The war in Georgia this summer bloodily marked the resurgence of Russian imperialism and the intensification of imperialist rivalries at a time of deepening economic crisis. It is a warning of more wars, large and small, that the capitalist system in its imperialist epoch threatens to unleash.
The war caused massive devastation and suffering for the oppressed peoples of South Ossetia and of Georgia itself. It began when Georgian armed forces invaded South Ossetia, a separatist region on the Georgia-Russia border, on the night of August 7; they bombed its capital Tskhinvali, reportedly killing over a thousand civilians and causing massive destruction. On August 8, Russia launched a counterattack that led to even worse devastation, invading South Ossetia and bombing military targets within Georgia itself. The next day Russia bombed Georgian cities, including Gori, the major city between South Ossetia and the Georgian capital Tbilisi, and Poti, a Black Sea port far from South Ossetia.
By August 10 Russia had driven Georgian troops out of South Ossetia, and on August 11 Russia invaded Georgia with ground troops. In two days Russian troops occupied Gori and other Georgian cities. In the wake of Russia’s occupation of South Ossetia and parts of Georgia, Ossetian militias carried out an ethnic cleansing of Georgians both in South Ossetia and in Georgia, driving out all the residents of Georgian villages and burning the villages to the ground. Russia did not withdraw its troops from Gori until August 22, and it continues to occupy Georgian territory as of the beginning of September.
The war in the Caucasus was triggered by the nationalist ambition of Georgia’s ruling class to retake the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But its bloody assault only served to provide a pretext for Russia’s imperialist ruling class to launch a devastating counterattack and thus fulfill its desire to reassert its regional military dominance in support of its growing economic power. Thus have the Georgian and Russian rulers pursued their rival military and economic ambitions, and the workers and oppressed peoples of South Ossetia and Georgia have paid the bloody price.
The underlying cause of the war is imperialist capitalism, in which the capitalist classes of a tiny handful of imperialist nations dominate the rest of the world in order to exploit the working class and oppressed peoples everywhere. As capitalists around the world increasingly fear financial collapse and a fall in their profits, the imperialist powers are anxious to assert their domination of economically strategic regions. Such concerns were behind the U.S.’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003, which aimed in part to secure decisive control over the Middle East’s oil wealth and thus gain tremendous leverage over rival European and Asian industrial powers. Similar concerns lurk behind the Georgia-Russia war.
Even though it was not a direct participant in the August war, the U.S. is no disinterested party. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, it has sought to gain influence over the countries in the former Soviet empire. In particular, given Georgia’s geographical importance as a major transit point for Caspian oil and gas, the U.S. has encouraged Georgia to leave the Russian orbit, and even promised it membership in NATO (along with Ukraine) -- a direct challenge to Russian imperialism. Other NATO powers like Germany and France also opposed the Russian actions, but because of their closer economic ties with Russia and in particular their dependence on Russian-controlled gas and oil, they have resisted NATO membership for Georgia and have offered a more measured condemnation of the Medvedev-Putin regime in Moscow.
The Georgia war and its aftermath reflect growing inter-imperialist rivalries at a time when the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have greatly weakened the U.S.’s lone superpower status. Although Germany and France are fearful of Russia’s resurgence, they have become, over time, more assertive of their independent imperialist interests -- particularly as the U.S. has overstretched its military resources and exposed its weakened economic base. The Russian ruling class, relatively invigorated by its control of vast and increasingly valuable natural resources, saw an excellent opportunity to re-assert its position in what it regards as its sphere of influence.
The hypocrisy of the U.S. government and media in condemning the Russian invasion of Georgia is outrageous. Their own hands drip with the blood of the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. As well, the U.S. set the precedent -- by bombing Serbia in 1999 and declaring Kosovo independent in 2008 -- for Russia’s bombing of Georgia and declaring South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent in 2008. Though declining in power relative to its rivals, the U.S. remains the world’s dominant imperialist power, exploiting and oppressing peoples the world over.
For all that, the U.S. was not actually fighting in this war, and the preponderance of evidence is that it did not want the war to happen. Despite the military aid and advisers deployed to Georgia by the U.S. and its ally Israel, once Russia intervened the war was primarily between Russian imperialism and the oppressed nation of Georgia.
The growing rivalry between the world’s imperialist powers expresses the fact that capitalism’s productive economic power long ago outgrew the imperatives of private property and profit as well as the system of nation states under which it initially flourished. Capitalism today, in its epoch of imperialist decay, only survives by devouring itself: the strongest capitalist enterprises absorb the bankrupt, the imperialist powers exploit the neo-colonial “Third World” -- and as the world economy staggers under financial instability, the imperialists increasingly clash with one another. Imperialist capitalism threatens humanity not only with depression but eventually another world war for the re-division of the world -- unless workers’ socialist revolutions succeed in overthrowing it first.
From its inception, the authentic working-class revolutionary Marxist movement inscribed on its banner that the workers have no country. We hold no allegiance to any nation. Our aim continues to be to unite the workers and oppressed peoples of the world in a struggle against the capitalist system. Essential to the fight to unite the working class across national divisions is an uncompromising struggle against imperialism and for the rights of oppressed nations and peoples.
Thus it was the duty of revolutionary working-class internationalists to stand for the defense of Georgia and for the defeat of imperialist Russia’s attack. Georgia is an oppressed nation. The military threat of Russian imperialism, and Russia’s punishment of Georgia through econonomic sanctions have served to drive the Georgian working class into the arms of its ruling class and U.S. imperialism in a mistaken search for defense against Russian domination. If the workers and oppressed people of Georgia see all voices from all classes of Russia united in support of the attacks against them, and they see no defense of Georgia coming from the international working class, it is no surprise that they look to nationalism and even U.S. imperialism as the answer to their oppression. That is why we as revolutionary socialists call on Russian workers and soldiers, and all workers around the world, to defend the Georgian people against Russia’s imperialist attacks. Only thus can revolutionaries show Georgian workers and oppressed people that the Russian working class is not their enemy and that working class internationalism is the way forward.
And only such a position can enable revolutionaries to convince Georgian workers and oppressed people that they must fight against their own rulers’ oppression of the Ossetian and Abkhaz peoples and against the alliance with U.S. imperialism. That is how Georgians can show Russian workers in turn -- and workers and oppressed peoples around the world, beginning with the Ossetians and Abkhaz -- that the Georgian people are not their enemy and are not stooges for U.S. imperialism. But it would be a mistake to make the Georgian people’s opposition to the alliance with the U.S. a pre-condition for our defense of the Georgian people against Russia’s attacks. This is especially clear in the present situation where the Georgian people can see no solidarity at all coming from the Russian working class.
At the same time, we recognize that the Georgian rulers have led their country to disaster by allying with U.S. imperialism and by oppressing the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, whose right of self-determination we defend. Thus when Georgian forces are not fighting Russian forces but are victimizing Ossetians and Abkhaz, revolutionary socialists must stand for the defense of the Ossetians and Abkhaz. The bombing of Tskhinvali was the most outrageous example of such an attack. But when Ossetian or Abkhaz forces subordinate themselves to and carry out the military aims of Russian imperialism, working-class internationalists must side with Georgia against them.
If Georgia’s ally, the imperialist United States, were to enter the war, the nature of the war would be fundamentally changed. No longer essentially a Russian imperialist war against Georgia, the conflict would be transformed into a clash between rival imperialists in which the working class would have to oppose both sides. But this is -- to say the least -- extremely unlikely. One reason Russia provoked and fought this war was that it estimated correctly that the U.S. would not want to fight a war in Georgia as long as the West’s key oil pipeline in the country was not threatened.
Many leftists in the U.S. have the healthy desire to see U.S. imperialism defeated. They, like we, oppose the U.S. military alliance with Georgia, and the training, advisers, arms and equipment that the U.S. has provided. They instinctively welcomed Russia’s defeat of Georgia because they think that the defeat of a U.S. ally is not only a defeat of the U.S. but that it is therefore a defeat for imperialism as a whole. This is a mistake. Even though the U.S. is dominant, there are a handful of rival powers who compete with each other to increase their own shares of the imperialist spoils. Just as deepening economic stagnation was a major factor in driving the U.S. to seek to extend its control via the Iraq war, it also drives its rivals to assert their particular interests against the U.S.
Others on the left see the war as a proxy battle between the U.S. and Russian imperialists and therefore oppose both sides in the Georgian war. This too is a mistake. When one imperialist power oppresses a nation in its region, it is only to be expected that a rival imperialist will seek to ally with the oppressed nation to further its own interests. Moreover, it is only to be expected that the comprador national bourgeoisie of the oppressed nation will embrace such an alliance for its own reasons. If that, by itself, meant that any conflict between an imperialist power and an oppressed nation was nothing but a proxy conflict between two imperialist powers, then the whole meaning of Lenin’s defense of oppressed nations would be gutted, because it would hardly ever apply.
Many bourgeois and leftist commentators found it hard to believe that Georgia would have begun the war without the open or tacit approval of the U.S. The suspicions are understandable. But it is even more difficult to imagine that Washington, so acutely aware of its loss of power as a result of the quagmire in Afghanistan and Iraq and its resultant inability to respond to military threats elsewhere, could have so badly misjudged the situation and approved a fight its side was sure to lose. Thus the U.S. response has been limited to “humanitarian” aid (albeit delivered courtesy of the U.S. Navy) and intensive diplomatic finger-wagging. The U.S. in all likelihood would have preferred to maintain the status quo, not a reckless attack that was easily repulsed and reversed by a far stronger power. It is more likely that the Georgian government initiated the war for reasons of internal politics (its main political opposition is even more nationalist and aggressive toward South Ossetia and Abkhazia), or to precipitate a crisis in which NATO would be forced to come to its aid.
Those who refuse to defend Georgia from Russian attack because it is militarily dependent on the U.S. should consider the imperialist war that Japan launched against China in the 1930’s. It was necessary to defend China against Japan’s imperialist attack, even though Chiang Kai-shek’s China was a military client of U.S. imperialism. When World War II broke out, China’s anti-imperialist struggle against Japan was not automatically subordinated to the U.S. war of imperialist rivalry against Japan. This was the position of the revolutionary Marxists of the time, the Trotskyists of the Fourth International (in contrast to their opponents led by Max Shachtman), and we agree.
Likewise, when U.S. imperialism attacked Serbia in the 1990’s, it was necessary to stand for the defense of Serbia even though Serbia had the support of imperialist Russia.
As proletarian internationalists we oppose all the imperialist powers. But that must not be an excuse to wave our hands at any conflict where rival imperialists have competing interests. We must recognize the difference between an imperialist power that is actively waging a war on an oppressed nation, and another imperialist power that is not an immediate oppressor on the scene. When the Georgian people defend themselves against an attacking and occupying imperialist power, revolutionaries around the world must stand on their side.
There are yet others on the left who declare that Georgia and Russia are both oppressors of South Ossetia and therefore that Georgia should not be supported. Some even say that Georgia too is imperialist. This notion takes imperialism to be a policy of the rulers rather than the material reality of the world’s division between the exploiting powers and the many exploited and dominated neo-colonies. Such a perspective promotes a fundamental misunderstanding of the forces arrayed against the world’s masses.
One of Lenin’s greatest contributions to Marxism was to recognize that in the epoch of imperialism, which began at the dawn of the 20th century and continues to this day, the countries of the world are divided into two categories, the imperialist powers and those they oppress. The program of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party called for the defense of the oppressed nation in every conflict between an imperialist nation and an oppressed nation. Lenin fiercely argued against anyone in the socialist movement who did not defend all the oppressed peoples of the Russian Empire against Russian imperialism, whether under the Tsar or the bourgeois Provisional Government. Likewise Lenin condemned any socialist who did not support the Irish republican struggle for freedom from British imperialist domination.
Lenin’s goal was international socialist revolution made by the working classes of the whole world. He fought for international unity and solidarity of all workers. But he understood that the workers and poor masses of oppressed nations would not unite in solidarity with the workers in an imperialist country if the workers of that country did not oppose their own ruling class’s domination of the oppressed nations. Only then would it be possible to convince oppressed peoples that the international working class was their ally, and that the national bourgeoisie of their own oppressed nation was their class enemy.
The only genuine solution for ending imperialist aggressions and wars is socialist revolution, and that requires international working class solidarity against all imperialist designs. Revolutionary workers and oppressed people, including in Georgia and Russia, can be won to the Leninist perspective of working-class solidarity and advancing and protecting the rights of oppressed peoples. We believe that such a critical layer of fighters against capitalism is being produced by the turmoil of the imperialist world today. Cohering this layer into a revolutionary international vanguard party is the critical element in advancing the level of class solidarity and action that will end the nightmares imperialism has created in Georgia and elsewhere. Capitalism will increasingly rely on dividing the workers of the world and lining up nations behind belligerent imperialist blocs. The end game is world war. Working-class socialist revolution is the only realistic alternative.