3. How does finance capital operate as such? That is, explain how it “exacts enormous and ever-increasing profits from the floating of companies, issue of stock, state loans, etc.…and levies tribute from the whole of society”?
  4. How and why does finance capital tend to dramatically expand its holdings during times of crisis (such as depressions and recessions)?
  5. Explain why Lenin argues, in the following passage, that the tendency for the separation of different forms of capital “reaches vast proportions” with the domination of finance capital (i.e. imperialism):

    “It is characteristic of capitalism in general that the ownership of capital is separated from the application of capital to production, that money capital is separated from industrial or productive capital, and that the rentier who lives entirely on income obtained from money capital, is separated from the entrepreneur and from all who are directly concerned in the management of capital. Imperialism, or the domination of finance capital, is that highest stage of capitalism in which this separation reaches vast proportions.”

Export of capital

  1. Why does imperialism signal a shift from the export of goods to the export of capital?
  2. Why does Lenin include, early on in this chapter, a discussion of why degrees of productiveness or the development of capital has nothing to do with eliminating poverty?
  3. This issue of productiveness, Lenin points out, tends to be used by bourgeois economists to make it seem like general abundance is always just around the corner. Relief is perpetually not far off. Write a few sentences you would tell to a friend or coworker who repeated the bourgeois economists’ line to you.
  4. What characteristics of “underdeveloped” countries make them particularly profitable for finance capital?
  5. What conditions within the most advanced capitalists countries led to the drive to export capital?
  6. What impact does imperialism have on the capital-exporting countries versus the capital-importing countries?

Division of the world among capitalist associations

  1. Why is the electrical industry the most typical of capitalism in the late 1800s-early 1900s? Is it still the most typical in this way? If not, what other industry might be?
  2. Discuss the 1907 agreement between electric monopolies in the U.S. and Germany. How was this an example of a global monopoly?
  3. The agreement between global trusts, however, is only the product of a given balance of forces. If the balance of forces changes, so too could the agreement between trusts. This “struggle for the division of the world,” is one of the driving forces behind imperialist wars. What do we know about the global balances of forces today? Is it shifting, or showing signs of movement? If so, how, and in what direction?
  4. Discuss the significance of the following passage:

    “Certain bourgeois writers (now joined by Karl Kautsky, who has completely abandoned the Marxist position he had held, for example, in 1909) have expressed the opinion that international cartels, being one of the most striking expressions of the internationalisation of capital, give the hope of peace among nations under capitalism. Theoretically, this opinion is absolutely absurd, while in practice it is sophistry and a dishonest defense of the worst opportunism.”

  5. Why is it that, while the relative conditions effecting the struggle between imperialists changes, “its class content, positively cannot change while classes exist”? Why is this important?

Division of the world among the great powers

  1. Read the following passage out loud:

    “the characteristic feature of the period under review is the final partitioning of the globe—final, not in the sense that repartition is impossible; on the contrary, repartitions are possible and inevitable—but in the sense that the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories on our planet. For the first time the world is completely divided up, so that in the future only redivision is possible, i.e., territories can only pass from one “owner” to another, instead of passing as ownerless territory to an owner”.

    What’s the significance of this quote to Lenin’s argument? What is its significance in our contemporary world?

  2. Why did British bourgeois politicians oppose colonial policy between 1840 and 1860? Why did their views so dramatically change by the end of the nineteenth century?
  3. How was it that finance capital, as a force, was able to dominate world affairs by the end of the nineteenth century?
  4. Lenin offers a concise summary here of the stage that imperialism was at when he wrote the pamphlet in 1916. It’s worth spending some time one and discussing:

    “The principal feature of the latest stage of capitalism is the domination of monopolist associations of big employers. These monopolies are most firmly established when all the sources of raw materials are captured by one group, and we have seen with what zeal the international capitalist associations exert every effort to deprive their rivals of all opportunity of competing, to buy up, for example, iron fields, oilfields, etc. Colonial possession alone gives the monopolies complete guarantee against all contingencies in the struggle against competitors, including the case of the adversary wanting to be protected by a law establishing a state monopoly. The more capitalism is developed, the more strongly the shortage of raw materials is felt, the more intense the competition and the hunt for sources of raw materials throughout the whole world, the more desperate the struggle for the acquisition of colonies.”

  5. Why was it important for Lenin to point out the tendency of shortages of raw materials causing more hunger among workers than food shortages? Why would bourgeois economists try to distort or deny this tendency?

Imperialism as a special stage of capitalism

  1. Lenin summarizes why imperialism is a special stage of capitalism. Write another summary in your own words.
  2. Discuss the 5 features of imperialism Lenin outlines: (1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.
  3. After offering the above definition, Lenin offers a disclaimer. He notes that it is limited in that it does not include its relation to the two primary trends or tendencies within the labor movement. Lenin frequently points to the power held by labor as central in the balance of forces. Why does he do this? How does it change or bolster our understanding of imperialism?
  4. Why does imperialism tend toward war, and why have bourgeois apologists gone to such lengths to deny this?

Parasitism and decay of capitalism

  1. How does imperialism tend toward stagnation and decay?
  2. Explain and discuss this sentence:

    “The rentier state is a state of parasitic, decaying capitalism, and this circumstance cannot fail to influence all the socio-political conditions of the countries concerned, in general, and the two fundamental trends in the working-class movement, in particular.”

  3. How can the super profits obtained through parasitism lead to working-class opportunism in the imperialist countries?
  4. Referring to the workers’ movement Lenin reminds us that, “We must not, however, lose sight of the forces which counteract imperialism in general, and opportunism in particular.” Why do you think statements like this appear every few chapters throughout Lenin’s text?
  5. Shifting the burden of toil on oppressed nationalities, imperialism paves the way for the national liberation movements. While it was clear to Lenin and others that imperialism was creating its own opposition, what kind of resistance is imperialism creating today, a few decades after the era of national liberation movements came to an end?

Critique of imperialism

  1. Why was there a petty-bourgeois opposition to imperialism coming from within the imperialist countries themselves during the early stages of its development? For example, why did competing bourgeois politicians in the U.S. Congress accuse each other of being imperialists in debates over the invasion and annexation of half of Mexico between 1846 and 1848 and Puerto Rico in 1898?
  2. Why did this bourgeois hesitation stop short of connecting imperialism to the heart of capitalism?
  3. Why does Lenin refer to Kautsky’s so-called Marxist critique of imperialism, which is based on the assumption that capitalist expansion can best be promoted not by violence but by peaceful democracy, a “reformist swindle”?

The place of imperialism in history

  1. What are the four origins of monopoly identified by
  2. Why does monopoly result in a “high cost of living?”
  3. How does Lenin come to the conclusion that capitalism is parasitic and decaying?
  4. Lenin uses the phrase “clipping coupons” throughout Imperialism. What does it mean? How can we see it being employed today?
  5. Explain why the following passage was correct in 1916 for Britain: “…capitalism is growing far more rapidly than before; but this growth is not only becoming more and more uneven in general, its unevenness also manifests itself, in particular, in the decay of the countries which are richest in capital…”
  6. Is it correct today?
  7. What role does the bribing of workers play in the process outlined by Lenin? The fact that he mentions it several times throughout the book, speaks to the significance he afforded it.
  8. While revolutionary optimism is indispensable, how does Lenin discuss the optimism that “serves to conceal opportunism”? What would you call this kind of optimism?