Cooking the Books – Is Russia imperialist?

It certainly used to be. As the so-called USSR, Russia had an empire that included large parts of Europe and Central Asia. With its defeat in the Cold War, Russia lost not only its empire in Europe but, when the USSR self-destructed, its empire in Central Asia too. However, the fact that Russia no longer has an empire does not mean that it no longer harbours expansionist ambitions.

According to leaflets handed out by assorted ‘Tankies’, Maoists and Trotskyists in London on May Day, Russia is not an imperialist country. But that’s because they adhere to Lenin’s particular theory of imperialism.

In his 1920 Preface to the French and German editions of his 1917 pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin writes:

‘Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of “advanced” countries. And this “booty” is shared between two or three powerful world plunderers armed to the teeth (America, Great Britain, Japan)…’

His theory, one of the leaflets explained, treats

‘imperialism as a global phenomenon of the leading capitalist powers whose great financial houses, allied to their transnational corporations, seek to dominate, exploit, and rob the whole planet. The imperialist powers exploit not only their own working class but the working class in the semi colonies of the global south, bankrupting their industries and reducing their economies to suppliers of raw materials and primary products to the metropolitan markets. The booty thus won is used to buy off an aristocracy of labour via the trade union bureaucracy…’


‘Neither Russia nor China are imperialist powers, they are not integrated into the IMF and World Bank and cannot extract surplus value from the global south in that way, even if China in particular aspires to do so’ (Socialist Fight).

Another leaflet openly concedes that, nevertheless, Russia is capitalist:

‘Although Russia has been a capitalist state since 1991 it is not an imperialist power in its own right… Russia is not part of the “imperialist club” but a relatively backward, dependent capitalist economy.’

So, on this theory, the world is divided into ‘imperialist’ capitalist states, ‘non-imperialist’ capitalist states and the semi-colonial global South. The first make super-profits from exploiting the last while the non-imperialist capitalist states only make average profits because they are not in a position to exploit the global South, only their own working class.

Where this rather tortuous argumentation is leading to is a justification for supporting Russia in its current war with NATO and Ukraine. ‘Imperialist hands off Russia!’, ‘For the right of Russia to defend itself against imperialist encroachment!’, the leaflets proclaim.

Besides being a flagrant departure from the socialist position that there is nothing at stake in wars between capitalist states justifying the loss of a single drop of working class blood, this also has the perverse result of justifying supporting Germany in WW2 since it too was a capitalist state that did not then directly benefit from colonial plunder (even if it aspired to), was excluded from the international payments system (then based on gold), and was surrounded by hostile imperialist states.

Imperialism, in the sense of capitalist states struggling amongst each other to acquire, keep and control sources of raw materials, trade routes, investment outlets and markets with the strongest in military terms doing best, is not an entirely misleading concept, but it is a product of capitalism. It doesn’t make sense to divide capitalist states into ‘imperialist’ and ‘non-imperialist’ – and even less to take the side of the weaker against the strongest – as all of them are involved in the game.

Next article: Material World – Africa: from bread-lines to bread-basket? ⮞

2 Replies to “Cooking the Books – Is Russia imperialist?”

  1. Empires are a result of class rule. Class ruled States have been engaging the the subjegation of other class ruled States since those heady days when Sumerian kings ruled.

  2. My understanding is that since Russia emerged in 1991 when “communist” bureaucrats seized the opportunity to buy formerly Soviet industries, apparently without a whimper from the Russian working class, it morphed into a out-and-out capitalist state. But the imperialist motivations that existed under bureaucratic despotism were embraced by Russia’s transformed ruling class. With NATO’s encroachment on what had previously been a part of the USSR, the resources and raw materials of the Ukraine are now being contested by capitalist Russia in an irredentist furor. Correct me if I’m wrong.

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