Middle East: The historical obsolescence of the nation state

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Militarism and war, central manifestations of capitalism for around a century now, have become synonymous with the decay of the economic system of capitalism and the necessity to overthrow it. War in this period, and into the future, is a central question for the working class.

In the ascendant period of capitalism, wars could still be a factor in historical progress, leading to the creation of viable national units and serving to extend capitalist relations of production on a global scale: “From the formation of the citizen’s army in the French Revolution to the Italian Risorgimento, from the American War of Independence to the Civil War, the bourgeois revolution took the form of national liberation struggles against the reactionary kingdoms and classes left over from feudalism..... These struggles had the essential aim of destroying the decaying political superstructures of feudalism and sweeping away the petty parochialism and self-sufficiency, which were holding back the unifying march of capitalism: (ICC pamphlet Nation or Class). As Marx said in his pamphlet on the Paris Commune, The Civil War in France: The highest heroic effort of which old society is still capable is national war”.

By contrast, war today and for the last one hundred years, can only play a reactionary and destructive role and is now threatening the very existence of mankind. War becomes a permanent way of life for all nation states, no matter how big or how small; and while not every state possesses the same means to pursue war, they are all subjected to the same imperialist drives. The impasse of the economic system means that a policy of state capitalism is forced on nations new or old, adopted by all on pain of death; and this dynamic can be implemented by bourgeois parties from the far right or extreme left. State capitalism is the refined defence of the nation state and a permanent attack on the working class.

In the ascendant period of capitalism, war tended to pay for itself both economically and politically by breaking down barriers to capitalist development. In the phase of its decay war is a dangerous absurdity, becoming more and more divorced from all and any economic rationale. Just looking at the last 25 years of the so-called “wars for oil” in the Middle East shows that it would take centuries for any profitable return, and that’s assuming that they stop tomorrow.

The nation is a symbol of capitalist decay

Devoting a vast percentage of national resources to war and militarism is now normal for all states, and while this has been the situation since the early 1900’s, it has only intensified today. This phenomenon is directly linked to the historic evolution of capitalism: “Imperialism is not the creation of any one or any group of states. It is the product of a particular stage of ripeness in the world development of capital, an increasingly international condition, an indivisible whole, that is recognisable only in all its relations, and from which no nation can hold aloof at will”[1]. The position you adopt on imperialist war determines which side of the class divide you are on; either support for the rule of capital through the defence of the nation and nationalism (compatible with both Trotskyism and the leftist wing of anarchism), or the defence of the working class and internationalism against all forms of nationalism. National “solutions”, national identities, national liberation, national “struggles”, national defence; all these serve only imperialist and thus capitalist interests. These are diametrically opposed to the interests of the working class whose class war will have to do away with imperialism, its frontiers and its nation states.

In 1900, there were 40 independent nations; in the early 1980’s, there were just fewer than 170. Today there are 195, the latest of which, South Sudan, recognised and supported by the “international community”, has immediately collapsed into war, famine, disease, corruption, warlordism and gangsterism: another concrete expression of the decomposition of capitalism and the obsolescence of the nation state. The new nation states of the 20th and 21st centuries are not expressions of youthful growth but have been born senile and sterile, immediately enmeshed in the webs of imperialism, with their own inward means of repression - interior ministries, secret services and national armies - and outward militarism, with pacts, protocols, agreements for mutual defence, the implantation of military advisors and military bases by the bigger powers.

“Today the nation state is but a cloak that covers imperialistic desires, a battle cry for imperialist rivalries, the last ideological measure with which the masses can be persuaded to play the role of cannon-fodder in imperialist wars”[2]. Since Rosa Luxemburg wrote these words there have been no bourgeois revolutions in underdeveloped countries, but only reactionary contests between bourgeois gangs and their local and global imperialist supporters. The military state and war become the mode of survival for the whole system as every nation, every proto-state, every nationalist expression, and every ethnic or religious identity become direct expressions of imperialism.

We can look a bit closer at the reactionary role of the nation state through a necessarily short overview of the important region of the Middle East over the last century.

War in the Middle East from World War One to the Gulf War

The capitalist nation has been preserved, quadrupled even, over the last 100 years. But its bourgeois democratic programme, its unifying tendencies are dead and buried; and henceforth its “peoples” can only be subjected to its repression or mobilised to defend its imperialist interests as cannon-fodder. Also “... it should be said that the new nations are born with an original sin: their territories are incoherent, made up of a chaotic mixture of ethnic, religious, economic and cultural remnants, their frontiers are usually artificial and incorporate minorities from neighbouring countries. All of this can only lead to disintegration and permanent conflict”[3]. An example of this is the anarchy of nationalisms, ethnicities, and religions that exist in the Middle East. The three major religions are here further sub-divided into a myriad of sects, many in conflict with themselves and others: Shia, Sunni, Maronite, Orthodox and Coptic Christians, Alawite and so on. There are large linguistic minorities and many millions of stateless peoples: Kurds, Armenians, Palestinians and now Syrians.

In World War One it was the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its treasures, as well as the strategic position of the Middle East (between east and west, between Europe and Africa, the Suez Canal, the Dardanelles strait) that attracted the major powers. Even before oil was discovered in the region, and well before the extent of its oil reserves were realised, Britain mobilised 1.5 million troops in the region. Having resisted the threat from Germany and Russia, and despite rivalries between themselves, most of the region was carved up by Britain and France: Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Transjordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, a Palestine “Protectorate”, all with borders drawn up by the victorious imperialist powers with a wary eye on each other and on their former antagonists. These absurd “nations” became permanent breeding grounds for further instability and war, not only through the rivalries of the bigger powers but also through regional conflicts between themselves. This often resulted in massive displacements of populations, justified by the need to form distinct national entities: in short they provided the soil for pogromism, exclusion, violence between religions and sects that not only live with us today but have become much more widespread and dangerous: Sunni/Shia; Jews/Muslims; Christians/Muslims and much older sects that were previously left alone but who are now pulled into the imperialist maelstrom. The region has become a violent fusion of totalitarian regimes, religion, terrorism and warlordism - a decay indicative of the fact that there is no solution to capitalist barbarity except the communist revolution. With the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Britain supported the setting-up of a Jewish homeland in Palestine which they planned to use as an ally both locally and against major rivals. It was in this militaristic framework of bloody struggles with the Arab rulers that the Zionist state was born[4]. The USA, the main beneficiary of World War One, was now beginning to supplant Great Britain as the world’s major power and this would be evidenced in the Middle East.

The Stalinist counter-revolution of the 1920s and 30s, aided and abetted by the western powers, only increased the imperialist machinations over the Middle East, up to and including World War Two. In this period the Turks, Arab factions and the Zionists wavered between the camp of Britain or Germany, with the majority eventually choosing the camp of the former. The region was important for both sides[5] but it was relatively spared from the destruction, with the major battlefields of the war being mainly in Europe and the Far East. Overall, and the war’s end was to confirm it, both Britain and Germany were fighting a losing battle here (and elsewhere) as the whole imperialist pecking order was overturned by the emergence of the American superpower. This is further emphasised by the creation of the Zionist state, which was heavily supported by the US (and also initially by Russia) to the detriment of British national interests. The establishment of the nation state of Israel signalled a new zone of conflict whose very birth saw the creation of a huge and intractable refugee problem, and which has grown up in a state of permanent military siege. The existence of Israel is probably one of the most glaring examples of how a country formed in capitalist decadence is framed by war, survives by war and lives in constant fear of war.

Another chapter of imperialism was opened when the Middle East inevitably became a factor in the Cold War between the American and Russian blocs which solidified somewhat after World War Two and led to a number of proxy “engagements” in the region between the two major powers. Thus the Israeli-Arab wars of 1967 and 1973 were at one level proxy wars between the two blocs, and Israel’s crushing victories greatly reduced the USSR’s ability to maintain the footholds it had established in the region, especially in Egypt. At the same time, already in the 70s and early 80s, we could see the germs of the chaotic, multipolar conflicts that have characterised the period since the fall of the USSR and its bloc. Thus the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 resulted in the formation of a regime which tended to escape from the control of both blocs. Russia’s attempt to capitalise on the new balance of power in the region – its attempted occupation of Afghanistan in 1980 – embroiled it in a long war of attrition which contributed greatly to the collapse of the USSR. At the same time, by encouraging the development of the Islamist Mujahadeen, including the kernel of what became al-Qaida, to lead the opposition to the Russian occupation, the US, Britain and Pakistan were themselves constructing a monster that would soon bite the hand of its creators. Meanwhile US imperialism also had to retreat from its own defeats in Lebanon, largely at the hands of forces acting as proxies for Iran and Syria.

It is during this period that we see the beginnings of the loss of power of the US that is both an expression of and contribution to the ambient decomposition of today. After the breakdown of the Russian bloc came the disintegration of the US directed “alliance” and the centrifugal tendencies towards every nation for itself. The US responded forcefully to this situation, attempting to cohere its allies around it by launching the Gulf War of 1990/91, which resulted in an estimated half-a-million Iraqis being killed (while Saddam Hussein was left in place). But the counter-tendencies were too great and US leadership was irrevocably undermined. Post-9/11, the Evangelical Neo-Cons then acting for US imperialism started further wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that gave the appearance of a crusade against Islam and have further fanned the flames of Islamic fundamentalism.

Today, the further slide into capitalist barbarism

In the 1979 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Apocalypse Now, the renegade US Colonel asks his CIA-appointed killer what he thought of his methods. The assassin replies: “I don’t see any method at all”. There is no method in today’s wars in the Middle East except a great free-for-all.  There is no economic rationale - trillions of dollars have gone up in smoke from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan alone - just a further descent into barbarism. Fictional character though he is, Colonel Kurtz is symbolic of the export of war from “the heart of darkness”, which is actually in  the main centres of capital rather than the deserts of the Middle East or the jungles of Vietnam and the Congo.

In Syria today there are around 100 groups fighting the regime and each other, all of them to a greater or lesser extent supported or directed by local and major powers. The new “nation”, the Caliphate of Isis, with its own imperialism, its cannon-fodder, its brutality and irrationality, is both an independent expression of capitalist decay and a reflection of all the major powers which, one way and another brought it into existence. Isis is currently expanding to all points of the compass, gaining new affiliates in Africa, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, and is also competing with the Taliban in Afghanistan, who are themselves threatening the Helmand region which was for so long the mini-protectorate of the British army. But if it was eliminated tomorrow it would immediately be replaced by other jihadists, such as the al-Qaida affiliated Jahbat al-Nusra. The “War on Terror” Part Two, like Part One, will only increase the terrorism that exists in the Middle East and its export back to the heartlands of capital.

One of the features of the growing number of wars in the Middle East today is the re-emergence of Russia which has taken place on the military, state capitalist level with the ideological cover of the “values” of the old Russian nation. During the Cold War, Russia was kicked out of Egypt, and the Middle East generally, as its power waned. Now, Russia has re-emerged, not in the form of a bloc leader as before – it has only a few weak ex-republics allied to it – but as a decomposition-shaped force that must assert the imperialism of its national “identity”. The weakness of Russia is clear in its desperation to hang onto its bases in Syria – its most important outside of Russia itself. Another factor that will affect much, including Russia, is the present rapprochement between the USA and Iran linked to the 2015 nuclear deal. This deal also expresses a fundamental weakness of US imperialism and is the source of considerable tension between the US and its other main regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Wherever you look, the imperialist mess in the Middle East gets increasingly impossible to untangle. There is the position of Turkey, which has not hesitated to pour oil on the fires of war; there is no end to its war with the Kurds and its actions have consequences for the US, Russia and Europe whose interests it plays one against another. Its relations with Russia in particular have hit a low point following the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet, while it has transparently used the pretext of striking back at Isis to hit Kurdish bases. There is the involvement of Saudi Arabia, which although supposedly an ally of the US and Britain has been a major backer for various Islamist gangs in the region, not only through the export of its Wahabi ideology but also with arms and money.

As far as the nation states of decadence go then Saudi Arabia must be one of the worst historical jokes you could find[6]. Undermined by falling oil prices, which Iran has done everything to facilitate (showing oil not as a factor of economic rationale but as a weapon of imperialism), and fearful at the prospect of the rival Iranian theocracy becoming the region’s policeman once again after its recent agreement with the US, the Saudi regime struck a blow against Iran with the execution of the well-known Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and further beheadings and crucifixions which have hardly been mentioned in the western media. This planned provocation towards Iran shows a certain desperation and weakness of the Saudi regime as well as more dangers of things sliding out of control. The actions of the Saudi regime here again reveal the centrifugal tendencies of each nation for themselves and the weakness of the major powers, particularly the USA, in controlling them. One thing certain from the current episode of Iranian/Saudi rivalry will be the aggravation of war, pogroms and militarism throughout the region with multiple tensions and uncertain alliances gaining ground. There were already related strains further afield in Egypt – which Saudi Arabia has bankrolled in its anti-Muslim Brotherhood fight – that will now only worsen. 

The nation state of Lebanon was already being pulled apart in the 1980s; tensions will become greater now and the consequences of the breakup of this fragile state would be disastrous not least for Israel, whose low level war with the Palestinian factions and Hezbollah rumbles on.

Finally, we should mention the increasing role of China, even if its main points of imperialist rivalry – with the US, Japan and others – are located in the Far East. Having arisen as the subordinate ally of the USSR in the late 40s and 50s, China began to follow a more independent course in the 60s (the ‘Sino-Soviet split’), which led in the short term to a new understanding with the USA. But since the 90s China has become the world’s second biggest economic power and this has vastly increased its imperialist ambitions at a more global level, most notably through its efforts to penetrate Africa. For the moment, it has tended to operate alongside Russian imperialism in the Middle East, blocking US attempts to discipline Syria and Iran, but its potential for disrupting the world balance of power - and thus accelerating the plunge into chaos - remains to a large extent untapped. This offers us further proof that the economic take-off of a former colony like China is no longer a factor of human progress, but brings with it new threats of destruction, both military and ecological.

We began by looking at the reactionary nature of the capitalist nation state, a once progressive expression that has now become not only a fetter to the advance of humanity but a threat to its very existence. The virtual breakup of the nations of Syria and Iraq, forcing millions to flee the war and avoid fighting for any side, the birth of the Caliphate of Isis, the national project of Jahbat al-Nusra, the defence of the ethnic Kurdish homeland – these are all expressions of imperialist decay that offer the populations of these areas nothing but misery and death. There is no solution to the decomposition of the Middle East within capitalism. Faced with this it is vital that the proletariat maintains and develops its own interests against those of the nation state. The situation of the working class in the main centres of capitalism is key here, given the extreme weakness of the proletariat in the war zones themselves. And although the bourgeoisie is subjecting the working class in the heartlands of capital to constant ideological attacks around the themes of the refugees and terrorism, it does not yet dare to mobilise it directly for war. Potentially, the working class remains the greatest threat of all to capitalist order, but it must begin to transform this potential into a reality if it is to avert the disaster that this system is heading towards. Understanding that its interests are international, that the nation state is finished as a viable framework for human life, will be an essential part of this transformation. 

Boxer, 13.1.16

This article was contributed by a sympathiser of the ICC.

[1]. The Junius Pamphlet, The crisis in Social Democracy, 1915, Rosa Luxemburg


[2]. Ibid.


[3].‘Balance sheet of 70 years of ‘national liberation’ struggles, part 3: the still-born nations’, International Review 69, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/069_natlib_03.html


[4]. See ‘Notes on Imperialist Conflict in the Middle East’, part one, International Review no. 115, Winter 2003.


[5]. See part 3 of the above in International Review, 118, Summer, 2004, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/118_mideast_iii.html


[6]. We will return to this area in a future article.





The National Question in Decadence