In August 1914 the First World War broke out in Europe. Lenin, the Russian Bolshevik leader, had long argued that a war could create a revolutionary situation in which workers would rise up against the barbarism.
Instead, Lenin was horrified when most socialist parties decided to support their national states’ war effort.
This support for the nation-state was mirrored by a growing turn within the European socialist parties towards reformism.
The Marxist Rudolph Hilferding had argued that the rise of monopolies in industry meant that workers could now seize control of a centralised economy through parliament.
One of Hilferding’s closest allies was Karl Kautsky. Kautsky was a leader of the German Social Democratic Party and the foremost theoretician of the Second International of socialist parties.
Soon after the war began, Kautsky published an article on imperialism which suggested that capitalists united in huge monopolies would realise that they have nothing to gain from war.
They would unite to peacefully exploit the world’s resources under a system he dubbed “ultra-imperialism”.
Lenin was astonished at Kautsky’s claims, branding him a renegade who had rejected Marxism.
Lenin argued against ideas that were leading the working class movement to believe that they could reach an accommodation with capitalism.
Along with Nikolai Bukharin, he began a study into the economic underpinnings of imperialism.
In his 1917 book Imperialism and World Economy, Bukharin built on work by Karl Marx and Hilferding on how crises within capitalism tend to concentrate capital in the hands of fewer and fewer capitalists.
As capital was becoming more centralised, private enterprise was becoming more integrated with the state in industrialised countries.
Each capitalist economy became more dependent on access to world markets and resources.
The outcome of this process was a world in which states represented the interests of their own domestic capitals, competing with others on a world scale.
Bukharin argued that far from bringing the possibility of international peace, the anarchic world system would descend into greater instability.
The logic of this competition is of war and conquest.
The years leading up to the First World War saw colonial expansion as the great powers carved out spheres of influence in which they could dominate the economy and exploit raw materials.
In the years between 1860 and 1914, European colonial possessions rose from 2.7 million square miles to 29 million square miles. The US went to war with Spain over areas such as the Philippines.
This world, divided between competing nation-states, was incompatible with Kautsky’s notion of ultra-imperialism.
Imperialism rose out of the dynamic of capital accumulation and could not be tamed. Since the balance of forces between states is always changing, any division of the world would only be temporary and could only be repartitioned through conflict.
Lenin’s contribution to the debate was Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.
The short book was a “popular outline” which complemented Bukharin’s more abstract work by dramatically illustrating how imperialism had developed through history and the impact it was having.
Lenin’s work also evaluated the political implications of the theory.
Lenin understood that imperialist domination of less advanced countries would not go unchallenged internally.
He realised that the oppressed peoples and nationalities could revolt against their colonial masters. These revolts could weaken the imperialist power in the colonies and at home, giving more space to domestic revolutionary movements.
Some other, lesser aspects of Lenin and Bukharin’s theory were later proved to be mistaken or applicable only to the period in which they were writing. But the general definition of imperialism that they arrived at was a milestone in understanding the world.
It was arguably the most important development in Marxist theory since the death of Marx.
Since the end of the Second World War, however, the theory of imperialism has been the object of scrutiny, criticism and revision.
The final question to consider is how is the theory relevant today?