Alex Callinicos on the Ukraine crisis
The reaction of the Western left to this enormous crisis has been, to put it mildly, confused. Far too many (including some who should know better) have been willing to cast a blind eye at or find excuses for Russia’s military intervention. The reasons for this attitude are, in ascending order of respectability, Stalinist nostalgia, exaggeration of the role of the extreme right in the anti-Yanukovych movement, and the search for some counterweight to American power. The net result is a revival of what used to be called campism in the days of the Cold War—seeing states in conflict with the US and its allies (then the USSR, now usually Russia and China) as in some sense progressive allies of the left.
None of this has much to do with the revolutionary Marxist tradition. The fate of Ukraine preoccupied Trotsky during the last year of his life in 1939-40, as Europe rolled into the Second World War. Distilling the results of prolonged debates among Russian Marxists (which continued after October 1917) in which Lenin consistently insisted on the necessity of defending the right to self-determination of oppressed nations, Trotsky defended “the independence of a United Ukraine” (ie incorporating Polish Galicia and Volhynia) even if that meant “the separation of Soviet Ukraine from the USSR”—and this, remember, at a time when he was vehemently arguing that the Soviet Union was still a “degenerated workers’ state” that revolutionaries should defend against Western imperialism.
Quoting Trotsky can be a religious exercise, but his views are worth bearing in mind when considering supposed Marxists who dismiss the idea of Russian imperialism as an “abstraction” or even advocate the partition of Ukraine. Putin’s apologists on the Western left must explain how their stance squares with the right to national self-determination. If they defend Crimea’s (extremely dubious) claim to separate from Ukraine, where do they stand on the long-standing Chechen struggle for independence from Russia, brutally crushed by Putin? And what will they say if Russian forces move into eastern Ukraine and become mired in crushing the nationalist insurgency that this would almost certainly provoke?
Of course, the US remains the dominant imperialist power on a world scale. And of course, it is thoroughly hypocritical for Obama and his secretary of state John Kerry to denounce Putin’s seizure of Crimea, forgetting Washington’s interventions in its own backyard such as the October 1962 naval blockade of Cuba or the December 1989 invasion of Panama (a state, incidentally, carved out of Colombia at Teddy Roosevelt’s behest at the beginning of the 20th century).
But from a Marxist perspective, imperialism is about more than American power. The classical theory of imperialism is, more than anything else, a theory of intra-capitalist competition. Imperialism is a system, the form taken by capitalism when the concentration and centralisation of capital bring about the fusion of economic competition among capitals and geopolitical competition among states. Putin’s actions express exactly this imperialist logic, combining geopolitical preoccupations (above all, blocking NATO expansion) with economic motivations (fear that Russian firms will be squeezed out of the Ukrainian market by European rivals).
The confused left response to the Ukrainian crisis is in part the result of an optical illusion created by the so called “unipolar moment” of apparent US global dominance after the end of the Cold War. Particularly in the light of Afghanistan and Iraq, American power has seemed so overwhelming and so malign that everything must be subordinated to resisting it. But this was always precisely an illusion. US hegemony has always been contested, reflecting the fact that imperialism involves a hierarchical distribution of power among competing capitalist states. This fact is becoming more important now.
The relative decline of US power that has become evident since Iraq and the crash is opening up a period of more fluid competition, in which the weaker imperialist states begin to assert themselves. Putin’s strategy has reflected this for some time. Potentially a much more important conflict is developing in Asia, as China’s economic rise encourages its ruling class to flex their muscles geopolitically, in particular by building up the military capabilities to exclude the US Navy from the “Near Seas” along their coasts. The clashes between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are harbingers of more to come.
In this era of growing inter-imperialist rivalries political clarity among revolutionary Marxists is vital. In New York, London and Moscow the main enemy is at home (a slogan Karl Liebknecht coined in response to a great inter-imperialist war whose centenary we will soon be remembering). But acknowledging this is no reason to apologise for our own rulers’ rivals. Imperialism is a hydra-headed beast. It needs to be killed, not merely one of its manifestations.
Full article 'Imperial Delusions' (from the forthcoming International Socialism journal) online here, while Tariq Ali also has quite a good article on the Ukraine here, as does Mehdi Hasan here
Edited to add: See also Rob Ferguson and Sabby Sagall in the new Socialist Review