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

Abstract

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.

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

December 27, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a better theory?

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

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

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

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

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

There Are No Lesser Evils in Imperialism

December 19, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

In response I tweeted the following.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Brief Critique of Anti-War Activism

December 7, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 5, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

In my view, it would not.

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

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

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

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

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

But the plan fails to address key areas of tension.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 2, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Stopping the World from Stopping the War in Ukraine?

November 30, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Apart from hardliners in Moscow, Washington, and Eastern Europe, no one wants a war in Ukraine. And for good reason: It’s damaging most peoples’ lives.

According to The New York Times, “The combination of punishing sanctions, championed by Mr. Biden and his allies, and Russia’s retaliation has ricocheted through global food and energy markets, exacerbating already high inflation and undercutting global growth.”

The IMF and World Bank have been sounding alarms for months. Recently they were joined by the G20 (sans Russia).

“The war, leaders of the Group of 20 nations said in a declaration at the end of their summit in Bali, ‘is causing immense human suffering and exacerbating existing fragilities in the global economy — constraining growth, increasing inflation, disrupting supply chains, heightening energy and food insecurity and elevating financial stability risks.’”

The “war needs to end,” said Gita Gopinath, the first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, “because the consequences for the economy are very high.” This view was “a common refrain from everybody” at the G20 summit, she added.

Not too long ago, a common refrain from everyone was that the Covid-19 pandemic needed to end, because the consequences were very high. What’s more, the World Health Organization’s secretary general said humanity had all the tools to end the pandemic.

So why is it, that despite consensus, and despite having the tools, the pandemic didn’t end? And why is that the war in Ukraine continues with no end in sight?

What are the G20 countries doing to bring the war to an end?  Nothing.

The United States and its NATO subalterns are prolonging the war by pumping billions of dollars of weapons into Ukraine.

Russia continues to fight a war it hasn’t the resources to win.

Allies Who Are Not Aligned

While the G20 collectively is doing precious little to end the war, the leader of one its members, France, is. Emmanuel Macron “wants to find a way of ending the war around the negotiation table, not the battlefield.” No wonder. The war has not been kind to Europe. (The US is another matter.)

“The U.S. has stepped in to help replace Russia as one of the continent’s biggest natural-gas purveyors, but its shipments of liquefied natural gas have come with much higher prices, straining Europe’s manufacturing base.”

“French officials worry that manufacturers stung by Europe’s high energy prices are starting to think about shifting production to the U.S. to reap the subsidies on top of cheaper fuel supplies.”

Macron recently entreated a host of giant European firms “not to move production to the U.S.”, where energy prices are cheaper, and Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, incents firms to produce in the USA.

“We need a Buy European Act like the Americans,” said Macron. “You have China protecting its industry, the United States protecting its industry, and Europe is an open house.”

A senior adviser to the French president said of US-France relations, “we are allies who are not aligned.”

Is it because the US is not suffering that Washington is willing to tolerate a continuing war in Ukraine, or because the US stands to gain?

Biden’s “aides note the United States, as a large energy producer, is not suffering like Europe from a lack of access to Russian oil or natural gas.” What Biden’s aides don’t acknowledge is that not only is the United States not suffering, it’s reaping innumerable benefits from the war. The Wall Street Journal recently mentioned just two: (1) a reinvigorated North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which will mean a gusher of profits for US arms makers. (For example, the war has spurred Germany to commit billions of dollars to Lockheed Martin for F35 warplanes); and (2) “a boom in trade and investment between the U.S. and Europe.” An important part of the boom in trade involves reorienting Europe’s energy markets from Russia to the US.

Another benefit: With Europe dependent on the US for energy, Washington can extract concessions from Brussels by threatening to close the tap.

Doing what is right for who?

“Mr. Biden has repeatedly said that” the threats the war in Ukraine pose to the world economy “would not deter him from doing what he believed was right in Ukraine.” Yet threats to US oil company profits have deterred one US president after another, including Joe Biden, from doing what is right in Saudi Arabia and Palestine. What Biden really means is that threats to the world economy, which largely affect Europe, low income countries, and ordinary people in the US, won’t stop him from doing what is right in Ukraine, for US LNG exporters and US arms manufacturers.

 “Global Poor Lose Services as Developing Countries Face Higher Debt Payments” reads a Wall Street Journal headline

Here’s the causal sequence that ends in the world’s poorest people facing even harsher conditions as the war in Ukraine grinds on.

  • Cut-throat competition among major capitalist powers for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory breaks out into a war between the United States and Russia over the question of who will control Ukraine.  
  • The war disrupts supply chains and energy markets.
  • Food and energy prices soar, in turn pushing up general price levels.
  • Most people worldwide see their standard of living start to decline.
  • To fight inflation, central banks tighten the money supply, driving up the cost of borrowing, in order to slow economic activity.
  • Tighter money drives up housing costs and tips the world into recession.
  • Higher debt payments force low income countries into retrenchment, making the lives of the poor even harsher, at a time they’re already struggling with rising food and energy prices.

Existential threat?

Russia has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal.

According to a June 2022 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,

  • Russia has 5,977 warheads,
  • the U.S. has 5,428, and
  • China has 350.

Moscow says that NATO expansion is an existential threat. Seriously?

Setting a Precedent

“A perceived victory for Moscow” would set “a dangerous precedent that political goals can be achieved through brute force,” remarked NATO general secretary Jens Stoltenberg, offering an excuse for why the war in Ukraine cannot be brought to an end short of Russia’s humiliation, despite the growing economic damage the war is causing around the world.

But didn’t the organization Stoltenberg serves as Washington’s errand boy already set the precedent when it used brute force to achieve US political aims in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya?  

That’s not to justify Moscow’s use of brute force; only to condemn NATO as equally repugnant (and equally full of shit. Regarding Moscow’s own addiction to mendacity, it will be recalled that in “the tense weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Russian officials denied that it planned anything of the sort, denouncing the United States and its NATO allies for stoking panic and anti-Russian hatred. When it did invade, the officials denied it was at war.”)

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

September 2, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Stephen Gowans

July 12, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last True Communist

By Stephen Gowans

July 9, 2022

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

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

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

Here are some of the points Koutsoumbas made:

The war in Ukraine is a conflict between bourgeois states.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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