Lenin On Democratic Imperialism


Lenin was that relatively rare man who was both a man of theory and a man of practice.  In fact, what seems to have set him apart from the rest of the revolutionary intelligentsia was that he was actually capable of adapting theory to practice. I’m not sure that he always chose the wisest way to adapt Marx’s theories to the realities of Russia, but at least he had the capacity.

Lenin was a thorough-going Marxist– at least until he actually had to govern.  As a Marxist, he was utterly convinced Capitalism was a curse for the majority of humankind.  “The present system,” he writes in What Is To Be Done, “[…] is based upon robbery and oppression,” [a system…] “that compels the propertyless to sell themselves to the rich” […] “the modern slave-owners– the landowners and capitalists.”  In Imperialism:  The Highest Stage Of Capitalism, Lenin states that the “uneven development” between the owners and the workers is “fundamental and inevitable” in Capitalism.


Still writing in Imperialism, Lenin emphasizes the centralizing tendency of Capitalism, first into a handful of oligarchies within each industry, and then into a system in which each economic sector is often dominated by a single firm, a monopoly.

“Private property based on the labor of the small proprietor, free competition, democracy– all the catchwords with which the Capitalists and their press deceive the workers and the peasants– are things of the distant past.”

Lenin goes on to inform the reader that “less than one-hundredth of the total number of enterprises utilizes more than three-fourths of the total amount of steam and electric power” and that “tens of thousands of huge enterprises are everything; millions of small ones are nothing.” The whole Capitalist system tends toward monopoly.

For Lenin, “this transformation of competition into monopoly is one of the most important — if not the most important– phenomena of modern capitalist economy.” 

This is all fundamental to Marxist theory, which credits Capitalism, with all its faults, for centralizing human production and society enough so that Socialism can then take-over and manage the economy.  Lenin sees Capitalism as “the most comprehensive socialization of production.”  Mind you, it socializes only one half of the equation… the production side of the economy.  Mind you, the appropriation side remains decidedly privatized, with capital (“the social means of production”) remaining “the private property of a few.” 


Capitalism succeeds in performing magic… it takes a scarcity of resources and turns it into a surplus of desirable merchandise.  However, Capitalists do not like to offer all that abundance locally… too much of a good thing merely drives down the price, thus reducing the Capitalists’ rate of return on their investments in the means of production.  Therefore, the Capitalist will look to invest his proceeds and unload his inventories into the economies of the less-developed world where, Lenin informs us, “the price of land is relatively low, wages are low, and raw materials are cheap.”

“As long as Capitalism remains what it is,” says Lenin, “surplus capital will be utilized not for the purpose of raising the standard of living of the masses in a given country, for this would mean a decline profits for the Capitalists, but for the purpose of increasing profits by EXPORTING capital abroad to the backward countries.”   

Lenin is also aware that “the need to export capital” is exacerbated by the very “uneven development” inherent in Capitalism, for the relative “poverty of the masses” means that “capital cannot find a field for profitable investment” at home.  This is why, quite naturally…  “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of advanced countries.”  Lenin calls this expanding, voracious, parasitic stage of Capitalism, “its highest historical stage of development, that is,imperialism.”

Lenin felt that capital was more than sum of money, but symbolized “a definite social relationship.”  That relationship is one between exploiter and exploited.  This exploitation creates between the capitalist and the worker a set of irreconcilable class antagonisms.  One might expect constant eruptions of rebellion and retaliatory suppression in such a social climate, but what keeps that from happening — what keeps the system, on most days, from descending into some more overt form of violence– according to Lenin, is the State.  In The State And Revolution, Lenin declares that “The State is a product and a manifestation of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms.”

Citing Marxist theory, Lenin writes that the State’s fundamental purpose is “the oppression of one class by another.”  Through this oppression, it creates and maintains order in the face of the mutual antagonisms of Capitalism, and “legalizes and perpetuates” the system of oppression “by moderating the conflict between the classes.”  Proclaims Lenin, “every State is a special force for the suppression of the oppressed class.”

Lenin is suspicious even of democratic governments– mostly because democratic government, as practiced, is so easily captured by the monied interests.  Democracy, contends Lenin, “is always hemmed in by the narrow limits set by capitalist exploitation, and consequently always remains, in effect, a democracy for the minority, only for the propertied classes, only for the rich.  Freedom in a capitalist society always remains about the same as it was in the ancient Greek republics:  freedom for the slave-owners.”  Even if the upper class remained passively on the political side-lines, the lower classes could still not adequately participate in a democracy for, “the modern wage-slaves are so crushed by want and poverty that they cannot be bothered with democracy, cannot be bothered with politics.”

Lenin believes that Capitalists, far from preferring an autocratic system, actually adore and encourage democracy.  “A Democratic republic is the best possible political shell for Capitalism,” says Lenin, “and therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell… it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions, or parties in the Bourgeois-Democratic republic can shake it.” 

What a democracy offers  –what any State offers, no matter its form–  is unconquerable bureaucracy and overpowering force.  Lenin contends that despite “all the numerous Bourgeois Revolutions which Europe has witnessed since the fall of feudalism,” there is one part of society which has kept steadily marching forward… “the development, perfection, and strengthening of the bureaucratic and military apparatus.” 

I put Lenin’s insinuation this way:  all parts of a creature undergo change during its life-time, so that the only thing that remains behind is the creature itself, or rather, the essence of the creature… it’s physical existence has been utterly altered.  The State creature changes its existence, or form, over the course of centuries, but by so doing, it shows its essence, its true function.  The essence of any creature is that which endures while all else is altered.  Thus we see that the essence of the State is bureaucracy and force.  These things remain and will remain essential to a State as long as there is a State… they are what a State is.

Back to Lenin’s own thought…

Though Lenin, in practice, always acted in the opposite direction, he claimed in the The State And Revolution that the “ultimate aim” of the Communist Revolution was the abolishment of the State, along with “all organized and systematic violence.”

According to Marxist doctrine, which is based upon the Hegelian concept of conflict and eventual synthesis of opposites, the State serves to keep separated the two conflicting “antipodes” of the Capitalist and the Proletariat so that they do not synthesize into a new, third way.  In other words, the State acts as a stopper, delaying the inevitable, and maintaining an ongoing state of conflict in which neither side can consummate the relationship with the other and allow humanity to progress.  The only thing that will unstop the stopper is the pressure building behind it, a pressure which will explode in the form of the Proletarian Revolution.

“It is clear,” states Lenin, “that the liberation of the oppressed class is impossible not only without a violent revolution, but also without the destruction of the apparatus of State power which was created by the ruling class.” 

Lenin believes that the Capitalist system, built on the splitting-up of humanity into different, opposing classes, is “approaching a stage in the development of production at which the existence of these classes not only will have ceased to be a necessity, but will become a positive hindrance to production.  They will fall as inevitably as they arose at an earlier stage.”  “Along with them,” he adds, “the State will inevitably fall.”

Lenin imagines that,  at the advent of Communism, “the government of PERSONS is replaced by the administration of THINGS.”  The State, he says (echoing Engels), “is not abolished.  It withers away.” 

Lenin is very concerned, however, that people do not use the inevitable “withering away” of government as an excuse to shun Revolution.  A Revolution is still required before the withering away can begin…  “The Bourgeois State,” says Lenin, “does not wither away, but is abolished by the Proletariat in the course of the Revolution.  What withers away after this Revolution is the Proletarian State, or ‘semi-state’.”






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