The great power grab: Imperialism and the war in Ukraine - a discussion between Alex Callinicos and Gilbert Achcar
By Alex Callinicos
March 27, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Socialist Worker — The mainstream media present the war in Ukraine as a struggle between “democracy”, represented by Ukraine and its Western backers, and “authoritarianism” in the shape of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. But this is much too simplistic.
For example, probably Ukraine’s most enthusiastic backer is the far right government in Poland, which is under investigation by the European Union for its authoritarian tendencies. Putin is supported by India, which, despite its own brutish fascist government, remains a multi-party democracy.
The mainstream way of framing the conflict is designed to equate the Western bloc of liberal capitalist states with the “international community”. It is also a way of denying legitimacy to the interests of this bloc’s rivals because they are “authoritarian.” This gets forgotten however when it comes to, for example, the murderous Saudi autocracy.
So are there better theoretical frameworks for understanding the conflict? One resource is provided by the idea of imperialism. After all, Putin seems intent on restoring the old Tsarist Empire that was destroyed by the Russian Revolution of October 1917.
But it’s important to clear about what we mean by imperialism. We can understand it as a phenomenon that spans historical eras, as the way in which powerful states dominate, conquer, and exploit neighbouring societies.
This has been a feature of class societies for thousands of years, going back to the ancient Persian, Chinese, and Roman empires. Now Russia is clearly behaving like an imperialist power in this sense, seeking to batter the Ukrainian state into submission and carve up its territory. But is it enough to understand the conflict in these terms?
The Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar thinks so. He has put forward what he calls a “radical anti-imperialist position” that focuses exclusively on the struggle between Russia and Ukraine.
“A successful Russian takeover of Ukraine would encourage the United States to return to the path of conquering the world by force in a context of exacerbation of the new colonial division of the world and worsening of global antagonisms, while a Russian failure—adding to the US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan—would reinforce what is called in Washington the ‘Vietnam syndrome’.
“Moreover, it seems quite obvious to me that a Russian victory would considerably strengthen warmongering and the push towards increased military spending in Nato countries, which has already gotten off to a flying start, while a Russian defeat would offer much better conditions for our battle for general disarmament and the dissolution of Nato.”
It would indeed be good if the Ukrainian people were able to drive out the Russian invaders. But there is a small problem with Achcar’s argument that this would weaken the US and Nato. They are enthusiastically backing the Ukrainians, flooding them with arms, and boosting their own military budgets.
If, thanks to these efforts and the courage of the Ukrainian fighters, Russia were defeated, would the US and its allies react by disarming and dissolving Nato? Of course they wouldn’t. They would celebrate this outcome as their victory, and boost Nato further. The US would feel invigorated in its world-historic competition with the real challenger to its hegemony, China.
What is missing from Achcar’s approach, and that of other leftists that duck the issue of Nato such as Paul Mason, is the more historically specific understanding of imperialism offered by Marxism. We can see this theory emerging originally in Karl Marx’s Capital in the 1860s. But it is developed more systematically in the early 20th century, around the time of the First World War.
Marxists were confronted with a reality similar to our own. The radical liberal economist JA Hobson wrote, “The novelty of recent Imperialism … consists chiefly in its adoption by several nations. The notion of a number of competing empires is essentially modern.”
This geopolitical competition was expressed in conflicts over territory—the colonies and semi-colonies that the biggest states were striving to dominate— and in an accelerating arms race. The Marxist theory of imperialism was developed to explain these rivalries, which precipitated the two world wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45, drowning the world in blood.
It was a theory of capitalist imperialism. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin called imperialism the highest stage of capitalism. His Polish-German comrade Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “The essence of imperialism consists precisely in the expansion of capital from the old capitalist countries into new regions and the competitive economic and political struggle among those for those new areas.”
To put it another way, capitalist imperialism represents the intersection of economic and geopolitical competition. Economic competition is the driving force of capitalism—rival firms struggle against each other, investing in improved and expanded production to seize a larger share of markets.
In the late 19th century, the geopolitical struggle among states was subsumed under the capitalist logic of competitive accumulation.
This reflected changes in both warfare and capitalism. War was industrialised, as military power came to depend on mass production to arm, support, and transport huge armies. States therefore needed to promote industrial capitalism.
Meanwhile capitalist firms increased in size and started to operate globally. They depended on state support against their rivals. During the depression of the late 19th century, seizing overseas colonies compensated for falling profitability.
So capitalist imperialism isn’t just big states bullying and conquering smaller states—though there is plenty of that. It’s a global system of inter-capitalist competition. Just as before the First World War, today imperialism means geopolitical competition against the background of global economic integration.
The power of the antagonists depends on their position in the capitalist world economy. The US dominates finance and big tech, China has a vast manufacturing machine, and Russia relies on energy exports. Today one can identify perhaps six leading imperialist powers—the US, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany.
The most important antagonism is that between the US and China whose leaders aim to displace Washington’s hegemony, initially in the Indo-Pacific region. But Russian imperialism, manoeuvring to rebuild its power, creates a three‑way conflict.
The big western European powers are pulled in different directions. They depend on Russian energy and are attracted by the vast Chinese market—but, as at present, they ultimately line up with the US. Now this understanding of capitalist imperialism as involving a system of interstate rivalry is completely missing from Achcar’s analysis.
He denies that the Ukraine war involves a conflict among imperialist powers. “If any war where each side is supported by an imperialist rival were called an inter-imperialist war, then all the wars of our time would be inter-imperialist, since as a rule, it is enough for one of the rival imperialisms to support one side for the other to support the opposite side.
“An inter-imperialist war is not that. It is a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo) colonial domain of the other.” This is much too narrow. The US waged a proxy war against the Soviet Union after the latter tried to seize Afghanistan at the end of 1979
Along with allies such as Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan it armed and trained the mujahedin fighters who resisted the Soviet occupation. The conflict helped to drain Soviet resources and morale in the last decade of the Cold War. Of course, the mujahedin had their own political agendas. This became clear after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, culminating in the Taliban’s support for al-Qaeda and its resistance to the US occupation following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
But the US played a decisive shaping role in an important final episode of the Cold War. Of course, there are huge differences between Ukraine today and Afghanistan in the 1980s.
But there is an important similarity, in that the Western imperialist powers are instrumentalising the Ukrainian national struggle against Russian imperialism for their own interests.
Inter-imperialist struggles and wars of national defence often interweave. The First World War started when the Austro-Hungarian Empire attacked Serbia, which it blamed for the assassination of its crown prince Franz Ferdinand. Russia then backed Serbia, leading to an escalating process of military mobilisations that ended in a terrible general war.
The German Marxist Karl Kautsky argued that the role played by the Serbian struggle for national self‑determination meant the conflict wasn’t just an imperialist war. Lenin responded, “To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one percent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a ‘continuation of the politics’ of the bourgeois-liberation movement.
“To the other ninety-nine percent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism.” Of course, the balance is different in the present case since the direct fighting involves just Ukraine and Russia.
Nevertheless the Nato powers’ efforts to stay out of the fighting—above all to avoid nuclear confrontation with Russia—don’t alter the fact they are doing everything they can short of this to defeat Russia. This too is “a continuation of the politics of imperialism”.
The Marxist theory of imperialism is important politically. Without it we are confronted simply with a struggle between rival nation-states. But once we see the role of imperialism, we can identify the class antagonism at work. We can see the thread of class interest that binds together not just the Russian conscripts dying in Putin’s war and their families back home being walloped economically by the effects of Western sanctions.
This thread also connects with working people all over the world, hit thanks to the war by food and energy inflation and threatened with nuclear destruction. It unites them all against the rival ruling classes busy feeding this terrible war.
Gilbert Achcar: 'The present war in Ukraine is a war of aggression by Russian imperialism'
[Published at Anti*Capitalist Resistance]
I read with interest your critique of my position in Socialist Worker dated 27 March. We have, you and I, quite a long tradition already of debates between us. I always welcome the opportunity since our debate is conducted in the way it should be between Marxists, that is in a comradely spirit and clear of the deliberate distortion and defamation that are alas all too frequent in the ranks of a large section of the left, still affected by the detestable legacy of Stalinism.
The source from which you quote is my article “Six FAQs on anti-imperialism today and the war in Ukraine”. The thrust of your critique is that I am oblivious to the inter-imperialist character of the conflict in Ukraine. As I shall try to demonstrate, your critique is based on a rather inconsistent definition of the ongoing war, which I interpret as the result of your trying to sit between two chairs—that of a true Marxist analysis of the ongoing war and that of the pervasive neo-campist attitude that characterises a large section of the British anti-war movement, with which you have been closely associated for many years.
You write, “What is missing from Achcar’s approach”—here you add, “And that of other leftists that duck the issue of Nato” as if it were my case too—“is the more historically specific understanding of imperialism offered by Marxism.” You then put on your professor’s hat to engage in a pedagogic explanation about modern imperialism, which “isn’t just big states bullying and conquering smaller states—though there is plenty of that. It’s a global system of inter-capitalist competition.” And you conclude, “Now this understanding of capitalist imperialism as involving a system of interstate rivalry is completely missing from Achcar’s analysis.”
This accusation is rather odd coming from you, Alex, of all people, since you published in 2010 in the International Socialism Journal my review of a book of yours, which discussed your judgement of the ongoing inter-imperialist rivalries.
You are likewise familiar with my writings on Nato’s expansion since the late 1990s followed by many other interventions over the years, such as this interview I gave to a Russian comrade at the time of the previous Ukraine war in 2014. And had you bothered to check what I wrote on the recent confrontation over Ukraine—as you ought have done before embarking in a critique of my position—you would have found that from the start I did locate it within the context of hostility between Russia and Western powers led by Washington.
So, I certainly don’t need to be lectured about the inter-imperialist character of the ongoing confrontation and Nato’s role, do I? What remains of your critique then? The long development about imperialism actually serves to dilute the main disagreement that you have with my position, which is about the character of the present war in Ukraine. I characterised it as a war of aggression by Russian imperialism against Ukraine and therefore 1) a war of rapine waged in the name of Great Russian Chauvinism on the side of Russian imperialism and 2) a just war on the side of the Ukrainians fighting the Russian invasion of their country.
You acknowledge that, “It would indeed be good if the Ukrainian people were able to drive out the Russian invaders.” But then you embark on a convoluted effort to explain what you falsely claim that I denied, namely that “the Ukraine war involves a conflict among imperialist powers”. This is an unfortunate attempt to cloud the issue by blurring the distinction between “war” and “conflict”. There is no denial—and certainly not by me—that there is an inter-imperialist conflict behind the Ukraine war. But the argument you quote from me is not about that: it is about the fact that the war in Ukraine is not an inter-imperialist war, even though it very obviously takes place on a background of inter-imperialist conflict.
What is the difference here? Quite straightforward indeed, from the Leninist perspective that you like to refer to—had the Ukraine war been an inter-imperialist war, internationalists should have advocated revolutionary defeatism on both sides. Since it is not an inter-imperialist war, revolutionary defeatism is on the order of the day on the Russian side only, whereas, as you yourself admit, “it would indeed be good if the Ukrainian people were able to drive out the Russian invaders”.
As I explained in one of the passages that you quote, “An inter-imperialist war … is a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo) colonial domain of the other.” On this you comment, “This is much too narrow.” And you go on explaining that in Afghanistan 1979-1989 the US and its regional allies backed the Islamic fighters against the USSR. So what? Does it make of the Afghan war in itself an inter-imperialist war? You could have taken other examples too—in Vietnam, the USSR—which according to your political tradition was a state capitalist country—backed the Vietnamese against the US aggression. Did that make of Vietnam an “inter-imperialist war”? Should revolutionary defeatism have been advocated by internationalists on both sides of that war? Certainly not, of course.
Your attempt to invoke Lenin to buttress your position is unconvincing, I’m afraid. You quote him replying to those who advocated a right of self-defence in the First World War by invoking the case of Serbia’s struggle for self-determination, “To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one percent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a ‘continuation of the politics’ of the bourgeois-liberation movement. To the other ninety-nine percent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism.” But you then qualify your own use of the quote by adding, “Of course, the balance is different in the present case since the direct fighting involves just Ukraine and Russia.”
But that’s a huge difference, isn’t it? Let me then give you another quote from Lenin, from his famous 1915 pamphlet on Socialism and War in which he explicated the Bolsheviks’ attitude on the First World War and discussed the various types of war. Referring to Germany’s invasion of Belgium at the onset of the war, Lenin wrote, “The German imperialists shamelessly violated the neutrality of Belgium, as belligerent states have done always and everywhere, trampling upon all treaties and obligations if necessary. Let us suppose that all the states interested in the observation of international treaties declared war on Germany with the demand for the liberation and indemnification of Belgium. In such a case, the sympathies of Socialists would, of course, be on the side of Germany’s enemies. But the whole point is that the “triple (and quadruple) entente” is waging war not over Belgium, this is perfectly well known, and only hypocrites conceal this. England is grabbing Germany’s colonies and Turkey; Russia is grabbing Galicia and Turkey, France wants Alsace-Lorraine and even the left bank of the Rhine…”
I hope that this quote makes clear enough to you the importance of drawing a clear distinction between a war opposing an imperialist power to a country that it tries to subjugate, even when rival imperialist powers support the latter country’s resistance (Lenin says even if they “declared war” on its behalf, which is a useless hypothesis in my view since other imperialist powers would only declare war for their own imperialist interests, whatever they pretended), and a war of rapine between imperialist states as the First World War most classically was.
“It seems quite obvious to me”, I did write, “that a Russian victory would considerably strengthen warmongering and the push towards increased military spending in Nato countries, which has already gotten off to a flying start, while a Russian defeat would offer much better conditions for our battle for general disarmament and the dissolution of Nato.” To this you reply, “If, thanks to [Nato’s] efforts and the courage of the Ukrainian fighters, Russia were defeated, would the US and its allies react by disarming and dissolving Nato? Of course they wouldn’t. They would celebrate this outcome as their victory, and boost Nato further.”
Could anyone possible disagree with this? Certainly not me, but that’s not the point I made. It is much simpler than this—Had Russia managed to crush the Ukrainian resistance, control the whole country and implement “regime change” as was obviously Putin’s intention and calculation, our voices as forces that advocate a drastic reduction of military expenditure and Nato’s dissolution would have been completely drowned by a tsunami of jingoistic warmongering.
Since Ukraine’s resistance has already shattered the myth of an almighty Russian military—and even more so if it were to come out of this war as having defeated Russia’s imperialist goals (within the limits of what it can possibly achieve given the huge unbalance of forces)—it is my contention that this strengthens our anti-war argument against the ongoing tendency to over blow the importance of the “Russian threat” in order to justify increased military expenditure and further expansion of Nato.
Alex Callinicos: 'The Marxist approach is to recognise both an inter-imperialist war by proxy and a war of national defence on Ukraine’s part'
I’m delighted that you have chosen to respond to my article, "The great power grab—imperialism and the war in Ukraine". This isn’t primarily a discussion of what you’ve written on Ukraine, but an attempt to demonstrate the relevance of the Marxist theory of imperialism to understanding the present appalling situation. But I do use some of the things you’ve said to illustrate what I think is a mistaken tendency on the radical left to focus exclusively on the struggle between Ukraine and Russian imperialism, ignoring the role played by the US and Nato.
As you say, as friends and comrades, over the years we have had several productive exchanges that avoided abuse or misrepresentation. So this discussion may help to clarify things. Having said that, I don’t think it’s especially comradely or accurate to accuse me of sharing the “pervasive neo-campist attitude that characterises a large section of the British anti war movement, with which you have been closely associated for many years”.
Campism is the position that some on the left take of effectively subordinating the class struggle to the geopolitical rivalries of the major powers, one bloc of which is deemed “reactionary”, the other “progressive”. It originated during the Cold War. You can hardly be accusing me of this kind of campism. Tony Cliff founded our tendency based on the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”, seeing both sides in the Cold War as exploiting imperialist blocs.
Campism has indeed revived in recent years, notably in the related cases of supporting the murderous Assad regime in Syria and apologising for Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014. But the Socialist Workers Party rejected both these positions. It would be a tedious waste of space to document my public criticisms of what you call “neo-campism”. But you know perfectly well that the International Socialist Tendency strongly supported the Syrian Revolution and our comrades in the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current participated in it.
It’s true that the Stop the War Coalition (STW) leadership equivocated on both questions. But, once again, we made clear our disagreements, while continuing to support STW. Happily, it takes a clearer position now, of condemning both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Nato’s role in central and eastern Europe. I think you should withdraw the accusation of “neo-campism”.
So what are the differences? There’s a famous episode of the 1970s comedy series Fawlty Towers whose theme is “Don’t Mention the War!” to some German tourists. Well, there’s a large section of the left belonging to what one might call the “Don’t mention Nato” tendency. I regret to say that you offer a sophisticated justification for this position.
You complain that I don my “professor’s hat to engage in a pedagogic explanation about modern imperialism” and its character as a global system of inter-capitalist competition when you know all about this. I would say two things in response.
First, as I have already explained, the article wasn’t written for you. Secondly, indeed you do know all about imperialism both historically and at its present stage. I remember particularly a great article you wrote in New Left Review in 1998 about US post-Cold War strategy. Its title, "The Strategic Triad—The United States, Russia, and China", and its content remain very relevant today.
The puzzle is that this analysis is largely absent from what you’ve written about Ukraine. In as far as I know your first text on the subject, "A Memorandum on the Radical Anti-imperialist Position Regarding the War in Ukraine", you devote exactly just one sentence to the subject of Nato expansion.
The rest is about what the left should do about the struggle between Ukraine and Russia. You justify this focus in your later text, which I have already criticised, by denying that the war is, as well as a war of national defence, an inter-imperialist war. But your arguments are pretty weak.
You say, “If any war where each side is supported by an imperialist rival were called an inter-imperialist war, then all the wars of our time would be inter-imperialist, since as a rule, it is enough for one of the rival imperialisms to support one side for the other to support the opposite side. An inter-imperialist war is not that. It is a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo)colonial domain of the other, as was very clearly the First World War. It is a ‘war of rapine’ on both sides, as Lenin liked to call it.”
This definition, which requires an inter-imperialist war to be one where both sides are seeking to conquer each other’s territory, doesn’t even fit the Second World War. British and French imperialism weren’t interested in seizing German territory, but in hanging onto their already overstretched empires. And Hitler wasn’t particularly interested in these. It was eastern Europe and the Soviet Union he was after.
Your attempt to rule out by definition the possibility of inter-imperialist wars by proxy is also dubious. One has to look concretely at the circumstances and development of particular wars. The Korean War of 1950-3 was, as Cliff argued at the time, an inter-imperialist war, in which the USSR used North Korea and China as proxies against the US and its allies. It’s true the North Korean leader Kim Il-sung was keen to invade the South and reunify the Korean peninsula. But Stalin encouraged and backed him, partly to get access to warm-water ports in South Korea, partly to bind a more reluctant Mao Zedong firmly to the Soviet bloc.
The Vietnamese struggle was very different. The driving force was the national liberal struggle let by the Communist Party, which took on successively French, Japanese, and US imperialism. The Soviet Union did supply heavy military backing, but in no sense directed the war, and indeed worried during the final phases in the late 1960s and early 1970s that it might disrupt the pursuit of detente with the US.
We should make a similarly concrete assessment of the present war. There’s no doubting the strength of Ukrainian national consciousness, which the invasion is reinforcing. But the very active role played by the US and Nato is also undeniable. Nor does this correspond to the imaginary case you quote from Lenin, which you yourself call a “useless hypothesis”, of the “international community” going to war to reverse a German invasion of Belgium.
This isn’t what’s happening now. The US is revitalising its alliance with the rest of Nato in pursuit of its long-term struggle with the other two members of your “strategic triad”, China as well as Russia. Meanwhile, contrary to your efforts to deny this, many important states aren’t backing Ukraine and the West.
According to Edward Luce of the Financial Times, in the UN General Assembly vote condemning Russia on 2 March “the 35 [states] that abstained account for almost half the world’s population. That includes China, India, Vietnam, Iraq and South Africa. If you add those that voted with Russia, it comes to more than half.”
Western participation in the war, reaffirmed by Biden’s meeting with the other Nato leaders last week, embraces providing weapons and military training before the war, and pouring in supplies now. There can be no doubt Western intelligence officials and military advisers are also active on the ground.
Moreover, the Western role can’t be reduced to military support. You have this strange agnostic position of neither supporting the sanctions against Russia nor demanding they are lifted. This ignores the role sanctions are actually playing.
The strategy of the US and its allies is to avoid direct involvement in the fighting for fear of unleashing what you call “a fatal spiral”, but to hit Russia very hard economically by excluding it from world trade, denying its central bank access to its reserves, and reducing especially Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas.
As Nicholas Mulder points out in an outstanding new historical study of sanctions, “economic sanctions are generally regarded as an alternative to war. But for most people in the interwar period, the economic weapon was the very essence of total war,” after the experience of the blockade Britain and France imposed on Germany and its allies during the First World War.
This is certainly how Vladimir Putin seems to have reacted when he announced he was putting Russia’s nuclear forces on alert in response to the West’s imposition of financial sanctions. Moreover, fear of sanctions being used against China at some moment convenient to Washington is no doubt helping to motivate Beijing’s support for Moscow.
The properly Marxist approach is to recognise that the present situation involves both an inter-imperialist war by proxy and a war of national defence on Ukraine’s part. This is complicated, as it requires us to support the Ukrainians’ national rights while opposing all measures—including sanctions and Nato arms shipments—that feed the “fatal spiral” of inter-imperialist escalation. Nevertheless, the internationalist tradition of Lenin and Luxemburg has something unique to contribute—provided it doesn’t lose sight of the three-sided imperialist contest that gave rise to and continues to nourish this war.
All the best,