In his lesser known novel, A Small Town in Germany, John Le Carré skewers the diplomatic class in the old West German capital of Bonn. An investigator sent to the drizzly town on the banks of the Rhine discovers a fog of misdirection as he tries to track down a fled spy. At one point, comfortably resigned to his frustration, a glib diplomat tells the investigator, himself at wit’s end, unable to capitalize on an array of clues, “There’s always something; there’s never enough.” This is largely the story of the socialist “opportunists” that the Russian Bolsheviks themselves skewered in the revolutionary and blood-scented atmosphere of World War One Europe. As Vladimir Lenin argues in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, the socialist opportunists argue for something: a few tepid reforms that may provide a transitory respite in the plight of the poor. But they never go far enough: challenging a system of predatory appropriation for which minor reforms are nothing but an extended sentence. They offered a map to nowhere on a path whose starting and end points are the same.
It is likewise the story of today’s bourgeois liberal class, a hollow parody of progressivism allied with the ruling class establishment. Not only are today’s Democrats purveyors of media misdirection with Russiagate, but their policies are likewise the stuff of fake news and forgotten promises. The liberal class, including its current champion, Bernie Sanders, has yet to face the incompatibility of corporate capitalism, particularly in its monopoly stage, and military imperialism. They are flip sides of the same fascist coin. The early Soviets knew this all too well.
In his memorable screed on onetime socialist Karl Kautsky’s slide into opportunism, Lenin lays out the contradiction between being anti-imperialism and pro-capitalism. After all, if imperialism, as Lenin argues, is the highest stage of capitalism itself, how could one deplore the former and approve the latter? You can’t, not without falling into a set of contradictions that render one’s entire position farcical. Lenin shows, with meticulous documentation, how capital tends to concentrate, creating monopolies and generating demand for new markets and new revenue streams.
An Iron Law of Capitalism
Through a meticulous review of European and North American data, Lenin writes that the “transformation of competition into monopoly is one of the most important–if not most important –phenomena of modern capitalist economy.” He notes how entire supply chains, or verticals, tend to combine for more fluid and efficient production. He notes, “…for example, the smelting of iron ore into pig-iron, the conversion of pig-iron into steel, and then, perhaps, the manufacture of steel…” and quotes one of the leading economists in the Weimar Republic, Rudolf Hilferding, writing, “Combination levels out the fluctuations of trade and therefore assures to the combine enterprises a more stable rate of profit.” It isn’t hard to recognize the empirical proofs of this claim, living as we do in an era of mergers and acquisitions, in which a mind-numbing $2.5 trillion in M&A were launched in just the first half of 2018.
Just consider the mediascape, in which a handful of elephantine conglomerates control some 90 percent of American media. They continue to gobble up smaller local media venues, guaranteeing the phenomenon cleverly spelled out in an 2011 infographic, which notes that 223 executives controlled the “information diet” of some 227 million Americans. While the mergers may indeed happen for reasons of capital, an epiphenomenon is the consolidation of opinion in a few ideologically sanguine hands. Example after example, cover the 1860s through the early 1900s, bring Lenin to the conclusion that “…the rise of monopolies, as the result of the concentration of production, is a general fundamental law of the present stage of the development of capitalism.” It is all done, of course, to stimulate super-profits. Not surprisingly, “the social means of production remain the private property of a few.”
When monopolies don’t get what they want, they take aggressive action against intransigent market entities. Lenin notes several tactics, including shutting down supplies of raw materials, foreclosing avenues of labor supply, quitting deliveries, blocking trade outlets, forming exclusive trade agreements, price cutting, and other vicious economic attacks. Likewise, the control of capital itself, in the forms of credits and interest rates, is another signal feature of monopolist aggression. (Think of the Volcker Shock.) The monopolists are “…throttling those who do not submit to them…” It is interesting that these tactics are particularly evident in American foreign policy. Washington itself acts like a cartel enforcer for elite capital. These tactics, often in the form of sanctions, have been variously applied to China, Russia, Venezuela, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and other nations that refuse to adopt the yoke of American economic imperialism.
But where does all this economic infighting lead? First to monopoly, then to imperialism. Not only must access to cheap raw materials be fitted into the verticalized supply chain, owned and operated by the monopolist subsidiaries, but new markets must forever be annexed in order to stem a falling rate of profit. Lenin’s argument suggests that World War One was a bloody dividing of the world into separate camps, for the redistribution of colonial possessions, and so on. Another consistent feature of capitalist imperialism we’ve seen in recent years in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya, all of which had underlying economic conflicts that drove military conflict.
The Buried Narrative
Lenin adds that monopolists leverage propaganda through media in the form of “false rumours” and “anonymous warnings” in the papers. Sound familiar? The media propaganda foisted on the public is a critical chapter of this story. The story that Lenin lays out, on the growth of competitive capitalism into monopoly and monopoly into imperialism, is a seminal link in the chain that yokes capitalism to war. And yet it has been largely scrubbed from the western record. And the absence of that knowledge is what permits imperialists like the Democratic Party to masquerade as paladins of peace and prosperity through capitalism, all cloaked beneath a feel-your-pain rhetoric aimed squarely at the working class.
Lenin opens a pivotal chapter in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, “Critique of Imperialism” with a comment that defines the corporate media and the professional class from which it comes, “’General’ enthusiasm over the prospects of imperialism, furious defence of it and painting it in the brightest colours—such are the signs of the times.” As he says, “’Social-Democratic’ Party of Germany are justly called “social-imperialists”, that is, socialists in words and imperialists in deeds.” Bourgeois scholars and publicists usually come out in defence of imperialism in a somewhat veiled form…do their very best to distract attention from essentials by means of absolutely ridiculous schemes for “reform”, such as police supervision of the trusts or banks, etc.”
He notes that most bourgeois arguments from nations seeking to shrug off the colonial shackles fail to recognize that imperialism is “inseparably bound up with capitalism,” and that requests to remove imperialism without removing capitalism are stillborn petitions, “strangled in the crib”, as Churchill might say, by their internal contradictions. Lenin points to the “anti-imperialists” in America that opposed the American trampling of the Philippines fell into the same trap of foreclosed imagination. While they railed against the “jingo treachery” of American false promises, Lenin said their criticisms would amount to little if they failed to recognize “the inseverable bond between imperialism and the trusts, and, therefore between imperialism and the foundations of capitalism…” His perspective on the Philippines protest almost, step for step, mirrors the reality of today’s “#resistance”, a farcical amalgam of costume parades and tweet storms that seeks to unseat anyone that uses politically incorrect language or wants displays their sexist or racist chevrons in public.
Discrediting sexism and racism is obviously good, if it is legitimately done. But Lenin lamented the “socialists in words and imperialists in deeds” that hounded the socialist landscape of his day. Today’s Democratic Party is progressive in words and neoliberal in deeds. The corporate liberal class has finally reached the stage where it can run a minority to do its dirty deeds. The population numbers foreseen in the Sixties have finally arrived. Barack Obama preached inclusivity from the political pulpit, but promoted exclusivity from the policy bench. It is no surprise: he is a member of a very exclusive club—an adoptee of the one percent.
Lenin attacks Kautsky and other bourgeois pundits, who argue for leveraging the engines of capitalism to increase “’the consuming capacity’” of the populace. Lenin points out that “it is in their interest to pretend to be so naïve and to talk “seriously” about peace under imperialism.” Another familiar tactic. Anyone familiar with the modern Democrats would recognize it. Like Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize from a demented clan of flour-haired Scandinavians. In one of the books he penned before he was elected, Obama confirmed that he was “a free market guy”. No one in the mainstream liberal press was willing to recognize or capable of recognizing that in confirming his capitalist bona fides, he was simultaneously signaling his allegiance to empire.
Lenin’s contemporaries like Kautsky believed that the imperial monopolies of capitalism could be disbanded and returned to a state of free competition in which the oracular market would appease the warring instincts of states, and a market-led peace would ensue. Kautsky called it “ultra-imperialism”. Lenin called it a “reformist swindle”. He notes that monopolies arose out of competition, and that to uncouple the monopolies would only return the relevant entities to a state of fierce competition, in which inequities would arise, leading to new monopolies. It was akin to dialing back determinism and expecting a new outcome. Lenin notes how any pacific alliances between competing imperialists would be at best temporary as the balance of power would inevitably shift in one direction or the other, instigating new confrontations, conflagrations, and war.
Lenin also noted the great value of imperial conquest to capital. Ever in search of new avenues of investment, ever threatened by the scourge of overproduction, new colonies could be forced open to accept “commodity dumping” from developed nations that would undercut local industry. Usurious loans to these colonial dependents would provide the funds with which to buy the first-world commodities. He even points to a German loan to Romania that facilitated the purchase of German railway materials. How could anyone fail to recognize in this dynamic the European Union’s behavior toward its fragile periphery of Portugal, Ireland, and Greece, particularly the latter? Were not German loans made to Greece to purchase German goods, inflating the latter’s monopoly profits while inflating the former’s debt peonage? Lenin calls this “skinning the ox twice”. After all, the bank makes compound interest off the loan; then the loan is used to buy products from the bank’s clients. Then, once the debtor nation flounders under debt deflation, having less and less to fund its economy since so much of its income was redirected to interest payments on exorbitant loans, it will be forced, like Greece, to begin selling off its national assets at bargain prices to the lender nation, as the vultures gather round the carrion.
Lenin concludes that peace in capitalist geographies is merely a respite between conflicts. Little more than “the banal philistine fantasies of English parsons”. In effect, Kautsky and the “opportunist” elements of the middle class were doing little more than attempting to unhitch capitalism from imperialism in order to save the system of their own enrichment. A failed project, to be sure, as passage after passage of Lenin’s polemic reads like a lucid profile of the Democratic Party. The Bolshevik leader concludes that, “imperialism is the epoch of finance capital and of monopolies, which introduce everywhere the striving for domination, not for freedom.” Later he adds that, “…capital can maintain its domination only by continually increasing its military force.” Could there be a better description of our modern dilemma of financial exploitation and military conquest? The 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is tens of billions larger than last year’s and supports nearly 900 military installations around the world.
Finally, Lenin remarks that there’s no hope for unity with “the opportunists in the epoch of imperialism.” He points to the bourgeois denunciations of imperial annexations by various powers. Immediately the theatrical denunciations of Russia in Crimea and Syria in its own territory come to mind. Lenin sensibly argues that the author of such condemnations can be, “sincere and politically honest only if he fights against the annexation[s]” his own country makes. Naturally, the beltway liberals are silent on our de facto annexation of parts of Syria, our clandestine coup d’état in Ukraine, our savage use of Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay, not to mention a dozen other base camps we’ve established like a necklace of crimes across the planet. As a nation, what we condemn in others, often falsely, we do ourselves. And on a slightly smaller scale, what the Democrats condemn across the aisle, they often do themselves behind a patina of progressive rhetoric. Sophistry and sops from the banquet table of the rich; this is today’s Democratic Party writ large.