How Did Inflation Get So High?

June 24, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is too simple.

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

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

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

What should happen?

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

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

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

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

By Stephen Gowans

June 22, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or does it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Real Cause of the War in Ukraine: Capitalism

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

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

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

By Stephen Gowans

June 18, 2022

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

The historian William Appleman Williams explained this well.

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

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

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

They continued:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 159.

[7] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 159.

[8] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 159.

[9] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 155.

[10] Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, p. 155.

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

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

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

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

Socialist China or Capitalist China? It’s All the Same to the Country’s Communist Rulers

May 13, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

Empiric, a word infrequently used these days, refers to a quack. This seems odd, considering that empiric and empirical (based on observation) are related. In antiquity, empirics were physicians who relied on their experience and observation rather than on the texts of Aristotle and other philosophers to treat patients. Medicine based on the thinking of philosophers was the realm of the scholastics, or schoolmen, the established medical authorities of their day. Challenging the pure reason of Aristotle with facts was considered an act of quackery.

Soon after writing a blog post titled Why China Is Not Socialist, whose title expresses a conclusion based on the same empirical method the established authority of the ancient world so reviled, I received a rebuke, in the form of an e-mail, from a scholastic, citing chapter and verse from Chinese Communist Party texts. Had I not read any of these texts, the outraged schoolman demanded?

According to my correspondent, my quackery was based, not in any of the following observations, which I was assured the omniscient Chinese CP, endowed with an Aristotelian authority, had already taken into account and factored into its plans.

  • China’s development is proceeding along capitalist lines.
  • Capitalism is in command.
  • China is integrated into the world capitalist economy of exploitation, as one of its most important players, if not the most important.
  • The vast fortunes of such Western billionaires as Elon Musk, and the wealth of such Western CEOs as Tim Cook, is minted out of the exploited labor of Chinese workers.
  • As a major power integrated into the world capitalist system, China vies with other capitalist powers for access to markets, raw materials, investment opportunities, and strategic territory, i.e., is part of an imperialist system.
  • China is not socialist.

But if my observations were already well known to China’s CP, and factored into its plans, why was I being excoriated by an agitated scholastic? After all, I was being censured for the alleged sin of “assuming that 100 million small oriental minds could not figure this out themselves,” another way of saying I was only stating the obvious.

The answer appears to be that while these observations are apodictic, making them is considered bad form. China may be a capitalist power fully integrated into an imperialist system as a major participant, but you’re not supposed to say so.

Having objurgated me for my lapse in etiquette, my schoolman sought to instruct me on proper form. The rules for polite discourse, it turns out, are contained in Chinese CP texts (the one’s my aggrieved correspondent demanded to know whether I had ever read.) Therein one learns that the word socialism can be made infinitely plastic. Indeed, where it was once the antithesis of capitalism, correct form demands it now be used as a synonym of capitalism. In short, Chinese scholastic etiquette redefines capitalism as various stages of socialism, from primary, to intermediate, based on the degree of capitalist prosperity. This allows the schoolmen in Beijing to approach the problem of a capitalist and imperialist China run by Communists as a branding problem. Simply call Chinese capitalism and the country’s integration into an imperialist system of rivalry among capitalist states, “socialism”, and poof, the branding problem disappears.  

No longer is it necessary to cast about vainly for an answer whenever someone asks, “How can a capitalist behemoth be run by Communists?” All you have to say is “What do you mean? China is socialist. Haven’t you read the CP documents? C’mon, get an education!”

If one were to observe the punctilios of Chinese proper form, China would be referred to as “primary stage socialist China.” If anyone as unversed in proper form as I am, were so bold as to ask, “What does primary stage socialism mean?”, the honest answer would be “capitalism at a low level of development.” In other words, if you read Chinese CP texts closely, China ought to be referred to as “capitalist China at a low level of development.” You can call “capitalist China at a low level of development” “socialist China” if you like, but then again, you can also call moon rocks Swiss cheese.

In short, “socialist China” is a euphemism for “capitalist China,” in the way “lavatory” is a euphemism for “crapper”. Euphemisms are useful for concealing delicate truths you don’t want mentioned publicly (such as that this vampire, who Beijing has indulged with innumerable subsidies and advantages, is accumulating profit on a Pantagruelian scale on the backs of cheap labor supplied by Chinese workers, or that Chinese President Xi Jinping is in the habit of justifying the exploitation of proletarians in the same manner every Republican does, namely, by invoking the aphorism ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’)

I replied to my aggrieved correspondent with this:

You remind me of Christians who scream at me that I should read the bible. I have read the bible, which is why I’m not a Christian.

I have also read Chinese CP plans. Having done so, I know that even Chinese Communists do not consider China socialist. Not yet. At least not in any ordinary meaning of the word.

You mention plans. In 2100, when China expects to have achieved a fully publicly-owned, fully-planned economy, our grandchildren can have a conversation about whether the plan has been achieved. If it has, I’m sure they will be quite happy to call China socialist. Until then, the term “socialist China” is purely aspirational and until the time China achieves its goal, if indeed that time ever arrives, I’ll call China what it is, and what the Chinese acknowledge in their plans their society is, and will continue to be for quite some time: capitalist. 

Long before 2100, and long before the day arrives when we can assess whether China actually arrives at the destination its Communists have mapped out for it, we can have a conversation about whether there are roads to socialism other than those that follow the path of capitalist industrialization; that is, other than the one the Chinese CP has chosen to follow.

Is there a path of socialist industrialization, following along the lines explored by the Soviets, one, which, unlike the Chinese path, isn’t based on integration into the world capitalist economy of exploitation; one that doesn’t compel a people to participate in the project of minting the wealth of billionaires like Elon Musk out of their exploited labor; one that doesn’t enmesh a country in a system of imperialist competition for raw materials, investment opportunities, export markets, and strategic territory?

One senses that you are embarrassed about the capitalist path the Chinese CP has chosen to take, with all its ugliness in exploitation and imperialist rivalry, and that you seek to assuage your embarrassment and burnish China’s reputation by transposing an aspirational distant socialist future onto the present. It’s an exercise in deception. There is no socialist China. All that exists at this point is a China that hasn’t eliminated the exploitation of man by man but embraces it; a China that doesn’t plan to eliminate exploitation fully for decades to come, and may never eliminate it; all that exists today and will continue to exist until the next century is a capitalist China which exhibits all the ugliness that capitalism contains within it.

Have I read the Chinese CP texts? Yes. My question to you is, have you understood them?

Why China Is Not Socialist

Colonial politics and imperialism are not healthy, curable deviations of capitalism…they are the inevitable consequence of the very foundations of capitalism. Competition among individual entrepreneurs either to become ruined, or to ruin others; competition between individual countries places before each of them the alternative of their remaining behind, running the risk of [falling behind], or ruining and conquering other countries, thus elbowing their way to a place among the great powers. – V.I. Lenin, “Imperialism and Socialism in Italy”

May 12, 2022

By Stephen Gowans

From The Wall Street Journal we learn that China’s President Xi Jinping has hammered home the need for tighter party control over the economy with a wider role for state enterprises. Under Xi, China’s Communist Party has tried to transition from ‘economics in command’ to ‘politics in command.’

But now “China’s economy is struggling, and its financial markets are suffering. Some economists expect growth to contract this quarter. Millions of graduates are struggling to find jobs.”

Premier Li Keqiang is “helping press Xi to dial back some measures that have contributed to China’s economic slowdown.”

“As a young man, Li pursued a doctorate in economics under a prominent Chinese economist known for advocating Deng Xiaoping’s market-reform agenda and privatizing state firms.”

“Under Mr. Li’s influence, Beijing recently eased a regulatory crackdown on private technology firms, loosened lending to property developers and home buyers, and acted to help some manufacturers”, including Tesla, controlled by Elon Musk, the world’s richest person, “resume production when much of China has been forced into lockdowns by Mr. Xi’s zero-Covid approach.”

As the Marxist sociologist Albert Szymanski once pointed out, communists, like Xi, who choose to operate within the capitalist system soon discover that state policy is structured by capitalism, not by their policy preferences. Decision-makers who defy capitalism’s imperatives find their actions precipitate crises. Humbled, they quickly back peddle.

In a Chinese idiom, economics, i.e., capitalism, is in charge.

I explore this issue in my new book The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster.

“The political orientations of the people who hold high-level positions in the capitalist state are largely irrelevant. The logic of capitalism structures the policy boundaries within which policy- and decision-makers operate, forcing conservatives, liberals, social democrats, and even communists who elect to work within the capitalist system, to operate within the same narrow pro-capitalist policy space. The prosperity and stability of a capitalist society depends on the private owners of capital accumulating sufficient profits. If they cannot generate enough profit, they cease to invest, and economic activity grinds to a halt. To maintain stability, governments must pursue policies to support the profit-making activities of their business communities. If they choose not to, their only option is to mobilize popular support to bring the economy under public ownership and control, so that investment decisions can be transferred from private hands to the public sphere, from profit-making as its goal to satisfying public needs as its end. There is no middle ground, where working-class interests can be robustly and continually expanded within a capitalist framework at the expense of the capitalist class.”

Capitalism structures state policy, not only in the realm of domestic matters, but in foreign relations, as well. Communists who elect to operate within the capitalist system are constrained to compete with other capitalist states for markets, raw materials, spheres of investment, and strategic territory, vital to their investors and profit-accumulating enterprises. If they are to play the capitalist game, states can no more absent themselves from rivalry with other states— with potential to escalate to war—than a private firm can absent itself from rivalry with its competition.

As two Bolsheviks wrote in their ABC of Communism, each “producer wants to entice away the others’ customers, to corner the market. This struggle assumes various forms: it begins with the competition between two factory owners; it ends in the world, wherein capitalist States wrestle with one another for the world market.” And in the struggle of capitalist states for the world market—in arms, oil and natural gas, rare earths, vaccines, robotics, supercomputers, AI, autonomous vehicles, 5G, and other commodities—lies the potential for war.

There is no doubt that Beijing has chosen to play the capitalist game. It is the centerpiece of its  development project. There is, therefore, no option for China to excuse itself from imperialism. If it is to develop along capitalist lines, it must behave as a capitalist state, including by vying with other states for capitalist advantage around the world and indulging billionaires like Elon Musk and Apple’s Tim Cook, capitalists who have grown immensely wealthy by exploiting cheap Chinese labor.

That China’s capitalist development project is under the command of communists, neither negates the reality that the project is one of integration into a world capitalist system based on exploitation, or that, as Xi is finding out, politics in command can be checked by capitalism in command.

As political science professor Minxin Pei told The Wall Street Journal, Xi may be a “leftist deep down, but he has to make tactical compromises over the economy.” That is, the world capitalist economy.

In sum, despite the Communist Party being nominally in charge, and the president being a leftist “deep-down,” China is integrated into the world capitalist economy as a major, if not the major player, by the choice of China’s Communist Party rulers. State policies are not structured by communists seeking to end the exploitation of one human by another, but by the imperatives of the capitalist system Chinese communists have consciously embraced.

The idea that China is socialist is as far-fetched as the idea the moon is made of cheese.

Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster

And here it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society. —   Karl Marx

By Stephen Gowans

May 9, 2022

[The following is an excerpt from my new book The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster, outlining the plan on the book. The book’s official release data is June 1.]

The United States would not bring the virus to heel through vaccines anymore than it would defeat, through drugs, any of its other public health problems—from obesity to type 2 diabetes, heart disease to cancer. These problems are largely the unwelcome consequences of capitalism. The food industry lards its products with fat and sugar to delight taste buds, with predictable consequences for the waistlines and arteries of consumers. Diet, exercise, weight loss, and reduced exposure to carcinogens—the solutions to these public health problems—are anti-capitalist, in the sense that they displace profit-generating pharmaceutical interventions. Likewise, the non-pharmaceutical public health measures that can bring pandemics to heel, and prevent them in the first place, are anti-capitalist too, so far as they displace therapeutics and reduce the need for vaccines. As one of the public health figures featured in Michael Lewis’s book The Premonition, put it: “From the point of view of American culture, the trouble with disease prevention [is] that there [is] no money in it.”[i]  The expert had used “American culture” as a euphemism for “capitalism.”

The incentive structure underlying capitalist healthcare favors drugs to manage chronic conditions rather than prevention to stop them. As a result, the response to the Covid-19 threat was predictable. While China, and a handful of other countries, emphasized aggressive containment through non-pharmaceutical public health measures, most governments limited their response to managing infection levels to prevent the number of cases from exceeding hospital capacity, while awaiting a vaccine. The response was shaped, not by what was best for the health of the public, but what was best for the health of the business community. For governments enthralled to capitalist imperatives, it was far better to minimize the impact on business activity of pandemic control measures, avoid costly public health expenditures, and support profit-making opportunities in vaccine development, than to implement stringent measures, as China did, to stop the outbreak.

The WHO’s assessment of the world’s response to the pandemic noted that “while much of the early response to COVID-19 involve[d] missed opportunities and failure to act, there [were] some areas in which early action was taken to good effect, most notably in research and development (R&D) and, in particular, vaccine product development.” This invites a question: Why did much of the world fail to incur the costs necessary “to curtail the epidemic and forestall the pandemic,” but succeeded so notably in “vaccine product development”?

To answer that question, it is necessary to address four topics, which I do in the chapters to follow.

The first topic concerns who it is that made the decisions on how to respond to the pandemic (if to respond at all) and what their interests are. In most countries, governments are dominated by members of a billionaire class and by politicians indebted to them. Not only do these decision-makers make decisions with capitalist class interests in mind, they operate within a capitalist framework which limits the range of decisions that can be made without impairing the smooth functioning of capitalist economies. Even if decision-makers aren’t already inclined to formulate policy to comport with capitalist class interests—and they very much are—the structure of the capitalist economy compels them to act in ways that protect and promote capitalist interests. Capitalist interests discouraged the pursuit of Chinese-style zero-Covid measures, for their perceived injurious effects on business activity and profit accumulation, and encouraged the development of vaccines as a profit-making opportunity.

The pharmaceutical industry—central to the pandemic response of most capitalist states—is the second topic. Like the state in capitalist society, Big Pharma is dominated by wealthy investors, whose interests come first. The industry, like government, operates within a capitalist framework. All decisions must ultimately serve one aim: the profitable production of drugs. While advantages to public health may follow as a by-product of the pursuit of profit, they are by no means necessary. Enlarging the interests of the industry’s capitalist owners is the industry’s sole mission. As a consequence, the production of useless and even harmful drugs is tolerable, so long as profits are produced. The pharmaceutical industry, with the complicity of Washington, fast tracked the development of Covid-19 vaccines with little regard for their safety, arguing that safety protocols needed to be circumvented to address a public health emergency—one that need not have happened and was of Washington’s own making.

The third topic is Bill Gates, a significant member of the US capitalist class. Gates uses his vast wealth to pursue pet projects under the guise of performing charitable works, including promoting vaccines and capitalist pharmacy as the solution to the world’s most significant public health problems. Gates offers a concrete example of how members of the capitalist class use their wealth to shape political agendas to expand their own interests at the public’s expense.

The final topic is Operation Warp Speed, Washington’s Covid-19 vaccine program, which used public money, and capitalized on publicly-funded research, to develop vaccines and therapeutics in record time. Washington transferred these publicly developed goods to the private sector for private commercial gain. Many decision-makers and influencers in Washington had stakes in the vaccine makers that profited from this transfer. Firms such as Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca made a killing, thanks to billions of dollars in publicly-funded research and advance purchase orders from governments. The model of  “socialism for the rich”—taking money out of the pockets of taxpayers and putting it into the pockets of private enterprise—is the basis, not only for capitalist pharmacy, but for capitalist economics as a whole.


[i] Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, W.W. Norton & Company, 2021, p. 299. 

Pandemics Are Not Inevitable, and China’s Covid-19 Experience Proves It

By Stephen Gowans

May 9, 2022

[This is an excerpt from my new book, The Killer’s Henchman: Capitalism and the Covid-19 Disaster, officially released June 1.]

“To me, this feels honestly more about economics than about the science.” – Yonatan Grad, associate professor of immunology and infectious diseases, Harvard University[i]

“COVID-19 remains a global disaster. Worse it was a preventable disaster.” — WHO Independent Expert Panel[ii]

Pandemics are not inevitable.

To be sure, the emergence of new infectious diseases is a near certainty. Pathogenesis—the birth of a new disease—is a necessary condition of pandemics, but it is not a sufficient condition. That pandemics are optional and not inevitable is provable by reference to one word: China. By following a zero-Covid strategy of eliminating local transmission of the novel coronavirus, the Communist-led country avoided overwhelmed hospitals, limited fatalities to extraordinarily low levels, and escaped significant economic hardship. While the pandemic danced a macabre waltz around it, China, along with a handful of other countries that followed a similar strategy, failed to show up at the ball.

Public discourse outside China and other zero-Covid countries accepted the pandemic as an inevitability. The narrative was highly influenced by people such as billionaire Bill Gates, who advanced the view that pandemics are unavoidable, and that vaccines and drug therapies should be developed in anticipation of their ineluctable arrival. CEPI, the Center for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation—a non-profit organization that played a leading role in the fight against Covid-19 among countries in the US orbit—was born as a vehicle for promoting Gates’ views and approach to emerging infectious diseases. Needless to say, the reality that the emergence of a novel pathogen is not a sufficient condition for a pandemic, and the fact that China demonstrated that a pandemic could be avoided by using mass testing, contact tracing, and isolation to break the chain of pathogenic transmission, refutes Gates’ view.

While Gates is a major funder of the World Health Organization, the organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, rejected the erroneous Gates’ idea that vaccines ought to be the principal tool used to fight pandemics. “Vaccines are not the only tool,” Tedros announced. “Indeed, there is no single tool that will defeat the pandemic. We can only defeat it with a comprehensive approach of vaccines in combination with proven public health and social measures that we know work” (emphasis added.)[iii]

On the same day Tedros told the world it would need to combine vaccines with non-pharmaceutical public health measures to beat Covid-19, Eric Lander, at the time US president Joe Biden’s science adviser, promulgated a different view. He wrote in the Washington Post that “Coronavirus vaccines can end the current pandemic.” Lander made his prediction at a time vaccines were available to any US adult who wanted one, but when US case counts—already high by world standards—were climbing. The vaccine strategy clearly wasn’t working, though Lander appeared not to notice. Ignoring the reality that the United States’ own experience impugned the ability of vaccines alone to end the pandemic, Lander—a multimillionaire who has substantial investments in the pharmaceutical industry—announced that “the scientific community has been developing a bold plan to keep future viruses from becoming pandemics.” Would it involve the proven public health and social measures Tedros said we know work and that China had demonstrated do work? No. Instead, it would be based on vaccines—the tool wealthy US Americans with stakes in drug companies, like Gates and Lander, continued to tout as the pathway of escape from pandemics, current and future. In the United States, and the countries that orbit the imperial center, all belief was for vaccines as the main route out of the pandemic, and all evidence was against.

The US government, according to Lander’s plan, would see to it that vaccines were designed, tested, and approved within 100 days of detecting a new pandemic threat and would arrange to manufacture enough doses to supply the world within 200 days.[iv] The folly of the approach was evident. First, there is no guarantee that effective vaccines can be developed for every pathogen, let alone in 100 days. There is no vaccine for AIDS, for example, despite the decades of effort scientists have invested in trying to develop one. Second, it’s impossible to test a vaccine for safety in 100 days. Since the very short testing window allows scientists to follow test subjects only over a very brief period, it would be impossible to say whether the vaccine was free from any but immediate adverse side-effects. This would pose an enormous health risk to the billions of people who would be inoculated, perhaps greater than the risk of the novel pathogen itself. Third, even if the extraordinarily ambitious goal of manufacturing enough doses to supply the world within 200 days was met, the logistical difficulties of administering the vaccine to billions of people worldwide would take more than 200 days to overcome; it would likely take years. In the meantime, the only way to prevent the pandemic pathogen from running out of control, killing millions, collapsing healthcare systems, and devastating economies, would be to implement the proven public health and social measures we know work. It would seem, then, that the best way of meeting the challenge of future pandemics is, in the first instance, to figure out why most countries failed to implement the proven public health and social measures that could have prevented the Covid-19 pandemic, so that the impediments that blocked an effective response can be overcome the next time the world confronts a novel pathogen. Why was a strategy that worked in China, South Korea, and New Zealand, as well as in Vietnam and North Korea, rejected everywhere else? And why was it eventually rejected in South Korea and New Zealand as well?

Despite China having every pandemic risk factor, it is one of the few countries that has escaped a Covid-19 catastrophe. It has the world’s largest population, close to one hundred cities with populations of one million or more, high-speed trains to whisk passengers from one part of the country to another, innumerable airline connections to the rest of the world, and yes, scientists who collect coronaviruses from the wild and study them in laboratories. All the same, China has not been struck by disaster. The numbers of infections and deaths per million have been held to astonishingly low levels, the healthcare system has not collapsed, and economic activity recovered quickly after an initial setback. What’s more, China may very well have been ground zero for the virus. It was the first country to identify the new infection—and while that doesn’t mean the virus originated there—there’s a good chance it did. And yet the Communist-led country has emerged mostly unscathed. If ever there were an answer to the question of whether pathogenic catastrophes are optional, China is it. 

+++

In May 2021, more than a year into the pandemic, the World Health Organization released a report by an independent panel on the performance of the world’s governments in responding to the Covid-19 health emergency.[v] The panel arrived at a stunning conclusion. The pandemic could have been avoided. It wasn’t inevitable, even as late as January 30, 2020, the day the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern, and two to three months after the virus likely first began to circulate. Even at this late date it was “still possible to interrupt virus spread, provided that countries put in place strong measures to detect disease early, isolate and treat cases, trace contacts and promote social distancing measures commensurate with the risk.” But that didn’t happen. By March 11, 2020, the virus had spread far enough that the global health organization declared a pandemic. How had an avoidable pandemic become a catastrophe on a world scale?

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

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

While the panel failed to mention North Korea, the East Asian country also acted swiftly, sealing its borders on January 21, even before the WHO declared a global health emergency. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, called pandemic control North Korea’s “top priority” and “most important work.”[vi] The Washington Post noted that Pyongyang had taken the pandemic “hyper-seriously,”[vii] while the New York Times observed that “North Korea has taken some of the most drastic actions of any country against the virus.”[viii] These reports accorded with the country’s claim to have experienced not a single Covid-19 case. Howard Waitzkin, a physician with a Ph.D. in sociology, critically examined North Korea’s Covid-19 claims, concluding that Pyongyang’s report of zero cases and zero deaths “is plausible” and the DPRK may, in fact, lead the world in the fight against COVID-19.[ix]

Most other countries, by contrast, waited far too long to act. And when they did act, they failed to do enough, never fully implementing the measures needed to bring their outbreaks under control. What’s more, they almost invariably dialed back measures too soon, with catastrophic consequences for the health of their citizens. 

“Countries with the poorest results,” the panel found, “had uncoordinated approaches that devalued science, denied the potential impact of the pandemic, delayed comprehensive action, and allowed distrust to undermine efforts. Many had health systems beset by long-standing problems of fragmentation, undervaluing of health workers and underfunding.”

So, why did most countries do too little, too late? The panel pointed to cost. Most governments judged concerted public health action—the aggressive test, trace, and isolate measures implemented by China and a handful of other countries—as too expensive. Three costs were central to their concerns:

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

Concerning the first cost, according to best selling author Michael Lewis’s study of the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, the “people inside the American government who would be charged with executing various aspects of any pandemic strategy … believed none of these so-called non-pharmaceutical interventions”—the kind China pursued to great effect—”would contribute anything but economic loss.”[x]

Concerning the cost of business disruption, the Great Influenza offered an anticipatory model. Studies of how the United States responded to the 1918-1920 flu pandemic found that government decision-makers were under incessant pressure from businesses to lift public health measures. Now as then, capitalist governments were highly influenced by business communities and finely attuned to their needs. Minimizing the cost to business was the top priority of governments working out how to deal with a global health crisis.

Finally, US president Donald Trump deliberately downplayed the public health emergency, repeatedly declaring that it would magically resolve itself, because he feared that acknowledging the danger would result in untold stock market losses.[xi]  “Trump grew concerned that any [strong] action by his administration would hurt the economy, and … told advisers that he [did] not want the administration to do or say anything that would … spook the markets,” reported the Washington Post.[xii] What the WHO panel perceived as “a wait and see” attitude on the part of many governments was actually a “take no strong action to avoid spooking the markets” attitude. The contrast between China’s aggressive response and the United States’ “see, hear, and speak no evil” approach, is revealingly summarized in the comments of the countries’ respective leaders: China’s Xi Jinping: “Infectious disease control is not merely a matter of public health and hygiene; it’s an all-encompassing issue and a total war.” The United States’ Donald Trump: “One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”[xiii]

+++

China’s success in protecting the health of its citizens from the ravages of Covid-19 is perhaps the greatest public health accomplishment in human history. By contrast, the United States’ dismal Covid-19 performance is perhaps one of the greatest public health failures of all time.

Despite the fact that the first Covid-19 cases were identified in China, and the country’s population is over four times the size of that of the United States, the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States surpassed China as early as March 26, 2020, only two weeks after the World Health Organization declared a pandemic. By March 29, US deaths due to Covid-19 had already inched past China’s, and would continue to climb, with the gap between the two countries unremittingly increasing. The disparity between the US and Chinese figures—little mentioned in Western public discourse—is astonishing. By December 31, 2021, some 23 months after Chinese authorities reported a cluster of unusual pneumonia cases in Wuhan, there were nearly 55 million confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the United States, compared to slightly over 100,000 in the far more populous China. The number of people that had tested positive for Covid-19 was over 164,000 per million in the United States compared to only 71 per million in China. Incredibly, deaths per million in the United States were over 770 times greater than in China. Over 800,000 US Americans had died from Covid-19, making the outbreak the greatest death event, measured in absolute numbers of deaths, in US history, exceeding fatalities from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Great Influenza of 1918-1920, and even the Civil War. Meanwhile, in China, fewer than 5,000 had died, less than six-tenths of one percent of the US figure. At 3.2 people per million, Covid-19 deaths in China were less than two-tenths of one percent of the United States’ 2,480 deaths per million. When it came to pandemic control, China and the United States inhabited different planets.

Was China the anomaly or was the United States? In fact, both were, though compared to the world at large, China performed anomalously better and the United States anomalously worse. On December 31, 2021, confirmed cases per million were over 500 times better in China than the world average and over four times worse than the world average in the United States. Confirmed deaths per million were over 200 times better in China but over three and a half times worse in the United States. The United States, with only four percent of the world’s population, accounted for 19 percent of cases and 15 percent of deaths, while China, comprising 18 percent of the world’s population, accounted for less than one-tenth of one percent of the world’s cases and a similarly infinitesimal fraction of the world’s deaths.[xiv]

The United States’ utter failure by comparison with China, and failure even by comparison with the world at large, was a taboo subject, judging by the virtual absence of discussion of the numbers, despite the fact that the figures were readily available for inspection by anyone with access to the Internet. Our World in Data, a collaborative effort between researchers at the University of Oxford and the non-profit organization Global Change Data Lab, assembled a vast storehouse of Covid-19 information by country, from morbidity and mortality figures, to vaccine uptake statistics, and more. The yawning chasm between Washington and Beijing in pandemic performance was immediately evident to anyone who cared to inspect the data. No country or jurisdiction, with the exception of a handful of sparsely populated nations, had accumulated fewer cases or deaths per million than China. By comparison, the United States’ record was among the worst in the world. All the same, journalists and academics in the US orbit mainly avoided Sino-US comparisons, and, on the rare occasions they did make comparisons, grossly understated the disparity. By avoiding quantitative comparisons, or obscuring them when they were made, the Western media prevented important questions from being asked. Why had China performed so much better, not only in comparison to the United States, but relative to virtually every other country in the world? Why hadn’t China’s approach, a manifest success, been emulated except by a few other countries? How many lives might have been saved had governments learned from the experience of the East Asian colossus?

Washington failed in multiple ways.

  • To avoid spooking the markets and to preserve investor wealth, it refused to acknowledge the seriousness of the threat.
  • It refused to emulate the successful approach of China to stop the outbreak, rejecting non-pharmaceutical pandemic control measures as too costly.
  • It eschewed successful non-pharmaceutical pandemic control measures, even after it became unavoidably clear that China’s approach was the most effective way to safeguard the health of US citizens.

These failures precipitated a pandemic and produced avoidable death on a scale never before seen in US history. How many lives were needlessly sacrificed to the stock market and Washington’s desire to spare the business community the expense and inconveniences of public health measures?

It’s possible to answer this question. Had Washington emulated China’s approach, an estimated 1,067 US Americans would have died from Covid-19 by December 31, 2021 (equivalent to the number of Covid-19 deaths per million China experienced, adjusted to the size of the US population.) That is 823,173 fewer deaths than the actual US Covid-19 death toll to that date. In other words, to protect the stock market and avoid the costs of implementing stringent non-pharmaceutical public health measures, the lives of more than 800,000 US Americans were sacrificed. Had Canada emulated the Chinese approach, an estimated 122 Canadians would have died from Covid-19, compared to over 30,000 that actually did die. In the United Kingdom, 216 would have died compared to more than 146,000 whose lives were cut short by London’s failed pandemic response.

What if the world as a whole had followed China’s lead? Had that happened, an estimated 25,239 people would have died from Covid-19 by December 31, 2021, compared to over 5,428,000 that actually did perish, a difference of over 5,402,000 people. The failure of the world’s governments to act in a manner that China, early on, had demonstrated was an effective means of controlling the outbreak, created in excess of 5.4 million preventable deaths, some two years after the world became aware of the novel coronavirus.


[i] Benjamin Mueller, “Will shortened isolation periods spread the virus?”, The New York Times, December 28, 2021.

[ii] Grant Robertson, “The world’s ‘lost month’ in fight against COVID-19,” The Globe and Mail, May 12, 2021.

[iii] WHO Press Conference on Covid-19, August 4, 2021.

[iv] Eric Lander, “As bad as covid-19 has been, a future pandemic could be even worse — unless we act now,” The Washington Post, August 4, 2021.

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

[vi] “5 key terms for parsing Kim Jong un’s vision for N. Korea, in 2022,” The Hankyoreh, January 3, 2021.

[vii] Michelle Ye Hee Lee, “What’s happening inside North Korea? Since the pandemic, the window has slammed shut,” The Washington Post, September 9, 2021.

[viii] Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Declares Emergency After Suspected Covid-19 Case,” The New York Times, July 25, 2020.

[ix] Howard Waitzkin, “COVID-19 in the Two Koreas,” Monthly Review, September, 2021.

[x] Michael Lewis, The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, W.W. Norton & Company, 2021, p. 99.

[xi] Amber Phillips, “Was the stock market the object of Trump’s ‘don’t create a panic’ coronavirus approach?” The Washington Post, September 10, 2020.

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

[xiii] “What did leaders of US, Japan and China say about COVID-19?” The Hankyoreh, March 14, 2021.

[xiv] The source for all confirmed case and death figures is Our World in Data.

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

By Stephen Gowans

May 6, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eva Bartlett and the Pleasures and Displeasures of “Independent Journalism”

By Stephen Gowans

May 2, 2022

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