Socialist Worker, September 1977
The Role of Russia in Africa
By Michael Long [Michael Letwin]
The role of Russia in exploding Africa has received tremendous attention since its support for the liberation movement (MPLA) which won independence for Angola in 1976. The United States and its allies daily complain about the “Russian threat” to the “stability” of Africa.
In the best traditions of cold war rhetoric, Western ruling classes accuse Russia and its junior partner, Cuba, of aiding revolution in Africa, thus upsetting the balance of power and threatening the “peace.”
Russia itself claims to be the chief anti-imperialist country that supports movements for liberation from Western imperialist domination. Always a part of Stalinist Russia’s propaganda, this boast has lacked substance, especially in the wake of revolt-crushing invasions like Czechoslovakia in 1968. The substantial aid for the revolution in Angola gives Russia’s anti-imperialist claim renewed substance.
However, neither the Western charge, nor the Russian claim is accurate. Both explanations disguise more than they reveal. For the West, the rhetoric is designed to disguise the policies of exploitation that have gone on in Africa since the slave trading days. For Russia and Cuba, the support of revolution in Angola is now being used as a smoke screen while they cross to the other side of the barricades to support a reactionary regime in Ethiopia.
In pursuit of its own interests (military bases, natural resources, markets, etc.) the Russian ruling class ﬁnds itself supporting liberation movements in some countries, while suppressing them in others. Russian support in Angola and Ethiopia demonstrate this two-faced policy.
In 1976, Angola won its political independence after nearly two decades of continual armed struggle against foreign colonization. This was accomplished under the leadership of Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) which had to fight both the Portuguese colonialists and eventually phony “liberation” movements backed jointly by South Africa, the US and “People’s” China.
No matter what is thought of Russia or Cuba, most supporters of African recognized that the liberation of Angola was an important step toward sparking off revolution in the rest of Southern Africa. The military aid they supplied was important in the MPLA’s victory.
Based on its role in Angola, the Russian ruling class boasted of its “progressive” and anti-imperialist role in Africa.
Ethiopia is ruled by a right-wing military dictatorship called the Derg which calls itself “Marxist-Leninist.”
Led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, the regime massacred 1,500 revolutionary workers in the capital of Addis Ababa on May 1, 1977. The regime brutally imprisons, tortures and executes militant and revolutionary workers and peasants. Its policy of extreme repression puts the Derg in the tradition of its predecessor, the late Haile Selassie, who ruled until 1974.
Yet, today it is Russia which supports Ethiopia in its war against Eritrean liberation. So far, the regime has received a $100 million arms agreement from Russia, and both Russian and Cuban “advisers” to train the government’s peasant militia in its fight against Eritrean independence. The Russians play the same role in Ethiopia today as the Americans did in the decades before.
How can Moscow one day support a liberation movement in Angola and the next day suppress another in Ethiopia? What does all this have to do with socialism?
The answer lies in understanding the structure and needs of Russian society.
The world is made up of a few empires and the laws of capitalist competition operate between them all. These empires compete for the wealth of the world in the forms of natural resources, markets and sometimes labor.
Though Russia is called “Communist” or “Socialist,” it is in reality a state owned capitalist society run by a small ruling class which extracts its wealth from the working class.
As in the US, the Russian rulers need to accumulate wealth leads to foreign expansion and to the creation of an empire — imperialism.
Viewed together, the relationship between the US, Westem Europe, and Russia is that of rival companies fighting it out for the wealth of the world. This policy of economic domination requires a strong military empire, strategically located. Just as the US supplies regimes throughout Africa with military support and in return receives military privileges, the Russians do the same. This explains Russian support today for Ethiopia, which sits on the vitally strategic “Horn of Africa” with direct access to the Suez Canal, the Red Sea, and
the Middle East as a whole.
At the same time, it is to the benefit of Russian imperialism as the challenger in Africa to support a genuine liberation movement in Angola in order to weaken the American hold in that part of Africa, just as the US might attempt to undermine Russia’s East European empire.
Russia is not a socialist country. Socialists support the struggles of the oppressed wherever they occur, not just when it fits a particular national interest. No matter what Russia calls itself, its actions prove otherwise.
The workers and peasants of Africa have no alternative in either the imperialism of the US or that of Russia. Both are exploiting empires in a worldwide contest for conquest and domination. Neither can be relied on to end imperialism in Africa or to bring about a socialist society run by the African working class.
The liberation of Africa will come about only through working class revolution, a lesson that is being painfully learned.