Over a century ago, when the completion of most of the colonial land grabs prompted the imperial powers to go to war with one another to expand their extractive access, the dominant leadership of the socialist parties within the imperialist countries decided to support these war efforts. They used the rationale that backing the military involvements of their respective governments was necessary for advancing their national defense, but the real reasons for their decision were clear: cowardice and selfishness. As Lenin concluded after he helped lead the effort to break from the socialist Second International, and form a coalition of principled anti-imperialist Marxists, the “Marxists” who supported imperialist wars were incentivized by the benefits they received from imperialism. They had something to lose from not falling behind the war effort, which was inescapably a measure to maintain imperialism. In doing so, they proved themselves not to be actual communists who were working towards the overthrow of capital, but opportunists who happened to use socialist language.
This opportunism existed not solely within the upper echelons of the socialist parties that took the pro-imperialist stance, but within a substantial enough element of the general population for such a stance to be able to gain prominence. The contradiction within imperialist countries Lenin pointed out is that these countries cultivate a social base for opportunism, which is to say a social base for colonization and parasitic imperial extraction. By bribing the more fortunate sections of the masses within the imperialist countries, by providing them with substantial shares of imperialism’s spoils, the bourgeoisie incentivize these elements to come to the defense of imperialism whenever a pivotal moment occurs. A moment like when imperialism starts a war, and needs to sell a narrative that justifies its murderous drive for continued parasitism.
The more important the given war is for preserving imperialism, the more aggressively the bourgeoisie will try to suppress dissent against the war effort, and the more likely the opportunists will be to comply. During World War I, the participating governments jailed communists who spoke out against the conflict. The advantage this gave the opportunists was immediate and obvious, aside from the broader benefit of them continuing to be able to materially prosper through imperialist extraction. They were exempt from the level of repression that was coming to those who opposed the war, not having to worry about getting deported or locked up. With the decline of U.S. hegemony, and Washington’s desperate effort to reverse its decline in influence by igniting proxy conflict in Ukraine, history is now repeating itself. We have new opportunistic “socialists” who are folding to imperialism’s narratives, and new principled anti-imperialists who are getting targeted due to their taking the Marxist stance on the given conflict.
This stance is that Russia’s Operation Z was provoked, that it’s legal under international law, and that it’s a positive development for the revolutionary cause due to its defending the national sovereignty of the Donbass separatists. As well as due to its accelerating the decline of U.S. hegemony and the subsequent weakening of U.S. capital. There are communists from the Maoist ultra-left faction who refuse to support Operation Z because they see it as an imperialist action, but their argument is easily repudiated by a correct analysis of whether Russia is an imperialist power, and their influence is relatively insignificant anyhow. The faction that matters more is the one represented by the Communist Party USA, which has shown itself to take the opportunist stance on Ukraine. It’s done this by claiming that Operation Z is illegal, which international law expert Christopher Black has comprehensively made a case against:
In my opinion Russia acted in accordance with international law under Article 51 of the UN Charter for the following reasons; First, the Kiev regime was mounting a major offensive with NATO’s help against the Donbass Republics with the intent of destroying them…Second, Russia itself had been attacked multiple times by Kiev regime forces…Russia had every right under The Caroline Doctrine to go after the attackers and to prevent further attacks…Thirdly, the deeper issue was the imminent threat to Russia from NATO posed by its continuous expansion to the east…Lastly, the NATO powers have lately relied on their bogus legal doctrine of “responsibility to protect” that they invented after the fact to try to justify their aggression against Yugoslavia…Russia has not referred to it at all, but if NATO can rely on it for their wars of aggression, then surely Russia can rely on it to justify their military action to defend the Donbass, and themselves.
Black provides numerous examples to back up these assertions within his essay, making for a solid set of reasons for why it’s counterfactual to refer to Russia’s actions as unlawful. The only interests the CPUSA serves by repeating this narrative are the interests of U.S. imperialism. The party’s statement then includes recognition of how NATO’s transgressions made Russia decide to carry out the operation, but this in a way makes it worse. To be aware that U.S. imperialism provoked Russia, and still condemn Russia as criminal for defending itself and the independent Donbass republics, is to effectively say U.S. imperialism should be able to aggress against countries without any pushback. To portray the victims of imperialism as innately in the wrong for taking action to protect themselves.
I’m sure someone who takes the CPUSA’s “there are no good sides” position would argue that they don’t believe this, and that Russia is merely responding to imperialism’s provocations in the wrong way. But what exactly would be the “right way” to handle this situation if one were in Russia’s place? To stand by and let Kiev’s U.S.-installed fascist regime ethnically cleanse the Donbass, while it sees Washington bring threats closer to Russia’s borders? To do nothing more than issue statements condemning Washington’s provocations, while neglecting to use its tools for demilitarizing the Kiev regime and defeating the government-backed Nazi battalions? No matter how many qualifiers you add, claiming Russia’s decision to intervene is criminal has the effect of narratively aiding Washington’s proxy war effort. Of providing the imperialists with a seemingly sound argument for continuing to arm the Kiev regime and its fascist militias, advancing imperialism’s ambitions for destabilizing Russia, and then subduing a newly vulnerable China. The opportunists are again helping imperialism in practice, despite swearing that they’re against imperialism.
As was also the case during World War I, the communists who are principled in opposing imperialism have been getting repressed in ways the opportunists are able to dodge. The African People’s Socialist Party was recently raided by the FBI for supposedly assisting in “Russian interference,” a reaction to its uncompromising arguments against the empire’s narrative on Ukraine. For the CPUSA to join “socialist” Democratic Party organs like the Democratic Socialists of America in reinforcing imperialism’s war narrative is the story of the Second International all over again. And the members of the CPUSA who hold the correct position on Ukraine can’t use the excuse that the party’s statement has come from individuals who don’t represent the organization as a whole.
When any member of a communist party puts out a statement, and this statement isn’t made to be retracted by the party’s disciplinary mechanisms, that represents the stance of the party. There’s no escaping this reality; it’s why principled communist parties kick out members who refuse to correct their conduct when the party confronts them about it. And if an organization lacks the democratic centralist mechanisms for enforcing such discipline, as the CPUSA evidently does, it lacks qualification to be a vanguard. Both because lacking a reliable disciplinary structure is automatically self-defeating from a military standpoint (like an opportunist party would ever even think in tactical military terms), and because when you fail to be able to stop any rogue members from speaking on behalf of your party, they’re inevitably going to say something which helps imperialism. The pro-imperialist ideology is our cultural hegemony, and communist parties must actively work to combat it, rather than passively letting miseducated members feed into it.
Capitalism and imperialism are in their most severe state of crisis thus far. The U.S. empire has lost the control it needs in order to keep its capital afloat during the coming decades, and capital is being forced to contract. War efforts like the one in Ukraine are the desperate flailing from our ruling class to restore the stability they’ve incurably lost. As imperialism continues to weaken, and contradictions get more pronounced, communists must stand firmly against the lies imperialism uses to carry out its machinations. Being principled will put us at risk for repression, but the alternative is to act in an unprincipled fashion, and therefore ensure that revolution doesn’t come about.—————————————————————————
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