What Does a Multipolar World Mean, and Does It Benefit the Workers and Peoples?
From the end of World War II until about 1975, and to a large extent later, the U.S. was the chief imperialist power. It was by far the world’s largest producer, the major trading power, and was (and still is) by far the world’s leading arms producer. Most of the oppressed countries were (and many still are) dependent on U.S. imperialism.
I use the date 1975 above as this was the year of the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. This marks the beginning of the long but slow decline of U.S. imperialism.
Of course, the U.S. decline was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.1 The U.S. was able to expand economically into this region (as did also a united Germany). It also expanded its military arm, NATO, including most of the Eastern European countries and even many of the former European Soviet Union (but not officially Ukraine). Russia under Yeltsin was a very weak capitalist power, until Putin took office and tried to turn Russia back into a strengthened imperialist power.
However, most of the era of imperialism (dating basically from the beginning of the 19th century) was a period of multipolarity, that is, of several competing imperialist powers. Until the end of World War I, there was competition particularly between Britain and Germany. Again, particularly after the rise of Nazism to power in Germany, there was a period of conflict between Britain, Germany and the U.S. Both these periods ended in a world war to see which imperialist bloc would become dominant.
Today, besides the decline of U.S. imperialism, we are seeing the rise of new imperialist powers, particularly China and Russia. Thus this multipolar world is once again becoming a world of conflicting imperialist powers. The BRICS countries do not form an anti-imperialist bloc – they consist of imperialist powers (Russia and China) and dependent countries (Brazil, India and South Africa, even if they are somewhat more developed than other oppressed and dependent countries).
However, most of our petty-bourgeois leftists do not recognize this. For example, John Parker of the group Struggle for Socialism – Lucha por el socialism, one of the more recent splits from Workers World Party, spoke at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Harlem on January 13. He stated that “the former European colonial African states… now want the Russian army to ensure their security.” Does he really think that, if that were to happen, Russia would not use this to build their own bases and take advantage of Africa’s abundant mineral and agricultural resources? He also said: “Beijing is building roads in Eurasia from East to West. None of these relationships are imperialist relationships – they are not exporting capital; they are helping developing countries build up their infrastructure for mutually beneficial economic interests, unlike the financial gangsters of the West – the IMF and World Bank.”2
It is fine that he attacks the imperialist gangsters of the West (see also his article: “Zelensky complicit in corporate takeover of Ukraine: ‘It’s an investment’,” at https://www.struggle-la-lucha.org/2023/01/07/zelensky-complicit-in-corporate-takeover-of-ukraine-its-an-investment/). It is always the task of revolutionaries to concentrate their attack on “our own” imperialism. But this does not mean to turn a blind eye to the interests of the opposing imperialists. If he thinks that China is “not exporting capital,” then what are the Chinese mining interests doing in Ecuador and Peru, or its coltan interests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
The competition between imperialist powers can allow a certain room for breathing space to socialist and other progressive forces. For example, in the period after World War I, when the Soviet Union was invaded and then boycotted by the major capitalist powers, it was able to establish trade relations with Germany under the Treaty of Rapallo, as Germany was subordinated by the unequal Versailles Treaty.
Today, the fact that there are contradictions between the U.S.-E.U. imperialist bloc and the Russia-China bloc allows for a country like Venezuela, which has a bourgeois-democratic national government, or Cuba, which has a revolutionary-democratic government, to avoid U.S. sanctions by trading with Russia and China.
However, maneuvering between imperialist blocs is not the same as allowing for dependence on one or the other. When this is the case, one is just switching from one oppressor to another. And unfortunately, this is the way that many on the petty-bourgeois left in the United States see this multipolarity.
Towards Marxist Leninist Unity, New York.
1. I will not deal here with the question of whether the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries (except Albania) were still socialist after the death of Stalin), as this is not the subject of this article.
to return to the April 2023 index.