Economy Richard Wolff Ukraine

The Role of Capitalism in the War in Ukraine

Ukraine, per se, is not the issue. It is tragically a war-ravaged pawn in a much larger conflict.
Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

By Richard Wolff / CounterPunch

To the motives for war in human history, capitalism added another: profit. That motive drove technological advancement and created a genuine world economy. It also built new capitalist empires such as the Spanish, Dutch, British, French, Belgian, Russian, German, Japanese, and American empires. Each of these countries built its empire by various means including wars against prior systems operating on their own territories, in their colonies, and in foreign “spheres of influence.” Wars likewise characterized interactions among empires. Global warfare (“world wars”) accompanied the globalization of capitalism and its profit motive. The war in Ukraine is the latest chapter in the history of capitalism, empire, and war.

Capitalism means enterprises run by small groups of people—employers—who preside over large groups—hired employees. Employers are driven to maximize profits: the excess of the value added by hired workers over the wages paid to them. Employers are likewise driven to sell outputs at the highest price the market will bear and buy inputs (including workers’ time) at the lowest possible market price. Competition among capitalist enterprises pressures all employers to plow profits as much as possible back into the business to help it grow and to gain market share as means to maximize profits. They each must do this in order to survive because competition’s winners tend to destroy and then absorb the losers. The social result of this competition among enterprises is that capitalism as a system is inherently driven to expand quickly.

That expansion, inside every capitalist nation, inevitably overflows its boundaries. Capitalist enterprises seek, find, and develop foreign sources of food, raw materials, workers, and markets. As competition becomes global, competing capitalist enterprises seek help from their nations’ governments to expand. Politicians quickly learn that companies in their nations that lose in global competition will blame those politicians for insufficient support. Meanwhile, companies that win in the global competition will reward such politicians for their help. The social result of this is that capitalism entails national competition alongside enterprise competition. Wars often punctuate capitalism’s national competition. The winners in those competitions thereby often tended to build empires, historically.

For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, wars helped British capitalism to build a global empire. In the 19th century, more wars punctuated the completion and consolidation of that empire. Empire growth had itself stimulated all manner of challenges and competition, eventuating in more wars. For example, as capitalism took root and grew in Britain’s American colony, colonial enterprises eventually encountered obstacles (limited markets, taxes, and limited access to inputs). These obstacles eventually grew into a conflict between them and their colony’s leaders, on one side, and Britain’s capitalists and King George III, on the other. The war of independence resulted. Later, British leaders went to war against the United States in 1812 and also considered siding with the enslavers in the South against the capitalist North in the American Civil War.

The 19th century saw countless efforts by other nations to compete with, challenge, undermine, or reduce Britain’s empire. Competitive capitalist enterprises engendered competitive colonialism and many wars. The United States and Germany grew into the major national competitors for Britain. Wars punctuated the growth of capitalism across the 19th century, within the United States and Germany, as well as elsewhere across the globe. As capitalist enterprises combined, centralized, and grew—resulting from the competition among them—so too did many nations consolidate into fewer numbers of nations. Wars became larger too, culminating in the devastating first of the two world wars.

The British Empire fought the German Empire in World War I. That destroyed them both as contenders for global dominance. Having been far less damaged by World War I, U.S. capitalism grew fast in replacing the global capitalist positions that Britain and Germany had lost because of the war. World War I also established capitalism’s responsibility for the tens of millions who died, were injured, and were made refugees in what was then considered the worst war ever. Germany tried to regain its global dominance a few years later, allied with the newest capitalist empire, Japan, to undo the results of World War I. It failed, as the United States defeated Germany and Japan to demonstrate its economic and military (nuclear) superiority. A consolidated U.S. global empire prevailed from 1945 until recent years.

The United States then learned what the British had discovered earlier. Building and consolidating a capitalist empire provokes an endless succession of challengers. Among capitalist enterprises, competition’s losers’ employees move to work for the winners; the winners’ enterprises grow, and the loser’s decline. Winners’ growth often entails still greater profits and more competitive victories. That growth invites and promotes new competitors. Fended off for a while, eventually one or more new competitors discover how seriously to challenge the older dominant firm and displace it. Capitalist empires and their challengers exhibit parallel histories. As the competitive new enterprise destroys the old, the same happens with empires. That has been capitalism’s history, and that is what is now being seen in Ukraine.

Britain, after the end of the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, won a century of global dominance. The United States after World War I did so too. Both empires provoked endless challenges. Nations large and small developed enterprises, industries, and political leaders who wanted to make changes or move in directions that differed from/challenged the U.S. global capitalist hegemony after World War I. For example, across Latin America, references to “manifest destiny” resulted in small wars to remove competing challenges in the region. Likewise, when Iran’s prime minister in the early 1950s, Mohammad Mosaddegh, or Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, showed signs of breaking away from the U.S. empire’s control, both were removed. The one repression attempt by the U.S. that failed was in Cuba. The United States then isolated and economically hobbled Cuba via sanctions and embargoes. Warfare could be economic as well as military. Ukraine is another example, but with a peculiarity: U.S. support for Ukraine is an effort to repress another country that challenges U.S. hegemony, namely Russia. And repressing Russia too is a peculiar indirect way to get at the greatest threat to the U.S. capitalist empire, namely China.

The USSR’s survival after 1917, its World War II victories, and its development of nuclear weapons after 1945 created a potential challenger for the U.S. capitalist empire that had to be confronted. Former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill had accommodated the USSR’s control in Eastern Europe after 1945, but that represented a “loss” for U.S. global dominance. Thus, Eastern Europe quickly became the site of an ideological or “cold” war that pitted freedom and democracy against communism and totalitarianism in the USSR and its “satellite states.” It had to be a “cold” war because the consequences of a nuclear war would have been extreme. Before World War II, U.S. wars against other communist challengers of its empire had not demonized them as “evil communists.” During World War II, the United States even allied with the USSR to jointly defeat the immediate challengers (Germany and Japan). But after 1945, that was the preferred ideological terminology used for the USSR to justify protecting the U.S. empire. Then, when the USSR and its hold on Eastern Europe collapsed in 1989/1990, the old terminology faded in favor of a new terminology, used to begin a new war on a new challenger: Islamic terrorism.

The 30-plus years since 1989/1990 have changed both the U.S. empire and its challenges. Russia proved too weak to hold on to most of Eastern Europe. The United States reintegrated much of that region into Western capitalism via EU and NATO memberships, trade agreements, and Western investments. Slowly, over the last 20 years, Russia overcame some of its post-1989 weaknesses. The meteoric rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) brought new challenges for the U.S. empire, including a Russia-China alliance. Russia is now a capitalist economic system allied with the PRC (whose economy has a larger private capitalist sector than at any time since the Chinese Revolution of 1949). These two powerful capitalist economies are the largest globally by geography (Russia) and by population (China). They present a major problem for the U.S. global empire.

Russia evidently felt finally strong enough and allied with a much larger economic entity so it could hope to challenge and stop further “losses” in Eastern Europe. Thus, it invaded Crimea, Georgia, and now Ukraine.

In stark contrast, the U.S. empire’s ability to suppress challenges to its global dominance shrank. It lost wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as its intervention in Syria’s civil war. Its global economic footprint decreased in relation to that of the PRC. It proved unable to bring nations like Venezuela and Iran to heel despite trying hard for many years.

In Ukraine, on one side is an effort led by nationalists who would bring another nation further back into the U.S.-led global capitalist empire. On the other side is Russia and its allies determined to challenge the U.S. empire’s growth project in Ukraine and pursue their own competitive agenda for part or all of Ukraine. China stays with Russia because its leaders see the world and history in much the same way: They both share a common competitor in the United States.

Ukraine, per se, is not the issue. It is tragically a war-ravaged pawn in a much larger conflict. Nor is the issue about either Russian President Vladimir Putin or U.S. President Joe Biden as leaders. The same history and confrontation would prevail upon their successors. Meanwhile, former U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to force change on the PRC by imposing the biggest sanctions action in history (i.e., a trade war and a tariff war) utterly failed. Trump was caught up in the same history as Biden, even if each focused on attacking the Russian-Chinese alliance differently.

Eventually some compromise will end the Ukraine war. Both sides will likely declare victory and blame the war on the other among propaganda blizzards. The Russian side will stress demilitarization, denazification, and protection of Russians in eastern Ukraine. The Ukraine side will stress freedom, independence, and national self-determination. Meanwhile, the tragedy goes beyond Ukraine’s suffering. The entire world is caught up in the decline of one capitalist empire and the rise of yet another. Conflicts between the capitalist empires can occur anywhere where differences between them flare up.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy lies in not recognizing the responsibility of the capitalist system with its markets of competing enterprises run/dominated by the minorities we call employers. That system lies at the root of these historic repetitions. The minority employer class controls or is the leadership of the nations that have absorbed and reproduced the competition that capitalism entails. The majority employee class pays most of the costs on both sides (in dead, wounded, destroyed properties, refugee lives, and taxes). A different economic system not driven by a profit motive offers a deeper solution than any on offer at present. Perhaps the war in Ukraine can awaken an awareness of its capitalist roots and teach people to explore alternative systemic solutions. If so, this war and the resulting devastation from it could lead to an important turning point that eventually results in some positive outcomes in the future.

Richard Wolff

Richard Wolff is the author of Capitalism Hits the Fan and Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens. He is founder of Democracy at Work.


  1. Although I agree with Professor Wolff’s overall analysis, I would just like to state that the USSR et al were never truly communist nations. If you analyse the definition of capitalism, all the salient parts of capitalism were always present within the so-called communist nations: a monetary system, independent nation states and a ruling elite. The ONLY difference between the so-called socialist nations and the West was that the means of production were privately held in the US and etc., whilst they were government controlled in the Warsaw Pact nations. As Professor Wolff himself said in a lecture once, when discussing the system of slavery, it doesn’t really matter who owned the slaves, it was still slavery. Likewise, it doesn’t matter who owns the Means of Production, it was still capitalism; in this case State Capitalism instead of private enterprise capitalism.

    1. I’ll suggest that you don’t fully understand the 3 basic types of social structure. You can find Wolff’s talk on that at Democracy at Work—The 3 basic types of Socialism.

      Generally speaking, virtually every social structure has the sense of capitalism and socialism of various degrees within them. Marx’s democratic socialism for example would be the more common reference of socialism. While state-corporate or corporate-state structures are more often referred to as communism. I’ll argue that the war on socialism is a means to divert attention from this understanding as purposeful to suppress those, such as us in the US, from recognizing how we’re essentially living within a communist structure. Where the ruling class own 90% of our media and our politicians. They virtually control a manufactured delusional reality that has been created by public relation firms, various NGOs, and think tank groups which they also own. More on that here with Abby Martin —-

      I’ll suggest that this might add some cohesion to the good points you made. As Wolff has also stated, anyone who thinks they know what socialism is, they’re probably mistaken. There are many variations to it and it’s a constant work in progress. As Marx explained it would be to prevent failure. Generally speaking though, I think we can use the 3 basic types to filter out the more common structures at play today.

      1. @William E. Flowers

        The classic definition of socialism is that the working class (in practice meaning the Party and the state controlled by it) are in possession of the means of production and everybody is required to contribute in accordance with the needs of society and receive in accordance with society’s rules.
        Communism is the more advanced version, in which everybody contributes in accordance with his/hers capabilities and receives in accordance with his/hers needs. This was conditional on the creation of a new human type, the communist type which was supposed to be totally altruistic and really do the maximum and receive only the minimum needs. Still waiting for that…..

  2. Capitalism is a cancer on the planet because it requires constant growth.

    That said, assuming everything Dr. Wolf said is correct — I’m not opining one way or the other — we get rid of capitalism, then what? Overpopulation and the resulting civilizations are the root cause of war, not capitalism, and war is as old as civilization. Additionally, socialists, communists, and worker-owners can be just as materialistic as capitalists. These are the root causes of war, capitalism is a mere symptom of these problems. Abolishing capitalism is a mere first step in eliminating war, not the end game.

    1. IMO you made a major point–“can be just as materialistic”–that is seldom raised in these sorts of discussions! It’s simply assumed that the argument is about distribution of goods. Whether or not any of these are actually /good/ is ignored. Capitalist theory considers the environment only as a source and sink; resources only have value when processed. Communism as atheistic implies that physical comfort is the only real center of human life.

      But many of us have had experiences of non-consensus realities, come from a culture where nature is valued, or are people for whom traditional spirituality still has deep meaning. None would consider the accumulation of material products the sole purpose of life.

  3. Very shallow pseudo-Marxist analysis of complex historical circumstances .Even Marx recognized the importance of infrastructures ( religion, nationalism, ideology) in the path of history .While in his view the overall course of history is determined by the ownership of the means of production, trying to explain everything through the lens of competition and profit-seeking is rather childish.
    This very narrow tunnel-view is showing also in the analysis of historical facts.
    Does anybody really thinks that the Taliban fought the Russians and Americans in Afghanistan in order to maximize profits or from a real drive to oppose capitalism?
    Does anybody thinks that the US reintegrated the ex Warsaw Pact/USSR countries in capitalism or that these peoples took the opportunity to throw away the economic and ideological system fostered by the Red Army ( with the complicity of the Yalta powers) upon them and return to the European, democratic and capitalistic system which was theirs before WW2. This drive has been driven by anti-russian nationalism at least as by the wish to escape the poverty of planned socialist economy and join the affluent capitalism.
    It seems that the whole point of this article is to provide an “historical” smoke screen, blaming capitalism for the war in Ukraine instead of its real instigator : Putin and his megalomaniacal dream of turning back time and rebuilding the former USSR and Imperial Russia in all their “glory”.

    1. The Taliban (mujahideen) fought the Russians because they were paid by the USA.

      1. @Red Hornet
        The Mujaheddin were a very small group of fanatics before the U.S. armed and funded them, and they would have remained so absent U.S. arming and funding. Kabul* had become a relatively modern city under a pro-Soviet Afghan president, with women free to walk about in public without the ridiculous costumes and having positions in the government before the U.S. armed- and funded war. There were no good guys in that war, but the Soviet Union was clearly the lesser evil.

        * People outside Kabul don’t care about or even recognize the government, nor do they care at all about geopolitics or politics in general. Afghanistan outside of Kabul is largely very rural with people living very simple lifestyles. This is not meant to be insulting — in fact it’s a very good thing — but it’s how a friend who lived in Mazar-i-Sharif described it to me.

      2. @ Red Hornet
        No, the Taliban fought the Russians and Americans because they saw them as infidels trespassing on Holy Islamic land and Afghans have a tradition fighting against foreigners ( and between themselves) .
        The fact that they happily took American and Russian money and arms was a side benefit.

    2. Why is it any different from the Cuban missile crisis of 1962?
      We refused to allow Khrushcez to install missiles in Cuba 1962, but now we refuse to let Russia complain about it.
      Kennedy negotiated a settlement but Ole Joe demands more military.

      Our media has forever advocated for wars and military solutions and we know all our wars ended in costly disasters ( after WW2).

      We all know millions are given to friendly politicians, including Ukrainian, for being pro America and being war mongers.

      If Vlad dreams of former empire then we scheme to keep, maintain, continue, and enforce our Yankee Empire, especially Ole Joe who has a long history of shoot first.

      Maybe if Trump won, he would have understood Vladimir’ s point of view and not have let Ukraine into Nato and saved all this death and destruction and risk American citizens fron nuclear risks.

  4. Today all I see is a precise laser-like focus on Profits, Profits, Profits. with absolutely no concern for life or the human condition or humanity as a whole. Void of any degree of spirituality these Corporate Fascist giants answer to Baphomet or whatever dark deity they deem sufficient to justify their means to a materialistic end. Ignorance includes the absence of spirituality because any unbalanced system or body fails to recognize where it is deficient, and like a full-blown alcoholic, is in denial of any such deficit. They become the killing machines necessary to fulfill their agenda, an agenda that is never put to public vote, rather it is hidden to preserve its nefarious intent. These beings are devoid of soul, they are machine-like, cold, calculating, contrary to every aspect of the Human Being. And they will die like any machine dies, worn out, rusty, falling apart, with no one to fix it. And no one should.

    1. @Edward Case
      Profits instead of spirituality — NOT religion! — is what’s wrong with the human race. Unfortunately, this has been so for thousands of years, at least since the beginning of agriculture. The unnatural overabundance of food received from agriculture is a profit, and spiritually evolved people would not kill native plants to plant crops, nor would they dig into the Earth for any reason, as traditional indigenous people refrain from doing. Humans have been off the rails for at least this long, and the “machine men with machine minds” and their corporations that you describe are just the result of thousands of years of going in the wrong direction. If humans had instead focused on expanding their consciousness, empathy, and wisdom, the Earth would be a MUCH better place filled with much more life, would look radically different, and humans would be a shining light on this planet instead of the cancerous tumor that they are.

  5. As stated in the editorial of the most recent Blue Collar Review; As with climate change, capitalism is inseparable from war, a barbarous crime always inflicted on our working class. The horror in Ukraine is largely a result of 8 years of U.S. meddling and efforts to expand NATO, an aggressive, U.S.-led military bloc, to Russia’s border in spite of previous agreements and warnings. Though this does not and cannot justify Russia’s monstrous actions, our further involvement may quickly escalate to global nuclear annihilation.

    Many of us are having terrifying flashbacks to the cold war. People in places like Baghdad, Panama City, Beirut, Belgrade, Afghanistan, Gaza and elsewhere are reliving the visceral terror of being bombed. Unlike Ukrainian victims ubiquitous our media, we did not see such coverage of them.

    As working people, the inevitable targets of every ruling class dispute, we must stand against war and the escalation of war. The horrors inflicted on Ukraine, Yemen Palestine and elsewhere make clear the barbarity of military solutions and the necessity of abolishing nuclear weapons. The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, already ratified by 86 countries, demonstrates that this is possible. Our security and survival as a species requires global cooperation and an end to corporate nation-states fighting for control of resources, especially oil and gas — again.

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