Speeches About A Nice Little Peace

By Stephen Gowans

February 16, 2023

The United States provoked Russia into a war by crossing Moscow’s redline when it encroached on Russia’s sphere of influence in Ukraine.

That’s the judgement of Graham E. Fuller, a former CIA operations officer and vice-chair of the US National Intelligence Council, now an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Canada.

“Washington denies the validity of any Russian ‘sphere of influence’ in Ukraine while the US itself still maintains its own strong sphere of influence throughout Latin America,” writes Fuller in a recent blog post. “And can you imagine a Chinese military base in Mexico to bolster Mexican sovereignty?”

Fuller’s analysis is sound. Powerful states preside over spheres of influence and don’t like other states encroaching on what they regard as their turf. Washington’s failure to respect Russia’s sphere of influence in Ukraine touched off a war.

But problems arise when Fuller’s “is” statements become others’ “ought” statements.

The fact that large powers have spheres of influence doesn’t mean that spheres of influence are acceptable. It’s not alright for Russia to dominate its periphery because the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere (and much more). On the contrary, it’s unacceptable for either country to maintain spheres of influence.

Others advance a related argument: The key to world peace is mutual respect among great powers for their respective informal empires. People who favor a multipolar world—one divided among a few large countries—are guided by this thinking.  But a world divided into multiple spheres of influence is the very essence of imperialism, at least as understood by J.A. Hobson, Rudolph Hilferding, Nicolai Bukharin, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg—people who fought against the imperialism that preceded, and led to, World War I, and inspired the anti-imperialist movement that followed.  

To these thinkers, war was inevitable because the world was multipolar and the expansionary nature of capitalism meant that multiple powers would be forever jostling for profit-making opportunities in a world completely divided into spheres of influence. The competition would inevitably lead to war.

Unlike today’s self-styled anti-imperialists, the aforementioned thinkers tried to understand the roots of imperialism, in order to eradicate it. If the point of understanding the world is to change it, as Marx said, today’s ‘anti-imperialists’ seek to change the world without first understanding it.  

Revolutionary socialist thinkers believed that the solution to the problem of imperialism, and the wars that attend it, reposed not in peace programs, pacifism, and disarmament campaigns—dismissed contemptuously by Lenin as “simply running away from unpleasant reality, not fighting it.” Instead, it meant changing what made countries go to war.

The idea that great powers are capable of respecting other powers’ spheres of interest is naïve. Large states are under the sway of powerful capitalists, whose survival depends on their ability to access opportunities to exploit labor, land, markets, and natural resources in competition with capitalists represented by other states. Respecting other states’ spheres of influence means turning your back on profit-making opportunities. What capitalist state is going to do that if it has the power to challenge a rival?

Spheres of influence exist because capitalism—an expansionary system—inevitably breaches national borders. And just as much as capitalism compels great powers to breach their own borders to establish spheres of influence, so too does it drive them to breach their own spheres of influence to encroach upon those of rival powers.

One might as well ask rival corporations to respect the others’ market shares as exhort large powers to respect the others’ informal empires.

In the war in Ukraine, there are two questions critical to the origins of the conflict.

  • Will Ukraine be integrated into the Russian economy or the European economy? Russia’s war on Ukraine is intended to keep as much of Ukraine as possible in the Russian sphere and out of the European (and by extension, US) sphere.
  • Will Europe’s economic ties to Russia be weakened (especially in oil and gas) in order to more fully integrate a Europe that occasionally flirts with the idea of autonomy into the US economy? So far, the answer is yes.

Underlying both questions is a single, deeper, question. Whose investors, Russia’s or the United States’, will profit most from the opportunities Ukraine, and, more broadly, the continent as a whole, offer for capital accumulation? In the capitalist struggle for profits, which countries’ investors will come out ahead?

Against this backdrop, Lenin’s contempt for the pious expressions of benevolence that form the stock in trade of what he called “the propaganda of peace” becomes understandable. Against the profits of the few, the voices of the many for peace count for nothing in the halls of power. Roger Waters’ plea to the UN Security Council for peace, sponsored by Russia, fosters the illusion that the world can be changed by “speaking truth to power.” But as Noam Chomsky once remarked, power already knows the truth. Moreover, “power” doesn’t care what you, or I, or Rogers Waters think.

Waters has taken the side of Russia, which is why the Russian embassy to the UN asked him to address the council. The musician has come to his position on the grounds that (1) Biden is a bigger gangster than Putin and (2) the United States provoked Russia. Both of these statements are true, but neither justify Russia’s aggression, neither provide tenable grounds to side with Russia, and siding with Russia isn’t going to deliver the world from the horrors of war.

Waters is like a person who deplores the violence of boxing, and, after attending a boxing match, blames the ensuing violence on the boxer who threw the first punch. The musician remains to be instructed in the reality that boxing is a violent sport, and that if you want to end the violence of boxing, you have to end boxing, not plead with the boxers to be nicer fellows.

Committed to the idea that capitalism makes war inevitable in a world parceled out among great powers into spheres of influence, Lenin argued that the key to ending war, lay, not in siding with the weaker power (the lesser gangster in Waters’ terms), but in replacing the capitalism that entangles states in a rivalry for economic advantage—that is, in striking at the root of the problem. Radical, from Latin radix, radic- ‘root’, aptly describes Lenin’s approach. Sadly, radicalism has few apostles nowadays.

Were Lenin here today to witness Waters’ Russian-sponsored plea for peace to the UN Security Council, he might summon words little different from those he uttered in 1916. “The German, the English, and the Russian governments only stand to gain from speeches in the socialist camp about a nice little peace, because …  they instil belief in the possibility of such a peace under the present governments.”

Peace, Lenin said on another occasion, “must be sought for and fought for, not in … a reactionary utopia of a non-imperialist capitalism, not in a league of equal nations under capitalism,” both of which he saw as illusions, but in a radical solution to the problem.

The horrors of war will not be eliminated by speeches about a nice little peace, nor by raging against one war machine and not another, and nor by failing to recognize that the war machine is capitalism (and not only the US expression of it.)

Neither will war and all its terrors be ended by practice untethered from a coherent theory of war.

11 thoughts on “Speeches About A Nice Little Peace

  1. Let’s combine your analysis of the basics with communist politics in the U.S. (and, I would guess, Canada, too).

    There is little to no mass anger at the Ukraine war today. So if you call a demonstration against it, you do not activate a significant voice against the war. The turnout and preach-to-the-choir character of the United National Antiwar Coalition demos last month confirm this assessment. UNAC and other “broad” organizations will likely get the same result at the demos they have called for next month.

    Communists can bring out the costs of the war as they hit U.S. workers … as an introduction to the necessity to do away with capitalism in the U.S.

    The means to do this can be leafleting, at transit stations for example; public discussion meetings, expecting only a handful to show up.

    Communist groups could also discuss the basics within their membership. There is no sign that any of them except Progressive Labor Party have done that.

  2. Expressing disgust at the crimes of the bourgeois-controlled Russian state no more makes one a Russophobe than expressing disgust at Nazi crimes makes one a Germanophobe or criticizing Israel makes one an anti-Semite.

    You would have hit the mark had you described me as a bourgeois-phobe–against the bourgeois order, as much the Chinese one and US one as the Russian one.

  3. I’m confused (and displeased) about the ad hominem digs. Confused because I don’t think the opinions I’m expressing merit this treatment but hey.

    Basically, the sovereignty of practically every EU country has been compromised without the use of military invasions. Haven’t you heard of colour revolutions or bribed politicians?

    I imagine that the referendra in Donbas doesn’t mean much to you.

    And Ukraine is a neonazi state, which incidentally has been abandoned not just by the people of the Donbas but by scores of Western Ukrainians too. They basically betrayed their own citizens. For someone who doesn’t care about capitalist states you do show a lot of concern about the rights of Ukraine.

  4. Let’s get a few things straight.

    -No one has invaded Russia and challenged its sovereignty.
    -No one is going to invade Russia. The country’s nuclear arsenal, the largest in the world, is a formidable deterrent.
    -There is no genocide in Ukraine, evidenced by the reality that the accuser, Moscow, has not invoked the Genocide Convention, something it would do if it truly believed its accusation.
    -Like the George W. Bush White House, which had a rotating list of ridiculous pretexts for its war of aggression on Iraq, the Kremlin cycles through a list of specious reasons for invading Ukraine that only a credulous half-wit would believe.
    -Donbas belongs to Ukraine, not Russia. Russia has no legitimate right to intervene in or annex the territory.
    -It is Russia that has invaded Ukraine, not Ukraine that has invaded Russia (though you seem to have fallen prey to the illusion that the very opposite is true.)

    A coup d’etat in Kyiv in 2014 that led Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence; NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders; a civil war in Ukraine; none of these events legitimize Russia’s invasion of its neighbor. US actions are aimed at denying Russia its sphere of influence and expanding that of the United States. Russia’s actions are aimed at restoring its sphere of influence in Ukraine. The conduct of both powers is imperialist. Each seeks to demote Ukraine to a means of gratifying its own ends. Russia is no more a virtuous or heroic state than is the United States. Both are rapacious powers, bent on seeking advantage at the expense of other states, not, to the benefit of their working class, but to the benefit of their capitalist class. In both cases it is their working classes which suffer and pay the price in order that their oligarchs may benefit.

    Since you grow tired of my Luxemburg quotes, I’ll leave you with one from Lenin, this one in connection with your arguments: “Fairy tales suitable to the mental level of political infants.”

  5. I’m not sure how to answer the first paragraph of your reply. In part because I don’t understand how it relates to what I wrote. I also feel that the phrase “If war is conflict between states, then wars end when states end” needs some questioning, a task I don’t feel like I am up to. So, I’m not going to say anything about it, perhaps someone else reading this thread can say something.

    Donbass, Hitler, Genocide, Russia’s offensive war, nuclear threat.
    In order to accept your views on all of the above I have to ignore so much that is in the public record that I might end up not even knowing what my name is anymore. The Donbas is the name given to the Eastern area of Ukraine, mainly Russian speaking. One of the things that happened is that these people found themselves forced to accept the expulsion of a democratically elected president whom they more or less favoured. Next they found their culture attacked by the new antiRussian, neonazi dominated central government. After they resisted the NATO trained Ukrainian army parked themselves close to their main cities and started shelling the proverbial out of the civilian population. But I am sure you know all this. What is surprising us that it never enters your argument.

    Genocide? No, or at least not in the scale of the mother of all genocides. But it sure looks like a serious attempt at old fashioned ethnic cleansing. All I said was that while we wait for the socialist ducks to fall in line this ethnic cleansing could develop into something bigger…given enough time and Russia’s lack of reaction…

    Hitler didn’t have any of these conditions present in his areas of interest.

    All this is happening in a geographical area that’s on the Russian border and affects people who are to all effects culturally Russian.

    I’m not going to repeat here arguments about distances between NATO bases and Moscow, they’re long, complicated and all over the internet.

    The mention of Russia’s nuclear capability is disingenuous: Ukraine and the US knew full well what the effect of their actions would be and they weren’t deterred by the nuclear threat. It’s completely believable that the US wanted to implement the measures suggested by RAND in order to erode Russia’s sovereignty. And there is historical precedent too.

    I’m glad I wrote my comment because your response puts into relief characteristics of your thinking that are implicit in your articles. Mainly, a slavishness to ideology and a reluctance to look at specifics. There is no amount of Rosa Luxemburg quotes that are going to make up for it. She’s dead and Ukraine didn’t even exist as a state in her time. Perhaps she was wrong and there is more to modern wars than capitalism. Perhaps other things matter too in the minds of capitalist war leaders. Perhaps the sovereignty of one’s own state is a matter of importance to the working class. Perhaps the prevention of total global domination by one capitalist bloc is in the interest of the inhabitants of this planet and could lead to the amelioration of the threat to human life.

    But you speak in ideological generalities and take refuge in certainties without looking sideways. You know the facts but hardly ever work them into your articles. That’s why I say that a less generous person would come to the conclusion that by making a show of your ideological purity you’re really casting a smoke screen on something more sinister: acquiescing to the subjugation of the Donbas by a neonazi regime and confusing well intentioned western socialists. In other words, playing your part in causing people to not interrupt NATO’s actions. Because, you know, we’re communists, it’s nothing to do with us.

  6. Your first point is correct, if one assumes that states remain after the end of capitalism, but is false if one accepts the Marxist prediction that the end of capitalism brings with it the end of states. If war is conflict between states, then wars end when states end.

    Your second point rests entirely on a false premise, namely, that Russia—the party which launched an aggression across international borders on February 24, 2022 with the stated goal of integrating the whole of Ukraine into its sphere of influence—is engaged in a defensive war.

    I will cite the words of Rosa Luxemburg again, as I did in response to another comment:

    “When and where has there been a war since so-called public opinion has played a role in governmental calculations, in which each and every belligerent party did not, with a heavy heart, draw the sword from its sheath for the single and sole purpose of defending its fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameful attacks of the enemy?”

    Your comment about letting “NATO have their way with the Donbass” betrays a fundamental ignorance of geography (the Donbas, to which you refer, lies, not within Russian borders, but Ukraine’s borders) and as regards genocide, even Moscow doesn’t believe its own war legend (it has not invoked the Genocide Convention, a measure any state would have taken if it believed it had evidence of the crime.) If, in invading Ukraine, Russia is fighting a defensive war, then Nazi Germany, in invading Poland, was doing the same. Germany, too, offered lofty war legends to excuse its aggressions and gull the credulous, which, like Putin’s, often referred to the need to protect people of shared ethnicity from the abuses of the states in which they lived and to support their right to self-determination.

    As for rolling over Russia, the country to which you have developed a keen sympathy has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and means of delivering warheads superior to even those of the United States. This is a reality your hero, Vladimir Putin, has frequently crowed about. NATO can’t roll over the world’s most formidable nuclear power.

    To paraphrase Luxemburg: “The events that bore the present war did not begin in 2014 but reach back for decades.”

    And, now to quote her directly:

    “Thread by thread they have been woven together on the loom of an inexorable natural development …whose roots reach deep down into the Plutonic deeps of economic creation…events before whose all-embracing immensity, the conception of guilt and retribution, of defence and offence, sink into pale nothingness.

    “Imperialism is not the creation of any one or of any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will. From this point of view only is it possible to understand correctly the question of “national defence!’ in the present war.”

    Historically, the Left’s position on war has been guided by three principles:

    1. Modern wars are the result of capitalism.
    2. To end wars, capitalism must be transcended.
    3. The working class does not take sides in wars between capitalist states.

    In contrast, the Right:

    1. Sees no causal connection between capitalism and war.
    2. Defends the bourgeois order.
    3. Takes sides in wars between capitalist states.

    On two of these points, and possibly three, you mark yourself as a partisan of the Right.

    Believing that Russia is fighting a defensive war seems to me a bit credulous and a tad unsophisticated (some less generous people would perhaps think worse).

  7. “If you think there is a better theory of war than one which rests on Marxist foundations, that offers a more promising route to follow to end war, I would be interested to hear what it is.”

    I too think that the best theory to end war is Marx’s. Nevertheless, unless I misunderstand it, I believe one of the preconditions is the universal acceptance of socialism. Anything less than that will not exhaust the causes for competition between human groups.

    That condition does not exist in 2023 and the war in Ukraine is not a war to end war. It’s a run of the mill war of self defence, at least in the main. The Russian state and the Russian people have many faults, but they also have every right to defend what part of the planet they live on.

    I am not sure what your proposal is. That the Russian government and the Russian people look the other way and let NATO have their way with the Donbass? And when they’re done, to offer Russia itself? It sound to me like a clear case of perfection being the enemy of the good. In the time we wait for the universal conscience of the working classes there’ll be a thousand genocides in the Donbass!

    Come to think of it, there is a better theory to end war than Marxism. It’s the Buddhadharma. The Buddha expected monks (not the laity, mark) to let themselves be sawed piece by piece without allowing themselves as much as one thought of anger (Parable of the Saw, Pali Canon). It is a theory to end war at its very spring: in the mind, individual by individual. While either the worldwide socialist revolution or universal enlightenment don’t occur, to criticise the Russian state (capitalist or not) because they’re not willing to roll over under the West’s onslaught, seems to me a bit disingenuous (some less generous people would perhaps think worse).

  8. You say there is more to the war than a struggle over capitalist interests but you don’t say what it is, leaving me to guess what you think it is. While I could be wrong, I would surmise that your views about what drove Russia to invade Ukraine are at odds with Washington’s view and are simpatico with Moscow’s. But again, I’m guessing.

    In any event, I’m reminded of something Rosa Luxemburg wrote in The Junius Pamphlet.

    “When and where has there been a war since so-called public opinion has played a role in governmental calculations, in which each and every belligerent party did not, with a heavy heart, draw the sword from its sheath for the single and sole purpose of defending its fatherland and its own righteous cause from the shameful attacks of the enemy?”

    Lenin or Luxemburg (I can’t recall who) also had something to say about how easily we recognize the war legends of the belligerent party we oppose and how readily we allow ourselves to be deceived by the war legends of the belligerent party we support.

    I don’t know whether you place yourself within the tradition of Lenin and Luxemburg, but anyone who does, betrays the tradition so far as they allow themselves to be deceived by the war legends of the belligerents and fail to examine, as Lenin put in the preface to the Russian edition of his Imperialism, “the economic essence…of modern war and modern politics.”

    Sadly, many of the people who profess to stand in this tradition misunderstand it as one of blindly and docilely rallying to the side of whichever state is attacked by Washington, regardless of the state’s conduct, what it stands for, what it hopes to achieve, and what the consequences are for advancing the interests of working people at home and around the world.

    If you think there is a better theory of war than one which rests on Marxist foundations, that offers a more promising route to follow to end war, I would be interested to hear what it is.

    In the meantime, given the choice between understanding the war from a perspective developed by Hobson, Hilferding, Bukharin, Lenin, Trotsky, and Luxemburg, or one that simply says that reasons other than capitalist imperatives explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with not the slightest effort made to substantiate the claim, let alone specify the reasons, I’ll stick with the former.

  9. Stephen, I do not view the capitalist economic model(s) as the principal factor in the invasion of Ukraine. There is more to the war than resources, money, and spheres of influence.

  10. In a world of dwindling resources, including the most basic ones, like water, unpolluted air, and uncontaminated soil, the need to exploit and control the remaining deposits of these resources will inevitably lead to conflicts and subsequent wars.

    These resource wars will be ignited regardless of existing social, economic, and political structures, it will in essence be a fight between two groups of needy people for resources which are limited and can only sustain one of them.

    Solutions: sustainable utilization and fair distribution of resources, no waste (weapons production, tourism, consumerism). These solutions can only be enacted by mutual agreement and things have to get much worse for this to happen.

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