Rosa Luxemburg pp 143-158 | Cite as

Lenin on Imperialism and the Accumulation of Capital

  • Tadeusz Kowalik
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the History of Economic Thought book series (PHET)


The theory of imperialism is the best known part of Vladimir Lenin’s theoretical work — it is a part of any basic exposition of political economy. For that reason, it is not presented in a systematic way even in the history of economic thought. Such systematic exposition is even less necessary in a monograph on Rosa Luxemburg’s theory of accumulation. However, it is useful to highlight the most fundamental features of Lenin’s theory of imperialism as distinct from other attempts at the theory of imperialism, as well as to present the conditions and circumstances of its development. Such an approach to Lenin’s theory will facilitate the assessment of the place of Rosa Luxemburg’s work in the development of the theory of modern capitalism.


General Cartel Finance Capital Capitalist Production Capitalist Development Editorial Note 
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  1. 6.
    Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Peking: Foreign Languages Press 1970, p. 3.Google Scholar
  2. 7.
    Bukharin, N. (1972) Imperialism and World Economy, London: Martin Lawrence Limited, p. 157, footnote 2, and p. 158.Google Scholar
  3. 21.
    Let us pay attention to the dates. Lenin began writing the article in the spring of 1914 in Poronin and he completed it in November 1914 in Berne. In 1918, the article was published as a pamphlet with Lenin’s preface but without the bibliographical part. The publisher of the fourth edition of Lenin’s collected works informs that the full text of this article was first published in accordance with the manuscript in 1925 and hence after Lenin’s death. However, contents of that full text show that the manuscript was corrected by either Lenin or the publisher. In the bibliography, we read: ‘For the further development of Marx’s economic views as applied to recent phenomena in economic life see Hilferding’s Finance Capital [in Russian], St. Petersburg, 1911 (outstanding inaccuracies in the author’s views on the theory of value have been corrected by Kautsky in “Gold, Papier und Ware”,—“Gold, Paper Money and Commodities”—in Die Neue Zeit, XXX, 1, 1912, pp. 837 and 886); and V. Ilyin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1917 [Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 21, p. 89]’. Reference to this work of Lenin from 1917 testifies to the fact that the text underwent certain changes, made perhaps by Lenin himself. The same is indicated by Lenin’s well-known work on the American agriculture from the same year (1917). In these circumstances, a question arises why Lenin did not eventually decide to attach his bibliographical references to the pamphlet. At the current state of knowledge, it may seem that among the opinions which evoked his reservations there was also the issue of evaluation of Rosa Luxemburg’s Accumulation. Perhaps Lenin initially corrected the text but later came to the conclusion that it is not merely about the minor corrections.Google Scholar
  4. 24.
    F. Oelssner, Rosa Luxemburg, eine kritische biographische Skizze, Berlin 1901, p. 179.Google Scholar
  5. 25.
    Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Peking: Foreign Languages Press 1970, p. 11.Google Scholar
  6. 29.
    Ben B. Seligman wrote: ‘in 1899 Hobson went to South Africa to report on the Boer War, and out of this experience came one of his great works, Imperialism, a book from which Lenin drew extensively. Again, the theory of underconsumption played a central role, for it was the need for metropolitan centers to dispose of surplus goods that motivated imperialist drivers’ (Seligman, B.B. (1962) Main Currents in Modern Economics, Economic Thought since 1870, New York: Free Press of Glencoe, p. 224). And further, similarly: ‘Hobson also used the underconsumption thesis to explain imperialist drives by modern national states. The idea that a surfeit of goods resulted in an expansion of capitalism beyond metropolitan centers was also employed by Marxists. In fact, Lenin appropriated Hobson’s argument for his own uses with but little change’ (ibid., pp. 228–9). Seligman accompanied these sentences with a characteristic footnote: ‘This by no means is intended to denigrate the work of Bauer, Hilferding, Kautsky and Luxemburg’ (ibid., p. 816, footnote 452). A similar evaluation of Hobson’s book (in reference to the relationship between the theory of imperialism and the thesis of underconsumption) is given by M.H. Dobb, in: Political Economy and Capitalism, London 1946, p. 266.Google Scholar
  7. 30.
    J.M. Keynes wrote: ‘for nearly fifty years Mr Hobson has flung himself with unflagging, but almost unavailing, ardour and courage against the ranks of orthodoxy’ (Keynes, J.M. (1960) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, London: Macmillan & Co, pp. 364–5). Furthermore, both Seligman and Keynes in the books quoted here recall the repressions encountered by Hobson after claiming the ‘heresy’ of underconsumption. Perhaps it is worth recalling one of them: the management of London courses denied Hobson permission to lecture in political economy. That was supposed to be the outcome of an intervention of a certain professor of economics (thought to be probably Frances Y. Edgeworth), who argued that from a rational point of view, the main idea of Hobson’s insufficient demand is equivalent to an attempt to prove the flatness of the earth (J.M. Keynes, op. cit., p. 366). In the ironical words of Hobson quoted by Keynes, this astonishment of the professor was expressed in the following way: ‘How could there be any limit to the amount of useful saving when every item of saving went to increase the capital structure and the fund for paying wages? Sound economists could not fail to view with horror an argument which sought to check the source of all industrial progress’ (ibid., p. 364).Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2014

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  • Tadeusz Kowalik

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