Is the Communist Split on the War in Ukraine an Echo of An Earlier Division?

December 2, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Eliseos Vagenas, a member of the central committee of the Greek Communist party (KKE), has written an interesting article in the party’s newspaper, Rizospastis, refuting the claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine fostered a split in the international communist movement (ICM). Vagenas contends that the split existed well before the Russian invasion.

One can also argue that the split recapitulates a division within the Second International circa 1914—one which led to the creation of the Third International and the Communist parties to which the current ICM is its nominal heir.  

According to the Greek communist, the ICM has been split for some time on a least six questions, summarized below. When Russia invaded Ukraine, the parties moved to support or oppose Moscow, based on their pre-existing orientations, defined by either approach 1 or approach 2.

Two questions are critical to the positions the various ICM parties have taken on the war in Ukraine:

  • What does imperialism mean?
  • Is peace achievable in a capitalist world?

Communist parties that have either leaned toward outright support of Russia or greater condemnation of the United States and NATO, tend to view imperialism in a manner that departs significantly from the classical Marxist view and have developed an understanding of how to end war that revises Marx and borrows from liberalism. These parties see imperialism as the aggressive foreign policy of one capitalist state, the United States (and its satellites), and regard Russia as a victim of US imperialism. For them, the term ‘US imperialism’ is redundant, because imperialism is a monopoly of the United States.

What’s more, these parties tend to equate imperialism with war, and reject the notion that it has other dimensions, including peaceful capitalist competition, diplomacy, and even international security architectures. (Ask the North Koreans whether the UN Security Council is an expression of imperialism.) For these parties, imperialism is US war-making and little else.  

In contrast, parties that view the war in Ukraine as an inter-imperialist conflict adopt the classical Marxist view of imperialism. For them, imperialism is a system of cut-throat competition among states in which each state is compelled to expand the territory over which it has influence and control in order to guarantee its access to markets, raw materials, investment opportunities and strategic territory and thereby to ensure its self-preservation and that of the capital accumulating enterprises it represents. The competition is expressed in multiple ways, including war, but not limited to it. It may be, and has more often than not been, expressed in trade and investment agreements. (See, for example, Robinson’s and Gallagher’s The Imperialism of Free Trade.)

Kenneth Waltz’s review of the split in the socialist movement precipitated by WWI, which he presents in his classic Man, The State, and War, calls to mind the current split in the ICM as identified by Vagenas.

Parties which support Russia in its war on Ukraine tend to embrace, as Waltz describes them, “the techniques of the bourgeois peace movement—arbitration, disarmament, open diplomacy” as well as the belief that popular opinion “can exert enough pressure upon national governments to ensure peace.” This, Waltz argues, is a revision of Marx’s view, which “points to capitalism as the devil.” The “socialism that would replace capitalism was for Marx the end of capitalism and the end of states,” and it was the end of states, for Marx, that meant the end of war. An anti-war movement founded on the notion that popular pressure and international security architectures can ensure peace, is a tradition that Waltz identifies as originating in the Second International as a revision of Marx. It is also a tradition that Waltz pointedly notes failed to keep the peace in 1914.

Waltz elaborates. Members of the Second International “were united in that they agreed that war is bad, yet they differed on how socialists were to behave in a war situation. … Jean Jaures and Keir Hardie eloquently urged a positive program of immediate application. Socialists, they said, can force capitalist states to live at peace.”  As history shows, they couldn’t. Indeed, most socialists facilitated the war by supporting one of the belligerents.

In contrast, some “French and most German socialists argued that capitalist states are by their very nature wedded to the war system; the hope for the peace of the world is then to work for their early demise.” It is not, to bring the argument up to date, to support the weaker capitalist states in order to balance the strongest in a multipolar system. Indeed, this view is anti-Marxist in the extreme. For Marx, war ends when states end, not when weaker states balance the strongest and the world becomes multipolar.

The precursors of the Third International, Communists avant la lettre, argued that wars “are part and parcel of the nature of capitalism; they will cease only when the capitalist system declines, or when the sacrifices in men and money have become so great as a result of the increased magnitude of armaments that the people will rise in revolt against them and sweep capitalism out of existence.”

This resonates with the view of Vagenas, advocating for approach 2 as presented in the table above: The “capitalist world cannot be ‘democratized’.” It “cannot escape from wars no matter how many ‘poles’ it has.” War can only be escaped through “the struggle for the overthrow of capitalism, for the new, socialist society.”

Approach 1, then, evokes the Second International, while approach 2 appears to be consistent with the positions of the Third International.

On the basis of the foregoing, it would seem fitting to label approach 1 as “Liberal Bourgeois,” consistent with its tolerance of Communist participation in capitalist governments and broad progressive movements for capitalism’s reform; its penchant for a stepwise journey toward socialism; the absence of capitalism from its analysis of imperialism; its embrace of a peace movement whose techniques originate in a liberal theory of war; and its acceptance–indeed, its celebration–of China’s robust capitalism. Liberal Bourgeois Communists are nothing if not enthusiastic in their panegyrics to Chinese capitalism as “the world’s greatest anti-poverty machine” and never sparing in their praise of Chinese capitalism for “lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.” In their devotion to capitalism as a cure for poverty they have outmatched even the staunchest Republican.

Approach 2 can be labelled “Communist,” reflecting its resonance with classical Marxist positions.

It is regrettable that some Communist parties have suffered an ideological drift toward positions that the founders of the ICM, Lenin and his colleagues, repudiated.

It is equally regrettable that as self-proclaimed heirs of Marx, these same parties espouse a view of how to ensure a peaceful world that originates, as Waltz argues, not in Marx, but in a liberal bourgeois theory of war.

2 thoughts on “Is the Communist Split on the War in Ukraine an Echo of An Earlier Division?

  1. There may be shades of difference in the relative strength of capitalist and working classes in these countries, but that doesn’t alter either of these facts:

    (1) Capitalism is a system of exploitation and class oppression.
    (2) The historical goal of communism is to overcome capitalism, end the exploitation of humans by humans, and bring to an end the division of humanity into classes and states.

    In overseeing a system of exploitation and class division, neither Moscow nor Beijing advance goals that Marxists have traditionally identified as defining their movement. That one should defend class exploitation is a curious stance for a Communist.

    Your premise that Beijing and Moscow prevent their capitalist oligarchs from diverting the state from its fundamental function of serving the people is moot, unconvincing, and logically problematic.

    Governments may be able to influence the way in which capitalism operates, but the relationship is reciprocal. Capitalism sets the boundaries of acceptable government decision-making. A government committed to working within the framework of capitalism cannot, for example, introduce reforms that reduce capitalist exploitation of labor to zero or near-zero without threatening the system itself. The notion implicit in your premise that Moscow and Beijing can make history just as they want, freely molding capitalism to the goal of “enriching the people” is naïve.

    This brings us to the next point. Which people?

    You say, states that preside over a system of class exploitation and oppression serve the people, but which people are you referring to? Since the state establishes the social and legal structure by which the owners of capital enrich themselves by means of their workers, if Moscow and Beijing are serving their people, they’re serving some of them (i.e., the bourgeoisie) more than others. That is why they’re called “capitalist” states.

    You’ve taken a nationalist, or more to the point, a bourgeois, point of view, one which denies or at least ignores the existence of classes within these states, and gloms on to a view of an undifferentiated people. This, whether you intended to or not, advances the fallacious idea that the workers’ interests are the same as the bourgeoisie’s interests. This idea is not only far outside the bounds of Marxism—it is antithetical to it.

    You ask whether improvements in the condition of the average citizen in Russia and China over the past 30 years or so indicate that the governments of these states have bent their capitalist oligarchs to serving the people? Even if we ignore your failure to analyze “the people” into the classes that make up “the people”, and accept this method of mystification as legitimate, the answer would still be no. Consider this: Measured in terms of absolute gain in GDP per capita, the condition of the average US citizen has improved to an even greater degree over the same period. Would we conclude from this that Washington has prevented Wall Street from diverting the state’s resources from its fundamental function of serving the people? Of course not! If we follow your logic, Russia and China should emulate the United States, for by this standard, the “shade” of capitalism that prevails in the United States is even more congenial with the interests of “the people” than the shades which prevail in Russia and China.

    Given the absence of any Marxist content in your question—and indeed, the complete negation of it in your premise, from the absence of class analysis and your focus on an undifferentiated people, your implicit notion that the state hovers impartially above the class struggle, and your idea that capitalism is admirable or repulsive depending on its postal address—I can only conclude you’re not a Marxist. If you belong to the Liberal Bourgeois wing of the ICM, you have proved my point.

    I suspect that you are a Marxist in name alone, if you are even that, and that you believe wrongly that Marxism is the project of supporting any state, no matter what its class character, that is opposed by the US state. This is not Marxism. It is, instead, a very simple-minded and self-defeating practice based on a very simple-minded and self-defeating thought, namely, that the bourgeois enemy of my bourgeois enemy is my friend. That the Russian bourgeoisie and Chinese bourgeoisie are no more your friend than the US bourgeoisie ought to be obvious. Sadly, it isn’t obvious to you, and, as a consequence, you squander time and energy defending states that offer you nothing–no advantage, no hope of escape from class exploitation and oppression, no hope of escape from war, no hope for an end of the division of humanity into classes and nations.

  2. Do you see no shades of difference between Russian and Chinese capitalism and the West’s capitalism? Haven’t the Russian and Chinese regimes, while tolerating capitalism, made sure that their capitalist oligarchies do not divert the state’s resources from its fundamental function of serving the people? Mightn’t the improvements in the condition of the average citizen in Russia and China over the past 30 years or so indicate that they have done so?

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