April 14, 2022
By Stephen Gowans
Marxist economist Richard Wolff makes two good points in an April 14 article, The Role of Capitalism in the War in Ukraine.
The first is that the “entire world is caught up in the decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another.” The declining capitalist empire is the United States and the rising capitalist empire is Eurasia, at the center of which lies capitalist China and capitalist Russia. The decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another can be characterized as the emergence of a multipolar capitalist world, to supersede one of US supremacy. This is the condition sought by the multipolaristas, a gaggle of people united by little more than a common abhorrence—not of capitalism, or imperialism, or wars of aggression—but of US foreign policy.
Wolff’s second point is that “a different economic system not driven by a profit motive offers a deeper solution to any on offer at present.” Lenin’s solution is a nonpolar world free from imperialism, in contrast to the multipolaristas’ cheerleading the rise of one capitalist empire as it challenges another.
Among Lenin’s “various definitions of imperialism, one of the most significant characterizes it as the claim of a few chosen nations to base their own prosperity and primacy on despoliation and domination of the rest of humanity. They regard themselves as model nations.” (Losurdo, Class Struggle, 2016, p. 158) We might think, for example, of the “model nation” which launches a crusade against what it says is neo-Nazism in a neighboring country, one intended to impose a Quisling government and integrate the country’s economy into that of the aggressor, or which pursues a humanitarian intervention under the pretext of arresting genocide.
A subsidiary point: Losurdo challenges a commonly held misconception that the Bolshevik leader’s understanding of imperialism can be reduced to a check list of characteristics that define individual states—that Lenin had one definition of imperialism, rather than several. These characteristics have been misrepresented in various places as criteria for determining whether a country is imperialist. In point of fact, they were Lenin’s descriptions of capitalism as a globe-girding economic system in what he called its highest stage—a stage in which capital had become highly concentrated; finance capital is dominant; the export of capital (as opposed to goods and services alone) is important; gigantic international corporations compete across the globe; and a few great powers have divided the whole world into spheres of influence. To repeat: This is a description of an economic system, not of individual countries. Another point: In a world economy of monopoly capitalism, imperialism is inevitable.
Lenin did not reduce imperialism to the export of capital or define it as an exclusively monopoly capitalist phenomenon. Consider these words from Lenin’s volume on imperialism: “Colonial policy and imperialism existed before this latest stage of capitalism and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and achieved imperialism.” (V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, 1939, p. 81-82)
Or this, a shock, perhaps, to those who believe Russia cannot be considered imperialist in any Leninist sense: “[Among] the six powers [that had divided the world], we see, firstly, young capitalist powers (America, Germany, Japan) which progressed very rapidly; secondly, countries with an old capitalist development (France and Great Britain), which, of late, have made slower progress than the previously mentioned countries, and, thirdly, a country (Russia) which is economically most backward, in which modern capitalist imperialism is enmeshed, so to speak, in a particularly close network of pre-capitalist relations.” (V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, 1939, p. 81)
To sum up. A country doesn’t have to be capitalist to be imperialist (imperialism, i.e., empires, existed long before capitalism.) Nor does it have to export capital (imperialism also antedated monopoly capitalism.) To be imperialist, all a nation must do, as Lenin explained, is oppress another nation. The essence of imperialism, wrote Lenin, is the “division of nations into oppressor and oppressed.” (V.I. Lenin, Declaration of Rights of The Working and Exploited People, 4 January, 1929 in Pravda No. 2 and Izvestia No. 2.)
Who exactly is hurt most in the struggles of capitalist empires? The answer is the class Lenin championed: ordinary working people.
In Ukraine, workers are plagued by invasion, displacement from their homes, the danger of death or injury, and the loss of jobs and incomes.
Ordinary Russians will soon struggle with rising prices and lost employment, if they aren’t already.
The working class in Europe, already careworn with declining purchasing power, will soon pay even higher rates for energy, and will be hurt further by higher taxes or reduced services or both as growing military outlays stress government budgets.
Worldwide, the struggle of empires puts upward pressure on prices, for food and energy especially. Hunger will increase. The difficulties of making ends meet will grow.
Finally, the struggle of capitalist empires carries with it the risk of a regional war escalating into a global conflagration. It’s something none of us—most all, ordinary working people—want.
Lenin’s solution, a nonpolar world free from imperialism, is not achievable by choosing sides in the struggles of competing capitalist empires. It’s only possible by doing away with capitalism and empire as institutions of domination and exploitation. And that won’t happen by cheerleading the rise of yet another capitalist empire, or supporting Russia’s efforts to reassert a sphere of influence in Ukraine and carry out a war of aggression on ordinary Ukrainians on the backs of ordinary Russians at the expense of ordinary people in Western Europe, North America, and the whole world over. Nor will it happen by encouraging the co-belligerent actions of the US government and its NATO subalterns in pursuing the US goal of fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.
As governments representing bourgeois interests compete for markets, investment opportunities, strategic territory, and spheres of interest, it may be fitting to recall an observation of Marx and Engels: “The workers have no country.” Not Russia. Not China. Not the United States.