How Did Inflation Get So High?

June 24, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

“How did inflation get so high?” asks Paul Krugman, from the perch of his column in the New York Times.  

“A large part of the story involves shocks like rising oil and food prices … that are outside the control of policymakers,” writes the Nobel prize-winning economist.  “These nonpolicy shocks explain why inflation has soared almost everywhere — for example, British inflation just clocked in at 9.1 percent.”

But rising oil and food prices are not outside the control of policymakers.

Oil prices are rising largely because US, Canadian, and EU policymakers imposed an embargo on imports of Russian hydrocarbons.

And food prices likely wouldn’t be rising had the US and NATO negotiated a new security architecture in Europe when Moscow pleaded for one in December. The West summarily dismissed Moscow’s overtures, seeing greater advantage in letting Russia—which Washington views as a great power rival—weaken itself by stepping into the quagmire of a war in Ukraine. The war is disrupting Ukraine grain exports, putting upward pressure on food prices globally.

If energy and food inflation is beyond the control of Western policymakers, as Krugman alleges, how do we explain this: The Washington Post revealed that the Biden administration anticipated that its response to a Russian invasion of Ukraine would precipitate rising energy prices and a food crisis, but was prepared to “countenance” these outcomes, despite the widespread pain they would cause.

The Post says Biden believed the stakes of allowing Russia to swallow up Ukraine were greater than the harm of spiraling energy and food prices.

The newspaper, however, didn’t explain what the stakes are, in the administration’s view. A good guess is that they are seen as the possible failure of the longstanding project of the United States absorbing Ukraine—seen in Moscow as part of the Russian sphere of influence and vital to its prosperity—into a US-led anti-Russia alliance.  

Is a US victory in the game of grab really worth the pain of a growing affordability crisis, to say nothing of a looming food crisis in Africa and the Middle East?

Monetary authorities are now jacking up interest rates to extirpate underlying inflationary pressures, running the risk of precipitating a global recession. But Fed chair Jerome Powell admits that a tighter monetary policy won’t tame rising energy and food costs. In other words, Powell is on the cusp of producing a full-fledged stagflation.

The truth of the matter is that soaring oil, gas, and grocery prices—and a looming recession accompanied by climbing energy and food bills—are sequalae of decisions made by policymakers.

Krugman wants to lay the blame for the economic train-wreck on Putin. His “invasion of Ukraine has seriously damaged the world economy,” he writes.

This is too simple.

The proximal cause of the train-wreck is not the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s the West’s response to it. US, Canadian, and EU policymakers didn’t have to impose a fossil fuel embargo on Russia. Nor were they compelled to bolster Kyiv with tens of billions of dollars of aid, ensuring the war would drag on. (The longer the war lasts, the longer Ukraine’s grain exports will be disrupted, and the longer food prices will remain artificially high.) This was a decision policymakers freely took, with foreknowledge of the consequences.

The sad reality is that Western policymakers decided to become embroiled in a war they might have averted, had they seized the opportunity when offered. In maneuvering to weaken Russia by imposing a hydrocarbons ban, and furnishing Ukraine with aid to draw out the war (fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian), they have knowingly imposed substantial costs on their own citizens.

High inflation, then, is not the uncontrollable consequence of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. It is the anticipated and countenanced corollary of the pursuit of the US foreign policy goal of weakening Russia.

What should happen?

  • Russia should end its war on Ukraine and withdraw its forces.
  • The United States, Canada, and European Union should lift their embargo on imports of Russian oil, gas, and coal and cease other measures of economic warfare against the country.
  • NATO, little more than an instrument of US foreign policy and the means by which Washington dominates Europe, should be disbanded. The European Union, whose combined military spending and armed forces overshadow Russia’s, is capable of defending itself.
  • US and Canadian troops should be withdrawn from Europe and reoriented to territorial defense from power projection.
  • Brussels should negotiate a security architecture for Europe with Russia.

This is what we might wish to happen, but realistically, none of it is likely to happen. The expansionary imperatives of capitalism compel each state to compete on behalf of their capital-accumulating enterprises for investment opportunities, markets, sources of raw materials, and strategic opportunity on a world scale. Capitalism-induced rivalry creates tensions among countries—antagonisms that have a high likelihood of escalating to war. Therein is found the roots of the struggle among the United States, Europe, Russia, and Ukraine—a struggle that has burst forth in overt violence and produced a looming economic catastrophe.

Until economies are re-oriented to satisfying human needs rather than investors’ needs for handsome returns, until capitalism is overcome, there is no real hope for any meaningful turning away from the inauspicious path on which humanity now treads.

You Don’t Matter, and Washington’s Response to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine Proves It

By Stephen Gowans

June 22, 2022

Journalist Patrick Cockburn decries Russian president Vladmir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine as manifestly dumb. Putin, “convinced himself,” writes Cockburn, “that a Russian army of inadequate size would easily topple the government in Kyiv and the Ukrainian army would meekly surrender.” [1]

If Putin believed about Ukraine that he only had to kick in the doors and the whole rotten structure would come tumbling down (as Hitler believed about the Soviet Union), the expectation has, to be sure, turned out to be decidedly wrong. But we’ll have to wait to find out whether the invasion represents “the most disastrous decision in Russian history,” as Cockburn contends. The key question, from the perspective of Russian raison d’état, is whether the decision makes the Russian state and the elites it represents stronger relative to what they would have been had the invasion not been carried out. It’s too early to tell.

If Putin has blundered, and he may have, then so too, on the surface, has Biden. Biden’s decision to embargo Russian hydrocarbons, and to pressure Canada and the EU to do the same, has hurt Western consumers far more than it has hurt Russia.

According to the New York Times, “oil and refined fuel prices” in the United States “have risen to their highest levels in 14 years, due largely to sanctions on Russia oil.” Gasoline prices are up by more than 60 percent over last year. And higher fuel prices are rippling through the US economy, contributing to record high inflation. [2]

The Eurozone is dealing with a similar set of problems. “High prices are already sending shudders through an economy that is geared up to run on cheap Russian energy,” reports the Wall Street Journal. This has fueled record-high inflation and prompted some industrial companies to close. [3]

With monetary authorities raising interest rates to temper strong upward pressure on prices, Western economies are on the brink of a recession, and tens of millions teeter on the precipice of economic hardship. [4]

Meanwhile, this month alone, Moscow’s “coffers were expected to receive $6 billion more in oil and gas revenue than anticipated because” embargo-induced supply restrictions sent oil prices soaring.  As the New York Times reports, “China and India, the world’s most populous countries, have swooped in to buy roughly the same volume of Russian oil that would have gone to the West. Oil prices are so high that Russia is making even more money now from sales than it did before the war began four months ago. And its once-flailing currency has surged in value against the dollar.” [5]

An embargo to punish Russia that ends up punishing Western consumers with higher energy prices, but allows Russia to reap the benefit of rising prices, surely rivals Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine for sheer stupidity.

Or does it?

If Biden’s goal is to punish Russia while protecting Western consumers, then his embargo decision has clearly backfired. But are these his goals?

Another view is that the US aim is to shift Europe’s energy dependence from Russia to sources under US control, in order to weaken Russia, and its oil and gas industry, and strengthen the oil and gas industries of the United States and its allies. Europe stands to lose big time, since sourcing energy from further afield will raise the continent’s energy bill. Additionally, by shifting Europe’s energy dependence to US-controlled suppliers, Washington increases its leverage over a Europe that increasingly seeks strategic autonomy at US expense. Washington has complained about Russia’s ability to use its energy supplies to blackmail Europe. Dependence on US-controlled suppliers simply shifts the role of potential blackmailer from Moscow to Washington.

According to the Washington Post, the Biden administration had discussed, even before Russia launched its invasion in February, the possibility that its response to the invasion would cause global spillover effects, in rising energy costs, food shortages, and a global recession. Moreover, US officials said they were willing to countenance these consequences. [6]  (Fine for them; buffered by great wealth, they’ll hardly feel the effects themselves.)

If Western consumers are paying more for gasoline, natural gas, and groceries; if Africa and the Middle East are on the brink of a food crisis; if hundreds of millions are teetering on the edge of joblessness as the world economy slips closer to recession; it’s not because a stupid decision was made by a blundering Biden administration that has had calamitous unanticipated consequences; it’s because these are the anticipated and countenanced consequences of a US strategy to weaken Russia and bring Europe more firmly under the US thumb.

If Biden is stupid, his stupidity promises to produce welcome results for US energy companies, to say nothing of corporate America as a whole, which, on balance, stands to profit from Washington gaining greater leverage over Europe, one of the world’s largest economies and rival for world economic supremacy with corporate USA.

If there’s stupidity at play here, it’s the stupidity of believing that Washington’s actions are aimed at protecting and enlarging the interests of ordinary people. On the contrary, you and I are merely the means to the ends of—and collateral damage of the decisions taken to benefit—the elite of billionaires and wealthy investors who are the only people who really matter in Washington.

The war in Ukraine didn’t have to happen. For months, Moscow pressed Washington and NATO to negotiate a new security architecture in Europe. Moscow’s entreaties were dismissed out of hand. Once the war began, Washington could have launched efforts to bring about a diplomatic solution. Instead, it did the opposite, pumping billions of dollars of arms into Ukraine, and pressing its allies to do the same. This has been a boon for investors in US arms manufacturing, but a menace to the world, which now lives under a sword of Damocles in an elevated risk of nuclear war with Russia.

Tally up the consequences of Washington’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

  • Rising energy prices.
  • Record-high inflation.
  • A world economy on the brink of a recession.
  • A looming food crisis.
  • An increased risk of nuclear war.

These consequences harm you and me, and everyone else like us, but they hardly affect the wealthy, if they affect them at all (with the exception of the last.)

But there are other consequences—effects that are hardly calamitous but, on the contrary, are pleasing to a narrow spectrum of the population, namely, corporate USA and wealthy US investors. These are:

  • Soaring demand for US arms.
  • The promise of a cornucopia of future profits for US weapons makers as NATO members hike their military outlays and two new members, Finland and Sweden, join the alliance. (To ensure interoperability of forces, NATO members largely buy their equipment from a common provider, the US arms industry.)
  • Growing opportunity for the US hydrocarbons industry.
  • US control of Europe’s energy supplies and therefore greater US political leverage over Europe.
  • Higher energy costs for European businesses, reducing their competitiveness relative to US firms.

Government decisions that hurt you and me may appear to be evidence of government stupidity. It’s more likely that the consequences are not calamitous for everyone, and the calamity for the rest of us is anticipated and countenanced.  

1. Patrick Cockburn, The Age of Stupidity: From Johnson and Biden to Putin and Xi Jinping, counterpunch.org, June 21, 2022.

2. Clifford Krauss and Marie Solis, “U.S. Gas Prices Hit a New High: $5 a Gallon,” The New York Times, June 11, 2022.

3. Joe Wallace and Eric Sylvers, “European Natural-Gas Prices Jump as Russia Cuts Supplies Again,” The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2022.

4. Paul Hannon, Yuliya Chernova and Georgi Kantchev, “Russian Inflation Makes U.S. Price Rises Look Tame,” The Wall Street Journal May 20, 2022.

5. Victoria Kim, Clifford Krauss and Anton Troianovski, “Western Move to Choke Russia’s Oil Exports Boomerangs, for Now,” The New York Times, June 21, 2022.

6. Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe, “With scant options in Ukraine, U.S. and allies prepare for long war,” The Washington Post, June 17, 2022.

The Real Cause of the War in Ukraine: Capitalism

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

“Imperialism is the reproduction of capitalist competition on a larger scale.” Nikolai Bukharin

By Stephen Gowans

June 18, 2022

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

The historian William Appleman Williams explained this well.

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

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

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

They continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 159.

[7] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 159.

[8] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 159.

[9] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 155.

[10] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 155.

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

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

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

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

In the War in Ukraine, Which Side Are You On?

By Stephen Gowans

May 1, 2022

What’s more important? Addressing the climate emergency or entangling Russia in an exhausting war? For Washington—which plans to invest more in keeping the war in Ukraine going than in arresting the threat to humanity of climate change—the answer is the latter.

To avert a war in Ukraine, the US could have accepted Russia’s reasonable proposals for a new security architecture in Europe. It declined. Now that war has broken out, it could be working on a negotiated peace in Ukraine. (Even the IMF urges it to do so.) Washington prefers not to.

Instead, the US is investing heavily in keeping the war going as long as possible, in order, it says, to weaken Russia. The US lured Russia into the trap of war. Moscow stupidly took the bait. Now, much of the world, arms manufacturers excepted, suffer.

In what does the contest between the US and Russia originate?

It originates in a struggle over the questions of whether:

  • The profit-making opportunities of Ukraine will belong to the EU or a customs union with Russia.
  • Europe will depend for its energy on US-controlled suppliers or Russia.

Which side do you want to be on?

  • The side seeking Ukraine’s integration into the EU and Europe’s energy dependence on US-controlled suppliers?
  • The side seeking Ukraine’s integration into a customs union with Russia and Europe’s continued energy dependence on Russia?

In other words, whose billionaires are more important to you? The US’s or Russia’s?

Or are billionaires, and their contests for profits on a world scale, the problem? And is choosing sides in their contests, rather than eliminating them altogether, a grave error?

The war in Ukraine offers no benefit to ordinary people that I can think of.

But it does present multiple harms:

  • Higher energy and food costs.
  • A migrant crisis.
  • Supply chain disruptions.
  • A significantly heightened risk of nuclear war.
  • Higher government expenditures on arms at the expense of spending on health care, education, housing, and addressing the climate emergency.

Ordinary Ukrainians face the threats of death, injury, homelessness, and economic harm. The standard of living of ordinary Russians is declining, and will decline further. There is nothing good in this war for ordinary people, anywhere.

What’s more, based on the way the war is unfolding, it appears that the United States and NATO will emerge stronger. Anyone who thinks this war will be a blow to US primacy is sorely mistaken.

Who could possibly support this war?  The answer is:

  • Investors in arms and energy companies.
  • Investors in businesses that stand to gain from securing new profit-making opportunities in Ukraine.
  • Operatives of any of the belligerent states.

Alongside these bourgeois supporters of the war, stand a few proletarian supporters. Among them are:

  • The ignorant.
  • The confused.
  • Class traitors.
  • People who pose as socialists, peace-activists, or “independent journalists,” but are in reality propagandists of the belligerent governments.

The only wars worth supporting are wars against oppression. The struggle between Washington and Moscow for control of Ukraine and the supply of energy to Europe does not fall into this category.  Ukrainians are not oppressing Russians.

Choosing sides in a contest between national groups of billionaires vying for business opportunities in Ukraine and Europe is, for ordinary people, an exercise in self-harm. If we’re going to chose a side in a war, let it be the side of you and me, not the side of billionaires.

And let the war be a battle against the menaces of climate change, precarious work, unaffordable housing, exploitation, racial oppression, and pandemics, not a contest over whether US billionaires or Russian billionaires will dominate Ukraine’s profit-making opportunities and the European energy market.

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

April 14, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Struggle of Russia and the United States for Ukraine

February 25, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Information warfare

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

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

What ought to be done?

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

The struggle against reactionaries who masquerade as anti-imperialists

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

Sense and Nonsense About Ukraine

January 21, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Joe Biden thinks, or at least says he thinks, that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would “be the most consequential thing that’s happened in the world in terms of war and peace since World War II.” Biden is either delusional, or supremely confident in the power of US propaganda to turn black to white, otherwise he couldn’t possibly summon the chutzpah to utter such arrant nonsense. Unless Russia plans (a) to invade Ukraine and then (b) burn it to the ground, as the United States did to North Korea from 1950 to 1953, or napalm and exfoliate the country, as Washington did to Vietnam, or bomb and sanction it into the stone age, as the Pentagon did to Iraq twice, or spend 20 years killing civilians in drone strikes as four US administrations did to Afghanistan, then Russia could hardly match the United States in producing consequential markers on the record of post-World War II war and peace.    

Equally absurd are the remarks of the leader of one of Washington’s favorite lickspittles, the government of Canada. “We are working with our international partners and colleagues to make it very, very clear that Russian aggression is absolutely unacceptable,” intoned the popinjay Justin Trudeau, a man whose servility to US interests is without limit. “We are standing there with diplomatic responses, with sanctions, with a full court press to ensure Russia respects the people of Ukraine.” Too bad Canada hadn’t acted to ensure the United States respected the peoples of Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to say nothing of the peoples of Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and Palestine, among others.   

The emperor and his Canadian viceroy

To avoid the terrible fate of being excommunicated from the church of respectable bourgeois politics, Canada’s peace and love party, the NDP, advocated the use of “sanctions” rather than “war” to deter what is said by governments and respectable (i.e., bourgeois) media in the West to be an anticipated Russian “aggression” against Ukraine, thus accepting as legitimate and propagating two spurious claims: (1) that sanctions—which regularly produce death and misery in excess of what is wrought by bullets, shells, bombs, and missiles—are a peaceful and desirable alternative to war, rather than a means of warfare itself, and a particularly vicious one at that; and that (2) Russian aggression lies at the heart of the dispute over Ukraine.

At its base, the conflict between Russia and the United States pivots on the question of security guarantees. Russia has asked for them and the United States refuses to grant them. Why does Russia feel insecure?

For one thing, the country, along with China, is at the center of the US reticle—Russia constituting what Washington calls a “revisionist power.” “Revisionist”, in US hands, means seeking to revise the international rules-based order—an order based on a set of shifting rules of which the United States alone is the architect and which it invokes whenever convenient, for its own benefit. Revising the international order is refusing to do whatever the US commands. The US president, uncrowned king of the world, or much of it, might as well intone, “The international rules-based order, c’est moi.”  US politicians and journalists are quick to use the words “dictator” and “authoritarian” to refer to the targets of US aggression, but, skilled propagandists to a person, refuse to use the words in reference to Washington’s own relationship with the rest of the world. Yet the words fit to a tee. The United States seeks a relationship of prepotency vis-à-vis other countries. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger described the relationship this way, in an amusing 1970s song, sung to the tune Yankee Doodle.

Yankee Doodle came to town

H-bombs in his pocket

Says chum if you don’t toe the line

I’ll blast you with my rockets

To be sure, the dictator’s tools of coercion have always surpassed H-bombs alone and include sanctions (more aptly known as starving people into submission, a favorite of Canada’s “peace-loving” NDP), fomenting rebellions, and declaring US toadies to be the legitimate leaders of countries that defy the US  dictatorship (Juan Guaidó, for example.)

In 2019, the RAND Corporation, the Pentagon’s think tank, drew up a list of measures the United States and its satellites, such as henchman Canada, could take to “overextend and unbalance” Russia as a means of coercing Moscow to toe the US line. The measures were:

  • Expand U.S. energy production to stress Russia’s economy, potentially constraining its government budget and, by extension, its defense spending. By adopting policies that expand world supply and depress global prices, the United States can limit Russian revenue.
  • Increase Europe’s ability to import gas from suppliers other than Russia to economically extend Russia.
  • Impose deeper trade and financial sanctions to degrade the Russian economy. 
  • Challenge the legitimacy of the state. Create the perception that Moscow is not pursuing the public interest by focussing on widespread, large-scale corruption.
  • Encourage domestic protests and other nonviolent resistance to distract or destabilize the Russian government.
  • Undermine Russia’s image abroad to diminish Moscow’s standing, influence and prestige. 
  • Encourage the emigration from Russia of skilled labor and well-educated youth.
  • Relocate bombers and missiles within easy striking range of key Russian strategic targets to raise Russian anxieties.

The point is that the United States views Russia as a challenge to what the late Hugo Chavez once called the international dictatorship of the United States and Washington has not sat idly by, allowing the challenge to its dictatorship to stand, as evidenced by RAND’s recommendations.

The second reason for Russia to feel insecure, if the first isn’t enough, is that the United States is the world’s greatest menace to peace, contrary to the efforts of Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, sanctions-loving social democrats, and the Western bourgeois media to flip this reality on its head. The United States’ addiction to war—according to Washington’s own Congressional Research Service, “the US military has waged war, engaged in combat, or otherwise employed its forces aggressively in foreign lands in all but eleven years of its existence”, that is, in more than 95 of every 100 years since 1776—is brushed aside. Twenty years in Afghanistan, the destruction of Iraq, the illegal occupation of Syria, the air war on Yugoslavia, the bombing of Panama and invasion of Grenada, wars on the peoples of Vietnam and Korea, to say nothing of wars of economic aggression on these and countless other countries—all these US aggressions are forgotten. Instead, we’re led to believe that, motivated by a desire to recover territory lost to the Russian empire, Vladimir Putin has asked for security guarantees he knows Washington cannot grant, and will use the denial of these guarantees as a pretext to invade Ukraine. Why the United States cannot guarantee Russia’s security, and why security guarantees are “non-starters”, is never explained. However, the undeniable US record of worshiping Mars is explanation enough: The United States cannot provide security guarantees, because the rules-based international order, of which the United States is the sole architect and its plutocrats the principal beneficiaries, depends on military threat and aggression as its ultima ratio. The alluring goal of integrating Russia into the US economy as a complement to, rather than as a rival of, corporate USA, offers too many lucrative profit-making opportunities for Washington to voluntarily surrender its program of anti-Russian military pressure.

Moscow has presented its request for security guarantees in the form of two proposed treaties, one with the United States and the other with the United States’ instrument, NATO. As far as I can tell, the details of the proposed treaties have never been presented in major US media, perhaps because they contradict the Western narrative of Russian belligerence.

Draft treaty with the United States: 

  1. Russia and the US shall not use the territory of other countries to prepare or conduct attacks against the other; 
  2. Neither party shall deploy short- or intermediate-range missiles abroad or in areas where these weapons could reach targets inside the other’s territory; 
  3. The US shall not open military bases in the post-Soviet countries that are not already NATO members, use their military infrastructure, or develop military cooperation with these states;
  4. Neither party shall deploy nuclear weapons abroad, and any such weapons already deployed must be returned. Both parties shall eliminate any infrastructure for deploying nuclear weapons outside their own territories; 
  5. Neither party shall conduct military exercises with scenarios involving the use of nuclear weapons; and, 
  6. Neither party shall train military or civilian personnel from non-nuclear countries to use nuclear weapons. 

Draft treaty with NATO.

  1. NATO shall not expand further east and must commit to excluding Ukrainian membership; 
  2. NATO shall not deploy additional forces or arms outside the borders of its members as of May 1997 (before the alliance started admitting Eastern European countries); 
  3. NATO shall not conduct any military activity in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, or Central Asia; 
  4. Russia and NATO shall not deploy short- or intermediate-range missiles within range of each other’s territories; 
  5. All parties shall refrain from conducting military actions above the brigade level which shall be confined to a border zone to be mutually agreed upon; and,  
  6. Neither party shall regard the other as an adversary or create threats to the other, and all parties shall commit to settling disputes peacefully, refraining from the use of force.

The provisions of the proposed treaties are in no way aggressive. On the other hand, the expansion of an anti-Russian military alliance up to the border of Russia, a country the alliance-leader, the United States, defines as a challenger to its hegemony, is unquestionably menacing to Russia. As to the canard that NATO cannot possibly pose a threat to Russia, for, after all, it’s merely a defensive alliance, that too depends on historical amnesia. An alliance that was at the center of unprovoked wars on Yugoslavia, Libya, and Afghanistan, is, ipso facto, an instrument of aggression. It is also an instrument of US domination, used (a) to keep Washington’s former imperialist rivals Germany, Britain, France, and Italy under US tutelage; (b) to create markets for US weapons manufacturers by demanding that NATO lackeys buy weapons systems that interoperate with the US military; and (c) to enlist NATO subalterns in the US project of “overextending and unbalancing” states that remain outside the US empire.

It may, contrary to what one reads in the press, be very much in the interest of Washington to provoke a Russian invasion of Ukraine. What better way to overextend and unbalance the Eurasian giant? A Russian invasion of the east European country would be a march into a quagmire. Washington welcomes the opportunity to overextend and unbalance Russia via a Ukrainian proxy—that is, to carry on the US war on Russia to the last Ukrainian. What’s more, and referring back to the RAND Corporation’s proposals, what better way than by provoking an invasion of Ukraine to do the following?

  • Undermine Russia’s image abroad to diminish Moscow’s standing, influence and prestige. 
  • Create a justification to impose deeper trade and financial sanctions to degrade the Russian economy. 
  • Provide a pretext to relocate bombers and missiles within easy striking range of key Russian strategic targets to raise Russian anxieties.
  • Pressure Germany to cancel Nord Stream 2 to increase Europe’s ability to import gas from suppliers other than Russia as a means of economically weakening Russia.

“Strobe Talbott, the original choreographer of NATO expansion in the post-cold war order,” as  M.K. Bhadrakumar describes him, has “triumphantly congratulated Blinken and Jake Sullivan for cornering Russia.” And well he should. In Ukraine, Washington has created an anti-Russian state on Russia’s border, which, while not formally integrated in NATO, is a de facto NATO asset. Left alone, Ukraine poses a threat to Russia. Invaded by Russia, it remains equally a threat.   

Provoking a robust Russian reply to an advancing and predatory NATO offers other benefits to Washington as well. France and Germany—the principal EU actors—evince a growing desire to achieve a strategic autonomy that would allow them to take advantage of the economic opportunities a closer relationship with Russia would create. Growing Russian-European economic integration would disadvantage US corporations. For example, in preference to reliance on Russian natural gas, Washington has pressed Europe to purchase liquid natural gas from the United States, even though the cost is much higher. Washington has also balked at the prospect of EU military autonomy on the grounds that it would cut US arms companies out of contracts for military provisioning. In other words, the United States uses its dominance over its former imperial rivals to tilt the field in favor of corporate USA (and also to keep former and therefore potential future imperialist rivals in check.) There’s a cost, then, of belonging to the US empire—sacrificing one’s own economic interests to those of the US plutocracy. A Russian invasion of Ukraine would provide Washington with a moral argument to pressure Germany and France into renouncing their growing openness to Russia in favor of more openness to corporate USA, while cementing Europe’s place in the US empire and countering the gravitational pull of Russia on European economies.  

Russia is clearly threatened by the United States and its NATO alliance, and the treaties proposed by Russia to guarantee its security would desirably stay the hand of an aggressive Washington, to the benefit not only of Russia, but to those of us who live in NATO countries who have nothing to gain, and much to lose, from the US plutocracy’s continuing predatory advance on its rivals. It is not Russians who are our enemy. Our enemies are the leaders of the column in whose ranks we are invited to march.

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Coming soon. The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster. Available for pre-order from Baraka Books.

Promoting Plutocracy: U.S.-Led Regime Change Operations and the Assault on Democracy

January 11, 2015

PROMOTING PLUTOCRACY
By Stephen Gowans

Chapter 1. What the West’s Position on Iran Reveals about its Foreign Policy
Chapter 2. Democracy
Chapter 3. Foreign Policy and Profits
Chapter 4. The State in Capitalist Society
Chapter 5. Concealing the Influence of the Corporate Elite on Foreign Policy
Chapter 6. Syria: Eradicating an Ideological Fixation on Socialism
Chapter 7. Ukraine: Improving the Investment Climate
Chapter 8. Kosovo: Privatizing the Economy
Chapter 9. Afghanistan: Investment Opportunities in Pipelines and Natural Resources
Chapter 10. The Military-Industrial Complex, Foreign Aid and Marionettes
Chapter 11. How Foreign Policy Hurts Workers
o Divide and Rule
o Socializing the Costs, Privatizing the Benefits
o The Assault on Substantive Democracy in Korea
o The Terrorism of the Weak
o Bulking Up the Police State
o Obviating the Terrorism of the Weak
Chapter 12. The West’s Foreign Policy Priorities

US Policy on Ukraine: Follow the Money

Don’t underestimate the role played by Yanukovych’s foreign-investor-unfriendly economic policy in spurring the US intervention in Ukraine

By Stephen Gowans

A favored leftist explanation of the United States’s and European Union’s intervention in Ukraine revolves around the geopolitical imperative for Washington of containing a US military rival, Russia, and bringing NATO up to its borders by integrating Ukraine into the US-led military alliance. What’s rarely mentioned is that the role played by the United States and its European subalterns in supporting the Maidan uprising and the consequent rise to power of the pro-Western coup government has also been motivated by the goal of building a more congenial climate in Ukraine for the profit-making activities of Western corporations and investors.

While Ukraine’s economy is understood by leftists to be capitalist and therefore not to raise a red flag at the US State Department, it is far from true that Ukraine’s economic policies under the ousted former president Victor Yanukovych were warmly accepted, even tolerated, in Western foreign policy circles. Indeed, from the point of view of the West, Ukraine’s economy left much to be desired. It needed, IMF managers said, to be reorganized by “structural reforms” to “improve the business climate.” [1] What’s important here is not that Ukraine was viewed as infertile ground for capitalist profit-making—but that it was viewed as infertile ground for the profit-making activities of Western corporations specifically.

The Heritage Foundation-Wall Street Journal 2014 Index of Economic Freedom rates Ukraine’s economy as “repressed” along with those of such perennial US regime change targets as North Korea, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Iran—all unfriendly to the idea that economic policy should be formulated to pad bank accounts and bottom lines in New York, London, Frankfurt and Paris. [2] Ukraine’s economic freedom—that is, its adherence to the free enterprise, open markets, free trade agenda favored on Wall Street—is even ranked behind that of Belarus, a country reviled in Western foreign policy circles for its nostalgic attachment to Soviet economic forms. Of 43 countries in Europe, the US ruling class foundation and newspaper rank Ukraine’s friendliness to Western corporate interests dead last, and only a little better than that of communist North Korea and Cuba, socialist Venezuela and economically nationalist Zimbabwe and Iran. So where, in the view of the West’s corporate elite, has Ukraine gone wrong?

The Heritage Foundation and its Wall Street Journal partner have a number of complaints. “Contracts are not well enforced, and expropriation is always a possibility.” “The labor code” they grouse, “is outmoded and lacks flexibility,” meaning it offers too many protections to workers. Government procurement policies are denounced for sometimes favoring domestic firms, and hence, limiting the profit-making opportunities of North American and European corporations. Exception is taken to Ukraine’s state-owned firms, which crowd out private (mainly Western) enterprise, and Kiev’s restrictions on foreign investment, which give a leg up to domestic businesses but cut foreign corporations out of the action.

Some of these noxious-to-Wall-Street barriers to Western profit-making would have been dismantled had Yanukovych not backed away from an agreement with the European Union that would have seen Ukraine get preferential access to EU markets in return for turning over Ukraine’s labor, markets and resources to Western business interests. But, alas, Yanukovych balked and Washington took advantage of the ensuing protests to foment an uprising to bring a biddable pro-foreign-investment stooge to power, backed by fascists and militant Russophobes.

The coup government quickly signed on to an IMF economic reform program which promises to replace the set of economic policies Washington and Brussels have long derogated for being unfriendly to Western investors with one aimed at pushing Ukraine into Wall Street’s good books. Reza Moghadam, director of the IMF’s European Department, explained that “the program…is expected to…help restore confidence among private investors,” to which he might have added, investors of the sort who own mansions in and around New York City and other Western financial capitals. Moghadam adds that “Ukraine needs to undertake deep-reaching structural reforms” to improve Ukraine’s business climate. That roughly translates into holding the line on wages, laying off public sector workers, gutting protections for employees, hiking taxes on ordinary people while bringing them down for businesses, rolling back social services, and throwing open the doors of the economy to Western corporations.

Here are the details. Public sector wages will be held in check while increases in the minimum wage will be capped. At the same time, “expenditure restraint will be exercised through the suspension of” (what the IMF calls) “unaffordable wage and pension increases planned by the previous” (i.e., Yanukovych) “government, public employment reduction…and rationalization of social assistance spending.” So far this is shaping up to mean that “24,000 state workers and 80,000 police officers nationwide are set to be laid off,” [3] with more austerity to follow. And while public expenditures are being reined in in the interests of creating an improved business environment, tax revenues will be hiked, not through increases in corporate taxes and income tax, but on regressive consumption taxes, which fall most heavily on those with the lowest incomes. The wealthy will be spared the burden of contributing to state coffers by measures to “facilitate value-added tax refunds for businesses.” And while ordinary Ukrainians are being squeezed to give more to businesses and investors, a new procurement law will be adopted to deny domestic firms preferential treatment in the awarding of government contracts. North American and European firms will be the principal beneficiaries.

The coup government’s principals, explains Moghadam, “believe there is a window of opportunity for bold and ambitious reforms in order to transform Ukraine” into “a vibrant business environment”—yes, and one that pays dividends to foreigners on the backs of Ukrainians. The sole reason for the existence of Ukrainians (and most of humanity) under the logic of the US-superintended system of global capitalism is to be screwed over in order to make a thin upper layer of Western society fabulously wealthy.

If we accept that the United States’s wealthiest citizens as a class exercise inordinate influence over public policy—a point supported by research presented in an upcoming paper in Perspectives on Politics by Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page [4]–it follows that the principal function of the US State Department and the Pentagon is to support the overseas profit-making activities of US corporations. Hence, what likely lies at the root of US interventions abroad is the defense and promotion of US investor and corporate interests contra the economic nationalist (Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Iran), socialist (Venezuela) or communist (Cuba and North Korea) economic policies of foreign states. Yanukovych’s government gave too many breaks to Ukrainian investors, businesses, and even ordinary citizens, and therefore committed the cardinal sin in the church of US global hegemony: interfering in the profit-maximization of US corporations. That, perhaps more than US geopolitical and military interests, explains why the United States backs the coup in Kiev and opposes the forces arrayed against it.

Russia’s repatriation of Crimea—backed by the peninsula’s largely Russophone population, as it had also been overwhelmingly backed in a 1991 plebiscite [5]—was simply a defensive reaction by Moscow against the danger that the coup government in Kiev would seek to eject it from its naval base on the Black Sea. It was not the aggressive act Western figures of state and their mass media echo-chambers have made it out to be. The true aggressor here is US foreign policy in pursuit of its principal function of promoting the overseas profit-making interests of corporate America.

Postscript

Yanukovych’s successor as president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that “We will do the absolutely unique transformation of our country…with a very good investment climate…with all the necessary things to attract business.” (David M. Herszenhorn, “Pro-European businessman claims victory in Ukraine presidential vote”, The New York Times, May 25, 2014)

1. Interview with Reza Moghadam: Ukraine Unveils Reform Program with IMF Support, IMF Survey, April 30, 2014
2. http://www.heritage.org/index/
3. Anthony Faiola, “In Ukraine, a crisis of bullets and economics,” The Washington Post, April 16, 2014
4. Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” forthcoming Fall 2014 in Perspectives on Politics. http://www.princeton.edu/~mgilens/Gilens%20homepage%20materials/Gilens%20and%20Page/Gilens%20and%20Page%202014-Testing%20Theories%203-7-14.pdf
5. Peter Hart, “Radioactive Putin is ‘Stalin’s Spawn’”, Extra!, May 1, 2014

Ukraine and How the West Treats Comparable Events in Satellite and Non-Satellite Countries Differently

By Stephen Gowans

The uprising in Ukraine represents a struggle between the West and Russia to integrate Ukraine economically, and, ultimately, militarily, into their respective orbits. I take no side in the struggle. All the same, each side wants me, and you, to take sides. Since I live in the West, and have greater exposure to the pronouncements of people of state in the West, and to the Western mass media than I do to their Russian counterparts, I’ll concentrate herein on analyzing Western efforts to shape public opinion to support the Western side of the struggle.

First, a few points by way of background.

• Ukraine is divided nationally between ethnic Ukrainians, who are concentrated in the West, and Russians, who are concentrated in the East, and especially in Crimea. Russians in Crimea and the East lean toward integration with Russia, while ethnic Ukrainians in the West tend to resent Russia’s historical domination of Ukraine.
• Crimea, a peninsula jutting into the Black Sea, is the home to the Russian Black Sea fleet. The current president, Yanukovych, extended the Russian lease on the naval base.
• Russian gas bound for Europe transits Ukraine.
• Russia does not want Ukraine to be integrated into NATO, which it views, for sound reasons, as an anti-Russian military alliance.

For the West, integration of Ukraine into its orbit means:

• Expansion of Western business opportunities.
• Growing isolation of Russia, one of the few countries strong enough to challenge US hegemony.
• Influence over transit of Russian gas exports to Europe.
• Military strategic advantage.

It’s instructive to contrast the treatment by Western states and mass media of the uprising in Ukraine with the concurrent uprisings in Egypt (which the West opposes) and Syria (which it supports.)

The Syrian uprising, contrary to its depiction by Western forces as a battle for democracy, is the latest, and most violent, eruption of an ongoing Islamist insurgency dating back to the 1960s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s efforts to oust the “infidel” non-sectarian Arab nationalist government. The insurgency has since mutated into one dominated by salafist, takfiri, and al-Qaeda-aligned fighters backed by hereditary Muslim tyrannies, the Qatari and Saudi royal dictatorships, and former colonial powers, Turkey, France and Britain. The Western narrative makes obligatory references to the Syrian government as a “regime”, complains about its authoritarian nature, insists the insurgency springs from the peaceful protests of pro-democracy activists, and celebrates the “moderate” rebels. The moderate rebels are, in the main, Muslim Brothers. To be sure, they’re moderate compared to the Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but they’re not the secular liberal- or social-democrats so many in the West would like to believe they are.

In contrast, the uprising in Egypt against a military dictatorship that ousted an elected Muslim Brother as president is treated very differently. The dictatorship is not called a “dictatorship”, nor even a “regime”, but neutrally, a “military government.” The Muslim Brothers, who have taken to the streets in protest at the coup, and have been gunned down and locked up for their troubles, are not called “pro-democracy activists”, as the Muslim Brothers in Syria are, or even moderate rebels, but an “emerging Islamist insurgency.” Nor is the dictatorship which shot them down and locked them up called a “brutal” dictatorship. The Egyptian dictatorship calls the insurgents “terrorists”, which is dispassionately noted in Western news reports, while the Assad government’s depictions of Syrian insurgents who set off car bombs in crowded downtown streets as terrorists is dismissed as patent propaganda. Egypt’s military dictatorship has banned political parties, tossed political opponents in jail on trumped up charges, and arrested journalists. Over the weekend the Egyptian military killed somewhere between 50 and 60 demonstrators. This is mechanically documented in major Western newspapers. There are no calls for Western intervention.

The recent events in Ukraine are treated very differently. The deaths of a few rioters in Ukraine sparks fevered media coverage and denunciation in Western capitals, while the president’s attempts to quell the disorder by invoking laws restricting civil liberties is treated as a major assault on human rights. Compare that to the relative silence over the deaths of many more demonstrators in Egypt and the suspension of all political liberties in that country. If we should be exercised by the state of affairs in Ukraine, surely we should be incensed on a far grander scale by the state of affairs in Egypt.

Foreign governments stand in relation to the West as satellites, in which case they’re called allies, or non-satellites, in which case they’re “enemies”, or, if they’re large enough, “rivals.” Comparable events in any two countries will be treated in Western mass media differently and using different language depending on whether the country is a satellite (ally) or non-satellite (enemy or rival). Hence, in Syria (a non-satellite) an elected government (elected, to be sure, under restrictive conditions) is called a “regime” headed by a “dictator”, while in Egypt (a satellite) a military-appointed government is not called a “regime” but a “government” and the de facto head of state (a dictator) is simply called “the head of the military.” In Egypt, an emerging insurgency led by Muslim Brothers and Islamist fanatics is called “an emerging Islamist insurgency”, but in Syria, an insurgency reignited by Muslim Brothers and now dominated by Islamist fanatics is called a “rebellion against dictatorship.” In Ukraine (a non-satellite so far as the government goes ahead with plans to align itself with Russia and not the EU) a crackdown on dissent which is mild compared to the crackdown in Egypt (or Bahrain or Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf monarchy satellite of the United States) is treated as a major transgression on human rights, one warranting some form of Western intervention. However, no intervention is called for to stay the hand of Egypt’s military. Through the deft use of language and selective emphasis and silence, Western states concoct and spread through the mass media an understanding of events in far off places that comport with the pursuit of their own interests (which, more narrowly, once you parse them out, are the interests of their wealthiest citizens as a class.)

Efforts to integrate Ukraine into the EU are motivated by the desire of Western states to secure advantages for their economic elite, while efforts to integrate Ukraine into Russia are aimed at garnering benefits for Russian enterprises and investors. The interests of the bulk of Ukrainians do not, however, enter into the equation. Their role is simply to produce wealth for investors—Russian or Western or both—while doing so for as little compensation in wages, salary, benefits and government services as possible to allow the investors to make off with as much as possible. The interests of the bulk of Ukraine’s citizens lie, neither with the EU nor Russian elites, but with themselves.