War in Iraq: decomposing capitalism can only give birth to chaos and barbarism

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Iraq has been in an almost permanent state of war for four decades. It has been the theatre of three imperialist wars since 1980. But history is not just repetition. This new conflict, after 100 years of capitalist decadence, is the expression of the decomposition of a society which has become totally irrational. The tragedy unfolding in Iraq goes well beyond the frontiers of this country. As we go to press, the murder of three young Israelis, and the revenge murder of a Palestinian of the same age, is sharpening tensions in Israel/Palestine, with Netanyahu using it as a new opportunity to step up the simmering conflict with Hamas and with Iran.

For a century, capitalist society has been through two world wars which left tens of millions dead. Since 1945, there has been a succession of localised imperialist conflicts.

The wars in Korea and especially in Vietnam from the 50s to the 70s, in Afghanistan, in the Middle East such as the Yom Kippur war of 1973 and the conflict in Lebanon in the 1980s, the intifada between the Palestinians and Israel, the war in Somalia in 1992, in Rwanda in 1994, in the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1998 and 2000, but also in the Ivory Coast, Sudan, and most recently in Mali ...the list of imperialist wars goes on and on. For whole portions of humanity, horror has become their daily bread.

And the opening of the 21st century has not seen any improvement, far from it. According to the UN there are now officially over 50 million refugees in the world. These masses of human beings fleeing from war and disaster are for the most part stuck in camps, at best surviving from day today with little provision for food, medicine and hygiene. But for the bourgeoisie this doesn’t count for much and war continues and spreads. Syria is in ruins and a large part of the terrorised population lives in cellars and devastated buildings. And now for the fourth time since 1980, a new open war is ravaging Iraq. This inhuman reality confirms in blood and tears what the revolutionaries were saying a century ago:

“‘Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism”[1]. Between 1914 and 1945, this regression into barbarism was illustrated in particular by the outbreak of two world wars. Since then, it has taken the form of a proliferation of local wars which today are the expression of a society rotting on its feet. Why? Because since the 1960s, neither of the two fundamental classes in society, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, have been able to develop their own perspective: world war on the one hand, world revolution on the other. The proletariat emerged from the Stalinist counter-revolution at the end of the 1960s (May 1968 in France being the symbol of the revival of the proletariat’s ability to struggle), so that the bourgeoisie was no longer facing a working class which had been crushed physically and ideologically, and ready to be dragooned into a new imperialist butchery, as in the 1930s. But at the same time, the proletariat has not been able to affirm its revolutionary perspective. Since 1989, the lying but horribly effective propaganda which equates Stalinism with communism, and the collapse of the ‘Soviet’ bloc with the end of the dream of a new society, has served to bring about a deep reflux in proletarian consciousness and in the self-confidence of the exploited. The situation thus appears to be blocked: neither world war, nor revolution. But nothing remains fixed, and society tends to decompose. Iraq is a dramatic illustration of this.

30 years war in Iraq

Since the beginning of the 80s, Iraq has been in an almost permanent state of war.

  • At the beginning of that decade and for 8 years, there was a murderous conflict between Iraq and Iran, with the USA supporting the Saddam Hussein regime against Iran. The fall of the Shah of Iran and the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini led the US to push Iraq into the war, with its toll of between 500,000 and 1,200,000 million deaths.
  • After the collapse of the Russian imperialist bloc in 1989, America, then under the reign of George Bush Senior, provoked the Gulf war in order to try to hold its own bloc together. But the aim of the US at this time was not to get rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime. The fear of the country breaking up led the US and the western powers to leave the regime in place after the war. It was enough for the US to make a demonstration of its military power to its former allies. But the benefits of this demonstration didn’t last very long. With no common enemy, the western bloc rapidly disintegrated. Each imperialism, large or small, began to play its own cards more and more openly. It was a case of every man for himself.
  • In 2003, the US invaded and occupied Iraq. The occupation was to last 8 years. The power of Saddam Hussein and the (Sunni) Baath party was destroyed. In its place the US put Nouri al-Malaki and his Shia clan in power. The idea was to set up a police and military apparatus that could maintain order and a direct US influence on the country. This was a lamentable failure. For  8 years the war never really ended. The country was mired in chaos. Malaki pushed the Sunnis out of government office to the benefit of his own clan, and to the despair of the Americans who could do nothing about it. The former partisans of Saddam Hussein and the most extreme jihadists carried out a never-ending series of terrorist attacks. Totally unable to do anything about it, the western armies and finally the Americans themselves pulled out of the whole mess both in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving the various religious and ethnic groups to slug it out.

A country on the road towards fragmentation

This development of antagonisms and hatred between the Shia and Sunni populations is not only the result of the instrumentalisation of religious differences, or the simple defence of the bourgeois cliques that operate within these communities. Certainly the unleashing of obscurantism and irrationality, which is a world-wide phenomenon, is a fertile soil for the growth of religious and ethnic hatred. The fact that religious prejudices are such a potent element in this and other wars is itself a sign that capitalism is in a phase of terminal decline. The door has been opened wide to a new series of pogroms between different communities, as we are now seeing in Syria..

Today the forces of ISIS are on the offensive and heading towards Baghdad. Initially ISIS came from a Sunni tribal militia linked to the nebulous Al-Qaida. After the latter distanced itself from ISIS, the latte proclaimed its objective of creating an Islamic state that would take in Iraq, Syria, the Lebanon and Palestine. In fact, as well as being made up of radical Islamists, ISIS is composed of a numerous former officers and fighters of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, whose main aim is to get revenge for being turfed out of power. On top of this there is the military strengthening of the Kurdish Peshmergas who are now militarily and politically dominating the Iraqi Kurdish region. This is a whole complex of armed forces with antagonistic interests, a situation pregnant with future conflicts.

The accelerating weakness of US imperialism

Since the end of the 1990s the USA’s global leadership has got weaker and weaker. Faced with the rise of Chinese imperialism, now an enemy of the first rank, the US is obliged to maintain a considerable military force in southern Asia, while also having to take account of the attempted advance of Russian imperialism, in Syria for example. In these conditions American imperialism has been obliged to do deals with the devil of yesterday. The accession of Rohani, for the moment more moderate than his predecessor, to the presidency of Iran, has been the pretext for a diplomatic opening.  This is what’s behind the negotiations on the problem of Iran’s nuclear programme. This has led to a rise in tensions with Russia which has been one of Iran’s main supporters, as well as to discount from Israel, an implacable enemy of Iran. However, the new war in Iraq is above all affecting Saudi Arabia, which for decades has been one of America’s main allies. This leading Middle Eastern state, which has a lot of internal divisions, is not looking kindly on the American hand tendered to Iran and the uncontrollable offensive by ISIS[2]. Its imperialist position is being threatened across the region. Thus, the recently signed bilateral agreement on energy between Saudi and China is not simply motivated by economic concerns. This is part of an attempted rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and China. Saudi Arabia is being more and more openly challenged in the Middle East, and it can’t let this happen without reacting, in Syria and probably in Iraq as well.

The fact that the US is clearly in an impasse with regard to the situation in Iraq illustrates the fact that its position as the world’s leading imperialist power is getting weaker all the time. Unable to come back in force to Iraq after quitting it from a position of total failure such a short time ago, it is obliged to support the present government in Baghdad, at least in words. It’s clear that the US wants to avoid the dismemberment of Iraq, just as it hoped that Syria wouldn’t fall apart. But its growing inability to stabilise the situation has itself become a factor pushing towards further chaos in the region. Today no one is really master of the house. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia know this, as do all the warlords and jihadists in the region. The Middle East is h is increasingly fragmenting into a whole number of permanent war zones. Everywhere religious, national and ethnic divisions are playing an increasing role in this slide into barbarism.

The current war in Iraq is a dramatic illustration of the decomposition of this society. This is what we wrote about this after the collapse of the Russian bloc after 1989:

“The disappearance of the Russian imperialist gendarme, and that to come of the American gendarme as far as its one-time ’partners’ are concerned, opens the door to the unleashing of a whole series of more local rivalries. For the moment, these rivalries and con­frontations cannot degenerate into a world war... However, with the disappearance of the disci­pline imposed by the two blocs, these conflicts are liable to become more frequent and more vi­olent, especially of course in those areas where the proletariat is weakest”.(After the collapse of the eastern bloc, destabilisation and chaos, International Review 61)

Even if we can’t foresee the precise direction that events are going to follow, we can be sure that this part of the world is being dragged inexorably into the abyss of decomposition.


4July 2014

[1] Rosa Luxemburg in 1915, in her Junius Pamphlet, repeating the words of Engels.

[2] Financial and military aid from Saudi Arabia to ISIS, which had previously been considerable, suddenly stopped in January when ISIS entered into war with the other Syrian rebel groups supported by the Gulf states. 



Middle East