The mainstream media present the war in Ukraine as a struggle between “democracy”, represented by Ukraine and its Western backers, and “authoritarianism” in the shape of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia. But this is much too simplistic.
For example, probably Ukraine’s most enthusiastic backer is the far right government in Poland, which is under investigation by the European Union for its authoritarian tendencies. Putin is supported by India, which, despite its own brutish fascist government, remains a multi-party democracy.
The mainstream way of framing the conflict is designed to equate the Western bloc of liberal capitalist states with the “international community”.It is also a way of denying legitimacy to the interests of this bloc’s rivals because they are “authoritarian.” This gets forgotten however when it comes to, for example, the murderous Saudi autocracy.
So are there better theoretical frameworks for understanding the conflict? One resource is provided by the idea of imperialism. After all, Putin seems intent on restoring the old Tsarist Empire that was destroyed by the Russian Revolution of October 1917.
But it’s important to clear about what we mean by imperialism. We can understand it as a phenomenon that spans historical eras, as the way in which powerful states dominate, conquer, and exploit neighbouring societies.
This has been a feature of class societies for thousands of years, going back to the ancient Persian, Chinese, and Roman empires. Now Russia is clearly behaving like an imperialist power in this sense, seeking to batter the Ukrainian state into submission and carve up its territory. But is it enough to understand the conflict in these terms?
The Lebanese Marxist Gilbert Achcar thinks so. He has put forward what he calls a “radical anti-imperialist position” that focuses exclusively on the struggle between Russia and Ukraine.
“A successful Russian takeover of Ukraine would encourage the United States to return to the path of conquering the world by force in a context of exacerbation of the new colonial division of the world and worsening of global antagonisms, while a Russian failure—adding to the US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan—would reinforce what is called in Washington the ‘Vietnam syndrome’.
“Moreover, it seems quite obvious to me that a Russian victory would considerably strengthen warmongering and the push towards increased military spending in Nato countries, which has already gotten off to a flying start, while a Russian defeat would offer much better conditions for our battle for general disarmament and the dissolution of Nato.”
It would indeed be good if the Ukrainian people were able to drive out the Russian invaders. But there is a small problem with Achcar’s argument that this would weaken the US and Nato. They are enthusiastically backing the Ukrainians, flooding them with arms, and boosting their own military budgets.
If, thanks to these efforts and the courage of the Ukrainian fighters, Russia were defeated, would the US and its allies react by disarming and dissolving Nato? Of course they wouldn’t.They would celebrate this outcome as their victory, and boost Nato further. The US would feel invigorated in its world-historic competition with the real challenger to its hegemony, China.
What is missing from Achcar’s approach, and that of other leftists that duck the issue of Nato such as Paul Mason, is the more historically specific understanding of imperialism offered by Marxism. We can see this theory emerging originally in Karl Marx’s Capital in the 1860s. But it is developed more systematically in the early 20th century, around the time of the First World War.
Marxists were confronted with a reality similar to our own. The radical liberal economist JA Hobson wrote, “The novelty of recent Imperialism … consists chiefly in its adoption by several nations. The notion of a number of competing empires is essentially modern.”
This geopolitical competition was expressed in conflicts over territory—the colonies and semi-colonies that the biggest states were striving to dominate— and in an accelerating arms race. The Marxist theory of imperialism was developed to explain these rivalries, which precipitated the two world wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45, drowning the world in blood.
It was a theory of capitalist imperialism. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin called imperialism the highest stage of capitalism. His Polish-German comrade Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “The essence of imperialism consists precisely in the expansion of capital from the old capitalist countries into new regions and the competitive economic and political struggle among those for those new areas.”
To put it another way, capitalist imperialism represents the intersection of economic and geopolitical competition. Economic competition is the driving force of capitalism—rival firms struggle against each other, investing in improved and expanded production to seize a larger share of markets.
In the late 19th century, the geopolitical struggle among states was subsumed under the capitalist logic of competitive accumulation.
This reflected changes in both warfare and capitalism. War was industrialised, as military power came to depend on mass production to arm, support, and transport huge armies. States therefore needed to promote industrial capitalism.
Meanwhile capitalist firms increased in size and started to operate globally. They depended on state support against their rivals. During the depression of the late 19th century, seizing overseas colonies compensated for falling profitability.
So capitalist imperialism isn’t just big states bullying and conquering smaller states—though there is plenty of that. It’s a global system of inter-capitalist competition. Just as before the First World War, today imperialism means geopolitical competition against the background of global economic integration.
The power of the antagonists depends on their position in the capitalist world economy. The US dominates finance and big tech, China has a vast manufacturing machine, and Russia relies on energy exports. Today one can identify perhaps six leading imperialist powers—the US, China, Russia, Britain, France, and Germany.
The most important antagonism is that between the US and China whose leaders aim to displace Washington’s hegemony, initially in the Indo-Pacific region. But Russian imperialism, manoeuvring to rebuild its power, creates a three‑way conflict.
The big western European powers are pulled in different directions. They depend on Russian energy and are attracted by the vast Chinese market—but, as at present, they ultimately line up with the US. Now this understanding of capitalist imperialism as involving a system of interstate rivalry is completely missing from Achcar’s analysis.
He denies that the Ukraine war involves a conflict among imperialist powers. “If any war where each side is supported by an imperialist rival were called an inter-imperialist war, then all the wars of our time would be inter-imperialist, since as a rule, it is enough for one of the rival imperialisms to support one side for the other to support the opposite side.
“An inter-imperialist war is not that. It is a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo) colonial domain of the other.” This is much too narrow. The US waged a proxy war against the Soviet Union after the latter tried to seize Afghanistan at the end of 1979
Along with allies such as Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan it armed and trained the mujahedin fighters who resisted the Soviet occupation. The conflict helped to drain Soviet resources and morale in the last decade of the Cold War. Of course, the mujahedin had their own political agendas. This became clear after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, culminating in the Taliban’s support for al-Qaeda and its resistance to the US occupation following the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
But the US played a decisive shaping role in an important final episode of the Cold War. Of course, there are huge differences between Ukraine today and Afghanistan in the 1980s.
But there is an important similarity, in that the Western imperialist powers are instrumentalising the Ukrainian national struggle against Russian imperialism for their own interests.
Inter-imperialist struggles and wars of national defence often interweave. The First World War started when the Austro-Hungarian Empire attacked Serbia, which it blamed for the assassination of its crown prince Franz Ferdinand. Russia then backed Serbia, leading to an escalating process of military mobilisations that ended in a terrible general war.
The German Marxist Karl Kautsky argued that the role played by the Serbian struggle for national self‑determination meant the conflict wasn’t just an imperialist war. Lenin responded, “To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one percent or so of the participants in the present war, the war is a ‘continuation of the politics’ of the bourgeois-liberation movement.
“To the other ninety-nine percent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism.” Of course, the balance is different in the present case since the direct fighting involves just Ukraine and Russia.
Nevertheless the Nato powers’ efforts to stay out of the fighting—above all to avoid nuclear confrontation with Russia—don’t alter the fact they are doing everything they can short of this to defeat Russia. This too is “a continuation of the politics of imperialism”.
The Marxist theory of imperialism is important politically. Without it we are confronted simply with a struggle between rival nation-states. But once we see the role of imperialism, we can identify the class antagonism at work. We can see the thread of class interest that binds together not just the Russian conscripts dying in Putin’s war and their families back home being walloped economically by the effects of Western sanctions.
This thread also connects with working people all over the world, hit thanks to the war by food and energy inflation and threatened with nuclear destruction. It unites them all against the rival ruling classes busy feeding this terrible war.
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