Some Lessons in Bringing the Pop Quiz About the War Over Ukraine To Columbia Political Science Students
A Letter from Raymond Lotta to Revcoms and Other Fighters Against Imperialism, Oppression and Injustice
April 24, 2023
Answer the following multiple-choice question:
Last week Raymond Lotta and a member of the NYC Revolution Club administered the pop quiz about the war over Ukraine and the role of U.S. imperialism to political science students at Columbia University and:
a) we tapped into a deep vein of critical thinking, as students were not so ready to buy into U.S. rationalizations;
b) the room was evenly divided as to whether the U.S. was acting in a greatly beneficial or extremely dangerous way;
c) all hell broke loose, as the majority of the class and the professor were ideologically committed to the idea that the U.S. was a force for good in this conflict;
d) we were invited back to explore these issues further.
Pencils down. The correct—and dismaying—answer is (c), which is to say, these upper-class undergraduates and professor at this liberal university were strident supporters of U.S. military involvement.
Reckoning with the Reality of a Proxy War… or Blinded by Democratic Illusions and the “Great Tautological Fallacy”
The professor had queried me at the start: “So what is your position about the war?”
I briefly outlined the character of this proxy war. Under the cover of “aiding the people in Ukraine”—who are indeed suffering the horrible effects of Russia’s unjust and murderous invasion—the U.S. is seeking to weaken Russia, and bring down Putin. It is pouring huge amounts of weaponry into Ukraine and using the people of Ukraine as “cannon fodder” to further its global strategic aims of securing and expanding its global dominance and its position as #1 exploiter in the world, and to prevent rivals from challenging that position. And this proxy war could rapidly spiral into a full-out confrontation between U.S. imperialism and Russian imperialism, to world war and possibly nuclear war. Therefore, we have a responsibility to oppose U.S. war moves.
This professor had initially said that she’d be leaving the class to me. Upon hearing this introduction, she declared, “You gotta be kidding, I’m staying!”
We handed out the quiz. Students quickly looked at it, and several right away took angry issue. They weren’t disagreeing over the facts of the quiz—such as the points that the U.S. is the only country in the world to have used and dropped atomic weapons on civilian populations, or that the U.S. has a long track record of illegal coups and unjust wars as in Vietnam and Iraq. No, it was an emotional, “This is different… the people of Ukraine are under assault… America is righteously answering their call for assistance. And what are you supposed to do if your neighbor across the street gets attacked… just stand by?” This was repeated, almost verbatim, by two of the loudest opponents of the understanding of the reality of a proxy war between the U.S. and Russia.
It was a rapid-fire debate. And a window into how people’s thinking is shaped both by the lies and propaganda of the popular media and by the hold and propagation of liberal academic pieties about “democracy vs. autocracy.” The arguments in defense of U.S. intervention were examples of what Bob Avakian has called the Great Tautological Fallacy.
To briefly explain: the Great Tautological Fallacy is the poisonous, chauvinist notion that America is a force for good in the world, and, therefore, whatever it does is necessarily good. It’s fallacious (false), and it is a tautology (the conclusion is not proved but simply restated in a circular way). In other words, America is a force for good because… because it is a force for good. Everything America does is motivated by good intentions. And even when it does the very same things it condemns others for—terrorism, torture, bombing of civilian populations—that doesn’t matter. Why? Because America is, after all, a force for good. Watch the video clip from Bob Avakian.
An example of how the Great Tautological Fallacy works is contained in one of the questions on the “pop quiz.” It references the recent congressional hearings that raked Tik-Tok over the coals for allegedly spying on Americans (though no proof was given). Yet the National Security Agency of the U.S. had a vast surveillance operation in which it accessed private information of users of Google, Apple, and other platforms. Oh, but that’s different, because America has good intentions!
In this class at Columbia, the Great Tautological Fallacy took a more subtle but no less chauvinist form. One student said, “Yes, America does bad things, but it also does good things, and you can’t be so black and white.” The students and the professor arguing against me were objecting to the characterization of the U.S. as an imperialist empire, that this is a system that functions on the foundation of global exploitation—but coats this with a democratic veneer.
“Yes, but This Time It’s Different”
A venerable feature of “the great tautological fallacy” is the escape clause, “this time it’s different”… we’re doing good this time. Yes, “this time” (Afghanistan, 2001) it’s different… “we’re invading to liberate women from the evil rule of the Taliban and bring democracy to the country.” On the basis of this version of the Great Tautological Fallacy, many liberals were swept into supporting the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In fact, the U.S was acting both to make an example of the Taliban for having harbored Osama bin Laden who had organized the attacks on the World Trade Center (even though the Taliban had repeatedly offered to turn over bin Laden) and to strengthen its strategic position in central Asia and send a message to adversaries and allies that the U.S would invade, bomb, and devastate to maintain and extend its interests.
Yes, “this time” (Iraq, 2003) it’s different… a noble “shock and awe” invasion to “rid the world of a cruel dictator” who supposedly masterminded the 911 attack and had developed and stored weapons of mass destruction. Total lies! With upwards of 200,000 Iraqi civilians killed as a consequence. Look deeper into the real reason that the U.S invaded Iraq: to carry out “regime change” to fortify and extend its control in the Middle East, with its vital trade routes, oil reserves, and strategic location.
Bob Avakian cuts through the ideological subterfuge and bullshit succinctly and scientifically:
The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism. What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism. (BAsics 1:3)
Imperialism Answers to an Inner Logic of Expansion… NOT to Some Call to Do Good
As the title of this article points out, we have “telescoped political and ideological work to do” about the nature of imperialism, and the need to oppose our imperialist rulers and all imperialism—as the world teeters towards world war and in a rare time when revolution becomes more possible in the U.S.
This is a system that has a certain nature and underlying compulsion that drive what the U.S does in the world. It is much easier to swallow and regurgitate the comforting fable that the U.S is simply helping the Ukrainians. But it’s utterly wrong, ugly chauvinist, and exceedingly dangerous, as the moves towards world war intensify.
Here’s the challenging truth to confront and grasp:
Capitalism-imperialism is governed by a certain necessity. It is a system made up of private and state-owned competing capitals. These individual capitals (however massive and powerful) face the compulsion to out-produce and out-compete each other, and more efficiently exploit wage-laborers—to maintain and enlarge their market share against, and at the expense of, other capitals. They can’t stand still but are locked in deadly competition—facing the relentless coercion to expand the scale and reach of operations and cheapen production.
GM competes with Ford, Toyota, and others in national markets and globally. Apple is not figuring out how to produce an environmentally sustainable and long-lasting iPhone. It is calculating how to meet and beat the competition and stay on top. If that means outsourcing to factories in China where conditions are so atrocious that workers, as they did in the mid-2010s, carry out suicide protest jumps from roofs… so be it.
The overriding rule of the game is expand or die: for individual capitals to expand sway over markets, over critical raw materials, over sources of cheap labor. It is the imperative to increase profitability and to weaken competitors and rivals, to deny them access to markets and materials. But individual blocs of capital within a given country form part of a larger “national capital” that operates on a global plane but which is rooted in the national market (even as the relentless competition continues to go on). The political policies that get forged and implemented by the different imperialist governments—like the U.S., Russia, China, France, etc.—give expression to the overall interests of “those” national capitals, all of which need to expand. And this compulsion to expand finds expression politically in wars by competing empires and aspiring empires.
Again, this rests on exploitation and super-exploitation: sweatshops and child labor, supply chains of misery, and plunder of the environment. This is a world system in which billions on this planet are subjected to the life-destroying/planet-destroying, profit-maximizing and cost-minimizing competition of private capitals.
And, again, this is not a policy option but a requirement of survival: for transnational corporations, for huge financial blocs of capital, for contending imperial powers. In this light, consider some current fault lines in the world imperialist economy.
Some Key Fault Lines and Contention in the World Imperialist System
The U.S and China are battling each other for greater market share over high tech (and the microchips and semiconductors required by high tech). They are maneuvering against each other for control over sources of lithium in South America and cobalt in the Congo (all essential to the electric vehicle market that each is seeking to dominate). If one side lets up in the competitive battle, if one yields ground, in the battle for new sources of profit and more profit… then rivals move in, move ahead… and one side is undercut and loses out.
The U.S. and Russia are battling over global energy markets (Russia is a major producer of natural gas that Europe has depended on). The U.S has used punitive economic sanctions to squeeze Russia—calling on or forcing countries to stop doing business with Russia—this in order to bolster U.S. dominance in Europe. Russia and China have been seeking to weaken the role of the dollar as the currency of international trade in oil—this in order to open new avenues for investment and competitive advantage in the oppressed countries of the Global South. These are reflections of that “expand-or-die” compulsion of capitalism-imperialism.
And this necessity to expand globally takes on strategic-military dimensions: who will control vital waterways and land routes, gain a leg up in new military and surveillance technologies, in weaponizing space. Look at what’s shaping up in the East and South China Seas, with Chinese and U.S. naval forces each conducting military exercises… war games… and actual readying for war. There is looming imperialist world war to determine who will dominate—and who will not be allowed to dominate—key regions, markets, sources of raw materials… and set the rules for the world economy and world order. As the U.S. did coming out of World War 2.
But what is shaping up in Ukraine, or in East Asia, is not, as Bob Avakian has emphasized, a repeat of World War 2, but rather World War 3, in which nuclear weapons could destroy much of humanity and the planet.
The War Over Ukraine: Pulling the Lens Back
So let’s return to the war over Ukraine. The Russians launched their murderous invasion of Ukraine in the winter of 2022. But that’s not really the beginning of this war. This brutal invasion is a turning point of a larger struggle for power, influence, and control between U.S. and Russian imperialism. After the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1990-91, the U.S. promised Russia that it would not enlarge NATO. But the U.S. reneged, and NATO has expanded to more countries bordering, or close to, Russia.
In 2014, the U.S. took advantage of protests in Ukraine to back a coup that brought a pro-Western government to power. Russia quickly took control of a region of Ukraine (Crimea) and fueled conflict in the eastern territory of Ukraine. The U.S. provided weapons and economic assistance to the Ukraine government.
Russian imperialism under Putin is aiming to establish a rival pole of power to the U.S. in Europe, central Asia, and the Middle East. The U.S. is aiming to prevent that and to bring Putin down. These are clashing empires, escalating what is now an indirect conflict in ways and directions that could lead towards direct and open showdown, towards wider war… towards world war.
Further Unpacking Some of the Illusions and Deceptions… and What Is the Best Support for the People of Ukraine?
*The false analogy that Ukraine is your neighbor being assaulted. This is a seductive narrative, and plays right into U.S. war propaganda. But it is so wrong. As mentioned, the Western imperialists have encircled Russia. The dominant section of the Ukrainian ruling class, represented by Volodymyr Zelensky, signaled its determination to join NATO (the anti-Russian military alliance led by the U.S.). The Russian imperialists are trying to break out of that vise, and expand their regional and global influence. Russia is projecting military might—though the number of Russia’s foreign military bases (10) pales in comparison to the U.S.’s 750 in 80 countries!
*Averting one’s gaze from the growing danger of world war and nuclear war. The false analogy of coming to the aid of your “neighbor across the street” misses these dynamics. The Western imperialists move to weaken Russian imperialism… the Russian imperialists launch a murderous and unjust invasion of Ukraine… the Western powers provide artillery, tanks, and advanced weaponry, along with vital intelligence and logistics support for the Ukrainian military… the Russians respond… the U.S. and NATO respond—it’s a gangster logic of escalation and counter-escalation that could lead to nuclear war.
Putin has spoken of the utility of tactical nuclear weapons. And one of the questions on the pop quiz starkly tests people’s knowledge of the fact that the U.S. has refused to renounce the use or even “first use” of nuclear weapons. An “incident” on the ground or in the air—planned or accidental—could be the trip wire for such a horrendous confrontation. This is the reality of the situation. But these political science students weren’t going there… living in the bubble of what appears to be a placid America that presents itself as that “force for good” in the world.
*The interests of governments are not the same as the interests of the people. A number of people in the political science class asserted that Zelensky stands for the Ukrainian people. But this is an example of uncritical thinking. In fact, Zelensky is acting as a representative of a section of the Ukrainian ruling class that has tied its fortunes to Western imperialism, and Zelensky has become an instrument of Western imperialist interests. That’s hard to recognize when you look at things through the prism of “your neighbor is under attack.” Someone in the class also stated that when Finland recently joined NATO, this was an exercise of national sovereignty. No, these are the actions and policies of representatives of capitalist ruling classes.
The real interests of the vast majority of people lie with oppressed and exploited people across the planet.
So What Is the Best Support We Can Give the People of Ukraine in Their Dire Circumstances?
Is it to side with our imperialist ruling class, and send more weapons, train more Ukrainian troops, up the level of confrontation with Russia—to “help a neighbor under attack,” as was emotionally expressed in the class?
No, as addressed in a recent article on revcom.us, we need to help the people of Ukraine in a way that will also be in the interests of the people of the world as a whole.
That requires that we oppose what our government, what the U.S. imperialists, are doing in this war—while also opposing Russian imperialism and all imperialism. With this war escalating, it is our immediate responsibility to force our own imperialists, along with the Russian imperialists, to pull back, to disengage—in short, to stop this horrific war! And for us to do this with the fundamental orientation and goal of accelerating the conditions to make revolution to overthrow our own imperialists, and contribute to vanquishing all imperialism—the system that has caused such misery on this planet, that is destroying the ecosystems of this planet, and that now threatens nuclear extinction.
*As to what is in the interests of the people in Ukraine now under assault and who want a better world… what should they do? That requires the creative application of the science of revolution, which is the new communism developed by Bob Avakian (BA). There is no simple recipe or strategy waiting to be pulled off the shelf. BA has developed the scientific method and approach for understanding and transforming the world—for making revolution in today’s world. He has brought forward analysis of the world situation. He has forged principles for making revolution that mobilizes and unleashes people serving the goal of a society and world without exploitation. BA has developed a vision of what a liberatory new socialist society would look like and how it would function.
Ukraine is a focal point of many intense contradictions. It is a conflict zone between imperialist powers. It is a source of vital grain-foodstuffs for much of impoverished humanity. It is a country experiencing severe environmental distress. It is a country where fascist movements have a great deal of traction.
Applying the method and approach of the new communism is the task before genuine revolutionaries in Ukraine, and genuine revolutionaries all over the world. People yearning for real liberation need to know about and take up the new communism.
Going Forward at Columbia, Looking Towards May 1st
This experience with the “pop quiz” about the war over Ukraine revealed the heavy ideological weight of “the great tautological fallacy.” It revealed a remarkable lack of critical thinking at an institution that ostensibly promotes and values it. Now on campus we encounter real concern about racism, about what is happening to the environment, and some students want to hear about revolution—but U.S. chauvinism runs very deep.
We are taking the message of internationalist May 1st to the Columbia campus. We plan to publish an op-ed in the Columbia Spectator drawing on some of this experience and calling on students to “wake up” and be part of “shaking up” society—and join in putting real revolution on the map on May Day. It is an essential part of the telescoped battle to repolarize for revolution—at a time when revolution is more needed and more possible “in the belly of the beast.”