By Dale Street (first published by Workers Liberty)
Sam Williams has written 16,000 words to claim that Russia is not imperialist, even when its tanks are rolling through other nations.
He describes the old Stalinist states “the former socialist countries of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.” In those days there was “no true Soviet imperialism”, claims Williams, because “wealth was not accumulated in the form of capital, and therefore not in the form of finance capital — there was not a single kopeck of finance capital.” Any other view is down to “imperialist Western propaganda and its bought and paid-for historians.”
And Russia retains its non-imperialism even after it has unambiguously reverted to capitalism. “Has the military-feudal imperialism of pre-1917 Russia been restored?” asks Williams. No, it’s not feudal. (But it was not the feudal residues in Tsarist Russia which made Marxists of the time classify it as imperialist. It was its domination and exploitation of other nations).
“What about a modernised Russian imperialism based on the rule of monopoly capitalism and finance capital?” He rejects this argument as well: Russia is “very poor in finance capital. … (Therefore) today’s Russia is very far indeed from becoming an imperialist country.”
This is really just a re-run of Williams’s denial of Stalinist imperialism. There was no finance capital in Stalin’s USSR, and therefore no Stalinist imperialism. Today’s Russia is “very poor” in finance capital, and therefore there is no Russian imperialism.
However, Williams’s equation of “imperialist” with “rich in finance capital” obliges him to classify Taiwan, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand as imperialist powers.
Conversely, a state which oppresses and loots other nations remains benignly non-imperialist, provided only that its financial sector lags. (Like Japan or Italy or Spain or even the USA in the era of “high” imperialism before World War 1). Whatever Russia does in Ukraine, it can’t be imperialist.
This pseudo-theoretical quackery serves as a licence for Williams to ignore Ukrainian reality.
The Maidan protests are dismissed by Williams as a homogenous right-wing reactionary mass. They had “a pro-imperialist, pro-Empire character from the beginning.” Participants in the protests had an outlook “similar to the mentality of the Tea Party in the USA.” The “leaders of the movement” were “Right Sector thugs.”
Williams omits any mention of the interventions into the Maidan protests by anarchists, the far left and women’s groups. Williams has read a translated article by Volodymyr Ischchenko — but that seems to be the sum total of his reading of left analyses of the Maidan.
Russia’s “annexation” of the Crimea (scare-quotes Williams’s) could not be imperialist. Russia, being poor in finance capital, simply cannot be imperialist.
The fact that a majority in the Crimea voted in favour of being part of an independent Ukraine at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. The fact that Russian troops seized airfields and other military installations in March. The fact that Russian ships blockaded the Ukrainian navy. The fact that the “referendum” merely rubber-stamped a fait accompli by the Russian state – all these facts are ignored by Williams. Instead, just as he blames German imperialism for Stalin’s mass deportations, so too he blames the Kiev government for Putin’s annexation of Crimea:
“When the Ukrainian far right wing came to power and Kiev made clear its plan to turn the Russian-speaking people in Ukraine into a persecuted minority and scapegoat, the Putin government felt it had no alternative but to allow the predominately Russian-speaking Crimea to join the Russian Federation.”
On May’s presidential election in Ukraine, Williams writes: “It seems that all anti-Maidan candidates were effectively banned”. They were all banned — apart from Petro Symonenko, Mykhailo Dobkin, Serhiy Tihipko, Renat Kuzmin and Oleg Tsaryev. Tsaryev stood down of his own accord, but no anti-Maidan candidates were banned, “effectively” or otherwise.
“No vote was held in regions where anti-Maidan sentiment is strongest, such as Donetsk”, continues Williams, “there was a very low vote in the Donbass as a whole. This was anything but a free election.”
But the limitations on the freedom of those elections, and “the very low vote in the Donbass as a whole”, were both the product of the same phenomenon: the threat of violence (and actual violence) from Russian separatists made it physically dangerous or impossible to staff polling stations; voting papers were confiscated.
Williams notes that the far-right candidates of Svoboda and the Right sector each scored only around 1%. But that does not lead him to question the Russian separatists’ incessant description of the Kiev government and President as a “Nazi junta” which is currently committing “genocide” in the south-east of the country at the behest of “imperialism”.
“The US-EU-NATO imperialist empire is taking full advantage of the traditions of the Ukrainian ‘Whites’ during the civil war that followed the 1917 Revolution,” writes Williams.
In fact, Russian-separatist anti-Maidanists so admired by Williams stand in the tradition of the Whites.
Strelkov-Girkin, the separatists’ nominal military commander, is a self-proclaimed admirer of Denikin and the White Army. Borodai, “Prime Minister” of Donetsk, is a Russian nationalist and white-imperialist. Gubarev, “People’s Governor” of Donetsk, describes himself as “a Russian nationalist” involved in a battle for “the true Russian-Orthodox-Slav cause.”
The ideological patrons of the Russian-separatist movement are Alexander Prokhanov and Alexander Dugin: ultra-nationalists if not outright fascists, anti-semitic, and admirers of a fascistic strong state combined with an “ethno-social Cossack way of life.”
Prokhanov and Dugin are founding members of the Izborsky Club, an ultra-Russian-nationalist “think tank”. Last week a branch of the Club was set up in Donetsk — with Gubarev as its president.
“What many of the workers involved in the anti-Maidan movement really want is the restoration of the USSR. This is shown by the Soviet flags that compete with the tri-color flags of the bourgeois Russian Republic and the double eagles of the Russian nationalists.”
But it makes little or no sense to talk of an anti-Maidan “movement”. The Maidan protests brought tens and hundreds of thousands onto the streets. It was a genuine political movement. But in the south-east the protests have always been small, and firmly controlled by the separatist paramilitaries rather than having a political life of their own.
In reality, the anti-Maidan “movement” in the south-east is essentially a military organisation consisting of bodies of armed men, with a few self-proclaimed political leaders acting as their mouthpiece. They are fighting for the restoration of imperial Russia, not the restoration of the USSR, but.
That’s why the new political party launched by Gubarev is called: “Novorossiya”, after the old Tsarist-imperialist term for south and east Ukraine.
Contrary to Williams’s claim, waving old Soviet flags is not in “competition” with this political project. In fact, Stalinist rule is seen by Russian ultra-nationalists as a historical highpoint of Russian imperialist glory. And Stalin’s anti-semitism reinforces their sympathies for him.