Imperialism, Taylorism, and Lenin

I have placed the new imperialism together with Friedrich Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management and VI Lenin’s essay on imperialism, not only because Taylor and Lenin are contemporaries of the events they are describing and attempting to grasp, but also because they offer us benchmarks against which to measure future developments.

Taylor’s Principles was written in 1911, less than three years before Henry Ford’s Highland Park plant began full production. Ford’s plant exemplified Taylor’s Principles. By fully incorporating human action into the time-motion calculations of assembly-line production, Ford realized the enhancement in productivity that Taylor recommended. Taylorism was thus among the organizational innovations that corporations adopted in their quest to increase productivity and maximize the return on shareholders’ investments.

Vladimir Illyich Lenin’s Imperialism, though written after the war, drew upon research written before the war–chiefly JA Hobson’s Imperialism, portions of which we read last week. With his Imperialism, Lenin helped consolidate his own legacy in political theory, separate from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Traditional Marxism had held that the transition to post-capitalist society would appear in the most advanced capitalist states, not only because such states fielded the largest and most fully developed industrial working class, but also therefore because in these states the conflict between the working class and the bourgeoisie would have reached its most developed form. In contrast to Marx and Engels’ theory, with which most organized workers in western Europe, North America, and Japan agreed, Lenin theorized that the workers and labor organizations of Western Europe, North America, and Japan had been compromised by the bourgeois political parties, offering just enough of a social share in private wealth to prevent them from entertaining full socialization of the means of production. The ability of the bourgeoisie to share its private wealth arose, Lenin thought, from the globalization of the class struggle. This struggle was no longer simply between the working class and the bourgeoisie, but was now between bourgeois nations and the working class of less developed nations, such as Russia, and of Western Europe’s, North America’s, and Japan’s colonies. This rewriting of class struggle seemed to have been confirmed by Russia’s own revolution in 1917, as well as by the conflict among the capitalist nations over the world’s labor, wealth, and markets.

The problem we face as we approach the turn of the century is that with every passing year and every passing decade, the complete integration of the global economy and the dependence of the world’s elites upon this integration come into ever clearer focus. On the one hand, Europeans are gaining command over labor and wealth world-wide. On the other hand, since individual and national wealth is relative to other investors and colonizers, this command is never final or lasting, leading us to one-up and surpass every move of our competitor. The losers are not only the colonized. Europeans, Japanese, and North Americans are quickly losing any sense of a center. More significantly, their newly acquired forms of social, political, economic, and cultural integration may be guiding them into the heart of one of the twentieth century’s more spectacular die-offs, when, for the sake of abstract ideals and wealth, Europeans and North Americans–investors–will plunge the world into a whirl-wind of death and destruction.

This is not in spite of increased productivity and organization and wealth; but because of it.

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