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

December 2, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

750 Million Europeans Suffer So A Few Wealthy North Americans Can Get Richer

September 2, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Commercially, Ottawa’s backing of multilateral sanctions on Russian oil and gas makes sense. Canada is a major oil and gas producer whose corporate sector could benefit from a growing share of the world energy market, one in which Russia is a major rival.

A fortiori, Washington’s championing of the same sanctions also makes sense. The shale revolution has unlocked ample supplies of oil and gas beneath US soil, returning the country to its historic role as an energy superpower. One oil field in Texas is now the second largest in the world.

Sanctions on Russian oil and gas are attractive commercially as a way of eliminating a major rival from the lucrative European energy market. Considering the realities of cutthroat commercial competition, we should consider the ardent support of Washington and Ottawa for sanctions on Russian energy to be part of a great game for economic and strategic advantage.

We might also expect that neither capital is much interested in helping Moscow and Kyiv arrive at a modus vivende, even though a negotiated peace between the two belligerents would end the unnecessary suffering of countless millions of people around the world. With the war in full flower, it’s much easier to maintain sanctions on Russia, and to inveigle Europe to accept them.

It’s understandable, then, that Washington and Ottawa should exploit the war in Ukraine to press Europe to cut its energy ties with Russia. But is it understandable that Europe should go along? After all, sanctions are visiting great harm and suffering on European consumers and businesses. Belgium’s prime minister has warned Europeans to brace for up to five years of hardship.

That hardship largely comes in the form of higher energy prices, the prospects of rationing and business closures this winter, a looming recession, and a declining standard of living.

If and when Europe decouples from Russian energy, and reorients its energy supply to North America and other countries in the US orbit, it will pay higher prices than it pays today. In terms of winners and losers, Europe clearly comes out on the losing end, while a handsome payday awaits corporate North America.

If Europe’s leaders are behaving in a way that benefits investors across the Atlantic at the expense of their own citizens and businesses, it’s because that’s the price subordinate units pay for being part of an empire.  The interests of the imperial center prevail. Junior members sacrifice.

Imperialism hurts Europeans in two ways. First, it exposes them to the danger of great power rivalries; these can escalate, by accident or intention, into nuclear war. Second, it subordinates their interests to those of corporate North America.

This isn’t unique to the US empire.  The same happens to secondary powers in other imperialist conglomerations. Belarussians and Syrians, for example, may reap rewards from membership in the Russian empire, but they also incur penalties. Both, by virtue of sheltering under Moscow’s aegis, are entangled in a great power competition in which they serve as pawns to be moved about a great chessboard by Kremlin planners whose goal is to protect the Russian king. The interests of the citizens of both countries come second, or matter hardly at all.

A better alternative is the end of great powers and their rivalries. But that means attacking the problem at its root—the ceaseless hunt for profits that plunges states into wars and intrigues to secure for their profit-accumulating enterprises advantages over the profit-accumulating enterprises of other states.

Ukraine Communists’ View of the War in their Country and How to End It

By Stephen Gowans

July 12, 2022

The Union of Communists of Ukraine (UCU), a communist party banned in Ukraine, published a statement on the war in their country on SolidNet, subsequently republished in English on The Defense of Communism site on July 12, 2022.

The following is a summary of the party’s analysis, which closely follows the classical Marxist view of imperialism.

The UCU characterizes the war in Ukraine as a clash of two imperialist alliances: One led by the United States, and the other led by Russia.

The UCU contests the reasons offered for war on both sides.

From the Russia side, the party disagrees that the war “is in the interests of ‘Russians,’” or for the “‘protection of the Russian-speaking population’” in Ukraine, or for the “‘denazification’ of the Ukrainian state.” Instead, it is “in the interests of Russian capital, which has sensed the danger and a necessity for the creation of new international conditions to provide further opportunities for profits and the growth of its capital.”

From the Ukrainian side, the war is not “about ‘the Ukrainian nation,’” or “‘the Ukrainian language and culture,’” or “even about ‘European values.’” In the party’s view, it is a war pursued by the EU, Ukraine, and North America, under US-leadership, “to destroy the economic and political power of the Russian bourgeoisie.” The “interests or rights of Ukrainian workers” are not a consideration. On the contrary, they are abridged and damaged by the war.

“Both Ukrainian and Russian workers in this war have only the right and obligation to go to the front and die so that one group of the world bourgeoisie defeats the other and gains more monopoly rights to oppress the workers, both in their own country and in the defeated countries.”

The war offers nothing of value to working people of the world. Indeed, the “consequences of this imperialist war … are catastrophic for the proletarian masses of all” countries. “A world war cannot but have world consequences: hunger, impoverishment, unemployment, and falling wages are already pacing the planet.”

[Energy and food prices are increasing as a direct consequence of the war. This has, in turn, led central banks to tighten money supplies to control inflation. The predictable consequence of central bank action is to tip economies into recession and visit further economic pain on working families worldwide.

Almost 50 million people have been pushed to the brink of starvation since the war began, as disruptions to grain supplies and soaring transportation costs push food prices out of the reach of the poor. At the same time, real incomes around the world are falling as wages stagnate and prices rise.]

As bad as these sequelae of the war are, a calamity of far greater significance lurks in the wings.

“The development of the military conflict in Ukraine has shown that its leading trend is its escalation into an open clash between the two imperialist blocs: Russia and its allies on one side, and NATO on the other side. This means the escalation of the war into a nuclear conflict and the emergence of a real threat of annihilation of humankind.”

The UCU invokes the classical Marxist view of imperialism as a system of rivalry among capitalist powers to dominate markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory. The “competition of capital inevitably leads to crises and wars.” Thus, the competition of capital must be eliminated to reduce the chances of humanity’s annihilation.

The “struggle against war” is “a struggle against the power of capitalists who wage wars.” It is based on “fighting against the capitalists in each of the warring states,” not supporting one bourgeoisie against the other [and not denying the imperialist character of one side or the other.]

“The UCU sees the way out of imperialist war for the working class not in abstract calls for peace and disarmament (which, at best, can only provide a reprieve from war for the parties to build up forces for an even fiercer clash), but in the need to eliminate capitalism as a parasitic and destructive social system, in which the competition of capital inevitably leads to crises and wars.”

To that end, the party proposes to turn the international war into a civil, or class, war, echoing Lenin’s slogan. At the same time, it appeals “to the Russian workers” to do the same, viz., “to turn the imperialist war into a class war against the power of capital and for the communist revolution.”

“The only thing we can oppose to the bourgeois nationalism …. which pits peoples against each other in war, is proletarian internationalism,” the party argues.

The Last True Communist

By Stephen Gowans

July 9, 2022

Below is a quick summary of a July 8 speech on the war in Ukraine by Dimitris Koutsoumbas, General Secretary of the Greek Communist Party (KKE), delivered to a conclave of communist parties from Greece, Mexico, Spain, and Turkey.

Earlier this year, Koutsoumbas’s party initiated a statement on the war in Ukraine, characterizing the war as the outcome of a struggle between capitalist classes. The statement was supported by a significant number of Communist Parties and Communist Youth Organizations, but rejected by others.

Koutsoumbas’s address elaborated on the KKE view, which has been summarized by one of its deputies in the European Parliament as follows: “The imperialist conflict in Ukraine is between two camps of robbers: The US-NATO-EU and the bourgeoisie of Ukraine against capitalist Russia, for the control of pipelines and markets.”

Here are some of the points Koutsoumbas made:

The war in Ukraine is a conflict between bourgeois states.

Bourgeois states engage in rivalries over raw materials, mineral wealth, commodity transport routes, geopolitical pillars, and market shares. These rivalries lead to war.

The causes of the imperialist war in Ukraine lie in the confrontation between bourgeois classes.

The USA, NATO, and EU are pursuing war in Ukraine to further their interests in Eurasia before embarking on a major conflict with China over which capitalist power will be supreme in the world economy.

People in all the belligerent countries and alliances—Russians, Ukrainians, Europeans, North Americans— are already paying the price for the war, either with their blood or in an unbearable economic burden.

The price they pay has been imposed on them by the bourgeoisie of all the belligerent powers.

Communists are engaged in a debate over the meaning of imperialism. One view limits imperialism to its reactionary–aggressive foreign policy, resulting in its identification with the USA and the most powerful EU member states. This view is too narrow.

[My note: The classical Marxist view of imperialism has always held that imperialism is an ineluctable outgrowth of capitalism and that it is expressed in rivalry among capitalist powers for access to raw materials, and to dominate markets, spheres of investments, and strategic territory. In the classical view, this rivalry eventually escalates to war.]

Capitalist relations of production now prevail entirely in China.  Moreover, Russia, among the most powerful capitalist military powers in the world, and supported by powerful monopolies, is unquestionably capitalist. Imperialism is inseparable from capitalism. As capitalist powers, neither China or Russia, therefore, are outside the imperialist system. 

Multipolaristas fantasize about a ‘peaceful cooperation’ in the framework of international capitalist competition through a utopian ‘non-aggressive’ rivalry, or a rivalry whose aggression will be held in check through various ‘security architectures’

[My note: Hilferding expresses the classical Marxist view on security architectures. “What an illusion,” it is, he wrote, “to preach international law in a world … of capitalist struggle where [the] superiority of weapons is the final arbiter.”]

Some communists have been deceived by the pretexts used by one or another ruling bourgeois class—North American, Russian, European, or Ukrainian—and have allowed themselves to become instruments of the pursuits of one or another bourgeois class.

We should not align with one or the other capitalist camp in the war, but instead work (1) to disengage our countries from the war and (2) most importantly, to overthrow the cause of the war: capitalism.

The Real Cause of the War in Ukraine: Capitalism

“Capitalism can pursue no other policy than that of imperialism.” Rudolph Hilferding

“Imperialism is an inevitable accompaniment of capitalist development.” Nikolai Bukharin

“Colonial politics and imperialism are … the inevitable consequences of the very foundations of capitalism.” V.I. Lenin

By Stephen Gowans

June 18, 2022

Blaming the war in Ukraine on Russian aggression or, alternatively, NATO provocations, represents a failure to understand capitalist imperialism as a system of rivalry among states for economic advantage. Imperialism is not what Russia alone does, or only what the United States and its janissaries do, but is, instead, a system in which all capitalist powers and blocs are enmeshed. It is not a policy choice, but the inevitable outcome of rivalry among states that originates in the expansionary imperatives of capitalism. To borrow from Lenin, capitalist imperialism is “the struggle for the sources of raw materials, for the export of capital, for spheres of influence, i.e., for spheres for profitable deals, concessions, monopolist profits, and so on, in fine, for economic territory in general.” [1] Blame for wars that spring from this system cannot be assigned to only one state or alliance. The blame lies with capitalism itself. Capitalism inevitably creates antagonisms among states, and the antagonisms can, and often do, escalate to war.

The historian William Appleman Williams explained this well.

The issue is not whether capitalism is a unique cause of war. It is not. The causes of war, including the economic ones, operate within capitalism just as they have within other systems of political economy. It does seem demonstrable, however, that capitalism heightens and intensifies the role and impact of economic factors in causing wars. The essential dynamic engine of capitalism, after all, is held to be a never-ending economic competition within a world marketplace. … the competition has an inherent tendency to escalate into political tension and conflict, and that exacerbates and reinforces other causes of such contention. For this reason, capitalism reveals a strong propensity to produce or result in organized violence … [The] capitalist outlook structures the world in such a way that capitalist leadership often sees itself as being confronted with a choice between war or defeat in the competitive marketplace. [2]

Assigning blame for war to one bloc or state, rather than to the internal workings of capitalism, was denounced by all leading Bolsheviks, and much later, by Domenico Losurdo, who faulted the historian Fritz Fischer for blaming WWI on Germany alone. Losurdo wrote: “Fritz Fischer’s weighty monograph, [Germany’s Aims in the First World War] published in the early 1960s, makes the mistake of always defining imperialism in the singular, as if the German variety alone were operative.” [3] In a similar vein, we can fault many contemporary Marxists and anti-imperialists for making Fischer’s mistake of always defining imperialism in the singular, in this case, as if the US variety alone is operative.

Lenin wrote of one imperialist war, WWI, as “the natural continuation of the policies of the capitalist class and of the governments of all countries” (emphasis added). [4]  Commenting on the same war, Lenin’s colleagues, Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, contended that “Undisputedly, the game of grab played by all the great powers was the real cause of the war. Only an idiot can continue to believe that the war took place because the Serbs killed the Austrian crown prince or because the Germans invaded Belgium” (emphasis added). [5]

They continued:

“The German capitalists maintained that Russia was the aggressor, whereas the Russians proclaimed everywhere that Germany began it. In Britain word went round that the British had entered the struggle on behalf of ‘gallant little Belgium.’ In France, everyone was writing, screaming, and singing to prove how gloriously France was behaving in defense of the heroic Belgian nation. Simultaneously in Austria and Germany it was being trumpeted that these two countries were repelling a Cossack invasion and were waging a purely defensive war.” [6]

“This “was all nonsense,” declared the two Bolsheviks, “a fraud.” [7] In truth, they said, “The essence of the imperialist war was … that in it, all were aggressors” (emphasis added). [8] That’s because the “essential desire of every one of the financial capitalist [States] is to dominate the world; to establish a world empire, wherein the small group of capitalists belonging to the victorious nations shall hold undivided sway” (emphasis added). [9] “In this manner,” Bukharin and Preobrazhensky argued, “the reign of financial capital must inevitably hurl all mankind into the bloody abyss of war for the benefit of bankers and [billionaires]; a war which is not for a people’s own land but for the plunder of other lands; a war that is waged in order that the world be subjugated by the financial capital of the conquering country.” [10]

It’s a surprise, then, to find that a Communist-led organization should make the same error the Bolsheviks and Losurdo condemned.  “The West – driven by the imperialist ambitions of the United States and its NATO allies … provoked the actions of the Russian government,” declares the Canadian Peace Congress. [11] This is no different from saying, Germany, driven by imperialist ambitions, provoked the actions of the Entente. In a prize fight, the fighter who lands the first blow has not—driven by his ambition to win the fight—provoked the actions of his opponent. If we want to understand prize fighting, we have to understand it as an institution, as a system of rivalry in which the actors seek the same prize at the expense of their rivals. The same is true of capitalism on a world stage.  

In concert with the Peace Congress’s attempt to identify the guiltier party, a recent online discussion panel, sponsored by the Toronto Association for Peace and Solidarity [12], also promoted an erroneous understanding of imperialism. Rather than locating the root cause of the war in rivalry among states driven by capitalist compulsions, it focused, in a climate of febrile attention to the war on Ukraine, exclusively on NATO, as if a war that is at the fore of public awareness can be understood in the motivations of one belligerent alone, or that the central problem is NATO (just one of many instruments of imperialism) rather than the capitalism-driven system of rivalry itself.

One cannot help but think that were the Bolshevik intellectuals transported across time to the present, they would, contrary to the approach of the Peace Congress, take a whole-system perspective, examining the role of capitalism and its imperatives in creating multiple antagonisms among the United States and its NATO alliance, the EU, Russia, and Ukraine. 

The Canadian Peace Congress tries to explain the war in Ukraine as an outcome of the United States’ “imperialist ambitions,” but says nothing about the source of these ambitions (where do they come from?) and nothing about the imperialist ambitions of Russia (as if Russia, a country as thoroughly capitalist as any of those of the NATO alliance, is somehow immune to ambitions to defend and expand its economic territory.) That’s odd, considering the Congress is Communist-led. You might expect Communists to point out that:

  • Imperialist ambitions arise inevitably from the internal workings of capitalism.
  • Capitalism compels business people to nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, and set up connections everywhere, as the Communist Manifesto explained, which means that capitalists from various countries are always bumping up against each other in pursuit of the same profit-making opportunities in the world market.
  • The compulsive drive for markets, investment opportunities, and raw materials creates antagonisms among states.
  • Capitalism is a danger because it incubates imperialist ambitions that conduce to war.
  • Blame for capitalism-driven war lies, not in the actions of a single belligerent state or bloc, but in capitalism itself.
  • Ending the seemingly interminable succession of capitalism-driven wars will only happen when, as Lenin put it, “the class which is conducting the imperialist war, and is bound to it by millions of economic threads (and even ropes), is really overthrown and is replaced at the helm of state by the really revolutionary class, the proletariat” (emphasis in the original).[13]
  • These wars won’t be ended by cheering on one or more of the contestants, hoping that in the struggle for the world market one side grows stronger and the other weaker, as the apostles of multipolarity do today.

Instead of a communist, or class, analysis of the war in Ukraine we have been presented, not only by the Canadian Peace Congress, but by many groups and people who present themselves as Marxist-Leninists, with a Fritz Fischer-like perspective—one that makes the mistake of always defining imperialism in the singular, as if the US variety alone or the Russian variety alone is operative. This perspective transforms the meaning of imperialism from a system of rivalry for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory into a denunciatory label to be attached to whichever bourgeois power one happens to dislike. 

Similarly indefensible and often sophistical arguments are presented by soi-disant Marxist-Leninists to justify departures from class analyses.

For example, some say that while they recognize all parties to the war in Ukraine to be aggressors, they reserve their condemnation for their own country’s government because it is the only one over which they can exert some influence. There are two problems with this argument.

First, people can, and have, exerted influence over foreign governments. The movements to pressure South Africa to abandon apartheid, and the similar BDS movement aimed at apartheid Israel, represent such efforts. The worldwide demonstrations for peace in the lead-up to the 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, were also efforts to influence what, for most of the participants, was a foreign government: that of the United States. Those who refuse to condemn Russia on the grounds that it is a foreign country over which they have no control, have had no reservations in the past about condemning the United States, Israel, and South Africa, and seeking to alter these countries’ courses of action. The argument they make to justify their silence on Russia, therefore, lacks credibility.

Second, even if it were true that no pressure can be exerted on foreign governments, it does not follow that this binds one to omerta, a code of silence on the actions of foreign governments. The related argument that one’s main duty is to oppose one’s own government fails for the same reason; opposing one’s own government is not equal to refusing to acknowledge that other states, also enmeshed in a system of rivalry for markets, investment opportunities, and strategic territory, also behave, as a consequence, in repugnant ways. What’s on trial, or ought to be, is not the United States or Russia, but imperialism, a system of rivalry in which all states under the sway of capitalism (including China) are ensconced. As much as I can walk and talk at the same time, so too can I condemn Russia for its aggression in Ukraine and oppose my own government’s contributions to the war, while at the same time locating the source of their imperialist ambitions and belligerent actions in the systemic imperatives and logic of capitalism.

Others say they fault all belligerents, but refuse to cite Russia’s aggression for fear of adding to the weight of pro-war sentiment in their own country. This view is problematic. Failing to acknowledge Russia’s aggression when it has been visibly brought to the public’s attention, in no way challenges one’s own government’s arguments for war or makes the argument against war any stronger. It does, however, guarantee that, in failing to acknowledge the obvious, building credibility with the larger public becomes unnecessarily difficult. It seems far more likely that a public, in Europe anyway, that already sees Russia as an aggressor, but favors a rapid end to the war and opposes military build-ups [13], will be more receptive to an argument that acknowledges the apodictic reality of Russian aggression. A sounder approach to refusing to acknowledge Russia’s belligerent actions, or worse, to defend or excuse them, is to argue thus: Russia’s attempt to retain Ukraine within its sphere of influence by war is indefensible, but at the same time, so too are the actions of the United States and its allies, to draw Ukraine into the EU sphere, and therefore, the larger US ambit. Two blocs are fighting over the profit-making opportunities and strategic assets that repose within the borders of Ukraine, and the victims are the ordinary people around the world who are paying, if not in their lives or displacement through war, through their pocket books, in increasingly unaffordable energy and food, and higher taxes or foregone social expenditures due to increased military outlays, to say nothing of facing an elevated threat of nuclear war. This is not a war of justice, where one bloc has virtue on its side, but a war against humanity in which all participating governments are aggressors.

Perhaps thinking wrongly that organizing against the war in Ukraine amounts to supporting Russia, the Peace Congress avers that it takes courage to promote “peace and solidarity in moments of crisis and in an atmosphere of pro-war frenzy and propaganda.” But what courage is really needed to say what a majority of the population already thinks, namely, that

  • Russia’s actions are deplorable;
  • the US and NATO should have accommodated Russia’s request to negotiate a security architecture in December;
  • Washington should not be taking measures to prolong and intensify the war; it should be working toward a diplomatic solution.

(The Congress doesn’t say who it is promoting solidarity with, but one gets the sinking feeling it’s Russia. No wonder it thinks courage is required.)

One especially vacuous argument presented by those who misunderstand imperialism holds that failing to take a side in a rivalry among capitalist states for markets, spheres of influence, and investment opportunities is an exercise in cowardice. A side must be taken, these imbeciles insist. As a matter of logic, there is no compelling reason why one must take a side in a conflict. This is particularly true if the disputants pursue goals that are either indifferent or inimical to one’s own interests. In point of fact, the Bolshevik view of imperialism does take a side: that of the proletariat. What it doesn’t do is take the side of one bourgeoisie against another.  The imbeciles demand we do.

Finally, some have dismissed the Bolsheviks’ analysis of imperialism as outdated, faulting it for being specific to conditions that prevailed in WWI, and therefore incapable of capturing the dynamics of a world dominated by a single hegemon. Two points can be made about this objection.

First, the early twentieth century was characterized by the predominance of the British Empire, which held large parts of the world under its sway, if not in its thrall. Britain’s primacy may not have been as strong as that of the United States today, but the empire was unquestionably first among great powers. The difference between a world dominated in the early twentieth century by the British Empire and the world dominated by the United States today, is quantitative, not qualitative, a matter of degree, not kind.

Second, while for a very brief period the United States was almost completely unchallenged as a global leviathan, both Russia and China have emerged as “revisionist” capitalist powers, to challenge the primacy of the United States and “revise” the US-superintended world order. By revise the world order, I mean repartition the world’s economic and strategic territory. Some people think there’s something progressive about this. If so, then World Wars I and II were progressive events, for they were the outcomes of Germany’s and Japan’s attempts to revise the world order to create greater multipolarity.

Germany and Japan, driven by the needs of their growing capitalist economies, emerged in the early twentieth century to challenge the British Empire, and to revise the global order London led—that is, to take from Britain and other great powers, the economic territory Berlin and Tokyo said they needed to thrive. Germany at a minimum lusted after a sphere of influence in all of continental Europe, while Japan sought pre-eminence in East Asia. Russia, today, is driven to protect its economic territory from US-led encroachments, while China’s capitalism-driven need for foreign markets and secure access to raw materials entangles it in a rivalry (along with complementarity) with the United States and the European Union. The rivalry may lead to war.

The period of conflict between the United States as the leader of the capitalist world, and the Soviet Union and Maoist China, as large powers, is different in one fundamental respect from the great power rivalry that marks the present: Russia is not a socialist country (and neither, by any common definition of the word “socialist”, is China.) That it is necessary to make a statement as blindingly obvious as this, one on par with, the earth is a sphere, is testament to the fact that some Marxist-Leninists are in the grips of an extraordinary delusion about the political economy of Russia and China. No, Russia is not the Soviet Union, and China, highly integrated into the US economy as a sphere of exploitation for US corporate behemoths seeking low-wage labor, while at the same time, a hot house for a growing clutch of billionaires with interests around the world, are not tribunes of the people, as some luftmenschen would like to believe.

The world politics on which the Bolsheviks cut their analytical teeth bears a much stronger resemblance to that of the world today than to the post-1945 twentieth century struggle between capitalist and communist blocs. Today, capitalist Russia and a China very much under the sway of capitalism, appear more like Germany and Japan during the so-called Second Thirty Year War, 1914-1945, namely, as rising capitalist powers with a mission, developed under the lash of capitalist expansionary imperatives, to repartition the world, than they resemble the Soviet Union and Mao’s China.

While NATO has unquestionably played a role in bringing about the war in Ukraine, focusing on NATO, and identifying the United States and its allies as bearing the greater guilt for the conflict, presents imperialism as if it were a policy that governments can adopt or reject at will rather than a capitalism-driven rivalry for the world market in which antagonisms among states are inevitable and wars are nearly ineluctable. We ought to be at a place where we can, to borrow from Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, explain the cause of the war in Ukraine as the outcome of “the game of grab played by all the great powers” and not—as “only an idiot can continue to believe”—either NATO provocations or Russian aggression.

[1] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. International Publishers. 1939. P. 124.

[2] William Appleman Williams. The Great Evasion. Quadrangle Books. 1964. P. 75.

[3] Domenico Losurdo. War and Revolution. Verso. 2015. P. 137.

[4] “Resolution introduced by the delegation of the central committee of the RSDLP to the International Socialist Women’s Conference at Berne”, in Lenin: The Imperialist War. International Publishers. 1930. P. 472.

[5] N. Bukharin and E. Preobrazhensky. The ABC of Communism.Penguin Books. 1970. P. 158.

[8] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 159.

[7] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 159.

[8] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 159.

[9] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 155.

[10] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 155.

[11] “Negotiate to End the War in Ukraine Now!” The Canadian Peace Congress, April 22, 2022. https://www.canadianpeacecongress.ca/statements-cpcon/negotiate-to-end-the-war-in-ukraine-now/

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=7bFEdpj5dYU While this may not be true of the Toronto Association for Peace and Solidarity, some solidarity groups see their mission in connection with the war in Ukraine as one of expressing solidarity with one capitalist country, Russia, against an alliance of other capitalist countries, NATO, rather than solidarity with the proletariat, whose blood, labor, and future, is threatened by the struggle between these two bourgeois blocs.

[13] V.I Lenin, “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky,” 1918, in Lenin’s Collected Works, Progress Publishers, Moscow, Volume 28, 1974, pp. 227-325.

[14] See, Ivan Krastev  and Mark Leonard, “Peace versus Justice: The coming European split over the war in Ukraine,” European Council on Foreign Relations, June 15, 2022. https://ecfr.eu/publication/peace-versus-justice-the-coming-european-split-over-the-war-in-ukraine/

Why Carlos Martinez’s and the Multipolaristas’ View of Imperialism is Too Simple

By Stephen Gowans

May 6, 2022

Carlos Martinez, a friend of what he believes to be a socialist China, but is in reality a very capitalist China, has a very simple view of imperialism, or, to be more precise, a view that clashes with what I consider to be more complex.

According to Martinez, “’the imperialist system’” is expressed as “’an imperialist alliance led by the U.S. (and incorporating Canada, Western Europe, Australia and Japan) which engages precisely in a global ‘process of domination guided by economic interests.’ This takes the form of a network of 800 military bases; unilateral sanctions against dozens of countries; wars of regime change; proxy wars; destabilisation campaigns; structural adjustment programs; nuclear threats; and more.” In other words, imperialism is a specifically US alliance of domination based on military and economic power.

My view of imperialism follows along the lines of those developed by Hilferding in Finance Capital, Bukharin in Imperialism and World Economy, and Lenin in Imperialism, the Highest State of Capitalism.

In the era of advanced capitalism, imperialism is a world economic system of rivalry among states for access to markets, raw materials, investment opportunities and strategic territory on behalf of their capital accumulating enterprises. Importantly, in this view, imperialism is defined as a system of rivalry, in which all major capitalist powers are compelled to take part by the system’s imperatives.

Carlos views the United States as a capitalist behemoth that has taken an aggressive attitude toward China, which it seeks to contain. I agree with this assessment. Where I disagree with Carlos is in this: He sees China’s defense against US predation as anti-imperialism, rather than as an expression of the antagonism that is inevitable between two large capitalist powers competing in a global capitalist system. The rivalry touches competition for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory (including maritime routes.) China’s actions may be defensive, and those of the US and its satellites aggressive, but China’s actions, defensive though they may be, are nonetheless competitive actions, part of the capitalist-driven rivalry between the two powers.

As a major, and by some accounts the major, actor in the global capitalist system, China has no option but to compete against other capitalist powers for profit-accumulating opportunities around the world. Its compulsion to engage in capitalist competition on a global scale is all the stronger for the Chinese Communist Party pursuing a model of raising China and recovering its greatness through capitalist, and specifically Listian, methods.

While China may face fierce and aggressive competition from the United States (and other major capitalist powers) it is not outside of that competition. Carlos has essentially defined imperialism as highly aggressive competition led by the United States based on military and economic power. In excluding economic antagonism and focusing exclusively on the strength of the US and its satellites (and excluding two major actors in the world economic system, China and Russia), Carlos’s view is at odds with the model developed by the three Marxists cited above. Curiously, he defines this model as “pseudo-Marxism.”

One embarrassing implication of Carlos’ definition is that it excludes the Axis powers as imperialists. 1930s Germany, Italy, and Japan complained bitterly that the major imperialist powers of the day, Britain, France, and the United States, sought to contain the trio’s development and deny them their place in the sun. In other words, they argued for greater multipolarity. To be sure, in the capitalist competition for profit-making opportunities around the world, the Axis’ powers fared poorly by the standards of their more powerful rivals. Their bristling against US, British, and French encroachments on what they viewed as their neighborhoods and spheres of influence were seen in Axis’ capitals as imperialist predations. By Carlos’s definition, the efforts of the Axis’ powers to recalcitrate against the stronger powers (to defend themselves, they said) and redivide the world, was anti-imperialism, not the expression of antagonism between one set of weaker capitalist powers against another set of stronger ones.

Carlos’s definition of imperialism emerges from a view that the world would be a better place were the overwhelming power of the United States checked by the emergence of peer competitors. This is, in a way, a simple inversion of Washington’s view. Washington sees the re-emergence of great power rivalry as a threat. In the view of the multipolar advocates, whatever is a threat to the United States must be a blessing for the people whom the dominant power tyrannizes.  

The problem with this view is that it fails to take the context of a world capitalist economy into account. If three yahoos engage in fisticuffs in a small room in which tens of people are entrapped, and one yahoo is very strong and the other two are weaker, and as they fight, they trample and fall upon those who can’t escape, then building the strength of the weaker two at the expense of the stronger isn’t going to make the people in the room any safer. The only way to bring calm and safety to the room is to bring the fighting to an end. In less metaphorical language, that means ending capitalism and its ineluctable antagonisms among classes and states, not seeking a more equal development among capitalist powers to continue their war of capitalist rivalry.

Far from being a step forward, a midpoint on the road to revolution, as some seem to think, a multipolar world is in fact a return to conditions that brought us the industrial exterminations of two world wars. It is a regression, a worsening of existing conditions. The answer is not a return to a more intense antagonism among equally balanced capitalist states, a more perilous world even than the one in which we’re already mired, but an end to classes and states altogether.

A nonpolar world in which imperialism has been transcended, in contradistinction to a multipolarity of roughly equally balanced capitalist powers, is not, pace Carlos, a pseudo-Marxist aspiration. It is the very essence of Marxism.

Imperialism and the Solomon Islands

By Stephen Gowans

April 21, 2022

In Lenin’s view, imperialism is immanent in capitalism as a global system. Inasmuch as China is one of the most significant players in this system, if not the most significant, the implication of Lenin’s view is that imperialism is also immanent in China.

A number of people who claim to be anti-imperialists and to understand the concept thoroughly, to the point of holding workshops, participating in panels, and writing articles to instruct others on what it means, have, despite their professed knowledge, defined the concept in a manner that departs significantly from the way in which imperialism has been understood historically. Until Russia invaded Ukraine, there was little mystery about what imperialism is. Now, it has become altogether different from what it has always been understood to mean. And while many of these same people claim at least a passing knowledge of Lenin’s view of imperialism, the Bolshevik leader would have been baffled by their understanding.

In opposition to commonly accepted definitions and the Leninist tradition, the anti-imperialist docents have developed a view of imperialism that resonates less with Lenin and more with a view developed by Shintoist Japan in the 1930s. According to this view, imperialism is North American and Western European domination of the world. Anti-imperialism is the effort of a rising power to liberate its neighbors from this domination by folding nearby states into its own (declared or undeclared) regional empire (the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere in Japan’s case.)

Hence, Russia’s efforts to “liberate” Ukraine from the United States and Europe, and to incorporate parts or all of it into a palingenetic Russian empire, is viewed as anti-imperialist. Likewise, China’s new security agreement with the Solomon Islands is seen as anti-imperialist—a weakening of US and Australian domination of the islands. While it certainly is this, it is also an effort to define a security architecture that allows Beijing to protect Chinese investments abroad and to safeguard shipping routes that are vital to the unimpeded access of Chinese billionaires to foreign markets and sources of raw materials.

The Leninist view of imperialism as inherent in a globalized capitalism can be used as a lens to parse the New York Times’ reporting on the recent China-Solomon Islands security agreement. According to a leaked draft of the accord, Beijing is empowered to dispatch police, troops, and warships to the islands to protect Chinese investments and Chinese citizens, an agreement that resonates with multiple similar accords struck between Washington and countries in Latin America and beyond.

The Times, tacitly defining US ruling class interests as humanity’s interests, presents the accord as a danger to the world. “China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and his army now have a foothold in an island chain that played a decisive role in World War II and could be used to block vital shipping lanes,” the newspaper warns. What isn’t mentioned is that the United States and its satellites control the shipping lanes. The deal allows China to challenge US control of the maritime routes on which it depends—or more precisely, on which its capitalist economy depends—for access to foreign markets and sources of raw materials. The deal doesn’t threaten humanity so much as it threatens US leverage over a capitalist rival.

The Times continues its diatribe against the accord by noting the pact’s imperialist features, all the while avoiding any mention of the similar accords Washington, London, Paris, and other imperialist capitals have signed with numberless governments around the world for centuries, sometimes at the point of a gun.

“To start,” the accord “provides a broad mandate for China to potentially intervene when its foreign investments and diaspora are under threat, as it stretches its projection of military power.”

The newspaper quotes Richard Herr, a law professor at the University of Tasmania, who observes that “With the pact, China is essentially trying to establish a principle of using military force to protect its economic presence in places where it claims the government does not have the capacity.” In this, China acts no differently than the United States.

“What the Solomons’ deal tells the world, at the very least,” he adds, “is that China believes that if its major projects are threatened, it wants a right to protect them.” Again, this is standard US procedure, or, to put it another way, standard procedure for major capitalist powers. Consider also France’s intervention in Africa to protect access to and investments in uranium mines, vital to an important form of French energy.

“The lesson for the rest of the world is that China is looking to rebalance the global order in its favor,” Herr continues. “And whether that means opening trade routes, establishing a military facility or signing a security agreement, Beijing will act to benefit its own interests.” Herr goes on to say that Beijing will do so at the expense of “democracy and an open and free world”, euphemisms for the US empire.  In other words, the expansion of a Chinese empire comes at the expense of a US empire.

What the Times’ article shows, albeit in a clearly chauvinist way, is that large capitalist powers and blocs—the United States and its satellites, Europe (to the extent it acts independently of the United States), China, and Russia—seek to fashion the world order in their favor.  They seek to bring as much of the world economy as possible under their own control. This means security arrangements and treaties to protect their investments abroad, and to safeguard their access to foreign markets, sources of raw materials, strategic territory, and investment opportunities. To be sure, the United States is by far the strongest of the rivals, but that doesn’t mean that Russia and China are not driven by capitalist compulsions to dominate the planet every much as strong as those that drive US expansion—a compulsion to settle everywhere, to nestle everywhere, to establish connections everywhere.

With multiple capitalist power centers existing within the framework of a globalized economy, rivalry for profit-making opportunities is inevitable. The rise of one power center at the expense of another may appear to be anti-imperialist, but only so far as the declining power is erroneously viewed as the sole imperialist, i.e., as the lone capitalist power in search of investment opportunities, markets, and raw materials. The decline of US and Western European influence in East Asia with the rise of Japan beginning in the 1930s may have appeared to the naïve as an anti-imperialist victory—this was certainly the illusion Tokyo aimed to create—but it was an illusion all the same. So too is China’s rise an illusory anti-imperialist victory. It may be a victory against China’s domination by the United States, as the rise of the United States was a victory against US domination by Britain, or Germany’s rise was a challenge to British hegemony, but it is in no way a victory over the persistence of capitalist rivalry for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory. It is simply a continuation of this process.

Imperialism within a globalized capitalist economy can be envisaged along two axes. One axis concerns the process of large countries exploiting profit-making opportunities in smaller countries. The anti-imperialist docents err in thinking of imperialism in these terms alone. The other axis concerns the rivalry among large countries for profit-making opportunities within the borders of the countries its rivals dominate and within the borders of its rivals themselves. The first axis is one of large countries dominating weaker ones. The second is of large countries competing among themselves to monopolize the sum total of the world’s profit-making opportunities—to shape the global order in their favor, to use terminology favored by the New York Times.  

The security pact between China and the Solomon Islands is a manifestation of imperialism, in three acts:

  • In China seeking to create a security architecture to protect its tycoons’ investments beyond China’s borders.
  • In Beijing’s efforts to counter US domination of shipping lanes important to China’s capitalist economy.
  • In the opposition of the United States (and its sub-imperialist partner, Australia) to China’s challenge to US-led control of maritime routes.

Capitalism need not be invoked to define China and Russia, along with the United States, France, and Great Britain—the permanent members of the UN Security Council—as imperialist states. As victors of WWII, these self-defined “model” nations have assigned to themselves rights and privileges senior to those of all other nations. Russia, for example, can test a new ballistic missile with impunity, by virtue of its permanent membership on the council and access to veto powers, while participating, along with China, in the imposition of international sanctions on a small country, North Korea, for doing precisely the same.

Large countries, including the largest of all, China, have historically dominated their weaker neighbors, even if some of them, China not excepted, were dominated themselves. A fortiori, we would expect large capitalist countries, driven by an expansionary capitalist logic, to continue in this manner. China shows no evidence that it is an anomaly or a departure from expectation.

Cheering the Rise of Yet Another Capitalist Empire Hurts You and Me

April 14, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Marxist economist Richard Wolff makes two good points in an April 14 article, The Role of Capitalism in the War in Ukraine.

The first is that the “entire world is caught up in the decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another.” The declining capitalist empire is the United States and the rising capitalist empire is Eurasia, at the center of which lies capitalist China and capitalist Russia. The decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another can be characterized as the emergence of a multipolar capitalist world, to supersede one of US supremacy. This is the condition sought by the multipolaristas, a gaggle of people united by little more than a common abhorrence—not of capitalism, or imperialism, or wars of aggression—but of US foreign policy.

Wolff’s second point is that “a different economic system not driven by a profit motive offers a deeper solution to any on offer at present.” Lenin’s solution is a nonpolar world free from imperialism, in contrast to the multipolaristas’ cheerleading the rise of one capitalist empire as it challenges another.

Among Lenin’s “various definitions of imperialism, one of the most significant characterizes it as the claim of a few chosen nations to base their own prosperity and primacy on despoliation and domination of the rest of humanity. They regard themselves as model nations.” (Losurdo, Class Struggle, 2016, p. 158) We might think, for example, of the “model nation” which launches a crusade against what it says is neo-Nazism in a neighboring country, one intended to impose a Quisling government and integrate the country’s economy into that of the aggressor, or which pursues a humanitarian intervention under the pretext of arresting genocide.

A subsidiary point: Losurdo challenges a commonly held misconception that the Bolshevik leader’s understanding of imperialism can be reduced to a check list of characteristics that define individual states—that Lenin had one definition of imperialism, rather than several. These characteristics have been misrepresented in various places as criteria for determining whether a country is imperialist. In point of fact, they were Lenin’s descriptions of capitalism as a globe-girding economic system in what he called its highest stage—a stage in which capital had become highly concentrated; finance capital is dominant; the export of capital (as opposed to goods and services alone) is important; gigantic international corporations compete across the globe; and a few great powers have divided the whole world into spheres of influence. To repeat: This is a description of an economic system, not of individual countries. Another point: In a world economy of monopoly capitalism, imperialism is inevitable.

Lenin did not reduce imperialism to the export of capital or define it as an exclusively monopoly capitalist phenomenon. Consider these words from Lenin’s volume on imperialism: “Colonial policy and imperialism existed before this latest stage of capitalism and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and achieved imperialism.” (V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, 1939, p. 81-82)

Or this, a shock, perhaps, to those who believe Russia cannot be considered imperialist in any Leninist sense: “[Among] the six powers [that had divided the world], we see, firstly, young capitalist powers (America, Germany, Japan) which progressed very rapidly; secondly, countries with an old capitalist development (France and Great Britain), which, of late, have made slower progress than the previously mentioned countries, and, thirdly, a country (Russia) which is economically most backward, in which modern capitalist imperialism is enmeshed, so to speak, in a particularly close network of pre-capitalist relations.” (V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, International Publishers, 1939, p.  81)

To sum up. A country doesn’t have to be capitalist to be imperialist (imperialism, i.e., empires, existed long before capitalism.) Nor does it have to export capital (imperialism also antedated monopoly capitalism.) To be imperialist, all a nation must do, as Lenin explained, is oppress another nation. The essence of imperialism, wrote Lenin, is the “division of nations into oppressor and oppressed.” (V.I. Lenin, Declaration of Rights of The Working and Exploited People, 4 January, 1929 in Pravda No. 2 and Izvestia No. 2.)

Who exactly is hurt most in the struggles of capitalist empires? The answer is the class Lenin championed: ordinary working people.

In Ukraine, workers are plagued by invasion, displacement from their homes, the danger of death or injury, and the loss of jobs and incomes.

Ordinary Russians will soon struggle with rising prices and lost employment, if they aren’t already.

The working class in Europe, already careworn with declining purchasing power, will soon pay even higher rates for energy, and will be hurt further by higher taxes or reduced services or both as growing military outlays stress government budgets.

Worldwide, the struggle of empires puts upward pressure on prices, for food and energy especially. Hunger will increase. The difficulties of making ends meet will grow.

Finally, the struggle of capitalist empires carries with it the risk of a regional war escalating into a global conflagration. It’s something none of us—most all, ordinary working people—want.

Lenin’s solution, a nonpolar world free from imperialism, is not achievable by choosing sides in the struggles of competing capitalist empires. It’s only possible by doing away with capitalism and empire as institutions of domination and exploitation. And that won’t happen by cheerleading the rise of yet another capitalist empire, or supporting Russia’s efforts to reassert a sphere of influence in Ukraine and carry out a war of aggression on ordinary Ukrainians on the backs of ordinary Russians at the expense of ordinary people in Western Europe, North America, and the whole world over. Nor will it happen by encouraging the co-belligerent actions of the US government and its NATO subalterns in pursuing the US goal of fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.

As governments representing bourgeois interests compete for markets, investment opportunities, strategic territory, and spheres of interest, it may be fitting to recall an observation of Marx and Engels: “The workers have no country.” Not Russia. Not China. Not the United States.

The Mental Illness of Anachronistic Radical Socialism

April 13, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Some radical socialists practice a politics that carries over from the days when to be a revolutionary meant supporting the Soviet Union or China. With the Soviet Union gone, and socialist China a distant dream (and perhaps one never to be achieved under the direction of the current communist party), socialists of this persuasion have cut reality to the Procrustean bed of what being a revolutionary socialist used to mean. If the Soviet Union and socialist China are gone, they’ll be recreated. Russian imperialism is transformed into Soviet anti-imperialism and Chinese billionaires are turned into socialists with Chinese characteristics. The reality of a world of inter-imperialist rivalry is conjured into a world as it once was – divided by a capitalist, imperialist camp, on the one hand, and a socialist, anti-imperialist camp, on the other.

But the latter camp, notwithstanding the socialists’ need to create a nostalgic fantasy, today comprises countries that are neither socialist, however much they once were, nor anti-imperialist, despite their rhetoric. All the same, the socialists’ anachronistic politics demand that they have a state to support, and if a state can’t be supported on the basis of its current actions, it will be supported on the basis of its former actions, or delusions about what its current character is.

The alternative idea that socialists might actually do what they’re supposed to do, namely, promote the interests of a class, the proletariat, is dismissed as anachronistic, an antique idea that may have made sense in Lenin’s day, but is no longer current, or is the refuge of cowards who refuse to take sides in struggles between states. Devotion to the class war is understood to be a distraction from participation in wars between nations.

However much it is difficult for anachronistic radical socialists to understand, Russia is not the Soviet Union, is not socialist, and has not escaped the capitalist logic and raisons d’état that compel large capitalist states to dominate and exploit other states, especially their weaker neighbors, and to engage in struggles with other capitalist states for markets, spheres of influence, investment opportunities, and strategic territory.

And while it may be difficult to understand that China’s growing prosperity has less to do with socialism and far more to do with capitalism, especially the country’s emulation of the mercantilist policies that built the capitalist West, this is the reality. There is no socialist China. There is a capitalist China, which, in its industrial planning and state owned enterprises coexisting with privately-owned business, merely recreates what other successful capitalist countries did to lift their millions out of poverty. If we’re going to talk of a socialist China we might as well talk of a socialist Germany and a socialist Japan and a socialist South Korea, for all of these countries, and more, relied heavily on industrial planning and state owned enterprises to lift their millions out of poverty, as capitalist China is doing today. It’s not by accident that the conflict in the years leading up to WWI between an ascendant Britain, and a rising Germany, whose development was nurtured by a dirigiste state animated by the goal of catching up to the world’s hegemon, is looked to as an historical analogy to understand the current conflict between today’s hegemonic power, the United States, and a rising China.

According to the Chinese Communist Party’s August 2021 statement of its mission, socialism is effectively capitalism (releasing and developing the productive forces, the party says) under the direction of the Communist Party. In other words, to the Chinese Communists, socialism is another word for capitalism, but under Communist dirigisme (emulating mercantilist methods.)

With China now well down the capitalist road, anachronistic radical socialists sing rhapsodies to capitalism in China, while deploring it elsewhere, except in Vietnam. Docilely following wherever their hero state leads, they repeat in celebration of Chinese “socialism” the stock phrases Republicans once reliably used to justify their regular assaults on the working class—phrases such as “a rising tide lifts all boats” and “hundreds of millions lifted out of poverty.”  To say they make themselves into laughing stocks is to say more than is necessary.  

Deluded that Putin’s Russia is Stalin’s Soviet Union and Xi’s China is Mao’s People’s Republic, the anachronistic radical socialists dream of a multipolar world in which the United States is counterbalanced by China and Russia. Multipolarity, in their fantasy, is a return to the original Cold War, one pitting US-led capitalism and imperialism against Soviet-led socialism and anti-imperialism. But multipolarity in reality means a return to a vigorous inter-imperialist rivalry, one which gave rise to the industrial extermination of WWI, followed by the even greater exterminations of WWII. The praxis of the multipolaristas is solidarity with anti-US poles of attraction for no other reason than they’re anti-US poles of attraction. Baby imperialisms are to be nurtured and supported so they grow up to become big imperialisms that can compete with the one big imperialism, that of the United States—like supporting Germany in the runup to WWI, so it could compete against Britain, in a multipolar world. Somehow, this is supposed to deliver us all to a better place. In Lenin’s view—one which anachronistic radical socialists now scorn—a better place is a nonpolar world free from imperialism, to be achieved, not by supporting one national bourgeoisie against another, but by overthrowing them all.

To help midwife the birth of the emerging multipolar world, the anachronistic radical socialist turns skepticism of US pretexts for imperialist assaults into a need to believe the very same pretexts Moscow recycles for its own imperialist assault on Ukraine. NATO’s humanitarian interventions in the former Yugoslavia and Libya to prevent claimed genocides are scoffed at, for good reason. The proposal to mount a humanitarian intervention in Xinjiang to prevent a claimed Chinese genocide against the Uyghurs is denounced correctly as an imperialist plan backed by a black legend. But Moscow’s pretext of humanitarian intervention in Ukraine to prevent an alleged genocide is accepted uncritically, even though Moscow has not invoked the Genocide Convention, something it would do if it genuinely believed what it claims. The pretext is also accepted without skepticism despite the fact that Moscow has already displayed a manifest willingness to lie to advance its aims in Ukraine; after all, the Kremlin insisted Russia would not invade Ukraine, going so far as to mock anyone who said it would. And then it did what it swore it wouldn’t do. You would think, having been misled once, the radical socialist Russophiles would learn, but their need to have a state (in place of a class) to support militates against their learning of lessons.     

Gullible, they turn socialist praxis into Russian information warfare, aping Moscow’s narrative as ardently and faithfully as CNN mimics Washington’s, right down to euphemizing Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine—the supreme international crime—as a mere “crisis”, or a “special military operation”, or worse, not a conflict between Russia and Ukraine at all, but “a hybrid US war.” In their minds, their devotion to radical socialism is proved by their fidelity to the hero state’s message and the zeal with which they propagate its fictions. Questions are discouraged, thought frowned upon, skepticism denounced as betrayal. They are good soldiers, and will not stray from the narrative of the hero state, will not refuse to accept its word on all matters, will not question its mendacities nor deplore its absurdities. In this, their eagerness to make themselves into laughing stocks knows no limits.

Radical socialists used to say that they practiced a scientific socialism. It was scientific because it tried to adapt to reality, not obfuscate it or fit it to a Procrustean bed. But what many radical socialists practice today cannot be called scientific, or indeed, even coherent socialism. Their practice instead is based on a detachment from reality and a construction of a pleasing fantasy of a world that once was but is no longer; in other words, it is little more than mental illness.

The Struggle of Russia and the United States for Ukraine

February 25, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

The “military operation” announced by Russian president Vladimir Putin on February 24, is the latest episode in a struggle between two powers, the United States and Russia, for control of Ukraine. There is little good that can be said about either of these powers.

Russia is no more a progressive state than is the United States, and, indeed, is a good deal less so. The country’s president, Vladmir Putin, an anti-Bolshevik apostle of “traditional values”, i.e., homophobia, misogyny, and religious superstition, is admired by the Tucker Carlsons and Donald Trumps of the world, as well as some supporters of the trucker convoys, for his “anti-woke stance.” Trump thinks the world of Putin, much as US reactionaries of another time admired Hitler and Mussolini for their “strong” leadership and anti-Bolshevism. Putin has little good to say about Lenin and Stalin, disapproving of the Bolsheviks’ nationalities policies and criticizing Stalin for not pre-emptively attacking Nazi Germany. Putin proudly announced that he wouldn’t make in connection with Ukraine what he sees as Stalin’s mistake in connection with Germany.

Nor is Russia any less an imperialist state than the United States, though it is, to be sure, much less powerful than its US rival, far less dangerous, and its domains far less extensive. But it is imperialist, all the same, however much it is opposed to the prospect of its own domination by the United States. For all its anti-hegemonism, Moscow is not opposed to subjugating other countries. Russia intervened militarily in Syria in 2015, not out of a selfless commitment to rescuing the government in Damascus, but to advance Russian aims. Syria is a vassal of Moscow, and while Damascus may (or may not) find the terms of its vassalage preferable to those the United States would impose, it remains a Russian vassal state all the same.

As to Ukraine, it has the unfortunate fate of finding itself in the middle of an inter-imperialist struggle. Through subterfuge and machination, the United States in 2014 installed a pro-US, anti-Russian puppet government in Kyiv. That government has acted to integrate the territory, people, military, and markets of Ukraine into the United States’ informal empire. In insisting on membership in NATO, participating with NATO forces in military exercises along Russia’s borders, refusing to implement the Minsk II agreement, vigorously engendering opposition to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and proclaiming its intention to reclaim Crimea, home to the Russian Black Fleet, the US puppet government in Kyiv has done much to provoke Russian aggression. Indeed, it is difficult to conclude that this wasn’t its aim, since Kyiv played it cards as if it was. Moscow would rather Ukraine be integrated into its own informal empire, the Eurasian Economic Union, though faute de mieux, it has been prepared to accept Ukraine neutrality. An independent Ukraine, one not under the de facto control of Washington, would likely have opted to join neither the (vast) informal empire of the United States nor the (much smaller) informal empire of Russia. But a Ukraine under the informal control of the United States has recklessly crossed so many Russian red lines.

On a moral and legal plane, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is indefensible. Putin’s invoking Article 51, Chapter VII of the UN Charter, (the right of self-defense in response to an attack) is a total farce, as is Putin’s claim that the Kyiv government is a neo-Nazi government and that Kyiv is carrying out a genocide against Russians. These claims demonstrate that Moscow can stoop as low as Washington in inventing totally ridiculous pretexts for wars of aggression. To be clear, there are neo-Nazis in Ukraine, a few in government, and more than a few in the military, but they tend to be Russophobes first and neo-Nazis second; that is, they’re neo-Nazis because they hate Russians—as in, the greatest enemy (the Nazis) of my enemy (Russia) is my greatest friend. That’s not to defend Russophobia, but the neo-Nazi reference is frequently invoked, not out of respect for the truth, but because its utility in shaping public opinion against Ukraine is greater, at least in the West, than pointing out that there are many Ukrainian nationalists who dislike Russia for its history of dominating Ukrainians, some of whom are neo-Nazis, and others who are not. Moreover, the presence of neo-Nazis in government and in the military is hardly unique to Ukraine.

As to Ukraine carrying out a genocide against its ethnic Russian population, this is only true if we accept the kind of infinitely flexible definition of genocide that the United States, in the person of Adrian Zenz, is infamous for deploying against China as an exercise in mobilizing public opinion against a rival. To be sure, the Ukrainian nationalist Russophobes in Kyiv have hardly sought to find an amicable way to co-exist with their ethnic Russian compatriots, but when Putin likens this behavior to genocide, he takes a page from the execrable Adrian Zenz, and shows himself to be just as execrable for doing so.

The Russian president says he has no plans to occupy Ukraine, and this may be true. Certainly, it would ill-serve Russia to become bogged down in a second Afghanistan. But Moscow says it intends to de-Nazify and de-militarize Ukraine, which means, it intends to install its own puppet government in Kyiv, after it jails or murders the Ukrainian nationalists who, whether neo-Nazi or not, are painted with a broad neo-Nazi brush. Thereafter, the Russian president will try to persuade ethnic Ukrainians that they’re part of the same Russian family, and should feel at home with their pro-Russian Quisling government.

The United States’ role in this tragedy is as much about its relationship with its former imperial rivals, Germany, Italy, and France, as it is about its attempts to weaken Russia. These three powers, and the Europe they lead, incessantly threaten to spin out of the US orbit. Increasingly, they talk of strategic autonomy, while pursuing economic integration with Russia and China, to US dismay. Russian aggression provides the occasion to bind Europe more firmly to the United States, by rallying Europe against Russia through the US instrument of NATO, and pressing the continent to sever some economic ties with Russia. Germany will be expected to cancel the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, to its great disadvantage, since it will lose an inexpensive source of energy, and to the great advantage of the US liquid natural gas industry, which will fill the void with a more expensive product. While certification of the pipeline has only been suspended for now, Washington will continue to pressure Germany to cancel the pipeline altogether. The benefits of Russian aggression against Ukraine for the US investor class are so numerous, that champagne bottles must have popped in Washington and on Wall Street when the Russian president announced the beginning of his country’s military operation in Ukraine. European drift toward the Russian economy is eclipsed. NATO is strengthened, with indubitable benefits in new orders from NATO countries for arms from US weapons makers. Calls for more weapons purchases to bolster the US military will escalate; yesterday, for example, a Wall Street Journal op-ed demanded a naval build up. And the arms industry will run at full-tilt pumping weapons into Ukraine to fuel an insurgency, as Washington fights Russia to the last Ukrainian. Wars for which the United States has not participated except to act as an arms supplier have always been kind to the country’s investors; this one promises to be the same. Finally, Russian military operations, along with Western sanctions, will drain the Russian economy, weakening Russia, or at least stifle its growth, and make it less a formidable US rival. How could Wall Street not look with pleasure upon the prospects?

Information warfare

Most Left pundits and “anti-imperialists” thought Russia wouldn’t invade, and that Washington’s warning that an invasion was imminent was utter nonsense, along the lines of the Iraqi WMD scare. Patrick Cockburn, though hardly alone, dismissed the possibility of a Russian invasion, arguing that Russia had assembled too few troops along its borders to invade Ukraine. This was just Washington hype and war hysteria, he wrote. Others took as gospel the words of Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen so many fakes, disinformation, leaks, slander and lies” she said—a self-referential statement, it turns out. The lesson here is that governments lie but sometimes they don’t, and that it is unwise to assume that governments always lie or that ones that are in the cross-hairs of US aggression don’t. Putin talked of a US empire of lies. He omitted mention of a Russian empire of lies.

Before leaving the topic of information warfare, something ought to be said about RT (Russia Today). RT exists in the first instance to serve Russian ends, and specifically to propagate information favorable to the attainment of the goals of the Russian state. The modus operandi of RT’s US network is to act as a platform for anyone with a compelling critique of US policy or who will go to bat to defend Russia. There may be a partial overlap between the pursuit of Russian state aims, and the provision of progressive discourse and analysis, but no one should be mistaken that RT’s raison d’etre is to promote a progressive point of view. It is doubtful that RT would long provide a platform to persons whose critique of US society and foreign policy was matched by an equally rigorous critique of the Russian side. I may be wrong, but we may soon find out if this is true if anyone tries to advance, on RT, the kind of analysis I’m presenting here.

What ought to be done?

First, Ukraine should be neither the means to US ends nor the means to Russian ends. Ukraine ought to be the means to Ukrainian ends. The country must be allowed to develop independently and to choose its own government freely, without foreign interference or involvement. The country’s leaders must be answerable to the people of Ukraine, not to the president of the United States, nor the president of Russia. To achieve this, Russia must immediately withdraw its forces from Ukraine and cease interfering in Ukrainian affairs. The United States and its satellites must do the same. Next, the countries of Europe, along with Canada, must withdraw from NATO. NATO is not a defensive alliance. Europe can readily defend itself against Russia. Its military expenditures are four times greater than those of the Russian Federation, (France’s alone are equal to Russia’s), and France has an independent nuclear force. NATO is a cover for the United States to maintain a military presence in Europe, on the territory of its former imperialist rivals. Al Haig, former NATO Supreme Commander and Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, once acknowledged that US troops are in Europe (stationed at what are called NATO bases to hide the fact that US bases are scattered across the continent) to ensure that European markets remain open to US exports and investment. Fourth, the United States and Canada must withdraw their forces from Europe (and from elsewhere abroad.) North American militaries must be re-oriented to self-defense, not power projection. The same demand must be made of all the world’s militaries; they must exist for one reason alone: to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The struggle against reactionaries who masquerade as anti-imperialists

Finally, regarding the variegated group that calls itself anti-imperialists. Anti-imperialists come in many hues. Marxists of various stripes are almost always anti-imperialist but tend to self-identify as Marxists (Marxists, Marxist-Leninists, Communists, socialists, and so on.) It is taken as a given that if you’re a Marxist, you’re anti-imperialist, and, hence, that the anti-imperialist moniker is unnecessary. But the converse isn’t always true—anti-imperialists are not always Marxists. Some people who self-identify as anti-imperialists, but not as Marxists (and I say some, not all), practice an anti-imperialism of a sort favored by Charles Lindbergh and others in the late 1930s and 1940s, and expressed as America First, a name that has resonance with Trump. Supporters of the America First cause admired Hitler and Mussolini, especially their opposition to bolshevism and the “wokeism” of the day, and opposed US war against fascism in Europe. Their intellectual descendants exist today. Some of them can be found on the conspiracy theory web site, Global Research. They admire Putin’s commitment to “traditional values,” including faith, homophobia, misogyny, submission to authority, and strong leadership. While they call themselves anti-imperialist, they’re really only opposed to US imperialism. The imperialism of Russia and few other countries never shows up on their radar. They are, in reality, anti-Marxist conservatives, who falsely identify as anti-imperialists to create a progressive façade to mobilize the energies of Marxist anti-imperialists to a reactionary agenda. These are the same frauds who have celebrated the far-right truckers’ convoys, and are very likely at this very moment denouncing anyone who has an unkind word to say about Vladimir Putin and his imperialist war on Ukraine. In its statement on the Russian aggression, the Party for Socialism and Liberation argued sagely that the role of anti-imperialists “is not to follow the line of countries in conflict with U.S. imperialism, but to present an independent program of peace and solidarity and anti-imperialism.” That is the hallmark of Marxist-inspired anti-imperialism. We can do without the other kind.