Those who side with Russia against the US today are making the same mistake some on the left did during the Cold War, writes Lachlan Marshall
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union saw the US become the undisputed global superpower.
Since then China has emerged as a rising power and Vladimir Putin now leads a more assertive Russia. But the US still retains military superiority.
This has led some on the left to support opponents of the US like Russia and Assad as a counter-weight to US power, and even to apologise for their slaughter in Syria.
However opposing America isn’t the same as opposing imperialism.
This echoes the way many opponents of US imperialism lined up behind Russia in the Cold War as a counterweight to US global domination.
Many on the left also supported the Stalinist regime in Russia because they saw it as socialist. Yet Russia itself was a ruthless imperialist power.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 saw the working class take power. However, the failure of the revolution to spread, coupled with the devastation of the Russian economy following years of foreign intervention and war, led to a counter-revolution.
The system of grassroots democracy embodied in the workers’ councils, or soviets, disappeared.
Under Stalin, a form of capitalism developed where the state directed all economic activity. But just as in market economies, there was no democratic control over the economy.
Russia underwent rapid industrialisation in order to compete economically and militarily against the West. Brutal five year plans, based on the exploitation of workers, peasants and slave labour, killed millions.
This intense exploitation meant that on the eve of the Second World War Russia had more tanks, planes and artillery than Germany.
Russia’s new ruling class renounced the original Bolshevik aim of world revolution and joined in the system of state competition: imperialism.
Stalin’s supporters like to present him as an opponent of fascism. But it was the disastrous polices he imposed on the German Communist Party, in the form of the “Third Period”, that allowed Hitler to take power in the first place.
Introduced in 1929, the new line described the social democratic parties as the main enemy of the working class, as “social fascists.” This meant the Communist Party refused to join forces with the Social Democratic Party at precisely the time when unity was vital to defeat the Nazis. Tragically, this allowed Hitler to take power in 1933, and to murder and imprison communist and social democratic workers alike.
The ascent of Hitler spooked Stalin into a volte face and the adoption of the Popular Front policy. But rather than seeing the revolutionary struggles of the international working class as the antidote to fascism, Stalin joined the great power game and sought alliances with the UK and France.
In order to appease Britain and France’s rulers, Stalin sabotaged the Spanish revolution, diverting it from a revolutionary war into a conventional military conflict. Communist policy, along with the failure of anarchist leaders to take power, led to the defeat of the Spanish working class and triumph of the Franco dictatorship.
Some see the Second World War as the Soviet Union’s greatest hour. Hitler’s defeat by Russia was indeed a turning point in the war and a blow from which the Nazi regime never recovered.
However Stalin’s attitude to Nazism was anything but principled. Only a week before Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Stalin signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler partitioning Poland. Hitler took western Poland while Stalin took the rest of Poland along with the Baltic States and Romania.
On the first anniversary of this Hitler-Stalin Pact the official Soviet newspaper, Pravda, acknowledged, “this pact has made things easier for us; it has also been of great advantage to Germany, since she can be completely confident of peace on her Eastern borders.”
It was only in 1941, after Germany itself attacked Russia, that Stalin declared war on Germany.
Hitler’s invasion took Russian forces by surprise. In its first day Nazi forces reached 60 kilometres into Russian territory and destroyed 1200 Soviet aircraft.
Stalin countered German chauvinism with Russian chauvinism. Now began the “fatherland war.” He disbanded the Communist International in May 1943, a measure designed to appease Britain and the US, and fostered a close relationship with the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Stalinist regime was so hated that the initial popular response to the German invasion was muted. However German brutality, along with Russian state propaganda, eventually stirred patriotic sentiment.
Ordinary people took up arms to defend themselves. But, according to one veteran interviewed by the Russian writer Elena Joly, “We were not defending Stalin, but our homes and families.” Another explained how, “We did not win the war thanks to Stalin, but despite him!”
In all the areas under German occupation, there were both collaborators and resistance fighters. Some among Russia’s national minorities collaborated with the Nazis, preferring to fight the empire that had trampled on their rights for centuries.
Russia collectively punished entire communities for this. A 1944 decree from Moscow read: “Evict all Tatars from the Crimea and place them permanently as special settlers in areas of Uzbekistan.” Around 200,000 Tatars were evicted, including many who fought in the Red Army. A similar fate befell the Chechens.
But Stalin was just as suspicious of the resistance. During an uprising against the Germans in Warsaw in 1944 Stalin refused to allow Allied help to the insurgents and condemned them to defeat.
Dividing the spoils
The Nazi loss at the Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943 sealed their defeat. By 1944 the Red Army was sweeping west, through Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Hungary and into the Baltic States.
With Germany in retreat, the Allies negotiated over the division of conquered territory.
At the Tehran Conference of late 1943 Stalin divided up Europe with US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They agreed that Russian territory would expand into Poland along the Curzon Line—the same arbitrary line that Hitler and Stalin used in their non-aggression pact of 1939.
Soviet diplomats scoured the secret treaties between the Allies and Tsarist Russia signed during the First World War, looking for precedents on which to base their claims to territory.
In the end Churchill and Stalin agreed that oil-rich Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary went to Russia, Greece was Britain’s, and Yugoslavia was to be shared 50-50.
They decided that, “if the British found it necessary to take military action to quell internal disorders in Greece, the Soviets would not interfere. In return, the British would recognise the right of the Soviets to take the lead in maintaining order in Rumania.”
When British forces arrived in Greece the country was in the control of communist-led partisans. Churchill prepared to support the monarchists against the left, and when civil war broke out in December 1944 there was not a peep from the Soviet press or government.
As Red Army tanks rolled across Eastern Europe in 1945, the Soviets looted its industry, with entire factories transferred to Russia.
But “peace,” such as it was, was short lived. After victory over Germany and the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Stalin concentrated resources into developing his own nuclear weapons. Again, Russian workers were forced to sacrifice their living standards as the ruling class poured capital into weapons of mass destruction, to match those of the west.
The Cold War conflict between the American and Russian ruling classes is often portrayed as an ideological struggle between capitalism and communism. But like all imperialist wars, it was based on competition between rival ruling classes.
The penetration of American influence into Western Europe through Marshall Plan aid, begun in 1948, prompted Stalin to tighten his grip on Eastern Europe.
The establishment of NATO followed in 1949, uniting Western Europe under Washington’s leadership. Moscow’s response was the Warsaw Pact, established in 1955 to coordinate the military resources of Russia’s satellite states.
Following the defeat of Japan in 1945, the US and USSR occupied Korean. Despite popular support for a united Korea, the two superpowers divided the peninsula and installed dictatorships in their spheres of influence.
After securing support from Stalin and Mao, North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung invaded the South in June 1950, sparking the Korean War. US troops poured into Korea to back up the dictatorship in the south. The war lasted three years and killed millions of civilians.
Stalin’s death in 1953 brought a softening of some of the wilder excesses his dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s. But there was to be no scaling back of Russian imperial power.
The USSR ruled its conquered territories with the same brutality as US imperialism.
When the working class rose up in revolution in Hungary in 1956, creating real soviets, or workers’ councils, Russian tanks put down the resistance, murdering thousands of Hungarian workers.
In 1962 US President Kennedy and Russian leader Krushchev brought the world the closest it has been to nuclear annihilation during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Prague Spring of 1968 again saw students and workers inside the Eastern Bloc take to the streets to demand sweeping change, just as their brothers and sisters in the West did that year. Again, the Red Army and other Warsaw Pact countries invaded Czechoslovakia to crush them.
By the late 1980s, the Stalinist regimes were teetering on the edge of economic collapse. Workers’ resentment, repressed for so many decades, finally found an outlet.
In 1989 Eastern Europe rose up in revolt, and within two years the USSR was no more.
Russia was just as much an imperialist power as the US. It was wrong to take its side in the Cold War, in the mistaken belief that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.” And it remains wrong to adopt the same approach today.
The only genuine alternative to imperialism is the struggles of the working class and oppressed against their rulers, whoever those rulers might be.