Capitalist crisis, imperialism and the road to war in Ukraine
By William Briggs
July 13, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The war in Ukraine should not have happened and yet it seems it was always going to occur. It is hard to stand aloof and view the whole sorry mess through a broader, ideological and analytical lens, but it is important to go beyond the images of war and suffering and look at how the world got to this point. How did we get to Ukraine? The road to Ukraine was certainly not paved with good intentions.
History might be viewed as linear and timelines can be easily built. Sometimes this has value but plotting points on a timeline can also be an arbitrary affair.
Some see Maidan in 2014 as a useful starting point. They point to CIA funding of extreme right-wing forces that helped bring about a nationalist government hostile to Russia. Others see the same events as beginning a struggle for self-determination against Russian domination.
Another starting point might be the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reneging by United States imperialism of its promise not to drive NATO eastwards. It could be the Cold War; it could be World War II; it could be the 1917 Russian Revolution and the granting of the right to self-determination for Ukraine, only to see Stalin trample on such a policy. It might go as far back as the 9th century and Kievan Rus, from where Russia, Ukraine and Belarus all trace their ancestry. Or it might be something quite apart.
Imperialism is to blame. Some on the left claim that Russia is imperialist. Others say that Russia is far from being imperialist. There is a need for clarity on this issue. A Marxist analysis needs to consider the economic, as well as political, factors that led to the war. War is not a synonym for imperialism.
The war can be best understood when considered alongside the longer, wider crisis within capitalism. We must be conscious of just how the crisis in capitalism brought the war to Ukraine and how that same crisis is propelling the world towards global war. War and capitalism go hand in hand. Nationalism and war are inseparable. What is palpable in the Ukraine/Russian war is a confluence of all these factors.
Capitalism is in a deep crisis. Marx’s theory of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall is central to this crisis. The sharp rise in nationalist sentiment and symbolism, and the resurgence of economic nationalism, is a direct product of the capitalist crisis. This has been brewing for decades, but the early 1970s marked a turning point in capitalist development and the beginning of a “qualitative” change in capitalist relations.
The 1970s were important as it saw the coming together of the oil crisis, a collapse of the US steel industry, slow economic growth, high inflation, high unemployment and a clear drop in the profit rate. This meant drastic change was required. That change was the rush to globalisation. Production went to where labour was cheaper. The industrialised states de-industrialised. New centres of production developed. China began its astronomic rise. Power seemed to shift from the state to a growing but indefinable global ruling class. It seemed the nation-state was losing its power.
The drive to globalise production failed to resolve the crisis for capital. Nationalist backlash, alongside growing inequality, the growth of populist movements and continued economic dislocation, compelled the state to resume its more traditional nationalist approach. Populists were brought into the fold, economic nationalism revived, tariffs and trade wars loomed, and capitalism, while still globally integrated, began to retreat into a nationalist response to the crisis. The capitalist crisis, however, was not resolved.
National antagonisms grew as individual capitalist states sought power and influence. The United States remained the central power in the world, but faced a rising capitalist economy in China. Only one hegemon can be permitted and the struggle for global power saw sides being actively taken.
It is a scenario that has dangerous echoes to the period leading up to World War I. States pitted against rival states for access to markets, resources and economic power, which in the capitalist mindset equates to survival. War is never far away when barriers are erected. As the saying goes, if goods don’t cross borders, then soldiers will.
With nationalism on the rise, soldiers crossing borders has become more likely. The world today has become increasingly militarised. The global arms budget for this year is $2 trillion. The point of such budgets, and of a militarised capitalist world, is clear for all to see. The tragedy of the Russia/Ukraine/NATO war proves the point.
Getting things right
Perhaps the single most divisive aspect of the recent debate on the left around the war in Ukraine has been the issue of imperialism. It is surprising, or at least should be surprising, because understanding imperialism is central to any Marxist worldview.
Marxist theory was constructed in the midst of a dominant bourgeois ideology. Marxism expressed core values and a classical Marxist perspective maintains certain core elements. A characterisation of imperialism is one such unassailable core element.
It should be inconceivable for a Marxist to categorise Russia as an imperialist power. Non-Marxist writers might look to John Bull imperialism as a guide, but it is too simplistic to equate imperialism with military hardware or expressions of nationalist symbolism or action. An imperialist power may well use naked force to achieve its ends, but Marxists need to be a bit more sophisticated in their thinking than that. It is important to get these things right.
Russian lives, Ukrainian lives, self-determination and great power delusions are important, but to understand why things are happening, we must first acknowledge the role that the capitalist crisis is playing. US imperialism is largely funding this war. Capitalism sees war as a potential for future profit. Marxists must always remember who the real enemy is and who will gain from such carnage.
Any consideration of the war in Ukraine ultimately leads back to the question of imperialism and, in particular, to whether Russia is imperialist. The expression is hurled about with some abandon. Without seeking to polemicise, it would seem that theory is being badly used when a regime can be written off as imperialist if it is at war. The war is wrong, the invasion was wrong, Ukrainian self-determination might be in jeopardy, but none of that “proves” that Russia is imperialist. The voices that denounce Russia as imperialist engage, at times, in cherry-picking bits and pieces of theory to support their claims. Others seem happy to dispense with any theoretical justification at all.
The theory of imperialism that emerged from classical Marxism into the 21st century is a rich and contested one. From Hilferding to Harvey, there are divergences in thought, applications and observations to suit contemporary circumstances. Despite this, Hilferding, Luxemburg, Bukharin, Trotsky, and later, Sweezy, Baran, Frank, Wallerstein, Amin and Harvey, among others, find themselves to one extent or another in general agreement with Lenin’s view. That did not mean that differences of interpretation and analysis did not exist, but there is broad acceptance that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism. Capitalism and imperialism are inseparable. Imperialism ceases to be purely an exercise in the use of blunt force and becomes the exercise of capitalist power.
It should not be necessary to reprise Lenin’s work on imperialism, but to paraphrase, he spoke of: the concentration of production and capital that plays a decisive role in economic life; the creation of finance capital; the importance of the export of capital; and the development of international or multinational capitalism.
Economic power is the key. An imperialist state will, if necessary, resort to brute force. The US has shown this to be so. But is not the threat of economic instability a weapon, and a decisive one at that?
No serious Marxist economist or theoretician has sought to decouple Lenin’s definition of imperialism from the political realities of the day. It does, however, demand a degree of objectivity not to be enticed into an emotional and emotive response to the media barrage that assails us on an hourly basis.
Imperialism and Russia
What then does imperialism look like and how does Russia stack up? If we stick with Lenin’s definition of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, then the answer should be obvious. There are, of course, many arguments to support the thesis that Russia is not imperialist. The following is broadly paraphrased from Stansfield Smith’s work.
Russia is at best a minor player in the monopoly capitalist stakes. Just four of the top 100 corporations are based in Russia. Russia accounts for little more than 1% of global output. While it is a major exporter of oil and grain, it ranks 17th in the world as an exporter of raw materials and 31st in high-tech exports. It has one bank in the top 100.
It barely rates as an exporter of capital. Its level of foreign direct investment (FDI) to the world is $9.5 billion. Australia’s is double that. Indonesia’s is also double the rate of Russia. US FDI, by contrast, is $4.5 trillion. This is significant. An imperialist power exerts enormous influence in this respect. Nearly 25% of all Australian incoming capital is from the US. It is inconceivable that Australia could develop a foreign policy that was not aligned to the US. It is one of the ways that imperialism operates.
Russia comes closest to achieving imperialist credentials in only one area. Militarily, it is still a superpower, but it is a specious argument to say Russia is imperialist based on military strength. Russia’s nuclear capacity is huge. Its percentage of GDP spending on the military is high. At the same time, an imperialist power might be expected to have more than 15 bases outside its borders, especially when weighed against the 800 US military bases. Incidentally, only two Russian bases are not in former Soviet Republics. Its military interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Georgia, Syria and Ukraine hardly compete with those of Britain or France. We need not even consider the US in this context.
This is not an apologia for Russian aggression in Ukraine, but simply seeks to show that regardless of how badly it might behave, it is not, in any real sense, imperialist. Its actions have been denounced as trampling upon the right of Ukrainian self-determination. This is worth brief consideration.
There have been many calls for actions in defence of Ukraine. Some go so far as to call for military intervention, and are in tacit support of NATO and US policy of continuing the war rather than seeking any form of negotiated settlement. To argue against an imagined Russian imperialism while ignoring the role of US imperialism remains problematic.
US imperialism’s post-war tactics
It is hardly necessary to return to the “bait and bleed” tactics that the US employed before and during the war to weaken Russia: John Mearsheimer’s theory has been adopted by the US in its campaign against Russia. Nor is it necessary to restate how the US made a mockery of the promise not to have NATO move eastward after the fall of the Soviet Union. What is worth considering is how things are likely to pan out after the war.
Imperialism’s eyes are already turning to the future. The Russian economy will continue its decline. It is unlikely that Putin’s leadership will survive. Ukraine will lie in rubble, but history shows that economic rebound will follow. Vast sums will be pumped into Ukraine and vast profits will be made.
Ukrainian President Zelensky has demanded that Russia pay reparations. He has also made it clear that business opportunities would be available for Western capitalism. Speaking at The Wall Street Journal CEO Summit earlier in the year, he declared: “I’m sure after victory we will do everything quite fast,” adding that foreign capital would “get access to our country, our 40 million-plus market.”
The ramifications of such an action echo the period after World War I. A seriously weakened Russia and a Versailles-style punitive reparations bill offered nothing but dislocation for decades to come. But even as demands for reparations are being considered, capitalist powers in Europe and, most importantly, the US are talking of a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine. The original Marshall Plan certainly energised Europe and saw the rebirth of its industrial base. It also greatly stimulated the US economy and guaranteed markets for US exports. Catastrophe leads to opportunity.
The cost of the war in economic terms, according to Ukrainian sources, will be anywhere between $500 billion to $1 trillion. Any post-war aid program will be a huge undertaking. Despite the rhetoric about supporting Ukrainian people, capitalist economies will not be acting from a sense of altruism. The future for the Ukrainian working class will be marked by austerity programs, low wages and even more minimal social security. Successive IMF packages across the world have shown that this is the price of “largesse.”
The post-1945 aid deal had economic benefits and political bonuses for the US. The political landscape became conducive for US leadership, and US businesses were some of the biggest winners. Zelensky has already foreshadowed that foreign capital could expect to do well from any post-war aid package.
While the cost of rebuilding is huge, it is being seen as a worthwhile investment. Martin Sandbu, writing in the Financial Times, has given a clear indication of how capital views the end of the war. “The EU … should not see this as an expense. EU companies will be contracted for infrastructure, housebuilding, transport and more … Beyond this, it is an investment in Europe’s values and its security. It would bring 44mn people firmly inside the liberal democratic fold and into the social market economy – a historic achievement to rival the continent’s post-cold war reunification and the Marshall Plan itself.”
With the sniff of profit in the air, governments have begun to pledge support. Britain has promised $950 million and Germany $445 million. The EU has also become involved, promising $9 billion in loans. United States Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has stated that “Ukraine will need massive support and private investment for reconstruction and recovery, akin to the task of rebuilding in Europe after 1945.”
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen made it clear that there would be strings attached. The EU has demanded reforms of the judiciary and brakes to be put on the power of Ukrainian oligarchs. These are positive reforms but, as von der Leyen added, “Ukraine will need courageous reforms. But reforms should go hand-in-hand with investment.” Courageous reforms will mean making the Ukrainian economy more compliant to the needs of European and US capitalist requirements. Conditions for the Ukrainian working class were difficult, even before the devastation of the war. FDI, essential for a capitalist economy, was already low before the war, at just $900 million.
The future for Ukraine, even if the war is resolved in its favour, will be bleak. Investment will flow, rebuilding will be swift, but the price will be huge. The war has been cast as a just one, to ensure the right of self-determination and for sovereignty. The control that US capital and the EU will exert will certainly destroy such hopes.
Imperialism’s strategic thinking is clear. The best option is a Ukraine that is firmly in the camp of Western capitalism. The best-case scenario, as far as Russia is concerned, is that it is further weakened and that a leadership that is more subservient to the interests of imperialism comes to power. In each case, imperialism wins. Claims of Russian imperialism seem to evaporate.
In the end
The road to Ukraine and the war should not have come as a complete surprise. It reflects a deep crisis in capitalism. With the return to economic nationalism, there is the inevitable clash between capitalist states.
Russia, when the Soviet Union collapsed, was expected to follow a script crafted in Washington. Its riches were to be exploited by Western capitalism for the benefit of Western capitalism. Nationalism was on the ascendancy and Russian nationalism trumped many others. It meant a change of plan but the goal remained the same: the dismemberment of the old Soviet Union and the enrichment of foreign capitalist interests. That plan is now likely to come to fruition. It is not a war between imperialists. It is not a struggle for the self-determination of Ukraine. Self-determination for the Ukrainian or Russian working people will be a fantasy. The war is, in the final analysis, a means to an end. US capitalism is making sure that business is done in such a manner as to advantage US capitalism.