Viewpoint Magazine just released their latest issue, on imperialism. One essay, “The Specificity of Imperialism” by Salar Mohandesi, critically examines Marxist definitions and analysis of imperialism. The main points revolve around moving away from the classical Marxist conception of imperialism as purely an extension of capitalism and economic dynamics, and toward viewing imperialism as an inherent quality of most nation-state formations, independent of whether they are capitalist or not. Socialist nations have been imperialist (i.e. the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and of Afghanistan in 1979), as have Third World nations who themselves supposedly upheld anti-imperialist politics (i.e. Egyptian meddling in Syria and North Yemen in the 1950s, Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980).
To elaborate on the idea that imperialism is a product of modern states rather than of capital, the essay looks at the Third Indochina War, fought in the late 1970s mainly between three supposedly socialist states: Vietnam, Cambodia, and China. The commentary draws mostly from the book Red Brotherhood At War: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Since 1975 (1990). Despite the fact that socialist politics is supposed to be transnational/internationalist, the socialist states of the time were cheerfully engaging in cynical geopolitical maneuvering on the basis of their own nation-state’s territorial integrity and security, even at the expense of other socialist states and movements. The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was more interested in pursuing ethnic grievances against the Vietnamese and the restoration of the old imperial glory of the Khmer Empire, and China — extremely hostile to the USSR after the Sino-Soviet split — was allied with them as a counterweight to Soviet-backed Vietnam. And so border conflicts between Vietnam and Cambodia escalated, as did genocidal policies within Cambodia against Vietnamese people and other minorities, and eventually Vietnam invaded Cambodia, provoking a brief Chinese invasion of Vietnam, and then many years of occupation and guerrilla warfare and sabotage. Not a great look for states supposedly upholding the legacy of a global working class undivided by borders and nationalism.
Aside from the fact that socialist and/or anti-imperialist revolutions don’t overthrow the potential for such states to engage in imperial behaviors themselves, it is also worth expanding on the essay’s comments about the way smaller states replicate or fit into larger imperial systems. The Middle East is a fine region to use to unpack this. A certain kind of reductive anti-imperialist perspective will try to pin every single thing that happens in the Middle East as a consequence of US/Western imperialism, but the reality is much more complicated and interesting, and requires looking at the roles played by the regional bourgeoisie classes and their relative autonomy from the US.
The UAE, for example, is firmly meshed with US imperialism, whether you look at its banking system or its contracting with various American defense companies. But at the same time, the UAE demonstrates an ambitious will toward a level of autonomy, with its military taking a lead on interventions in Libya and Yemen. Indeed, the latter case demonstrates the most independence that the UAE has shown yet, with its recent actions in backing southern separatists against the Hadi regime, which is backed by the UAE’s close ally Saudi Arabia. The separatist insurrection could very well threaten the entire Saudi project of crushing the Houthis, and so it remains to be seen how this will affect Saudi-Emirati relations. And of course it doesn’t seem like the US is playing much of a role in this at all despite its ongoing support for the anti-Houthi coalition, similar to its lack of interest in post-Gaddafi Libya, where it also accepted a situation where regional allies fought a proxy war against one another (Egypt/UAE vs. Qatar). The UAE has also carved out some relative autonomy in Afghanistan, which while still dependent on US military presence, is its own significant player when it comes to finance and banking.
Turkey is another example of an imperialist power that is on a lower order than that of the US. Turkey has of course long been a junior partner to US imperialism as a key member of NATO. But while recent policies such as the funding of various Sunni militias in Syria continued this tradition, Turkey has also clearly gone increasingly further from the US imperial orbit as it seeks to prioritize its own imperial interests, namely against Kurdish nationalism and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Today this pits it directly against US imperial strategy in Syria, which is to continue to oppose the Assad regime and Iran by arming the Syrian Kurds, who are largely affiliates of the PKK, and ensuring their control over northern and eastern Syria and much of the country’s agricultural and oil resources (not unlike pre-2003 US policy around Iraqi Kurdistan).
All of which is to say: don’t reduce modern geopolitics and global capitalism to be solely the product of US imperial planners! Such a narrow view covers up the complicated reality of a terrain of many actors of varying autonomy, and more importantly, fools us into believing that all it takes to defeat imperialism (as a tendency of nations or capital) is for there to be successful national liberation or socialist revolutions. In reality, as Mohandesi points out, what is needed is whole-scale restructuring of the nation-state form itself, in conjunction with international revolutionary socialist struggle.