Imperialism before Lenin

Mike Macnair reviews: Richard B Day and Daniel Gaido (editors and translators) Discovering imperialism: social democracy to World War I Brill 2012, Historical Materialism book series, Vol 33, pp951,

British rule: from Cairo to the Cape

Communist politics after 1924 began to be characterised by the cult of the personality of Lenin. The cults of the personalities of Stalin and Mao were, in a sense, merely offshoots (leading to increasingly bizarre imitative phenomena further down the line, from Enver Hoxha to ... Bob Avakian). Trotskyists responded, perhaps unconsciously, by creating a cult of the personality of Trotsky.

The effect of these personality cults has largely been to cut the left off from any real knowledge of the historical development of its own common ideas as a collective product - and particularly of the real history of the Second International and the debates in the Social Democratic Party of Germany, which was the largest party, the model for others and had the most vigorous internal life.

For this real history there was substituted a caricature derived originally from the criticisms of the anarcho-syndicalist left, and the ‘mass action’ left of Rosa Luxemburg, Anton Pannekoek and others inside the International but influenced by the anarcho-syndicalists. These criticisms were glued together with a fictitious history of Bolshevism, which asserted its existence as an independent party from 1903 and retrojected some of the arguments Lenin offered after 1914, to make Lenin before 1914 - purely fictionally - into both an ally of the ‘mass action’ left, and an advocate of the sort of ‘monolithic’ conception of the party which emerged as a doctrine in 1921.[1]

The bourgeois academy was only too willing to promote this caricature, but with the opposing conclusion, that bureaucratic managerialism or ‘technocratic elitism’ is inevitable in ‘modern society’, calling to witness left-syndicalist, Weberian and later fascist Robert Michels’ Political parties (1911), a book still used in US ‘political science’ courses. The conclusion the academics draw is, of course, that, since the ‘mass action’ lefts were unrealistic, only the ‘revisionist’ right wing of the Second International, which argued for full engagement with the parliamentary politics of coalitions, offered a real ‘democratic’ alternative to the dictatorship of the party bureaucracy which the ‘lefts’ described.

In relation to the question of imperialism, the result of the cut-off is that Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism is treated as the beginning and the ABC of Marxist understanding of the issue. There may be grudging recognition of Nikolai Bukharin’s Imperialism and world economy (1915), while Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance capital (1910), which substantially influenced Lenin, has been cited more often than read. Rosa Luxemburg’s The accumulation of capital (1913) has been acknowledged (and, indeed, its economic reasoning has, together with Keynes’s different underconsumptionism, profoundly influenced the Monthly Review school). But the context in which these works were written has largely been missing: the caricature substitutes for it.

In Witnesses to permanent revolution (2009), an earlier book in the same series, Richard B Day and Daniel Gaido provided English-speaking readers with a way behind the personality cult cut-off in relation to Trotsky and ‘permanent revolution’: a great deal of the context of other contemporary writers and writing on the topic. In Discovering imperialism, they do the same thing for the question under discussion. They publish 54 articles, sometimes abridged, or extracts from books, beginning with Max Beer on ‘Modern English imperialism’ in 1897 and ending with Pannekoek on ‘Imperialism and the tasks of the proletariat’ in 1916. A 93-page introduction, and individual introductions to most of the pieces, provide additional context. These introductory components are written broadly within the frame of the ‘orthodox’ left narrative; but not so as to do actual violence to the materials. An appendix offers a technical critique of the core of Luxemburg’s argument.

Overall, this is a really excellent book, which is deeply informative about the development of Marxist ideas about imperialism before Lenin’s famous text. The hardback price will put it out of most people’s reach, but it should be recommended to libraries. Haymarket Books have produced very much cheaper paperback editions of several books in the series,[2] and it is very much to be hoped that they will produce this one, too.

My response to the book in general is one of enthusiasm. To go through listing all the pieces translated would be tedious and to try to synthesise them fully would also take too long. So in the rest of this review I will look at three issues which reading it posed to me. The first is the editors’ choice of ‘start date’. The second is the belief that imperialism was a new phenomenon of the late 19th century in some sense larger than the imperialist ideology pioneered by Benjamin Disraeli, a broadly common feature of most of the Second International authors whose work is translated here, shared by Hilferding, Luxemburg, Bukharin and Lenin. The third is the evolution of Karl Kautsky’s position. Kautsky’s evolution is important to the history because, as Lars T Lih has demonstrated, Lenin’s underlying political approach was founded on Kautsky’s earlier work - which Lenin continued until very late in his life to champion - both against the later, renegade, Kautsky, and against the ‘mass action’ lefts (notably in Leftwing communism, an infantile disorder).


The end date of Discovering imperialism is 1916: the year in which Lenin’s book on the subject appeared. This is an obvious choice: writing on the issue of imperialism after the Russian Revolution would be profoundly different. The start date is 1897, but not quite consistently: Kautsky’s 1898 three-part series in Die Neue Zeit, ‘Colonialism old and new’ (parts 1 and 2) and ‘Kiaotshau’ (Jiaozhou), is absent, though mentioned. Shameless plug: Ben Lewis has translated this series and we hope to publish it in the near future.

1897 is not a straightforward start date, because the issue was, in fact, already under discussion. The ‘revisionist controversy’ in which Eduard Bernstein published his notorious Fabian polemic against Marxism, The preconditions of socialism (1899), in fact began with an exchange about colonialism between Bernstein and British socialist Ernest Belfort Bax in 1896. Kautsky’s 1898 series started as an intervention in the ‘revisionist controversy’, though it mutated rapidly into an argument against German imperial navalism and ended as a polemic against the German annexation of Jiaozhou.

Since Discovering imperialism was published, in fact, Daniel Gaido has noted what must be one of the very first socialist uses of the word ‘imperialism’ to mean ‘colonialism’ (Marx, in The civil war in France [1871], uses it to mean what leftists now call ‘Bonapartism’ or the ‘strong state’).[3] This is Belfort Bax’s article ‘Imperialism v socialism’ in the first, February 1885, issue of The Commonweal, the paper of the recently founded Socialist League, whose most famous leaders were William Morris and Eleanor Marx Aveling. Already in 1885 Bax’s argument was - as he argued in 1896 - that imperialism results from the drive for external markets resulting from overproduction, and defeating it would intensify the contradictions of capitalism. His political conclusion in a certain sense displays the core of the standard far-left ‘Leninist’ approach, and is thus worth quoting:

“No, the foreign policy of the great international socialist party must be to break up these hideous race monopolies called empires, beginning in each case at home. Hence everything which makes for the disruption and disintegration of the empire to which he belongs must be welcomed by the socialist as an ally. It is his duty to urge on any movement tending in any way to dislocate the commercial relations of the world, knowing that every shock the modern complex commercial system suffers weakens it and brings its destruction nearer. This is the negative side of the foreign policy of socialism. The positive is embraced in a single sentence: to consolidate the union of the several national sections on the basis of firm and equal friendship, steadfast adherence to definite principle, and determination to present a solid front to the enemy.”[4]

Already in 1883, Kautsky had published in an early issue of Die Neue Zeit a polemic against Germany pursuing colonialism and navalism.[5]

The editorial choices which have produced the 1897 start date and the exclusion of Kautsky’s 1898 series are rational enough. The 1896 Bernstein-Bax exchange has already been translated in H and JM Tudor’s collection on the ‘revisionist controversy’, Marxism and social democracy (1988, chapter 2). Kautsky’s 1898 series is long (and Discovering imperialism is already very long). And it consists overwhelmingly of an anglophile account of history between the 16th and 19th centuries, which would now be seen as pretty weak history: certainly, one long superseded as historical writing and, for that matter, as Marxist historical writing.

Nonetheless, it is significant that the mutation in the meaning of ‘imperialism’, from Bonapartism to colonialism, began in England with Disraeli, and that it was Bax who seems to have first identified imperialism in this sense as a strategic problem for the workers’ movement.[6]

The reality is that, though ‘imperialism’ in the modern sense was new as a political ideology with Disraeli (like his ‘one-nation Conservatism’, of which it is the reverse side), this was not true of the economic and geopolitical practice it ideologised. This practice, the export of capital associated with financial operations, and steps to hold places overseas in political subordination for commercial purposes, whether by the direct seizure of territory, by making states dependent on loans, or by raising up local client groups to undermine regimes which were getting too autonomous, was already - for England and the Netherlands and to a lesser extent for France - old.

The free trade illusion

In 1609 Dutch author Hugo Grotius published the book Mare liberum - ‘the sea is free’ - arguing for a right in international law to travel and trade freely. This piece of legal ideology in fact reflected the mercantilist interests of the Dutch shipping and fishing industries, which were close to dominance in Europe and - in shipping - engaged in breaking into the closed trade territories of the Spanish-Portuguese empire.

The British shipping industry at this time was emergent rather than dominant. British author John Selden in 1635 published Mare clausum - ‘the sea is closed’ - arguing for a right to claim territorial waters, from which the Dutch could be excluded. 1651, after the fall of the monarchy, saw the first Navigation Act, restricting certain forms of trade to British ships. The Navigation Acts regime continued in force till 1849, though levels of enforcement varied sharply in the period.

By the 19th century, the British shipping industry was dominant. ‘Free trade’ was therefore in the mercantilist interest of the shipping industry, as it had been for the Netherlands in the 1600s. It was almost certainly incidental that the end of agricultural protectionism - the repeal of the corn laws - was demanded by domestic industrialists as a means of reducing wages, and by Liberal workers as a means of reducing the cost of living. Meanwhile, from the beginning to the end of the century the British state remained at the disposal of the shipping industry and the financial operators associated with it, and also to a lesser extent of - for example - the exporters of mining and railway equipment to Latin America from the 1820s on, and the financiers who lent the new Latin American states the funds to buy the capital equipment.

British world-dominance in the 19th century gave the political ideology of free trade a cachet and set it up as linked to liberalism as an alternative to the surviving anciens régimes. Manchester was the great centre of the ideology (Chicago succeeded it when the US became dominant). The belief that the dominance of industrial capital, liberalism and free trade went together as a package was an illusion produced by British world dominance.

It is a striking feature of most of the writings translated in Discovering imperialism that - as is also true of Kautsky’s 1898 series - they completely buy the illusion that there was a real period of dominance of industrial capital, liberalism and free trade, as opposed to a period of the dominance of free trade as an ideology. There are only a few exceptions.

These are interesting. They are mostly authors who after August 1914 zig-zagged sharply to the right, becoming social-chauvinists: Parvus (Alexander Helphand), Heinrich Cunow, Paul Lensch (and perhaps Max Beer, who worked for Parvus’s wartime Die Glocke, though he later moved to Moscow). The authors understandably do not include any of their writings from their social-chauvinist period. Perhaps it is to be inferred that their view was that, since imperialism and war were - they argued - necessary features of modern industrial capitalism, and Britain was in decline, a British defeat would represent progress?

In any case, it is worth noting that it was not only those on the right or the party leaderships who became social-chauvinists. As well as these, I have already mentioned Michels; and the most spectacular example was Michels’ inspiration after World War I, the pre-war ‘mass action left’ leader in Italy, Benito Mussolini.

In the majority of the articles, the emergence of imperialism as an ideology - for Britain the re-emergence, since the British had thought of themselves as controlling an empire of trade and production throughout the 18th century - is treated as requiring explanation by some new feature of capitalism, or by capitalist decline. Lenin’s Imperialism codified the idea for subsequent generations of the left.


Kautsky’s 1914 and 1915 articles printed as numbers 47 and 49 in this collection[7] are dreadful examples of muddle. The 1915 piece argues for a sentimental, neo-Kantian idea of clipping the claws of the capitalist nation-state tigers and restoring the imagined dominance of industrial capital, liberalism and free trade, in a world of nation-states without a top-dog state to keep order and provide a global reserve currency. Their disputes are to be settled by ‘courts of arbitration’, a precursor to today’s left illusions in the UN.

This muddle has both deep and shallow roots. The deep roots go back to Kautsky’s beginnings in the Kathedersozialist school of statist-nationalist socialism; to the illusion that national scale would be sufficient for the cooperative commonwealth, in The class struggle (1892); and to the illusions in parliamentarism as a form of democracy expressed in Parliamentarism, direct legislation and social democracy (1893).

It is the shallow roots which are more clearly displayed in this collection. Kautsky was to a considerable extent an intellectual hit-man for August Bebel (a central leader of the SPD until his death in 1913). Between the late 1890s and 1905, Bebel saw the principal danger affecting the SPD as coming from the right, and he pushed Kautsky to write polemics against them.[8] In addition Kautsky himself probably moved somewhat to the left in response to the Russian revolution of 1905. His most critical account of parliamentarism was offered in the series, ‘Republic and social democracy in France’ (1905), which could have been both a response to 1905 and a defence of Bebel against Jean Jaurès.[9]

Meanwhile, the arguments of the Austro-Marxists of Karl Renner and Otto Bauer in favour of a multinational state had emerged into the full light of day with the publication of Bauer’s The question of nationalities and social democracy in 1907, triggering more debate, notably Rosa Luxemburg’s 1908-09 polemic against the traditional self-determination slogan.[10] Kautsky intervened in this debate to defend the “self-determination of nations” and in doing so argued strongly that political democracy depended on the possession of a common state language.[11]

By 1910-11, the ‘mass action’ left had begun to emerge, and it attacked both the SPD Reichstag fraction and Kautsky: not only directly over the mass strike question, but also in pieces translated in Discovering imperialism from Luxemburg, Pannekoek and others (this particular debate at numbers 29-42). The Reichstag fraction had put forward proposals for international arms limitation agreements (which was new) and the establishment of international arbitration courts (which was already in the 1891 Erfurt programme). The lefts argued that these proposals were utopian: the only alternative to imperialism and the drive towards war was mass action to pose the question of the working class taking power and bringing in socialism.

On the purely tactical issue posed by the arms limitation proposal it is by no means clear that the attack of the ‘lefts’ on the Reichstag fraction was correct. The substantial political effect of proposals for arms limitation at this period could have been exposure of the aggressive policy of the German imperialist state. It is not, I think, entirely accidental that Lensch went over to social-chauvinism, and that the argument that imperialism was inevitable became part of the armoury of the social-chauvinists.[12] The ‘mass strike line’, which was posed as an alternative to the SPD’s parliamentary tactic, really was ultra-left and the voice of an impatience which could easily tip over into an ‘actionism’ of the right - and did so, as I have already said, in Mussolini.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Kautsky at least reacted away from the arguments of the ‘lefts’ by retreating from the analysis of ‘Republic and social democracy in France’ and from the language of The road to power (1909) in favour of an actual fetishism of the nation-state and its bureaucratic apparatus and of the parliamentary form. This fetishism is, quite clearly, already present in the arguments of 1911-12. It had, as I have said, roots in Kautsky’s earlier writings. But in Russia, where the ‘actionist’ tendency of Vperyod had actually been marginalised, Lenin and others, whose own politics were built on Kautsky’s earlier politics, were able to move in the opposite direction to Kautsky’s shift of 1911-15.

As I said earlier, these are merely partial thoughts stimulated by reading Discovering imperialism. I have not discussed at all its material on Hilferding’s and Luxemburg’s economic theories. My final point is simple: this book should be as widely read on the left as possible. It opens up a vista of a much more complex debate and development than our ‘traditional’ left narratives of the issue allow us to see.


1. On the aspect of the history of Bolshevism, see most recently Pham Binh, ‘Mangling the party of LeninWeekly Worker February 2, and L Lih, ‘Falling out over a Cliff’, supplement Weekly Worker February 16.


3. The introduction to Discovering imperialism discusses the shift in meaning at pp5-8.


5. ‘Auswanderung und Kolonisation’ Neue Zeit Vol 1, pp365-70, 395-404 (online at

6. I leave aside Marx’s and Engels’ journalistic comments of various sorts. See in particular K Anderson Marx at the margins (Chicago 2010).

7. The first was also extracted in Workers’ Liberty Vol 2, No3, 2003.

8. G Steenson Karl Kautsky: Marxism in the classical years (Pittsburgh, 1978) makes this case in detail from their correspondence.

9. An extract from this series translated by Ben Lewis was printed in Weekly Worker April 28 2011.

10. Bauer: translated by E Nimni, Minneapolis 2000; Luxemburg:

11. Translated by Ben Lewis in two parts in Critique Vol 37, pp371-89 (2009) and Vol 38, pp143-63 (2010).

12. As can be seen from the articles of 1915 by both Kautsky and his critics (numbers 49-53).