Vladimir Lenin coined this phrase in 1922 when he proposed that it was not necessary for Russia's government to control every single aspect of the economy, as long as the state controlled the largest industries (rail, steel, manufacturing, etc.) which he referred to collectively as the "commanding heights". Hard-line communists were actually offended by this relatively moderate stance on nationalization and free enterprise, which was later eradicated by the totalitarian economic policies of Josef Stalin.
Because the fate of so many 20th century economies centered on the struggle between government and private enterprise for control over the commanding heights, Dr. Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw used it as the title of their best-selling, award-winning book, The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, which was later adapted into a critically-acclaimed six-hour documentary on PBS. While it is not quite shameless libertarian propaganda, the PBS miniseries has been criticized for its
conspicuously biased sponsors, which include global giants such as EDS, Enron, and Federal Express. Nonetheless, both the book and the documentary offer a wealth of information and viewpoints that may very well be more useful than all of the boring economics classes you took in school.