Imperialism & the anti-capitalist Left: Ukraine in context

by · May 21, 2014


THANASIS KAMPAGIANNIS returns to the debate on imperialism, on the occasion of the controversies that have opened up inside the Left regarding the crisis in Ukraine. This is a translation of an article recently published in the theoretical magazine of the Greek Socialist Workers Party (SEK), Socialism From Below.

The declaration of the end of the theory of imperialism can be compared in frequency and in intensity only to pronouncements about the end of Marxism. The antagonisms we see unfolding today in Eastern Europe, focusing on Ukraine, are not leaving much space to those who for years insisted on baptising the Leninist teachings on imperialism as “anachronistic”. But things were not always that obvious.

Twenty years ago the theory of imperialism was attacked by a chorus of analysts from both the Right and the Left. Right-wing analyses were naturally associated with the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the “free world’s victory over communism”. It was assumed that the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact (which was seen as the cause of military competition) would bring peace and the prevalence of international law. Along with these analyses came the theories of “globalisation”, which predicted that free flows of capital would ensure the growing inter-dependence of economies and, as a consequence, the end of military rivalries. The message was simple: if you want the end of war and nationalism, the only way is to support the free market. This was the road that was crossed by all the social democratic and many of the former communist parties.

In declaring the end of imperialism, however, there were not only Rightist but Leftist cantors as well. The fall of the regimes of state capitalism, which the majority of the Left identified with socialism, liberated a whole section of Leftist activists and intellectuals. Finally, they said, the class struggle at the global level — which for decades was identified in the manuals of the USSR with the geopolitical conflict “between the capitalist and the socialist camp” — can now be restored to its original Marxian scheme: global capital against global labour, the above against the below. This was the basis of a multifaceted challenge to Lenin and the classical Marxists’ theory of imperialism. The image of capitalism as a single “Empire” (Hardt and Negri) and the view of the national ruling classes as a “multinational elite” led to similar conclusions as those of liberal theorists who preached the end of nation states and the imperialist rivalries between them.

The challenge for revolutionary Marxists

The magazine Socialism from Below and the Greek SEK (Socialist Workers’ Party) belong to an international tendency of Marxist revolutionaries who had to face the challenges that this ideological attack posed in the early 1990s, against Marxism in general and the theory of imperialism in particular. The answers we formed are a valuable collective acquisition, and so the references to the articles at the end of this text are not just for bibliographic purposes.

Two points need to be emphasised here, even in passing.

The first point is the insistence on the continuing relevance of the theory of imperialism. Imperialism meant not just as the imposition of the will of the stronger against the weaker states: this is of course a self-evident truth — certainly for the Greek Left — confirmed by history (see the interventions of British and then American imperialism). Imperialism, though, in the capitalist stage means something more: the interweaving of economic and geopolitical rivalries because of the formation of capitalist monopolies, in interaction with their respective nation-states and with the tendency to internationalisation. In this way, in the imperialist stage of capitalism, antagonisms are no longer just competition between companies but rivalries between states.

The second point was the periodisation of imperialism. It is clear that the end of World War II opened a new era for the system in relation to the world described in the texts of Lenin, Luxemburg and Bukharin. The competition between the US and the USSR — and their respective alliances — became the leitmotif that overdetermined every competitive struggle, anywhere in the world. This period was to end with the collapse of the Eastern camp. The US remained after the early 1990s as the only superpower: but its strength now relied more on its military dominance and less on its economic superiority, which was slowly but gradually undermined by strategic allies and emerging rivals.

Back in the early 1990s, a common debate was whether the existence of only one superpower would open a long period of a reactionary American domination, a “Pax Americana”. As expected, the relevant debates contained lots of nostalgia for the lost “rival bloc”. In the columns of this journal, for 20 years, we have insisted on how false such a picture was. This did not mean that the US would not grasp the opportunity to occupy as much space as it could in a period of a defeat of its main opponents: the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe was and still is a central strategy, resulting in the bloodshed in the Balkans and the war in Serbia. But it was in the Middle East where the most comprehensive plan for a new American hegemony unfolded, especially under the leadership of the most aggressive political wing of the US establishment, the neoconservatives of Bush Junior.


The test of theory in practice

It is in this rise of imperialist aggression that the ability of revolutionary Marxists was tested, not only to lucidly analyse imperialism, but also to build a movement to oppose it, based on these theoretical analyses. SEK was instrumental in this direction: not only ideologically as the organisation that published (for the first time in Greek!) the work of Bukharin (Imperialism and World Economy), but mostly in terms of initiating an anti-war movement through the Stop the War Coalition.

Crucial in this direction was the polemic against the theories that tried to discover symmetries between the belligerent imperial power and whatever country suffered the attack: Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, and so on. Against the logic of “equal distance”, “yes, but” or “neither, nor”, our revolutionary Left insisted that opposition to war is not distorted nor does it depend on the nature of the regime that was at each time in the eye of the imperialist storm, whether this was Saddam’s or Milosevic’s or any other.

It was a harder stance than that of the Stalinist anti-imperialist Left, who did not face similar dilemmas because they had illusions about the supposedly “progressive” character of those regimes that were once connected to the USSR. For us, Milosevic was a nationalist bureaucrat who brought the IMF to Yugoslavia, not the defender of the last socialist residues in the country. And Saddam was a dictator who willingly played the game of the Americans against post-revolutionary Iran, not an old Soviet ally with Russian Scud missiles in his arsenal. Yet, this awareness has not reduced even for a moment the purity of our anti-war emphases against the imperialist interventions in Serbia, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Because this attitude rests firmly in the Marxist tradition, it has the advantage of being more consistent. The imperialist intervention against countries like Afghanistan emphatically demanded the halo of “progress” (especially in issues like women’s oppression, etc.) against the “medieval backwardness” of the Islamic fundamentalists. It’s in these cases that parts of the radical Left that had previously supported Milosevic easily retreated in slogans like “Neither NATO nor the Taliban” in 2001, thus weakening the anti-imperialist movement’s edge in the West. The same thing happened later in the case of the resistance movement to the US occupation of Iraq after 2003, and the rise to power of Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2007. The political battles against “equal distances” were crucial for the existence and independence of the antiwar movement in the West.

Where are we today?

Armed with the lessons of this whole process, we should now respond to the current challenges and to a changing situation that invites us to analyse and intervene in its evolution. What is this situation today?

US imperialism comes out of the last two decades significantly weakened in relation to the goals it had itself set. The Obama administration represents the political management of the decline of American hegemony, after a crisis of over-expansion. It is wrong to read the current situation as a simple continuity of the project of Bush’s neo-conservatives. There is of course now a huge amount of cynicism towards any plan of American intervention after the Iraq fiasco, and therefore any analysis that rebukes US scheming has a guaranteed popularity. But it would be an intellectual indolence not to also spot the changes in the situation.

The inability due to political weakness of the US and Great Britain to intervene militarily in Syria, the embarrassment of the West in being unable to stop Russian manoeuvres in Crimea and Ukraine, and the redeployment of US troops from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific to address the emerging political risk represented by China all show that times are changing. The “New World Order” (to use a term very popular in the early 1990s) looks much more disorderly and the world more multipolar. This does not mean for a moment that things are less dangerous. Instead, geopolitical analysts always point out that historically the most dangerous periods occurred — even more than autocracies — when a superpower was declining and a new one was rising, at a time when old antagonisms were being rekindled.

For our movement, this change means firstly a need to re-study the texts of classical Marxists on imperialism: not only for the richness of their arguments but also for the fact that their world — the era before the First World War — is increasingly resembled by ours. The American power — especially military — might not today be compared to that of any other state. However, we need to remember imperialism not just as the existence of a “superpower”, but as a system of competing nation states and capitals.

This is what the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow” does for the crisis in Ukraine: it describes and takes sides vis-a-vis a situation where different imperialisms take initiatives and collide, even “hotly”, but initially by proxy. Anyone who uses the arguments against “equal distances” in the case of Ukraine, forgets the “detail” of the still existent nuclear arsenal of Russia and risks resembling what Trotsky often said about the Stalinist Comintern: “singing wedding songs at funerals and funeral songs at weddings”. Of course, the distinct role of Berlin in the Ukrainian crisis and the efforts of both the Americans and the Russians to win it over clearly shows that the blocs today are more than just two. But the truth remains: locating the conflict between Washington and Moscow around Ukraine as imperialist is the starting point of any serious Marxist analysis of the unfolding crisis.

Characterising a conflict offers an essential map, but unfortunately it does not solve the specific problems of the political intervention of revolutionaries. And because the world in which we live and act is still nationally separated, the necessary complement of every anti-imperialist strategy — especially for us here in the West — is prioritising the fight against our own ruling class. The German revolutionary Karl Liebknecht introduced at the start of WWI the emblematic phrase: “The enemy is in our own country”. This does not mean that the ruling class of the rival imperialist camp is not an enemy, but that the only applied anti-imperialism that can result in victory is the fight against our own ruling class.

This is the only practical solidarity to the workers and the poor who are struggling in the other side of the imperialist war trench. In the current conflict in Eastern Europe, solidarity with the Ukrainian workers means that the anti-war movement in the West will not allow Ukraine to be turned into a shooting range for the imperialist interests of Obama, Putin and Merkel. It means a demand to drop the debt of Ukraine that is the loop through which the IMF and Russia play their imperialist chess on the backs of ordinary people. The money is there in the vaults of the oligarchs, not with Ukrainians workers. Real solidarity means furthermore the fight against the racist lies of EU governments and the far Right that increasingly demonise the workers of Eastern Europe as causing unemployment and the collapse of the welfare state in the West, and try to draw up racist walls against their right to move freely.

The anti-war movement in the West must be prepared to demonstrate and to counteract any warmongering effort to sharpen the conflict with Russia, around the Ukrainian crisis. It is the work of our brothers in Russia to do the same against Putin’s war plans.

The movements and their orientation

The loss of hegemony by ruling classes will mean more and more frequent explosions of mass movements from below. This is the picture of our world in recent years: the Middle East offers the most high-profile examples.

However, Ukraine itself is one such example: the Yanukovych government’s decision to stop negotiating with the EU marked the explosion of an uncontrolled movement in Western Ukraine that got even more massive due to the repression and was reinforced by years of resentment for neoliberal austerity policies (Yanukovych had signed an agreement with the IMF in 2010). The fall of Yanukovych and the establishment of a government of right-wing parties with the participation of the fascists, and the first nationalist measures, sparked mass demonstrations in Eastern Ukraine. What followed was the Russian annexation of Crimea and the occupations of government buildings in the East. In both cases, the rival imperialist blocs backed protesters who “served”  their interests. However, addressing these developments only in terms of “incitement” from above fails to understand — apart from the historical background — the depth of the social contradictions that tear apart the Ukrainian society.

Such movements will occur more and more in the coming months and years, nourished by both the capitalist crisis and the growing alienation of the popular strata from the political system. What will emerge from these movements is an open political gamble: the fact is that the Left has not much to gain if it simply dismisses them as “confused” and lumps them together as “reactionary”, alongside right-wing demonstrations in Maduro’s Venezuela or (in the past) in Allende’s Chile. From the mass movements of our time can come a new collective subject that will strengthen the cause of social change. Those who write off the Ukrainian working class as “pro-NATO” and conversely those who in eastern Ukraine only see Putin’s pawns will end up in the lap of either the “democratic” European Union or the “anti-imperialist” Russia. The challenge is a Left that will arm this movement with a political line that will escalate the conflict with those above, in all their various forms: oligarchs, the IMF, European and Russian imperialism.

The Left should not only be involved in the movements but also struggle for an orientation to the working class and for ideological hegemony. The 19th and 20th centuries have to offer many examples where genuine movements (mostly national) fell victim to greater forces (mostly states) that subdued their aspirations and objectives. Such were the movements of the Slavs in the 19th century subjugated by the Tsar, or the Kurds in Iraq in the 20th century who became pawns of US foreign policy. For these reasons, anti-imperialism remains absolutely crucial for the movements of today. Far from being simply a form of geopolitical realism, anti-imperialism is the guarantee that a social conflict is not going to degenerate into an inter-imperialist proxy war. The evolution of the Syrian revolution is a ringing bell that this risk is present in the 21st century, not only for national but for social movements as well.

The period we live in is a time of huge opportunities for the anti-capitalist Left. In order to take advantage of them, we need more than ever the compasses that were given to us by the long history of our movement. The theory of imperialism and the practice of anti-imperialism will be valuable in the battles ahead.

Read more:

  • Sotiris Kontogiannis, “From the Cold War to the slaughterhouses of the ‘New World Order’,” in SAK 100
  • Alex Callinicos, “Imperialism today,” in SAK 93
  • Maria Styllou, “The crisis of American imperialism”, in SAK 86
  • Maria Styllou, “Theories of imperialism”, in SAK 58
  • Panos Garganas, “Imperialism and war — the internationalist response”, in SAK 32
  • Chris Harman, “Analysing Imperialism”, also published in Greek in: Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, Marxistiko Vivliopolio, Athens 2002.

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Mirek Szychowski says:

    From our study of Marxist thinkers such as Lenin and Trotsky, it is obvious that the present geo-political and social situation, resembles that of pre-WW1, with an obvious danger of another world war between imperialist powers, this time with far more deadly and destructive weapons. The situation today is far more serious for mankind, as the twin spectres of a nuclear war and environmental destruction rear their ugly heads. The other difference from 1914 is that, unlike in that period, the working class seems to be atomised and lacking a common consciousness. As Lenin would have said : what is to be done?