Recent developments in the Middle East show that states which have been seemingly at opposite ends concerning the war in Syria, or states that have been historically hostile to each other in the post-World War II period have come together to form new alliances.  Existing alliances between Russia, China, Iran and Syria have also been strengthened.   All aim to maintain the brutal and authoritarian Assad regime (with or without Assad), and reject the Kurdish right to self-determination.

All these developments further underline the fact that the countries playing the imperialist role in the Middle East today, are not only the U.S. and Israel.   Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also acting as imperialist powers in the region.

I. Shifting Alliances in the Middle East

Consider the following recent developments in the Middle East:

On July 15,  U.S. Secretary of State,  John Kerry met with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to present an Obama Administration plan for a join command-and-control center for the exchange of intelligence and coordination of aerial operations, including attacks on ISIS and the jihadists of  Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra).  This level of military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia is unprecedented.

On August 9, after Turkey’s failed military coup (by a section of the army)  and after Prime Minister Erdogan’s imposition of severely repressive measures throughout Turkey,  Erdogan met with  Vladimir Putin in Saint Petersburg, Russia.  Formerly enemies,  the two officially re-established normal and friendly relations  and discussed economic treaties concerning natural gas as well as Russia’s construction of a nuclear power plant in Turkey.  Two days later,  Turkey proposed  military cooperation with Russia in combating ISIS.  The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) also welcomed this meeting and stated that:  “For NATO,  it is very important that channels of communication with Russia stay open.”

On June 8,  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went to Moscow to meet with President Vladimir Putin and discuss their “struggle against terrorism.”   They also signed some economic agreements.

On June 28, Israel and Turkey signed a deal to restore and normalize ties after a six-year rift in which economic exchanges had increased nevertheless.

In April,  Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani met with the leader of his rival state, President Erdogan of Turkey in Ankara and discussed improving their economic and security ties.

In July,  former Saudi Arabian General, Anwara Eshki,  visited Israel and met with Foreign Ministry Director Dore Gold,  an advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu.

On August 16,  Guan Youfei, China’s director of the Office for International Military Cooperation of China’s Central Military Commission,   met Syrian Defense Minister Fahad Jassim al-Freij in Damascus to discuss closer military ties.  He also met with  a Russian general in Damascus.

On August 17,  Russia began using an Iranian airbase  to bomb opposition forces in Syria.  This is the first time since World War II that a foreign country has used an Iranian base to launch attacks on another country.

On August 17, The Syrian Air Force began bombing the Kurdish militia, YPG, and Kurdish civilian residential areas in Hasakah in Northern Syria for the first time since the 2011 Syrian revolution.  Despite some occasional clashes since 2011, the Assad regime and the YPG and its Democratic Union Party (PYD) had maintained an implicit non-aggression pact.  On August 23, after some heavy and bloody clashes between YPG forces, now in control of Hasakah,  and the Syrian regime, a ceasefire was negotiated under Russian supervision.

On August 24, Turkish warplanes, tanks and special forces personnel including fighters from some Turkish-backed factions of the Free Syrian Army,  crossed the Syrian border and targeted both ISIS forces and YPG Kurdish militia  forces.  U.S. vice president Joseph Biden who was visiting Turkey to give the Erdogan government a clear message of support, said that the U.S. had been flying air cover for the operation.  He also warned the Syrian Kurdish forces that they had to return to the east of the River Euphrates if they wanted to continue receiving U.S. help.

These developments show that states which have been seemingly at opposite ends concerning the war in Syria,  or states that have been historically hostile to each other in the post-World War II period have come together to form new alliances.  Existing alliances between Russia, China, Iran and Syria have also been strengthened.   All aim to maintain the brutal and authoritarian  Assad regime (with or without Assad), and reject the Kurdish right to self-determination.

All these developments further underline the fact that the countries playing the imperialist role in the Middle East today, are not only the U.S. and Israel.   Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also acting as imperialist powers in the region.

It is even more important to point out that Russia and the United States are now cooperating at an unprecedented level  in Syria.  The U.S., exhausted by its  disastrous military invasion of Iraq,  thinks that by maintaining  the Assad regime,  it can somehow stop the growth of ISIS.  Russia on the other hand, wants to strengthen its presence in Syria and the entire Middle East region.

It is true that the U.S. military invasion of Iraq created the condition for the further growth of Al Qaida of which ISIS was originally a branch.  However, ISIS is the product of the deep class, ethnic and gender divisions within the Middle East.  It notably lives off the hatred generated by the brutal Assad regime and the Shia sectarian Iranian-backed regime in Iraq.  It also lives off the general poverty and absence of democratic and progressive forces that have been repressed for decades by authoritarian regimes.

Unfortunately, instead of addressing these issues, some Middle Eastern and Western socialists are busy claiming that U.S. imperialism created ISIS to justify its continued intervention in the Middle East.  Not only do they sound like Donald Trump who has claimed that “Obama and Clinton founded ISIS,”  they are also justifying Russian and Iranian imperialism.  Their response reflects the degree to which they have once again abandoned a serious analysis of actually existing capitalism and imperialism,  much less offer a humanist alternative.

II. Examining What Is Different in 21st Century Imperialism

At a time like this, socialists need to re-examine the meaning of the concept of imperialism and ask how it is different in the 21st century.   For this reason, I would like to take a look at Lenin’s pamphlet, Imperialism:  The Highest Stage of Capitalism, and  an essay on its one hundredth anniversary which was recently published by an Iranian socialist intellectual.   Although I am not a Leninist, I think much can be learned from Lenin’s analysis of this subject.

In Imperialism, Lenin discussed the transformation of competitive capitalism into monopoly capitalism as a new stage called imperialism, and argued that imperialism leads to war.  By critically examining many facts and the works of economists such as John Atkinson Hobson, Rudolf Hilferding,  Nikolai Bukharin, Rosa Luxemburg and others, he distinguished his views concerning this new stage of capitalism.  He also strongly critiqued Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of the Social Democratic Party of Germany at the time, who thought that the result of imperialism could be a peaceful alliance of imperialists.

Influenced by Marx’s discussion of the “general law of capitalist accumulation”  in Capital, Volume 1, Lenin argued that capital’s inherent drive for an ever- increasing rate of profit led to the concentration and centralization of capital in fewer hands to make possible the further extraction of surplus value from labor.   He concluded that in imperialism, “economically, the main thing in this process is the displacement of capitalist free competition by capitalist monopoly. . . At the same time, the monopolies which have grown out of free competition, do not eliminate the latter, but exist over it and alongside it, and thereby give rise to a number of very acute, intense antagonisms, frictions and conflicts.”  These acute antagonisms, he argued,  in turn led to war between capitalist powers.

Lenin’s definition of imperialism included the following five features:  1.  The concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life.  2.  The merging of bank capital with industrial capital and the creation on the basis of this “finance capital,” of a financial oligarchy.  3. The export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance.  4.  The formation of international monopolist capitalist combines which share the world among themselves.  5.  The territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed.

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the publication of this work, Professor Saeed Rahnema of the political science department at York University, Canada,  published an essay in Persian entitled “Neoliberal Imperialism:  The Newest Stage of Capitalism.”   In this essay, he argued that the following differences exist between Lenin’s time and our time:

  • We no longer have cartels but oligopolies: “Given their large organizational size and their immense financial power, these [oligopolistic] companies cannot eliminate each other. However, occasionally they combine with each other in competing with larger competitors.”
  • “Finance capital which in the past was directly related to commercial and industrial activities now relies very little on these activities. . . The size and power of banks has reached such a level that even large capitalist governments are not capable of completely controlling them. Historically, governments have exerted a great deal of control over banks and have coordinated their operation.  However, gradually with the domination of neoliberal policies, these controls have become more limited.”
  • “Today, the bulk of the industrial production of the world occurs outside the advanced capitalist countries, and it is China that acts as the ‘global factory.’” Furthermore “a large portion of foreign investment is made in other advanced capitalist lands…Today, the largest amount of direct foreign investment is in the U.S. . . .. On the other hand, the lowest amount of foreign investment is in underdeveloped lands where cheap raw materials and inexpensive and unorganized workers are plentiful.”
  • “From the vantage point of imperialism today, it is clear that dividing the world into separate domains for various powers and expanding colonies is no longer the issue. . . Of course there is no doubt that imperialist powers still have a great deal of influence in the markets of their former colonies.” According to Rahnema: “The other important issue in the development of 21st century imperialism is, on the one hand the existence of a super-imperialist power, i.e. the United states, and on the other hand, inter-imperialist cooperation between it and other united imperialists in the European Union and Japan.”  Here Rahnema emphasizes that international economic institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund play the role of the economic establishment of this organized global capitalism.  The North Atlantic Treaty Organization plays the role of its military arm, and neoliberalism and the media controlled by this system play the role of its ideological establishment.

Based on the above arguments,  Rahnema concluded that today’s imperialism should be called neoliberal.

In a recent article in response to Rahnema, I argued the following:

First, While Rahnema correctly points out the important role that multinational corporations play in today’s economy, his argument about the decreasing role of states in managing global capital contradicts many existing facts.  According to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, state intervention in the world economy is greater than ever: “The influence of the state is much greater now than it was then [in the 1930s], in many ways greater than it has ever been.” (p. 473).

According to the well documented facts presented by the London Economist, one of the strongest advocates of liberalism and neoliberalism, emerging economies such as China and Russia are really more state capitalist than neoliberal.   For instance, in China, Russia and other emerging economies we see the rise of hybrid corporations that are supported by the state but act as multinational corporations.  The state/army are omnipresent.  There are many companies that are formally privately owned but enjoy a huge amount of overt or covert support from their respective governments.  State managed sovereign wealth funds account for some of the world’s biggest pools of capital.   The largest oil and gas companies of the world are now state owned.  State-backed companies account for 80% of the value of China’s stock market and 62% of Russia’s stock market.   From 2010 to 2013 state-backed companies represented one third of the foreign direct investment of the emerging economies.  The Economist has pointed out that the state-owned enterprises are becoming wealthier and more powerful even as the overall state sector shrinks,  and  that governments are tightening their grip on the commanding heights of the economy even as the private sector grows.

Had Rahnema addressed the reasons for the unity of these seemingly opposite phenomena—the decline in the state sector and the increasing growth of state control over the economy—he could have further illuminated the distinctive features of imperialism in the 21st century.

Secondly, Rahnema’s focus on the U.S. as the main imperialist power of the 21st century also ignores the fact that despite its military and economic strength, U.S. imperialism has become relatively weaker because of its wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the 2008 economic crisis.   At the last NATO summit meeting, despite NATO’s decision to increase its forces in the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe, David Cameron announced that “we are not seeking confrontation with Russia.”  Some NATO countries also wanted to lighten the sanctions on Russia.

Rahnema also does not account for  imperialist rivalries and wars between regional powers in the Middle East.  Each of these powers exerts its military and economic influence in its sphere of influence.


Rahnema ignores the ways in which Russian imperialism is treating Syria or Ukraine as spheres of influence.  He also ignores China’s colonialist practices in Africa.  Based on his view, the main imperialist power in the world today is the United States, and the only inter-imperialist cooperation is between the U.S. and other united imperialists in the European Union and Japan.  This conclusion clearly does not account for the new imperialist alliances and the regional imperialist powers in the Middle East such as Iran.

Rahnema’s analysis of  the current stage of capitalism as  “neoliberal imperialism” is simply inadequate in expressing the economic and political realities of today.   If we argue that the distinguishing features of capitalism in the 21st century are mainly more privatization and a decreased role of the state in the management of capital, once again we will only seek an alternative in a new type of state capitalism instead of challenging capitalism’s alienated mode of production which leads to an alienated life and great inequalities in the distribution of wealth.  Furthermore, If we limit ourselves to saying that the main imperialist powers in the world today are only the U.S., and its Western and Japanese allies, then socialists will once again reduce their vision to a mere knee-jerk opposition to Western imperialism instead of confronting the root causes of imperialism.

Lenin’s book, Imperialism has not only analyzed imperialism as the result of the capitalist mode of production’s inherent drive for an ever- increasing rate of profit.  It also helps explain “inter-imperialist alliances” as “inevitably nothing more than a ‘truce’ in periods between wars.”  He has also pointed out that imperialism’s increased violation of the rights of nations to self-determination leads to the intensification of national liberation struggles.

Despite the deep class, ethnic and gender divisions that exist in the Middle East, and despite the ongoing labor, women’s liberation, LGBT as well as Kurdish and Palestinian self-determination struggles, to this day a movement with a humanist alternative to capitalism is not on the horizon in the Middle East.   Hence the inter-imperialist alliances and wars continue.

Frieda Afary

August 24, 2016


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