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.
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.
Adopting the now extremely dated view that Russia and China are socialist, rather than capitalist.
Seeing Russian and Chinese opposition to the US empire as rooted in socialism, rather than capitalist rivalry for economic territory.
Perceiving the US empire as equal to the metropolis, rather than as only one part of it, along with Russia and China.
Regarding the periphery as exploited by the US empire alone, rather than by Russia and China, as well.
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.
It has been a tough week for the star-gazers who run a platform called Friends of Socialist China, a motley collection of Sinophiles and pretend-Marxists who support “the People’s Republic of China” and aim to “spread understanding of” what they call “Chinese socialism.”
With Beijing lifting Covid restrictions in response to pressure from capitalists at home and abroad— a move expected to sacrifice up to 2 million Chinese or more to the Moloch of profit—it will be difficult to continue to “spread understanding” that “Chinese socialism” elevates people above capital accumulation.
On 7 December, The Wall Street Journal reported that while Beijing has “repeatedly emphasized the need to maintain the zero-Covid policy,” the “official tune began to change after Covid-related disruptions at the world’s biggest iPhone assembly plant led Apple Inc. to question whether it can still rely on China as its biggest manufacturing base.”
The next day the newspaper reported that:
“A letter from the founder of the world’s largest iPhone assembler played a major role in persuading China’s Communist Party leadership to accelerate plans to dismantle the country’s zero-tolerance Covid-19 policies.”
“In the letter to Chinese leaders, Foxconn Technology Group founder Terry Gou warned that strict Covid controls would threaten China’s central position in global supply chains.”
“Chinese health officials and government advisers seized on Mr. Gou’s letter to bolster the case that the government needed to speed up its efforts to ease its tough Covid-19 controls.”
The lifting of the infection control measures is expected to “put unprecedented strain on the Chinese health system.”
“Using Hong Kong as a proxy, London-based health analytics firm Airfinity estimated in late November that a lifting of zero-Covid measures in China could lead to anywhere between 1.3 million and 2.1 million deaths,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
China-supporters have long pointed to China’s very low pandemic mortality rate to argue that, unlike other states, Beijing puts people’s lives before profits. The argument no longer holds.
But if Beijing puts profits ahead of people, what accounts for China’s superior pandemic performance? The answer, paradoxically, is its poorly-resourced health care system.
It’s often forgotten, if ever understood, that while China has the world’s second largest, if not the world’s largest, economy, that in per capita terms, China is poor. A country that is wealthy in aggregate is not necessarily wealthy on a per person basis, and this is true of China, a country with a large economy, but whose aggregate wealth is divided over an extraordinarily large population.
GDP per capita, 2021 (Current US dollars, Source: World Bank)
Because China has little wealth per person, its has few health care resources to allot to each person.
Health care expenditures per capita, 2019 (Current US dollars, Source: World Bank)
According to The World Population Review, the United States has 34.7 critical care beds per 100,000 people. China has a mere 3.6.
Clearly, as a relatively poor country on a per capita basis, China does not have the resources to adequately deal with a viral outbreak. This is especially true in rural areas, where medical resources are stretched thin.
With a feeble health care infrastructure, China has had no option but to implement stringent infection control measures to prevent outbreaks, otherwise its hospitals would have been overwhelmed.
This means that while China’s approach to pandemic control has always looked different from the West’s, it’s actually the same.
The Western approach, called hospital-based surveillance, calibrates public heath restrictions to hospital capacity. China has followed the same strategy. The only difference is, that because the country has so few critical care beds, it has had to rein in infection levels to keep people out of the hospital.
China’s superior pandemic performance hasn’t, then, reflected a stronger orientation to people over profits, but limited options. China is just another capitalist country prioritizing capital accumulation, but owing to its poorly-resource medical system, it has had to work extremely diligently to keep people out of the hospital. The calculus, however, has shifted, and countless Chinese citizens will be whisked to early graves to save China’s central position in global supply chains, to the greater glory and benefit of Terry Gou, Tim Cook, and Apple shareholders.
Equally troubling for the Friends is reporting from The Wall Street Journal this week that China is transferring drones and ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia, the tyranny that is waging a war of aggression on Yemen.
The Friends did little to put themselves in good stead when they defended the transfer of Chinese weapons to Riyadh on the grounds that arming the Saudis benefits the global working class!
Here is how the Friends replied to my Tweet criticizing them for failing to call out Chinese arms transfers to Saudi tyrants. Some of the Friends had earlier led campaigns to denounce Western arms sales to the same despots, but couldn’t find the courage and integrity to condemn Beijing for doing the same.
Hypocrites to be sure, the Friends are also bold. After all, to claim China is socialist, when it so obviously is not, takes a fair amount of chutzpah. “Socialist China” strikes a jarring note, like “Flat Earth” and “Square Circle.” Imagine a group called Friends of Peace-Loving USA, self-described peace-activists who support the United States with the aim of spreading understanding of America’s rich devotion to a world without war. This is what the Friends are all about: propaganda—and, as it turns out, they’re unabashedly avowed spreaders of Beijing’s manure.
They claim to be Marxists, and while they may think they are, their knowledge of Marxism is wafer-thin. At worst, they’re frauds. Carlos Martinez, one of the group’s principals, criticized a view of imperialism based on the writings of Rudolph Hilferding, Nicolai Bukharin, and V.I. Lenin—what’s known as the classical Marxist theory—as non-Marxist. Martinez labors under the mistaken impression that Marxists understand imperialism to be what the G7, and only the G7, does. Chinese chauvinists may hold this view, but Marxists? No.
On their website the Friends ask Why China? To support “all states building or aspiring to socialism.” What they mean is that China is not socialist, but says it aspires to be someday. For the moment, it’s capitalist, and thoroughly so. Hence, the lifting of pandemic restrictions under pressure from capitalists at home and abroad. Hence, throwing Yemen under the bus by selling arms to the Saudis. Profits take priority over lives and principal as much in Beijing as Washington.
As to the deceit embedded in the term “socialist China,” I may aspire to be a Nobel Prize winner, but calling myself Nobel Prize winning Steve, would be more than a little deceptive; so too, referring to China as socialist, when China says only that it aspires to be socialist someday, is sheer mendacity.
But, then, deception is the name of the game where the Friends are concerned. No sooner does the Friends’ website acknowledge indirectly that Chinese socialism is aspirational, that is, for the future, does it resume talking about Chinese socialism in the present, as if it’s a real thing.
And then there’s the Friends’ devotion to the backward concept of multipolarity. “China,” the Friends intone, “is the most prominent force pushing for the establishment of a multipolar system of international relations.” Multipolarity is important to the Friends, because it’s important to Beijing, though it’s hardly a Marxist aspiration, or has much to do with Marxism. Marxism aspires to a nonpolar world free from the division of humanity into classes and nations. Martinez and crew wouldn’t know this, because, well, they don’t know much about Marxism. But they do know something about what the Chinese tell them Marxism is.
Multipolarity—the idea that a few large powers should divide the world, so long as one of them is China—is an idea of significance to Chinese nationalists; they’re keen on engineering China’s rebirth as a great power so their profit-making enterprises can claim a greater share of the world market. In practice, multipolarity means that, rather than relying on the United States alone to get arms to wage a war of aggression on Yemen, the Saudi tyranny can also buy weapons from China. One might understand why the leader of a rising power, or a Saudi tyrant, might value multipolarity, but it’s hard to see why a genuine Marxist would.
The Friends of China, of course, are not Marxists, any more than people who would call themselves Friends of Peace-Loving USA would be peace-activists. The Friends are little more than automata who march to the drumbeat of that most capitalist of states, the People’s Republic of China.
The group’s mission, unabashedly acknowledged on its website, is to provide a platform for pro-China propaganda. When you say you support the People’s Republic of China and that your mission is to spread understanding of it, you acknowledge that your aim is to promote information supportive of Beijing; that is, that your role is one of propaganda.
In the Friends’ view, spreading pro-China propaganda equals anti-imperialism. Anti-imperialism, thus, becomes a project of objecting to criticism of China and promoting pro-China narratives; that is, of pro-China propaganda. Behind this absurd conception of imperialism lies an article of faith: that China does not seek to integrate foreign territory into its national economy in competition with other capitalist powers. In other words, China alone, among large capitalist powers, is not compelled by the competition inherent in capitalism to project power abroad, through economic, political, diplomatic, and military means. That Beijing obviously vies with the United States, Europe, and even Russia, for markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory, escapes the notice of the Friends, who prefer to think of Beijing projecting influence abroad on behalf of its billionaires as China selflessly promoting development and fostering socialism around the world. One can find the Friends’ equivalent on the other side of the inter-imperialist aisle, who will swear up and down that Washington’s engagement with the world is inspired by lofty ideals of promoting stability, development, human rights, and democracy.
Martinez’s Twitter handle, @agent_of_change is more honestly rendered @agent_of_Beijing. That’s demonstrated by his reaction to my challenging the theory that China puts people ahead of profits. The avowed propagandist complained that I was spraying “anti-Chinese propaganda around the Internet.” When criticism is peremptorily dismissed as propaganda, and propaganda is presented as unalloyed truth, it becomes clear that it’s not information the Friends are spreading, but disinformation. Sadly for avowed propagandists, but happily for scientific socialism, reality is challenging so many of the myths Beijing’s agent of change seeks to propagate under the guise of a phony anti-imperialism.
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.
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.
“Capitalism can pursue no other policy than that of imperialism.” Rudolph Hilferding
“Imperialism is an inevitable accompaniment of capitalist development.” Nikolai Bukharin
“Colonial politics and imperialism are … the inevitable consequences of the very foundations of capitalism.” V.I. Lenin
By Stephen Gowans
June 18, 2022
Blaming the war in Ukraine on Russian aggression or, alternatively, NATO provocations, represents a failure to understand capitalist imperialism as a system of rivalry among states for economic advantage. Imperialism is not what Russia alone does, or only what the United States and its janissaries do, but is, instead, a system in which all capitalist powers and blocs are enmeshed. It is not a policy choice, but the inevitable outcome of rivalry among states that originates in the expansionary imperatives of capitalism. To borrow from Lenin, capitalist imperialism is “the struggle for the sources of raw materials, for the export of capital, for spheres of influence, i.e., for spheres for profitable deals, concessions, monopolist profits, and so on, in fine, for economic territory in general.”  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. 
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.”  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).  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). 
“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.” 
“This “was all nonsense,” declared the two Bolsheviks, “a fraud.”  In truth, they said, “The essence of the imperialist war was … that in it, all were aggressors” (emphasis added).  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).  “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.” 
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.  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 , 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).
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 , 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.
 V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. International Publishers. 1939. P. 124.
 William Appleman Williams. The Great Evasion. Quadrangle Books. 1964. P. 75.
 Domenico Losurdo. War and Revolution. Verso. 2015. P. 137.
 “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.
 N. Bukharin and E. Preobrazhensky. The ABC of Communism.Penguin Books. 1970. P. 158.
 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.
 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.
“Moscow wanted ‘to claim complete control of Mariupol by May 9, with Russian propagandists recently arriving in the city to set conditions for further claims of a Russian victory.‘” The New York Times, May 5, 2022*
Eva Bartlett, called by some an independent journalist, has close to 100,000 followers on Twitter. On her Twitter profile she says “I go to the places I write about.”
I’ve met Eva and talked to her. She is warm, amiable, polite, funny, combative, smart, and considerate. A delight. I have no doubt that she is extraordinarily courageous. There are great many people who like her, and for good reason. She has many shining personal qualities.
When I recently described a report Eva wrote from Mariupol, I said it was propaganda for the billionaires’ government of Russia.
I do believe that that is what it is. I don’t mean, however, that she is in the employ of the Russian government; only that her agenda is the same.
My motive in impugning Eva’s report was to raise legitimate questions that are all too infrequently asked about the kind of journalism Eva practices, and about journalism more generally.
The first question is how do we know that any of what Eva tells us is true? This isn’t a nasty insinuation that it isn’t true, only, how do we know it is? How should we test its veracity?
I suspect Eva’s answer would be that, one, she’s independent, and two, she goes to the places she writes about. Therefore, what she writes is true.
But “independent” is a vague word. Almost every journalist says they’re independent, but independent of what? Reporters for privately-owned media say they’re independent, because they’re not on a government payroll. But that doesn’t make them independent of the media owners on whose payroll they depend.
Freelance journalists say they’re independent, but they’re not independent of the agendas of the media outlets they sell their stories to.
Eva could say she’s independent if her reports are self-published. But she’s not independent of the agendas of the web sites that post her material. RT, a news outlet founded to propagate a Russian point of view (or at least a point of view that is highly critical of Russia’s rival, the United States) features regular contributions from Eva. That doesn’t mean she’s tailoring her writing to what pleases Moscow; only that the Moscow line and her writing are simpatico, which is why RT publishes it.
Eva’s Mariupol report was posted on the web site Internationalist 360, which has its own agenda, and is unlikely to publish reports that are inimical to its particular objectives. (Internationalist 360 appears to be associated with the Gaddafi family.)
I said I knew what Eva would find in Mariupol before she even arrived in the city. I said this because I know her biases, evidenced in RT frequently publishing her work.
Eva may be called an independent journalist, but the word “independent,” as far as journalism is concerned, is largely meaningless. Eva is more accurately called an advocate for people fighting US imperialism, including Washington’s imperialist rivals, who poses as an independent truth-seeker. (Mainstream journalists can also be described as advocates—in their case on behalf of the business community that owns the publications they write for—who also pose as independent truth-seekers.)
What about me? Am I independent? I wrote a book on Syria for Baraka Books. I would never have been asked to write the book had the publisher not had a pretty good idea, based on my previous writings, that what I would say would be consistent with his own agenda. The late Louis Proyect, one of my critics, could have said that he already knew what I would write before I had ever written the book. He would have been right.
Promotion of the book billed me as an independent analyst. Leaving aside that I wasn’t independent of Baraka and its agenda, it was true that I had no institutional affiliations. I could, therefore, be described reasonably as an analyst who is independent of any connection to governments, businesses, universities, thinks tanks, and so on. While this might have proved that I wasn’t a gun for hire, it didn’t in any way demonstrate that what I wrote about in my book was accurate. Independent doesn’t mean right. Likewise, dependent doesn’t necessarily mean wrong.
The idea that a report is legitimate simply because the reporter travels to a place she reports on—Eva’s claim to legitimacy—is meaningless. Even if we assume that a reporter doesn’t have a political ax to grind, and is highly perspicacious, does visiting a place suddenly make one an expert on all of its variegated complexities? It’s possible to poll 10 different Syrians who have lived in the country all their lives and get 10 different views on events since 2011. But if being in a place gives one special insight into the place, as Eva claims, how is it that 10 different people who have lived in the same place all their lives can have multiple, conflicting insights about the same place? The reality is that many people with experience of one place can have conflicting views about that place. Judging whether a view is sound on the basis of whether a person has experience of the place is impossible.
Eva’s Mariupol report consisted of “on the ground” interviews. But it’s possible for anyone to travel anywhere and find a number of people who express opinions that match the particular point of view one wants to emphasize. And while it is a technique commonly used by journalists, its value is approximately zero. More compelling would be a methodical, unbiased, opinion poll, designed and analyzed by someone sitting in a downtown Toronto office who has never visited the place in question. Hence, not only is it impossible to judge whether a view is sound on the basis of whether a person has experience of the place, it’s possible that a person who has no experience of the place has a better view.
As an aside, Vanessa Beeley, another advocate who poses as an independent truth-seeker and who also fetishizes travelling to the places she writes about, had no reservations about pontificating on Ottawa’s Freedom Convoy from thousands of miles away, going so far as to dismiss the points of view of people who were actually there, myself included. Based on her conduct and sympathy with the convoy’s anti-vaccine agenda , I would surmise that had Vanessa actually travelled to Ottawa, she very likely would have interviewed only Freedom Convoy supporters and ignored everyone else.
A basic question one ought to ask of any reporting is how do I know it’s true? Some people say they know Eva’s reporting is true because it matches what they already know to be true. Of course, this invites the question, how do they already know the truth? And why do they need a reporter to tell them what they already know? The reality is that they don’t know the truth, but like the version of reality Eva presents.
Regarding Eva’s Mariupol report:
How do we know she didn’t selectively cull opinion to satisfy a pre-determined narrative? I’m not saying she did, but how do we know she didn’t? And even if she selected her interviewees at random, the methodology of interviewing a handful of people and then making sweeping generalizations is invalid.
Is it even thinkable that Eva could have returned from Mariupol with a story that wasn’t simpatico with the Moscow line? If she had, how would her many admirers have treated her? Would they have believed her? Or would they have denounced her as a traitor and immediately unfollowed her? My guess is that they would have discarded her—and that she knows it.
Another guess: It’s not independent journalism that Eva’s many followers seek, but merely someone to tell them what they want to hear. Telling people what they want to hear is a great gig. If you satisfy your followers’ need to have their views validated, they treat you as a hero. And they certainly don’t ask tough questions like, “How do I know any of this is true?”
We should be asking tough questions. We demand too little of the people who write articles and books and conduct interviews, and who lead our political parties and peace groups. And the result is that the quality of our politics is subpar. Sadly, it will always be so, if we prefer the soothing caress of people who tell us what we want to hear, rather than the challenge of people who tell us what we need to know.
We also ask too little of our advocates. If they’re going to be effective, we better be sure the material and arguments they produce are sound and compelling, and not shot through with holes. The only way do achieve this outcome is to ask hard questions and demand work be held to a high standard.
*Michael Schwirtz, “Putin’s Forces Battle in East Ukraine to Feed His Hunger for a Victory,” The New York Times, May 5, 2022
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:
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.
I talk with Greg and Pat on their podcast Coming From Left Field about Israel, a US beachhead in the Middle East.
Pat Cummings grew up with middle-class privilege in a close and happy Irish-American military family. He came of age in the Vietnam era, beginning his activism in the antiwar movement. He spent his life in public education, where he saw first-hand the systemic inequalities that elevated some but suppressed many.
Greg Godels grew up in a working-class family and in a working-class neighborhood. His family’s strong labor ties lead him to anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism and to Marxism-Leninism. He identifies with the legacy of Communism in the US. His writings have appeared in a number of publications in the US and internationally.
[We] take our rewards in the goodies of the imperial marketplace and in the false coin of self-righteousness. – William Appleman Williams*
By Stephen Gowans
August 19, 2020
Two US scholars, writing in the unofficial journal of the US State Department, Foreign Affairs, have denounced the cruelty of US intervention in Syria, while passing over its criminal and imperialist nature, and accepting as legitimate assumptions underlying US foreign policy about the fundamental goodness of the United States and the fundamental depravity of its victims.
In The Pointless Cruelty of Trump’s New Syria Sanctions, Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, and Steven Simon, Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs at the White House from 2011 to 2012, denounce the sanctions Washington has inflicted on Syria. However, far from being an anti-imperialist j’accuse, the piece perpetuates myths about the aims of US foreign policy and sanitizes the nature of the US intervention.
The problem with US sanctions, the authors argue, is that they’re pointlessly cruel, which is to say that they are at the same time highly punitive and incapable of achieving the goals they are putatively designed to achieve. Presumably, cruelty, if it worked, would have a point, and would be acceptable; but the current cruelty does not work and therefore is pointless and should be brought to an end, the scholars contend.
What sanctions have failed to achieve, and will continue to fail to achieve, Landis and Simon argue, is the replacement of the current Syrian government with one acceptable to the United States. If the Syrian government has yet to fall, despite the enormous efforts the US government has made to see that it does, more sanctions are not the answer. Landis and Simon write:
“Assad and his supporters won the country’s civil war against considerable odds. They did not crack when rebels massacred their entire national security team early in the war; they did not crack when they lost Palmyra, Idlib, half of Aleppo, the oil fields, the northeast, or the southeast; they brushed off Trump’s 60-second bombing campaign; and they withstood an energetic U.S. effort to equip and train the armed opposition. If nine years of brutal violence … did not defeat Assad and his military, economic embargoes are unlikely to faze him.”
The most conspicuous aspects of the US intervention in Syria are its flagrant illegality and manifest imperialism, yet at no point do the scholars point out that the US occupation of northeastern Syria, the US take-over of Syria’s oil fields, US training and funding of insurgents, US missile strikes on Syria, and the imposition of coercive economic measures, are criminal, murderous, and anti-democratic, though they openly acknowledge that Washington has pursued all of these means to achieve its goal of overthrowing the Syrian government. It’s as if Landis and Simon set out to write an article about the history of Hiroshima and somehow overlooked the fact that it was the site of the first atomic bombing. Landis and Simon fail to mention the following additional expressions of US imperialism: US complicity in Turkey’s military occupation of northern Syria and US endorsement of the Israeli annexation of two-thirds of the Syrian province of Al Qunaytirah, conquered by Israel in 1967 and then ethnically cleansed and illegally settled. The invaders changed the name of the territory to the Golan Heights.
The goal of the US intervention, thoroughly anti-democratic in stamp, is to impose the US will on another people. Landis and Simon fail to question the legitimacy of this goal. Instead, they accept the aim as a desirable part of a larger US project of constructing “an international liberal order premised on the conviction that free trade and a vital middle class [will] produce democratic governance and societal well-being.” What free trade will produce, pace Landis and Simon, is not democratic governance and societal well-being, but continued poverty for poor countries, and continued affluence for the wealthy. Poor countries are incapable of competing on a global level against rich countries, and can only develop economically by emulating the policies rich countries themselves pursued to become rich: tariff barriers to nurture infant industries, industrial planning, subsidies, state-owned enterprises, and restrictions on foreign investment. 
Free trade is central to the story of why the United States has waged a long war on Syria. The Syrian government’s failure to open its economy to US investment and exports on US terms, and insistence on independent economic development—emulating what the rich countries did to become prosperous—is as much a part of the reason Washington has tried to oust the Assad government as is the fact that Damascus has long irritated Washington by acting as a beacon of local independence and national assertiveness in the Arab world. Assad vowed in 2013 that “Syria will never become a western puppet state” and that his government would do whatever was necessary to “best serve the interests of the Syrians,” not the West.  Promoting the interests of a republic’s citizens is what a president is supposed to do, remarked Robert Mugabe during an address to the United Nations General Assembly, but under a US-superintended liberal order, what presidents are really supposed to do is submit to a global order based on free trade designed to promote the interests of US investors. Syria has been non-compliant with the US-agenda, operating what US government researchers described in a 2005 report as a largely publicly-owned, state-planned economy based on “Soviet models” while supporting Hamas and Hezbollah,  enemies of US-attack dog, Israel, the Zionist state in colonized Palestine.
From the birth of the US empire as 13 British colonies in a stolen land to the present day, the foundation of the empire’s foreign policy—guiding its continental expansion, and then its extra-continental enlargement through formal and informal colonialism—has been to crush any force of local independence and national assertiveness that stands in the way of US economic interests. Washington must replace the Syrian government with one that accepts the international liberal order, an order which various figures in the US foreign policy establishment have described as: created by US officials with US interests in mind and US prosperity (though unmentioned, specifically that of corporate America) as its goal.
The late John McCain wrote that “We are the chief architect and defender of an international order governed by rules derived from our political and economic values. We have grown vastly wealthier and more powerful under those rules.”  Barak Obama described the US-superintended international order as one upon which US prosperity depends.  The recently deceased Brent Scowcroft, a US national security power broker, “for decades mentored generations of national security professionals … in a realist brand of foreign policy that championed a U.S.-led international order … and looked on revolutionary change with suspicion.”  Revolutionary change, it should be noted, often involves transferring ownership of economies from foreign investors to local governments or local business people, an act inimical to US investor interests.
If we’re to be honest, the prosperity of investors and high-level executives of major corporations is the principal aim of the liberal (note, not liberal democratic, but liberal sans democratic) international order which Landis and Simon cite as the desired end of US policy. The prosperity of US citizens en masse—Main Street not Wall Street—is not the primum mobile of US foreign policy. Neither is building democratic governance and middle-class societies abroad an authentic goal, however much this deceit figures in the rhetorical flourishes of various US experts in casuistry, Landis and Simon included.
One need only look at Latin America, a region on which Uncle Sam has long imposed his will. The outcome of the United States’ smothering influence after hundreds of years is that Latin America remains poor, despite its being forced, often at the point of a US gun, to accept US economic prescriptions based on free trade, a regime William Appleman Williams once described as a piratical “We need, you give.”  Those prescriptions, while dishonestly presented as the key to a future Latin American prosperity, have left the region stagnating in poverty. Meanwhile, the United States has prospered.
Landis and Simon have constructed their argument within a framework of assumptions that accepts without question that the United States wants to “make a positive contribution to regional development” and create “freedom and advancement” in Syria (presumably just as it promised but failed to do in its Latin American backyard.) Clearly, the United States has delivered neither freedom nor advancement to either Syrians or Latin Americans. Instead, in Syria, US policies have led to the strangulation of the Syrian economy, immiseration of the Syrian people, and creation of public health and refugee crises.
To explain the contradiction of an allegedly benevolent US foreign policy producing obviously malevolent results (the foreign policy equivalent of the theodicy problem—How can an omnipotent God be benevolent if he allows misery and cruelty to flourish?), Landis and Simon point, not to the obvious answer that US foreign policy is not benevolent, but to US-produced malignancies as the unintended consequences of policy missteps by the US foreign policy establishment. US intentions are good, they contend, but US officials have blundered; they’ve drawn from the wrong policy set. Economic warfare ought never to have been pursued against Syria, they argue, because “there is little evidence that economic sanctions ever achieve their objectives. Even the best designed sanctions can be self-defeating, strengthening the regimes they were designed to hurt and punishing the societies they were supposed to protect.”
What Landis and Simon don’t accept, despite the evidence staring them in the face, is that sanctions were never intended to protect foreign populations. Instead, they were deployed to do precisely what they almost invariably do—immiserate. If the stated aim of policy x is to produce y but almost always produces z, at what point do you accept that z is the real aim and that y is a misdirection?
The point of immiserating a people—what makes the cruelty rational, rather than pointless—is to weaken local forces of independence and national assertiveness to the point that they’re no longer capable of challenging US power. A further objective is to make an example of such forces so that other countries never emulate them, seeing subordination to the US will as preferable to being sanctioned (and in some cases bombed) back into the stone age. For the United States, the fewer independently-minded rich countries to compete against, the better. Washington doesn’t want Syria or Iran following a development model that will monopolize profit-making opportunities, exclude US investors and exports, and set the two countries on a path to becoming future Chinas (though on a much smaller scale.) The US grievance against China is that it used its opening to US economic penetration to acquire the capital and know-how necessary to build, under a regime of dirigisme and industrial planning, home-grown enterprises which now compete against—and sometimes out-compete—US enterprises for the same profit-making opportunities. Washington is dead-set against allowing Syria and Iran do the same.
In her study of the Vietnam wars, Marilyn B. Young wrote that by the early 1950s, the US foreign policy establishment “had accepted a set of axioms … as unquestionable as Euclid’s.” The first axiom, she wrote, could be summarized as follows:
“The intentions of the United States are always good. It is possible that in pursuit of good ends, mistakes will be made. But the basic goodness of US intentions cannot ever be questioned. The intentions of the enemies of the United States are bad. It is possible that in the pursuit of bad ends, good things will seem to happen. But the basic badness of enemy intentions cannot ever by questioned.” 
The axiom reverberates throughout the Landis and Simon piece; indeed, it is the glue that holds it together. Not only are US intentions in Syria good, but the basic badness of the Syrian government (demonized accordingly as a regime) cannot be questioned. This leads Landis and Simon to argue that sanctions should be abandoned because “Assad doesn’t care if more of his people starve.”
We have no evidence of whether Assad cares or doesn’t care about whether Syrians starve, except this: By failing to bow to US aggression, he allows US sanctions policy to continue, and therefore condemns Syrians to starvation as victims of US policy. This is tantamount to saying that FDR didn’t care about whether US conscripts died in a terrible war, citing his failure to bow to Japanese aggression as evidence. According to the axioms of US foreign policy, standing up to foreign aggression is heroic when it’s done by US leaders, but sinister when done by foreign leaders in response to US aggression.
While we don’t have evidence of indifference to the suffering of Syrians on the part of Assad, we do have evidence of US indifference to the fate of Syrians. It is after all, Washington, not Assad, that pulled the trigger on the starvation policy. Blaming sanctions-related Syrian deaths on Assad is equal in principle to attributing WWII US military casualties in the Pacific to Roosevelt.
We have further evidence of Washington’s indifference to the misery of foreign populations. Washington cared not one whit that it killed over half a million Iraqi children under the age of five through sanctions-related disease and malnutrition. When this figure was cited by a UN agency in 1995, and accepted by the US government as valid—and moreover, defended as ‘worth it’—sanctions continued for another eight years, and the US-produced Golgotha grew ever larger. No tears were shed by US leaders.
What’s more, the US government doesn’t care if Iranians starve. The “Iranian leadership,” warned US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, “has to make a decision that they want their people to eat.”  Unless Tehran accepts US demands—a long list that amounts to Iran surrendering the right to make consequential decisions independent of US oversight—Pompeo is prepared to see this grim outcome brought to fruition.
But in the morally astigmatic view of Landis and Simon, it is Assad, Saddam, and the Ayatollah who starve their people by refusing to submit to a US-superintended international liberal order of free trade, and not the United States, which punishes states that are refractory to this demand by strangling their economies and starving their populations. Domenico Losurdo cited Frantz Fanon. “When a colonial and imperialist power is forced to give independence to a people, this imperialist power says: you want independence? Then take it and die of hunger.” Losurdo continued: “Because the imperialists continue to have economic power, they can condemn a people to hunger, by means of blockades, embargoes, or underdevelopment.” 
For all its failings, the Landis and Simon article reveals the depravity of the US intervention in all its repugnant detail. The scholars acknowledge that:
a) Washington is pursuing a “scorched-earth policy” whose aim is “to gain enough leverage to reconstitute the Syrian government along the lines that the United States imposed on Japan after World War II.”
b) To that end, the US is “systematically bankrupting the Syrian government.”
c) “To increase pressure” on Syria, Washington has “endorsed Israeli strikes against Syrian territory and Turkish expropriation of Syrian energy resources. It has also closed the main highway to Baghdad to choke off trade.”
(d) Washington has hired “a U.S. firm to manage the oil fields” (that are now under an illegal US military occupation. Not only is Turkey freebooting in Syria; so too is the United States.)
e) Washington has designed its sanctions “to make reconstruction impossible. The sanctions target the construction, electricity, and oil sectors, which are essential to getting Syria back on its feet.”
f) The United States has added humanitarian exemptions to its sanctions, but the exemptions are “deliberately vague” to produce “overcompliance”—a phenomenon in which nongovernmental organizations decline to provide humanitarian aid out of fear that they will become inadvertently entangled in complex legal issues and will themselves to be subjected to US sanctions.
g) “Blocked from reconstructing their country and seeking external assistance, Syrians face mass starvation or another mass exodus.”
It is important to emphasize that the opposition of Landis and Simon to US intervention in Syria is predicated, not on the intervention’s imperialist and criminal character, but on its cruelty. This suggests a parallel with the opposition that arose in the West to the rape of the Congo by Belgium’s King Leopold. There were two classes of critics: those who opposed Leopold’s imperialism (mainly ignored) and those who viewed the intervention as legitimate but objected to the cruelty of Leopold’s methods (frequently lionized.) The latter believed that Africans were inferior to Europeans and should submit to European rule, but felt that European rule ought to be more humane. Their attitude to Africans paralleled that of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals; dogs and cats were clearly inferior creatures, which must be kept in servile relations to their masters, but they were to be treated humanely. So too Africans.
Another parallel exists between those who criticize US military interventions on the grounds that they are unjust and imperialist, and those whose concern is limited to whether the interventions conform to conventions related to the just conduct of war. The following oppositions are equivalent in principle: to Leopold’s intervention in the Congo because it was cruel (not imperialist); to the wars on Iraq, because they violated the principle of jus in bello (not because they transgressed the principle of jus ad bellum); to the US intervention in Syria, because its methods are cruel (not owing to the repugnance of Washington seeking to replace the Syrian government with another acceptable to the United States and US investor interests.)
Landis and Simon believe that Syrians ought to submit to US rule, but that US rulers ought to avoid pointless cruelty in bringing Syrians under their boot. In their Foreign Affairs article they have set out to portray the US war on Syria as a masterpiece of incompetence and pointless cruelty which dishonors the basic goodness of US goals. In reality, US intervention in Syria has been a masterpiece of cruelty with a point—an enterprise redolent with the stench of criminality and imperialism, aimed at imposing the US will on a foreign population for the benefit of corporate America.
That Landis and Simon should have a favorable attitude to a US-led liberal international order based on free trade is no mystery. They are a fellow and research analyst respectively at The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank funded by some of corporate America’s largest foundations: among others, The Charles Koch Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and billionaire investor George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Foreign Affairs, the journal in which the scholars’ article appears, is owned by The Council on Foreign Relations, an organization Laurence H. Shoup has described in books by the same names as Wall Street’s Think Tank and an Imperial Brain Trust.
* William Appleman Williams, America Confronts a Revolutionary World, 1776-1976, William Morrow & Company, 1976, p. 183.
1) Erik S. Reinert, How Rich Countries Got Rich, Why Poor Countries Stay Poor, Public Affairs, 2007.
2) Syrian Arab National News Agency, August 27, 2013.
3) Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, “Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States After the Iraq War,” Congressional Research Service, February 28, 2005.
4) John McCain, “John McCain: Why We Must Support Human Rights,” The New York Times, May 8, 2017.
5) Letter of outgoing US President Barack Obama to incoming President Donald Trump.
6) Warren P. Strobel, “Brent Scowcroft, a U.S. National Security Power Broker, Dies at 95,” The Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2020.
7) William Appleman Williams, “Confessions of an Intransigent Revisionist,” in ed. Henry W. Berger, The William Appleman Williams Reader, Ivan R. Dee, 1992, p. 343.
8) Marilyn B. Young, The Vietnam Wars: 1945-1990. Harper Perennial.1991. p.27.
9) Mike Pompeo, November 7, 2018, quoted in ”Iran letter to the UNSG and UNSC on Pompeo provocative statement,” Permanent Mission of the Islamic Republic of Iran, November 30, 2018.
10) Domenico Losurdo, “The New Colonial Counter-Revolution,” Revista Opera, October 20, 2017.
In a major speech, US Attorney General William Barr dwelled at length on the threat Chinese-owned firms pose to corporate America’s domination of the global economy, but said little about Chinese policy on Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea, the usual reasons Washington cites for its growing anti-Chinese animus.
July 19, 2020
In a 17 July speech on China policy at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, US Attorney General William Barr explained why the United States has escalated its cold war on China. The cold war began in earnest when the preceding Obama administration initiated the US military ‘pivot to China,’ a project to ‘contain’ the rapidly developing nation.
The roots of the US-initiated war lie in the threat the People’s Republic of China poses to US technological supremacy, according to Barr.
In his speech, the attorney general argued that the “prosperity for our children and grandchildren” depends on the global economy remaining Americanized. Chinese-owned firms, in his view, must be prevented from dominating key emerging growth sectors, including 5G, robotics, and AI; these sectors must remain the preserve of Western (and preferably US) investors.
Barr’s analysis comports with the widely held view in Washington and on Wall Street that the PRC’s desired role in the global economy is one of facilitating US profit-making, not competing against it. China, in this view, must return to the role originally envisaged by US policy-makers of a vast consumer and low-wage labor market teeming with investment and profit-making opportunities for corporate America, not as a rival for economic supremacy.
Significantly, Barr’s speech was mostly free from the rhetoric that has marked the accustomed Sinophobic diatribes and slurs which nowadays are de rigueur in Washington. Mainly absent were references to alleged Chinese human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong and accusations of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
These allegations and accusations ring hollow, coming from a US state whose principal allies in West Asia—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, and Israel—are hostile to the human rights and democratic values Washington professes falsely to champion, to say nothing of the United States’ own egregious human rights failings (witness, for example, the events that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement) and its robust imperialism (including continued direct colonialism; consider Puerto Rico, for example.)
Washington’s substantive grievance with China is that the Chinese Communist Party has pursued a state-directed development model which has vaulted China from the ranks of poor countries relegated to the role of serving US profit-making interests, to a level of technological and economic prowess which threatens to topple corporate America from its perch atop the global economy.
Barr’s speech is important in revealing the material basis of US anti-Chinese hostility. Washington routinely conceals its struggles for commercial advantage behind Olympian rhetoric about democracy, human rights, and selfless devotion to humanitarian causes. The practice resonates with an observation Hitler made in Mein Kampf. “[Man] does not sacrifice himself for material interests…[He] will die for an ideal, but not for a business.” Recognizing that its citizens will not support a struggle for Wall Street’s narrow interests, Washington, as much as Hitler, has resorted to rhetoric about ideals rather than plainspoken references to profit-making, to mobilize public opinion behind, what is at its base, a struggle for commercial supremacy.
The following excerpts from Barr’s speech elucidate the fundamental economic question underlying US hostility to China. Lenin observed in 1917 that it is “impossible to understand and appraise modern war and politics”, without understanding “the fundamental economic question”, namely, the “question of the economic essence of imperialism.”
Excerpts from Barr’s speech
“Since the 1890’s, at least, the United States has been the technological leader of the world. And from that prowess, has come our prosperity, the opportunity for generations of Americans, and our security. It’s because of that that we were able to play such a pivotal role in world history. … What’s at stake these days is whether we can maintain that leadership position and that technological leadership. Are we going to be the generation that has allowed that to be stolen- which is really stealing the future of our children and our grandchildren?
“[At] the dawn of America’s reengagement with China, which began obviously with President Nixon in 1972 … it was unthinkable that China would emerge after the Cold War as a near-peer competitor of the United States.
“Deng Xiaoping, whose economic reform launched China’s remarkable rise had a famous motto: “hide your strength and bide your time.” That is precisely what China has done. China’s economy has quietly grown from about 2 percent of the world’s GDP in 1980, to nearly 20 percent today. And by some estimates based on purchasing parity, the Chinese economy is already larger than ours. The General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping … now speaks openly of China moving closer to the center stage, building a socialism that is superior to capitalism…From the perspective of its communist rulers, China’s time has arrived.
“The People’s Republic of China is now engaged in an economic blitzkrieg—an aggressive, orchestrated, whole-of-government (indeed, whole-of-society) campaign to seize the commanding heights of the global economy and to surpass the United States as the world’s preeminent technological superpower. A centerpiece of this effort is the Chinese Communist Party’s “Made in China 2025” initiative, a plan for PRC domination of high-tech industries like robotics, advanced information technology, aviation, and electric vehicles, and many other technologies. Backed by hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, this initiative poses a real threat to U.S. technological leadership. Despite World Trade Organization rules prohibiting quotas for domestic output, “Made in China 2025” sets targets for domestic market share (sometimes as high as 70 percent) in core components and basic materials for industries such as robotics and telecommunications. It is clear that the PRC seeks not merely to join the ranks of other advanced industrial economies, but to replace them altogether.
“‘Made in China 2025’ is the latest iteration of the PRC’s state-led, mercantilist economic model. … To tilt the playing field to its advantage, China’s communist government has perfected a wide array of … tactics [including] tariffs, quotas, state-led strategic investment and acquisitions … [and] state subsidies,
“The PRC also seeks to dominate key trade routes and infrastructure in Eurasia, Africa, and the Pacific.
“Another ambitious project to spread its power and influence is the PRC’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure initiative. Although billed as “foreign aid,” in fact these investments appear designed to serve the PRC’s strategic interests and domestic economic needs.
“I have previously spoken at length about the grave risks of allowing [China] to build the next generation of global telecommunications networks, known as 5G. Perhaps less widely known are the PRC’s efforts to surpass the United States in other cutting-edge fields, like artificial intelligence. Through innovations such as machine learning and big data, artificial intelligence allows machines to mimic human functions, such as recognizing faces, interpreting spoken words, driving vehicles, and playing games of skill, much like chess or the even more complex Chinese game, Go. In 2017, Beijing unveiled its “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Plan,” a blueprint for leading the world in AI by 2030. Whichever nation emerges as the global leader in AI will be best positioned to unlock not only its considerable economic potential, but a range of military applications, such as the use of computer vision to gather intelligence.
“The PRC’s drive for technological supremacy is complemented by its plan to monopolize rare earth materials, which play a vital role in industries such as consumer electronics, electric vehicles, medical devices, and military hardware. According to the Congressional Research Service, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States led the world in rare earth production. “Since then, production has shifted almost entirely to China,” in large part due to lower labor costs and lighter economic and environmental regulation.
“The United States is now dangerously dependent on the PRC for these essential materials. Overall, China is America’s top supplier, accounting for about 80 percent of our imports. The risks of dependence are real.
“For a hundred years, America was the world’s largest manufacturer — allowing us to serve as the world’s “arsenal of democracy.” China overtook the United States in manufacturing output in 2010.
“How did China accomplish all this? … [No] one should doubt that America made China’s meteoric rise possible. China has reaped enormous benefits from the free flow of American aid and trade. In 1980, Congress granted the PRC most-favored-nation trading status. In the 1990s, American companies strongly supported the PRC’s accession to the World Trade Organization and the permanent normalization of trade relations. Today, U.S.-China trade totals about $700 billion.
“Last year, Newsweek ran a cover story titled “How America’s Biggest Companies Made China Great Again.” The article details how China’s communist leaders lured American business with the promise of market access, and then, having profited from American investment and know-how, turned increasingly hostile. The PRC used tariffs and quotas to pressure American companies to … form joint ventures with Chinese companies.
“Just as American companies have become dependent on the Chinese market, the United States as a whole now relies on the PRC for many vital goods and services. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown a spotlight on that dependency.
“China’s dominance of the world market for medical goods goes beyond masks and gowns. It has become the United States’ largest supplier of medical devices.
“America also depends on Chinese supply chains in other vital sectors, especially pharmaceuticals. America remains the global leader in drug discovery, but China is now the world’s largest producer of active pharmaceutical ingredients, known as “APIs.” As one Defense Health Agency official noted, “[s]hould China decide to limit or restrict the delivery of APIs to the [United States],” it “could result in severe shortages of pharmaceuticals for both domestic and military uses.”
“To achieve dominance in pharmaceuticals, China’s rulers went to the same playbook they’ve used to gut other American industries. In 2008, the PRC designated pharmaceutical production as a “high-value-added-industry” and boosted Chinese companies with subsidies and export tax rebates.
“To secure a world of freedom and prosperity for our children and grandchildren, the [United States] … will need to win the contest for the commanding heights of the global economy. ”