Inter-imperialist conflicts, class struggle: The acceleration of history
"' ... never, since the 1930s, has it been so clear that the capitalist economy is in a total impasse; never since the last world war has the bourgeoisie set in motion such huge military arsenals, so much effort towards the production of the means of destruction; never since the 1920s has the proletariat fought battles on the scale of those which shook Poland and the whole ruling class in 1980-81. However, all this is just the beginning. In particular, although the bourgeoisie is apparently consoling itself by talking about the ‘economic recovery', they have a hard time masking the fact that the worst of the crisis is still ahead of us. Similarly, the worldwide retreat in the workers' struggle following the tremendous fight in Poland is only a pause before enormous class confrontations that will involve the decisive detachments of the world proletariat, those of the industrial metropoles and of Western Europe in particular." (‘Resolution on the International Situation', International Review, no.35)
After the 1970s, dominated by the illusion of an economic recovery, the 1980s are indeed Years of Truth. While the development, after the invasion of Afghanistan by Russian troops, of the mass strike by the workers in Poland demonstrated, at the beginning of the 1980s, the concretization of the historical alternative of war or revolution, the years that followed the partial defeat of the world proletariat have been marked by a step forward in imperialist tensions, without the working class showing itself in a significant manner.
Confused by the activity of the left in opposition, and by intensive ideological campaigns around the danger of war, and partly demoralized by the defeat in Poland, the working class struggle has marked time, which has still further facilitated the rapid acceleration in the bourgeoisie's war preparations.
However, capitalism's ever more rapid plunge into the crisis, combined with the fact that the world proletariat remains undefeated, means that this pause in the struggle can only be temporary. Today, the renewal of working class combativity in the central countries is there to show that the reflux is coming to an end.
History is accelerating under the pressure of the deepening crisis. Understanding this acceleration, at the level of inter-imperialist tensions as well as of the class struggle, is an essential task for revolutionary organizations today if they intend to be able to carry out their function in the class tomorrow.
Exacerbation of imperialist tensions
Ever since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the proletariat has been subjected to intensive propaganda on the danger of war. Just in these last few months: a Boeing 747 with hundreds of passengers aboard shot down by the Russians over Sakhalin; hundreds of French and American soldiers killed in murderous bomb attacks in Beirut; American marines landing in the miniscule Caribbean island of Grenada; French and Israeli aircraft bombarding the Lebanon -- and all this against a back-drop of long-standing conflicts that not only show no signs of ending, but on the contrary are getting worse: the Iran/Iraq war which has already left hundreds of thousands dead and wounded, the wars in Chad, Angola, Mozambique, the Western Sahara, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cambodia, etc. There is a long list of wars to illustrate the exacerbation of military tension. And every one a pretext for the intensification of the Western bloc's obsessive bludgeoning designed to paralyze the proletariat with fear or a feeling of its own impotence, and to denounce the Russian bloc's aggression, even when the latter's influence is insignificant.
"Today ... the bourgeoisie has discovered in a muffled but painful way that there is no solution to the crisis. Recognizing the impasse, there is nothing left but a leap in the dark. And for the bourgeoisie a leap in the dark is war." (‘The 80s: Years of Truth', International Review, no.20)
It is in this context that we are witnessing a qualitative change in the evolution of imperialist conflicts. Contrary to the propaganda spewed out daily by all the media of the Western bloc, this evolution's major characteristic is an offensive of the American against the Russian bloc. The Western bloc's aim in this offensive is to completely surround the USSR, and strip it of all its positions outside its immediate influence. The West aims to expel Russia definitively from the Middle East by reintegrating Syria into its bloc. This will include bringing Iran to heel, and resituating it in the US bloc as a major component in the bloc's military apparatus. The ambition is to follow up with the recuperation of Indo-China. In the end, the West aims to strangle Russia completely, and strip it of its super-power status.
One of this offensive's main characteristics is the US bloc's ever more massive use of its military might, in particular through the dispatch of expeditionary forces, either American or drawn from the bloc's other major powers (France, Britain, Italy), onto the terrain of confrontations. This corresponds to the fact that the economic card -- played so frequently in the past to lay hold of the enemy's positions - is no longer adequate:
-- because of the US bloc's present ambitions,
-- and above all because of the aggravation of the world crisis itself, which has created a situation of internal instability in the secondary countries that the US bloc once relied on.
The events in Iran are in this respect revealing. The collapse of the Shah's regime, and the paralysis of the US military apparatus that this provoked throughout the region, allowed the USSR to score points in Afghanistan. This persuaded the American bourgeoisie to set up the rapid deployment force (and allowed it the more easily to force this down the throat of a population traumatized by the affair of the US embassy hostages in Tehran 1979), and reorientate its imperialist strategy.
In the same way today, the difficult economic and social situation of Israel, the Western bloc's most stable military bastion in the Middle East, demands the bloc's direct and growing military presence in the Lebanon.
The US bloc's increasing difficulty in maintaining its advance against the Russian bloc through its economic might, as the crisis strikes ever harder, pushes it to subordinate its economy more and more completely to its military requirements. For a long time, the USSR, given its congenital economic weakness, has been obliged to maintain its domination over its bloc by sacrificing economic competivity to the demands of its military strength through the hypertrophy of its war economy. The primacy of the military over the economic is a general tendency of decadent capitalism, which is accelerating today, and which is laid bare by the years of truth.
This tendency is not a sign of capital's strength, but, on the contrary, of its growing weakness. The flight forward into the war economy, and toward war itself, is the product of the collapse of the super-saturated world market. The particularity of armaments production lies in that it is destined to produce neither labor-power, nor means of production, but means of destruction; it is itself a sterilization and a destruction of capital.
Since the end of the seventies armaments programs have been developing throughout the world. The US state's arms procurements are one of the determining factors in the present economic "recovery". But, in the end, this gigantic destruction of capital only accentuates the effects of the crisis and accelerates the bankruptcy of world capital (see the article in this issue).
The proletariat: a brake on the generalization of conflicts
The bankruptcy of world capital pushes the bourgeoisie towards war, as two imperialist holocausts this century have already shown dramatically. The economic crisis is deeper today than ever before. How is it that, in these conditions, none of the innumerable imperialist conflicts has yet been generalized into a Third World War?
The working class remains a decisive obstacle to world war. It is not the accumulation of fantastically destructive weaponry that holds back the bourgeoisie's tendencies. But, since 1968, the bourgeoisie has been unable to secure the submission of the capitalist world's major social force -- the proletariat.
A generalized imperialist war would be a total war. The bourgeoisie needs a proletariat docile enough to man the factories at full capacity, to accept the complete militarization of labor and of social life in general, to submit without complaining to draconian rationing, and to play the part of victim if not submissive object to the bourgeois state, in the name of the fatherland and the national flag, arm-in-arm with its exploiters.
The development of workers' struggles against the effects of the crisis since 1968 in the heart of world capitalism -- ie at the centre of the rivalry between the two imperialist blocs that have divided up the world, in Europe -- shows that this condition is not fulfilled. It is this worldwide recovery in proletarian struggle at the end of the sixties that obliged the US bourgeoisie to withdraw its 400,000 troops from Vietnam, in the face of the gathering risks of a social explosion.
The capitalist class must penetrate and break this proletarian resistance to have its hands free to fight it out on the battlefield of imperialist confrontations. The sole aim of the intensive ideological campaigns on the danger of war, since Russian troops invaded Afghanistan, is to paralyze the proletariat, and make it accept the effort of increasing military interventions, and, in the end, war. These campaigns are primarily directed at the working class in the industrialized countries, and especially in Europe, which in the past has always played a decisive role in the march towards war. The two world wars were made possible by the proletariat's enrolment under the national banner, and behind the bourgeoisie's mystifications. We are not in the same situation today. Nowhere are there to be found major fractions of the proletariat beaten into submission and controlled by the bourgeoisie. Everywhere the struggles of resistance to austerity demonstrate that the working class' fighting potential is intact and far from being broken.
Two years ago, in the face of the outburst provoked by the sending of several thousand "counter-insurgency advisers" to E1 Salvador, Reagan announced his intention to overcome the "Vietnam syndrome" -- ie the American populations resistance to the dispatching of American soldiers into open conflicts. Today, with thousands of US troops in Lebanon or Grenada, we can see that the western bourgeoisie, thanks to intensive propaganda, has taken a step forward at this level, However, we are a long way from the counter-revolutionary period when the US could comfortably send 16,000 men to Lebanon to impose "order". The bourgeoisie still has a long way to go to break the working class' resistance and open the way to a Third World War.
Thus, since 1968, the dominant bourgeois preoccupation has been the proletariat, since they know that this is the main danger confronting them. We find a striking example of this situation in the current organization of the bourgeoisie's political apparatus: increasingly, to confront the class struggle, it is tending to put its left fractions into opposition, whereas world war demands a "national unity" which for the moment they are not able to institute. It is the class struggle that is on the agenda.
But even if the working class holds back the tendencies towards war, this does not mean that inter-imperialist tensions cease to exist. On the contrary, they can only get worse under the pressure of the crisis. The proletarian struggle is unable to prevent the multiplication of localized imperialist conflicts; what it prevents is their generalization into a third holocaust.
Inter-imperialist tensions never disappear under capitalism, and the pacifist illusion -- ie the illusion of a peaceful capitalism -- is one of the worst poisons for the proletariat. Even during the 1980 mass strike in Poland, when the two blocs were thick as thieves in isolating and defeating the Polish proletariat, inter-imperialist tensions did not disappear -- even if they were pushed into the background: conflicts continued on the periphery, and the major powers' armaments programs leapt forward.
The present level of class struggle, while it prevents the outbreak of a Third World War, is not enough to push the bourgeoisie back on a military level. The workers in Poland have posed the question of the international generalization of the mass strike in the heart of Europe -- a question which, isolated as they were, they were unable to answer. This is the only perspective that can push the bourgeoisie back worldwide, and lay the groundwork for the communist revolution, which will put an end to war by putting an end to capital. This perspective is in the hands of the West European proletariat, which, through its historical experience and its concentration, is best able to defend it. Humanity's future depends on its ability to struggle and confront the attacks of the bourgeoisie.
Resurgence of class struggle
While the proletariat is constantly hammered by all the media with the ubiquitous, obsessive theme of war, where, in capital's infernal logic, the mounds of corpses justify still further massacres, all channels of information maintain a complete black-out on the subject of the class struggle.
However, after a real lull following the defeat in Poland, the strikes that have been taking place in Europe for several months show a renewal of class struggle; they confirm that the proletariat, far from being beaten, has kept its combative potential intact, and is prepared to use it.
The September strike in the Belgian state sector is significant in this respect; this is the most important movement of workers' struggle since the battles of 1980 in Poland, given the combination of the following elements:
-- the number of workers involved (some 900,000 out of a population of only 9 million);
-- the fact that the movement involved one of the world's most industrialized countries, one of its oldest national capitals, situated in the heart of the enormous proletarian concentrations of Western Europe;
-- the dynamic that appeared at the movement's outset: a spontaneous upsurge of struggles which took the unions by surprise and got beyond them; a tendency to extend the struggle; overcoming regional and linguistic divisions;
-- the enormous discontent that these struggles revealed, and which continues to grow;
-- the fact that the movement took place in an international context of workers' combativity (car-workers in Britain, postal workers in France, public service workers in Holland etc) .
The state-imposed black-out on all information on the strike during its first ten days, in the countries bordering on Belgium (France, Germany, Britain) points up the ruling class' fear of an extension of these explosions of discontent in Western Europe.
These struggles seem insignificant alongside the magnificent flare-up of the mass strike in Poland 1980. However, they are developing in a very different context, which gives them their value or meaning.
The weakness of "official" union control and the rigidity of the Polish state made possible the dynamic of the mass strike (extension and self-organization) on a national scale. However, in their isolation, the workers in Poland came up against the illusion of a western-style "democratic" unionism peddled by Solidarnosc.
"The proletariat of Western Europe, by contrast, because it is not in the same isolated position, because it has accumulated decades of experience in confronting unions and the left, because today more than ever it is pushed to struggle by the crisis, because it is not mobilized for war, finds itself in more favorable conditions than it has ever known for clarifying the real nature of the unions, the left and democracy." (‘The Balance of Forces Between the Working Class and the Bourgeoisie', International Review, no.35)
The strike in Belgium showed the weaknesses that continue to weigh on the working class, and which were revealed especially by the absence of any clear calling into question of the unions or of any self-organization of the struggles. However, these weaknesses should not diminish or mask the importance of the movement. In fact, while the active installation of the "left in opposition" in most countries from 1979 on succeeded in exhausting the workers' thrust in 1978-80, the 1983 strikes in Belgium constitute the first large scale threat to bourgeois strategy. They are an unquestionable indication that the working class is recovering from its defeat in Poland 1981, and that the retreat that marked the years 1981-82 is coming to an end.
Now that the economic crisis is hitting the capitalist metropoles full blast, the bourgeoisie can no longer put off its austerity programs, nor spread them out in time. The exploiting class is increasingly forced to attack every fraction of the proletariat at once, in old Europe, at the heart of the industrialized world. The working class is thus pushed to call on its reserves of combativity at an increasingly massive level. The conditions for extension and generalization are gathering, as the proletariat confronts the generalized attacks of the bourgeoisie. The conditions for self-organization are gathering, as the proletariat is forced to confront the left and the unions in struggling against the state, and as the deepening crisis exposes the democratic and trade-union mystifications that the bourgeoisie has maintained for 50 years with the myth of the Welfare State.
The struggles in Belgium, France, Holland etc, herald the large scale struggles of the future. The renewal of the class struggle in autumn 1983 is only at its beginnings.
"In the advanced countries of the west, and notably in Western Europe, the proletariat will only be able to fully deploy the mass strike after a whole series of struggles, of violent explosions, of advances and retreats, during the course of which it will progressively unmask all the lies of the left in opposition, of unionism and rank and filism." (‘Resolution on the International Situation', International Review, no.35)
To the extent that the historic course is the result of the balance of force between classes, it might seem paradoxical in the present period, to witness a simultaneous acceleration in inter-imperialist tensions and a renewal of class struggle. The balance of class forces between proletariat and bourgeoisie is not immediate and mechanical but historic. The exacerbation of contradictions provoked by the crisis demands a qualitatively superior response from the class struggle to push back the bourgeoisie and prepare for the final assault against the barbaric reign of capital.
Today's renewal of class struggle announces the mass strikes of the future, first on a national scale, and then generalized internationally, which will allow the proletariat to set forward its perspective of revolution. On this road, the proletariat of Europe must consciously assume its opposition to the problem of war, since in today's imperialist contexts it confronts the problem more and more directly.
More than ever, the world proletariat will be forced to take up the slogan of the revolutionary proletariat at the turn of the century: War or Revolution!