One of the main talking points of the pro-Kremlin left is that Russia is not imperialist. This goes hand in hand with an analysis claiming that Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was purely defensive, a move against the genuine imperialists in Washington, London and elsewhere.
The last time I dealt with this question was in June 2014 when I replied to Roger Annis, a tireless defender of Kremlin foreign policy. Annis has once again made the same arguments on Links magazine in Australia in an article co-written by Renfrey Clarke who shares his orientation to Russia. Titled “Perpetrator or victim? Russia and contemporary imperialism”, it rehashes many of the same arguments that are supposedly based on Lenin’s “Imperialism, the final stage of Capitalism”.
As I indicated in a commentary on John Clegg’s article “Capitalism and Slavery”, I find social science definitions of terms like capitalism, socialism and imperialism problematic. To start with, they are describing economic systems that are global in character so when they are used to taxonomically describe a particular country, they are strained to the breaking point. When Trotsky took up the question of whether the USSR was socialist, he answered in terms that defied the formal logic of the social scientist: “To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible.”
When it comes to a term like imperialist as a category that applies to a particular country, there is little doubt that the USA, Great Britain, or Germany qualify. This is made clear in page after page of Lenin’s essay. But using the search tool available on the Marxist Internet Archives, you will find Lenin referring to “Russian imperialism” on many occasions:
Have the socialists of France and Belgium not shown the same kind of treachery? They are excellent at exposing German imperialism, but, unfortunately they are amazingly purblind with regard to British, French, and particularly the barbarous Russian imperialism. They fail to see the disgraceful fact that, for decades on end, the French bourgeoisie have been paying out thousands of millions for the hire of the Black-Hundred gangs of Russian tsarism, and that the latter has been crushing the non-Russian majority in our country, robbing Poland, oppressing the Great Russian workers and peasants, and so on.
—The European War and International Socialism, 1914
The attitude of the Soviet Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic to the weak and hitherto oppressed nations is of very pradtical significance for the whole of Asia and for all the colonies of the world, for thousands and millions of people.
I earnestly urge you to devote the closest attention to this question, to exert every effort to set an effective example of comradely relations with the peoples of Turkestan, to demonstrate to them by your actions that we are sincere in our desire to wipe out all traces of Great-Russian imperialism and wage an implacable struggle against world imperialism, headed by British imperialism. You should show the greatest confidence in our Turkestan Commission and adhere strictly to its directives, which have been framed precisely in this spirit by the All-Russia Central Executive Committee.
—To the Communists of Turkestan, 1919
You speak about the revolution in Russia, but, Citizens Chernov, Chkheidze, and Tsereteli [Menshevik politicians], you have all studied socialism, and you realise only too well that so jar your revolution has only put the capitalists in power. Is it not trebly insincere, when, in the name of the Russian revolution, which has given power to the Russian imperialist capitalists, you demand of us, Germans, a revolution against the German imperialist capitalists? Does It not look as if your “internationalism”, your “revolutionism” are for foreign consumption only; as if revolution against the capitalists is only for the Germans, while for the Russians (despite the seething revolution in Russia) it is agreement with the capitalists?
Chernov, Chkheidze, and Tsereteli have sunk completely to the level of defending Russian imperialism.
—An Unfortunate Document, 1917
This is what crops up when you do a search on the exact term “Russian imperialism”. It is also worth examining “Imperialism, the final stage of Capitalism” to see if there are any references to Russia there. While Lenin takes care to single out British and German domination of the financial sector, even to the point of specifically pointing to Deutsche Bank’s penetration of Russian “holding companies”, he does not let Russia off the hook in chapter six titled “The Division of the world among the great powers”. In a chart titled COLONIAL POSSESSIONS OF THE GREAT POWERS, Russia is in second place behind Britain:
He even makes comparisons between England and Russia in their pursuit of colonial exploitation:
The British capitalists are exerting every effort to develop cotton growing in their colony, Egypt (in 1904, out of 2,300,000 hectares of land under cultivation, 600,000, or more than one-fourth, were under cotton); the Russians are doing the same in their colony, Turkestan, because in this way they will be in a better position to defeat their foreign competitors, to monopolise the sources of raw materials and form a more economical and profitable textile trust in which all the processes of cotton production and manufacturing will be “combined” and concentrated in the hands of one set of owners.
It is of course of some interest that Lenin refers once again to Turkestan, one of those regions that were seized by Catherine the Great and that were victims of the Great Russian Chauvinism that Lenin fought from his sick bed until the day he died. Like Ukraine, these regions never felt like they were truly free in the USSR. It is most unfortunate that people like Annis and Clarke are essentially seeing things the same way that Stalin did in the 1920s even though they supposedly got their political training in the Trotskyist movement.
On a more fundamental level, I find the term “imperialist” as an adjective for a particular country problematic when it functions in the same way that the term mammal applies to a kind of animal or perennial to a type of flower. A bear is always going to be a mammal while a zinnia will never be a perennial. These are fixed categories. When it comes to social and economic entities, it becomes a lot more problematic. What criteria do we use? Lenin thought that the size of financial holdings was key. For Annis and Clarke, this means that Russia is not a player: “A mass of evidence shows that in terms of the financial instruments ‒ stocks, bonds, derivatives, bank deposits, money-market funds ‒in which wealth is mostly held within modern capitalism, the finance capital of present-day Russia is startlingly weak.”
Let’s look at fascist Italy for comparison’s sake. In the 1930s, the three largest banks had a capitalization of about 500 million lira each. Since one dollar was equal to 20 lira at the time, this meant that they were worth about $25 million each. On the other hand, the five largest banks in the USA were all worth over a billion dollars each in 1935 according to a January 21, 1936 NY Times article. So Italy was not even in their ballpark. Does that mean that Italy was not an imperialist nation?
In fact, it was the very weakness of Japan, Italy and Germany in 1939 that made them more aggressive. When you are top dog, you don’t go out and pick fights with those trying to overtake you as the alpha male after all. You don’t pay them any attention except when they looking to displace you. That’s when you defend your pack. That is why the “pacifist” and “democratic” nations like the USA and Britain could scold the aggressive fascists even though they were far more harmful to people living in vast empires covering the globe.
This brings us to Putin’s Russia. Perhaps finally recognizing that when the Kremlin sent its troops to Donetsk and Luhansk or its bombers to Syria might compromise them in the eyes of a few Marxist malcontents, Annis and Clarke try to excuse this bad behavior. Boys will be boys, after all.
Meanwhile, are Russian interests taken into account when the “rules of the game” of the capitalist world-system are determined? By no means. For years after the dissolving of the USSR, Russian elites held out hopes of joining NATO. Instead, NATO has been expanded to the point where Russia now faces a threatening arc of U.S.-aligned states, on or near its borders, from Turkey to Estonia. The clear goal of imperialist policy is to pressure and intimidate Russia, so as to deepen its peripheralisation and in the longer perspective, to force its break-up.
In these circumstances, what can one say about the Western denunciations of “Russian imperialism”? Rarely have such fervent protestations been so wide of the mark, or backed by so little substance.
Does all this matter? If a country uses its armed strength to meddle in affairs outside its borders, doesn’t that make it imperialist per se? The trouble with that line of reasoning is that it quickly leads to absurd conclusions. Countries of the periphery commit armed aggression against one another with horrible regularity. The Ogaden War of 1977-78 began when Somali forces invaded Ethiopia. Did that make Somalia an imperialist power?
This, of course, is what the article is really about, not trying to pin down the exact character of the Russian economy. It is really about what Clausewitz referred to as “warfare being a continuation of politics by other means”. Annis and Clarke essentially view Ukraine’s Euromaidan as an encroachment on legitimate Russian interests in the same way that JFK viewed Soviet missiles in Cuba. Just as was was the case with any former colonial nation seeking support from the Kremlin, Ukraine or any of the Eastern European “buffer states” naturally would have developed an orientation to any global power that could give them some leeway against the Kremlin. Those are the realities of global politics.
Finally, what I found most telling is the comparison with Somalia invading Ethiopia. I wonder if this was subconsciously an admission on the part of Annis and Clarke that they felt guilty serving as Putin’s attorneys. If you want to make comparisons, you start with the fact that Ethiopia—like Tsarist Russia in the 18th century—was a precapitalist empire. The Ethiopian emperors colonized the Oromos to the south and the Eritreans to the north. It also colonized the Ogaden region in between Ethiopia and Somalia that was home to people of Somalian ethnicity and who were practicing Muslims. In 1977, Somalia “invaded Ethiopia” only in the sense that it sought to reassert control over territory that had been seized by Menelik II in the 19th century just as he had conquered the Oromos and the Eritreans.
Very soon the conflict became enmeshed with the Cold War as the USSR gave its backing to the Ethiopian Dergue that supposedly was evolving in a “Marxist-Leninist” direction while Jimmy Carter threw his support behind the Somalians. If your tendency is to choose sides based on who the West was supporting, naturally you would back the Ethiopians even if the Dergue was rapidly transforming itself into a military dictatorship with scant regard for human rights or economic justice.
Interestingly enough, CounterPunch has been a mainstay of the rights of the Ogaden people largely through the various articles published over the years by Graham Peebles such as this:
The ONLF [Ogaden National Liberation Front] is cast as the enemy of the state, and regarded, as all dissenting troublesome groups are, as terrorists. They in fact won 60% of seats and were democratically elected to the regional parliament in the only inclusive open elections to be held, back in 1992. Civilians suspected, however vaguely of supporting the so-called ‘rebels’, are forcibly re-located from their homes. The evacuated villages and settlements, emptied at gunpoint HRW (CP) record, “become no-go areas” and in a further act of state criminality, “civilians who remain behind risk being shot on sight, tortured, or raped if spotted by soldiers”. Children, refugees report are hanged, villages and settlements razed to the ground and cattle stolen to feed soldiers: HRW record (CP), “water sources and wells have [also] been destroyed”. Systematic, strategic methods of violence and intimidation employed by the Ethiopian regime, that has, Genocide Watch (GW) state, “initiated a genocidal campaign against the Ogaden Somali population”.
It is regrettable, of course, that there are so few people writing about Ukraine for CounterPunch who have the political and moral clarity of Graham Peebles who can see through Cold War or New Cold War nostrums of the sort associated with Roger Annis. Neither the Ogaden people nor the Ukrainians are pawns in a chess game. They have a right to national independence and social justice whichever side gives them a momentary advantage in a struggle against the oppressor. If Lenin could come to Russia in a railway car provided by the Kaiser, why would we expect long-suffering colonized peoples to act any differently?