Imperialism & Energy Prices

Reply to the Bolshevik Tendency

14 February 2022

Dear comrades of the BT,

In your 6 February statement, “IBT identifies subsidies for neo-colonies as proof of ‘Russian imperialism’,” you report on an exchange between your supporter Alan Davis and me at our 30 January online forum on Ukraine. Five of your supporters spoke during the discussion round, offering a variety of reasons why you consider Russia not to be imperialist and attempting to paint our analysis as a poorly disguised means of blocking with our own imperialists. This was not only overkill but bizarre: our forum, entitled “NATO Imperialists Escalate Ukraine Crisis,” aimed its fire entirely at Western imperialist states (where we live), calling for labor strikes against American, British, etc. imperialism.

Alan’s contribution was to reiterate your absurd claim that Russia’s discounting natural gas prices to Ukraine and some other neocolonies in Moscow’s orbit (what you call “subsidizing” these countries) is somehow evidence of its non-imperialist status.

You seem to find it amusing that in response, I turned Alan’s argument around on him by suggesting that, while it is a known practice of imperialist powers to offer such discounts on various commodities for strategic or other reasons, it is hard to think of an example of a neocolony “routinely offer[ing] discounts on its main export commodity to poorer countries around the world.”

There may in fact be an example or two of this, but we were simply following Lenin, who noted that imperialist “monopoly” capital employs a variety of tactics to secure markets, including “systematic price cutting (to ruin ‘outside’ firms, i.e., those which refuse to submit to the monopolists. Millions are spent in order to sell goods for a certain time below their cost price; there were instances when the price of petrol was thus reduced from 40 to 22 marks, i.e., almost by half!)” (Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, chapter 1).

It is ironic that you accuse us of idealism when it is you who wish to ignore the material relationship Russian imperialism has established with its neocolonies through massive capital export. We have produced a detailed account of Russia’s transformation into an imperialist power, showing that:

In that article, “Imperialist Rivalries Escalate,” we note:

“Imperialist countries invest in neocolonies for a variety of reasons: to obtain natural resources and markets; to secure spheres of influence for geopolitical purposes; and to make super-profits by exploiting cheap labor. Russian investments are based on the same motives, though as a newcomer on the imperialist stage, strategic/geopolitical calculations are likely more prominent than they are for other imperialists—Russia appears to have a longer-term perspective aimed at securing further markets and spheres of influence. Moscow often brokers deals to cut the price of its energy commodities in exchange for domination of local markets and access to investment opportunities. Yet Russia, although its own labor costs are very low compared to other imperialist powers, still engages in ‘efficiency-seeking’ investment as well. While it invests in imperialist countries and in neocolonial countries where wages are higher (e.g., Poland), it also exports capital to several neocolonial countries where wages are lower than in Russia.”

At our Ukraine forum, it became obvious that your comrades either had not read our article or did not understand that it refutes your claims. Instead of dealing with our points, you ignore them and simply assert that Russia exports capital on the same level of Brazil or Iran, or is a petrostate like Saudi Arabia. You prefer to talk, not about Russia’s capital exports, but about its commodity exports. And even then you get it wrong.

At our meeting, Alan claimed that “until Ukraine recently chose to end direct natural gas imports from Russia a few years ago they were getting a subsidy on those gas imports which was greater than the FDI [foreign direct investment] from Russia that [IBT supporter] Jordan referred to in his presentation.” It is embarrassing that we need to explain to you that FDI is a measure of the capital invested, not the profits obtained from those investments.

What you call a “subsidy” refers simply to a price lower than that charged elsewhere. That lower price may or may not permit Russian capital to realize surplus value represented in that quantity of natural gas (neither you nor we are able to make that calculation)—but what should be obvious is that the discount was given in exchange for allowing Russia to use and invest in infrastructure to send commodities through Ukraine to full-price buyers in Western Europe. Alan’s contorted arithmetic is not only comparing apples and oranges—it slices up the apples and arbitrarily removes some of the pieces.

You claim to support “the old-fashioned Leninist view that imperialism, at its core, involves advanced capitalist countries extracting value from more backward, colonial and semi-colonial dependent ones, not subsidizing them.” Your belief that Russia is, on the whole, “subsidizing” rather than exploiting the weaker countries in its periphery not only flies in the face of empirical fact and the Leninist theory of imperialism, it defies a basic Marxist, materialist understanding of capitalism.

Whether imperialist or not, no capitalist country on Earth renounces the drive for exploitation in order to act as some sort of benevolent guardian angel for poor countries. Imperialist countries like Russia, because of the material relations they establish through finance capital export (among other mechanisms), are able to operate on a qualitatively higher level of predation.

Your assertion that Russia is not imperialist seems to originate from a subjective desire to appear as the most enthusiastic opponents of Western imperialism. In your zeal to prove this, you have resorted to some truly odd arguments over the years, but the notion that Russia is a force for good in the world is among the more bizarre.

Marxists living in Western imperialist countries need not relax their hatred of the “main enemy at home” to recognize that Russia is a (junior, relatively weak) member of the gang of thieves sitting atop the imperialist world order. Your derisive and smug polemics display a telling unfamiliarity with (and, ultimately, indifference toward) the basic facts. Arrogance and ignorance often go together. They are not, however, the traits of serious revolutionaries.

Yours for humility and truth,
Josh Decker
for the IBT

Related articles:
Imperialist Rivalries Escalate (1917 No.41)
Split from the IBT (1917 No.41)
Sectarian Slanders over Crimea (January 2021)