Anti‑imperialism today and the war in Ukraine

The British SWP launched a full-scale critique of our position by targeting our comrade, Gilbert Achcar. What follows is a short statement from the Anti*Capitalist Resistance website editors and Gilbert's response.

The British SWP launched a full-scale critique of our position by targeting our comrade, Gilbert Achcar. The attack involved an article by Alex Callinicos, the SWP’s central leader, published in Socialist Worker and another one by Joseph Choonara posted on the ISJ websitebasically repeating Callinicos’s arguments. Gilbert responded to the latter and SW posted his response along with a reply by Alex Callinicos, both of which we posted here. The ISJ website also, published a translation of a critique of Gilbert’s position that was originally published on the French website ContreTemps. We are publishing here a translation of our comrade’s response (Gilbert had previously written six FAQs in English based on his response). This translation was done first by automatic means and then checked against the original. The editorial board@Anti*Capitalist Resistance. (edited on 04/04)

To my memorandum of only 930 words, Stathis Kouvélakis (SK) has published a “response” of 8,135 words – rather a criticism, since my text had nothing to do with his positions that I did not know, unless he wished to pose as a spokesperson for my neo-campist detractors. In his response, SK pushes against a lot of wide-open doors. The questioning of the decision to enlarge NATO is now expressed everywhere, including in the main bourgeois and imperialist media. It was really not worth devoting such a long communication to this topic if it was a question of “responding” to me, especially since SK knows well that I have denounced this decision and its disastrous consequences for a very long time, especially in my book The New Cold War: The world after Kosovo published in 2000 (I am preparing a second edition, greatly expanded), which he even quotes more than once.

SK ought to have realized that my “memorandum” was intended to urgently define a concise position on the issues most directly related to the Russian invasion, and not to summarize long-held positions. And if he had taken the trouble to listen to the interview I gave on March 2 to Julien Salingue for the NPA (New Anticapitalist Party in France), he would have realized that I am hardly the one who must be convinced of the need to demand the dissolution of NATO. That said, let’s still look at SK’s arguments. I will only comment on what I think is problematic in what he says, not the things I can only agree with – most of them that I have said many times. And I apologize for the length of this text, although it is less than half that of SK’s, but I had to quote entire passages of his “response”, as well as of my memorandum, in order to restore the arguments.

Let’s start with the background that SK sets before deploying his argument. He believes he detects a “North-South divide” in the fact – as he describes it – that

“in the countries of the global South, in Latin America, in Africa, in the Arab-Muslim world, in much of Asia, support for Russia, or at least a form of benevolence towards it, is much more widespread both in public opinion and in certain sectors of the left”, a trend that, he says,  “is also reflected in the positions of a significant number of governments, thirty-five of which abstained at the UN during the vote on the resolution condemning the Russian invasion – among them China, India, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.”

Let’s look at the facts first. In the part of the world from which I come, the Arabic-speaking space, the only “left” parties to have supported the Russian invasion are those linked to the bloodthirsty regime of Bashar al-Assad, under Russian protectorate. The two main communist parties in the region, those of Iraq and Sudan, unequivocally condemned the Russian invasion, while also denouncing (as it should be) the policy of US imperialism. In its statement, the Sudanese CP, after denouncing the conflicts between imperialist forces, “condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine and demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from this country while condemning the continuation by the US-led imperialist alliance of its policy of stirring up tensions and war, and threatening world peace and security”. The Sudanese Communists are well placed to know the truth of Russian imperialism, the only one of the great powers that openly supports the putschists in their country.

In the UN General Assembly vote on condemning the Russian invasion, thirty-five countries abstained, as SK says. And they are all located in the global South indeed, for the good reason that the countries of the Global North either voted for (all Western and allied countries) or against (Russia itself and Belarus). However, it does not take much insight to realize that among the 141 countries that voted for the resolution, there were far more than 35 countries from the same global South. Is it therefore a “North-South divide”, as SK claims, or a break between friends and/or clients of Western imperialism, on the one hand, and friends and/or clients of Russian imperialism, on the other? And since most of the latter are also friends and/or clients of Western imperialisms, they preferred to abstain rather than add their votes to those of the five states that voted against the resolution and which are, in addition to the two already noted, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea.

SK comments on “the ‘campist’ way in which Putin’s Russia, a secondary and regressive imperialist power, is perceived on the world stage”, to explain that “it is indeed this distorted perception, an effect derived from the overwhelming domination of the United States, which, by a kind of optical illusion, attributes to it some of the characteristics of the USSR of yesteryear” and which makes states “among the countries of the South that intend to play their own card (let us understand:  with a few exceptions, they are also capitalist countries such as China or India), perceive it with (more or less) benevolence, as a spoiler in the face of the US hyperpower”. (Note in passing that Russia has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, not the second largest as SK claims in his text. It even has, on its own, more nuclear warheads than the three NATO nuclear powers combined (the United States, France, and the United Kingdom).

We would be in an even more terrible world than it already is if “the countries of the South that intend to play their own card” were all to be of the same ilk as China – itself the subject of debate as to its imperialist nature, which shows how simplistic the North-South scheme is in politics – or as the India of the fascist Narendra Modi. But why would Modi’s India intend to “play its own card”, and not, for example, AMLO’s Mexico, the Taliban’s Afghanistan, Bolsonaro’s Brazil (yet Putin’s admirer), the generals’ Myanmar (covered by Beijing), or Duterte’s Philippines, all of which voted for the UN resolution? In reality, SK’s biased presentation of the facts only serves his overall approach to the subject, and reveals it.

I come to the “new cold war” which, according to my analysis of more than twenty years ago, began at the turn of the century, with the Kosovo war (1999) precipitating a situation that was in the making throughout the first post-Soviet decade. SK did not read well what I wrote in my memorandum:

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine is the second defining moment of the New Cold War in which the world has been plunged since the turn of the century as a result of the US decision to expand NATO. The first defining moment was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.”

This simply means that, in this new Cold War that began “at the turn of the century”, there have been two defining moments so far: the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and that of Ukraine today. I certainly didn’t change my mind about when it started, as SK may have believed.

The tone of his “response” rises as he continues. I wrote in my memorandum that after its crushing defeat in Iraq, “the propensity of US imperialism to invade other countries has been greatly reduced, as confirmed by the recent withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan”. And then I added:

“The fate of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will determine the propensity of all other countries for aggression. If it fails in turn, the effect on all global and regional powers will be one of powerful deterrence. If it succeeds, that is if Russia manages to “pacify” Ukraine under Russian boots, the effect will be a major slide of the global situation toward unrestrained law of the jungle, emboldening US imperialism itself and its allies to resume their own aggressive stances.”

“This reasoning is doubly unsustainable”, SK writes. “First of all”, he continues, “the parallel between the invasion of Ukraine and that of Iraq is largely misleading. Admittedly, in both cases, these are acts of aggression and violation of the sovereignty and integrity of a State. But the comparison stops here. Because Iraq is thousands of miles away from the United States and there was no question of it joining a military alliance hostile to Washington … Ukraine is currently supported militarily, economically and diplomatically at a very high level by the entire Western camp, led by the United States, while Iraq was supported by no one and the Taliban by Pakistan alone.”

Apart from the fact that I have already pointed out these differences, including on the very site to which SK contributes, how would Iraq’s distance and the fact that it was not supported by anyone make the fate of the Russian invasion of Ukraine not determine “the propensity of all other countries for aggression”? This is a mystery. SK continues:

“If, thanks to massive Western support, Ukraine wins militarily, which would be fair to the extent that it defends the integrity of its territory in the face of an invader, it is the entire Western bloc that will celebrate this victory as its own. And, thanks precisely to this victory, it will be able to erase the disastrous images of Kabul and Baghdad – which is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for the warmongering hysteria that is currently sweeping through Western capitals and media. By erasing his images of defeat, it will be emboldened to continue its march eastward and carry on imposing its law on a global level, even in less expensive forms than expeditions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In short, according to SK, a victory for Ukraine would be “just”, but disastrous in terms of its consequences. One wonders whether, by the same logic, justice should not be sacrificed to the supreme battle against the “Western bloc”, as some argue in neo-campist pseudo-left circles. For my part, I wrote that a Russian success – a hypothesis that remains the most likely in the immediate future, moreover – “would embolden US imperialism itself and its allies to continue their own aggressive behaviour”. SK returns the same term to me to say that a Russian failure would do the same. I disagree: the United States has already benefited enormously from Putin’s action. It should be warmly grateful to the Russian autocrat.

A successful Russian takeover of Ukraine would encourage the United States to return to the path of conquering the world by force in a context of exacerbation of the new colonial division of the world and worsening of global antagonisms, while a Russian failure – in addition to the US failures in Iraq and Afghanistan – would reinforce what is called in Washington the “Vietnam syndrome”. Moreover, it seems quite obvious to me that a Russian victory would considerably strengthen warmongering and the push towards increased military spending in NATO countries, while a Russian defeat would offer much better conditions for our battle for general disarmament and the dissolution of NATO.

SK’s following words do not fit well with the editorial note that serves as the preamble to his article and that claims not to compromise on “the respectful framework that is ours”. I quote:

“As a result… the ‘radical anti-imperialist position’ that GA defends amounts to pleading not for peace but for a military victory for Ukraine, which Western logistical support must make possible. This position assumes its warmongering, hence its claim of “radicalism”, which it adorns with an “anti-imperialist” dimension, since it is a question of defeating Russian imperialism – except that on this account it is Joe Biden who becomes the true champion of anti-imperialism.”

This stoops so low that it doesn’t deserve comment. Let’s continue reading:

“Ignoring the inter-imperialist character of the current conflict, this position misunderstands the consequences – however perfectly predictable – of a victory obtained under these conditions, namely a vassalized Ukraine, organically integrated into NATO, a Russia surrounded on all sides by a military alliance that treats it as a target, Atlanticism triumphing undivided over Europe and beyond.”

If Ukraine were to succeed in rejecting the Russian yoke, it would be vassalized, SK argues – this is more than likely, indeed. But what he fails to say is that, if it fails to do so, it will be enserfed to Russia. And you don’t have to be a qualified medievalist to know that the condition of vassal is incomparably preferable to that of serf! SK, despite his efforts, cannot hide that what he wants is somehow a draw, rather than a Russian defeat. He writes:

“This grim possibility does not make Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion any less legitimate, but it is important to be lucid about the implications of the current configuration and not to tell ourselves stories. The fundamental difficulty facing the anti-war left at the moment is that, as in any inter-imperialist conflict, the victory of one side or another has devastating consequences, the worst of which is undoubtedly a generalized conflagration in Europe.”

His problem is that it is illusory to wish for a draw in the event of an invasion of one country by another. A halt to fighting with the unconditional withdrawal of the invader to the pre-February 24 borders would be a victory for Ukraine. A cessation of fighting with the occupation of a large part of Ukrainian territory, if not the enserfment of all Ukraine, would be a victory for Russia. An outcome that falls in between would be a mixed success for Moscow.

Let us now turn to the question of arming the Ukrainian resistance. I wrote:

“We are in favour of the delivery of defensive weapons to the victims of aggression with no strings attached – in this case to the Ukrainian state fighting the Russian invasion of its territory. No responsible anti-imperialist did call for the USSR or China to enter the war in Vietnam against the US invasion, but all radical anti-imperialists were in favour of increased arms deliveries by Moscow and Beijing to the Vietnamese resistance. To give those who are fighting a just war the means to fight against a much more powerful aggressor is an elementary internationalist duty. Blank opposition to such deliveries is contradictory with basic solidarity with the victims.”

SK comments:

“This parallel with Vietnam appears, to say the least, in bad taste. Zelensky is certainly not the “Nazi” Putin is talking about, but he is not Ho Chi Minh either…. The Ukrainian government is a bourgeois government, serving the interests of a class of capitalist oligarchs, in every way comparable to that which dominates in Russia and the other republics of the former USSR, and which intends to anchor the country to the Western camp without worrying about the foreseeable consequences of such an option. While being the victim of an unacceptable aggression, it does not represent any broader progressive cause, and it would be completely aberrant for left forces worthy of the name to plead the cause of its armament.”

According to this logic, therefore, one can only support a people that resists against an overarmed imperialist invasion if its resistance is led by communists and not by a bourgeois government. This is a very old ultra-left position on the national question, which Lenin attacked in his time. A just struggle against national oppression, let alone foreign occupation, must be supported regardless of the nature of its leadership: if this fight is just, it implies that the population concerned actively participates in it and deserves support, regardless of the nature of its leadership.

It is certainly not the “capitalist oligarchs” who are mobilizing en masse with the Ukrainian armed forces in the form of an improvised national guard and new-style “pétroleuses” but the working people of Ukraine. And in their fight against Great Russian imperialism, led by an autocratic and oligarchic ultra-reactionary government presiding over the destinies of one of the most unequal countries on the planet, the Ukrainian people deserve our full support, which does not imply a lack of criticism of their government.

SK’s central problem is that he is wrong about what an inter-imperialist war is. If it were enough for it to be a war where each side is supported by an imperialist rival, then all the wars of our time would be inter-imperialist, since as a rule, it is enough for one of the rival imperialisms to support one side for the other to support the opposite side. An inter-imperialist war is not that. It is a direct war, and not one by proxy, between two powers, each of which seeks to invade the territorial and (neo)colonial domain of the other, as was very clearly the First World War. It is a “war of rapine” on both sides, as Lenin liked to call it.

To describe the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, in which the latter country has no ambition, let alone intention, of seizing Russian territory, and in which Russia has the stated intention of subjugating Ukraine and seizing much of its territory – to call this conflict inter-imperialist, rather than an imperialist war of invasion, is an extreme distortion of reality.

“Today”, SK adds, “given the nature of the forces involved, the delivery of weapons to Ukraine can have only one purpose, to ensure its future vassalisation and its transformation into a NATO outpost on Russia’s eastern flank.”

This is not true. The sole purpose of the supply of arms to Ukraine is to help it oppose its enserfment, even if, on the other hand, it wishes its vassalisation in the belief that it is the only guarantee of its freedom. We must, of course, also oppose its vassalisation, but for the time being, the most urgent need must be addressed.

SK continues his charge:

“If, in view of the incalculable risks it would entail, why should it be necessary, as GA argues, to oppose only ‘direct military intervention’ in this conflict and not any form of military intervention? Is the undeniable nuclear risk a sufficient reason to limit restraint to ‘direct intervention’?”

The answer is: yes, of course. This is certainly a sufficient condition , but it is not the only one: the most direct reason – the one which, unlike nuclear war, is not hypothetical (due to mutual deterrence), but certain – is that the direct entry into war of the other imperialist camp would transform the current conflict into a true inter-imperialist war, in the correct sense of the concept, a type of war to which we are categorically hostile.

“The line between direct and indirect intervention is less clear than some seem to think”, says SK. We can return the remark: this border is clearer than he thinks. This is why NATO members are unanimous (and not only Emmanuel Macron, whose wisdom SK praises) in declaring that they will not cross the red line of sending troops to fight the Russian armed forces on Ukrainian soil, or shooting down Russian planes in Ukrainian airspace – and this despite Volodymyr Zelensky’s exhortations. This is because they rightly fear a fatal spiral, sceptical, as they have become, about the rationality of Putin who did not hesitate to brandish the nuclear threat from the outset.

If the Ukrainians’ fight against the Russian invasion is right, as SK reluctantly admits, then it is quite right to help them defend themselves against an enemy far superior in numbers and armament. That is why we are without hesitation in favour of the delivery of defensive weapons to the Ukrainian resistance. What does this mean? Again, SK sees nothing but fire.

An example: we are certainly in favour of delivering anti-aircraft missiles, portable and otherwise, to the Ukrainian resistance. To oppose it would be to say that Ukrainians only have to choose between being massacred and seeing their cities destroyed by the Russian air force, without having the means they need to defend themselves, or fleeing their country. At the same time, however, we must not only oppose the irresponsible idea of imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine or part of its territory; we must also oppose the delivery of air fighters to Ukraine, as Joe Biden envisages. Fighters are not strictly defensive weaponry, and their supply to Ukraine would actually risk significantly aggravating Russian bombing.

In short, we are in favour of the supply to Ukraine of anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, as well as all the armaments indispensable for the defence of a territory. To deny Ukraine these deliveries is simply to be guilty of failure to assist a people in danger! We have called for the delivery of such defensive weapons to the Syrian opposition. The United States refused and even prevented its local allies from handing them over to the Syrians, in part because of the Israeli veto. We know what the consequences were.

Penultimate point: sanctions. I wrote:

Western powers have decided a whole set of new sanctions against the Russian state for its invasion of Ukraine. Some of these may indeed curtail the ability of Putin’s autocratic regime to fund its war machine, others may be harmful to the Russian population without much affecting the regime or its oligarchic cronies. Our opposition to the Russian aggression combined with our mistrust of Western imperialist governments means that we should neither support the latter’s sanctions, nor demand that they be lifted.”

Another way to translate this is to say that we are in favour of sanctions that affect Russia’s ability to wage war as well as its oligarchs, but not those that affect its population. The latter formulation is correct in principle, but it would then have to be translated concretely. However, we do not have the means to examine the impact of the full range of sanctions already imposed by the Western powers on Russia.

As for SK, he thinks that

“The task of the left is to denounce the political function of this device and to show that it is above all an instrument for suffocating a country disturbing the world order shaped by US and Western supremacy, an instrument that, basically, differs little from an act of war.”

It is again the mark of a lack of dialectical perception not to see that different sanctions can play different roles. Contrary to SK’s dogmatic positions, we define our positions in the light of “the concrete analysis of the concrete situation”, as a great critic of left-wing dogmatism so aptly put it. As for the characterization of Russian imperialism as “a country disturbing the world order shaped by US and Western supremacy”, it once again reveals the substance of SK’s thought.

At the end of the journey, SK points out a common ground: “We can, on the other hand, only agree with GA on the last point he mentions: the unconditional reception of Ukrainian refugees.” He hastens to add, however: “But it cannot be done without noting that the quasi-consensus that surrounds it is a blatant example of the double standards of the dominant cynical discourse.” In my very concise text, SK seems not to have realized that I did this indirectly by demanding ” that all borders be opened to the Ukrainian refugees, as they should be for all refugees fleeing war and persecution from whichever part of the world they come“. This goes without saying for us, as does hostility to NATO.

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Gilbert Achcar’s newest book is The New Cold War: The United States, Russia and Ukraine, from Kosovo to Ukraine (2023).

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