[Max Shachtman]


The New Russian Imperialism

Its Relation to the War Danger
Its Economic Policy and Aims

(April 1946)

Unsigned Editorial Comment, The New International, Vol. XII, No. 4, April 1946, pp. 99–102.
Abridged version copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Additional transcription by Einde O’Callaghan.
Marked up by A. Forse & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The bad blood in Big Three relations that came to public view during the London Conference of Foreign Ministers in September 1945 reached its boiling point last month as the world lived through a war of nerves reminiscent of the Munich days.

If the man in the street did not react with the frenzy of fear that swept the world during the Munich crisis, it was only because humanity is still too numb with the pain of six years’ torture in total war to be sensitive to the new danger. A new world war less than a year after the end of the last one seems too monstrous to be possible. Man’s mind, which has recorded almost limitless human misery for the last decade, rebels at the prospect of a new war – above all in the awesome shadow of the atomic bomb – and refuses to encompass it.

Yet the pattern that emerges out of every day’s news shapes the terrible reality that World War II was not the last and drives it into man’s consciousness. Russian troops march and counter-march in Iran. The American General Staff demands an extension of conscription. The American State Department supports Chinese efforts to force the Russians out of Manchuria. Russia announces a new Five-Year Plan which features tremendous outlays for armaments. The Americans proceed with “Operation Crossroads,” the first realistic maneuvers for the age of atomic warfare.

With such concrete developments as the background, the war danger cannot remain vague and ill-defined. It is not “a war” but “the war” which looms. For the first twenty years following World War I the actual line-ups remained uncertain and Russia switched sides at the very outbreak of the war and then again during the course of it. However, today when the “little man” whispers the fear that will not be suppressed he does not ask about war in general but says, “Will we fight Russia?”

A World of Two Real Powers

The relentless struggle for survival through destruction of rivals that has characterized the monopoly capitalist epoch has produced a world which contains but two real powers. The second, third, tenth and eleventh rate powers find themselves tied to one or the other sphere. The lines are sharply drawn and the elbow-room for maneuvering between the power combinations that prevailed in the past is almost non-existent. France’s threat to “seek aid elsewhere” (i.e., in Russia) if the United States does not grant her the request loan, is harmless bluster and will be treated as such by Washington. How could it be otherwise when even Britain, which still does have an empire, finds it has neither the economic nor the diplomatic chips with which to bid against the American colossus? Some antiquated Lords who still see the world through Victorian spectacles may rise from their seats in the House to fume about “Yankee greed” that dictates a hard bargain in making a loan to Britain, but even they will be gently informed by solicitous friends any day now that Britannia Rules the Waves is merely a sentimental song that no longer corresponds to the facts.

The key to understanding the change which World War II has wrought in balance-of-power politics is to be found in the fact that, if the socialist revolution were set aside for the moment, the main question before the war was “Which of the capitalist powers will survive?” whereas today the question is “Will the world of capitalism or the world of bureaucratic collectivism survive?” Laval could journey to the Moscow of 1934 to sign a defense pact with Stalin against Hitler and achieve a diplomatic coup for France. But when the impetuous de Gaulle journeys to the Moscow of 1945 to sign a pact, he makes a meaningless gesture which leaves London and Washington unmoved. For in his less dramatic moments even the new Joan of Arc had to realize soberly that the fate of France was in the last analysis tied to the fate of the capitalist world of America and the British Empire. The capitalist class of France could be divided in the pre-war period between a pro-Axis orientation and a pro-Anglo-American orientation. But today the French capitalists cannot think twice when the choice is Moscow or Washington. The international line-up is not merely one of power combinations arising from the most advantageous economic and military alignments but basically one of a division into two hostile social orders – private capitalism versus bureaucratic collectivism.

The New Source of the Russian Power

It is this fact that gives to the emergence of the new Russian empire a significance much more fundamental than merely the recrudescence of Russian power. Bureaucratic collectivism is Russian just as early capitalism was English. And, conversely, bureaucratic collectivism is the source of the new Russian imperialist power as early capitalism was the source of British imperialist power.

The new Russian empire occupies a strategic geographical position as a tremendous land mass that dominates Eurasia. No combination of European and Asiatic powers can counterbalance her. Beginning on the Arctic at the Finnish-Norwegian border, its boundaries run south to include Finland and the Baltic states, bisect Germany and Austria, encompass Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Albania, turn east along the northern frontier of Greece to include Hungary, Rumania and Bulgaria, cross the Black Sea and dip south to include northern Iran and press upon the frontiers of Turkey and Iraq, proceed east across Asia to include Sinkiang, Mongolia, parts of Manchuria, northern Korea, Sakhalin Island and the Kurilies chain. This expanding land mass presses upon the world of Anglo-American imperialism in Central Europe, the Near and Middle East and the Orient. Specifically it gives rise to three exceedingly sensitive trouble zones – Manchuria, Iran and Germany. Russia chose these three spots, Germany by way of covert political machinations to gain control through a fusion of the Communist and Social Democratic parties and Manchuria and Iran through open military and diplomatic pressure, to test and prove her newly acquired strength vis-à-vis the United States.

Anyone acquainted with the history and economic theory of capitalist imperialism knows what motivates the obstinacy with which the British and Americans hold fast in Iran, the fabled kingdom of the “black gold” out of which Royal Dutch Shell and Standard Oil erect even more fabled kingdoms of the pound sterling and the dollar. Anyone acquainted with the “Manifest Destiny” of American imperialism to convert a billion Asiatics and the resources of a continent into a tremendous source of cheap labor, markets and raw materials knows what motivates the American State Department in giving such firm support to its Chinese vassal state in demanding that the Russians withdraw from Manchuria. Anyone who knows what Europe means to world capitalism will understand why the British and Americans play such a sharp game in the internal politics of the Central and Eastern European nations.

But what about the Russians? What do they want?

Here the most widespread illusions exist. We do not refer to the illusions that blind the devout and faithful adherents of the Kremlin Church. This malady is not new and we have dealt with it before. However, the war has unloosed a tremendous pro-Russian sentiment among the masses everywhere which is not to be accounted for on the basis of direct Stalinist influence. In part it rests upon the rôle which Russia played in helping defeat Germany. But it finds its supplement in the vague feeling that “Russia is different,” a feeling born out of the loss of confidence in the statesmen and diplomats of the old powers who continue to reveal their total impotence before the task of organizing a peaceful world. Just as humanity finds it hard to force itself to regard a Third World War as a real possibility despite all the alarming symptoms, so it cannot force itself to believe that millions of lives were sacrificed to strike down the German “aggressor” only to be confronted with a Russian “aggressor.” Having shed their last tear in the prolonged nightmare that has not yet ended for most of the war-weary peoples, many cling to the desperate hope that somehow “Russia is really different.” Out of this hope against hope arise rationalizations about Russia’s aims, efforts to construe them in the best possible terms and. attitudes of withholding judgment because “it’s all so unclear.”

Yet, once the facts are faced objectively, without fear or prejudice, Russia’s actions leave no room for rationalization; they leave no grounds for construing in the best possible terms, nor are they even unclear.

Facing the Facts About Russia

The best way of facing the facts and, thereby, answering the question “What do the Russians want in the occupied countries” is to ask “What do the Russians do in the occupied countries?”

Enough data has now been collected to establish the following outline of Russian economic policy in the occupied countries:

  1. Russia strips the industries of machinery and other equipment and transports it to Russia. (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Rumania, Korea and Manchuria)
  2. Russia imports large masses of slave laborers to add to the slave labor armies of Russians who make up a sizable percentage of her labor force. (Germans, Poles and political opponents from every nation in which the GPU has a free hand)
  3. Russia expropriates the capitalists to varying degrees and establishes a state-owned industry operated by native satraps of the Russian rulers. (Poland, German zone, Czechoslovakia, Baltic states)
  4. Russia carries through “agrarian reforms” which wipe out the large landowners and seeks to establish a small peasantry whose property stake ties them to the new régime. (Poland and East Prussia)
  5. Russia forces economic concessions and spheres of influence from states that remain politically independent of her. (Oil concessions in Iran)
  6. Russia maintains commercial outposts for trade in less economically developed countries. (Manchuria)

This listing of economic phenomena related to Russian occupation policy poses a formidable task of analysis and codification before we can definitively describe the general laws that regulate Russian economic policy beyond her own borders. However, a mere listing of these bare summations of policy permit us to conclude that in the over-all and basic aim Russia is not “different,” i.e., Russian policy is motivated by the same aim of economic aggrandizement that has characterized every past exploiting class in history in its relations with subject peoples and which has come to be known as imperialism.

An analysis of the specific policies of Russian occupation will reveal, it is true, a considerable difference from the policies which Marxists have associated with the rule of finance capitalist imperialism. The basic economic needs out of which the imperialist policy of bureaucratic collectivism and the imperialist policy of finance capitalism spring are radically different. However, imperialism did not begin with finance capitalism.

The British Empire spread from Hudson Bay to the Ganges during the period of mercantile capitalism. Feudal Spain appropriated half of the new world and ruled the Lowlands. The imperialism of the Czarist state carried the Russian flag over the vast expanse of Siberia, across Manchuria, across the Pacific to Alaska and the coasts of California. In the South it pushed the Turks over and beyond the Caucasus, contested their hegemony over the Balkans. It swallowed up the major part of Poland and drove Sweden out of Finland.

Ancient times have known the imperialism of Rome and Carthage, based upon a slave economy. The most active imperialist force in the United States in the several decades preceding the Civil War was the land-hungry slaveocracy, constantly pressing for annexation at the expense of Mexico. In the light of these many historical forms of imperialism, how ridiculous is the injunction that we refrain from describing Russian economic expansion as imperialist because it is different from finance capitalist imperialism!

The imperialist policy of the bureaucratic collectivist state, for all that it has in common with all historical imperialisms, is one that is peculiar to its own social order. However, what is distinctive is not the emergence of imperialist methods never before known to history but rather the combination by the Russians of phases of imperialist policy associated with all previous forms of imperialism, from that of ancient Rome to Wall Street. In this sense the exploitation of foreign resources by Russia reflect the exploitative societies, i.e., slave labor, serfdom and wage labor, yet combines them in such a manner upon the basis of a nationalized economy as to create an economic system qualitatively different than any previously known.

A Troublesome Problem of Theory

The fact of Russian economic aggrandizement has created a most troublesome problem of theory for those who continue to cling to Trotsky’s outlived theory that Russia is a “degenerated workers’ state” merely by virtue of the existence of nationalised economy. Russian expansion into Poland and the Baltic states in 1939–40 raised this problem in the Fourth International and led to the split in the American section. Trotsky and the majority of the Socialist Workers Party denounced the invasions by the Russians but supported Russia’s rôle in the war as progressive because it represented the “superior” economic order. This was an extension of the theory that the “régime” was reactionary but that the “economic order” was progressive. Consequently, the invasions were a reactionary method of serving the needs of a progressive economy; consequently, the simultaneous denouncing of the method and support of the aim. (To comment on how this division between means and ends contradicts Trotsky’s well-argued case for the interrelation of means and ends in his articles on Their Morals and Ours, would carry us too far afield.) In 1940, the outline of Russian economic policy in the conquered territories was still too indefinite to generalize upon the nature of Russian imperialism. Its reactionary consequences in the political sphere were sufficient for the minority tendency, later to organize the Workers Party, to renounce the policy of “unconditional defense” and characterize Russia’s rôle in the war as reactionary.

However, today we have the imposing evidence of Russian economic policy accumulated in a dozen countries under varying circumstances. The arguments of the “workers’ staters” in 1939–40, particularly those which linked Russian policy to the military-strategic exigencies of the war, still had some degree of plausibility. Today, however, in the light of the vast evidence of Russian economic policy in a dozen countries under varying circumstances, the arguments of the “workers’ staters” have not only been robbed of any shred of plausibility but have emerged in full flower as a thoroughly reactionary political line. It is only the internal contradictions of the theory that permit its adherents, by means of bad logic, to save themselves from being swept openly into the position of defenders and apologists of Stalinism. (The emergence of the pro-Stalinist faction of defenders of the “bureaucratic social revolution” theory among the French Trotskyists, led by an old militant, is a warning of what happens to “workers’ staters” who seek to iron out the contradictions between their theory and politics. We will comment on this phenomenon at another time).

The “workers’ staters” have denied the existence of a class of exploiters in Russia by describing the bureaucracy as “privileged stratum” which lives a parasitic existence “cheating and robbing” the workers. Stories of looting and robbing still had an incidental character. But how explain the systematic appropriation of the means of production by the Russians in every country they have entered, that feature of Russian occupation policy that has been most consistent applied, whether in Berlin, Vienna, Bucharest or Harbin? Is this mere looting carried on by the bureaucracy in the same manner in which it “cheats and robs” the Russian worker to what use do the bureaucrats intend to put this equipment? Is it merely as a trophy of the war that a lathe or forge is transported from Berlin to Moscow? Perhaps it will be placed in his cellar or his garage by some bureaucrat to be admired by his friends along with such other booty as cameras, pianos, and billiard tables? Of course not. It will be installed in a factory, and used in production. How does the bureaucracy benefit from such “cheating and robbing” of the occupied countries? It is not the mere possession of the lathe from which he benefits but rather that which is produced on the lathe. But who produces it? The Russian worker. So, you see, the lathe is means for the added “cheating and robbing” of the Russia working class by the “privileged stratum”! What odd language to describe the appropriation of means of production for the purpose of exploiting labor. Logic has ever taken its revenge upon those who sought to do it violence.

The ludicrous end of the attempt to describe Russian imperialism in terms of “looting” (just like they “rob and cheat at home) has forced the “workers’ staters” to seek a more base explanation. They have now discovered that the economic basis of the Russian expropriations abroad is rooted in the attempt to carry through the fourth Five-Year Plan. “The régime sees no way out in the economic field save through the realization of the fourth Five-Year Plan, which cannot be achieved by the devastated country without the resources of the ‘buffer zones’.” (Fourth International, March 1946, p. 103). If the régime sees no way out except through the fourth Five-Year Plan, and if the fourth Five-Year Plan can only achieved with the resources of the “buffer zones” (how delicate!), is this not saying that that régime sees no way out except through the resources of the “buffer zones”? The economic policy of the Russians in the occupied countries is not therefore, merely the “excesses” of the bureaucracy, not mere “looting,” not the “cheating” and “robbing” by a “privileged stratum,” but something which is fundamental and necessary to Russian economic operation and survival.

Yet this very fourth Five-Year Plan was hailed by the same magazine in September as evidence that Russia is… a workers’ state. (“The very projection of the fourth Five-Year Plan constitutes the latest corroboration of the correctness of our analysis of the class nature of the USSR as a workers’ state, although badly degenerated under Stalinist rule.”) It is a workers’ state because it needs a plan which requires the economic exploitation of its subject nations. How those who swallowed the “counter-revolutionary workers’ state” gag over the “imperialist workers’ state”!

The dilemma in the realm of theory always appears, in one form or another, sooner or later, in the realm of politics. A theory which serves no political ends, which is not a guide in politics, is pretty much of academic interest at best; at worst, it is a substitute for politics.

In the long run—it may even be said—the dispute over the class character of the Stalinist state (workers’ state, degenerated workers’ state, badly degenerated workers’ state, workers’ state which has degenerated to the point where it is no longer a workers’ state, capitalist state, bureaucratic-collectivist state) can thin down to an extremely ethereal business unless it is linked up with politics— the political program and the political struggle that follows from it. Indeed, what other real test is there of theory except “praxis,” the political struggle?

Let us take an example, and it is anything but an unimportant one: What political line do the “workers’ staters” propose for the occupied countries? They say, with a notable lack of vigor, that they condemn the Russian occupation and looting of the means of production which leaves workers jobless and hungry and without any perspective of economic rehabilitation. From which it follows? From which—so far as they are concerned—nothing follows!

What should follow, it would be thought by anyone moderately well acquainted with Marxian politics, is the demand for the ousting of the Russian troops (as well as the Anglo-American, it goes without saying) or at least for the withdrawal of the Russian troops, and the demand that the looted machinery and the kidnapped workers be returned to their homeland.

Right here is the dilemma, however. Not only don’t they make these demands, which are the elementary duty of every evolutionary socialist, but they can’t make them. Give up the “buffer zones” that guarantee the success of the fourth Five Year Plan (in English: that guarantee the further exploitation of the masses and the economic consolidation of the bureaucracy)? Give back the means of production that have become part of the property of the workers’ state (in English: the workers’ prison)? Impossible!

If it is a workers’ state (of any kind), then the newly-acquired means of production, including the slave laborers, have become the chattels of the workers’ state and thus enhanced its economic strength; and how can “we” demand that anything be done to weaken the economic strength of the workers’ state? Obviously, “we” cannot. If we make these demands upon the Stalinist bureaucracy, we may—God forbid—be implying that it is the state and that the property belongs to it and not in any sense to the Russian workers. Just as obviously, we cannot do that either. It conflicts, as it were, with our theory of Russia as a workers’ state.

The “workers’ staters” are tied by a long rope to the chariot of the “bureaucratic counter-revolutionary socialist revolution,” and the faster that chariot moves the shorter the rope becomes.

Bureaucratic-collectivist imperialism, or Stalinist imperialism for short, can no longer be considered an accidental or incidental phenomenon. It is rooted in the needs of the Russian economy. It springs from Stalinist Russia’s irrepressible need to remake the world in its own image as the only means of establishing security for its own social form; the need to satisfy the pressing requirements of the state economy by extending the “primitive accumulation” from the “internal” field to the “external,” from the expropriation, first, of the Russian proletariat and, then, of the large “remnants” of the bourgeoisie” (i.e. kulaks), to the expropriation of the bourgeoisie of other nations (Germany, Hungary, Rumania) and of whole nations in the period of the Second World War and now of the fourth Five-Year Plan.

The existence of Stalinist imperialism, its rapacious and utterly reactionary character, are indisputable. Anyone who requires more evidence than has been supplied by the last few years, and most recently in the Baltic and Balkan countries, in Poland and Germany, in Iran and Manchuria, will probably be satisfied only if he himself is converted into a slave-laborer under the lash of the Stalinist empire.

It does not follow, in our view, that the future of this empire is in any way assured. Far from it. There has been such overwhelming evidence in our own days that this is the period of the agony and collapse of empire, that there is no warrant for the view that the Stalinist empire, based upon what is still one of the backward countries among the big powers, has the prospect of either consolidating its expansion or even of maintaining itself for long. The long overdue crisis inside Russia — broad hints of which are reluctantly revealed in Stalin s own recent speech — cannot be repressed by state force for very much longer. Not only that. The peoples conquered by Stalinism, and they now number tens of millions, suffer under a multiplication of class oppression and exploitation by national oppression. Far from strengthening the oppressor class and nation, the establishment of this condition only serves to undermine it and in good time to destroy it.

What the bureaucracy may look upon as a conqueror’s wreath around its brow will not be long in slipping down to a noose around its neck.

The “national question” — that is, the rebellion of the millions of peoples enslaved by the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo after the German conquest of Europe—proved to be just such a tightening noose around the neck of all the Hitlers. The neck of the Stalinist bureaucracy will not prove to be any stouter. The mortal blow may very well be delivered first from the outer periphery of the Stalinist empire, for substantially the same reasons that Marx so many decades ago declared that capitalism would be struck fatally from its extremities, where it is weakest.

To wait passively for this to happen is to guarantee that it will at the very least be delayed. The interests of the working class and of socialist internationalism demand an active policy of political struggle against Stalinist imperialism. To “condemn” Stalinist “expansion” without a program of demands and struggle against it, is Gandhism. To “condemn” the annexations without actively fighting for the national freedom of the subjugated lands is, as Lenin said of Luxemburg and Pyatakov in another connection, “inconsistent annexationism.” That at best; at worst, it is Stalinist apologetics.

The struggle for the victory of socialism is inseparably and increasingly bound up with the struggle for national freedom in the advanced countries, as we have repeatedly argued. This profoundly important truth is no less valid in the fight against Stalinist imperialism today than it was and remains in the fight against the imperialism of finance capital.

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