Text Messages | What would Lenin do?

Lenin’s views on banks and imperialism could have inspired some out-of-the-box thinking at two recent colloquiums to ‘form the basis of economic policy proposals’ for the future.

Shortly before Christmas last year, a relatively unheralded gathering took place in Pretoria. Participants had been invited by Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to take part in “a colloquium on South Africa’s economic growth”.

Notice of this far from insignificant event was posted on the government’s website, on 20 December, the day before the event. The announcement began:

“The minister of finance has convened a colloquium where government officials will present policy proposals to raise the level of South Africa’s economic growth. These proposals will be tested through discussion with economists from the private sector and academia, including Professors Ricardo Hausmann and Robert Lawrence, both of Harvard University.

“The colloquium will also be attended by the ministers of economic development and trade and industry as well as relevant government officials, private-sector experts and other strategic stakeholders. Discussions at the colloquium will place particular emphasis on interventions that encourage new models and paradigm shifts in support of faster economic growth. The outcome of the colloquium will form the basis of economic policy proposals to be submitted to Cabinet for its consideration in the new year.”

Mboweni invited the media to attend the opening and the subsequent “scene-setting remarks by National Treasury director-general, Mr Dondo Mogajane”, but thereafter it was a closed-doors affair.

In the box

Its lateness aside, what stands out from the notice of the talk-shop is the categorisation of the invitees: “government officials”, “economists from the private sector”, “private-sector experts”, “other strategic stakeholders” and academics, including two from Harvard University in the United States. The list of those invited, which New Frame has seen, forms a choir singing from pretty much the same hymn to the Anglo-Austrian school of conventional and conservative economic orthodoxy, the business-friendly economists and academics alike.

Given that Mboweni had publicly expressed the need for thinking out of the box to rescue the South African economy from the quagmire into which it is steadily subsiding, the ideological and intellectual leanings of the participants hardly suggested novel approaches and anything other than thinking in, rather than out of the box. Development economists? Left-wing academics? The people? Where were they?

Compounding this is that a second colloquium took place on 19 January this year – as it happens, two days before the day on which Vladimir Ilich Lenin died in 1924. That proximity turned my thoughts to what Lenin wrote about banks in Imperialism as the Highest Stage of Capitalism (published in September 1917, seven months after the February Revolution brought an end to Tsarism in Russia).

Blunt and direct

Lenin was no elegant stylist, and no translator can make him so. But his writing has the winning advantage that it is wonderfully accessible – blunt and direct, if one wants to put it in other words. Everywhere, it shows voluminous reading and clear thought; here and there, it has nasty personal attacks. Karl Kautsky was a particular target, but not in Imperialism: Lenin’s sister Anna, given the task of having it published, persuaded Lenin to drop numerous nasty references to Kautsky.

A dose of radical rethinking might help reimagine economic policy. As a sample of deploying a different perspective, here is Lenin on “Banks and Their New Role”:

“The principal and primary function of banks is to serve as middlemen in the making of payments. In so doing they transform inactive money capital into active, that is, into capital yielding a profit; they collect all kinds of money revenues and place them at the disposal of the capitalist class.

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“As banking develops and becomes concentrated in a small number of establishments, the banks grow from modest middlemen into powerful monopolies having at their command almost the whole of the money capital of all the capitalists and small businessmen and also the larger part of the means of production and sources of raw materials in any one country and in a number of countries. This transformation of numerous modest middlemen into a handful of monopolists is one of the fundamental processes in the growth of capitalism into capitalist imperialism; for this reason we must first of all examine the concentration of banking.”

And to end, from the second-last section of Imperialism, “The Critique of Imperialism”:

“By the critique of imperialism, in the broad sense of the term, we mean the attitude of the different classes of society towards imperialist policy in connection with their general ideology.

“The enormous dimensions of finance capital concentrated in a few hands and creating an extraordinarily dense and widespread network of relationships and connections which subordinates not only the small and medium, but also the very small capitalists and small masters, on the one hand, and the increasingly intense struggle waged against other national state groups of financiers for the division of the world and domination over other countries, on the other hand, cause the propertied classes to go over entirely to the side of imperialism. ‘General’ enthusiasm over the prospects of imperialism, furious defence of it and painting it in the brightest colours – such are the signs of the times. Imperialist ideology also penetrates the working class. No Chinese Wall separates it from the other classes. The leaders of the present-day, so-called, ‘Social-Democratic’ Party of Germany are justly called ‘social-imperialists’, that is, socialists in words and imperialists in deeds; but as early as 1902, Hobson noted the existence in Britain of ‘Fabian imperialists’ who belonged to the opportunist Fabian Society.

“Bourgeois scholars and publicists usually come out in defence of imperialism in a somewhat veiled form; they obscure its complete domination and its deep-going roots, strive to push specific and secondary details into the forefront and do their very best to distract attention from essentials by means of absolutely ridiculous schemes for ‘reform’, such as police supervision of the trusts or banks, etc. Cynical and frank imperialists who are bold enough to admit the absurdity of the idea of reforming the fundamental characteristics of imperialism are a rarer phenomenon.”

Now that is thinking out of the box.

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