Taking sides in an Inter-Imperialist War?

By Fred Engst

The ongoing war in Ukraine forces people to take sides. Which side are we on? On the side of the Ukrainian people fight against invasion? Or take sides in an inter-imperialist war? To understand what’s going on in today’s world, we need to start with the most basic set of contradictions.

The three basic conditions in the world

The first is the contradiction between the working class and the capitalists, not only among the advance industrial countries, but also in the so-called developing countries. It is manifest by the oppressive state machinery, typically the use of police force on the working class within all countries. If not for this contradiction, there would not have been the need for the size of police force anywhere in the world. Revolutionaries are obligated to support working class struggles in all countries.

The second is the contradiction among imperialist countries, and it is manifested by the mighty military powers of those countries, especially those of the US and other industrialized countries. The purpose of these military powers is to fight external threads posted by other imperialists, rather than to guard against the working class. The police force is more than sufficient for that task, at least for now.

Many of the “civil wars” during the last 30 years were actually imperialists fighting for sphere of influences. For example, the 2nd Congo War, the Syrian Civil war, the Darfur Conflict, or the civil war in Yemen. In these inter-imperialist conflicts, other than support the local people for true independence, the revolutionaries CAN NOT takes sides!

The third is the contradiction between imperialist countries and the oppressed nations and people, especially of the 3rd world. Most of the wars after WWII was of this nature, for example, from the Korean war, Vietnam war, to the two Gulf wars and the Afghan war, on top of the everlasting war backed by the US and waged by Israel against the Palestinian people. The revolutionaries must be on the side of the 3rd world people and the oppressed nations.

There used to be a fourth contradiction, i.e., the contradiction between socialist countries and imperialist countries, which lasted for around six decades, beginning with the October

Revolution in 1917, and ended one by one around late 70’s, after the newly emerged capitalist class took over the state powers in those countries. While socialist countries existed, the revolutionaries around the world were on their side.

We are now back to a pre-WWI situation, except the neocolonialism replaced naked colonialism of the past.

Mao’s theory of the Three Worlds

Now is the time to revisit Mao’s theory of the Three Worlds, based on the current conditions.

The first world is made up of two industrial superpowers (the US & China), and the remnant of the Soviet Union (Russia). They are the ones that tried to dictate the events of the world.

The second world is made up of all the other industrialized countries. However, these countries don’t have full sovereignties. They are either under the military occupation of the US, or Russia, France perhaps is the only exception.

Make no mistakes, though, these are imperialist countries. They ride on the imperialist world-order bandwagon dictated by the US, and are a part of the storm troopers lead by superpowers against the 3rd world countries, as typified by the war in Libya and others wars over sphere of influences around the world.

Although the contradiction between the 1st and the 2nd world is a part of the contradiction among imperialists, the revolutionaries can take advantage of this tension within each imperialist block in their fight against the superpowers.

The third world are all those so-called developing countries. Other than China, hardly any other in this group were able to join the industrialized world after WWII, South Korea might be the other exception.

Cold War 2.0

The rise of China, as a capitalist industrial power, changed the landscape of geopolitics since the implosion of the Soviet Union. The world thus enters Cold War 2.0. Unlike the last Cold War, where the two camps had their respective sphere of influences, and there were hardly any economic relationships between the two, the picture is vastly different today. Although there’s no clear-cut sphere of influence for the newly rising industrial superpower, the economic inter-linkage between the US and China is very deep. Both are highly depended on the other economically.

However, the rise of China posts a direct challenge to the US domination around the world, not only in economics, politics, but also in military might. In this round of Cold War, the US is on the “defense”, so to speak, after China set up the Belt & Road Initiative, the Asian

Infrastructure Investment Bank, and other investments around the world, which carving away the US’s global interests. China also converted multiple reefs in the South China Sea into islands with military style airports, and pursuit a program of rapid buildup of its military powers.

The geopolitics of the US imperialism is to guard against other industrialized countries

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and before the rise of China, the only countries that can challenge the US hegemony in the world were those industrialized countries of Europe and Japan, i.e., those in the 2nd world. That’s why, after the implosion of the Soviet Union, there were no “peace dividends”. To maintain US’s grip on Europe, it needs an enemy. That is the main reason for eastern expansion of NATO, to stir up troubles, to create tensions, to start wars, so as to justify the US military stationed in Europe. The Balkan wars in the 90’s can thus be better understood as a rivalry between the superpowers over the control of Europe. At the same time the US is also stirring up tension in the Korean Peninsula, which gave US a pretext to station troops in Japan and South Korea.

To prevent the centrifugal force of the imperialist European countries spinning out of its control, for example the formation of EU and the Eurozone as a counter weight to the domination of the US, the US apply not only naked military occupations, but also economical controls, particularly controlling the lifeline of the European countries, primarily in energy resources.

Strategically speaking, oil & gas are the driving forces for any industrialized countries, and its importance is demonstrated amply by the unwavering supports the US gives to Israel & Saudi Aribia, as a means to cement its control of the Middle East oil resources.

In response, European countries tried to diversify its energy sources. The drive for sustainable and renewable energy in Europe can be seen clearly with this motivation. Germany, in particular, tried very hard to have alternative energy sources, despite US opposition. It helped to build the Nord Stream I & II pipelines. All of these efforts are ways for the European countries to gain more independence from the US domination.

To maintain its domination, the US had to crush any attempt that weakens its control over the European energy resources, including bombing the Nord Stream pipelines. It will try everything possible to prevent European countries from acquiring energy from any country outside of its sphere of influence, particularly from Russia.

The Ukraine war is over the control of Europe

From the above analysis, it is clear the war in Ukraine is all about controlling the energy market in Europe. Being more like a nuclearized Saudi Arabia, Russia’s economic lifeline depends on export of energy, especially to European countries. This is mainly through two channels. One is through pipelines in Ukraine, and the other is through Nord Stream pipelines.

The goal of the Russian invasion in Ukraine is to secure a pro-Russian government, and to secure Crimea through landed connection in eastern Ukraine, for it is the vital naval base for Russian to exert its influence in Europe.

The US, on the other hand, needs to consolidate its control of Europe through this war, by supporting Ukrainian resistance. The reluctance of the European countries, especially Germany in joining the war speaks volumes. Furthermore, the economic and political controversy over Nord Stream pipelines best illustrated the true motive of the US in this war, especially the ultimately military solution to the pipelines.

Thus, we can see the Ukraine war is the rivalry among the superpowers over the control of the 2nd world. On the one side is the US force NATO to participate, and the other is the remnant of the old Cold War empire, namely Russia, and together with the newly rising industrial superpower closely watching in the background.

Seeing the US and NATO as one entity thus totally missed the point of the war. The European countries want to diversify their energy sources, and the US prohibits them. On the superficial glories of the NATO’s unity is an increasing division between the US and the EU.

Nevertheless, the current war services the best interest for the US imperialism, for it tights Russian’s hand in this quagmire. In so doing, the US is freed to challenge the rise of China without the fear of Russia joining ranks with China.

“Who started the war?”

The US set up a trap and Putin falls for it. But for revolutionaries to speak of who started this INTER-IMPERIALIST war is ridiculous. It is an inter-imperialist war, for God’s sake! Warlords fighting over turf’s and we talk about who is the aggressor and who is on the “defense”? The motive of all imperialist was to “defend” their sphere of influences, and no imperialists are innocent.

I can’t understand why some revolutionaries even claim that Russian’s invasion of Ukraine is “counter-aggression”. That’s Putin’s point of view. To him, Russia took over Crimea was also a counter-aggression. Did any revolutionaries take sides during the Spanish-American war over the Philippines where the Spanish were on the “defense”? How can revolutionaries take sides in inter-imperialist wars? Since when did inter-imperialist rivalries need provoking? Speaking of which side is on the “defense” is taking sides with imperialists. Any talk of this kind falls right in line with the 2nd international’s betrayal during WWI.

I can understand people in Europe and other countries focused on the imperialist motive of US eastern expansion of NATO, for their main enemy is the US imperialism. What I CAN NOT understand is the lack of support for Ukrainian people’s struggle for national independence among some revolutionaries. They seemed to justify Russian invasion by only condemning the NATO’s eastern expansion, but paying only lip service to the suffering of the Ukraine people due to the invasion.

I think this is utterly wrong. Just like during World War II, the focus on united front against fascism does not mean the people of the 3rd world should not fight against British colonialism in their country. The same is true for the people of Ukraine today. Imperialism is imperialism, regardless of who started the war for whatever reason. In the end, it is the class analysis of the motivation behind the wars that counts, not geopolitics.

The tasks for the revolutionaries during imperialist rivalries

Given all of the above, the Ukraine war is still a complicated one. It is not only a proxy war between the two competing imperialist camps, it is also a war for national independence of Ukraine.

This type of complication happens often in history.

For example, during WWII, there was an imperialist rivalry between Germany, Italy, Japan, versus US, France, and England etc. At the same time, there were national liberation struggles in China and many 3rd world countries, such as in the Philippines, and in India.

The united front against fascism was the central piece during the second part of the WWII. However, this united front does not imply the people of India should abandon their struggle against British empire, nor should the Filipino people postpone their struggle against the US imperialist. The same was true in China. The united front against Japanese does not mean to abandon the revolutionaries struggle against the Nationalist KMT.

Mao’s independence within the united front has been proven to be the correct approach in this kind of situation.

It is my understanding that the Communist Party of India at the time abandoned their struggle against British empire. That was a right-wing opportunist line which failed to lead the national independence movement in India. We should not make the same kind of mistake this time.

Today, it is crystally clear that the US lead NATO has no interest in an independent Ukraine, and their support is only to advance the geopolitical aims of the US, and the US alone.

Thus, I believe the revolutionaries in the West are correct to expose the hypocrisies of the US lead NATO in the Ukraine war. I also think the people of the world should demand unconditional supports for the people of Ukraine in their struggle against Russian invasion. All aids should have no strings attached. At the same time, people of the world should fight against US let NATO as a tool for the US domination in the world, and against the rivalry between imperialist camps.

How should Ukrainian communist conduct themselves in this complicated situation? I have no idea. Without investigation I have no right to speak. All I can say is that the people of Ukraine need to learn from Mao, and to apply dialectical materialism in analyzing their concrete situation.

The main enemy facing the Ukrainian people at this point is clearly the Russian invasion, thus to fight against Russian invasion is their primary task. The revolutionaries of Ukraine need to be in the forefront in the struggle against Russian invasion on the one hand, and at the same time to wage the struggle against western imperialists that are trying to dominate and control Ukraine, a situation very much the same as the Chinese revolution during WWII.

What about fascism?

Russia claims Ukraine is a fascist country, as if Russia is in a struggle against fascism. This is purely an excuse for Russian imperialist. Regardless how brutal a ruler is, there is no excuse for imperialist intervention, as in the case for the US invasion to topple Iraqi’s Saddam Hussein.

As Marxists, we need objective standards in defining fascism without throwing this label at well to those that we don’t like, calling Ukraine, for example, a fascist country while ignoring true fascist states, some even run by family dynasties, as long as they claim to be socialist. This is the practice of double standard.

We can’t judge a system based on what it claimed to be. For example, the Labor Party in Britain is not for the working class, or a country call itself socialist doesn’t mean it is a country run by the working class. And yet, I find too many revolutionaries judge a system simply by its label.

What is fascism? Just like we need to distinguish between imperialism under feudalism and imperialism under capitalism, we also need to make a distinction between fascism under feudalism and fascism under capitalism. When we talk about imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, for example, we are not saying the Roman Empire was a capitalist system. The same is true about fascism.

Under capitalism, fascism is a systematic response of the capitalist ruling class in a country facing extreme crisis, either internally or externally. For example, Spain in the 30’s in the face of working-class uprising, or Germany and Japan in pre-World War II in the face of mighty enemies. Fascism is thus a system internally suppresses democracy, even within the ruling class, while crushing the working class’s struggle. When one sees a country where the working class can’t even speak their minds, that is not socialism but social fascism.

It is clear from this; the Russian invasion has nothing to do with fighting fascism. What about the fate of Eastern Ukraine?

That is a situation for the people of Ukraine to figure out, and not an excuse for imperialist to interfere. Just like Japanese imperialist’s support of “independence of Manchuria” before WWII, Russian imperialists has no interest in independence of minorities, so the support of Eastern Ukraine is clearly an excuse.