Venezuela & ‘Russian Imperialism’

Socialist Action, Red Flag & IBT ‘Imps’ Take a Pass on Discussing:

At an 8 March Brock Socialist meeting on Venezuela, Bolshevik Tendency (BT) supporter Tom Riley sketched out the material motivations behind the aggressive U.S. drive for “regime change” and noted the significant support the Chinese deformed workers’ state and capitalist Russia have provided to the “Bolivarian” regime of Nicolás Maduro. A comrade from the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) also spoke and reprised the points made in their recent statement “Imperialism, Socialism & Revolution: Hands Off Venezuela”. The programmatic conclusions of both speakers were substantially similar, but unlike Riley, the IBT speaker made no mention of the involvement of Russia (and China). This seemed rather odd, particularly as disagreement over “Russian imperialism” played a central role in the dissolution of the fusion between the original BT and the New Zealand-based Permanent Revolution Group which had launched the International Bolshevik Tendency in 1990. The New Zealanders and their co-thinkers (designated internally as the “imps”) assert that Russia is “imperialist,” and the recent conflicts in Ukraine and Syria to have been essentially “inter-imperialist” in character (i.e., U.S. vs Russia).

We can only presume that their reluctance to address Russia’s role in Venezuela derives from the inherent difficulty of portraying it as in any way “imperialist.” As Riley noted, the American press does not seem to think that Russian financing for the Bolivarians is likely to turn much of a profit. Russia has also invested $1.5 billion in setting up a Kalashnikov factory (one of the very few such ventures undertaken by Moscow in recent years). The intent is clearly to bulwark Maduro’s regime, rather than maximize “shareholder value.”

Other ostensible Trotskyists who consider Russia to be “imperialist” have similarly avoided serious discussion of its role in Venezuela. The American Socialist Action (SA) group, which takes a defensist position toward the Maduro government, has been rather circumspect about the role played by Russia (and China, which they also consider to be imperialist) in the conflict. Jeff Mackler, the SA leader, recently observed:

“To the consternation of U.S. officials, Cuba, as well as Iran, Russia, and China—all sanctioned or threatened with severe economic measures by the U.S.—joined forces to deliver tons of food and medical supplies to beleaguered Venezuela. Russian and Chinese agreements to expand purchases of Venezuelan oil are justly seen by the Maduro government as vital and widely viewed, regardless of motivation, as mutually beneficial.”

Mackler is quite right that Cuba, along with Russia, Iran and the Chinese deformed workers’ state have all been targeted by the U.S., which openly promotes “regime change” for each of them. It is perhaps significant therefore that he does not attempt to distinguish between the motivations of Russia and China, on the one hand, and Cuba on the other, for opposing American imperialist aggression against Venezuela. Last year Socialist Action correctly noted that Russian support had enabled the Syrian regime to resist U.S. military pressure:

“A sovereign and historically oppressed Syria exercised its right to self-determination when it requested military aid from Russia and others. In point of fact, were it not for Syria’s allies, there is no doubt that uninvited U.S.-backed imperialist troops and the U.S. itself would be occupying Damascus today as neo-colonial conquerors.”
—Socialist Action, 17 March 2018

This does not sound much like how “imperialist” powers usually operate. Presumably the comrades are aware that Russia has no significant profitable investments in either Syria or Venezuela—nor is there much prospect of creating or acquiring such assets in the foreseeable future. Russia’s motivation for supporting these regimes is, in fact, identical to those of Cuba and Iran. Mackler implicitly acknowledged as much in a recent article (7 January 2019) on the prospects of U.S. withdrawal from Syria:

“Again echoing the real positions of the U.S. ruling class The [New York] Times and its quoted sources repeat ad nauseam that a U.S. withdrawal would ‘cede the eastern part of the country to the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.’ Imagine that! The Syrian government would regain the 30 percent of Syria now controlled by U.S. imperialism! And what would the Syrian government do with this regained region? All sources have concluded that the Syrians would use this oil rich and fertile land to rebuild, with Russian and Iranian assistance, their devastated nation!”

If and when the Assad regime is able to reestablish control of Syria’s oil fields it is quite likely that we will see Russian and Iranian participation in a reconstruction effort as Mackler suggests. But how does this fit SA’s characterization of Russia as an “imperialist” power?

The British centrists formerly known as Workers Power, who now publish Red Flag, have vaguely alluded to competition in Venezuela between the U.S. and what they deem to be Russian and Chinese “imperialism”:

“Success for Guaidó’s coup would not benefit the poor or the masses at all. It would just install another right wing regime to re-establish the power of the US multinationals and the traditional oligarchy….

“It might strengthen the US as against its Russian and Chinese rivals, who have gained something of a foothold in Venezuela, and it would further isolate the Cuban regime. This is, of course, the White House’s very intention.”
—Red Flag, 25 January 2019

The intention of the Russians and Chinese (as well as the Cubans) is of course to block a U.S.-directed coup and prop up Maduro’s regime. This would, among other things, complicate American imperialist aggression against future targets (including themselves). Red Flag readers might well wonder why, given this reality, both sides should be lumped together as “imperialist.” The Chinese Stalinists and Putin’s bonapartist capitalist regime share an obvious interest (along with the Iranians, Cubans, North Koreans and others on Washington’s hit list) in impeding the U.S. drive for global “full spectrum dominance.” Like the Iranians and Hezbollah, whose fighters actively defended Assad, when Beijing and Moscow provide material support to regimes threatened by U.S. imperialism they do so because they consider it to be in their own self-interest. But their motivations are not that of imperialist predators.

Perhaps the implicit recognition by SA, Red Flag and the IBT “imps” that their impressionistic designation of Russia as “imperialist” is not a useful analytical framework for understanding developments in Venezuela will lead to some rethinking. While we would very much welcome a correction of their mistaken characterization, we will not be holding our breath.

Published 26 March 2019