Anti-Imperialism Anti-war History International

Russia, Ukraine, and The World-System

By Piper Tompkins

As if climate change, covid-19, racial tensions, and economic woes weren’t enough, war has broken out in Europe with a major power, Russia, invading a nation that used to be part of its empire, Ukraine. Despite the media hype over the issue, portraying it as a historic battle the likes of wish is not comparable to much of anything in the post-WW2 period, when in fact things like the Yugoslav conflict, and the US wars in the middle east were of comparable scale, an invasion conducted by a major power on a European country is certainly significant. Historical comparisons aside, the conflict is causing human loss on a scale that will only grow worse as it rages on. This means that the present invasion cries out just as much for clear headed analysis as do any one of the issues mentioned above. 


We must ask the question “how and why did it get to this point?”. No final answers can be provided on problems of universal human scale such as the invasion of one country by another, but it is certainly possible to advance partial answers that allow us to grasp the issue in all the important ways we can hope to. But where to start? Russia’s tensions with NATO? The fighting that has gone on since 2014? The maiden revolution? The orange revolution? The dissolution of the Soviet Union? The cold war? All of these things must play key roles in our story, but I contend that there is a much more apt starting place; the capitalist world-system. 


A world-system is a social system that is made up of various different regional institutions that form a coherent whole which functions as its own social “world”. The modern world-system is capitalism, a world-system based on the endless accumulation of productive resources. This system came into being in roughly 1500 and since has come to be a truly global world-system. The how and why of that story is a subject for another time, but that story is the story of Russia’s invasion, as we will explain. Capitalism’s health is based on the ability to keep expanding production. It was able to do so until the 1970s, at which time a global crisis of overproduction was triggered by an oil price crisis. This crisis of overproduction was so significant that it marked the tipping point where the expansion of production started grinding to a halt. This conclusion isn’t an obvious one, with the “4th industrial revolution” occasioned by the internet, computers, Amazon, Tesla, Uber, AI, and the expansion of the precarious service-sector industry, many might be inclined to the view that the expansion of production is going on as normal. 


However, this view is wrong for a handful of key reasons: 


  1. Labor costs have been driven up by worker organizing and capitalists are running out of rural populations without a history of involvement in such organizing to outsource production to. 


  1. The high level middle managers of capitalist industry are demanding more compensation for their labor. 


  1. The tax bill for the externalization of waste cleanup, resource replenishment, and infrastructure onto the public doll has been driven up, not only by the increase of these externalizations, but also by the demands of social movements for protection of the environment, and public services. 


  1. The ideology of slow distribution of concessions to the underclass in exchange for social peace has been undermined by a lack of faith in state power since 1968.


The process referred to in the 4th item is an important part of the story of post-Soviet Ukraine and the Russian invasion. The Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a part under control of Moscow, was the creation of an anti-capitalist, or ‘antisystemic’ movement, the Bolsheviks, who had taken state power over much of the former Tsarist Empire’s territory in October 1917 by gaining the favor of the popular councils, called soviets, in which the masses of workers, peasants, and soldiers, had organized to overthrow the Tsar and then the liberal provisional government that replaced it. The Bolsheviks, instead of passing formal power to the soviets, created a central people’s commissariat to take control of the country. The Bolsheviks fought a bloody civil war in which the soviets would become completely subject to the dictates of the Bolshevik central committee by decree, and through this civil war fought off nationalist generals from the old-regime, liberal ‘social revolutionaries’, western powers such as France, Britain, and the US, as well as peasant insurgencies which resisted Bolshevik authority under the auspices of defending the revolution from the dictatorship of new Bolshevik elites (one of which, the Makhnovist movement, rose up in Ukraine) in order to create the new Bolshevik state structure, which the Bolsheviks called “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. By the end of the civil war sailors from the Kronstadt naval base which had been instrumental in the revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power, rose up calling for soviet power, free elections to the soviets, and an end to Bolshevik party dictatorship. The Bolsheviks mercilessly crushed the sailors with the unfounded justification that the sailors were a mass of disorderly peasants embroiled in a western backed plot by whites (the nationalist generals) and emigree liberal oppositionists. 


This is a short explanation of the process of constraining the class struggle which took place under the Bolsheviks and led to the creation of the Soviet Union in 1922. The process took place in many other places around the world, in fact in every country where a communist party took state power and established a communist republic. It entails constructing a new state and using its coercive powers to end the period of revolution and social change. Here, we have a conundrum, why did communist parties who were committed to progressive social change constrain the class struggle? Upon taking state power they assumed it would allow them to carry out social change, but they simply found out that they were wrong. Maintaining a stable state apparatus meant integrating into both capitalism’s hierarchy of states and its axial division of labor, or put another way, its world-economy. 


In this way the Soviet Union did not, nor did any communist republic, provide an alternative social system to capitalism. They were all part of the capitalist world. Crucially, it’s not as if populations didn’t notice this recuperation. Communist elites had to make up for it by exchanging social programs (housing, transportation, healthcare, full employment) for social peace and promising that one day change would come (Khrushchev argued during his term as Soviet general secretary that the Soviet Union was on the verge of a full transition to communism). By 1968 world populations had stopped buying this story. It was the same story that the socialists in the west told, and the national liberation movements in the south told, and the story that liberals had been telling since the 19th century, all with the goal of preserving social peace and thus subverting threats to capitalism’s existence. In 1968 there was a world-revolution where people in different zones of the capitalist world rose up and rejected both the United State’s control of geopolitics and the old-left’s claim to be making social change. 


The effects of this revolution reverberated until 1991 convincing populations that the liberal story of slow change was wrong. Alongside this loss of faith in liberalism and states came the world crisis of overproduction in the 70s, both of which destroyed the state’s ability to provide concessions to the underclass and guarantee social peace. Since state socialism was based primarily on this political strategy, communist republics dissolved, or liberalized beyond recognition, the former being the case for the Soviet Union. All over the world concessions in the form of social programs and negotiating power for organized labor were replaced with a program of “neoliberalism”. Despite the name this was a resurgent economic conservatism that was unleashed with the downfall of liberal politics. It included gutting social programs and reducing state control of capital while weaponizing state power against labor, all under the guise of “the free market”. 


This was implemented aggressively in the former Soviet Union with “shock therapy”. In Russia this produced an economic crisis by the late 90s that threatened the rest of the world-economy until Putin stabilized the country by exchanging Soviet style social programs for his political autocracy. Despite averting catastrophe the disillusion of the USSR reduced Russia’s power in the world considerably. Here we must address the politics of the cold war. The traditional narrative of the cold war is that when the big three (Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt) met at Yalta they divided the world into thirds with two thirds going to the US and one going to the Soviet Union. Soon after ideological hostility between the two sides broke down the agreements and decades of ideological and geopolitical competition followed. This narrative is one that scholars were given by politicians and makes the mistake of assuming the agreements broke down. 


There were many scenarios during the cold war in which competitive rhetoric could have transformed into real fighting such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Korean War. However, in both cases each side went back to its side of the line and no real fighting took place. Khrushchev wrote a letter to Kennedy backing off of Cuba and the United States sacked the popular General MacArthur for seeking to turn the Korean War into a nuclear confrontation with China. We can go down a much larger list including the Vietnam war. In that situation the Vietnamese could only garner some aid from the Soviet Union by pressuring it to live up to cold war rhetoric. So the real story is that the Yalta agreements were respected and ideologically competitive rhetoric was used as a tool, not of real competition, but of each side controlling its subordinates. This meant that the cold war did two important things for each side. 


For the United States it provided “hegemony”, meaning the United States got its geopolitical way about 95% of the time. For the USSR it provided a sub-imperialist status in relation to the United States that allowed it to be the number two power in the world. This means that the narrative of the west winning the cold war is also bunk. Despite the triumphant rhetoric the US did not want the USSR to collapse and would have stopped it if such was possible. The collapse of the USSR was the final nail in US hegemony’s coffin. Neoconservatives in the Bush admin tried reversing the process by pursuing wars in the middle east meant to intimidate the geopolitical world into lining back up behind US leadership, but they failed spectacularly. 


Russia went from a powerful sub-imperialist to a near-failed state unable to rely on anything, but its large share of the world oil market. This explains the (this time) real aggression between the two-sides that has led Russia to annex Crimea, back Russian separatists in Ukraine, and ultimately invade, and NATO’s flagrant expansion into Russia’s former backyard. Both sides are clinging to declining geopolitical power; Russia by trying to assert veto power over Ukraine’s relationship to NATO and the United States by trying to court former eastern bloc states like Ukraine into its orbit. The invasion was probably occasioned by the recent entry of Ukraine into a NATO partner program. 


But we don’t get here just because of Russo-Western relations. Ukraine’s internal politics plays a vital part in the story. The fact that the Soviet Union was integrated into the capitalist world-system’s hierarchical division of labor meant that it had a set of elites that functioned as a ruling class accumulating capital, or “capitalist class”. This conclusion is widely disputed even by socialists who reject the state socialist model. Many of them conclude that the Soviet Union, if unideal and undemocratic, was indeed at the very least non-capitalist, and even worth considering “socialist”. This is because the Soviet State controlled production and used it to provide public services, as contrasted to western capitalism where private firms control production and public services can only be funded through taxation. The problem here is that it is a political-economic mode of analysis, rather than a critique of political-economy. The difference is that the former analyzes politics and production in terms of surface level phenomena such as what institutions own production, the particular forms of distribution, and particular forms of governance. The latter, instead, analyzes the social relations that produce all of these surface level phenomena such as for what purpose things are produced, how power is distributed in the management of society, and how production is sustained (reproduction). 


If one utilizes political-economy, rather than critique of political-economy, then it is easy to come to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was at the very least non-capitalist, and maybe even socialist. There were no private enterprises, the state set prices instead of individual firms, and nobody “owned” production for themselves, as it was public-state owned-property. However, if one uses critique of political-economy, it’s hard to come to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was non-capitalist, let alone socialist. The Soviet Union always produced for the world-market, in fact it pursued a kind of mercantilist advantage on the world-market using protectionism, meaning that things were produced to be exchanged. State planning always had as its objective the increase in production, specifically industrial and military goods, meaning that production was sustained by an endless cycle of productive accumulation. Those at the very top of the state hierarchy made all of the decisions and enforced them through coercive bodies like the secret police, meaning that the masses of people who labored were controlled by factory management ultimately backed up by the centralized state machine. These are all social relations characteristic of capitalist society, meaning that those at the top of the state hierarchy; the ‘nomenklatura’, were a capitalist class. This also goes for those who ran the ‘second economy’; the illegal and semi-legal sector that made up for the government’s lack of a reliable consumer goods sector. This capitalist class was transformed from nomenklatura and mafiosi capitalists to oligarchic capitalists when the Soviet Union collapsed. 


Privatization of state enterprises allowed state bureaucrats and former mafiosi to become the personal owners and benefactors of formerly state controlled production. Without Putin’s autocracy Ukraine’s politics came under the full control of these oligarchs. All political parties, and all elections, became forces and strategies for competing oligarchic blocs to contest political control over the country. These oligarchs came from the Donbass, where many Soviet leading industries (most profitable, or conducive to capital accumulation) were concentrated. On the other hand, this region constituted some of the most highly organized workforces in the Soviet Union who by virtue of solidaric unity and common experience of being literally worked to death, despite Soviet rhetoric about their importance as workers to building socialism, organized themselves into a very militant workers movement that ended up questioning the very foundations of State Socialism. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attendant shock therapy this political militancy was hijacked by the anti-communist right which then allowed the workers movement to be resubordinated by neoliberal shocks that further depreciated their standards of living, even from where they were in Soviet times. 


The shocks not only gutted social services, but made the 90s a decade of declining economic growth for Ukraine. The reforms impoverished the country and contributed to the criminal-oligarch nexus by giving youth nowhere to turn, but brutal and correspondingly infamous gangs that killed people for the capital they owned. Today Ukraine is mired in debt and austerity cutting back what little support system remains for the lower rungs of society. Thus, unlike Poland, or even Russia in the Putin era, Ukraine never attained a stable post-Soviet politics, making it a prime candidate for Russian manipulation and coercion. 


The 2004 elections were a fight between two oligarch blocs, one more weighted toward the former nomenklatura, represented by candidate Yushchenko, and another weighted more to the criminal element, represented by Moscow approved Party of Regions candidate Yanukovych. Oligarch and state owned media used Russian political technologists to eliminate all anti-establishment narratives and carried out huge public smear campaigns on TV. The election itself was essentially a massive fraud and the obvious nature of the fraudulence drove 10,000 people onto the streets in Ukraine in an event known as the Orange Revolution. Thus on the back of the Orange Revolution Yushchenko triumphed. His administration made rapid moves toward NATO and the EU through legislation. His prime minister was Tymoshenko who led a war on the oligarchs. This was in fact a war against oligarch groups which opposed her’s and was politically dangerous enough to get her removed from office and replaced. The Orange Revolution regime split between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko and this led to the popularity and triumph of the Party of Regions and Yanukovych who became prime minister. 


Then came Maidan. A series of protests broke out in Ukraine that ultimately toppled the Yanukovych administration and forced him to flee the country. The criminal-political bloc from the east was ousted from power and the makeup of those in power was once again reshuffled. On the heels of maidan, tensions over Ukraine’s status as a nation ballooned into what has been since 2014 an ethnic civil war that has killed thousands. This war pitted eastern Ukrainians more open to reconciliation with Russia and western Ukrainians who are staunchly anti-Russian against each other in an armed civil conflict. Russia stoked the conflict by annexing Crimea and supporting the creation of eastern seperatist republics; Donetsk and Luhansk.

So, in light of all of this, how can we make sense of the war, and what can we do about it? As Immanuel Wallerstein insists the first task is analytical, so we need to decide how to think about the war between Russia and Ukraine before we can determine what to do about it. As with all social issues there are conflicting ideas. Of course there is the rhetoric from Russia and NATO (United States). Russia insists that the post-maidan administration was the result of a coup that ultimately put neofascist elements in power. Russia’s war is thus a “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine and protect the eastern people’s rights of self-determination. All of this is wrong.

In evaluating the “fascist” status of the Ukrainian state post-maidan we need to fall back on some basic conception of what “fascism” is. The academic consensus on the matter in the last 30 years has slowly become the conception offered by British political scientist Roger Griffin from Oxford University. According to Griffin fascism is a political ideology which sees the nation as an eternal reality made up of an exclusive community, and makes the claim that the modern order has degraded the nation, made it sick, and thus the only way forward is a revolution against the multicultural modernism of the world order, that reawakens the nation and makes it healthy once again. Post-maidan Ukraine has none of these trappings, it’s really just a continuation of the debt saddled, corrupt politics that obtained before maidan. There is no vision of revolutionary, ultranationalist, alternative modernism advocated, or worked toward by Ukrainian elites.

There are, however, a few cases that need some explanation, that of Svoboda and Right Sector, as well as the Azov Battalion. Svoboda and Right Sector are far-right organizations birthed out of the ethnic conflicts in Ukraine over its nationhood status. Both of these organizations have neofascist ties, but Svoboda has reshaped itself into an antisemitic conservative party, as opposed to a neofascist one, in order to get into Parliament in 2012. For its part, Right Sector has never entered parliament and both organizations failed to pass the threshold for entering in the recent elections. Not very good evidence for a neofascist post-maidan regime. Azov is a military organization with neonazi ties that became part of the Ukrainian national guard. However, it has since “denazified” itself, with many in the far right leadership simply leaving. It became a part of the Ukrainian state because the civil conflict left the latter desperate for fighting forces, leading to a hodgepodge of fighters from Anarchists and liberals to fascists and the apolitical. Again, not good evidence of Ukraine’s “fascist” status.

Additionally the maidan was not a coup. Yanukovych was ousted by genuine popular uprisings which forced the regime to reconfigure it’s elite balance of forces, as it has done since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Then there’s the NATO-EU (US) narrative. Maidan was Ukraine’s attempt to move toward the west and thus democracy. Putin, wanting to rebuild the Soviet, or Tsarist empire invaded Ukraine, showing his distaste for free countries in eastern europe exercising their right to join whichever geopolitical coalitions they see fit. This is another ration of bullshit. It conveniently ignores NATO’s expansion up to Russia’s borders and displays of military power in Poland and Romania. NATO was all but prodding Russia to take action. The maidan was also barely about Ukrainian desire to move toward the EU. The protests really gained steam after displays of police brutality by Yanukovych. The real issue for the protestors was political repression and corruption, with EU integration taking a firm backseat. The international left has either taken one of these two narratives at face value, or rejected them both and correctly seen the invasion as a struggle between Russia and the west (United States) for geopolitical supremacy with Ukraine caught in the middle.

As outlined above, the real reason for the invasion is competition between two declining powers desperately lashing out in a futile attempt to stave off their respective declines. Two other things also need to be borne in mind. The invasion has exposed the utter hypocrisy of fortress Europe. Poland and the EU have opened up their doors to white Ukrainian refugees, deserving of support like all refugees are, but in the midst of ongoing efforts by the European far right to attack African and Arab refugees via clash of civilizations rhetoric, and the stranding of African Ukrainians in the country. Secondly, this invasion has produced a new economic crisis for the capitalist world-economy given sanctions on Russia which exports oil and grain to the world, as well as Ukraine’s importance as a grain supplier.

So what can we do about it? This invasion is a classic example of statesmen trying to get their way no matter what it costs average people, despite Russia’s lies to the contrary thousands of civilians have been killed by its callous actions. Despite the west propping up the Ukrainian army’s surprising challenge to Russia’s armed forces, NATO basically challenged Russia to wreck the country. The invasion itself is a symptom of the structural crisis of the capitalist world-system. Even the ethnic conflict is the result of people turning to ‘groups’, in this case ethnically defined, for security in a time of troubles. The crises, despite throwing all of our security and certainty into question, also gives us a choice. It gives us the choice of making sure the system that ultimately replaces capitalism is one of human freedom, or letting the elites replace capitalism with another form of exploitation, perhaps worse than capitalism.

If we choose human freedom, we can only do so by building an international revolutionary social movement. We need to organize as workers (and peasants in the “undeveloped” world) to transform our global social relations, building a network of belonging on solidarity and equality. This is the project of the International Workers Association; an international, self-organized federation of Anarcho-Syndicalist labor unions and propaganda groups. Given that part of the current crises is the result of the failure of state focused, centralized social movements, Anarcho-Syndicalism provides a path for building a self-organized labor movement against the declining and thus increasingly austere and repressive states of the world. The major challenge for such a movement will be confronting divisions among the workers (and peasants). Currently sexism, racism, ableism, queerphobia, ect., divide the laboring classes by giving some of us better roles and rewards in society than others. We need to confront these divisions by forging new bonds of unity among the working masses, allowing us to recognize that the most oppressed among us deserve autonomy, and that all of us have a duty to each other to transform the world toward universal human freedom. We can only attain this freedom by creating a society of freely associating and self-organized producers. Such a society will need to be made up of social relationships that are controlled by all involved in them and created freely according to the needs of all involved in them. This is the social vision that can ensure that nobody needs to continue dying in pointless wars, or any wars for that matter.

After Liberalism, Immanuel Wallerstein
The Rise and Future Demise of The World Capitalist System, Immanuel Wallerstein
Antisystemic Movements, Giovanni Arrighi, Terrance Hopkins, Immanuel Wallerstein
Russia In Revolution, SA Smith
Ukraine and The Empire Of Capital, Yuliya Yurchenko
The Maidan and Beyond: Ukraine’s Radical Right, Anton Shekhovtsov and Andreas Umland
Fascism: Key Concepts In Political Theory, Roger Griffin

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