By Roger Annis, Dec. 6, 2014
Zbigniew Marcin Kowalewski, a writer and editor at the Polish edition of Le Monde, has written a revisionist essay on Russia and the Soviet Union that raises eyebrows because of the warm reception it is receiving from left wing outlets.
The essay is titled ‘Russian imperialism’ and is published in the November 2014 issue of International Viewpoint, the monthly print magazine and online journal of the Bureau of the Fourth International in Europe. The essay also appears on the website of the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign in the UK, a campaign which opposes the political autonomy and anti-austerity movement in eastern Ukraine (and is not to be confused with the UK campaign Solidarity Against the Anti-Fascist Resistance in Ukraine).
The essay argues there is an uninterrupted line of continuity of a Russian, then Soviet, then Russian-again ‘imperialism’ during the past more than a century. According to the author, the Russian Revolution of 1917 carried forward Russian imperialism in the form of a new, ‘Soviet bureaucratic imperialism’. The formal collapse of that ‘bureaucratic imperialism’ seven decades later then transitioned into today’s ‘capitalist imperialism’.
The continuity of the variants of ‘Russian imperialism’, says the author, has been assured by “extra-economic monopolies” which he says were first described in V.I. Lenin’s 1916 study Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. Kowalewski cites Lenin in analyzing the unique form that pre-World War One Russian imperialism had taken compared to the five other great powers identified in Lenin’s work, those where finance capital was all dominant, namely the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany and Japan. In Russia, wrote Lenin, “the monopoly of military power, immense territory, or special facilities for pillaging non-Russian indigenous peoples, China, etc., partly complements, partly substitutes the monopoly of modern, up-to-date finance capital”.
It is with this analytical tool in hand that Kowalewski dismisses with barely a mention the vast achievements in national self-determination, anti-militarism and other anti-imperialist measures that followed the 1917 Revolution. The reader can find a considerable archive of material on these subjects in the vast writing and publishing work of John Riddell, located on his website. Riddell’s website includes a May 2014 essay by the young U.S. writer Eric Blanc: National liberation and Bolshevism reexamined: A view from the borderlands.
Another important source is the 1999 book The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-23, by Jeremy Smith, New York: St. Martin’s Press. (Unfortunately, the book is only available in a very expensive hardcover edition.)
Concerning the collapse of the Soviet Union and transition to ‘capitalist imperialism’ at the end of the 1980s, there is apparently no need felt by Kowalewski for a rigorous, materialist analysis of the new social and economic relations that arose over the old, Soviet ones, and how they came to be. Post-Soviet Russia continued to exercise “extra-economic monopolies” over considerable parts of the former Soviet Union territories, and so the matter is clear.
Kowalewski acknowledges that certain territories (which ones?) were able to advance socially and culturally during the years of the Soviet Union. Many of the Soviet republics became heavily industrialized (though at a heavy ecological cost), including Russia, eastern Ukraine and Kazakhstan, gaining a relative affluence for their populations. But the ‘bureaucratic imperialist’ order couldn’t be sustained. He writes:
… the extra-economic monopolies proved incapable of securing the long-term imperialist domination of Russia over the principal peripheral republics. Industrialization, urbanization, the development of education and more generally the modernization of the peripheries of the Soviet Union, as well as the growing “nationalization” of their working class, of the intelligentsia and of the bureaucracy itself began to change gradually the balance of power between Russia and the peripheral republics in favour of the latter.
This alone warrants study, to say the least. Here we have a ‘bureaucratic imperialist’ power ruthlessly dominating subjected territories and peoples, yet somehow, the working classes in these territories came to advance their material and cultural conditions rather substantially. This in sharp contrast to the experiences of so many peoples elsewhere in Asia as well as those of Africa and Latin America for whom imperialism has meant nothing but impoverishment and national degradation. Those who escaped the worst depradations of imperialism or who succeeded in breaking its chains outright were able to do so because they waged successful wars of liberation or, in some cases–southern Korea, Singapore and Malaysia come to mind–they were needed in the service of the Cold War or the war in Vietnam and therefore obtained privileged access to investment and trading regimes that fostered the expansion of a capitalist economy.
Kowalewski has a remarkable interpretation of how the ‘bureaucratic imperialist’ Russia came to unwind and collapse. Apparently, the hostility and competitive pressure of the capitalist and imperialist world had little to do with it. Rather, it was the weakening of the power of the “extra-economic monopolies” over the territories they were dominating. Granted, the resistance of peoples within the Soviet Union and on its periphery to the authoritarian rule they suffered was a powerful factor in the unraveling of bureaucratic socialism. But socialist theory in the field of the transition from capitalism to socialism gains little from Kowalewski’s superficial and non-materialist analysis.
The Soviet economy and other bureaucratic regimes like it ultimately collapsed because they failed to create unique and durable laws of development. Capitalism imposes the whip of the law of value and competition to drive forward its endless, destructive waves of renewal and expansion. Socialism can reduce and corral the power of those capitalist imperatives for a time by nationalizing large scale production and finance and creating forms of planned economy. Even distorted and bureaucratized economies such as those of the Soviet Union and China nonetheless could make striking advances in brute production and social advancement. But a lasting transformation of society and economic life cannot be achieved unless the role of the citizenry is qualitatively elevated in all aspects of social and economic decision-making. That’s the only way that something approaching socialism can be achieved. It requires a qualitative advance in the role and engagement of workers and other producing classes in the new society’s decision making, creating a truly human community that raises the status of the individual. Otherwise a machine of bureaucratic socialism takes over, alienates those whom it is supposedly serving and eventually runs out of initiative and innovation.
Kowalewski theorizes that the Soviet Union became embroiled in World War Two as an imperialist power engaged in “the struggle for a new division of the world”. This is a frontal challenge to the prevailing view of Marxists that the Soviet Union was attacked and invaded by Germany in 1941 not for the goal of ‘conquest’ in the abstract, but rather specifically as a conquest aiming to destroy the lasting vestiges of the 1917 Revolution and its planned, socialized economy and society. Such a view diminishes the enormous sacrifices made by the peoples of the Soviet Union in resisting the Nazi invasion and occupation, including in Ukraine. They were not mere pawns and foot soldiers sent into a slaughter. They were defending a homeland as well as a social order which they considered worthy of defending and which they were not willing to surrender to a German imperialist regime of utter horror and degradation.
I rather prefer the interpretation of the Soviet peoples’ resistance to the Nazi invasion that is provided succinctly by author David Stahel in his monumental 2009 book Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East. He cites a report written by German General Herrman Hoth as the Nazis began to realize in late 1941 that their dream of a quick defeat of the Soviet Union would not come to pass. Hoth wrote, “The Russian soldier fights not out of fear, rather for an idea. He does not want to return to the Tsarist time.” (p 246)
Stahel writes on the same page: “Given the ruthlessly despotic rule the Germans were bringing to the east and their genocidal practices, the worst fears of the Soviet people were soon confirmed, which greatly helped solidify their support for Stalin’s [sic] cause.”
Kowalewski’s essay is a frontal challenge to much of how Marxists, including in the Fourth International, have viewed and analyzed the past century. Its publication in International Viewpoint is another step by leaders of that international association of parties and groups into the ‘third camp’ view they have been voicing for the past year over events in Ukraine. Anti-Russia prejudice has taken the place of materialist and dialectical analysis of complex events. Its third campism has resulted in inaction in the face of a bloody, imperialist-inspired war. And ‘democratic’ imperialism is apparently looking better and better than the dependent capitalist regime in Russia, as if such a choice were tenable for Marxists. Is anyone in the Fourth International paying attention to what its leading journal is publishing?
There is a paucity of analysis on the international left of the collapse of the Soviet Union 25 years ago and the restoration of capitalism in its former republics that followed. This continues to weaken and undermine the needed response to the present day political and military offensive of NATO in eastern Europe. My modest contributions to that discussion include an essay published on June 18 of this year, ‘The Russia-as-imperialist thesis is wrong and a barrier to solidarity with the Ukrainian and Russian people’.