Lenin’s theory of Imperialism

Lenin’s theory of imperialism is derived from the book "Imperialism - the Highest Stage of Capitalism" by Vladimir Lenin.

This book was written on a combination of Marxist theory with actual reference to the method of classical imperialism that was widely prevalent at the time. This book provides an analysis of the historical logic and the laws of motion of capitalism.

Features of Lenin’s theory:

This theory is considered as the best framework to understand the international political economy. With the recent capitalist development, some of the keywords of Lenin have turned out to be true.

This theory is considered an essential starting point for understanding the major international developments happening today, including globalization.

Lenin had emphasized on five main features characterizing imperialism at the beginning of the twentieth century. These were all based monopoly. They were:

  1. The transition from free competition to monopoly production.
  2. The formation of the many cartels and banks, and their subsequent merger into a new, higher form of monopoly – the "finance capital."
  3. The importance of the export of capital, contrary to the export of any commodities.
  4. The emergence of the division of the world between the international monopolist businesses. 
  5. The end of the division of the world between the great powers

Lenin’s imperialism theory in today’s world

His theory of imperialism is based on the radical exploitation of the countries with poor economic background by the much more prosperous and robust communities.

He declared that the inter-imperialist wars would be due to revolt by the weaker section and would lead to withdrawing of the terms and conditions of the exploitation. Many would disagree with this theory, but there are a lot of instances in favor of this argument.

Recent developments are replete with examples of this kind of exploitation. For instance, the cases of Congo and the Bangka Islands of Indonesia are the present examples.

The mighty army of Congo and other influential powers are responsible for the exploitation of the working classes, including the children to mine the mineral "coltan." These are used in almost all the semiconductors that we use today.

Similarly, the workers from the Balkan Islands are forced to mining the tin. The big conglomerates and western powers also play a part in these exploitation process of relatively weaker economies.

The monopoly of powers in today’s world

Regarding monopoly in today's world, we can divide it into two instances.

If we look into the monopoly from an industrial perspective, we find that most of the large MNC will control the business framework. They may force the smaller companies to either be the submissive or get itself annexed to the larger controller.

If we look into the monopoly among the global territory heads, we will see that the developed countries have their say. The western states, primarily the USA and Russia have the global powers. Some European countries may also have some influence. We find that the poorer countries like some African countries and the developing countries are usually forced by the “superpowers” to follow their interests.

So we can say that there are cases in today’s world, which can support the assumptions that Lenin made about 100 years ago.

It's not that imperialism is a recent phenomenon. History has been replete with examples of empire.

One of the most common and famous examples will be that of England or Great Britain exercising its influence over countries such as India.

Despite being a high power in those times, the greed to exercise more power leads to the colonization of one country by another.

The unequal monopolistic exchange

The unequal exchange of the economic values on the international market between the highly productive labor, working in the better and so-called “First World” conditions and far less productive than those in the relatively poorer "Third World." Even today, labor is one of the critical mechanism of wealth transfer taking place from the weaker sections to the more affluent countries. This is the reason for the growing gap between the rich and the poor. The rich keep increasing their wealth while the poor strata of society keep getting poorer.

MNCs were and still are increasingly able to usurp the values without the trouble of direct investment. The same trend is widely prevalent today as many lines of production are increasingly “outsourced” to independent suppliers, while the principal MNCs “downsize” and concentrate on monopolistic “core competencies."

Some of the of the major technological innovations that we have seen in the last 50 years were created and developed initially for the many wars or to prepare and wage war. During the World Wars, the researchers working for the military departments of imperialist states were able to continue the innovations at the expense of poorer colonized regions.

It was also due to the massive deficit spending on technical improvements on war goods, on armaments, during the World War II and during the Cold War, that created practically all of the technological progress of the second half of this century.

The profits from marketing these technologies such as those of microwaves radiation, development of the internet, radar surveillance system, etc. were divided among the huge MNCs, while the responsibility and the cost of their development were borne by the state alone.

The MNCs of today’s world can determine both the purchase and the selling prices in their trade with non-monopolist producers. Thus the other non-monopolist producers are allowed profits only just adequate for their survival. MNCs themselves usurp the remainder of the value produced by workers in these companies themselves.

So we see that the theory given out by Lenin has been continuing till date. There are claims by these big MNCs and powerful governments to abort these measures, but no assuring steps have been taken so far by them.

The exploitation of the third world

Third world countries are the developing countries of the continents of Asia, nearly all of Africa and much of the Latin American countries, excluding Brazil and Mexico.

These countries are of very little economic importance for the global markets. Profits and interest payments from such regions are almost of no significance, as compared to other larger economies.

Lenin had mentioned in his theory that “capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced' countries."

The imperialism that is still prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century completed the division of the world are due to the handful of states, each of which today exploits, i.e., extracts super huge profits from the weaker part of the "whole world."

Some people believe that the export of capital is the sole idea of imperialism. However, it must be clear that empire may aim for many other than just export of capital.

Export of, as well as the desire to rule the global economy and the hunger for global dominance, are some of the other aims of imperialism.

Many economists claim China to be an imperial economy. To prove that China is on the path towards imperialist prosperity, from the Leninist point of view, it would be necessary to show that it is an exploiter nation. It must be verified that the predominant Chinese international economic relations involve the capture of the value created by the foreign workers through any form of monopolist methods.

Chinese capital does exploit foreign labor, but that is not its official character. We observe that Chinese workers carry on their backs a good deal of the weight of the whole world system and the profits of MNCs, but China’s portion of world profit and wages don't match its productive role.

Should imperialism be always seen as negative?

  1. Imperialism is mostly seen as a negative thing. Some observations which support the terrible effects of imperialism and colonization are:
  2. Imperialism usually leads to the depopulation and violence against the indigenous people
  3. Imperialism leads to the assimilation and loss of the unique indigenous cultures and ways of life
  4. Imperialism will eventually lead to further conflict between the ethnic groups and the colonized countries.

However, there are also some benefits, which inadvertently arose out of imperialism:

  1. Some people claim that Imperialism led to the trade of goods and stabilization of the global economy.
  2. As a result of the intervention by the nations, the developing countries gain access to new age technologies.
  3. The healthcare services are mostly improved through imperialism. 
  4. The defensive network will be revamped through imperialism.
  5. Imperialism exposes the backward people to new ethnicities and cultures of the modern world.
  6. There will be a better market reach because of imperialism.


Lenin’s theory of imperialism has proven to be a highly flexible instrument for understanding the imperialism today. Using this theory does not mean memorizing the lines of his book, but studying the book and the specific forms of contemporary monopoly. This is necessary to uncover the modern ways in which the value is sucked from the emerging countries by the imperialist capital.

- Sonal Bera

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