Lenin and the Ukrainian War


With the war in Ukraine reaching its anniversary, we have to once again learn to think about a matter that was until recently deemed obsolete by many of the leading figures in the capitalist states: territorial war. Matters of war and peace have always been a difficult subject for Marxists, since by their nature they substitute conflicts between states and nations for the – from a Marxist viewpoint at least – more straightforward direct forms of social conflict. While since the experiences of the First World War Marxists are in general in agreement about the need to oppose war itself, and especially imperialist war, it is a lot less clear what that implies for any given conflict in practice. Wars invite everyone who is not an immediate participant to take sides, to declare oneself to be for or against one of the warring sides. After all, the nature of war is to be a state of emergency, a very literal question of life or death for the participants.

This makes it more difficult to simply say ‘a pox on both their houses’: both sides will see this as abandonment of their survival to the forces of the enemy, and natural moral instincts do not tend to reflect well on people who are unwilling to help people in an emergency situation. You don’t respond to a drowning person with the declaration that you are neutral between them and the water. The continued strong appeal of nationalism even in the post-WWII context does nothing to diminish this identification of personal interests with those of states (at least in wartime), even among people who are otherwise inclined to be critical of their own.

Moreover, in the 20th century (and the beginning of the 21st so far) the context of imperialism – whether in the form of inter-imperialist rivalry, the Cold War, or the era of American hegemony – has further strengthened this tendency to want to pick a side, as opposing imperialism is for many Marxists the sine qua non of political orientation in international relations, and that means that a studied neutrality could easily be seen as betraying such principles. Already Marxists tend not to believe in ‘neutrality’ too much – as exemplified by the popularity of Howard Zinn’s famous saying “you can’t be neutral on a moving train”.

But if neutrality is out and anti-imperialism is in, this still far from solves the problem in any given conflict. Even if the left can agree on opposition to imperialism and annexationism, support for converting war between states into class war, and the principle of self-determination of nations against attempts by larger powers to control their policies and institutions by violent means, this does not mean that there is always much consensus on how to apply this. In the context of the Cold War, the question was often whether one considered the US or the USSR the greater imperialist; or if one opposed both, what to do with cases where they were directly in confrontation. Supporters of ‘real existing socialism’ had difficulties with cases such as the border war between China and Vietnam, both states claiming this mantle.

Invoking Lenin

In the era of American hegemony, the dilemma has tended to revolve rather around balancing opposition to American imperialist domination with opposition to the often reactionary governments targeted by that same domination; but as the case of the present war in Ukraine shows, sometimes old-fashioned concerns about relations between the imperialist hegemon and lesser powers still come to the fore too. Couple all this with the tendency of Marxist thinking in international relations to rely on a combination of a rather cheap consequentialism with an underdeveloped realism – something I have written about previously – and you have a theory which, to put it mildly, seriously underdetermines any particular political stance to an ongoing conflict.

One reliable tendency, and in principle a good one, is to refer to Lenin for insights into imperialism and war. After all, if 1914 demonstrated the bankruptcy of the old social-democracy by its willingness to (at least passively) support a senseless inter-imperialist conflagration that left millions dead on the battlefield, it equally demonstrated the acuity and strength of the position of the small left opposition that denounced this attitude – the one that has historically come to be associated with the Zimmerwald Conference (1915) and with the work of Lenin, who was present, in particular.

While other writers, such as Mao, have written substantively on war and imperialism since, these are often presented as elaborations of Lenin’s thought, and even well beyond strict Marxist-Leninist circles the influence of Lenin’s thinking as formed from the experience of WWI can be felt on the left. Lenin’s analysis of WWI, although more than a century old at this point, is still a major compass for much of the left wing in understanding the attitude to any particular conflict that ends up in open war.

The positions against support for Ukraine

But what did Lenin actually say? And how would one apply his analysis to a situation like the Ukrainian war? This is far from obvious, as will become clear. While most of the left – I think it is fair to say – has generally sided with the Ukrainian state in its struggle against the Russian invasion, there is a perhaps substantial minority that takes a different approach. In particular in (self-identified) Marxist-Leninist circles there seems to be a considerable sympathy for the Russian stance in the conflict, in particular insofar this is presented as opposing an expansion of American imperialist hegemony. Some openly support the Russian side. Others, probably a more representative group, rather argue on the basis of Lenin that the war is not an imperialist war of a larger power against a smaller nation, and that therefore the usual anti-imperialist position – to defend the smaller nation in such a case – does not apply.

Based on Lenin’s thought, so the reasoning goes, we should focus on opposition to any war and any participation in war, and this extends to opposing any support for one of the belligerent powers (in this context, primarily Ukraine, e.g. through providing supplies or weapons) or warlike punitive measures against another (primarily Russia, e.g. sanctions). There is clearly not much prospect at the moment for converting the war into class war, so we see instead the return of neutrality, but under the banner of Lenin.

I want to examine both of these arguments – the denial of the Russian invasion as imperialist in Lenin’s terms, and the claim that Lenin’s arguments suggest we should either support the Russian position as directly aimed at American imperialist hegemony or take a neutral stance between the belligerent states – and argue that they are ill-founded. They are, I suspect, based rather in the popular legacy of Lenin, the kind of simplified figure that emerges from instrumentalized selective quotations and secondary summaries of his work as popular in various small Leninist parties, than in Lenin’s actual writings and thinking.

Examining Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism

First I want to address the question of imperialism in Lenin’s work. Part of the problem, I suspect, is that in the ‘popular Lenin’ few works loom so large as his classic Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in the first half of 1916. If Marxists are likely to have actually read anything by Lenin at all, it is usually this work, and as a result they tend to take it as a pars pro toto for Lenin’s thinking on imperialism altogether. But this book is actually a rather specific argument and one at a rather high level of abstraction. In order to understand what it does and does not say, we must discuss the book at some length. Because this book tends to be the foundation and cornerstone of virtually every ‘Leninist’ argument about war and imperialism, this is worth some detailed attention.

In Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, as Lenin himself explained in a later written introduction, he set out to prove analytically two things in particular: that WWI was an inter-imperialist war, and that it was driven to become so not because of diplomatic errors but by the logic of capitalist accumulation, in particular by the specificities of the development of finance capital in the period leading up to the war.

For Lenin, the era was an era of what he called “monopoly capitalism”, when big trusts and large concentrations of capital were the dominant motive force of capital as a whole. This monopoly capitalism had in the leading capitalist countries become more and more subject in turn to the rule of financial capital (itself equally concentrated). This led to the division of the world in terms of spheres of control, where the leading powers were animated by competition over superprofits on the export of capital, driven by the interests of finance capital. His political (rather than theoretical) argument is subsequently that these superprofits allowed the emergence of a labor aristocracy in the superprofiting, richest nations, which in turn formed the social base for the right-wing of social-democracy that had just betrayed international solidarity by supporting the war.

Lenin’s argument in this book has to be understood as consisting of different aspects. Most of the book is in fact dedicated to a series of empirical arguments, in which Lenin sets out to prove that advanced capitalism is in fact everywhere of the “monopoly” type, that finance capital has arisen as a single motive force out of the union between mercantile capital (banks) and industrial capital (industry), but with the “financial oligarchy” in charge, and that the primary profit-seeking method of this finance capital is the export of capital. This covers chapters I-IV. He then speaks of the division of the world into the spheres of influence, both through the global colonial empires and through what he calls “financial and diplomatic dependence” of small independent states on the major powers. Again, for Lenin the primary driver of this process is the “monopoly” aspect of capital, the desire for each financial-capitalist mega-interest to achieve superprofits by essentially extracting the rents of monopoly power over and above average profits obtained in competition. This argument is explained in chapters V-VI.

The next two chapters expand on the economic argument. Here (although still using empirical claims to buttress the overall reasoning, of course) Lenin moves to attack Kautsky’s political attitude to imperialism and to instead establish his own. Helpfully, Lenin here even provides a definition of imperialism, for the purposes of the economic analysis in these chapters:

“(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”


This may serve as a very useful summary of the economic argument of the book as a whole. So what is his beef with Kautsky? Well, it is simply that he accuses Kautsky of having missed the specificity of imperialism in the present context (that is to say, in the 1910s) as being finance-dominated monopoly capitalism, and of having advocated the possibility that such capitalism could and would resolve itself peacefully in the long run, leading to a global unified capital rather than a conflict of capitals. Note that Lenin does not here make any political arguments about Kautsky’s attitude to WWI or the general Marxist attitude to war, as is often supposed, but argues against Kautsky on the grounds that his economic analysis of the capitalism of the time was faulty.

It is only in chapter IX that Lenin moves to a political discussion of the correct Marxist view on imperialism as he defined it above. This entire chapter essentially builds on his argument against Kautsky above, where the fundamental point is that Kautsky (according to Lenin) wrongly considered a peaceful development of the capitalism of his time possible, whereas Lenin thinks it is not possible, and uses WWI as an illustration of the kind of inter-imperialist conflict he considers inevitable.

For Lenin, Kautsky’s political errors stem from his failure to understand the economic impetus of his time and the specificity of the capitalism of his time. As he sums it up: “Kautsky’s theoretical analysis of imperialism, as well as his economic and political critique of imperialism, are permeated through and through with a spirit, absolutely irreconcilable with Marxism, of obscuring and glossing over the fundamental contradictions of imperialism and with a striving to preserve at all costs the crumbling unity with opportunism in the European working-class movement.” The final chapter actually adds little more to this, other than to provide a very summary historical discussion of the origins of the monopoly capital system Lenin had described in the book.

So, what is the upshot of all this for the problems of the Ukraine war and our attitude to war and imperialism in general? I think two things. Firstly, that Lenin’s argument in Imperialism is primarily an economic and empirical-theoretical one, not a political one. By this I mean it is an empirically supported argument about the economic structure of capitalism in his day, from which he derives a series of intermediate level theoretical generalizations for the system as a whole – monopoly capital, capital export-driven value flows, and superprofits. These in turn support an actually rather small set of political conclusions, still at a high to intermediate level of analysis: that capitals will compete with each other and come into direct conflict, rather than developing peacefully (as he accuses Kautsky of thinking), that every part of the world is or will become subject to the competing spheres of influence economically and politically, and that the superprofits allow opportunism to arise in the working class of the advanced nations.

The significance of this is that Lenin’s argument is fundamentally contingent: it is predicated on him having analyzed capitalism in the 1910s correctly, and it applies to capitalism as it was in the 1910s. In fact, Lenin goes out of his way to emphasize the specificity of this analysis to the capitalism of his time (hence the title of Chapter VII in the standard English translation: “Imperialism as a Special Stage of Capitalism”).

There has been a great deal of debate among economic historians and theorists since Lenin’s time about whether his analysis of capitalism around WWI was correct in the first place, which I need not go into now. More important is to keep in mind that the very structure of the argument is such that its applicability stands and falls not with the correctness of any particular generalizations about Marxist views about imperialism and war, but with the economic analysis of capital in it. Even if one thinks Lenin’s view of capitalism around 1916 was correct, it is not exactly a reach to say that global political economy has drastically changed since those days, and not least in exactly those spheres he based his discussion on: formation of trusts and concentrations of capital, the predominance of capital exports from metropole to periphery, the existence of large colonial empires, and the emergence of an integrated global financial market that crosses the boundaries of states and powers.

A modern application of Imperialism‘s argument, therefore, would have to take all these things into account, and consider how much we can still speak of monopoly capitalism, union between industrial and finance capital, division of the world into spheres of monopoly superprofit extraction, and capital export as the primary driver of global economic activity. I suspect in some respects these elements are present, and in some respects they would need to be drastically revised; just as I think that Lenin’s analysis in his own day was partially quite insightful and partially mistaken (although certainly better than the one he attributed to Kautsky, which was his primary point). But one can have any number of constructive discussions about this. What remains is the empirical contingency of the argument, and its insistence on specificity: it would not be in any way strange to analyze (say) WWII and its origins in totally different terms than Lenin did for WWI, nor would this have to imply contradicting Lenin’s theses in Imperialism.

This brings me to the second conclusion: what the book does not do. What it does not do is provide that thing which it is probably most often mistakenly thought to provide: a general Marxist argument about how to relate to war and imperialism in any period of capitalism, or even in any particular conflict within such a period. Lenin does have such argumentations, at least of the latter kind, but they are precisely not formulated in this book (aside of course from his opposition to Kautsky’s attempt to “pacify the workers and reconcile them with the social-chauvinists who have deserted to the side of the bourgeoisie”).

Lenin on the lesser imperialist powers

For those we can much more productively look elsewhere, at texts much less popularly known, but dating to the same period. These may help shed some light on the claims invoking Lenin in the case of the Ukraine war: the arguments that anti-imperialism demands we support the Russian invasion, or alternatively that it demands we oppose supporting Ukraine in the conflict, either because it is a rightwing bourgeois state or simply because of the necessity of an antiwar stance.

The first of these arguments is simple, and runs essentially like this: America (through its alliance of vassal states, NATO) is the primarily imperialist hegemon in the world right now. Russia is opposing the extension of the American imperialist sphere to its border regions. Being clearly a weaker power in every respect than the US is – economically, militarily, diplomatically – and because it is oriented against the hegemon, we should support it. Against the hegemonic imperialism of the existing great power (the US) and its smaller power supporters (especially Britain, but also Germany and Japan), we must as anti-imperialists support a multipolar system. This means supporting the national interests of the anti-hegemonic powers (Russia, China; perhaps the so-called BRICS as a whole). This, the argument goes, is the implication of anti-imperialism, and Lenin is often invoked to defend it (the ICFI being a salient example).

It is not difficult to find a direct answer to this kind of argumentation in Lenin’s own writings, when transposed to the relevant terms and powers of his own day. Lenin discusses precisely this reasoning in an (unfortunately) much less read text, one which deals much more directly with the political attitude towards WWI and its theoretical basis: Socialism and War: The Attitude of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party Towards the War (1915). Especially the first chapter is enlightening and contains general theoretical principles that are much less contingent than those found in Imperialism. In the course of defining different types of wars and emphasizing that WWI is an inter-imperialist war, Lenin discusses the argument that one should support the German (or Central Powers) side since it is the anti-hegemonic power, acting against the big imperialists with extensive colonial possessions. To this he answers the following:

“From the standpoint of bourgeois justice and national freedom (or the right of nations to existence), Germany would be absolutely right as against England and France, for she has been “done out” of colonies, her enemies are oppressing an immeasurably far larger number of nations than she is, and the Slavs who are oppressed by her ally Austria undoubtedly enjoy far more freedom than those in tsarist Russia, that real “prison of nations.” But Germany is fighting not for the liberation, but for the oppression of nations. It is not the business of Socialists to help the younger and stronger robber (Germany) to rob the older and overgorged robbers. Socialists must take advantage of the struggle between the robbers to overthrow them all. To be able to do this, the Socialists must first of all tell the people the truth, namely, that this war is in a treble sense a war between slave-owners to fortify slavery.”

https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/s-w/ch01.htm (emphasis added)

In other words, the argument that one should support the less hegemonic power (Russia) against the more hegemonic power (the US) is explicitly rejected, even when one of the powers is clearly less able to enforce a sphere of influence than the other and has (or claims) legitimate ‘national interests’ to preserve its status against that of the hegemonic power.

The next argument is to say that Russia’s war is not actually imperialist, because it does not qualify as imperialist under Lenin’s definition of imperialism and it is not the hegemonic power; and that therefore the correct thing is to simply support them as against the American hegemony. As seen above, the ‘lesser robber’ argument does not actually find any basis in Lenin’s writing. The question whether Russia is an imperialist power is reliant once more on generalizing from the specific argument in Imperialism (the book). In any case, it is not very convincing at even a superficial glance. It is not obvious that Russia, with its highly oligarchic economic structure (one Ukraine shares with it), is less “monopolistic” in Lenin’s sense than the US or the Western European economies. Secondly, if Russia is disqualified on the grounds of not being a capital exporter, then so should the Western powers be: in fact, the United States is currently the greatest importer of capital in the world, and thrives precisely on its hegemonic control over the global flows of value, steering them towards itself through reliance on its financial institutions – akin to a type of seigniorage.

This problem also reveals some of the weaknesses in taking Lenin’s argument in Imperialism as a checklist: in his own day, powers like Japan and Russia had a rather underdeveloped capitalist class and very little capital export or strong financialization compared to the more advanced powers, but this did not prevent Lenin as well as everyone else in his day from regarding them as imperialist powers due to their political, institutional, and diplomatic structures and attitudes.

Lenin equally does away with the argument that Russia, as a non-hegemonic power, is somehow entitled to impose a settlement on Ukraine, or the use of the plight of the Donbass as a pretext for annexation of part of Ukrainian territory. This is usually justified with reference to the bourgeois-rightwing nature of the Ukrainian government (to which I will come shortly), or alternatively, with reference to the argument that it is justified because of provocation by NATO, ‘forcing Russia’s hand’, as it were. This kind of ‘annexationism’ was already roundly condemned in his day, as it should be today, even when in each case each of the powers – including the aforementioned “younger robbers” – has some kind of explanation for it.

Here, it is instructive to quote at some length from another essay, this time Lenin’s lecture War and Revolution held in 1917. This lecture (much neglected) is excellent for an actual formulation of general principles about war on Lenin’s part, in a way Imperialism does not provide. Here he addresses the pretexts for annexations, and what is meant by annexationism. The emphatic point is that while it is absolutely correct to say that the larger context of the war is decisive for the attitude one should have towards it, it does not at all follow from that that this justifies territorial claims, since all the powers maintain them:

When we argue about annexations and this bears on the question I have been trying briefly to explain to you as the history of the economic and diplomatic relations which led up to the present war when we argue about annexations we always forget that these, generally, are what the war is being waged for; it is for the carve-up of conquered territories, or, to put it more popularly, for the division of the plundered spoils by the two robber gangs. When we argue about annexations we constantly meet with methods which, scientifically speaking, do not stand up to criticism, and which, as methods of public journalism, are deliberate humbug. Ask a Russian chauvinist or social-chauvinist what annexation by Germany means, and he will give you an excellent explanation, because he understands that perfectly well. But he will never answer a request for a general definition of annexation that will fit them all: Germany, Britain, and Russia. He will never do that! And when Rech (to pass from theory to practice) sneered at Pravda, saying, “These Pravdists consider Kurland a case of annexation! How can you talk to such people!” and we answered: “Please give us such a definition of annexation as would apply to the Germans, the English, and the Russians, and we add that either you evade this issue or we shall expose you on the spot”[1]Rech kept silent. We maintain that no newspaper, either of the chauvinists in general, who simply say that the fatherland must be defended, or of the social-chauvinists, has ever given a definition of annexation that would fit both Germany and Russia, that would be applicable to any side. It cannot do this for the simple reason that this war is the continuation of a policy of annexations, that is, a policy of conquest, of capitalist robbery on the part of both groups involved in the war. Obviously, the question of which of these two robbers was the first to draw the knife is of small account to us…


For “Kurland”, insert “Donbass”. Lenin then continues, making the point that regardless of the apparent historical pretext, which all imperialist powers always maintain against each other (and cannot avoid doing, by his own argumentation about capitalist imperialism), this nonetheless cannot warrant annexationism even by the lesser power:

That is why the story that is current about the cause of the war is sheer duplicity and humbug. Forgetting the history of finance capital, the history of how this war had been brewing over the issue of redivision, they present the matter like this: two nations were living at peace, then one attacked the other, and the other fought back. All science, all banks are forgotten, and the peoples are told to take up arms, and so are the peasants, who know nothing about politics. All they have to do is to fight back! The logical thing, following this line of argument, would be to close down all newspapers, burn all books and ban all mention of annexations in the newspapers. In this way such a view of annexations could be justified. They can’t tell the truth about annexations because the whole history of Russia, Britain, and Germany has been one of continuous, ruthless and sanguinary war over annexations… There you have the pre-history, the real history of unprecedented plunder! Such is the policy of these classes, of which the present war is a continuation. That is why, on the question of annexations, they cannot give the reply that we give, when we say that any nation joined to another one, not by the voluntary choice of its majority but by a decision of a king or government, is an annexed nation. To renounce annexation is to give each nation the right to form a separate state or to live in union with whomsoever it chooses. An answer like that is perfectly clear to every worker who is at all class-conscious.


This sword cuts at both sides: both Ukraine and Russia present themselves as being under attack ‘suddenly’ by the other camp, and imply that this simply requires an attitude of ‘defense of the nation’. Lenin rejects both of these claims, regardless of whatever pretexts the imperialist powers have for making one or another claim against each other in territorial terms. Rather, Lenin acknowledges in essence no territorial claims. The operating principle here is the desire of a nation as a whole, as meaningfully and democratically expressed, not the justifications (true or false) by this or that imperialist power that would justify annexations – like those Russia has been undertaking in Crimea, the Donbass, and even regions beyond.

Lenin on ‘neutrality’

Next we must address the ‘neutrality’ argument. This probably has a much greater purchase on the left as a whole, not least because of the (very justified) general tendency to oppose war and militarism, as well as more specifically the influence of Lenin, who is popularly known for his calls to oppose all sides in WWI and to convert the inter-imperialist war into a class war (something which eventually did happen in Russia and Germany, two major belligerent powers). The neutralist interpretation of Lenin’s argument is that this is essentially a proxy conflict between NATO and Russia, and both sides are imperialist powers, this constitutes an inter-imperialist war within which we should take no stance for either side and lend no political or material support. Usually this is joined with the argument that since Ukraine has a rightwing bourgeois government, it does not deserve our support against the Russian invasion in any case, since that would be tantamount to supporting rightwingers from the left.

To understand Lenin’s attitude to this type of argumentation, we must do a more precise transposition of the present situation to the terms of WWI, which Lenin was responding to when speaking of war and imperialism. In another diatribe against Kautsky, The Collapse of the Second International (1915), Lenin discusses precisely the issue of how to judge of a rightwing bourgeois government (which for the sake of argument we shall accept Zelensky’s Ukraine is, and indeed well may be) in two respects: insofar as it is defending itself in a national war against an imperialist power (ie Russia, in our case), and insofar as it is part of an inter-imperialist war. Using Serbia as an example, Lenin here writes:

In the present war the national element is represented only by Serbia’s war against Austria (which, by the way, was noted in the resolution of our Party’s Berne Conference). It is only in Serbia and among the Serbs that we can find a national-liberation movement of long standing, embracing millions, “the masses of the people”, a movement of which the present war of Serbia against Austria is a “continuation”. If this war were an isolated one, i.e., if it were not connected with the general European war, with the selfish and predatory aims of Britain, Russia, etc., it would have been the duty of all socialists to desire the success of the Serbian bourgeoisie, as this is the only correct and absolutely inevitable conclusion to be drawn from the national element in the present war. However it is this conclusion that the sophist Kautsky, who is now in the service of the Austrian bourgeoisie, clericals and militarists, has failed to draw.

Further, Marxist dialectics, as the last word in the scientific-evolutionary method, excludes any isolated examination of an object, i.e., one that is one-sided and monstrously distorted. The national element in the Serbo-Austrian war is not, and cannot be, of any serious significance in the general European war. If Germany wins, she will throttle Belgium, one more part of Poland, perhaps part of France, etc. If Russia wins, she will throttle Galicia, one more part of   Poland, Armenia, etc. If the war ends in a “draw”, the old national oppression will remain. To Serbia, i.e., to perhaps one per cent 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 per cent, the war is a continuation of the politics of imperialism, i.e., of the decrepit bourgeoisie, which is capable only of raping nations, not freeing them. The Triple Entente, which is “liberating” Serbia, is selling the interests of Serbian liberty to Italian imperialism in return for the latter’s aid in robbing Austria.

https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1915/csi/vi.htm (emphasis added)

We see here both of these aspects, or ‘moments’, of the war represented (taking of course Serbia as the equivalent of Ukraine for our purposes). Lenin is, as can be seen, unequivocal that despite Serbia being ruled by a bourgeois-reactionary government, insofar as its war represents a war of national liberation or national survival against an imperialist aggressor (Austria, read Russia), socialists must hope for and support its success in that endeavour. This is all the more striking when one considers that in 1914, Serbia was an only semi-constitutional monarchy, that moreover had recently itself annexed and acquired a substantial amount of territory in the preceding Balkan Wars, and had also pursued a longstanding policy of diplomatic appeasement of Austria-Hungary (in fact not dissimilar to the Ukrainian diplomatic closeness to Russia until 2014).

At the same time, Lenin makes it clear as well that this reasoning does not apply to the war as a whole (meaning here, WWI as such), insofar as it is an inter-imperialist war – whereby we already know what Lenin’s general attitude is to inter-imperialist war in general, regardless of the relative strength of the imperialist powers involved.

We see then that the ‘neutralist’ position is partially right and partially wrong in drawing from Lenin. It is wrong insofar as it neglects to fully incorporate the necessity to support the success of Ukraine, as a nation fighting a struggle against an imperialist invader with territorial-annexationist claims against it and seeking to subjugate it into its sphere of influence, regardless of whether Zelensky’s government has any progressive qualities (which it may well not have). It is right, on the other hand, when discussing the larger context of a real or potential conflict, whether directly or via proxy, between the rival imperialist camps of US/NATO and Russia (and perhaps China also, at some point). In that specific conflict, the position of neutralism and refusal is absolutely correct from the viewpoint of Lenin’s argumentation. And indeed just as the Entente was selling out Serbia in its own interests, so NATO (and the EU) are manipulating, deceiving, and instrumentalizing Ukraine’s struggle for their own ends. But equally, just as with Serbia in WWI, the “national element” of justified defense against imperialism and annexationism remains even within that context, in the case of Ukraine’s defense against Russia.


To conclude, then, there is no basis in the use of Lenin’s writings and arguments about imperialism and war, especially not as formulated around WWI, to argue either that the correct socialist position is to support Russia in its war in Ukraine, nor to argue for a ‘neutralist’ position with respect to Ukraine’s defense against Russia, nor to argue that the Russian war is not properly considered an imperialist war, with all the implications that this carries.

It may be objected that I have not said much about the war itself, or the long runup to it (including the many deceptions perpetrated by NATO and the EU against the ‘Westernizer’ faction in Ukraine that they claim to be supporting), nor much about what this implies in terms of a socialist position on e.g. arms deliveries by other powers to the Ukrainians. This is because as so often, there is analytical value in separating out different claims, so that the truth value of one is not confused for the truth value of another. In this case, I have dealt with the positions against support for Ukraine insofar these are based on putative Leninist principles or arguments, and found these wanting.

It may well be that there are other arguments regarding the present war that can shed more light than Lenin’s on what the position of socialists should be, and what this means in practice considering our limited ability to influence the course of events, whether in the West or in the warring countries. But Lenin himself, whatever the merits of his analysis of “the highest stage of capitalism”, on my interpretation offers no ground to refuse Ukraine support in its defense against Russian imperialism.

Book Review: Adam Tooze, “The Deluge”

“Liberalism is the only thing that can save civilization from chaos – from a flood of ultra-radicalism that will swamp the world…” These are the words of Woodrow Wilson aboard the SS George Washington in December 1918, reflecting on the tasks confronted by the United States and her allies after their victory in the First World War. It is also the fundamental thesis of Adam Tooze’s The Deluge, the long-awaited followup to his brilliant discussion of the political economy of Nazi Germany (for a discussion of which, see here and following). Applying his profound talent for combining political economy with international relations, Tooze’s central subject is the aftermath of World War I and the challenge of creating a new world order amidst the ruins of the old European powers. This challenge, as he presents it, was a dual one. On the one hand it involved the recognition by all European powers, victors or vanquished, that the United States was now the pre-eminent economic power in the world, with the potential of translating this tremendous advantage into equivalent military and political power on the world stage; and on the other hand it involved the attempts by Woodrow Wilson as American President to effect this transformation of the world balance of powers while simultaneously disentangling the United States from a war alliance that he had never wanted in the first place, and which threatened to perpetually constrain the freedom of action the Americans needed to make this potential a reality.

Continue reading “Book Review: Adam Tooze, “The Deluge””

No Blood for Oil? Some Thoughts on Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism


While virtually everyone on the left would agree on the importance of anti-imperialism in principle, it is by no means always clear what this means. (I will exclude the Euston Manifesto types from our hallowed ranks.) Anti-imperialism can only be effective to the extent that imperialism is defined and understood, and anti-imperialist strategy only works insofar as there is agreement on what imperialism is. Oddly, while the rhetoric of anti-imperialism is a commonplace of left activism and organisational campaigns, there is often a lot of vagueness about what precisely is meant by the term. The fate of the antiwar movements since the war in Iraq has been an illustration of this problem. Despite the unprecedented numbers agitating against the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ and its invasion of Iraq to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein, the antiwar movement has shown virtually no staying power. The election of Obama seems to have taken the wind out of the sails of the American activists, despite the extension of drone warfare to many countries and the war in Libya, and in Europe only the occasional Israeli threats against Gaza can mobilise any numbers at all. While the predominance of economic concerns since the crisis have a lot to do with this, I suspect there is also a wider strategic problem. The best example of this is the (unofficial) slogan of the movement against the Iraq war, the concept of “no blood for oil”. By examining the weaknesses of this concept, I will try to nudge the left debate on imperialism away from its usual obsessions and towards a different perspective on the means and scope of imperialism today. Continue reading “No Blood for Oil? Some Thoughts on Imperialism and Anti-Imperialism”

Syria: A Chemical Romance

This is a repost of my article at The North Star.

All empires produce the same lies. That their enemies (ever changing) are barbarians; that they defend civilization, honor, and morality against the latter’s outrages; that they provide the necessary peace and stability for a world that would fall into chaos absent their muscle; and that any action is justified to this end, however apparently remote from these lofty goals, because of the need to maintain the empire’s ‘credibility’ in the face of its domestic and foreign opposition. This credibility, of course, has nothing to do with what one normally understands by that. It is not a matter of being honest or truthful or transparent in one’s dealings. Empires are never any of these things: a tyrant can be an important ally one day and a cruel enemy of humanity the next, like the erstwhile ruler of Iraq. One can declare that the tyrant of Syria has crossed an internationally recognized moral line by the alleged use of chemical weapons, when one has repeatedly done the same. One can decry the Assad government as oppressive and violent, which it certainly is, and that it kills civilians on a large scale when threatened, which it certainly does, and yet see no harm in an absolute monarchy doing precisely the same thing with the active support of the empire.

Why then care about the empire’s moral denunciations, one way or the other? Empires have no morality, in the end, except to believe that without them things would be worse. This is a truth happily affirmed by the imperialist right, the ‘realists’ who defend it exactly in those terms, as one can read in any book by the likes of Niall Ferguson, Max Boot, and so forth. In this sense, they are more honest than the liberal moralists who take on the burden of the world unasked for, and when so playing the giant Atlas care little about whom they trample underfoot. The only honesty of imperialism is the straightforward presentation of the empire’s interests, but this rarely motivates anyone much. That is why all the ‘realist’ literature has the wink wink, nudge nudge tone of the old boys club: ‘you’re not supposed to say this, of course, but privately, we all know that’… On the other hand the moralist imperialists are possibly even worse, since unlike the realists there is no empirical content to their reasonings at all. The mission civilisatrice is both conclusion and point of departure of their arguments, and the ‘responsibility to protect’, as Freddie de Boer has pointed out, is justified exclusively by counterfactuals that nobody can contest, because they never happened. It is perhaps this cynicism that finally led to the surprising defeat of the British government on its motion for punitive strikes on Syria; a sign perhaps that the antiwar movement has had at least an indirect effect on the ‘credibility’, in the imperialist sense, of such arguments.

Given this, the whole charade about whether chemical weapons have been used and if so, whether by Assad or his subordinates or perhaps somehow by the rebels is rather beside the point. We know already that the regime of Assad has killed tens of thousands and is willing to continue to do so to remain in power, a power which it has used for the purposes of the self-aggrandizement of a long-necked eye doctor and the naked plunder of the country’s produced wealth. As with Assad senior before him, Bashar al-Assad’s pretend ‘anti-imperialism’ fools only those who want to be fooled by it. Even the pretense of a developmental dictatorship, once the rationale for the nationally-oriented middle classes in the Arab world to support the pan-Arabic Ba’ath programme, has faded entirely. Assad makes deals with Israel while pretending to be champion anti-Zionist, and keeps the peace in the Golan Heights. He pretends to be the saviour of the Arab dignity against the empire, just like Saddam Hussein did, while being equally happy to do what the empire wants when this suits his rule, just like Saddam Hussein did. This is illustrated by his enthusiastic participation in the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program. (In Saddam’s case, of course, the cooperation consisted of going to war with Iran: a conflict sponsored by the West… with chemical weapons.) Nor is Assad serious about some kind of developmental programme in the style of the 20th century’s ‘postcolonial’ period. On the contrary, like all the other rulers whose predecessors justified their rule in developmental terms, he has given up even this raison d’être in the face of the pressure of the world market, and has undertaken a neoliberal turn of his own; one which maps remarkably well onto the central sites of rebellion against his dictatorship.

The argument about chemical weapons should then be left for what it is. It matters not tremendously whether thousands die through artillery bombardment or through chemical weapons. This is not to say that the ‘international taboo’ on chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and the desire to rid all states of these should be treated cynically by the left. On the contrary, the effects of such weapons have become all the more visible by the latest incident of their use, and it underlines their fundamentally profoundly anti-human nature. It is all the more significant because due to technological constraints, it is generally (though not universally) a set of weapons only usable by states against their subjects, and this should give us all the more reason to uniformly oppose their existence, let alone their use. But what does deserve to be treated with contempt is the notion of their being such a taboo in the first place, and that the United States and the cruise missile moralists are the correct instruments for enforcing it.

As mentioned, the empire was all too happy for one of the worst tyrants of the last few decades, Saddam Hussein, to have all manner of chemical weapons, as long as he used them on the empire’s foe, Iran. That he promptly turned these weapons on entire peoples who resisted his rule, and that this could be readily foreseen, counted for very little. The very same story applies in Syria, where the UK had no problem permitting the export of the relevant chemicals to the Syrian government even long after the civil war in Syria had begun. (And no such materials are ever sent anywhere without this being a conscious choice of foreign policy, as those suffering the boycotts of the West, like the peoples of Iran and Cuba, can attest.) I have also mentioned the use of white phosphorus and depleted uranium by the US in Iraq, and could add the use of the former by Israel in Gaza in 2008 to that. And going further back, was this taboo on chemical weapons not established in the first place because of their large scale use in the First World War – precisely by powers like France, the UK, the US and Germany, who are now the enforcers?

One could of course think they have, wisely, learned from the experience. But the persistence of their supply to third party dictators suggests otherwise. What it suggests is that, like the WMD excuse for the war on Iraq, this obsession with punitive strikes and invasions has little to do with the enforcement of taboos on violence (which are obeyed only in the breach) and everything to do with the shoring up of the ‘credibility’ of the empire – the spirit here is not the melancholia of Wilfred Owen, but the older spirit of quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi. Who have learned from the experience are the people who suffer the effects of that mentality, the ones who have to endure the notion of missile strikes to liberate them from bombardments, or the generations that suffered the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the players of game theory. It is the empires and their supporters that have a chemical romance, and so do the petty tyrants that now appear as necessary allies, now again as dangerous madmen possessed of powerful weapons, as suits the mood of the day in Washington or London.

The only answer for the left can be, as always, a pox on both their houses. Nothing is sillier than the notion that in such conflicts, it becomes necessary to see one or another party as the instrument of liberation, just because they are the protagonists to the fight. We need not choose between Washington and Damascus, and indeed, it would mean absolutely nothing if we did. From neither, any form of emancipation can be expected except that final emancipation from the flesh that comes from the receiving end of a bomb or bullet. Moreover, as the anti-war coalition in 2003 also showed, the left today does not possess the power to prevent our own states from going to war, let alone that we figure in the calculations of the Syrian Army or the insurgents. It is therefore pointless to engage in grandstanding on behalf of one or another party, and the left habit of ‘upholding’ by means of uncritical whitewashing this or that side in every conflict is as pointless as it is undignified. We should not call on our states to shoot missiles, nor to send arms to the insurgents, about whom we know nothing and whose victory, if it is to have any emancipatory content at all, must take place without NATO armaments in any case. We should also not declare ourselves supporters of the tyrant of Damascus, who inherited his throne from his father (not unlike his rivals in the Gulf). His only claim to rule consists in the proven will of the Assad dynasty to level entire cities, if that’s what it takes to quell any resistance.

As always, it remains right to rebel. One cannot blame the Syrian insurgents, armed and unarmed – and it is worth pointing out that Assad’s brutal repression of unarmed resistance led to the civil war – for rising against a dictatorship that has no more legitimacy than Pinochet did. The interventions from the Gulf states have strengthened immeasurably the position of the religious reactionaries in this struggle. But this should illustrate for the left the futility of expecting regimes explicitly opposed to any emancipatory politics to sustain such politics by means of proxy war, whether Saudi Arabia or the US. What the left can’t usefully do is playing the great game of states, all the more in the absence of any state at all committed to the victory of the remaining left anywhere in the world. In most these countries, the left was only strong insofar as it was entirely beholden to the support of Moscow, and this put them in a great strategic difficulty as soon as actual revolutionary situations were to arise requiring local initiative, or if Moscow’s support were to fall away – as proven by the defeat of the left in Iran in 1979, and its virtual collapse since the fall of the USSR.

Perhaps out of the fires of the present wars in the MENA region, a new left can arise, one that obtains its strength from the struggles in the region itself, not from franchising to this or that foreign movement or international (and this includes, of course, the Trotskyist ones). But the rise of such a left is not helped by grandstanding from socialists abroad, nor from foreign interventions, nor from dressing up every political action or insurgency as being ‘really’ based in the extremely narrow organized industrial working classes of Egypt, Syria, or Iraq. Indeed, in most of the region the pervasive unemployment and unproductivity of labor makes a classically proletarian politics for now impossible: a consequence of the immense weakness of its capital, whose position is further undermined by the strength and activities of the rentier monarchies of the Gulf. All the same, countries full of young, unemployed people without a future are hotbeds for revolt in all of history, all the more so when they’re largely urbanized and not among the most desperately poor of the world. The response to this, triggered by rising food prices and the increasing weakness of the local dictators, has been a (proto-)revolutionary process – not a social revolution in economic relations, but a political process of rising consciousness and opposition to the corrupt and ineffective regimes of the region. The removal of these regimes is the absolute prerequisite for any genuinely revolutionary movement, needless to say.

It should be taken and supported as such, without any illusions about working class revolutionary politics and without the absurd theatre of ‘position taking’ every time foreign powers intervene for or against it. Ultimately, the present conflicts have nothing to do with ‘anti-imperialism’, chemical weapons, or any of these moral tales any more than the European conflicts of 1848 did. Our attitude should be that of 1848 as well: no foreign interventions, no ‘upholding’ or moralism, no overblown expectations. There may still be disagreement as to the means and the right groups to support, as is to be expected when the left is weak and has to substitute empty endorsements for action. But let’s not make this into a moral allegory. That we can oppose the tyrants, oppose the empire, and oppose the weapons of mass destruction they equally peddle in is clear enough, but it is a starting point, not a conclusion. It does not thereby prove the opposition to be the vehicle for socialist emancipation. It can’t be otherwise: there is presently no basis for such a politics. The rebellions of 1848 were all politically justified to the last, but none of them was justified by the historical conditions, and none of them could or did lead to a socialist politics. The same is true for the present 1848, the 1848 of the MENA region. I hope that the current conflicts end better than 1848 did, with its subsequent Bonapartism, though Egypt seems to suggest otherwise. Cynicism is never useful. But only by being honest about the real nature of conditions, precisely as empires and dictators can never be, can the left go beyond the moral tales of chemicals and revolutionaries.

On the assassination in Woolwich

Given the significant impact of the murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two British converts to Islam, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, I’m moved to make a brief comment on what I consider its implications. The ethics of the attack itself can be debated until the cows come home; as ethics are essentially subjective and arbitrary, they cannot really be argued out, and nobody will convince anyone else of the ethical merits or demerits of such an action if they do not already share that view. I will therefore not say much about that, though this is not to say I have no ethical concerns about it. But the political and strategic consequences are real and should be debated widely. The first point is that an attack of this kind cannot simply be considered a blow against British imperialism, even if it is – as voiced by the assassins themselves – clearly a response to British foreign policy, not least the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Continue reading “On the assassination in Woolwich”