By Greg Godels
June 5, 2022
The war in Ukraine is a propaganda war, with all of the belligerents, sponsors, and their allies churning out– through an abjectly subservient media– masses of lies and disinformation. In this regard, they resemble other wars, but with an added dose of shamelessness.
For that reason, it is difficult to discern how the war is being conducted or who has the military advantage at any time. Like all modern wars, atrocity stories abound and losses are wildly exaggerated.
But what separates this war from wars in the recent and not-so-recent past is the near-absence of an organized anti-war movement. It is more than a curious oddity that there are few actions in the streets or campaigns of influence or resistance to stop the mayhem of this brutal war. Sure, there are generic appeals to cut military budgets or oppose war philosophically, but little action to stop this particular war. In spite of the so-called “fog” of war, everyone knows that soldiers and civilians alike are dying in significant numbers, that bodies are ripped apart, homes destroyed, and people dislodged from their homes. No amount of “fog” can hide this.
Of course, there are a few prominent voices– Pope Francis, even Henry Kissinger– who have called for a cessation of fighting and negotiations. And Communists and trade unionists in Italy, Greece, and Turkey have blocked NATO weapons shipments, staged demonstrations, and picketed embassies.
But in most cities, states, and countries, there are few actions directed against the war in Ukraine. And most surprisingly, the leftists in Europe and the Americas, usually leading the way against war, are largely silent. They haven’t even minimally demanded that their own countries stay out of this war.
Instead, they have tacitly or openly sided with one belligerent or another. I have written and spoken on different occasions against taking sides in the conflict. Moreover, I have sought to place the war in the context of classical imperialism and suggested that the left’s support of either belligerent or its sponsors is misplaced, akin to the collapse of left opposition at the beginning of World War I. In that case, the left succumbed to narrow nationalist appeals. In this case, the left is succumbing to a muddled concept of imperialism and anti-imperialism.
Rather than repeat the argument, it might be useful to look at how and why leftists justify their support for one side or the other and refrain from adding their voice to the cause of peace in Ukraine.
It is easy to dismiss those who uncritically support Ukraine. Apart from the rabid nationalists of the “Glory to Ukraine” crowd, who welcome the conflict and hope to draw the Western capitalist countries into a crusade against Russia, there are those who simplistically see the war as a naked aggression with no back story. From ignorance of the post-Soviet Ukrainian history of corruption, reaction, Western meddling and aggression, or from willful collaboration with US and NATO intrigue, these new Cold Warriors seek a Russian defeat and have no interest in an immediate peaceful settlement or concern about the mayhem.
Against them are the more measured comrades who, remembering the Cold War standoff between the US and its allies and the Soviet Union and its allies, conflate today’s Russia with the Soviet Union. They recognize how the Soviet Union constituted a pole of resistance that countered and sometimes reversed the Cold War imperialist alliance’s designs on the world. US imperialism, the dominant imperialist power at the time, was effectively checked by the Soviet Union from 1945 until the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. These anti-imperialists see Russia, in its war on Ukraine, as a similar emerging pole against US imperialism and see Russia’s invasion as an expression of a break-up of the absolute military and economic US dominance of the world established after the departure of the Soviet Union. For them, a multipolar world is in birth.
There are shards of truth in this view, but Russia is not the Soviet Union. It does not share its ideology; rather, its motives replace Soviet internationalism with an aspiring great power nationalism. While it exploits cracks in US global hegemony, it does not offer an alternative vision or unconditional assistance to the victims of capitalism and imperialism. In that regard, Russia is no Cuba, either.
Russia’s foreign policy is capitalist opportunism: friends with Turkey or Israel one moment, in conflict the next moment. Russia aligns with Saudi Arabia when it’s economically profitable, while fighting Saudi proxies in Syria. There are no consistent principles guiding it. Nor can there be for a country that rejected socialism for capitalism. Those who see Russian foreign policy and alliances as progressive are very selective in their examples.
Russia’s leaders readily embrace the capitalist ethos and reject the Soviet project, though they appeal, when needed, to Soviet symbols and traditions when useful.
It may be true that the Russian invasion ultimately will achieve the goals sought by its ruling class. And it may be true that these gains will come at the expense of US imperialism and its ruling class, but how does that move us any closer to a world of peace and social justice? The rivalries remain, the goals of the respective ruling classes remain uncertain and unstable, despite their claims of peace-loving and democracy-seeking; and the danger of conflict remains high or even higher.
There are others who envision the war– insofar as Russia is challenging US power– as a blow for those on the bottom of what we might envision as the imperialist “pyramid” — the developing countries. Jenny Clegg, for example, writing in The Morning Star, sees the development of “competitors” to US dominance as establishing the first steps toward a multipolar world. She correctly notes that multipolarity “is not a policy but an emerging objective trend…”
Further, she sees unequal exchange between the highly developed countries and the developing countries as the principal contradiction– the contradiction defining imperialism and anti-imperialism.
While this center-periphery distinction was popular and influential among independent Western “Marxists” in the era when the working classes in the center– the West– were generally tamed by social democratic opportunism, it was neither particularly insightful nor of continued relevance. Marx went to great lengths to show that exchange, under capitalist relations of production, was not generally unequal– values exchange for values. But those same relations of production always produce and reproduce inequality. The locus of inequality– capitalist exploitation– is embedded in the capitalist system, not in the thievery of unequal exchange.
As Lenin elaborated, uneven development is a feature of relations between people, social institutions, firms in the same industry, between industries, and between countries, and even continents. It is not unequal exchange that accounts for the uneven development, but differences in the pace of development, cultural and social practices, political and other institutions, and most importantly, especially in the epoch of imperialism, the stunting effects of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and their legacy.
In the last half-century, technological developments have freed capitalists to move, access, and service the material productive forces– factories, transportation networks, resources– in order to gain access to formerly inaccessible labor markets, cheapening labor in general. At the same time, this development created rising living standards in some developing countries, while lowering them in some advanced capitalist countries.
Consequently, some capitalist countries– like India, Turkey, Brazil, Indonesia– have become powerful rivals to the late-twentieth-century great powers.
The concept of “unequal” exchange as an explanation for the inequality between developed and developing countries (and for the difference between imperialism and anti-imperialism) fails because it implies that should exchanges become equal, that same inequality between states would evaporate. Even more importantly, it suggests that equal exchange– and not an end of capitalism– would signal the demise of imperialism.
To understand imperialism as a conflict between advancing and lagging development based upon the unequal terms of economic activity– a kind of organized thievery– is to misunderstand the nature of exploitation under capitalism. Intense competition between players– big and small– for markets, resources, labor, and capital are the essence of capitalism and imperialism. There is no sharp line between this competition and war.
Clegg wants us to believe that in a multipolar world, with US power diminished, establishing equal exchange will bring forth a period of civil, well-behaved, respectful competition. She insists that this contrast with today’s dangerous world is captured by the distinction between competition and rivalry, a distinction that I think few will find satisfying. In an aside, she explains: “competition is not the same as rivalry– think competing in a race as opposed to deliberately tripping over your rival in that race.” To think that sporting competition doesn’t evolve commonly into no-holds-barred conflict and into violence is surely out of touch with the history of both sports and international politics in the twentieth century.
From the reliance on the now intellectually fashionable and prominent rational choice or game theory to the behavior of capitalist enterprises, from the constant haggling over borders, sea lanes and territorial waters to establishment of military and economic alliances, there is little evidence that capitalist countries are striving for a fair economic playing field with fixed, transparent, and respected rules. “Win-win” is not part of the capitalist vocabulary.
Clegg writes of “the old– US hegemonic power” as having “been in relative decline” and the “new– a more equal distribution of wealth and power” as developing, albeit slowly. While one might happily concede that aspects of US power and influence have been challenged and dampened, while one might add that the US shows many signs of economic, political, and social decline, it does not follow, nor is it likely, that any “new distribution of wealth and power” will be more equitable or just. And most importantly, even if wealth and power were more equitably distributed between countries, there is little reason to believe it would be more equitably distributed within those countries. Clegg’s multipolarity can make no such promises to the working classes.
Finally, there are those on the left who have carried on a lifelong struggle against US imperialism and can only see an enemy of our enemy as our friend. There are few people on the righteous left now alive who can remember a time when the US was not the leading great power and the anchor for the capitalist alliance against socialism, socialism as a legitimate political current, as a rival to global capitalism, and as a pole rallying the forces of anti-imperialism.
Therefore, it is hard to envision the world not benefitting from the defanging of US imperialism, from its fall as a great power. No great power in our time has caused more deadly mischief. But that surely displays a weak understanding of capitalism and its stages of development.
There were nationalist leaders in various countries under the boot of British imperialism in the interwar period who welcomed the rise of Hitler and Tojo, greeting them as possible saviors from hundreds of years of suppression by the British Empire, the leading imperialist of the time.
Subhas Chandra Bose, for example, an Indian nationalist leader who was once president of the Indian National Congress, was so deeply committed to overthrowing British rule in India that he actively and unapologetically collaborated with the Nazis and Japanese in World War II. This myopia is an extreme version of the blinders worn by many anti-imperialists who fail to understand the logic of imperialism and its unbreakable link to capitalism.
Chandra Bose demonstrates the hollowness of narrow nationalism and obsessive self-regard over viewing the world through the lens of class and class solidarity.
The struggle against US imperialism, like the struggle against its predecessor, the British Empire, will ultimately be resolved at home when the people finally refuse to continue paying the price for their rulers’ grand designs. Of course, those oppressed by imperialism play an equally important role, that of resisters; though imperialism like rust, never sleeps. It is an imperative, a demand made by capitalist accumulation– if it is defeated in one place, it will surely find another place to satisfy its lust. This dynamic only finally ends when our world finds socialism. The wishful thinking of a benign capitalism with all participants peacefully on an even playing field is just that– a wishful thought.
Multipolarity– a notion first discussed by bourgeois academics looking for tools to understand the dynamics of global relations– has been adopted by a segment of the anti-imperialist left. While it assuredly describes an actual trend emerging, as Jenny Clegg acknowledges, it has often been presented as an anti-imperialist stage shifting the world balance of forces in the direction of a better world.
I have argued that this is a retreat from classical imperialism as understood by VI Lenin and his followers. In the context of an unstable world in ideological disorder and suffering untold crises, there are no guarantees that the poles that emerge or challenge the post-Cold War super-pole are a step forward or a step back simply because they are alternative poles. Undoubtedly, any resistance that weakens the asymmetry of power that the US holds should be welcome. But we should not presume that every opponent will become a force for stability, justice, and peace. Knowing what we know about the history of capitalism from its first expansionist era accumulating involuntary human capital to exploit the riches of the new world should chasten our expectations about new rivals to US imperialism.
With the fall of the Soviet Union as a backdrop and the uncertainty left in its wake, we should be cautious about anointing any new candidates for the role of arch-rival not only to US imperialism, but to all imperialism as well as its genesis, capitalism.
While the left futilely disputes the victim and the victimizer, working people are dying unnecessarily, suffering horrific wounds, homelessness, and despair– all the products of modern war. Working class lives should not be proxies in ideological debates. Events will decide who has the correct understanding of imperialism, but history will not be kind to those who failed, in the meantime, to oppose the war and to seek a peaceful solution.