Five years into the occupation of Iraq and seven years after the war in Afghanistan started the Americans and their allies are bogged down in an unwinnable situation. Even if they withdraw from Iraq in the medium term future, the political and social repercussions of the war will go on for decades. The attempt to carve out a new sphere of influence in the Middle East, and thus guarantee oil supplies has proven to be a lot more difficult than the American Imperialists imagined, and serves to demonstrate the limits to the power that they can wield. The New World Order has become disorder and the economic and financial crisis in America brilliantly confirms Trotsky’s analysis when he explained that the cost of the growth of American Imperialism was to accumulate “dynamite in its foundations”.
The world centre of economic power has, as Trotsky predicted decisively shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in other words from Europe and America to Asia and America. At the same time the growth of the Chinese and Indian economies is driving both countries to seek out new markets and their own ‘spheres of influence’, particularly in Africa, in the case of China. Meanwhile, the Russian bourgeoisie have begun to expand their influence in Latin America and as the recent debacle in Georgia shows they are flexing their muscles within their own ‘sphere of influence’. Interestingly the European Union was at complete loggerheads in this situation as it illustrated the contradictions between the ‘partners’.
The collapse of Stalinism ended a period of relative stability in global relations, the nuclear stand off and the existence of a significant number of deformed worker’s states meant that the world was effectively divided into two camps. For the ex colonial countries there was an alternative to the domination of American imperialism and a number of countries experienced revolutions which carried through the nationalisation of the economy, but developed on Stalinist lines because of the absence of an independent movement of the working class and a revolutionary internationalist leadership.
The reasons behind the constant struggle between the rival imperialist powers are rooted in the nature of capitalism itself. Frederick Engels pointed out in ‘The Dialectics of Nature’ that the only constant in nature was change and the 19th and 20th centuries show clear evidence of this in the way that capitalism developed. Years earlier he and Karl Marx writing in the ‘Communist Manifesto’ explained the way that the development of the world market tore up the old social relations that had existed for years as capitalism spread its tentacles across the globe. Lenin went on to develop an understanding of the way that imperialism worked; the fusion of finance capital and the state, and he and Trotsky explained in the early days of the Communist International the contradiction between the development of the productive forces and the nation state, building on Marx and Engels’ view as to how private ownership acted as a straitjacket on the development of the productive forces. Of course by then the contradictions between the ‘great powers’ had led to the imperialist slaughter of the First World War, and the re-division of the world in the interests of the victors.
What is vital to understand is that the factors that gave rise to the First World War and the Second, and basically every other war since, are a product of the way that capitalism and even individual capitalists are forced to behave. The struggle for raw materials and markets to sell finished goods inevitably leads to conflict, war and horror without end for hundred of millions of workers and peasants, particularly in the ex colonial countries. The outlines of this process were already apparent when Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto, when effectively there was only one fully industrialised country in the world, before some of the major European powers of today like Germany and Italy actually existed as nation states.
Capitalism is forced to grow just to stand still. Competition forces the bourgeoisie to invest to produce goods cheaper and faster than their competitors and find new markets to exploit. Colonial expansion fuelled by the development of the link between finance capital and the state gave rise to a series of rival imperialisms that sooner or later ended up in direct conflict with one another.
The collapse of Stalinism resulted in the USA becoming the sole super power on a world scale, the ‘New World Order’. But at the same time, a capitalist Russia is a completely different beast to the old Stalinist Soviet Union. Russia today is driven by the same laws of capitalism, the same ‘market forces’ that drive the development of US imperialism, British, French and German imperialism. The period after the Second World War seems like a golden age of stability by comparison.
Even in US imperialism’s back yard the Russians are gaining a greater influence, as witnessed by the arms deals with Venezuela and joint military exercises. But despite the bloody history of US imperialism, the revolutionary movement across the whole of Latin America has been able to develop onto a higher level.
The US received a bloody nose in the Vietnam war, which reflected the fact that there were limits to the power of imperialism and reaction on a world scale. The drain of resources in Iraq and Afghanistan represents an objective difficulty for the Americans, and so they have been forced to operate by Proxy, through the ‘Escualidos’ (counter-revolutionaries) and the oligarchy in Venezuela and the fascist reaction in Bolivia. US imperialism maintains Colombia as an armed camp and is acutely aware of the risks to capitalism posed by the Bolivarian revolution, but provided that the movement in Venezuela continues to move forward they are restricted in their actions. It is vital that the lessons of the Pinochet coup in Chile are thoroughly understood. The bourgeois state is the biggest obstacle to the successful conclusion of the Venezuelan Revolution.
The experience of the post war period has been of small wars, revolutions and counter revolutions, wherein the big powers tended to act by proxy. But the collapse of Stalinism in Yugoslavia and the fragmentation of the Balkans that followed indicated that Europe was not immune to the instability that was more apparent on a world scale.
The carnage in Yugoslavia gave an opportunity for German, British, American and Russian imperialism to expand their interests into the Balkans, in the same way that the Balkans used to reflect the rival interests of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires in the past.
During the nineteenth century Kropotkin said that “the usual condition in Europe is war”. During the first half of the 20th century this was doubly the case. But the world economic boom that took place between 1948 and 1973 allowed capitalism to partly solve some of its problems for a temporary period. As such, together with the apparent ossification of relations between Western imperialism and Stalinism, Europe was ‘peaceful’. The fact was however that it was an armed camp with nuclear weapons, thousands of troops, tanks and B52 bombers. But it was a period of relative stability.
Recent events in Afghanistan and Iraq have created serious contradictions within NATO as the individual states have come under pressure from the working class to pull out and end the wars. As we reported recently a group of serving and ex senior military commanders produced a major document which argued that NATO should retain a “Nuclear Pre-emptive Strike Capacity”. The document went on to list the contradictions and problems within the alliance and record the major threats that they considered NATO had to contend with.
The whole of world politics and economics is decisively affected by the world market. Even in a boom, the speed at which money can be transferred from one stock to another, from one currency or one continent to another is breathtaking. No one country can stand outside of the world market for long. Even China, which was previously not integrated into the world economy, is now influenced by world demand, because of the huge growth in its exports. The financial crash has bankrupted Iceland, and none of the European powers is exempt from the crisis that began in the US sub-prime market. This process was clear in the 1930s as the Wall Street crash and the American depression undermined the rest of the world. But today the interpenetration of every one of the national economies by multi national capitalism and world trade means that a deep slump would have a massive impact on events everywhere. At the moment we are at the beginning of the slump. World capitalism is looking into the abyss.
The impact of the financial and economic crash that we are passing through at present is a huge factor in world relations. The tensions between the European powers and the USA, between each other and with the new massive capitalist economies in India and China can only be exacerbated as a consequence. The European Union, despite a certain success in integrating the European powers over the last decades, will come under economic and political pressures on a scale that hasn’t been seen since the 1930s. The drive towards new sources of raw materials and markets will accelerate as the bourgeois and the imperialist powers are forced to maintain their position in an increasingly difficult environment.
From the point of view of the Marxists however, the period through which we are passing will be hugely different to that we have experienced over the last period. The convulsions of capitalism will create the conditions for social, economic and political crisis. The working class will be forced to pay for the crisis in the capitalist system. There will be dramatic shifts in the consciousness of the working class, sharp turns and sudden changes in the outlook of all classes as the working class seeks a way to solve their problems.
The victory of the socialist revolution in any one major country would transform the situation internationally, and would begin a chain reaction that would transform the world. Provided, that is, that we can build a Marxist leadership with a clear revolutionary internationalist programme.
This article first appeared on Socialist Appeal.
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This post was written by Terry McPartlan