A hundred years ago, in August 1914, the First World War broke out. The human balance sheet of this planetary slaughter is officially 10 million dead and 8 million wounded. When ‘peace’ was signed, the bourgeoisie swore with hand on heart that this would be the ‘last of all wars’. A lie, obviously. In fact it was only the first bloody conflagration marking the opening of the decadence of capitalism. The history of the 20th century and of this young 21st century has been riddled by incessant imperialist confrontations. The First World War was followed by the Second, the Second by the Cold War, and the Cold War by the numerous and unending theatres of conflict which have been spreading across the planet since the 1990s. This last period, if it doesn’t have the same spectacular aspect of a confrontation between two blocs, between two super-powers, contains no less of a threat to the survival of humanity because its dynamic is more insidious, leading not to world war but to the generalisation of wars and barbarism. The war in Ukraine, which marks the return of war to Europe, the historical heart of capitalism, is a qualitative step in his direction.
War returns to Europe
After the Second World War with its 50 million dead, Europe was straight away torn by the brutal rivalry between the eastern and western military blocs. During the long and murderous period of the Cold War, the slaughter took place at the peripheries of capitalism, through proxy wars between the USA and Russia. The bloody war in Vietnam was a clear illustration of this. But as soon as the Berlin Wall came down, a new period of conflicts began.
In 1991, the USA, at the head of a powerful but reluctant coalition, used the pretext of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait to launch a war. The main aim was to stop the tendency towards the break-up of its old bloc through a demonstration of military force that would reaffirm its global leadership. The idea was to ensure the birth of a ‘new world order’. At the cost of a human and material disaster (more than 500,000 dead), above all through massive aerial bombardments and the explosion of depression bombs that destroy the lungs, this so-called ‘surgical war’ was to bring a new era of peace and prosperity. But this lie was very rapidly exposed. Almost simultaneously, a new war broke out at the very gates of Europe, in ex-Yugoslavia. An atrocious conflict a few hours from Paris, an accumulation of massacres, such as the one at Srebrenica, carried out with the complicity of the French Blue Helmets, where between 6000 and 8000 Bosnians were murdered.
And today, once again, the gangrene of militarism has reached the gates of Europe. In Ukraine the bourgeoisie is being torn to pieces. Armed militia, more or less controlled by the Russian and Ukrainian states, confront each other with the population as their hostage. This conflict, based on nationalisms which have been cultivated for decades, is one for the vultures: the main actors, as always, are the great powers, the USA, Russia, France and other western European countries.
The dramatic situation in Ukraine clearly marks a qualitative step in the agony of this system. The fact that that this conflict is being pushed forward by divergent interests and is so close to Europe, the focus for the world wars of the previous century, shows the level of disintegration the system has reached.
The development of every man for himself
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the USSR shattered the old bloc discipline and opened a real Pandora’s Box. Despite the short-lived illusions that followed the first Gulf war, the USA has been forced to carry on intervening, more frequently and in more places, and very often on its own: Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. This imperialist policy is the expression of a historic impasse and has clearly failed. Each new display of force by this declining super-power has resulted in an increasingly open loss of control over the war zones in which it has intervened. With the master in decline, we have entered a realm of disorder, of growing imperialist appetites, exacerbated nationalisms, spreading religious and ethnic conflicts.
The centrifugal forces fuelled by these appetites have engendered conflicts which demonstrate the reality of social decomposition, resulting in the break-up of states, the rise of the worst kinds of warlords, of mafia-type adventurers engaged in all varieties of trafficking. This process has been incubating for several decades. In the second half of the 1980s, a succession of terrorist attacks took place in major European cities like Paris, London and Madrid. These were not the work of isolated groups but of fully-formed states. They were acts of war which prefigured the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York. The darkest expressions of barbarity, previously confined to the edges of the system, had begun to return to the centres, to the areas where the presence and civilising potential of the proletariat stands as the only obstacle to a real plunge into nightmare.
Every day, refugees fleeing from war-torn countries are dying in the attempt to cross the Mediterranean. Packed like cattle in unseaworthy boats, they are in desperate flight from the unspeakable. According to the UN’s Refugee Agency, the number of refugees and asylum-seekers, of people displaced within their own countries, has gone past 50 million for the first time since the Second World War. At the end of last year the war in Syria alone had produced 2.5 million refugees and 6.5 million displaced people. And all continents are affected by this.
Far from weakening the general tendencies of decadent capitalism, decomposition has strengthened imperialist ambitions and exacerbated their increasingly irrational aspects. The doors have been opened to the least lucid factions of the bourgeoisie, fed by the putrefaction of society and the resulting nihilism. The birth of Islamist groups like al Qaida, the Islamic State and Boko Haram are the result of this process of intellectual and moral regression, of unprecedented cultural devastation. On 29 June, IS announced the re-establishment of a ‘Caliphate’ in the regions under its control and proclaimed the establishment of Mohammed’s successor. Like its counter-part Boko Haram in Nigeria, it has distinguished itself by the murder of captives and the kidnapping and enslavement of young women.
These obscurantist organisations don’t obey anyone and are guided by a combination of mystical madness and sordid mafia interests. In Syria and Iraq, in the zones controlled by Islamic State, no new national state has any viability. On the contrary, the main tendency is towards the disintegration of the Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqi states.
This frightening barbarism, embodied in particular by the jihadists, is now serving as a pretext for new military crusades and western bombing campaigns. For the big imperialist powers, this makes it possible to terrorise the population and the working class at low cost to themselves while posing as civilised peacemakers. But Islamic State was at the outset partly armed by the US and factions of the Saudi bourgeoisie, not to mention the complicity of Turkey and Syria. This Islamist organisation has now escaped the control of its masters. Today it is besieging the town of Kobane in Syria, a few kilometres from the Turkish border, in a manly Kurdish region. Unlike the first Gulf war, the great powers, with the US at the fore, are running after events without any long-term political vision, simply reacting to immediate military imperatives. A heterogeneous coalition of 22 states, with very differing interests from each other, has taken the decision to bombard the parts of the town taken by IS. The US, the top gun in this pseudo-coalition, is today incapable of sending in ground troops and of forcing Turkey, which has a deep fear of the Kurdish forces around the PKK and PYD, to intervene militarily.
All the hot spots of the planet are bursting into flame. Everywhere the great powers are being drawn blindly into the fire. The French army is bogged down in Mali. The ‘peace’ negotiations between the Mali government and the armed groups have reached a dead-end. There is permanent war in the sub-Saharan region. In the north of Cameroon and of Nigeria, where Boko Haram has its hunting ground, armed conflicts and terrorist actions have multiplied. If we take into account the growing power of China in Asia, we can see that the same tensions, the same mafia methods are spreading across the entire planet.
Imperialist wars are more and more irrational
In the 19th century, when capitalism was flourishing, wars to form national states, colonial wars or imperialist conquests had a certain economic and political rationality. War was an indispensable means for the development of capitalism. It had to conquer the world; its combined economic and military power enabled it to achieve this result, as Marx put it, in “blood and filth”.
With the First World War, all this changed radically. The main powers in general emerged considerably weakened from these years of total warfare. Today, in the phase of the decomposition of the system, a veritable danse macabre, a plunge into madness, is pulling the world and humanity towards utter ruin. Self-destruction has become the dominant feature in the zones of war.
There is no immediate solution in the face of this infernal dynamic, but there is a revolutionary solution for the future. And this is what we have to patiently work towards. Capitalist society is obsolete; it’s not just a barrier to the development of civilisation but a menace to its survival. A century ago the communist revolution in Russia and its reverberations in Germany, Austria, Hungary and elsewhere put an end to the First World War. In the present historical period, it is still only the struggle of the proletariat which can finish with this rotting world system.