In the first part of the reply to this reader's letter, we responded to the criticisms made by comrade D. to the "Report on the Question of the Historical Course", adopted at the 23rd ICC Congress and published in International Review 164. In this second part, we would like to deal with another question raised by the comrade in his letter: that of the possible prospect of a generalised nuclear war.
The conditions for the outbreak of a generalised war
Comrade D. states in his letter that "the question of war is not at all excluded by the theory of decomposition which replaces the theory of the historical course".
Apart from the fact that the ruling class has not been able since 1989 to reconstitute new imperialist blocs, the comrade forgets that the second condition for the outbreak of a new world war is the ability of the bourgeoisie to mobilise the proletariat behind national flags, especially in the core countries of capitalism. This is by no means the case today. As we have always said, a proletariat which is not prepared to accept the sacrifices imposed by the worsening economic crisis is not prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice of its life on the battlefields. After the long counter-revolutionary period which had notably allowed the states to send millions of proletarians to their deaths under the flags of fascism and anti-fascism during the Second World War, the working class returned to the stage of history at the end of the 1960s (May '68 in France, the hot autumn in Italy, etc.).
The bourgeoisie had been prevented from unleashing a third planetary butchery during the Cold War because it was not in a position to mobilise a proletariat which, although it was not able to develop its struggles onto a revolutionary level, was at the same time very combative and absolutely not willing to be killed or to massacre its class brothers. In spite of all the difficulties that the working class has encountered, since 1989, in developing massive struggles, the historical situation is still open. As the proletariat has not suffered a decisive and definitive defeat, the worsening of the economic crisis can only push it to fight tooth and nail to defend its living conditions, as we have seen again recently with the movement against the pension reform in France during the winter of 2019-2020. And in its capacity to resist the attacks of capital, we have also seen a tendency to seek solidarity in the struggle between all sectors and all generations. Of course, this does not mean that the bourgeoisie can never again inflict a historic and decisive defeat on the working class. But, as we stated in our "Theses on Decomposition" (International Review 107), social decomposition can destroy any capacity of the working class to overthrow capitalism and lead to the destruction of humanity and the planet.
Towards a reconstitution of the imperialist blocs?
To support his analysis of the current potential for a large-scale military conflict, Comrade D. says: "Apart from the question of long-range nuclear weapons, there is at the moment one country that does not need to have constituted a united and perfectly held and supported bloc in order to launch itself into a war which, if not global, will not be confined to a theatre of operation limited in time and space (like the two wars against Saddam Hussein). This country is of course the United States, which has the economic power, the military supremacy and the basis for intervention all over the world. For a war with battles in different parts of the world, occurring simultaneously and over a fairly long period of time (several years), it is enough for another power, which constitutes vassal states through foreign trade and economic investments, to acquire military bases abroad in these vassal states, to start building aircraft carriers and generally an efficient and numerous navy, so that at a certain point the risk of generalised conflict becomes a definite probability. That country already exists, it is China, which may soon, thanks to the Covid-19 epidemic, overtake the US in global economic terms."
It is true that the strategic battle for a "new world order" is concentrated around the opposition between these two superpowers. China, with its vast "Silk Road" programme, aims to establish itself as a leading economic power by 2030-50 and to have a "world-class army capable of winning any modern war" by 2050. Such ambitions are causing a general destabilisation of power relations and since 2013 has been prompting the US to try to contain the rise of this threatening Chinese power. The US response, which began with Obama (and has been taken up and amplified by Trump), represents a turning point in US policy. The defence of its interests as a national state is now tied up with the tendency towards every man for himself which dominates imperialist relations: the United States is moving from the role of policeman of the world order to that of the main propagator of every man for himself, challenging the very same world order established since 1945 under its aegis. On the other hand, the idea implied by what the comrade says is that there is a tendency towards bipolarisation, since on the one hand the European countries, within the framework of NATO, would take the side of the United States, while China, not only could rely on its vassal states but would have a major ally, Russia.
However, the emergence of China itself is a product of the phase of decomposition, in which the tendency towards bipolarisation is being undermined by the every man for himself attitude of each imperialist power. Similarly, there is a big difference between the development of this trend and a concrete process leading to the formation of new blocs. The increasingly aggressive attitudes of the two major poles tend to undermine rather than strengthen this process. China is deeply distrusted by all its neighbours, including Russia, which often aligns itself with China only to defend its immediate interests (as it does in Syria), but is terrified of being subordinated to China because of the latter's economic power, and remains one of the fiercest opponents of Beijing's "Silk Road" project. America, meanwhile, has been actively dismantling virtually all the old bloc structures that it had previously used to preserve its "new world order" and which helped resist the "every man for himself" shifts in international relations. It increasingly treats its NATO allies as enemies, and in general has become one of the main actors in aggravating the chaotic character of current imperialist relations.
Is a nuclear war conceivable in the present period?
Finally, by excluding one of the essential conditions for the outbreak of a new world war (the necessity of the ideological mobilisation of the proletariat), comrade D. advances another hypothesis. He refers to articles in the bourgeois press (L'Observateur and Le Canard enchaîné) to assert that a nuclear war is quite possible, especially between the United States and China (which has become an industrial and imperialist power facing the first world power).
As we have always argued, imperialism has its own dynamic and is an integral part of the way of life of capitalism in its period of decadence. And as Jaurès said, "Capitalism carries war with it like the cloud carries the storm". No economic power can compete with others, and assert itself on the world stage, without developing ever more sophisticated weapons. The trade war between states is therefore always accompanied by an exacerbation of imperialist tensions. While it is true that nuclear weapons are no longer just a means of "deterrence" as they were during the "Cold War", today the arms race is a means of blackmail and bargaining between the nuclear-armed states. The exacerbation of imperialist tensions does not always lead to a direct conflagration, as we saw, for example, in 2017 with the military tensions between the United States and North Korea (which gave rise to alarmist discourse in the bourgeois press). After several months of negotiations, this conflict ended (at least momentarily) with warm embraces between Trump and North Korean president Kim Jong-un
The more the bourgeoisie is cornered by the bankruptcy of its system and the acceleration of the trade war, the more each power seeks to advance its pawns in the global imperialist arena for the control of strategic positions against its adversaries. As capitalism sinks into social decomposition, the bourgeoisie appears more and more as a suicidal class. Uncontrolled outbreaks on the imperialist level cannot be excluded in the future, if the proletariat does not take up the challenge posed by the gravity of the historical situation. But for the moment, the prospect of a nuclear conflagration between China and the US is not on the agenda. Moreover, what would be gained by the two powers dropping massive nuclear bombs on their rival's soil? The destruction would be so great that no troops from the victorious country could be sent to occupy the ruins.
We have always rejected the vision of a "press-button" war where the bourgeoisie could unleash a global nuclear cataclysm at the push of a button, without any need for the proletariat to be enlisted. The ruling class is not completely stupid, even if irresponsible and completely insane heads of state can come to power on a short-term basis. It is not a question of underestimating the danger of imperialist tensions between the great nuclear powers like China and the United States, nor of totally ruling out the prospect of a conflagration between these two powers in the future, but of measuring the catastrophic repercussions at the world level: none of the belligerent powers could benefit from it. Contrary to the alarmist speeches of certain media and the predictions of geopoliticians, we must beware of playing Nostradamus. If the dynamics of imperialism (the outcome of which we cannot predict today) lead to such a situation, the origin will be found in the loss of total control by the ruling class over its decaying system. We are not there yet and must beware of crying "Wolf!" too quickly.
Revolutionaries must not give in to the social atmosphere of "no future". On the contrary, they must remain confident in the future, in the capacity of the proletariat and its younger generations to overthrow capitalism before it destroys the planet and humanity. By abandoning today our past analysis of the "historical course", we do not have, as comrade D. thinks, a "pessimistic" vision of the future. We still count on the possibility of generalised class confrontations that enable the proletariat to recover and affirm its revolutionary perspective. Contrary to what our reader says, we have never “announced” the defeat of the proletariat in advance.