Is Russia Imperialist?
Our 24 October 2018 statement, “Why Things Fell Apart,” outlined the debate within the International Bolshevik Tendency over whether contemporary Russia should be categorized as an imperialist power—an issue with profound programmatic consequences. As we noted,the difference arose a decade ago:
“When Georgian president Saakashvili moved troops into South Ossetia in August 2008 his intent was to assert control over a territory that, while nominally part of Georgia, had a population that not only identified much more closely with Russia, but, like their Abkhazian counterparts, had enjoyed virtual autonomy after the destruction of the USSR. In response to Saakashvili’s provocation, Vladimir Putin surprised the world with an overwhelming military response that swiftly pushed Georgian troops out of Ossetian territory….“
This event signaled that the Yeltsin era of passive acquiescence to America had come to an end, a development which had major implications for global politics. The Russians did not formally annex South Ossetia, despite the pleas of the population, but neither did they permit Georgian forces to reenter the region (or Abkhazia), and thereby effectively integrated both into the Russian federation.
“The leadership of the International Bolshevik Tendency had no difficulty agreeing to a position on the conflict—opposing both Georgia’s intervention in South Ossetia and the entry of any Russian forces into ethnically Georgian territory. But the conflict triggered a serious division within the group, which has now lasted for a decade, that began when cde. Bill Logan proposed that the Georgian conflict marked Russia’s emergence as an imperialist power in its own right.”
The debate was conducted in a serious and comradely fashion. Both sides sought to win over their opponents and avoid a destructive split. Through the course of the discussion agreement was reached on several issues, notably the character of Russian imperialism circa 1914, as well as what Marxists mean by the term “imperialism.” The comrades who did not consider Russia to be imperialist (the “Nimps”) drafted articles on both these questions that were endorsed by their “Imp” opponents and then published in 1917 No. 39 as “Imperialism, Tsarist Russia & WW I” and “Roots & Fruits of Imperialism.”
During the latter stages of the debate (which is the period from which all but one of the items in this bulletin are taken) one of the key controversies involved the interpretation of available data on capital flows and patterns of Russian foreign investment. A Nimp comrade (Roxie Baker) declared that “if a parallel [with Russia in 1914] could be proven today – that Russia is pumping value out of neo colonies – I would be convinced to re-evaluate my position. But so far, I don’t feel that the imps have provided this evidence. I think there is a simple reason for this – it doesn’t match the reality today as far as I know.” Baker’s comment was cited by Barbara Dorn in a 20 March 2014 document in which she sought to provide the proof Baker requested with data on Russian “foreign direct investment” (FDI) from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).
The significance of the UNCTAD data became a focus for the discussion: the Nimps pointed out that most of it was composed of subsidies to dependents, tax avoidance and money laundering, while the Imps asserted that it should be treated as evidence of capital exports by Russian oligarchs similar to those described in Lenin’s classic 1916 study, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. A week after Dorn’s contribution Comrade Josh Decker followed up with “Russia’s Emergence as an Imperialist Power” (27 March 2014), in which he featured “a series of graphs I’ve put together, taking inspiration from Barbara’s reply to Roxie. They compile a large amount of FDI flow data from UNCTAD.” Decker indicated what he saw as the significance of this data with the offhand comment that: “Despite the serious problems with official FDI figures…we have been using these figures as a very crude measure of capital export (and by implication surplus extraction).”
The presumption that raw data on FDI flows somehow necessarily “implies” the existence of investments generating “surplus extraction” from less developed economies is central to the Imps’ case, yet they were never able to present much evidence to validate this assumption. As the Nimps repeatedly pointed out, the overwhelming bulk of the FDI tracked by UNCTAD was in fact not being invested in neocolonies. Russian capitalists have not, over the past several decades, been investing to any significant extent in railroads, canals, or ports in less advanced countries, nor have they acquired (or built) much in the way of factories, mines, plantations, or other sorts of productive enterprises in them. Instead, as virtually all serious analysts agree, the “FDI flows” which so impressed the Imps are chiefly made up of “roundtripping” funds that almost immediately return to Russia, “investments” in propping up friendly regimes (e.g., Belarus), expenditures for the purchase of assets (typically real estate) in imperialist countries, or deposits in tax havens like Cyprus, Luxemburg, etc., which are beyond the reach of Russian authorities. There is simply no equivalence between this and the pre-1914 drive by Russia’s politically disenfranchised bourgeoisie to invest in Persia, Mongolia and other more backward countries in their “near abroad” in pursuit of markets, raw materials and cheap labor.
Far from pumping value out of its dependents in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS—i.e., Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine) Russia has been subsidizing them for years with discounted energy pricing:
“Russian oil companies’ export earnings have grown nearly six fold in the last 10 years, but over 90% of revenue is generated by deliveries to non-CIS countries. In 2010, 26.6 million tons out of 250.7 million tons of the total crude oil exported went to CIS countries. This amounts to 10.6% of crude oil exported from the Russian Federation by volume. The average price per barrel of crude was $20.04 less for countries of the former Soviet Union than the rest of the world. This amounts to $1,090.9 million worth of oil sold at a discounted rate. To put it another way, if Russia charged CIS countries the same price as the rest of the world in 2010 for crude, it would have made an additional $3.891 billion in revenue from exports.”
—Ariel Cohen, Politicized Oil Trade: Russia and Its Neighbors, p5
When we cited this study, Decker responded by reminding us that in Imperialism, “Lenin discussed how imperialist monopolists engage in ‘systematic price cutting (to ruin “outside”’ firms, i.e., those which refuse to submit to the monopolists. Millions are spent in order to sell goods for a certain time below their cost price….’” We replied that this tactic was employed to establish a monopoly—something that already existed for Russia within the CIS where no significant “outside [oil] firms” operate.
Another dispute involved the question of Russian “finance capital.” The Nimp document “Is Russia Imperialist?” (2 June 2013) contained evidence that the Russian banking system is far closer to that of “developing” Brazil than “developed” (i.e., imperialist) countries like the U.S., Britain or France. The Imps were unable to seriously challenge this, because it is a fact.
At the IBT’s Seventh Conference in April 2014, a clear majority of the delegates endorsed the Nimp position. The conference occurred around the time the Ukrainian crisis came to a boiling point and the programmatic implications of the difference were starkly evident. The Imps’ 5 March 2014 call for “the immediate expulsion of Russian forces from the territory of Ukraine (including its naval base at Sebastopol)” would have effectively placed them on the opposite side of the barricades from the Nimps, who asserted that if there was an attempt “to forcibly seize the Russian base and assert Ukrainian nationalist/Nazi western imperialist government control” Marxists would “side militarily with Crimean resistance and any Russian troops to repel the invaders.” Russia’s role in Syria was another source of sharp disagreement (see: “What is Russia doing in Syria?”, 25 February 2014). The substantial articles published in 1917 on these two issues (“Ukraine, Russia & the Struggle for Eurasia” [No. 37] and “Middle East Chaos” [No. 38]) represent the Nimp position.
Comrades from both sides made many, many contributions on this question during the past decade. While there was no convergence on the core difference, there was also a considerable evolution in the discussion over the years. In selecting documents for this bulletin we have attempted to include the essential arguments advanced by both sides during the final stages of the debate. This issue is obviously of enormous importance for the left and workers’ movement internationally. While we regret, and are somewhat puzzled by, our inability to win over our former Imp comrades we are firmly convinced that only through this sort of open and principled political struggle will it be possible to develop the political consciousness necessary to lay the basis for the future resurgence of a genuinely revolutionary mass workers’ international, a development upon which the very survival of humanity depends.