My October reads

23 Oct
this post also features on offguardian

Aptly enough – one hundred and two years to the month since those ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ – all three (four if you’re on the ball) of my read recommends today are about Russia. I chose them not because it’s October though. I chose them because one way or another Russia – ask Tulsi Gabbard – is very much in the news.

Other things have been happening of course. There’s always Brexit. There’s Ecuador. There’s Catalonia, on which subject In Defence of Marxism – with whom I don’t always see eye to eye – has been excellent. Try this, and then hop around that corner of the site pertaining to Spain.

And there’s the Middle East, on which a few days ago the always lucid Jonathan Cook gave a withering overview sparked by the nauseating Democrat responses to Trump’s make-it-up-as-you-go decision to pull out, allegedly, of Northeast Syria.

But see how sneakily I’m breaking the three-reads limit! The above links are all out of bounds, off-limits, verboten. Under no circumstances should you follow them, far less read the articles they point to! Got that? Good. Below are the four three official reads this month. As ever I chose them because I think they advance understanding, not because I necessarily share their writers’ worldviews. Still less because I endorse, always, the editorial positions of their platforms.

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One effect of Trump’s alleged intent to withdraw from Syria is that it raises the question: how will Russia manage the conflicting needs of Syria and Turkey when Damascus demands total sovereignty of its territory, Ankara a cordon sanitaire to cut off the YPG from an outlawed PKK?

The October 22 deal between Putin and Erdogan, with Assad’s “full support” says the Kremlin, is to be welcomed but does not alter the fact of Russia’s balancing act over Syria and Turkey. My first read recommend, then, is this brief analysis by Andrew Korybko in One World.

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My easy read this month is The Key to Understanding Vladimir Putin by John Evans, in the ‘Wild East’ nineties the U.S. Consul General in St. Petersburg. As I do Stephen Cohen, I find Mr Evans naive in believing US policy on Russia – from Clinton through Obama to Trump being put in his place – is just a misguided set of wrong turns which the more enlightened policy makers of future US administrations will put right.

Like many a well meaning soul, Evans does not “get” imperialism. But like Cohen he is honest and in the know. He had a ringside seat at Russia’s descent into gangsterism and, to cap it all, knew Putin at a time when no one could foresee how far the man from Leningrad would go.

Evans rightly decries the reductionism of mainstream media which would have us see so highly developed a nation, fast recovering from the Shock Doctrine chaos under Yeltsin, as one man’s fiefdom. But as Evans argues – while offering a fascinating glimpse into what makes Vlad tick – this one man has done much to earn our respect.

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My recent post on The Kurds in Syria prompted a below the line debate on OffGuardian. The context was a Leftist attack, one I’ve grown familiar with in recent years, on those like me who defend Damascus in the face of US might. In the course of flurried exchanges the nature of the Russian economy came up, my debating adversary offering this:

Is Russia imperialist? It isn’t only if it isn’t capitalist. Capitalism expands or it stagnates and withers. Imperialism is willy-nilly the result of capitalist expansion.

Which struck me as illogical, a perverse application of a truth we both agree on. Capital’s laws of motion do indeed propel it towards monopoly and ultimately imperialism. But to conclude from this that if a nation is capitalist then it is ipso facto imperialist seems doubly problematic.

First, it overlooks the contradiction – one of capitalism’s many – that not all capitalist nations can be imperialist. Just the most successful ones.

Second, to conflate today’s situation with tomorrow’s destiny is profoundly ahistoric and hence – I say this since we both look to Marx in our methods and categories – profoundly unmarxist.

I responded:

You say if Russia isn’t imperialist then it isn’t capitalist. Wrong … Of course Russia is capitalist – as is Bangladesh. Is that also imperialist? If so, words have lost their meaning. I agree of course that the vector of all capitals is toward monoply [sic] and imperialism – as you put it, ‘willy nilly the result of capitalist expansion’ – but not only does that vector mark the biggest of its many contradictions, it begs a more immediate question. If end and start points are the same – a kind of buddhist attitude to path and goal as one – why have separate terms? A caterpillar then is not to be distinguished from a butterfly, nor life from death.

More relevant here than reasoning, however, is my appeal to evidence. I followed with:

Logic and the meaning of words aside, serious empirical work needs to be done before we say Russia is imperialist. A good start was made by Renfrey Clarke and … Roger Annis.

I recommend that Clarke-Annis piece, an eight thousand worder, at every opportunity. It makes a fine antidote, given how enthusiastically the far left – with equally scant regard for empirical analysis – embraced the idea of Russia as imperialist. Given too how this unexamined notion has aided that same far left (with honourable exceptions) in as wrongheaded an assessment of the carnage in the Middle East as one could possibly make.

But more recent, and shorter, is my third read. Under the header, Is Russia imperialist?, author Stansfield Smith pays tribute to Clarke and Annis, and takes as its start point precisely what we might have expected SWP, Workers Power and other marx-leninist groups to have done.

In Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin writes:

without forgetting the conditional and relative value of all definitions in general, which can never embrace all the concatenations of a phenomenon in its full development, we must give a definition of imperialism that will include the following five of its basic features:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.

Smith uses Lenin’s five defining features as a template, against which available data on the Russian economy can be measured. You may say Lenin was wrong, or that his polemic – no one holds it up as a major work of theory – on the eve of WW1 is outdated. You may say that his five defining features no longer apply, that they’ve been overtaken by newer and better definitions.

I haven’t heard them but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Please let me know.

The fact remains, however, that the BTL exchange cited above was sparked by a piece on the Middle East, on which most of the West’s avowedly marx-leninist groups have chosen not to defend the Ba’athist states against imperialist onslaught. They may not have cheered on that onslaught, though some have come perilously close. But their “solution”, the slogan of “neither Washington nor Damascus but international solidarity with the Syrian working class”, is pulled like a rabbit from the magician’s hat.

Who on the Left could argue? International solidarity would be a fine thing indeed! It’s just that – like the police – it’s seldom there when you need it.

Hence this recommended read. For those wondering how the Left got it so badly wrong on the Middle East, Smith’s account, like that of Clarke and Annis, is an important piece of the puzzle.

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8 Replies to “My October reads

  1. “..Is Russia imperialist? It isn’t only if it isn’t capitalist. Capitalism expands or it stagnates and withers. Imperialism is willy-nilly the result of capitalist expansion.'”

    This springs from the notion that the Soviet Union was imperialist, because it was ‘state capitalist.’ So that the competition between the UK/US maritime empire and the Soviet Union was merely a clash between competing empires, of which the US/UK Empire was the lesser evil Which, of course, would justify lending it support in any headlong clash with the Soviet Union. A very convenient thesis for those lucky enough to be living in the Empire who are thus relieved of any responsibilities in the way of criticising the state’s foreign policy stance-except in general theoretical terms- while being exempted from suspicion, on the part of the ruling class, of being disloyal.

    The critical importance of discovering the USSR to be “state capitalist” is thus evident: whether or not it is useful as a tool to investigate soviet society is debatable but as a means of advancing careers in the public service, and in the Academy in particular, its importance was enormous.

    • True, bevin. But quite separate is the way today’s Left have unquestioningly applied the imperialist designator to post 1990 Russia. As it happens the two groups I cite fell both sides of the fence on Tony Cliff’s state capitalist thesis. SWP went along with it, Cliff being their boss so to speak. But Workers’ Power went with the USSR as a “degenerate workers state”, to be defended critically but unconditionally.

      Both, however, have the same appalling take on imperialist carnage in the Middle East.

  2. Many thanks for this article. I have a serious problem with the initial statement for more than just my understanding of the term “Imperialist”. We are all in each others pockets across the globe to some extent or another and trying to compete in a globalist market requires something more than unyielding political ideology. It doesn’t matter whether one starts from broad brush strokes or cherry picked examples, if you search hard enough, you can point the finger anywhere you like and still have more questions and discrepancies than can be explained away. I prefer my simplistic views wherein I judge what I see in terms of who benefits at the cost of whom. There is no doubt that both China and Russia compete for investment in other countries that is based on the Capitalist model, but the difference between the US/UK exploitative and treacherous betrayal of the poorest and the Chinese/Russian attempts at inclusion of the peoples and their country’s resources is diametrically opposites.

    • Hey Susan, great to hear from you. I’ve not heard from you on this site or OffG for a while, and was wondering how you are. Well, I hope?

      Re the points you make, I do recommend you read the Stansfield Smith piece. I know these kind of debates can seem sterile. Worse, they easily slide into male ego point scoring. All the same, humour me, will ya?

  3. “US policy on Russia – from Clinton through Obama to Trump being put in his place – is just a misguided set of wrong turns which the more enlightened policy makers of future US administrations will put right.”

    This “misguided set of wrong turns” seems to have been going on since records began while we still await “the more enlightened policy makers of future US administrations.”

    (And off topic, do you have any idea what’s going on with Off-Guardian? Their site has been inaccessible for quite a few days now. You don’t think they’ve been “Assanged”?)

    • Re your last question, George, yes I do think precisely that. It’s been down at least forty-eight hours to my knowledge. I’d email them but am guessing they have little time to stop and explain themselves.

      Re the naivity of people like Stephen Cohen and John Evans, it does not take away from the value of their insights, knowledge and observations. We just may view them in a different context is all.

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