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Imperialism Series Part 1: Is Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism?

Our first Socialist Night School module on Imperialism focuses on the relationship between capitalism and empire at a theoretical level. Is imperialism, as Lenin suggested, the highest stage of capitalism, or did empires precede and give rise to capitalism? What are the implications for us today as we try to develop a historically-informed, anti-imperialist socialism?

Recommended Readings

These articles, along with others we’ll be reading in this series, have been collected into the Imperialism Study Series put together by DSA Los Angeles. You can download a copy of that PDF here.

  • Division of the World Among the Great Powers” by Vladimir Ilyich Lenin from his pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.
  • “The Origin of Capitalist Imperialism” by Ellen Meiksins Wood, originally published in her book, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View.
  • “Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America” by Anibal Quijano, originally published in the journal International Sociology, Volume: 15 issue: 2, page(s): 215-232.

If you would like to dive deeper, we recommend turning to the full-length versions of the above texts:

Discussion Questions

  1. According to Lenin, what is important about monopoly and finance capitalism?
  2. Lenin emphasized the domination of monopolist associations of big employers in his text. What is the relationship between these associations and colonial possessions?
  3. Given that the major capitalist nations have existed in a state of (relative) peace with each other since 1945 and most former colonies are now formally independent, is Lenin’s analysis irrelevant? Asked another way, are we still living in a world of Lenin’s imperialism, or should we move on from the concept?
  4. What is “primitive accumulation”?
  5. What is a “mode of production”? What are “relations of production”? Are these the same thing or are they different?
  6. How has the capitalist world system related to non-capitalist modes of production?
  7. Relative to imperatives generated by domestic property relations, Ellen Meiksins Wood asserts that ‘primitive’ or ‘primary’ accumulation (the initial amassing of capital and the creation of a working class — those who must work for wages) should not be attributed a decisive role in the origin of capitalism. Why does she make this assertion, and do you agree or disagree with this assessment?
  8. Thinkers like Lenin and Meiksins Wood locate the development of capitalism within Europe (especially the British Isles) which would then be spread to the rest of the world through imperial domination. Conversely, Quijano posits that a worldwide system of social domination and wealth extraction developed through European colonialism, which then gave rise to capitalism. What do you think are the analytical pros and cons of each approach in developing a historically-informed, anti-imperialist socialism for the present day?
  9. Quijano emphasizes the centrality of the ‘racial’ social classification of the world population and Meiksins Wood highlights the role of ‘the ideology of improvement’ in empire building. How do these ideologies intersect with the role of religion in imperial expansion during this era?
  10. What do these readings say about the relationship between imperialism and the development of the capitalist state?
  11. What did you find most useful about the readings?
  12. What problems and/or shortcomings do you see in the readings? Are there additions you would make or things you would challenge?

Putting It Together

  1. What does all of this mean for socialist politics today? Do these readings provide particular insights as to how we, as socialists and DSA members, should conduct ourselves in the domestic or international arenas?
  2. Do these readings provide insights into any “weak points” of today’s global capitalist order? If so, how can we best target these weak points in our politics? Do these readings bring to mind any clear lines of attack?
  3. The DSA’s 2021 National Convention put us on track to apply for membership in the São Paulo Forum. In the event that our application is accepted, what would you like to see come from this membership? What stances should DSA take toward, say, US-Latin American relations and the so-called “migrant crisis?”
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