To understand Putin, read Karl Marx

Seventy years ago at the height of the Cold War a book was published in the US entitled The Russian Menace to Europe.  It made the case that “the major objective of Russian foreign policy … is domination of the world”.  It argued that regardless of who ruled Russia — the Tsar or Stalin — it didn’t matter.  “The policy of Russia is changeless,” the authors claimed.  “Its methods, its tactics, its manoeuvres may change, but the polar star of its policy — world domination — is a fixed policy.”

C. L. Sulzberger, who was then chief foreign correspondent for The New York Times, was fulsome in his praise.  “The editors of these papers and the publisher of this fascinating book are to be congratulated,” he wrote in his review.  “Surely this little book should be read by anyone seeking to understand what the Kremlin is up to now.”

The authors of the book — which is a collection of “articles, speeches, letters and news dispatches” — were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

The Russian Menace to Europe was significant for a couple of reasons. 

First of all, the editors, Paul W. Blackstock and Bert F. Hoselitz, were attempting to put some distance between Marx and the regime in Moscow that acted in his name.  In their introduction, they wrote that “Real Marxism, i.e., the Marxism of Marx and Engels was, above all critical.  It knew no gods, was free of party lines and dogmatic pronouncements from above … Marx’s entire life work was directed against tyranny and oppression … The most categorical opponent of Stalin and all he stands for is therefore none other than Karl Marx.”

Second, the essays themselves are startlingly clear, well-informed analyses of Russia and its role in the world.  At the time Marx and Engels wrote them — and the last essay was from 1890 — most liberals and socialists in Europe understood that the tsarist regime was “the gendarme of Europe”.  The revolutions of 1848 in which the two authors participated were defeated in part because of the assistance given by Russia to the triumph of reactionary regimes.

Marx and Engels were committed to “containing” Russia — a term that would only be invented decades after their deaths.  When Britain and France joined Turkey’s side in the Crimean War, Marx fully supported their cause.  It did not bother him that those countries were “imperialist”.  He understood that the liberal capitalist societies of Western Europe were infinitely more progressive than the tsarist regime, which he would characterise as “semi-Asiatic”.

They were also outspoken supporters of the Polish people and their right to a sovereign state.  When the Poles rose up in rebellion against Russia, Marx and Engels were on their side.  “I hold the view that there are two nations in Europe which do not only have the right but the duty to be nationalistic before they become internationalists,” Marx wrote.  He was referring to the Irish and the Poles. “They are internationalists of the best kind if they are very nationalistic.”

A quarter of a century before the outbreak of the First World War, Engels explained the central role that would be played by Russia.  “The entire danger of a world war will vanish on the day when the situation in Russia permits the Russian people to draw a thick line under the traditional policy of conquest … and to attend to their own vital interests at home.”

Those words could have been written this week.  But they were written in 1890.

Just as Blackstock and Hoselitz understood Soviet foreign policy as a continuation of the aggressive, empire-building of the tsars, so we too understand Putin’s policies as yet another link in a long chain of conquests and wars.

On the Left today, particularly in the period leading up to the current war in Ukraine, there was much criticism of NATO and the West more generally.  Left-wing parties like the one headed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, or Die Linke in Germany, or even Jeremy Corbyn’s wing of the British Labour Party, have not understood Putin’s Russia.  Some of them have turned their hostility towards the West into sympathy for a regime that now threatens world peace — just as the tsarist regime did back in 1890.

Blackstock and Hoselitz pointed out that many of the essays in The Russian Menace to Europe were unavailable in the Soviet Union for understandable reasons.  But the fact that their book has been out of print for decades means that those in the West who consider themselves to be Marxists will also not be aware of these writings and these important arguments.

Even for people who have no particular interest in Marx, The Russian Menace to Europe remains essential, as C. L. Sulzberger wrote so many years ago, “to understand what the Kremlin is up to now.”