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


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.

Engels’ Anti-Duhring and the COVID-19 Calamity

There are many scourges that bedevil humanity that could be, but aren’t, ended. They persist as inevitable consequences of capitalism. The Covid-19 pandemic is one of them.

Stephen Gowans

October 26, 2022

In Anti-Duhring, Friedrich Engels’ attempt to produce an encyclopaedic survey of Marxism, the main tasks of scientific socialism are presented as follows: To show that:

  • Many of the current conditions in society that make no sense or are unjust are the necessary consequences of capitalism;
  • The existence of conditions that make no sense and are unjust reveals that capitalism is no longer a useful mode of production—no longer one which comports with the interests of the majority (though it did in an earlier era);
  • A better future exists in embryo in the present, and it is the role of Marxists to make the proletariat aware of its historical mission to bring a new socialist society to birth. [1]

What conditions of society make no sense? What conditions are unjust?

Let me mention just two, of many.

First, wars of aggression. In the Marxist view, or at least in the view of many Marxists, capitalism inevitably creates conditions that makes violent conflict between states more likely.

One of the goals of the Bolsheviks was to show that the first world war was a necessary consequence of capitalism, and to argue, accordingly, that capitalism no longer comported with the interests of the proletariat. The working class, along with the peasantry, no matter which side they were on, bore all the burdens of the war.

After that war, Bertolt Brecht—the playwright, poet, and writer—pointed out that common people always suffer and never benefit from war between capitalist rivals. He wrote:

When the last war came to an end

There were conquerors and conquered

Among the conquered the common people starved

Among the conquerors the common people starved too [2]

That common people are victims of wars between capitalist rivals remains true today in the war between the United States and Russia over Ukraine. While no one is starving—not yet, though this may come to pass—common people throughout the world bear the burden of the war in a cost-of-living crisis and impending recession, while starvation is a very real possibility in low-income countries as a result of disruptions caused by the war.

Still another current condition of society that is an ineluctable consequence of capitalism is the absence of meaningful democracy for the common people. Lenin’s indictment of capitalist democracy was twofold:

First, the formal equalities of capitalist democracy have no meaning if one in every 10 people exploits the remaining nine. Class society necessarily means exploitation of one class by another. There can be no de facto equality in class society, and therefore there can be no de facto democracy.

Think of a slave society. If every adult in a slave society was made formally equal by giving each, both slave and slave-owner, the right to vote, would a society of democratic equality be thereby created? Obviously not. How can a society be democratic if one part of the society exploits another part?

Lenin’s second indictment of capitalist democracy is that it denies the proletariat a meaningful political voice. Why? Because capitalism concentrates wealth in the hands of the bourgeoisie, which is able to use its immense wealth to dominate the political process: to buy and lobby politicians; to promote its point of view in the media and in the schools; to place its representatives in high-level positions in the state; to create think tanks to recommend its policy preferences to government; and to pressure governments to toe the bourgeoisie line through the implicit, and sometime explicit, threat of capital strike and capital flight. Governments tend to accommodate the demands of business. A government that encroaches on business interests too vigorously will almost invariably precipitate an economic crisis—and this will either lead to its defeat at the polls or its overthrow, outcomes most governments avoid by keeping their business communities happy (which, given their connections to business, most governments are already inclined to do anyway.) The corporate sector and the very wealthy, thus, have vastly more influence over public policy than does the proletariat. As political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page demonstrated in their study of over 1,700 US policy issues, the “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial impacts on government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.” [3] This is a necessary consequence of capitalism.   

One of the tasks of Marxists, if you follow the logic of Marx and Engels, is to show that you can’t have political democracy, let alone social democracy, in a capitalist society.  

Engels argued that there are three signs that the current mode of production, the current way of organizing the economy, and the current way of organizing our politics, is no longer useful and no longer comports with the interests of the majority. [4]

  1. Existing social institutions—the democratic process, for example, or international relations, or the economy, are seen to be unreasonable and unjust.
  2. Reason appears to be unreason—that is, a lot of things make no sense.
  3. Right seems to have become wrong.

Significantly, these signs have been amply present during the pandemic.

To give you an example, in April of 2021, I wrote the following in a blog post: [5]

“For days, doctors and scientists in Ontario had offered the government the same advice: close non-essential businesses for a few weeks to avert a looming public health crisis.

“The government acted. It prohibited virtually every activity that could fuel the upward trend in infections and hospitalizations—except the most significant. What it didn’t do is what the doctors and scientists said it should do: temporarily close non-essential businesses.

“Critical care physicians, ICU nurses, and epidemiologists were bewildered. Why had the government ignored their advice? Why was it refusing to implement the most significant measure of all to prevent suffering and save lives?

“The director of the committee the government had set up to make science-based recommendations said he was ‘at a loss’ to understand why the ‘government announced a suite of measures that didn’t account for his group’s advice.’ Another panel member said ‘he was dumbfounded by the government’s rejection of science and common sense.’ A third said ‘she and her colleagues were stunned.’

“One critical care physician, interviewed on TV, said that she had been ‘reflecting on why this happened and one thing that occurred to her is that the role of government is to protect its citizens.’ She couldn’t understand why the government was failing to do so.”

Reason had become unreason. Right had become wrong.

The science was available, the science could be followed, but it wasn’t followed. That is, a solution to a problem that plagued society was within the grasp of political authority, but political authority refused to act.

As a parallel, Engels would argue in Anti-Duhring that the means are available to offer everyone a materially secure existence and to ensure to all the full and free development of their physical and mental capabilities. [6] All the same, the potential remains just that—potential, not reality.  

At one point the critical care physician conceded tentatively and with much reluctance—as if the thought was too unsettling to contemplate—that maybe the government was more committed to the interests of business owners than to the welfare of the larger community.


In The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster, I try to follow the approach articulated by Engels in Anti-Duhring of examining the ties between a social abuse (in this case, the pandemic) and capitalism. Specifically, I show that the tools to end the pandemic, indeed, to prevent it, were already in humanity’s toolbox, but that capitalism prevented them from being used; that the Covid-19 calamity was preventable in principle, but inevitable in capitalist reality.

An estimated 17.7 million people around the world have died [7] unnecessarily from a pandemic that could have been avoided had capitalism not prevented the solutions to this problem from being implemented. Or to use the words of the World Health Organization’s Secretary General, we have all the tools to end the pandemic. The question is, Why don’t we use them?

If we were to argue in the manner of utopian socialists, the answer would be that doctors and scientists haven’t invested enough time and effort to let political authority know that the tools to end the pandemic are available, or that people in positions of authority are too stupid to understand that the tools are at hand.

A Marxist, by contrast, might argue that the approach to the pandemic is not a failure of understanding but a failure of capitalism; that it is a necessary consequence of capitalism; that it shows capitalism is no longer a useful system; and that capitalism militates against the implementation of solutions to the pandemic that are already present.

My argument is that capitalism prevents us from using the tools that are available; that capitalism, however much it was, at one point, a progressive force, has become a barrier to human progress; that in the 17.7 million (and climbing) deaths attributable to Covid-19, it has become evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society (to borrow the words of Karl Marx.) The capitalist class is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society because in the pursuit of its own interests it has prevented humanity from using the great potential inherent in social production, in industry, and in science to solve humanity’s problems, not least of which is managing the emergence of novel pathogens like the virus that causes Covid-19.   


In May 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the World Health Organization released a report by an independent panel on the performance of the world’s governments in responding to the Covid-19 health emergency. The panel arrived at a stunning conclusion: the pandemic could have been avoided. [8]

Even as late as January 30, 2020, the day the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency of international concern, and two to three months after the virus likely first began to circulate, it was “still possible,” concluded the panel, “to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts and promote social distancing measures.”

But that didn’t happen.

By March 11, the virus had spread far enough that the global health organization declared a pandemic.

How had a controllable outbreak become a catastrophe on a world scale? The answer was simple: inaction. “On 30 January 2020, it should have been clear to all countries from the declaration of the” public health emergency of international concern “that COVID-19 represented a serious threat,” the panel averred. “Even so,” it continued, “only a minority of countries set in motion comprehensive and coordinated Covid-19 protection and response measures.” The result was that February 2020, a month “when steps could and should have been taken to” prevent a controllable outbreak, was lost to history. Governments tarried, and their foot-dragging plunged humanity into a dark abyss.

Not all governments were content to sit tight until it was absolutely certain they were staring disaster in the face. “China, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore and Thailand and Vietnam.” These countries, the panel noted, acted quickly and decisively to contain the emergency, and all with exemplary success. They pursued an aggressive containment strategy that involved mass testing, robust contact tracing, and quarantine, with “social and economic support to promote widespread uptake of public health measures.”

Most other countries, by contrast, waited far too long to act. And when they did act, they failed to do enough, never fully implementing the measures needed to bring their outbreaks under control.

Why did most countries do too little, too late? The panel pointed to cost. Most governments judged concerted public health action as too expensive.

Three costs were central to these countries’ concerns:

  1. The direct expense of testing, contact tracing, the construction of isolation facilities, coordinating quarantine, and providing financial support to the quarantined.
  2. The indirect cost of business disruptions.
  3. The impact on the stock market.

The people inside the US government who would be charged with executing various aspects of any pandemic strategy, believed that public health measures would promote nothing but economic loss, according to Michael Lewis in his study of the US response to the pandemic, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story.

Concerning the cost of business disruption, the 1918-1921 Spanish Flu offered an anticipatory model. Studies of how the United States responded to the flu pandemic found that government decision-makers were under incessant pressure from businesses to lift public health measures. And because the business community wields outsize influence over public policy—as a necessary consequence of capitalism—cities tended to capitulate. Those that bowed to business pressure—the majority—did far worse than those that did not.

Finally, Donald Trump deliberately downplayed the public health emergency, repeatedly declaring that it would magically resolve itself, because he feared that acknowledging the danger would result in untold stock market losses. According to the Washington Post, “Trump grew concerned that any action by his administration would hurt the economy, and … told advisers that he [did] not want the administration to do or say anything that would … spook the markets.” [9]

The panel criticized countries for taking “a wait and see” attitude, but didn’t inquire into the reasons why they took this attitude.

Why did they wait? Most countries waited because it was far more important for political authorities to avoid the error of acting before the danger was confirmed and thereby unnecessarily spooking the markets than it was to avoid the error of acting too slowly and unleashing a pandemic. In other words, the interests of capitalists trumped those of everyone else.


One country, among a handful of others, acted quickly:  China.

By pursuing a “zero-Covid strategy”— setting zero cases as the goal and taking very aggressive steps to attempt to suppress transmission of the virus—China has achieved great success in protecting the health of its citizens from Covid-19.

There are an estimated 1.35 million cumulative deaths attributable to Covid-19 in the United States, compared to only 22,000 in China, a country with over four times more people. Per million, fatalities due to the novel coronavirus are over 259 times greater in the United States than China—4,077 vs. 16. [10]

What has China done to set itself apart from the United States so favorably?

There is no particular genius in China’s approach to curbing Covid-19 transmission. Beijing’s strategy is based on an axiom. As Michael Lewis explained in The Premonition, “One thing that is inarguably true is that if you got everyone and locked each of them in their own room and didn’t let them out to talk to anyone, you would not have any disease.” China’s approach is based on this core truth.

The British Medical Journal explains the Chinese approach this way:

“China mobilized quickly and within two months had contained the epidemic and eliminated local infections in the country. There were no magic bullets in the tools it used: the methods were old school public health strategies, which are often called non-pharmaceutical interventions. Other countries also successfully eliminated local infections, showing that elimination of an emerging disease with pandemic potential is possible by using non-pharmaceutical interventions alone. Public health methods such as mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, and restriction of public events and travel played an important part. Identifying and quarantining people with covid-19 and their close contacts was also critical” (emphasis added). [11]

China’s success, then, has been due, not to vaccines, but to old school public health strategies—strategies the World Health Organization describes as proven and known to work. [12]

In an April 2021 study [13], the medical journal, the Lancet, compared five OECD countries that pursued a zero-Covid strategy with 32 others that opted for hospital surveillance-based mitigation (that is, a strategy that does not set zero as the goal, but sets as its goal as many cases as are tolerable within the limits of hospital capacity and medical resources.) Australia, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea followed China’s zero-Covid lead, imposing tight border controls, along with test, trace, and quarantine methods, to eliminate community transmission.

The study found that:

  • The mortality rate was 25 times lower among countries that set zero as their goal. 
  • Lockdown measures “were less strict and of shorter duration” in the zero Covid group.
  • “GDP growth returned to pre-pandemic levels in early 2021 in the countries that set zero as their goal, whereas growth [was] still negative for the other OECD countries.”

On the basis of their analysis, the authors concluded that governments that pursued a zero-Covid strategy not only performed better at protecting the health of their citizens and saving lives, but also better protected their economies and minimized restrictions on civil liberties—that is, they had fewer lockdowns and the lockdowns were of shorter duration. The zero-Covid strategy checked all the boxes.

Nine of 193 UN members—China, five OECD countries, and three southeast Asian non-OECD states, less than one in 20—used the tools that were available to end the pandemic. As of October 26, 2022, there were an estimated 249 deaths attributable to Covid-19 per million people in these countries, compared to 2,850 in the nearly 96 percent of countries that failed to follow the science.  In other words, the zero-Covid countries reduced deaths by over 90 percent (China by over 99 percent) compared to countries that rejected this proven method, known to work. Even among the countries that eschewed proven public health and social measures, the United States is an outlier; deaths due to Covid-19 per million are over 16 times greater than the average of the zero-Covid countries.


If Beijing set zero as its goal, Washington—the bellwether for most countries—set protecting the stock market and avoiding disruptions to business as its goals—along with one other: developing a vaccine. From day one, “all expert talk” in the United States “was about how to speed the production and distribution of vaccines,” observed Michael Lewis. No one seemed to be exploring the proven public health and social measures that were known to work; that were endorsed by the World Health Organization; that were pursued with great success by China and eight other countries.

We heard repeatedly in the months following the viral outbreak that at some point, within a year, a vaccine would be developed, after which it would be quickly distributed, allowing us to resume our lives as before. What we didn’t hear amid all the celebration of vaccines was that nine countries had already largely put the pandemic behind them, without recourse to vaccines, using old fashioned public health methods. In other words, what we didn’t hear was that the tools were already available to save us—that is, to limit hospitalizations and fatalities, minimize the number and length of lockdowns, and safely reopen economies. But those tools weren’t being used. Instead, we were told that the only tool that mattered was a vaccine. Anthony Fauci called the vaccine “the cavalry.” [14]

To be sure, safe and effective vaccines are highly desirable. Vaccines for smallpox, polio, rubella, and many other diseases, including Covid-19, save countless millions of lives, and help many more people avoid sickness. They represent a significant advance in public health. But are vaccines the sole—even the best—way to address pandemics? Are they a silver bullet? And are they the cavalry?

The World Health Organization director-general warned that “vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis” [15] and “vaccines alone cannot solve the pandemic.” [16] He added that “there is no silver bullet. Stopping outbreaks comes down to the basics of public health and disease control; testing, isolating and treating patients and tracing and quarantining their contacts.” [17] In other words, doing what China, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, and few other countries did—epidemiology 101.

Echoing the World Health Organization, numerous public health experts repeatedly cautioned that:

“We should not be thinking of the vaccine as a silver bullet.” [18]

“Vaccines alone will not be the silver bullet that will allow us to return to normal life.” [19]

Vaccines “are not magic solutions.” [20]

Vaccines are “really important, but they’re not a silver bullet.” [21]

“Anyone who says that vaccines alone can end the pandemic is wrong.” [22]

And yet that’s not what expert opinion at the White House said. The Trump White House announced that it was “fully focused on defeating the virus” through a vaccine [23]—not through public health and social measures, even though these were endorsed by the World Health Organization, even though they were shown by nine countries, including the world’s most populous, to work, even though this was epidemiology 101.

For its part, the Biden administration said that: “Vaccination is key to getting the pandemic under control.” [24] Indeed, the availability of vaccine doses for every US adult led Biden to effectively declare the pandemic over in the summer of 2021, despite the fact that the United States continued to post among the world’s worst Covid-19 morbidity and mortality figures.  Since that date, the number of estimated deaths in the United States attributable to Covid-19 has grown by 589,000—a 77 percent increase. The pandemic was over—except for the burials.

The World Health Organization’s assessment of the world’s response to the pandemic noted that “while much of the early response to COVID-19 involved missed opportunities and failure to act, there [were] some areas in which early action was taken to good effect, most notably in … vaccine product development.”

This invites a question: Why did the world succeed notably in vaccine product development but 19 of every 20 countries failed miserably in implementing proven and effective public health measures?

And why was the false silver bullet of vaccines chosen over the proven and effective methods of public health, especially when there were, in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, plenty of reasons to think that vaccine development would end in failure?

To be sure, we have safe and effective vaccines today, but did success seem certain in the spring of 2020?

Throughout the first half of 2020 and into the summer of that year, there were serious doubts about whether humans could develop a durable immunity to the novel coronavirus. The World Health Organization reminded governments that the question of whether humans could acquire immunity to the virus had yet to be answered. In October 2020, the Lancet would report that “there is no evidence for lasting protective immunity to SARS-CoV-2 following natural infection.” [25] Even Anthony Fauci, champion of the vaccine strategy, expressed concern. Fauci pointed out that there’s “never a guarantee, ever, that you’re going to get an effective vaccine.”  [26] That was an understatement.

Historically, only six percent of vaccine efforts had succeeded. And the very few that did succeed took a long time to come to fruition. The average development time for successful vaccines was almost 11 years. [27]

Robert van Exan, a veteran of the US vaccine industry, assessed the probability of a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine as “relatively low.” [28] The consensus among scientists was that a vaccine, if it arrived, wouldn’t arrive soon. So, anyone reviewing the state of the art in 2020 would have reasonably concluded that the chance of a vaccine being rapidly developed was poor (about 6 percent).

Which raises the question: If vaccine success appeared to be unlikely, and non-pharmaceutical public health measures had already been shown to be effective, why were billions of dollars invested in a project that looked likely to fail, while at the same time, a demonstrably effective solution in public health measures was rejected? 

At the time, The New York Times raised doubts about whether a vaccine was possible, while at the same time pointing to another concern: safety. The “whole enterprise,” noted the newspaper, “remains dogged by uncertainty about whether any coronavirus vaccine will prove effective … and whether … compressing a process that can take 10 years into 10 months — will sacrifice safety.” [29]

The answer, it turned out, was that US officials did take risks with public safety. In fact, it was only by risking public safety that vaccines were produced quickly. This doesn’t mean that the vaccines are unsafe, but that the protocols normally in place to assess vaccine safety were side-stepped in an effort to fast track the vaccines. (Playing Russian Roulette is unsafe, but not everyone who plays ends up dead. Likewise, US officials took a chance the vaccines were safe, and so far, the gamble appears to have paid off. The question is, with safe and effective public health measures available, was the gamble necessary?)

Here’s how The New York Times explained it. Because “of the pandemic’s urgency, any promising Covid-19 vaccine is likely to be fast-tracked through the testing and approval process. It may not go through years of clinical trials and careful studies of possible long-term side-effects, the way other drugs do.” And, just as the newspaper predicted, the vaccines were rushed into people’s arms. This happened under a regime called “emergency use authorization”, before clinical trials were completed and before sufficient time had elapsed to evaluate possible long-term side effects. Emergency use authorization allows unapproved, i.e., experimental drugs and procedures to be used in the face of an emergency where no other alternative exists. The trouble is, there was an alternative—the public health and social measures that China, five OECD countries, and three southeast Asian non-OECD states showed significantly check fatalities, limit the number and duration of lockdowns, and hasten the return to economic growth; measures, moreover, that were recognized and endorsed by the World Health Organization.

Scientists who predicted in 2020 that a vaccine could not possibly be produced in 12 months assumed that like other vaccines, a Covid-19 vaccine would require a period of testing over many years. For example, one vaccine expert told the Wall Street Journal that he was “skeptical a safe and effective vaccine could be available soon, given all the testing required.” [30] What he didn’t know was that all the testing required wouldn’t be done. Had normal testing protocols been followed, it would have taken two years or more to approve a vaccine.

Political authority, then, took risks with public safety that didn’t have to be taken because other tools were available that were known to work. These tools weren’t used. Instead, the dice were rolled on public safety.


A puzzle. In 2020, the Rockefeller Foundation presented a proposal to the Trump administration to tackle the pandemic. Invest $100 billion in a health corps of 300,000 public servants to conduct a country-wide test, trace, and quarantine program. [31] This would emulate the strategy that allowed China to bring its outbreak under control and safely reopen its economy. The White House declined. Instead, Washington decided to spend tens of billions of dollars on a vaccine, supported by the logistical expertise of the US military and the scientific expertise of government labs and publicly supported universities. The same military logistical capability and the same multi-billion-dollar funding could have been used to create and operate a test, trace, and isolate program. This didn’t happen.

Why, then, with the pandemic upon it, would Washington turn down an approach to pandemic control that had been shown to succeed in nine countries and was endorsed by the World Health Organization in favor of going all in on a vaccine program which, in the first half of 2020, appeared to any reasonable person to have little chance of success? Why pass on the sure, safe, option and bet on the long shot—moreover, a long-shot that would—owing to the need to compress 10 years of testing into 10 months—put the safety of billions of people at risk?

One driver of Washington’s predilection for vaccines was the ability of billionaires, such as Bill Gates, to set the public health agenda to favor pharmaceutical solutions and their profit-making potential over public health solutions and their considerable expense to the public purse. Owing to their great wealth, billionaires, foundations, and the pharmaceutical industry—that is, the bourgeoisie—have the resources to strongly influence public discourse on healthcare issues and have accordingly set the public policy agenda on matters related to health, including pandemic preparedness—an agenda that supports bourgeois interests at the expense of the public. (And this too is an inevitable consequence of capitalism.) The bourgeoisie has long ago used its influence to push vaccines to the top of the agenda on how to meet the challenge of pandemics. As a result, when the novel virus emerged, governments followed the path capitalist class influencers had already set, shunning the proven public health measures which, though unquestionably effective, offer no opportunities for amassing colossal profits. In a capitalist society, which approach will be favored—one that benefits the community as a whole, or one that benefits the sectional interests of the capitalist class? The answer is evident in the term “capitalist society.” A society for capitalists. A society in which capitalist interests reign supreme.


How the vaccines were developed calls to mind two points made by Engels in Anti-Duhring.

First, Engels wrote that: The official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. [32] In making this point he was saying that the foundations of socialism are already present in bourgeois society.

The second thing he said was that “The transformation of [large enterprises] into state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange.” [33]

The top two Covid-19 vaccines in the Western world are the Moderna vaccine, sometimes called the NIH-Moderna (or National Institutes of Health—Moderna) vaccine, and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The Moderna vaccine is called the NIH-Moderna vaccine because the US government, through the National Institutes of Health, shares the patent, and is largely responsible for its development. The intellectual property for both vaccines wasn’t developed by private sector scientists working in isolation of public support, funded by far-seeing private capitalists risking their own capital (as the fairy tale goes), but by government scientists working in government labs along with university colleagues supported by government grants.

Moreover, the vaccines were developed under a US government planning project called Operation Warp Speed. Yes that’s right: state planning. Here is Engels’ model of the official representative of capitalist society—the state—ultimately having to undertake the direction of production—in this case, of vaccines. The state did the planning and then provided the inputs: scientists and intellectual property; the logistical expertise of the military; and billions of dollars of direct funding.

The outcome of state planning and state investment was the development vaccines that were handed over to the shareholders of Moderna, Pfizer, and BioNTech, so that the shareholders could sell vaccine doses back to the state, and, as Engels put it, pocket the dividends, tear off the coupons, and gamble on the Stock Exchange.

But if the public—that is the proletariat in the main—did all of the heavy lifting, furnishing through its labor the tax dollars that funded the government labs that created the intellectual property; that allowed Moderna to expand its facilities and labor force; that purchased vaccine doses in advance of their production; that paid for the US military to plan and carry out the logistics, what did the shareholders of these companies contribute? Nothing. Their contribution was to cash in on the sale of vaccines developed by public funds, by public planning, and by publicly-supported expertise. Pharmaceutical shareholders, as Engels would have pointed out, are no longer necessary. Even worse, they’re parasites—they live on the labor of the proletariat in the form of the taxes paid by the proletariat to the official representatives of capitalist society—the state.  

So, to go back to what Marx and Engels thought scientific socialists ought to do: my book tries to follow the path they set.

It shows that a controllable outbreak that turned into a pandemic—a catastrophe on a world scale that has killed nearly 18 million people to date, and has become the third leading cause of death in the United States after heart disease and cancer [34]—is the direct consequence of capitalism.

It shows that capitalism prevented the political authority of most countries from using proven and effective public health tools to protect public health. This shows that capitalism no longer comports with the interests of the majority, is a barrier to human progress, and a threat to the safety of us all.

The book also shows, in Operation Warp Speed—an exercise in public planning using public resource for public need—that the foundations of socialism are present in current society; that the bourgeoisie is no longer necessary; and that the capitalist class exists nowadays for one purpose alone: to pick the pockets of the proletariat.

All that remains for a transition to socialism is for the proletariat to be made aware of its historical mission to seize political power in order transform the socialized means of production into state property, and to organize social production on the basis of a plan comporting with the needs of the community and each individual.

Only then will humanity be able to use the tools at its disposal to solve its most pressing problems; only then will humanity progress; only then will unreason become reason, injustice become justice, and wrong become right.


The Killer’s Henchman can be ordered directly from the publisher, Baraka Books, or from Amazon, The Book Depository, Indigo, and other online book sellers.


1. Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duhring, Wellred Publications, 2017, p. 180.

2. “The War Which is Coming”, from A German War Primer.

3. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, Fall 2014.

4. Anti-Duhring, p. 316.

5. Stephen Gowans, “The Catastrophes of the Pandemic are the Catastrophes of Capitalism,” gowans.blog, April 21, 2021

6. Anti-Duhring, p. 181.

7. https://covid19.healthdata.org/

8. “COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic, The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response,” Word Health Organization, May, 2021, COVID-19: Make it the Last Pandemic (theindependentpanel.org).

9. Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey, “Trump’s soft touch with China’s Xi worries advisers who say more is needed to combat coronavirus outbreak,” The Washington Post, February 16, 2020.

10. https://covid19.healthdata.org/

11. “What can the world learn from China’s response to covid-19?”, The British Medical Journal, December 2, 2021.

12.  WHO Press Conference on Covid-19, August 4, 2021.

13. Miquel Oliu-Barton, “SARS-CoV-2 elimination, not mitigation, creates best outcomes for health, the economy, and civil liberties,” The Lancet, April 28, 2021.

14. KHN’s ‘What the Health?’: What Would Dr. Fauci Do?,” November 19, 2020.

15. WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on Covid-19, 14 December 2021.

16. WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the WTO – WHO High Level Dialogue: Expanding COVID-19 Vaccine Manufacture To Promote Equitable Access, 21 July 2021.

17. WHO COVID-19 Virtual Press conference 3 August 2020.

18. Sarah Bahr, “Fauci Says It Could Be a Year Before Theater Without Masks Feels Normal,” The New York Times, September 11, 2020.

19. Drew Hinshaw and Daniel Michaels, “Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 Vaccine Is Cleared for Use by EU Drug Agency,” The Wall Street Journal, December 21, 2020.

20. Sarah Bahr, “Fauci Says It Could Be a Year Before Theater Without Masks Feels Normal,” The New York Times, September 11, 2020.

21. Benjamin Mueller, “How a Dangerous New Coronavirus Variant Thwarted Some Countries’ Vaccine Hopes,” The New York Times, February 8, 2021.

22. Eric Reguly, “Why herd immunity to COVID-19 is proving elusive – even in highly vaccinated countries,” The Globe and Mail, May 27, 2021.

23. Yasmeen Abutaleb and Josh Dawsey, “New Trump pandemic adviser pushes controversial ‘herd immunity’ strategy, worrying public health officials,” The Washington Post, August 31, 2020.

24. Sabrina Siddiqui, “Biden Meets With Top Executives on Covid-19 Vaccine Mandate,” The Wall Street Journal, September 15, 2021.

25. “Scientific consensus on the COVID-19 pandemic: we need to act now,” The Lancet, October 15, 2020.

26. Jennifer Abbasi, “Anthony Fauci, MD, on COVID-19 Vaccines, Schools, and Larry Kramer,” The Journal of the American Medical Association, June 8, 2020.

27. David E. Sanger, David D. Kirkpatrick, Carl Zimmer, Katie Thomas and Sui-Lee Wee, “Profits and Pride at Stake, the Race for a Vaccine Intensifies,” The New York Times, May 2, 2020.

28. Stuart A. Thompson, “How Long Will a Vaccine Really Take?,” The New York Times, April 30, 2020.

29. David E. Sanger, David D. Kirkpatrick, Carl Zimmer, Katie Thomas and Sui-Lee Wee, “Profits and Pride at Stake, the Race for a Vaccine Intensifies,” The New York Times, May 2, 2020.

30. Jared S. Hopkins and Jonathan D. Rockoff, “Race for Coronavirus Vaccine Accelerates as Pfizer Says U.S. Testing to Begin Next Week,” The Wall Street Journal, April 28, 2020.

31. Nina Burleigh, Virus: Vaccinations, the CDC, and the Hijacking of America’s Response to the Pandemic, Seven Stories Press. 2021. p. 26.

32. Anti-Duhring, p. 330.

33. Anti-Duhring, p. 330.

34. Jon Kamp, “Covid-19 Is Still Killing Hundreds of Americans Daily”, The Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2022.

Why Conservatives Take Marx Seriously

September 26, 2015

By Stephen Gowans

More than 130 years after the death of Karl Marx, and 24 years after the demise of the USSR, conservatives in the world’s leading capitalist countries still take the co-author of The Communist Manifesto seriously.

One such conservative is Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher’s biographer, whose essay The Middle Class Squeeze, appeared in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

Moore uses “middle class” as a synonym for Marx’s “proletariat.” By “middle class squeeze” he means the class war, as Warren Buffet famously termed it–the one Buffet said he and his fellow billionaires, major investors, and high-level CEOs are winning. The connection between the expanding wealth of the owners of capital, on the one hand, and the flagging standard of living of people who must sell their labor in order to survive, on the other, is becoming all too evident, frets Moore.

Moore, who apart from singing paeans to Margaret Thatcher, was the editor at various times of the British newspapers The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator, offers a good account of the growing harshness of capitalism for the West’s middle class. (It has always been harsh for residents of the periphery.)

In Britain, the average age for buying a first home is now 31 (and many more people than before depend on “the bank of Mom and Dad” to help them do so). In the mid-’80s, it was 27. My own children, who started work in London in the last two years, earn a little less, in real terms, than I did when I began in 1979, yet house prices are 15 times higher. We have become a society of “have lesses,” if not yet of “have nots.”

In a few lines of work, earnings have shot forward. In 1982, only seven U.K. financial executives were receiving six-figure salaries. Today, tens of thousands are (an enormous increase, even allowing for inflation). The situation is very different for the middle-ranking civil servant, attorney, doctor, teacher or small-business owner. Many middle-class families now depend absolutely on the income of both parents in a way that was unusual even as late as the 1980s.

Persuaded during the Cold War that life would always get better in the capitalist West, the proletariat now lives with unfulfilled expectations.

In Britain and the U.S., we are learning all over again that it is not the natural condition of the human race for children to be better off than their parents. Such a regression, in societies that assume constant progress, is striking. Imagine the panic if the same thing happened to life expectancy.

All of this makes Moore anxious.

When things go backward in nations accustomed to middle-class stability, people start to ask questions. What is the use of capitalism if its rewards go to the few and its risks are dumped on the many? The rights of property do not seem so enticing if the value of what you own collapses or if that property is trapped by debt. What is so great about globalization if it means that the products and services you offer are undercut by foreign competition and that millions of new people can come to your country, take your jobs and enjoy your welfare benefits?

So, where might today’s proletariat, the squeezed middle class, look for answers? “How about this,” asks Moore, pointing to quotes from Marx:

“The executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie.” Or this: “Modern bourgeois society…is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the power of the nether world which he has called up by his spells.” Or this: “The productive forces no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property: on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions…[and] they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property.”

Moore assures his fellow conservatives that he has not “become a late convert to Marxism.”

But Marx did have an insight about the disproportionate power of the ownership of capital. The owner of capital decides where money goes, whereas the people who sell only their labor lack that power. This makes it hard for society to be shaped in their interests. In recent years, that disproportion has reached destructive levels, so if we don’t want to be a Marxist society, we need to put it right.

We might pause for a second to wonder who it is that Moore is addressing when he says “we don’t want to be a Marxist society.” Surely, it can’t be the squeezed middle class, for why would its members object to a society shaped in their interests?

When Moore says “we need to put it right” he means conservatives need to put it right in a way that preserves their ability to exploit “the middle class” to maintain their wealth and privileges; it’s just that they need to improve the condition of the middle class with a little less squeezing. It’s as if a prescient slave-owner is warning his class cohorts that “The slaves are getting restless. There are two ways this can be put right. We can improve the conditions of our slaves. Or the slaves can take it into their hands to abolish slavery. Let’s do the first before the slaves do the second.”

One wonders whether Moore is as familiar with the work of Marx’s intellectual companion, Friedrich Engels, as he appears to be with that of Marx? In the last paragraph of his The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels wrote:

The classes are divided more and more sharply, the spirit of resistance penetrates the workers, the bitterness intensifies, the guerilla skirmishes swell into more important battles, and soon a slight impulse will suffice to set the avalanche in motion, then, indeed, will the war-cry resound through the land: ‘War to the palaces, peace to the cottages!’—but then it will be too late for the rich to beware.”

Moore appears to be sounding the same warning. But Engels wrote an important sentence which immediately precedes the paragraph cited above: “It is too late for a peaceful solution.”

The Bricmont and Johnstone Faux Pas: Wrongly Blaming Israel for US Policy on Syria

By Stephen Gowans

In a counterpunch.org article titled “The People Against the 800 Pound Gorilla” Jean Bricmont and Diana Johnstone argue that “genuine, material or economic U.S. interests in going to war [against Syria] are … hard to find”; that US foreign policy is not based on moral concerns; and that the real basis for war—ruling out the former two explanations—must therefore be pressure from Israel.

They dismiss as unsatisfying the explanations of “many” of their Marxist friends who, they say, “ insist that every war is driven by economic interests,” and that “this latest war [is] to be waged because big bad capitalists want to exploit Syrian gas, or use Syrian territory for a gas pipeline, or open up the Syrian economy to foreign investments…”

In place of this Marxist straw man (which friend of theirs believes that every war is driven by economic interests?) they offer the view that the latest war is to be waged because big bad Zionists “have frightened themselves into believing that the very existence of another power in the region, namely Iran, amounts to an existential threat” to Israel. This view, they say, is mistaken, but history, it seems, is an “ocean of human folly.” The policies of governments often make no sense (to Bricmont and Johnstone anyway) because decision-makers are continually misjudging their true interests, or are forced to act against them.

The Bricmont and Johnstone case for Israeli pressure as the basis for US policy on Syria is astonishingly weak. It leads with anecdotal evidence about, “An American friend who knows Washington well [who] recently told us that ‘everybody’ there knows that, as far as the drive to war with Syria is concerned, it is Israel that directs U.S. policy.” The opinion of an unnamed friend is, of course, evidence of nothing, but what his opinion is, and it is astonishing that analysts of Bricmont’s and Johnstone’s calibre would begin their argument with an “everybody knows” claim.

Adding not a whit to their case, the duo continue by relating that “James Abourezk, former Senator from South Dakota,” holds the same view. So what?

Next, they cite newspaper headlines which point out that Israel and its partisans back war on Syria, and finish with a New York Times report that “Administration officials said the influential pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC was already at work pressing for military action against the government of Mr. Assad, fearing that if Syria escapes American retribution for its use of chemical weapons, Iran might be emboldened in the future to attack Israel.”

Other lobby groups are also working to influence US policy, but we don’t take this as proof that they dictate US policy.

Besides, it would appear that an attack on Syria is no longer imminent despite the urging of Israel, which would seem to fatally undermine the Bricmont and Johnstone thesis. I could at this point stop. The pair’s argument fails to stand up against the facts, and there’s nothing more that needs to be said. However, let’s press on, to show why their argument fails and to reply to their critique of the “Marxist” view.

To sum up their argument:

• Some people in Washington say US policy is based on pressure from Israel.
• Newspaper headlines confirm that Israel wants the US to wage war on Syria.
• AIPAC is pressing for military action.

Rather thin gruel.

In part II of their argument the duo sets out to refute two alternative explanations of why the United States wants to wage war on Syria. The aim is to show that these explanations fail to account for US policy as convincingly as does their Israel-tells-Washington-what-to-do argument.

Since I agree that moral concern is not the basis of US foreign policy, I’ll focus on the critique of the Marxist viewpoint (or what they present as it), and then show that one Marxist viewpoint is a better explanation of the data than is their Israelis-are-running-the-show hypothesis, which, as already shown, failed the moment Washington decided not to send cruise missiles hurdling toward Damascus in favor of a Russian-brokered plan to have Syria destroy its chemical weapons.

To topple their Marxist straw man, Bricmont and Johnstone argue “People who think that capitalists want wars to make profits should spend time observing the board of directors of any big corporation: capitalists need stability, not chaos, and the recent wars only bring more chaos.”

It’s true that businesses need stability. But so too do governments need peace and workers need paycheques, but governments will go to war and workers will go on strike if they can’t have peace or a paycheque on acceptable terms. Likewise, businesses will lock out workers—and deny themselves the tranquil digestion of profits—if they think they can arrive at better terms by doing so. First and foremost, businesses need profits—and they only need stability if it serves their primary profit-making goals.

In developing their case against the view that US policy on Syria is driven by economic interests, Bricmont and Johnstone note that, “Wars have been waged for all kinds of non-economic reasons, such as religion or revenge, or simply to display power.” And indeed wars have been waged for reasons apart from or in addition to economic concerns. But we’re not talking about all wars. We’re talking about the wars the United States wages, and specifically, Washington’s threatened war on Syria. Washington clearly has no religious reason for waging war on Syria, and we would be hard pressed to identify a reason for revenge. As to the fighting of wars to display power, it could be pointed out that economic interests often lurk behind non-economic goals. What purpose would a display of power serve? The psychological satisfaction of doing so, or to gain some material advantage, or both? There’s no reason why economic and non-economic reasons can’t both be implicated in decisions to wage war. A display of power could serve the purpose of intimidating a country into yielding favorable terms to investors in the first country, while at the same time satisfying the leaders of the country that displays its power. And what is the objective of exercising power? I would say that the US state exercises power not for the sake of exercising power, but to protect or advance the interests of the citizens who dominate state policy.

A genuine Marxist account of US policy toward Syria—and not the straw man Bricmont and Johnstone construct—might make the following points:

A. US foreign policy is disproportionately shaped by a class of owners of productive property who use their command of economic resources to structure the decisions governments make and to place their representatives in key positions in the state. AIPAC may be a powerful lobby, but its influence pales in comparison to the think tanks, foundations, and lobby groups that represent the common interests of the ruling class of owners, and is a hill against the Himalaya of capital flight and strike, and mass media pressure, businesses can engage in to influence governments.

B. US foreign policy is ultimately aimed at protecting and advancing the profit-making interests of the class that dominates state policy.

C. The US state has at its disposal an array of instruments for prosecuting the foreign policy interests of the country’s ruling class, including foreign aid, “democracy” promotion, economic warfare, diplomatic isolation, the creation of fifth columns, threats of military intervention, and war.

D. The US state will try to shape the policy environment in foreign countries by using any of these instruments alone or in combination.

E. The target countries subjected to the more extreme of these foreign policy instruments (economic warfare and military intervention) have three characteristics in common: (i) They limit US profit making interests through one or more of: restricting foreign investment; pursuing infant industry protection policies; mandating public ownership; subsiding domestic firms; differential treatment of foreign firms and investors; expropriating productive property. (ii) The country is not, as South Korea was, allowed to pursue such policies to build its economy to compete against a rival communist country; (iii) The country poses little or no retaliatory threat to the United States and its allies.

Where does Syria fit in? [1] The Syrian government exhibits a predilection for independent, self-directed, economic development. This is expressed in state-ownership of important industries, subsidies to domestic firms, controls on foreign investment, and subsidization of basic commodities. These measures restrict the profit-making opportunities of US corporations, banks and investors.

The US State Department complains that Syria has “failed to join an increasingly interconnected global economy,” which is to say, has failed to turn over its state-owned enterprises to private investors, among them Wall Street financial interests. The State Department is aggrieved that “ideological reasons” continue to prevent the Assad government from liberalizing Syria’s economy. As a result of the Ba’athists’ ideological fixation on socialism, “privatization of government enterprises is still not widespread.” The economy “remains highly controlled by the government.”

The Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation are equally displeased. “Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, has failed to deliver on promises to reform Syria’s socialist economy.”


The state dominates many areas of economic activity, and a generally repressive environment marginalizes the private sector and prevents the sustainable development of new enterprises or industries. Monetary freedom has been gravely marred by state price controls and interference.

The repressive business environment, burdened by heavy state intervention, continues to retard entrepreneurial activity and prolong economic stagnation. Labor regulations are rigid, and the labor market suffers from state interference and control.

…systemic non-tariff barriers severely constrain freedom to trade. Private investment is deterred by heavy bureaucracy, direct state interference, and political instability. Although the number of private banks has increased steadily since they were first permitted in 2004, government influence in the financial sector remains extensive.

The US Library of Congress country study on Syria refers to “the socialist structure of the government and economy,” points out that “the government continues to control strategic industries,” mentions that “many citizens have access to subsidized public housing and many basic commodities are heavily subsidized,” and that “senior regime members” have “hampered” the liberalization of the economy.

Examine every other country that is currently, or was recently, on Washington’s regime change hit list: Cuba, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela. All pursue, or pursued, policies that are, or were, inimical to US free enterprise. The less than wholly positive attitude of target countries toward US free enterprise can be quickly gleaned by perusing the CIA’s Factbook or the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom. Indeed, if there’s an 800 pound gorilla in the room, it’s the economic policies of the countries the United States targets for regime change. The problem is, the gorilla is invisible to just about everyone but policy makers and policy shapers. Most leftists haven’t the slightest idea it exists and therefore look in the wrong places for explanations of US foreign policy.

But what of countries that aren’t targeted for regime change? Do they pursue policies that are congenial to US free enterprise? Yes. An excellent counter-example is Myanmar. [2] Only three years ago, the resource-rich country was practicing economic nationalism, and was under a punitive regime of US economic sanctions and subject to diplomatic isolation. Now, Washington has suspended its sanctions on Myanmar and nominated its first ambassador to the country in 23 years.


The Obama administration says it’s because of the profound political changes Myanmar has brought about over the last year, including the release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, who now sits in Myanmar’s parliament. But the real reason has more to do with the country’s military rulers turning away from economic nationalism and throwing their economy’s doors open wide to ownership by outsiders.

Announcing the easing of US sanctions, then US secretary of state Hilary Clinton went directly to the heart of the matter, after making obligatory remarks about Myanmar travelling the road to democracy. “Today we say to American business: Invest in Burma (Myanmar)!”

When Myanmar’s military took power in a 1962 coup, it nationalized most industries and brought the bulk of the economy under government control, which is the way it stayed until three years ago. Major utilities were state-owned and health-care and education were publicly provided. Private hospitals and private schools were unheard of. Ownership of land and local companies was limited to the country’s citizens. Companies were required to hire Myanmar workers. And the central bank was answerable to the government.

But three years ago, Myanmar’s government began to sell off government buildings, its port facilities, its national airline, mines, farmland, the country’s fuel distribution network, and soft drink, cigarette and bicycle factories. The doors to the country’s publicly-owned health care and education systems were thrown open, and private investors were invited in. A new law was drawn up to give more independence to the central bank, making it answerable to its own inflation control targets, rather than directly to the government. To top it all off, a foreign-investment law was drafted to allow foreigners to control local companies and land, permit the entry of foreign telecom companies and foreign banks, allow 100 percent repatriation of profits, and exempt foreign investors from paying taxes for up to five years. What’s more, foreign enterprises would be allowed to import skilled workers, and wouldn’t be required to hire locally.

With Myanmar signaling its willingness to turn over its economy to outside investors, President Obama dispatched Hillary Clinton to meet with Myanmar’s leaders, the first US secretary of state to visit in more than 50 years. William Hague soon followed, the first British foreign minister to visit since 1955. Other foreign ministers beat their own paths to the door of the country’s military junta, seeking to establish ties with the now foreign investment-friendly government on behalf of their own corporations, investors, and banks.

Another counter-example is Bahrain. Bahrain’s government is based on the hereditary leadership of the al-Khalifa family, yet Washington has undertaken no serious effort to promote democracy in the country, and does nothing to discredit the country’s de jure hereditary leadership while at the same time denouncing North Korea’s de facto equivalent. It refuses to support “pro-democracy” protestors in Bahrain as it has in Syria, and has turned a blind eye to the Bahraini government’s violent crackdown on protestors. Part of the explanation for why US foreign policy treats Bahrain indulgently and Syria harshly, is that Bahrain is a neo-liberal’s wet dream, pursuing policies straight out of Milton Friedman, while Syria is far closer to the opposite pole. Bahrain also hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Additionally, we should note that US hostility to Syria, and the goal of bringing about a change of regime in Damascus, antedates AIPAC’s pressing Washington to bomb Syria. If AIPAC didn’t exist, would US policy toward Syria be different? It’s difficult to see how it would be. Bricmont and Johnstone think that Washington’s Syria policy makes no sense, and that genuine, material or economic U.S. interests in going to war against Syria are hard to find. That might be because they’re not looking hard enough. And pace the pair, US policy makes perfect sense within the framework of a Marxist analysis. Given Israel’s reprehensible behaviour, blaming the Zionists for the odious aspects of US foreign policy may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s hardly good analysis.

1. The discussion of Syria’s economic policy is excerpted from Stephen Gowans, “Syria’s Uprising in Context”, what’s left, February 10, 2012, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/syrias-uprising-in-context/
2. The discussion of Myanmar’s economic policy is excerpted from Stephen Gowans, “Myanmar Learns the Lesson of Libya”, what’s left, May 20, 2012, https://gowans.wordpress.com/2012/05/20/myanmar-learns-the-lesson-of-libya/

The far right has a ready answer. Does the left?

By Stephen Gowans

“The search for scapegoats has started,” observes German magazine editor Michael Naumann, alluding to growing anti-immigrant sentiment throughout Europe. The Swedes “elected an anti-immigrant party to Parliament for the first time, and the French are busy repatriating Roma” while “Germans continue to debate a best-selling book blaming Muslim immigrants for ‘dumbing down society’.” (1) Complaints are heard in England that England is no longer for the English, while a paroxysm of Islamophobia marks a US campaign to block a Ground Zero mosque, which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero. Naumann’s point is taken, but he misses the reality. The search hasn’t just begun, it’s complete.

These days, the paradigm for scapegoating is provided by the Nazis’ blaming Jews for the ills of the inter-war years, a period of intense capitalist crisis. The parallel is the latest crisis, with its mass unemployment, insecurity, stagnant and shrinking incomes, and in some places, fiscal austerity. The real blame lies with capitalism–a system whose internal dynamics regularly produce wrenching downturns, making life uncertain, challenging and sometimes cold, bleak and humiliating for countless millions. How many people 50 years of age and older live, either without hope of ever again finding work, or in fear they’ll lose their jobs and never work again? How many young people have failed to land a first job, or are forced to navigate an uncertain world of low-paying, part-time, contract or temporary positions? How many are working harder, for less? In times of crisis the desperate, the humiliated, the frightened, look for an explanation for their situation.

They don’t have to look far. The far right has a ready answer—that immigrants are stealing our jobs and freeloading on social services. The first part has a ring of truth to it. Governments, after all, do use immigration policy to manage labor market flexibility, a euphemism for a pool of employees large enough to meet capital’s current demand for labor with a reserve army of job seekers left over. The reserve army–eager to take the place of those who already have work– maintains downward pressure on wages and keeps those with jobs in line. Without keen competition for employment, the price of labor would rise, eating into profits, possibly so much that capitalists would no longer invest, and the system would come to a halt. Labor market flexibility, then, is necessary to the smooth functioning of the system. But because people compete for jobs, any measure which increases the intensity of competition is hostile to their interests. It limits their bargaining power and increases the chances someone else will get the job they hold or want.

In the competition of all against all, those who bear the greatest burden are the workers who fill the ranks of the reserve army, or go from one low-paying job to another, denied any form of economic security. It’s easy for them to blame their plight on the immigrants they see working in jobs they want (though regularly in jobs they would disdain to hold), because it is often with them they compete. It’s true, they also compete against people of the same ethnicity, color and national origin, but don’t hold them to blame. But differences in skin color, accents, cultural practices and religion facilitate the creation of in-group-out-group divisions, making it easy to mark out the competition.

At the same time, the non-immigrant working poor often live side by side with newly arrived immigrants, some of whom have no work, and get by on welfare payments and sometimes criminal activity. Their presence is a source of confusion and resentment to the working poor, who question the wisdom of their governments’ accepting new immigrants–whose upkeep can be subsidized in part by the working poors’ taxes–at a time of economic downturn.


Crises, you would think, would provide opportunities to transcend the capitalist system. At these times the system’s problems are encountered the most acutely and therefore the motivation to overcome them ought to be greatest, but crises paradoxically have often led to the rise of far right parties and anti-immigrant sentiment. The reason why is two-fold: The far right’s seemingly plausible explanation for the insecurity many people are forced to bear; and the left. When the left provides a compelling alternative explanation and mobilizes mass energy around it and thereby threatens to take power, charismatic far right leaders are provided with money to rally public support for a nationalist cause and vie with the left for power. When the left fails to offer a compelling alternative explanation, the far right movement remains limited, poorly organized, and largely spontaneous; it’s not needed to protect the system from challenge, and so is left in its inchoate state. The far right isn’t pressed into service and built up as a major force unless the left is strong.

The dominant left response to the recent rise of xenophobic sentiment has been moral suasion and anti-racism demonstrations, a strategy that possibly owes more to satisfying the psychological needs of the practitioners than concern over efficacy. It fails to attack the root cause of the disease, trying to suppress the symptoms instead. Campaigns of anti-racism offer their practitioners cathartic opportunities to express moral indignation (which may be the underlying motivation for carrying them out), but their effectiveness is questionable unless accompanied by an assault on the root causes. The recent wave of anti-immigrant sentiment didn’t arise in a vacuum. Its momentum comes from economic crisis, and if one wants to mobilize the energy that far right explanations attract, a credible solution must be offered to the critical underlying problem: economic insecurity. Against the far right’s explanation that immigration is the cause of joblessness, the left could point out that insecurity is caused by the failure –indeed refusal–of capitalism to offer secure employment to all; that the solution is to transcend the capitalist system; and that where it has been transcended in the past, secure employment has been made available to all, along with guaranteed healthcare, security in old age, subsidized housing, free education, and a raft of other mass-oriented reforms. There is no freeloading in a socialist society. Work is an obligation. But at the same time, employment is guaranteed. Against the pseudo-explanation: immigration is the cause of your problems, must be counterpoised an accurate explanation: capitalism is the cause of your problems; it can’t—won’t—guarantee a secure life for all; socialism can.

The problem is that much of the left, even that part of it that traces its origins to revolutionary Marxism, has given up on both revolution and socialism, defined here as production for use (not profits), governed by a plan (not markets), and carried out in publicly owned (not private) enterprises. Socialism in contemporary usage has come to refer to a mixed economy presided over by an elected government that calls itself socialist. Production is governed by markets, much of the economy remains in private hands, the commanding heights of the economy are brought gradually under public control, and the exploitation of man by man is accepted as necessary, desirable, and the key to efficiency. But markets—which almost everyone now thinks are an unavoidable necessity–inescapably mean recurrent economic crises, unemployment, and inequality. In other words, socialism, as it is defined by 21st century socialists, offers no solution to the economic insecurity that regularly flares up and drives the insecure into the arms of far right campaigns to scapegoat immigrants and foment xenophobia. Sweden, often celebrated as a social democratic paragon and held out as an attractive alternative to Marxist-Leninist-style socialism, has proved no less vulnerable to outbreaks of recession-induced xenophobia than bastions of neo-liberalism have. And that’s because 20th century social democracy and its equivalent, 21st century socialism, don’t transcend capitalism, but embrace it, and therefore accept its destructiveness (in crops, products, factories, and gainful employment eliminated during regular downturns), inefficiencies (capitalism regularly operates below capacity and well below during downturns), wars (to pry open closed markets and secure new investment opportunities) and blighted lives.

No one in Germany “is predicting the rise of a successful right-wing party,” remarks New York Times reporter Michael Slackman, “but that is because the main ingredient is missing: a charismatic leader to rally the public. With such a leader, and some financial support, the prospect could take on a life…” (2) Perhaps. But there is also one other ingredient missing: a compelling left alternative explanation of people’s distress. Without one, there’s no need to find, and provide financing to, a charismatic right-wing leader to transform a spontaneously arising, minority, anti-immigrant movement into a mass movement capable of vying for power to do what far right mass movements have been historically mobilized to do: block the rise of a revolutionary left movement. That the rise of a far right demagogue is unlikely can perhaps be looked at as a good thing (and in one sense it is), but in another sense it is far from good, for it means capitalism is safe, despite what one might think about capitalism’s current tribulations creating an opportunity for change. The opportunity may exist, but who is there to seize it?

It used to be that the role of a revolutionary Marxist party was to set forth an alternative explanation to the dominant ideology, one that would supply an essential ingredient to the project of transcending capitalism at a time of crisis. People’s troubles with unemployment, under-employment and poverty, it would be explained, are systemic, not personal or immigrant-related; they are remediable, not inevitable. Freedom from the ills of capitalism, it would be shown, is possible and realistically achievable through collective action. Nationalism, xenophobia and social democracy would be revealed to be pseudo-solutions, offering the illusion of change but no real redress of capitalism’s ills. No longer. Nowadays, everyone has shifted to the right. Liberals are conservatives, social democrats are liberals, and communists are social democrats, if not liberals in practice with a vaguely radical rhetoric.

With a void having opened up in the space once filled by alternative left explanations, the current capitalist crisis is proving to be a fertile ground for the growth of far right pseudo-explanations of what are properly systemic problems. With the left having embraced markets, and thereby all that markets imply (regular crises, unemployment and inequality), it no longer has a solution to offer for market-induced plights. Having capitulated, it has reduced itself to the role of uttering pious expressions of benevolence.


Many people who were once communists drew strength from the knowledge that communism represented a mass movement. Perhaps it remained marginal (or more aptly, suppressed) in their own country, but it had been embraced by a substantial fraction of the world’s people and seemed to be getting stronger. With the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and China’s journey down the capitalist road, all that changed. Now, really-existing socialism had all but disappeared, hanging on, sort of, in a few outposts: Cuba, where parts of the socialist model had to be dismantled to survive, and North Korea, where the Juche philosophy supplanted formal adherence to Marxism-Leninism. Communism now seemed largely discredited, and to cling to it, was to mark oneself as peripheral and locked in the past.

Desperate to reconnect to a mass movement, many embraced the only mass working class movement they could find, which in many Western countries, was social democracy. But the corruption that had led the Bolsheviks to break away from social democracy to form the communist movement in 1917 had intensified, and by the time the Soviet Union was dismantled, social democracy had nothing anymore to do with socialism; it had become capitalism with a friendly face, and at times, not so friendly.

In Marx’s and Engel’s day, there were periods when a meeting of every socialist in Europe could have been easily held in a mid-sized hall. Until 1917, the Bolsheviks—whose ideas and organizational forms would eventually guide the economic and political organization of a majority of the world’s population–remained a political party of limited significance without a mass following. The need to be connected to a popular movement—and the practice of linking up with a cause on the basis of its popularity and not the ideas and aims that inspire it– would have led many latter day communists to shun Marx, Engels and the Bolsheviks had they been contemporaries.

One reason Marxism-Leninism commands little authority nowadays is that it seems to have been rejected by its practitioners. Glasnost and Perestroika and the eventual dismantling of communism in the Soviet Union, followed by communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe, and the turn to capitalism in China and Vietnam, appear to be admissions that Marxism-Leninism doesn’t work and that capitalism is both inevitable and the end of history. Cuba’s recent decision to expand its private sector by cutting loose 500,000 state employees—and Fidel Castro’s remark to Atlantic journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more” (3)—seems to underscore the point. All this, however, misses a few significant points.

First, communism arose under inauspicious circumstances. It took root where capitalism was weak, and therefore without the strength to smother the infant in its cradle. In 1917, Russia’s Tsarist ruling class was demoralized by war and the capitalist class too small, weak and disorganized to put down revolutions in March and October. But capitalism being too weak to block the rise of revolution meant that the revolution would have to take hold in a country where the working class was small and the industrial base–necessary to progress toward a communist society of plenty–was rudimentary at best. Lenin believed his revolution would spark working class revolutions in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe, and that the working class in those countries would come to the Bolshevik’s aid, providing the necessary capital Russia would need to build its own socialist society. He judged wrong. While the Kaiser’s rule was overthrown in Germany, the Social Democrats–who disagreed with Bolshevik’s revolutionary methods and refused to break decisively with capitalism and its rulers –came to power. Revolutions elsewhere were stillborn or not in the cards. After a period of waiting, the Bolsheviks realized that if socialism were to come to Russia, they would either have to first shepherd the country through a long period of capitalist development, actively intervene in Western Europe to foment revolutions there, or undergo a program of rapid industrialization and forced agricultural collectivization at home. After a period of conflict about which path to pursue, the Bolsheviks decided to build socialism in one country. This decision was reinforced by the expectation that the capitalist powers would attack the Soviet Union within a decade, and that an industrial base was urgently needed to build a modern military for self-defense.

Second, communism had not a moment’s rest from attempts by the capitalist countries to destroy it. Blockades, sanctions, trade embargoes, sabotage, subversion, diplomatic isolation, military intervention, war (both hot and cold) and ideological warfare were pressed into service with the aim rolling back—and ultimately destroying– communism. The chances of communism surviving the onslaught were far from sanguine. Attributing the demise of really-existing socialism to internal failings, and ignoring seven decades of efforts to exterminate the communist challenge—a practice of both the right and left–is a peculiar form of blindness. As William Blum observes: “It’s as if the Wright brothers’ first experiments with flying machines all failed because the automobile interests sabotaged each test flight. And then the good and god-fearing folk of the world looked upon these catastrophes, nodded their heads wisely, and intoned solemnly: Humankind shall never fly.” (4)

Third, it wasn’t because communist countries rejected markets that they failed. It was because they backed off of Marxist-Leninist principles, and conciliated with capitalism, that they collapsed. Poland, for example, ran into trouble because it failed to collectivize agriculture and provided implacable enemies of socialism, including the Catholic Church, space to operate. Rather than using agricultural surpluses to pay for industrialization, Polish communists subsidized food prices and emphasized light industry and the production of consumer goods and foot the bill by borrowing heavily from Western banks. Burdened with debt, the government was eventually forced to allow Western banks to dictate economic policy. The banks demanded the government remove its food subsidies to pay interest on its debt. This led to spikes in food prices, sparking strikes and ultimately the development of a working class strike movement. The strike movement was hijacked by anti-socialist ideologues linked to the Catholic Church and the CIA who eventually managed to force the government to step down when it became clear that the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev, would not intervene.

Gorbachev was dismantling the Marxist-Leninist basis of the Soviet state and experimenting with market mechanisms in response to a slow-down in the Soviet economy. The slow-down had a number of causes. The Soviets had been forced to adopt a policy of self-sufficiency to protect the country from the possibility of imperialist countries manoeuvring to strangle it economically by cutting off its access to vital raw materials. This led to a situation where the Soviets paid more to extract some raw materials internally than they would have paid had they imported them. Another factor was an increase in raw materials costs. As easy to reach mines were depleted, deeper mine shafts had to be dug, and longer distances had to be travelled to reach new mines.

Planning had its own problems. Enterprises hung on to employees to ensure they had sufficient staff to meet planned production targets. This led to over-staffing, and to the less than efficient deployment of manpower. The Soviet commitment to full employment also meant that retrofitting factories—in order that they could continue in operation with layoffs avoided—was favored over building new factories based on new technology. As a result, the industrial base became a patchwork of new grafted onto old.

At the same time, the need to keep pace with NATO put a severe strain on the Soviet economy. Despite its rapid growth, the Soviet economy was still much smaller than that of the United States. To come anywhere close to matching NATO expenditures, the Soviets had to allocate a crushingly large percentage of their GDP to the military. Although necessary for self-defense, this was wasteful, since it diverted resources away from the productive investments that were needed to raise living standards. US cold warriors figured that if they could stall the growth of the Soviet economy by locking the Soviet Union into an arms race, they could weaken attachment to Marxism-Leninism, both among the Soviet citizenry and in the Kremlin. With living standards failing to converge on those of the advanced capitalist countries, Eastern Bloc populations might sour on the socialist model and look longingly to the West. At the same time, it might occur to Soviet leaders that their only hope was to compromise on Marxism-Leninism and open up the Soviet economy to market mechanisms and the world capitalist economy.

There were other strains. In order to win allies and expand socialism to other countries, the Soviets shipped aid to countries and movements struggling to free themselves from colonialism. Most of these countries were desperately poor, and profited from transfers and subsidies from the Soviet Union, while returning little in exchange. For example, the Soviets bought Cuban sugar and nickel at above world prices, getting little in return from Cuba. Cuban military intervention in southern Africa on behalf of the liberation movements there–ultimately paid for by the Soviet Union–and the intervention in Afghanistan on behalf of a modernizing and secular revolutionary government, put further strain on the Soviet economy. In the end, Gorbachev decided to pull troops out of Afghanistan, cut Cuba loose, and not intervene to protect Warsaw Pact allies from counter-revolutionary movements. He also moved the Soviet Union toward a Scandinavian-style social democracy. Far from invigorating the Soviet economy, the attempt to make over the USSR pushed the economy into collapse. As the economy imploded, the economies linked to it through the socialist community fell like dominos. By embracing capitalist methods, Gorbachev had turned a set of manageable problems into a catastrophe. Communism’s collapse was not due to public ownership, central planning, and production for use, but the abandonment of socialist practices in favour of markets and capitalist methods. The problem wasn’t that there was too much socialism; there was too little.


The capitalist class in imperialist countries is a formidable enemy. Except for the period of the Great Depression and the chaotic aftermath of the two world wars, it has not been weakened, demoralized and disorganized—a condition that would need to prevail if revolutions were to come about. What’s more, both world wars led to a stronger, more confident, and assertive class rule based in US finance and industry. The opportunities for Marxist-Leninists to lead new revolutions were, therefore, limited. At the same time, the space for socialist countries to develop was systematically impeded by a United States immeasurably strengthened by WWII, whose rulers committed themselves to wiping the communist foe from the face of the earth, a campaign that carries on today in efforts to bring down the Cuban and North Korean systems. (By comparison, the Soviet Union was immeasurably weakened by the same war.) That the communist movement should be bloodied, bruised and knocked to the mat should come as no surprise. The opponent was formidable. But does that mean the towel must be thrown in? It would appear that for communists who were accustomed to being linked to mass movements, the answer is yes. But the movement of revolutionary socialists has been tiny and peripheral before. Had there not been a core of revolutionaries who remained dedicated to Marxist-Leninist principles and refused to sacrifice fundamental principles for immediate gains and popularity, the first attempt at building socialism would never have come off. Capitalist crises and war are inevitable and recurrent. Opportunities for transcending capitalism and liberating mankind from its scourges are therefore, inevitable and recurrent as well. When they arrive, a Marxist party capable of offering an explanation of people’s unhappiness, showing that another way is realistically achievable, and revealing the pseudo-solutions of nationalism, religion and social democracy to be dead-ends, can lead a renewed attempt to move humanity forward.

1. Michael Slackman, “Rightwing sentiment, ready to burst its dam”, The New York Times, September 21, 2010.
2. Ibid.
3. Jeffrey Goldberg, “Fidel: ‘Cuban Model Doesn’t Even Work For Us Anymore’” theatlantic.com, September 8, 2010. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/09/fidel-cuban-model-doesnt-even-work-for-us-anymore/62602/
4. William Blum, “The Anti-Empire Report,” September 2, 2009. http://killinghope.org/bblum6/aer73.html


Robert C. Allen, Farm to Factory: A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, Princeton University Press, 2003.

Bahman Azad, Heroic Struggle, Bitter Defeat: Factors Contributing to the Dismantling of the Socialist State in the USSR, International Publishers, New York, 2000.

Roger Keeran and Thomas Kenny, Socialism Betrayed: Behind the Collapse of the Soviet Union, International Publishers, New York, 2004.

Melvyn P. Leffler, The Specter of Communism: The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1917-1953, Hill and Wang, New York, 1994.

Irwin Silber, Socialism: What Went Wrong? An Inquiry into the Theoretical and Historical Sources of the Socialist Crisis, Pluto Press, 1994.

Albert Szymanski, Class Struggle in Socialist Poland With Comparisons to Yugoslavia, Praeger, 1984.

Albert Szymanski, “Crisis and Vitalization: An interpretive essay on Marxist theory,” in Rhona F. Levine and Jerry Lembcke (Eds.), Recapturing Marxism: An Appraisal of Recent Trends in Sociological Theory, Praeger, 1987.

A sober view of Iran

By Stephen Gowans

The view of many parts of the Western left on the disputed presidential election in Iran and subsequent upheavals seems to have been influenced by an understandable distaste for the obscurantist and misogynistic elements of Islam and a dislike of theocracy. Romantic illusions about popular uprisings have also figured in the positions Western leftists have taken. But romantic illusions and distaste for Islam have no place in a sober analysis of what has transpired in Iran.

First, we should be clear that there is not a whit of evidence that the main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, won the election or that the outcome was fraudulently manipulated. On the contrary, an opinion poll carried out three weeks before the election, and paid for by the Rockefeller Foundation (hardly an organization inclined to back the president, Mohammed Ahmadinejad), predicted a clear victory for the incumbent. (1)

Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, who conducted the poll, wrote that their survey “showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin – greater than his actual apparent margin of victory.” The pair’s “scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran’s provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.” (2)

Proponents of the idea that the vote was stolen point to Ahmadinejad outpolling Mousavi, an Azeri, in areas where Azeris are in the majority. They contend that in a fair vote Mousavi would have won the Azeri-dominated areas. This rests on an implicit assumption that Iranians vote along ethnic lines. But the Rockefeller-sponsored poll found that “Azeris favoured Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.” (3)

While Western media coverage, which focussed on Iran’s economic troubles and Iranians’ concerns about tensions with the West, may have led Western audiences to believe the Iranian president was headed for defeat, Ballen and Doherty argue that Iranians favored Ahmadinejad because they saw him “as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favourable deal – rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.” (4) It didn’t help either in offering a balanced view of Ahmadinejad’s level of support that Western reporters are based in Tehran, where support for Mousavi is strong. This led to Western news reports painting a distorted picture of Mousavi’s popularity.

Some leftists claim the question of whether the election was stolen is irrelevant. (5) This is an implicit admission that there is no cogent evidence the election was fraudulent and an attempt to side-step a critical weakness in support for pro-Mousavi forces. Far from being irrelevant, the validity of the election is highly pertinent. If a majority of Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad – and the balance of evidence says it did – a movement that aims to overturn the electoral choice of a clear majority cannot be considered either legitimate or electorally democratic.

Second, we should be clear on what policies Mousavi favors, and how they differ from those advocated by Ahmadinejad. Mousavi, like the US State Department, Wall Street, and right-wing groups in the West, leans strongly toward free trade, free markets, and free enterprise. He is aligned with Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president who won the approval of Western politicians and the Wall Street Journal for taking the first tentative steps toward dismantling Iran’s largely state-controlled economy. Rafsanjani is among the richest people in Iran.

While hardly a socialist, Ahmadinejad, who is opposed by the US State Department, Wall Street and right-wing groups in the West, has promoted economic policies that clash with the free market, pro-privatization and pro-foreign investment stances taken by the business elite, both in Iran and in the United States.

The commanding heights of Iran’s economy – the oil, gas, transportation, banking and telecommunications sectors – are state controlled. Private sector activity is limited “to small-scale workshops, farming, and services.” (6) This denies US banks and investors — and Iran’s business elite — major investment opportunities. Mousavi wants to dismantle Iran’s state-controlled economy, and the subsidies, tariffs and price controls that go along with it. Ahmadinejad tends to favour their retention, or at least, is in less of a hurry to get rid of them.

US capital despises Ahmadinejad for multiple reasons. He is opposed politically because he asserts Iran’s right to a self-reliant civilian nuclear power industry. The United States and Europe are willing to allow Iran to have nuclear energy for civilian use, so long as they control Iran’s access to the enriched uranium needed to power it. This would put the West in the position of being able to extract concessions from Iran by threatening to turn off the tap, and provide Western capital with a lucrative investment opportunity. From Iran’s perspective, the offer is unacceptable, because it would place Iran in a dependent position, and because Iran has its own rich sources of uranium it can exploit to its own advantage.

Ahmadinejad is also opposed politically because he backs Hamas and Hezbollah, opponents of Washington’s attack dog in the Middle East, Israel. Both organizations are portrayed as terrorist groups that threaten Israel’s existence, but neither are anywhere near large or strong enough or have sufficient backing to pose an existential military threat to Israel. They do, however, pose the threat of self-defense, which is to say they are capable of inflicting some retaliatory harm on Israel and are therefore seen as impediments to Israel’s free movement in asserting US interests on Washington’s behalf.

Economically, Ahmadinejad earns Wall Street’s disapproval for maintaining Iran’s “high tariff rates and non-tariff barriers,” failing to dismantle “import bans” and leaving “restrictive sanitary and phytosanitary regulations” in place. Neither does his “weak enforcement of intellectual property rights,” “resistance to privatization,” and insistence on keeping the oil sector entirely within state hands, earn him friends among Wall Street investors and bankers. [7]

In Wall Street’s view, Ahmadinejad’s sins against the profit-making interests of foreign banks and corporations are legion. He “halted tentative efforts to reform the state-dominated economy” — begun by Rafsanjani and favored by Mousavi — “and has greatly expanded government spending.” He maintains an income tax rate that, in Wall Street’s opinion, is too high, and controls “the prices of petroleum products, electricity, water and wheat for the production of bread,” provides “economic subsidies,” and influences “prices through regulation of Iran’s many state-owned enterprises.” [8]

Equally troubling to Wall Street is that on Ahmadinejad’s watch, foreign investment has faced “considerable hostility.” “The state remains the dominant factor in the economy.” That means US capital is denied profitable investment opportunities. “Foreign investment is restricted or banned in many activities, including banking, telecommunications, transport, oil and gas.” And when foreign investors are allowed in, ceilings are placed on their share of market. [9]

Banking is another sore spot for Wall Street’s deal-makers. The government keeps banks under tight rein and the insurance sector is dominated by five state-owned companies. Plus, under Ahmadinejad’s administration, Iranian workers have enjoyed considerable rights within their jobs. The state imposes strict limits on the number of hours an employee can work in a single week, and firing a worker isn’t left to the discretion of capital, to meet its profit-making needs. It “requires approval of the Islamic Labor Council.” [10]

With people like Ahmadinejad in power, how is US capital to roam the globe, fattening its bottom line?

The irony is that state-control of the commanding heights of the economy, price controls, strong workers’ rights, and industrial planning, are distant dreams for the US left. And yet parts of it are sympathetic to the Mousavi campaign, even though its aim is to dismantle the economic structures and policies the US left aspires to create for itself.

Zimbabwe provides a parallel case. The economic program of Zanu-PF, which has governed Zimbabwe since its founding, either alone, or in a coalition, is one that has aimed at advancing the welfare of the indigenous majority at the expense of European settlers and their descendants and foreign investors. The means of accomplishing this goal have been the reclaiming of land expropriated by European settlers and affirmative action measures to favour the development of domestic industry and investors. It is not a socialist program, but it has, except for a brief period in the 1990s, rejected the neo-liberal approach of indulging foreign investors at the expense of social welfare and economic independence. Zimbabwe falls very close to the bottom of the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal’s Index of Economic Freedom, along with Iran, and for the same reasons.

The Movement for Democratic Change, Zanu-PF’s main opposition, has, since its inception, embraced the same free trade, free market, free enterprise policies Mousavi favors in Iran. The MDC stands for private property, privatizing state-owned enterprises and throwing Zimbabwe’s doors open to foreign trade and investment, on terms favourable to foreign banks and corporations. It is, quite unambiguously, a party of compradors. And yet because it bills itself as the party of democracy, freedom and human rights, large parts of the Western left embrace its cause as their own.

Third, we should be clear on the role Washington has tried to play in fomenting a color revolution in Iran. It hasn’t been a secret. Consider the headlines. “Bush plans huge propaganda campaign in Iran. Congress asked for $75m to fund program.” [11] “US plotting Velvet Revolution in Iran?” [12] “A bid to foment democracy in Iran. The Bush team unveils a plan to push for Iranian-led reform. Can it really yield a ‘regime change’?” [13] “US to sharpen focus on Iran. The US State Department is creating a special office to…promote a democratic transition in the Islamic republic.” [14] “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran.” [15] “Iranians Speak Out on Regime Change Slush Fund”. [16]

Washington’s regime change funding has been used to broadcast US propaganda into Iran; build dissident networks; [17] and to train non-violent, pro-democracy activists to lead street demonstrations in the wake of contested elections. [18]

No one can deny Washington has tried to spark the movement that has rocked Iran. But that hasn’t stopped left supporters of Mousavi from arguing that Washington’s democracy promotion (what a Bush administration official once called “a rubric to get the Europeans behind a more robust policy without calling it ‘regime change’” [19]) hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans. And of course, in principle, this may be true. Just because Washington has spent tens, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars trying to orchestrate a mass overthrow movement to dump Ahmadinejad and Iran’s theocratic rulers, doesn’t mean it worked. The movement may have arisen organically.

However, the question of whether the uprising has been caused by Washington’s interference in Iran’s internal affairs or has nothing whatever to do with it, is largely meaningless, and if it weren’t meaningless, would be irrelevant.

The question is meaningless because it is impossible to disentangle the internal and external factors that have interacted to produce the street protests that have followed Iran’s contested election. It is absurd to suggest that a phenomenon as complex as prolonged street demonstrations could either be unrelated to internal factors, on the one hand, or external factors, on the other. What’s almost certainly true is that the events surrounding the contested election are the product of internal and external forces and of historical circumstance, intermixed, interacting and incapable of being disentangled. Claiming the uprising is wholly due to internal factors and that external factors played no significant role (or vice-a-versa) is tantamount to saying that what makes an automobile run is its engine and that its wheels, frame, gas tank, and so on, don’t matter.

Second, even if you could show the uprising was caused by Washington’s attempts to orchestrate it, or arose solely from internal factors, what difference would it make? The fact remains that Washington did try to meddle in the internal affairs of Iran, to overthrow the government for reasons related to its politics and economic policies, and that it did, is intolerable.

The parts of the US left that place great weight on “movement building” and non-violent pro-democracy activism, steer clear of examining the outcome of color revolution insurrections. Their focus remains sharply circumscribed, fixed on means, and avoiding the question: to what end? To these leftists, it is process, not outcome, which matters. Indeed, outcome, except insofar as it is process itself, is never questioned. It is enough, for them, that large numbers of people assemble to challenge the state. But we should ask of any movement: what does it aim to accomplish? And importantly, what is it likely to accomplish?

One goal of the popular uprising in Iran is to overturn the outcome of the election, on grounds that it is fraudulent. But what if the election wasn’t fraudulent, as the balance of evidence suggests? A movement that seeks to replace Ahmadinejad with Mousavi, even though the majority of Iranians favour Ahmadinejad, can hardly be considered democratic. This is an important point, for many leftists who rally to the cause of non-violent, pro-democracy, movement building, are professedly motivated by pro-democratic sentiments. After all, they call themselves “pro-democracy” activists. But supporting a movement that seeks to overturn the electoral choice of a majority of Iranians isn’t democratic.

We should be clear, too, that tens of thousands of people do not necessarily represent “the people.” The throngs of Iranians that have massed in the streets of Tehran appear to represent a stratum of “university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians,” [20] many of whom have studied in the West, picking up pro-imperialist values along the way. They are no more “the people” than the throng of Roman Catholics that mass in front of St. Peter’s Basilica every Easter are “the people,” for being a throng.

Even so, some will say that insofar as the movement seeks to overthrow a theocratic regime (and yet it’s not clear that it wants to do anything more that challenge the state over what is believed to be an electoral fraud) it is progressive in its orientation. But supporting the uprising owing to its progressive content is on the same plane as supporting the regime owing to the progressive content of its economic policies and structures. Which side one supports seems to depend on where one comes down on the question of the state vs. opposition to the state. Because they are philosophically against the state, any state, anarchists predictably come down on the side of the protestors. Hating all states linked to revolutions not aimed at fomenting world socialist revolution (or having departed from such aims), Trotskyites naturally oppose champions of the Iranian revolution and back those who might bring it down. Social democrats and liberals, being incorrigible suckers for any movement that claims fealty to liberal democratic principles, side with the protestors, because the protestors are seen as champions of the best in Western values. They also don’t particularly like Ahmadinejad and are looking for any progressive pretext to vent their spleen over the Iranian president, Iran’s theocratic leadership, and Islam generally. In this, they are great hypocrites, for while they castigate anti-imperialists for negative anti-imperialism (that is, supporting any leader, movement or party opposed by the United States, simply because it is opposed by the United States) they are forever on the look out for seemingly progressive reasons to hook up with State Department crusades against foreign targets. The comforts of being firmly ensconced in the mainstream of public opinion while still getting progressive credits for it is a temptation liberals and social democrats have never been able to resist. That might explain why they’ve been so eager to back the uprising against the Iranian state (action that is well within the mainstream of popular opinion) while failing even to acknowledge the non-violent pro-democracy movement that challenged the Lebanese state (outside the mainstream because the movement was backed by Hezbollah.)

Now, since failing to denounce the Iranian government in unambiguous terms leaves me open to charges of supporting Ahmadinejad, his brand of social democracy, and political Islam generally, I should make a few things plain. I am no supporter of half in-half out economic arrangements. An economy with few restrictions on private capital accumulation and few concessions to social welfare, may, under certain circumstances, be more conducive to economic growth than half in-half out arrangements (of the type Ahmadinejad leans toward), that seek the benefits of socialism without giving up markets and profits. Neither, however, is as responsive to the needs of ordinary people as one based totally on public ownership rather than free enterprise, central planning rather than markets, and rational production for use rather than production for profit. It is this form of society I favour.

As for political Islam, I regard it as a reality, not an ideal. It is, at the moment, the chief anti-imperialist force throughout West and South Asia, having superseded secular, leftist and Marxist movements, which were weakened by political Islam itself. My preference leans to anti-imperialist movements and parties with Marxist orientations, but my preference does not interfere with a sober recognition of reality.

And no, I am not sympathetic to Islam. I am an atheist, and am as much offended by Islam’s misogyny, superstitions and absurd rituals as I am by the equal backwardness of Islam’s siblings, Judaism and Christianity. But at the same time, opposition to Ahmadinejad and the Iranian Revolution by Western governments and by supporters of the uprising has nothing whatever to do with Islam and everything to do with politics, economics and class interest. Islam has become in West and South Asia a rallying point, in the absence of strong Marxist movements, for anti-imperialism. Roman Catholicism, as a religious overlay on the anti-imperialism of the Irish Republican movement, never got in the way of support by Western leftists. Strange that Islam interferes with support for the legitimate anti-imperialist struggles of Muslims.

What would the popular uprising achieve, were it successful? It would probably achieve what all other color revolutions have achieved: the replacement of a government that presides over a largely state-owned economy, imposes restrictions on foreign investment, and makes considerable concessions to social welfare, with one oriented toward privatization, removing restrictions on imports and foreign investment, and which makes few concessions to social welfare. The program of parties and movements backed by Western regime change efforts have, in the former Yugoslavia, Belarus, Zimbabwe, and now Iran, featured obeisance to free enterprise, free trade, free market and pro-foreign investment principles. Since Western banks, corporations and investors stand to benefit the most from these policies, it’s not surprising that Western governments have funnelled money to parties and their civil society satellites that champion these causes. Nor is it surprising that in the interests of garnering public support, these parties have portrayed themselves, not as the champions of capitalist and imperialist interests they are, but as beacons for democracy and human rights locked in struggle with backward, incompetent, corrupt, dictatorial regimes.

The besieged governments may not, through reasons of history, culture and the necessities of political survival, embrace the liberal ideals Westerners celebrate. None of them are Marxist in orientation, are dominated by the working class or peasantry, or are working toward socialism. But they have taken stands to resist domination by capitalist imperialism, and their only hope to develop internally in a way that isn’t distorted by the profit-making needs of foreign capital, rather than being responsive to the social welfare needs of their own people, is to continue to resist. If they could be brought down by Marxist oriented movements with socialism on their agendas, the overthrow movement would be well worth supporting. But the reality is that the overthrow movement that has arisen in Iran is neither Marxist nor socialist in aspirations, and its success would likely lead to a government willing to collaborate with foreign capital in ways that would see a regression in the position of the ordinary people of Iran.

For the reasons stated above, support for the uprising in Iran by leftist is mistaken. The uprising is not based in legitimate opposition to a genuinely stolen election, for there is no evidence the election was stolen; it can hardly be called democratic, for it seeks to reverse the decision of a clear majority of Iranians; and it is not in the interests of Iran’s ordinary people, for it seeks to bring to power a government that would collaborate with foreign capital against the interests of ordinary Iranians. The beneficiaries of a successful uprising would be Western banks and investors, which is why Western governments have tried to spark the uprising. High-income Iranians educated in tony Western universities would also benefit. They would secure lucrative positions facilitating the plunder of Iran by Western banks and corporations. Small wonder, then, that they have provided the energy (and Western governments the money, training and propaganda) for the uprising.

1. Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty, “Ahmadinejad is who Iranians want,” The Guardian (UK), June 15, 2009.
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. See for example The Freedom Road Socialist Party June 28, 2009 Statement on Iran. http://freedomroad.org/content/view/656/1/lang,en/
6. 2009 Index of Economic Freedom. http://www.heritage.org/Index/Country/Iran
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
12. Press TV (Iran), November 18, 2008.
13. The Christian Science Monitor, February 17, 2006.
14. CNN, March 2, 2006.
15. Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
16. MRZine, July 15, 2008.
17. The Guardian (UK), February 16, 2006.
18. The Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
19. Guy Dinmore, “US and UK develop democracy strategy for Iran,” Financial Times (UK), April 21, 2006.
20. Mousavi’s greatest support, according to pollsters Ballen and Doherty, comes from this stratum.

Fraser Institute hack: Way off the Marx

By Stephen Gowans

The January 30th edition of the state-owned Zimbabwean newspaper, The Herald, featured an article by Herbert Grubel, a professor emeritus of economics at Simon Fraser University at Vancouver and senior fellow at the ultra-right Fraser Institute, reprinted from The African Executive. In his article, titled “Global economic crisis: Can Marxism help?” Grubel argues that Marx was wrong in saying the way out of a capitalist economic crisis is to pay workers more. Instead, he contends, governments should offer workers no income support and allow troubled industries to collapse as the best way to end the global economic crisis quickly.

Grubel’s argument suffers from one fatal mistake and one absurdity.

The mistake is in incorrectly attributing an underconsumption theory of economic slowdown (the idea that workers don’t buy enough to keep the economy afloat because they’re paid less than the value of the goods and services they produce) to Karl Marx. Marx did not favor underconsumption as the explanation of capitalist crises, though many Marxists have and still do. At the same time, many non-Marxists have espoused and continue to promote underconsumptionist views. The idea that capitalism regularly falters because workers aren’t paid enough is neither Marx’s view nor peculiar to Marxists.

Argument based on one fatal flaw and one absurdity.
Herbert Grubel: Argument based on one fatal flaw and one absurdity.

Marx favored the view that capitalist economies regularly lapse into crisis because the rate of profit falls to such a low level that capitalists are no longer prepared to make new investments. One of the leading contemporary proponents of this view, Anwar Shaikh, echoes Grubel’s argument that measures to protect wages and bail out distressed industries are more likely to prolong a period of economic stagnation than jump start an economy. In other words, Grubel is not as far from Marx as he thinks.

But where Grubel parts company with Marx is in proposing that unemployment, shrinking wages and shuttered industries amount to a solution. It does if the problem is saving capitalism, so that it can continue in its accustomed course of lurching from one crisis to another. But if our concern is with the welfare of the greatest number, regularly throwing people out of work, cutting their wages, and subjecting them to cruel hardships, is hardly a solution.

Marx wasn’t interested in prescribing measures to keep capitalism afloat, precisely because he believed capitalism’s crisis-prone nature was inherent in the system itself. Instead, he predicted that the majority would create an alternative system based on public ownership that harnessed the economy to serve their own needs, rather than continuing in the current vein of having to sacrifice themselves, their interests and their welfare to make capitalism work (and capitalists – the patrons of Gruber’s Fraser Institute – rich).

Anyone told they have to work longer hours for less, or endure a prolonged period of unemployment, in order to once again pull the capitalist economy out of yet another slump, might reasonably ask themselves whether the economic system they’re expected to endure such significant sacrifices for, is really worth saving.

Grubel – an ideologue for the capitalist interests that fund the Fraser Institute — absurdly seems to think it is (go figure). Marx didn’t, no more than he thought low pay causes capitalist crises.