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Ukraine and imperialism — Alex Callinicos replies to Paul Mason

Left wing writer Paul Mason criticised our opposition to US imperialism in the Ukraine crisis. Alex Callinicos explains where Mason’s gone wrong
Soldiers stand facing a podium at a military ceremony in Ukraine

US troops on military exercises in Ukraine in 2018 (Picture: 7th Army Training Command/Flickr)

Dear Paul, 

You know that I respect you. I thought your latest book, How to Stop Fascism, was excellent, even though I disagree with your argument that a modern version of the Popular Front—an alliance of liberals and the left—is the way to beat the fascists. 

So I was very interested to see your instant attack on the statement the International Socialist Tendency (IST) produced on the crisis in Ukraine, Learning to say “Goodbye Lenin”—A critique of the IST statement on the Ukraine war. Since I helped to draft this statement, I’m gratified, but also impressed by the care you took to read and criticise it. 

Forgive me if I repay your trouble by responding relatively briefly. This isn’t just because we may indeed be on the eve of the war, and so these debates are urgent. It’s also because I think the real issue between us is quite simple.

Russia—the only imperialist power in Europe?

So let me say first that I think the title of your article—Learning to say “Goodbye to Lenin”—is a bit of a red herring. We both know that you stopped being a Leninist a long time ago. How could you be a Leninist when you supported the (initially) left reformist Syriza government in Greece and are a loyal and active member of the Labour Party? That doesn’t mean that Leninism is irrelevant to our disagreement. But the part of Vladimir Lenin’s theoretical and political legacy that is relevant to this discussion is his critique of imperialism. 

Lenin says that imperialism isn’t an archaic hangover or just big powers bullying weaker countries. It’s a global system of capitalist domination and rivalry, in which a handful of powerful capitalist states compete economically and geopolitically on a global scale. One question, then, is—is this still true? Apparently not, according to you. In a remarkable formulation you refer to “today’s conflict, between globalist democratic former imperialist countries of the USA and EU, versus the authoritarian, anti-modernist dictatorships of China and Russia (emphasis added)”. 

Now there are all sorts of oddities in what you write here. Sure, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is ideologically “anti-modernist” (though dependent on world markets for its energy revenues). But Xi Jinping’s China? It’s authoritarian certainly, but definitely committed to an ultra-modernising economic and social project. And in what sense is China, as your counter-position implies, anti “globalist”? China is economically central to contemporary global capitalism, and Xi made a point of trumpeting his support for globalisation when Donald Trump was denouncing it from the White House. The way you set the opposition up seems to be designed to make the West’s rivals seem as bad as possible.

But this is a sideshow compared to your description of the US and its European allies (you mention the EU, but I imagine you would include Britain as well) as “former imperialist countries”. I’ll come back to this claim in a minute. Let me just focus on its implication, which is that there is just one imperialist state in Europe, “authoritarian, anti-modernist” Russia. This is why you like everything in our statement that is critical of Russian imperialism and of Putin’s regime, though you warn us we’re “going to annoy the Tankies” (as if we cared).

So we agree in opposing Russian imperialism. But the US, the EU, and Britain are “former imperialist powers”? You cannot be serious. We can argue about how precisely to characterise imperialist powers. Tony Norfield gives a useful set of criteria based on relative economic weight, financial reach, and military capabilities in his book The City (Verso, 2016). I would say there are about six imperialist powers on this basis – the US, China, Germany, Britain, France, and Russia, with a lot of smaller but nasty regional players.

Are you really saying the US isn’t an imperialist state—indeed the greatest in history? Have you forgotten the wars the administration of Georg W Bush started in the Greater Middle East, with the most disastrous consequences for the peoples of the region? The War on Terror was waged to entrench US domination of the region, though it backfired terribly. Barack Obama started a “tilt to Asia” to contain China that was continued by both Trump and Biden. (Given Trump’s personal admiration for Putin and Xi it’s implausible that this was about defending democracy rather than blocking the most serious threat to its hegemony the US has faced.)

Notice how heavily European states figure in the list of imperialist powers. Apart from China, the Brics—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa —proved to be also-rans. Russia aside, they are bound to the US through a nexus of institutions It built since the Second World War. Some are nominally global like, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation. But two crucial ones are regional—Nato, which binds together the US and Canada now with most European states in a military alliance, and the European Union, which, ignoring the Trump interlude, has been strongly promoted from the US since the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s.

Nato and US power

Nato was formed in 1949 and was designed to contain Soviet military power in Europe. We can discuss how real the Soviet threat to Western Europe was even at the height of the Cold War. But in any case, once the USSR collapsed, what was the point of Nato? The answer was given by the administration of US president Bill Clinton during the 1990s—to ensure that the US remained the dominant power in Europe and to extend its influence eastwards.

The 1999 Nato bombing campaign against the rump of the old Yugoslav federation was mounted with this aim in mind. It was followed by the expansion of both Nato and the EU into central and eastern Europe. This was initiated by Clinton, in breach of a promise made to the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1990. You acknowledge this, but engage in some handwaving—“The Soviet Union … no longer exists … The nascent capitalist elites of Eastern Europe, along with large parts of their population, saw joining NATO and the EU as an insurance policy against being re-absorbed into a chaotic Russian empire.” 

This may be true, but it’s beside the point. Nato-EU expansion was a policy made in Washington, not Warsaw or Tallin. It followed, as the late Peter Gowan showed in The Global Gamble (Verso, 1999), determined efforts by the US and EU to sabotage Gorbachev’s objective of “a common European home”. This had implied the dissolution of both Cold War military alliances—the Warsaw Pact and Nato—and the creation of some kind of pluralist European confederation. Instead, Western institutions moved eastwards. 

The architect of this policy was Zbigniew Brzezinski, former National Security Adviser to the President Jimmy Carter, and long the Democrats’ chief geo-strategic thinker. In The Grand Chessboard (Basic Books, 1997), he frankly describes the US as an imperial power, and its allies as “vassals, tributaries, protectorates, and colonies”, and sees the EU as “the Eurasian bridgehead for American power and the potential springboard for the democratic global system’s expansion into Eurasia” (p74). And the strategy worked. The expanded Nato takes its marching orders from Washington—bombing Libya, occupying Afghanistan, and helping to encircle China—and helps to legitimise the Pentagon maintaining a huge network of military bases in Europe.

The EU is important also as a US partner in enforcing market discipline on the world. How can you deny this, given the passion with which you supported Greek workers’ resistance to the austerity imposed from Brussels and Berlin during the 2010s? You must remember what your friend Yanis Varoufakis reports German finance minister Wolfgang Schauble saying after Syriza won the Greek election in January 2015—“Elections cannot be allowed to change economic policy.” (Adults in the Room, Vintage, 2017, p236). Imperialism is of course economic as well as political. The European Central Bank showed this in summer 2015 when it shut down the Greek banks to force Syriza to capitulate.

Ukraine’s plight

So Nato-EU expansion is about maintaining and extending the global dominance of Western imperialism. You endorse Biden’s refusal to entertain Putin’s demands, but you skip round the most important one, namely a guarantee that Ukraine won’t join Nato. Of course we oppose Putin’s attempt to secure his demands through the threat of force. But, since you present yourself as a realistic politician who abjures “gestural slogans”, why shouldn’t you entertain the option of conceding this guarantee—not unconditionally, but in exchange for concessions and guarantees from the other side? 

This kind of give-and-take is how, after all, John F Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev resolved the Cuban Missile Crisis (against the protests, incidentally of Fidel Castro, who pleaded for the Soviets to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the US). Please don’t hide behind talk of the “emergent Western-orientated democratic culture in Eastern Europe”. There isn’t a God-given human right to join a particular military alliance and the question of Nato membership has been a divisive issue in Ukraine ever since independence, and would become more so if the breakaway Russian-backed “republics” were reincorporated in Ukraine.

This brings me to the question of Ukraine itself.  As you acknowledge, the IST statement warns that the people of Ukraine would be the main victims of a war and affirms their right of national self-determination. Do they also have the right of self-defence? Of course. But in the present context, as you say, this would involve resistance mounted by the Ukrainian government and its armed forces. 

Let’s remember that after 2014 the parliament in Kiev passed a law that makes Ukrainian the sole language of instruction in primary schools, despite the fact that Russian and Ukrainian are used bilingually by many Ukrainians and in violation of the rights of national minorities such as Hungarians, Jews, and Tatars. The Ukrainian government has also not implemented the Minsk II Protocol that it signed to end the fighting in the breakaway areas in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2015 (under which they would receive a more autonomous “special status”) and it has written Nato membership into the country’s constitution.

Of course, Kiev isn’t the only villain in the story. There has been an enormous amount of bad faith and dirty tricks on Russia’s part. But it’s hard to have much confidence in a government that is driven by an exclusivist nationalism incapable of reuniting Ukraine and that is relying on Western military support to allow it to continue these policies. Yet you propose that the international left rally round this government, but “demanding a people’s war, with social and economic justice and the end of oligarchic power as the fruits of victory”. I can’t think of a more “gestural slogan” than this. If, highly improbably, Ukraine did defeat a Russian invasion, the Kiev government would double-down on its exclusivist policies and the repression of the substantial section of the population who look toward Russia.

Indeed one major reason for opposing war in Ukraine, apart from the bloodshed, destruction, population displacement, and economic disruption it would cause, is that it probably would lead to ethnic cleansing and large-scale repression on both sides as the Russian occupiers sought to crush Ukrainian insurgents. Europe will be pushed several steps further in the direction of barbarism.

A Popular Front with liberal imperialism

You quote Lenin saying that “the truth is concrete”. That’s true but it needs to be supplemented by a wonderful passage from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. He writes that Marxism is “the expression of these subaltern classes who want to educate themselves in the art of government and who have an interest in knowing all truths, even the unpleasant ones, and in avoiding the (impossible) deceptions of the upper class and—even more—their own” (Quaderni del carcere, Einaudi, 1975, II, 1688). 

Gramsci’s point about self-deception is very important. What is happening is not plucky Ukraine under the Russian jackboot, but an inter-imperialist conflict in which Ukraine, under the latest of all the governments to fail its people since independence, is a pawn. When you try to shift the focus to Ukraine’s self-defence and describe the US and its European “tributaries” as “former imperialist” democracies you are simply deceiving yourself and, because of your influence, potentially others as well.

Recognising the nature of the conflict doesn’t mean holding the solution in one’s hands. The sad truth is that the radical and revolutionary left is too weak internationally to have much impact on this crisis. But telling the truth is important, particularly because there will be more crises like this one, and probably more dangerous ones since they will involve the US and its real challenger, China. You seem to have signed up on the side of the “former imperialist” West. Though your horizons are more radical and your arguments more sophisticated, in substance your attack on the IST seems little different from Keir Starmer’s shameful denunciation of the Stop The War campaign and pledge of loyalty to Nato. 

In a new development (or should one say degeneration?) of your Popular Frontism, the US antagonism with China and Russia is now framed as an “antifascist” struggle in which the left should unite with liberal imperialism against the “authoritarian, socially conservative” regimes in Beijing and Moscow. If the left swallowed this, they would be bound hand and foot to their own ruling classes in this potentially deadly struggle. Only if we remain Leninist in the minimal sense of seeing the world as still dominated by the imperialist system can we maintain the political independence needed to shape the future.

In comradeship,
Alex Callinicos

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