Revolutionary Debate in Berlin on the Causes of Imperialist War

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Anarchy as an essential characteristic of capitalism

In Weltrevolution 124 we reported on the first of a series of public meetings of the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party (IBRP) in Berlin. The second meeting took place on May 15th. There, the causes of imperialist war were debated. A representative of Battaglia Comunista, the IBRP's section in Italy, made the presentation which dealt with the background to the Iraq War and the contemporary foreign policy of the USA. The comrade put forward the analysis of the IBRP, according to which the American "crusade against terrorism" mainly serves economic goals: the tightening of American control over the oil reserves of the world, in order to bolster the hegemony of the Dollar over the world economy, and thus to assure itself the cream of an additional "oil rent" profit. As a result of its waning capacity to compete, the USA has to rely on the parasitic appropriation of the surplus value produced world wide to keep its own economy afloat. In addition it was said that strategic considerations do also play a role, often in connection with the control of oil reserves, aimed at cutting off Russia and China from each other and from important oil fields, and at keeping the European Union weak and divided.

This analysis provoked different reactions on the part of the participants at the public meeting. Whereas a comrade of the Friends of a Classless Society (FKG) - formerly an initiator of the group Aufbrechen -praised the capacity of the IBRP to identify the concrete economic causes of war, the speaker of the group GIS (Gruppe Internationale Sozialisten) expressed doubts concerning this analysis. He pointed out that the act of acquiring international finance liquidity on the part of the USA is first and foremost the expression and continuation of a classical policy of indebtedness. Moreover, he repeated the point of view which he had already defended at the previous IBRP meeting, according to which the effort to militarily dominate oil resources serves military more than economic goals. A member of the Group of International Communists (GIK), for his part, pointed out that not only the USA, but also the other leading imperialist powers, and in the first instance the European states, are presently fighting for world domination. He put forward the thesis that, whereas in this struggle the USA mainly throws its military might onto the weighing scales, Europe banks mainly on its economic power.

The ICCs critique of the IBRP's analysis

In its first contribution to the discussion the ICC dealt with the argumentation of the IBRP. According to this argumentation, the US has to a large extent lost its competitive edge on the world market. In order to compensate for the consequences of this development - gigantic balance of trade and payment deficits, the growing public debt - America wages war in the four corners of the world, in order, through the control over oil and the hegemony of the Dollar, to attract capital.

From the point of view of the ICC this analysis is politically very dangerous, since it looks for the causes of imperialist war in the particular situation of a given state, instead of in the stage of development and the ripeness of the contradictions of the capitalist system as a whole. No wonder, therefore, that this analysis is very similar to the line of argumentation of the pro-European anti-globalisation camp, or of German left Social Democrats such as Oskar Lafontaine, who explain the sharpening of imperialist tensions through the allegedly particularly parasitic character of the US economy.

Secondly, this analysis fails to answer two questions:

  • Why does the US economy - still the most powerful capitalism in the world, with the biggest companies, and with a national culture which is particularly well adapted to the needs of the capitalist mode of production - have such problems with its ability to compete internationally?
  • Why does the American bourgeoisie not react to this problem by doing what would be easiest and most logical, by massively investing in its productive apparatus, in order to reconquer its competitive edge? And why should it instead react, in the way Battaglia claims it does, by spreading warfare across the globe?

In reality, the International Bureau is here confusing cause and effect. America is not arming itself to the teeth because it has lost its competitive edge. Rather, to the extent that it really has lost its competitive advantages, it is to a large extent the result of its efforts in the armaments race. This development, moreover, is not specific to US imperialism. The previous long-standing major rival of America, the USSR, collapsed mainly through having armed itself to death. The truth is that the bloating of the military budget, at the expense of the development of the productive forces, and the progressive subjugation of the economy to militarism, are essential characteristics of decaying capitalism.

Thirdly, it is true that there is an inseparable connection between crisis and war in capitalism. But this connection is not that of the simplistic thesis of a war for oil or for the hegemony of the Dollar. The real connection between the two is revealed, for instance, by the historic circumstances which led to World War I. At that time there was no world economic depression comparable to that which broke out later, in 1929. The crisis of 1913 still had a basically cyclical character and was actually a relatively mild one. There was no commercial, state budget, or balance of payments crisis in Great Britain, Germany, or any of the other main protagonists, in any way comparable to those of today, and no particular monetary turbulence (at that time the gold standard was still universally recognised). But nonetheless the first imperialist world conflagration broke out. Why? What is the general law of imperialism at the roots of modern warfare?

The more developed a capitalist state is the mightier the concentration of its capital, the greater its dependence on the world market; all the more therefore does it depend on access to, and domination of, the resources of the globe. Therefore, in the epoch of imperialism, every state is obliged to attempt to establish a zone of influence around itself. As for the great powers, they necessarily consider the whole world as their zone of influence - nothing less is enough in order to secure the basis of their existence. The stronger the economic crisis is, and the harder the battle for the world market, the more imperious this need must be felt.

Germany declared war on Great Britain in 1914, not because of its immediate economic situation, but because for such a power, for whom world economy has become its fate, it could no longer be tolerated that its access to the world market depended for the most part on the good will of Great Britain, the ruler of the world's oceans and of a large share of the colonies. This meant that the German bourgeoisie did not need to wait until 1929 until, in the face of world wide depression, it was really excluded from the world market by the old colonial powers. Rather, it chose to act beforehand, in order to try to change its situation before it came to the worst. This explains why, at the beginning of the 20th century, the world war came before the world economic crisis.

The fact that the capitalist powers more and more brutally collide with each other means that imperialist war leads increasingly to the mutual ruin of the participating states. Rosa Luxemburg already pointed this out in 1916 in her Junius Pamphlet. But the recent war in Iraq also confirms this. Iraq was once one of the most important sources, on the periphery of capitalism, of lucrative major contracts for European and American industry. Today not only the capitalist economic crisis, but even more so the wars against Iran and America, have completely ruined Iraq. But also the American economy is being additionally bled by the costs of the Iraq campaigns. Behind the idea that the present war has been waged over a monetary speculation or an alleged "oil rent", lurks the assumption that war is still lucrative, that capitalism is still an expanding system. Not only the policy of the USA, but also the terrorism of the likes of Bin Laden was interpreted by the representative of Battaglia in this sense; presenting the latter as the expression of the attempt of "200 Saudi Arabian families" to acquire a greater share of the profits from their own oil production.

The danger of bourgeois empiricism

After both the IBRP and the ICC had presented their own view of the causes of war, there ensued an interesting and lively debate. It was noticeable that the participants at the meeting were very concerned to get to know better the positions of the two left communist organisations present, insisting that the two groups answer each other. Nor did these comrades limit themselves to posing questions, but themselves brought forward objections and made criticisms.

For example, a comrade of the FKG accused the ICC of a "cheap polemic" on account of our comparison of the analysis of the IBRP with that of the anti-globalisation movement. He argued that underlining the aggressor role of the USA today has nothing in common with playing down the role of European imperialism by its bourgeois sympathisers. And he correctly pointed out that, in the past also, proletarian internationalists have analysed the role of particular states in the triggering off of imperialist wars, without thus making themselves guilty of any concessions towards the rivals of such states.

However, the criticism made by the ICC did not concern the identification of the USA as the main initiator of present day wars, but concerned the fact that in the IBRP's analysis the causes of these wars is not found in the situation of imperialism as a whole, but is reduced to the specific situation of the United States.

The speaker of Battaglia, for his part, did not at all deny the similarity of the analysis made by his organisation with that of different bourgeois currents. He argued, however, that this analysis, in the hands of the Bureau, is anchored within a quite different proletarian world view. This is thankfully still the case. But we maintain that such an analysis can only weaken the effectiveness of our struggle against the ideology of the class enemy, and ultimately it could undermine the firmness of one's own proletarian standpoint.

In our opinion, the similarity between the analysis of the IBRP and the commonplace bourgeois point of view is the result of the fact that the comrades have themselves adopted a bourgeois approach. This approach we called empiricism, by which we mean the basic tendency of bourgeois thought to be misled by certain particularly noticeable facts instead of discovering, through a more profound theoretical approach, the real inter-connection between the different facts. This tendency of the Bureau was exemplified through the way the IBRP presented the argument that the American economy would collapse without the constant inflow of foreign capital as the proof that the Iraq war served to oblige the other bourgeoisies to lend their money to America. In reply to this we recalled that the certitude that without these loans and investments the US economy would fold up is itself already obligation enough to make European and Japanese capitalism continue to buy American bonds and shares - they themselves would not survive a collapse of the United States (note 1).

The connection between economic crisis and war

In particular during this part of the discussion critical questions were addressed to the ICC from different sides. The comrades questioned the stress placed on the significance of strategic issues in our analysis of imperialist rivalries. The comrade of the FKG raised a criticism that - in his opinion - the ICC explains imperialist tensions through military rivalries, without connecting them to the economic crisis and apparently excluding economic motives. He pointed to the example of the economic war goals of Germany in World War II, in order to insist that imperialist states, through war, search for a solution to their economic crises. A comrade from Austria, once a founding member of the GIK(see above), wanted to know from us if the ICC gives any consideration at all to the role of oil, or if we consider it to be a mere coincidence that the focus of the "struggle against terrorism" lies precisely in an area where the biggest resources of oil in the world are to be found. And the representative of the GIS also asked for a precision on our statement that modern war is not the solution, but itself the expression, indeed the explosion of the crisis.

The ICC delegation replied that, from our point of view, marxism, far from denying the connection between crisis and war, is able to explain it in a much more profound manner. For the ICC imperialist war is not the expression of the cyclical crises which were typical of the 19th century, but the product of the permanent crisis of decadent capitalism. As such, it is the result of the rebellion of the productive forces against the relations of production of bourgeois society which have become too narrow for it. In his book Anti-Dühring Friedrich Engels affirms that the central contradiction in capitalist society is that between a mode of production which is already becoming socialised, and the appropriation of the fruits of this production, which remains private and anarchic. In the epoch of imperialism, one of the principle expressions of this contradiction is that between the world wide character of the productive process and the nation state as the most important instrument of capitalist private appropriation. The crisis of decadent capitalism is a crisis of the whole of bourgeois society. It finds its strictly economic expression in economic depression, mass unemployment etc. But it also expresses itself at the political, the military level i.e. through ever more destructive military conflicts. Characteristic of this systemic crisis is the permanent accentuation of competition between nation states, both at the economic and military level. This is why we spoke out at the meeting against the hypothesis of the representative of the GIK, according to whom the American bourgeoisie uses military muscle, and the European bourgeoisie economic means, in the struggle for world hegemony. In reality this struggle is waged using all available means. The commercial war is being fanned no less than the military one.

It is indeed true that the bourgeoisie, through war, still searches for a way out of the crisis. But because the world, since the beginning of the 20th century, has already been divided up, this 'solution' can only be sought at the expense of other, generally neighbouring capitalist states. In the case of the great powers, this 'solution' can only lie in world domination and as such requires the exclusion or radical subordination of other great powers. This signifies that this search for a way out of the crisis increasingly assumes a more and more utopian or unrealistic character. The ICC is talking here about the growing irrationality of war.

In the course of capitalist decadence, it has regularly been the case that the initiator of a war emerges at the end as the loser: Germany in two world wars, for instance. This reveals the increasingly irrational and uncontrollable nature of modern warfare.

What we criticise in the war analysis of the IBRP is not the affirmation that war has economic causes, but the confounding of economic causes with economic profitability. In addition, we criticise what, in our opinion, constitutes a vulgar materialist tendency to explain each step in the imperialist constellation through an immediate economic cause. This is revealed precisely regarding the oil question. It goes without saying that the presence of sources of oil in the Middle East plays a considerable role. However, the industrial powers - first and foremost the United States - do not need to militarily occupy these sources in order to establish their economic predominance over these and other raw materials. What is at stake is above all the military and strategic hegemony over potentially decisive energy sources in the event of war.

Crisis and decadence of capitalism

The IBRP vehemently rejected the affirmation of the ICC that modern warfare is the expression of the dead end of capitalism. The representative of Battaglia did admit that the destructive nature of capitalism would sooner or later lead to the destruction of humanity. But as long as this final calamity has not taken place capitalism can expand without limits. According to the BC comrade, it was not through the present wars imposed by the USA, but the "real imperialist wars" of the future, for instance between America and Europe, that capitalism would be able to expand, since a generalised destruction would open the way for a new phase of accumulation..

We agreed that capitalism is capable of wiping out humanity. However, the destruction of excess production, considered historically, did not even suffice to overcome the cyclical crises of ascendant 19th century capitalism. For this, according to Marx and Engels, the opening of new markets was also necessary. Whereas, within the framework of natural economy, overproduction could only appear as an excess over and beyond the maximum physical limit of human consumption, under the regime of commodity production, and above all under capitalism, overproduction is always expressed in relation to the existing solvent demand, i.e. buying power. It is an economic rather than a physiological category. But this means that the destruction of war does not in itself solve the basic problem of lack of solvent demand.

Above all, the viewpoint defended here by the IBRP, concerning the possible expansion of capitalism up until the moment of physical destruction, is not compatible with the vision of the decadence of capitalism - a vision which the IBRP seems more and more to be abandoning. According to the marxist point of view, the decline of a given mode of production is always accompanied by a growing fettering of the productive forces through the existing production and property relations. From the point of view of Battaglia, it would seem, war still seems to play the role of being a motor of economic expansion as it did during the 19th century.

When the representative of BC spoke, at the meeting about the coming "truly imperialist wars", this only confirmed our impression that the IBRP considers the present-day wars as merely the continuation of the economic policy of the United States by other means, and not as imperialist conflicts. For our part, we insisted that these wars are also imperialist wars, and that the major imperialist powers thereby enter into conflict with each other - at present not directly, but for instance via proxy wars. The series of wars in ex-Yugoslavia moreover, which were originally triggered off by Germany, confirm that in this process the United States is far from being the only aggressor.

A very useful debate

In his conclusion to the discussion, the spokesman of the Bureau defended the point of view that the discussion had shown that debate between the IBRP and the ICC is "useless". This is because for decades the Bureau has been accusing the ICC of "idealism", and the ICC has been accusing the IBRP of "vulgar materialism" without either of the two organisations having altered their points of view.

In our opinion, that is a rather dismissive judgement of a discussion in which, not only the two organisations, but also quite a variety of different groups and persons participated in such an engaged manner. It is obvious that the new generation of politically interested militants in the German-speaking area have a considerable interest in getting to know the positions of the existing internationalist organisations, in becoming much more acquainted with the points of agreement and disagreement between them. What could better serve this need than public debate?

As far as we know no serious revolutionary to date has ever thought, for instance, of doubting the usefulness of the debate between Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg on the national question, simply because neither of the two sides ever altered their basic position on the question. On the contrary: the contemporary left communist position on so-called national liberation movements is to a large extent based on the results of this debate.

The ICC, for its part, remains entirely committed to public debate, and will continue to call for it and participate in it. All such debate is an indispensable part of the process of the coming to consciousness of the proletariat. Weltrevolution, 19/8/04.


1)We might add here that, despite their rivalry with the USA, its rivals will continue to place their capital in the most stable economy, since that country, in the foreseeable future, will remain, militarily and economically, the strongest country in the world. Back