The Putin Club

The ideological drift of Canadian communists, from Vladimir Lenin to Vladimir Putin through Subhas Chandra Bose, and the urgency of communists rediscovering Lenin and Luxemburg.

By Stephen Gowans

March 2, 2023

If anyone should be challenging Russian president Vladmir Putin’s nonsense about Ukraine existentially threatening Russia by proposing to join the EU and NATO, it’s communists, who effectively showed in WWI how capitalist powers invented similar casus belli to justify plunging the world into the abyss of war. “When and where,” asked Rosa Luxemburg, “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?”

All the same, it’s nominal communists (who think communism is defying the United States and therefore admire Putin for spearheading the project), along with the Far Right (which admires Putin’s reactionary values), who propagate the Kremlin leader’s nonsense. Rosa Luxemburg would be shocked to discover that the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), one of whose clubs bears her name, has tossed aside her thinking on war and imperialism—and even more shockingly, that of Lenin—to join the Putin Club.

Of course, that’s not how the party sees it. In a statement on the first anniversary of the war, the party conceded—as we’ll see, disingenuously—that Russia’s invasion is not justified. It made this concession only after a) listing a series of actions undertaken by NATO over three decades which the party says provoked Russia’s aggression, and b) describing the war as one in which the United States seeks “to weaken and destabilize the Russian government and foment ‘regime change’ in the Kremlin, and ultimately to carve up Russia into four or five weak and dependent mini-states in its place.”

To be sure, in its wildest dreams, Washington would love to topple Putin and replace him with a president it could control, while fragmenting Russia. But there is a wide gulf between wild dreams and actual plans. The party offers no evidence that these are the war aims of Washington and not just the fantasy of party leaders. Unless the US state has suddenly fallen under the sway of lunatics, it very likely has no such plan. The United States couldn’t defeat the rifle-toting Taliban; opted not to invade military pipsqueak Syria after the going got tough in a crippled Iraq; and shied away from giving tiny North Korea, with its rudimentary nuclear deterrent, a bloody nose. With a record like this, it’s highly improbable that anyone in Washington has serious thoughts about invading a country that possesses the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. While the party doesn’t say so, the implication of its line of argument is this: Moscow is defending itself against a leviathan bent on achieving a highly ambitious plan of destroying the Russian state. If what the party says about NATO’s actions and aims are true, could it sincerely believe that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is unjustified?

Lay aside for the moment that the origins of the Third International, the very same organization from which the CPC sprang, are found in the rejection of, and disgust with, socialists who blamed war in the modern era on one capitalist power provoking another. Lenin and Luxemburg wrote scathingly of socialists who invoked the idea of defensive war to justify their betrayal of socialist commitments to stay away from choosing sides in wars between capitalist states. These wars were never about self-defense and always about securing advantages for one capitalist class at the expense of another—an inevitable feature of a capitalist-driven, friction-producing, rivalry among states for profit-making opportunities.

What, according to the Putin Club, is Russia—or more precisely, the Russian oligarchy—defending itself against? Apart from the party’s evidence-free attribution of the war to the desire of Washington to overthrow Vladimir Putin and carve Russia into a series of weak states, club members cycle through a litany of reasons why we should understand Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a defensive war, some matching the CPC reasoning, others bearing a close resemblance.

One argument is that Russia was provoked by NATO’s encroaching on Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. This is true enough, but the argument follows with the false claim that Russia is thus justified in responding with war. To say that Russia is justified in maintaining a sphere of influence, is to justify empire and imperialism. That’s hardly the kind of argument one would hope to hear from a communist.

A related argument identifies Ukraine’s desire to exit the Russian sphere and attach itself to the EU and NATO as an economic and military threat to Russia. This is true. But does the threat justify Russia’s aggression against Ukraine? Cuba’s exit from the US empire threatened the United States economically and militarily, but that hardly justified a US invasion. Indeed, the exit of one colony after another from the empires of former colonial powers threatened all these powers economically and militarily, but no self-respecting communist would argue, for example, that the French war in Indochina was justified because Vietnam’s exit from the French empire threatened French profits and undermined the economic base on which its military power resided.

Others stoop to hyperbole to argue improbably that Russia is threatened existentially by NATO. The existence of an anti-Russian alliance is not equivalent to an existential threat. The Kremlin certainly faces threats, but not all threats are existential. Moscow, it should be kept in mind, has the world’s largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and a formidable triad of nuclear-tipped ballistic and cruise missiles, strategic bombers, and ballistic missile submarines. A hostile military alliance may loom on its Western frontier, but the likelihood of NATO trying to do to Russia what Russia has tried to do to Ukraine is approximately zero. While NATO may threaten Russia militarily, few military threats are existential, a fortiori in Russia’s case, considering it commands the world’s most formidable nuclear deterrent. One NATO tank on Russian soil is the path to Golgotha, a reality unquestionably understood at the Pentagon. Russia is no more threatened existentially by NATO than Europe is threatened existentially by Russia (the Biden Club’s matching contribution to the flurry of nonsense.) 

China, too, is a nuclear power, though compared to Russia it is far less formidably equipped with weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. It is also boxed in by rivals. By the reasoning of those who exculpate Russia for its aggression against Ukraine by depicting the aggression as a defensive war against a US proxy, the logic for a Chinese invasion of South Korea is even more compelling. The Korean peninsula is home to a complement of 27,000 US troops, stationed at the largest overseas US military facility in the world, backed by a sizeable South Korea military that serves under the de facto command of a US general. If any country is threatened by a US surrogate on its periphery, it is China by South Korea, and yet few people would defend, in advance of the fact, a Chinese invasion of the Korean peninsula. Significantly, few of the people who today defend the Russian invasion of Ukraine did so in advance of the actual invasion. They dismissed US warnings in late 2021 that a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent as preposterous; mere US propaganda intended to besmirch Russia’s reputation. They believed then, as those of sound mind believe today, that such an act would be morally repugnant. And yet today, after the fact, their minds are changed. The mental journey from “Russia would never conduct itself in such a morally objectionable way” to “Russia has conducted itself in this way and its conduct is morally defensible” proceeds along the following path:

  • Defying the United States is morally excellent conduct.
  • Any country that defies the United States is morally excellent.
  • Russia defies the United States therefore it is morally excellent.
  • Prior to February 24, 2022: A morally excellent country wouldn’t invade its neighbor, therefore US warnings that Russia is about to invade Ukraine are preposterous, and are aimed at calling into question Russia’s moral excellence.
  • From February 24, 2022 forward: The invasion of Ukraine was undertaken by a morally excellent state. Therefore, the invasion is morally defensible.

Those who have travelled along this path are guided by no principle, but one: Defend whoever defies the United States. In this they reveal themselves to be unprincipled, grubby, propagandists.

This is surely not the path of communists. But it is a path that had been trod by non-communists, and rather disreputable ones at that. Take, for example, Subhas Chandra Bose. A charismatic leader of the Indian anti-colonial movement, and at one point leader of the Indian National Congress, Bose allied with Hitler initially, and Imperial Japan subsequently, in a failed effort to defeat British imperialism in India. While the project of evicting the British from India to remove an impediment to Indian independence was admirable, allying with empires that rivaled that of Britain to achieve this goal was not only morally unconscionable, but shockingly naive. Bose thought he could use imperialists to achieve an anti-colonialist aim, and imperialists agreed to use the anti-colonialist Bose to achieve their imperialist ends. By allying with Hitler and Tojo, Bose elevated the goal of ending India’s oppression above the goals of liberating from the yoke of his patrons’ imperialism Jews, Slavs, Koreans, Chinese, Indonesians, Indochinese, and Filipinos.

Germany and Japan sought to destabilize Britain’s colonial holdings in order to weaken Britain and defeat the empire in war. The outcome, had Britain lost the war, would have been the division of British colonial assets between Germany and Japan, not India’s independence. Bose’s naivete in believing that imperialist patrons would help him deliver India from the yoke of imperialism would have been touching in a child but was revolting in a man who had not been officially certified as feeble-minded. Kim Il Sung mocked nationalist leaders, like Bose, who joined forces with imperialist powers. He said they were like the man who appeals to the robber outside his house for help in evicting the robber already in his house.

Bose’s error was to fail to see that the oppression of India could be brought to an end with less difficulty and greater moral clarity as part of a project to end all oppression. Communists were committed to the project of freeing humanity from all oppressions, not just some. Bose’s approach was an affront to the communists’ universalism. He set the liberation of India above all other struggles against oppression, and indeed, even colluded in his alliance with Germany and Japan in the oppression of other nations. Brecht, the Marxist, wrote: “Everything or nothing. All of us or none.” Bose’s dictum, in contrast, was, liberate India from oppression, and damn the rest. Bose’s echo is heard in the Putin Club’s siding with Russian imperialism against that of the United States. The communist alternative is to oppose imperialism, tout court.

The Indian nationalist’s allying with the Far Right in the pursuit of a very restricted Leftist goal contains within it a cautionary lesson for advocates who today urge the Left to join with the Far Right in an alliance against NATO arming Ukraine.

The goals of the Left and Far Right in connection with war are fundamentally different.

The Marxist Left has been guided historically by five principles.

  • War is the result of capitalism.
  • The are no defensive wars between major capitalist states in the modern era.
  • To end war, capitalism must be transcended.
  • Working people have no country.
  • The working class does not take sides in wars between capitalist powers.

In contrast, the Far Right:

  • Sees no causal connection between capitalism and war.
  • Defends the idea of war guilt.
  • Supports the bourgeois order.
  • Promotes identities related to country, nation, people, religion, or civilization.
  • Takes sides in wars between capitalist states.

Hence, on questions of war, the Marxist Left and the Far Right are on different pages. So how could anyone think there is sufficient common ground between these two groups to even begin to talk of an alliance?  The answer is that proponents of the alliance define the Left, not as the Left of Lenin and Luxemburg, but as the Left of those who think communism is defying the United States and defending anyone who spearheads the project—in other words, the Left of the Putin Club and not the Left of Lenin and Luxemburg. The Putin Club and Far Right do indeed agree on a few points and hence, are possible allies. They agree that: there is no connection between the war and capitalism; Russia’s war is defensive; NATO should cease all support to Ukraine. As we’ll see, four of five of the abovementioned Far Right characteristics are present in the CPC, which isn’t to say the party is Far Right (it isn’t) but that, unlike the traditional Marxist Left, it intersects in matters of war with the Far Right. Significantly, none of the five guiding principles of the Marxist Left are present in the party in connection with its stance on the war in Ukraine.

The Putin Club is not committed wholly to apologizing for Russia’s aggression by invoking the concept of defensive war. Club members sometimes deploy another argument: Russia’s war in Ukraine is a humanitarian intervention.  According to this view, Moscow has launched a special military operation, not a war, to defend Russian-speakers in the Donbas, who, according to Mr. Putin and his votaries, are the objects of a campaign of Nazi-inspired genocide. The basis for the genocide claim is that Russian-speakers have been dying in the civil war between the secessionist Donbas republics and Kyiv government, the latter inspired by Ukrainian nationalism and nostalgia for Stepan Bandera. Where Bose collaborated with the Nazis against British imperialism, Bandera collaborated with the Nazis against what he saw as Russian imperialism. To the Putin Club, Bose is fine because he joined forces with the Nazis against British imperialism, which they dislike, but Bandera is reviled because he collaborated with the Nazis against Russia, which the Putin Club admires.

The Kremlin presents the civil war deaths of Russian-speakers as genocide by claiming Kyiv is motivated to liquidate Ukraine’s Russophone population. The problem is that (a) there’s no evidence of this and (b) a plausible alternative explanation is that the deaths happened in the course of a civil war, not because the Ukraine government seeks the annihilation of people who speak Russian as their first language. The fact that Moscow has not invoked the Genocide Convention, which it would do if it truly believed its allegation had any substance, is significant.

The Putin Club’s rallies against the war are aimed at NATO. Stop NATO! No to NATO. End the War. Nowhere does the club demand that Russia reverse its aggression or withdraw from Ukraine. This comports with the club’s position that NATO provoked Russia and that Russia is engaged in a defensive war. To end the war, NATO’s arming of Ukraine most stop, that is, NATO must stop impeding Russia’s invasion. In the hands of the Putin Club the demand “Stop the War” becomes the tacit “Stop Trying to Stop Russia.” This fits with the Club’s view that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a defensive response to a NATO plan to annihilate the Russian state and disarticulate it into a handful of easily controlled statelets answerable to Washington.

The Club’s position on the origin of the war represents a substantial departure from the thinking of Lenin and Luxemburg. The Marxist giants held that wars between capitalist powers originate, as Luxemburg put it, in roots which “reach deep down into the Plutonic deeps of economic creation.” Less poetically, Lenin urged his followers to consider “the economic essence of imperialism” as the key to understanding modern war and modern politics. The Putin Club will have none of this. “Bosh!” they say. “Russia is defending itself from an existential threat. Economics (i.e., capitalism) has nothing to do with it.” A fine analysis for communists!

Pressed on why, if they’re really against the war, they don’t demand Russia withdraw its forces from Ukraine, the Putin Club falls back on sophisms. “We’re dealing with our own imperialism first,” its members retort. One can only influence one’s own government, they explain. Non-Russians can demand Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, but because non-Russians exercise no influence over the Russian government (on par, it might be added, with most Russian citizens), the demand would be pointless. One can only influence one’s own government. Therefore, it’s only of one’s own government that demands should be made.

The first problem with this argument is that it’s made by people who have long histories of picketing the embassies of governments that are not their own. Canadian communists have held countless demonstrations outside the embassies and consulates of the United States and Israel, to name just two, demanding changes to the policies of these foreign governments. But now, when asked why they haven’t demanded Russia reverse its aggression on Ukraine, they answer that it is pointless to make demands of foreign governments—that Canadians must deal with their own imperialism first. That the argument is hypocritical is evidenced by the fact that one chapter of the Putin Club held its last “antiwar” rally outside the US embassy. It didn’t darken the doorstep of the Russian embassy. Unless the Canadian members of the Putin Club have a special influence over the US government about which we know nothing, their argument is constructed on a foundation of dishonesty. It is also the case that those who make this argument rhapsodize about the coordinated international protests that were organized against Apartheid South Africa and the war-obsessed George W. Bush administration. None of these people, so concerned about focusing only on the government they can influence and dealing with their own imperialism first, sat out these demonstrations. Their craven mendacity is revolting.

Imperialism is the relationship between countries competing for opportunities to accumulate capital on the world market. Any discussion of imperialism necessarily involves a discussion of two or more countries. One cannot talk of imperialism and talk of one country alone. When Hilferding, Kautsky, and Luxemburg wrote about war and imperialism, they didn’t limit their remarks to Germany, on the grounds that the German government was the only one over which they had influence and that discussion of the conduct of other governments was pointless. When Bukharin, Trotsky, and Lenin wrote on imperialism and war, they, like their German comrades, covered the world. They didn’t restrict their attention to Russia. They did this because they saw themselves as part of an international movement whose scope was all humanity. They rejected the idea that they were dues-paying members of a parochial party whose horizons stopped at national borders. “Working men have no country,” said Marx.

An antiwar campaign that says No to NATO but not No to Russian Aggression is like campaigning to ban boxing as a sport, by pressing Canadian boxers to hang up their gloves, and ignoring boxers from other countries. It entirely misses the point that the problem isn’t Canadian boxers—it’s boxing itself. What’s more, were the campaign successful and all Canadian boxers persuaded to stop boxing, the sport would continue anyway, just not with Canadian boxers. A campaign to pressure all boxers, regardless of nationality, to quit the sport is better, but still doesn’t go far enough. If boxing is to end as a sport, the conditions that support it must be overcome.

Lenin argued that a campaign to pressure all countries to lay down their arms wouldn’t end war, because it would fail to address what makes countries go to war in the first place. In his view, the peace movement was utopian; it promoted the illusion that peace could be achieved without eliminating the cause of war in the modern era—capitalism. The CPC’s stance on the Ukraine war doesn’t even rise to the standards of Lenin’s utopian propaganda of peace. That’s because it targets only one side of the war—like asking Canadian boxers to quit, while turning a blind eye to boxers from other countries. If peace campaigns are ranked from worst (presses only one side to lay down its arms) to better (presses both sides to lay down their arms) to best (seeks to overcome the conditions that compel countries to take up arms in the first place), the CPC campaign ranks as worst. Lenin would be dismayed.

The Putin Club relies on another sophism: We must remain silent on Russia’s aggression, or at least minimize what we say about it, lest we add to the cataract of invective against the country, thereby fueling belligerence against Russia at home and strengthening the hand of jingoists who wish to escalate the war. But if Russia has committed an egregious aggression, known to all, not least because Russia’s war-making is covered exhaustively in the media, then pretending it hasn’t happened, or trying to exculpate Moscow by blaming its aggression on NATO, is not only dishonest, it’s a losing strategy. Those who deny an obvious crime, or seek to blame it on others, are, for very good reasons, ignored, and should be. Far better and honest to show that two states, the US and Russia, are at dagger’s drawn, that their mutual hostility arises not from lofty motives but is rooted in economic rivalry, and that the confrontation of these states over economic advantage threatens the entire world.

Thus, there is an important sense in which making a demand of the Russian government from outside Russia is not pointless: when doing so establishes one’s credibility as a champion of the proletariat against all bourgeois governments involved in a war, and when not doing so arouses suspicions (true in this case) that one is not a champion of the international proletariat but an apologist, defender, and votary of one side of a bourgeois-led conflict which has arisen as a necessary consequence of the capitalist-driven, friction-producing, rivalry of states for profit-making opportunities.

The concept of imperialism was central to the writing of Bukharin, Lenin, and Luxemburg, but its meaning has eluded members of the Putin Club, some of whom believe Russia exists outside the circle of imperialist powers; that the country is a target and victim of imperialism, not a participant in it. In the classical view of Marxist imperialism, Russia is as much a part of an imperialist world order as is the United States, the European Union, and China. This is all too much for those whose politics is defined by the necessity of finding a state of presumed moral excellence to defend. And so, in self-defense, they dismiss the classical Marxist view as out of date, because it defines Russia as part of an imperialist system and thus oppugns the moral excellence they so desperately want to believe Russia embodies. Their ostensible reason for rejecting the classical Marxist view is that it was developed more than a century ago and therefore is out of date. Confining the counter-argument to the overt reason offered for rejecting the theory: If we’re to judge the utility of a theory based on how long ago it was formulated, then Marxism is also out of date—the Communist Manifesto was published 175 years ago. So too is the second law of thermodynamics and Darwin’s theory out of date by this reasoning.

Of course, the utility of a theory should not be judged by its age but whether it rests on sound principles and accounts for the facts.

At the core of the classical Marxist theory of war and imperialism are two propositions:

  • Capitalism incessantly drives states to seek expanded profit-making opportunities beyond their borders.
  • In a world divided among states, where each state competes against every other for profit-making opportunities in the world market, war is inevitable.

This view was expressed in the resolution of the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Second International, which Lenin and Luxemburg took a hand in writing. “Wars between capitalist states are as a rule the consequence of their competition in the world market, for every state is eager to preserve its markets but also to conquer new ones.”

The theory follows naturally from Marx’s and Engel’s observation in the Communist Manifesto about the expansionary nature of capitalism. “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.”  Significantly, all of capitalism’s nestling, settling, and connecting, has been orchestrated by states, each vying with the other.

The classical view was hardly new or unique to Lenin and Luxemburg. It was expressed at the Second International’s London Congress as early as 1896. “Under capitalism the chief causes of war are not religious or national differences but economic antagonisms.” In 1910, the Copenhagen Conference reiterated this view: “Modern wars are the result of capitalism, and particularly of rivalries of the capitalist classes of the different countries over the world market.”

This, dear members of the Putin Club, is the classical Marxist theory of war and imperialism. As to the question of whether it is out of date, we must ask:

  • Has capitalism’s expansionary character changed since Marx and Engels commented on it 175 years ago?
  • Is the world no longer divided among capitalist states?
  • Is competition no longer a fundamental characteristic of the capitalist world?
  • Are states no longer under the sway of oligarchs scouring the world for profit-making opportunities?

All of these questions must be answered in the negative. However, the CPC disagrees.  In its statement on the first anniversary of the war, the party declared the classical Marxist theory of war and imperialism to be “not a completely accurate or particularly helpful assessment, especially at this critical moment.”

The Second International in its vast majority was uncomfortable with what the classical Marxist theory demanded of socialists at the “critical moment” of war. So too is the CPC today. Above all, socialists, according to the Stuttgart Congress, were not to be misled by “national prejudices” that are “systematically cultivated in the interest of the ruling classes, in order to divert the mass of the proletariat from their class duties and international solidarity.” Ignoring this, socialists abandoned the radical Marxist apercu that the cause of war is the system itself and instead looked for a guilty party (and not a guilty system) to blame. War would not be seen as caused by a friction-producing rivalry among states driven by capitalist expansionary imperatives; instead, it was to be understood through a Manichean lens of conflict between evil states, starting aggressive wars, and good states, trying to defend themselves. With the Putin Club’s conviction that a morally excellent state, Russia, is defending itself from the provocations of an aggressive alliance, NATO, it’s clear on what side it has come down; not the side of Marxism and the international proletariat, but the side of Putin and the Russian bourgeoisie. Lenin and Luxemburg insisted on adding the following to the Stuttgart resolution: Socialists will “utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war in order to rouse the masses of the people and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” The CPC has followed a different plan. It is trying to rouse the masses of the people to pressure NATO to get out of the way of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Putin Club’s ideology arises out of the Marxism that developed in connection with solving problems related to the defense of the Soviet Union. The peace movement that Lenin had scorned for fostering the illusion that peace was possible in a capitalist milieu became useful as a project to be assigned by Moscow to Communist parties in the US orbit. To occupy the time of nominally revolutionary parties operating in what Moscow saw as a non-revolutionary time and place, Communist parties in the capitalist world would be given the task of mobilizing support for peaceful coexistence between the capitalist and Communist worlds. Their role was not to “to rouse the masses of the people and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule,” using “the economic and political crisis created by” great power rivalry, as Lenin and Luxemburg had done. The times had changed. Rivalry among capitalist states for economic advantage had been superseded by rivalry between a US-led capitalist world and Soviet-led socialist world. The job of the Communist parties in this new world was to promote peaceful co-existence, so the Soviet Union could recover from its devastation in WWII and develop economically, free from the necessity of diverting critical resources to military competition with the capitalist world. They were to forget about revolution, pursue reforms within capitalism, and work, through the peace movement, to stay the aggressive hand of the United States. For many Communist parties, their main role became one of working on behalf of a foreign state to oppose the aggressions of their own state. For some, like the CPC, the mission carries on, even though the conditions that inspired it long ago quit the scene.

Times have changed. The Soviet Union has dissolved. The Russian state is vehemently anti-communist. China, whose “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is a euphemism for “capitalism as a tool to develop the means of production,” is integrated into the US economy as the United States’ main manufacturing center, but, at the same time, competes vigorously with its own home-grown capitalist enterprises against US, EU, and Russian businesses, and pursues the construction of its own informal empire by means of the Belt and Road Initiative. The bipolar rivalry of capitalism vs. communism has been replaced by a return to great power competition. Nowadays, the world looks much more like the one Lenin and Luxemburg inhabited than the one that shaped the politics and thinking of the CPC leadership.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, the Marxism that developed in connection with questions related to how to build and defend a socialist state in a collapsed empire devastated by war became an anachronism. When China took the capitalist path, and Soviet socialism was dismantled, the world turned more strongly toward the status quo ante. Rivalry between the capitalist and communist worlds metamorphosed into a competition among capitalist states in a world in which capitalism was triumphant. The new world was one Lenin and Luxemburg would recognize. All the same, communists who cut their political teeth during the Cold War, carried on as if nothing had changed, failing to grasp that the Marxism of Lenin and Luxemburg had become relevant again, while the problems addressed by the Marxism of Stalin and Khruschev—how to build and defend a socialist state in the old Russian Empire, and what role communists in the capitalist world were to play—had dissolved.

Today the CPC remains what it was during the Cold War. It promotes reforms for the working class within capitalism and works to restrain the aggression of Canada and its US patron against foreign states. It is indistinguishable in most significant ways from the social democratic NDP, expect that a) it proposes more robust reforms for the working class, many of which are utopian within a capitalist context, and b) opposes Canadian militarism, where the NDP generally supports it. It is a party of social reform and anti-militarism which reflexively springs to the defense of any state that defies the United States for the sole reason that it defies the United States. Compare the party against the four characteristics of the Far Right mentioned earlier in connection with the question of war:

  • Sees no causal connection between capitalism and war.
  • Defends the idea of war guilt.
  • Supports the bourgeois order (by pursuing reforms within the capitalist system).
  • Takes sides in wars between capitalist states.

This is not a party of which Lenin or Luxemburg would approve or recognize as communist.

It behooves communists to rediscover Lenin and Luxemburg, the giants of Marxism. Their insights have more relevance to the world we inhabit than the anachronistic Weltanschauung and politics of the CPC and the Putin Club.

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.

Can France still afford a retirement age of 62?

January 20, 2023

By Stephen Gowans

French president Emmanuel Macron wants to raise his country’s retirement age from its current 62 to 64.  According to the French Jupiter, the retirement age must increase, if France is to avoid higher taxes and growing debt.

The Wall Street Journal thinks he has a point.

Reporter Noemie Bisserbe writes that “as people live longer and the population grows older, the ratio of workers to retirees has decreased, putting the system under growing stress and forcing the government to increase its spending on pensions.”

Macron’s move, then, appears to be demanded by demographics. Except it isn’t. The argument Bisserbe offers for the assault on French workers is a Malthusian fallacy.

Malthus feared that the decreasing ratio of arable land to mouths to feed would lead to mass starvation. He reasoned that because the amount of arable land is finite, that as the population grew, the strain on a society’s ability to feed its people would increase.

Needless to say, Malthus was wrong. The world’s population kept growing, but so too did the supply of food—at an even greater rate. The future beheld not mass starvation, but growing plenty. Why? Because, owing to advances in science, technology, and technique, agriculture become stunningly more productive.

Just as agricultural productivity grew, so too did industrial productivity. The secular trend in France’s national income per person is upward, spurred by gains in productivity. That means that while the ratio of retirees to workers is increasing, France grows ever wealthier, and is likely to continue to grow wealthier as advances in science, technology, and technique make workers more productive. Increasing productivity easily offsets the decreasing ratio of workers to retirees, just as growing agricultural productivity offsets the decreasing ratio of land to people.

But here’s the trouble. For decades, productivity gains have been monopolized by the wealthy few. According to the OECD, since the turn of the century “the aggregate growth of real wages was significantly slower than that of aggregate productivity,” including in France.

Data from the St Louis Fed shows that “For a long time, the share of payments to labour relative to total payments to all factors of production was relatively stable. In recent decades, the share of payments to labour has been trending down in many countries,” France among them.

 It’s as if all the increased food produced by advances in agricultural productivity was set aside for the sole enjoyment of the rich, while the government distributes the remaining fixed amount of food among a growing population of workers and retirees.

Malthus’s argument makes sense, if you ignore advances in productivity. Likewise, Bisserbe’s explanation make sense, if you ignore the reality that French workers are being denied the benefits of growing productivity.

What’s Wrong with the Argument that Russia Isn’t Imperialist? A Critique of Desai et al’s “The Conflict in Ukraine and Contemporary Imperialism”

January 19, 2023

By Stephen Gowans

….peace 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, but in the future, in the socialist revolution of the proletariat. — Lenin, The Peace Program, 1916


Two years after Russia annexed Crimea, Radhika Desai, Alan Freeman and Boris Kagarlitsky argued in “The Conflict in Ukraine and Contemporary Imperialism” that while the term imperialism continued to be an appropriate description of the pattern of Western actions, it was not so for that of Russian ones. In their paper, the trio drew on thinking about imperialism that comported with the views of Rudolph Hilferding and Nicolai Bukharan, popularized by V.I. Lenin, that imperialism is competition among capitalist states to impose their respective wills on other territories and populations in response to the needs of their capitalist class. However, they abandoned this thinking when they set out to answer the question: Is Russia imperialist? Rather than following the Hilferding-Bukharin view to its logical end, an exercise that would have identified Russia as a participant in a system of rivalry among capitalist states for economic territory, they constructed a scale of capitalist powers from weakest to strongest and then drew an arbitrary dividing line to separate imperialist capitalist states from a class of non-imperialist ones, which included Russia. The approach, based on the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, conformed to no external standard, except the authors’ acknowledged desire to arrive at a characterization of Russia that avoided demonizing Moscow or giving “theoretical dignity to the ambitions of US-policy makers.” In doing so, the authors went to the opposite extreme of offering an understanding of the world that dovetailed nicely with Russia’s denial of its imperialist aims and gave theoretical dignity to the ambitions of Russian-policy makers. The role of Marxist scholars is not to act as court philosophers for one bourgeoisie in its confrontation with another, as Desai and her coauthors did, but, as Lenin argued, to assist in the project of using the struggle between competing capitalist classes to overthrow all of them.

Radhika Desai, Alan Freeman and Boris Kagarlitsky wrote “The Conflict in Ukraine and Contemporary Imperialism,” [1] in 2016, before Russia, with the aim of installing a puppet government in Kyiv, invaded Ukraine, but after Moscow annexed Crimea. Their intention was to argue that the latter event did not mark Russia as an imperialist aggressor.

While a major aim of their paper was to show that Russia cannot be characterized as imperialist, at no point did the authors define imperialism. While they offered brief, superficial sketches of various Marxist theories of imperialism, they did not commit to any definition of the phenomenon, but all the same, a broad definition lurked within some of their arguments. Their failure to provide a clear definition of imperialism at the outset of their paper was highly problematic.

The word imperialism means different things to different people. Marx and Engels used it to refer to the spread of capitalism to non-capitalist territories. Because they regarded capitalism as the bridge to socialism, and progressive relative to less dynamic modes of production, they viewed imperialism favorably. Speaking of Britain’s role in India, Marx remarked that “whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history,” for she established in India the preconditions for an advance to socialism. [2]    

This contrasts with the way imperialism is understood today. As Bill Warren argued in Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism, “Current popular usage has tended to equate modern imperialism with the prevailing relationships of domination and exploitation between advanced capitalist and underdeveloped economies.” [3]

Echoing Warren, John Weeks noted that,

“The most common use of the term is in narrow reference to the economic and political relationship between advanced capitalist countries and backward countries. Since the second world war the word imperialism has become synonymous with the oppression and exploitation of weak, impoverished countries by powerful ones.” [4]

While the current understanding is similar to that of Marx and Engels in emphasizing the relationship between the metropole and periphery, it is different in condemning imperialism where Marx and Engels welcomed it (even if they did acknowledge its crimes.) “Many of the writers who present such an interpretation cite Lenin as a theoretical authority,” noted Weeks, while pointing out that this view is traceable to Karl Kautsky and not Lenin who, in fact, vehemently opposed it. [5]

Rudolph Hilferding, Nicolai Bukharan, and VI Lenin viewed imperialism as a system of rivalry among capitalist powers for economic territory. In their account, the world had been completely divided into colonies and spheres of influence, and the only way capitalist powers could expand under the lash of the capitalist compulsion for accumulation was to encroach on the economic space of other powers. That space included not only the territory of agrarian states, but the national territory of industrialized powers themselves.

In contrast, Kautsky argued that advanced capitalist states might give up competition for cooperation in exploiting the periphery. Imperialism, understood at the time as rivalry among capitalist states, would be succeeded by ultra-imperialism, a common front of capitalist states against the periphery. It is surely this view of imperialism—in contemporary terms, one of G7 countries, led by the United States, jointly enslaving and exploiting the rest of the world—that is generally understood by the term ‘imperialism’ today. [6] In Lenin’s time, the very suggestion that capitalist states could settle into a Kautsky-style ultra-imperialism aroused vehement hostility from the left.” For Lenin and his colleagues, including Stalin, who railed against this view as late as 1952 [7] “inter-imperialist rivalry leading to war was the very essence of imperialism.” [8] Thus, while many Marxists often cite Lenin as the source of the idea that imperialism is the exploitation of the periphery by metropolitan powers, “Lenin sharply criticized Kautsky for defining imperialism in this way.” [9] As Lenin argued,

“The characteristic feature of imperialism is precisely that it strives to annex not only agricultural regions but even highly industrialized regions, because (1) the fact that the world is already divided up obliges those contemplating a new division to reach out for any kind of territory, and (2) because an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between a number of great powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory.” [10]

Russian propagandists allude to the current understanding of imperialism as Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism when they invoke the concept of the “golden billion,” a reference to a US-led alliance of high-income countries representing a population of roughly one billion of the world’s total population of eight billion people, who are presented as jointly oppressing the remaining seven-eighths of humanity. The view also lurks in the concept of multipolarity, the idea that the poorest seven-eighths of humanity, led by China and Russia, is rising to contest the hegemony of G7 ultra-imperialism. The multipolarity theory casts Russia and China, not as capitalist powers that compete with G7 states for economic territory, driven by the needs of their own capitalist classes, but as leaders of a great movement of emancipation against Western ultra-imperialism. The argument resurrects the theory advanced by Tokyo in the 1930s that Japan’s competition with the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Netherlands for economic territory in East Asia and the Pacific, represented, not Lenin’s view of inter-imperialist rivalry, but Japan leading the East to challenge its thralldom to the ultra-imperialism of the West. At the same time, it should be noted that the idea of the “golden billion” and the theory of multipolarity significantly depart from Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism in arbitrarily counterposing China and Russia and other emerging capitalist states against the G7, as Japan in the 1930s, a significant capitalist state, counterposed itself against Western capitalism. From Kautsky’s perspective, we would expect that Russia and China, as significant capitalist states, would combine with their North American, European, and Japanese counterparts to jointly oppress the periphery, rather than compete against G7 states. Instead, exponents of the “golden billion” and multipolarity views portray capitalist Russia and capitalist China as imperialist Japan portrayed itself in the 1930s—as champions of peoples oppressed by an ultra-imperialist coalition of US-led bourgeois states.

Other Marxists, citing Lenin, understand imperialism as a stage of capitalism, specifically its monopoly stage, in contrast to what Lenin understood as a non-imperialist period of free competition preceding it. To these Marxists, imperialism is a system of rivalry among capitalist states, rather than a set of characteristics that distinguish imperialist states from non-imperialist ones. They make the argument that when Lenin presented his now famous list of five imperialist characteristics in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in 1917, that his intention was to describe the landscape of the latest stage of capitalism, not to propose a set of criteria by which to distinguish capitalist imperialist states from capitalist non-imperialist states. Indeed, it is abundantly evident in an earlier (and more clearly written) 1915 version of the now widely misinterpreted list that Lenin had in mind the features of a system.

The present war is of an imperialist character. This war is the outcome of the conditions of an epoch when capitalism has reached the highest stage of its development; when the greatest significance is attached not only to the export of commodities, but also to the export of capital; when the combination of production units in cartels, and the internationalization of economic life, has assumed considerable dimensions; when colonial politics have brought about an almost total apportionment of the globe among the colonial powers; when the productive forces of world capitalism have outgrown the limited boundaries of national and state divisions; when objective conditions for the realization of Socialism have perfectly ripened. [11]

There is no doubt that Lenin is describing “the conditions of an epoch,” not the characteristics of individual countries. He is not, for example, saying that countries that export more commodities than capital are not imperialist, as some people believe.

If the epoch is imperialist, is the concept of a non-imperialist capitalist state even admissable in Lenin’s view? Lenin saw the world economy as an integrated system, a network of interrelationships in which all states are entangled. The monopoly character of the system compels its capitalist states to compete for raw materials, markets, investment opportunities, and strategic territory. The competition creates multiple frictions that tend to escalate to war. There are no exemptions—no capitalist states which are not driven to expand their economic territory; no capitalist states which operate above or outside the competitive fray. Some states thrive in the competition while others are out-competed and fail, but those that fail have not elected to sit out the competition as pacific, non-imperialist states; they’ve just been bested by stronger states.

None of this is to endorse every aspect of Lenin’s theory. There is much about it that is problematic, including the fact that it’s not even his theory. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, which many Marxists revere as Lenin’s masterwork on the subject, is only a “popular outline” of Hilferding’s Finance Capital and Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy, supplemented with ideas from John Hobson’s 1902 book Imperialism: A Study. Lenin’s unique contribution to the theory of imperialism was to develop a theory of the labor aristocracy and to link it to the rise of monopoly capitalism as a means of explaining the Second International’s betrayal of socialist internationalism in the First World War.

In considering Lenin’s popular outline of Hilferding’s, Bukharin’s, and Hobson’s thinking, it’s important to draw two sets of distinctions. The first is between imperialism as a phenomenon and theories of imperialism as explanations of the phenomenon. When we say “Lenin defined imperialism as the monopoly stage of capitalism” we confuse Lenin’s explanation of imperialism with his definition of it. Lenin wasn’t saying that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism, only that monopoly explains the scramble for colonies that he believed was coincident with and driven by the emergence of monopoly. This then invites the question of exactly what phenomenon Lenin, or more precisely, Hilferding and Bukharin, were trying to explain. The answer is the intense competition among capitalist powers for economic territory that emerged with the scramble for Africa and continued into the conflagration of World War I.

The second important distinction to draw is between motive and means. A theory of imperialism should specify both the cause of the phenomenon, and how it’s carried out. It is clear in the Hilferding-Bukharin view, as outlined by Lenin, that the motive of imperialism is economic territory, to be acquired in competition with other capitalist states. The theory stumbles, however, in failing to recognize that the means by which capitalist powers integrate economic territory into their national economies is not limited to formal annexation. Gallagher and Robinson, in their article “The Imperialism of Free Trade” [12] and later in Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism [13] showed how Britain built its vast empire less by coercion and annexation and more by finding willing collaborators to collude in the integration of territories into the expanding British economy. The historians likened the British empire to an iceberg. If one looked only at the part that was visible above the surface, as they said Lenin had done, one would miss its true dimensions, the bulk of which lies below the surface and is invisible. The history of the British empire had shown that informal means of extending imperial supremacy have been preferred to direct rule. The guiding principle was: informal control, if possible; formal control, only if necessary.

Jo Grady and Chris Grocott have used the insights of Gallagher and Robinson to explore how the United States has used both formal and mainly informal methods of control to build and maintain its own empire. [14] Based on the work of Gallagher and Robinson, they argue that the break Lenin saw between a non-imperialist period of free competition and a subsequent imperialist stage of monopoly capitalism was actually a transition from an imperialist period in which mainly informal methods of control were used (and thus the imperialist character of the period was difficult to discern) and a period in which methods of formal control became necessary (and imperialism, expressed mainly in formal annexation and colonialism, became easier to see.) Formal control became necessary at about the time Hilferding, Bukharin and Lenin said that capitalism had entered a new monopoly stage. Dominated populations were beginning to bristle under the weight of informal control exercised from abroad and capitalist states were beginning to expand into territory in which willing collaborators, who could impose informal methods of control, were difficult to find. Before capitalism reached its monopoly phase, capitalist states had relied heavily on European settler populations as the willing collaborators who would integrate foreign territory into expanding metropolitan economies. Increasingly, however, the territories not yet claimed by expanding capitalist states, in Africa mainly, were ill-suited to European settlement. Willing collaborators accepted capitalist values and institutions and were keen to trade with the metropolitan centers. But these values, institutions, and this desire were alien to indigenous populations. As a consequence, formal control, though undesired, became necessary as the only feasible alternative to integrating the remaining territories of the world into expanding capitalist economies. Completing the division of the world would thus depend on the increasing use of violence.

This points out a weakness of the Hilferding-Bukharin-Lenin view. According to these theorists, two crucial things happened in the late nineteenth century. “The territorial division of the whole world among the greatest capitalist powers” was completed, as Lenin observed in Imperialism. And capitalism entered a new stage, that of monopoly, which transformed capitalism from peaceful competition to imperialism. But if capitalism had only now become imperialist, how do we account for the fact that the world had already been divided among the capitalist powers? Grady and Grocott argue that capitalism has always been imperialist. What Lenin called peaceful competition was actually competition among capitalist states to integrate the world’s territory into their expanding economies largely by informal, i.e., peaceful, means. In Lenin’s highest stage of capitalism, competition among capitalist states for economic territory carried on as it always had, except that now it was pursued mainly through violent means, because the peaceful methods of the previous period, the imperialism of free trade as Gallagher and Robinson called it, was either breaking down under the rebellion of subject peoples or was no long suitable for expansion into the territory that remained. In this latter sense, the word “imperialist” becomes synonymous with violent expansion. The important point is that it is not monopoly that makes capitalism imperialist, and it was not monopoly that forced capitalist states to use violence in the service of expansion; instead, imperialism, in the sense of competition among capitalist states for economic territory, is always present in capitalism. The motive, rooted in capitalism itself, doesn’t change; only the methods do. Each capitalist is a threat to every other capitalist, and each capitalist state is a threat to every other capitalist state. To counter the threat, capitalists and capitalist states need to expand the territory over which they have influence and control. The necessity of self-preservation forces them into a competition for economic territory. They use both informal (peaceful) and formal (violent) means of projecting their influence, with a preference, however, for informal control where the circumstances allow.

To some Marxists, then, imperialism means the spread of capitalism to non-capitalist territory as a desirable development; to others, the exploitation of the periphery by the metropole, either as the outcome of a rivalry among capitalist states for economic territory or as a collaboration among capitalist powers in a Kautskyist ultra-imperialism; to still others, imperialism is the struggle among great powers to redivide a world that has already been divided into colonies and spheres of influence. The trouble with arguing, as Desai et al have done, that Russian actions cannot be characterized as imperialist, is that imperialism means different things to different people. In what sense of the word ‘imperialism’ is Russia not imperialist?

At two points in their paper, Desai and her coauthors define imperialism indirectly as a state imposing its capitalists’ will on other territories and populations.

  • “It is never impossible that the contradictions of capitalism will lead the Russian state to seek resolutions for them … beyond its borders by using the means at its disposal including its international power.”
  • “…the Russian state can be used to impose its capitalists’ will on other territories and populations.”

Thus, imperialism, in this formulation, is the process of a state imposing its will on other territories and populations. Its motive is to protect and expand the interests of its national capitalists beyond the state’s borders. The definition has two parts: A definition proper: The imposition of the will of a state on other territories and populations. And an explanation: States impose their will on other territories and people in response to the needs of their capitalist class. It’s clear from this definition and other points they made that Desai et al viewed imperialism as capitalist driven. They referred to “capitalist drivers of conflict,” of an intimate connection between capitalism and imperialism (“the left has long recognized that capitalism and imperialism have always been intimately linked”), and criticized what they describe as the Schumpeterian view that capitalism does not need imperialism, thereby implying in their criticism that capitalism does, to the contrary, need imperialism.

Desai and her coauthors also indirectly advanced a view of imperialism as a system of rivalry among capitalist states. They argued, contra Kautsky, that “competition between capitalist states never disappears,” and that capitalist states always face the “threat that a rival capitalist power will step up to the plate and take their place.”

Consistent with these arguments, they could have defined imperialism at the outset of their paper as competition among capitalist states to impose their respective wills on other territories and populations in response to the needs of their capitalist class. Having undertaken this basic task, they could have then proceeded to address their main question: Is Russia imperialist? However, had they done this, they would have immediately run into difficulty. If imperialism is competition among capitalist states for economic territory, then the question itself becomes nonsensical. The only question that makes sense within the context of this definition is: Does Russia participate in the system of competition among capitalist states driven by capitalist needs? Since according to Desai et al, “Russia remains capitalist in a meaningful sense,” the obvious answer is yes. All states that are “capitalist in a meaningful sense” must be imperialist since all capitalist states are driven by the inner workings of capitalism to compete for profit-making opportunities anywhere in the world, and all capitalist states are therefore driven to impose their will on foreign territories and populations to secure opportunities for their capitalist class at the expense of other capitalist classes.

Russia’s imposing its will on other territory and peoples in annexing Crimea (and subsequently attempting  to impose its will on the remainder of Ukraine by dint of an invasion) meets the trio’s first order definition of imperialism, as the process of a state imposing its will on other territory and populations. Even if the question remains moot as to whether these actions were undertaken in response to the need of Russian capitalists to access Ukraine’s profit-making opportunities at the expense of European and North American capitalists, it remains the case that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are imperialist by the definition Desai et al adopted indirectly of a state imposing its will on foreign territory and populations.

Having developed this line of thought, the trio began quickly to backpedal as they homed in on their main question of whether Russia is imperialist. Where initially they argued that capitalism and imperialism are intimately connected and that capitalism needs imperialism, they shifted tact midway through their paper to argue that imperialism is only a possible outcome of capitalism and not an inevitable one. “It is never impossible that the contradictions of capitalism will lead the Russian state to seek resolutions for them … beyond its borders by using the means at its disposal including its international power,” an awkward way of saying that Russia might act imperialistically, but then again it might not. In effect, they fashioned an escape hatch through which to smuggle Russia from the category of ‘imperialist’— a category to which the Hilferding-Bukharin argument they were developing would inevitably assign Russia.

So, why can Russia not be characterized as imperialist? While Desai et al conceded that Russian is capitalist, that capitalism needs imperialism, and that there is an intimate connection between capitalism and imperialism, they concluded that Russia is not imperialist for the following reasons:

  1. The EU represents a greater threat to Ukraine sovereignty than does Russia.
  2. There are domestic political constraints on the “extent to which the Russian state can be used to impose its capitalists’ will on other territories and populations.”
  3. Western powers are stronger. Compared to the West, Russia’s capacity to undertake foreign adventures is tiny.
  4. “While Russian capitalists may be inclined to use their state in order to project their power outwards, the ability of the Russian state to perform this role is constrained…both by the large number of other powers of greater or equal economic weight, and by the pull which their capitalists exert in the heart of the Russian economy.”
  5. Russia’s capitalist holdings abroad are small in comparison to other countries.

Let’s examine each argument in turn.

1) The EU represents a greater threat to Ukraine sovereignty than does Russia. This can be dismissed immediately as irrelevant. The threat posed by the EU to the sovereignty of Ukraine has no bearing on the question of whether Russia also poses a threat to the sovereignty of Ukraine, or the question of whether Russia has encroached on Ukraine’s sovereignty, as it unquestionably did when it annexed Crimea and also did later when it mounted an invasion of Ukraine‘s remaining territory with the intention of establishing a puppet regime.

2) There are domestic political constraints on the “extent to which the Russian state can be used to impose its capitalists’ will on other territories and populations.” There are political domestic and other constraints on the extent to which any capitalist state can be used to impose its capitalists’ will on other territories and populations. Constraints are not unique to Russia, and if they are more numerous or stronger in the case of Russia, without conceding they are, this would represent a difference of degree, not type. The reality that political constraints can affect the actions of the US state does not negate the United States’ imperialist character. Nor should it negate Russia’s. It should also be noted that in pointing to constraints which limit the extent to which the Russian state can be used to act imperialistically, Desai and her coauthors conceded that the Russian state can be used imperialistically. The fact that it had been used imperialistically to annex Crimea, and has since been used to attempt to impose Moscow’s will by means of an invasion on the remaining parts of Ukraine’s territory, demonstrates empirically that what the Russia state can do, it does do.

3) Western powers are stronger. Compared to the West, Russia’s capacity to undertake foreign adventures is tiny. This argument confuses quantity with quality. All states differ in degree. The question is, do they differ in type? Fascist Italy’s capacity to undertake foreign adventures compared to that of the USA and Britain was tiny. That didn’t mean that Fascist Italy wasn’t an imperialist aggressor. Desai et al may just as well have said that pregnant women in their final trimester are much bigger than pregnant women in their first trimester, therefore women in their first trimester are not pregnant.

More to the point, regardless of Russia’s capacity to undertake foreign adventures, it has undertaken foreign adventures, and had at the time Desai et al wrote their paper. It had annexed Crimea. Russia has since demonstrated that its more modest capacity to undertake foreign adventures compared to its Western rivals hasn’t prevented it from undertaking foreign adventures in Ukraine or committing the supreme international crime.

4) While Russian capitalists may be inclined to use their state in order to project their power outwards, various factors prevent this from happening. Again, this totally ignores the reality that despite the constraint on it, the Russian state projected its power outward into Ukraine when it annexed Crimea. Its invasion of the remaining parts of Ukraine is nothing but the projection of Russian power beyond its borders with the aim of imposing Moscow’s will on a foreign territory and population.

5) Russia’s capitalist holdings abroad are small in comparison to other countries. This is a return to the argument that Russia cannot be imperialist, despite its acknowledged capitalist character, despite the acknowledged intimate connection between capitalism and imperialism, and despite the acknowledged inclination of Russian capitalists to use their state to project power outwards, because Russia is a smaller capitalist power than the United States. Again, Fascist Italy and Shintoist Japan were much smaller capitalist powers that the United States and Britain in the 1930s, but few people any more would say that they weren’t imperialist aggressors (although there were people at the time, who did.)

The sum and substance of the Desai et al claim that Russia is not imperialist was this: G7 countries are imperialist. G7 countries are stronger economically and militarily than Russia. Therefore, Russia is not imperialist. In effect, the trio conceptually organized capitalist powers along a scale from the strongest to weakest. They then arbitrarily established a cut-off that divided capitalist states into two classes: imperialist and non-imperialist. The dividing line placed Russia on the non-imperialist side and G7 countries on the other side, or to put it another way, Desai and her coauthors affixed the label ‘imperialist’ to the G7 countries and affixed the label “non-imperialist’ to Russia. This approach broke fundamentally with the Hilferding-Bukharin-Lenin model to which they had earlier paid homage. It did so by creating a category of capitalist states that are non-imperialist—that is, states that are outside the system of rivalry for economic territory that is driven by the capitalist compulsion to accumulate. If capitalism and imperialism are intimately connected, and capitalism needs imperialism, how can a capitalist state not be imperialist? But even if we accept, arguendo, that this break is legitimate, an obvious question arises: At what point does the hill become a mountain? When does Russia become strong enough economically and militarily to pass the imperialist threshold? When would a pregnant woman become pregnant enough for Desai and her coauthors to call her pregnant? “Russia,” they concluded, “has a long way to go to enter the select world league of imperialist robber nations.” But they were silent on the criteria one should use to determine when a state had joined this select group. Refusal to set a target in advance of analysis is the fundamental characteristic of the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. The Texas sharpshooter fires his gun at the side of a barn. He then draws a circle around the bullet holes, and declares the circle the target. This is the crux of the Desai et al argument. They define imperialism post facto to exclude Russia. Thus, they fill 19 pages of print with an argument that reduces to just nine words: Russia is not imperialist because we say it isn’t. 

To sum up to this point, Desai et al embarked on a project of deciding whether Russia is imperialist without first defining what they meant by imperialism. At no point did they say either that “This is what we consider imperialism to be,” or that “This is the benchmark against which we’ll judge whether Russia is imperialist.” Instead, while they paid lip service to the thinking of Hilferding, Bukharin, and Lenin, which sees imperialism as intimately connected to capitalism, they introduced a concept foreign to the thinking of these Marxist theorists, namely, that imperialism is only a possible and not an inevitable feature of capitalism. As such, some capitalist countries can be imperialist and others non-imperialist. (In this, they shared the thinking of Karl Kautsky, who viewed imperialism as a policy choice, not a necessary outcome of capitalism.) Their decision as to which capitalist states are not imperialist reduced to: Is the state strong enough to impose its will on other territories and populations? If not, it is not imperialist. Hence, rather than seeing imperialism as a competition among capitalist states for economic territory whose tensions can escalate to war, Desai et al constructed a classification which divides the universe of capitalist states into two categories: large capitalist states, which are labelled imperialist, and smaller ones, which are labelled non-imperialist. Size is important so far as it is correlated with the ability of a state to dominate others. Since large capitalist states are more likely to have the means to impose their will on other states, they are labelled imperialist, while those states which lack this ability are called non-imperialist. But even by this highly restrictive definition of imperialism, Russia must be classified as imperialist. In imposing its will on Ukraine, first by annexing Crimea in 2014, and by launching a general invasion in February 2022, Russia demonstrated that it has the capacity to dominate foreign territory and populations. Therefore, even by the authors’ own highly restrictive definition of imperialism, Russia is imperialist.

While spreading nonsense about Russia, the trio also spent a good deal of time articulating an equally risible view of China. They created a false dichotomy between the neoliberal policies of the West and “China and other emerging economies,” as if China operates at a remove from the US economy and its neoliberal policies. The shift in “the world’s center of gravity away from the West and towards China and other emerging economies” of which Desai and her coauthors wrote, is little more than the integration of China and other low-income countries into G7 economies as low-wage manufacturing centers–what is called the world’s, i.e., the G7’s, factory floor. The “emerging economies” are emerging precisely because they have been integrated into the US-superintended global economy. The communist parties of China and Vietnam act as willing neoliberal collaborators in creating highly attractive investment climates for an almost complete list of the world’s largest Western capitalist enterprises, which are invited to exploit cheap and highly disciplined Eastern labor. That’s not to say that Beijing doesn’t also seek to build an economy that is independent of the G7 countries, but Desai et al completely ignore Beijing’s collaboration in the neoliberalism of the West as an important factor in China’s development. In large measure, the shift in the economic center of gravity from the West to China is nothing more than the logical working out of neoliberal policy. One could wonder on what planet Desai and her coauthors had lived for the past 40 years when they asserted that “China’s economic growth in recent decades is precisely the outcome of a consistent refusal to accommodate the Washington Consensus.” On the contrary, China’s economic growth in recent decades is precisely the outcome of a consistent willingness by Beijing to collude in the demotion of China’s land, labor, and markets to a means of gratifying the avarice of the West’s largest capitalist enterprises.

Had Desai et al an ulterior motive for arguing, against even their own very restricted post facto definition of imperialism, that Russian is not imperialist? The authors said they deplored characterizations of Russia as an imperialist aggressor because the description dovetailed “nicely with Western demonization of the Putin regime.” Their concern, they said, was that these characterizations would give “theoretical dignity to the ambitions of US-policy makers.” Yet the question of whether their analysis would give comfort to the US bourgeoisie or the Russian bourgeoisie should have awakened no apprehension in Marxist scholars whose principal concern should have been the class interests of the proletariat. What’s more, in openly deploring one possible answer to the question of whether Russia is imperialist, they, themselves, raised the question of whether political considerations guided their analysis. The evidence suggests that Desai and her coauthors entered the arena of debate, not with the intention of understanding the world as it is so it can be changed to the benefit of the proletariat, but to present an understanding of the world that dovetailed nicely with Russia’s denial of its imperialist aims and gave theoretical dignity to the ambitions of Russian-policy makers, i.e., as court philosophers of the Kremlin. In light of the authors’ admitted leanings toward Moscow in its conflict with Washington, the answer to the question posed above about how high they would set the threshold for admitting Russia into the world league of imperialist states is high enough that Russia would never enter. Indeed, we can imagine that the criteria for entry, in the hands of Desai et al, would unremittingly shift to exclude Russia as circumstances dictated. To do otherwise, would be to create a characterization of Russia that would dovetail nicely with Western vilification of the country, an outcome the court philosophers explicitly indicated they wanted to avoid. If George H. W. Bush would never apologize for America, then Desai and her colleagues will never apologize for Russia. This, along with their relying on the Texas sharpshooter fallacy to make the case that Russia isn’t imperialist, shows their analysis to be an exercise in political perjury, not Marxist scholarship. The court philosophers’ preference was to limit condemnation to Washington rather than to the bourgeois order or the capitalism of which imperialism is the necessary consequence. Not only did they absolve Russia of imperialist guilt, they absolved capitalism of imperialist guilt, describing imperialism as only a possible and not an inevitable outcome of capitalism. They are not scholars, much less Marxist ones, but merely political prize fighters for the Russian capitalist class and the bourgeois order of which it is a part.

There are four conclusions the authors might, whether by design or accident, have us draw from their pro-Moscow, pro-bourgeois argument.

  • The historical mission of the proletariat is not to bring forward the new socialist society with which the old bourgeois order is pregnant, but to support weaker bourgeois states that fight the stronger US bourgeoisie.
  • The enemy of the proletariat is not the bourgeoisie that enslaves and exploits it, but only the largest bourgeoisie, the ones with the greatest foreign capital holdings, or more specifically, foreign capital holdings greater than those of Russia and China.
  • The task of the proletariat is to side with any weaker bourgeoisie that fights the stronger US bourgeoisie.
  • The proletariat should celebrate its enslavement and exploitation so long as the enslavers’ headquarters is not Wall Street, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Paris, or London.

The pro-Russia intelligentsia, so committed to invoking Lenin as grounds for mobilizing support for Russia in Moscow’s struggle with the United States over Ukraine, is deaf to Lenin’s dictum: “It is not the business of socialists to help the younger and stronger robber to rob the older and fatter bandits, but the socialists must utilize the struggle between the bandits to overthrow all of them.” [15] Desai et al would likely agree with this, but not before arbitrarily excluding Russia from the list of bandits, ipse dixit

The US hegemony of today was preceded by an Anglo-American hegemony, the latter of which aroused the enmity and moral indignation of the Axis powers, the emerging capitalist states of their day. The Axis states complained bitterly that the United States and Britain, through their vast control of the world’s resources and markets, hindered the economic development of the Axis powers, denying the peoples of Middle Europe, the Mediterranean, and the East their day in the sun. Intellectuals who supported the Axis project, spoke of the necessity of liberating humanity from Anglo-American domination. Exponents of multipolarity today, Desai and Freeman among them, are the modern equivalent of the Western intellectuals who argued that rather than competing with Germany, Italy, and Japan, Washington and London should allow the Axis powers to establish their own regional hegemonies. This was advocacy of a Kautsky-style ultra-imperialist division of the world into a series of regional empires, a new multipolarity.

Advocates of multipolarity fight, not for the end of hegemony, but for the end of US efforts to prevent Russia and China from expanding their regional empires—hence, for the end of US world hegemony and the emergence of Russian and Chinese regional hegemonies. Multipolarity is an imperialist project, even if its advocates use anti-imperialist rhetoric and themes to cloak its true identity. This is not to say that US hegemony is more desirable than a multipolar series of regional hegemonies, only that imperialism in any form, multipolar or unipolar, is equally objectionable and equally inimical to the class interests of the proletariat. Would the international working class of the 1930s have been better off in a multipolar world in which London, Paris, and Washington ceded Central and Eastern Europe to Germany, the Balkans to Italy, and East Asia and the Pacific to Japan? For Marxists, the key question is not whether three capitalist centers should divide the world amongst themselves—the United States, China, and Russia, in preference to only one, the United States. Is enslavement and exploitation by Chinese and Russian capitalists more desirable than enslavement and exploitation by US capitalists?  The key task is to bring the enslavement and exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, regardless of the exploiters’ nationality, to an end. The job of socialists, according to Lenin, is to end war by ending the division of humanity by class and nation. That won’t be accomplished by exercises in political perjury, where the nature of Russia as an imperialist aggressor is covered up by intellectuals who think Marxism is rooting for the weaker bourgeoisie in an inter-imperialist conflict.

1.  Radhika Desai, Alan Freeman & Boris Kagarlitsky (2016) “The Conflict in Ukraine and Contemporary Imperialism,” International Critical Thought, 6:4, 489-512,

2. Karl Marx, “The British Rule in India,” in James Ledbetter, ed., Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx, Penguin Books, 2007, p.219.

3. Bill Warren, Imperialism: Pioneer of Capitalism, Verso, 1985, p. 49.

4. John Weeks, “Imperialism and World Market,” in Tom Bottomore, ed., A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, Blackwell Publishing, 1991, pp. 252-256.

5. Ibid.

6. Anthony Brewer, Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Study, Routledge, 1990, p. 130.

7. Joseph Stalin, Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, “Chapter 6, Inevitability of Wars Between Capitalist Countries,” 1952. Stalin wrote, “Outwardly, everything would seem to be “going well”: the U.S.A. has put Western Europe, Japan and other capitalist countries on rations; Germany (Western), Britain, France, Italy and Japan have fallen into the clutches of the U.S.A. and are meekly obeying its commands. But it would be mistaken to think that things can continue to ‘go well’ for ‘all eternity,’ that these countries will tolerate the domination and oppression of the United States endlessly, that they will not endeavor to tear loose from American bondage and take the path of independent development.” 

8. Brewer, p. 130.

9. Weeks, p. 252.

10. V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, 1939, p. 91-92.

11. V.I. Lenin, “Conference of the Foreign Sections of the R.S.–D.L.P.” in Collected Works of V.I. Lenin Volume XVIII: The Imperialist War, International Publishers, 1930, pp. 145-146.

12. John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” The Economic History Review, New Series, Vol. 6, No. 1 (1953), pp. 1-15.

13. John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism, MacMillan Press, 1983.

14. Jo Grady and Chris Grocott, eds. The Continuing Imperialism of Free Trade: Developments, Trends and the Role of Supranational Agents, Routledge, 2020.

15. V.I. Lenin, “Socialism and War” in Collected Works of V.I. Lenin Volume XVIII: The Imperialist War, International Publishers, 1930, pp. 223-224.

“People should be awake to this tactic, and refuse to be fooled by it”

December 28, 2022

Stephen Gowans  

Beijing’s abandonment of its zero-Covid policy has created a spate of propaganda. On one side, US sources use the surge in cases following Beijing’s volte-face on infection control to unfairly tarnish China’s reputation. On the other, pretend Marxists at the congregatio de propaganda fide sinae pump out flagrant “what about?” propaganda to deflect attention from China’s health care crisis.

The New York Times of December 27 offers an emblematic example of Covid-related anti-China propaganda.

Reporters Isabelle Qian and David Pierson write that “China’s hospitals were already overcrowded, underfunded and inadequately staffed in the best of times. But now with Covid spreading freely for the first time in China, the medical system is being pushed to its limits.”

This may be true, but it’s also true of high-income countries. Change the word China to Canada or any of a number of other G7 countries, and you have a serviceable description of the Covid crisis in countries better equipped than China to deal with medical emergencies owing to their greater wealth. That they haven’t used these resources to avert crises in their own health care systems condemns them more than China.

China—ranked 79th of 185 countries in GDP per capita, just below Iraq— is a fairly poor country in per capita terms. Poor countries necessarily have inadequately resourced medical systems, too few hospitals and a dearth of medical staff.

If hospitals in high-income countries are being pushed to the limits by Covid, would we not expect the same in a mid-income country?

Qian and Pierson fault Beijing for failing to use “the past three years” of virus suppression “to bolster its health system by stockpiling medicine and building more critical care units.” They argue that China “could have launched a major vaccination drive targeting the millions of vulnerable older adults who were reluctant to receive a jab or booster,” noting, however, that “China did little of that.”

But could the Chinese have realistically done what Qian and Pierson say they should have done? No country has unlimited resources, especially a middle-income one. At the time Beijing was incurring the costs of implementing zero-Covid, it’s unlikely that it could have taken on the additional fiscal burden of increasing the number of its critical care beds and broadening its vaccine roll-out. That would have been difficult even for a high-income country.   

Many countries, including China, coped with Covid by calibrating mitigation measures to hospital capacity. China, with limited hospital capacity and few critical care beds, had to implement very stringent mitigation measures to prevent hospital overcrowding. As high-income countries did, it too followed the strategy of bending the curve, but its relative poverty meant that it had to bend the curve to zero, where G7 countries, with more money and more richly-resourced medical systems, had the luxury of never having to go quite so far.

What’s known now as “bend the curve” was originally known as “bend the curve and raise the line.” “Raise the line” refers to the necessity of expanding hospital capacity, something few countries did.

Here’s the idea: To cope with an increased burden on medical systems caused by the emergence of a novel pathogen, governments ought to reduce the spread of the pathogen through mitigation measures to limit the number of people who will require medical attention at any one time (bend the curve), and increase the capacity of the system to deal with the people who do need attention (raise the line.) Most high-income countries ignored the second part of the formula. Singling out China for the same failure, especially in light of its limited resources, is unfair.

If Qian’s and Pierson’s reporting is partial, the commentary of the avowed Beijing propagandist, Carlos Martinez, is pure diversion. Martinez fires back at criticism of Beijing for prioritizing profits over people in lifting its zero-Covid strategy, by emphasizing Washington’s poor performance in protecting its own citizens from the dangers of Covid.

But pointing out that Washington signed up as one of the killer’s henchman long before Beijing did, hardly absolves Beijing of blame for choosing to follow Washington down the same road. All the same, Martinez tries gamely to draw fire away from Beijing, with an article in China state media CGTN. The Friends of Socialist China, an avowed platform for propagating pro-China narratives, introduces Martinez’s propaganda piece this way:

“The following article … compares the rising hysteria in the Western media over China’s Covid situation with its near-total silence in relation to the ongoing public health crisis in the US. The US has just surpassed 100 million Covid cases; its Covid death toll exceeds 1 million; and its average life expectancy has dropped to 76.4 years – the lowest since 1999. What’s more, as a result of centuries of systemic racism, the impact of this crisis is multiplied for the black, Latino and indigenous population. The media prefers to sensationalize the wave of Covid cases in China – as a form of deflection and diversion, and as part of the generalized campaign of China-bashing. People should be awake to this tactic, and refuse to be fooled by it.”

The argument is that the US media are trying to divert attention from Washington’s execrable pandemic performance by emphasizing China’s challenges with Covid. The problem is that it is the US media themselves that have documented Washington’s Covid failures, from the 100 million cases, to the death toll north of 1 million, to the decline in US life expectancy. If the US media were really trying to obscure these facts, why would they have reported them in the first place? Indeed, the fact that Martinez even knows about “the ongoing health crisis in the US” contradicts his claim that there is “near-total silence” about it.

But then it comes as no surprise that an avowed pro-China propagandist would regard any reporting that casts China in a less than glowing light as sensationalistic and anything less than a total media obsession with developments that cast the United States in an unfavorable light as “near-total silence.” The reality is that the US media have not imposed “near-total silence” on the United States’ Covid struggles any more than they have “sensationalized” China’s. A more plausible account is that they have simply reported the struggles of both, and that propagandists on either side don’t like to hear bad news about their side and delight in hearing bad news about the other side. So, the propagandists try to draw attention to the other side’s bad news.

That’s what Martinez has done. In mentioning Washington’s bad conduct, he and his coreligionists at the congregatio de propaganda fide sinae hope to accomplish what they accuse the US media of trying to achieve: divert and deflect attention. Indeed, the passage from the Friends of Socialist China platform introducing Martinez’s CGTN article can be turned back on the congregatio:

CGTN, the Friends of Socialist China, and Carlos Martinez prefer to sensationalize the United States’ health care crisis as a form of deflection and diversion from Beijing’s struggles with Covid, and as part of the generalized campaign of US-bashing. People should be awake to this tactic, and refuse to be fooled by it.

Clearly, zero-Covid is unsustainable as a long-term project in a world where no other countries are pursuing the same suppression measures. At a certain point, Beijing would have had to transition to a new policy if it wanted to avoid the penalty of retarded economic growth and growing popular recalcitrance. Beijing abandoned zero-Covid for three reasons: pressure from the streets; pressure from business; and because the policy was unsustainable.

If zero-Covid was necessary in a country with limited resources to provide medical care to its citizens, in order to protect hospitals from overcrowding and the medical system from collapse, then the lifting of restrictions will have consequences as dire, if not more so, than those that beset the citizens of the United States, where greater US wealth provided the government with the capability to offer robust protection—a potential that was never realized.

China’s pandemic performance has reflected its nature: not that of a socialist country, which it clearly is not, notwithstanding the fantasies of various dreamers, but a middle-income capitalist country with limited resources, whose strength lies in a strong central government able to make the most of its limited resources in the pursuit of its central aim: the rejuvenation of the country, by means of capitalist development, as a great nation, capable of pushing back its economic frontiers in competition with rival powers—a project known in more flattering terms as championing the development of a multipolar international order, or more honestly, as the return of great power competition and inter-imperialist rivalry.

The Multipolaristas’ Theory of Ultra-Imperialism Doesn’t Fit a Multipolar World

December 27, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that “Mr. Putin” is “convinced Russia’s Western enemies” are “seeking to yank Ukraine from Russia’s orbit.” Clearly, the United States and Russia are locked in a struggle over Ukraine; each wants the territory in its own orbit—that is, in its own empire. US efforts to yank Ukraine from the Russia orbit have been largely successful. Russia is yanking back, but it’s unlikely to win the tug of war.

The idea that the war in Ukraine is but one battlefield in a larger war between two empires is difficult to grasp for people whose understanding of imperialism is influenced by dependency theories developed in the immediate post-WWII period. That period was characterized by one capitalist empire, that of the United States, absorbing most of its former capitalist rivals into its orbit. Under US supervision, the now combined powers, once rivals, jointly exploited the periphery.

People who subscribe to this view, whether consciously or through osmosis, look at the world through a lens whose purpose, when the lens was crafted, was to explain the international system at a time when neither Russia nor China existed as capitalist powers and rivalry among capitalist powers was muted by US primacy. Glimpsed through this lens, Russia and China appear as what they once were, but are no longer: socialist counterweights to a capitalist metropolis.

This, to be sure, is a view of a world that expired 30 years ago, when the Soviet Union was succeeded by a capitalist Russia, and China was at least a decade along the path of capitalist development and integration into the US economy as a low-wage manufacturing center.

Today, Russia and China are capitalist powers. But if they appear to some, not as metropolitan powers keen on integrating regions into their own expanding economies, but as powers lying outside the metropolis, as opposed to merely outside the US empire, it’s because they are understood incorrectly as being what they once were, rather than what they have since become. Both powers are external to the US empire (to some degree; China is so only partially), but the US empire is no longer equal to the metropolis; it is now only one part of it.

Karl Kautsky developed a theory of ultra-imperialism. Kautsky argued that the stress might shift from conflict between imperialist powers to maintenance of a world system of exploitation, i.e., conflict between the metropolis and periphery. It is surely the latter, the worldwide exploitation of colonial peoples by the metropolitan bourgeoisie, observed Anthony Brewer, which is generally understood by the term ‘imperialism’ today. At the time, the very suggestion that such a shift was possible aroused vehement hostility from the left. For the left, inter-imperialist rivalry leading to war was the very essence of imperialism. The concept of imperialism has shifted its meaning between then and now, but the emergence of a multipolar international system, or of great power rivalry in Washington’s terms, means that the understanding of imperialism now lags developments in international relations. Contemporary international relations now bear a greater affinity with the classical Marxist theory of imperialism than with Kautsky’s ultra-imperialism.

None of this is to say that theories about metropolitan exploitation of the periphery are wrong, only that the notion that Russia and China are external to the capitalist metropolis is mistaken. The former socialist giants have joined the metropolis, not as a part of a Kautskyist ultra-imperialism led by Washington, but as rivals of the USA, EU, and Japan.

Is there a better theory?

In its emphasis on rivalry among capitalist powers, the classical Marxist theory of imperialism comports more fully with contemporary developments than dependency theories. If we accept that the contemporary international system is marked by an emerging multipolarity, and that the principal powers in the multipolar system are capitalist, then the world of today bears a much stronger resemblance to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to which the classical Marxist theories of imperialism referred, than it does to the 20th century period of US-led ultra-imperialism.  

That’s not to say that the classical Marxist theory is without its problems. But it does say that despite its problems, the classical theory is a better fit with an emerging multipolar world than theories which were developed to explain a world characterized by a US-led metropolis exploiting a periphery, opposed by a socialist Russia and socialist China.

Continuing to see Russia and China as socialist powers that lie outside the metropolis, when they are now large capitalist powers with unconcealed projects of integrating regions into their own economies, is tantamount to applying the geology of the desert to the rainforest, and on this basis, declaring that trees (i.e., an imperialist Russia and an imperialist China) don’t exist.

To summarize, here are four errors that are made by seeing the contemporary multipolar world through a Kautskyist ultra-imperialist lens.

  1. Adopting the now extremely dated view that Russia and China are socialist, rather than capitalist.
  2. Seeing Russian and Chinese opposition to the US empire as rooted in socialism, rather than capitalist rivalry for economic territory.
  3. Perceiving the US empire as equal to the metropolis, rather than as only one part of it, along with Russia and China.
  4. Regarding the periphery as exploited by the US empire alone, rather than by Russia and China, as well.

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.

For the Friends of Socialist China, a Very Bad Week

December 10, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

It has been a tough week for the star-gazers who run a platform called Friends of Socialist China, a motley collection of Sinophiles and pretend-Marxists who support “the People’s Republic of China” and aim to “spread understanding of” what they call “Chinese socialism.”

With Beijing lifting Covid restrictions in response to pressure from capitalists at home and abroad— a move expected to sacrifice up to 2 million Chinese or more to the Moloch of profit—it will be difficult to continue to “spread understanding” that “Chinese socialism” elevates people above capital accumulation.

On 7 December, The Wall Street Journal reported that while Beijing has “repeatedly emphasized the need to maintain the zero-Covid policy,” the “official tune began to change after Covid-related disruptions at the world’s biggest iPhone assembly plant led Apple Inc. to question whether it can still rely on China as its biggest manufacturing base.”

The next day the newspaper reported that:

  • “A letter from the founder of the world’s largest iPhone assembler played a major role in persuading China’s Communist Party leadership to accelerate plans to dismantle the country’s zero-tolerance Covid-19 policies.”
  • “In the letter to Chinese leaders, Foxconn Technology Group founder Terry Gou warned that strict Covid controls would threaten China’s central position in global supply chains.”
  • “Chinese health officials and government advisers seized on Mr. Gou’s letter to bolster the case that the government needed to speed up its efforts to ease its tough Covid-19 controls.”

The lifting of the infection control measures is expected to “put unprecedented strain on the Chinese health system.”

“Using Hong Kong as a proxy, London-based health analytics firm Airfinity estimated in late November that a lifting of zero-Covid measures in China could lead to anywhere between 1.3 million and 2.1 million deaths,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

China-supporters have long pointed to China’s very low pandemic mortality rate to argue that, unlike other states, Beijing puts people’s lives before profits. The argument no longer holds.

But if Beijing puts profits ahead of people, what accounts for China’s superior pandemic performance? The answer, paradoxically, is its poorly-resourced health care system.

It’s often forgotten, if ever understood, that while China has the world’s second largest, if not the world’s largest, economy, that in per capita terms, China is poor. A country that is wealthy in aggregate is not necessarily wealthy on a per person basis, and this is true of China, a country with a large economy, but whose aggregate wealth is divided over an extraordinarily large population.

GDP per capita, 2021 (Current US dollars, Source: World Bank)

  • China, $12,556
  • USA, $69,287

Because China has little wealth per person, its has few health care resources to allot to each person.

Health care expenditures per capita, 2019 (Current US dollars, Source: World Bank)

  • China, $535
  • USA, $10,921

According to The World Population Review, the United States has 34.7 critical care beds per 100,000 people. China has a mere 3.6.

Clearly, as a relatively poor country on a per capita basis, China does not have the resources to adequately deal with a viral outbreak. This is especially true in rural areas, where medical resources are stretched thin.

With a feeble health care infrastructure, China has had no option but to implement stringent infection control measures to prevent outbreaks, otherwise its hospitals would have been overwhelmed.

This means that while China’s approach to pandemic control has always looked different from the West’s, it’s actually the same.

The Western approach, called hospital-based surveillance, calibrates public heath restrictions to hospital capacity. China has followed the same strategy. The only difference is, that because the country has so few critical care beds, it has had to rein in infection levels to keep people out of the hospital.  

China’s superior pandemic performance hasn’t, then, reflected a stronger orientation to people over profits, but limited options. China is just another capitalist country prioritizing capital accumulation, but owing to its poorly-resource medical system, it has had to work extremely diligently to keep people out of the hospital. The calculus, however, has shifted, and countless Chinese citizens will be whisked to early graves to save China’s central position in global supply chains, to the greater glory and benefit of Terry Gou, Tim Cook, and Apple shareholders. 

Equally troubling for the Friends is reporting from The Wall Street Journal this week that China is transferring drones and ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia, the tyranny that is waging a war of aggression on Yemen.

The Friends did little to put themselves in good stead when they defended the transfer of Chinese weapons to Riyadh on the grounds that arming the Saudis benefits the global working class!

Here is how the Friends replied to my Tweet criticizing them for failing to call out Chinese arms transfers to Saudi tyrants. Some of the Friends had earlier led campaigns to denounce Western arms sales to the same despots, but couldn’t find the courage and integrity to condemn Beijing for doing the same.

Hypocrites to be sure, the Friends are also bold. After all, to claim China is socialist, when it so obviously is not, takes a fair amount of chutzpah. “Socialist China” strikes a jarring note, like “Flat Earth” and “Square Circle.” Imagine a group called Friends of Peace-Loving USA, self-described peace-activists who support the United States with the aim of spreading understanding of America’s rich devotion to a world without war. This is what the Friends are all about: propaganda—and, as it turns out, they’re unabashedly avowed spreaders of Beijing’s manure.

They claim to be Marxists, and while they may think they are, their knowledge of Marxism is wafer-thin. At worst, they’re frauds. Carlos Martinez, one of the group’s principals, criticized a view of imperialism based on the writings of Rudolph Hilferding, Nicolai Bukharin, and V.I. Lenin—what’s known as the classical Marxist theory—as non-Marxist. Martinez labors under the mistaken impression that Marxists understand imperialism to be what the G7, and only the G7, does. Chinese chauvinists may hold this view, but Marxists? No.

On their website the Friends ask Why China? To support “all states building or aspiring to socialism.” What they mean is that China is not socialist, but says it aspires to be someday. For the moment, it’s capitalist, and thoroughly so. Hence, the lifting of pandemic restrictions under pressure from capitalists at home and abroad. Hence, throwing Yemen under the bus by selling arms to the Saudis. Profits take priority over lives and principal as much in Beijing as Washington.

As to the deceit embedded in the term “socialist China,” I may aspire to be a Nobel Prize winner, but calling myself Nobel Prize winning Steve, would be more than a little deceptive; so too, referring to China as socialist, when China says only that it aspires to be socialist someday, is sheer mendacity.

But, then, deception is the name of the game where the Friends are concerned. No sooner does the Friends’ website acknowledge indirectly that Chinese socialism is aspirational, that is, for the future, does it resume talking about Chinese socialism in the present, as if it’s a real thing.

And then there’s the Friends’ devotion to the backward concept of multipolarity. “China,” the Friends intone, “is the most prominent force pushing for the establishment of a multipolar system of international relations.” Multipolarity is important to the Friends, because it’s important to Beijing, though it’s hardly a Marxist aspiration, or has much to do with Marxism. Marxism aspires to a nonpolar world free from the division of humanity into classes and nations. Martinez and crew wouldn’t know this, because, well, they don’t know much about Marxism. But they do know something about what the Chinese tell them Marxism is.

Multipolarity—the idea that a few large powers should divide the world, so long as one of them is China—is an idea of significance to Chinese nationalists; they’re keen on engineering China’s rebirth as a great power so their profit-making enterprises can claim a greater share of the world market. In practice, multipolarity means that, rather than relying on the United States alone to get arms to wage a war of aggression on Yemen, the Saudi tyranny can also buy weapons from China. One might understand why the leader of a rising power, or a Saudi tyrant, might value multipolarity, but it’s hard to see why a genuine Marxist would.

The Friends of China, of course, are not Marxists, any more than people who would call themselves Friends of Peace-Loving USA would be peace-activists. The Friends are little more than automata who march to the drumbeat of that most capitalist of states, the People’s Republic of China.

The group’s mission, unabashedly acknowledged on its website, is to provide a platform for pro-China propaganda. When you say you support the People’s Republic of China and that your mission is to spread understanding of it, you acknowledge that your aim is to promote information supportive of Beijing; that is, that your role is one of propaganda.

In the Friends’ view, spreading pro-China propaganda equals anti-imperialism. Anti-imperialism, thus, becomes a project of objecting to criticism of China and promoting pro-China narratives; that is, of pro-China propaganda. Behind this absurd conception of imperialism lies an article of faith: that China does not seek to integrate foreign territory into its national economy in competition with other capitalist powers. In other words, China alone, among large capitalist powers, is not compelled by the competition inherent in capitalism to project power abroad, through economic, political, diplomatic, and military means. That Beijing obviously vies with the United States, Europe, and even Russia, for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory, escapes the notice of the Friends, who prefer to think of Beijing projecting influence abroad on behalf of its billionaires as China selflessly promoting development and fostering socialism around the world. One can find the Friends’ equivalent on the other side of the inter-imperialist aisle, who will swear up and down that Washington’s engagement with the world is inspired by lofty ideals of promoting stability, development, human rights, and democracy.

Martinez’s Twitter handle, @agent_of_change is more honestly rendered @agent_of_Beijing. That’s demonstrated by his reaction to my challenging the theory that China puts people ahead of profits. The avowed propagandist complained that I was spraying “anti-Chinese propaganda around the Internet.” When criticism is peremptorily dismissed as propaganda, and propaganda is presented as unalloyed truth, it becomes clear that it’s not information the Friends are spreading, but disinformation. Sadly for avowed propagandists, but happily for scientific socialism, reality is challenging so many of the myths Beijing’s agent of change seeks to propagate under the guise of a phony anti-imperialism.   

A Brief Critique of Anti-War Activism

December 7, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Re-reading Kenneth Waltz’s Man, the State, and War, I was struck by a point he makes about the Second International holding two contradictory positions on war: (1) Capitalism = war, therefore ending war = abolishing capitalism; and (2) War can be prevented within the context of capitalist society by a vigorous peace movement.

I reviewed the Second International declarations on war and militarism, and, indeed, these two contradictory positions appear in each and every one of them (see table below). They all say, first, that war can be ended only by abolishing capitalism, and then go on to say, war can be ended or prevented by actions x, y, and z, neither of which involve abolishing capitalism. 

Take the 1910 Copenhagen Conference. The conference’s declaration on war and militarism notes that “Modern wars are the result of capitalism, and particularly of rivalries of the capitalist classes of the different countries over the world market.” It adds that “Wars will cease completely only with the disappearance of the capitalist mode of production.” But later on, the declaration contradicts itself when it insists that wars can be prevented if, in a crisis potentially leading to war “immediate steps” are taken “to bring about an agreement among labor parties of the countries affected for united action to prevent the threatened war.”

Quite by accident, I came across an analysis on the Ukraine war by Socialist Action Canada. Echoing Second International resolutions of over 100 years ago, it too presented the same two contradictory positions. Here’s how the analysis begins: “The unfolding tragedy can be halted by mass protest actions in every country, along with the construction of a broad, democratic anti-war movement.” It ends with a contradictory message: The only way to end war is “to eradicate the capitalist profit system by means of workers’ socialist revolution.”

So, which is it? Wars won’t end until capitalism ends? Or, wars won’t end until a broad, democratic anti-war movement organizes mass protests?  

What I found more striking about the analysis was this: Except for a brief reference to “workers and the poor, women and children” (in other words just about everyone) comprising “the first and foremost victims of war”, the analysis makes not one reference to the specifics of how the war has harmed the bulk of humanity. To be fair, the analysis was written in the first weeks of the war, before the impact could be fully felt and known. But today, almost a year into the war, much of the anti-war writing I’ve seen is silent on the following effects of the war.

  • Inflation and concomitant reduction in standards of living;
  • Central banks inching economies toward recession to control inflation;
  • Deeper poverty and the prospect of a debt crisis in low-income countries;
  • The threat of black-outs and power cut-backs in Europe.

Heretofore, 21st century wars have had negligible if any impact on the mass of people, except in the countries affected, with the result that arousing any serious mass opposition has been all but impossible. But the war in Ukraine is one which touches almost everyone in unpleasant ways, and yet the doyens of the “peace movement” have nothing to say about this. Much anti-war writing dwells on the question of how much of the blame for the war lies with Russia and how much with the United States, and absolutely nothing on how this war is affecting nearly everyone and how this offers a greater opportunity than other wars of this century for successful agitation against war and for a Marxist understanding of it.

Into this vacuum has stepped the IMF and World Bank—organizations that call for an end to the war to save humanity from the conflict’s regrettable effects on the material conditions of most people. These organizations have become the unlikely de facto leaders of an anti-war movement. They have focused attention on a matter of the greatest relevance to the greatest number, namely, that on top of killing people in Ukraine, the war is plunging hundreds of millions in low-income countries deeper into poverty, while degrading the living standards of most everyone else. The self-appointed “peace movement”, in contrast, is too busy conducting agitprop for Moscow on social media (or pretending it’s not when it really is) to take any notice that the war has concretely produced an almost universal harm.  

It may be that the pro-Putin wing of the peace movement doesn’t want to draw too much attention to the suffering caused by the war, because most people correctly blame the war on Russia. Russia, after all, is the incontestable proximate cause. Being very vigorous opponents of war, our peace activists don’t want to sully the already sullied reputation of their favorite belligerent.  

In turns out that the love of humanity of this contemptible lot has a very narrow compass; it contains but one class of people–the leaders of US-adversary states. They love the anti-communist, misogynist, homophobic Putin, or whoever he tells them to love, but can’t find the energy to love their neighbors, the people they work with, and the class to which they belong. Their lodestar formula is: Whatever Washington dislikes is good. In another time, these same people would have rushed to defend Hitler, sung paeans to Tojo, and composed panegyrics to Mussolini, for one reason and one reason alone: Washington was against them. That is the sum and substance of their politics: opposition to Washington and solidarity with whoever shares their antipathy, including Chinese billionaires and telecom company executives, Russian oligarchs, and misogynist Iranian theocrats. Their equally repugnant counterparts on the other side, use the repugnance of some of Washington’s adversaries to justify support for Washington—betise of an equally objectionable character.

Meanwhile, you’ll find very little in their activism that tries to show—as “radicals” are supposed to do—what lies at the root of war. How can war be eliminated, or at least markedly suppressed, unless its causes are understood? Of course, some acknowledge the nexus between capitalism and war, and the necessity of abolishing the former to end the latter—as the Socialist Action Canada author did—but even they quickly contradict themselves by claiming wars can be ended short of ending capitalism, by galvanizing public opinion, pressuring governments, and engaging in feckless exhibitionist acts, like taking to the stage to interrupt the speeches of politicians, shouting a demand for the war to end, soon after shuffled away by security as the audience welcomes the ejection of a character they see as a crackpot. Their exhibitionist nonsense creates one impression: Not, the war must end, but, it’s the crackpots who are against it.

But they are the exception. The majority of the “peace movement’s” leaders don’t even go so far as to explore what Lenin called the economic essence or modern politics and war. Instead, they content themselves with generating an endless stream of revolting propaganda on behalf of whichever bourgeois state they’ve decided to docilely follow, like devoted dogs padding obediently after their masters.

Marxist and Liberal Views of War in the Resolutions of the Second international

 Marxist ViewLiberal View
Brussels Congress, 1891“Only the creation of a socialist order, putting an end to the exploitation of man by man, will put an end to militarism and assure permanent peace.”The Congress…calls on all workers to protest, by means of unceasing agitation, against all desires for war.
Zurich Congress, 1893“With the disappearance of class domination, war will likewise disappear. The fall of capitalism means universal peace.”Socialists “must protest unceasingly against standing armies and demand disarmament. The whole of the socialist party must lend its support to all associations whose object is universal peace.”
London Congress, 1896“Under capitalism the chief causes of war are not religious or national differences but economic antagonisms, into which the exploiting classes of the various countries are driven by the system of production for profit. Just as this system sacrifices unceasingly the life and health of the working class on the battlefield of labor, so it has no scruple in shedding their blood in search of profit by the opening up of new markets. The working class of all countries should rise up against military oppression on the same ground that they revolt against all other forms of exploitation under which they are victimized by the possessing class. To attain this object, they must acquire political power, so as to abolish the system of capitalist production.”The working class demands: 1) The simultaneous abolition of standing armies and the establishment of a national citizen force. 2) The establishment of an international tribunal of arbitration whose decision shall be final. 3) The final decision on the question of war or peace to be vested directly in the people in cases where the governments refuse to accept the decision of the tribunal arbitration.
Stuttgart Conference, 1907“Wars between capitalist states are as a rule the consequence of their competition in the world market, for every state is eager not only to preserve its markets but also to conquer new ones, principally by the subjugation of foreign nations and the confiscation of their lands. … Wars are … essential to capitalism; they will not cease until the capitalist system has been done away with…”“The Congress considers that the democratic organization of national defense, by replacing the standing army with the armed people, will prove an effective means for making aggressive wars impossible … ” The resolution goes on to refer “the growing power of the proletariat” through “its energetic intervention” to “maintain peace.”
Copenhagen Conference, 1910“Modern wars are the result of capitalism, and particularly of rivalries of the capitalist classes of the different countries over the world market…Wars will cease completely only with the disappearance of the capitalist mode of production.The Congress suggests that wars can be prevented by socialists undertaking “a vigorous propaganda of enlightenment among all workers…as to the causes of wars, in order to educate them in the spirit of international brotherhood.”   Additionally, it proposes “international arbitration be made compulsory in all international disputes”; “complete disarmament”; “the abolition of secret diplomacy”: and the “guarantee of self-determination of all nations.”   If further urges that, “in the event of war danger” that “immediate steps” be taken “to bring about an agreement among labor parties of the countries affected for united action to prevent the threatened war.”

Would a Plan for a Just Peace in Ukraine Make Any Difference?

December 5, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Would a peace plan for Ukraine that addresses each parties’ ostensible concerns about security and ethnic rights create a lasting peace?

In my view, it would not.

The parties’ substantive concerns are economic. Concerns about security and ethnic rights, while real, conceal more profound issues.

A plan that addresses the surface concerns but not the substantive ones is bound to fail.

What might the contours of a peace plan for Ukraine look like?

  • Russia withdraws from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.
  • Ukraine
    • Pledges neutrality, foreswearing membership in any military bloc.
    • Agrees to an irrevocable long-term lease of Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol.
    • Guarantees languages rights for Russophones and declares Ukraine to be a country for all its citizens, not a national Ukrainian state, and not one in which ethnic Ukrainians have superior rights. Instead, all citizens are guaranteed equal rights regardless of their language, religion, or ethnicity.

This proposal meets Russia’s stated concerns about security and the rights of Russian-speakers in Ukraine. At the same time, it restores all Ukraine’s territory.

But the plan fails to address key areas of tension.

First, it says nothing about whether the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 pipelines, built to circumvent Ukraine as a transitway for Russian natural gas, will be re-engaged to fulfill their originally intended role.  If so, Ukraine will be denied a major source of revenue in transit fees.  After the United States, Ukraine had been the major opponent of the pipelines. Kyiv would be expected to oppose any move to open the pipelines. So too would Washington.

It is unlikely that Moscow would agree to a plan that doesn’t see Russia’s return to Europe as a hydrocarbons vendor. Washington, conversely, is likely to oppose Russia’s re-engagement with Europe as an energy provider, considering that Europe’s renunciation of Russian gas has provided Washington with a much-needed market for US LNG.  The United States is now the world’s top LNG exporter.

Second, the plan fails to address perhaps the key issue underlying tensions since 2014: Whether Ukraine’s economy will be oriented toward the West or Russia.

Bearing an antipathy to Russia, a country they see as an historical oppressor, nationalist ethnic Ukrainians have pressured Kiev to orient their country toward the West, not only militarily, but economically. In contrast, Russophone Ukrainians have inclined more strongly to economic integration with Russia. For these reasons, Washington and Brussels have supported nationalist ethnic Ukrainians, and Moscow has backed Russophone Ukrainians. Both ethnic groups are used as tools by their superpower patrons to advance great power goals in Ukraine.

Thus, the cultural struggle between ethnic Ukrainians and Russophone Ukrainians is not only a struggle over nationalism and linguistic rights, but also a struggle over economics, with both the West and Russia intervening in Ukraine’s affairs for self-serving economic ends. A plan that addresses the surface linguistic and cultural concerns, but fails to tackle the key issue of Ukraine’s integration into one or the other economic bloc, will not produce a durable peace.

Cut-throat competition for markets, raw materials, pipeline routes, investment opportunities, and strategic territory is an enduring feature of capitalism. It is unlikely that a workable plan for peace can be found in a world in which capitalist competition is a constant. 

To sum up, a peace plan that addresses the ostensible reasons for war will make little difference. Ostensible reasons mask deeper motives—motives whose taproot is capitalist competition.

To end the fighting, one of two things must happen:

  • Russia, the United States, the European Union, and Ukraine pledge not to conduct themselves as capitalist powers. This isn’t going to happen.
  • The competition for Ukraine weakens one or both of the sides until one or both decides the potential gains are outweighed by the costs.

That’s how competitions end. In the victory of one side, in both sides simultaneously withdrawing, or in the mutual ruin of both. They don’t end in a just peace.