Notes on Imperialism and Decomposition

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Towards the greatest chaos in history

Will the gigantic convulsions provoked by the collapse of the eastern bloc and the break-up of the USSR open up a more peaceful period? Faced with the threat of chaos, will the ferocity of relations between capitalist powers be attenuated? Is the constitution of new imperialist blocs still possible? What new contradictions will arise from capitalist decomposition at the level of world imperialism?

Rivalries between the powers aren't disappearing, they are being exacerbated

While the world has indeed been profoundly modified since the collapse of the western bloc, the barbaric laws which keep this moribund system going are still present. And, as capitalism sinks further and further into decomposition their destructive character, the threat they pose to the very survival of humanity, grow more and more pronounced. The scourge of war, that monstrous but natural offspring of imperialism, is still there and will continue to be there; the plague of chaos, which has already plunged the populations of the ‘third world' into an unspeakable hell, is now ravaging the whole of eastern Europe.

In fact, behind the pacifist proclamations of the great imperialist powers of the now-defunct American bloc, behind the masks of respectability and good intentions they all wear, relations between states are in fact regulated by gangster law. Like any bunch of thugs, it all comes ·down to nabbing the other's strip of territory, getting together to rid themselves of a rival whose claws are too sharp, figuring out ways of escaping the clutches of a boss who's become too powerful. These are the real questions which are the subject for ‘debate' between the bourgeoisies of these great ‘civilized' and 'democratic' countries.

"Imperialism is not the creation of . one country or one group of countries. It is the product of the world-wide evolution of capitalism ... an innately international phenomenon ... from which no state can hold aloof," (Rosa Luxemburg, Junius Pamphlet).

When capitalism entered its decadent epoch, imperialism dominated the entire planet, it became "the means of survival of every nation, large or small, " (ICC Platform). It's not a policy ‘chosen' by the bourgeoisie, or this or that fraction of the bourgeoisie. It's an absolute necessity imposed upon them all.

This is why the collapse of the eastern bloc, and the resulting disappearance of the western bloc, in no way signifies the' end of the reign of imperialism. The end of the division of the world into' the ‘blocs' which arose after World War Two has on the contrary unleashed a whole series of new imperialist tensions, of local wars, sharpening the rivalries be- tween the great powers formerly disciplined by the western bloc.

Rivalries within the blocs themselves always existed, and sometimes broke out openly: for example between Turkey and Greece, both members of NATO, over Cyprus in 1974. However, these rivalries were kept under the firm control of the bloc. Once the iron corset of the bloc has gone, these tensions, held in for so long, can only be exacerbated.

American capital faced with the new appetite of its vassals

For decades, the submission of Europe and Japan to the US was the price paid for the military protection Washington provided against the ‘Soviet' threat. Since this threat has now disappeared, Europe and Japan no longer have the same interest in following American diktats. The tendency towards ‘every man for himself has been unchained.

This is what we saw very clearly in the autumn of 1990, when Germany, Japan and France tried to prevent the out- break of a war which could only reinforce American superiority[1]. The USA, by forcing the war through, by obliging Germany and Japan to pay up and by compelling France to take part in it, won a clear victory. For all this provided proof of the weakness of those who might be tempted to dispute America's domination. It demonstrated the US's vast military superiority, making it plain that no state, however economically powerful, could hope to rival it on the military level.

The ‘Desert Shield' and ‘Desert Storm' operations of sinister memory, a war imposed and taken to its logical conclusion by Bush and his team, by momentarily halting the rush towards ‘every man for himself amongst the central countries, had the essential aim of preventing and counter-acting the potential reconstitution of a rival bloc, of maintaining the USA as the sole super-power. "However, this immediate success of American policy is not a durable factor stabilizing the world situation to the extent that it could arrest the very causes of the chaos into which society is sinking. If the other powers have had to reign in their ambitions, their basic antagonism with the United States has not disappeared: ~ what is shown by the latent hostility that countries like France and Germany expresses vis a vis the American projects for the re-utilization of the structures of NATO in-the framework of a ‘rapid reaction force', commanded, as if by chance, by the only reliable ally of the US: Britain," (lR 67, ‘Resolution on the International Situation', 9th ICC Congress).

The subsequent evolution of the situation has fully confirmed this analysis. Deteriorating relations between the states of the European Community, and particularly France and Germany one the one hand, and the USA on the other - whether it's about the future of NATO and ‘European Defense' or the Yugoslav crisis - is an illustration of the limits of the blow struck by the Gulf war against the tendency to- wards ‘every man for himself among the main capitalist powers.

Today, challenging the present imperialist status quo, which has always been imposed by force, necessarily means confronting the world's leading power, the USA, which is the main beneficiary of this status quo. And since the ex- USSR no longer has the means to compete in the front ranks of the imperialist arena, the biggest imperialist tensions are now between the ‘victors of the Cold War' themselves, ie: between the central states of the now-defunct Western bloc[2].

But in the imperialist battle-ground, the disappearance of one system of blocs organically engenders a tendency to- wards the constitution of new blocs, since each state need allies in the struggle to assert itself on a global scale. Indeed, blocs are "the classic structure used by the main states in the period of decadence to ‘organize' their armed confrontations," ('Resolution on the International Situation', ibid).

Towards new blocs?

The present growth of imperialist tensions contains the tendency towards the constitution of new blocs, one of which would have to be directed against the USA. However, the interest in forming such a bloc varies considerably according to the states.

Who?

As far as Britain is concerned, it has no such interest, since it has decided on an unbreakable alliance with the USA[3].

For a whole series of countries like, for example, Holland and Denmark, there is the fear of being virtually absorbed if they allied with a German super-power in Europe, which would be facilitated by the economic links which already exist and by their geographical and linguistic proximity. Following the old principle of military strategy, which recommends that you shouldn't ally yourself with a too-powerful neighbor, they have very little interest in challenging American domination.

For a more important, but still middle-ranking power like France, contesting American leadership and participating in a new bloc isn't a very obvious option, because in order to do . this, it would have to follow German policies, whereas for France, German imperialism is the most immediate and dangerous rival, as the two world wars have shown.

Caught between the German anvil and the American hammer, France's imperialist policies can only oscillate between the two. However, like the mode of production which it reflects, imperialism is not a rational phenomenon. France, even though it has a lot to lose and though its potential gains are looking increasingly hazardous, is for the moment tend- ing to play the German card, opposing American domination vis-a-vis NATO and through the formation of a Franco-German brigade. This however doesn't exclude future changes of direction.

On the other hand, things are a lot clearer for first-rank: powers like Germany and Japan. For them, finding an imperialist rung in conformity with their economic strength can only mean disputing the world domination exerted by the USA. Moreover, only these two states have the potential means to play a world role.

But the chances of one or the other becoming leaders of a bloc opposed to the USA are not the same.

We shouldn't underestimate the strength and ambition of Japanese imperialism. It is also coming back to the imperialist arena. Evidence of this can be found in the plan to modify the constitution in order to permit Japanese troops to be sent abroad, the considerable strengthening of its navy, its determination to recoup the Kuile Islands, or some unambiguous declarations by Japanese officials (eg "it's time that Japan freed itself from its links with the USA,' T Kunugi, ex-Joint Secretary of the UN, quoted in Liberation 27.9. 91).

But Japan is very far away from the world's main industrial concentration, ie Europe, which remains the main focus for imperialist rivalries. At this level, it can't really rival Germany. Japanese imperialism is thus trying to extend its influence and increase its elbow room without too openly challenging the US muscle-man.

Germany, on the other hand, because of its central situation in Europe and its economic power, is being obliged more and more to oppose American policies, and now finds itself at the center of imperialist tensions, as can be seen from its reticence towards the US plans for NATO, its aim to set up an embryonic ‘European Defense Force', and above all, its attitude over Yugoslavia.

German capital stirs the pot in Yugoslavia

German imperialism has played the role of stirring the pot in Yugoslavia by supporting the secessionist demands of the Slovenians and above all the Croats, as can be seen from Germany's repeated intention to unilaterally recognize Croatian independence. Historically, the Yugoslav state was cobbled together to counter Germany's imperialist expansion and deny it access to the Mediterranean[4]. We can thus see why Croatian independence could open a whole new era for the German bourgeoisie and why the latter has been doing its best to profit from it. Given its close links with the leaders in Zagreb, Germany was hoping that, in case of independence, it would be able to use the precious Croatian ports in the Adriatic. It could thus have realized a vital strategic objective: access to the Mediterranean. This is why Germany, with the aid of Austria[5], has been stoking the fires by openly or covertly supporting Croatian secessionism, which could only accelerate the dislocation of Yugoslavia.

The US thwarts Germany

Conscious of what's at stake here, the American bourgeoisie, despite its apparent discretion, has done everything it could to block this attempted thrust by German imperialism, calling on the aid of Britain and Holland. Its Trojan Horse inside the EC, Britain, has systematically opposed any sending of a European military intervention force. The Serbian Stalinist military apparatus, which has signed and violated any number of cease-fires organized by the powerless, whinging EC, has been able to wage a methodical war of conquest in Croatia, tinder the consenting silence of the US.

It's already clear that Germany has failed in Yugoslavia; the divisions and impotence of the EC are equally clear. This failure shows all the strong points of the world's leading power in its fight to preserve its hegemony, and underlines the enormous difficulties German imperialism will have in disputing this hegemony.

However, this does not mean that there will be a return to some kind of stability in Yugoslavia, because the dynamic unleashed there will condemn the country to sink: further and further into a Lebanese type of situation. Nor does it mean that from now on, Germany Will submit tamely to all the diktats of Uncle Sam. German imperialism has lost a battle but it can't stop trying to undermine the USA's hegemony. This can be seen from its decision to set up an armed unit in collaboration with France, a clear expression of its intention to gain more autonomy from NATO and thus the USA.

Chaos is holding back the constitution of new blocs

While it is necessary to recognize that there is already a tendency towards the constitution of new imperialist blocs, a process within which Germany occupies[6], and will. More and more occupy, a central place, it is not possible to assert that this tendency can really reach its conclusion. Because of decomposition, it comes up against a series of particularly significant obstacles and contradictions - most of them without precedent.

First of all, and this is a fundamental difference with the situation that preceded the First and Second World Wars, Germany does not have the military strength to match its imperialist ambitions. It is almost defenseless in the face of the formidable American superpower[7]. In order to develop the necessary muscle, it would take time, a minimum of 10 to 15 years, and the USA is doing everything it can to prevent Germany from developing in this direction. But there's also the fact that, in order to install the war economy required for such a rearmament, the German bourgeoisie would have to get the proletariat to submit to a real militarization of labor. And it could only do this by inflicting a total defeat on the working class. For the moment, however, the conditions for such a defeat are lacking. Even if we stop there, it's obvious that the obstacles are quite considerable.

But there's another equally essential factor which is acting against the evolution towards the reconstitution of a ‘bloc' under German leadership: the chaos that is now invading a growing number of countries. Not only does this make it more difficult to obtain the discipline needed to set up a ‘bloc' of imperialist alliances, but also the German bourgeoisie, like all the bourgeoisies of the most developed countries, is afraid of the advance of chaos - all the more so because of its geographic position. It's this fear, combined with the pressure exerted by the USA, which ensured that despite all its reservations the German bourgeoisie finally sup- ported Bush in the Gulf War, as did Japan and France.

Despite its desire to escape American ‘protection' the Ger- man bourgeoisie knows that for the moment only the US has the capacity to put some kind of block on the advance of chaos.

None of the great imperialist powers has any interest in the spread of chaos: the massive arrival of immigrants, immigrants who can hardly be integrated into production at a time when there are already massive lay-offs going on; the uncontrolled spread of armaments, including enormous stocks of atomic weapons; the risk of major industrial catastrophes, in particular nuclear ones, and so on. All this can only destabilize the states exposed to it, and make the management of their national capital even more difficult. If the system's rotting on its feet is, in present conditions, profoundly negative for the entire working class, it also threatens the bourgeoisie and the running of its system of exploitation.

In the front line of the most dangerous consequences of the collapse of the eastern bloc and the implosion of the USSR, Germany is, in part at least, forced to rally behind the in- junctions of the only power which can play the role of world cop: the USA.

Thus, in this period of decomposition, each national bourgeoisie of the most developed countries is faced with a new contradiction, in that it is compelled:
  • to assume the defense of its own imperialist interests, and confront its main competitors, at the risk of accelerating a situation of chaos;
  • to defend itself against instability and the dangerous manifestations of decomposition, by preserving the world ‘order' which enables it to keep its present rank; but this is to the detriment of its own imperialist interests faced with its bigger rivals.

The tendency towards the constitution of new imperialist blocs, which is built into the general tendency in imperialism towards confrontations between the biggest powers, is thus faced with a contradiction which means it will probably never reach its conclusion.

Even the ‘world cop', the USA, for whom the struggle against chaos is most completely and immediately identical to the struggle for the preservation of the current status quo, one in which it has a dominant position, can't escape from this dilemma. By unleashing the Gulf war, the USA wanted to make an example of its capacity to ‘maintain order' and so bring to heel anyone who might contest its world leadership. The result of this war has been even more instability in the region, from Turkey to Syria. In particular, we've seen the continuation of massacres of the Kurdish population, not only by the Iraqi army but also by the Turkish army!

In Yugoslavia, the USA's implicit support for the Serbian camp has blocked Germany's push towards the Mediterranean, but it has also thrown oil on the fire, helping barbarism spread throughout Yugoslavian territory and destabilizing the entire ‘Balkans.' The only real resort of the ‘world cop' - militarism and war - inevitably aggravates the development of barbarism and pushes it to a point of paroxysm.

The dislocation of the USSR sharpens the contradictions between 'every man for himself' and the confrontation with chaos

The dislocation of the USSR, because of its dimensions, its depth (Russia itself is now threatened with disintegration), is a major factor aggravating chaos on a world scale: the risk of the biggest population exodus in history, of major nuclear disasters ...[8]. Faced with such a cataclysm, the contradiction confronting the great powers can only be raised to the nth degree. On the one hand, there's a need for a minimum of unity faced with such a situation; on the other hand, the collapse of the former Soviet empire can only sharpen imperialist appetites.

Here again, Germany finds itself in a particularly delicate position. Eastern Europe, including Russia, is a traditional sphere of influence and expansion for German imperialism. Alliances and confrontations with Russia have always been at the nub of the history of German capitalism. History as well as geography is pushing German capital to extend its influence to the east, and it can't help trying to profit from the collapse of the eastern bloc and its leader. Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it's obviously German capital which has had the greatest presence, both diplomatically and economically, in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and throughout the east, with the exception of Poland which, despite the economic links, is attempting to resist German influence for historical reasons.

But faced with the total dislocation of the USSR, the situation is becoming much more complex and difficult for Eu- rope's leading economic power. Germany may try to profit from the situation to defend its interests, it may in particular try to create a ‘Mittel Europa' a ‘Central Europe' under its influence, but the dislocation of the USSR and the collapse of all the eastern countries IS at the same time a more direct and dangerous threat to Germany than to any other country at the heart of the international capitalist system.

‘Unification' with the ex-GDR is already a heavy burden which is holding back the competitiveness of German capital and will more and more do so. The massive arrival of immigrants for whom Germany is the promised land, plus the nu- clear risks already mentioned, are provoking deep disquiet in the German ruling class.

Contrary to the situation in Yugoslavia which, despite its gravity, affects a country of no more than 22 million inhabitants, the situation in the ex-USSR makes the German bourgeoisie much more cautious.

This is why, while attempting to extend its influence, it is trying by all means at its disposal, to bring a minimum of stability to the situation, and for the moment is carefully avoiding throwing oil on the fire[9]. This is why it continues to be Gorbachev's strongest supporter and the main provider of economic aid to the ex-Empire. It has, in general, fol- lowed the USA's policies towards the ex-USSR. It could not but support the recent initiatives towards a ‘disarmament' of tactical nuclear weapons, since the aim of this was to help and compel the vestiges of central power in the USSR to get rid of weapons whose spread is a real sword of Damocles hanging not only over the ex-USSR, but also a good part of Europe[10].

The breadth of the dangers of chaos is forcing the most developed states to maintain a certain unity to try to deal with it, and for the moment none of them is playing the card of ‘the worse the better' in the ex-USSR. However, this unity is very temporary and limited. There's no way that the threat of chaos can allow the great powers to stifle their imperialist rivalries. This means that German capitalism cannot and will not renounce its imperialist appetites, any more than any other central power.

Even when confronted with the grave dangers brought about by the disintegration of the eastern bloc and the USSR, each imperialism will still try to defend its own interests as best it can. Thus, at the recent Bangkok summit on the subject of the economic aid to be given to the fallen leader of the ex-eastern bloc, all the governments present were aware of the necessity to strengthen this aid, in order to prevent the outbreak of catastrophes in the near future. But each one was also trying to ensure that this costs it as little as possible, and that it is the other, the rival, which hears the heaviest burden. The USA ‘generously' proposed to annul part of the Soviet debt, an offer firmly refused by Germany for the simple reason that it is already owed nearly 40 % of this debt itself!

This contradiction between the need of the major powers to hold back chaos, to limit its extension, and the equally vital need to defend their own imperialist interest, will reach a state of paroxysm the more what's left of the ex-USSR falls to pieces.

The tidal wave of chaos

Decomposition, by sharpening all the traits of decadence, in particular those of imperialism, has qualitatively overturned the world situation, especially at the level of inter-imperialist relations.

In a context of increasingly bloody barbarism, whose horror is more and more matched by its absurdity - an absurdity which reflects a mode of production which is totally obsolete from a historic point of view - the only future which the exploiting class can offer humanity is one marked by the greatest chaos in history.

The imperialist rivalries between the most developed states of the defunct western bloc are unfolding in the context of the generalized putrefaction of the capitalist system. Tensions between the ‘great democracies' can only sharpen, in particularly between the USA and the dominant power of the European continent, Germany. The fact that up till now this antagonism has been expressed in a covert manner does not lessen its reality.

Even if the most powerful national fractions of the world bourgeoisie have a common interest in the face of chaos, this community of interests can only be circumstantial and limited. It cannot eliminate the natural and organic tendency of imperialism towards sharpened competition, rivalry and military tensions. Today, this tendency participates to the hilt in . chaos and its aggravation. The imperialist free-for-all that the great powers are now involved in can only result in chaos advancing to the heart of Europe, as illustrated tragically by the barbaric war in Yugoslavia.

The oscillating and incoherent policies of the most solid states of the capitalist world will result in a growing instability of alliances. The latter will be more and more circumstantial and subject to all kins of changes of direction. Thus France, after to some extent playing the German card, could very easily play the American card tomorrow, and the day after start again. Germany, which has been supporting the ‘center' in Russia, could tomorrow choose the secessionist republics. The contradictory and incoherent character of the imperialist policies of the great powers expresses in the final analysis the tendency for the ruling class to lose control of a system ravaged by its advanced decadence, by its decomposition.

Putrefaction, the growing dislocation of the whole of society, this is the ‘radiant' perspective that this dying system offers humanity. This can only underline the extreme gravity of the present historic period, and the immense responsibility of the only class that can offer a real future: the proletariat. RN 18.11.91



[1] On the false unity between the industrialized countries during the Gulf war, see the editorial article in IR 64.

[2] See ‘The USSR in Pieces', IR 66: ‘Ex-USSR, it's not Communism that's collapsing' IR 67.

[3] On the respective attitudes of Britain and France vis a vis the USA, see ‘Report on the International Situation (Extracts)' in IR 67.

[4] See the article 'Bilan of 70 years of 'National Liberation" in this issue

[5] With their interminable oscillations, France and Italy have also contributed to this murderous destabilization.

[6] Germany is no more able than any other capitalist sate to escape the laws ruling all capitalist life in decadence. The problem faced by the push of German imperialism is not in itself the desire or will of the German bourgeoisie. No doubt this bourgeoisie, or at least some of it fractions, are concerned faced with this push, this plunge into the imperialist scramble. But whatever the concerns, the hesitations, it will be constrained (if only to prevent an adversary occupying its place) to more and more affirm its imperialist aims. This was the case with the Japanese bourgeoisie in 1940, where many of its fraction were reticent to enter the war. What counts is not the will but what the bourgeoisie is forced to do.

[7] Germany is still militarily occupied by the USA and in the main control over the German army's munitions is exerted by the American command. German troops have no autonomy beyond a few days. The Franco-German brigade has the aim of giving a greater autonomy to the German army.

[8] Recently the ‘Chechen' nationalists threatened to attack nuclear reactors; armored trains which may contain tactical nuclear weapons are circulating the frontiers of the USSR, outside of any control.

[9] See on the one hand the attitude to Germany towards the ‘Baltic' countries, and its ambitions to push for a ‘German republic of the Volga' and on the other hand its support to what remains of the ‘center' in the ex-USSR.

[10] This doesn't alter the fact that this 'disarmament' is a lie because it only aims to suppress weapons which have become obsolete and would in any case have had to be replaced by more modern and sophisticated ones.