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I have never read a book full of so many enigmas. It is interesting, for example, that Lenin should come from an elite family and aspire to expose capitalism and the bourgeoisie. At the same time, doing so propelled him into further international attention and advanced Lenin’s power as leader of the USSR. So perhaps this book is not as selfless as it appears to most Leninists.
Leninism vs Marxism
One of the stand out features of Imperialism is the path through which Lenin takes the Marxist vision. Whereas Karl Marx discussed the psychological consequences of capitalism within nations – such as alienation between classes and a growing class divide – Lenin takes the Marxist critique of capitalism to the international level – almost a “Neo-Marxism”, if you will.
Some people may argue that this is quite logical, as nations are formed of individuals, and so division between rich and poor individuals should logically lead to division between rich and poor nations. Others may claim that rich nations can contain poor inhabitants, and so Leninism isn’t as coherent as it seems and is an incomplete conclusion of the Marxist vision. Lenin nonetheless continues that capitalism concludes itself at imperialism; as countries grow wealthier they must search for more resources and commodities for their advanced economies, and hence must colonise other poorer nations.
Lenin uses many examples to support this main point, correlating economic growth with colonial expansions within the German, British and French empires of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Immediate problems with Leninism
It is incredibly impressive (if I may say so) that Lenin could source so many figures and statistics in a pre-internet world where gathering information would have required him to visit and dig through national libraries and archives. It was not typical of political theorists of his time to reference statistics and data when making philosophical arguments, probably for this very reason. Despite this, three concerns immediately jumped out to me while reviewing Lenin’s data:
1. I believe that the relationship between capitalism and imperialism is not simply one in which capitalism results in imperialism; rather, a cycle can develop in which imperialism can, in return, exacerbate capitalist growth – for example, in the British acquisition of India, and how this developed the British tea trade during the Empire. Think about how multinationals like Facebook today mobilise legislative and political change (GDPR). In other words, I believe that there can be a “discursive” relationship between capitalism and national imperialism, whereas Lenin implies in his book that this relationship is a causal, linear relationship – simply, A causes B. If anything, my critique of Lenin is more in line with Marxist philosophy – if imperialism in turn strengthens colonisers and leaves those colonised poorer, this results in a bigger “class divide”, if you will, between rich and poor nations. Rich, colonising country A & poor, colonised country B can be in continuous interaction with one another.
2. Another problem I noticed was Lenin’s very evident “confirmation bias”. He appeared to be deliberately selecting data in order to advance his presupposition that capitalism is unique insofar as it results in imperialism. Given that it must have been relatively difficult for Lenin to find data for his book, I think readers should forgive him for his inconsistency as he flicks, for example, between Deutschmarks and Dollars in his economic tables. Nonetheless, when Lenin shows that imperialist nations have grown economically, he does not discuss whether or not this is real growth that takes into account inflation, or whether this is nominal growth which is not so drastic upon closer inspection. Equally, Lenin does not discuss the prospect of Marxist countries also imperialising to advance Marxist ideals somewhere along the future.
3. This leads me to my third and final main criticism: Lenin takes issue with Western imperialism in his book, but later ends up instructing Russian troops to invade the Caucasus as leader of the USSR. In Lenin’s mind, this may be because the Caucasus is part of “historical Russia”, but this is a highly subjective and controversial claim. One of the symptoms of colonisers is the patronising narrative that places colonised countries as dependents of or so-called “peripheries” to the economic contexts of imperialist nations. Leninist Russia did just this in its occupation of the Caucasus – it viewed the region as a peripheral part of Russian history, with the Russian nation at the centre of its own historical focus. Lenin’s actions as leader of the USSR therefore discredit his conviction in writing Imperialism, opening his motives and coherence to many questions.
How does Lenin contribute to colonial theory?
Many postcolonial theorists today, such as Edward Said and Ashis Nandy, make a distinction between coloniser and colonised – Lenin, however, recognises layers within the colonised. He discusses the issue of so-called “semi-colonies” – nations that are not formally colonised by another, but are highly economically dependent on another nation. This is a very interesting distinction, one that I had not considered until reading Imperialism, though it is unclear who was first to introduce the term “semi-colony”, and to what extent this concept had been discussed – if it had been discussed – before Lenin’s book.
The only thing that I would probably add to the concept is the idea of cultural dependency – for Lenin, everything comes down to economics: a nation is either growing extremely fast economically, or it is being used for its economic resources, and it is the nature of this economic relationship which defines who is coloniser and who is colonised. I find this very reductive – I think we should also be considering the psyche – how do these countries perceive each other – do they look up to each other? After all, most countries are economically interdependent today, and by Lenin’s logic China and US are “semi-colonies” of one-another – but this seems ridiculous when put in such crude terms. There must be more to colonialism than the economic relationship; if Lenin can make a distinction within colonies, it surprises me that he did not provide more nuance and depth on the nature of colonialism and look beyond the economic characteristics of imperialism.
I do recognise that I have the benefit of years of literature on colonialism that followed Lenin’s death. Therefore, it is easier for me, as a reader, to criticise Lenin’s book than it had been for Lenin to write his book in 1917. From this perspective, I think it is fair to say that this book is a valuable start on colonial theory, but it definitely needs supplementary reading.
By Osama Filali Naji, Edited by Yassine Charrar