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The test of Ukraine

Socialism, Imperialism, and War

4 May 2022

Demonstrators in London call for the arming of Ukraine.

In various cities across the world, especially in Europe, demonstrations have been organised by leftists demanding that Ukraine be allowed to defend itself.

Meanwhile NATO and the US pour billions in advanced weaponry into the war. Volunteers and advisors from the NATO countries direct much of the military organisation and advanced radar and satellite technology keep track of Russian movement. No-one cares about the demands of the leftists.

Yet the left should have a key role – asserting the interests of the working class and posing an alternative to capitalist warmongering. In the past activists would have looked behind slogans such as “Solidarity with Ukraine.” They would have avoided absurd comparisons with Vietnam and the Irish Troubles. They would ask what the class interests involved in the struggle were and picked up standard formulae to guide their response such as; “the main enemy is at home!”

Why is this happening? The answer is partly based on the material circumstances these people find themselves in, and partly in the political and theoretical response by the groups involved.

The simplest reason for the socialists amnesia is the widespread retreat of the working class, especially in the global North.

The working class is weaker because capitalism is weaker. The boom years following the last World War became a period of decay as profit rates tumbled. The reforms of the 50s and 60s were replaced by austerity, cutbacks and privatisation of services. Unions were brought to heel, a weakened USSR dismantled and Social Democratic parties committed suicide rather than oppose the capitalist race to impoverish the workers. The class struggle remains, but workers cling desperately to the old leaderships and see no alternative to ongoing oppression.

Traditional sources of recruitment dry up as unions move closer to government and supress rank and file organisation that might disrupt the workings of background agreements. In the past universities and the academic world served as refuges, but the universities have themselves been the subject of sustained attack, reproducing dogma without any reference to material reality or to the everyday experience of working people. Privatisation and casualization of academic work produce a culture of fear. A new class of CEOs and mumbo-jumbo artists rule the roost.

In the absence of longer-term campaigns by self-organised workers socialist groups lack praxis. They are unable to remake their theories in the light of class battles. The situation is made much worse by turns towards electoralism. When the only aim is to maximise the vote, socialist principles rarely survive the electoral campaign.

The socialist movement fragments. Small groups and individuals try to preserve the kernel of a revolutionary programme. Some stick with ossified dogma. Others drift opportunistically in the ebb and flow of history.

It is in this sort of atmosphere that new positions on capitalism and imperialism begin to emerge.

A “theory” of radical anti-imperialism has emerged. It bases itself on a crude definition of imperialism as aggression and annexation of territory. A central element emerging from this understanding is a concept of many imperialisms. Leftists can then pick and choose whom to support, usually on moral grounds. In fact, this sort of posturing goes back a long time, with supporters of western imperialism claiming that the takeover of other countries was justified as a civilising mission, overthrowing barbarism to bring the superior culture of the metropolis. More recently it has emerged again as a signal of the capitulation of liberals and leftists, beginning with the Euston group that applauded the drive to invade Iraq, moving on to justification for the bombing of Serbia and then calling for the no-fly zone over Libya. These commentators never look back. Their work done, they move into the ranks of the right and abandon all pretence of socialism.

To call radical anti-imperialism a theory is to flatter it. Analysis rests heavily on a major weakness of many socialist groups, where they apply a hermeneutic approach – interpreting the comments of past writers and applying them selectively to current events. Radical anti-imperialism is enriched by a diet of abuse and contempt aimed at their opponents. One opus is entitled “The anti-imperialism of fools” and supporters draw heavily on an old text by Trotsky called “Learn to think.”  Another standard procedure is to condemn US and NATO imperialism only to come to the final conclusion that the more civilised western imperialism is the least worst option.

Their opponents actually look at Marxist theory, as opposed to simply throwing out quotations. However, their approach is somewhat formulaic and mechanical. By, for example, simply applying five tests from Lenin’s definition of imperialism to decide the status of individual countries.

To make use of Marxist theory we begin by pointing out that imperialism is a global system – the extension of capitalism to cover the entire world. Moralistic dictums about individual countries tell us little. It is more useful to question the role of individual nations in the global system.

The early 20th century saw a world dominated by inter-imperialist rivalry between roughly equal powers, resolved by world wars. The post-war period saw the US as the hegemonic power, dominating the world. The late 20th century saw victory over the USSR. The US ruled alone, but the forces if decay dominated both internally and externally.

Internally what passes for US democracy is in a state of collapse and attacks on the working class are ramping up. Externally Biden has moved to reassert military hegemony across the globe and there is an even greater use of the dollar as a weapon. The Ukraine war is more and more clearly a proxy war with Russia and the encirclement of China the overall goal. It is the US that has torn up nuclear treaties and is aiming for first strike capability.

There can be no support for Putin’s concept of a pre-emptive war, but from this perspective the war in Ukraine is above all a proxy war. We should not support a victory for Russia, but a NATO victory would damage the working class. The obvious solution is serious negotiations and an end to the war, and the road to creating that reality is a mass international anti-war movement that will assert the common interests of workers above those of US imperialism and the oligarchs on both sides.

We are entering a new cold war that will see the continuation of US attempts to reassert global supremacy. The general decay and fragmentation of imperialism will continue, but a renewed socialist movement and the more combative sections of the working class will now begin to contest that domination.

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