Published by KPML (Norway), June 17, 2023, and in Revolusjon no. 63, September 2023.
A current among leftists who have not flung themselves into NATO’s lap is attempting to argue “theoretically” that Russia is not imperialist. This is a cover-up of the nature of imperialism on a par with support for the war policy of NATO “democracies” from other left opportunists – only the other way round.
In economic terms, Russia is a second-rate great power, despite its size and military machine. Nevertheless, it is a gross theoretical error to claim that Russia is not an imperialist country, as sections of the anti-imperialist left are now doing.
Whether a state is imperialist or not cannot be determined solely by the capabilities of its military machine or its foreign policy rhetoric. That would be vulgar Marxism. The concentration of capital and the economic strength of the country are fundamental. But to be an imperialist great power, the country’s size and access to resources are also crucial, along with the state’s military potential.
Let’s take a concrete look at some economic indicators for different countries.
Steel production is frequently used as an indicator of a country’s economic strength, its level of development and self-sufficiency. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union was the world’s largest steel producer, with the United States in second place. Today, China produces ten times more steel than both Russia and the United States, both of which are surpassed by India and Japan.
Russia and the United States are thus greatly weakened in this area. But no one would argue that the United States consequently has ceased to be an imperialist power.
The US and most European imperialist powers are also mired in foreign debt, while Russia’s foreign debt is relatively modest (some 18 percent of GDP). In this respect, Russian imperialism is in a better position than many of its rivals.
The Netherlands and Norway are examples of small but highly developed imperialist countries with limited military potential. They want to defend their foreign investments and interests with diplomacy and military force, but they are sparrows in the imperialist crane dance. Therefore, the Netherlands and Norway only can and dare flex their military muscle abroad as part of larger imperialist coalitions.
Japan is the world’s third largest economy, but imperialist power Japan has only built up its offensive military capabilities in recent years. Admittedly, this has specific historical and political reasons related to the bombing of Hiroshima and the peace settlement in 1945. For now, Japan is forced to team up with the United States.
On the other hand, there are regional powers that arm themselves to the teeth by means of super profits in the form of ground rent and oil, but which have little industry of their own and relatively modest capital exports. The latter is due to underdeveloped productive forces and modest value processing of natural resources, dependence on foreign monopolies and technology, nepotism, corruption and feudal remnants, or to the fact that the country is simply so large that monopolies can reap an acceptable rate of profit in their own domestic market. In some of these regional powers, capitalist development has progressed to such an extent that they are attempting to break free of their semi-colonial status.
There are parallels between some of these countries and backward Russia under tsarism. But Tsarist Russia was also defined by Lenin as imperialist, albeit as imperialism’s weakest link. This weaker monopoly of finance capital was partly offset by the monopoly of military power, he explained in “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism” (1916). Today, the depiction is reinforced by the nuclear monopoly of Russia and the United States, besides a select few imperialist or regional powers.
Russia today is a far more advanced imperialist country than Tsarist Russia was, despite a generation of disintegration and stagnation following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
We emphasize this because of a tendency on the part of the left that has not yet settled into NATO’s lap, arguing “theoretically” that Russia is not imperialist. Rather, the country is a “semi-colonial second-class nation,” as Anders Carlsson writes in the Swedish newspaper Proletären (the Worker) in an article that several forces in Norway have embraced. The article is representative of an international trend among various “left” currents. Pål Steigan (former chairman of the Workers’ Communist Party, AKP (m-l), in the 1970s) is among those who convey these views.
Carlsson’s attempt at analysis contains many points, but nevertheless concludes incorrectly when, with reference to Lenin, he tries to claim that Russia is not imperialist in the economic sense, and consequently incapable of being an aggressive great power. This is an offshoot of the idea that, for the sake of peace, we need a “multipolar” world, in which other great powers contain US hegemony and its project for full spectrum dominance. The only other great powers capable of constituting a credible “counterweight” to the United States are Russia and China in collaboration with one another.
This idea of a multipolar world is akin to Karl Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism,” in which the imperialist great powers agree to keep the peace among themselves and allow the world’s united finance capital to exploit the whole world in collusion and tolerance. In order not to be lumped in with Kautsky, the opportunists of today must try to prove that certain great powers are not imperialist, and can therefore choose to adopt a different and more “rational” policy.
The revisionists of our time are therefore obliged to paint Russia and China as “non-imperialist” great powers. The message is that these powers are trying to keep US imperialism in check, and therefore in a sense they are our friends! The conclusion is absurd, but it nevertheless resonates among some anti-imperialists.
People who call themselves Marxists and Leninists should know that it is not other great powers, but only the working class and the oppressed peoples of the world that can and must crush US and all other imperialist powers.
Capital exports in many forms
Russia’s foreign investment and economic power is downplayed by the fact that it is largely an exporter of low-processed natural resources. However, the fact that Norway is predominantly a commodity exporter of natural resources like oil, gas and fish does not prevent Norway from also exporting extensive capital through the Government Pension Fund Global and state-owned monopolies such as Telenor, Equinor or Statkraft, and without question it is an imperialist country. Like Russia, Norway too – but on a much smaller scale – has developed a high-tech industrial sector for weapons production, drilling technology and space exploration.
The transition of the capitalist free trade system into monopoly capitalism was what Lenin defined as imperialism, or the highest (and final) stage of capitalism. Central characteristics of imperialism are, according to Lenin, the merger of industrial capital and bank capital into finance capital, and the fact that the export of capital becomes more important than the export of commodities.
The net figure for Russia’s direct foreign investment in 2021 was about $66 billion, according to the World Bank. This is no insignificant amount, albeit small compared to the investments made by the United States and Germany. In 2013, Russian foreign investment contributed 23.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to some sources. Before the Maidan uprising, the lion’s share of Russia’s foreign investment was concentrated in Ukraine. Russian enterprises controlled 80 percent of the petroleum sector and the military-industrial complex. For Russian imperialism, it is unbearable to live with the fact that the Zelensky regime, on behalf of US imperialism, has confiscated it all for the benefit of the EU and NATO.
Capital exports in the form of imports of labor force are an obvious example of imperialism. Several million migrant workers from the Caucasus and the Central Asian republics work in the Russian construction and service sectors. Foreign workers send part of their wages to their homeland, while other parts accrue to the imperialist host country. In 2013 these revenues were about $37 billion, more than what migrant workers in Saudi Arabia or Germany “leave behind,” Georgian communists write.
The figures hardly give the whole picture. The assets that various Russian oligarchs have plundered after the collapse of the Soviet Union have largely been placed in various tax havens such as Jersey, the Virgin Islands and Cyprus, but also in the property markets of major cities such as New York and London.
Personal union and other characteristics
The personal union between centrally placed people in banking, industry and the state apparatus is a typical feature of monopoly capitalism. In Norway, the revolving doors between government offices, banking palaces and industrial corporations, typically represented by the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprises, can be seen by anyone. Top politicians and judges take part in smear trips paid for by top financial officials, such as when the current head of the Government Pension Fund Global invited key personalities in the Norwegian elite to a dream seminar in the US in 2019. What is different about Russia is that the nepotism there is even more evident and the “lubrication” trips have other destinations. Like Norway, Russia has a large state capitalist sector and state-controlled monopolies.
Relative to other great powers, Russian imperialism lags behind economically in spite of formidable oil and gas revenues. Russian companies and banks are far down the lists of the world’s largest. The gas company Gazprom stands out, with more employees worldwide than any other company, 470,000. Rosneft and Lukoil are not far behind. All of these companies, often with mutual ownership of each other, have close ties to the Russian state apparatus. Gazprom is semi-privatized, much like Norwegian Equinor.
Sanctions from the West and the war in Ukraine have naturally changed the picture when it comes to Russian capital investment overseas. But until very recently, Russian oil and gas companies had significant investments and stakes in real estate and energy projects in countries such as the UK, Italy and Germany.
Internationally, Russian financial institutions play in the second league, and are now largely blocked from conducting normal business in Western countries. Nevertheless, the Russian Sberbank has acquired significant shareholdings in Turkish as well as Serbian banks.
The arms industry and space technology are other fields where Russia is flexing its muscles. Russian companies in these fields have invested in large production facilities in India and Turkey.
A country that employs regular mercenary armies in wars of conquest is also a hallmark of imperialists. The Wagner Group operates in Ukraine and in many countries of Africa in the service of the Russian state and private interests. It is completely parallel to the mercenary army Blackwater (now renamed Constellis, after several mergers and name changes) that the United States used in Iraq. Wagner and Blackwater were established by former officers of the Russian and US armies, respectively.
These brief examples should be sufficient to show that Russia meets all the criteria for an imperialist state, even disregarding its nuclear arsenal and formidable arms power.
A multipolar imperialist world
Attempts at describing Russia or China as something different from other imperialist countries means to apologize and justify imperialism as a system. The propaganda of Moscow and Beijing would have us believe that these “defensive” great powers merely keep the aggressive United States at bay and will provide us a peaceful and better world. They do not refrain from spicing up the message with parallels to the Red Army’s struggle against Nazism or with Chinese “socialism.”
This is anti-Marxist nonsense. The reasoning is not unlike the theory of the “three worlds,” which advocated that the oppressed countries had to ally themselves with the medium-sized imperialists against the two superpowers at that time, the United States and the Soviet Union.
The U.S. empire is on the wane. Other imperialists and regional powers, primarily China, but also Russia, want an end to the unjust Western world order. During the press conference on the occasion of president Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow on March 21 this year, he and Vladimir Putin stressed that China and Russia would “work together to create a more just and multipolar world order.” But this is not about them wanting to get rid of an unjust imperialist system that enslaves the peoples of the world. The close relationship between Russia and China “is vital to the modern world order,” as President Xi put it. Multilateralism is about the fact that they want to be treated as “equal” great powers in relation to their relative strength in the international arena. The two heads of state say between the lines that the policies of dictates and sanctions of the United States threaten global transportation routes and food security. This message is acknowledged by many African countries, but it has nothing to do with Russian and Chinese concern for global justice.
When China and Xi Jinping, with Russia and Putin in tow, want “a multipolar world,” it is a response and a challenge to a fading US world dominance. The multipolar world is nothing but the result of the uneven development of capitalism and a harbinger of new and even greater wars.
Contradictions between the imperialist powers are one of the fundamental contradictions of our epoch. A recurring mistake among progressives is to make this a principal contradiction, hoping to exploit the rivalry between the great powers by propping up the “lesser evil.” This implies elevating what might be necessary tactics in a given situation, during a revolution or a national liberation war, to strategy. Thus, one disregards or downplays the other equally important fundamental contradictions: the struggle between labor and capital; the struggle of the oppressed peoples against imperialism and the contradiction between capitalism and socialism.
Anyone who claims that US imperialism and Western world domination can be tamed by supporting one group of great powers against other great powers is in reality running the errand of imperialism. The ones who will defeat imperialism are none other than the world’s working class and the oppressed peoples.