Once More on IBT & ‘Russian Imperialism’
You can lead a horse to water…
Reprinted below are comments from Facebook on our 6 February posting regarding a 30 January Zoom meeting the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) held on current tensions between Ukraine and Russia. During the discussion our comrade Alan Davis and the IBT’s Josh Decker differed over whether or not Putin’s Russia is an imperialist power. The following exchange begins with IBT supporter JH’s challenge to Alan to defend the content of our polemic.
JH: The BT bit ends – “…we are happy to cling to the old-fashioned Leninist view that imperialism, *at its core*, involves advanced capitalist countries extracting value from more backward, colonial and semi-colonial dependent ones, not subsidizing them.” Not especially Marxist to discard everything that is not “at [the] core” of a phenomenon to reveal its ideal form. Modern Russia, like Imperial Russia and Imperial Japan around the turn of the C20th is not the most perfect example of imperialism, but nothing’s ever perfect.
Remember how [New Zealand pseudo-Trotskyist David] Bedggood used to marshal facts and figures to argue that NZ was a semi-colony, while failing to see its role in and relationship to the US led alliance? All capitalist nation states and national bourgeoises aspire to imperialism, some like Russia are in a fake-it-till-you make it phase. Well, they forced the US to blink in Georgia, Crimea and Syria—pretty handy for a semi colony.
Just a note on questions of taste—lines like “[the comrade] is entitled to his opinion, even if its sounds like something from the satirical Onion (aka ‘America’s Finest News Source’)” strike me as weak invective, about on a level with the ubiquitous “derisive laugh emoji” Are you not confident of your argument?
AD: Come on—Josh’s reply to my point about value flows was so weak comedy is a perfectly reasonable way to deal with it.
Later on in the discussion at the IBT public meeting someone (Barbara?) said that Russia wasn’t like the USA (still the most powerful imperialist state power—if waning). I was going to explain, if there had been a second round, that sure that is true but the point is that Russia isn’t like ANY imperialist power in terms of value flows.
Can you point to ANY imperialist power that “*routinely* does this [dole out massive subsidies] as a *matter of policy* in order to bring in these countries into its sphere of influence” as Josh would have us believe? Or perhaps you might want to take this opportunity to correct his, to be charitable, mis-spoken remark?
Or perhaps you will double-down and expand on the aspects of “imperialism” in the wider sense made by others here (who like your comments—you are in great company there [a reference to two earlier participants in the discussion who rejected the politics of Lenin and Trotsky]) which are more important in making your political decisions about “imperialism” than monopoly capitalism extracting value?
JH: The Marshall Plan? The fostering of capitalist (re-) development in post-war Japan? In South Korea? Britain financing the anti-France coalition maybe? I get the impression you’d freak out if you ever saw a Black Swan. Your method is selective scholasticism.
Is Russia actually losing money from these gas sales? The infrastructure was inherited (stolen) from the USSR, after all. How about actually discussing these examples from great power geo-politics, rather than condescending and doing guilt by association? (Which can cut both ways, incidentally, but I’m trying to discuss the issue. I truly hope this is not going to become your usual mode).
There’s possibly an analogy in Germany’s pre-WW1 relationship with Turkey, ie a rising power seeking to break an encirclement by favouring a strategic alliance. Why are there no South Koreas in the Western hemisphere? (Imperial policy, that is why—Mexico has *not been permitted* to protect its industries, but has rather been subjected to the usual treatment).
AD: Do any of your examples meet your comrade Josh’s criteria of “routinely” and “as a matter of policy”? If I had said that imperialist states never ever made exceptions to the general rule then perhaps you might have a point. However I had already talked about exceptions in the meeting when I referred to the possibility of the Russia-Ukraine relationship being a kind of “loss leader” not being relevant because Russia “routinely” and “as a matter of policy” subsidises what you describe as its colonies. It does so as a defensive measure in response to its encirclement by the US-led NATO imperialist alliance.
In this thread I specifically asked if you could point to any imperialist power that “routinely” as a “matter of policy” did this—as Josh argued. In response you giving, what you yourself describe as Black Swan examples, is merely providing exceptions which prove the rule.
So are you willing to actually discuss the issue at hand? Of a senior IBT comrade accepting that Russia routinely and as a matter of policy provides massive energy price subsidies to its near neighbours which reverse the usual direction of value flows for imperialist states in relation to non-imperialist states. And then trying to further argue that this situation is actually proof that Russia is imperialist. This only makes sense if you divorce the role of monopoly capital, extraction of super profits and normal direction of value flows from your understanding of what the term “imperialist” means today.
In your earlier comment you seemed to recognise that what I have described constituted the “core” of what the term “imperialism” means for the political tradition the IBT claims to still stand in. Was Josh therefore correct to argue that a state could be “imperialist” (with all the political consequences regarding potential military blocs that implies) irrespective of whether that state routinely and as a matter of principle extracted value from the non-imperialist states it economically (backed up by the threat, and where necessary use, of force) dominates?
For political discussion to be substantive, and hopefully clarifying, it is useful to actually address the issues raised.
JH: Hard eye roll Alan. You want evidence of a “routine” pattern when reality is concrete. You speak of routine when Russia has only gotten off its knees since 2008.
These exceptions prove that there *is no rule* against which nations can be measured. There is imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, and nation-states confronting one another within this framework. Russia is an outlier for many reasons, not least that it was able to industrialise under the aegis of the dws [degenerated workers’ state].
(Only on my phone at the moment, so can’t give this the attention it needs, right now.)
There is no “energy price subsidy”, there is energy sold at a discount. Once again, does Russia *lose* money, given that the infrastructure was inherited wholesale?
AD: So just to be clear [JH]. You are saying there is no “rule” by which an individual nation state can be measured as to whether it is imperialist or not as all capitalist states in the imperialist epoch are confronting one another within that overall framework. But against that your organisation must be applying some criteria as you describe Russia as imperialist and Ukraine as not—with all the programmatic consequences which flow with that.
I can only assume that like Josh you didn’t actually really mean to say/write what you did.
You don’t like the criteria for assessing whether a specific nation state is imperialist or not that I have presented in this short FB exchange—fair enough. But then what are your alternative materialist criteria for deciding whether any particular capitalist nation state is imperialist or not—or at least what are the core element(s) of that criteria (given the limitations of this medium).
I have no idea what qualitative distinction you seem to think exists between an energy price “subsidy” and an energy price “discount”. Perhaps you can explain.
There are agreed international prices for commodities like gas. Ukraine was paying 33% less than the world market rate for its gas prior to the US-inspired overthrow of its government and the conflict with Russia over Crimea’s choice to express its right to self-determination by leaving Ukraine and joining Russia. In the aftermath of those events Ukraine chose to end that agreement and the subsidy/discount ended.
In the IBT meeting I noted that this increased cost to Ukraine was larger than the amount you say is being extracted through Russian profits on its investments in Ukraine. So there had been a net economic gain to Ukraine in its overall economic relationship with Russia from having that subsidised/discounted gas as compared to having to buy it at the international market rate.
In bourgeois terms these situations are known as “loss leaders”—your “Black Swan” examples show that imperialist states can sometimes do this. But these are short term arrangements made for specific geopolitical reasons which are exceptions to the general approach. They are not part of the general criteria which characterises imperialist states.
Imperialist states do not “routinely” as “a matter of policy” (Josh’s terms not mine, though I am happy to use them) have such arrangements with their colonies. The truth is that imperialist states routinely as a matter of policy seek to maximise the extraction of value through the mechanisms of monopoly capitalism in their economic arrangements with non-imperialist states. This remains true despite your “Black Swan” exceptions to the rule.
Now Russia no doubt would like to be in a position to routinely as a matter of policy (with perhaps the occasional Black Swan exception) do what the imperialist states do. However it is not able to do this now and indeed has never been able to do so. For revolutionary Marxists standing in the political tradition that the pre-split IBT did (and as the BT continues to do) this means that Russia is not currently an imperialist state power.