The Crimes of Imperialism and the War in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin has ordered an all-out invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military. Horrific scenes of human misery and death have been splashed across our screens as the war is live-streamed across social media by tens of thousands of people in the war zone itself.

There have been many “unprecedented” events in the last few years, from the economic collapse of 2008, the Egyptian Revolution, Arab Spring, and Occupy Movement, the 2016 elections, the 2020 economic collapse and the pandemic, and the historic George Floyd uprising. The war in Ukraine represents another decisive “before and after” turning point in modern history.

The US promised that NATO would not expand “one inch” toward the East. Since then, the imperialist military alliance has absorbed 14 countries from the former Eastern Block. / Image: NATO, Flickr

It is yet another example of the kinds of earthquakes that can and will be unleashed by the buildup of tension along the many fault lines in the tectonic plates of world capitalism and imperialism. We must, therefore, be clear as to the enormity of this event when it comes to world relations and the class struggle, not least of all in Russia itself. Let’s not forget that war has long been the handmaiden of revolution.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US promised that NATO would not expand “one inch” toward the East. Since then, the imperialist military alliance has absorbed 14 countries from the former Eastern Bloc, growing from 16 to 30 members. Its military spending has increased from $481 billion to $1.2 trillion—totaling 63% of global military spending. Putin’s aim has always been to push back against the arrogance and physical encroachment of US imperialism and its NATO allies—by any means necessary. He wanted to punch the big bully on the block’s nose and assert his dominance over his own little fiefdom. He clearly also wanted to distract attention from the growing problems, opposition, and rising class struggle at home.

But as we often say, war is the most complex of all equations. It’s a massive gamble by the Russian president and his cronies. The long-term, medium-term, and even short-term outcomes and repercussions cannot be predicted with any precision, not only in that part of the world. A Pandora’s Box has been opened and all bets are off when it comes to the carefully calibrated yet uneasy equilibrium in places like Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, Taiwan, and beyond.

This is not a major war, in the sense that it’s not World War III, a direct clash between the militaries of major imperialist powers. But this is nonetheless qualitatively different than Russia’s invasion of Georgia, its annexation of Crimea, or the terrible events in Syria, as significant as Russia’s intervention there was. This is a war aimed directly at the heart of NATO, with modern industrialized cities and their populations being savaged by the most modern weaponry on the planet.

It represents a major recalibration of the postwar balance of power, and above all, of the balance of power that prevailed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As just one example, it is highly significant that imperialist Germany has already used this as an excuse to boost military spending. And the implications when it comes to the world’s energy and food supplies should not be underestimated—Ukraine is a major agricultural exporter that produces enough wheat and other food to feed 600 million people.

Like Donald Trump, Putin is a gangster. He understands fully well that all serious questions are decided by ruthless force, not words. / Image: Kremlin.ru

The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the implosion of the USSR left Russia in a position a bit like Germany after the Treaty of Versailles, with its newly minted capitalists seething with anger, humiliation, resentment, and thirst for vengeance. Putin’s explicit model is the tsarist empire, which was the bulwark of reaction and counterrevolution across Europe for an entire historical epoch. So in many ways, it’s a bit of a throwback to the pre-World Wars epoch of imperialist rivalries, war, and conquest. However, it is not a mere repetition of the past—history proceeds in a spiral, not a circle.

As the US Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman put it, war is hell. This presents a conundrum for committed liberal defenders of capitalism like Joe Biden and Barack Obama. They may well be personally conflicted by the cynicism, the death, destruction, and so-called collateral damage they cause—but they are nonetheless beholden to the system, which has no morality other than profit and power.

However, people like Trump, Putin, and Xi Jinping fully embrace the cynicism. Like the ancient Romans, they understand fully well that all serious questions are decided by ruthless force, not words, and that periods of peace are merely interludes of preparation for war. Like Donald Trump, Putin is a gangster, and he’s tossed aside the thin and hypocritical veneer of diplomatic niceties and the “norms” of the postwar order. As long as capitalism continues, the lines drawn on the map of the world are impermanent. Until capitalism is dead and buried, the imperialist powers will continue to jockey for position, to gain at the expense of their rivals and neighbors.

Above all, what’s happening in Ukraine is a stark reminder of the sharp and sudden changes we will continue to see in this epoch of capitalist crisis, which coincides with the relative decline of US imperialism. In the past, US imperialism had hundreds of thousands of troops massed in Western Europe specifically to confront the Russian military. A few decades later, the US doesn’t dare send troops anywhere near the combat zone.

Because although the US undoubtedly remains the preeminent economic and military power on a world scale, it is no longer the most powerful in every region of the world. The harsh reality for the US imperialists is that their dreams of a Pax Americana and the so-called Project for a New American Century lie in shambles. This explains their newly discovered “humanitarianism”—never mind what they did to Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Mexico, and dozens of other countries over the last couple of centuries.

The harsh reality for the US imperialists is that their dreams of a Pax Americana and the so-called Project for a New American Century lie in shambles. / Image: SSG Bethann Caporaletti, USAF

But, we must emphasize the relative nature of US imperialism’s decline. US military spending remains higher than every other major imperialist power combined. The ferocious beast of American imperialism may be old and weakened, but it still has sharp teeth and claws. Remember, the collapse of Rome took place over centuries, as the empire’s economy, trade networks, and ability to project military force and impose loyal governors unraveled at different rhythms in different regions and even experienced brief periods of relative revival. But nature hates a vacuum, and something or someone will fill the space that weakened US imperialism is leaving in its wake. Just look at rising Chinese imperialism’s role in all of this.

We must never forget that history is a nonlinear process and full of contradictions. The profound shifts in economic and social relations we have analyzed since the collapse of the Soviet Union give rise not only to inspiring mass movements and revolutions, but to reaction, war, and counterrevolution.

So although an all-out war between Russia and Ukraine did not appear to be the most likely outcome, it always was a possibility. Nothing should surprise us in a world balanced on the edge of chaos. At the same time, however, just because this or that event flows from our core analysis doesn’t mean we don’t have a duty to examine the specific convergence of factors that caused it. And although it can sometimes seem as though one calamity follows another these days, we should never be complacent or blasé about these events.

Nor should the clarity of analysis offered by the IMT when great events like this erupt be taken for granted. As always, the so-called left is in total disarray. It’s yet another failed test for every other political tendency, who fall over themselves in support of one imperialist side or another, no matter what fancy language they use to conceal that fact. Like the confused and deluded Stalinists who cheerlead Putin and imagine he is an anti-imperialist reviving the USSR.

Here’s the key point: as revolutionary Marxists, we are not obliged to take sides. We only take one side—the side of the working class. We must always ask whether or not this or that event increases working-class consciousness, confidence, and unity. This war is clearly not in the interest of the workers of Ukraine or Russia, or anywhere else. Quite the contrary. Along with workers in uniform killing other workers in uniform, as well as civilians, and the destruction of valuable and needed infrastructure, the poison of nationalism is once again on full display, both great Russian and Ukrainian.

Lenin with a crowd
It is notable how Putin has twisted, falsified, and slandered Lenin and the early Soviet Union and how the young workers’ state approached the National Question. / Image: public domain

This is why understanding the National Question remains extremely important, even at this late stage of the decay and decline of capitalism, a time when the objective conditions for building socialism are rotten-ripe. The National Question is a treacherous minefield that must be analyzed concretely on the basis of endlessly shifting objective and subjective factors.

It is notable how Putin has twisted, falsified, and slandered Lenin and the early Soviet Union and how the young workers’ state approached the National Question. It’s equally notable that Biden has said that Putin was trying to re-establish the Soviet union—the so-called Evil Empire. There is total confusion on both sides, and it’s not only an organic function of their class outlook, but a purposeful attempt to cloud the class question in the minds of the world’s workers. All the major players in this conflict are staunch defenders of capitalism, are united in their anti-communism, and pay only lip service to “democracy,” “peace,” and “the people.”

Russia is undoubtedly an imperialist power. But it is a regional imperialist power, not a world power. It is not on the same level as US imperialism on a world scale. Nonetheless, it is an imperialist power, and Marxists can give no support to imperialism. And although Ukraine is not a major power in and of itself, it is being used as a pawn and a puppet by US and Western European imperialism. So although we stand in absolute solidarity with the ordinary people of Ukraine, we do so on a class basis. We give not an iota of support to the rotten capitalist regime that rules over the Ukrainian working class.

This is why, despite the constant barrage from the liberal media, we cannot simplistically adopt slogans like “no war on Ukraine!” or “hands off Ukraine!” These are Biden and the liberals’ slogans, and we can’t appear to lend them any credence whatsoever. Wars are dynamic and contradictory events, and our positions can’t always be summed up in a short and snappy slogan. The class interests involved are always absolutely fundamental to our analysis.

It’s not the task of world imperialism to topple Putin and Russian imperialism—that’s the duty of the Russian working class, of the Russian Marxists, and the world proletarian revolution. Likewise, it is not the task of Putin and the Russian imperialists to take out Zelensky. It’s the task of the Ukrainian working class, with its heroic revolutionary traditions, united with the workers of the region to deal with their ruling class and the Maidan regime. Had there been a socialist revolution in Russia, and this was a revived Red Army invading Ukraine in internationalist solidarity to help the Ukrainian workers overthrow their rulers, we’d have a very different position. But that’s not the case.

Revolutionary Philosophy of Marxism Book Cover
As revolutionary Marxists, we are not pacifists. We are not against war and the use of force in the abstract. It all depends on who is using force and in whose interests. That’s why our slogan is “no war but class war!” / Image: Socialist Revolution

As for those of us living in the belly of the beast, it is our duty to expose the hypocrisy of our imperialism and its allies. We are against US imperialist intervention in any way, shape, or form. We don’t call for or support sanctions, which are capitalist sanctions, of, by, and in the interests of the capitalists. If the US had a workers’ government that had come to power on the back of a socialist revolution, we would materially support all workers in struggle wherever they were, by any means necessary, on a class basis, to speed the day of the world socialist revolution. That’s our historical task and aim. But that’s not the situation we’re dealing with today.

So while the United States may not be directly involved in terms of military operations and confrontation, these events will profoundly affect this country, as it is an integral part of the world economy and politics. Just take the question of inflation and energy prices as one example.

It is impossible to know precisely what will happen. The war may end relatively quickly, perhaps in a total victory for Putin, and his position may be temporarily strengthened. Or it may end quickly in a stalemate. Or it could drag on for quite some time, and Putin could be dragged down with it. No matter what, Russia will be a greater pressure cooker than ever, a ticking time bomb of class struggle.

As revolutionary Marxists, we are not pacifists. We are not against war and the use of force in the abstract. As Marx famously said, “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.” It all depends on who is using force and in whose interests. That’s why our slogan is “no war but class war!”

The IMT will continue to follow and analyze these terrible and tragic events. In the final analysis, this is part of the price humanity has to pay for not having built the revolutionary subjective factor and overthrown capitalism over the last hundred years. It is a graphic example of what we mean when we say the choice before us is socialism in our lifetime or barbarism! It should steel us in our commitment and dedication to fight and win against this system, which is truly “horror without end” for the vast majority of humanity.

Down with imperialism!

No war but the class war!

Long live socialist internationalism and the world revolution!


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