There Are No Lesser Evils in Imperialism

December 19, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

According The New York Times, the US arms industry is profiting handsomely from the war in Ukraine.

  • The Pentagon has awarded at least $6 billion to arms companies to resupply weapons sent to Ukraine.
  • Raytheon has secured $2 billion in contracts to expand or replenish weapons used to help Ukraine.
  • Lockheed has secured nearly $1 billion to refill stockpiles being used in Ukraine.
  • The share prices of Lockheed and Northrop Grumman have jumped more than 35% this year.
  • US arms sales to foreign militaries—many of which have boosted military spending in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine—total $81 billion this year.

In response I tweeted the following.

Had Moscow not pulled the trigger on war in Ukraine, the conditions would never have been set for Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to swim in a sea of new orders.

This elicited the following reply: “The bigger thanks goes to all the people who have blocked or refused to negotiate to end this war. Like the state department, Biden etc.”

Why would we expect the people who desired the war, viz., “the state department, Biden etc.”, to have the slightest inclination to want the war to end, when its clients—the US arms industry, the US oil and gas industry, and US industry generally—profit handsomely from it? Expecting Washington to negotiate the end of the war is tantamount to expecting wolves to become vegetarians—especially when the wolves have discovered a toothsome feast.

Did I mention that with Europe looking for a new energy supplier, after Washington pressed the EU to wean itself off Russian energy in the wake of the Kremlin’s assault on Ukraine, that the United States has become the world’s leading exporter of liquid natural gas? It is also the planet’s top petroleum producer.

At the same time, we wouldn’t expect Russia, the party that instigated the war and has failed to achieve its war aims, to have much desire to bring its assault to an end. It too is a wolf, with a hunger for sheep, so far unsated.

The notion that either the Russian wolf or a lupine Washington have, at this point, strong motivations to end their hunt for Ukrainian sheep is Quixotic.

The additional notion that the Fata Morgana of “the antiwar movement” can pressure  “the state department, Biden etc.” or Moscow to negotiate an end to the war is equally illusory.

In the West, there exists a farrago of Washington-haters who call themselves antiwar but are merely anti-US. They flatter themselves that they are the nucleus of an antiwar movement. If capitalist imperialism is one of the greatest causes of human misery, they don’t know it. The critical problem, in their minds, is the people who run US foreign policy. If only the right people were elected, or the current set of leaders were pressured by popular opinion to conduct the country’s foreign policy differently, all would be well.

Almost to a person, this group of activists argued vehemently before the war, and with unbridled certitude, that Moscow would never invade Ukraine. In their astigmatic and decidedly un-Marxist Weltanschauung, military aggression, like imperialism, is a US monopoly. Russia would never, therefore, behave in so scurvy a (US) manner. To US warnings that Russia was about to invade Ukraine, they thundered scornfully, “US propaganda!” Despite Putin providing them with ample reason to revise their view of Moscow’s nature and capabilities, and notwithstanding the egg that still drips from their faces, they cling tenaciously to the now discredited theory that Putin’s Russia is not imperialist. They have discovered a multitude of reasons why it was obvious from 2014 that an invasion was not only predictable but desirable…and un-imperialist, of course. But if before the war they denounced the claim that Russia was capable of launching a war of aggression on its neighbor as a slander against Moscow, viz., that Moscow would never carry out so heinous an act (after all, wasn’t Moscow a member of the now forgotten Friends of the UN Charter?), how is that they have so quickly come to regard what they once saw as heinous as justifiable and even desirable?

If states were free to act just as they pleased, Russia could end the war now by reversing the act that instigated it. But true to their inability to see beyond Washington to rivalry among states as an immanent characteristic of the capitalist world economy, and one with a high probability of ending in war, the Friends of Neo-Imperial Russia demand Biden negotiate an end to the war, not that Russia do the same, and not that Putin withdraw his forces from Ukraine. They believe implicitly that the Kremlin is champing at the bit to negotiate a peace, out of a strong devotion to international harmony, and all that prevents the flower of peace from blooming is Washington’s intransigence. What they fail to mention is that the peace Putin aspires to is a peace in which Russia is allowed to digest those parts of Ukraine it has already gobbled up. In other words, it wants to achieve at least some of its war aims, and then to be left in peace to enjoy them. It is a commonplace that all belligerents want peace. What’s rarely acknowledged is that they want peace on their own terms. Peace preferably; war if necessary.

An antiwar movement, if one existed in either the West or Russia, would seek to end the war in order to lift the burden it has imposed on ordinary people. People everywhere, in Russia as much as Europe and North America, struggle to make ends meet as the war sends energy, food, and housing costs soaring.

Instead, Westerners who say they are against the war, but are really against the US part in it, seek fecklessly to mobilize energy for an antiwar movement based on the following arguments:

  • Putin’s cause is just.
  • The war escalates the risk of a nuclear exchange.
  • A world where Russia and China, and not just the United States, can throw around their weight, is desirable.

The trouble is that the power of any of these arguments to arouse opposition to the war is approximately zero, which is why there is no antiwar movement.

First, it is difficult enough to justify a war of aggression with good arguments. But the arguments for war offered by Moscow have been so risible that no one, except Russian chauvinists and a few mental defectives in the West, have taken them seriously. If we accept the argument that Russia has been provoked by escalating NATO military threats and that Moscow’s efforts to project influence into Ukraine through diplomatic means were rebuffed by Washington and NATO, there remain two objections: (1) Being provoked is not a legitimate reason for war; and (2) imperialist goals achieved through diplomatic means are still imperialist goals; they are no more acceptable for being achieved through soft power than hard.

Second, the threat of nuclear annihilation is a constant. People have learned to live with it. It will not move them to action and the intensity and scope of this war has not been great enough to meaningfully escalate the risk of a nuclear exchange.

Third, you can put lipstick on the idea of Russia and China having as much clout as the United States by calling three-power imperialism “multipolarity”, but the idea remains a pig no matter how much lipstick the sow is forced to wear. Anyone who thinks it’s possible to mobilize large numbers of people under the banner “we need three strong imperialist powers instead of one”, is detached from reality.

But what if people were mobilized for reasons that resonate with their suffering to oppose the war in numbers large enough to pressure governments to act? Would the movement not also be large enough to bring about a social revolution to overcome the very roots of the problem, namely, capitalist-driven competition for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities and strategic territory? In other words, wouldn’t a movement large enough and powerful enough to end a symptom of the disease also not be large enough and powerful enough to end the disease itself? Should the goal be to end this particular war, or to significantly reduce the probability of war by overthrowing the conditions that conduce to it?

Finally, is there much point in calling for an antiwar movement here, and not one there? The war affects all working people, Russians as much, indeed more than North Americans and (Ukrainians excepted) Europeans. An antiwar movement ought to unite, across international lines, all people affected deleteriously by it against the class that wills it and the system of capital accumulation that demands it. It must be international, not confined to one side.

People who call for Washington to negotiate an end to the war, but not Russia to reverse the act that instigated it; who argue that the ultimate responsibility for the war lies with US foreign policy and not the global capitalist economy (like saying flu is caused by a sore throat); whose reasons for opposing the war having nothing to do with the effect it has on ordinary people, and only on the effect it has on the imperialist aspirations of Moscow; and who call, not for a union of antiwar voices across international lines, but an antiwar parochialism confined to the West, are arguing for the side of the Russian ruling class against that of the United States.

Marxism, socialism, the workers’ movement, are not movements against US foreign policy alone, but against the capitalist class, no matter what its postal address. These movements are also for something: Not the rise of two great capitalist powers, Russia and China, against a third, the United States, but for socialism and workers of the world uniting. They are for an end to the division of humanity into classes and nations, and not, as the bogus antiwar activists would have it, the persistence of class and the rise of great nation states.

8 thoughts on “There Are No Lesser Evils in Imperialism

  1. I come down on the side of terrylus and the very cogent Jams O’Donnell. (Also of Michael Hudson and, on the question of whether Russia is imperialist, both Stephen’s compatriot Roger Annis and other Marxist thinkers like Stansfield Smith.)

    This despite applauding Stephen’s excellent writings on Israel and Syria.

    Incidentally, I think Stephen far too kind in allowing the comment yesterday by “fuck you”: though I do give him – it has to be a ‘he’ – credit for packing so much inanity, non sequitur and puerile ad hominem into so few words!

  2. The points I make are intended, and I think indicate, that the war in the Ukraine is part of a long standing campaign by the US to dominate the world. The evidence also implies that other countries such as Russia and China especially have no such over-riding goal, as they do not display the same long-term characteristics. This can be argued, but it is clear that Iran, Iraq, Vietnam etc. had no such goal, and were not ‘competitors’ of the USA.

    Since WWII the US has invaded, bombed, subverted or otherwise interfered in at least 70 different countries, probably more. In the specific case of the Ukraine, Putin was perfectly willing to obtain a peaceful settlement, but was repeatedly rebuffed. The two Ukranian breakaway regions asked Russia to take them over years ago – Russia refused. So to postulate that Russia and the US are engaging in a proxy war merely because both want to exploit Ukranian resources (which are being destroyed wholesale currently) is infantile.

    The US invasion of Vietnam was not caused by US / Vietnamese capitalist rivalry. The US attacks on Syria were not caused by US / Syrian capitalist rivalry. The US invasion of Iraq was not caused by US / Iraqi capitalist rivalry. Etc. etc.

    The sole cause of this war and all the others I mention above, is not inter-capitalist rivalry – it is the US’s insane desire for world domination, which has been widely postulated within the US establishment as a goal, and as such widely documented. Closing your eyes to this and basking in some sort of Marxist (and I support Marxist goals) ‘plague-on-both-your-houses utopia is merely to be an accomplice in this insanity.

  3. It’s curious that the people who have decided that Ukraine posed a threat to Russia of such great magnitude that Moscow had no choice but to invade its neighbor, are the same people who, on the eve of the invasion, when Washington was warning that Russian troops were about to cross the frontier into Ukraine, dismissed the idea of a Russian invasion as utterly preposterous. For them, the suggestion that Moscow would initiate a war on Ukraine was dismissed as US propaganda because no imminent threat, warranting an invasion, was apparent. Now, these same people claim a threat was obvious all along. Their perceptions have shifted in concert with Moscow’s war propaganda.

    One year ago, Danny Haiphong, for example, wasn’t warning that Russia faced a grave danger from Ukraine, enough to warrant an invasion. Instead, he was guffawing at reports out of Washington that the White House assessed that the Russian president might order an invasion. Had Haiphong sounded an alarm that a Russian invasion might be coming while detailing the dire concerns that instigated it, he might be taken seriously today. But he, like a lot of other people, believed that Russia faced no such threat, and that Moscow, moreover, rejected the worship of Mars that is the United States’ leading religion, after Mammonism, and before Christianity. Russia, it turns out, is not so different from the United States. Not as wealthy. Not as militarily significant. But the processes that govern the conduct of the two states are the same. And the Kremlin, it seems, is just as likely as the White House, to advance transparently false reasons for war. Haiphong thinks anti-imperialism means saying the opposite of whatever Washington says about its rivals. Following this terribly unsophisticated rule, he ended up with egg on his face.

    Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. No power would dare present Moscow with an existential threat. The greatest threat Ukraine poses to Russia is economic. A Ukraine integrated into Western economies reduces the profit-making opportunities available to Russian business-people and investors. Turning away from Moscow economically is a provocation. It’s not a provocation that justifies an invasion.

  4. That you feel compelled to offer this background—and I don’t disagree with it—suggests that you believe it contradicts, refutes, or challenges what I have written.

    I don’t think it does.

    Washington and Moscow have been competing for some time to integrate Ukraine into their respective economies. You have presented an account of how the rivalry has played out. Competition among capitalist powers is, as I argue in my post, an immanent characteristic of capitalism. In a world capitalist economy, rivalries are inevitable. And capitalist power rivalries significantly heighten the chance of war. If we’re interested in radically reducing the probability of war, we ought to be interested in addressing the problem of war at its root. Siding with one rival over another does not do that.

    You can spend your time and energy in two ways:

    #1 Defending Moscow and working diligently to present its conduct as justifiable, competing with partisans of the other side who defend Washington and work diligently to present US conduct as justifiable.

    #2 Working diligently to bring the rivalries that escalate to war to an end, by mobilizing energy to overcome capitalism, bring socialism to birth, and end the division of humanity into classes and nations.

    To put it another way, you can try to mobilize support for socialism (which is what Marxists do) or you can try to mobilize support for Russian oligarchs or US billionaires (which is what supporters of various national bourgeoisies do.)

    Based on what you’ve presented, I would guess that you’ve committed yourself to the second task, even if not explicitly, and have yet to abandon it for the first.

    I hope, however, that you will find the ambitious goal of advancing the progress of humanity (rather than one narrow stratum of one national section of it) to be more worthy of pursuit.

  5. 1) US think-tanks have for 20/30 years now been publishing plans to foment war in Ukraine as an excuse to try to break up the Russian Federation and loot its resources. Former executives from these now have posts high up in the CIA and Pentagon.

    2) The Ukraine had a choice of an economic deal with either Russia or the EU. The then President chose the Russian deal. The US then organised an illegal coup in Ukraine which toppled the legal president. At the same time, neo-Nazi elements in the Ukraine became enmeshed in the power structure, especially in the Army.

    3) The Ukraine than passed laws banning the use of the Russian Language, and other discriminatory measures against Ukranian Russian speakers.

    4) The Russian speakesr in Luhansk and Donbass then decided to oppose these measures by force after appeals had been rejected by Kiev.

    5) The Ukranian regime reacted by shelling civilians in these areas. From 2014 to the beginning of the war, approximately 14,000 civilians including women and children have lost their lives to shelling by their fellow countrymen.

    6) Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine drew up the Minsk treaty to solve the problem. All these nations signed it.

    7) Ukraine consistently refused to stick to the terms of the treaty it had signed. France and Germany made absolutely no effort to persuade them, which as signatories, they should have done. A modification to the treaty was made, with the same result.

    8) Zelensky declared that he wanted to join NATO and also wanted to revive the Ukraine’s nuclear weapon capacity. The ‘west’ agreed with the NATO proposal, and ignored Russian concerns (unlike in the similar case of the Cuba Crisis).

    9) Putin proposed to the west that they meet and agree a security treaty which would peacefully solve the whole matter.

    10) The west and Ukraine ignored this proposal, even though Putin warned that there would be consequences.

    11) These consequences are now on-going.

  6. Thank you for this article. However, there seems to be a lacuna in your reasoning, I’m afraid.

    Are you arguing that there is no provocation to which Russia could justifiably respond? The logical consequence of such a stance would be that Russia should have done nothing until it was physically attacked. This would be like taking no defensive action if one were threatened by a revolver, until the revolver was fired, I suggest.

    If that is not your stance, could you please describe for us the nature of the red line that it would have been acceptable for Russia to react to?

    Given the many times prior to the launch of the military operation that Russia complained that the behaviour of the West was unacceptable, your addressing this question would be a valuable contribution.

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