In the second part of our interview, Austrian Marxist Michael Pröbsting, author of The Great Robbery of the South and Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry, discusses his views on anti-imperialism in the 21st century with Green Left’s Federico Fuentes.
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Have any nation-states passed from being non-imperialist to imperialist? If so, how?
From a Marxist point of view, it is nonsense to deny the possibility that some non-imperialist states could become imperialist or that the reverse could also occur. Of course, each case has to be discussed concretely, but to deny such a possibility in principle is sheer dogmatism.
Russia, for example, was already an imperialist power before the October Revolution, as Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks pointed out. While its capitalist character disappeared after 1917, Stalinism soon reconstituted a tradition of Great Russian chauvinism.
While this did not make Russia capitalist or an imperialist power, it helped to conserve an ugly tradition that would after the collapse of the Soviet Union contribute to the quick reconstitution of the imperialist-chauvinist “Russian World” ideology.
Also, the successful Stalinist policy of building heavy industry and a modern military laid the foundation for later developments, despite the economic collapse after 1991.
With the consolidation of Russian capital, with Putin coming to power in 1999, and with the simultaneous launch of the Second War against Chechnya, Russia regained its imperialist status.
Critics often refer to the fact that Russia is economically weaker than the United States or other Western Great Powers. However, being weaker does not necessarily mean being non-imperialist. It just means being a weaker imperialist power in economic terms.
Lenin once noted “that in its economic essence imperialism is monopoly capitalism“. There is no doubt that Russia’s economy has been dominated for many years by domestic — not foreign — monopolies.
Moreover, Russian monopolies have undertaken substantial capital export to Eastern European and Central Asian countries for many years now. Also, it has gained massive extra profits via super-exploiting cheap migrant labour coming from poorer countries (mostly from Central Asia) and from its internal colonies.
Russia’s economy has clearly become stronger. Various economists have rightly pointed out that categories like GDP [gross domestic product] or distorting calculations based on the US dollar tend to underestimate Russia’s global economic weight.
This has become particularly obvious in the past year and a half. Despite imposing unprecedented sanctions against Russia, Western powers failed to bring down the economy of its Eastern rival. In fact, several European countries, including Germany, experienced less growth this year than Russia.
China became an imperialist state against a different background and in a different manner. In contrast to Russia, China was a capitalist semi-colony before Mao [Zedong] took power in 1949. Here too, Stalinism succeeded not only in ending China’s dependency on imperialism but also laid the foundation for building a national industry.
Equally important, it created a centralised bureaucratic state apparatus that managed to smash the workers’ and youth rebellion in May–June 1989 and gradually introduced capitalist reforms.
As such, the Chinese regime avoided a collapse. It retained a strong and effective state apparatus, which was essential for a type of capitalist restoration that created a relevant domestic bourgeoisie, a disciplined and exploitable labour force and a strong state-capitalist sector.
China’s period of rapid growth can be explained by the combination of the following factors:
First, the stable Stalinist regime — which became a Stalinist-capitalist regime — created the conditions for a long-term process of primitive capital accumulation. This process took place on the basis of a country with a huge population and a vast potential domestic market.
Such a Stalinist-capitalist regime also allowed it to manage substantial foreign (imperialist) investment without losing control of its economy.
Furthermore, the regime utilised the so-called hukou system, according to which residents were not allowed to work or live outside the administrative boundaries of their household registration without approval of the authorities.
Through this system, the regime created a huge layer of hundreds of millions of “migrants” (as they are called in China) who have been employed as super-exploited workers in the wealthiest regions. These migrant workers have produced a substantial portion of the surplus value for domestic and foreign capitalists in recent decades.
After the Great Recession in 2008/09, it was clear that China had become an emerging imperialist power. China is now a leading, if not the leading, nation when it comes to share in global GDP, industrial output, world trade, capital export and global leading corporations and billionaires.
China has become the most important imperialist challenger to the US.
How do you view Russia and China fitting into the global imperialist system and the concept of multipolarity?
Usually, those who deny China’s and Russia’s imperialist character also tend to view these powers as a “lesser evil” or even as a “progressive” alternative to the old Western powers. Such an approach is often combined with the reactionary program of a “multipolar world order”.
These forces claim that a “multipolar world order” would be superior to a “unipolar world order” and that socialists should advocate a world order in which China and Russia have an equal say as the US, Western Europe or Japan.
In reality, a multipolar world order does not and can not mean equality for the countries of the Global South; it means, and can only mean, “equality” of a few new Great Powers with the old hegemon.
It is a program advocating “multi-imperialism”, that is, the parallel existence of several rival imperialist powers. However, as history has demonstrated, such a situation inevitably leads to conflicts and, ultimately, world war.
Socialists should oppose all Great Powers. They should neither advocate for a multipolar or unipolar world order, but for international unity of the workers and oppressed on the basis of anti-imperialist and socialist struggle.
Do you see any possibilities for building bridges between struggles against different imperialist powers? What should an internationalist anti-imperialism for the 21st century look like?
I see both the necessity as well as possibility of building such bridges. Of course, I do not want to deny the difficulties.
My comrades and I have collaborated for more than three decades with various migrant communities, mostly coming from Arab and Muslim countries.
It happens sometimes that those who fight against a pro-Western regime (for example Iraq or Egypt) have sympathy for “the enemy of my enemy”, that is, for Russia and China. And those who fight against a pro-Eastern regime (for example Syria, Chechnya, Uyghurs in China and Sudan) have opposite sympathies.
However, many activists have learned that the Great Powers of East and West are “all worse”. On various occasions, it has been possible to bring activists from different backgrounds together on the basis of internationalism and anti-imperialism.
I think it is possible and necessary to avoid an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” position. Socialists need to analyse each conflict in a dialectical and concrete way.
Some disputes have a clear character as a conflict between different imperialist states (for example the trade war between the US and China or the sanctions between NATO and Russia). In such cases, one must, in my view, oppose both camps and advocate a revolutionary defeatist position against both.
This means socialists should advocate strict opposition against both camps and try to use the war to advance the class struggle against each government.
In other cases, it might be a conflict between an imperialist power against a semi-colonial country. Examples for this are Russia’s war against the Chechen people in 1999–2009 or the US invasion of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). Here, socialists should unambiguously defend the latter against the imperialist aggressor.
There are also conflicts that have a combined or dual character. In the case of the Ukraine War, the Western powers support Ukraine with military aid. But, this has — at least for now — not qualitatively changed the character of the war; it remains, first and foremost, a just war of national defence by Ukraine against Russian imperialism that socialists have to support.
Likewise, the conflict between Israel/US and Iran or between the US/South Korea and North Korea has a similar contradictory character. In such conflicts, I think it is necessary to defend semi-colonial countries such as Iran or North Korea against the imperialist aggressor (and its proxy).
Naturally, such defence does not imply any political support for the bourgeois and dictatorial regimes of these countries or for the Great Powers supporting these countries.
Such support needs to go hand in hand with strict opposition against all Great Powers. Hence, one has to reject any support for sanctions, protectionism or armament of one Great Power against its rivals that might be imposed in the context of such conflicts (for example, Western sanctions against Russia).
In my opinion, such an approach could constitute the basis for an anti-imperialist internationalism in the 21st century — a program on which socialists from all quarters of the world could and should unite.