Would Marx support multipolarism?


In this time, when Russia is invading Ukraine, some people are trying to use a pseudo-Marxist argument to defend Putin's actions, and the Russian Federation generally.  Now, Russia is not a communist country, and Putin is not a Marxist.  He is a right wing, anti-communist dictator.  And these pseudo-Marxists know this.  But, they say, Russia should be defended because it acts as a counter to the imperialist west - the United States and the other countries of NATO.  Although the Russia Federation is not Marxist, they say, it should be defended because of the principle of "multipolarity," which serves to challenge the "unipolarity" of the United States and its allies.  But is this really a Marxist argument?  Would Marx support multipolarism?

The answer is no.

As painful as this may be to some people, the reality (which, incidentally, even "Realists" have recognized for decades) is that a multipolar world, with a geopolitical balance of power, is a remarkably stable world, a world in which nothing changes - it is the world that reproduces the status quo.  Even a bipolar world, such as (sort of) existed for (part of) the Cold War, is remarkably stabilizing and slows down social and economic change.  

As difficult as it may be to digest this information, a unipolar world is, in many ways, far more dynamic, far more unstable, and thus has the potential for much greater transformation (either in a positive or a negative sense).  

Let's be more precise about this: periods in which a geopolitical balance of power exists may be dynamic and innovative in certain ways - namely, they may speed up technological and scientific progress, as the different sides compete for technological dominance, for instance during an arms race, or the "space race".  But when it comes to political progress, geopolitical balances of power cause stagnation and prevent real political change.  Each of the sides can use the geopolitical stalemate to unite their own populace against a common enemy, thus creating greater social cohesion, conformity, and many opportunities for propaganda and stifling dissent.  Yes, after they have thoroughly consolidated power, the elites may throw some crumbs to the masses, providing some mild reforms - because this only helps their case in propagandizing against the external foreign enemy.  But nothing really changes at the level of control of the means of production, or real political power - because their dominance is essentially uncontested.

By contrast, periods of unipolarity may not be particularly filled with technical innovation, yet they are, without exception, periods of intense political and economic change.  This is the case for several reasons - first, most obviously, because the hegemonic power may impose political and economic change, in a unilateral way, upon other parts of the world.  Second, because other, lesser powers attempt to transform themselves to be more like the hegemonic power, so that they can "catch up" and attempt to compete.  And third, most important of all, the hegemonic power, without any meaningful external rivals, loses its capacity to maintain social ideological cohesion and is, itself, constantly transforming, often at a dizzying rate.  Unipolarities usually don't last very long.  The center collapses, and a new balance of power is eventually reached.

Communism, as Marx defined it, is "the real movement that abolishes the present state of things," i.e., the world system of the bourgeois mode of production.  Since a multipolar world is more stable than a unipolar world, the concrete effect of multipolarism is the political stabilization of the world system, which therefore works at cross-purposes to Marx's communism.  A communist, by Marx's definition, should prefer a unipolar world, precisely because it is more unstable.  Marx clearly perceived that the triumph of global capital was a precondition for the real movement beyond the bourgeois mode of production.

For a Marxist, multipolarism is neither inherently good nor inherently bad - the Marxist analysis of political economy generally eschews such moralistic judgements - but objectively, multipolarism is inherently conservative, in the sense that it tends to preserve power and class relations as they exist.  One might speculate that it is hypothetically possible that there are potential conditions under which multipolarism might be temporarily tactically useful.  Perhaps.  But this is fiction.  What we know from experience is that under the conditions of great power politics between two capitalist imperialist hegemons, multipolarism is unambiguously reactionary.  It serves to entrench the existing power of capitalist state apparati.  It might be added that it usually serves to strengthen capitalist state apparati in both imperialist hegemons.  The more that one poses a threat to the other, the more the other can justify tightening a grip on power at home and imperialist adventures abroad.

In his own lifetime, Marx was unafraid to take this logic to its inevitable conclusion.  Obviously, Marx wrote extensive propaganda against Russia, which he considered his essential geopolitical foe, what he famously called the "gendarme of European reaction."  (And clearly, Russia is the gendarme of European reaction once again - bankrolling and ideologically influencing many of the far-right and fascist parties not only in Europe, but around the world).  At times, Marx's visceral hatred of Russia bordered on conspiracy theory - such as Marx's completely ungrounded and implausible suspicions that Bakunin was an agent of the Russian government (Marx for some reason thought George Sand was in possession of documents that proved this, even though Sand herself denied this and defended Bakunin over and over again).  Or, of course, there was Marx's little-read book, "Revelations of the Diplomatic History of the 18th Century" (also translated as "Secret Diplomatic History of the 18th Century"), in which he suspects numerous officials of the British government of having been agents of the Czarist regime.  Around the same time, he wrote "The Story of the Life of Lord Palmerston," a biography of the famed Prime Minister of England, whom he also accuses of undue Russian influence.

But Marx went further than his negative criticism of Russia, and positively supported progressive England in a full-throated defense of its chess match against reactionary Russia - indeed, to the extent that he was critical of England's foreign policy, it was because England wasn't aggressive or militant enough.  In the mid-to-late 19th century, the British Empire reached it's largest size - the largest empire that has ever existed.  As the saying went back then, "The sun never sets on the British Empire," because it was an empire that literally spanned the globe.  Ever since 1830, Britain had been involved in what came to be known as the "Great Game," blocking Russian imperialist expansion.  British goals involved using the Ottoman Empire, the Persian Empire, the Khanate of Khiva, and the Emirate of Bukhara as buffer states against Russia.  Along the way came many conflicts, including the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1838 and the two Anglo-Sikh Wars of 1845 and 1848 respectively, and the term "Great Game" was coined by British diplomat Arthur Conolly in 1840.  But it was during the Crimean War (1853-1856) that this conflict reached a bloody apogee.  The Crimean War has been called "World War Zero" because of its number of belligerents (the British Empire, the French Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and Sardinia on one side; the Russian Empire and Greece on the other) and the scale of casualties - nearly 700,000, which may not sound like a lot compared with 20th century tragedies, but it was a massive number in the 19th century, even greater than the number of casualties in the American Civil War of the following decade.

Marx and Engels responded to the Crimean War with unbridled enthusiasm.  Marx had moved to London, England 4 years before the before the beginning of the Crimean War, in 1849, and it became his home.  He would remain there, apart from some brief journeys, for the rest of his life.  Upon the onset of the war, Marx immediately set to work writing articles for the New York Tribune with titles like "The Russian Menace to Europe," in which he warned of the "race" "whose blood is preponderant wherever a mixture of races has occurred" - namely, the Slavs.  He was shocked that British newspapers had, to his mind, failed to demonstrate "the vital interests which should render Great Britain the earnest and unyielding opponent of the Russian projects of annexation and aggrandisement."  He attempted to convince British and American readers that successful persecution of the war against Russia was necessary, partly on economic grounds, detailing the necessity for both trade and military strategy of securing the Dardanelles.  But he also had ideological reasons for supporting western Europe against Russia, averring that "Russia is decidedly a conquering nation, and was so for a century, until the great movement of 1789 called into potent activity an antagonist of formidable nature. We mean the European Revolution, the explosive force of democratic ideas and man’s native thirst for freedom. Since that epoch there have been in reality but two powers on the continent of Europe – Russia and Absolutism, the Revolution and Democracy. For the moment the Revolution seems to be suppressed, but it lives and is feared as deeply as ever. Witness the terror of the reaction at the news of the late rising at Milan. But let Russia get possession of Turkey, and her strength is increased nearly half, and she becomes superior to all the rest of Europe put together. Such an event would be an unspeakable calamity to the revolutionary cause."  

In these articles, Marx writes about the "balance of power" (he uses this very term), and in his opinion, those who have defended it, have sought to maintain the "status quo."  But this, he thinks, is as impossible as it is foolish and counter-revolutionary; "Keep up the status quo in Turkey! Why, you might as well try to keep up the precise degree of putridity into which the carcass of a dead horse has passed at a given time, before dissolution is complete. Turkey goes on decaying, and will go on decaying as long as the present system of ‘balance of power’ and maintenance of the status quo goes on."  Marx thinks it is not enough to keep the peace in Europe - the western powers should not stop until they secure a total defeat of the Russian Empire.  In "The Vienna Note" (September 20th, 1853), Marx writes furiously against those in England and elsewhere in western Europe who wanted peace, whom he calls "peacemongers": "One thing must be evident at least: that it is the stock-jobbers, and the peacemongering bourgeoisie, represented in the government by the oligarchy, who surrender Europe to Russia, and that in order to resist the encroachments of the Czar, we must, above all, overthrow the inglorious Empire of these mean, cringing, and infamous adorers of the golden calf!"  

So clearly Marx supported the British Empire, and the west generally, in the Crimean war, against the "encroachments" of the Russian Empire - an encroachment which is weirdly and farcically repeating itself these days.  But he didn't stop there.  Earlier that same year, on June 10th, 1853, Marx, from London, wrote his somewhat notorious essay on "The British Rule in India". Here he summarizes the barbarity of the "monstrosities" of the British Empire towards India, but then he concludes, somewhat surprisingly, that "England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution."  In other words, he winds up, in a somewhat dialectical way, defending British rule in India, and hoping for its continuation, long enough for the industrial revolution to transform India from a place of backward "Oriental despotism," a place of "undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life" into a place that "elevat[es] man" to "the sovereign of circumstances."  That is, while condemning how "stupid" British political domination of India was, he champions the British Empire in that it brought about industrial development.

I am not a dogmatic Marxist, but at least I am aware of what Marx actually said and wrote and did, unlike these so-called, self-described "Marxists" who use his name to justify their own despotic brain-fog.  At this time, when Russia is once again the gendarme of European reaction, we should remember Marx and his ruthless commitment to a progressive unipolarity.


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