His stand illustrated the dividing line in the working class movement and a year later, when the internationalist wing of the British Socialist Party triumphed over the pro war elements, he was admitted as an affiliated member to the Labour Party itself divided then, as now, on questions of war and imperial alliance.
It was a world in which the ‘butcher’s apron’ flew over an empire in which ‘the sun never set and the blood never dried’. As a highly skilled worker – so valued that his boss intervened to prevent his imprisonment – he was positioned in a strict hierarchy of labour in which the fruits of imperial tribute were precisely apportioned according to status, security and income.
The ‘social chauvinism’ of British society was characterised by Lenin as an opportunism ‘… matured to such a degree, grown so strong and brazen during the long period of comparatively ‘peaceful’ capitalism, so definite in its political ideology, and so closely associated with the bourgeoisie and the governments ...’
The portion of imperial tribute which British workers obtained, not without fierce struggles, was not equally distributed but it was enough to differentiate the working class and blunt the radical, republican and even revolutionary impetus of the waves of 19th century rebellion.
In the new century Lenin answered his own question: “why does England’s monopoly explain the (temporary) victory of opportunism in England? Because monopoly yields superprofits, ie a surplus of profits over and above the capitalist profits that are normal and customary all over the world.
“The capitalists can devote a part (and not a small one at that!) of these superprofits to bribe their own workers, to create something like an alliance … between the workers of the given nation and their capitalists against the other countries.
In the midst of bloody war Lenin referred back to a time when: ‘Peace reigned in Europe, but this was because domination over hundreds of millions of people in the colonies by the European nations was sustained only through constant, incessant, interminable wars, which we Europeans do not regard as wars at all, since all too often they resembled, not wars, but brutal massacres, the wholesale slaughter of unarmed peoples.’ Sounds familiar.
If the Great War was a conflict over the sources and distribution of imperial super profits how does Lenin’s take on imperialism help us understand the character of contemporary capitalism in its neo-liberal phase?
A dogmatic and mechanical reading of Lenin is an inadequate tool in understanding present-day state monopoly capitalism.
Of enduring critical value, however, is Lenin’s focus on the inevitable resistance to colonial rule that imperialism generates.
The potential this had for a revolutionary alliance of workers and peasants – not just in industrialising countries where capitalist relations of production existed alongside earlier formations – but on a global scale is illustrated by universal relevance of the iconic symbol of this global alliance, the hammer and sickle.
The dismantling of socialism in the USSR and Europe ended an interregnum in which the machinery developed to manage capitalist contradictions in the face of 20th century challenges from socialism, the national liberation movements and the working class gave way to a period in which more millions of workers – in China, Russia, eastern Europe, Latin America, India and Asia – have been drawn into capitalist exploitation of their labour. Already we see signs that wage levels are drawing closer as the logic of capitalist integration deepens the cycle of competition and monopoly that Lenin identified.
Capitalism is thus fashioning a global working class which itself faces a refashioned and more highly integrated imperialist system.
The US is the hegemonic super power whose role as guarantor of the total system of exploitation and oppression is at the root of its own political, social and economic crises. Britain’s complicity in a world order in which war has become a permanent feature of international politics is under challenge by a new political mood.
Conflicts of imperial interest face off Russia against the US in the Middle East and the US against China in the far east. This is a system racked by contradictions; threatened by resistance and conflict; challenged by new alliances that threaten the hegemony of the dollar and existing trade relations.
The intensity and global scale of these contradictions, and their impact on both developed capitalist economies and their new rivals suggest that a tranquil transition to a peaceful world free of exploitation cannot be guaranteed and that, in Britain, a new political approach is urgent.
Nick Wright is the Communist Party’s head of communications and blogs at 21centurymanifesto.