Ossinsky on Bukharin's Imperialism and the World Economy

Our latest translation of the various documents in Kommunist, the journal of the Russian Left Communists of 1918 is a review by Ossinsky of Bukharin’s 1915 work which goes under the title Imperialism and World Economy. It is a mystery to us why Ossinsky uses a different title here for what seems to be a reprint of that work “which finally appeared in full” [1] in January 1918. Ossinsky makes no mention of the fact that this version includes the original introduction by Lenin (lost in the Tsarist censorship) and the final “revolutionary” chapter (left out to evade the condemnation of the censors). Indeed, as he talks of “this little book of seven articles” whereas the 1972 Merlin Press edition runs to 170 pages with fourteen chapters (divided into four parts), we cannot be entirely sure that he is referring to the same document.

It is only the description of the contents that leads us to the conclusion that this indeed is the same work. And Ossinsky certainly highlights the key points of Bukharin’s original work well. For Bukharin the key features of the new phase of capitalism were imperialism and state capitalism. Lenin borrowed freely from Bukharin in his own “popular outline” in Imperialism – the Highest Stage of Capitalism but did not see that state capitalism was not a stage on the way to socialism. Bukharin made it quite clear in several places that for him state capitalism was decisively linked to imperialism and was not therefore a halfway house to socialism. For Bukharin the capitalist state was compelled to take a greater role in economic activity thanks to the continued process of centralisation and concentration which by the late nineteenth century was producing trusts, financial oligopolies and monopolies whose control over the market enabled them to distort it in their favour and posed a systemic threat to the continued existence of capitalism itself. In the USA under Theodore Roosevelt anti-trust laws were brought in to tame the “robber barons” and it is no accident that this was also the period when the USA undertook its first overseas colonial adventures. It was in this imperialist context that the industrialisation of the USSR took place. Its subsequent evolution towards an even more dirigiste state capitalism which continued to exploit the workers has vindicated Bukharin’s view on this right down to our own day. By the time this happened the revolutionary wave which all the Bolsheviks had counted on (but none more than Bukharin) had retreated, and Bukharin had long abandoned his earlier adherence to the Left Communists of 1918. The “favourite of the Party” (Lenin) ultimately shared the fate of the other “Old Bolsheviks” and was murdered by Stalin in 1938. This may be a short review of a small book but it succinctly summarises one of the great contributions to a Marxist analysis of imperialism.

Review: The World Economy and Capitalism

N Bukharin, The World Economy and Capitalism, an Economic Essay, [Petersburg Priboi, 1918 – price 2 rubles]

Comrade Bukharin’s book is the rewrite of a major article published abroad in the review Kommunist [2], which was clandestine at the time. This book (or more precisely his manuscript) suffered many setbacks under the Tsarist regime and Kerensky’s rule. Finally it has seen the light of day and we can only warmly welcome its release.

In the Communist Academy's project, there is a point for which it can confer a doctoral degree upon comrades who make known important works in the field of the human sciences. If only rankings were needed, N. I. Bukharin would already have earned a doctorate with this little book of seven articles. Interesting as a descriptive work, the book uses immense statistical and related material to bear upon the problems of the world economy and the relations of production connected to it. It is quite significant from a theoretical point of view. Not only does the author know "den theoretischen Standpunkt zu betonen" (to reveal the theoretical background), a quality that Marx appreciated of Sieber [3], but also this theoretical understanding of the issues is always marked by the brilliant use of Marxist method. The basis for the analysis of the current phase of the development of capitalism, the forms of state organisation and the related political processes, was developed by Hilferding. [4] But this researcher also focused on the analysis of the main economic categories of contemporary capitalism. N. Bukharin focuses more on the financial "superstructures" of the capitalist economy and the "defensive" struggle of finance capital. He studies imperialism as a competitive system and as a political system in the era of finance capital. The very foundation of his enterprise has pushed him further along the path set out by Hilferding, and he knew how to go about it. Unlike Hilferding, Bukharin had a more recent experience at his disposal. That is why he cites the emergence of state capitalism as the new stage of capitalist development. Similarly, it is only in recent years that the main trends in the development of the world economy and imperialist policy can be questioned. And Bukharin considers it as well. The detailed analysis of imperialism (the political envelope of finance and state capitalism), the possible destinies of this envelope and its content are the essential undertaking and the particular merit of this book.

Bukharin's book is divided into two parts in which he makes two main conclusions. In the first part (sections I and II) Bukharin analyses the recent evolution of the capitalist economy which is becoming global, and of capital which is also becoming global. He mentions the development of world trade based on the international division of labour. He describes how starting from this simplest form of the social relationship between national economies, a whole system of global production relations develops in which capital (the world capital market) and labour (that of the labour force) are involved. The author notes the global concentration of capital (trusts and world syndicates).

But after having analysed the forms of internationalisation of the economy and capital, he goes on to study its opposite tendency, the nationalisation [5] of capital which is inseparably linked to the former. The internationalisation of the economy refers to the anarchy of the capitalist economy. On a global scale, it reproduces capitalist competition, the struggle of isolated economic cells. These cells are the national state trusts, and the second part of Bukharin's book is devoted to the analysis of the forms of emergence of national nuclei (the growth of cartels, trusts, mixed enterprises, the transformation of bank capital into finance capital) and their place within the relations of global production. There is a contradiction between the tendencies towards internationalisation and nationalisation, but this is only the new expression of the general contradiction between the social character of production and the private character of appropriation. Thus, the conclusion of the first part is as follows: the internationalisation of capital cannot prevail over its nationalisation; this contradiction is unsolvable within the framework of the capitalist world and even internationalisation must necessarily be the expression of the aspiration of each national capitalist group to eventually impose itself on the whole world, and at the very least create a self-sufficient international empire.

The second part of the work (sections III and IV) deals with imperialism as a political system of finance capital and as a form of competition between national state trusts. The author analyses the economic apparatus mainly as a unit of competition and a product of competition; he also analyses the changes in the processes of concentration and centralisation in the era of financial capital. Then, he deals with the means of competitive struggle (which are quasi state), i.e. imperialist policy measures. And on the political level, the same question is asked as in the first part: will centripetal tendencies prevail over centrifugal tendencies within the capitalist order? Could finance capital organise not only the world economy, but also a global "ultra-imperialist" [6] state? Will it resolve the contradiction between the aspiration to unite the whole world into a united society and the limitations imposed by the national boundaries of states? If so, war will disappear in bourgeois society; if not, inevitably there will be military crises from which socialism will emerge. The author critiques Kautsky's first thesis (the peaceful union of world empires under the pressure of the working class), because he believes that the contradiction will only be resolved by the transition to socialism.

On certain problems, some objections of a theoretical and economic nature could be made, but this is impossible in this brief report. As well, they would touch on relatively minor issues. Overall, Bukharin's book fully embraces the subject and explains it clearly, puts it together in coherent fashion and formulates the right conclusions. It’s just a pity that the author misuses a few rare, foreign words and complicated sentences without explanation. If the book is difficult for a mass audience, the precision and coherence of this author's thinking makes it popular enough which helps make up for the apparent difficulties.

Bukharin's book is a little encyclopaedia of imperialism. It can be recommended to those who take a scientific approach, to those who seek propaganda material, and even with some reservations to a mass audience. The unity of its scientific content, its practical application and its use as a popular brochure are remarkable and valuable. The book should be a great success, as we would hope it will.

N. Ossinsky


[1] Stephen F Cohen, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution (OUP 1973) p. 83

[2] Kommunist (The Communist), first version, was a single issue newspaper (nᵒ 1-2) published in Geneva in September 1915. The editorial committee included editors of The Social Democrat (the main organ of Bolshevik emigrants), Piatakov, Bosch and Bukharin, who at the time were leading a theoretical controversy against Lenin, particularly on the national question. It was over this controversy that the first Kommunist ceased to appear after this issue.

[3] Nikolai Ivanovich Sieber (1844-1888): Russian economist, professor of political economy at the University of Kiev, in personal relationship with Marx and Engels, he played an important role in the spread of Marxism in Russia.

[4] Rudolf Hilferding (1877-1941): German economist born in Austria, member of the Social Democratic Party, editor of Die Neue Zeit and Vorwärts, he was one of the main contributors to Austro-Marxism. Analyst of the evolution of capitalism and its new modes of organisation, his book Das Finanzkapital (Finance Capital, 1910) had a considerable influence in German social democracy but also on the Bolsheviks. He later became finance Minister in the Weimar Republic until forced to resign in 1929. After the Nazis came to power, being Jewish and former SPD minister, he left Germany for Denmark, then Switzerland but found himself in Vichy France after 1940. Here he was arrested and taken to La Santé prison in Paris, and there almost certainly murdered by the Gestapo in 1941.

[5] By “nationalisation” we certainly do not mean here the transition to state ownership, but the withdrawal into the national state. (Editorial note to the original)

[6] The idea of “ultra-imperialism” (i.e. going beyond imperialism) was put forward by Karl Kautsky. He suggested that the costs and suffering generated by a war were so high that it would force imperialist powers to resolve their conflicts peacefully through a federal form of states ensuring the global functioning of capitalism. This theory was severely criticised by the Bolsheviks. Kautsky regarded war as an anachronism, something left over from the past, whilst the Bolsheviks maintained that war was essential to capitalist accumulation in the age of imperialism.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019