by Daphna Whitmore

The imperialism study group had its first discussion today. We linked up via Zoom to video conference across several time zones. Tony Norfield led the study with a 15-minute introduction to Lenin’s pamphlet Imperialism, and how it relates to today. That was followed by questions and discussion.

Tony’s notes for discussion sent out prior to the video conference are worth reading, and what follows are just brief notes from today’s video talk.

First off ,Tony noted we need to see Lenin’s description of imperialism as a holistic description and that the five key features need to be seen as part of a whole.


An important aspect is that imperialism is a world system of domination and hierarchy. Lenin saw you couldn’t understand what’s happening in a particular country outside of the context of the way it related to what is happening everywhere else. That is still important for today. For instance you can’t understand Syria by even looking at the history of Syria, you’d need to look at where it sits in the hierarchy of world power – obviously very low down in the hierarchy – and then look at who’s trying to do what to Syria. In the context of imperialism you can’t understand individual country developments outside of a broader approach of examining where different countries sit in the global system.

Tony also discussed monopoly and how Lenin viewed the monopolisitic features of a world economy; that it was not about particular monopolists dominating in a country. Further, monopoly is not just at the level of production but also for in commerce, commercial ties, tariffs, access to finance and so on. Monopolistic features of the world economy have an impact on all these things.

With regard to finance capital Tony discussed his view that Lenin adopts too much of Hilferding. Close connections between banks and industry was a big deal in Germany, to some extent also in US, but not so much in Britain.

On the export of capital he noted the form of capital export has changed over the past 100 years. We shouldn’t simply focus on capital export, as nowadays companies like Apple use commercial connections with suppliers, eg Apple doesn’t own factories in China, instead it gets supplying factories to do what it wants. Similarly with other large corporations such as Walmart.

The labour aristocracy will be discussed further when we look at the political aspects of imperialism, but Lenin’s description is too narrow for today, and probably was even in his time.

Despite developments a century on, broadly speaking the five features Lenin identifies as key to imperialism are still valid today. A future discussion will look more into the question of super-profits and exploitation of the developing countries.

  1. Phil F says:

    I thought Tony’s point about the merging of banking and industrial capital was very prominent in Germany but not so much in Britain – and why this was the case in Germany but not Britain – was really interesting. Lenin was stuck in Switzerland during most of WW1, so I assume he had a lot less opportunity to examine British statistics than to examine German ones, no matter how widely he read. When I was re-reading ‘Imperialism’ after looking over Tony’s notes, I noticed straight away that Lenin’s stuff on banking is drawn overwhelmingly from Germany. I’d never particularly noticed this before or, if I had, I had simply taken the German case as being representative.

    Luckily, today, we have the internet so we can examine things right across the world, although it’s near impossible for one person to do so.

    I also found Tony’s comments about Britain being more like the warehouse of the world than the workshop of the world interesting. I had never really thought of this before – I think most of us just have this view of Britain as being the first country to go through the industrial revolution – and do so decades before anywhere else in Europe (and, indeed, before the US), so the ‘workshop of the world’ notion seems logical. Of course, this is not to say that it was not the leading industrial producer – for a chunk of time, it was – but that this might not have been as important as we often assume and that the warehousing and control of trade was crucial to Britain’s global position.

    Another thing I found very interesting was the confirmation that we need to be concrete and to have an analysis of now – for instance the idea that what could be called ‘commercial capital’ is now very important and the term finance capital may have a more limited use.

    When we look at the Smith book, for instance, it will be interesting to see what role finance capital plays in Third World industrialisation and in the industrialisation of China post-Mao. With admittedly very limited knowledge of developments in China, I doubt it could be said that banking and industrial capital ‘coalesced’ in China to produce the massive industrial economy that now exists there. Rather, it seems to me, the state played an absolutely vital role.

    Phil F

    • Daphna says:

      I too found the economic differences among Britain, Germany and the US interesting. While imperialism is a world economic system there is so much variation among countries that it is difficult to make generalisations. Ironically, even as the world economy has become more interconnected, there is greater complexity and variable conditions.

      In the discussions that followed Tony’s talk he also pointed out how difficult it is to find out what the rate of profit is as companies move their capital to countries where taxation is low.

      One question that arose was whether, and when companies in China would be in a position to say to Apple, and similar corporations, ‘no we won’t accept your terms’. Just how easy/quickly could Apple move to another cheap labour region?