The War in Ukraine Opens the Way to Global Imperialist Conflict

No-one can fail to be stirred by the current horrors confronting the people of Ukraine, especially its working class. They are now going through the same torment of death and displacement as the victims of imperialist war in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere across the globe in recent years. However the war in Ukraine is different in that it defines more clearly the imperialist interests of the contending powers. It is also a war which will go on for a long time and there will be no negotiated peace. This may be a war on Ukrainian soil but it has enormous implications for the future. It is opening the way for a much more general conflict involving the leading powers on the planet. From the public and informal meetings we have held, and from reading the press of other political organisations, it is clear however, that not everyone sees this war in the same way as we do. Given the gravity of the current situation we feel duty bound to further explain why the Ukraine war has to be seen in the wider context of both inter-imperialist rivalry and a global crisis of the capitalist system.

Imperialist War is Total War

Imperialism in its modern form arose in the final decades of the nineteenth century when the world economic system, capitalism, began to enter a new stage in its development. The driver for this was the process of concentration and centralisation of capital identified by Marx. By the time of his death it had reached such a point that each national economy was now dominated, as Bukharin put it, by the “magnates of capital”, who have taken "possession of the entire economic life. State power has become the domain of a financial oligarchy".(1)

This has continued to the present day. Competition has shifted from a struggle between individual capitalists within each state to a competitive struggle between states to gain new sources of raw materials, investments and markets, or even simply to deny them to perceived rivals. The capitalist world market of Marx’s day had become a “world economy” in which the struggle for domination between states had become paramount. World economy meant an increasingly greater role of the state in promoting and defending the leading companies in their territory and this translated into imperialist competition (which in its earliest stage included colonialism), trade wars and ultimately, global wars.

The two great world wars of the last century came about due to the internecine imperialist struggle mentioned above, in which each power tried to destroy the economic and military power of their rivals. They brought about not only the massive slaughter of millions of (mainly) workers but their (unintended) economic consequences paved the way for a revival of the whole system of capitalist accumulation. By destroying so much accumulated value these wars allowed a new cycle of accumulation to begin. The First World War destroyed a lot less value than the Second World War therefore the boom that followed (the so-called “Roaring Twenties”) did not last long, and came to a dramatic end in the Wall St Crash of 1929. This provoked a chain reaction of bankruptcies across the globe which plunged the world economy into a new Depression.

This depression was brought about, as all crises of capitalism ultimately are, by the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. This leads to a suspension of investment which in turn leads to a contraction in production and the laying off of workers. In turn this sets off a vicious circle in which the laying off of more workers leads to a shrinking of the market, which leads to even more bankruptcies and more production shutting down. Vulgar economists of various schools thus conclude that it is the effect (shrinking markets) which is the cause when in reality all capitalist crises start as crises of profitability. Economic depression does not just bring misery to millions of workers who pay the price in intensification of exploitation, job losses and falling real wages. It is always accompanied by a rise in imperialist competition and tensions leading ultimately to imperialist wars.

In the 1930s the leaders of the various powers based their assumptions on the experience of the First World War. They could see that wars had now taken a different character. It was no longer just a question of sending off an army or navy to some distant battle zone with minimal impact on the national economy. In the imperialist phase of capitalism the national economy was an integral part of a state’s capacity to fight war. Imperialist war was now unequivocally “total war”.

Contrast the fight to the death of imperialist wars with the period of the rise of capitalism. In the Napoleonic era, despite attempts at economic blockade on both sides, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s dictum that “Any state can only have other states and not men (sic) as enemies” still held sway. The consequence was that:

Private property in war was therefore inviolable by the state as a public entity. The doctrine quickly became dominant in national law, statecraft and diplomacy across continental Europe.(2)

This led to some surprising contrasts with today. In (to give a particularly relevant example) the Crimean War (1854-6) between Britain and Russia, "Her Majesty’s Government continued to fulfil its payment obligations to the tsarist government on old loans. Meanwhile Russia dutifully paid interest to owners of its sovereign debt living in Britain."(3)

This inviolability of private property was written into the Treaty of Paris which ended the Crimean War, and into many subsequent treaties involving Italy, Austria-Hungary, Prussia and the United States.(4) It was even enshrined as late as 1907 in the Hague Convention which attempted to define the “rules” of modern warfare.

The First World War tore up that rule book. As the first global conflict of the imperialist era it made the economy, and any state’s population, the major targets of war planning. Blockades, cutting off supplies and destruction of economic infrastructure, and coercing neutrals into taking sides via economic sanctions(5) were as much a part of the contest as the slaughter in the trenches.

In the First World War the Entente powers blockaded the Central Powers of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Germany replied with unrestricted submarine warfare to destroy merchant shipping in the North Atlantic. However the most egregious example was the continuing blockade of Germany by the Allies (as the Entente powers became when joined by Italy and the USA) after its representatives had signed the armistice. In the 8 months before the Treaty of Versailles was finally signed, between 300 and 400 thousand German civilians(6) died from malnutrition, to which we can add as that other corollary of war, the more than 120,000 who died from disease as in the “Spanish flu”. This compares with the deaths of just over 2 million German soldiers in over 4 years of actual fighting. These figures only confirm the fact that imperialist war was indeed “total war” affecting the civilian population as much as the armed forces of the state.

Total war though has other aspects. Its aim is to reduce the enemy economically, and not just militarily. Unlike previous wars there is no idea of reaching a negotiated settlement. All the attempts of classical diplomacy to end the First World War foundered on the fact that imperialist wars demand the complete destruction of the other side’s economy and military potential. When Marshall Foch, the Supreme Allied Commander, was asked by the German delegation sent to the forest near Compiègne in November 1918 what his conditions for surrender were, he replied that he did not have any. What he required was total, unconditional, surrender. Germany representatives were also not invited to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, but forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles under threat of continual blockade. Keynes called it a “Carthaginian peace”; Hitler called it a “diktat”. It was a long way from Woodrow Wilson’s “just and secure peace” since, as the failure of all negotiations before the Russian invasion of Ukraine show, no such thing is possible under modern imperialism. There is only a constant shift in the balance of power which makes some states “revisionist” and others determined to halt any revision. The Second World War only confirmed that imperialist wars are fought to the bitter end. The Allied “Big Three” (Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin) repeatedly announced, from 1943 on, that only the “unconditional surrender” of Germany, Italy and Japan would bring an end to the war, and that is precisely what happened.

In terms of deadliness, the First World War was nothing compared to the Second. The latter was a war which lasted 6 years and ranged from the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific via all Europe and Asia, and a good part of Africa. It destroyed an unprecedented amount of constant capital in the form of factories, farmland, transport infrastructure and sources of raw materials, and in its variable form, millions of lives. The slaughter was so great across so much of the world (more than half all deaths were in the USSR and China) that estimates vary wildly. It seems safe to assume that between 70-85 million died either directly as a result of military action or due to war-related disease and famine. Two thirds of these were civilians.(7) This was partly the result of the development of four-engined aircraft which could carry bombs to flatten cities, but it was also due to the nature of total imperialist war. Wars were not fought just between armies but between entire nations. There were now few places to hide or escape to. Even the most liberal of “democratic” countries suspended civil liberties in order to control and censor the press, intern “aliens” (even those who had fled persecution) and put the entire national production under state control. Conscientious objectors, socialists, Christian pacifists or others who resisted the war, were criminalised and sometimes killed.

Total war thus enormously empowers the state and weakens working class resistance especially when, as in both previous World Wars, supposed workers organisations support the war effort, and agree to preserve social peace in support of “the nation”.

We Are Not in a New Cold War

The war in Ukraine is not yet a world war but as we have explained before it is the most definite signal that world imperialism has embarked on that process. Many Western commentators continue to talk of a “new Cold War”, but this is misleading since it only refers to the similarities with the post 1945 period. They focus on the fact that two blocs that faced each other but neither engaged in direct conflict with each other since, in their view, nuclear weapons would have brought about “mutually assured destruction”.

What they don’t see are the differences with today. And the differences are what make the current situation so much more dangerous for humanity. The first is that we are not at the start of a new economic boom brought about by the war, as in 1945. Since the 1970s global capitalism has been in a long slow crisis, often disguised by the various expedients that have been used to manage it. The most “successful” of these were the deregulation of finance in the 1980s and 1990s, and the accompanying transfer of investment to low wage economies. It was a good way to restructure industry and, at the same time, weaken the working class who had so stubbornly fought to maintain their living standards in the richer capitalist countries in the 1970s. It looked as though this so-called “neo-liberalism” had succeeded brilliantly as the working class in these richer capitalist countries became weaker whilst the workers in Asia, Latin America and elsewhere slaved away (originally in Special Economic Zones) in dire conditions, to provide the world with cheap commodities under new regimes of exploitation.

But financialisation of the economy only fuelled more and more speculation. New financial instruments appeared to create fictitious capital by betting on future profits. Debts were now even labelled “assets”. In reality what the financiers were doing was mortgaging the future. They were counting on the production of the future to turn their fiction into fact. As was entirely predictable, this house of cards collapsed when those at the bottom of the pile could not keep up sub-prime mortgage payments in 2007-8. It should have triggered a much worse crisis for the system but in the richer countries the state stepped in because the financial sector was “too big to fail”. The state took on much of the banking debt and created money (quantitative easing) to enable the banks to keep on functioning. But speculation and accumulation of debt did not stop and more storm clouds were once again gathering in 2019 (i.e. even before the disruption of the pandemic) and the war in Ukraine has already added to inflationary pressures.

The system is now in a cleft stick. The normal response to inflation is the cold shower of higher interest rates which in the UK are still only at 1.25% after 5 successive rate rises (c.f. the last inflationary wave when in the UK in 1979 they peaked at 17%). Raising interest rates enough to cool inflation would not only bankrupt at least a fifth of all companies but would lead to currency collapse and defaults (which are already happening anyway in poorer countries) across the globe. This is why the central banks of the world, like the US Federal Reserve, have appeared paralysed in the face of the cost of living crisis. They have no good options, and like Mr Micawber are hoping “something will turn up”. Although no-one wants to recognise it, this long capitalist crisis still demands another massive devaluation of the kind that only a generalised imperialist war can bring about. It is thus no accident that what is on the horizon is the spectre of global war.

The Economic Weapon

The second big difference from the post-1945 Cold War is that we no longer have a world divided between two blocs headed by “satisfied super-powers” who emerged as victors from the previous conflict. On the one hand the USSR and its bloc collapsed in 1991 (we will return to this below), whilst on the other the economic rise of China was the unintended consequence of Western investment pivoting to the East and South to combat the economic crisis. The USA, although still an overwhelming dominant military and economic power (via the dollar’s hegemony in the world economy) is thus no longer without challenges. US responses to this new situation have only undermined the very “New World Order” they sought to impose after 1991. It was not just the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from which the US was forced to ignominiously retreat (making the world less “ordered” as it did so). The other arm of US policy has been to use dollar hegemony to impose its will, on friend and foe alike, through the use of “the economic weapon”, sanctions.

No other single policy has done so much to reforge two opposing camps in the coming world confrontation as sanctions. China, Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba may not have (yet) fully forged a new alliance but the first three, occupying much of the Asian landmass, have definitely been brought closer through their combined efforts to help each other in the face of US economic warfare.

In terms of the value of trade and GDP it looks as though the world has three big players, the US, the EU and China. But when it comes to transnational payments there is only one game in town, and that is the US because the vast majority are routed through US banks. In the days of the British Empire they operated more physical strategies for controlling world trade via their control of the seas. One option was “bunker control” or denying the rights of hostile nations to use the British coaling stations dotted around the planet.(8) The other was outright blockade.

Today, the US has at its disposal a more effective weapon which costs little to implement.(9) As holder of the world’s principal reserve currency, the dollar, the US has few competitors, and certainly no rivals in its near monopoly role in world trade. Its capacity to exclude any state from the international financial system is enormous and the populations of Iran since the 1980s, Iraq in the 1990s, and Afghanistan to this day, have all suffered economically as a result. According to Unicef, half a million children under the age of 5 died in Iraq due to malnutrition directly caused by US sanctions in the 1990s.(10) The same fate is befalling Afghani children as Afghanistan’s national treasury sits in US hands in New York rather than with the unrecognised Taliban regime in Kabul. The US may have lost the military campaign there but dollar hegemony has made sanctions the ultimate imperialist weapon. They also force reluctant allies to comply with US policy against their own interests. Since the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, European and other banks (whose states tried to keep the agreement going) and firms who exchanged with Iran have been forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in fines since 2017. Sanctions even compelled Russia and China to cooperate with the USA in the past. Russia initially supported sanctions against Iran and in 2006 Chinese banks cooperated with attempts to punish North Korea.

As the already-quoted Nicholas Mulder has shown, the first promoters of economic sanctions saw them as an alternative to war but in practice they have not acted as such. In the period leading up to the Second World War sanctions against the Axis powers had two consequences. The first was that it led them to seek economic self-sufficiency as far as possible. However, when it was realised that complete autarky was not possible it led these weaker imperialist powers to almost suicidal imperialist adventures. The Nazi Four Year Plan of 1936 was blatantly predicated on future “territorial expansion”(11) but it was Japan that became the most desperate of the embargoed powers. Faced with increased US sanctions, especially on its oil supplies in July 1941, the Japanese imperial project (which had seen them overrun much of China after 1937) was in big trouble. There was oil in the South Pacific in the Dutch Empire but to take that would require control of the seas. This would require an extraordinary gamble, and that is precisely what the attack on the US naval base of Pearl Harbor was. Destroying the US Pacific Fleet would have given Japan the chance to invade much of Oceania and South East Asia. The gamble failed (since the US carrier fleet was not in harbour) but it was never very likely to succeed given US economic might. However in the imperialist mindset of “winner takes all” there was no alternative for the weaker power. Sanctions thus are not an alternative to war but part of the war tool kit of the imperialist epoch, and as a result provoke aggression.

The War in Ukraine

If there is something familiar about the tale of a weaker imperialist power being driven to extremes by the increasing pressure of a more powerful rival, then we need look no further than the current desperation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the Russian version of imperialist history(12) NATO is surrounding Russia with the aim of its eventual dismemberment. For its part NATO claims that it is a purely defensive alliance but then NATO has broken promises to Russia already. Since 1991 Western leaders have repeatedly given assurances that NATO would not reach Russia’s borders, even as all the old Warsaw Pact states joined it. In 2004 NATO did precisely what it said it would not do and entered the old USSR territory itself with the accession of the three Baltic States. NATO bombers stationed in Tallinn are now less than an hour from St. Petersburg. Ukraine and Belarus had been part of the old Russian Empire for centuries. They are Russia’s last cushions against NATO. Both (plus Georgia) have been the subject of Western attempts to topple pro-Russian leaders.

Since independence from the USSR, Ukraine has become one of the poorest states in Europe with its economy dominated by a few dozen feuding rival capitalists who control about 42% of the economy. These corrupt oligarchs have ensured that Ukraine has oscillated between Russia and the West since 1991. In 2014 when the democratically-elected pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown by a Western-inspired and funded revolt (the Maidan), Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister referred to it as the “state coup in Ukraine”.(13) The Maidan in Kyiv led to Russian separatists opening the war in the Donbas which culminated in Russia annexing Crimea.

Ignored for most of the last 8 years the war in the Donbas had already cost 14,000 lives. The Russian-speaking separatists scored some early successes in 2014 but the Ukrainian counter-attack would have completely retaken the Eastern provinces if Russia had not sent in some of its armed forces (without admitting the fact). This is the only reason the so-called Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have survived. Despite defending them militarily, the Russian state had never recognised their autonomy because it was still hoping to use them as bargaining chips in the continued attempt to demilitarise Ukraine and prevent it joining NATO. The reversal of this policy and the recognition of their autonomy came only two days before the Russian attack. The invasion on 24 February came after ten months of Russian troop build ups on Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Belarus to contest the military support given to Ukraine by NATO powers, especially the USA.

In our last issue we noted that:

It all started with the Biden administration signing an agreement to supply Ukraine with $125 million of weaponry in April 2021. The Pentagon openly declared that this was for “defence against Russian aggression”. This was put on hold in June so Russian forces began to stand down, only for half the package to be reaffirmed by U.S. Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, on a visit to Kyiv in October.(14)

So Russia re-started the troop build up. It was responding to the massive increase in US military support for Ukraine since Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014. Before then this was around $50 million a year but from 2016 on it passed $200 million a year and this doubled again in 2019 and 2020.(15) However the State Department announced on 23 June 2022 that total US aid to Ukraine since 2014 now totals $8.7 billion.(16) Over $4 billion of this is military aid made available since Biden took office in January 2021.(17)

As we argued in our previous issue(18) it was the perceived shift in the balance of force brought about by this re-armament that had led the Russians to move troops to the Ukraine borders in Russia and Belarus in a failed attempt to pressurise Ukraine and NATO to stop the flow of weapons to Ukraine. Russian alarm was voiced by Chief of General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, in December 2021. He complained then that:

Kyiv is not fulfilling the Minsk Agreements. The Ukrainian armed forces are touting that they have started to employ US-supplied Javelin anti-tank missile systems in Donbas and are also using Turkish reconnaissance/strike drones. As a result, the already tense situation in the east of that country is further deteriorating. (19)

In fact neither side has shown any intention of carrying out the various Minsk accords of 2014 and 2015, or renegotiating them seriously, simply because there is no room for compromise. When he came to power Zelensky refused to talk to “terrorists” in the Donbas whilst Putin refused to talk to Zelensky as a mere puppet of the West. Every imperialist power has its own version of the truth but, in fact Ukraine and Russia are only the proxies for an existential struggle which will go far beyond the principals in the current war, as its consequences are already revealing.

Blocs and Alliances

The idea that we are at the start of another Cold War is not the only erroneous reading of imperialist history since 1945. The other, posed by more than one good internationalist comrade in our on-line public meeting in March, is that solid “blocs” need to be formed before a more generalised war is on the agenda. This ignores the significant fact that the era of blocs headed by two superpowers who had emerged victorious from the previous conflict never led to globalised war. Blocs it seems were a lot more stable than the old system of shifting alliances which brought about the two previous world wars. And with the implosion of the USSR the world returned to a more fragmented order, more like that which prevailed from 1871-1945.

But not quite. The end of the post-war boom put all capitalist states, including the USSR, under strain. The USSR collapsed in the face of the economic stresses and strains of trying to compete with the USA on the basis of a far weaker economy where 25% of its budget went on the military (compared with 6% for the USA). Faced with growing class resistance,(20) and a corrupt ruling class based in the nomenklatura,(21) that refused to give up its privileges, the system imploded. The Eastern bloc collapsed. Logically that should have meant NATO and other anti-Soviet alliances should have become redundant. But they didn’t, and as stated above, NATO carried on enrolling more than half the states in Europe. It was after all “the end of history” and, as we showed in our previous issue, Western hubris was unstoppable. The interview of the 94 year old George Kennan by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has been repeated many times.(22) It was Kennan who came up with the policy of “containment of communism” (by which he meant Stalinism) in 1947 but once “communism” had collapsed, he argued that “there was no reason” for NATO expansion predicting there “is going to be a bad reaction from Russia” which would thus confirm the pro-NATO faction “that this is how the Russians are”. He was ignored because the aficionados of the “New World Order” were full of the ideology that this was the “American Century”.

The “end of history” may have now become “the revenge of history”, but for the moment the US has done very nicely out of the Ukraine war. It has had to spend a lot of treasure but has not lost a single soldier, and the war has bolstered the unity of a Western bloc which in the previous three decades was showing signs of breaking up, with many “allies” refusing to support US adventures in Iraq and elsewhere. Dreams of some European politicians that Europe could strike out as a separate imperialist entity have now been shattered. After decades of Ostpolitik by both the SPD and the Christian Democrats, the German ruling class have acceded to two big US demands that they previously resisted. They are increasing their military budget and reducing their dependence on Russian oil and gas (an additional benefit for US shale gas). Western states (with the notable exception of Orban’s Hungary) are queuing up to impose fresh sanctions on Russian and Belorussian interests. The flag of Ukraine flies everywhere so that it has almost become the flag of NATO whilst Putin has done more to reanimate and consolidate the Western alliance than any US President ever did. NATO’s further expansion into Sweden and Finland only confirms that.

But this contest involves more than war in Europe. As we have shown in various articles(23) the rivalry for control of the planet extends from the Arctic to the South Pacific. As a result US allies across the world like Australia and Japan (which was invited to the latest NATO meeting in Germany) are taking part in the ideological and military build up against both Russia and China. The real global adversaries are USA and China and the competition is hotting up. At the same time the common trade links that inhibited more hostile actions are gradually dwindling.

On the other side of the imperialist equation there is a burgeoning alliance, but as yet nothing as solid as in the West. The increased cooperation of Russia and China (and to a lesser extent Iran) is a result of their common position as the targets of Western sanctions. Even before the Ukraine war, Russian-Chinese cooperation had reached unprecedented levels. However as our Italian comrades have shown elsewhere(24) there are important differences in their perceptions about their imperial prospects.

The Russian ruling class, as we have seen, sees itself as threatened and being surrounded. It is also revanchist. It wants to regain lost ground. In addition to the loss of control of its satellites in Eastern Europe the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to the loss of around two million square miles of sovereign territory.(25) The fact that this loss took place without a fight has been even more galling for those in the Kremlin today. Putin’s well-known statement that the collapse of the USSR was “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century” is the starting point for Russian foreign policy. Western hawks have pounced with glee on his statements that Ukraine was always part of Russia(26) or that the current war was in the tradition of the old Russian Empire under Peter the Great. Presumably these comments are, like his repeated references to the “defeat of fascism” in the “Great Patriotic War” under Stalin, all part of the ideological appeal to Russian nationalism in justifying the invasion.

The regime needs all the ideological ballast it can muster since Russia starts from a weak position. Despite having one of the larger GDPs in Europe, this only amounts to one fifteenth that of the USA. This is one more reason why it has increasingly been forced to turn to China (since the war began Russia-China trade is already up 28.2%). It is well-known that China’s strength is its economy, and its imperialist reach has been based largely in building up “soft power” in its Belt and Road Initiative. It has brought China to become, on some measures, the equal of the US economically. Its openly announced aim is to become the world’s undisputed leading power by 2049.(27) The Chinese leadership therefore has a lot more to lose in any direct conflict in the short term, and is keen to avoid any further sanctions. Initially that made it very cautious in its guarded support for Russia without entering into the merits or not of the invasion.

However in an increasingly crisis-ridden imperialist world China is no more in control of events than any of the other contenders. Not only does it have its own economic problems as growth slows but the US has already indicated that its principal enemy is not Russia but China (it’s the only issue that unites the fractured political class in the USA). Biden has already stated that it will not displace the USA as the world’s leading power “on my watch”. His Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, spelled out what this means in a speech at George Washington University on 26 May 2022.(28) Stating that the war in Ukraine was “a charged moment for the world“, he soon turned to China. Citing Xi Jinping’s speech that Russia and China have a friendship “without limits”, he informed his audience that:

Even as President Putin’s war continues, we will remain focused on the most serious long-term challenge to the international order – and that’s posed by the People’s Republic of China.
China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it. Beijing’s vision would move us away from the universal values that have sustained so much of the world’s progress over the past 75 years.

He thus concluded that:

…. we cannot rely on Beijing to change its trajectory. So we will shape the strategic environment around Beijing to advance our vision for an open, inclusive international system.

He spelled out what this meant as “reaffirming vital security alliances” with Korea and Japan, enrolling a dozen countries in the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity”, upgrading the Quad alliance of Australia, Japan, India, the United States, inviting Asian allies to NATO conferences, “reinvigorating” the previously moribund ASEAN alliance plus highlighting the new AUKUS alliance with the UK and Australia.(29)

Unsurprisingly the Chinese response was that NATO seemed to be coming to its borders too. One official from a government think tank on Chinese TV added:

China is in a position that is somewhat comparable to Russia’s … The US is clearly manipulating the Taiwan issue and constantly fanning the flames in order to dismember China by creating a Ukraine of the Orient.(30)

The West is thus driving China and Russia closer and closer together. On 6 July the FBI boss Christopher Wray, in the UK for discussions with MI5, announced that:

We’ve seen China looking for ways to insulate their economy against potential sanctions, trying to cushion themselves from harm if they do anything to draw the ire of the international community … In our world, we call that kind of behavior a clue.(31)

What is happening, in the words of Bloomberg News, is that Russia and China’s original “marriage of convenience” is turning into “a marriage of necessity” to the point where “Only close strategic alignment can reduce their mutual vulnerability.”(32)

So the fracture lines in global imperialism are deepening and hardening to the point where the ideological justifications for a long war are being rehearsed on both sides. In the First World War it was enough for workers to be told that they were fighting for “King and Country” to create a patriotic wave of jingoism which, for a while, swept aside all opposition to war. The ideological preparations for the Second World War were more sophisticated with the democracies invoking “anti-fascism” as their cause whilst the Axis powers aligned themselves around “anti-communism”. This is not too different from today. Biden, Blinken and other NATO leaders are also preparing the ideological basis for future generalised war by posing it as the defence of “democracy” against “authoritarianism”. Defence of freedom is a strong card to hold. But given that Russia has been in retreat for 3 decades and China has been the victim of Western, Japanese and Russian imperialism in the past it is not hard for their rulers to play the nationalist card at home as victims of attempts to strangle their interests. So far both sides are currently succeeding in taking the majority of their populations along with them.

Given what we have shown here about the nature of imperialist rivalry and war, the prospect is for a war which can only end with the utter defeat of one of the contending alliances. Given that whole arsenals of nuclear weapons are available on both sides there remains the possibility that the alliance which starts to lose the conventional battle will use them. Putin has already threatened that he would if Russia was facing defeat. And both Blinken and Biden have identified that we are now in the “decisive decade” for dealing with China. With the world economic crisis deepening, imperialist options are narrowing. This is why it is important that the workers of the world, the vast majority, who make the profits for the capitalist by their labour, have to begin to organise against war and exploitation, and soon.

No War but the Class War

What we have tried to show here is that the war in Ukraine is not simply about Russia’s immediate aggression, repulsive though that may be. It is a product of a capitalist system of exploitation which has long since morphed into a competitive struggle between the various propertied classes for control of the planet. When they talk of fighting for their country they mean it. They, after all, own most of it. But for the workers everywhere who create the wealth and power of the capitalist class imperialist war is just one more price we pay for continuing to live under the capitalist system of production. Nationalism is the ideology of the bourgeois revolutions which produced modern capitalism. Being “a citizen” of a nation might have seemed a lot better than the feudal subject of some monarch two hundred years ago but today, to steal a phrase, “some citizens are more equal than others”. In capitalist peace we are wage-slaves and in imperialist war either cannon-fodder or “collateral damage”.

As long ago as 1845 Marx confronted the issue of nationality:

The nationality of the worker is neither French, nor English, nor German [nor Russian or Ukrainian – CWO], it is labour, free slavery, the sale of himself and his own labour. His government is neither French, nor English, nor German, it is capital. His native air is neither French, nor German, nor English, it is factory air. The land belonging to him is neither French, nor English, nor German, it lies six feet below the ground.(33)

He repeated the observation in the Communist Manifesto:

The workers have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got.(34)

In the imperialist epoch, Percy Goldsborough, a socialist imprisoned in Richmond Castle for refusing to “die for his country” in 1916 wrote on his cell wall that “the only war worth fighting is the class war”. It was an echo of what Socialist Parties in Russia, Serbia, Poland and Bulgaria had already been saying since 1914, and echoed the declaration of the Zimmerwald Left from a year earlier. Initially ignored by most of the world’s workers, internationalist positions became a rallying cry for millions once actual experience of the war struck home. It led to the revolutionary wave which began in Russia in 1917 before it spread to Germany and around the globe. More than any force it brought the First World War to an end. It was a message re-iterated in the Second World War by our Italian predecessors in the Internationalist Communist Party. It was the only party formed in the Second World War which unambiguously called on workers in both the Fascist and Allied camps to “desert the war”. And it is repeated today by all the organisations of the internationalist communist left. Some of them have already joined with us in the development of “No War but the Class War” and others from different traditions are continuing to form groups in different countries around the world.(35)

We have no illusions of the challenge facing the world working class. After four decades of capitalist restructuring (in a vain attempt to restart profitable accumulation) we are starting from a very bad place but we have to start a global movement against the war and the crisis now. The experience of both past imperialist wars and the current war in Ukraine show resistance gets much harder once the total war we have analysed here breaks out. We are already developing cooperation with some of them, and salute all the internationalists who oppose both sides in this war.(36)

Our primary tasks are clear. First we have to share and publicise all the evidence of anti-war resistance in both Russia and Ukraine as these states impose compulsory service on all males. Whether it is the Russian conscripts who have realised they can refuse to fight without getting shot by the state (because this is not a war but a “special military operation”) or the Ukrainians who have deserted both the front and the country despite the threats of their government.

We must also expose the fake arguments of the supporters of both sides.

This starts with the traditional state capitalist Left like the Stop the War campaign, the Stalinists or the likes of Trotskyists of the Socialist Equality Party who see the US and the West as the only imperialist force on earth. They only distort the proletarian position on imperialist war in order to support the enemies of the West. Stalinists will tell us that they are in favour of “revolutionary defeatism” which means wanting the defeat of NATO and Ukraine. This is crafty special pleading. The internationalist position on revolutionary defeatism was that it should be adopted by all workers wherever they were and not just by one side. Turning world war into civil war was always about world revolution against the entire system.

On the other side there are many anarchists and others who in their immediatist support for “the self-determination and independence of Ukraine” are falling into the trap of aiding the mobilisation for a wider war. We have warned for many years that the wars that engulfed the Middle East and elsewhere were but preparations for those “nearer to home”. Now that they have reached Europe, Ukrainian refugees are rightly made welcome in the West, but is a stark contrast with the asylum seekers from wars started by the West who, after all their traumas, are threatened with flights to Rwanda.

Alongside sentimental nationalism, many anarchists have already bought into the “fight for democracy” ideology of the West and some have even told us that the Ukraine fight is an “anti-fascist” fight (despite the clear evidence about the Ukrainian Azov Battalion’s Nazi roots – there are ultra-right nationalist and fascists on both sides). Cheerleading for either side now only aids and abets the drive to a more generalised war in the future.(37)

Our fight is different. When we say “No War but the Class War” we are declaring war on the capitalist system which spawns pandemics, climate change and the potential extinction of humanity. Our “war” is not nuclear nor conventional and our weapons are not bombs, artillery, drones and rockets. Our weapons are our class consciousness which recognises that “workers have no country” and our capacity for collective organisation. We need to create an international political organisation to fight the war and the system which causes it. This means not only highlighting the brave acts on both sides of the current conflict to “desert the war” but also publicising as widely as possible the growing fight against a system in economic free fall. We have not seen the historic choice of socialism or barbarism so starkly posed in over 80 years.

Jock
Communist Workers’ Organisation
8 July 2022

Notes:

(1) marxists.org

(2) Quoted in Nicholas Mulder, The Economic Weapon – The Rise of Sanctions as a Tool of Modern War (Yale University Press, 1922), p.16

(3) Mulder, loc. cit

(4) Mulder, p. 17

(5) Mulder, p. 17, has a very good account of how the British and French used sanctions and a blockade to force the Greek Government to change sides in the First World War.

(6) According to Mulder this is more like the true figure, compared to the 760,000 originally given by German officials at the time who were looking for other reasons than military failure to explain German defeat. The point remains though that German working class had had enough of accepting the economic sacrifices of war and in November 1918 overthrew the Kaiser in a revolution, even before an armistice had been signed.

(7) To go beyond the statistics (en.wikipedia.org) to the human suffering, see: leftcom.org

(8) Mulder op. cit. p.43. The clearest example was the refusal of the British (then in alliance with Japan) to allow the Russian Baltic Fleet to refuel in its coaling stations or access the Suez Canal as it took several months to navigate to the Tsushima Straits where it was promptly destroyed in 1904.

(9) And it has not been hesitant about implementing them: “During Obama’s second presidential term 2350 new sanctions were declared. Over Trump’s term there were 3800”. Tom Stevenson “First Recourse for Rebels”, London Review of Books, p.25

(10) “UNICEF—Results of the 1999 Iraq Child and Maternal Mortality Surveys”, Federation of American Scientists, accessed 29 June 2022

(11) Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis (Penguin 2001), p. 22

(12) Which we explored more deeply in Revolutionary Perspectives 19 in an article written in December 2021: leftcom.org

(13) Quoted by Lawrence Freedman in “Peace in Ukraine will be elusive until a military breakthrough”, Financial Times, 2 April 2022

(14) leftcom.org

(15) It seems that even Trump’s threat to cut off military aid to Ukraine (unless they provided him with evidence of the dubious role of Hunter Biden there) did not make any significant difference to the continual rise in US military support. stimson.org

(16) state.gov

(17) On April 21, President Biden authorized a Presidential Drawdown of security assistance valued at up to $800 million tailored to meet critical Ukrainian needs for today’s fight as Russian forces launch a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine. This authorization is the eighth drawdown of equipment from DoD inventories for Ukraine since August 2021 bringing the U.S. commitment to more than $4 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the Biden Administration. defense.gov

(18) leftcom.org

(19) tass.com

(20) Whose history has yet to be written but elements can be found in Syndicalisme et libertés en Union soviétique by Olga Semyonova and Victor Haynes (Maspero 1979)

(21) By 1982 Andropov, the hard line Stalinist boss of the KGB realised that the USSR could not compete with NATO and the competition was killing the USSR. His solution was to increase exploitation (aka productivity) and attack corruption. He died, but his protégé Gorbachev tried to go further with persetroika and glasnost which eventually led to the coup which ended the whole regime.

(22) nytimes.com

(23) See for example: leftcom.org and leftcom.org

(24) leftcom.org

(25) An area bigger than the entire European Union. foreignaffairs.com

(26) Erroneously blaming Lenin and the Bolsheviks for Ukraine’s creation in 1918.

(27) There are many articles on Chinese imperialism on our website. See, for example: leftcom.org or, more recently, leftcom.org

(28) The whole speech is worth reading at: state.gov

(29) Our comments on these can be found in: leftcom.org and leftcom.org

(30) theguardian.com

(31) edition.cnn.com

(32) bloomberg.com

(33) We are indebted to the comrades of Controverses for not only pointing out this quotation but also giving a more meaningful translation than the one found here: hiaw.org

(34) We replaced the nineteenth century “men” with “class” in our updated version of the translation.

(35) A balance sheet of the progress so far will be the subject of a different article.

(36) See: leftcom.org

(37) A more detailed examination of responses to the war is in preparation. In the meantime we can only reiterate our solidarity with the Russian anarcho-syndicalist organisation KRAS: leftcom.org

Friday, August 19, 2022

Revolutionary Perspectives

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