Africa was central to Lenin’s theory of imperialism

Marxism is critiqued for being Eurocentric but Lenin’s analysis challenges this. It championed African independence and remains relevant today.

Lenin’s Marxist theories have had a tremendous influence upon African anti-imperialist struggles and the study of African political economy. In recent years, however, scholars have reinvigorated the postcolonial critique of Marxism as a Eurocentric doctrine, one that misunderstands and marginalises non-European peoples.

John Hobson, a prominent proponent of this view in the discipline of international political economy, has identified four characteristics or stages in the development of Eurocentrism: 1) the splitting of the East and West into two separate and self-constituting entities; 2) the evaluation of the West as superior to the East, in the sense that the West is endowed with rational characteristics, including liberal democracy and capitalism; whilst the East is endowed with irrational ones, such as barbarism and slavery; 3) the ‘Eurocentric Big Bang theory’, which accords a monopoly  of global developmental agency to the West; and 4) an imperialist politics, in which imperialism is either i) ignored, or presented as a benign civilising mission; or ii) empire is critiqued (direct imperialism), but the Western universalism of the theory renders its politics as a form of indirect imperialism (see Hobson 2013).

Hobson’s arguments echo the sentiments of Cedric Robinson, who provided a detailed indictment of Eurocentric Marxism in his book Black Marxism.  Robinson’s ideas are all the rage nowadays, and scholars routinely endorse his claim that Marxism miscomprehends the history of Black and African peoples. Consequently, Marxism has lost much of its appeal in the eyes of many scholars of African political economy. Some have denounced Marxism outright as a racist theory, irrelevant to the study of Africa, whilst others claim that Marxism requires a fundamental reconstruction to remove its Eurocentric assumptions. Lenin’s ideas are implicated in this critique of Marxism.

In my articlewhich is published in the Review of African Political Economy, and can be read for free, I oppose this narrative by arguing that Lenin showed a profound concern for Africa. In fact, he placed Africa at the centre of his theory of imperialism, and this theory is fundamentally non-Eurocentric.

Photo by Soviet Artefacts on Unsplash

For one thing, Lenin was an astute analyst of colonialism in Africa from the earliest stages of his intellectual development. Already in the Development of Capitalism in Russia, published in 1899, Lenin compared Russia’s colonial exploitation of its minority nationalities to Germany’s African colonies. In both cases, he noted, an exploiting core sought to drain the resources of an exploited periphery.

From 1915 to 1916, Lenin conducted a vast amount of research on Africa in his Notebooks on Imperialism. He meticulously studied the various treaties and deals signed between the imperialist powers over the partition of Africa from the late nineteenth century onwards. Lenin also remarked on the resistance of African peoples, such as the Hottentot and Herero revolts, which were violently crushed by colonial troops. Contrary to what Robinson argues in Black Marxism, Lenin was fully aware of the ‘black radical tradition’.

Upon the basis of his Notebooks on Imperialism, Lenin placed Africa at the heart of his analysis in his book Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. The centrality of Africa in this work has been insufficiently acknowledged in the literature, but it is essential to recognise, because it undermines the claim that Lenin was Eurocentric.

To start with, Lenin argued that the colonial conquest of Africa heralded the rise of imperialism, which he defined as a new stage of capitalism characterised by military conflict over territory. Imperialism required Africa’s subordination in order to thrive. Second, Lenin argued that Africa’s repartition was the objective content of the Great War. The belligerent European powers – and Germany in particular – were fighting primarily for greater slices of the African pie. In making these two points, Lenin established that Africa was a continent of unparalleled geopolitical significance. For as long as Africa was colonised, imperialism would be able to suppress European socialism, but if Africa achieved its liberation, then the European socialist movement would achieve a dramatic increase in power. The fate of global socialism and global capitalism depended upon Africa’s freedom.

During the Great War, Lenin became a leading critic of European colonialism and an uncompromising supporter of African independence. He abandoned the Second International and founded the Third International precisely because the former failed to oppose the colonial plunder of Africa and the predatory war waged over it. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Third International made anti-colonialism a condition of membership, and it identified African independence as an indispensable part of the global proletarian revolution.

For these reasons, there is little basis for the view that Lenin was Eurocentric. Such a view ignores Lenin’s record in championing Africa’s liberation struggle. In both theory and practice, the founder of Soviet communism eschewed Hobson’s four characteristics of Eurocentrism. First, Lenin did not separate the West from Africa. He envisioned imperialism as a global system, one that intimately connected European and African peoples. Second, Lenin did not view the West as superior to Africa. although not fully consistent, he often portrayed Africans as more civilised than the European imperialists, who showed higher levels of violent barbarism. Third, Lenin did not endorse the ‘Big Bang’ theory of European development. He recognised that Western capitalism relied for its expansion upon the subjugation of Africa. Finally, Lenin did not endorse imperialism.

In contrast to the chauvinists of his era, Lenin was a consistent supporter of African independence. As such, Lenin’s legacy remains relevant for the study of Africa today. His book on Imperialism will continue to provide profound insights for both the study of African political economy and the socialist struggles of African peoples.

Joe Pateman’s full article in the Review of African Political Economy, ‘The centrality of Africa in Lenin’s theory of imperialism’ is available to read open-access until April 2022. A longer version of this blog was published in ROAPE.net .

Joe Pateman is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is the co-author of Public Libraries and Marxism (Routledge, 2021).