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A return to the question of whether Russia is imperialist


A demonstrator in Istanbul holds a picture depicting Vladimir Putin during a protest against Russian military operations in Syria.


By Lou Proyect

February 9, 2016 —Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from The Unrepentant Marxist with permission — One of the main talking points of the pro-Kremlin left is that Russia is not imperialist. This goes hand in hand with an analysis claiming that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was purely defensive, a move against the genuine imperialists in Washington, London and elsewhere.


The last time I dealt with this question was in June 2014 when I replied to Roger Annis, a tireless defender of Kremlin foreign policy. Annis has once again made the same arguments on Links magazine in Australia in an article co-written by Renfrey Clarke who shares his orientation to Russia. Titled “Perpetrator or victim? Russia and contemporary imperialism”, it rehashes many of the same arguments that are supposedly based on Lenin’s “Imperialism, the final stage of Capitalism”.


As I indicated in a commentary on John Clegg’s article “Capitalism and Slavery”, I find social science definitions of terms like capitalism, socialism and imperialism problematic. To start with, they are describing economic systems that are global in character so when they are used to taxonomically describe a particular country, they are strained to the breaking point. When Trotsky took up the question of whether the USSR was socialist, he answered in terms that defied the formal logic of the social scientist: “To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible.”


When it comes to a term like imperialist as a category that applies to a particular country, there is little doubt that the USA, Great Britain, or Germany qualify. This is made clear in page after page of Lenin’s essay. But using the search tool available on the Marxist Internet Archives, you will find Lenin referring to “Russian imperialism” on many occasions:


Have the socialists of France and Belgium not shown the same kind of treachery? They are excellent at exposing German imperialism, but, unfortunately they are amazingly purblind with regard to British, French, and particularly the barbarous Russian imperialism. They fail to see the disgraceful fact that, for decades on end, the French bourgeoisie have been paying out thousands of millions for the hire of the Black-Hundred gangs of Russian tsarism, and that the latter has been crushing the non-Russian majority in our country, robbing Poland, oppressing the Great Russian workers and peasants, and so on.


The European War and International Socialism, 1914


The attitude of the Soviet Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic to the weak and hitherto oppressed nations is of very practical significance for the whole of Asia and for all the colonies of the world, for thousands and millions of people.


I earnestly urge you to devote the closest attention to this question, to exert every effort to set an effective example of comradely relations with the peoples of Turkestan, to demonstrate to them by your actions that we are sincere in our desire to wipe out all traces of Great-Russian imperialism and wage an implacable struggle against world imperialism, headed by British imperialism. You should show the greatest confidence in our Turkestan Commission and adhere strictly to its directives, which have been framed precisely in this spirit by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee.


To the Communists of Turkestan, 1919


You speak about the revolution in Russia, but, Citizens Chernov, Chkheidze, and Tsereteli [Menshevik politicians], you have all studied socialism, and you realise only too well that so jar your revolution has only put the capitalists in power. Is it not trebly insincere, when, in the name of the Russian revolution, which has given power to the Russian imperialist capitalists, you demand of us, Germans, a revolution against the German imperialist capitalists? Does It not look as if your “internationalism”, your “revolutionism” are for foreign consumption only; as if revolution against the capitalists is only for the Germans, while for the Russians (despite the seething revolution in Russia) it is agreement with the capitalists?


Chernov, Chkheidze, and Tsereteli have sunk completely to the level of defending Russian imperialism.


An Unfortunate Document, 1917


This is what crops up when you do a search on the exact term “Russian imperialism”. It is also worth examining “Imperialism, the final stage of Capitalism” to see if there are any references to Russia there. While Lenin takes care to single out British and German domination of the financial sector, even to the point of specifically pointing to Deutsche Bank’s penetration of Russian “holding companies”, he does not let Russia off the hook in chapter six titled “The Division of the world among the great powers”. In a chart titled COLONIAL POSSESSIONS OF THE GREAT POWERS, Russia is in second place behind Britain:


He even makes comparisons between England and Russia in their pursuit of colonial exploitation:


The British capitalists are exerting every effort to develop cotton growing in their colony, Egypt (in 1904, out of 2,300,000 hectares of land under cultivation, 600,000, or more than one-fourth, were under cotton); the Russians are doing the same in their colony, Turkestan, because in this way they will be in a better position to defeat their foreign competitors, to monopolise the sources of raw materials and form a more economical and profitable textile trust in which all the processes of cotton production and manufacturing will be “combined” and concentrated in the hands of one set of owners.


It is of course of some interest that Lenin refers once again to Turkestan, one of those regions that were seized by Catherine the Great and that were victims of the Great Russian Chauvinism that Lenin fought from his sick bed until the day he died. Like Ukraine, these regions never felt like they were truly free in the USSR. It is most unfortunate that people like Annis and Clarke are essentially seeing things the same way that Stalin did in the 1920s even though they supposedly got their political training in the Trotskyist movement.


On a more fundamental level, I find the term “imperialist” as an adjective for a particular country problematic when it functions in the same way that the term mammal applies to a kind of animal or perennial to a type of flower. A bear is always going to be a mammal while a zinnia will never be a perennial. These are fixed categories. When it comes to social and economic entities, it becomes a lot more problematic. What criteria do we use? Lenin thought that the size of financial holdings was key. For Annis and Clarke, this means that Russia is not a player: “A mass of evidence shows that in terms of the financial instruments ‒ stocks, bonds, derivatives, bank deposits, money-market funds ‒in which wealth is mostly held within modern capitalism, the finance capital of present-day Russia is startlingly weak.”


Let’s look at fascist Italy for comparison’s sake. In the 1930s, the three largest banks had a capitalization of about 500 million lira each. Since one dollar was equal to 20 lira at the time, this meant that they were worth about $25 million each. On the other hand, the five largest banks in the USA were all worth over a billion dollars each in 1935 according to a January 21, 1936 NY Times article. So Italy was not even in their ballpark. Does that mean that Italy was not an imperialist nation?


In fact, it was the very weakness of Japan, Italy and Germany in 1939 that made them more aggressive. When you are top dog, you don’t go out and pick fights with those trying to overtake you as the alpha male after all. You don’t pay them any attention except when they looking to displace you. That’s when you defend your pack. That is why the “pacifist” and “democratic” nations like the USA and Britain could scold the aggressive fascists even though they were far more harmful to people living in vast empires covering the globe.


This brings us to Putin’s Russia. Perhaps finally recognizing that when the Kremlin sent its troops to Donetsk and Luhansk or its bombers to Syria might compromise them in the eyes of a few Marxist malcontents, Annis and Clarke try to excuse this bad behavior. Boys will be boys, after all:


Meanwhile, are Russian interests taken into account when the “rules of the game” of the capitalist world-system are determined? By no means. For years after the dissolving of the USSR, Russian elites held out hopes of joining NATO. Instead, NATO has been expanded to the point where Russia now faces a threatening arc of U.S.-aligned states, on or near its borders, from Turkey to Estonia. The clear goal of imperialist policy is to pressure and intimidate Russia, so as to deepen its peripheralisation and in the longer perspective, to force its break-up.


 In these circumstances, what can one say about the Western denunciations of “Russian imperialism”? Rarely have such fervent protestations been so wide of the mark, or backed by so little substance.


Does all this matter? If a country uses its armed strength to meddle in affairs outside its borders, doesn’t that make it imperialist per se? The trouble with that line of reasoning is that it quickly leads to absurd conclusions. Countries of the periphery commit armed aggression against one another with horrible regularity. The Ogaden War of 1977-78 began when Somali forces invaded Ethiopia. Did that make Somalia an imperialist power?


This, of course, is what the article is really about, not trying to pin down the exact character of the Russian economy. It is really about what Clausewitz referred to as “warfare being a continuation of politics by other means”. Annis and Clarke essentially view Ukraine’s Euromaidan as an encroachment on legitimate Russian interests in the same way that JFK viewed Soviet missiles in Cuba. Just as was was the case with any former colonial nation seeking support from the Kremlin, Ukraine or any of the Eastern European “buffer states” naturally would have developed an orientation to any global power that could give them some leeway against the Kremlin. Those are the realities of global politics.


Finally, what I found most telling is the comparison with Somalia invading Ethiopia. I wonder if this was subconsciously an admission on the part of Annis and Clarke that they felt guilty serving as Putin’s attorneys. If you want to make comparisons, you start with the fact that Ethiopia—like Tsarist Russia in the 18th century—was a precapitalist empire. The Ethiopian emperors colonized the Oromos to the south and the Eritreans to the north. It also colonized the Ogaden region in between Ethiopia and Somalia that was home to people of Somalian ethnicity and who were practicing Muslims. In 1977, Somalia “invaded Ethiopia” only in the sense that it sought to reassert control over territory that had been seized by Menelik II in the 19th century just as he had conquered the Oromos and the Eritreans.


Very soon the conflict became enmeshed with the Cold War as the USSR gave its backing to the Ethiopian Dergue that supposedly was evolving in a “Marxist-Leninist” direction while Jimmy Carter threw his support behind the Somalians. If your tendency is to choose sides based on who the West was supporting, naturally you would back the Ethiopians even if the Dergue was rapidly transforming itself into a military dictatorship with scant regard for human rights or economic justice.


Interestingly enough, CounterPunch has been a mainstay of the rights of the Ogaden people largely through the various articles published over the years by Graham Peebles such as this:


The ONLF [Ogaden National Liberation Front] is cast as the enemy of the state, and regarded, as all dissenting troublesome groups are, as terrorists. They in fact won 60% of seats and were democratically elected to the regional parliament in the only inclusive open elections to be held, back in 1992. Civilians suspected, however vaguely of supporting the so-called ‘rebels’, are forcibly re-located from their homes. The evacuated villages and settlements, emptied at gunpoint HRW (CP) record, “become no-go areas” and in a further act of state criminality, “civilians who remain behind risk being shot on sight, tortured, or raped if spotted by soldiers”. Children, refugees report are hanged, villages and settlements razed to the ground and cattle stolen to feed soldiers: HRW record (CP), “water sources and wells have [also] been destroyed”. Systematic, strategic methods of violence and intimidation employed by the Ethiopian regime, that has, Genocide Watch (GW) state, “initiated a genocidal campaign against the Ogaden Somali population”.


It is regrettable, of course, that there are so few people writing about Ukraine for CounterPunch who have the political and moral clarity of Graham Peebles who can see through Cold War or New Cold War nostrums of the sort associated with Roger Annis. Neither the Ogaden people nor the Ukrainians are pawns in a chess game. They have a right to national independence and social justice whichever side gives them a momentary advantage in a struggle against the oppressor. If Lenin could come to Russia in a railway car provided by the Kaiser, why would we expect long-suffering colonized peoples to act any differently?



Is Russia imperialist?

Lenin demanded a concrete analysis of political phenomena, but any theoretical construct made from Proyect’s concrete would be in severe danger of collapse.

Even the picture accompanying this article demonstrates how far he’s departed from Liebknecht’s precept that “the main enemy is at home”
For Proyect, whether you're in New York, or Istanbul, or Kiev the main enemy is Putin!

Quite a lot has happened in the 100 years since Lenin wrote “Imperialism”, including the Russian Revolution, the Second World War and the break-up of the USSR, leading to the formation of 15 independent states.
Proyect ignores all this and goes straight to 1876.
But even using this date as a starting point leads to some thorny issues;

If he’d analysed the table he reproduces a bit more closely, Proyect might have noticed that Tsarist Russia’s colonial possessions hardly increased at all between 1876 and 1914.
Britain’s increased by 48.8%, absorbing a population of 141.6 million colonial subjects; far more than the population of Britain itself.
The same was true of the French colonies.
If Lenin’s pamphlet had been written after 1941, it would have been true for Germany, Italy and Japan’s wartime empires too.
(Italy was a relatively minor bit player, but its role in a world-wide axis of fascist powers made it the mortal enemy of the European workers, Ethiopians and Libyans)

Lenin defined the key features of modern imperialism as the expansion of finance capital, its fusion with monopoly capitalism and a dynamic towards conquest and annexation which made war inevitable.

However, as the data show, the growth of the Tsarist empire mostly occurred before the development of capitalism in Russia; between 1450-1783.
Even in 1916, Russia still combined features of capitalist imperialism with pre-capitalist forms of domination.

Lenin also pointed out the domination of the Russian banks by Anglo-French and German capital. This had important political consequences during the First Word War.
Since Tsarism was being propped up by Anglo-French capital, the old position of the German Social Democrats – that of supporting a “revolutionary war” against Tsarist Russia was invalid by 1914 – something that Rosa Luxemburg also recognised, but German socialist imperialists didn’t.

Within Russia, Lenin adopted a revolutionary defeatist position, not because he supported Germany, but to bring about a government of the workers and peasants.
Its policies were to include renunciation of annexation and secret treaties and granting the
self-determination to oppressed nations which demanded it.

This was fully implemented in the case of Finland, but not with the desired outcome.
A pro-Bolshevik uprising by the Finnish working class was drowned in blood by the local reactionaries and their German allies. This was an important lesson in how socialist self-determination differs from its Wilsonian variant.

During the wars of intervention, the Mensheviks and SR’s formed alliances with Western Imperialism against the new Bolshevik government.
This happened in both Georgia and the Ukraine, where the Directorate and the Hetmanate allied with French and German imperialism against the Bolsheviks.
So the right to self-determination could not be treated as a political absolute – the reactionaries had to be defeated first, before national rights could be implemented within a socialist framework. Trotsky’s pamphlet “Between Red and White” explains this policy.

The tendency towards adapting to Great Russian chauvinism after Stalin’s faction gained control of the Communist Party complicated matters further.
Lenin clearly opposed the Great Russian chauvinism being exhibited by Stalin’s supporters in Georgia and was backed up by Trotsky.

But the “third-campists” who later broke from Trotsky’s Fourth International and began to talk about Stalin’s “imperialism” as though this were an underlying dynamic of the Soviet social system, rather than a false policy, were proven wrong.

The Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 was just a prelude to the inevitable Nazi invasion of the USSR. Trotsky made it clear that in this conflict he stood for the defence of the USSR by revolutionary means, even if this meant fighting alongside the Red Army.

Putin is clearly not a socialist and doesn’t support Lenin’s policy on national self determination.
Even the CPRF has criticised him for this.
Even the Greek Communist party thinks that Russia is imperialist.

They and Proyect needs to answer the following questions:-

Has Russia been imperialist ever since 1876?

If it was imperialist in 1941, why did Trotsky devote his final year to a political battle against the “third camp” (Shachtman & Burnham)

If it became imperialist when the planned economy and state ownership of the means of production were dismantled, why did it give independence to 14 states, abolish the Warsaw pact and remove its troops from Germany, at the same time?

If the fusion of finance capital and monopolies is a determinant of imperialism, what is the significance of Putin taking back key Russian industries into state control (albeit via majority shareholdings)

If Putin’s Russia is comparable to Mussolini’s Italy, why does it hold elections and have independent parties, (including more than one Communist Party)

What alliance is Russia in that’s comparable with the wartime Axis?
(please don’t answer “Syria” and “Iran”)

If, as Lenin insisted, imperialism is driven by a constant dynamic towards expansion and the re-division of the territories of its rivals, why has Russia confined itself to a defensive policy of defending its traditional sphere of influence and allies since 1991?

Why has the largest imperialist alliance on earth, which spends 13 times more on arms that Putin’s Russia, been constantly trying to expand eastward since 1991?

How does giving a political carte-blanche to the right-wing Ukrainian nationalists (as opposed to supporting Ukraine’s right to self-determination, which should includes democratic referenda over disputed areas) in any way challenge imperialism.

How can the Ukrainian workers be won to socialism?

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