The arguments of Gilbert Achcar covered in the previous post are a melange of the ridiculous, hypocritical, nonsensical and indifference to working class interests. It has received criticism from Alex Callinicos, which leads Achcar to double down on his argument.
‘There is no denial—and certainly not by me—that there is an inter-imperialist conflict behind the Ukraine war. But the argument you quote from me is not about that: it is about the fact that the war in Ukraine is not an inter-imperialist war, even though it very obviously takes place on a background of inter-imperialist conflict.’
So war is the continuation of politics by other means but not in this case. The conflict between imperialism that he admits to apparently disappears when war begins as if it bore no relation either to its cause or its nature. He supports arming Ukraine so that it can affect the outcome of the war but claims such imperialist intervention is not politically significant! The ‘background’ has been foregrounded and both imperialisms are involved in a war but it’s not an inter-imperialist war!
How does he justify this?
‘What is the difference here? Quite straightforward indeed, from the Leninist perspective that you like to refer to—had the Ukraine war been an inter-imperialist war, internationalists should have advocated revolutionary defeatism on both sides. Since it is not an inter-imperialist war, revolutionary defeatism is on the order of the day on the Russian side only, whereas, as you yourself admit, “it would indeed be good if the Ukrainian people were able to drive out the Russian invaders”.
The fact that Achcar does not take a principled position is used as evidence that it is not required! A brass neck that a blowtorch couldn’t mark! So how does he justify this one?
‘An inter-imperialist war … 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.’
Aside from the fact that the only imperialist war this envisages is one that threatens world war and nuclear oblivion, it seems to say that imperialism cannot use surrogates as its weapon, which is absurd. Every day that passes demonstrates US and NATO’s involvement in the war, with some NATO powers seeking to impose war aims on Ukraine and therefore determine its objectives as their own. We have already alluded to the reactionary consequences of a Ukraine victory, which would also be a victory for the US and NATO.
But this war is not even a proxy war involving two states fighting each other with one supported by one imperialism and the other by its rival. In this case one ‘imperialist’ power is directly engaged, while the other capitalist state directly engaged seeks formal alliance with the other much more powerful imperialism. It is already in partnership with NATO, in practical alliance, and is trained and increasingly armed by it. This does not make it a one-sided imperialist war with a righteous adversary but makes US imperialism much more involved and interested in its outcome precisely because Russia is very directly involved. That’s why we have the unprecedented propaganda war; the unprecedented economic war through sanctions and the unprecedented arming of a belligerent. This ‘arms-length’ imperialist war is still an imperialist war.
This too is even inadvertently admitted by Achcar:
‘If Ukraine were to succeed in rejecting the Russian yoke, it is more than likely that it would be vassalized to Western powers. But the point 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 a vassal is incomparably preferable to that of a serf!’
This, of course, should be seen as an argument against both sides but not for Achcar. So what is a ‘vassal’ – that Ukraine will become if it is victorious – but ‘a holder of land by feudal tenure on conditions of homage and allegiance.’ Where does that put the nonsense that this is a fight for Ukrainian self-determination? Is this policy of Lenin, so badly misunderstood, really a policy of vassilisation?! Socialists in the rest of the world should support the Ukrainian state so it can pay homage and allegiance to US imperialism and NATO! But still it is claimed this is not, most definitely not, an imperialist war!
Straight from the horse’s mouth we have a confession that the Ukrainian struggle is not in pursuit of a bourgeois democratic demand but in pursuit of pre-bourgeois feudal status! Of course the language employed is metaphorical but the metaphorical language reveals what all good metaphors do – it is representative and symbolic of reality, the very obvious fact that this is not a war by Ukraine against imperialism but against Russian imperialism and for US and European imperialism. The Ukrainian state has come down on one side and idiot anti-imperialists have followed them.
Achcar says that ‘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’.
Except of course militarily defensive wars are not by that fact politically defensive by Marxist criteria, otherwise we would it seems, according to Achcar, be dragged into support for whatever capitalist power proved weakest in battle. In any case Ukraine seeks to join NATO and Achcar has already endorsed seizing back territory in Crimea, which reality would most likely present as aggression against the majority of its population.
He says that ‘in their fight against Great Russian imperialism, led by an autocratic and oligarchic ultra-reactionary government in Moscow that presides over the destinies of one of the most unequal countries on the planet, the Ukrainian people deserve our full support. This certainly does not imply that we cannot criticize the Kyiv government.’
Except Achcar hardly does criticise Kyiv and according to his rationale why should he? He supports Ukraine in the war and since everything else comes second such criticism wouldn’t matter! Of course, that country is also ‘led by an autocratic and oligarchic ultra-reactionary government in
Moscow Kyiv that presides over the destinies of one of the most unequal countries on the planet,’ but that too doesn’t matter to Achcar. What difference there is between them is simply that one is much stronger militarily, is defending its own interests by itself while the other seeks to do the same, in so far as it can, by seeking alliance with the strongest imperialist powers.
What is involved is a clash of two imperialistic powers in which Ukraine has decisively chosen the much more powerful, but which Achcar seeks to relegate as simply a background ‘conflict’ of no consequence. That the weaker ‘imperialist’ power opened up the invasion but not the violence, which has been ongoing for a number of years in the East of the country, is explained by the fact that Ukraine is next door to Russia. That the distance between Kyiv and Washington DC is over 7,500 kms, but there is only 750 kms between it and Moscow, demonstrates the reach and power of the respective imperialist powers and what the balance of aggression actually is.
Ukraine has for some time been a victim of this background ‘conflict’, but concretely this has resulted in the desire of sectors of the Ukrainian political class and its oligarchy and state to throw itself onto the side of Western imperialism. This risked war and that risk has now crystallised, so that while oligarchs get offside Ukrainian workers will be the victims of this policy. The reactionary character of the war is again demonstrated in the fact that it binds Ukrainian workers closer to those who gambled with their lives.
One final element of Achcar’s argument should be disposed of. He quotes Lenin:
“The German imperialists shamelessly violated the neutrality of Belgium, as belligerent states have done always and everywhere, trampling upon all treaties and obligations if necessary. Let us suppose that all the states interested in the observation of international treaties declared war on Germany with the demand for the liberation and indemnification of Belgium. In such a case, the sympathies of Socialists would, of course, be on the side of Germany’s enemies. But the whole point is that the “triple (and quadruple) entente” is waging war not over Belgium, this is perfectly well known, and only hypocrites conceal this. England is grabbing Germany’s colonies and Turkey; Russia is grabbing Galicia and Turkey, France wants Alsace-Lorraine and even the left bank of the Rhine…”
This quote might seem to support the argument that imperialism will exploit ‘shameless violations of neutrality’ in order to advance its own interests. In other words, it provides absolutely no support for his argument in support of Ukraine, just as it would have been wrong for socialists to rally to Belgium in World War I. So why does he drag up this quotation?
‘I hope that this quote makes clear enough to you the importance of drawing a clear distinction between a war opposing an imperialist power to a country that it tries to subjugate, even when rival imperialist powers support the latter country’s resistance.’ He points to Lenin’s hypothetical scenario that other imperialist powers might rally to defend Belgian neutrality for its own sake as a possible excuse to now support Ukraine. But the whole point of Lenin’s example, indeed his whole pamphlet, is to demonstrate that this is not how imperialism works. Indeed ‘the whole point’ is that imperialist powers engage in war to further their own interests.
Even Achcar seems to admit this, since he adds ‘Lenin says even if they “declared war” on its behalf, which is a useless hypothesis in my view since other imperialist powers would only declare war for their own imperialist interests, whatever they pretended’, which is precisely what western imperialist intervention is doing now.
Achcar finishes by saying that the point he makes is simple—’Had Russia managed to crush the Ukrainian resistance, control the whole country and implement “regime change” as was obviously Putin’s intention and calculation, our voices as forces that advocate a drastic reduction of military expenditure and NATO’s dissolution would have been completely drowned by a tsunami of jingoistic warmongering.’
But now that this hasn’t happened have his voices for ‘drastic reduction of military expenditure and NATO’s dissolution . . . [not] been completely drowned by a tsunami of jingoistic warmongering’? Unfortunately not, among other reasons because while we have still had ‘a tsunami of jingoistic warmongering’ we have not heard much from him or his comrades about NATO. Rather we have been told to consider how much more important is the threat of Russia, and the necessity to defend the country that wants to join the Alliance, which of course will do wonders to the project of its dissolution he claims to favour. In effect, the politics of Achcar are not an opposition to ‘jingoistic warmongering’ but its chorus line, to the left of the stage of course.
Back to part 5