Neither 1914 nor 1940

Mike Macnair interrogates the bogus claims made by Paul Mason and Alex Callinicos about imperialism and the Ukraine war

Should we think of the war in Ukraine as an anti-fascist war and support the ‘Ukrainian resistance’? Or should we think of it as an inter-imperialist war, like 1914-18, and train our arguments (which are all we have to offer, given the weakness of the left) mainly on ‘our own side’: that is, Nato?

Paul Mason argues the first ‘anti-fascist’ position in ‘Learning to say “goodbye, Lenin”’ (February 20), which is a reply to the SWP’s International Socialist Tendency February 16 statement on the Ukraine crisis. Socialist Worker for February 21 carried a substantial reply to Mason by Alex Callinicos: ‘Ukraine and imperialism’.1 Subsequent Socialist Worker pieces follow the same line; in particular, Callinicos’s ‘Fight imperialism - the real cause of war’ (February 28) draws a direct parallel with Tony Cliff’s 1950 characterisation of the Korean war as an inter-imperialist war between the USA and USSR. And the March 1 ‘Five reasons why we oppose the war in the Ukraine’ characterises the Russia-Ukraine conflict as “imperialist”, merely because it is concerned with “competition between rival governments”.


Mason’s argument is merely a repetition of the ‘anti-fascism’ of the Eustonites and other ‘left’ supporters of the invasion of Iraq; with a colour of Marxism, using the claim that “the truth is always concrete” to accuse the IST of holding a merely “abstract” position, and of repeating the error of the Trotskyists in failing to take an anti-fascist pro-war position in 1939.

It is unsurprising that Mason, as an ex-Trot, has the ‘Marxisant’ skills to play this game. But it is symptomatic that, to make his case, he attributes to the Trotskyists as a whole in 1940 only the post facto position on the war of the Workers Power tendency he used to support: that of dual-defeatism; and not that of the other side in the debate in the 1940s, who adopted Trotsky’s 1940 position (after the fall of France) of the “proletarian military policy”, meaning a form of defencism. The debate split the Trotskyists, and thus weakened them; but it renders Mason’s use of Trotskyist defeatism as a dreadful object lesson of self-marginalising politics substantially less plausible.

In considering Mason’s argument, we should for the moment ignore altogether both 1914 and 1940. The question posed is what have been the results of US ‘humanitarian’ and ‘anti-fascist’ interventions in the recent past? The answer is, in fact, perfectly clear. Since it lost in Vietnam, the US has adopted a policy of exporting destruction, not attempting a constructive imperial policy. This began with US support to merely destructive guerrilla operations in Angola and Mozambique, and continued in US support for the Afghan mujahedin from the middle 1970s, intervention in Lebanon in 1982, Somalia in 1992-93, and so on and on, up to the present day, and including very recently Libya in 2015.

Even where opponents are actually defeated or actually surrender, what the US leaves behind is wreckage. Iraq, where the case for ‘anti-fascist support’ and ‘democratic reconstruction’ was made most loudly in the run-up to the war, is one of the worst examples. Leftists who supported or excused the invasion - including, for example, the ‘Alliance for Workers’ Liberalism’ - argued that the result could be something like the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II. Nineteen years later, the falsity of the argument is transparent.

Ukraine - and Russia - are in fact examples of the US export of destruction. In the 1970s-80s Washington and New York started a bait-and-switch fraud, through financial consortia funding significant industrial development in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland and Romania, when they took distance from the USSR. Intended to lead to war between Warsaw Pact countries, this fraud in fact led the Soviet leadership to surrender to the ‘west’ in 1989-91 in the hope of access to the joys of the international financial system. But what turned out to be on offer in the 1990s was, in fact, deindustrialisation and a massive drop in life expectancy. Indeed, credit facilities were not rolled over after the USSR fell, and the same wrecking operations as in Russia and Ukraine have been inflicted on the earlier suckers in Yugoslavia, Hungary and Romania (as also, it must also be said, on the Latin Americans who bought into the ‘free trade’ and financialisation scam in the 1970s).

So far I have said not a word about Lenin’s theory of imperialism, revolutionary defeatism or any of the other stuff the ex-Trot renegade and journo Mason wishes to damn as ‘re-enactorism’. I have made entirely empirical observations about the effects of US interventions since the 1970s. These empirical observations are, frankly, obvious. To use the argument for ‘anti-fascist solidarity’, Eustonite style, in relation to the Ukraine war, is at best gross self-deception, and more probably the standard dishonesty of those journos who every time around want us all to forget the actual actions of the US and its allies and their results, in order to celebrate the next war.

We will need to think a little bit about the history and theories of imperialism in order to explain why the USA has since the 1970s been exporting destruction, rather than creating the conditions for overseas investment as (to some extent) older empires did. But first it is necessary to turn to Callinicos’s use of Tony Cliff’s version of Lenin.


In his February 28 article, Callinicos argues, following Tony Cliff in 1950:

The cold war between the US and the USSR was thus an inter-imperialist conflict - a ‘struggle for the redivision of the globe’. This was similar to the disastrous contest between Germany and Britain in the first half of the 20th century.

Socialist Worker’s unsigned ‘Five reasons why we oppose the war in Ukraine’ says:

The Russian invasion is brutal and has to be opposed by everyone on the left. It would be a blow against imperialism if the Russians were defeated by the Ukrainian resistance. But there would be no war if it wasn’t for Nato and its expansion across eastern Europe over decades.

It’s impossible to explain why the war is happening without talking about Nato. It’s not just about who fired the first shot - but the process that led to war in the first place. And that’s all about the west and its own imperialist ambitions.

‘Imperialism’ here appears merely as motiveless political expansionism. Callinicos’s February 20 reply to Mason has a little more substance on the issue:

Lenin says that imperialism isn’t an archaic hangover or just big powers bullying weaker countries. It’s a global system of capitalist domination and rivalry, in which a handful of powerful capitalist states compete economically and geopolitically on a global scale ...

We can argue about how precisely to characterise imperialist powers. Tony Norfield gives a useful set of criteria based on relative economic weight, financial reach and military capabilities in his book The City (Verso, 2016). I would say there are about six imperialist powers on this basis - the US, China, Germany, Britain, France, and Russia, with a lot of smaller, but nasty, regional players.

Are you really saying the US isn’t an imperialist state - indeed the greatest in history? Have you forgotten the wars the administration of George W Bush started in the Greater Middle East, with the most disastrous consequences for the peoples of the region? ...

This remains substantially untheoretical. The US is to be taken as imperialist merely because of its wars in the Middle East. The account of what is ‘imperialist’ that Callinicos offers here is also merely empirical and about the power to project power.

It is a significant simplification of Norfield’s argument, which is substantially closer to Lenin’s original arguments - though, unlike Lenin, Norfield does not rely on Rudolf Hilferding’s problematic book Finance capital, but recognises that finance and industry are not only now, but always have been, necessarily linked.2 One of the consequences is that Norfield makes the point that monopolies and links to the state allow the imperialist centres to set the terms of trade. These points disappear in Callinicos’s version. Another consequence is that Norfield’s 2016 list of the most powerful states ranks Russia No12 - behind Switzerland, Spain and Canada, though (just) ahead of Belgium and Australia. His 2020 version ranks Russia 16th - now behind Australia, India and South Korea, though still ahead of Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Taiwan.3 Nowhere near Callinicos’s top six.

The reality is that Callinicos’s Cliffite commitments mean that he cannot offer the explanations of imperialism of either Lenin or Norfield (or any other Marxist author). To follow any of these would make nonsense of Cliff’s original 1950 claim that the cold war was an inter-imperialist conflict like the first half of the 20th century. This also unavoidably calls into question whether the third-rank power, Russia, is properly characterised as ‘imperialist’ in the sense traditionally used by Leninists.

In this context, Mason is paradoxically a better Leninist than Callinicos, since for Lenin it was the underlying struggle for global power between the Entente (Britain, France and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) which made 1914 an inter-imperialist war; and in polemics around the Easter Rising he explicitly denied the claim of Bukharin, Luxemburg and others that there could be no progressive national wars in the epoch of imperialism.

Mason is still wrong on the Ukraine war. Ukraine is a pawn the US has pushed forward, though the deployment of the far-right nationalists in 2014, to sacrifice it in the way Brzezinski sacrificed Afghanistan through the deployment of the Mujahedin. The US hopes by this sacrifice to begin the ‘endgame’ of Brzezinski’s Grand chessboard - regime change which would allow the liquidation of the Russian arms and aerospace industries, further partitioning and full semi-colonial status.4


Lenin’s account of imperialism was derived from those which developed within the Second International left - starting with Ernest Belfort Bax, and proceeding through Parvus to Hilferding.5 The broad line of reasoning was that general overproduction, within the framework of the restricted consumption of the working class, had been expected by the German Social Democratic Party leadership to result in a general breakdown/crisis of capitalism - Zusammenbruch or Kladderadatsch. But the dynamic of overproduction, according to the theory, drove also towards two other phenomena, which mitigated the tendency to Zusammenbruch: first, cartels and monopolisation as means of controlling overproduction, and protectionism to protect the monopolies; and second, overseas investment (especially in the high-capital-intensity sectors, like railways, particularly affected by overproduction).

These two phenomena together, along with the tight links between banks and industrial oligopolies (‘monopolies’) seen in Germany, Austria and the US around 1900, are taken (according to the theory) to have driven the scramble for colonial territories in the late 19th century and the efforts to dismember the Ottoman and Chinese empires in the same period. The colonial territories provided more protected space, behind which the cartels/monopolies could operate. This development was taken to force the need for competing alliance systems, which in turn led to 1914.

It was always problematic to explain how tsarist Russia could be characterised as “imperialist” within this framework, since, if anything, it was affected by underproduction rather than overproduction, even in high-capital-intensity sectors like railways. Nonetheless, tsarist Russia did combine some features of a colonial economy (dependence on primary agricultural and extractive activities; and on inward investment for industrial technology) with some features of an imperial economy (its own financial sector, and export of (second-tier) industrial production to its dependent territories).


Norfield’s more general theory of competition between monopolistic/oligopolistic capitals allied to states, which are thereby enabled to set the terms of trade in their own favour, works better for this case: Russia could be subordinated to Britain and France, yet superexploit its own colonial territories. The same was, in reality, true of Portugal - subordinated to Britain, yet also a colonial power. It can also successfully include the imperial operations of Venice and Genoa in the later Middle Ages, the Netherlands from the 17th century and Britain in the 18th - and so avoid the delusion that there was a period of ‘free trade’ capitalism, which gave way to a new imperialism.

We do, nonetheless, need a theory of capitalist imperialism, as opposed to the empires of antiquity (Babylonian, Assyrian, Persian, Roman, Chinese ...) and to both the ‘imperialism’ and the expansionism of the Middle Ages. Essentially, the point is that capitalist imperialism produces the economic subordination of the colonised economy to the metropolitan economy. The colonised economy becomes - as I have already indicated - dominated by low-value-added activities, especially agricultural and extractive. The imperial economy shifts towards high-value-added activities.

It is to secure this international division of labour that the colonised economy is held also in military subordination - whether by direct colonialism or by dependence on supplies of arms and military matériel from the imperial country, which can be cut off at will.

In contrast, the antique empires within their borders spread more or less uniform relations of production across their territories - strongly visible in the archaeology. Medieval ‘imperialism’ was merely a political ideology of the universal authority of the Holy Roman Empire in competition with the ‘papal monarchy’. Medieval expansionism - the German Drang nach Osten, the English expansion into Wales, Ireland and the Scottish lowlands, and so on - similarly produced a spread of ordinary feudal relations of production. It turned out the locals could copy the techniques, producing kingdoms like Poland and Scotland, capable of standing off the expansionists because they had become like them.

In this analysis, the idea that the old USSR was engaged in capitalist imperialism was plain nonsense. If anything, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA or ‘Comecon’) and Warsaw Pact produced a duplication of national heavy industry, arms industry, and so on in each ‘socialist country’ - which then fell to be demolished after the 1989-91 collapse, in the interest of creating dependency on ‘western’ arms supplies of the sort currently being drip-fed to Ukraine.

Is Russia today engaged in capitalist imperialism? The answer is contradictory. In the first place, the answer is a plain no. Callinicos wants to call only the ‘top six’ countries imperialist; it is then wholly artificial for him to include Russia among them. More fundamentally, the Russian economy is primarily agricultural and extractive, with significant secondary line in arms exports; and there is not - yet - a fully-autonomous banking sector. On the contrary, Russian ‘foreign direct investments’ consist of individual oligarchs pulling cash out of the Russian domestic economy and putting it into prestige objects like Chelsea FC or real estate. It is not investment of capital: that is, money put to work as investments, which return a profit through the application of capital and labour in combination. If the US wins this proxy war, Russia will more or less rapidly become a semi-colony.

On the other side, Russia might become capitalist-imperialist - if it devises financial mechanisms independent of Swift, etc, and wins this war. Japan in 1894 was not an imperialist power, but victory over China in the war of 1894-95 made it into one, with the annexation of Taiwan. The Russo-Japanese war of 1904 could have reduced Japan to the status of a semi-colony of Russia; Japanese victory produced, instead, annexation of Korea and clear Japanese entry into the ranks of the great powers. Going further back, but similarly, Germany in 1870 was not an imperialist power. Prussian victory over France in that year provided the conditions for both German unification and an imperialist expansion.


1870 is a better guide to our political tasks than either 1914 or 1940. As Mason asserts and Callinicos accepts, the workers’ movement cannot possibly use this war to challenge for power, as the 1912 Second International Congress at Basel urged and as Lenin and Zinoviev urged in 1914. We do not have a powerful mass movement, built up over decades, which could pose an international alternative.

Equally, however, this is not 1940. The Russian regime is authoritarian, but not fascist. There have not been mass arrests of oppositionists, as in spring 1933 in Germany, but merely harassment and repression of protests. There continue to be multi-party elections - violently skewed in favour of United Russia, true, but Republicans and Tories aspire to skew elections in the US and Britain in their favour too. Our own states increasingly demand police permission for demonstrations, and so on. Russia plays footsy with far-right nationalists - but so does the ‘west’ - and not only in Ukraine. To advocate a people’s front with ‘liberal’ imperialism - as Callinicos rightly says Mason does - for fear of Russian ‘fascism’, is to repeat the betrayals of the Eustonites and other ‘left’ backers of the invasion of Iraq.

In 1870 Germany was not yet an imperialist power. The war appeared to be a war launched by French emperor Louis Bonaparte (Napoleon III). French victory would have prevented German unification and secured the subordination of the Germanies as semi-colonies. The left had small and divided forces. But Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel - leaders of an organisation less than 10,000 strong who by chance held parliamentary seats - raised their voices against the Prussian regime and its war plans. Their principled commitment - ‘Not a penny, not a man for this system’ - allowed German social democracy to build a voice of unambiguous opposition to the regime under which they lived, which was able to grow on a mass scale because it offered a voice of unequivocal opposition.

Today, again, the left has small and divided forces. But we can raise our voices against our own state’s wars: and by doing so take a stand which in the long term can rally forces for unequivocal opposition to the warmongering imperialist regime under which we live.


  1. Mason: paulmasonnews.medium.com/learning-to-say-goodbye-lenin-f5f520f0aaef; Callinicos: socialistworker.co.uk/long-reads/ukraine-and-imperialism-alex-callinicos-replies-to-paul-mason.↩︎

  2. Michael Roberts’ blog review of Norfield, and Norfield’s comment in the discussion there, are usefully accessible: thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2016/02/24/british-imperialism-the-city-of-london-and-brexit.↩︎

  3. . economicsofimperialism.blogspot.com/2021/09/world-power.html.↩︎

  4. See, for example, ‘How Jimmy Carter and I started the Mujahideen’ (1998): www.outlookindia.com/website/story/how-jimmy-carter-and-i-started-the-mujahideen/213722.↩︎

  5. See RB Day and D Gaido Discovering imperialism: social democracy to World War I Leiden 2011, and my review ‘Imperialism before Lenin’ Weekly Worker March 8 2012: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/904/imperialism-before-lenin. Also J-U Guettel ‘The myth of the pro-colonialist SPD: German social democracy and imperialism before World War I’ Central European History Vol 45 (2012), pp452-84; B Lewis and M Zurowski (translator) Karl Kautsky on colonialism November 2013.↩︎