Historical materialists are not prophets; they do not predict the future course of history. They are concerned rather with the present as history. This fundamental principle of Marxist thought is called to mind by our reencounter recently with a common misinterpretation of Lenin’s Imperialism. In his new book, The New Imperialism, David Harvey writes (p. 127): “I therefore think Arendt is…correct to interpret the imperialism that emerged at the end of the nineteenth century as the ‘first stage in political rule of the bourgeoisie rather than the last stage of capitalism’ as Lenin depicted it.” (See also Harvey’s piece “The ‘New’ Imperialism” in the Socialist Register, 2004, p. 69.)
If Lenin, as Harvey contends here, had actually characterized imperialism as the “last stage” of capitalism he would have been making the kind of final pronouncement on the future that historical materialists have always sought to avoid. In fact Harvey’s point regarding Lenin’s work is without foundation since it is based on an early mistranslation of the title to the first edition of Lenin’s famous pamphlet on imperialism. Lenin originally considered entitling this work The Basic Characteristics of Contemporary Capitalism. In his actual handwritten manuscript of 1916 he gave it the title Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. But in publishing his pamphlet in 1917 he settled on Imperialism, the Latest Stage of Capitalism (following the precedent of Rudolf Hilferding who had entitled his great work Finance Capital, the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development). This is still the title given in Russian on every Library of Congress entry for Lenin’s book.
An early English-language mistranslation, appearing in a number of different editions in Britain and the United States, converted this into the “last stage” of capitalism (sometimes also translated as the “final stage”). This mistranslation is what Arendt and Harvey were referring to in the statement quoted above. (Lenin’s title was translated correctly by J. T. Kozlowski in the edition put out by the Marxian Educational Society in Detroit in 1924.)
In the late 1920s, after Lenin’s death, the Communist Party in the Soviet Union put out a new edition of the work in which “highest stage” was substituted for “latest stage” (following Lenin’s earlier handwritten manuscript) and the work has carried that title ever since. Since this was not Lenin’s own published title, however, theoretical claims based on his using “highest stage” in the title of his work—and even more so in the case of the mistranslated “last stage”—lack a firm basis. (See John Bellamy Foster and Henryk Szlajfer ed., The Faltering Economy , p. 21; Robert Service, Lenin: A Political Life, vol. 2 , pp. 113–14; Lenin, Works[Russian language edition], vol. 19, p. 79; National Union Catalog, Pre-1956 Imprints, vol. 326, pp. 239–41.)
To be sure, Lenin had not only employed “highest stage” as the title to his 1916 handwritten manuscript—though deciding in the end not to publish the work under this title—but had also used the term in the preface to the French and German editions of 1920. Nevertheless it is clear from the context of that preface that he was using “highest stage” there in a very definite sense. The 1917 revolution, he believed, had unleashed conditions of world revolution and capitalist decline, suggesting that the highest stage of capitalism had been reached—in the very same sense as one might say that the highest stage of the Roman Empire existed under Augustus (the beginning of the Roman Empire emerging out of the Roman Republic). In the Roman case the Augustan Age represented not only the Empire’s zenith but also foreshadowed more than a millennium of decay and internal/external strife—passing through numerous additional stages—before Rome’s final demise. The term “highest” thus does not have the same meaning as “last” or “final.” For Lenin, as for Marx, capitalism would only end with social revolution and it was only to the extent that it was the “the eve of the proletarian social revolution” on a “world-wide scale”—as he said at the end of his 1920 preface—that it was possible to speak of the “highest stage” of capitalism—beyond which lay a more or less protracted period of revolution and capitalist decline.
Lenin was in practice as well as by profession a revolutionary optimist. There is no doubt that he believed in 1917 and immediately afterward that the revolution beginning in Russia might spread rapidly to Western Europe in the aftermath of the First World War. But his broad theoretical perspective did not exclude a much more protracted struggle between socialism and capitalism, involving a decline and fall of the capitalist system that would stretch well into the future. Even with the revolutionary triumph of the Russian Revolution behind him Lenin did not predict a definite historical sequence of events leading to the quick and inevitable demise of capitalism in all of its forms. There was no absolute determinism in his thinking. Revolutionary situations, he contended, may be objectively determined, but revolution itself remained a contingent historical fact.
Such recognition of historical contingency is not antithetical to Marxism, but is of its very essence. History has no end; and the present as history is always both constrained and contingent. There can be no greater distortion of historical materialism than to conceive it as leading to a strict determinism that then becomes a pseudo-scientific basis on which to prophesy historical developments before they happen. An open-ended, non-teleological outlook distinguished classical Marxism—as opposed to the official Marxism that succeeded it in the Soviet Union from the late 1920s on. Lenin’s 1917 work Imperialism, the Latest Stage of Capitalism is itself a perfect example of this historical-materialist principle at work.
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