Lenin on imperialism and the split in socialism

January 2024 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik leader, guide of the Russian Revolution and architect of the Soviet state. Lenin’s life and work left an indelible impact on world history. His groundbreaking theories of how imperialism had created a material basis for the split between the revolutionary and reformist wings of the socialist movement are foundational to the politics and practice of the RCG.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no 140, December 1997/January 1998
From 21-23 October 1997, at the invitation of the Communist Party of Cuba, the Revolutionary Communist Group attended a conference in Havana to pay homage to Che Guevara: Socialism in the 21st Century. More than 200 delegates from 97 organisations participated in three commissions: ‘The reality of contemporary socialism’, ‘The validity of Marxist-Leninist thought’ and ‘Imperialism at the end of the century’. DAVID YAFFE presented the RCG’s paper ‘Lenin’s Imperialism and the split in the working class - its relevance for rebuilding the socialist movement in imperialist countries today’ in the commission on Marxist-Leninist thought. It is reprinted below.

Capitalism is failing the vast majority of humanity. 1.3bn of the world’s population live in absolute poverty. Inequalities are rapidly widening between rich and poor nations and within all nations whether rich or poor. Britain has registered the greatest inequalities in wage levels since statistics began in 1886. Yet in imperialist countries like Britain, no political parties have so far arisen to represent the interests of the growing numbers of poor working class people. There are few signs, as yet, of the revival of the socialist movement.

How can this be explained and what possibilities exist for changing this? How can socialism be revived in imperialist countries like Britain? What forms of organisation can meet this challenge? Are existing labour organisations adequate for this purpose? What attitude should communists take towards them? In this contribution we will advance a number of propositions which can serve as a basis for discussing these issues.

1. The division of the world into imperialist and non-imperialist states

Lenin’s standpoint on imperialism and the split in socialism is as relevant today, in all its essential aspects, as in his own day. The world is divided up into imperialist and non-imperialist countries, between oppressor and oppressed nations. At the turn of the century Lenin argued that a small number of other imperialist countries joined Britain in exploiting the whole world:

‘A handful of wealthy countries... England, France, United States and Germany – have developed monopoly to vast proportions, they obtain superprofits..., they “ride on the backs” of hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in other countries and fight among themselves for the division of the particularly rich, particularly fat and particularly easy spoils...’1

Globalisation today means we live in a world of competing imperialist power blocs; the US, Japan and the European Union and their cluster of allied countries, divide the world according to economic power, with multinational companies, banks and financial institutions the driving force in this process. These multinationals are in the main tied to and supported by particular imperialist countries or are part of one of the three power blocs. Britain is a major imperialist power – one of the five countries responsible for two thirds of foreign direct investment and for spreading poverty, destruction and death around the world. While investment in Britain is stagnating, British investment abroad is booming. In 1993, following the 1990-92 recession, British investment overseas (direct and portfolio) at £101.9bn, was greater than the total capital investment in Britain at £94.2bn and more than eight times the investment in manufacturing industry. Such a relationship between the export of capital and investment in Britain last occurred in the period before the first imperialist war. Lenin’s categorisation of imperialism as parasitic and decaying capitalism has never been so appropriate. The British state is the defender, in the last analysis, of British imperialist expansion and exploitation. It cannot be otherwise under capitalism.

2. The split in the working class

Imperialism not only divides the world into oppressed and oppressor nation but divides the working class into a privileged minority of ‘labour aristocrats’ and the mass of the working class. This privileged stratum of the working class is the social basis of opportunism and chauvinism in the working class movement. Lenin saw his position on the split in the working class as a development and generalisation of Marx and Engels’ position on the working class in Britain in the last half of the nineteenth century.

At the time of England’s unchallenged monopoly (‘1848-1868, and to a certain extent even later’), it was possible to bribe and corrupt the working class of one country for decades out of the superprofits of imperialism. In 1916 when inter-imperialist rivalries had turned into imperialist war, Lenin thought this had become improbable, if not impossible. On the other hand ‘every imperialist “Great” power can and does bribe smaller strata (than in England in 1848-1868) of the “labour aristocracy”. So that bourgeois labour parties (to use Engels’ term) are now ‘inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries.’ Lenin thought it improbable that these parties could prevail for long in a number of countries. For while the existence of trusts, financial oligarchies, and high monopoly prices etc., in short imperialism, enabled the bribery of the top layers of the working class, it was also ‘oppressing, crushing, ruining and torturing the mass of the proletariat and semi-proletariat.’ Nevertheless, the history of the labour movement would be determined by the outcome of the struggle between these two opposing tendencies; between imperialism’s effectiveness in sustaining ‘the political privileges and sops’ of the top layers of the working class represented by bourgeois labour parties, and the resistance of the increasingly oppressed masses who bear the brunt of imperialism and imperialist war.2 The important point is that, economically, the desertion of the labour aristocracy to the bourgeoisie is an accomplished fact. A split has occurred in the working class and ‘the opportunist trend can neither disappear nor “return” to the revolutionary proletariat.’3 The split in the working class is irrevocable.

Lenin’s optimism concerning the demise of bourgeois labour parties, of course, was not borne out and capitalism with its bourgeois labour parties was to survive two world wars and fascism. This has occurred with a continual change in the nature of the privileged strata of the working class over the last 100 years (in Britain 150 years). At first it was composed of skilled manual workers, now it is mainly made up of highly-paid white-collar workers in the public and service sectors. Workers formerly amongst the most privileged sections of the working class – engineers, miners, steel workers – were thrown into the ranks of the unemployed as the economy was restructured to serve the rapacious needs of capital accumulation. New privileged workers took their place in the labour organisations which had been created to sustain the political influence of a privileged minority of the working class and undermine spontaneous working class opposition to capitalism.
A change in the character of the labour aristocracy, however, in no way makes it redundant:

‘To see this as the end would be to miss the whole essence of the labour aristocracy, to see it purely descriptively, in just one of its forms, and ignore its historical role and development: as the active process by which labour’s class organisation was purged of anti- capitalist elements and made safer for economism and spontaneity.’4

The effectiveness of this ‘active process’, of the elevation of new sections of the working class to a level of privilege previously enjoyed by skilled workers, is tied to the ability of imperialism economically to sustain these privileged layers and their political influence over the working class movement through recurring crises in the capital accumulation process.

3. Bourgeois democracy and imperialism

In an imperialist country, the ruling class could not stay in power and maintain the facade of bourgeois democracy without winning the allegiance of a section of the working class to its side. But not just any section: it must be a stratum which controls the principle organisations of the working class and which can constantly exclude any revolutionary element from these organisations – make them ‘safer for economism and spontaneity’. That is, act as the ‘labour lieutenants of capital’.

To win and retain the allegiance of this section of the class, capitalism must be able to offer it both a political and economic stake in capitalism’s survival. Without this support and the ability of this section of the class to control the organisations of the working class, imperialism could only maintain its rule by violent means, through its control of the apparatus of the capitalist state, by military rule or fascism.

The importance of this opportunist current for the development of the working class movement and the damage done to the interests of the working class through its control of ‘labour’ organisations was expressed forcefully by Lenin at the Second Congress of the Communist International (1920) when he said that:

‘Opportunism is our principal enemy. Opportunism in the upper ranks of the working class movement is not proletarian socialism but bourgeois socialism. Practice has shown that the active people in the working class movement who adhere to the opportunist trend are better defenders of the bourgeoisie than the bourgeoisie itself. Without their leadership of the workers, the bourgeoisie could not remain in power’5

It is in situations where the privileges of the ‘labour aristocracy’ come under severe pressure or, when its influence is thoroughly discredited, that the class character of the imperialist state becomes thoroughly exposed to workers in the imperialist country itself. This happened in Britain during the 1926 General Strike and to a lesser degree during the 1984/5 miners’ strike. That the opportunists, by collaborating directly with the ruling class, retained their control of British working class organisations during these periods of intense class conflict led not only to the defeat of the working class in both these strikes but set back the working class movement in the following decade.

How do communists combat opportunism?

Underlying the Marxist standpoint on the labour aristocracy is the understanding that the working class is a revolutionary class because of its position in capitalist society. Its revolutionary opposition to capitalism is first expressed in its actions and subsequently in its consciousness. Mass struggles and revolts of an oppressed and persecuted working class are the necessary preconditions for revolutionary opposition to capitalism. But they do not guarantee the revolutionary transformation of society. That is only possible when such spontaneous struggles are turned into politically conscious ones to overthrow the existing order. Lenin, in expressing this position, spoke of the importance of an all-sided and all-embracing political agitation which ‘brings closer and merges into a single whole the elemental destructive force of the masses and the conscious destructive force of revolutionaries.’6 The fusion of the spontaneous, popular movement of the working class with a revolutionary socialist movement was vital for effective working class revolt against capitalism. Lenin brings out the practical political implications of his argument. Engels, he says, ‘draws a distinction between the “bourgeois labour party” of the old trade unions the privileged minority and the “lowest mass”, the real majority, and appeals to the latter, who are not infected by “bourgeois respectability”. This is the essence of Marxist tactics!’ Because the proportion of the proletariat who are following and will follow the opportunists will be revealed only in struggle, it is the duty of socialists to ‘go down lower and deeper, to the real masses; this is the whole meaning and whole purport of the struggle against opportunism.’

Unless a ‘determined and relentless’ struggle is waged all along the line against the bourgeois labour parties or such groups and trends, ‘there can be no question of a struggle against imperialism, or of Marxism, or of a socialist labour movement.’7 Communists in imperialist countries, therefore, have to concentrate their work among those sections of the working class with no stake in the capitalist system, fight for their interests and wage a relentless struggle against ‘bourgeois labour parties’ and official trade union organisations that represent the interest of the ‘labour aristocracy’. At the centre of communist politics, and as a vital part of this struggle, must be opposition to the imperialist state, fighting its brutal exploitation and oppression of the peoples of oppressed nations, its racism and its militarism in short, the fight against imperialism.

The relevance of Lenin’s position in imperialist countries today

Lenin’s ideas are vital to our situation today. In Britain we have a bourgeois Labour Party, recently elected to government, and a trade union movement led by opportunists representing the privileged layers of the working class.

The Labour Party came to power with the support of significant sections of multinational capital, with the electoral backing of the middle classes and the labour aristocracy. It has promised the multinationals a ‘crusade for competitiveness’, with flexible labour markets designed to make Britain a central player in the globalisation stakes. It has promised the middle class and labour aristocracy that it will not increase taxation. The result of both these promises is that millions more workers will face crushing poverty and drastic cuts in state welfare, healthcare and education.

Crucial to all this is the maintenance of Britain’s imperialist exploitation of the Third World. The Labour Government is a driving force behind this exploitation. The Chair of British Petroleum is a member of this Labour Government. British Petroleum employs police and paramilitaries to protect its oil interests in Columbia by brutalising workers and their families. The Labour Government will export Hawk jets to Indonesia – jets used against the liberation fighters of East Timor – as part of its determination to sustain an arms industry and export weaponry to the most brutal and repressive regimes in the world.

The effects of Labour’s programme are already being felt. The National Health Service and state education are in crisis and millions of workers are being forced into casual and temporary jobs paying poverty wages.

This has been the experience of Liverpool dockers sacked for opposing casualisation and the Hillingdon hospital workers sacked for refusing to accept a huge pay-cut resulting from privatisation. These workers, fighting for over two years to regain their jobs, have been abandoned by their trade unions. This is not surprising given that trade unions in Britain are run by opportunists, and represent and primarily organise the more privileged sections of the working class.

These trade unions are run like capitalist businesses. Their leaders are paid £60-80,000 per year, more than four times the average wage. They have enormous assets – nearly £600 million – and gross income of more than £700 million. Their income continues to rise despite a fall in their membership. Unions have invested heavily in the capitalist system, on the stock market, in pension funds and other financial institutions. Unions and their officials have an important stake in the capitalist/imperialist system.

The British trade union movement supported the war against Argentina in the Malvinas and the imperialist conflict in the Gulf. Because 1 in 10 workers in Britain work in ‘defence’ industries, trade unions take no action against the criminal arms trade and often defend that trade to protect jobs. The trade union movement supports immigration controls, a racist standpoint in an imperialist country.

Their political role is to tie the working class to the bourgeois Labour Party and its economic and political programme. The Labour Party has already announced that it will leave the most serious anti-trade union laws in place.

With millions of workers being thrown into poverty, we have to adopt the standpoint of Marx, Engels and Lenin, and ‘go down lower and deeper into the real masses’. Political organisation of the masses will require a relentless struggle against the Labour Party and all those who want to tie the working class to the interests of the bourgeoisie through links with that party.

We will have to organise amongst the workers who have been thrown into poverty and whom the trade unions have abandoned. We will only rebuild the communist movement in Britain on a programme which represents the independent interests of the mass of the working class.
The continued existence of Cuba as a socialist country is vital to the independent interests of the working class internationally. By upholding the banner of Marxism-Leninism, by defending and giving practical expression to the ideas of Che Guevara, Cuba is providing inspiration, example and education to communists throughout the world. It has become a cornerstone for the rebuilding of the communist movement internationally.

Viva Cuba! Viva Che! Viva Communism!


  1. Lenin, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, Collected Works volume 23 p115.
  2. Ibid p116.
  3. Ibid p117, p118.
  4. John Foster, ‘Imperialism and the Labour Aristocracy’ in ed. J Skelley: The General Strike 1926 (1976) p31.
  5. Lenin, Collected Works volume 21 p242.
  6. Lenin Collected Works volume 5 p512.
  7. Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, op cit, p120.