On March 21, 2022, Gilbert Achcar – a Professor at SOAS University of London – published a note on the Russia-Ukraine conflict, openly wishing for a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) victory. He enthusiastically expressed his support for Western arms deliveries to Ukraine and Western sanctions against Russia, which not only impact the well-being of the Russian people by blocking access to imported items but also plunder economic resources via the seizure of assets belonging to the sanctioned country. Achcar explained his full-blown pro-NATO advocacy by making vague references to “Russian imperialism”, which he considers to be worse than Western imperialism. Again, this judgement, too, is left unexplained; it is only garnished with a useless analogy pompously proclaiming the West’s “vassalization” of Ukraine to be “incomparably preferable” to Russia’s “enserfment” of the country.
Achcar’s purely instinctual arguments about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (similar to his earlier support for the United Nations Security Council “No Fly Zone” resolution on Libya that helped destroy that nation) are not unique; they resemble the war-mongering paranoia that has come to percolate into the Eurocentric Northern Left’s politico-ideological commonsense. A central feature of this commonsense is the inability to gain a scientific understanding of what constitutes imperialism. As a result, colonial sentiments about the First World’s moral and civilizational superiority – which imagine the Third World to be indelibly marked by primitive Oriental Despotism – frequently parade in the guise of anti-imperialism and internationalism. Presently, the same unfounded feelings are being mobilized by the metropolitan elites to wage a racist and militarist crusade against the bogeyman of “Russian imperialism”. In order to dispel these myths – which are underpinned by the West’s history of pillage, genocide, slavery, colonization and neo-colonization – we need to comprehend imperialism in a systematic manner. In 2016, Renfrey Clarke and Roger Annis wrote an insightful analysis of Russia’s position in the global imperialist system with the help of the definitional parameters supplied by Vladimir Lenin.
In chapter 7 of “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, Lenin outlined the five “basic features” of imperialism:
“(1) the concentration of production and capital developed to such a high stage that it created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of banking capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.”
While the initial four points remain relevant, the last point needs to be revised as the era after mid-twentieth century has been characterized by the success of national liberation movements in Asia and Africa and US unipolarity, which has forced imperialism to evolve into a more indirect architecture of global wealth polarization marked by multinational corporations, dollar hegemony, and a network of military bases. With this qualification in mind, Clarke and Annis then apply Lenin’s criteria to Russia. First, “Russia is not home to an advanced capitalism, or to a broad, prosperous middle class…industrial production has lost much of its past diversity, and its overall technical level is decidedly backward, while in a pattern reminiscent of the least developed areas of the periphery, the extractive sector accounts for a notably large share of output”. Second, “Russia’s finance capital is small and weak, and the largely criminalized, chaotic nature of the Russian financial sector rules out any possibility that this sector might play a hegemonic role within the economy.”
Third, “[t]here is no overall surplus of capital in Russia, and while the country nonetheless exports capital, this is for perverse reasons [linked to the parasitic search for tax havens such as Cyprus and British Virgin Islands] and despite a near-catastrophic lack of investment in infrastructure and productive plant. With its real foreign investment concentrated in countries of the center, Russia plays little direct part in the quintessential imperialist activity – the export of capital to the periphery and the extraction of profit from developing-country labor and resources.” Fourth, “[i]ts monopolies tend to be puny alongside those of various countries that are clearly part of the semi-periphery, let alone the corporate monsters of the imperialist center.” Fifth, “Russia’s foreign trade has a markedly dependent character, and the country exports mainly basic commodities for which prices are often depressed. Conducting little trade with poorer areas of the periphery, Russia does not benefit significantly from unequal trading exchange.” Fifth,
When we come to understand that Russia is not imperialist but semi-peripheral in nature, the role of the Euro-Atlantic countries in creating a hostile security environment for the former becomes evident. Beginning from the 2000s, Vladimir Putin came to realize that his earlier optimism about closer Russia–US cooperation was naïve. The US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, NATO’s enlargement of its membership base in its 2002 summit, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, American regime-change campaigns and color revolutions in Eurasia, and the expansion of European Union (EU) convinced Russia that an independent foreign policy was vital to extricate the country from the post-Soviet catastrophe. Since then, Putin’s leadership has promoted multilateral organizations such as the G20 and built stronger relations with China, all due to the fact that the imperialist West has followed a policy of destabilizing intervention in strategic countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine. What do these facts mean for the formulation of a socialist strategy?
In 2014, Samir Amin stated that “the policy of Russia (as developed by the administration of Putin) to resist the project of colonization of Ukraine (and of other countries of the former Soviet Union, in Transcaucasia and Central Asia) must be supported.” At same time, he insisted that “this positive Russian “international policy” is bound to fail if it is not supported by the Russian people. And this support cannot be won on the exclusive basis of “nationalism,” even a positive progressive — not chauvinistic — brand of “nationalism,” a fortiori not by a “chauvinistic” Russian rhetoric. Fascism in Ukraine cannot be challenged by Russian fascism. The support can be won only if the internal economic and social policy pursued promotes the interests of the majority of the working people.”
In his book “Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” Amin elaborated that the Russian administration could secure the support of its citizens only if it abandoned its “disastrous internal neo-liberal policy” and escaped from “financial globalization”. The material bases of such economic policies exist in “segments of the political class in Russia that are disposed to support a state capitalism that would, in turn, be open to the possibility of moving in the direction of a democratic and socialized management.” However, “if the comprador fraction of the Russian ruling classes – the exclusive beneficiaries of neoliberalism – ends up gaining the upper hand, then the “sanctions” with which Europe is intimidating Russia could bear fruit. The comprador segments are still disposed to capitulate to preserve their portion of the spoils from the pillaging of their country. Russia then would not be able to reject colonization by the imperialism of the triad. And in the meantime, Russia will lose the battle in Ukraine.” From Amin’s writings, it should be clear Russia’s invasion of Ukraine needs to be rejected as it is based on chauvinistic rhetoric and does not advance a sustainable method for countering Western imperialism. This was bound to happen as Putin has been pursuing neoliberal policies and did not interact with the masses. In addition to opposing the invasion, the Left should demand an immediate end to the war and mobilize against the West’s imperialist plans for Ukraine.
Yanis Iqbal is a student and writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at [email protected].