The entire US left is reacting to the shocking invasion of Ukraine by Russia. The reactions are varied and reflect a vigorous discourse which we are pleased to see includes many positions not constrained by Cold War biases and “campism”. There is a broad consensus that Russia’s behavior, no matter the pretext, went far over the line, as is the view of many Russians who identify with the communist movement, even many we might analyze as right opportunist.
Unfortunately, not all on the US left are able to take a similarly circumspect position of condemnation of US imperialism, which has been and remains the most powerful imperialist center in military and economic terms alike. We have witnessed prominent representatives of the left call for sanctions against Russia, which would have an escalating effect, when as purported socialists and internationalists their immediate practical duty should to call for the disbanding of NATO and other actions that would have a deescalating effect.
In the midst of the practical discussion, there is also a theoretical discussion over whether Russia today qualifies as an “imperialist country”. In general, the trend is for those who advocate sanctions against Russia to assert that it is, so as to position Russia and the US on equal footing. For those who take a revolutionary defeatist stance on US imperialism, there is also a trend to assert that Russia is not an imperialist country, which naturally is partially motivated by a need to provide extra theoretical justification beyond revolutionary defeatism for opposing US escalation.
We have already said that many of the latter category none the less correctly join their Russian comrades in condemning Putin’s aggression, and we of course emphasize that it is not only wars carried out directly by imperialist centers which we condemn, but all wars except wars of defense and liberation on behalf of the poor and oppressed, which in fact serve to secure real and sustainable peace.
The main argument against Russia’s status as imperialist power comes from an economic perspective. For years, in fact, most of those on the more revolutionary defeatist side of the spectrum of the US left have downplayed the economic for the military in defining imperialism so as to make maximally difficult the claim of Chinese imperialism.
We emphasize here that China, like US-aligned Japan, none the less has massive military buildup intended to project power in the service of what is a profit-based and market economy, and thus even by a military definition, fits our understanding of what the military role of imperialism is. Russia’s imperialism or the US’s are not assumed by anyone (regardless of their analysis of Russia as imperialist or not) to come in and out of existence or to be more or less real as “hot” wars start or end.
This is especially crucial as the US relies to a great extent on the military support of NATO countries which transparently serve its interests (and to a lesser extent the UK’s, and the EU centers of France and Germany). The military component of imperialism is not just in its exceptional power, but also that it serves certain economic interests. The economic domination of the world and the military domination of the world are inextricably intertwined:
Without any military “muscle”, in the final instance large centers of finance capital cannot back themselves up in reality, which is why countries such as Switzerland are not viewed as imperialist, in spite of their capitalist interests obviously motivating and profiting from wars. On the other hand, without the exploitative drive of large amount of export capital, a large military force could conceivably be a force of defense and not an army of imperialist conquest.
Here we do note that China and Japan, despite their very different interests in their own region and around the world, are more cautious and less cavalier than either Russia or the US.
But more crucially, China, Japan, the UK, France, and Germany are all more economically clear-cut cases than Russia when we analyze the economic side of imperialism: despite Russia’s relative military power, as a center of global finance it pales in comparison to all of the aforementioned countries.
However, in Lenin’s own time, Lenin analyzed Russia, with much less developed capitalism (much of the Russian Empire having still been semi-feudal) as an imperialist country with regard to its role in World War I. Lenin was certainly motivated by several considerations in this analysis, first and foremost being the interlinked nature of the military and economic qualities of imperialism: Russia’s small and weak capitalist class had great potential and its military adventurism served the interests of this class’s growth and domination of the global market. This analysis is somewhat demonstrated as correct in the success of proletarian revolution in the former Russian empire, as the industrial proletariat was correspondingly small and weak compared to the masses of poor peasants, and yet was able to achieve a leading role and steer the direction of the Russian Revolution for decades accordingly (and indeed, it was a neo-bourgeoisie and never any pre-capitalist class formation which was able to wrest power from the hands of the proletariat of Russia and the broader Soviet Union).
Russia today is obviously more advanced as a capitalist country than it was before the October Revolution. We can say that Russia has most of the features of an imperialist center and certainly has the drive to project itself as one. However, we must also note that as imperialism is a world system reflecting the development of capitalism, and as capitalism is defined by laws of competition and exploitation, we see reflections of the categories of capitalist and worker in imperialist centers and peripheral countries in this world system.
Individual capitalists are in competition, and this competition has consequences which ultimately lead to the loss of capital for the losers, and the shoring up of more capital for the winners. Every petty bourgeois who starts a business is driven by the profit motive to acquire more, and will ultimately, if successful, try to enter the upper ranks of the capitalists. Likewise, as capitalists’ ventures prove unsuccessful, they can be driven down closer and closer to the modest conditions of the petty bourgeois, and every “failed” petty bourgeois runs the immediate risk of being cast fully into the toiling wage-labor existence of the proletariat which they sought to exploit.
Likewise, with imperialism, every bourgeoisie in political power seeks to shore up its influence and status on the world stage, and ultimately dreams to transform their country into an imperialist center. Their success in this is far from assured, and as Russia falters on this invasion in its relatively constrained sphere of global influence, we must speak seriously about the idea that as an imperialist center, Russia is not only not on par with the US, it is weakening and may be relegated to a military support role for more successful powers.
Naturally, there are many factors behind the growing stalemate between NATO and Russia in Ukraine, and we would be remiss if we neglected to mention not only the position of socialists in Russia undermining the united front Putin so craves, but also the large scale anti-war protests in Russia itself, which have resulted in thousands of arrests at time of publication, as well as the demoralization of Russian troops, most of whom were sent unknowingly into a war whose scale they couldn’t have predicted, in a country where they may have friends and relatives, and whose language is more or less comprehensible to them.
One of the factors behind successful military imperialism is the ability to shore up “peaceful” assent to imperialist leadership in one’s immediate region, so that the foot soldiers of empire can be maximally engaged in suppressing dissent in regions where the local population can be more easily otherized and even demonized. It is for this reason that Ireland serves as an Achilles heel for the British, and the Black Belt serves as an Achilles heel for our country: the more Irish and Black resistance is raised up in these Anglo imperialist centers, the harder it is for imperialism to function properly, while decades of foreign adventurism of varied success did far less to slow US imperialism’s global domination in particular.
This of course provides a key part of the roadmap for the subjective and active path forward for our movement in the United States, but on an objective level, in analyzing the world at large, we must note that whatever the factors behind Putin not achieving an expected easy victory in Ukraine, the result means that the Russian ruling classes may be miscalculating away what imperialist center status they have. This is in stark contrast not only to the United States (which has a long way to fall before it is anything less than the premiere and most dangerous imperialist power on Earth), but also to countries like France, Germany, Japan, and China, who, however constrained their influence may be relative to the US, does not appear to be backed into a corner, in decline, on the edge of a cliff that may lead them into freefall.
Thus, having already mentioned Ireland and the UK, we must also emphasize to our fellow US socialists attempting to analyze the world at large and to the rest of the English speaking world and the UK in particular making this analysis for reasons of calculating strategy in their own social contexts, that another imperialist center which has clearly weakened considerably is the UK. A century prior, the UK was ahead of the US in most of the relevant measures of imperialist strength. But as the UK’s social and economic “core” (even if we include occupied Ireland) is a relatively small territory with a relatively small population, the anti-colonial uprisings of the past century as well as the geographic distance of white settler colonies such as Canada and Australia have put the UK at a significant disadvantage to the US, which has largely replaced its former tutor in imperialism around the globe, while the genocidal domination of the US’s slice of the American continent provided the US with a relatively large “core” and large amounts of resources under US imperialism’s direct control even before its growth as an imperialist power “abroad”.
Since Brexit, the UK ruling classes have sought to position themselves outside of the EU in the hopes of reasserting themselves as an equal partner in the US-UK alliance and/or as an imperialist center in their own right. Events over the past few years similarly weakening imperialist center is the UK; Brexit was an attempt to reassert British ruling class interests on the world stage but it has only marginalized the UK relative to the rest of the EU, and not advanced its position within the US-UK alliance, with even other white Anglo settler societies such as Canada and Australia overwhelmingly focusing their economic, social, and political attention on Washington rather than London.
Certain imperialist powers are in decline, and new ones may be rising yet. We are witnessing, through the clash between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, evidence that Russia may be in decline and may face a new position in the imperialist world system where it is difficult to categorize it as an imperialist center. The fact that the UK has undergone a similar process shows that this is not merely a result of military maneuvering by the US against Russia, but economic competition even between “friendly” imperialist powers. It is the laws of capitalism played out on the global stage among nations in the imperialist world system.
Finally, there are limits to the amount of human labor and territory which any capitalist and even any imperialist center or camp can exploit, which in fact is the motive for the violent competition between imperialists resulting in overt war and even the specter of world war to which so many allude at present. Neoliberal restructuring allowed for a great deal of renewed plunder in the latter part of the 20th century, bolstered by the fall of the Soviet Union and the inroads into areas under its historical sway which US imperialism in particular made, the source of the current conflict. But as the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent economic and political chaos in the US have shown us, the US may also be reaching its limits as an imperialist power, precisely due to the fact that it cannot ever achieve total global domination in a system predicated upon competition and the anarchy of markets.
Whether the US succeeds in finally “containing” Russia or not, whether Russia manages to eke out a victory which can change its fortunes or is relegated to support role for some larger, “healthier” imperialist power (such as the US or China), the US itself is not invincible and we likewise already see signs of its decline and consequent political panic. In this, the delirium of the fascist supporters of Trump and the counter-delirium of the liberal forces of restoration who sought to (and succeeded in) overturning Trump, but not the root causes of Trumpism are but signs of what is to come. There is a particular danger for all the poor and oppressed of the world as inter-imperialist conflicts become sharper; the US, so heavily armed and heavily invested around the world, with nuclear weapons and a huge share of multinational corporations under its control, will continue to represent the greatest or at least one of the greatest dangers to our lives and futures even as it declines.
In conclusion, socialists in the US must take this opportunity not merely to reassess the ways in which some components of our left have underrated the danger of Russian imperialism (in that there appears to still be some remnant of something by that name, as there was in Lenin’s time), but also the ways in which others have indeed overrated it (out of a desire to not face the full scale and danger of US imperialism).
The imperialist world system is not a football game where we choose teams, it is a dynamic system of exploitation and violence. Its “losers” and “winners” change from period to period, and this must provoke sober reanalysis for those seeking to overturn all its main “players” by overturning the game itself.