Against imperialism: the internationalism of the working class

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When Russian troops seized key buildings in the Crimea, John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, pronounced these weighty words of condemnation:

You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext.

Putin, meanwhile, taking out a loan from the Tony Blair word-bank, insists that the semi-invasion of Ukraine is a “humanitarian intervention”, and in any case, the forces who took over the Crimean parliament were just local “self-defence units” who bought their Russian uniforms in a second-hand store.

It is not hard to see the emptiness and hypocrisy of these mouthpieces of capital. Kerry’s statement was met with an on-line storm from the left, pointing out that trumping up pretexts and invading other countries has been the exact behaviour of the USA for the last two decades and more, with the 2003 invasion of Iraq with the excuse of looking for weapons of mass destruction as the high point of America’s “19th century” behaviour. As for Putin’s appeal to humanitarian motives, this is a further cause of hollow laughter around the world, not least in Grozny which was reduced to rubble in the 90s when the Russian military ruthlessly suppressed Chechnyan moves to break away from the Russian Federation.

19th century behaviour is a code for imperialism. In that period of capitalism’s history, the developed powers built up enormous empires by invading whole swathes of the surrounding pre-capitalist world in pursuit of markets, raw materials and cheap labour power. Most of these areas were ruled as colonies by the conquering powers, and the desperate push to grab, hold onto or divide up the last of these regions was a major factor in the First World War.

Rosa Luxemburg, who of all Marxists, in our view, had the clearest view of the origins and nature of imperialism, drew out the significance of this transition from “19th century imperialism” to the imperialism of the 20th century:

With the high development of the capitalist countries and their increasingly severe competition in acquiring non-capitalist areas, imperialism grows in lawlessness and violence, both in aggression against the non-capitalist world and in ever more serious conflicts among the competing capitalist countries. But the more violently, ruthlessly and thoroughly imperialism brings about the decline of non-capitalist civilisations, the more rapidly it cuts the very ground from under the feet of capitalist accumulation. Though imperialism is the historical method for prolonging the career of capitalism, it is also a sure means of bringing it to a swift conclusion. This is not to say that capitalist development must be actually driven to this extreme: the mere tendency towards imperialism of itself takes forms which make the final phase of capitalism a period of catastrophe”.

These words were written a year or two before the outbreak of the First World War. And we are still living in that “period of catastrophe”, marked by global economic crises, two world wars, murderous proxy wars (often fought in the name of decolonisation) during the Cold War period, the chaotic conflicts that have swept the globe since the collapse of the old bloc system.

In these conflicts, imperialism may have changed its form – holding onto colonies, as in the case of Britain and France for example, became a sign of imperial decline rather than strength, and the most powerful capitalist nation, the USA, supplanted the old empires using its immense economic resources to assert its domination of large areas of the planet. But even the US has been obliged again and again to back up its economic influence with military action up to and including the invasion of other countries from Korea to Grenada and from Vietnam to Iraq. As for its main rival during the Cold War, the USSR, which was far weaker economically, brutal military control was the only way of holding its bloc together, as we saw with the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And although the USSR is no more, Putin’s Russia relies no less on the military option to defend its national interests.

In short: imperialism, far from being a 19th century phenomenon, still rules the world. And as Luxemburg wrote from the prison which was her punishment for opposing the bloodbath of 1914,

Imperialism is not the creation of any one or any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an innately international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will.” (The Junius Pamphlet)

In other words: all nations are imperialist today, from the biggest to the smallest, all are pushed by the constricted conditions of capitalist accumulation to expand at the expense of their rivals, to use war, massacre and terrorism to defend their own economic and diplomatic interests. As for patriotism and nationalism it is nothing “but a cloak that covers imperialistic desires, a battle cry for imperialistic rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon fodder in imperialistic war.” (Junius Pamphlet)

Luxemburg, like Lenin, Trotsky, Pannekoek, Rosmer and others was an internationalist. She didn’t look at society from the standpoint of “my country”, but of “my class”, the working class, which is the only truly international class because it is exploited and attacked by capitalism in all countries. She knew that nationalism had always been a way of hiding the fundamental reality that capitalist society is divided into classes – one which owns the national economy and controls the nation state, and the other which owns nothing but its capacity to work. In the past, when capitalism was a step forward from the old feudal society, the ideal of national liberation could serve the needs of a progressive bourgeois revolution, but in the period of capitalism’s decline, nothing positive remains of nationalism except to drag the exploited off to war in the service of their exploiters.

This is why internationalists, in 1914, stood for the continuation and deepening of the class struggle against their own ruling class; for solidarity with workers in other countries fighting their own rulers; for the eventual unification of the world’ workers in a revolution against capitalist rule everywhere. This is why they took up the same position in relation to the Second World War, the proxy wars between the USA and USSR, and this is why we take up the same position against all of today’s wars. We don’t side with ‘lesser evils’ against ‘enemy number one’, we don’t support ‘small nations’ against more powerful ones. Neither do we argue that there is a ‘nationalism of the oppressed’ which is morally superior to the ‘nationalism of the oppressor’. All forms of nationalism today are equally reactionary and equally murderous.

In today’s conflict in the Ukraine, we don’t support the ‘sovereignty’ of Ukraine, backed up by the imperialism of the US, nor do we support Russian militarism which is pitted against US or European influence on their southern flank. We are not ‘neutrals’ or pacifists either. We are partisans of the class struggle in all countries, even when, as in Ukraine and Russia today, the class struggle is being drowned in the battle between competing factions of the ruling class.

Against the barricades of national flags dividing the workers of Ukraine and Russia, against the threat that patriotic intoxication will drag them towards a terrible slaughter, internationalists have no reason to deviate from the old watchwords of the workers’ movement: the working class has no fatherland! Workers of the world, unite!


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Ukraine, Russia