Sunday, November 8, 2015

Russia as an imperialist power

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Russian President Vladimir Putin

Recently the question of one’s assessment of the Russian state has become a key issue among left wing groups, particularly those claiming to be Marxist.  The reason for this is all too obvious when we consider the events of the past few years in Syria and the Ukraine. In both situations Russia is directly involved in a political and military conflict that places it squarely at odds against forces supported by U.S. and European imperialism.  In the case of Syria tensions have escalated to the point where there is a real danger of a direct confrontation between the Russian and American military. The possibility of the world’s two largest nuclear powers engaging each other militarily brings back memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis at the height of the Cold War.

In such a situation the task of revolutionary socialists is to formulate and fight for a strategy and a program that is opposed to imperialist war and defends the interests of the international working class.  Historically, the response of revolutionary socialists to imperialist war has been the slogan “The main enemy is at home”.  This means that in a conflict between two imperialist powers, it is impermissible to support either one or the other as a “lesser evil”.  The historic responsibility of the working class in the imperialist countries is to work for the defeat of their “own” Imperialist power.  On the other hand, when a conflict emerges between an imperialist power and a colonial or semi-colonial country, it is necessary to defend the struggles of the colonial people against imperialism.   Given this historical background it becomes clear why one’s assessment of the nature of Russia becomes a key theoretical question.  Were we to consider Russia an imperialist power then we are duty bound to oppose Russian imperialism just as strongly as U.S. imperialism.   On the other hand were we to consider Russia a colonial or semi-colonial country oppressed by the great imperialist powers, then we are duty bound to support Russia in its conflict with imperialism.

Given the centrality of the question of the nature of Russia one would think that groups claiming adherence to Marxism and to the traditions of Bolshevism would have done a good deal of theoretical work based on solid evidence before coming to any conclusions about the nature of Russia.  One would think that but one would be wrong.  On the contrary, with few exceptions, most of those groups derive their assessment of the nature of Russia not from any original research or theoretical work but strictly from their political prejudices.  And those political prejudices are roughly divided into two camps.  On the one side there are the traditional social chauvinists who tend to adapt to their own ruling class.  Besides moribund Social Democratic parties these groups include outfits like the ISO who have ties to the trade union bureaucracy.  In the other camp are what some have called “inverted social chauvinists”.  These are groups who oppose their own bourgeoisie but do so by supporting whoever is in conflict with them.  The policy followed by the inverted social chauvinists is sometimes mislabeled as “anti-imperialism”.  In the U.S. the paradigm of inverted social chauvinism is the neo-Stalinist Workers World Party which lets no opportunity pass by for supporting whatever imperialist power or dictatorship is in conflict with U.S. imperialism.  They are guided by the rule, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Why is such a strategy problematic?  It’s true that there are times when it is necessary to form temporary alliances with various forces that are in conflict with one’s main enemy.  This may be particularly the case in a military conflict where the lines of battle are constantly shifting.  But Marxists don’t make decisions purely on the basis of utilitarian calculations.  We do not simply apply a cost-benefit type of analysis in deciding on our actions. That is a way of proceeding inherited from bourgeois philosophy, one that presumes you can make a quantitative measure of an evaluation.  When considering how to achieve an end, Marxists recognize the dialectical relationship between means and ends. [1] For a Marxist some means are simply not an option.  In fact sometimes it is better to lose a battle honorably and leave a legacy that can inspire future generations, than to achieve a “victory” at the cost of surrendering your principles.  And it is not possible to “measure” the value of this type of choice.

A perfect example of how Marxists conduct themselves in political / military conflicts was provided by Trotsky when he explained why he did not use his position as head of the Red Army to stage a coup in order to remove the Stalinist bureaucracy.  Trotsky said that were he to undertake such an action and even if it was successful, it would have hopelessly corrupted the political environment of Bolshevism and would set into motion forces that were anathema to its principles, forces just as rotten as Stalinism. Trotsky’s refusal to use a corrupt “means” to bring about a desired “end” is the one point on which practically all commentators take strong exception.  Because they cannot fathom that Marxist strategy cannot be reduced to a cold calculation of means and ends they invariably accuse Trotsky of being “impractical” or of harboring a secret death wish.

A more muted version of the politics of inverted social chauvinism can be seen in the various twists and turns of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) providing backhanded support for the Putin regime.[2]  But for a good parody of Marxism and a lesson in the absurdities one gets into when one forgets the difference between Marxism and pragmatic utilitarian calculation nothing can top the Spartacist League’s support for  the ultra-reactionary Islamic State. A recent Spartacist resolution states,

  “We have a military side with the reactionary ISIL when it engages in military conflict with the imperialists and their local forces on the ground, including the Iraqi Kurdish pesh merga, the Baghdad government, Shi’ite militias and the Syrian Kurds. We give no political support to any of these retrograde forces.”...) [3]

While expressing themselves somewhat opaquely, the meaning of the phrase “We have a military side with the reactionary ISIL” is that the Spartacist group thinks it is legitimate to form a military bloc with ISIL and they think that this is somehow completely divorced from any political implication. But in reality it is not possible to completely separate military and political collaboration.

In this case it is not even good utilitarian calculation.   Just think about the implications of their “military side with ISIL”.  How would this be carried out in practice?  Would a Spartacist delegation make its way to Syria, find its way to a territory controlled by ISIL and proclaim, “We are communists and atheists and think your politics is reactionary, but we are willing to form a temporary military alliance with you as long as you respect our independence.”  Let us be generous and suppose that the Spartacist position is not meant as a realistic practical policy but an educational example for the working class.  But then what kind of lesson does this offer the international working class? That a group claiming to be Marxist and Trotskyist is willing to work with a genocidal outfit like ISIL, despite the fact that ISIL militants would undoubtedly execute every Spartacist on the spot if they had the chance.  The reaction of most workers would undoubtedly be that these people are insane, and they would not be far off.

With few exceptions none of the champions of the thesis that Russia is an imperialist power or the opposite thesis that it is an oppressed colonial country (or in some cases still a workers state of some sort) have provided any significant analysis to justify their claims. Given this context of the dearth of Marxist theory on the seminal question of the nature of Russia it is most refreshing to have come across the analysis of Michael Pröbsting. 

Pröbsting’s essay, ‘Russia as a Great Imperialist Power The formation of Russian Monopoly Capital and its Empire: A Reply to our Critics’,[4]  is a serious analysis of the nature of Russia. Whatever one thinks of its conclusions it is in stark contrast to the vapid pronouncements of various left groups who proclaim that Russia is - or is not - an imperialist nation based on one or two isolated observations.   [5] We wish to focus attention on Pröbsting’s essay as an example of the kind of theoretical work that Marxists, who take questions of imperialism, war and peace seriously, should be engaged in.  This does not imply that we are in political agreement with Pröbsting or the group he represents, the "Revolutionary Communist International Tendency".   Indeed we strongly oppose the position of this group on the conflict in Syria.  They have proclaimed their support for some of the Islamist groups fighting the Assad regime.  The Islamist opponents of Assad are thoroughly reactionary and should be opposed with at least as much fervor as the Assad regime. 

But it would be a mistake to dismiss Pröbsting's analysis of Russia on the basis of the political positions he supports.  Rather Pröbsting's analysis of Russia warrants a critique on the level in which it was written.  To our knowledge the most extensive response to Pröbsting is the one written by Jan Norden from the “League for the Fourth International”. [6]  We will have more to say about Norden's piece presently.

Pröbsting’s thesis is that Russia today is indeed a great imperialist power.  His analysis first tries to categorize Russia within the context of the Marxist understanding of imperialism going back to Lenin's classic works, Imperialism and the Split in Socialism and Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism.  He provides the following quote from Lenin laying out the fundamental criteria for an imperialist state:

“We have to begin with as precise and full a definition of imperialism as possible. Imperialism is a specific historical stage of capitalism. Its specific character is threefold: imperialism is monopoly capitalism; parasitic, or decaying capitalism; moribund capitalism. The supplanting of free competition by monopoly is the fundamental economic feature, the quintessence of imperialism. Monopoly manifests itself in five principal forms: (1) cartels, syndicates and trusts—the concentration of production has reached a degree which gives rise to these monopolistic associations of capitalists; (2) the monopolistic position of the big banks—three, four or five giant banks manipulate the whole economic life of America, France, Germany; (3) seizure of the sources of raw material by the trusts and the financial oligarchy (finance capital is monopoly industrial capital merged with bank capital); (4) the (economic) partition of the world by the international cartels has begun. There are already over one hundred such international cartels, which command the entire world market and divide it “amicably” among themselves—until war redivides it. The export of capital, as distinct from the export of commodities under non-monopoly capitalism, is a highly characteristic phenomenon and is closely linked with the economic and territorial-political partition of the world; (5) the territorial partition of the world (colonies) is completed.” [7]

Before proceeding to examine how Russia fits into these criteria Pröbsting provides the following caveat,
“…we are fully aware that such definitions are not abstract dogmas but have to be understood as elastic categories. Lenin put such a dialectical approach once wisely: '…without forgetting the conditional and relative value of all definitions in general, which can never embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its full development…' [8]

Following his introduction of Lenin's criteria Pröbsting makes a methodological point which we think is absolutely correct,
“The characteristic of an imperialist power has to be seen in the totality of its economic, political, and military position in the global hierarchy of states. Thus, a given state must – following Lenin’s dialectical advice about examining 'the entire totality of the manifold relations of this thing to others’  – be viewed not only as a separate unit but first and foremost in its relation to other states and nations. An imperialist state usually enters a relationship with other states and nations whom it oppresses in one way or another and super-exploits – i.e., appropriates a share of its produced capitalist value. Again this has to be viewed in its totality, i.e., if a state gains certain profits from foreign investment but has to pay much more (debt service, profit repatriation, etc.) to other countries’ foreign investment, this state can usually not being considered as imperialist. Finally we want to stress the necessity of considering the totality of a state’s economic, political, and military position in the global hierarchy of states. Thus we can consider a given state as imperialist even it is economically weaker but possesses a relatively strong political and military position (like Russia before 1917 and, again, in the early 2000s). Such a strong political and military position can be used to oppress other countries and nations and to appropriate capitalist value from them.” [9]

Pröbsting's point is that there is a wide range of factors to consider in determining whether Russia is or is not an imperialist nation. And Russia’s status must be evaluated in the context of its relationship to the world economy and other nations.  Furthermore, we should not expect all imperialist nations to satisfy the criteria laid out by Lenin in the same way. Some will be stronger than others. Some will be more advanced in one area than others. And particularly in the 21st century, much more so than 100 years ago when Lenin was writing, we can expect some genuine surprises through the work of the law of uneven and combined development. It turns out that many of those countries formerly dismissed as backwards and lacking the technological and economic infrastructure that took centuries to develop in  Europe have a distinct advantage when it comes to harnessing the power of modern technology and communications. It is much easier to build the infrastructure for digital communications from scratch than to convert older technology to the newer ones.  It is also much easier and more efficient from a capitalist point of view to build new manufacturing facilities than to tear down or convert old ones.  Thus we have the paradoxical situation where "backward" countries that never developed a 20th century infrastructure have practically overnight developed a 21st  century infrastructure that is more advanced than those found in many European countries. [10]

This working of the law of combined and uneven development has enormous implications when assessing the status of nations.  It means that you cannot take one feature of what has traditionally been described as defining the nature of an imperialist nation and use that as a decisive determinant. This point is worth bearing in mind when the argument is presented that Russia is not an imperialist nation because, for instance, the financial sector of its economy is not the dominant one.  It is true that Russia's financial sector lags behind but by that criteria you can say the same thing about Germany, a country which few would dispute qualifies as an imperialist nation.  [11]

Pröbsting proceeds in his essay to examine a great deal of statistics about the Russian economy and its military standing in comparison with other countries.  One of the key indices for whether a country’s economy  is dominated by other nations – and thus stands in relation to them as an exploited country -is the comparison of what is called outward facing FDI (Foreign Direct investments) to inward facing FDI. It has been argued by some that Russia's inward facing FDI (ie. Investments in Russia from other countries) is larger than its outward facing FDI and this proves that Russia is an oppressed semi-colonial country.  Pröbsting disputes this, writing,

“…in recent years, Russia has even invested more abroad than was invested in her by foreign countries. While Russia received US$ 43.3 billion in inward FDI in 2010 and US$ 52.9 billion in 2011, Russian corporations invested outside the country US$ 52.5 billion in 2010 and US$ 67.3 billion in 2011.29."

Much of the argument hangs on the interpretation of statistics.  Norden, in his critique of Pröbsting, writes,

In addition, while in imperialist countries foreign investment outside the country (44% of GDP in “developed economies”) almost always exceeds foreign investment inside the country (33% of GDP), in Russia outward foreign direct investment (21% of GDP) is less than inward FDI (26%), though the gap is not nearly as great as with the larger semi-colonial countries where capital inflows can be double or triple the outflows.”

The reason for the discrepancy between Norden's figures and those of  Pröbsting is not clear as both are citing the same source for their figures, namely, UNCTAD: World Investment Report. Pröbsting's cites the 2012 report and Norden the 2013 report.  Regardless, it seems completely artificial to base one's judgment on the nature of Russia on a few percentage points one way or the other of its outward FDI as compared to its inward FDI.

Norden also makes a point, one acknowledged by Pröbsting, that figures for outward FDI and inward FDI for Russia are particularly difficult to take at face value because the practice of “round tripping” is prevalent among Russian capitalists. What this refers to is the use Russian investors make of foreign tax shelters like Cyprus to launder their money.   On paper parking your investment in a bank in Cyprus appears as an outward facing FDI. In reality that same investment is later returned to Russia, perhaps through the agency of a separate corporation, and can be considered an inward facing FDI.   Norden points to this phenomenon as artificially inflating the figures for Russian outward FDI. He writes,

“Moreover, a large part of the capital outflows from Russia are hardly foreign investment at all, but hiding funds in offshore tax havens.”

Why this fact gives weight to the thesis that Russia is dominated by foreign capital is however hard to fathom.  While it is true that the practice of “round tripping” artificially inflates figures for outward facing FDI, it also artificially inflates figures for inward facing FDI when those “investments” from Cyprus are repatriated. In the end it should be more or less a wash in terms of the percentage of outward to inward facing FDI.

Basing his work on an impressive amount of carefully annotated historical and statistical research Pröbsting provides a credible theory of the rise of Russia as an imperialist power. He shows how after the restoration of capitalism in Russia in the early 1990’s the Russian economy essentially collapsed and Russia was at that point in real danger of falling into the status of a semi-colonial country wholly dependent on U.S. and European imperialism.   But with the advent of Putin a Bonapartist regime emerged which was strong enough to galvanize the Russian bourgeoisie and climb out of the abyss of the early days of capitalist restoration. He writes,

“To fully implement capitalism as a political and economic project the Putin regime had to and has to create a strong bonapartist state, a “patriotic”, i.e. Great Russian chauvinist ideology (for both the second Chechnya war was very important), a strengthening of the repression apparatus, a subordination of individual Oligarchs (in the political sphere) and the regional governors, removing the huge wage and payment arrears, the improvement of conditions for capitalist production (starting from tax reform to Land and Labour code reform) and the initiation of a huge investment offensive in the infrastructure.”

Pröbsting notes that with the structural changes brought about by the Bonapartist Putin regime, Russia emerged from the chaos of the 1990s as an imperialist state, much as it was during the Czarist period of the 19th and early 20th centuries. He writes, 

 “Russia once again became an imperialist power at the turn of the millennium (see the Appendix: Political and Economic problems of Capitalist Restoration in Russia). But because of Russia’s long historic period as a workers’ state (albeit degenerated after the 1920s) from 1917-1991, its imperialism had unique features. Naturally, post-Soviet Russia’s accumulation of capital, the formation of capitalist monopolies and its resurgence as an imperialist power could only commence after the restoration of capitalism, i.e., slightly more than two decades ago. For this reason, its capitalist development is characteristically belated, highly contradictory, and uneven. Since Russia’s monopolies are based on a telescoped accumulation of capital which was far more rapid than that of their Western counterparts, they are comparatively weaker. As we have shown above, these monopolies are catching up with the world market, but are still weaker than their US or EU rivals. Also, due to its historically belated character, its relative weakness, and its social contradictions in the extreme, Russian imperialism cannot afford to nurture a bourgeois democracy like that of the stronger Western and Japanese rival imperialist powers. Russia’s ruling class needs a bonapartist regime, like Putin’s, both to centralize and direct the country’s resources for the needs of the monopolies, and to suppress the popular masses.”

Furthermore, like the Russia of the Czarist period, Russian imperialism is much weaker than its imperialist rivals in North America and Europe. It is also a regional power rather than a global one. To be sure Russian capitalism cannot escape the crisis wracking the world capitalist system and there are many obstacles to Russia becoming anything more than a regional power in Central Asia and Eastern Europe with some influence in the Middle East as witnessed by its military intervention in the civil war in Syria.

On this last point Norden differs with Pröbsting.  Norden considers Russia to be a “transitional” state, perhaps on the road to imperialism but not there yet.  He discounts Pröbsting’s thesis that Russia is exploiting some of its neighbors in Central Asia and the Ukraine.  He claims that Pröbsting’s figures are bogus and the actual figures do not show any significant economic domination by Russia of its neighbors. 

Whether Norden’s criticism of Pröbsting’s analysis of the data is correct or not I do not find his distinction between a “transitional capitalism” and a weak and regional imperialist power convincing.  There is little doubt that Russia today plays a role similar to the Russia of the Czarist Empire as a regional power that dominates its neighbors.  In addition few would argue that it maintains a full- fledged colonial occupation in Chechnya.  It is also true that Russia is playing a largely defensive role vis a vis the aggressive moves of  U.S. and European imperialism in the Ukraine, the Baltics and its Western borders in general. But that fact does not make Russia a “semi-colonial” country as some have claimed. [12]  In addition, Russia does have a significant presence in world finance, though its influence is dwarfed by that of the U.S. and the U.K. not to mention China! Furthermore we may ask if Russia is a transitional regime, what is it transitioning into and how long can one expect that transition to work itself out? 

It is noteworthy that Pröbsting’s analysis includes a very fair discussion of the response of some of his critics. This is very unusual for contemporary Marxist polemics.  More typical is the polemic that presents straw-men type arguments against a political opponent and outright misrepresents what they say.  But I have to commend Pröbsting for presenting lengthy quotes unaltered, from his polemical opponents so that readers  can judge for themselves what they are saying.  One can only welcome this exhibit of  honest debate.  Let us hope this becomes the norm rather than the exception.

Pröbsting’s piece is of course not beyond criticism and one of the reasons we are focusing on it is to encourage a healthy discussion on the enormously important question of the nature of Russia today.

To read Pröbsting’s analysis in its entirety, go here ==>>

To read Norden’s critique of Pröbsting in its entirety, go here ==>>

Alex Steiner, Nov 7, 2015 

[1] Trotsky argued this point in an exchange with the American philosopher John Dewey, Their Morals and Ours,

[2] We have commented on this previously in the essay,  The SEP on the nature of Russia and China,

[4] A PDF of Pröbsting’s analysis can be downloaded at the following site:

[5] For instance, take this statement from an article on the World Socialist Web Site,
‘In contrast to the United States, Russia is not an imperialist country. It functions chiefly as a supplier of energy to the world market and as a sales market for global concerns. The total value of all Russian shares was put at $531 billion in November, above all due to western sanctions. This is less than one US company alone, Apple, with a share value of $620 billion.’
Yet another author on the World Socialist Web Site provides  a bit of unintended irony when, while lashing out against a rival group, writes,
‘For the ISO, the definition of Russia as an imperialist power emerges not on the basis of a serious examination of the country’s historical evolution or the nature of the society that emerged out of the dissolution of the USSR. Rather, it is a terminological expedient that allows it to support US-led military operations against Russia. Thus, in the supposedly inter-imperialist conflict between the Washington and Moscow, the ISO comes down decisively in favor of the former.’
Searching through the archives of the WSWS it is not possible to locate anything remotely resemblinga serious examination of the country’s historical evolution or the nature of the society that emerged out of the dissolution of the USSR.”

[6] The critique of Pröbsting appears in an unsigned essay in the online journal, The Internationalist.
[7] Imperialism and the Split in Socialism, V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, Volume 23, pp. 105-106 (Emphasis in the original).

[8]  The quote from Lenin is from Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Collected Works, Volume 22, page 226.

[9] The quote from Lenin is from his Philosophical  Notebooks, Conspectus of Hegel’s Science of Logic (1914); in: Collected Works Vol. 38, pp. 220-222. It is taken from the section "Summary of Dialectics" at the end of his notes on Hegel's Science of Logic

[10] One interesting statistic is that as of 2013 the percentage of the population using the Internet in Italy was only 58.46%, placing it behind such countries as Egypt.   The working of the law of uneven and combined development is even more dramatically seen when comparing the statistics of the usage of cell phones as percentage of the population. In this area Zimbabwe is just a bit behind France and ahead of Japan.   This relatively cheap technology has provided readily available mass communications to parts of the world that never had it previously.

[11] Germany’s economy is driven by exports of manufactured goods, not by finance. Its financial sector is relatively small compared to its industrial sector.  Probsting marshals some statistics to demonstrate that the Russian economy in this sense is not that different from Germany. Russia’s capitalization as a percentage of its GDP was 68.7 in the period from 2005-20010.  This was higher than Germany’s percentage of 45.7 for the same period according to the data published by the World Bank and cited by Pröbsting. See Pröbsting, page26, table 20.

[12]  We have written elsewhere on our analysis of the civil war in the Ukraine, most recently in the polemic, Crackpot Philosophy and double speak,