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.