Is Russia Imperialist?

What started out as a small-scale demonstration in Kiev’s Maidan—Independence—Square against the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late 2013 has escalated into a crisis that in a worst-case scenario could develop into a full-scale shooting war between Russia and the U.S-EU-NATO world empire—“the Empire” for short. As more facts have came out, it has became clear that the demonstrations had a pro-imperialist, pro-Empire character from the beginning. In addition, it is now obvious that the U.S. government has been heavily involved since the beginning.

The one-sided U.S. media coverage of the “pro-Maidan movement,” as the pro-imperialist forces in Ukraine are called; the activities of U.S.-funded NGOs; and the U.S. role in the pro-imperialist “Orange Revolution” of 2004 all point in the same direction. In addition, as the crisis developed it was revealed on the Internet that U.S. diplomats favored right-wing neo-liberal banker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, or “Yats,” as the diplomats affectionately called him. Sure enough, right after the coup that overthrew Yanukovych, “Yats” was named prime minister of the new coup government in Kiev. But there is more.

According to Wikipedia, on April 18, 2014, Burisma Holdings, one of the leading oil and natural gas production companies in Ukraine, announced Hunter Biden’s appointment to its board of directors. “Burisma holds licenses covering the Dnieper-Donets Basin and the Carpathian and Azov-Kuban basins and has considerable reserves and production capability,” the on-line encyclopedia stated.

Hunter Biden, a lawyer, is the son of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. According to Wikipedia, Hunter Biden’s résumé includes multiple connections to the financial industry and government: “From 2001 to 2008, Biden was a founding partner of Oldaker, Biden, and Belair, LLP, a national law firm based in New York. He also served as a partner and board member of the mergers and acquisitions firm Eudora Global. Biden was chief executive officer, and later chairman, of the fund of hedge funds PARADIGM Global Advisors…. At MBNA, a major US bank, Biden was employed as a senior vice president.”

Wikipedia further reports: “In addition to holding directorships on the Boards of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, The Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy, he sits on the Chairman’s Advisory Board for the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The NDI is a project of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).” The NED is the organization that does what the CIA did covertly 25 years ago.

Viktor Yanukovych is a middle of the road Ukrainian capitalist politician who balanced between the Empire and Russia. Yanukovych had defeated the openly pro-imperialist politicians associated with the so-called Orange Revolution in the 2010 elections. Yanukovych is quite corrupt, but this is almost universally true of capitalist politicians operating in the former socialist countries of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe—and not only there.

The anti-Yanukovych demonstrators attempted to revive the Orange Revolution. This was not a revolution at all but instead a U.S. empire-supported movement. Its aim was to reverse an election that had been won by Yanukovych against his pro-Empire Orange opponents on the pretext that election results had been falsified, a somewhat questionable assertion.

The Orange Revolution was part of a series of pro-Empire “color revolutions”—some successful and some not—that were organized by the Empire and its local representatives with the aim of replacing governments that resisted the Empire in one way or another. Other such “revolutions” include the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon; the unsuccessful Green Revolution in Iran, which also attempted unsuccessfully to overturn a presidential election; and the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

In Ukraine, the Orange Revolution was initially successful. Yanukovych’s clear victory in the 2010 election, however, indicated that the movement lacked broad popular support among the Ukrainian people. During its rule from 2004 through 2009, leaders of the Orange Revolution glorified Stephan Bandera and other Ukrainian “nationalists” who had collaborated with Nazi Germany during World War II.

The initially small demonstrations centered on Maidan Square gradually but steadily increased in size. Many of the demonstrators were shipped in from Western Ukraine (1), where right-wing and even out-and-out fascist sentiments have been historically strong. The demonstrators complained that President Yanukovych had signed an agreement with the Russians rather than with the European Union. Russia, which is eager to prevent Ukraine from falling into the Empire’s orbit, offered the Ukrainians a better deal. In contrast, the European Union demanded stiff neo-liberal austerity measures in return for loans to bail out the virtually bankrupt Ukrainian government.

Side by side with the “moderate” right wingers who made up the bulk of the demonstrators, there appeared a growing number of outright fascist forces such as the Svoboda party, which had begun as a neo-Nazi party before moderating its image slightly, and the even more extreme Right Sector. The latter uses Nazi symbols and hardly hides its admiration not only for those Ukrainians who fought on the side of Nazi Germany during World War II but for Nazi Germany itself.

Nor were these the only reactionary symbols used. Side by side with the Nazi symbols, there appeared the flag of slavery itself, the stars and bars of the the slave-owning rebels of the U.S. Civil War of 1861-65. When a few Ukrainian leftists, influenced by the “far left” (2) in Western Europe, tried to join the right-wing demonstrators in Maidan to express their solidarity with the struggle against Yanukovych—a huge political error in my opinion—they were driven away by Right Sector thugs, who were emerging as the leaders of the movement on the street level if not in the halls of power. The right-wing mass of demonstrators made no attempt to stop them. Indeed, the Right Sector is apparently greatly admired by the “moderate” right-wing demonstrators.

In February, the Right Sector led a march on the parliament building, which forced President Yanukovych to flee for his life. The Right Sector also occupied the headquarters of the Communist Party of Ukraine in a move reminiscent of the infamous Nazi march on Karl Liebneckt House—headquarters of the German Communist Party—in Berlin in 1933. These events were ignored or barely mentioned in the U.S. media, which falsely presented the Euro-Maidan movement as a democratic uprising against the supposedly Russian-controlled and dictatorial government of Victor Yanukovych.

More on the reactionary nature of the Euro-Maidan movement

Since I am not an expert on Ukraine, I rely on observers like Volodymyr Ishchenko, a Ukraine sociologist who is opposed to capitalism and is a member of a small movement influenced by the West European “far left.” Like them, Ishchenko was quite sympathetic to the Euro-Maidan movement. Let’s see what he has to say about the character of that movement—and remember, he is sympathetic to it.

Ishchenko reports: “The Maidan protest started more as an ideological protest that was, to some extent, an attempt to break through to the European Dream, seeing it as a kind of utopia which would solve many Ukrainian problems. And for other people, it was a protest against Russia. It was generally believed that if Yanukovych would not sign the European Association Agreement, he will join the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. These countries were described in quite negative tones as authoritarian, poor countries that Ukraine doesn’t need to orient itself to.”

Even if there had been no fascists involved, this position in and of itself is a profoundly reactionary one. It reflects an attraction to exploiting countries of the U.S.-EU-NATO world empire, combined with hostility to poor exploited countries such as Kazakhstan. In my mind, this is sufficient reason to fight against such a movement. All proportions guarded, this is similar to the mentality of the “Tea Party” in the U.S. Are Tea Party protests progressive because they are opposed to the administration of Barack Obama, which they, quite falsely of course, claim is sympathetic to the non-white countries of the “Third World”? Hardly. But there is more.

Ischenko goes on: “But you have to understand that the political mainstream in the Ukraine is much further to the right than, for example, in Western Europe. Things which would receive very strong criticism in the West are more or less tolerable in the Ukraine. It’s more or less okay to talk about things like ‘the defense of white European people’; this kind of thing can even be said by mainstream politicians. It’s okay to be homophobic, not to recognize any need to defend LGBT people. In this more right-dominant ideology, the far right from the Right Sector or from the Svoboda party are not actually seen as something extreme.”

I don’t know what Ischenko means by the “political mainstream,” but it appears that he has in mind the milieu out of which Euro-Maidan emerged—the supporters of the Orange Revolution. This would explain not only the toleration for the Right Sector that openly flaunts Nazi symbols, including armbands that contain a symbol that “looks like” a swastika. It would also explain the appearance of the Confederate flag, the flag of slavery itself, though as far as I know there are very few African people that live in Ukraine.

Ischenko’s case for supporting Euro-Maidan

Ischenko continues: “But later during the Maidan uprising, there came the questions of police repression and violence, of the authoritarian laws which were passed in January—they were pulled to the forefront. They became more important than the European Association.”

Many leftists here in the West have made similar arguments. Even if the Euro-Maidan movement had certain reactionary aspects, it became transformed into a progressive movement against dictatorship when the Yanukovych government resorted to repressive actions and dictatorial legislation to put down what was becoming a full-scale insurrection aimed at overthrowing his elected government.

Here we can point to the example of Germany itself during the rise of Hitler. The quasi-dictatorial Chancellor Heinrich Bruening, who ruled by decree and was called “the hunger chancellor,” at times took dictatorial measures in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent the Nazis from coming to power. At one point, Bruening used his quasi-dictatorial power to prohibit the Nazi stormtroopers, or SA, from wearing their brown uniforms. This violated the democratic right of the Nazis to express themselves politically by wearing clothing of their choice.

Now, it is true that we should not be drawn into supporting anti-democratic laws by capitalist governments even when they are aimed at fascists. Such laws will sooner or later be used with redoubled force against the workers’ organizations. And, as the example of Bruening’s government itself shows, his dictatorial measures did not prevent the Nazis from coming to power shortly thereafter, resulting in the destruction of all remaining democratic rights.

But did the resistance of the Nazis to Bruening’s quasi-dictatorial government transform the Nazi movement into a democratic movement that leftists should have supported? Of course not! Similarly, whatever repressive laws and dictatorial measures that were taken by the bourgeois Yanukovych government against the Euro-Maidan insurrection—that is what it developed into, it was in no sense a peaceful mass demonstration of the kind that we are familiar with in the West—did not transform the reactionary Euro-Maidan uprising into a democratic movement.

The rise of the ‘anti-Maidan’ movement in eastern Ukraine

The anti-Maidan movement that has arisen in the Ukraine in opposition to the Euro-Maidan coup government in Kiev is represented by such entities as the People’s Republic of Donetsk, which enjoy considerable support in eastern Ukraine. Unlike the Euro-Maidans, they are tolerant of leftists and Soviet symbols, but not Nazi symbols and flags. For example, red Soviet flags and pictures of Lenin mix with the tri-color flag of the bourgeois Federated Russian Republic and the czarist double eagles of the Russian nationalists. While the Euro-Maidans destroyed statues of Lenin, the anti-Maidans defend these statues.

These symbols are decidedly mixed, of course—for example, the double eagle on one side and the red hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union plus Lenin on the other! They clearly reflect the conflicting political and class forces participating in the anti-Maidan movement. But the relationship of class forces among the anti-Maidans, who consist largely—not entirely of course—of industrial workers, is quite different than the relationship of class forces of the Euro-Maidans.

To be fair to Ishchenko and the Western leftists who share his views on Ukraine, the same leftists have shown sympathy to the anti-Maidan movement in eastern Ukraine as well, since it too is a mass movement against the “pro-Empire” government—that government being the one established by the middle-class Euro-Maidans with the help of their fascist shock troops.

The position of Ischenko and his like-minded supporters in the West would be much like a person living at the time of the U.S. Civil War sympathizing with the Confederate rebels and the Unionists at the same time because both sides enjoyed the passionate support of significant sections of the U.S. people! These facts didn’t prevent Marx and Engels then living in Britain from knowing from day one which side they were on.

May 25 election

As I reach my deadline to hand this post to my editors, the news of the results of the May 25 presidential elections staged by the Kiev coup government in a bid to establish some legal legitimacy has arrived. First, it seems all anti-Maidan candidates were effectively banned. Second, no vote was held in regions where anti-Maidan sentiment is strongest such as Donetsk. There was a very low vote in the Donbass as a whole. This was anything but a free election. But that doesn’t mean that the results are without interest.

As had been expected, the pro-imperialist billionaire “chocolate king” Pyotr Poroshenko won the election. He handily defeated his fellow billionaire Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the leading figures of the Orange Revolution, who was the candidate of the extreme right-wing Fatherland Front Party. She advocated a referendum on the question of Ukraine joining NATO hoping to make a decent showing and perhaps forcing Poroshenko into a runoff. This strategy failed completely. Tymoshenko is unpopular because of her corruption. She was actually serving a prison sentence when she was freed by the Euro-Maidan uprising.

An interesting feature of this election was the weak showing of the neo-Nazi parties. Both Svoboda and the Right Sector candidates got around 1 percent of the vote, even less than the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party regularly receives in today’s Germany.

Among the major candidates, the victorious Poroshenko appears to have been the most “moderate.” This indicates that the Euro-Maidan movement demonstrations were far to the right of the views of most of the people who live in western Ukraine. While the fascists of the Right Sector were able to emerge as the leading force on the Maidan, as shown by their successful exclusion of the left and their leadership of the march on the parliament that forced President Yanukovych to flee for his life, they enjoy very limited support among the people of even western Ukraine.

Another sign that Euro-Maidan enjoys limited support, at best, among the people of western Ukraine has been the refusal of Ukrainian troops to fight the anti-Maidan forces in the east. In many of the confrontations, the Ukrainian forces have either gone over to the anti-Maidan side or simply refused to fight. Only the Right Sector fascists have shown any real fighting spirit.

The Empire’s aims in Ukraine

The U.S-EU-NATO imperialist empire (3) is taking full advantage of the traditions of the Ukrainian “Whites” during the civil war that followed the 1917 revolution. These traditions were further developed by Stephen Bandera and his followers during World War II—called the Great Patriotic War in the former Soviet nations. The leaders of “the Empire”—that is, the leaders of the U.S. government—are taking advantage of these traditions of the reactionary segment of the Ukrainian population to gain control of this rich agricultural land, which has been dubbed “the bread basket of Europe.” Ukraine also has oil and natural gas and pipelines that supply Europe with Russian natural gas.

Within the Empire, there are growing signs of tension between present-day Germany, which now dominates Europe economically and would like to be less dependent on U.S. imperialism. Its access to Russian natural gas gives Germany and other European countries more room to maneuver within the Empire relative to the U.S. After all, the U.S. did not fight two wars against Germany in the last century so that Germany could be independent of the U.S! The U.S. wants very much to retain the basic relationship of forces between it and the West European countries—above all Germany—that emerged from World War II.

The so-called Euro-Maidan Ukrainian “nationalists” are being encouraged by the U.S. to talk about the greatness of the Ukrainian nation, just as the Southern whites after the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction era were encouraged to celebrate the great traditions of the white “Southern people” and their so-called nation.

In the name of defending the great traditions of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, poor whites were encouraged to attack the freed Afro-American slaves. But who is to play the role of African Americans in Ukraine? Since there are few if any African people living in Ukraine, that role falls to the Russians, or those Ukrainians who speak Russian as their native language rather than Ukrainian.

And who is to play the role of the Ku Klux Klan in Ukraine? Why, the Right Sector. It is no accident the “stars and bars” of the Confederacy and Ku Klux Klan appear side by side with Nazi symbols. (4) But just as the white working people of the South are more exploited and worse off than the white working people of any other part of the U.S., if the Empire gets its way, the Ukrainian workers in the western Ukraine who speak Ukrainian rather than Russian will be worse off than most other people in Europe—except, that is, Russian or Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

But what about ‘Russian imperialism’?

Well, that is how I see it as do some other parts of the left. But many on the left in the United States and Europe reject this analysis. They reply to that part of the left that I am in agreement with that we are ignoring “Russian imperialism.” Weren’t Marx, Engels and above all Lenin strong opponents of Russian imperialism and all forms of Russian nationalism?

According to this argument, U.S. imperialism tyrannizes and exploits Latin America and other parts of the world, while Russian imperialism similarly tyrannizes and seeks domination over the countries of Eastern Europe including the Ukraine. They point to the history of Russian czarism’s very real oppression of the Ukrainian nation going back to the days of Catherine the Great in the 18th century, as well as the excesses of Stalin’s collectivization campaign of the early 1930s, which hit Ukraine especially hard resulting in widespread famine. They accuse those of us on the left who see the U.S.-centered world imperialist empire as the real aggressors in Ukraine of being supporters of Russian imperialism and the capitalist government of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Now, even if our opponents on the left are right about the imperialist nature of present-day Russia, it would still be the duty of those of us who live in the West –especially the United States—to follow a policy of “revolutionary defeatism” toward our “own” imperialist rulers. No matter how powerful and dangerous Russian imperialism allegedly is, we still have to be guided by Lenin’s slogan of “revolutionary defeatism” and Karl Liebneckt’s slogan “the main enemy is at home!

That said, is Russia really imperialist? From the 1990s on, almost all leftists agree that present-day Russia is a capitalist nation. But not all capitalist nations are imperialist nations. For example, Venezuela is still a capitalist nation, but is it imperialist? Virtually all leftists, including those who consider Russia a dangerous imperialist power, strongly support Venezuela and its Bolivarian Revolution in its struggle against imperialism.

Similarly, in the 1930s the Marxists of the time supported China in its struggle against Japan, despite the fact that China was then ruled by the reactionary butcher Chiang Kai-Shek, who had drowned the Chinese revolution of 1925-27 in the blood of the workers of Shanghai. Therefore, whether a given capitalist country is one of the imperialist countries or is one of the exploited countries is no mere academic question to Marxists but can have grave political consequences.

Russia’s ‘annexation’ of the Crimean Peninsula

Hasn’t the Putin government annexed the Crimean Peninsula? Isn’t this an act of naked aggression against Ukraine? In reality, the Crimean Peninsula has never been predominately inhabited by Ukrainian speakers at any point in its history—at least according to what I have been able to find on the Internet. Many peoples have lived on the Crimean Peninsula throughout its recorded history. But since the middle of the 1860s, the predominate population of Crimea has been Russian.

This situation was recognized by the Bolsheviks when Crimea was made part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Federated Republic, while the large minority of Crimean Tatars had their own special Tatar autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. If there had been any case for making Crimea a part of Ukraine, Lenin, who always bent over backwards to take the side of nations and peoples who had been oppressed by czarist Russia, would certainly have used all his influence to see that Crimea was integrated into the Ukraine Soviet Socialist Republic as opposed to the Russian Federated Soviet Socialist Republic. But he didn’t.

Indeed, Putin as a Russian-nationalist has complained that the Bolsheviks supported the incorporation of the largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine—what the czarist regime called “new Russia”—into the Ukrainian Republic, not the Russian Republic.

In 1945, the Soviet government headed by Premier Joseph Stalin dissolved the autonomous Tatar republic for reasons that will be examined below. Only under Nikita Khrushchev—who as first secretary of the Central Committee of the then ruling Soviet Communist Party had emerged as the most influential Soviet leader after the death of Stalin the previous year—was the Crimean Peninsula made part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

This was done to mark the 300-year anniversary of the conquest of Ukraine by the Russian Empire under Empress Catherine the Great. Perhaps, this was done as a measure of respect and compensation for the Ukrainian nation, which indeed had been oppressed by the Russian Empire and then had disproportionately borne the brunt of the civil war that erupted as a result of the collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s. However, Khrushchev’s son Sergei, now a U.S. citizen, claimed on Radio New Zealand that it was a purely administrative decision after the construction of a canal to supply water to Crimea from Ukraine.

The Putin government was more than willing to accept the status quo established by history—whether or not it was a just one—as long as Russia’s right to maintain its naval base at Sevastopol, its only warm water port, was recognized by Kiev, and as long as the Ukrainian government played a buffer role between the Russian Federation and the U.S.-NATO-EU world empire. But when the Ukrainian far right wing came to power this February and Kiev made clear its plan to turn the Russian-speaking people in Ukraine into a persecuted minority and scapegoat, the Putin government felt it had no alternative but to allow the predominately Russian-speaking Crimea to join the Russian Federation.

The alternative would have been to hand over sooner or later the Russian naval base at Sevastopol to NATO. This would be intolerable to the Russian people, especially in light of the NATO expansion since the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union in direct violation of the assurances made to Mikhail Gorbachev by U.S. leaders when he agreed to the unification of Germany on U.S. terms.

Assuming the current Kiev government consolidates itself and succeeds in putting down the resistance in the Russian-speaking east, and even assuming Crimea stays part of Russia, the net result still will be a huge extension of the power of the U.S.-NATO world empire at the expense of Russia. This situation bears no resemblance to Germany’s annexation of German-speaking Austria in 1938, which represented an enormous strengthening of the position of Nazi Germany at the time. For example, Germany’s gold reserves were doubled by the transfer of the gold held by Austria’s central bank to the Reichsbank, as the central bank of German was then called.

The attitude of Marx, Engels and Lenin toward the Russian Empire

But weren’t Marx, Engels and Lenin fierce opponents of Russian nationalism? How can we support the anti-Maidan moment in the eastern Ukraine that is clearly strongly influenced by Russian nationalism when all the historic leaders of Marxism so strongly opposed all forms of Russian nationalism?

Of course, our historic leaders Marx, Engels and Lenin lived in a different time than we do. In the mid-19th century, the Russian Empire cast a dark shadow across Europe. Most peasants within the Russian Empire were serfs bound to the land just like was the case in Western Europe during the feudalism of the Middle Ages. Russian troops crushed the democratic Hungarian revolution of 1848 in blood thereby saving the reactionary Austrian Empire (after 1867 called the Austro-Hungarian Empire). Therefore, during the 1848 revolutions, Marx and Engels advocated war against Russia as well as Great Britain, the “despot of the world market.”

Industrial capitalist Britain in the West and autocratic-feudal Russia in the East were the twin pillars of European and global reaction. If the revolutions of 1848 had reached the level of the Great French Revolution of 1789-1794, not to speak of the Russian Revolution of 1917, there is little doubt that revolutionary Europe would have had to fight a world war against both Britain and Russia.

Misuse of Marx and Engels’ writings on Russia

Marx and Engels’ attitude toward Russia reflected the realities of the epoch in which they lived. This did not prevent renegade socialists from claiming the authority of the two founders of scientific socialism after conditions had fundamentally changed. For example, during World War I the German Social Democratic Party claimed that since Marx and Engels had advocated war against Russia in 1848 they were only applying Marx and Engels’ policy when they voted for war credits on August 4, 1914.

Later, during the Cold War, the reactionary ex-Marxist Sidney Hook tried to enlist Marx and Engels on the side of the newly established U.S.-centered world imperialist empire against the Soviet Union. Hook did this by pointing to Marx and Engels’ calls to war against czarist Russia. In reality, Marx and Engels were strong believers in an approaching Russian revolution destined to transform Russia from a pillar of reaction to a fortress of revolution.

Russia in 1914

By the eve of the “Great War,” though the Russian revolution was not yet victorious, Russia had already changed considerably from what it had been in 1848. Serfdom had been formally abolished in 1861, and by the end of the 19th century modern capitalist industry was developing in Russia. With modern capitalist industry came the development of the workers’ movement, which was far more radical in Russia than in any European or other country. The lingering remnants of serf relations were gradually giving way to capitalist relations in agriculture as well.

Much of the capital invested in large-scale industrial enterprises in Russia as well as in the government bonds of the czarist government was of foreign origin. This capital came from Britain and even more from France—less from Germany because German industry was growing much faster than industry in either Britain or France and therefore had less surplus money capital seeking investment abroad. The newly created industrial enterprises in Russia often took the form of extremely modern factories—by 1914 standards—that were far larger and employed far more workers than any factories in the West.

In the West, including the United States, there were many smaller-scale factories that employed smaller numbers of workers. This reflected the relatively small-scale industrial enterprises that had dominated capitalism during the previous epoch of free competition. In the epoch of free competition, Russia was not yet a capitalist nation.

The pockets of ultra-modern capitalism in the Russia of 1914 formed enclaves in what was still a society that bore many of the marks of its recent feudal past. Politically until the outbreak of the first Russian revolution of 1905, Russia was an absolute monarchy somewhat like Saudi Arabia is today. After the 1905 revolution, a parliament with little real power and limited suffrage called the Duma—the same name as the present-day Russian parliament—was set up, and a constitution, though a very reactionary one, was proclaimed.

The workers’ movement, which had enjoyed no democratic rights whatsoever before 1905, had a shaky and very limited legality and some representatives in parliament. In this sense, Russia in 1914 was actually more advanced politically than the United States is in 2014, where the workers as a class have no representatives at all in either house of the U.S. Congress. Despite these liberal reforms that emerged out of the 1905 revolution, the Russian constitution proclaimed the czar the autocratic ruler of Russia. Therefore, behind some parliamentary window dressing, the essentials of the absolute monarchy remained intact.

Czarist Empire ‘prison house of nations’

Like all empires, the Russian nation ruled and oppressed many other nations. The non-Russian nations of Finland, most of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Byelorussia, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and what was then called Turkestan (the present-day nations of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) were ruled by the Russian Empire. In addition, Russia on the eve of the war in 1914 was in the process of dividing up Iran with Britain. Russia was to get the north as a “sphere of influence” and Britain would dominate southern Iran.

Today, none of the countries listed above are part of today’s Russian state—the Russian Federation. All are independent of Russia, though not necessarily of the U.S. world empire, which is another question entirely. Indeed, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are members of NATO. As such, NATO members therefore have to be considered very dependent parts of the U.S.-centered world imperialist empire.

Russian finance capital in 1914

Though Russians owned some finance capital, defined as stocks, bonds and substantial bank deposits, the development of Russian finance capital lagged far behind the countries that were richest in finance capital, which in 1914 were Britain, the U.S., France and Germany. Indeed, Russia itself was exploited by foreign capital, especially French capital. The role of French finance capital was particularly important because French industry was stagnant at the time. Capital in France tended to be accumulated in the form of money capital that was seeking investment as money loan capital.

Therefore, in 1914 Russia combined elements of both a semi-colonial country and an imperialist nation in its own right. This raised the question whether the Russian Marxists should struggle against Russian imperialism or defend Russia against foreign imperialism like Marxists would defend China against Japanese imperialism in the 1930s.

But to take a similar stand toward Russia in 1914 would have been a grave political error. As we have seen, Russia ruled and oppressed many nations and nationalities. Its policies of “russification”–forcing other nations to use only Russian and forget their languages and culture—were notorious. So was the czarist regime’s vicious anti-Semitism and pogroms. And even greater numbers of Muslims were ruled and oppressed by the czarist empire, where Orthodox Christianity was the state religion.

These circumstances forced Russian Marxists to attach far more importance to the national question than Marxists of any other country. The Russian imperialism of 1914 was actually a combination of two regimes of different class origins, a modestly developed modern imperialism based on monopoly capitalism and finance capital, and a military-feudal imperialism rooted in feudal pre-capitalist relations presided over by the continuing czarist autocracy rooted in feudal relations.

As a result, it was necessary for the Russian Marxists to treat Russia as an imperialist nation and not an oppressed colonial or semi-colonial country. Russia’s war against Germany and Austria-Hungary that started in 1914 was in no way comparable to the war in defense of its independence that China waged against Japan between 1937 and 1945. Unlike the Chinese case, the situation mandated a policy of “revolutionary defeatism” by the Russian Marxists, as their leader V.I. Lenin put it.

The Russia of 1914 therefore presents a peculiar picture. It had many colonies, though unlike the “maritime” empires of Britain and France, Russia’s colonies formed a single continuous geographical area. Russia was a land power and not a maritime power like Great Britain. Since it lagged far behind Britain, not to speak of the United States and Germany in overall industrial development, Russia was much weaker militarily than it had been in the middle of the 19th century. In military competition—war—just like in economic competition, it is the relative, not the absolute, strength of the contending parties that is decisive.

This was shown by the Russian Empire’s defeat at the hands of the upstart Japanese Empire in 1904-05, which shocked European observers at the time. They couldn’t imagine that a white country like Russia could be defeated by a non-white nation that had barely avoided becoming a colony or semi-colony itself. And this point was to be driven home by Russia’s dismal performance during the “Great War” itself.

The end of Russian imperialism

This is not the place to write the history of the Russian Revolution or the Soviet Union. Here we will limit ourselves to the effect of this revolution on Russian imperialism as it existed in 1914. The February revolution, though it formally converted Russia from a monarchy to a republic, left intact both the military-feudal aspect of Russian imperialism as well as its modern monopoly capital-imperialist aspect.

While Czar Nicolas II had been forced to give up the throne, the class base of czarism—large-scale semi-feudal landownership and the military bureaucratic structure of the state—remained intact. Therefore, the republican Russia that emerged from the February revolution remained very much an imperialist power.

Reflecting this fact, the provisional government created by the February revolution, both under its first prime minister, Prince Georgi Lvov, and its second “socialist” prime minister, Alexander Kerensky, stubbornly pursued the czar’s war aims, including the demand that Russia be granted control of the Dardanelles, which connect the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. As a result, the Russian Marxists under Lenin’s leadership—not without internal party debate—stuck to a position of revolutionary defeatism under the republic just as they had under the czar.

October revolution destroys Russian imperialism

However, Russian imperialism in both its senses—a feudal-military machine and monopoly capital dominated by finance capital—was decisively destroyed by the October Revolution. The landlords, the backbone of the military-feudal aspects of Russian imperialism, were overthrown and lost their estates to the peasants in what was the greatest peasant uprising in all history before the Chinese Revolution of 1949. Russian monopoly capitalism soon vanished as well as a result of the victory of the first lasting proletarian revolution. Russian imperialism was now a thing of the past.

Was the Soviet Union imperialist?

Imperialist Western propaganda and its bought and paid for historians claim that the Soviet Union that emerged from the October Revolution was really just a continuation of the old Russian Empire in a new guise. The term “Soviet Empire” often appearing in the capitalist media was designed to drive home this point. The various “state capitalist” tendencies within today’s socialist movement echo the claims of these imperialist historians. For example, the now badly fractured international socialist tendency founded by the late Tony Cliff supports the view that the Soviet economy was a form of capitalism that they call “state capitalism.”

The “state capitalists” insist that the Soviet Union was state capitalist because Soviet industry was owned by the Soviet state and not by private capitalists, whether individual or corporate. However, Cliff’s followers argue that like capitalism the Soviet economy was based on expanded reproduction, or economic growth, and so they draw the conclusion that the Soviet economy was not only capitalist but imperialist as well.

During the “Cold War”, the slogan of the Cliffites was “neither Washington nor Moscow.” When the Soviet Union was completely destroyed under Gorbachev and Yeltsin, the Cliffites hailed this development as a great advance for the working class since, according to their “state capitalist” logic, one of the two “imperialist superpowers” that had dominated the post-1945 world had fallen.

Since the Soviet Union had been “imperialist,” virtually all the tendencies in the present-day Cliffite movement see the present-day Russian Federation as simply the continuation of Soviet-era imperialism, which in turn is seen as essentially the continuation of the old czarist imperialism that Lenin had fought so hard against.

The other main “state capitalist” tendency in today’s socialist movement draws its inspiration from the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, which from 1968 onward often referred to the Soviet leadership of the day as the “new czars.” By using the term “new czars,” the Chinese leadership starting from 1968 drew a direct equation between imperialist czarist Russia and the Soviet Union after the “Krushchevite revisionists” took over at the 20th Party Congress of the CPSU in 1956.

No true Soviet imperialism

It is true that under the planned economy of the Soviet Union a tremendous amount of wealth was accumulated. But this wealth was not accumulated in the form of capital and therefore not in the form of finance capital. Since there was virtually no legal capital after the New Economic Policy was superseded by the first five-year plan starting in 1928—and since the “second economy” even under the indulgent regime of Leonid Brezhnev (1906-1982) certainly did not come anywhere near the level of monopoly capitalism generating its own finance capital—there was not a single kopeck of Soviet finance capital.

The Russian Federation a prison house of nations?

Lenin hated all forms of national oppression and racism, not least the Great Russian chauvinism that had proved such a prop of the czarist regime. On a personal level, Lenin never told “ethnic jokes.” After the revolution, no nation was forced to remain in the Soviet Federation that was to evolve into the Soviet Union. For example, Poland and Finland never became members of the Soviet Federation. Nations that were sufficiently developed to exist as independent countries but chose to be part of the Soviet Federation were organized as Soviet Republics, which specifically included the right of secession.

But the old Russian Empire in addition to including nations that were perfectly capable of existing as independent countries also included many smaller nationalities that themselves were simply not populous enough to function as viable independent countries. These peoples were organized into autonomous Soviet republics. They were educated in their own languages, and in some cases written alphabets had to be developed for these languages for the first time.

Under Lenin, every effort was made to develop leaderships both in the Soviet Republics and the Soviet autonomous republics from their own nationalities. This policy was the opposite of the czarist policy of “Russification.” In Ukraine, for example, a policy of “Ukrainization” was followed where not only the Ukraine language was used in all official functions but Ukraine leadership was developed in both the party and the state.

Lenin’s successors did not live up to his high standards. It is well known that near the end of his life Lenin denounced what he saw as heavy-handed policies reflecting great Russian chauvinism by Joseph Stalin, Felix Dzerzhinsky and Sergo Ordzhonikidze towards Stalin’s and Ordzhonikidze’s own native republic of Georgia. It should be pointed out that Stalin; Felix Dzerzhinsky, who was of Polish nationality; and Sergo Ordzhonikidze were all non-Russian. As non-Russians, men like Stalin, Dzerzhinsky, and Ordzhonikidze were under pressure from backward elements to be “more Russian than the Russians.” Lenin hated this kind of thing.

World War II was to bring greater problems on the national front. The widely varying degrees of economic development and class structure of different nationalities and certain special historical circumstances flowing from the nature of German fascism, combined with the Stalin leadership’s policy of not always voluntary collectivization of agriculture—when the peasants did not agree to join a collective farm, their joining was then made virtually compulsory, which runs counter to Marxist principles—created more Nazi collaborators among some nationalities than among others.

A special circumstance applied to the traditionally Yiddish-speaking Soviet Jewish nationality. The Jews had been a trading people in czarist Russia, which meant that many—not all, of course—Jews were strongly attached to private property. In spite of this, there were very few Nazi collaborators among them. This was because the Nazi policy toward the “Jewish question” was very simple. It was to kill every Jewish man, women and child, either through working them to death or killing them outright.

Therefore, within the Jewish Yiddish-speaking nationality all classes and strata—workers who supported the Soviet system because of their class position, the more or less illegal businesspeople who found many possibilities to make money in the shortage-plagued Soviet economy but who yearned for a return to capitalist rule so that they could exploit workers legally, and revolutionary and counterrevolutionary intellectuals alike—had no alternative but to side with Soviet power against the German Nazi imperialist invaders. During World War II, Soviet Jews were the most loyal nationality within the Soviet Union, despite the relatively large number of businesspeople operating more or less illegally that existed among this traditionally trading people.

Things were different among the Chechens, whose social structure resembled the Jews in some ways. Like the Jews, the Chechens had been a trading people in czarist Russia, and many Chechens, just like many Jews, were skillful in playing the Soviet “black market.” But the Nazis had no policy of exterminating Chechens, who traditionally practiced the Muslim religion. Indeed, during the war, Germany posed as the champion of the Muslim peoples much like the U.S. posed as the champion of the Chinese people against Japan, and Japan posed as the champion of the Indian people against Britain.

Germany “championed” the interests of the Muslims because Germany’s imperialist enemies, especially Britain, held much of the Muslim world in thrall. As part of its general oppression of the Arab nation, which forms part of the Muslim world, British imperialism introduced Jewish Zionist colonizers into Palestine beginning with the proclamation of the Balfour Declaration in 1917.

For the above reasons, the Muslim Chechens produced a relatively high number of Nazi collaborators. The Stalin government responded by deporting the Chechens to regions far away from the fighting.

In the wake of World War II, the Stalin government also decided that in light of what it saw as a large number of Nazi collaborators among the Crimean Tatars during the Nazi occupation of the Crimean Peninsula—who like the Chechens are traditionally Muslims—to remove the Tatars from Crimea and to dissolve their autonomous Soviet Republic. The Tartars were removed to Central Asia, which is the historical homeland of the Tatars of which the Crimean Tatars are only a subset. The Tatar people as a whole form the largest national minority in today’s Russian Federation and have their own autonomous republic within the Russian Federation. The Volga German nationality was also exiled because, in light of their shared nationality with the invaders, the Stalin government doubted their loyalty.

The removal of entire nationalities and the abolition of their autonomous republics—as opposed to punishing individual collaborators—were gross violations of the principles of Lenin and the Russian Revolution and are therefore heavily emphasized by Western historians who are paid to put the Russian Revolution and Soviet Union in the worst possible light.

However, the champions of U.S. imperialism have little moral authority to make an issue of this. The Roosevelt government imprisoned the entire Japanese American population—men, women and children—in concentration camps during World War II because it feared some of this population might prove loyal to their ancestral homeland rather than the U.S.

In addition, during the war government propaganda posters featured extremely racist caricatures of Japanese people. These posters were widely displayed in factories and other places, which had the effect of creating a racist hysteria against the Japanese and Americans of Japanese descent. These posters with their racist caricatures of Japanese people warned workers to shut up lest they be overheard by spies. Presumably these Japanese spies would be disguised as white people.

Though the U.S. was also at war with Germany and Italy, there were no similar racist caricatures of Germans or Italians on propaganda posters. After all, Germans and Italians were white, and Roosevelt’s Democratic Party even more than its conservative Republican opponent was in those days based on white racism, and not only in the Jim Crow South. The big-city Democratic machines were based on white ethnic groups, and the northern Democrats posed as defenders of the white workers against African Americans who competed with the white ethnics for the hardest and least desirable jobs on the capitalist labor market.

The imprisonment of the Japanese-American population was carried out despite the fact that at no point during the war was there ever any realistic chance of a Japanese invasion of the United States. Indeed, the Japanese air force was unable to launch a single bombing raid against the U.S. mainland during the entire war. The famous bombing of the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, located in the colony of Hawaii thousands of kilometers west of the U.S. mainland, was never repeated. In contrast, the U.S. launched a vicious bombing campaign against the Japanese islands that reduced its cities to rubble. It culminated in the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In contrast to the inability of Japan to invade the U.S., the invasion of the Soviet Union by the Germans under Nazi leadership was very real. If German imperialism had not invaded the Soviet Union, the deportations of national minorities that did so much violence to the nationality policy of Lenin and the Russian Revolution would never have occurred. Also, unlike the Palestinian people, who were exiled from their homeland to make room for Zionist Israel after the war, the exiled Soviet nationalities were absorbed in their new homes by the rapidly expanding Soviet planned economy.

Due to the imperialist exploitation and oppression of the Arab nation, their economies have not been able to absorb many of the displaced Palestinian people. As a result, many Palestinians are still housed in refugee camps 65 years after they were driven out of their homeland. Two whole generations of Palestinians have grown up in these refugee camps, and now a third generation is growing up knowing only refugee camps as homes. Nothing like this occurred in the Soviet Union.

Despite violations of the national rights of some nations arising from the Nazi invasion and a less sensitive policy toward the non-Russian nations in general that prevailed under Lenin’s successors, the position of the non-Russian nationalities as a whole was a colossal improvement compared to what existed in czarist times.

The continued survival of the autonomous republics today—which is why today’s republican Russia is a federation as opposed to a unitary state—however damaged they might be by the restoration of capitalism—is a remaining democratic—not socialist—conquest of the October Revolution. This does not change the fact that the condition of all non-Russian people, like is the case with the Russian people of the Russian Federation, has deteriorated tremendously since the destruction of the Soviet Union and the return of capitalism.

Still, even today it would be worth comparing the conditions and national rights of the non-Russian peoples of the Russian Federation with the closest U.S. equivalent of the Russian autonomous republics, the conditions of the Native nations—commonly called “American Indians”–of the United States in the “Indian reservations” that are supposed to allow the native nations to exercise their national rights within the framework of the United States of America.

In December 1991, the president of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, declared the independence of Russia from the Soviet Union—an act that brought the Soviet Union to a formal end. Reactionary Russian nationalists had complained for years that the Russian nation was being oppressed by the non-Russian nationalities of the Soviet Union. This complaint echoes the claim of white racists in the U.S. that white Americans are being oppressed under the “tyranny” of African American President Barack Obama, who is supposedly putting the interests of the “Third World” people ahead of “real”—that is, white—Americans.

Does the existence of minority nationalities that face actual or potential oppression by the majority Russian nationality mean we should define the present-day Russian Federation as imperialist? After all, one of the reasons Lenin described czarist Russia in 1914 as imperialist was that Russia was a prison house of nations. Isn’t today’s Russian Federation, though on a much reduced scale, still a prison house of nations?

If we use the presence of minority nationalities and the possibility of their oppression by the majority nation to distinguish between imperialist and oppressed nations, it would be difficult to find non-imperialist countries anywhere in the world.

For example, pre-1949 China would be “imperialist,” since it had minority nationalities that the “Great Han” nationality either oppressed or potentially oppressed. Syria, Iraq and Iran all have a “Kurdish problem.” India, even when it was a formal colony of Great Britain, would have to be considered “imperialist” in its own right, because it is made up of many nationalities that speak many languages and have different religions than the Hindu nation proper. The well-known conflict between Hindus and Muslims is only one aspect of the extremely complex national question in India.

With the victory of the Muslim-baiting BJP under ultra-rightist Narendra Modi in this May’s election, which was greeted with great joy by the imperialist press, the national question is taking on a new sharpness in India. However, this does not mean that India is now an imperialist nation. Even the countries of Africa, the most oppressed countries in the world, contain many different nations within their borders. So by this logic they too would have to considered imperialist.

In conclusion, the national question is not a thing of the past for the Russian Federation, but it is also true that today’s Russian Federated Republic is a far cry from the prison house of nations that czarist Russia was.

No restoration of czarist imperialism

Has the military-feudal imperialism of pre-1917 Russia been restored? Except for the double-eagle coat of arms that is popular among today’s Russian nationalists, the answer is no. Present-day Russian landed property is landed property of a purely capitalist type, not of the feudal type. And even if reaction in Russia were to deepen to the point that one of the Romanov pretenders were to be restored to the throne—which remains a theoretical if highly unlikely possibility—the feudal order would still be beyond revival.

The reaction against the October Revolution, which had been building for decades, seems to have reached its peak under the regime of Boris Yeltsin. But the essence of Yeltsin’s policy was the restoration not of the old military-feudal order—the double eagle that was restored as the coat of arms of the Russian Federation aside—but of capitalism. Though Putin has followed a more nationalist policy than Yeltsin, Putin is also powerless to restore military-feudal imperialism of the czarist past, even if he personally wanted to do so. Therefore, though you might not realize it if your opinions are governed by the media of the real empire and the real jailer of nations in the contemporary world, the feudal-military imperialism of the czarist past has not been restored in present-day Russia, nor can it be.

A new modern Russian imperialism?

But what about a modernized Russian imperialism based on the rule of monopoly capitalism and finance capital? The development of a modern Russian imperialism based on monopoly capital ruled by finance capital—the owners of great concentrations of stocks, bonds and large bank deposits—cannot be excluded in advance as long as Russia remains capitalist. The same is true of all non-imperialist capitalist countries. We cannot rule out a future Indian imperialism, or even a future imperialism centered in sub-Saharan Africa.

Who knows, if capitalism were to last for a few more centuries, if the Congo with its rich mineral wealth might become the center of a global imperialist empire much like the U.S.A.—also rich in mineral wealth—is now. But today in the year 2014, despite the strides that capitalism is making in Africa, we are very far from that. Indeed, in the U.S. of 2014, anybody fantasizing about a possible future Congolese world imperialist empire would be guilty of fanning the flames of racist hysteria.

Crises, monopoly capitalism and the rise of finance capital

Our study of crises and the industrial cycle, the main topic of this blog, has demonstrated that a basic contradiction of capitalism is its ability to raise the level of industrial production faster than markets for the growing quantity of commodities it must produce can expand. Therefore, the competition among the many capitals capitalism must consist of is much like the children’s game of musical chairs. The more capitalism develops the fewer independent capitals remain. Capital is therefore doomed to become more centralized until its further existence becomes impossible.

We also saw that each successive crisis of overproduction, beginning with the first one in 1825, causes great amounts of money to fall out of circulation and accumulate as huge idle hoards in the banks. We certainly see this today in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis. Since the essence of capitalism is M—C—M’, the huge amount of idle money created by each successive crisis burns holes in the collective pocket of the capitalist class. Inevitably, the great amount of money—potential capital—released by successive crises of overproduction seeks investment. Much of the money driven out of the channels of circulation in each successive crisis is transformed into money loan capital M—M’.

In this way, modern finance capital develops. Within about 75 years—a human lifetime—after the crisis of 1825, the capitalism of free competition had been transformed into monopoly capitalism-imperialism, with the world almost completely divided up among a handful of imperialist powers. Monopoly capitalism has produced centralized “trusts”–which is the form proper to a centralized planned socialist production—side by side with continued free competition in other sectors of the economy. Over time, from crisis to crisis, the element of monopoly grows stronger while free competition, though it doesn’t disappear, recedes.

Historically speaking, the monopolist or imperialist phase of capitalism is the first stage in the transformation of capitalism based on private property and free competition into the planned communist economy of the associated producers.

Monopoly capitalism is therefore the final stage of capitalism, though like all social phenomena imperialism passes through a number of phases of its own. Under all stages of imperialism, however, a few countries emerge that are very rich in finance capital that exploit other countries that are relatively poor in it. To measure how rich a country is in finance capital, we must take into account not only the absolute quantity of finance capital—measured like all forms of wealth under the capitalist mode of production in money, or units of weights of gold bullion representing in turn quantities of abstract human labor measured by some unit of time—but also its magnitude relative to the population of the country.

The countries that are richest in finance capital—not necessarily richest in industrial capital—are the imperialist countries that economically exploit all other capitalist countries in the world.

Finance capital versus other forms of capital

Under the old capitalism of free competition that reached its highest level of development in Britain during the first three-quarters of the 19th century, businesses were owned by individuals or by small groups of partners. Individual owners of ongoing businesses often speak of “my employees” or “my workers” or “my hands,” as though they actually own their workers outright, though under capitalism they only own their purchased labor power.

What is today called investment banking was just developing in 19th-century Britain and was generally conducted by firms that were separate from those conducting commercial banking. The commercial banks were relatively small-scale enterprises—humble middlemen, as Lenin called them—a far cry from the gigantic universal banks that dominate capitalism today. A business owned by a single “boss” or a small group of partners was typical of the old industrial capitalism of the age of free competition. These relations can still be found in those sectors of the present-day capitalist economy where production is carried out on a relatively small scale.

The situation is quite different with those capitalists who own only finance capital—which I, following Marx and Engels, have called money capitalists in this blog. The bank commercials talk about making your money work for you. But whoever saw a gold bar, dollar bill or checkable bank deposit actually work? What the bank is really saying to the “moneyed public”–owners of usually small amounts of “moneyed” capital—is that by converting their money savings into capital the bank will arrange to have the surplus value-producing working class work a certain number of hours for its customers free of charge. It is only in this sense that money “works.”

Nowadays, stocks, bonds and money market instruments are often owned by mutual funds managed by professional money managers. The individual owners of the mutual fund shares often don’t directly own such assets. The reason that mutual funds are so popular is that intelligent “stock picking” is difficult for small “investors.” Small, and sometimes not so small, individual money capitalists lack the knowledge to distinguish which stocks are “overvalued” on the stock market from those that are “undervalued.” While the stock market is often wrong about the value of stocks, its participants collectively are more informed than most individual capitalists.

A mutual fund embodies the banking principle. Individuals who have surplus money or savings do not have the ability to individually lend their surplus money, so they deposit it in a bank that does the lending and shares the interest income with its depositors. A mutual fund applies this principle to stocks, bonds, money market funds and so on. Very often the mutual funds are actually owned by large universal banks.

The same is true of pension funds. A group of employees, themselves not capitalists, save for their retirement. A certain amount of their salaries or wages is set aside and invested. But the employees are in no position to know what to invest their retirement savings in. Therefore, their savings are pooled and put under the control of a professional money manager who is knowledgeable, or supposedly knowledgeable, and in a position to invest the savings more or less intelligently.

One of the changes in monopoly capitalism since Lenin’s day is that back then the great mass of corporate shares was still owned and managed by individuals. Today, in contrast, the great mass of stocks, bonds and other securities is managed by institutional investors such as bank-managed trust funds, pension funds, mutual funds, hedge funds, insurance companies and money market funds. These institutions, in turn, are increasingly owned or controlled by the few universal banks. In this way, “moneyed capital” is transformed into finance capital controlled by a few gigantic banking institutions.

In a country rich in finance capital, there is in addition to the extremely rich people found in all capitalist countries—for example, the Russian and Ukrainian “oligarchs”–there is a large “middle class” of “modest savers.” This middle class comes to include the more privileged upper levels of the working class, who may own some mutual funds or be beneficiaries of pension funds through various job-related retirement plans.

It is quite possible for a country to be poor in finance capital even if it is relatively rich in industrial capital. For example, a large number of factories, mines, and large-scale capitalist farms might be located in such a country, making it rich in industrial capital. Britain is the classic example of a country that in the age of free competition was rich in industrial capital—it was the workshop of the world—while today Britain is not so rich in industrial capital but very rich in finance capital.

The U.S. has evolved in the same direction. While a century ago the U.S. was very rich in industrial capital, today de-industrialization has vastly reduced the relative wealth of the U.S. in industrial capital. However, the U.S. remains very much number one in finance capital.

Not all forms of monetary savings represent finance capital. In India and to a certain extent China, savings often consist of gold jewelry—essentially money material, gold bullion—that is shaped into jewelry. Savings in this form do not represent finance capital or capital in any form. The mere ownership of gold bullion—money—does not entitle its owner to an atom of surplus value. Generally, oppressed countries, with their underdeveloped banking systems, are poor in finance capital. A relatively large amount of savings are held in the form of hoarded money that is not converted into capital. In the more developed countries, “savings” are held in banks, mutual funds, money market funds, and so on. This is one of the reasons why empirical-minded Keynes, who served in his youth as a colonial official in India, considered gold a “barbarous relic.”

Unlike hoarded gold, each unit of finance capital—a share in a mutual fund, hedge fund, or certificate of deposit issued by a bank—is a claim on a definite quantum of the total surplus value produced by the global working class. If you own a portion of finance capital in whatever form, you have a certain percentage of the world’s wage slaves working for you. The ownership of this “moneyed capital” is in its great mass centralized in the hands of financial institutions concentrated in certain countries. The countries that are rich in finance capital exploit the countries that are poor in finance capital.

Closely related to finance capital is wealth in real estate. Real estate is a combination of landed property and the buildings built on top of it. Though not identical to finance capital, real estate is closely bound up with finance capital. The richer a country is in terms of finance capital the more the price of landed property is inflated in the country and therefore the more “valuable”–in terms of the amount of money it exchanges for on the market. Ultimately, the rising value of real estate originates in the unpaid labor of the global working class.

Therefore, how rich a country is in finance capital—or what amounts to the same thing, the extent to which a country is an exploiter or exploited country—will have a profound effect on the class struggle and the politics of the country, since large sections of the upper levels of the working class can own small amounts of finance capital, or are beneficiaries of pension funds, own stocks and bonds through Individual Retirement Accounts, or hold shares in mutual funds.

These more privileged workers don’t control the tiny quantities of finance capital they own and don’t own enough capital to be capitalists proper, because they cannot live off their interest or dividend income. They all the same do appropriate a certain quantity, if only a very small quantity, of the surplus value produced by the workers of the oppressed countries, as well as by the productive (of surplus value) workers of their own country.

This is one of the methods by which imperialism bribes the upper layer of the working class and the white-collar “employees.” In the exploited countries, the working class is more radical, and national liberation movements against exploitation of the nation tend to become the ally of the working-class movement. In contrast, the richer a country is in finance capital, the more it is an exploiter country, the more powerful reactionary nationalism becomes and the more “national feelings” become the ally of the exploiters.

However, the more imperialism is weakened by the resistance of the oppressed nations, the weaker imperialism becomes and the more the way is opened to radicalization of the working class and even the middle class. For example, U.S. society was thrown into profound turmoil by the resistance of the Vietnamese nation in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The anti-war movements in the imperialist countries are therefore not a detour in the “real” class struggle—the trade union struggle for higher wages, shorter hours and better conditions—but are an inevitable form that class struggle must take in the imperialist countries due to the basic economic nature of imperialism itself.

Because of the long-term trend toward concentration and centralization of capital, the real social base of the monopoly capitalist rulers narrows over time. In order to defend its position as ruling class as well as its empire, monopoly capitalism-imperialism is obliged to support all reactionary trends and forces in the world—racism, misogyny, homophobia, neo-fascism, absolute monarchies, police states and systems of universal surveillance. This is why in Lenin’s words imperialism means “reaction all along the line.”

The other side is that every democratic trend or movement both in the imperialist countries themselves as well as the oppressed countries comes into conflict with monopoly capitalism-imperialism.

Is China about to become the world’s leading imperialist nation? It has been reported that by the end of the current year—2014—the GDP of China according to the purchasing power parity—taking into account the differing price levels in different countries—will exceed that of the United States. (5) Already, China’s GDP on this basis is reported to exceed the GDP of Japan. Does this mean that China in this very year is in the process of replacing the United States as the world’s leading imperialist nation? And isn’t India emerging as a leading imperialist nation—admittedly not quite on the scale of “imperialist” China—in its own right eclipsing Japan?

Before we jump to these conclusions, we have to take certain things into account. The population of present-day China is about three times that of the United States. China, therefore, remains relatively poor in industrial capital relative to the United States.

But imperialism, as we have seen above, is not based on the relative level of industrial capital but of finance capital. If I as a citizen of the United States own X amount of finance capital in stocks, bonds and interest-bearing bank deposits, this doesn’t mean that I am entitled to X amount of surplus value produced by the workers of the United States. No, I am entitled to X amount of surplus value produced by the workers of the entire world.

Russian banks

What is the relative position of Russian banks today? If Russia today is not only capitalist, which it indeed is, but also imperialist, we would expect Russian banks to be increasingly prominent in the world, since the “great” universal banks are the most important organizations of finance capital. The publication Global Finance lists the world’s 50 biggest banks as of 2012 in terms of assets. Despite the size and natural wealth of Russia, not a single Russian bank appears on the list.

According to the Jan. 31, 2014, Wall Street Journal, based on assets of the world’s 100 biggest banks, only two Russian banks, OAO Sherbank and OAO VTB, appear. They come in at number 54 and 94, respectively. Sherbank evolved from the old Soviet savings bank system—in Russian, Sherbank means savings bank. Even today 51 percent of its stock is owned by the Russian central bank, which itself is state owned. According to Wikipedia, the Russian Federation state owns 60.9 percent of OAO VTB. While both banks today are universal banks, they are still quasi—state enterprises.

In and of itself, the lack of a single Russian bank in the top 50 banks, and only two among the top 100, is suggestive but not decisive. In today’s world, banking is highly centralized, and in many of the smaller imperialist countries all banking is foreign owned—though Russia is hardly a small country.

In addition, Russia is not a member of NATO or the European Union and is generally seen as far more independent of the U.S. than imperialist countries of “the West” such as the countries of Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Since Russian capitalist “imperialism” would have developed only over the last 25 years from its very modest roots in the pre-perestroika Soviet “second economy,” it would be expected to be sharply counter-posed to the established imperialism of the U.S.-centered world empire.

Russia would therefore be expected to be evolving its own gigantic banking institutions. Indeed, China is developing some very large banks, which does indicate a certain development of finance capital in that country, though the operation of these banks remains so far largely confined to China. Moreover, China as a whole, as we will see below, is still far too poor in finance capital to be considered anything close to being an imperialist country in its own right.

Russia, in contrast, which has not seen anything approaching the growth of industrial capital that China has experienced over the last quarter of a century, has yet to develop a single bank, even a state-owned bank, that ranks in the world’s top 50 banks.

The other features that Lenin took into account in distinguishing between imperialist countries and the exploited countries are less significant than they were in 1914, because there has been a century of capitalist development that has greatly reduced the weight of pre-capitalist modes of production and political forms compared to 1914.

For example, when Lenin wrote “Imperialism” in 1916, two years after World War I had begun and while it was still raging without a decisive outcome, the czarist military-feudal imperialism, though in its death agony, was still very much in existence and there was no way of knowing how long it would be able to hang on. Rapidly industrializing but relative to Britain, the U.S. and Germany still under-industrialized, Japan was still poor in finance capital. But Japan was using its highly developed military machine to seize colonies. Japan had seized Taiwan in a war against China in 1895, and Korea in 1910. Therefore, Lenin ranked Japan among the imperialist powers despite its relative poverty in finance capital.

Imperialism in 2014 compared to imperialism in 1914

If you have to describe the difference between the imperialism of 1914 and the imperialism of 2014 in one word, it would be NATO. Unlike in 1914, there is one military machine, or “czar,” that dominates the imperialist world. And its roots are not in feudal but purely capitalist relations. This machine includes the armed forces not only of the United States but also of other countries in the NATO “alliance,” including Britain, Germany, France and, though formally part of a separate security treaty, Japan as well. It also includes the armed forces of many of the “lesser” imperialist countries such as Canada and the smaller countries of Western Europe as well as, now, Eastern Europe.

The armed forces of many, though not all, oppressed nations are thoroughly controlled by the global military machine headquartered in the Pentagon and commanded by the White House. The situation where the “czar” in the White House dominates the world militarily will not last forever. Indeed, the law of uneven development undermines it, but it is very much the situation in the world of 2014.

If imperialism is fated to last for decades more, it will inevitably change in the future just as it has changed over the century that followed the outbreak of the great war in August 1914. Our analysis of imperialism in 2014 centered on a “czar” in the White House will then be quite out of date, much as Lenin’s writings on Russian imperialism are out of today. But in order to orient ourselves correctly in 2014, our “homeland in time,” so to speak, we have to understand the world we are living in and not a purely speculative world that may or may not come into existence at some point in the future.

The real imperialist countries

The imperialism of 1914 was still intermixed with the imperialism of pre-capitalist origins. While this was most evident in czarist Russia, it also characterized the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire, itself a relic of the medieval Holy Roman Empire of the German people. Like czarist Russia, Austria-Hungary was a prison house of nations—though on a somewhat smaller scale than its czarist counterpart.

Today’s imperialism, by contrast, is pretty much purged of the still significant pre-capitalist elements that characterized the imperialism of 1914. A century of capitalist development, two world wars, successive crises of overproduction, including the super-crisis of 1929-33, and not least of all the revolutions of the 20th century, including the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949, though they have not yet led to the downfall of imperialism have largely purged it of the pre-capitalist elements that were still significant in 1914.

Finance capital the decisive factor

This brings us to the question of finance capital. The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2012 divides the countries of the world into four categories according to wealth—not income—per adult. This is a rough proxy for the average amount of finance capital that is owned by individuals in each country, since finance capital—stocks, bonds, money market funds and bank accounts—form the great bulk of wealth in today’s world.

This is true despite the fact that ownership of finance capital is anything but even within the imperialist countries themselves. The top group, with over U.S. $100,000 average wealth per adult, pretty much defines the imperialist countries, including the “white colony” of Israel. These countries are the United States—no surprise here—Canada, all the countries of Western Europe with the exception of Portugal but none of the East European countries. Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden are also among the countries in the top group. These countries in the economic sense are exploiting countries and are therefore imperialist countries.

Only a few countries in this $100,000 plus club don’t quite fit in the traditional list of imperialist countries. Leaving aside some Arab oil monarchies, which are hardly countries in any real sense, we find Taiwan. However, Taiwan is not really a country either but a part of China that is a neo-colony of the United States. There is also the case of Ireland, a country oppressed and exploited for centuries by Great Britain, which is listed by Credit Suisse in the $100,000 plus group. Significantly, however, South Korea does not belong to this top group.

With these few qualifications, Credit Suisse’s list of countries with average adult wealth exceeding $100,000 is a list of real imperialist countries. The other feature that all countries in this group have in common is that they are all allied with—really satellites of—a single country, the United States of America.

The second group of countries have an average wealth level of between $25,000 and $100,000 per adult. In this group, we find Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Uruguay, Saudi Arabia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Baltic states, Greece, Turkey, Portugal, and a few Arab oil monarchies that are not really countries in the usual sense. Most of these countries are semi- or neo-colonies. Perhaps only Portugal, which had a colonial empire in Africa until the 1970s, might be considered imperialist.

The third group of countries, very poor in finance capital, includes most of the Latin American countries, Brazil, Argentina and so on; South Africa; the countries of North Africa; most of the East European countries, including Poland and Russia; China; and Indonesia. These countries are most certainly not imperialist. And this is where we find China despite its remarkable industrial progress over the last quarter of a century, completely unmatched by Russia. Quite the contrary. None of the countries is this category can remotely be considered imperialist.

Finally, we have the countries that are poorest in finance capital. These include the countries of central Africa; India, despite its industrial progress; Vietnam; Bolivia and Guyana in South America; and Ukraine. Though Ukraine was among the richest areas of the Soviet Union, it now is among the countries that are poorest in finance capital.

No Russian imperialism

If we use the criterion of an independently powerful military machine, there is really only one imperialist power, or “czar,” in today’s world, the United States of America. If we use the criterion of countries that are rich in finance capital—that is, share in the exploitation of the countries of the world, despite their being military and political satellites of the U.S., we do not find Russia or for that matter China among them. Nor do we find Russia or China in the second category. In terms of finance capital, Russia belongs definitely to countries that are in the lower half of the countries that are definitely not imperialist. Today’s Russia is very far indeed from becoming an imperialist country, and if anything is in danger of falling into the fourth tier where Ukraine already is.

Some other arguments that Russia is imperialist

Supporters of the view that Russia is imperialist point to Russia’s status as a “great power.” Czarist Russia was considered a great power in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Soviet Union was a “superpower” along with the U.S. during the Cold War. So, the argument goes, today’s Russian Federation must also be ranked as a great power, if not a superpower. And aren’t great powers imperialist?

This argument, as we have seen above, is based on unhistorical analogies where completely different epochs are lumped together. But what about Russia’s missiles and nuclear weapons that are inherited not from the czarist Russia of 1914 but from the Soviet Union of the late 20th century? Though Russia’s nuclear capacity has perhaps been degraded since the destruction of Soviet power, it still appears to be capable of turning the world, including the United States, into radioactive dust. Therefore, isn’t this proof that present-day Russia is imperialist?

During the Cold War, it gradually became evident that nuclear weapons are extremely dangerous to use in modern warfare. Even if a nuclear power launched a major nuclear attack against a non-nuclear country, the environmental consequences of using such a weapon would devastate the attacking country even in the absence of any counterattack. Mother nature herself would launch a devastating counterattack. Russia’s ability to destroy the United States with nuclear weapons at the price of destroying Russia itself, even if the U.S. did not counterattack, doesn’t make Russia an imperialist country.

The role of the semi-state-owned Gazprom oil and gas company is sometimes cited as evidence that Russia is an imperialist country. However, virtually all oil-rich countries that are not imperialist themselves such as Mexico, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia have similar oil companies. Indeed, Gazprom is evidence that Russia is not imperialist. It underlines that Russia is a supplier of raw materials, the historical role of oppressed, not imperialist, countries.

Gazprom itself is far from the world’s biggest state or quasi-state oil company. Its wealth is exceeded by among others the Iranian National Oil Company and the state oil companies of Venezuela and Nigeria. If Russia is imperialist because of Gazprom, so are Venezuela, Nigeria and Iran.

By the eve of perestroika 30 years ago, the Soviet Union led the world in the basic branches of industry—though not in consumer goods. Not surprisingly, today capitalist Russia has had some success in exporting steel, machine tools and military commodities. Russia was in 2013 number five when it comes to steel production, a far cry from the number one position the Soviet Union enjoyed just before perestroika.

The current number one country is the People’s Republic of China while Russia has fallen below India, which is number four. The United States, which prior to the Soviet Union was the world’s leading steel producer, is now number three. In 2013, Germany, a much smaller country than China, Russia or the U.S. was number seven.

In 1914, steel production, the “heart” of heavy industry, was concentrated in the imperialist countries. Today there is a growing trend for steel production to be “farmed out” to non-imperialist countries such China and India. Considering these factors, Russia’s relatively high rank as the number five steel producer in 2007 hardly makes it imperialist.

The verdict is in

During the last several decades of the Soviet Union, economists inspired by neo-classical marginalism, and especially the Austrian school, developed a critique of the Soviet economy from a marginalist perspective. The economists who were to become the architects of perestroika were greatly influenced by such figures as Ludwig von Mises, Frederich von Hayek and Milton Friedman.

All the problems faced by the Soviet economy, and of course there were many, were blamed by these economists on central planning. The solution proposed by these “radical-reformers,” as they were called, was a thoroughgoing decentralization of the economy, partial or complete de-collectivization of agriculture, the abolition of the state monopoly of foreign trade, and a convertible ruble (6).

Only in this way, these economists argued, could the law of value operate in the Soviet economy and full advantage be taken of the “levers” of personal material interest and commodity-money relations. Though these ideas were sometimes dubbed “market socialism,” in reality, taken in their general tendency, they were incompatible with building socialism. In the end, to fully carry out this program, it was necessary to restore private property in the means of production. While earlier Soviet governments had attempted to carry out bits and pieces of the “reform program,” the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev embraced the reform program wholeheartedly.

This “experiment” has been going on now for more than two decades—actually since 1989, when Gorbachev’s “radical” economic reforms began to be put into effect in earnest. If marginalist theory is correct, whether in its neoclassical or Austrian versions, the economies of the former Soviet nations freed from the “fetters” of centralized planning and state ownership should have thrived.

But if the Marxist critique of bourgeois political economy is correct, the transition from a higher to a lower mode of production would be expected to lead to a lowering of the productive forces and general social and political catastrophe. If neither theory is fully correct and the truth is somewhere in between, then we would expect to see a kind of intermediate result. The results of the experiment are now in. What are they?

The verdict of Konstantinovka, Ukraine

The British Guardian reported May 8, 2014: “Unlike many of the coal-mining towns, “Konstantinovka has always been known for its glass production. At their peak, during the Soviet period, the town’s three glass factories employed more than 15,000 people between them…. In the late 1980s [just before Gorbachev’s “radical” perestrokia reforms began to bite—SW] the factories produced over 150m glass bottles a year, to package sweet Crimean imitation champagne and send them far and wide to celebrate birthdays and weddings across the Soviet Union.”

That was then. But now?

“Now, the factories lie in ruins around the outskirts of town. Just a few workshops are still operational, employing a mere 600 people. Even the centre of town is decaying. The asphalt on the roads is cracked, and huge weeds sprout across the pavements. The stone models of a bright yellow camel and of Snow White and the seven dwarfs in the central park look somewhat sinister, surrounded by knee-high grass that has not been cut for months.”

The Guardian quotes a local politician as observing: “Nothing new has been built, nothing has been modernized. Many people are upset and angry with their fate.”

Remember, the supporters of perestroika a quarter of century ago claimed that their “radical economic reforms” were necessary to “reinvigorate” the Soviet economy and ensure its modernization, which was supposedly being blocked by the “fetters” of centralized planning. Now we can see what the effects of this “reinvigoration” have been for the town of Konstantinovka in Ukraine. And Konstantinovka’s results are not atypical but typical, not only for Ukraine but throughout the former Soviet Union.

A few “oligarchs”–the new capitalist class that stole the factories, mines and farms that used to belong to the workers and peasants–have indeed become very rich. For them and their hangers-on—the hangers-on are much fewer in Russia, Ukraine and the other ex-Soviet nations than in the real imperialist countries—perestroika and the even more “radical” post-perestroika policies have indeed been a great success. Their wealth has grown far beyond what would have been possible even in the final days of the regime of Leonid Brezhnev with its growing “second economy.” But for the great majority of the Ukrainian people and the peoples of all the former Soviet nations, the results have been an unbridled disaster.

These results, just like the Great Recession, show how false are the ideas of marginalism. Remember, the marginalists of both the neoclassical and Austrian schools claim that the value of commodities arises from their scarcity relative to the wants of consumers and not by the quantity of labor socially necessary to produce them. Marginalism holds, in contrast to both Marx and the classical economists, that “interest”–surplus value—arises from the value produced by scarce capital and not the unpaid labor of the workers.

Every crisis that has occurred in the history of capitalism, from the crisis of 1825 to the crisis of 2008, is a refutation in life of marginalism. The unprecedented economic, social and political disasters in the former Soviet Union, including the current crisis in Ukraine, is also a living refutation of marginalist theory and a confirmation of the work of Karl Marx. Unfortunately, the world socialist revolution needed the whip of this counterrevolution to demonstrate to great numbers of people in life, not just theory, just how false the claims of marginalism are compared to the economic science of Karl Marx.

And the solution

Paul Goble in the April 24, 2014, edition of Window on Eurasia reported: “As Aleksey Verkhoyantsev of ‘Svobodnaya pressa’ noted yesterday, ‘experts have long predicted that the political crisis in Ukraine would soon acquire a social dimension and that the mixing of these two elements ‘could lead to unpredictable and potentially uncontrollable consequences'”.

What consequences, for example? “Boris Shmelyov, an expert at the Moscow Institute of Economics and a professor at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy,” Goble continues, “told Verkhoyantsev that one of the reasons for this is that ‘for the majority of citizens of Ukraine living in the South-East, the term “federalization” is not very well understood.’”

Verkhoyantsev asked Professor Shemlyov whether the growing anger of the miners and other workers would lead to demands to nationalize these enterprises—essentially return them to their rightful owners who built them—the workers. Shemlyov replied that there “is not only the increasing collapse of Ukrainian statehood and the sharpening of regional conflicts in Ukraine. We are seeing the destruction of that liberal-oligarchic [my emphasis—SW] model of social-economic development on which Ukraine had been developing in recent years.”

The “liberal-oligarchic model” is, of course, the restoration of capitalism, and the “recent years” are essentially the last 25 years from 1989 onward. And this “model of development” applies not only to Ukraine but to Russia itself, as well as the other former Soviet countries.

What many of the workers involved in the anti-Maidan movement want is not simply the reversal of the February coup in Kiev. What they really want is the restoration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This is shown by the Soviet flags that compete with the tri-color flags of the bourgeois Russian Republic and the double eagles of the Russian nationalists, the complaints of Western correspondents about widespread “Soviet nostalgia,” and the defense of the statues of Lenin by the people of eastern Ukraine. Lenin is above all the symbol of the October Revolution, the symbol of socialist revolution so hated by the Euro-Maidans but defended by the anti-Maidan movement.

And this is why the anti-Maidan movement is such a threat not only to imperialism but to Russian capitalists as well and their representative Vladimir Putin. This explains why Moscow is doing everything it can to cool down the movement. Putin surprised the Western imperialist journalists who had been painting him as a new Hitler and Russia as the Third Reich when he announced the withdrawal of Russian troops from the Ukrainian border, indicated support for the May 25 elections that the Kiev junta organized in order to claim some legitimacy, as well as his unsuccessful attempt to convince the People’s Republics to postpone their own May 11 referendum on autonomy from the Kiev coup government.

The only real solution to the Ukraine crisis is the restoration of workers’ power and workers’ ownership of the means of production through a revived Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which itself must inevitably be part of a still broader movement that will ultimately involve the workers of the entire world.

In this sense, both the struggles of the workers in Ukraine against the Kiev coup and the mid-May worldwide actions by fast food workers point in the same direction. Therein lies the solution not only to the crisis in Ukraine but to the many other crises ranging from chronic mass unemployment to global warming that confront us today.


1 Extreme right-wing sentiment in Ukraine is largely centered in the province of Galicia. Before World War I, Galicia, an agricultural region with little industry, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire rather than the Czarist Empire. After World War I and the Russian Revolution, it was captured by Polish Marshal Josef Pilsudski and became part of what was in effect a Polish empire—the part of pre-World War II Poland that expanded beyond ethnic Poland. This empire included in addition to Galicia, parts of Byelorussia as well as parts of defeated Germany.

In Galicia, the landlords were Polish but the peasantry was of Ukrainian nationality. The Polish landlords often employed Jews to act as their agents in their dealings with the peasantry. The result of these feudal-like relations, which persisted until 1939, was that both anti-Polish and anti-Jewish sentiments were strong in Galicia among the Ukrainian peasant masses. For these historical reasons, the region is today the primary base for the far right in Ukrainian politics. (back)

2 The “far left” refers to those political currents that grew out of the radical student movement in Western Europe of the late 1960s that consider themselves to the left of the traditional Communist Parties. This “far left” has been historically divided between various anarchist, Trotskyist and Maoist currents. (back)

3 In this blog, I have developed the concept of satellite imperialist states. These states are subordinate to the “international institutions”–NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the U.S. dollar-centered international monetary system—that are in every case dominated by the United States of America. But like the United States, and unlike the oppressed countries, they share in the super-profits generated by imperialism and are in a position to bribe their more privileged workers and support a large middle class of “white collar” employees who own a certain amount of “moneyed capital” and the land under their own homes. However, their income from capital and land is not enough to live on. So they have to sell their labor power to make up the difference. Unlike the traditional petty bourgeoisie, these people do not own their own businesses. In imperialist countries, these middle strata are quite sizable and form the social base for the pro-imperialist politics that dominate these countries.

In 1914, however, the system of “satellite imperialisms” was not nearly as developed as it is today—two world wars later. However, in his “Imperialism,” Lenin refers to the relationship between Britain and Portugal, which in some ways formed a prototype of today’s satellite imperialist countries.

Lenin wrote: “A somewhat different form of financial and diplomatic dependence, accompanied by political independence, is presented by Portugal. Portugal is an independent sovereign state, but actually, for more than two hundred years, since the war of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), it has been a British protectorate. Great Britain has protected Portugal and her colonies in order to fortify her own positions in the fight against her rivals, Spain and France. In return Great Britain has received commercial privileges, preferential conditions for importing goods and especially capital into Portugal and the Portuguese colonies, the right to use the ports and islands of Portugal, her telegraph cables, etc., etc. Relations of this kind have always existed between big and little states, but in the epoch of capitalist imperialism they become a general system, they form part of the sum total of ‘divide the world’ relations and become links in the chain of operations of world finance capital.”

The difference in 2014 compared to 1914 or 1916 when Lenin was writing is that relative to the United States of America all the other imperialist nations are “little states.” (back)

4 The various “National Socialist” or neo-Nazi organizations that are active in the United States often display the “stars and bars” side by side with the swastika and other Nazi symbols. (back)

5 In the non-imperialist countries with largely capitalist economies such as China and India, prices when measured in terms of a given currency like the U.S. dollar—and ultimately weights of gold bullion—the scientific definition of price, including the price of the commodity labor power, are lower than in the imperialist countries. For example, assuming that the the GDP of China exceeds the GDP of the United States later this year or shortly thereafter in terms of purchasing power parity, the U.S. GDP in absolute, not per-capita, terms will still be considerably smaller in terms of money.

Money and money alone is the measure of social wealth under the capitalist mode of production. As regular readers of this blog should know, gold as the money commodity is the independent form of exchange value. And exchange value, not use value, dominates in the world capitalist economy. Therefore, notwithstanding its remarkable industrial progress of the last quarter of a century, China is still very far from being an imperialist power in its own right. And what is true of China is all the more true of Russia, which has not made the industrial progress that China has made over the last 25 years since “radical perestroika” was launched. Quite the contrary! (back)

6 A convertible ruble in the sense that the ruble could be freely bought and sold by private individuals in exchange for other currencies such as the U.S. dollar. It does not mean convertibility into gold at a fixed rate. In this true sense of convertibility, no currency is convertible today nor has been since since August 1971 when what was left of the dollar’s convertibility into gold was suspended by a decree of U.S. President Richard Nixon. (back)


25 thoughts on “Is Russia Imperialist?

  1. This looks like an interesting contribution which I will study more in detail. However, after having a brief look at it, I have to say that I have a different opinion. I think that indeed both Russia and China have become imperialist powers. I have elaborated on Russia in my document “Russia as a Great Imperialist Power. The formation of Russian Monopoly Capital and its Empire – A Reply to our Critics” (March 2014, For my analysis of China as an emerging imperialist power see my book “The Great Robbery of the South. Continuity and Changes in the Super-Exploitation of the Semi-Colonial World by Monopoly Capital. Consequences for the Marxist Theory of Imperialism” (2013, Chapter 10, as well as in “China‘s transformation into an imperialist power. A study of the economic, political and military aspects of China as a Great Power” ( My mother language is not English so please apologize any grammar mistakes!

  2. re. the section “The Russian Federation a prison house of nations?”

    The idea that Jews in Tsarist Russia were predominantly a “trading people” is a little overstated. Commercial occupations (particularly trading in grain) were common amongst Jews living in the countryside. But by the late 19th Century, there was a growing tendency towards urbanisation and proletarianisation amongst the rapidly growing Jewish population. Hence the level of support for the Jewish Labour Bund amongst Yiddish Speaking workers.

    The Russian census of 1897 showed that, of 1,331,500 Jews in the “Pale of Settlement”, 426,628 were engaged in “commerce and trade”, but 504,844 in manufacturing and “mechanical pursuits”, and 44,177 in transportation, chiefly carters and draymen.

    “In the northwest, namely, Lithuania and in White Russia, the industrial occupations claim a much greater proportion of the employed than commerce (44.2 per cent against 23.8 per cent and 42.2 per cent against 27.4 per cent, respectively … In these provinces there is a process of rapid shifting from the commercial pursuits to industrial work .”

    (I.M. Rubinow, Economic Condition of the Jews in Russia, Washington D. C., 1907)

    This topic is examined in much greater detail here:-

  3. A slight clarification to my comment above: The 1.31 m in the 1897 Russian census refers to the *economically active* population. Spitzer gives a figure of around 5 m for the total Jewish population in European Russia.

    The article itself is very interesting. I think there are issues over which definition is used of imperialism and your article should be be read in conjunction with Michael Burke’s “What is the Current Phase of Imperialism?”, in Socialist Economic Bulletin & Lenin’s work on Imperialism.

    What seems blindingly obvious is that an equals sign can’t be put between Russia (or China) and the USA – in terms of military spending and overseas bases they are vastly asymmetrical.
    Even Chris Harman of the SWP admitted this in some of his later writings.

    Obviously this is a central point in understanding the current Ukrainian crisis, where many sectarians have adopted a fence-sitting approach, or even seen Russia as the main enemy.
    This dovetails entirely with Western imperialist propaganda.
    Were the Russians to impose a no-fly zone over the Donetsk and Lukhansk regions, these right-sectarians could be expected to go into overdrive screaming about Russian imperialism.

    Yet it would be a justifiable response to the tanks, helicopters and fascist squadrons, being deployed against civilian areas by the Kiev regime. The problem being that it’s very unlikely the Putin regime will do it. It’s too dependent on maintaining its business links with the EU and will cut a deal with friendly oligarchs.

  4. The so-called Euro-Maidan Ukrainian “nationalists” are being encouraged by the U.S. to talk about the greatness of the Ukrainian nation, just as the Southern whites after the U.S. Civil War and Reconstruction era were encouraged to celebrate the great traditions of the white “Southern people” and their so-called nation.


    What an idiotic analogy. Lenin said that the Ukraine was to Russia as the Irish were to the British. You are defending the Great Russian chauvinism of Stalin using a debased understanding of what Lenin stood for. You should stick to economics and leave politics to those with a more nuanced understanding and a grasp of Ukraine’s history.

  5. Secret US-EU Free-Trade Agreement released by WikiLeaks!

    WikiLeaks just released a draft agreement secretly negotiated between governments and banks from the US, Germany, France, UK and their satellites, for free trade of financial services, i.e. for further deregulation of the financial markets, so that they can be easier penetrated by the finance mega-capital.
    Interestingly (but not surprisingly), Russia is not allowed to take part in these negotiations.
    It was known that such secret negotiations were taking place, but governments had not officially acknowledged it.
    I think this is huge news!

    Sam, I would be very curious to read what you think about this agreement.
    Is it really huge news? Will this agreement bring significant change to the global capitalist economy? Will it tighten the grip of the imperialists on the economies of weaker nations?
    Or is it just a procedural agreement that doesn’t really change much?



  6. “In the US State Department’s frustration it has produced every type of calumny against Putin, including that he is an imperialist and akin to Hitler. Self-styled socialists who simply echo these charges are not highly amenable to logical argument. But it is vital for socialists to understand the nature of imperialism and its current manifestation”

    Michael Burke

  7. One of Gazprom’s stock quotes:

    This argument is basackwards. It proceeds from a received, fixed perspective to generate a “theory” of imperialism. That’s not how science is done according to Marx in the Grundrisse. Unbeknownst to its fellow travelers, it IS how “science” is done according to Joseph Stalin. It show a real contempt for theory. It is a form of anti-intellectualism characteristic of that part of the Left that apologizes for Russian neo-imperialism. Stalin expressed this anti-intellectualism directly with his mass murder of the old Bolsheviks.

    Williams / Annis confuse Hilferding’s concept of finance capital with Russia’s banking sector. According to Hilferding, finance capital is the fusion of banking and industrial capital. So one should look to those capitals – whether state-owed or not, this is irrelevant, since Williams / Annis don’t deny the capitalist character of Russia – that combine self-financing with productive capital. But as it turns out, Marx considered all real capitals to be dynamic combinations of the money (banking), productive (industrial) and commodity (commercial) circuits of capital. See Capital Vol II Part I. Hence the export of money capital or productive capital are not the only attributes of imperialism. There is also the export of COMMODITY CAPITAL. But most Marxists ignore the category of commodity (commercial) capital.

    In practice only large capitals can practically realize this combination in daily operation. And what a coincidence, these are the very capitals best positioned to operate on an international (TNC) scale. In the absence of a global state (sorry Negri/Hart, sorry MR/Panitch/Gindin) this is a space of competition between TNCs and states. This generates a tendency for the merger of capital and state. It is this tendency that is the real essence of imperialism. It is closely related to the so-called “privatization”, also a process of merger of state and capital. Both are key indices of what Lenin called “the epoch of capitalist decay”, and “parasitism”. This latter does not take a purely “financial” form.

    Russia’s Gazprom meets all of these criteria to a T. It’s main capital export is a COMMODITY CAPITAL called natural gas. Russia is also an important crude oil and arms exporter.

    It’s long past time we dump Hilferding’s incorrect formulas. it is also long past time that we dump Baran and Sweezy’s “monopoly capitalism”.

    It is LONG PAST TIME that the socialist left broke with Stalin, rather than revive him as too many seek to do today. Even as most don’t realize, as I am sure they don’t, that that is what they are doing in this Russia/Ukraine situation.


  8. “….the merger of capital and state. It is this tendency that is the real essence of imperialism”

    Rip Van Winkle Marxism.

    Have you noticed what’s happened to State Industries in Britain since the 80’s, or in Russia after 1991?

    Did you hear the news that Poroshenko announced the privatisation of 38 coal mines in Ukraine straight after he was elected?

    Rather than illustrating the merger of capital and the state, Ukraine is a very good illustration of direct rule by capitalists, from the President down to the local governors and their private armies.

    State industries are precisely what the EU and IMF want to break up and take over.

    This required regime change and military force, not just international trade.

    Wake up.

  9. You’re ignoring the trend.
    Take FDI outward flows 2012 – the last year on the UNCTAD spreadsheet, the UK has 5.13% of the world total, China has 6.05% and Russia 3.67%. The UK is declining slowly China and Russia increasing very fast. China and Russia will be much higher by now.
    As for finance capital, the integration of manufacturing and banking in China and Russia is pretty total, certainly a legacy of the central plan, but to argue that this capital is not “finance capital” is pretty odd. Both economies are dominated by state owned banks and large manufacturing or mining concerns.
    In Russia’s case you also have many if not colonies then certainly semi-colonies or a sphere of influence at very least.
    In China’s case you have semi-colonies scattered across Africa and the Indian ocean.
    As for calumny’s against Putin, what’s really weird is that socialists should defend Russia’s oligarch in chief.

  10. The fact of the matter is that the Russian government is very reactionary.

    It shelters billionaires, denies LGBTQ rights, embraces theocracy, and of course embraces capitalism.

    Just because it is not part of the near hegemony NATO does not mean it isn’t imperialist.

  11. Here is a booklet I wrote on this issue which includes a reply to Sam Williams.

    Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism and the Rise of Russia as a Great Power
    On the Understanding and Misunderstanding of Today’s Inter-Imperialist Rivalry in the Light of Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism. Another Reply to Our Critics Who Deny Russia’s Imperialist Character
    By Michael Pröbsting, Revolutionary Communist International Tendency (RCIT), August 2014,



    I. Four Currents in the Workers’ Movement Concerning the
    Inter-Imperialist Rivalry

    II. Lenin’s Theory of Imperialism and its Revisionist

    Revisionist Confusion of the Nature of Finance Capital

    Marx and the Centrality of the Production Process

    Imperialism is Based on the Capitalist Value of Production and Not
    Financial Speculation

    Is There a Capitalist Country which is Not Dominated by Finance

    Monopolism as the Essence of Imperialism

    The Role of the State in Monopoly Capitalism

    Disparity between the Imperialist Powers

    Can Only the Richest Countries be Imperialist?

    The Disparity between the Great Powers in Lenin’s Time, before 1917

    Are the US and British Models of Imperialism Pure Robbery?

    Explaining Eastern Imperialist Power before 1914

    A Brief Overview of the Imperialist Powers Today

    The Theory of the “Transitional” or “Sub-Imperialist” State

    Is Inter-Imperialist Rivalry Intensifying or Minimizing?

    Excurse: The Maoist Origin of the Super-Power Theory

    III. Social-Imperialism as a Caricature of

    “Third Campism” and the “Anti-Imperialist United Front with Putin
    and Xi” in the Struggle between Imperialist Rivals

    Inverted Social-Imperialism as a Variation of Class-Collaboration

    IV. Again on Russia as an Imperialist Power

    Russian and Foreign Monopolies in Banking

    Who Controls Russia’s Monopolies?

    Russia’s Foreign Investment and Foreign Policy

    Excurse: Eurasianism and Putin’s Bourgeois Allies in Western Europe



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