Twenty points on the imperialism discussion
—Logan, 18 September 2013, with Riley’s 26 October 2013 interpolations
1. In the very weak state the IBT now finds itself in, our failure to either resolve the argument about Russian imperialism or to set it aside for the time being threatens to be a critical blow to the organisation. The silence of many comrades is probably reflective of a sense that the stakes are very high here.
In the run-up to our 2011 conference where we had agreed not to attempt to resolve the issue but to air differences there was very little discussion of the question—the three documents arguing the “non-imperialist [nimp]” position did not get a single comment from the “imps.” The one document arguing that Russia is imperialist was replied to immediately—but again no response was forthcoming.
Since 2011 the conference the IEC has conducted an intermittent but substantive discussion. The results of this were codified in two documents unanimously approved by the IEC earlier this year—“On Imperialism” (regarding the nature and historical development of imperialism) as well as “Combined and Uneven Development & Russian Imperialism Circa WWI.” This represented substantial progress and an apparent narrowing of outstanding differences to the question of Russia today.
The fact that thus far there have been few comments from non-IEC comrades on these documents, may be because they are waiting to see how the discussion develops.
2. The debate so far may have clarified the issues in the minds of some of the participants, but I don’t think it has clarified the issues for many.
It is a complicated issue so comrades who recognize its importance for the future of the IBT may wish to carefully study the documentation, and perhaps do some investigation of their own, before expressing an opinion. As the discussion proceeds and issues come into clearer focus, comrades who begin to feel “up to speed” will presumably begin to participate. Reviewing the IEC- approved documents and subsequent exchanges should help clarify the issues that remain in dispute.
3. Either a sense of extreme urgency or a sense of the need for great forbearance are quite understandable. Though I take the position of forbearance, I respect the contrary view of it.
We have been having a discussion of sorts for something over five years now and the range of differences expressed during the discussion at the 2011 conference has been considerably narrowed by the adoption of two documents by the IEC. I do not think that a sense of urgency is necessary to undertake a careful and substantial discussion over the six the months leading up to the next conference. That should be plenty of time to thoroughly air the pros and cons on both sides and for comrades to come to an informed decision.
On Tsarist Russia
4. An earlier stage of this discussion involved focussing on whether Russia in the period prior to 1917 was imperialist, with those who argued that Russia now is not imperialist seeking to show that Russia then was not imperialist. It was clear to us all, I think, that Russia in that period was rather similar in its place in the world to Russia today. We seem now to have come to agreement that Russia was then imperialist, but apparently some of us have simultaneously come to the view that the role of Russia in the world then, and the role of Russia in the world today are very different. In fact Russia today is in very much the same international role, though actually more of an independent imperialist factor than it was before the 1917 Revolution.
Those of us who do not consider Russia today to be imperialist were indeed forced to reevalutate our view of Tsarist Russia—largely because of comrade Decker’s challenge to account for what Trotsky wrote on the question. We agree that:
“Russia was an imperialist country in 1914—the predatory role played by Russian finance capital in China, Persia, Manchuria, Mongolia et al was essentially identical to that of the more developed imperialists.”
—”Combined and Uneven Development & Russian Imperialism Circa WWI,” adopted by the IEC on 19 April 2013
In their 19 June 2013 response to “Is Russia Imperialist?” Decker and Dorn suggested that if Tsarist Russia in 1914 was imperialist despite being “far more backward than modern-day Russia” it “is difficult to see why Russia circa 2013 is not imperialist.” On 15 July 2013 I responded:
“Trotsky and Lenin considered that the massive investment by Russia’s bourgeoisie in adjacent backward countries qualified Russia as imperialist despite the fact that it remained a predominantly peasant-based society governed by a feudalist autocracy that posed a major obstacle to domestic capitalist development. The question we must seek to answer is whether Russian capitalists today have a similar relationship to the countries of the CIS etc or whether they are more similar to countries like Brazil, India or Greece whose bourgeoisies have investments in some more backward countries, but not on a scale that would qualify them as imperialist.”
Comrade Logan does not address the question of whether or not Russian capitalists have significant investments in less developed countries through which they extract value. Yet this is the decisive criterion—it is why backward Tsarist Russia qualified as imperialist. This criterion, originally introduced into our discussion by Murray Smith, was codified as follows in “On Imperialism”:
“The fact that, over the long term, semi-colonies suffer a net outflow of value to more ‘developed’ imperialist countries lies at the core of what Marxists designate as ‘imperialism.’”
Russia circa 1914 was an imperialist power, in the modern Marxist sense, because its bourgeoisie was exploiting semi-colonies on a significant scale, not because the Tsarist Empire, like Turkey’s Ottoman Empire, pursued an independent foreign policy and was a significant factor in global power politics. The fact that Russia pursues a relatively independent foreign policy does not constitute proof that it is imperialist—Iran today plays an independent role in global affairs as do Turkey, India, Brazil and China. To qualify as imperialist the Russian bourgeoisie must be shown to be involved, in a significant way, in the economic exploitation of less developed countries.
5. The observation that the conditions for Russia’s imperialist-like role today were created while it was a degenerated workers state (ie before it was imperialist this time around) do not seem to advance the discussion. It is always the case that most of the conditions of imperialism are created in the pre-imperialist history of a given country.
Agreed. The fact that Russia still poses a formidable military counterweight to the dominant imperialist powers also results from its Soviet inheritance and so does not constitute evidence that it has become an imperialist power.
On the Leninist theory of imperialism
6. We began our debate on the status of contemporary Russia by discussing a range of factors: economic development, the presence of finance capital, the independence of the Russian bourgeoisie, geo-political weight and so on. The comrades who argue against Russia’s imperialist status (most particularly Tom) tended to push on the question of economic development, reduced even to matter of organic composition of capital (which itself was used to frame what remained of the other subjects, e.g. finance capital). So the discussion became a bit narrow, as other comrades (most particularly Josh) responded by attacking the points on which the other side believed they were strongest. This was normal and understandable, and in fact quite useful, but the recent trajectory of the debate has taken us away from other factors that dialectically contribute to the whole picture.
This may be an allusion to the difficulties encountered by Decker and Dorn (19 June 2013) in attempting to prove that Russia’s position in the world economy is qualitatively different than non-imperialist Brazil—an issue which is conspicuously absent in these twenty points. The studies they cited to back up their contentions tended to refute them—as demonstrated in my 15 July reply. This is perhaps why after three months there is still no response from the comrades. This may also account for why comrade Logan takes a different (less concrete aka “empirical”) approach. But proving that Russia is imperialist means demonstrating that “over the long term, semi-colonies suffer a net outflow of value” to it, i.e., that their relationship to Putin’s Russia today is essentially similar to that of Persia and Mongolia’s to Tsarist Russia a century ago.
Over the course of our debate has travelled some distance from its beginning and in the process we have gained some clarity on the inter-relationship of “economic development, the presence of finance capital, the independence of the Russian bourgeoisie, geo-political weight and so on.” Finance capital is the product of the accumulation of dead labor through a historical process of economic and technological development. Dismissing the “question of economic development” and the “organic composition of capital” (i.e., relative levels of technological development and labor productivity) as “narrowing” the discussion does little to advance things. At its core of imperialist predation is and always has been about economic exploitation of the weak and more backward sectors of the world economy by more advanced ones, as the Fourth Congress of the Comintern observed:
“The progress of indigenous productive forces in the colonies thus comes into sharp contradiction with the interests of world imperialism, since the essence of imperialism is its exploitation of the different levels of development of the productive forces in the different sectors of the world economy, in order to extract monopoly super-profits.”
—“Theses on the Eastern Question,” emphasis added
We have cited this several times but as yet comrades have neither chosen to agree or disagree. But the “exploitation of the different levels of development of the productive forces” is why, for example, Britain, with a population only a tenth the size of India’s, was able to acquire it as an imperial colony. The recognition of this fundamental truth is central to the capacity to judge whether a given country is an imperialist power in the modern, Marxist sense.
On 14 June 2011, at the outset of the IEC discussion, I responded to an inquiry by an “imp” comrade [Dorn] who had posed seven possible factors to consider when evaluating the status of a given country:
“its imperial past”
I do not think that the imperial past is an active factor—Portugal is not imperialist today because it had colonies in the 17th century.
“its membership of an imperialist bloc, the EU”
Membership in the EU or NATO etc is also not an important indicator per se—as Estonia, Poland, etc etc are included
“its actual economic strength”
Actual economic strength—this is the major consideration in my view. This is clearly what is suggested by the statement that “imperialism means the domination of finance capital” etc.
“the extent and nature of foreign investment”
This is a derivative of economic strength as a rule. Britain, for example, had a declining mass of foreign investment through the 20th century, as its economic primacy declined (and it was forced to liquidate foreign assets to pay for two world wars.
“the existence of a ‘sphere of influence’ secured for the long-term extraction of surplus value (though perhaps at temporary economic cost)”
This too is a derivative of economic power –and of course military power in extremis. But it is also not a constant in the history of imperialism and seems a lot less important today than at points in the past (eg prior to 1945 and the end of colonial empires). In the contemporary world the US has not been rigidly attempting to enforce the Monroe Doctrine and Latin America (a classic sphere of influence) is open to investment from elsewhere. The US and France, for example, are however contending for influence in central African former French colonies, and the US has (unsuccessfully) invested a trillion or two in an attempt to seize Iraqi oil.
“the military role played in the world (again to secure long-term advantage)”
From actual economic strength flows military capacity—as for example Germany demonstrated in the early part of the 20th century, or China today. Conversely declining economic powers (like post war Britain or the US today) have declining military capacity.
“and competition with other imperialist powers for resources, markets and labour.”
Again this is essentially an expression of economic competition. For most of the post war period this competition has been managed by the mediation of the American superpower. Today we are beginning to see more direct forms of competition—as for example French and German opposition to US seizure of Iraq, but direct competition is still primarily a matter of commercial activity.
A week later the comrade thanked me for my explanation and agreed that these factors did indeed derive from relative economic power. This suggested that we were making substantial progress in our discussion, as did the unanimous adoption of both “On Imperialism” (which treats the level of technological/economic development as central) and the document on Tsarist imperialism (which poses the extraction of value as the key factor).
7. There has been some discussion of whether a multi-factoral or a uni-factoral analysis should be applied in this discussion. I suspect that our predecessors would be amused; they were not much into factors, or empiricism, or reductionism. To gain some perspective and mental peace I’ve been reading a little Labriola, Plekhanov, and Lenin’s philosophical notebooks. What impresses me is the centrality for them of the totality of a phenomenon.
Our predecessors might well find some of our discussion amusing—but we are what we are and they are unfortunately unavailable for consultation. (Terms like “multi-factoral/uni-factoral analysis” are indeed so inelegant that should probably be left to groups like the LRP that specialize in homemade categories.) I incline to the view that in assessing the reality of Russia today Lenin’s materialist stress on “concrete analysis” is most likely to move us closest to a correct appreciation of the totality of the phenomenon.
8. It is notable that conversations rooted in quantitative data about whether a given country was or was not imperialist do not seem to have occurred among Leninists in Lenin’s lifetime. The data in Lenin’s Imperialism is focussed on how imperialism works, not on proving certain countries to be imperialist – that is taken for granted. This is doubtless because our predecessors were aware that establishing the imperialist nature of a country is a matter of qualitative as well as quantitative analysis. Despite the difficulties with quantitative analysis, it is nevertheless usually fairly clear which countries are imperialist. It would be difficult to find accounting indicators showing New Zealand, as one extreme example, to be imperialist, yet it is uncontroversially clear that New Zealand is the little finger in the Anglophone imperialist fist, and as a result enjoys imperialist conditions of life.
I would not pretend to know much about the political economy of New Zealand. It has always been characterized as imperialist in our political tradition. Certainly it has acted as a junior partner of U. S. imperialism for many years, and does appear to have a level of economic development roughly comparable to North America north (rather than south) of the Rio Grande. I would presume that NZ capitalists have taken advantage of regional investment (i.e., exploitation) opportunities in Fiji, Indonesia or Micronesia, etc., but have not investigated.
It would seem unlikely that no conversations occurred in the Comintern involving economic data as a means of assessing whether or not a particular country was imperialist. While it was of course taken for granted that France, Britain, etc. were imperialist it seems likely that for more borderline cases (like Canada for example) questions may well have been discussed. The first manifesto published by the Canadian CP (calling itself the Workers Party) in December 1921 discussed Canada’s shifting status in relation to British and American imperialism:
“The future of Britain’s vast emporium which she fondly calls her empire, is increasingly more uncertain….Canada’s possible development as an industrialist capitalist power makes her more and more dependent upon the United States.”
(This was likely written by Maurice Spector, the party’s leading intellectual, who was eventually elected to the ECCI and shortly thereafter expelled as a Trotskyist.)
In 1926 Trotsky was likely perusing quantitative data in preparing “Europe and America” when he stumbled upon a reference to Canada as the “northern prolongation” of the U.S.:
“Canada, without offense to the British crown, is an integral part of the United States. If you consult the Annual Report of the US Department of Commerce, you will discover trade with Canada is entered under internal trade; and that Canada is politely and somewhat evasively referred to as the northern prolongation of the United States without the blessing of the League of Nations.”
In 1899 Lenin published a book full of quantitative economic data to refute the Narodnik claim that Russia was not on a capitalist path. Perhaps the comrades will accept that as a suitable precedent.
There is also Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism which is packed with economic statistics and tables of data showing foreign investments by different imperialists, colonial possessions, trade statistics, investments by banks and as well as profits obtained. It is true that he used this information to illustrate “how imperialism works, not [for] proving certain countries to be imperialist” because most of the countries he mentions were clearly imperialist, but that is neither here nor there. If the “imp” comrades would follow Lenin’s lead and provide us with some “quantitative data” to show “how [contemporary Russian] imperialism works” I think our discussion would take a big step forward. Lenin’s characteristic use of concrete evidence to prove his assertions made his arguments far more convincing, and is an example well worth emulating.
Finally there is Trotsky’s assessment of Czechoslovakia in 1938, when the question of whether or not it was imperialist was of great importance to Marxists:
“I believe that Czechoslovakia is a small country and in the event of war her existence would be directly threatened [my emphasis]. But the difference between Czechoslovakia and France lies in the fact that France has colonies. It is an imperialist country. Czechoslovakia has no colonies. But this difference is only apparent. Czechoslovakia is an imperialist country in every respect. It is a highly developed country with finance capital in a leading position in a very concentrated industry, the very important war industry. This is why Czechoslovakia is a developed capitalist country, but not only that. In Czechoslovakia we now have a population of about 15 million. It is not a big country. Under European conditions it is a medium-sized country.”
. . .
“I forgot to add that Czechoslovakia is a partner of a world corporation of imperialist countries. If it doesn’t have colonies, it has loans from Britain. These loans are possible because of Britain’s colonies; likewise with military support from France. It is a link in the imperialist chain.”
—LTWritings, 1937-38, p. 353, 356, quoted in “Is Russia Imperialist,” 3 June 2013
We can surely agree that this qualifies as an assessment “rooted in quantitative data about whether a given country was or was not imperialist.” We have pointed to this example on a number of occasions as an example of a Marxist approach to making such an assessment, yet the “imp” comrades have thus far withheld comment.
Perhaps the reason the Czech example has been persistently ignored is because Trotsky’s approach applied to contemporary Russia would produce a “non-imperialist” conclusion. Comrades who do not want to reach that conclusion, but are not comfortable criticizing Trotsky’s methodology, might feel it is best to say nothing. But that approach, which at least implicitly concedes the essential political point, does little to move the discussion forward.
9. We may all agree that a state is imperialist if it benefits in the long run from superprofits transferred from other countries, but the modes of transfer of superprofits are so varied, sometimes so complex, and often so indirect, that it is extremely difficult to establish or quantify superprofits. Foreign Direct Investment flows may be a better indicator (though insufficient and problematic) — they would seem to rate Russia among the lesser of the clearly imperialist countries.
I think the formulation cited above is more precise: “over the long term, semi-colonies suffer a net outflow of value to more ‘developed’ imperialist countries,” but the idea is essentially the same. There are also of course value flows from semi-colonies (and imperialist ones) to countries which are not themselves imperialist, as noted in “On Imperialism” draft:
“In some cases client states, like Saudi Arabia or Qatar which sit atop valuable petroleum assets, are able to obtain a slice of the monopoly prices charged on the world market. These earnings are very substantial and provide the indigenous rulers with a substantial degree of political autonomy, yet even these privileged regimes ultimately remain dependent on imperialist patrons for their survival.”
Tracing value flows is not straightforward, but there are useful indicators as to where particular countries stand in the global hierarchy. One is whether or not they produce commodities that are competitive on the world market. Another is the structure of their foreign investments—in the case of Russia, as documented in the 15 July 2013 response to Decker/Dorn’s critique, an inordinate amount of nominal foreign direct investment is not really investment, but merely money being moved around for purposes of tax avoidance and the like.
The presumption of “imp” comrades that Russia is exploiting weaker countries of the CIS is not supported by the facts, as was pointed out in the same document:
“Not only does most Russian ODFI flow to the ‘developed countries, but what goes to the CIS was, for a lengthy period, ‘overwhelmingly concentrated’ in one small country [Belarus] for political reasons—i.e., ‘another South Ossetia.’ This is not finance capital pursuing superprofits, but a state subsidy to a dependent regime for geopolitical reasons. I suspect that comrades who view Russia as imperialist may wish to ignore this because of the importance of the ‘exploitation’ of CIS counties by Russian capitalists in their scenario. But Marxists have a responsibility to attempt to account for facts that do not fit a pre-conceived model, and sometimes, if the gap between the model and reality becomes too great, be prepared to rethink the position.”
Given that there is no evidence that Russian capitalists are exploiting CIS countries to any significant degree, where does comrade Logan imagine that the value inflows (varied, indirect, complex or otherwise) originate? How are they generated? What evidence is there that they even exist? What is well established, according to virtually all Russian and foreign analysts, is that the vast majority of revenue flowing into Russia from abroad comes from the sale of primary products—chiefly oil and natural gas. Do the “imp” comrades know of additional sources of revenue?
10. The argument that Russia is not imperialist because its economy is overwhelmingly dominated by extractive industry is another form of the argument that imperialism equates to a high level of industrial technique, or a high organic composition of capital. Now at a certain level of abstraction, there is a truth in that. Imperialism as an historical world system is in fact associated with a high organic composition of capital, but at the level of individual countries combined and uneven development can render some imperialist countries with a relatively low overall organic composition of capital.
It is not clear what this is meant to suggest. It is well established that apart from raw materials Russian commodities generally are not competitive on the world market and that Russia’s foreign revenues chiefly derive from its oil and gas exports. We have yet to see any evidence that Russian investment in neo-colonial countries is a source of significant revenue. Why then should Russia be seen as qualitatively different than other countries with equivalent “relatively low overall organic composition of capital” which also derive most of their income from the sale of natural resources?
The “imp” comrades prefer to ignore evidence (e.g., in the reply to Decker/Dorn) that Russia’s position in the global economy is roughly equivalent to that of Brazil. Nor have they ventured any opinion on the significance of a Bank of Finland study (originally introduced into the discussion by Decker/Dorn) showing that Russia has been losing ground over the past decade to other “transition economies” (i.e., the former deformed workers’ states of the Soviet bloc):
“The absence of significant improvements in Russia’s business climate against a background of positive developments in the institutional environment in other transition economies is notable as Russian enterprises saw their competitiveness erode vis-à-vis their peers in these economies. According to the BEEPS [Business Environment and Enterprise Performance Survey] Russia in 2002 looked better on average than 26 other surveyed transition economies in three-fourths of business climate parameters. By 2005, Russia led in only half of the surveyed parameters. In 2009, it lagged the average in 16 of 18 parameters among the 29 surveyed countries.” [pp 9-10]
11. The argument that Russia’s protectionist policies disqualify it as imperialist holds no weight. The USA has considerable protectionist barriers, particularly in the agricultural sector.
Perhaps the fact that it holds no weight is why it has not been raised thus far in the discussion by anyone. Imperialist countries and neo-colonial ones have both pursued protectionist (aka import-substitutionist) policies in the past. As a rule protectionism is designed to protect relatively backward producers from foreign competition.
12. Likewise the argument that an open banking system is the sine qua non of imperialism is dubious. Until 1994 not only was branch banking by foreign banks impossible or very difficult in the USA, even interstate branch banking was illegal. And even currently US citizens and residents may make deposits only of amounts over $100,000 in a foreign bank branch in the USA. http://www.ny.frb.org/aboutthefed/fedpoint/fed26.html
The openness of the banking system has also not been a major point of contention to my knowledge. In “Is Russia Imperialist?” I responded to comrade Decker’s suggestion that the fact that two Russian banks appeared on the Forbes 500 list indicated “finance capital” imperialism by pointing out that four Brazilian banks appeared on the same list. Does comrade Logan have evidence that would indicate that Russia’s banks are in a different league than Brazil’s? If so please share it with us.
13. One criterion for imperialism—the key criterion—is the rule of finance capital. We are agreed on this, but whether or not finance capital rules cannot be established by any accounting methods, but only by qualitative analysis.
14. The argument that there is no finance capital in Russia, or that it is uninfluential is plainly spurious. While much finance capital in Russia is an aspect of the self-financing extractive conglomerates, banking finance is also highly significant. In the period of privatising the economy which followed the Russian counter-revolution there was a burgeoning of banks, with every major player having their own bank for some time (for the purpose of consolidating smaller parcels of capital under their own control). Since then there has been a radical reduction of the number of banks and an increase in their size and power, and a more complete fusion between banking, industrial and extractive capital. Finance capital in Russia (like most things in Russia) is largely unsophisticated, but it is extremely powerful. Putin is its preeminent representative. He is leader of the Russian state for the purpose of making decisions serving the interests of the topmost layer of Russian finance capital.
During our IEC discussion I made the following comments (14 June 2012) on Russian “finance capital”:
“The whole point of the definition of imperialism in the TP which we all agreed to endorse is that it is ‘the domination of finance capital.’ To have Russia as an imperialist with such a definition Russian finance capital will have to be shown to be a real (rather than notional) phenomenon. I think that may prove very difficult to demonstrate.”
. . .
“The state exercises a great deal of control and provides most of the funding (as is true in most of the economy it seems). As a rule I think that it would not be accurate to suggest that Russian banks pool the excess capital generated by domestic enterprises and direct it from the saturated home market to more profitable opportunities abroad. There seem, by all accounts, to be no shortage of investment opportunities at home–even if the corruption and nepotism etc. make investments unwise in many cases. Russia is chronically short of investment by most accounts and has been trying to attract finance capital from abroad.
“So I think that we need to look more closely at whether or not the Russian economy can be described as dominated by ‘finance capital’ or if it is something a bit more akin to ‘late industrializing’ countries where the state has to substitute for the role played by the indigenous bourgeoisie in the more classic model.”
I remind comrades of a challenge presented in my 3 June document and repeated in the 15 July 2013 reply to Decker/Dorn:
“…it is clear that neither Russia nor Brazil is currently a globally significant center of finance capital. In this case of Russia this is highlighted by a recent NYTimes report that Warsaw, not Moscow, is emerging as the regional stock exchange for the countries of the former Soviet Bloc (see Appendix “G” of “Is Russia Imperialist?”). Fitting this within the framework of “Russian Finance Capital” would seem to present a formidable challenge.”
This challenge cannot be met by simply asserting that finance capital exists in Russia—we must all back up our positions with real world evidence. It does not advance the discussion to presume as fact what needs to be proven. If indeed they have significant evidence of Russian finance capital the “imp” comrades should share it with us. So far we have seen none. Meanwhile the ascendance of Warsaw over Moscow as the regional financial center in the former Soviet bloc speaks volumes:
“In the absence of any evidence to the contrary this simple fact would seem, on its face, to be a ‘good reason’ to think that Russia is not imperialist in the finance capital sense.”
On Russia’s role in the world
15. Our understanding of imperialism leads us to expect a world characterised by disputes between imperialists, with disputes between imperial powers and non-imperial powers being local, and generally relatively short-lived.
I am not sure that the evidence supports such an expectation. Disputes between imperialists in the American Century have tended to be muted and often relatively short lived. American resentment at Franco-German refusal to participate in the 2003 Iraq adventure (which led the U.S. Congress to rebrand French fries “Freedom fries”) had largely evaporated by 2011 when France took a leading role in the assault on Libya. U.S. antipathy for Iran’s Islamic Republic on the other hand has lasted more than three decades. The CIA organized its first coup in Syria in 1949 but never succeeded in establishing a viable client regime there and has remained relatively hostile to the Baathist dictatorship for decades. While tactics vary, there has for many decades clearly been an ongoing strategic project to reverse the Cuban and Chinese revolutions with particular animosity directed at the North Korean regime.
16. We understand the subordination of those disputes in the period of the deformed workers states, but that period is now twenty years past, and the United States maintains a strong hegemony among most imperialist players. It is almost as if some kind of super-imperialism has, after all, come to pass. But that hegemony does not extend to Russia.
American hegemony is declining in much of the world, as we noted in “U.S. Empire In Decline,” 1917 No. 31. The tensions between the U.S. and the remaining deformed workers states remain a major axis of global geopolitics—witness the recent talk of an Asian “pivot” by the Obama administration which is clearly aimed chiefly at China, as well as North Korea. The survival of the Cuban Revolution remains a sore point for the U.S., which has recently been aggravated by the shift of previously politically reliable neo-colonial clients in the direction of a friendlier posture toward Cuba. Cuba’s role in stabilizing the Chavez regime in Venezuela, which helped encourage the growth of similar left populist currents in Bolivia and elsewhere, was also not welcomed by Washington.
17. The polarity between the USA and Russia is the central feature of international politics today, and promises to be so for some time. The truth of it is that Russia competes with US imperialism as no other country does. The role that Russia played recently in brokering a deal over Syrian chemical weapons indicates that very clearly. The attempt to relegate Russia in world affairs to the status of Brazil or India flies in the face of reality.
Russia does have special status globally due to its nuclear inheritance from the Soviet Union. But I think we can agree that this is not sufficient to qualify it as an imperialist power in the Marxist sense. Russia’s role in Syria is also derived from the Soviet period. While Brazil does not wield comparable influence internationally, it is a major political factor in Latin America. Brazil’s aspirations to play a larger global role were evident in May 2010 when, with Turkey, it announced a tentative deal over Iran‘s uranium stockpiles designed to block a new round of UN sanctions. While the U.S. immediately spiked the proposal, the fact that it occurred indicates the appetites of the BRIC countries and their equivalents to play a larger role in global events than non-imperialist countries ever have in the past.
It does not seem accurate to characterize the polarity between the U.S. and Russia as “central“ to global politics today, although it is certainly one important axis. The struggle for U.S. hegemony in the Middle East is not centrally a struggle with Russia but rather Iran. So too the U.S. “Asian pivot“ which is clearly aimed at China. The main “competition“ between the U.S. and Russia involves American attempts to carry out “color revolutions“ against pro-Moscow governments in the former Soviet “near abroad“ and setting up “anti-missile“ (i.e., preemptive-strike enabling) sites on Russia’s frontiers.
The struggle between Russia and the U.S. over supplying energy to the EU goes back to the Soviet period when America unsuccessfully attempted to block the construction of pipelines to ship Soviet oil to Germany. German imperialism retains an interest in accessing gas and oil directly from Russia and its allies without having to pay off American oil corporations. The Berlin-Moscow relationship is a factor in the current Syrian conflict, the outcome of which is likely to determine whether natural gas from the Persian gulf is routed to the EU via a Gazprom-supported Iran-Iraq-Syria route or from Qatar through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria with the participation of U.S. firms.
18. A very high proportion of United States imperialist war efforts since the Second World War, and certainly since the fall of the Soviet Union, has been about acquiring and manipulating for its own benefit the largest possible share of world energy supplies. Besides a generalised fight for world domination, the fight for energy is the accepted central objective of US imperialism—and also Russian imperialism. (Neither, incidentally, has a substantial influence on the world price of hydrocarbon fuels.)
The fight for control of energy resources is certainly a critical element of global politics. But while the major imperialist powers have long been involved in this struggle, the fact that a country is a participant is not sufficient to qualify it as imperialist. Hugo Chavez’s willingness to supply the Cuban deformed workers’ state with oil played a role in the latter’s survival. The “fight for energy” was also the central motivation for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but, contrary to various liberals and anarchists, Marxists did not view the seizure of Kuwait’s oilfields as evidence of “Iraqi imperialism.”
19. If in fact Russia is not imperialist, then our anti-imperialism is fated to mostly be anti-Americanism. If that is the case, so be it. But it would be a reality in which we would find difficulty transcending a rather crude programme.
The Marxist program for social liberation can be presented crudely (“Peace! Land! Bread!”) or with great subtlety. The critical question is to correctly analyze reality and provide the working class and oppressed with the path forward. Whether or not Russia one day becomes an imperialist power in its own right (or Poland or Brazil do) the Marxist duty to tell the truth to the working class will not change. There is no more reason to expect that those who oppose U.S. imperialist predations around the world are fated to “mostly” engage in anti-Americanism in future than we have in the past.
Our political current’s opposition to U.S. imperialist aggression from Vietnam in the 1960s to Libya in 2011 has been consistent in its revolutionary internationalism and never shaded into anti-Americanism. Anti-Americanism is the anti-imperialism of fools, and a fetter for the oppressed. It is a tool for demagogues to destroy class consciousness and manipulate the workers’ movement. It would be profoundly pessimistic to accept that Marxists are fated to embrace it, regardless of Russia’s status.
20. The Syrian conflict had the makings of a US-Russia proxy war, though it never rose to that level, and the organisation as a whole was able to accept a common position: defeatist on both sides of the civil war, and Assad regime defencist in the event of a US-led attack. Comrades must consider the programmatic meaning of our characterisation of Russia. In the event of a war between the US and Russia (abstracting from the question of each power’s alliances), do comrades suppose it would be in the interest of the international working class to raise the call “Defend Russia Against US Imperialism”, given everything we know about the role Russia plays in the global capitalist system?
A serious military conflict between Russia and the U.S. would, presumably, be likely to go nuclear rather quickly. The likelihood of “Mutual Assured Destruction” has prevented it since the end of the Cold War, as it did for its duration. At some future point this could change if the gap created by the relative backwardness of Russian technology becomes large enough. Russia’s involvement in the Middle East is largely an inheritance from the USSR, as is its nuclear capacity. At this point the integration of Russia as part of the hinterland of European (and perhaps American and Japanese) imperialism seems more likely than a full scale military conflict.
Russian integration into the world market seems likely to have similar consequences to those experienced by Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia and other deformed workers’ states whose industrial, political and social infrastructure were roughly equivalent. This prospect is sketched in some of the materials cited by cdes. Decker/Dorn, as noted in my 15 July 2013 reply:
“The ‘World Investment Report 2012,’ (p57) also cited by Decker and Dorn makes a similar projection that accession to the WTO will ‘boost foreign investors’ confidence and improve the overall investment environment’ although ‘in the manufacturing sector, domestic and foreign investors will most likely consolidate as the landscape becomes more competitive.’ The term ‘consolidate’ is of course a euphemism for what the EU report referred to as the process of ‘creative destruction’ of existing non-competitive Russian firms as integration proceeds.
“The sunny projection in the EU report that integration into the WTO will involve the ‘creative destruction’ of much of actually-existing Russian capitalism derives from the authors’ view that, ‘on the whole, Russia is not competitive, in both industrial and services exports’” (p26).
During the IEC discussion I responded to a 12 June 2012 query from an “imp” comrade [Dorn] on the programmatic implications of a possible military conflict arising from events in Syria:
“It did occur to me that we might be in a position of having to comment on Russian participation. If Putin puts in Russian troops the world takes a big step toward the brink (particularly as Obama cannot afford to appear weak in election year.) Putin may do so as he is mightily aggrieved at the insistence of the US in treating him as an enemy to be encircled with anti ‘Iranian’ missile installations that are clearly aimed at neutralizing Russia’s nuclear deterrent. This makes it clear that Russia has no effective ‘diplomatic’ means of getting the US to recognize its sphere of influence etc.
“I think that the agreement on ‘What Is Imperialism’ [subsequently published in 1917 No. 39 as ‘Roots & Fruits of Imperialism’) reached last year should represent an important step forward for us in relation to this whole puzzle–one which may not be fully appreciated or realized as yet. I was already thinking that it would be good to write up as a ‘canned copy’ article for 1917, to accompany a piece on why it is important to defend Syria in the event of imperialist attack.
“This agreement should give us a yardstick, for example, to determine whether we consider Portugal or Greece to be imperialist, as I pointed out when I recirculated it in response to this question a few weeks ago. It should also allow us to assess the relationship between Syria and Russia–is it like the relationship between the U.S. and Iraq or Russia and Ossetia. In the one case we have one position in the other another.”
The comrade requested that I spell out my analogy more clearly, which I did in an email dated 14 June 2012:
“The Ossetians (Southern division) are friendly to Russia (like the Albanians were friendly first to Stalin and then Mao as a counterweight to Tito). Russia is not there as an exploiting finance capitalist power seeking to gain superprofits but as a patron/protector. As they would have sort have liked to have been when their Serb ally/client was being attacked by NATO but did not dare (Russia under Yeltsin being both much weaker and more US linked.) The fact that Ossetia is on Russia’s border and Syria and Serbia are not is also of course neither here nor there.
The comrade responded by asking what position I would advocate in the event that U.S./British/French troops supporting rebels in Syria came into conflict with Assad forces supported by Russia military units. I replied:
“Well I think that both Iran (a non imperialist) and British imperialist SAS forces are already on the ground. If their numbers were to increase substantially (say x1000) our attitude would not change—i.e., we would be for defense of Assad regime v imperialism. If the Russians were to send a significant number of troops (highly unlikely) to prevent a US client state being established which, if it came to pass, would immediately dominate Lebanon, checkmate Hezbollah and tighten the noose around Iran that would not necessarily be a bad thing. IF they were to do so, instead of trying to secure their own interests as a semi-ally, semi-opponent of the US-led bloc, capable of arranging an inside coup or some such I do not think that the world would be a worse place (i.e., Syria would not fall under the economic control of Russia which would seek to plunder it as the US planned for Iraq. Nor would it be a platform for a renewed attempt to conquer the Mid East oil wells via ‘regime change’ in Iran. It would be an attempt to preserve the status quo (including a port on the Mediterranean for the Russian navy) and block a move by the US in the Great Game for domination of the EuroAsian heartland (which Russia sees as including a lot of its own turf as well of course as Iran).
“I think that Assad would be ANXIOUS to have Russian paratroopers land in Damascus at this point as it would solidify his regime. This would contrast with, for example, the way that Saddam Hussein or the Taliban viewed the arrival of NATO forces. The difference is in what they would be there to do. I do not think that the motivation of the Russians would be equivalent to that of the US and its proxies, so I do not see why we would have the same attitude to them.
“A hypothetical Russian intervention would be essentially defensive in character–an attempt to preserve the Assad regime. So we should not look at Syria as becoming a ‘spoil of war,’ in such an event. The status quo would be maintained and the Zionist/US Syria-Iran project would have a set back. If Assad wins he would redouble his repression presumably and kill a lot of dissident civilians etc, which we would of course oppose.”
In a subsequent (17 June 2012) communication I added:
“Russia is attempting bloc the imperialist take-down of its Syrian ally, it is not attempting to take over Syria nor impose a regime more to its liking nor secure transit lines for oil nor anything else except to maintain the status quo in the region which is an important security concern for Russia (including preventing Iran becoming a US protectorate as it was under the Shah). Russia is not particularly fond of Assad and has signaled that he can go, but what it does not want is a NATO-led color revolution that ends up putting in a regime that will be more or less a US puppet (as was attempted but has essentially failed in both Iraq and Afghanistan.) If Russian troops go into Syria in the next week or so to reinforce the regime (which is what is actually posed and is an unlikely situation but possible) I do not see why we should oppose that. They will not be going in for the same reason as French or US troops, which of course we would oppose, but rather for the same reason as the Iranians. It would certainly not be evidence of Russian ‘imperialism’ in my view. It seems clear to me that if there is no significant finance capital there is no imperialism in the Marxist sense of the term, and that is pretty clearly what our ‘What Is Imperialism’ statement says as I read it.”
Four days later (21 June 2012) I responded to a follow-up inquiry on our attitude to a possible Russian-U.S. conflict growing out of the Syrian civil war:
“I think we can agree that the question of why a country engages in a military conflict is important. Russia is clearly still a Great Power but only militarily. It is seeking to present an obstacle to US steamrolling first Syria and then Iran (because it fears it could be next). But it is not attempting to seize the material wealth of the Middle East, which is at bottom what motivates the policy of the US and its allies. It is of course interested in controlling pipelines and winning influence in the region and if successful it would certainly be interested in attempting to wring any economic advantage it could–but it is too weak economically to do so on a significant scale (as I understand the situation).
“If there were a hypothetical direct military conflict with Russia v US, in my view, we should not automatically have a position–it depends on what it is over. In the case of semi-colonial Argentina v imperialist Britain we did not have a side. Usually we would of course, but it is not quite automatic. In any case, in my view, there is almost certainly not going to be a military conflict because a) the Russians do not want one because they know they cannot win (whereas they can make trouble at one remove and are ultimately protected as long as the Soviet era nukes are viable or potentially so which is likely to be for some time) and b) the Americans fear that it could spin out of control and it might go nuclear and a victory in that at this point would leave the world, including the US, in such a devastated condition that it would not be worth it. Instead the US pursues its own more aggressive policy at one remove via ‘color revolutions’ and ‘humanitarian’ rescues to remove regimes that are too independent.
“The central project seems aimed to increasingly tighten the encirclement of Russia, which along with Iran and China, is one of a handful of disobedient ‘rogue’ states (all of whom could potentially turn on each other but none of whom have any reason to trust the US) The establishment of the SCO (a hypothetical counterweight to NATO in the abstract but in reality a negligible strategic factor) is an expression of a desire to remain independent players.
“The ‘missile shield’ on Russian borders and the refusal to accept Russia as a subordinate ally/partner (which is the status Putin and Yeltsin have both been seeking) suggests a long term project of domination. But there is no prospect of that being operational militarily in the foreseeable future I do not think. In the meantime I am inclined to view Russian support to Assad as not equivalent to CIA support to the SNA et al. chiefly because I think that the objectives are different.
“IF on investigation we find that there evidence of serious intervention by Russian capital in the direction of subordinating Syria for the purpose of pumping value out of it and/or the rest of the region (which is the case we can agree with the US and its allies) I would have to change my view. Of course in a surrogate battle between SNA and Assad we have no side, but NATO intervention/no-fly would give us one (as in Libya). Any conceivable level of Russian support to the regime would not change that I would not think.
“‘What is Imperialism’ is an accurate description of the standard Marxist analysis in my view. It is the domination of finance capital–a characteristic of ‘advanced’ capitalist development. Whether and to what extent this characterizes Russia is how we can determine how to categorize Russia. I am completely open to discovering the structure of Russian capitalism is something other than what I currently understand and that the foreign investment in Syria and elsewhere are in line with a Marxist understanding of the operation of finance capital. It is, in my view, entirely an empirical question.”
There was no response and no further questions.