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Putin’s Invasion: Imperialism after the epoch of Lenin and Wilson

Cihan Tugal, professor, sociology | March 6, 2022

“The fundamental and formally legal foundations of our state were not promptly cleansed of the odious and utopian fantasies inspired by the revolution, which are absolutely destructive for any normal state.” – Vladimir Putin, February 21, 2022

We need to resist Putin’s invasion of Ukraine with all responsible tools at our disposal, and not only out of humanitarian concern for Ukrainians. Just like the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Russian invasion is both symptom and precipitator of a much more global (and fatally destructive) process. It is as historical a turning point as 2003, which in fact aggravates dynamics initiated by the latter.

The American invasions of the past two decades are signs of weakness rather than strength. Unlike many of America’s earlier wars, these failed to deepen the country’s hold over its allies. What the United States exercised in much of the 20th century was “hegemony,” that is, force plus consent. Its global rule was based on the consent of broadening sectors of the world population, as well as forbidding doses of force and violence against those who were unwilling to comply. The consent-giving sectors included not only the elite and working classes of advanced capitalist nations, but certain sections of the Third World’s elite (and occasionally people) too. By contrast, after 2003, the US has relied increasingly more on force, threat, trickery, lies, and violence. Of course, these were already central to American involvement in Vietnam, Korea, Chile, and elsewhere. But the point is, such “uncivilized” elements have become more essential to American foreign policy in our century.

What enabled this 21st-century turn was the gradual fizzling out of revolutionary threats around the world after the defeat of the “global 1968” in both East and West. The breakup of the USSR only sealed the deal. But hegemony often loses its drive to achieve consent in the absence of challenges. It was primarily because of working class, anti-colonial, and then other radical movements that the US and its allies felt pressured to exercise a balanced hegemony. Given that the USSR and its satellites also expressed working-class (“Marxist”) and anti-colonial (“Leninist”) aspirations, albeit in appropriated and distorted form, we can characterize the Cold War as an “American(-Soviet) hegemony,” that is, American leadership shadowed by the alternative of Soviet leadership.  Once revolutionary threats from the South and East were gone, the US abandoned its will to generate consent. NATO, which had become completely unnecessary in a post-Soviet world, was artificially bloated beyond any Cold War American leader’s wildest dreams. The new, “democratic” and neoliberal Russia of the 1990s could easily be incorporated into a broadening world hegemony. Instead, the US chose to antagonize the emergent Russian elite. That the growing might of this elite, rather than any Soviet nostalgia, is at the root of Putin’s invasion is evidenced by the dictator’s recent rant on Soviet history.

From “Lenin’s Ukraine” to “Putin’s Ukraine”

It is often said that Putin wants to revive the Soviet Union. He has indeed expressed nostalgia for some of its aspects. However, before he invaded Ukraine, he felt the need to disown Lenin specifically – and along with him, all Soviet policy on nationalities. Why? Here is what he says on the issue (after the many self-contradictions and confusions are weeded out):

On February 21, Putin provocatively called his future victim “Lenin’s Ukraine.” He alleged that this nation has been artificially created by state policies, starting with Lenin’s. Stalin and Lenin initially disagreed about the nationalities question, he told the world, with the former upholding autonomy and the latter a confederacy. Lenin won the debate during his lifetime, and Stalin could implement his policies only after Lenin’s death. But Lenin’s idea of the “right to self-determination” remained enshrined in the Constitution of the USSR, and was used against Russia by the nationalists of the other republics during the breakup of the Soviet Union. Therefore, according to Putin, it was “worse than a mistake” to enshrine this idea in the Constitution. This was an apparently “crazy” act, which the Bolsheviks resorted to only to stay in power, at the cost of betraying Russia.

This is history rewritten by Putin, a history where Ukraine and the other nations of the USSR are communist artefacts, and only Russia is real and natural.

In his long statement, Putin also talked of nationalism very frequently, treating it as a pathology or disease. He never once mentioned Russian nationalism, and did not reflect for a second on his own brazen chauvinism. As bizarrely, almost neglecting that minority nationalisms were quite strong throughout the Russian Empire before the Bolshevik Revolution, he blamed Lenin for Ukrainian nationalism (along with other nationalist “viruses” in the region up until our era) and called the principle of self-determination a “utopian fantasy.” The best response comes from Lenin’s tract The Right of Nations to Self-Determination, which was published in 1914. Lenin writes as if he has read Putin’s statement, but this is not a coincidence, since the mindset of the nationalists of dominant nations has changed little in a century: “to brush aside the mass national movements once they have started, and to refuse to support what is progressive in them means, in effect, pandering to nationalistic prejudices, that is, recognizing ‘one’s own nation’ as a model nation (or, we would add, one possessing the exclusive privilege of forming a state).”

Putin claimed that the Bolsheviks “severed” Ukraine from Russia. He called the principle of self-determination “utopian.” And his whole statement implied the existence of some natural borders that mark Russia off from the rest of the world. In the same tract, Lenin refutes all statements of this kind, along with the assumption that self-determination is a utopia:

“The policy of Marx and Engels on the Irish question serves as a splendid example of the attitude the proletariat of the oppressor nations should adopt towards national movements, an example which has lost none of its immense practical importance. It serves as a warning against that “servile haste” with which the philistines of all countries, colors and languages hurry to label as ‘utopian’ the idea of altering the frontiers of states that were established by the violence and privileges of the landlords and bourgeoisie of one nation.”

No national territory is natural. All are constituted by violence, privilege, and (in rare cases) the struggles of the oppressed. No nation goes back to time immemorial. State policies have played a big role in the creation of each nation. Neither Russia nor Ukraine are exceptions to this general rule.

Despite being dated in many regards, The Right of Nations to Self-Determination shows one thing very clearly: raising the flag of self-determination was not some desperate move that the Bolsheviks made in order to hang on to power. It was the culmination of decades of thinking on the margins of Europe, a process which brought Marx from a haughty position regarding the Poles and the Irish, to the embrace of their freedoms. The same process, once reconstructed under the conditions of a semi-peripheral empire and its integration into world capitalism, led to the conclusion that proletarian struggles cannot be severed from anti-imperialism and the struggle of minorities and oppressed nations. Lenin was very clear that, if class struggle turns its back on minorities and oppressed nations, it is bound to lose its revolutionary character.

Putin says that Lenin’s principle of self-determination is “absolutely destructive for any normal state.” Right on. What somebody like Putin – a statesman who learned about revolutionary activists from official ideology, rather than the Bolsheviks’ own writings – cannot appreciate is that Bolshevism is the greatest enemy of every “normal” state. And therefore, he adds: “Lenin and his associates [created Ukraine] in a way that was extremely harsh on Russia – by separating, severing what is historically Russian land.” True. A Bolshevik’s sole desire is to finish off empires and support the freedom of peoples. Not to serve so-called “separatism,” but to build the greater, voluntary unity of the wretched of the earth. Putin himself is the offspring of a “normal” state’s appropriation and distortion of Bolshevik principles. This is where Putin’s narrative actually makes sense, since the early Bolshevik nationality policy was followed by Stalin’s rehabilitation of Great Russian chauvinism and the subordination of the nation-building process of the oppressed nations to the functional needs of the Soviet state.

Yet, even if the people Putin calls “communists” helped create the nation-states of today, Putin’s Russian nationalism is playing a role here too. In the case of Ukraine, for example, Putin’s aggression during the last few years has flattened out many complexities of belonging. Many people who did not perceive Ukrainian-ness as their primary identity now do. Up until very recently, mixture and ambiguity marked the national-ethnic identities of many people from the Ukraine. Some identified primarily as Jewish, and secondarily as Ukrainian or Russian. Still others proudly traced their roots back to several places including Russia. As especially rightwing versions of nationalism gain clout, this richness loses its salience. The growing rightwing is inhospitable not only to Ukraine’s Russian inhabitants, but also to other ethnic and sexual minorities, as well as migrants. In this sense, we could call this country “Putin’s Ukraine.”

Obviously, Russian, Ukrainian, American, and Western European actions of the last years have contributed more to the making of contemporary Ukraine than Lenin did. “Lenin’s Ukraine” is an unrealized potential: a self-governing republic of bottom-up organizations of workers and peasants. Parts of Ukraine indeed were on that route in the initial years of the Bolshevik Revolution, but their right to self-determination was soon stolen from them. (Even early Bolshevik actions contributed to that tragic result, and in fact harbored the seeds of the more disastrous 1930s.) “Putin’s Ukraine” is a concrete reality: it is one of the many unfortunate small and medium-sized nations of our era, pushed each day further to the right by aggressive inter-imperialist rivalry.

Putin’s decision to “inform” the world about what seems to many as an arcane debate between Lenin and Stalin birthed countless bland fact-checking articles in the Western media. Yet hardly any of these endeavor to gauge what Putin is trying to accomplish, beyond vague talk of “an old lunatic’s” self-serving justification of “whatever action he plans next.” Going one step beyond such facile dismissals, one commentator opined that the speech was an elaborate justification of future invasions, mostly geared towards the Russian public to secure its support amid the hardship the looming wars will create. However, there is nothing arcane about intra-Bolshevik debates, and the repercussions of the Putin speech is not restricted to the region. Bolshevik-initiated debates and policies (including, as the next section will discuss, the liberal appropriation of their spirit) shaped the global 20th century, and Putin’s revisionist account is an attempt to chart a new path for the 21st century.

The American response at the United Nations and Wilson’s principles

What Putin’s February 21 statement amounts to is not just a rewriting of history, but a historically significant denial of the right to self-determination. It is the official recognition of what neo-conservatives have de facto accomplished. The neocons are the enabler and source of these statements. By its actions if not words, the US had already legitimated the remaking of nations through untrammeled violence (i.e. domination without hegemony). Post-2003 American practice behooved other imperialists to follow its example. Now, yet other imperialists and sub-imperialists will be further emboldened by Putin’s actions.

When rights such as self-determination are core aspects of a constitution, they can be brought up and stir mobilization, even if they have not been implemented for decades. The removal of such rights from legal documents is therefore consequential. Putin now goes one step further. He wants to remove these rights from discourse and memory. That is, he wants to “decommunize.”

The American ambassador to the United Nations responded to Putin’s fact-bending (yet historic) invasion statement with another fact-bending and cynical statement, accusing Putin of trying to return to a world before the UN and the breakup of the tsarist Russian Empire. In fact, the US has already suspended the right to self-determination, which lies at the basis of the UN. The statement also claims the UN (by implication, the US) has always been a force of decolonization. What are the facts on that matter?

It is true that with Wilson’s principles, the US committed itself to decolonization, even if in an unintended, twisted, and inconsistent way. (Wilson had intended his principles to apply mostly to intra-European disputes, but many pro-American leaders outside of Europe interpreted them to be universal, as a response to which Wilson shifted his position). This paved the way for America’s grabbing the leadership of global capitalism from Britain, the chief colonizer. However, Wilson’s principles were also a move against the other potential leaders of decolonization: the Bolsheviks had effectively combined class struggle and national self-determination, and this combination threatened the very foundations of all existing forms of domination. Wilson’s principles were at bottom a defanged version of Leninism.

Throughout the Cold War, Russia promised socialism and decolonization, and the US democracy and decolonization. Yet both combinations were delivered in corrupted forms (just think of the number of CIA-sponsored military interventions). What these two nations abandoned in deed, one of them abandoned also in name: In the late 1980s, Russia gave up the pretense of serving the global proletarian revolution. The US, for its part, has always been wary of admitting that it serves neither democracy nor national liberation anymore. The only silver lining in the American ambassador’s recent statement to the United Nations is that it no longer repeats the mainstream lie that Putin is trying to revive the Soviet Union. Now we are told he is trying to revive Tsarist Russia, and wants to turn the clock back to 1919. This is perhaps a better statement, but it is infested with many problems: The “turning back the clock” framing itself is problematic, since Putin is in many ways quite future-oriented. Yes, he glorifies the past, but he and his cronies would not want to take one single breath in pre-capitalist Russia. They are a solid part of world capitalism, and their apparently insane actions are intended to produce a better place at the table. They want to be recognized as legitimate imperialists in the new, post-Wilson and post-Lenin world of the 21st century.

Putin is an invader and murderer. But let’s not forget what produced him and his orientations: not simply and only his KGB past and his personality (the obsessions of mainstream media and scholarship), but Western imperialism’s increasing aggression after the USSR’s dissolution. The Russian economy’s further integration into world capitalism contributed as much to the making of Putin’s regime. The result was the cronies around Putin. He is not only serving his ego, but a capitalist class fostered by post-1991 reforms, which were selective appropriations of free market ideas. The gang of cronies is not Putin’s creation alone. It is an outcome of transnational dynamics. This class is hungry for markets, and it cannot help but look for ways to burst out of Russia. The Russian state’s growing impotence in the 1990s did not sit well with them. The military-diplomatic establishment of the Russian state also aligns with this class, especially as the US encroaches on territory they perceive as rightfully their sphere of influence.

Putin represents the interests of these capitalists and this establishment, even if there are signs that he is losing some of his coterie as a result of his rash actions. The problem for this class, especially its better-integrated “liberal” elements (including the capitalists but not only them) is the way Putin has executed the most recent expansion into Ukraine, not the expansion in and of itself. Russian capitalists have lost access to huge swathes of the Western market, and it is dubious that this loss can be restored, or compensated by an expansion eastward. Nevertheless, what appears for now to be a divergence between their interests and Putin’s should not create the illusion that a liberal leader could simply replace Putin and build a US-friendly “democratic” state. Putinism’s core orientations, oligarchic capitalism and imperialism, are beyond Putin himself. In the absence of Russian mass movements that tackle oligarchy and imperialism, even if a Yeltsin-like figure were to replace Putin, their rule would be temporary, and the trends that brought Putin to the helm would kick back in. US-led world capitalism has already annihilated the universe in which the UN mattered. Putinism is the price.

The only peaceful path out of the bloodbath this intensifying inter-imperialist rivalry will foster is a rediscovery and updating of revolutionary self-determination in a way appropriate to the realities of the 21st century. This 21st century self-determination will be more appreciative of the diversity of each nation, and of the need to defend the autonomy of each minority, including those residing within small nations. An increasing emphasis on autonomy is also necessary to prevent the appropriation of rights such as self-determination by “normal” states. Moreover, we need to integrate the right to freedom of movement and open borders into our understanding of revolutionary self-determination, which is challenging but necessary, given global warming and the growth of “surplus” populations. How these principles would be implemented in the current situation should be the topic of a longer discussion, but a few recently published statements offer useful starting points.

This essay was originally published in LeftEast:

Putin’s Invasion: Imperialism after the epoch of Lenin and Wilson