By Alex Callinicos
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Fight imperialism—the real cause of war

Previous inter-imperialist conflicts can teach important lessons on how to deal with the current invasion
Issue 2794
A black and white picture of Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin who argued that socialists should fight against imperialism and wars

Russian Revolutionary Vladimir Lenin argued that socialists should fight against imperialism and wars

“In their rush for profit, for wealth, the two gigantic imperialist powers are threatening the existence of world civilisation, are threatening humanity with the terrible suffering of atomic war. The interests of the working class, of humanity, demand that neither of the imperialist world powers be supported, but that both be struggled against. The battle-cry of the real, genuine socialists today must be: ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism.’”

This concludes The Struggle of the Powers, an article by Tony Cliff from November 1950. Cliff had just founded a tiny revolutionary socialist group from which the current Socialist Workers Party and its global sister organisations in the International Socialist Tendency developed.

Cliff was writing about the Korean War of 1950-53 when the United States and its allies fought North Korea and China. Behind them was the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. Cliff had already developed the theory of state capitalism. He argued that the USSR was nothing to do with socialism, but a variant of the same capitalist system prevailing in the West.

The dominant forces in the ruling Communist Party used their control over the state-controlled economy to exploit the workers and peasants. Cliff argued in The Struggle of the Powers that the USSR was an imperialist state exploiting the countries it had occupied at the end of the Second World War.

The Cold War between the US and the USSR was thus an inter-imperialist conflict—a “struggle for the re-division of the globe”. This was similar to the disastrous contest between Germany and Britain in the first half of the 20th century. Hence the slogan with which Cliff concluded the article, “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism.” This “battle-cry” guided us through the Cold War. It meant we weren’t demoralised when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 because we understood that a state capitalist power had fallen.

Remarkably Cliff’s slogan fits our present situation today. One where “two gigantic imperialist powers are threatening the existence of world civilisation, are threatening humanity with the terrible suffering of atomic war”. Of course there are important differences.

Russia is a much weaker power today than the old Soviet Union. President Vladimir Putin reacted to the West’s use of its control of finance markets to impose economic sanctions. He announced he was putting his nuclear arsenal on alert because, aside from energy, it is Russia’s main asset. The real challenger to the US today is China.

How one fights imperialism depends on where one is. Cliff wrote a biography of the great Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Lenin denounced the First World War when it broke out in August 1914 as an inter-imperialist war. But he also argued that the real test of a revolutionary in such a war was whether they stood out against their own side.

Lenin was contemptuous of socialists who concentrated their denunciations on the other side. This ranged from German socialists who condemned Russian autocracy, to British and French socialists who waxed indignant about Prussian militarism. He praised the German revolutionaries Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht for opposing in the first instance their own government. 

In the face of the present war in Ukraine we must denounce Russian imperialism and the brutal invasion it has mounted. We must also demand that Russian troops are withdrawn immediately. But in Britain this is cheap talk, most people will agree. It’s very different for the brave Russians who are also raising these demands.

We can never forget that we are socialists in Britain—the most loyal and belligerent major ally of US imperialism. We mustn’t be afraid to say that the US and its allies helped to create the conditions for this disaster.

They pushed Nato close to Russia’s borders when Putin was weak. They allowed pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists to entertain the fantasy that they could join, feeding Putin’s resentment and paranoia. The more people understand about the real causes of the war the bigger the movement we can build against the imperialist system itself.

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