By Greg Godels
March 8, 2022
Everything happening today in Ukraine must be weighed on the scales of history, understood in terms of precedents that attach meaning and clarity to today’s events.
Over a hundred years ago, elites and their scribes in Europe were feverishly debating the meaning of an event in Sarajevo. As tensions mounted, they were to choose sides in a struggle between a small nation of Slavs raising their grievances against an aging, anachronistic empire in East-Central Europe. Four years later, twenty million had died, roughly half civilians, in a war that raged throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa.
In 1914, the questions of who caused the growing hostilities, who was at fault, who was evil, and who was good seemed burning questions. The web of alliances, the sensational press, the underlying economic interests, and the rabid nationalism of the time fueled a spiral of military mobilization, belligerence, and ultimatums that– once in motion– led inexorably to war of a scale never seen before.
In retrospect, the “burning questions” of 1914 were not the important, decisive questions at all.
For the millions of poor, working-class victims of the war, the only important question was what kind of a world allows a spark in Sarajevo to lead to the shameful slaughter of World War I.
Tragically, most had joined the march to war, including the large leftist political parties that presumed to represent the interests of working people.
Standing against the madness, against the war hysteria, were a motley group of rump socialists, pacifists, and revolutionary Marxists, principally V.I. Lenin. In 1915, they met in Zimmerwald, Switzerland to analyze the betrayal of internationalism by the left and to unify around an anti-war strategy.
Soon after the Zimmerwald conference, Lenin wrote Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, bringing clarity to both the era in which World War I occurred as well as an understanding of the ultimate causes of war in that era and ours, as well.
Lenin “proved that the war of 1914-18 was imperialistic (that is, an annexationist, predatory, plunderous war) on the part of both sides; it was a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies, ‘spheres of interest’ of finance capital, etc.” [Lenin’s Preface to the French and German Editions of Imperialism].
In our time, the demise of the Soviet Union, so-called “globalization,” a false perception of the decline of the nation-state, the “end of history,” and other real and imagined changes to global capitalism were thought by an immature or opportunistic Western left to signal the irrelevance of Lenin’s thinking.
But the nation-state has never been more relevant than today. Monopoly capitalism continues to dominate the global economy, expanding explosively in the crisis-ridden twenty-first century. Finance capital has never known both the decisive influence and share of profits that it does in the most advanced capitalist countries. And the division of the world “among great powers” is today sharper and more intense than at any time since the 1950s and the then large-scale people’s movement for liberation from classical colonialism. Lenin’s Imperialism could not be more fitting for understanding today’s world.
Consequently, “imperialistic wars,” as Lenin describes them, have been occurring more and more frequently since the demise of the Soviet Union.
As Lenin would no doubt affirm, the war in Ukraine launched by Russia is a continuation of the series of brazen “imperialistic” wars and wars by other means typical of the twenty-first century, from economic sanction-wars against Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, and other states and “hot” wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and others targeted by “the great powers.”
Ukraine is no different. The Russian government, with its own interests and twisted anti-Leninist and great-power nationalist ideology, initiated a brutal invasion, inflicting terrible costs on the working class of both Ukraine and Russia. This is an undeniable fact and despicable.
At the same time, Russia’s capitalist elites were responding to several decades of veritable siege by the US, NATO, and a tag-along EU. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the US, NATO and the most violently nationalistic, anti-Russian Eastern European EU states have encroached on the borders of Russia with missiles, troops, and provocations, baiting Russia into responding to their aggression. Note how the US administration ruled out direct military engagement early on in the crisis.
One cannot help but be reminded of US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s alleged “Afghan trap” when he supposedly baited the USSR into attempting to restore stability to the then Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in 1979, subsequently overseeing a massive arming of the mujahideen (including the Taliban) and a counter-revolutionary bloodbath.
The US similarly baited the Saddam Hussein Iraqi regime into invading Kuwait in 1991 when ambassador April Glaspie assured Saddam that the US “inspired by the friendship and not by confrontation, does not have an opinion” on the dispute.
Drawing adversaries into ill-advised action is an old trick of US foreign policy.
For the US, the most insistent “big power” pressing Russia, the stakes are (1) markets for the military industry: anti-tank weapons, air-defense weapons, F-35s (a particularly important boondoggle), and other advanced weaponry and (2) markets for the energy industry: particularly wresting the natural gas industry from Russia’s low-cost pipelines to higher-cost liquified natural gas imports, the products of the US fracking revolution.
Already, the US has won massive weapons purchases to replace the weapons donated to Ukraine by other ultra-nationalist Eastern European countries. Both Germany and France have committed to huge increases in their respective military budgets, which will further energize the US war industry (Finland is now pressing to join NATO).
Germany has committed to a new, costly LNG terminal to receive liquified natural gas in the future, turning away from the cheaper, more efficiently delivered gas available from Russia. The Western European allies of the US have been bullied or extorted into putting their own imperialist interests aside to comply with the war contrived by the US and NATO and prosecuted by Russia.
Like World War I, there are no good guys, only foolish, self-interested, agents of “great powers” and want-to-be powers. In a few words, the war is an imperialist war.
Like all imperialist wars, the great losers are the working classes of Ukraine and Russia, cut down in service to “annexationist, predatory, plunderous” aspirations of misleaders, as well as the tragic “collateral damage” of innocents, and the profound pain of displaced people.
Liberal and social democratic opinion in the US and Europe predictably jumped on the hate-Putin bandwagon with no context offered, joining the monopoly-media mainstream and promoting the US and NATO consensus. As events spin out of control, crude anti-Putinism cedes the issues to Western imperialism, including its new-found hope of deposing Putin. Like the 2014 coup in Ukraine engineered by the US State Department, regime change in Russia is NOT a democratic demand. Nor is joining the ultra-right “Glory to Ukraine” crowd a recipe for peace and de-escalation.
No better is the response of those on the left who– cognizant of the US meddling in Ukraine’s affairs and the US acquiescence to, even promotion of the rise in influence of ultra-nationalism and the Ukrainian ultra-right– seek to clothe Putin’s administration in social justice garments. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Russian foreign policy has vacillated between supplication to Western capitalism and belligerent reaction to the arrogant rebuffs. It is not an instrument of national liberation. Instead, it makes policy based only on self-interest.
Like the principled left that organized at Zimmerwald in 1915, we must avoid the temptation of taking sides and organize and agitate against imperialist war. It is the working class that stands to lose the most in this war and it is the working class that can stop it by unifying around the understanding that this war’s outcome cannot benefit the people, only the elites. It must stop now.
Belligerents should stand down and disarm. All foreign intervention must end. NATO must be dissolved. The people must be allowed to speak.