How far does Lenin's theory of capitalist imperialism explain the Scramble for Africa Essay

The explanation of political decisions in the context of the international community is often based on specific economic and social criteria. Moreover, it seems that these criteria are not standardized, being influenced by the political, economic and social conditions of each era. However, there are certain concepts, such those of capitalism and imperialism which can be used for understanding the behaviour of states as members of the international community. It should be noted that the elements and the terms of these concepts tend to be continuously changed through the years, serving different political and economic interests. The development of a specific concept, the capitalist imperialism is reviewed in this paper. Reference is made specifically to the potential use of this concept for explaining the Scramble for Africa, a process developed between the years 1880 and 1900 and which resulted to the colonization of the major part of the particular continent. The above process was initiated mainly by European states, which tried to secure their economies by locating and acquiring important economic resources. Different approaches have been used for describing the content and the use of capitalist imperialism. In the specific study emphasis is given on the Lenin’s theory of capitalist imperialism, as this theory can be applied on the case under examination, the Scramble for Africa. It is proved that Lenin has highlighted the key characteristics of capitalist imperialism, explaining effectively the concept’s creation, as a result of the transformation of capitalism to an advanced social and economic system (Lenin 1999, p.91). Moreover, it seems that the view of Lenin on capitalist imperialism can offer appropriate explanations on the involvement of this concept in the Scramble of Africa, at least in regard to the key aspects of the specific social and political process.

2. Lenin’s theory of capitalist imperialism

The theory of Lenin on capitalist imperialism is based on the following view: ‘capitalism is imperialism’ (Willoughby 2002, p.7). Moreover, capitalism is an indispensable part of modern societies. Therefore, the development of imperialism worldwide cannot be controlled. The above view of Lenin in regard to the relationship between capitalism and imperialism can be used for explaining the development of capitalist imperialism worldwide taking into consideration the following facts: issues of domination and conflicts among nations may not be clearly explained through the above theory; however, the theory of Lenin on capitalist imperialism explains the use of capitalism in the expansion of imperialism from the beginning of the 20th century onwards.

From another point of view, Hall (1986) notes that the theory of Lenin on capitalist imperialism reveals the relationship between the conflicts related to capitalism and the increase of imperialism. Indeed, in accordance with Lenin, when contradictions referring to capitalism are developed within a state, then it is expected that the efforts of this state ‘to be involved in the rest of the world is unavoidable, almost necessary’ (Hall 1986, p.223). In the above case, ‘the imperial possessions are necessary as markets for excess goods’ (Hall 1986, p.223), although it is not made clear whether these possessions, meaning the foreign countries, are considered to be just destinations of goods or resources of important goods, as for example in the case of countries with important energy sources (oil, gas), or valuable assets (gemstones). It is assumed that the involvement of a state in other states worldwide can have one or both of the above forms, aiming to support the development of capitalism within the particular state. In other words, imperialism, as described by Lenin, is used for securing the development of capitalism, therefore the above two frameworks cannot exist separately.

On the other hand, it should be made clear that the relationship between capitalism and imperialism has not been standardized through the decades. As Lenin explains, ‘in his book ‘Imperialism, the highest stage of Capitalism which was first published in 1916’ (Hunt and Lautzenheiser 2011, p.363) and re-published in 1999, capitalism has not been always closely related to imperialism. In the above book, Lenin defined imperialism as ‘the monopoly stage of capitalism’ (Lenin 1916, republished in 1999, p.10). Moreover, in accordance with Lenin, it is rather recently that capitalism was fully involved in the development of imperialism, a fact that led to the transformation of capitalism to a new concept: the capitalist imperialism (Lenin 1999, p.91). It is further explained that capitalism was changed, becoming capitalist imperialism, since it was developed to a ‘higher social and economic system’ (Lenin 1999, p.91), which was highly differentiated from capitalism in its initial form. It has been also proved that the above transformation was highly based on the following initiative: ‘the replacement of free competition by capitalist monopoly’ (Lenin 1999, p.91). Free competition has emerged as a key feature of capitalism, but its role in the development of trade worldwide has been different from that initially claimed. More specifically, free competition initially appeared as a means for securing free trade and commerce in all markets worldwide. However, it was soon made clear that free competition served another purpose: the elimination of local monopoly in favour of international monopoly, meaning the gradual domination of specific, multinational, firms in the global market.

Shadbolt and Jensen (1970) also note that the theory of Lenin of capitalist imperialism is based on the transformation of capitalism from a concept promoting the free competition to a concept favouring the monopolies. In accordance with the above researchers, the five-stages of progression, as promoted by Lenin, can explain how exactly the above transformation took place. Lenin claimed that the transformation of capitalism to a ‘higher social and economic system that promotes monopolies’ (Shadbolt and Jensen 1970, p.12) has been gradual. Lenin describes the five stages of this process as follows: at the first level, specific trusts and banks took the control of production and capital (Shadbolt and Jensen 1970, p.12); at the second level, ‘the capital of industries and the banks formed a small money group, known as finance capital’ (Shadbolt and Jensen 1970, p.12). At the third level, this capital was used for international investment, becoming key element of the country’s economy (Shadbolt and Jensen 1970). At the fourth level, international oligopolies were developed (Shadbolt and Jensen 1970). At the fifth level, the most powerful of these monopolies ‘shared the territorial control of countries worldwide’ (Shadbolt and Jensen 1970, p.12).

In accordance with Hunt and Lautzenheiser (2011) the theory of Lenin of capitalist imperialism has been highly influenced by ‘the relevant theory of Hobson’ (Hunt and Lautzenheiser 2011, p.363). It is explained that Lenin, like Hobson, has emphasized on ‘the rapid development of industrialization as an economic trend in many countries during the late 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries’ (Hunt and Lautzenheiser 2011, p.363). However, industrialization can possibly explain the development of capitalism but not of imperialism, as a trend for being involved in countries worldwide. Indeed, as Hunt and Lautzenheiser (2011) explain, Lenin has highly promoted the following idea: the rapid growth of industrialization in capitalist countries led to the rapid increase of wealth accumulated (Hunt and Lautzenheiser 2011, p.363). This fact supported the establishment and growth of banks and other financial institutions in the capitalist countries, a view which is a key element of Lenin’s theory on capitalist imperialism (Hunt and Lautzenheiser 2011, p.363). At the next level, as Lenin supported, ‘the rapid accumulation of capital supported the expansion of oligopolies and cartels’ (Hunt and Lautzenheiser 2011, p.363). The above organizations, referring to both financial and non-financial organizations backed by the capital accumulated through the rapid industrialization, initiated the expansion of capitalist imperialism, a concept based on ‘the transformation of numerous modest middlemen into a handful of monopolists’ (Hunt and Lautzenheiser 2011, p.363).

3. Lenin’s theory of capitalist imperialism and the Scramble of Africa

The involvement of states in other states worldwide has been highly supported by capitalist imperialism. The continuous increase of capital accumulated by specific enterprises has led to the high increase of their power, a term necessary for initiating key political and economic decisions. In this context, the colonization of foreign countries can be used for further increase the power of monopolies. The above view is based on the following fact: the promotion of international trade has been used just as a justification for supporting the expansion of capitalism worldwide. For example, in the case of Britain, just a limited portion of products has been exported to colonies (Shadbolt and Jensen 1975, p.96). Indeed, in the case of the above country it has been proved that colonization has been used for promoting the interests of ‘a minor class of investors in shipping, armaments, railways and mining’ (Shadbolt and Jensen 1975, p.96). In fact, regarding specifically Britain, the country’s income from its colonies has been estimated as about ‘the 15 of total national wealth’ (Shadbolt and Jensen 1975, p.96). Through the above example it is made clear that the expansion of capitalism, as transformed to capitalist imperialism, does not aim to support national economies but rather the interests of specific persons or group of persons, those who form the oligopolies and monopolies worldwide. This finding verifies the theory of Lenin on capitalist imperialism, as related to the increase of capital accumulated by specific persons (or groups of persons). A similar approach should be used for justifying the use of the Lenin’s theory of capitalist imperialism for explaining the Scramble for Africa.

In accordance with Chilcote (1999) the Scramble for Africa reflects a new form of imperialism, different from the old imperialism, as used in the pre-1800s era by Spain and other European countries. The new imperialism can be used for explaining various political and economic processes worldwide, such as the Scramble for Africa (Chilcote 1999). On the other hand, Duignan and Gann (1975) note that the Scramble for Africa, as developed in 1880s, led to the increase of the power of European countries on Africa. Particular emphasis is given on the increase of the control of Britain on Africa as achieved through the Scramble for Africa (Duignan and Gann 1975). The increased control of Britain on Africa, in the context of the above process, is verified through the acquisition by Britain of the shares of the Suez Canal in 1875.

In fact, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 has marked the Scramble for Africa. Through the above Canal, European countries gained access to the diamonds of the South Africa (Griffiths 1994). It was through the above initiatives, the acquisition of the control of the Suez Canal and the control of the mines of South Africa that European countries that the involvement of European countries was developed (Griffiths 1994). Moreover, the above initiatives indicated the power of imperialism as a concept supporting the involvement of states in other states worldwide. Reference is made particularly to the control of Britain over the diamonds of Kimberley; the above initiative revealed the relationship between ‘the local settlers’ interests and the interests of capitalist monopolies’ (Griffiths 1994, p.48), proving that the involvement of states in other states may not promote only specific national interests but also, mainly, the interests of monopolies (Griffiths 1994). Britain, as also the other European countries that have been involved in the Scramble for Africa, took the control of important economic resources across Africa developing, in most cases, strong military conflicts with local military forces (Griffiths 1994). However, the benefits acquired by the above initiatives were not purely national, i.e. they were not related exclusively to the British economy, or the economies of the other European countries involved in these initiatives. Rather, it aimed to promote the interests of specific monopolies in the context of the theory of Lenin on capitalist imperialism as analyzed above. In accordance with Griffiths (1994), after taking the control of the diamonds of Kimberley, Britain continued with ‘the acquisition of Witwatersrand goldfields in 1886’ (Griffith 1994, p.48), verifying the view of Lenin that ‘imperialism is the highest form of capitalism’ (Griffith 1994, p.48).

4. Conclusion

The increase of power of states worldwide has been explained by referring to their needs for securing their vital sources, meaning the sources required for covering the basic needs of their citizens. However, often the initiatives of states internationally reveal the following fact: the involvement of states in other states globally can be based on the promotion of specific economic interests, meaning especially the interests of monopolies and oligopolies. Such issue is highlighted in the theory of Lenin of capitalist imperialism. Indeed, when using this theory for explaining the involvement of European states in the Scramble for Africa, the following fact is made clear: the European countries that backed the Scramble for Africa did not aim to secure their key national interests, even if these interests were also covered through the above process. Rather, the involvement of European countries in Africa aimed to promote the interests of specific oligopolies and monopolies, a phenomenon still clear today. In the Scramble for Africa, European countries verified the following facts: that capitalism has been transformed to an advanced social and economic system, which is no more related to free competition and that the consequences of this new form of capitalism, the capitalist imperialism, on nations worldwide can be severe, either in the short or the long term. Moreover, it has been made clear that the expansion of capitalist imperialism, as described by Lenin, can be not controlled, as being backed by quite powerful financial and industrial monopolies, the involvement of which in the expansion of capitalist imperialism is a key element of the relevant theory of Lenin.


Chilcote, R. 1999. The political economy of imperialism: critical appraisals. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Duignan, P., and Gann, L. 1975. Colonialism in Africa, 1870-1960: The economics of colonialism. Cambridge: CUP Archive.

Griffiths, J. 1994. The atlas of African affairs. London: Routledge.

Hall, J. 1986. Powers and liberties: the causes and consequences of the rise of the West. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hunt, E., and Lautzenheiser, M. 2011. History of Economic Thought: A Critical Perspective. New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Lenin, V. 1999. Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism. Chippendale: Resistance Books.

Shadbolt, K., and Jensen, J. 1975. The European Experience: Forces of change. Oxon: Taylor & Francis.

Shadbolt, K., and Jensen, J. 1970. In Africa and India. Oxon: Taylor & Francis.

Willoughby, J. 2002. Capitalist Imperialism, Crisis and the State: Harwood Fundamentals of Applied Economics. London: Routledge.