For once one of my projects, the study of imperialism, is spot on as far as events in the world are concerned; this cannot be said of my interest in the patron saint of translators, St Jerome, or in Dorset church architecture.
I’ve felt that imperialism was carelessly defined or rather that two definitions were applied and often mixed up – the traditional broader definition of a country or people exercising control over other countries, which covers the Roman Empire, the Mogul Empire, the British Empire regardless of their level of economic development and definitions based on imperialism being the highest stage of capitalism used by the Left (Lenin) but also, to some extent, by academic economists (Hobson).
I’ve felt on firm ground when referring to the UK or US as imperialist countries in the second narrower definition – countries where export of capital has become more important than export of goods, where income from investments abroad is substantial (compared with income from trade) and where there are large monopolies and oligopolies. And France and Germany, albeit with their particular histories, can be fitted into the same framework as junior partners (along with the UK) under US domination. But my eyes glaze over when talking about Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands – they are quite clearly not in the same league as the US but would we describe them as weaker imperialist countries or imperialist to some extent?
We probably have to accept that definitions are an aid in assisting us understand the world but that reality is always more complex and will often not slot in nicely with our definitions. We need to study each particular case, to develop the relevant metrics, to be able to make clear statements about particular countries.
This becomes even more complicated when we try to analyse Russia and China. I don’t believe that China is an imperialist country according to the narrower definition. But I am very aware of the weakness and incoherence of my arguments when I discuss this position. I want to read more so that I can convince myself by my arguments.
According to the narrower definition of imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism, imperialism is not a policy (like, for example, colonialism for a merchant-dominated society). It is driven by capital in search of profitable investment.
Thus the Nazi government of Germany before the Second World War had various motivations, not just economic, for wanting to unpick the effects of the treaty of Versailles. However, deprived of colonies after WW1, in a world largely divided up and controlled by other imperialist countries, German capital was driven to turn to the east in search of profit. Viewed solely from the perspective of realpolitik, appeasement could have worked, in the short term, if the British government had been willing to allow the Germans a free hand in Eastern Europe. But in the long run, further clashes between rising German and declining British imperialism would have been inevitable, and Germany would then have been a much more powerful adversary. And that view became the majority view of the UK ruling class.
In the current situation, the Ukrainian government is understandably presenting their struggle against the Russians as being not just on their own behalf but for the sake of the whole of Europe. And that concessions to the Russians would be in the same category as the Chamberlain government’s attempts to appease Nazi Germany, only emboldening the aggressor to continue further aggression elsewhere.
I don’t believe in this scenario. The Russian government undoubtedly wants to unpick some of the effects of the weakness of Russia at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, to restore its influence in the area that was the Soviet Union, especially those areas with close historical links and similarities to Russia. This has increasingly brought Russia into conflict with the US and Nato, but I don’t think that we will see a further drive to the west. (unless the situation in Ukraine leads to a general European war) any more than the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to the spread of Soviet influence beyond Afghanistan. This is firstly because any Russian “victory” in Ukraine may very likely be a resource-draining quagmire but secondly because I do not believe that Russian capital is sufficiently advanced to seriously challenge US hegemony (unlike, potentially, German capital in its immediate area and China). While the Russian government and Russian companies may welcome easier access to the raw materials and agricultural products of the Ukraine; they are hardly likely to be driven to look to the west in search of higher profits (other than as rentier capitalists).
In other words, Russia is not a major (or perhaps even minor) imperialist country in the second narrower sense.
We are, however, seeing another step away from the “Pax Americana” which we have habituated ourselves with since the end of the Second World War and the establishment of US hegemony over Europe (it’s not, of course, been much of a “pax” outside Europe). In fact, peaceful relations between the competing imperialist powers have been the exception rather than the rule – we only need to think of the history of the twentieth century up to 1945. But sharpening economic crises have made the US fretful about the existing division of the world and perhaps more eager to penetrate areas where it has only been able to operate with difficulty (such as China, where the ruling bureaucracy, schooled in Stalinist ideas of peaceful coexistence with capitalism, has had a rude awakening from hopes that it could “cut a deal” with the West, and Russia). And the rising economic power of China, however, we define that society and economy, has also upset the existing relationships of power.
But also, closer to home, German reunification and the growing power of German capital in Europe has also “disturbed the peace”. I suspect that the Americans do not view lightly the prospect of closer relations between Russia and Germany and are eager to do what they can to prevent this (a not unimportant sub-plot in the ongoing struggle in Ukraine).
Whatever the outcome of the situation in Ukraine, there is probably a considerable risk of further turbulence upsetting the long period of pax Americana, not necessarily from the Russians as I have written above but from other imperialist countries, in particular, the Germans, beginning to chafe at their junior status in the American alliance.
The events in Ukraine are shocking and horrible and even closer at hand than the previous horrors of the break-up of Yugoslavia, but long-term peace is a forlorn hope given the nature of capitalism.