The conflict in Ukraine has brought the issue of imperialism to the forefront.
Imperialism was what drove the brutal and appalling crimes of Western colonial rule. Britain’s empire alone killed millions and devastated nations across the world.
But imperialism is not reducible to this alone.
Rather it is a global system made up of two elements. First, the driving force is competition between the big capitalist powers. This competition is for economic supremacy, but it is fought out politically, militarily and strategically.
Both the First World War and the Second World War were imperialist wars fought out between alliances of rival capitalist powers.
The Cold War was an imperialist conflict fought out between capitalist and state capitalist powers. It ended with the bankruptcy of one side rather than military defeat.
Second, it is the control, either direct or indirect, of weaker countries. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Europe and the US established direct rule over much of the world.
The colonial territories were ruled by force, and resistance was brutally put down. The colonies were ruthlessly exploited.
After the Second World War control was increasingly exercised indirectly, through puppet regimes that kept their own local populations under control using the same brutal measures.
So where does imperialism come from?
The logic of capitalism leads to the growing concentration and centralisation of companies. As firms compete, those most successful swallow up weaker ones and force them out of business. Large companies replace many small ones.
But groups of large firms operating within any single country are dependent on each other and on the national state.
Each national state becomes a point around which capitals cluster, even when their activities lead them to branch out to penetrate the rest of the world.
Normal conditions are of an armed peace, in which the relative dominance of different states helps determine the relative success of blocs of capitalists.
This depends at the end of the day on their ability to dominate militarily.
Nation states can only increase their geographic influence—and the openings available to their capitalists—by applying pressure to other states.
When it comes to applying such pressure, the deployment of large bodies of armed men, or the threat of that deployment, matters.
Military measures go alongside economic aid, offers of privileged trading relationships and crude bribery.
As the Russian revolutionary Lenin emphasised, periods of “peaceful” competition prepare the way for periods of all out war. And periods of all out war prepare the way for periods of “peaceful” competition.
So the Cold War saw decades of a balance of terror between Russia and the US which prevented either moving into the other’s sphere of influence.
They backed rival sides in wars and civil wars in attempts to gain a strategic advantage over each other.
The European powers abandoned colonialism in the 1950s and 1960s—not out of benevolence, but because it did not pay in the face of powerful insurgent nationalist movements.
In the same way the Vietnamese resistance, the anti-war movement and the overwhelming cost of the occupation forced the US out of Vietnam.
Russian imperialism has been on the defensive for decades.
The Cold War clash of imperialisms ended with the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the late 1980s.
The class that runs the giant privatised corporations—and through former KGB secret policeman Putin the state—has been cut down in size. First they lost the non-Russian republics, then the economic crisis reduced output.
Then there was the incorporation into Nato of the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary with the goal of strengthening US influence against Russia.
The conflicts in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine today are rearguard actions by Russia against this.
The collapse of the Soviet Union left the US apparently globally dominant. But in the long term it is a declining economic power.
For instance, in 1945 the US accounted for over 50 percent of global GDP, but by the turn of the century this had been cut back to around 25 percent.
The US’s military might was used as a counterweight to that decline. During the 1990s, that meant intervening with extreme violence in Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
That also meant encouragement for local rulers to engage in the bloodiest of wars and civil wars—and sometimes sending in Western troops to enforce “peacekeeping”.
This is a world of rival imperialisms, marked by crosscutting economic and military rivalries. Often there are conflicting interests between the European Union and other large powers and the US.
US imperialism looks strong. But the outcome of the wars this century for the US has been far from total domination.
The Arab revolutions made it harder—though not by any means impossible—to intervene in the Middle East.
The phase of imperialism where the US is the single great military super-power has been undermined, but not overcome, by the rise of other economic powers, and particularly the growth of China.
Globally the US remains the greatest threat to peace.
Obama’s ongoing use of drones to kill thousands in Pakistan and Yemen is just one example. This alone makes US hypocrisy over Ukraine even more crass.
But the brutal invasion and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq saw initial dominance followed by slow withdrawal. Those failures, compounded with a lack of success in Libya more recently, have consequences.
The US is essentially impotent in Syria, and Russia as a consequence is a little more confident. Further US military spending is set to fall.
Crisis both encourages militarism and leads to calls for cost cutting, especially when it doesn’t work.
Imperialism comes out of the logic of the economic system. The ongoing crisis of the system means a crisis for imperialism.
But imperialism in crisis is anything but a guarantee of peace.
Only overthrowing the system that produced it can do that.
No group of oppressed people can be free unless they are able to decide on their own futures.
Lenin argued that people who didn’t support the right of countries to self-determination weren’t even democrats, never mind socialists.
And workers of one country cannot achieve their freedom if they collaborate with their rulers in oppressing another country. As Karl Marx put it, “A nation which oppresses another cannot itself be free.”
But supposed concern for small nations was central to the propaganda of all sides in the First World War. Russia’s slogan was Liberation for Serbia, while France and Britain were out to “liberate” Alsace-Lorraine and Belgium respectively.
Lenin said, “The bourgeoisie of each country is asserting that it is out to defeat the enemy, not for plunder and the seizure of territory, but for the liberation of all other peoples except its own.”
Hitler justified his intervention against Czechoslovakia in 1938 by talking of the national oppression of German speaking minorities in the border regions.
Wars often see great powers trying to use national movements directed against their opponents for their own ends.
This can just mean providing weapons to movements which retain independence, as with Germany’s attempt to help the Irish uprising in 1916.
Or it can mean previously independent national movements becoming playthings of empires. This was true of Slovak and Croatian governments set up by Nazi Germany, and the Kosovan movement in the early 1990s.
The issue of national self-determination must be concrete, whether in relation to Northern Ireland, the Falklands or Crimea. We have to oppose our own ruling class without giving left cover to any other imperialism.
It is not a case of backing the weaker imperialists against the stronger. It is looking to where blows can be struck against imperialism as a system.
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