On the 140th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin and with much of the world still grappling with the worst economic crisis since the Depression perhaps it is an opportune time to ponder some of his theories.
It would be unfair to criticize Americans for not being up-to-date on the revolutionary founder of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the brainy Bolshevik whose Marxist-inspired theories challenged capitalism for seven long decades. After all, even the new generation of Russians, who are far more interested in the latest fashions than the defeat of fascism, would be hard-pressed to recite a single utterance from Vladimir Ilyich Lenin – even on his birthday.
Shortly after the 1917 February Revolution, which precipitated the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the Swiss government – with Germany’s blessing – sealed Vladimir Lenin in a train carriage and sent him on a crash course with Russia. The German authorities had anticipated that Lenin would bring about a civil war and force his country out of World War I.
The strategy worked. Lenin began his dream of sparking an “international socialist revolution” on the ruins of Tsarist Russia, a vast agricultural-based country of oppressed peasants tilling the soil. But what the Bolshevik revolutionary really needed was a proletariat slaving at the machines of his “capitalist overlords” that would be sympathetic to a new theory of humanity based on equality, egalitarianism and justice.
In other words, communism would thrive best on the sparse soil of urban areas, specifically in the great European cities, where humanly degrading factories and industries had decimated the quaint cottage industries. The promise of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” found enthusiastic support in such a hostile socio-economic climate, but over time it became bitterly obvious that the proletariat would have little control over the machinery of government.
Russians seem to have adopted George Orwell’s cynical version of communist theory in "Animal Farm," which stated “All animals are equal; but some animals are more equal than others.” Over time, the inherent contradictions of communism, compounded by daily shortages of just about everything, were no match for the inexorable march of globalization and free markets. Communism, much to the surprise of everyone, quietly gave up the ghost one day with barely a gasp. Since that fateful day, many Russians have never looked back.
The embalmed remains of Vladimir Lenin can still be viewed on Red Square, but the formidable marble mausoleum seems to be more popular as a tourist trap these days as opposed to any ideologically-driven destination.
Revolutionary thinkers like Karl Marx and his disciple Vladimir Lenin would never have attracted support for creating a “dictatorship of the proletariat” without the glaring inequalities of “robber baron” capitalism as tantalizing subject material. At a time when children were laboring up to 16 hours a day inside “dark satanic mills”, and workers were literally dropping dead at their machines, the revolutionary dynamite, so to speak, was there for the taking.
Today, we believe that most of the cruelest contradictions of capitalism have been worked out of the system, and there is no need to heed – or even read – the teachings of Marx and Lenin.
Perhaps the best that can be said of Vladimir Lenin in the United States is that his theories, in an indirect way, forced the “captains of capitalism” to right some of their more egregious behavior around the turn of the 20th Century.
The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA), for example, founded two years after the Russian Revolution of 1917, was responsible for delivering American workers its first labor unions, as well as initiating extensive labor reform policies that are still in force today (On an interesting side note, William “Big Bill” Haywood, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, and a top official in the Socialist Party of America, has his remains interred on Red Square).
However, it would be a grave mistake for the proponents of globalization, who are now struggling through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, to think that Vladimir Lenin has no more lessons to teach. Indeed, one of his most penetrating analyses concerned capitalism entering an “imperial stage” of development, which would be its final hurrah before its ultimate destruction, seems particularly timely.
Although the United States – a nation built squarely on the foundation of intense individualism – has practically zero chance of submitting to any sort of socialism (although given US President Barack Obama's bail-out and buy-in of formerly private institutions, some would disagree with that statement), it does appear to be heading in a direction predicted by both Marx and Lenin. If those "prophets" turn out to be right, the future of capitalism and globalization will be an interesting one indeed.
First, consider the US economic climate: the wage rate of the American worker has remained stagnant for the last 30 years, while the pay for top executives continues to go through the roof (the top paid executives now make about $510 dollars for every $1 dollar the US worker earns, the worst wage ratio anywhere in the world); membership in labor unions in the private sector is below 8 per cent of the workforce – the lowest percentage ever recorded; unemployment remains stuck at around 10 per cent, although this number is certainly much higher since people are no longer counted once their unemployment checks stop. Meanwhile, more than 17 per cent of Americans are now at or below the official poverty line.
But here is the part where Vladimir Lenin, if he were to suddenly emerge from his sleep on Red Square, would be having a field day: As US productivity rates (that is, the measure of how much work is done by any given worker in a single hour) have been increasing for the last 30 years, wages for that work have been steadily deteriorating in that same period of time! Work loads are increasing, pay is going down, and unemployment is high; that twisted formula does not require an economics degree to decipher.
In other words, if Americans feel like they’re working harder and harder for less and less money, it’s because they are. And without any sort of legitimate democratic representation inside of the corporate fortress (read: Unions), these types of abuses will continue to go unchallenged. Although labor unions are imperfect creatures, to leave the worker completely at the will of the corporation is simply an abuse of power waiting to happen. Just ask any worker at Wal-Mart, America’s largest private employer, and they will probably agree albeit it at the risk of losing their jobs.
The problem with the United States entertaining such free-wheeling ways is that it is the driving force of globalization. Thus, due to its economic position (which was largely established thanks in large part to the vast power it holds over its workforce in terms of its ability to hire and fire, control production rates, while even keeping vacation and benefits at the barest minimal cost) other nations will seek to emulate its strategy in an effort to keep pace. As a result, globalization will turn into a nightmare for the majority of people, as opposed to the dream it was promised to be.
Lenin, echoing Karl Marx, also predicted that capitalism would eventually become imperialistic in nature, with a limited number of corporations controlling a huge portion of the global resources.
According to Lenin, whose theories are starting to get a second look from some Western economists, there are five defining characteristics of capitalist imperialism:
1) The concentration of production and capital developed to such a level that it creates monopolies that play a decisive role in economic life.
2) The merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of "finance capital," of a domineering financial oligarchy.
3) The export of capital, as distinguished from the export of commodities.
4) The formation of international capitalist monopolies that share the global markets among themselves.
5) The territorial division of the entire globe among the greatest capitalist powers is completed.
Today, with global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund writing huge bailout checks to indebted countries around the world, and corporate behemoths gobbling up a huge share of the global economic pie, it would be hard to suggest that we have not approached an era of economic imperialism of some sort.
Christian Fuchs, writing in the journal Critical Globalization Studies (“An Empirical and Theoretical Analysis of the New Imperialism," April 1, 2010), suggests that it would be a mistake to ignore Vladimir Lenin as a mere “pamphleteer,” as many academics in the United States have a tendency to do.
“Lenin's work… is not, as suggested by some authors, only a very rough definition and not ‘pamphleteering’ instead of theorizing.”
Fuchs writes that Lenin undertook "enormous preparatory work" (Labica, 2007, 223) for his study, “work that is documented in his 21 Notebooks on Imperialism… which contain notes on 150 books and 240 articles.”
But in order to determine if there really is a “new imperialism”, it is important to determine if there exists a high level of “capital concentration” (which means that a small number of enterprises control a disproportionate share of the assets, such as capital and labor).
Fuchs, citing data from Eurostat, a polling agency, would have us believe that we have certainly entered an era of economic imperialism, largely underwritten by the United States: “Large companies in the EU27 countries (those with more than 250 employees) account for only 0.2 per cent of the total number of enterprises, but for 32.9 per cent of all employees, 42.5 percent of total turnover, and 42.4 percent of total value added."
Mergers and acquisitions account for this unprecedented level of capital concentration.
“Industries have become more concentrated through mergers and acquisitions,” Fuchs writes. “So a sharp rise in the total number and value of mergers and acquisitions is likely to indicate increasing concentration. The total value of annual worldwide mergers and acquisitions has sharply increased, from US$74.5 billion in 1987 to $880.5 billion in 2006.”
This translates into an increase from 863 annual mergers and acquisitions in 1987 to a whopping 6,974 in 2006.
Lenin was also particularly alert to the importance that banks play in the overall capitalist structure:
“Under imperialism,” he wrote, “finance capital commands almost the whole of the money capital of all the capitalists and small businessmen and also a large part of the means of production and of the sources of raw materials of the given country and of a number of countries… The banks' control of the flow of investment money that is used for operating corporations gives them huge economic power for controlling the capitalist economy."
Fuchs analyzed the Forbes 2,000 list of the world's 2,000 biggest companies in 2008 by sector and came up with the following results, which goes a long way to explaining why the United States was so anxious to bail out the banking sector following the economic crash of 2007.
“Finance companies and financial service corporations together accounted for the vast share of capital assets in 2008 (75.96 per cent). The second largest sector was oil, gas, and utilities (5.82 per cent). The third largest sector was the information sector (4.63 per cent), comprised (for statistical reasons) of the following sub domains: telecommunications, technology hardware and equipment, media content, software, and semiconductors,” he writes.
Fuchs concludes: “The data indicate an economic predominance of finance.”
In conclusion, it is probably safe to say that, given the historical political tendencies of the United States, there is little chance of America suddenly throwing its support behind a communist leader in order to solve its lingering economic woes. However, with that said, it would behoove America, as well as the rest of the developed world, to at least reflect upon the comprehensive writings of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in order to appreciate exactly what it was that drove him, and so many others, to entertain a passionate disdain for capitalism. Such an insight may serve to correct some of the monstrous failings of capitalism – most of which are based on pure greed – which so nearly brought down the roof of globalization on all of our heads during the latest financial crisis.