In early October 2018 several members of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) submitted a statement announcing they were leaving the organization. The grouping, led by Tom Riley and including comrades from different sections and the international leadership, had until their departure been in the majority in the IBT in a long-standing dispute over whether Russia is now imperialist.
A substantial minority of the organization argued that Russia had developed into an imperialist power over a decade ago. Building on natural resources in oil and gas and what remained of the economic base inherited from the Soviet Union, Russia had come to project its economic might abroad to extract value from less powerful countries, using its military weight to secure spheres of influence for future enrichment. Although considerably more backward than the established major imperialist powers, Russia plays an increasing role in inter-imperialist competition, particularly demonstrated in recent conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. The then-majority (composed of the Riley faction and others) described Russia as a non-imperialist regional power of similar status to Brazil. It was this line that has been argued in our press in recent years (see “Middle East Chaos” and “Ukraine, Russia & the Struggle for Eurasia”).
With the departure of the Riley grouping, the previous minority view that Russia is imperialist now holds a clear majority in the IBT.
While we believe the Riley group are sincere in their view that capitalist Russia is a “great power” without being an imperialist country, there were at times hints that their refusal to recognize reality was rooted in a fear of being seen as insufficiently opposed to the world’s predominant imperialist power, the United States, and its allies. Of course, recognizing the existence of rival imperialists does not constitute a capitulation to one’s own imperialists. During World War I, Lenin embraced Karl Liebknecht’s maxim that “The Main Enemy is at Home!” – yet neither felt the need to deny the imperialist status of those countries at war with their imperialist rulers. German Trotskyists argued for dual defeatism during World War II without portraying the U.S., France or Britain as sub-imperialist competitors.
As we publish a correct characterization of Russia as imperialist, we in the IBT (which as yet has no Russian section) continue to view with greater revulsion the crimes of the bourgeoisies of the Western imperialist powers. We reject, in particular, the grotesque anti-Russia hysteria that has swept ruling circles in the U.S. and its allies – hysteria based on breathtakingly hypocritical (and unsubstantiated) claims of “meddling” in foreign elections. As Marxists, we seek to describe the real nature of Russia and of international conflicts only to further the cause of defeating imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, on a global scale.
We note that the more seasoned comrades who left the IBT have a history of difficulty in adjusting to major world changes. In 1991, when the defeat of the August coup by Stalinist hardliners signaled the end of the Soviet Union, it took some time and considerable effort to convince comrade Riley that it was necessary for revolutionaries to bloc militarily with the coupists in defense of the remains of the degenerated workers’ state. After intense and protracted internal debate, Riley eventually agreed on this position, which was definitive for the political viability of the IBT, its record of unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union and its appreciation of the momentous impact that the coup’s defeat had on the imperialist world order.
In the early stages of our recent debate, both sides made comparisons between contemporary and pre-revolutionary Russia. Riley’s group at first maintained that Russia under the Tsar was not imperialist because of its backward economic structure, despite clear indications from Lenin and Trotsky that revolutionaries considered it to be an imperialist power in the modern sense, albeit one that was subject to extreme combined and uneven development. The then minority was eventually able to persuade Riley and his co-thinkers that they were mistaken in their characterization, resulting in the publication of an article on the contradictions inherent in imperialist Tsarist Russia (see “Imperialism, Tsarist Russia & WWI”).
It was immediately clear that, despite nominally yielding on the characterization of Tsarist Russia as imperialist in the Leninist sense, the comrades had failed to make the necessary adjustments to their one-sided understanding of Lenin’s theory. While acknowledging that Tsarist Russia was imperialist does not necessarily imply that Russia today is imperialist, the arguments the comrades employed were identical to ones they had made to disqualify pre-1917 Russia as imperialist. Their various, shifting, claims boiled down to focusing on some economic metric (e.g., labor productivity, the number of internationally competitive consumer goods) on which Russia compares unfavorably to the most advanced imperialist powers. Russia’s vast economic wealth, its development of gigantic oligopolistic corporations fusing industrial and financial interests (“finance capital”), massive foreign investments in its neocolonial hinterland and beyond, its undeniably important and growing geostrategic power – all of this was dismissed with special pleading, e.g., Russia inherited its military apparatus from the Soviet Union, its economy tilts heavily toward natural resources, it does not charge top price for its oil in Central Asia, and so on and so forth. We had hoped that reality would eventually convince the comrades, but this was not to be.
Meanwhile, a second area of disagreement arose – a tactical question from the perspective of those who remain in the IBT, but which Riley viewed as a historic betrayal, tantamount to a rejection of Trotskyism. The dispute centered on the approach revolutionaries should take toward the attempted military coup against Erdogan in Turkey in July 2016 and the successful coup by the army against Morsi in Egypt in 2013. All those who view Russia as imperialist, plus a number who agreed with Riley on Russia, considered that in those particular circumstances, it was tactically advisable to form a temporary military bloc with the elected governments (despite their hostility to bourgeois democracy) against the imposition of naked military rule, while in no way implying any future support or suggesting that the Islamists were politically superior to their opponents. The Riley group drew false comparisons with the centrist and reformist left’s championing of Khomeini in Iran’s 1979 “Islamic Revolution” and saw our line as equivalent to abandoning the revolutionary Spartacist position of that era. We countered that a bloc with the Turkish and Egyptian governments against an attempted army takeover (i.e., temporarily aiming the guns in the same direction against the military dictators) had its historical analogue in the Kornilov Affair of August 1917, not in the Islamic Revolution of 1979. One of the leading comrades who signed the resignation letter (in which this supposed betrayal featured heavily) agreed with us at the time of the 2017 conference and voiced no objection until he signed the letter.
In both the Turkey and Russia debates, the method of argumentation employed by the Riley faction conformed to a familiar pattern: attempt to overwhelm your opponents with a mass of empirical data, much of which is uncontroversial and capable of being fully assimilated into the perspective of your opponent, and then accuse your opponent of being “unserious,” “unable to respond” or even “bureaucratic”(!) when they refuse to be drawn into a line-by-line refutation. This method of argumentation reflected a deeper methodological approach at odds with Marxism: an empiricist, static view of the world that is blind to contradictions and moments of transition.
Bizarrely, the comrades presented their departure as “dissolving” the 1990 fusion between the Bolshevik Tendency (in North America) and the Permanent Revolution Group (in New Zealand) that formed the IBT. Although the leading comrades that remained from the time of the fusion were indeed on opposite sides of the Russia debate, they were naturally outnumbered by comrades recruited since that point who fell on both sides over the past decade. The political or organizational significance of claiming to undo a 28-year-old fusion is unclear. Do they repudiate any position taken by the IBT since the fusion? Without the fusion, it is likely that the North American BT would have remained neutral in the decisive showdown in the Soviet Union in 1991. Or do they want to claim that their departure, undertaken as a minority, somehow “dissolves” the IBT itself? Whatever the case, we have accepted their resignations with regret.
It is worth noting that the timing of this departure is also rather odd. The comrades had held a majority (in a bloc with others whom they did not consult before quitting) and the organization has not published any positions with which they disagree or committed any betrayals in their eyes. They acknowledge that the former minority comrades have loyally argued the line of the organization in public despite our disagreements. Recent developments inside the IBT, however, suggested that they might no longer be able to maintain their majority. Rather than stay and fight (as we did for many years as loyal partisans of Leninist democratic centralism), the comrades decided to walk.
Although these resignations have diminished our capacity for intervention in political struggles, we are relieved to be able to correct the group’s mistakes over the past period and to continue to defend the revolutionary heritage of the IBT and the tradition that preceded it. Our central task – building a viable international Trotskyist current that will play a central role in the rebirth of a mass communist movement – is in a very real sense harder, but we are now on a surer theoretical and programmatic footing. We move on. We go forward.
To clarify the impact that the recognition of Russia’s status has on our view of world politics, we publish below the minority document from our 2017 international conference, an amendment to the section of the Tasks and Perspectives document describing the international situation and growing inter-imperialist rivalries.
1. In the quarter century since the fall of the Soviet Union, the role of U.S. imperialism as the pre-eminent world power has declined significantly. Deindustrialization, the hypertrophy of fictitious capital, soaring public and private debt and the underlying downward trend in the profit rate have combined to erode the material foundations of the greatest empire in human history. As we noted in 2005:
“The U.S. remains far more powerful than its rivals, particularly in military terms, but its economic position is declining. This is reflected in a trade deficit currently running at $600 billion a year and the Bush administration’s reckless policy of spending some $400 billion a year more than it takes in. This points to serious trouble on the horizon, especially if the bid for direct control of the energy resources of the Middle East fails.”
—1917 No. 27
Indeed, the disastrous adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq accelerated the decline of the American Empire, creating new possibilities for global realignments, as we observed four years later:
“At this point no conceivable combination of powers can match the U.S. military, but as American economic/technological superiority erodes, Washington will also lose the ability to 'dictate the terms of regional or global security.’ The economic, military and political alignments at the apex of global capitalism will be reconfigured as the leading imperialist powers jockey for advantage.”
—1917 No. 31
2. Inter-imperialist rivalries, while always present, were relatively muted during the Cold War. With the “collapse of Communism,” the floodgates were opened. Yet no “flood” occurred. So dominant was U.S. imperialism, and so ensconced in the post-WWII “Washington Consensus” and its institutions were Washington’s rivals, that George H.W. Bush was able to project a “new world order” of unipolar American dominance. Now that the rot at the heart of American imperialism has truly begun to devour the U.S. from the inside, we are seeing clearer signs of a major resurgence in inter-imperialist rivalry. Tensions between America’s traditional imperialist competitors in Europe first spilled over into open defiance during the Iraq War. However, Germany and Japan have so far failed to fully rearm themselves, and the Western European imperialists are still entwined in NATO and an EU project shaped in part by American interests. With the slow implosion of the EU and its common currency in the context of the global economic crisis, West European imperialist powers will be looking either for a break from these structures or their radical transformation.
3. Within the EU, draconian austerity measures, mostly encouraged by German, French and British imperialism, have pushed broad layers of the working class into abject poverty. This has led to an increased polarization of the political spectrum across Europe. The reformists of Syriza in Greece, as we predicted, swiftly betrayed their proletarian base. In Britain, the stunning rise of Old Labourite Jeremy Corbyn indicates mass working-class dissatisfaction with decades of austerity. At the same time, there has been a significant expansion of fascist and far right populist parties across the continent with racist anti-immigrant and protectionist policies, including serious contenders for state power. The Brexit vote in Britain in June 2016 could serve as the first step in the collapse of the Brussels-based house of cards. Our position of taking neither side in a referendum defined by EU-admiring liberals and their nationalist Europhobic opponents – neither of which posed any opposition to austerity – is clearly vindicated.
4. China, which remains a deformed workers state (albeit one that has gone further down the road to capitalist restoration than previously imaginable), has emerged as a major player on the world stage. Beijing has taken enormous steps toward consolidating its economic and geopolitical influence via its plan for a “new silk road,” whose objective “is to massively increase the economic integration of Eurasia through the creation of new networks of roads, high-speed railways, energy pipelines and marine installations” (1917 No.37). China has demonstrated the benefits of a state-controlled economy in the face of the global economic crisis, which affected foreign direct investment and exports to the capitalist world. Its economic growth is slowing but is still ahead of the stuttering imperialist economies. U.S. and Japanese imperialism are particularly eager to thwart the growing influence of China and to confront it militarily, currently under the pretext of defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, i.e., blocking China’s access to raw materials and energy sources from Africa and the Middle East. Japan has been slowly rearming and proving itself a useful ally to the U.S. South Korea, another important U.S. ally in the region, has seen a severe political crisis around the corruption scandal of President Park.
5. The weakening of U.S. imperialism and the attendant disarray of the post-WWII imperialist network has also created more room for maneuver for regional powers like Brazil and India. These countries have been able to exert relatively more independence from the centers of finance capital, which nevertheless continue to subordinate their economies and relegate these states to a qualitatively lower standing in the global order.
6. Declining U.S. power also created the opening for the conversion of Russia into an imperialist competitor. Buoyed by rising oil prices in the 2000s, Russia’s capitalist oligarchy under Vladimir Putin’s regime consolidated a strong independent state and managed to stabilize Russian capitalism, which suffered from open plunder, disintegration and massive capital flight in the 1990s. Comparatively weak in technology outside of military industries, heavily reliant on natural resources and possessed of an underdeveloped banking sector, Russian capitalism nevertheless developed highly oligopolistic giant corporations, fusing industrial and financial activities, with innumerable connections to the state. These corporations, beginning in Russia’s neocolonial “near abroad,” have made enormous overseas investments. Moscow has projected Russian state power with considerable success, starting with its war with Georgia in 2008 and continuing ever since.
7. The spectacular re-emergence of Russia as a global power is both symptom and cause of the increasingly fractured system of inter-imperialist relations. Washington’s strategy - aimed at shoring up its sliding position - has been to encircle and contain its fledgling (and still economically weak) competitor, with provocation after provocation. Moscow has, by contrast, tried on multiple occasions to seek alliances with major imperialists as a junior player, only to be barred at the door. In this context, Russian imperialism has sought to turn setbacks into opportunities, and has performed remarkably well with a series of dramatic moves.
8. Western imperialist forces, still relatively cohered under U.S. leadership, failed to wrench all of Ukraine from Moscow, which has established control in Crimea and areas of the east of the country. Attempts to tie Ukraine to an exploitative reliance on the EU resulted in bloody civil war between pro-Western and pro-Russian forces in which we take no side.
9. Russia’s boldest move has been to insert itself in the Middle East in an attempt to secure existing military and economic interests and put an end to American dominance in the region. In the period since our last conference, Moscow’s deepening intervention in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime has put the U.S. on the back foot and threatened to diminish the influence of the traditionally dominant imperialist powers in the region. Syria has become ground zero for the inter-imperialist rivalry that is rapidly reshaping the global order. We took no side in the initial civil war between supporters of the regime and militant Islamist groups, and naturally do not take sides between the competing imperialist powers (primarily the U.S. and Russia). We support direct attacks by indigenous forces on any imperialist forces and the defense of civilian populations under attack, but in a very complex situation it is difficult to identify any force that is consistently opposing all imperialist intervention in the region.
10. The international situation is very fluid. A rapprochement between Russia and the U.S. under President Trump is not out of the question, and Washington may well decide that a deal with the Russians in Syria is its best option. Yet increased tension between the U.S. and Russia – up to and including military confrontation, which elements in the American “deep state” are angling for – also remains possible. German and French imperialism (especially in a post-Brexit EU) may surprise the world with a new alliance with Moscow. China is also a major factor in whatever new alignments emerge. Despite the fluidity, what does appear certain is that the contradictions of global capitalism – contradictions that run between and through the imperialist states – are likely to produce convulsive changes in the short and medium terms. Trade wars and shooting wars between imperialist powers are appearing ever more real possibilities in the coming period.
11. In this context, it is the duty of revolutionaries to advance the perspective of working-class independence from the bourgeoisie and to advocate defeatism toward all imperialist powers. As always, the main enemy is at home – but opposition to one’s own imperialist power cannot mean, and for Leninists never has meant, support to the great power rivals of one’s own imperialist power. Only proletarian socialist revolution can save humanity from the nightmare of capitalism and imperialist war.
Russian Imperialism and Other Disputes: A selection of internal documents