War, militarism and imperialist blocs in the decadence of capitalism, Part 2
In the first part of this article we pointed out the utterly irrational character of war in the period of the decadence of capitalism. Whereas last century, despite the destruction and massacre they brought about, wars constituted a means for taking capitalist production forward by facilitating the conquest of the world market and stimulating the development of the productive forces of society as a whole, wars in the 20th century are simply the most extreme expression of the barbarism into which capitalism's decadence plunges social life. This first part of the article underlined the fact that world wars in particular, but also the numerous local wars and all the military expenses poured into preparing and perpetuating them, can in no way be seen as ‘overhead costs' for the development of the capitalist economy but have to be written, into the latter's entirely negative balance-sheet: a major result of the insoluble problems undermining this economy, they are also a powerful factor in aggravating and accelerating its collapse. In the final analysis, the total absurdity of war today is illustrated in a striking manner by the fact that a new generalised war, which is the only perspective capitalism can offer despite all today's pacifist campaigns, would simply mean the destruction of humanity.
Another illustration of the completely irrational and absurd character of war in the period of capitalism's decadence, an expression of the absurdity that the very survival of the system implies for society, is the fact that the bloc which, in the last resort, unleashes the war is precisely the one that comes out of the war ‘defeated' (if you can talk about there being a ‘victor'). Thus in 1914 it was Germany and Austria-Hungary who declared war on the Entente countries. Similarly in 1939, it was the invasion of Poland by Germany which provoked hostilities in Europe, and in 1941 Japan's bombing of the US fleet in Pearl Harbour which was at the immediate origins of the USA's entry into the war.
The ‘suicidal' march of decadent capitalism
This ‘suicidal' path taken by countries who in the end are going to be the main losers out of a world conflagration obviously can't be explained by talking about the ‘madness' of their leaders. In reality, this apparent ‘madness' in these countries' conduct is simply the translation of the general ‘madness' of the capitalist system today. This ‘suicidal' march has above all been the one followed by capitalism as a whole since it entered its period of decadence, and has got worse and worse the more capitalism has sunk into decay. More precisely, the conduct of the future ‘losers' of the world wars merely expresses two realities:
- once the obstacle of the proletarian struggle has been removed, generalised war is the inevitable culmination of the exacerbation of the economic contradictions of the capitalist mode of production;
- the fact that the great power which ‘pushes' the most for a general conflict is the one least well placed in the division of the imperialist spoils, and thus has the greatest interest in calling this division into question.
The first point has been part of the ‘classical' patrimony of marxism since the beginning of the century. It is one of the foundation stones of the whole perspective of our organisation for the present period and has been amply developed in other articles in our press. What we have to emphasise here is the absence of any real control over this phenomenon on the part of the ruling class. Just as all the bourgeoisie's efforts and policies aimed at overcoming the crisis of the capitalist economy can't prevent the crisis from getting worse and worse, so all the gesticulations of all the governments, even when they are ‘sincerely' aimed at preserving peace, can only grease the wheels carrying the world towards a generalised imperialist butchery. In fact the second phenomenon (war) derives from the first (crisis).
Faced with a total economic impasse, with the failure of the most brutal economic ‘remedies', the only choice open to the bourgeoisie is that of a forward flight with other means - themselves increasingly illusory - which can only be military means. For several centuries, force of arms has been one of the essential instruments for the defence of capitalist interests. In particular it was through colonial wars that this system opened up the world market, that each bourgeois power constituted its own empire for selling its commodities and providing itself with raw materials. The explosion of militarism and of armaments expenditure at the end of the last century meant the completion of the division of the world market between the big (and even the small) powers. Henceforward, for each one of them, increasing (or just preserving) its part of the market necessarily involved a confrontation with the other powers, and the military means which sufficed to deal with native populations armed with arrows and spears had to be increased more than tenfold in order to square up to other industrial nations. Since then, even though colonisation has given way to the other forms of imperialist domination, this phenomenon has been amplified to monstrous proportions, completely changing its relations with the whole of society.
In the decadence of capitalism, the same goes for war and militarism as for other instruments of bourgeois society, in particular the state. In its origins, the latter appeared as a simple instrument of civil society (of bourgeois society in the case of the bourgeois state), with the function of ensuring a certain ‘order' and of preventing the antagonisms within society from leading to its dislocation. With capitalism's entry into its period of decadence, with the development of major convulsions in the system, there was also the development of the phenomenon of state capitalism, in which the state acquires a growing weight, to the point of absorbing the whole of civil society, of becoming the main, if not the only, boss. Even though the state continues to be an organ of capitalism (and not the reverse), as the supreme representative of this system, as the guarantor of its survival, it tends in most of its functions to escape the immediate control of the different sectors of the bourgeois class, imposing on them the overall requirements of capital and its own totalitarian logic. The same applies to militarism, which is one of the essential components of the state and whose development is precisely one of the major factors in the intensification of the phenomenon of state capitalism. In its origins a simple instrument of the economic policies of the bourgeoisie, it has acquired a certain level of autonomy within the state, and with its increasing role in bourgeois society has more and more tended to impose itself on society and the state.
This tendency towards the coordination of the state apparatus by the military sphere is illustrated in particular by the importance of the military budget within the overall state budget (it's generally the biggest part), but not only by this. In fact, the whole conduct of state affairs is under the grip of militarism. In the weakest countries, the grip often takes the extreme form of military dictatorships, but it is no less real in countries where the state is run by specialists in politics, just as the grip of state capitalism is no less strong in countries where, unlike the so-called ‘socialist' regimes, there is not a complete identification between the political and the economic apparatus of capital. Furthermore, even in the most developed countries, there are plenty of examples, since the First World War, of the participation of military figures in the highest bodies of the state: the eminent role of General Groener, the first quarter-master general, in inspiring the policies of the social democratic chancellor Ebert in the repression of the German revolution in 1918-19; the election of Marshall Hindenburg as President of the Weimar republic in 1925 and 1932 (it was he who called Hitler to the Chancellery in 1933); the nomination of Marshall Pétain as French head of state in 1940 and of General de Gaulle in 1958; the election of General Eisenhower as US President in 1952 and 1956, etc. Moreover, whereas in the framework of ‘democracy' the political parties and personnel at the summit of the state are liable to change, the general staff and the military hierarchy enjoy a remarkable stability, which can only reinforce their real power.
Because of this domination of political life by the military, the more the ‘solutions' to the crisis advocated and applied by the economic and political apparati of bourgeois society are shown to be useless, the more ‘solutions' specifically put forward by the military apparati tend to impose themselves. It's in this sense, for example, that we can understand the accession to power of the Nazi party in 1933:
this party was the most determined representative of the military option in response to the economic catastrophe which was felt with particular force in Germany. Thus, the more capitalism sinks into the crisis, the more it has to follow the irreversible and uncontrollable logic of militarism, even if (as we saw in the first part of this article) it is no more capable than any other policy of solving the economic contradictions of the system. And the logic of militarism - in a world context where all countries are dominated by it, where the countries which don't prepare for war, which don't use military means when they are ‘required', risk becoming the ‘victim' of other countries - can only lead to generalised war even if this brings massacre and ruin to all the belligerents, and even their total destruction.
This ineluctable pressure towards a generalised confrontation is felt all the more strongly by those world powers which haven't fared so well in the division of imperialist spoils; those better placed obviously have more interest in preserving the status quo. Thus, at the time of the first world war, the two powers which pushed most strongly for war were Russia and above all Germany: the bloc which launched the conflict was the one dominated by Germany, which had a smaller colonial empire than Belgium or Portugal, even though it had become the greatest economic power in Europe. This situation was even clearer in the second world war when Germany's situation had got even worse, owing to the conditions of the treaty of Versailles which had deprived it of its rare colonial possessions and even part of its ‘own' national territory. Similarly, Japan destroyed the US Pacific Fleet in 1941 in the hope of enlarging a colonial empire which it judged insufficient given its new economic power: it had only acquired Manchuria at the expense of the Chinese in 1937. Thus, the imperialist brigands who precipitated the war as a result of the narrowness of their ‘lebensraum' were in the end the ones least placed to win:
- because they had a weaker territorial and economic base than their adversaries;
- because their offensive, in a world entirely divided up among the big imperialist powers, could only bring together those who were already ‘established' (as for example in the case of France and Britain, whose rivalries in Africa at the end of the 19th century were finally overcome when faced with the common threat represented by Germany).
In many respects, the USSR and its bloc finds itself today in a similar situation to that of Germany and its allies in 1914 and 1939. In particular, the main problem confronting both these powers has been their late accession to industrial development and to the world market, which forced them to make do with the crumbs left them by the older industrial powers (France and Britain in particular) after they had divided up the imperialist cake. However there is an important difference between the USSR today and Germany in the past. Although like Germany in 1914 and 1939, the USSR is today the second economic power in the world in the world (although in terms of GNP it has fallen behind Japan), it differs from Germany in that it no way has an industry and an economy which is in the, vanguard of development. On the contrary: it is ‘considerably and insurmountably behind at this level. This is one of the phenomena of capitalist decadence: the impossibility for newly-arrived national capitals to raise themselves to the level of development reached by the ‘established' powers. The industrial ascent of Germany took place at a time (the end of the 19th century) when capitalism was enjoying its greatest-ever prosperity, which enabled this economy to be the most modern in the world at the moment capitalism entered its decadence. The industrial ascent of modern Russia, after the terrible destruction of the first world war and of the civil war which followed the revolution, took place right in the middle of the decadent period (the late 20s and 30s): because of this, Russia never really managed to break out of its underdevelopment and is actually one of the most backward parts of the bloc it dominates .
Thus, as well as having a much smaller empire, the USSR suffers from an enormous financial and economic weakness with regard to its western rival. This economic gap is al the more evident when we look at the two blocs as a whole: thus, of the eight main world powers (in terms of GNP), 7 are part of NATO or are, like Japan, sure allies of the USA. In contrast, the USSR's allies in the Warsaw Pact are at positions 11, 13, 19, 32, 40 and 55. This weakness has repercussions on a whole series of areas today.
One of the main consequences of the economic superiority of the western bloc, and especially of the USA, is the variety of means at its disposal for maintaining its imperialist domination. Thus, the USA can establish its domination over countries governed by democratic regimes, by the army, by a single party apparatus and even by Stalinist type parties. The USSR, on the other hand, can only control regimes directly in its image (and even more so) or military regimes directly relying on the support of troops from its bloc.
Similarly the Western bloc can, alongside the military card, make wide use of the economic card in controlling its dependents (bilateral aid, intervention of organs like the IMF, the World Bank, etc). This isn't the case with the USSR which doesn't have, and never had, the means to play such a card. The cohesion of its bloc is based entirely on its military force.
Thus the economic weakness of the Russian bloc explains its unfavourable strategic position on the world arena: the limited nature of the means at its disposal has never allowed it to really break out of its encirclement by the American bloc. It also explains that even on the strictly military terrain - which is the only one remaining to it - it has no chance of victorious confrontation with its rival.
So whereas at the beginning of the century or in the 3Os Germany was able, thanks to its modern industrial base, to gain a temporary military advantage over the countries whose hegemony it was contesting, the USSR and its bloc, owing to its economic and technological backwardness, has always been behind the American bloc at the level of armaments. What's more, this lagging behind has been aggravated by the fact that, since the Second World War - and this is an expression of the constant accentuation of the main tendencies of capitalist decadence - the whole world hasn't had a moment's respite from local conflicts and military preparations. This wasn't the case following the first world war.
Since the Second World War, the USSR has been able to do no more than run behind - a long way behind - the military power of the Western bloc, without ever being able to catch up. The enormous effort it has devoted to armaments, notably in the 60s and 70s, while permitting it to attain a certain parity in some areas (notably in nuclear fire power), has had the result of further aggravating its industrial backwardness and its fragility in the face of the convulsions of' the world economic crisis. And with the exception of Indochina, it hasn't enabled it to preserve the positions which it had conquered through the wars of decolonisation against the Western bloc countries. The examples of China and Africa (especially Egypt) illustrate this.
At the turning point of the 70s and 80s there was an important change in the context in which imperialist conflicts' had been played out since the end of the world war. Behind this change is the increasingly obvious fact that the capitalist economy is in a total impasse: the 1981-83 recession was a particularly clear illustration of this. This economic impasse can only accentuate the headlong flight towards war by all sectors of the world bourgeoisie (see in particular the article ‘The 80s, Years of Truth' in International Review n°20, 1st quarter 1980).
The offensive of the US bloc
In this context we are seeing a qualitative change in the evolution of imperialist conflicts. Its major characteristic has been the general offensive of the American bloc against the Russian bloc. The basis for this offensive was laid by Carter with his ‘human rights' campaigns and the essential decisions he made about armaments (MX missile systems, Euro-missiles, the Rapid Deployment Force), and it has been continued and expanded by Reagan through a major increase in the military budget, the sending of US expeditionary corps to Lebanon in 1982 and Grenada in 1984, the decision to go ahead with ‘Star Wars' and, more recently, the bombing of Libya by the US Air force and the deployment of the US Navy in the Persian Gulf.
This offensive aims to complete the encirclement of Russia by the western bloc, depriving it of all the positions which/it had been able to establish outside its direct sphere of domination. It involves the definitive expulsion of the USSR from the Middle East, already realised by the insertion of Syria into the west's imperialist plans in the mid-1980s and the disciplining of Iran and the reintegration of this country into its strategy. It also has the ambition of recuperating Indochina. In the final analysis its aim is to strangle the USSR completely, depriving it of its status as a world power.
One of the major characteristics of this offensive is the US bloc's increasingly massive use of its military power, in particular through sending expeditionary corps, American or from other central countries (especially France Britain or Italy, to theatres bf conflict, as in 1982 to the Lebanon and in ‘87 to the Persian Gulf. This characteristic corresponds to the fact that the economic card that was so widely used in the past to get the better of the its adversary is no longer sufficient:
- because of the present ambitions of the US bloc;
- because of the aggravation of the world crisis has created a situation of internal instability in the third world countries that the US bloc used to rely on.
On this point, the Iran events have been particularly revealing. The collapse of the Shah's regime and the consequent paralysis of the US bloc's war machinery in this region enabled the USSR to step up its presence in Afghanistan, installing its troops a few hundred kilometres from the ‘hot seas', of the Indian Ocean. These events convinced the American bourgeoisie of the need to set up its Rapid Deployment Force (and it was able to get the population to swallow this by exploiting the affair of the American embassy hostages in Tehran in 1980), and in general to reorient its imperialist strategy.
Thus the present situation differs from the one that preceded the Second World War by the fact that it is now the most powerful bloc which is on the offensive:
- because this bloc has an enormous military superiority and in particular is much more advanced on the technological level;
- because, by prolonging itself over a much longer period than in the 3Os, without being able to culminate in a generalised conflict, the crisis has given rise to much wider preparations for such a conflict; and obviously the economically more powerful bloc is best equipped to carry out these preparations.
However, this doesn't call into question the fact that it's the bloc in the most unfavourable position which in the final analysis unleashes the generalised conflict. For the USSR, the stakes are very high. At the end of the US offensive is a life or death question for this country. If the American bloc is able to take its offensive to its ultimate conclusions (which presupposes that it isn't being held back by the class struggle), the USSR would have no alternative but to resort to the terrible means of generalised war:
- because, as a general rule, a bloc never capitulates before having used up all the military instruments at its disposal (unless it is constrained by the class struggle);
- because the capitulation of the USSR would mean the collapse of the regime and the complete dispossession of the present bourgeoisie, owing to the fact that it is completely integrated into the state (unlike the German bourgeoisie which was able to accommodate itself to an Allied victory and a change in the political regime).
So while in the first analysis the schema that applied in 1914 and 1939 remains essentially valid today (i.e. that it is the bloc in the most unfavourable position which takes the decisive step), in the period ahead of us we can expect to see a progressive advance by the US bloc (in contrast to the 1930s when it was Germany that was marking up the points: Anschluss in ‘37, Munich in ‘38, Czechoslovakia in ‘39...).
In response to this advance, we can expect to see a dogged, blow-by-blow resistance by the Russian bloc wherever such resistance is possible, which will mean a continuation and intensification of military confrontations in which the US bloc will be more and more directly involved. In this sense, the diplomatic card, while it will still be played, will more and more tend to be the result of a balance of forces already established on the military terrain.
This is in fact what has happened with the signature on December 8 1987 of the Washington agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev concerning ‘intermediate range' (between 500 and 5,500km) missiles, and the current negotiations about the withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan.
In the latter case, if such a withdrawal takes place, it will be the result of the impasse Russia has reached in this country, especially since the USA has been supplying the guerrillas with ultra-modern armaments like the Stinger air-to-ground missiles, which have done a great deal of damage to Russian planes and helicopters.
As for the Washington agreement about the elimination of ‘Euromissiles', it must be underlined that this is also a result of military pressure exerted by the US and its bloc on the rival bloc, notably the installation of Pershing 2 and Cruise missiles in various western countries (Britain, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Italy) from November ‘83 onwards. The fact that this agreement is largely the result of a Russian initiative and that the number of missiles and nuclear warheads eliminated by the USSR is much higher than on the American side (857 missiles and 1687 warheads as opposed to 439 missiles and the same number of warheads), illustrates the fact that it is indeed the USSR which is in a position of weakness (especially when you consider that its SS20 missiles are much less precise than Pershing 2 which can strike to within 40 metres of the target from a distance of up to 1800km, not to mention the Cruise missiles which are even more precise from distances of up to 3000km).
For the leader of the Western bloc, the operation is even more useful to the extent that the withdrawal of its own Euromissiles doesn't imply any withdrawal or stopping the deployment of weapons produced by its allies: in fact, behind the Washington agreement there is the USA's intention to pass a portion of its military burdens over to the European countries. This increased involvement of the countries of Europe in the defence of the US bloc was confirmed in the summer of ‘87 in a very significant manner by their often massive participation in the western armada in the Persian Gulf. It was also clearly confirmed at the end of 87 with the Franco-British decision to work jointly on an air-to-ground nuclear missile with a range of over 500km, and by the recent French-German military manoeuvres, which prefigure an increasing integration of these two armies, and eventually, of all the armies of the Western European countries. It was confirmed yet again at the last NATO ‘summit' at the beginning of March where the members of this alliance, i.e. mainly the countries of Western Europe, committed themselves to regularly modernising their weapons (in fact to further military expenditure).
Thus the Washington agreements in no way call into question the general characteristics of the inter-imperialist antagonisms which dominate the world today. In particular, the suppression of the ‘Euromissiles' is just a tiny scratch in proportion to the, phenomenal destructive potential in the hands of the great powers. Despite the frightful destructive capacities contained in the 2100 atomic weapons to be eliminated (each one more powerful than the bomb which destroyed Hiroshima in August 1945), they only amount to a small part of the 40,000 bombs which remain ready to be launched by missiles of all kinds installed on the ground, on planes, on submarines or ships - not to mention the nuclear shells probably tens of thousands which can be fired by 6,800 canon.
The working class must fight pacifist illusions
If the Washington agreement doesn't involve. any real reduction in the formidable destructive potential in the hands of the governments of the great powers, neither does it open up the prospect of disarmament and of the end to the threat of war. The present ‘warming up' in the relations between the two main powers, the amicable exchanges between Reagan and Gorbachev, which have been swapped for the mutual insults of a few years ago, don't mean at all that international relations are about to be governed by ‘reason' instead of the ‘madness' of conflict between the powers. As the resolution on the international situation adopted by the ICC's 7th Congress in July ‘87 put it:
"In reality, pacifist speeches, grand diplomatic manoeuvres, and international conferences of all sorts have always been part of the bourgeoisie's preparations for imperialist war (e.g. the 1938 Munich agreements). In general, they alternate with war mongering speeches and their function is complimentary. While the latter aim to make the population, and especially the working class, accept the economic sacrifices demanded by the arms race and the preparations for general mobilisation, the former try to let each state appear to be the ‘peace-lover', not at all to blame for the increasing tension, in order to afterwards justify the ‘necessary' war against an enemy ‘who bears the entire responsibility' for its outbreak. In recent years and especially on the part of the Reagan administration, we have witnessed just this kind of alternation between ‘pacifist' and ‘warmongering' talk, from its initial ‘extremism', designed to justify the gigantic increases in military spending and the various interventions abroad (Lebanon, Grenada), which gave way to an ‘openness' to Russia's proposals once the orientation of increased military preparation had been consolidated, and it was necessary to ‘show willing'."
The fact that the main ‘target' of these different campaigns is the world proletariat becomes clearer when you examine the moment in which each one developed. The culminating point of the warlike campaign was at the beginning of the 80s when the working class had suffered an important defeat, concretised and aggravated by the repression of the Polish workers in December 81. The working class was momentarily dominated by feelings of powerlessness and disorientation. In this context, the warlike campaigns promoted by the governments, the daily speeches about war, while producing among the workers a justified disquiet about the terrible prospect the system is holding out to humanity, had the principal result of increasing their feelings of powerlessness and disarray, making them an easier ‘prey' to the big pacifist demonstrations organised by the forces of the left in opposition. The pacifist campaign launched by the western governments and conducted by Reagan, got going in 1984 just after a whole series of massive struggles in Europe had proved that the working class had come out of its temporary disarray and was regaining confidence in itself. In these conditions, the disquiet resulting from the warlike speeches is much less likely to lead to feelings of powerlessness among the workers. In fact, it risks accelerating the development of consciousness about the fact their present struggles against capitalism's economic attacks are the only real obstacle to the unleashing of a world war, that they prepare the ground for the overthrow of this barbaric system. Today's pacifist campaigns are aimed precisely at conjuring away this ‘risk'. No longer able to make the workers fatalistically accept the perspective of a new aggravation of imperialist conflicts and the terrible implications contained in such a perspective, the bourgeoisie is now trying to lull the workers to sleep, to make them believe that the ‘wisdom' of the world's leaders is capable of ending the threat of a third world war.
Thus, the essential idea that these two types of campaigns try, with different arguments, to fix in the workers' heads, is that the fundamental questions in the life of society, and in particular the question of war, are decided outside of any intervention of the proletariat as a class.
Revolutionaries must put forward the exact opposite of this view: all the ‘conferences', all the ‘agreements' between imperialist brigands, all the wisdom of the world's statesmen amount to nothing: only the working class can prevent the present crisis from leading to a third world war and thus to the destruction of humanity; only the working class, by overthrowing capitalism, can free humanity from the curse of war.
Today, when the western bourgeoisie is doing everything it can to hide the real gravity of the sending of its formidable armada to the Persian Gulf - which raises the perspective of a considerable intensification of tensions between the two great powers; when it presents the decisions of the last NATO summit as a call for the continuation of disarmament and a reduction of these tensions, whereas what they really decided on was an increase in arms expenditure and an aggravation of imperialist conflicts; when Gorbachev is everywhere presenting himself as the great champion of peace - at such a time as this, it is up to revolutionaries to underline and emphasise, as this article seeks to do, the enormous dimensions, and the inevitable character of the barbarism into which this system is plunging society. At the same time they have to strengthen their denunciation of all pacifist illusions, carrying out the work their predecessors undertook at the beginning of the century:
"The formulae of pacifism: universal disarmament under the capitalist regime, tribunals of arbitration, etc, are not only a reactionary utopia but a way of duping the workers, of disarming the proletariat and distracting it from its real task, which is the disarmament of the exploiters." (Lenin, Programme of the Bolshevik Party, adopted in 1919).
 This Review has on several occasions (see in particular the ‘Report on the International Situation' from the 3rd ICC Congress in IR 18 and ‘On The Critique of the Theory of the Weak Link', International Review n°37), dealt with Russia's economic backwardness, and its incapacity to catch up with the west, so there is no need to go over this again.
 This is also one of the reasons why the conflicts of the ‘Cold War' at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s didn't degenerate into a world conflagration: the failure of Russia's attempts in Berlin (the blockade of West Berlin between April 48 and May 49, outflanked by a Western bloc airlift) and Korea invasion of South Korea by North Korea in June 1950, which led to the sending of American troops and to an armistice in July 1953 in which the North lost some of its territory), convinced it from then on that it lacked the means to carry out its objectives. The USSR's later attempts to improve its position have also mostly met with failure. This was the case, for example, in 1961, with its attempt to install nuclear missiles in Cuba directly threatening US soil, and which it had to abandon after the US imposed its naval blockade. This is why all the speeches about the so-called military ‘superiority' of the Warsaw Pact over NATO, especially in Europe, are pure propaganda. In 1932, the aerial battle over the Bekaa plain in Lebanon was conclusive: 82 planes to nil in favour of Israel, equipped with American material, against Syria equipped with Russian material. In Europe, NATO doesn't need as many tanks and planes as the Warsaw Pact to have a crushing superiority.