In Is Russia imperialist?, Roger Annis, Russia, Syria

By Roger Annis, April 2, 2018. Annis reflects on the prospects for renewal of Marxist and socialist thought and argues that it requires requires a rethink of the past 100 years and some agreed-upon consensus of its lessons.

Originally posted on A Socialist In Canada

Right-wing militias have controlled for some five years the districts east of the Syrian capital of Damascus called Eastern Ghouta. They have held a large civilian population in their grip and have used the territory to shell and otherwise attack and harass the population of Damascus and its broader region. That control is now coming to a close as the Syrian government re-asserts its sovereign control over the territory.

Tens of thousands of residents of Eastern Ghouta and other territories previously held by the militias are taking advantage of humanitarian exit corridors which Syrian and Russia armed forces have created. Aid convoys of the International Red Cross and World Food Program have reached the areas of Eastern Ghouta and Douma for several weeks now. Ceasefire agreements were reached between the militias Syrian and Russian forces, involving relocation to Idlib province.

Writer Philip Roddis in Britain recently published several excerpts from Professor Tim Anderson‘s 2017 book The Dirty War In Syria. Excerpts from the preface to the book can be read here, on the eclectic website Global Research. In a March 11, 2018 posting to his website, Philip spoke to the issue of whether or not contemporary Russia can be considered an ‘imperialist’ social and economic formation. I wrote a lengthy comment to Philip’s posting. Below is an expanded version. My comment focuses on the evolution of certain currents among the Western left, including Trotksyism, and why many have come to paralysis or worse (much worse) in reaction to the NATO imperialist regime-change drives in Syria and Ukraine and NATO’s rising threats against Russia.

In an earlier exchange on the subject of Syria, Philip, you wrote: “I don’t say Russia is not an imperialist power: only that (a) the case has not been made, and I need more than lazy references to Russia’s responses to NATO provocation in Georgia and Ukraine, (b) any danger posed by a Russian imperialism is in any case miniscule against that posed by Western powers, and (c) since that ‘far left’ offers no credible third way for Syria, I welcome Russia’s disruption of the West’s cruel neoliberal agenda for the Middle East.”

As you acknowledge, the argument for a so-called Russian imperialism has not been made by its proponents. The case against the proposition was made by Renfrey Clarke and me in our lengthy, February 2016 essay: The myth of ‘Russian imperialism’: In defense of Lenin’s analyses. Sam King in Australia has made a similarly compelling argument as to why China does not fit the descriptor of ‘imperialist’ in his 2015 essay, Lenin’s theory of imperialism: A defense of its relevance in the 21st century.

Beginning since at least the onset of the regime change war in Syria in 2012 and then accelerated by the right-wing coup in Ukraine in February 2014, a curious unanimity has emerged amongst almost all of the groups of Trotskyist origin along with anarchists and various academic circles  situating themselves in a Marxist tradition (Monthly Review, for example). They condemn something they call ‘Russian imperialism’ while simultaneously turning a blind eye to NATO’s exceptionally dangerous new cold war against Russia. Or they simply avoid discussing the subject of Russia altogether, notwithstanding the hair-raising dangers signalled by the daily, anti-Russia headlines in mainstream Western media.

A related curiosity has emerged: a convergence between the Trotskyists (or call them ‘post-Trotskyists’, if you will) with the also fractured International Socialists current and its superficial, decades-old, non-materialist theory of ‘state capitalism’ to describe what became of the former Soviet Union following the 1920s.

The sum total of all the proof of a ‘Russian imperialism’ was and remains… the use of the term. Phrases tossed about. ‘I say it, therefore it is true.’ Here is Ashley Smith of the International Socialist Organisation in the U.S. in a recent article: “The two parties [Republican and Democratic parties in the U.S.] are different factions of a ruling class determined to preserve their dominance over imperial rivals like China and Russia, regional powers like Iran, and antagonists like North Korea.”

Note the use of vague, non-materialist terms “imperial powers” and “regional powers”. Marxists, by contrast, apply scientific descriptors when identifying capitalist and non-capitalist social formations. “Imperialism” has long entered the Marxist lexicon (and the lexicon of non-Marxist writers) as an essential tool for understanding the world of the late-19th and 20th centuries.

In today’s world, there are approximately 25 imperialist countries—the U.S.; the UK, France and Germany along with the smaller countries of western Europe; Canada; South Africa; and in Asia–Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Arguably, a few Asian countries are making the transition to imperialist countries due to the inordinate weight of finance capital in their economies, notably South Korea and Singapore.

The Trotskyist default in recent years on the crucial question of Russia’s exact social and economic character–in which it has bowed to the phraseology of ‘Russian imperialism’ and has bowed before the regime-change wars of imperialism in Syria and Ukraine–has sent me on a quest to find out how Trotskyism could end up in such a spectacular dead end. In truth, the defaults over Syria and Ukraine are only the latest in a rather long string of reckless and downright dangerous positions taken by Trotskyists and other claimed Marxists to world events—notably the coups in Haiti (2004), Libya (2011), Mali (2012) and Egypt (2013).

As I wrote in an article last year on my website (Reflections on the Russian Revolution of 1917), Trotskyism was born of a large ultraleft impulse, namely, the resuscitation by Leon Trotsky in 1929 of his theory of permanent revolution. He had set this theory aside in 1917, acknowledging that Lenin and his Bolshevik Party colleagues had a more accurate advance picture of the alliances of class forces that could make possible a national democratic revolution in 1917 and a passing over, in time, to a fully socialist transformation.

Related to that has been the progressive dismissal by the Trotskyist movement of the crucial lessons of the New Economic Policy which governed economic policy in the early Soviet Union, from 1921 to 1928. NEP has by now disappeared from the Trotskyists’ account of the Russian Revolution of 1917.[1]

Altogether, the Trotskyists’ account of 1917 has been idealized beyond recognition. A very complex and difficult projected course towards socialist revolution began in October 1917. A worker and peasant uprising led by Lenin’s Bolshevik Party and other revolutionary political forces ascended to power and began the task of constructing a new, egalitarian society. The October Revolution was to be a first, giant step in a worldwide socialist revolution. But October was ultimately overwhelmed by great material hardship inherited from the preceding, imperialist Russian empire and by foreign military intervention seeking to starve and strangle the new society in its infancy. By the end of the 1920s, an authoritarian socialism took hold and never relinquished its grip, right up until the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the late 1980s.

In the Trotskyist account, there was a heroic revolution in 1917 which, sadly, was overwhelmed by material and political obstacles. But that revolution, it is argued, serves to this day as a ‘model’ to follow and by which to measure any and all other such socialist experiments. Indeed, the ‘International Socialist’ current has argued for nigh on 70 years that the 1917 Russian Revolution was the only time in history that a working class has acceded to political power and begun a socialist transformation! Forget the social transformations of the countries of eastern Europe following World War Two, forget China in 1949, forget Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. And forget the countries of Bolivia and Venezuela seeking present-day socialist transformations. No, these were all variants of Soviet-dominated ‘state capitalism’ or modern-day ‘bourgeois populism’. What a depressing and thoroughly discouraging view of the class struggle of the 20th century!

Luckily, the analysis of our ‘state capitalist’ thinkers is superficial and dead wrong. The international working class has made great strides since 1917 in becoming more anti-imperialist, more antiwar and more every-other-form of anti-capitalist impulse. But unfortunately, we, the working class, are confronted with a capitalist order that has proven far more powerful and resilient than the earlier theoreticians of Marxism imagined. So it is long-past time for radical political theory to take account of this and adjust.

The early ultraleft impulses of Trotskyism were amplified by the terrible setbacks suffered by the international working class with Stalin’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union during the 1930s and with the rise of fascism in Germany. Inter-imperialist rivalries unresolved by World War One along with the new phenomenon of aggressive fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain took the world into a new, second world war, even more grisly and destructive than the first one.

Following World War Two, capitalism successfully stabilized its rule in all the leading imperialist countries. It created a new world order, based on consensual acceptance of the dominant role of the United States. The leading capitalist countries launched the Cold War in order to contain the ‘bad’ example of the Soviet Union and the countries of eastern Europe and their social, planned economies. More ‘bad examples’ soon arrived in the form of deepgoing social revolutions in Asia—China, Korea and Vietnam.

The Cold War imposed further isolation on Marxism in the West (the isolation was amplified by the Western Marxists’ own, oft-sectarian conduct).

The ‘vanguard party’ model which Trotskyism and the Stalin-inspired Communist parties have promoted as representative of Leninism have each in their own different ways proven a dead end. Like much else of Trotskyist rendering of the Russian Revolution, its ‘party building’ strategy-interpretation had only superficial resemblance with the real-life communist party which Russian revolutionaries (including Trotsky himself) successfully built, including with Trotsky’s own, direct participation.

One of the tasks required in reviving Marxism is to rescue Lenin’s conceptions of party building from the distortions of Stalinists, Trotskyists and other ideologues. The years leading up to 1917 are exceptionally rich for such study. We learn that Lenin’s early concepts of a socialist (Marxist) party (or parties) are democratic and pluralist.

We can understand and sympathize with the difficulties faced by the earlier Trotskyists and other Western Marxists in trying to construct broad socialist parties in the midst of rising fascism and world war, followed by the aforementioned conditions of capitalist ascendance after World War Two. But today’s socialists and Marxists have no one to blame but themselves for the yawning absence of socialist party-building projects outside of a handful of countries in Europe.

The rescue of Marxism and of Lenin’s contribution to it also require assessing the troubling record of the Bolshevik Party during and following the foreign-imposed, 1918-21 civil war. The Bolshevik Party never fully recovered from the emergency measures which were taken during the civil war with respect to the party and to the government it led. The measures restricting party and societal democracy during the civil war became entrenched in the years following 1921. These became a grave impediment during the debates over the future course of building socialism which unfolded during the NEP years.

NEP produced modest economic and social improvements. But debates over its future and how it needed to be adjusted as conditions changed or improved became factionalized, with all parties to the debate sharing responsibility for that. In the background was the slow, grinding evolution of Soviet society and government towards bureaucratic mechanisms deciding ‘who gets what’ in conditions of great material and cultural want.

One of the first victims of the new, Stalin-led regime in 1928 was NEP itself. It was replaced with a regime of forced-march industrialization and coerced collectivization of agriculture.

The Soviet Union survived in spite of the elimination of NEP and the advent of authoritarian planning. That it survived was a testament to the power of economic planning, even in circumstances of authoritarian political rule. But the Russian Revolution of 1917 became bureaucratized and conservatized. It no longer served as a reliable guiding force for a worldwide revolution.

The international responses to events in Syria since 2012 and Ukraine since 2014 show that all strains of radical political thought—Marxism, anarchism, liberalism—are gravely compromised and degenerated. The ‘fall’ of these doctrines can be attributed to the rise of globalized capitalism in the late 1970s/early 1980s (what many analysts wrong-headedly call ‘neoliberalism’). Capitalism and imperialism set out to penetrate every corner of the world previously untouched by capitalism and its law of value. Among those it vanquished were the planned economies of the Soviet Union and eastern Europe. (To what extent the planned economy of China was overthrown or undermined is a matter of ongoing interest and discussion).

The renewal of Marxist and socialist thought requires a rethink of the past 100 years and some agreed-upon consensus of its lessons. Right now, the conditions for that in the West look rather bleak. No doubt, political actors in Russia, China and the Global South will have an outsized role to play in the renewal. They are, to varying degrees, already showing a path forward.

[1] I am told by a colleague that a book by U.S. historian Paul LeBlanc published in 2017 provides detailed analysis of the early Russian Revolution, including much specific attention to the New Economic Policy. I look forward to reading LeBlanc’s October Song. The benchmark to date of the story of NEP is Stephen Cohen’s 1973 biography of Bolshevik leader Nikolai Bukharin, Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution: A Political Biography, 1888-1938 (online in pdf here).


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Hanano, East Aleppo, December 2016. A woman who had been liberated from terrorist occupation hours previously, gives the victory sign.