Imperialist Russia?

The Morning Star and Communist Review are locked into a debate on whether or not the Russian Federation should be characterised as an imperialist power. Mike Macnair investigates the protagonists and their arguments

The debate began some time ago when the Morning Star published on March 29 an unusually long (for that paper) 2,500‑word contribution from US blogger Zoltan Zigedy (aka Greg Godels) under the headline: “‘Is Russia an imperialist country?’ - that’s not the right question to ask”.

Zigedy argued that the starting point of analysis has to be Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism and the understanding that this pamphlet is not describing features of an individual country, but of the world capitalist order. Following on from this, the five features of imperialism that Lenin describes are not essential to a country being characterised as imperialist: tsarist Russia was underdeveloped as a capitalist country, but still a big imperialist player. As for the Ukraine war,

21st century imperialism shares more features with the imperialism of Lenin’s time than differences.

Imperialism constitutes a system of global competition for resources, markets and labour-power that pits capitalist countries against one another to establish spheres of interest and a better field of operation for its monopolies.

The struggle instigated by the US for dominance of Ukraine involves monopolies in the energy sector and the weapons industry, as well as an attempt to secure and expand existing spheres of interest.

While the US is the more powerful great power and the instigator, Russia is an aspiring great power drawn into invading a ‘transitional’ country - Ukraine.

‘Multipolarity’, Zigedy argues, is merely a new form of inter-imperialist rivalry.

Jenny Clegg responded to Zigedy’s arguments on April 19. She made her basic point the claim that:

Over the decades, in order to maintain unequal exchange, a system of rules, institutions and practices of investment and trade, centred on the US dollar and US financial institutions, has evolved. Under US monopoly power, both inter-imperialist rivalries as well as anti-imperialist resistance have been subdued with the subordination and incorporation of Europe and Japan and of many of the elites of the developing nations.

In her view, ‘multipolarity’ represents a real increase in the “anti-imperialist agency” of former ‘third world’ countries; in contrast, Zigedy, she says, “reduces imperialism to capitalism, such that the only forms of resistance are socialist”.

The debate has continued with letters from Will Podmore (July 8 and August 12), which I have not been able to access (for some reason the letters column either is not put online, or is not included in a standard Morning Star sub). Podmore comes from a Maoist background. He authored an admiring biography of Reg Birch, 1968-85 leader of the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), though his recent work visible online is mainly Brexiteering.

However, the CPB(ML) website displays no clear political positions on the Ukraine war, other than the (correct) call for British withdrawal from Nato; but the July-August issue of its magazine Workers carries an orthodox Leninist analysis of the run-up to World War I, from which we might infer that they see the Ukraine conflict as an inter-imperialist war between Russia and Nato.1 Podmore’s Morning Star letters, as (perhaps selectively) quoted by his critic, Nigel Green, argued (July 8) that no imperialism “is better than any other” and referred (August 12) to “imperialisms”. This seems to point to an analysis in terms of inter-imperialist war.

Nigel Green (August 18) responded to Will Podmore on this issue by arguing that “Imperialism, to Lenin, meant advanced capitalist states under the tutelage of monopoly finance capital, controlling large parts of the world and its resources. There is only one imperialist bloc today: it is led by the US/Nato …” and “Russia is not and never was an imperialist state using the Leninist definition and China is a peaceful socialist country, even if socialism is in the primary stage”.


Andrew Murray responded to Nigel Green on August 20. Murray argues that Green is wrong on Lenin:

Lenin said something different. He wrote that “in its essence imperialism is monopoly capitalism”. It was not necessary for a state to be “advanced” to be under monopoly control. That was the case in the tsarist empire of Lenin’s time - definitely backward and replete with feudal hangovers, but also definitely imperialist.

Capitalism in Russia had developed late and on a monopoly basis. To assert that “Russia is not and never was an imperialist state” to Lenin flies in the face of his writings.

He goes on to argue that today’s Russia is monopoly capitalist, “with a huge percentage of key industries and banking in the hands of a very few oligarchic groups”. And:

Russia is a monopoly capitalist regime with a leader who seeks to emulate Peter the Great and who denies the principle of self-determination. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might actually be a duck.

Murray rightly goes on to say that “in imperialist Britain it is absolutely right to prioritise challenging Nato and the US-British war alliance”. However, he argues that this “should not lead to the abandonment of Marxist analytical tools. In particular, the idea that there is and can be only one imperialist world bloc is an error owing more to Kautskyism than Marx or Lenin.”

This last point is a little odd. Marx said very little about imperialism (in his time the dominant use of the word was for the Bonapartist political trend in France, rather than for colonial empires), though he could be pretty scathing about the British in India. Kautsky in his infamous August 1914 article argued that the imperialists could settle their differences and form a global cartel, which would still be capitalist and exploitative, but without the threat of war. Recently the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has revived this idea in the form of the “international community” (in reality the US, its vassal-states and its international front organisations - United Nations, International Monetary Fund, etc) policing the world against “paleo-imperialists” like Iran and Iraq (I guess they would now make a similar analysis of Russia and China as ‘paleo-imperialist’).2

The more common form of argument for “only one imperialist world bloc” is based on an idea first argued by Nikolai Bukharin in his book Imperialism and world economy, contemporaneous with Lenin’s Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism. Bukharin argued that inter-imperialist competition would end with one imperialist state conquering the others and holding them in subordination; this would not be Kautsky’s ‘ultra-imperialism’, but ‘super-imperialism’. An analogous argument, more widely read, is made by Michael Hudson’s 1972 book Super imperialism: the origin and fundamentals of US world dominance.3

Two for summer

Meanwhile, the summer 2022 issue of Communist Review, the “theory and discussion journal” of the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, carries two articles, by Stewart McGill and Greg Godels (aka Zoltan Zigedy), on the issues of ‘Russian imperialism’ and inter-imperialist (or other) conflict.

Stewart McGill “attempts to look behind the rhetorical flourishes and examine whether Russia really is an imperialist power”. He draws on a 2017 article by Stansfield Smith in the US journal Monthly Review on Russia’s relative economic weight in the world economy, and adds some updating and discussion of Russia’s military capabilities (as of the outbreak of the Ukraine war) and its overseas involvements. The analysis rests on the “Marxist-Leninist” account, that is Lenin’s account:

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; and in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest imperialist powers has been completed.

He then turns to Kwame Nkrumah’s 1965 Neo-colonialism, the last stage of imperialism for the imperialist character of the ‘international institutions’ and a 2019 article by John Smith, author of Imperialism in the 21st century (2016) for the definition of imperialism as

The subjugation of the entire world to the interests of the capitalist ruling classes of a handful of oppressor nations … their appropriation of the lion’s share of the surplus value generated by the workers and farmers of the world, not just by those resident in their own countries.

On the basis of these accounts, McGill argues that Russia is not an imperialist country. It is more like - he quotes Stansfield Smith - “a semi-developed third world state”. It does not figure strongly in finance capital. Russia holds 0.97% of global foreign direct investment, and its overseas holdings are actually mainly capital flight.

Though Russia is a major arms producer and exporter, we are told that this if anything is damaging for Russia, given its weak underlying gross domestic product. I would take this last point with a considerable pinch of salt, given the large role of British arms manufacture and exports in the radical improvement in Britain’s international standing and the industrial revolution in the 18th century.4 Stansfield Smith’s argument adopted here by McGill rests on “capitalism in one country” assumptions - a point to which we will have to return.

Russia has a quite limited global role, McGill argues, and its interventions in Ukraine and in Georgia are essentially defensive responses to the aggressive expansion of Nato, which was a choice already made by US policymakers in 1991. Russia’s intervention in Syria in his view looks most like an imperialist operation, but has not been very successful.5

The June 6 article by Greg Godels (Zoltan Zigedy) argues against taking sides in the war.6 Russia’s “foreign policy is capitalist opportunism”. Further, contrary to Jenny Clegg’s arguments, Russian victory would not assist a trend towards ‘multipolarity’ or undermine unequal exchange between imperialist and colonial countries: the ‘unequal exchange’ theories of imperialism, Godels argues, is a misconception: uneven development is just that - unevenness - not a product of unequal exchange.

This line of argument again proceeds on the assumption of ‘capitalism in one country’ - inconsistently with his original March 29 claim that Lenin on imperialism describes a world order, not single countries. And it cannot explain the relative impoverishment of formerly wealthy countries under imperialism. More plausibly, Godels points out that there is no reason to expect ‘multipolarity’ to function as civilised competition; and “we should not presume that every opponent [of US power] will become a force for stability, justice and peace”.


Why are the Morning Star writers led to make a big deal regarding arguments for or against ‘Russian imperialism’ as analysis? The starting point for an answer is that ‘Russian imperialism’ is currently the central concept around which a new Atlanticist ‘left’ is congealing, with the Mandelite Fourth International and others joining with the Atlanticists for Workers’ Liberalism (AWL) to restore the politics of the ex-Trotskyist, Max Shachtman, in the period of his support for the 1961 ‘Bay of Pigs’ failed CIA operation against Cuba and for the US’s war in Vietnam.

In fact, the claim that Russia is an imperialist country or has invaded Ukraine for imperialist reasons need not lead to the western-loyalist conclusions of the new Atlanticist ‘left’. If the role of US imperialism and its European vassal-states in the events is acknowledged, Russia being imperialist would make the event - as Zigedy/Godels, Podmore and Murray in different ways argue - an inter-imperialist war for the redivision of the world. The claims of the new Atlanticist ‘left’ about Ukraine would then appear like Henry Hyndman and other Entente ‘social-imperialists’ in 1914-15 echoing Entente state propaganda about ‘bleeding Belgium’ and ‘plucky little Serbia’.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, as Stansfield Smith and Stewart McGill argue - and as I have myself argued before now in this paper7 - it looks very artificial to characterise Russia today as an imperialist contender analogous to Germany before 1914, or even to the tsarist empire at that time (which had expanded massively into Asia over the 18th-19th centuries and fought a war with Japan in 1904 (which it lost).

As I argued, Russia is not yet a capitalist-imperialist power which holds other territories in radical subordination for economic advantage. And if Russia loses this war, its arms, nuclear and aviation industries will be dismantled and it will become a semicolony of the USA: as we saw in the 1990s, vassal status with concessions of western European countries is not on offer to Russia. The Ottoman empire was once a great power; military defeats led to European colonial rule of most of its former territories. But, if Russia wins this war, in order to do so it will have to expand both its productive and its financial capacities, and thereby become an imperialist contender, as Germany did in 1870 or Japan in the 1890s. And conquered Ukraine would then become a semicolony of Russian imperialism. These points fit with Zigedy/Godels’ points, though not with Andrew Murray’s characterisation of Russia as presently imperialist on the basis merely of the existence of monopolies. We need to start with analysis of global capitalist dynamics in order to understand the role of individual countries.

Secondly, if we think in these terms, it is clear that to the extent to which there is, in the early 21st century world, a powerful dynamic of inter-imperialist rivalry driving towards a new 1914, this is between the USA and China, whose ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ is very unambiguously at the expense of US colonial exploitation.

The USA is still radically dominant, but somewhat relatively declining as an industrial power. China is still very much subordinate, but somewhat rising. The USA has adopted a policy of pre-emptive aggressive encirclement of China: and the present war is a US war of conquest against Russia, intended to use Ukrainian proxies to defeat the Russian armed forces and thereby force regime change in Russia, thus completing the encirclement of China.

But understanding this dynamic is radically inconsistent with the views argued by Jenny Clegg and Nigel Green, according to which China is a socialist country and ‘multipolarity’ is an option for what used to be called ‘peaceful coexistence’. It is easier for Morning Star authors to avoid tackling the relation of the Ukraine war to the ‘China question’!


  1. www.cpbml.org.uk/news/no-war-machine; www.cpbml.org.uk/news/inexorable-road-world-war-one. In November 2021 the CPB(ML) gave Podmore’s book Capability Britain a rave review: www.cpbml.org.uk/news/capability-britain.↩︎

  2. I have discussed this, with references, in my 2004 series on imperialism in Weekly Worker (July 29, August 5, August 12 2004) and my reply to some critics of these articles on September 23 2004.↩︎

  3. Bukharin: www.marxists.org/archive/bukharin/works/1917/imperial; Hudson: the current edition (2021) is the third.↩︎

  4. P Satia Empire of guns Duckworth 2018.↩︎

  5. Marc Vandepitte’s ‘War in Ukraine: the real reason Russia invaded’ adds nothing to the arguments of John Mearsheimer in The Economist March 19, on which he relies.↩︎

  6. mltoday.com/the-peace-question-and-imperialism. Godels more recently adds support to Andrew Murray’s view: mltoday.com/imperialism-revisited (August 29).↩︎

  7. ‘Neither 1914 nor 1940’, March 3; ‘Assessing Putin’s gamble’, April 21.↩︎