This article provides an overview and analysis of the significant changes in imperialism that occurred since Lenin published his famous text in 1916, and how these relate to the struggle for socialism. We focus in particular on the period following WWII, when the great wave of socialist and nationalist revolutions swept the globe. This article covers the changes in imperialism from 1990-2015.
Marxism utilizes scientific methods to investigate and draw conclusions about society, but it also represents a deeply partisan world outlook. It is rooted in the struggles of exploited classes and oppressed peoples to reorganize society in the interests of the majority rather than privileged elites who dominate all the centers of economic, political, and military power in capitalist societies.
Marxists study core theoretical writings of revolutionary thinkers unlike the way religious people study the foundational sacred texts as timeless and universal truths.
The central works of Marxism must be viewed and studied with time and context firmly in mind. Their universality, as it were, is rooted only in the ability to generalize from and correspond with actual historical experiences. Since Marxism also embraces the concept of dialectical change, it recognizes that all phenomena—either in society or in nature—are going through an endless series of changes.
Lenin’s “Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism” was a work of political economy written as part of a polemic against those socialists who supported—to one degree or another—their “own government’s” war efforts in WWI.
Lenin’s main point in this period was that the era of imperialism was also the “eve of socialist revolution.” All real socialists should uncompromisingly oppose opportunist betrayals of their cause and use the moment to work for the defeat of “their own ruling class.”
Lenin argued that all the governments were fighting for predatory, expansionist, and colonial goals. He showed that capitalism had emerged as a world system that was doomed to be involved in war after war as the imperialists re-divide the planet for exploitative purposes.
Thus, he argued that war was now “inevitable” and the only road to peace was to overthrow the capitalist order and replace it with socialism.
In this article, we will show that the world went through a fundamental change after WWII, and for at least a certain historical period, the mechanism of war was profoundly different than the one described in Lenin’s 1916 pamphlet.
Endless war and militarism in the modern era
Anyone living in the United States who was born after 1990 has been witness to the fact that “their” government has been at war for more than half of their life. The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 and is still at war today. The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 and is still carrying out bombings and military operations in that country. The United States led the NATO alliance to carry out a massive bombing war in Libya in 2011. The United States carries out drone strikes and other actions in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia on an ongoing basis.
Leaders of both major parties have embraced the concept of the “long war” that will go on for decades. The promotion or justification of endless war by the United States is different from the many other wars, invasions, and occupations that have been carried out by the Pentagon and the U.S. military machine. The “endless war” is not against a particular state even though it has and will target multiple governments. Endless war is to be conducted against any entity—organization, movement, or government—that is deemed to be a target under the overarching theme of “the war on terror.”
The Pentagon maintains over 1,000 military bases and installations in countries throughout the world. The Pentagon also maintains strategic command centers for every region of the globe.
It is not necessary in one sense to prove through either political or theoretical argument that the leading capitalist government in the world will inevitably go to war. History has shown, in fact, the political and military leaders of the United States openly proclaim they will remain at war for an indefinite period of time.
As envisioned by the U.S. capitalist leaders, these endless wars will be limited in several ways. They will be one-sided wars, and the bombs will only fall on the lands of other peoples. Those who die will not be from the United States, with the exception perhaps of some unlucky pilots or commandos.
Despite their vision, this does not preclude the very real possibility that major wars, even with large states, may arise. NATO’s expansion to the east, with all of the attending threats against Russia, as well as the U.S. pivot toward Asia is clearly setting the stage for the possibility of large-scale wars with both Russia and China. Even though the prospect of such a global conflict seems like utter madness—and from a human point of view, of course, it would be— so too did WWI and WWII.
The debate about war and militarism
Although it seems obvious now that imperialist war is inevitable and endless, especially because the leaders of the most powerful imperialist country proclaim it, the issue of the inevitability of war has been the subject of major debates and controversies within the socialist and communist movements. Underneath these debates, at the root of the polemics, have been fundamentally different political orientations of distinct tendencies, trends, factions, and organizations toward imperialism and militarism.
The fierce political debates over the topic of the “inevitability of war” issue was a point of division during WWI, which split the existing communist movement at that time into two warring camps: one grouped around the Second International (socialist) and another grouped around the Third International (communist).
It also became a major point of contention in the polemics between the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
(CPSU) and the Communist Party of China (CCP). Both the Chinese Communist Party and the Soviet Communist Party used Lenin’s thesis on imperialism and war as a point of reference for their opposing positions in the 1960s.
What made war inevitable under capitalism
Lenin’s thesis outlined in “Imperialism” argues that war is an inevitable and dominating feature of modern-day capitalism. At the core of Lenin’s argument is that the evolution of capitalism into its monopoly phase resulted in the almost complete division of the planet between a handful of imperialist countries into competing spheres of influence and colonies. This situation would compel the imperialists to go to war against each other in an effort to acquire new markets and raw materials. Lenin used the economic data at hand to demonstrate that each of the capitalist monopolies, dominant financial oligarchies, and biggest banks would relentlessly seek new areas to which they could export surplus capital. Since no region of the planet was available and since one or another of the imperialists had already come to dominate each area, then the competing imperialist entities represented by their own governments would be compelled eventually to settle the question through the force of arms.
Lenin argued that this latest stage–or “highest stage”–of capitalism swept every advanced capitalist country into the whirlwind of military expansionism. Some led the way, others were dragged into the fray, but none could avoid the phenomena. There was no road to peace or possibility of a protracted peace. War was now a systemic and inevitable feature of the global socioeconomic order that had come to dominate the planet.
The theoretical conclusion from this was clear: The only road to peace, to a sustainable peace, was through the liquidation of the capitalist system itself. And the political implication of this conclusion was that the communist and socialist parties in each of the respective countries should use the war–andthe crisis and dislocation that came from war–as a springboard for the overthrow of the capitalist ruling class within their country.
Other socialists, in fact the majority of socialists at that time (1916), took the position that war was a policy rather than a fundamental and inevitable feature of modern-day capitalism.
The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) studies Lenin’s pamphlet and uses its fundamental arguments as the underpinning of our position on imperialism and war. But the nature of imperialism and some of its principal characteristics and important features of imperialist economy and politics have gone through dramatic changes since 1916 when Lenin wrote his pamphlet.
If Lenin were to write the pamphlet today, he would undoubtedly assess and analyze the changes that have taken place. While retaining its core validity, certain parts of the pamphlet are today antiquated because of the dramatic changes in the global social and economic order.
The most dramatic change is that the large part of the world that had been colonized by the imperialist powers of Europe and the United States are now independent.
The centrality of colonialism to Lenin’s thesis
Before examining the contemporary features of imperialism in the post-colonial world—a world that emerged only after WWII (1945-1980)—it is important to understand how central in Lenin’s original thesis in “Imperialism” was the tempestuous growth of colonialism in the second half of the 19th century and in the first decades of the 20th century. Lenin wrote:
For Great Britain, the period of the enormous expansion of colonial conquests was that between 1860 and 1880, and it was also very considerable in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. For France and Germany this period falls precisely in these twenty years. We saw above that the development of pre-monopoly capitalism, of capitalism in which free competition was predominant, reached its limit in the 1860s and 1870s. We now see that it is precisely after that period that the tremendous “boom” in colonial conquests begins, and that the struggle for the territorial division of the world becomes extraordinarily sharp. It is beyond doubt, therefore, that capitalism’s transition to the stage of monopoly capitalism, to finance capital, is connected with the intensification of the struggle for the partitioning of the world.
Before this global boom in colonial expansion, the ruling classes of Europe seriously debated the issue of whether to pursue a colonial policy. Many argued that colonial rule was an unnecessary burden. Lenin wrote:
…in the most flourishing period of free competition in Great Britain, i.e., 1840-1860, the leading British bourgeois politicians were opposed to colonial policy and were of the opinion that the liberation of the colonies, the complete separation from Britain was inevitable and desirable. Disraeli, a statesman who is generally inclined towards imperialism declared: “the colonies are millstones around our necks.” But at the end of the 19th century the heroes of the hour in England were Cecil Rhodes and Joseph Chamberlain, who openly advocated imperialism and applying the imperialist policy in the most cynical manner.
Cecil Rhodes was an ardent racist and arch-imperialist, whose political views corresponded to the obvious systemic need to export capital, acquire new territories and access to raw materials not only for Great Britain but for each of the respective imperial powers. Rhodes declared in 1895:
I was in the East End of London (a working-class quarter) yesterday and attended a meeting of the unemployed. I listened to the wild speeches, which were just a cry for ‘bread! bread!’ and on my way home I pondered over the scene and I became more than ever convinced of the importance of imperialism…. My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, we colonial statesmen must acquire new lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced in the factories and mines. The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists.
Imperialism: From policy to system
Emphasizing the centrality of the transformation of colonialism from “policy” to “system,” Lenin quotes French bourgeois historian E. Driault’s book “Political and Social Problems at the End of the 19th Century,” in chapter VI of “Imperialism”:
During the past few years, all the free territory of the globe, with the exception of China, has been occupied by the powers of Europe and North America…The nations which have not yet made provision for themselves run the risk of never receiving their share and never participating in the tremendous exploitation of the group globe which will be one of the most essential features of the next century. That is why all Europe and America have lately been afflicted with the fever of colonial expansion, of “imperialism.”
The scramble between the imperialists to re-divide and re-partition colonial possessions was evident everywhere. The U.S. capitalist ruling class, which had primarily focused on its westward expansion across the vast territories in North America, with its attendant theft of Mexican lands and the lands and territories of the Native populations, also joined the bandwagon of gaining foreign colonies around the same time.
In 1898, under the guise of helping Cuba gain independence, U.S. imperialism invaded and seized control of Cuba from Spain. It seized other Spanish colonies as well, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines during the same offensive.
In the case of China, the major European imperialist powers divided China’s territories and cities among themselves. Although China was not colonized by a single entity it was subjected to humiliating foreign domination.
In 1905, Russia and Japan went to war again in the pursuit of colonial and territorial conquest, this time in Asia.
Lenin argued that WWI, a war without precedent in the annals of history at the time, was caused by the compulsion of the various imperialist powers to re-divide colonies, semi-colonies, and spheres of influence.
Lenin asserted it would be the uncontrolled and compulsory struggle between the imperialists that would lead to WWI and subsequent wars. He stated in his pamphlet that this phenomenon was an inescapable feature of modern capitalism or what might be called modern imperialism.
This essential and fundamental conclusion was further validated when WWII broke out in 1939. The same phenomena of inter-imperialist rivalry took over 60,000,000 lives.
Soviet Union changes the equation
World War II was not exactly like WWI. The most notable difference was the participation of the Soviet Union. The USSR did not exist in WWI. It had no imperial or colonial ambitions. It tried to avoid the conflict, first seeking collective security alliances with some of the western capitalist countries that opposed Hitler. Later when the West refused, the Soviets signed a non-aggression pact with Germany. That ended when Hitler ordered the surprise invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Twenty-seven million Soviet people died during the next four years. The world’s first socialist government withstood the onslaught of 80 percent of Hitler’s army divisions, defeated those armies inside of the USSR. It launched a military counteroffensive larger than any other in history, which liberated Central and Eastern Europe from the Nazi yoke and destroyed the existing centers of capitalist government rule in those areas.
In spite of its terrible losses, the Soviet Union’s world standing emerged much stronger as a result of WWII. This was a great shock to the U.S. and British imperialist leaders who in 1941 had anticipated that the Soviet Union would quickly fall to the German war machine. While functioning as military allies of the Soviet Union providing equipment and funds, the United States and Britain refused that which the Soviets needed most: the opening of a military front in Western Europe that would have forced Hitler to divert and divide his troops, tanks, and planes. Instead, the United States and Britain opened an offensive in Africa and Asia (where the colonies were).
But the Soviets did not fall even under the pressure of having to confront most of Germany’s military machine. In 1942 and 1943, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, even though the Soviets had proven their stubborn resilience, cynically calculated that the Soviet Union and Germany, if both kept fighting, would be mutually drained and weakened by the staggering losses each was suffering. The United States and Britain would be able to go in and pick up the pieces afterwards.
Instead, the Soviet Red Army and the Soviet people defeated the German invasion and then counter-attacked with the largest military offensive in history. It was only with the Soviet Red Army moving rapidly west throughout Europe (1944-45) that the United States and Britain decided to open the Western Front with the hurried invasion at Normandy. Their real goal was to race toward Germany to prevent the Soviet Union from being the liberators of all of Western Europe.
Ultimately WWII reshaped the world in several ways. First, the United States was the only major capitalist power to emerge undamaged and it became the supreme leader of world capitalism. It accounted for 60 percent of the world’s Gross National Product at end of the war with only six percent of the planet’s population! Secondly, the Soviet Union emerged as the second strongest world power. Third, the flames of leftist revolution and national liberation movements swept through Asia, Africa, and the Middle East as the British and French colonial networks fell apart. The prestige of socialism was at an all-time high throughout the world, especially among those looking to break free from the legacies of underdevelopment and colonialism. Czarist Russia had been one of the most underdeveloped countries in Europe. In the Soviet Union, socialism had achieved in a quarter century a level of industrial development that had taken Western Europe a century to accomplish. The workers’ state provided guaranteed employment, free education, universal healthcare, and housing for all—social rights that workers in the capitalist West could only dream of.
Global class war puts a cap on inter-imperialist conflict
Since WWII, there has not been a repeat of inter-imperialist war at least not between the countries that fought each other in WWI and WWII. There has not been a World War III. Nor is the world strictly divided on behalf of the imperialist countries into colonies and semi-colonies. While inter-imperialist rivalry did not disappear, an end to the frantic scramble to re-divide colonies removed this rivalry as the primary moving force leading to war.
The phenomenon of endless war continued, but after WWII it was not between the imperialists. The locus of war shifted. The specter of revolutions now haunted each capitalist ruling class and each of their respective governments far more than it did at the time that Marx and Engels wrote those words in the Communist Manifesto. The imperialists, of course, had always desired the overthrow of the socialist state. Ever since the October Revolution in 1917, the imperialists had tried to, in Churchill’s words, “kill the Bolshevik baby in its crib.” But the imperialists now considered the Soviet Union and the socialist system as an existential threat, and rightfully so.
What followed WWII was the reorganization of world politics. On one side was the imperialist camp led by the United States. On the other side was the camp of the workers and oppressed peoples based on the rise of the Soviet Union as a global power and the radical empowerment of revolutionary forces in Europe and in Asia. In the following decades, revolutionary forces swept through Latin America and Africa as well.
As WWII came to an end, the Soviet Red Army liberated Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romanian, Austria, Hungary, Albania, and the eastern half of Germany. Yugoslav Communists led by Josip Broz Tito liberated Yugoslavia. In Greece, communist-led forces drove out the Nazi occupiers and struggled for power. The Communist Party in France was the strongest political party in that country as a result of their role in the armed struggle to defeat the Nazi occupiers.
Asia became the center of communist-led revolution in the post-WWII period. Communist forces took control in northern Korea and in northern Vietnam. In China, a full-scale civil war broke out between the communists led by Mao Zedong and the Western-backed Nationalist Party led by Chiang Kai-Shek. Tens of thousands of soldiers from North Korea joined their comrades in China in the armed struggle between 1946 and 1949. Once Chinese communists took power in October 1949, two-fifths of the world’s population was now living in countries that were ruled by communist parties.
Imperialist enemies become friends
Seeking to prevent a repeat of the ruinous inter-imperialist rivalry and wars, the United States, as the new single superpower among the imperialist countries, sought to revive world capitalism under its own hegemonic leadership. The United States set out to create a worldwide imperialist united front to defeat the forces of communism and socialism that had taken state power in numerous countries. Where the working class took power these states provided a strategic alliance with movements and countries that were fighting for national liberation and independence, many of which had a bourgeois nationalist orientation.
Instead of punishing its defeated enemies—Japan and Germany—the United States planned to revive their economies and restore the political power of the defeated elites in both countries. The United States occupied Japan and Germany militarily,
turning them into bulwarks in a global anti-communist, anti-Soviet front.
This marked an entirely new era where the danger of imperialist war was channeled away from inter-imperialist competition and into a global confrontation between the imperialists against the Soviet Union, communism and the socialist bloc governments.
No WWIII, but some close calls
This global confrontation between imperialism and the Soviet Union and other socialist governments became known as the Cold War. In reality, the war was quite “hot” as it led to the extremely destructive Korean and Vietnam wars, among other confrontations. But it did not lead to a new global war of the magnitude of WWII. The very real danger of a global war, with nuclear weapons, however, became a major factor in the creation of a global peace movement spanning several decades. There were several near misses when it came to such a war.
On May 20, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower authorized nuclear bombs to be dropped on North Korea and China in order to end the stalemate in the Korea War that had been raging since June 1950. The plan was not for isolated nuclear attacks but a major escalation in strategic bombing in both countries. If the Soviets intervened to save their allies then the Pentagon was planning to unleash a secret war plan called SHAKEDOWN, a “mass pre-emptive first strike on the Soviet Union itself with well over 600 Mark VI plutonium bombs delivered by hundreds of B-36’s and B-52’s.”
During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, thermonuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union was narrowly prevented when Nikita Khrushchev capitulated to a U.S. ultimatum to withdraw nuclear missiles from Cuba.
In the early 1980s, the threat of a global nuclear war re-emerged because of Ronald Reagan’s placement of intermediate-range nuclear missiles that targeted Soviet political and leadership offices that could hit their targets six minutes after launch.
Nuclear weapons and the origin of the Cold War
The United States had introduced nuclear weapons into modern warfare by dramatically incinerating the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 7 and Aug. 11, 1945. Japan, which was already effectively defeated and whose cities had been destroyed through massive carpet bombing using conventional non-nuclear weapons, surrendered unconditionally to the United States on August 15, 1945. The nuclear bombings of Japan demonstrated to the world—to friend and foe alike—that the United States now possessed a weapon of such destructive magnitude that a single bomb was capable of killing hundreds of thousands of human beings and destroying entire cities instantly.
At the time of the nuclear bomb attacks, the Soviet Union was an ally with the United States and Great Britain in the global war to defeat Germany and Japan.
But the United States dropped the two nuclear bombs not only to secure the unconditional surrender of Japan but as a demonstration of power to its Soviet ally. Neither the Soviet Union nor any other country possessed nuclear weapons at that time.
How allies become friends: Background to the new global confrontation
Just weeks before the U.S. nuclear attack on Japan the three military allies–the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union—held a summit meeting in Potsdam, Germany. The Potsdam area had just been occupied by the Red Army in its westward counter-offensive against the Nazis.
At the meeting they agreed that the German capital of Berlin, located in the eastern half of Germany under the control of the Red Army, would be partitioned into four zones of occupation, as was the rest of Germany, each controlled by the United States, Great Britain, France, and the USSR.
As the Cold War unfolded, the fate of Berlin became the touchstone for a global crisis and possible nuclear confrontation. In 1961, the Berlin Wall was constructed in the middle of Berlin by socialist East Germany as a measure against counterrevolutionary activity directed by U.S. imperialism against East Germany and the Soviet bloc.
Between 1945 and 1948, the struggle between the Soviet Union against the United States and Britain was focused on the countries in Central and Eastern Europe that had been liberated by the Soviet Red Army.
The United States and Britain demanded that the Red Army—which constituted the basic state power after the defeat of the Nazis—leave those territories and that the bourgeois political elites who ruled the countries before the war be returned to power. But these same elites were hostile to the Soviet Union and had persecuted their own communist movements. Many were fascist or had ties to fascism.
The Soviet government led by Stalin would probably have been satisfied with having non-communist governments take over in these countries if they had been entirely “neutral” rather than acting as an anti-Soviet vanguard in countries that bordered the Soviet Union and territories that had been used by the fascists to invade the USSR in 1940. For instance, the Red Army left Austria and was able to consummate a neutrality arrangement with the capitalist authorities there.
The United States, however, had a monopoly on nuclear weapons and created an anti-Soviet military alliance, NATO, which demonstrated clearly to the Soviet leadership that a new war danger threatened again on its western borders.
Under these pressures, the Soviet Union cooperated with communist parties in Eastern and Central Europe to take governing power. In power, they nationalized the means of production and reorganized their economies with central planning and in coordination with the Soviet economic structures.
With the exception of Yugoslavia and to some degree Czechoslovakia, these governments in Eastern and Central Europe, became socialist not based on a workers’ revolution from below but from administrative and military decisions.
Yugoslavia was liberated from fascism by the efforts of their own communist-led Partisan armies rather than the Soviet Red Army. And the communists in Czechoslovakia were strong and helped a lead a Czech working-class surge for power in 1948.
Although the socialization of Eastern Europe was undertaken by the Soviet Union for largely defensive reasons, it was treated in the Western imperialist countries as evidence of Soviet aggression, which they brazenly called “Soviet imperialism” to justify their Cold War policies.
While a systematic study of Soviet international relations is outside the scope of this chapter, the Soviet Union did not systematically plunder countries to which it was allied. In fact, it offered a trading and economic environment to other socialist countries, all of which—with the exceptions of Czechoslovakia and East Germany—were formerly underdeveloped countries in need of much assistance. The Soviet Union also offered assistance and trade on generally favorable terms to many independent non-socialist countries that had emerged from the anti-colonial struggles.
The Korean War: A class war disguised as a war between nations
By agreement, the Allies also divided the Korean Peninsula, which had been under Japanese colonial rule for the previous 35 years. In anticipation of Japan’s defeat, it was decided that Korea would be temporarily divided at the 38th parallel between a Soviet-controlled zone in the North and a U.S.-controlled zone in the South.
While much of the Korean ruling class had collaborated with Japanese colonialism, the Korean communists, operating from China or in underground cells, were known for their steadfast anti-colonial resistance and commitment to the poor. Most of the party’s cadres during the war were actually in the South.
The U.S. imperialists were terrified that the whole peninsula would go socialist, with Soviet help, if the Japanese occupation forces simply withdrew. When the Japanese government surrendered unconditionally to the United States on August 15, 1945 the U.S. government insisted that the Japanese occupation forces in southern Korea stay in place and hold Korea under subjugation until U.S. military forces could arrive and assume control, which they did almost three weeks later on Sept. 8.
In one sense, the subsequent Korean War was a civil war fought between the workers’ and peasants’ government in North Korea and its working-class and peasant allies in South Korea against the South Korean regime which was made up of the elites, many of whom had functioned as proxies for Japanese colonialism against their own people. But the civil war became an international flashpoint because it represented the broad social struggle between two global camps which represented antagonistic class interests. All the socialist governments supported North Korea while U.S. imperialism and all of the other imperialist countries, including Japan and West Germany, supported the South Korean government.
The Korean War showed how fundamentally different the world political and military situation had become in just a few years. In the Korean War, all the imperialists united under the command of the United States. Instead of fighting each other, they fought a socialist camp based on antagonistic class interests.
In this war the North Korean Army was joined in battle by hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the People’s Republic of China, which itself had just successfully completed a socialist revolution. Although the Soviets did not enter the Korean War, it was Soviet-made weaponry and other Soviet industrial products that supplied the Korean and Chinese troops. On the imperialist side, military forces from 26 capitalist countries fought alongside the U.S. forces.
When the U.S. military leadership decisively entered the war, they believed that they could reunite the Korean Peninsula under the leadership on the U.S.-sponsored puppet regime in the South. Instead, the combined counter-offensive carried out by North Korean soldiers and their Chinese counterparts drove the United States and its allies back south below the 38th parallel. There the war was essentially stalemated and after three more deadly years of U.S. bombing, an armistice agreement was signed that stopped the fighting. The armistice was never replaced with a peace treaty and the two sides remain technically at war more than six decades later.
Churchill favored nuclear annihilation, US favored ‘containment’
Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during WWII, is presented in the U.S. capitalist media as a wise and wonderful ally of the United States, and a principal spokesperson for the Cold War.
Churchill favored the annihilation of the Soviet Union through the use of nuclear weapons unless the Soviet Union withdrew from Eastern and Central Europe and allowed those countries to be retaken by their former political elites, the indigenous capitalists, who were the allies of U.S., British and French imperialism. Churchill wanted to move fast before, as he anticipated, the Soviet Union also developed nuclear technology and the atomic bomb. “No one in his senses can believe that we have a limitless period of time before us. We ought to bring matters to a head and make a final settlement.”
President Harry Truman and the U.S. foreign-policy establishment shared Churchill’s goals but thought that the consequences of a direct showdown with the USSR too risky, meaning that it might bring an end to world capitalism. Instead, the United States formed anti-communist military alliances throughout the world.
In 1949, the United States created NATO which grouped all of the imperialist countries of Europe together under the Pentagon’s leadership. The United States extended this new system of anti-communist alliances during the Eisenhower administration (1953-1961) with the creation of SEATO for Southeast Asia (1954) and the Baghdad Pact (CENTO) for the Middle East (1955).
‘Containment’ was a war against oppressed people fighting for freedom
Once the Soviet Union had successfully developed its own nuclear weapons program and had, at great economic and social cost to its socialist economy, reached some degree of military equality with the United States, the United States opted for an alternative strategy that it labeled “containment.”
While “containment” implied a defensive strategy, in reality this was really a non-stop war against the national liberation movements and a policy of subversion inside the socialist countries. The United States treated every genuine national liberation movement as a potential ally of the USSR. They carried out covert wars and targeted killings from the Congo to Vietnam to Iran to Guatemala and everywhere in between. They staged fascist coups in Chile, Brazil, and elsewhere in Latin America. Working with Indonesia’s generals, in 1965 Washington carried out a counterrevolution that took over 1 million lives.
Although the main fighting in the Korean War ended in 1953, in the early 1960s, the United States and its allies again engaged in full-scale wars in Vietnam and then in Laos and Cambodia too.
Until the collapse of the USSR in 1990, there were many other clashes between imperialism on the one hand and the socialist governments on the other. These were smaller conflicts but were emblematic of the character of the new world confrontation. In fact, in almost every place in the world the new axis of struggle played itself out time and time again with capitalist imperialism versus socialism and its allies fighting for national liberation and independence. No political movement or trend could operate outside this global reality.
In South Africa, imperialism supported the racist apartheid government while the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc countries supported the African National Congress. The same alignment of forces played out in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau. Washington supported the Portuguese colonial overlords while the socialist camp provided arms, financial aid, diplomatic support, and in some cases troops for the national liberation movements.
In the Middle East, imperialism backed the Israeli regime and the feudal monarchies while the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc provided support and aid for the Arab struggle. The Soviet Union also extended diplomatic and military support to the bourgeois nationalist regimes that developed in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya. (For pragmatic reasons—and with disastrous consequences for the cause of communism in the Arab world—the Soviet Union initially attempted a policy of friendship with Israel when it was founded in 1948, but this ruptured after a few short years.)
The same played out in Latin America—which Washington had long deemed its “backyard.” When Cuban revolutionaries overthrew the Batista dictatorship in 1959 and tried to retain a position of genuine independence, they were able to secure the support of the Soviet Union and socialist bloc nations. U.S. imperialism and its allies invaded and then blockaded the island in an effort to overthrow the revolution, of which the socialist orientation had become increasingly clear between 1959 and 1961.
In turn Cuba and the socialist bloc provided political support for revolutionaries fighting against imperialist-backed dictatorships in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Colombia, and elsewhere. The same was true of the Puerto Rican independence movement, fighting a form of direct U.S. colonialism.
Imperialist war drive continues in new forms
Historic objectivity makes it abundantly clear the imperialist war drive Lenin talked about in 1916 has never disappeared but rather has shifted. Imperialism has been endlessly at war, either overtly or covertly, with the war targeting revolutionary or communist forces rather than other imperialist entities.
In this wide-ranging Global Class War, there have been victories and defeats on both sides. In general, however, the main trend in the world—the overall historical tide—appeared to be on the side of revolution for working class and national liberation forces from 1945 into the 1970s.
Ultimately it was the division within the socialist bloc nations between the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, a split that began as an ideological and political debate but later degenerated into a state-to-state struggle, which changed this relationship of forces. Instead of directing its fire against the entire socialist bloc countries, the United States utilized the Sino-Soviet split by winning over the leadership of the People’s Republic of China to an anti-Soviet alliance. This was fully consummated by the end of the 1970s and existed until the end of the 1980s. In other materials we will examine the Sino-Soviet split in more detail and we will examine its far-reaching impact on the global class struggle and on the fate of the Soviet Union itself.
As just one sign of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s degeneration, the CPSU under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev formulated a foreign policy to end the Cold War based on an entirely mistaken conception of imperialism. Gorbachev and others in the leadership believed that tensions with the United States could be eliminated by allowing the reintegration of Eastern Europe back into the camp of imperialism. A sharp contraction of aid to national liberation movements would help the Soviet economy, and, the reasoning went, the United States would reciprocate and the world would become a peaceful place. As Washington prepared to begin a massive bombing war against Iraq, in the United Nations the Gorbachev leadership turned its back on a former ally, and capitulated to the military campaign.
Even without the benefit of Lenin’s analysis, however, a simple observation of history should have shown the falsity of Gorbachev’s illusions. In 1983, only two years before the ascension of Gorbachev into leadership, the United States invaded Grenada through what it called “Operation Urgent Fury.” In December 1989, as Gorbachev was implementing policies that led to the dismantling of the Soviet state and military, the United States invaded Panama in “Operation Just Cause.” With its pledge to defeat the Soviet “Evil Empire,” Reagan formulated an aggressive military strategy based on “limited nuclear war” and gave no indication of such reciprocation.
Rather than answering the Soviet Union’s concessions with concessions of its own, the United States simply made more and more demands. These pressures from imperialism added considerably to the pressures and chaos that led to the state’s overthrow—although this subject requires a full examination, which we will take up in future literature.
Just as imperialism could not be satisfied by concessions from the socialist camp, the overthrow of the Soviet Union in 1991 did not bring peace. It ushered in a new stage of imperialist aggression and wars.
As the world has changed, Lenin’s core conclusion that war is intrinsic to the imperialist stage of capitalism remains entirely valid. This understanding has been central to the strategic perspectives of the worldwide socialist movement. It underscores the bedrock necessity of anti-imperialist struggle in overcoming capitalist oppression and creating a new world based on human cooperation. A world without war!
This essay (which appears in the PSL’s book, Imperialism in the 21st century: Updating Lenin’s theory a century later) was originally published in 2015.