Imperialism, Tsarist Russia & WWI

Understanding the ‘Weakest Link’

In the Transitional Program, which was written in 1938 for the founding of the Fourth International, Leon Trotsky made the following general observation about “combined and uneven” development in the imperialist epoch:

“Colonial and semi-colonial countries are backward countries by their very essence. But backward countries are part of a world dominated by imperialism. Their development, therefore, has a combined character: the most primitive economic forms are combined with the last word in capitalist technique and culture.”

As the imperialist epoch dawned a few decades earlier, it was not only backward countries but also some that leading Marxists characterized as imperialist that combined extreme backwardness and advanced capitalist structures. The outstanding example was Russia under the Romanoffs, which Trotsky compared with colonial China:

“In one sense Czarist Russia was also a colonial country, and this found its expression in the predominant role of foreign capital. But the Russian bourgeoisie enjoyed the benefits of an immeasurably greater independence from foreign imperialism than the Chinese bourgeoisie. Russia itself was an imperialist country.”
—Introduction to Harold R. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, 1938

In the second chapter of his magnificent History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky discussed the framework for Russian participation in the first inter-imperialist world war:

“India participated in the war both essentially and formally as a colony of England. The participation of China, though in a formal sense ‘voluntary,’ was in reality the interference of a slave in the fight of his masters. The participation of Russia falls somewhere halfway between the participation of France and that of China. Russia paid in this way for her right to be an ally of advanced countries, to import capital and pay interest on it – that is, essentially, for her right to be a privileged colony of her allies – but at the same time for her right to oppress and rob Turkey, Persia, Galicia, and in general the countries weaker and more backward than herself. The twofold imperialism of the Russian bourgeoisie had basically the character of an agency for other mightier world powers.”

Tsarist Russia was not only a “privileged colony” but also an imperial “ally of advanced countries” and, as such, licensed to rob weaker and more backward countries on her borders.

Tsarist Imperialism in Russia’s ‘Near Abroad’

Trotsky’s description of the “twofold imperialism of the Russian bourgeoisie” refers to its dual role as both the domestic comprador agency of its more powerful allies and also an imperialist oppressor in its own “near abroad.” In Socialism and War (1915), Lenin observed that while older-style “military and feudal imperialism” predominated in Russia, “capitalist imperialism of the latest type [i.e., finance capital] has fully revealed itself in the policy of tsarism towards Persia, Manchuria and Mongolia.”

In the last decades of the Romanoff dynasty, Russian capital flowed abroad, while simultaneously finance capital from France and other more advanced countries poured into Russia to construct factories, railroads and other components of a modern industrial economy. According to Professor Alexander S. Bulatov of Moscow’s Russian Foreign Trade Academy:

“Russian firms started to invest abroad in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Capital was exported primarily to China and Persia, as well as to Mongolia. During the period 1886-1914, Russian capital exports amounted to about 2.3 billion rubles (equivalent to $33 billion at 1996 prices).”
Transnational Corporations, vol. 7, no.1, April 1998

Russian outward investment, while substantial, was dwarfed by the inflow of capital, much of which took the form of state loans from imperialist financiers:

“Russia’s total state debt at the beginning of 1914 amounted to 9,888,310,000 rubles (or about $5,093,379,650 at the rate of $0.515 to the ruble, which prevailed at that time).
“Subsequently, Russia contracted various debts abroad for the conduct of the war, and these loans, together with internal bond issues, brought the state debt up to 32,300,000,000 rubles (about $16,634,500,000) on September 1, 1917, just before the Bolshevik revolution.”
Washington Post, October 30, 1921

In “War or Peace?”, a pithy article published in March 1917, Trotsky explained why the Russian bourgeoisie was engaged in the significant export of “finance capital” to Persia, Mongolia etc. at the same time that West European capital was developing Russian industry. He briefly recounted how the Russian bourgeoisie, after unsuccessfully opposing the autocracy’s disastrous military adventure in 1905, lost hope of seeing the sort of major political reforms that were necessary to make domestic investments attractive:

“In 1905, Milukov, the present militant Minister of Foreign Affairs, called the Russo-Japanese war an adventure and demanded its immediate cessation.… The strongest industrial organizations favored immediate peace in spite of unequaled disasters. Why was it so? Because they expected internal reforms. The establishment of a Constitutional system, a parliamentary control over the budget and the state finances, a better school system and, especially, an increase in the land possessions of the peasants, would, they hoped, increase the prosperity of the population and create a vast internal market for Russian industry.… It hoped, however, that abolition of feudal relations in the village would create a more powerful market than the annexation of Manchuria or Korea.”

When it became clear that “Neither the Tsar, nor the nobility, nor the bureaucracy were willing to yield any of their prerogatives,” Russia’s capitalists turned outward:

“The capitalist classes, reconciled with the régime of June 3rd [1907 – the date of a coup which ended any possibility of significant reform through parliamentary channels], turned their attention to the usurpation of foreign markets. A new era of Russian imperialism ensues, an imperialism accompanied by a disorderly financial and military system and by insatiable appetites.”

The Russian bourgeoisie was not impelled on its imperialist course because it had reached the monopolistic “highest stage of capitalism,” but rather because it was so severely stunted by Tsarist autocratic rule that it was incapable of following the revolutionary example of the French bourgeoisie of the 18th century. The considerable sums of Russian capital invested in backward countries in the “near abroad,” and the substantial profits derived from them, gave the bourgeoisie a material stake in continuing participation in the predatory inter-imperialist war:

“[P]ure imperialism is written on the banner of the [bourgeois] Provisional Government. ‘The government of the Tzar is gone,’ the Milukovs and Gutchkovs say to the people, ‘now you must shed your blood for the common interests of the entire nation.’ Those interests the imperialists understand as the reincorporation of Poland, the conquest of Galicia, Constantinople, Armenia, Persia.”

Russia’s Participation in WWI

Writing only weeks after the Tsar’s abdication, Trotsky insightfully observed that the February Revolution marked a (short-lived) “transition from an imperialism of the dynasty and the nobility to an imperialism of a purely bourgeois character.” A decade and a half later he reiterated this analysis in his History of the Russian Revolution:

“Having already in 1905 broken its dubious ties with the revolution, liberalism at the beginning of the counter-revolutionary period had raised the banner of imperialism. One thing flowed from another: once it proved impossible to purge the country of the feudal rubbish in order to assure to the bourgeoisie a dominant position, it remained to form a union with the monarchy and the nobility in order to assure to capital the best position in the world market. If it is true that the world catastrophe was prepared in various quarters, so that it arrived to a certain degree unexpectedly even to its most responsible organisers, it is equally indubitable that Russian liberalism, as the inspirer of the foreign policy of the monarchy, did not occupy the last place in its preparation. The war of 1914 was quite rightly greeted by the leaders of the Russian bourgeoisie as their war.…
“Liberalism, having more than half lost faith in the victory, tried to employ the momentum of the war in order to carry out a purgation of the camarilla and compel the monarchy to a compromise.”

The territorial expansionist appetites of the Romanoffs throughout the 19th century were embraced by the Provisional Government, as were the secret treaties outlining territories the Kremlin was promised after the defeat of the Central Powers. Russia’s role in the global conflict (like that of Austro-Hungary and the even more decrepit Ottoman Empire) had a somewhat different character than the advanced imperialist powers:

“Russia’s participation in the war was self-contradictory both in motives and in aims. That bloody struggle was waged essentially for world domination. In this sense it was beyond Russia’s scope. The war aims of Russia herself (the Turkish Straits, Galicia, Armenia) were provincial in character, and to be decided only incidentally according to the degree in which they answered the interests of the principal contestants.
“At the same time Russia, as one of the great powers, could not help participating in the scramble of the advanced capitalist countries, just as in the preceding epoch she could not help introducing shops, factories, railroads, rapid-fire guns and airplanes. The not infrequent disputes among Russian historians of the newest school as to how far Russia was ripe for present-day imperialist policies often fall into mere scholasticism, because they look upon Russia in the international arena as isolated, as an independent factor, whereas she was but one link in a system.”

Russia’s role in the inter-imperialist conflict was “self-contradictory” because it was both a great power and a dependent “link” whose interests would only be realized to “the degree in which they answered the interests of the principal contestants.”

Lenin observed that: “In Japan and Russia the monopoly of military power, vast territories, or special facilities for robbing minority nationalities, China, etc., partly supplements, partly takes the place of, the monopoly of modern, up-to-date finance capital” (“Imperialism and the Split in Socialism,” October 1916). Russia participated as a more or less independent factor in the global conflict – its uneven economic development was the foundation of Lenin’s famous expression, “The imperialist front was broken at its weakest link, Czarist Russia”:

“This is Lenin’s splendid formula. Its meaning is that Russia was the most backward and economically weakest of all the imperialist states. That is precisely why her ruling classes were the first to collapse as they had loaded an unbearable burden on the insufficient productive forces of the country. Uneven, sporadic development thus compelled the proletariat of the most backward imperialist country to be the first to seize power.”
—Leon Trotsky, Third International After Lenin

Russia’s rapid (but narrowly based) industrial development in the prewar period had run up ruinous debts to its European allies, resulting in a relationship of dependence that turned the country’s ruling strata into an “agency” of foreign imperialism:

“[T]he Russian autocracy on the one hand, the Russian bourgeoisie on the other, contained features of compradorism, ever more and more clearly expressed. They lived and nourished themselves upon their connections with foreign imperialism, served it, and without their support could not have survived. To be sure, they did not survive in the long run even with its support. The semi-comprador Russian bourgeoisie had world-imperialistic interests in the same sense in which an agent working on percentages lives by the interests of his employer.”
The History of the Russian Revolution

Russia’s rulers entered World War I with hopes of seizing new territory and intensifying the exploitation of Persia, Manchuria, etc. But the antiquated Tsarist social order proved unable to withstand the strain of a protracted conflict, and the once fearsome Russian military was exposed as “a serious force only against semi-barbaric peoples, small neighbours and disintegrating states”:

“[O]n the European arena it could act only as part of a coalition; in the matter of defence it could fulfil its task only be the help of the vastness of spaces, the sparsity of population, and the impassability of the roads.… It is true that the tzar’s army was constructed and armed upon Western models; but this was more form than essence. There was no correspondence between the cultural level of the peasant-soldier and modern military technique. In the commanding staff, the ignorance, light-mindedness and thievery of the ruling classes found their expression. Industry and transport continually revealed their bankruptcy before the concentrated demands of wartime.”

Trotsky identified the root of the problem as the extreme backwardness of Russia’s bourgeoisie and its inability to effectively challenge the feudalist autocracy:

“In the matter of military supplies and finances, Russia at war suddenly finds herself in slavish dependence upon her allies. This is merely a military expression of her general dependence upon advanced capitalist countries, but help from the Allies does not save the situation. The lack of munitions, the small number of factories for their production, the sparseness of railroad lines for their transportation, soon translated the backwardness of Russia into the familiar language of defeat – which served to remind the Russian national liberals that their ancestors had not accomplished the bourgeois revolution and that the descendants, therefore, owed a debt to history.…”

The Allies’ desperate attempts to prop up the Tsarist military machine during the first three years of war tripled Russia’s debt. While massive foreign funding failed to qualitatively improve military capacity, it did produce a short-term bonanza for Russia’s capitalist elite:

“In the spring of 1915, while the weaponless soldiers were retreating along the whole front, it was decided in governmental circles, not without pressure from the Allies, to recruit the initiative of private industry for work in behalf of the army.…
“These broad political perspectives did not, however distract attention from the important problems of the day. Out of the Special Conference as out of a central reservoir tens of hundreds of millions, mounting up to billions, flowed down through distributing canals, abundantly irrigating the industries and incidentally nourishing numberless appetites. In the State Duma [Russia’s parliament] and in the press a few of the war profits for 1914 and 1915 were published. The Moscow textile company of the Riabushinskys showed a net profit of 75 per cent; the Tver Company, 111 per cent; the copperworks of Kolchugin netted over 12 million on a basic capital of 10 million. In this sector patriotic virtue was rewarded generously, and moreover immediately.
“Speculation of all kinds and gambling on the market went to the point of paroxysm. Enormous fortunes arose out of the bloody foam. The lack of bread and fuel in the capital did not prevent the court jeweller Faberget from boasting that he had never before done such a flourishing business.”

As the war progressed, the relationship of the Russian ruling elites to their imperial allies was transformed into one of “slavish dependence.” Trotsky speculated that, had the Tsarist regime survived the war, the enormous social and economic damage inflicted, and the vast debts incurred, would have significantly lowered Russia’s international status:

“In the world hierarchy of the powers, Russia occupied before the war a considerably higher position than China. What position she would have occupied after the war, if there had been no revolution, is a different question.”

Had Germany triumphed, Tsarist Russia could expect to be relegated to some sort of semi-colonial status. But, as Trotsky suggested, representatives of the Russian bourgeoisie visiting their allies during the conflict should have seen that the Kaiser’s defeat would likely have a similar result:

“The Duma delegation, making friendly visits to the French and English, could easily convince itself in Paris and London that the dear Allies intended in the course of the war to squeeze all the live juice out of Russia, in order after the victory to make this backward country their chief field of economic exploitation. A defeated Russia in tow to a victorious Entente would have meant a colonial Russia.”

Breaking the Imperialist Chain at its ‘Weakest Link’

As the war dragged on into 1917, the contradictions of the Tsarist social structure exploded in the February Revolution. Russia’s transition to “imperialism of a purely bourgeois character” offered only more misery for the masses, whose growing radicalization took place in the context of a situation of “dual power.” Grassroots councils (“soviets”) emerged in the working class and peasantry (including in the armed forces), quickly taking on some of the functions of a proto-state alongside the bourgeois Provisional Government – though the reformist leaders of the soviets supported the Provisional Government and opposed the idea of expanding the political power of the new institutions.

In the months that followed the toppling of the Tsar, the revolutionary wing of the Russian workers’ movement – centered on the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin and joined shortly by Trotsky – grew in influence within the proletariat. By July, the situation had begun to ripen for the seizure of power by the workers in the major urban centers, but the Bolsheviks needed to gain more support among the country’s vast poor peasantry. In alliance with a left split from the peasant-based Social Revolutionaries, and coordinating with anarchists, the Bolsheviks, who had won a majority in the soviets, led a bold seizure of power in October 1917, in the world’s first successful proletarian-socialist revolution. The social antagonisms generated by the system had broken the imperialist chain at its “weakest link.”