Debate with Red and Black Notes: The irrationality of imperialist war

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Over the past year Internationalism has been involved in a correspondence with the Toronto based group Red and Black Notes that publishes a journal of the same name. We have already published previous installments of this correspondence. The following letter is a reply to the Red and Black letter published in our last issue (#129).

Dear Comrade,

We write in order to continue the dialogue we have been engaged in over the past year regarding the nature of imperialism and war in the current period. We apologize for the slight delay in responding to you.

First, we wish to salute the spirit of open and fraternal debate that your last letter to us-a reply to our previous commentary on the leaflets you distributed at the anti- war rallies in the winter of 2003-demonstrates. It is only this open process of exchange and confrontation between ideas and positions that can advance revolutionary theory and then provide the most effective basis for revolutionary intervention in the proletariat's struggle to destroy capitalist society and build a new human community. We are certainly encouraged that the debate between us has sustained itself for a year in a fraternal and open way. We look forward to exchanging correspondence with you again soon. However, what we would like to do in this letter is to expand the debate beyond the specific intervention in the anti-war rallies to a more general discussion of the nature of imperialism and war today, and in doing so, draw your attention to what we see as some continuing methodological weaknesses in your analysis of these questions.

However, we will begin by stressing some of the main points of agreement between our analysis and the approach you have taken towards these questions. First, we certainly concur with your insistence that capitalism is a global system and that there are no longer any such things as "non-capitalist" or "non-imperialist" nations. In this era of decadent capitalism, all states are equally capitalist and imperialist even if some are stronger than others or more openly acknowledge their own imperialist character-albeit in a distorted way-as is the case today with certain factions of the American bourgeoisie. In such a situation-as you correctly point out-there can be no question of "defeating imperialism" by allying the workers movement with "oppressed nations." Defeating capitalism requires a global revolution by the entire working class against all states. The task of revolutionaries is to intervene towards the working class to defend this perspective, something your leaflets reflected admirably despite the fact-as you put it-that the revolutionary perspective may be a "small voice in a dark time" in today's political climate. Moreover, your reply to the Trotskyist group's criticism of the internationalist position on war was dead-on in pointing out the obvious inanity of their politics, a politics that offers "military" but not "political" support to lesser imperialist powers in the hope of "breaking the weakest link in the chain." You correctly point out the bourgeois class nature of such a position that would logically lead them to-as you phrase it-"advocate the shooting of deserters (.) as scabbing on the defense of an oppressed nation." Your analysis of war and imperialism, as portrayed in your leaflets and in your last letter, is one we would find ourselves in general agreement with, an agreement you acknowledge yourself.

Nevertheless, despite this general agreement, we feel your reply to our criticisms of your initial leaflets did not fully grapple with the fundamental methodological question posed by the transition of the capitalist system from its period of historical ascendancy-in which it served the purpose of developing humanity's productive forces-to its period of decadence, in which capitalist relations of production come to serve as a brake on the development of the productive forces and, in which, capitalism has become a fully regressive mode of production. For us, this historic transition, which we see occurring in the early 20th century, fundamentally changed many things in the functioning of the capitalist system. While we cannot go into all of the features of this historic transition here, a subject covered in depth in our pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism, we will try to sketch out-in a somewhat schematic way perhaps-the connection between the theory of decadence and our analysis of imperialism and war today.

For us, as decadence-marked by a permanent global crisis of overproduction-has advanced, imperialism and war have more and more tended to lose any direct economic function for capitalist states. While there may indeed be some instances of residual economic benefit for this or that company or state as the result of a particular imperialist confrontation, for us this is not the primary motive behind the capitalist system's current march to war. In decadence, strategic and tactical considerations tend to dominate the imperialist rivalries between states, as they all compete-albeit in a very general sense-to strengthen their positions on the global market by making inroads into the spheres of influence of other states. In a world where the entire globe is dominated by capitalist states, there is no place left to colonize and exploit that isn't already a rival state or in another state's sphere of influence. In a context such as this, war and imperialism tend to loose the vulgar economic motives that characterized some phases of capitalism's ascendancy, such as access to markets or raw materials. In decadence, capitalist states are driven towards imperialism and war by the competitive logic of the global market itself and as such they often engage in military actions that are on the immediate level very unprofitable, and in many cases even a drain on the national capital. In this sense, the period of capitalist decadence is marked by the increasing "irrationality of war," wherein war becomes an end in itself, i.e. gaining strategic position against one's rivals, rather than a means to some immediate economic end. In this sense, the present day capitalist system has taken on the all the trappings of a mafia war in which violence takes on a life of its own outside of a direct connection to substantive ends.

Nevertheless, we think the most important oversight of your response to our previous criticisms is to see the differences in our analysis of the war as a matter of "differing emphasis." While it is true that we can have differing interpretations about the weight of immediate economic factors in a given imperialist conflict, we must be clear that there is a profound difference of method in analyzing war and imperialism from the perspective of profit and immediate interests as opposed to taking a global and historical view of the evolution and development of imperialist tensions over the longue dure? of capitalist development. For us, the theory of decadence is the method that provides this perspective and which best explains the situation facing global capitalism and all its constituent states today. And which can best guide our own analysis of imperialist tensions and the class struggle.

We believe this perspective better explains the imperialist situation surrounding the current war in Iraq than does the attempt to search for the immediate economic interests of the American national capital. Ever since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc at the end of the 1990's, the main powers of the former Western Bloc: Great Britain, France, Germany etc. have been slowly but certainly trying to free themselves from the dominance of their old bloc master: The United States. As such, over the past decade and a half-sensing its weakening grip over its erstwhile allies-the United States has increasingly been obliged to engage in direct displays of military power, as a way of reminding its rivals of its superiority in this area: the Gulf War of 1991, Somalia 1993, the ex-Yugoslavia and Kosovo under Clinton, Afghanistan after 9/11, and now Iraq once again under the 2nd Bush administration. Nevertheless, these interventions have in general had little benefit for the US economy. In fact, as we now know about the war in Iraq they have tended to be an economic burden, with the American state forced to spend a spiraling amount of money on each intervention it makes, a sum that is increasing daily with the continued violence in Iraq. While some administration bigwigs and assorted other cronies may be getting rich from this war from contracts etc., the American economy itself is suffering tremendously. We think the idea of a post-war economic revival based on some sort of "oil boom" has been, at this point, largely discredited. Domestically, it is the working class that bears the brunt of the domestic cutbacks that result from the increasingly precarious nature of the global capitalist economy and of the American national capital in particular, as well as the drive to war that only exacerbates the crisis. So, from the perspective of the theory of decadence, the current war in Iraq is less an attempt to jump start a struggling economy and more a desperate geo-political move to shore up a shrinking imperialist power base, a move that has, in fact, done great harm to the national capital and raised the stakes of austerity for the working class even further.

In conclusion, we hope that you accept our intervention in the same spirit of openness that has characterized our correspondence thus far, and we look forward to any additional reply you may send. We would also like to respond to the part of your letter dealing with the tactics of the class struggle and we will be in touch with further correspondence on this question soon. In the meantime we look forward to your letters and emails.

Revolutionary Regards,

Internationalism