Passionate about liberty and want a chance to win $4,000? Check out our video contest!
essays

February 1975

Bukharin, “Imperialism and World Economy”

“Bukharin had a firm grip on the economic main drift, the “rise” of cartels and monopolies. Unhappily, he [thought it the] inevitable outcome of market relations.”

Libertarian students of imperialism should welcome the publication of this new paperback edition of Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy. Bukharin is a fascinating figure. He was perhaps the greatest Bolshevik theoretician aside from Lenin, whom he influenced considerably. As leader of the Bolshevik “Left” because of his “semi-anarchist” views of 1917-18 and as leader of the “Right” because of his strong support for the NEP free market in the 1920s, he expounded views of some interest to libertarians. Bukharin was even sufficiently impressed with Austrian economics to attempt a refutation of Böhm-Bawerk.

Bukharin was fascinated by the phenomenon of world economy: the international division of labor and the unification of mankind brought about by the growth of trade. Like Marx, Bukharin regarded this process as qualitatively unique in world history, and like Marx, he produced a clear description of world economic relations. Unfortunately, his Marxist framework burdens the reader with numerous Hegelian metaphors (advanced as real entities), but deciphering them is well worth the effort.

Bukharin had a firm grip on the economic main drift, the “rise” of cartels and monopolies. Unhappily, he presented monopolization as an inevitable outcome of market relations. Although he thereby forced his analysis into an ideological strait jacket, his empirical description emphasized the crucial role of the state and banks in building the monopoly sectors of the world’s industrial economies. Since the 1870s “high protectionism” had been the trend in all industrial countries, especially in the export industries where domestic monopoly prices and external “dumping” were now the rule. Monopoly prices in turn made necessary massive capital export. In the resulting clashes of interest between “national” groups of capitalists, military force was increasingly called in to protect and expand tariff areas and to secure raw materials and captive markets for goods and investment. Conquest and war, in a word, imperialism, were the necessary outcome.

Thus Bukharin correctly saw that the chief “contradiction” of the age was that between world trade and the “‘national’ [i.e., state imposed] limits of productive organization.” Economic internationalism was being opposed by “various groups of the bourgeoisie organized in the state.” Thus “state capitalist trusts” competed in the world market, while the cartel magnates and their ideological hacks promoted intensified state intervention at home. Neo-mercantilism and empire were the order of the day, and the old bourgeois individualism was disappearing. The dominant big capitalists were strongly statist, even monarchist, in disposition, and it was a mistake to regard their attitudes as mere feudal remnants. Here Bukharin “corrected” Schumpeter’s emphasis (in Imperialism and Social Classes) on feudal “atavisms” before Schumpeter advanced his theses.

Given the unequal strength of the great powers, an international equilibrium could not be reached, and imperialism and war were necessary to resolve their political-economic rivalries. The World War expressed and strengthened state-capitalist trends. Every belligerent state was busily affording new subsidies, bounties, and benefits to its monopoly sector at the expense of all other classes. Bukharin noted with unease the rise of the United States as the major new state-capitalist and imperialist superpower. Despite his denial that a free market could resolve the contradictions of the era, Bukharin was truly an accurate prophet. High tariffs, monopolies, and the new wartime monopolies would mean that “an ever greater part of the national product will be retained by the bourgeoisie and its state.” He need only have said “the state and its bourgeoisie” to have arrived at a libertarian analysis. Reviewed by Joseph R. Stromberg / Economics-Political Philosophy (173 pages) / LR Price $2.95