10-04-2022: The launch of Russia’s Operation Z in Ukraine in February has once again raised the hoary old chestnut of alleged “Russian Imperialism”. According to this claim, the Russian Federation today is an imperialist power, which competes against other imperialist powers in Europe and the United States for world domination – and its “war” in Ukraine is the prime example. Never mind that Russia’s intervention has in fact stopped the eight-year war of the Nazi infested Ukrainian government against mainly ethnic Russians in the Donbass region, and major discrimination against other Russian language speakers in Crimea and elsewhere. Ignore also, the relentless expansion of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) in Eastern Europe, which even US based analysts, such as eminent international relations scholar John Mearsheimer, warned would lead directly to a war against Russia. Ignore also, if one can, the incontrovertible evidence that the US government, backed by its European allies, overthrew the Ukrainian government in a coup in 2014, and installed ultra-right wing violent anti-Russian parties backed by Nazi militias.
What is imperialism?
For socialists, the term imperialism has a very specific meaning, and cannot be bandied about in a loose manner, nor thrown at something that one does not particularly like. VI Lenin, the prime leader of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, provided what is regarded as the closest Marxist definition for imperialism in his 1916 book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In one passage, Lenin outlined five characteristics he viewed as necessary when assessing imperialism.
1. The concentration of production and capital has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life.
2. The merging of bank capital with industrial capital, which creates finance capital.
3. The export of capital as distinct from the export of commodities.
4. The formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world amongst themselves. (Witness today’s multi or transnational corporations!)
5. The territorial division of the whole world amongst the biggest capitalist powers is completed.
The establishment of monopolies, the dominance of finance capital, the export of this capital, and the division of the world’s territories (or nations), is key to this understanding. Imperialism, in today’s terms, as opposed to imperialism during the slave owning and feudal modes of production, is not just wars of conquest waged by strong powers – although that may be one outcome. Lenin’s co-leader of the October Revolution LD Trotsky, writing about the class nature of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) provided an even more concise definition of imperialism. He wrote: “…imperialism is understood to mean the expansionist policy of finance capital (emphasis in original) which has a very sharply defined economic content. Finance capital must expand or die. If it cannot expand within the host nation, it must expand internationally. Hence the domination and threats by imperialist powers against other nations – up to and including outright war. Yet Russia’s intervention in Ukraine is clearly not motivated by any of these factors. It is rather an existential action, one taken in self-defence against the very real imperialism of the US, the European Union (EU – or at least the UK and Germany) with its derivative of NATO. If Russia did not act, its very existence was at stake. In fact, US President Joe Biden let the cat out of the bag with his speech in Poland on March 26 – the aim of US led imperialism is regime change in Moscow, and it was not one of his many gaffes.
No one disputes that Russia today is capitalist, of a certain form. Yet not all nations with a capitalist economy are imperialist – far from it. The wild claim of “Russian imperialism” has only been around for not more than the last 20 years This just happens to correspond with the period where the US ruling class swiftly realised that Vladimir Putin was not going to be their proxy in the manner of his predecessor Boris Yeltsin. “Russian imperialism” is thus in practice the reflection of the pressure of US imperialism as it attempts – in vain – to maintain a unipolar world with itself as hegemon. To be sure, Russia could possibly become imperialist at a certain point in the future. The same is true of all non-imperialist nations operating a capitalist economy. Yet this could only come about assuming the world remains geopolitically as it is for the next several decades at least. And this is extremely unlikely.
Dominance of Russian banks?
If Russia was “imperialist”, its banks would be among the largest and most dominant on the globe. However, listed by market capitalisation (cumulative value of a company including all subsidiaries and commercial assets), Russia is home to just one bank amongst the world’s largest 100 banks. This is the same as Finland, India, Norway and Qatar. By comparison, the EU has 27 banks in the top 100 and the US has 11. Around 500 banks operate in Russia, but its banking sector is highly concentrated and largely state-owned. The four largest state-owned banks control 55% of total banking assets. Alfa Bank is the largest privately owned Russian bank, but it controls only 4% of total banking assets. The most prominent bank is Sberbank, which is majority owned by the central bank. The other three giant state-owned banks are VTB, Gazprombank and the agriculture bank Rosselkhozbank. Each year, the Russian government pumps vast amounts of capital into Rosselkhozbank. Huge government subsidies are provided each year to VEB, a 100% state-owned bank which has the task of supporting the development of the economy over the long term. Between 2017 and 2019, 150 billion rubles have been allocated for VEB support.
No one argues that the large degree of state-ownership of Russian banking equates to Soviet style state-ownership. Yet capitalism in Russia today clearly relies on large state intervention, and this largely contributed to pulling the Russian economy out of the abyss it was in during the 1990s after the capitalist counter-revolution destroyed the USSR in 1991. Despite Russian capitalism, the state-owned Russian banks are off limits to Western capitalism – alongside other strategic sectors of the Russian economy. The fact that Russia uses some elements of state-ownership of its banks to develop its own economy, and not just for profit seeking, is just one reason why the real imperialists seek regime change in Moscow. Of course the Russian government does not aim to restore socialism, but even a semi-state directed capitalism, controlled by Russia, is beyond the pale for Washington, London and Brussels. Independence of any kind cannot be tolerated, as far as they are concerned.
The charge of “Russian imperialism” would be laughed off if mentioned to Russians living in its rural and remote regions. This is because many Russians in these areas do not actually have a bank account and use cash instead – although this has decreased in the last ten years. Internationally however, Russian banks, alongside other aspects of Russian industry, have attempted to join the world capitalist economy. Yet now, the real imperialists in the West have larger political goals. So they have, for example, banned seven Russian banks from the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication) system. SWIFT was set up by the Western powers in 1973, and it connects some 11 000 banks in 200 countries. It is a messaging system which allows for trillions of dollars of cross border financial transactions. Yet seven Russian banks have been banned from using SWIFT in the wake of the US led sanctions over events in Ukraine. The expelled Russian institutions are VTB Bank, Bank Otkritie, Novikombank, Promsvyazbank, Rossiya Bank, Sovcombank and VEB – Russia’s development bank. If the key Russian banks can be unceremoniously kicked out of the high security financial transactions system that underpins the world capitalist economy, this is a strong indicator that Russia is NOT a member of the exclusive club of imperialists.
Economic Stats on “Russian Imperialism”
So how does “imperialist” Russia fare with its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, a key indicator of a nation’s general wealth? 2021 figures have Russia’s GDP per capita (PPP – Purchasing Power Parity adjusted) at $29 000. This ranks alongside the definitively non-imperialist nations of Taiwan at $25 000, Bahrain at $24 000, Estonia at $23 000 and Greece at $20 000. It ranks behind the Bahamas at $32 000, Brunei at $32 000 and the micro country of Andorra at $42 000. Overall GDP for Russia means its economy is only the 11th largest in the world, with a nominal GDP in 2020 of $1.48 trillion. Well ahead of Russia are the real imperialist powers such as the US, Germany, France, the UK, Japan, Italy and Canada. By comparison, the nominal GDP of the US is $20.89 trillion. Just on these stats alone, a claim of Russian “imperialism” would elicit little but guffaws when made amongst serious political analysts.
Yet there is much more. As any Leninist would agree, a key indicator of imperialism is the export of finance capital. How does Russia poll on this score? We find in fact that Russia’s top ten export earners in 2021 were: 1. mineral fuels (including oil) 2. Gems and precious metals 3. Iron and steel 4. Fertilisers 5. Wood 6. Machinery including computers 7. Cereals (grain) 8. Aluminium 9. Ores, slag, ash and 10. Plastics and plastic articles. Clearly, Russia is an exporter of raw materials, energy and some commodities. Finance capital hardly figures in its exports. It is true, there is some export of what might be classified as finance capital, and outflows of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is a good indicator. For Russia though, the amounts of it are trifling. FDI outflows in 2020 (as a percentage of GDP) for some imperialist nations was 3% for Canada and Japan, 2.9% for Germany, 2% for France and 1.5% for the US. Russia, on the other hand, stands at 0.4%, which is the same as India and the small Pacific Island nation of Palau, and lower than Mexico at 0.6%. No wonder those who claim Russia is “imperialist” generally shy away from a discussion about economic statistics.
Labour productivity is another strong indicator of how advanced technology and capital has been applied to the workplace for production. 2021 figures for GDP per hour worked has Luxembourg on top with $128.1, the USA at $70.6, Netherlands at $66, Australia at $59.1, Germany at $58.7 and France at $57.9. Russia is way down the list at $30.3 – sitting in the middle of Chile and Cyprus. Despite this, one might argue that Russian corporations are making millions. Some are, but how does this compare internationally? Of the Global 500 rankings for the world’s largest firms in 2022, there is only one Russian based company – Gazprom at number 325. Compare this with the fact that there were seven Indian firms on the Fortune 500 list for 2021. Yet no one on the planet would attempt to advance a standpoint that India is imperialist.
The small and exclusive club of imperialist nations are not about to let anyone else join – unless perhaps they toe the line at each step. Initially, Russia was a part of the Group of Eight (G8) largest industrialised capitalist nations. That was until March 2014, when Russia was expelled without recourse, for the alleged “annexation” of Crimea (in fact, Crimeans voted by a majority of over 95% to rejoin Russia). The G8 then became the G7. Similarly, Russia has always been excluded from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) countries, which number 38. The OECD blusters about being for those committed to “democracy” and a “market economy” and was originally formatted to implement the Marshall Plan in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. In reality, it is a club of imperialist nations and their richest allies. If Russia can be kicked out of the G8, and be barred from entry to the OECD, it is a fair sign that it is NOT “imperialist”.
A nag may argue, despite a lack of economic data, what about Russia’s military operations over the last 20 years? Firstly, involvement in military conflict itself is no indicator of “imperialism”. Secondly, there would need to be an extensive list of either colonisation or repeated attempts to gain and control territory for economic advantage, perhaps in alliance with other imperialist powers. Yet the Russian Federation, since it began after the destruction of the USSR, has no such history. One can say that Russia in Tsarist timeswasimperialist – but the 1917 socialist revolution put a decisive end to that. And if there is one word that describes the difference between pre-World War I imperialism and the imperialism of today, it would be NATO. NATO is led by the US, alongside EU allies, and now with other subject allies in Eastern Europe. It is above all an anti-Russian war alliance, which began as an anti-USSR pact post World War II. Today it has no reason for existing, but it is maintained by the imperialist powers as a tool against Russia. Almost all now accept that NATO expansionism over the last 25 years has directly led to the conflict occurring today in Ukraine.
If Russia was militarily “imperialist”, it would be taking part with the imperialists (or at least backing them) when they embarked on imperialist wars. Yet Russia did not join the US Empire and its allies in the invasions and wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria. In fact, Russia intervened in Syria to block the imperialist proxy war aimed at toppling the Syrian Arab Republic. Moreover, like Syria, Russia’s interventions in Chechnya in 1994-96 and in 1999-2000 were military actions taken against covert CIA operations supporting domestic “Islamic” militants. Both of these wars – which took place inside the Russian Federation, were part of a major US state attempt to destabilisation, similar to the Afghanistan playbook during the 70s and 80s. Regardless of the conduct of Russian military forces in these conflicts, they were defensive actions – like the DeNazification of Ukraine today.
Similarly, after years of US training and equipping Georgian troops, in 2008 Georgia launched a war to reclaim South Ossetia from Russia. Again, Russia had to militarily intervene in a defensive action to secure its southern border. Georgia had been encouraged by the US to goad Russia into a conflict, but then the US military did not lift a finger to protect Georgia once Russia responded. Due to this, the skirmish ended in five days. Russia – or any other country – taking military action to defend itself against a US backed provocation, can scarcely be described as “imperialist”. Moreover, Russia has 15 military bases in other countries, but only two in countries which are not part of the former USSR – Syria and Vietnam. By contrast, the US has over 800 military bases in other countries, with military personnel in more than 160 countries. Now that is imperialism!
Covid Left splits on “Russian imperialism”
Infamously, many left parties betrayed the working class with the outbreak of severe political repression under the guise of “Covid” in March 2020. This act arguably surpassed the treachery of the social-democratic parties in 1914, who marched with “their own” ruling classes into the slaughter of World War I. Their sworn proclamations of standing for “revolution” and “Marxism” notwithstanding, these parties became known as the “lockdown left” for their assiduous service to the wealthiest ruling classes in history as they launched a civil war against working people under the rhetoric of “public health”. Even though most lockdowns have – for now – been shelved, the now Covid left fought bitterly against the freedom movement, railing against participants as “conspiracy theorists”, “anti-vaxers” and even “fascists”. They effectively acted as shock troops for the epic perfidy of the old Trade Union officials, who guarded their overpaid positions by enforcing lockdowns, facemasks, vaccine passports and even vaccine mandates on their own members and workers generally. Millions of workers lost their jobs and were plunged into poverty and despair while being subjected to mind-boggling political repression largely as a result of the high treason of Union officialdom and their Covid left underlings.
On February 24, the majority of the Covid left switched, as if by remote control, to the reactionary slogan of “Stand with Ukraine” – which in practice meant standing with Nazis such as the Azov Battalion which had became part of the Ukrainian state. Australia’s Socialist Alternative (SAlt) are among the most rabid evangelists of the theory of supposed “Russian Imperialism”. They claim that Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine is an “invasion”, and that Russia is attempting to raise itself in the pecking order of imperialist powers, and to do so means going to war. The Socialist Alliance (SAll) – in a purely formal sense – do not claim that Russia is “imperialist”. In practice however, this means exactly zero. SAll have loudly demanded that Russia withdraw from Ukraine (which would mean victory for NATO armed Ukrainian Nazis), while lauding the merging of the supposed youth climate actions “Fridays for Future” with mobilisations which back what is in practice a NATO led proxy war for regime change in Moscow.
The Australian Communist Party (ACP), despite its Stalinism, has no qualms about joining the hysterical campaign against Russia and President V Putin. It even claims that “there is nothing popular about the “people’s republics” established with Putin’s support….” in the Donbass! They don’t appear to recognise that the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic were set up in 2014 by ethnic Russians who refused to accept the installation of US backed Nazis in Kiev in 2014 as their new “government”. By contrast the US based Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) is well aware of the history of Nazis in Ukraine, and their latter day backing from NATO. However, at the same time, the PSL strengthens the reach of capitalist repression at home by firmly acting to maintain scientifically absurd facemask mandates on young school children in Chicago. The PSL denounces Nazism on the one hand, while advocating something eerily similar on the other hand.
The Socialist Equality Party (SEP), arguably the most prominent leader of the Covid left, tries to have it both ways. As if crossing themselves with a secular Holy Trinity, the SEP bend to the pressure of Western corporate media driven outrage and declare themselves against the “Russian invasion”. In the very same breath, they aver opposition to the US-NATO war drive. They appear to be unaware that whipping up contrived opposition to the “Russian invasion” is the most important component of the US-NATO war drive. The propaganda war, and the political war, of the governments of the US/EU and their Western allies requires manufacturing opposition to Russia amongst the working class in the name of “popular opinion”. Otherwise, there could be no political basis for the military operations of funnelling weapons and munitions to Ukraine – which end up in the hands of Nazis – and there could be no basis for the imposition of Western economic sanctions on Russia (which have so far had the opposite effect!). As with the war on Covid, the SEP is thus a partner of the imperialist war on Russia even if they simultaneously blow rhetorical raspberries towards NATO.
Testing the outer limits of Covid credulity, Australia’s Trotskyist Platform (TP) – with a straight face – claim that well over 100 000 Ukrainians have died from Covid! As one of imperialism’s most devoted Covid lieutenants, workers could be excused for henceforth dismissing TP’s advice on serious matters. Nevertheless, TP go on to claim that the current conflict is NOT a war of imperialism against Russia, but a war of Ukraine (backed by imperialism) versus Russia. This then justifies their call for Ukrainian and Russian workers to “unite against their capitalist rulers”. Some of their so-called Trotskyist antecedents go a step further in the wrong direction. The Spartacist League (SL) make an open call for Ukrainians and Russians to “turn the guns against your rulers”. The Internationalist Group (IG) make formulaic “Marxist” calls for “revolutionary defeatism on both sides” and for “revolutionary struggle against the capitalist rulers in Moscow and Kiev”.
Such “Trotskyist” parties surely take this designation in vain. A defeat for Russia now would mean victory to NATO armed Nazis in Ukraine and would very likely bring about the overthrow of the Russian government – the precise aim of Washington and London. Moreover, a call within Russia to overthrow V Putin would come flush up against the reality that the overwhelming majority of Russians well understand that this is a war of the West for the ultimate destruction of their nation and their very being. Polls now show that President Putin’s approval rating has now hit 83%, up from 69% in January. Any worker subscribing to anything remotely socialist in Russia today would have to take this into account before anything else. This does not mean political endorsement of Putin, but it would mean defending Russia against NATO led imperialism despite its government.
It is true that some parties of the Covid left broke from their Covid colleagues – but only on the nature of the Russian Federation and its alleged “imperialism”. For example, the left organisation Class Conscious recently convened an online meeting of “Marxists Speaking on the Conflict between Russia and Imperialism”. The panel included “Trotskyist” parties such as the Bolshevik Tendency (BT), Socialist Fight (SF) and the Socialisty Unity Party (SUP). While these parties correctly reject the false theory of “Russian imperialism”, they are at the same time avid enforcers of imperialism’s very real Covid repression against the world’s workers. Class Conscious refer to capitalist state quarantine and lockdowns as “public health measures” and criticise the Australian government for removing them! In the US, the SUP raise the eye-watering slogan of “Fight Covid and Poverty – Not Russia!” One wonders if they are aware of the concept of contradiction. The Western ruling class’s “fight” against Covid (whose very existence is at the very least questionable) was the precursor to its war on Russia. The two cannot be separated, even acknowledging the Russian government’s participation in Covid mania, which imposed its own lockdowns, vaccine mandates and vaccine passports.
For freedom from imperialism
If Russia is “imperialist”, then that term has lost all meaning. Russia today is fighting for its existence against an onslaught by imperialism, which is fighting Russia “to the last Ukrainian”. It is no secret that the governments of the US/EU/NATO and their Western allies are waging a war of regime change against Russia via Ukraine – which is nonetheless spectacularly failing in a military and economic sense. It is an open secret that imperialism’s ultimate target is regime change in Beijing, to overturn the People’s Republic of China (PRC). There is virtually no chance of this happening, but the class struggle of imperialism against the global working class will proceed until the workers of the world dismantle Western imperialism itself. Right now, this requires a defence of Russia and the PRC, despite these governments’ collusion with the Covid fraud. Indeed, many in the freedom movement against Covid tyranny are simply not buying the “Russia bad, Ukraine good” narrative. Nor are many workers buying the absurd idea that Ukrainian Nazis are fighting for democracy!
A march against imperialism today requires a rejection of BOTH their diabolical Covid and Ukraine schemes. The war on Russia is the continuation of the war on Covid. Both are aimed squarely at workers and the oppressed. Real imperialism is driving humanity towards economic collapse and the prospect of nuclear war. A struggle for socialism is an imperative necessity for the very survival of working people. Key to this task is the forging of vanguard parties sworn to uphold Permanent Revolution and the essential pillars of genuine Leninist-Trotskyism. The rule of finance capital must come to an end. Publicly owned and planned economies directed democratically by working people must be established and defended as the first steps towards the utilisation of the world’s resources for the world’s people.
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