Report on imperialist tensions (November 2017)

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The report we publish below was presented and discussed at an international meeting of the ICC in November 2017, with the aim of drawing out the main tendencies in the evolution of imperialist tensions. In order to do this, it based itself on the organisation’s previous texts and reports which had made an in-depth analyses of these tendencies, i.e. the orientation text ‘Militarism and Decomposition’ in 1991 (published in International Review 64) and the report to the 20th International Congress (published in IR 152, 2013).

Since the latter report was written, there has been a series of major events in the aggravation of imperialist tensions in the Middle East: first, the direct military incursion by Turkey in Syria on 20 January, to confront the Kurdish troops based in the region of Afrin in the north of Syria. This intervention, which had at least the tacit agreement of Russia, is heavy with future military confrontations, in particular with the USA, which in this region is allied with the Kurdish forces of the YPG, and expresses important divisions within NATO, of which both Turkey and the USA are members. Then there was the US military strike in Syria (supported by Britain and France), aimed at the presumed sites for the construction of chemical weapons, and marking a clear increase in the growth of tensions between the USA and Russia. Still more recently we had Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme, which has led to a sharpening of tensions between Israel and Iran but also to a more global destabilisation, since the American decision has been condemned by the majority of countries. All this highlights the risk of an uncontrolled escalation of conflicts in the Middle East (see our article), and shows that capitalism is a growing threat to humanity.

Over the last four years, imperialist relations have gone though some major developments: the war in Syria and the fight against IS, the Russian intervention in the Ukraine, the refugee crisis and the terrorist attacks in Europe, Brexit and the pressure of populism, the election of Trump in the USA and the accusations about Russia’s involvement in his election campaign (“Russiagate”), the tensions between the US and China over the provocations by North Korea, the opposition between Saudi Arabia and Iran (including the tensions over Qatar), the failed coup d’Etat against Erdogan and the subsequent repression in Turkey, the conflict over Kurdish autonomy, the upsurge of nationalism in Catalonia, and so on. It is thus important that the IB evaluates the extent to which these events are consistent with our general analyses of the period, but also what new orientations do they reveal?

To do this, it’s crucial, as the 1991 orientation text “Militarism and decomposition” puts it right from the start, to use a method that is adequate for understanding a situation which has no precedent:

“Contrary to the Bordigist current, the ICC has never considered marxism as an "invariant doctrine", but as living thought enriched by each important historical event. Such events make it possible either to confirm a framework and analyses developed previously, and so to support them, or to highlight the fact that some have become out of date, and that an effort of reflection is required in order to widen the ap­plication of schemas which had previously been valid but which have been overtaken by events, or to work out new ones which are capable of encompassing the new reality.

Revolutionary organizations and militants have the specific and fundamental responsibility of carrying out this effort of reflection, always moving forward, as did our predecessors such as Lenin, Rosa, Bilan, the French Communist Left, etc, with both caution and boldness:

  • basing ourselves always and firmly on the basic acquisitions of marxism,
  • examining reality without blinkers, and de­veloping our thought "without ostracism of any kind" (Bilan).

In particular, faced with such historic events, it is important that revolutionaries should be capable of distinguishing between those analyses which have been overtaken by events and those which still remain valid, in order to avoid a double trap: either succumbing to sclerosis, or "throwing the baby out with the bath water"

Applying this approach, which is imposed by current reality, has been the basis of our ability to analyse the fundamental evolution of imperialist relations for the past 26 years.

In this perspective, the present report proposes that we should try to grasp recent events at three levels, in order to locate their importance within our framework of analysis:

  1. To what extent are they in accord with the framework of analysis developed after the implosion of the eastern bloc? Here we will remind ourselves of the main analytical axes of the orientation text on militarism and decomposition (IR 64, first quarter of 1991)
  2. To what extent do they follow the major trends of imperialist tensions on a world scale, described in the report of the 20th international congress (IR 152, second quarter of 2013)?
  3. What are the most significant developments in imperialist tensions today?

The orientations of the 1991 OT

This text puts forward the analytical framework for understanding the question of imperialism and militarism in the period of decomposition. It advances two fundamental orientations for characterising imperialism in the current period:

The disappearance of the blocs does not call into question the reality of imperialism and militarism

On the contrary, they become more barbaric and chaotic: “The constitution of imperialist blocs is not the origin of militarism and imperialism. The oppo­site is true: the formation of these blocs is only the extreme consequence (which at certain mo­ments can aggravate the causes), an expression (and not the only one), of decadent capitalism's plunge into militarism and war…the end of the blocs only opens the door to a still more barbaric, aberrant, and chaotic form of imperialism”.

This is expressed in particular by the outbreak of extreme imperialist appetites and the multiplication of tensions and conflicts: “The difference with the period that has just ended is that these conflicts and antagonisms, which before were contained and used by the two great imperialist blocs; will now come to the forefront, because with the disappearance of the discipline imposed by the presence of the blocs, these conflicts risk becoming more violent and more numerous, in particular, of course, in zones where the proletariat is weakest”

Similarly we are seeing the development of “every man for himself” and their corollary, the attempts to contain the chaos, both of which are factors aggravating military barbarism: “the chaos which is threatening the major developed countries and their inter-relations.….. faced with the tendency towards generalized chaos which is specific to decomposition and which has been considerably accelerated by the Eastern bloc's collapse, capitalism has no other way out in its attempt to hold together its different compo­nents, than to impose the iron strait-jacket of military force. In this sense, the methods it uses to try to contain an increasingly bloody state of chaos are themselves a factor in the aggravation of military barbarism into which capitalism is plunging”.

The OT thus centrally underlines the fact that there is a historic tendency towards every man for himself, towards the weakening of US control over the world, particularly over its former allies. And at the same time, there is an attempt on its part to use military force, where it has an enormous superiority, to maintain its status and impose its control over these same ex-allies.

The reconstitution of blocs is not on the agenda

The increasingly barbaric and chaotic character of imperialism in the period of decomposition is a major obstacle to the reconstitution of new blocs: “the exacerbation of the latter (militarism and imperialism) in the present phase of capitalism's life paradoxically constitutes a major barrier to the re-formation of a new system of blocs tak­ing the place of the one which has just disappeared….  the very fact that military force has become - as the Gulf conflict confirms - a pre­ponderant factor in any attempt by the ad­vanced countries to limit world chaos is a con­siderable barrier to this tendency…the reconstitution of a new pair of imperialist blocs is not only impossible for a number of years to come, but may very well never take place again”.

The USA is the only power that can play the role of world cop. The only other possible candidates for the leadership of a bloc are Germany and Japan: “the world appears as a vast free-for-all, where the tendency of ‘every man for himself’ will operate to the full, and where the alliances between states will be far from having the stability that characterized the imperialist blocs, but will be dominated by the immediate needs of the mo­ment. A world of bloody chaos, where the American policeman will try to maintain a mini­mum of order by the increasingly massive and brutal use of military force”.

At the same time, the USSR will never be able to regain a role as challenger: “It is, for example, out of the question that the head of the bloc which has just collapsed - ­the USSR - could ever reconquer this position”.

Here again the analysis remains essentially accurate: after 25 years in the period of decomposition, there is still no perspective for the reconstitution of blocs.

In conclusion, the framework and the two main axes presented in the OT have broadly been confirmed and remain profoundly valid.

However, further reflection is needed about certain elements of the analysis

The role of the USA as sole gendarme of the world has evolved a great deal over the past 25 years: it’s one of the key questions to deepen in this report. However, the OT puts forward an orientation which has become even more concrete than the predictions we made in 1991: the fact that the actions of the USA would create further chaos. This has been strikingly illustrated by the development of terrorism today, which is to a large extent the result of the US policy in Iraq, and secondarily of the French-British intervention in Libya.

We can also say today that the analysis overestimated the potential role attributed to Japan and even Germany. Japan has been able to build up its weaponry and has gained more autonomy in certain sectors, but this is not at all comparable to the tendency towards the formation of blocs since Japan has had to submit to US protection faced with the threat from North Kore and above all from China. The potential still exists for Germany without having been seriously strengthened over the last 25 years. Germany has gained more weight, it plays a preponderant and even leading role in Europe, but on the military level it remains a dwarf, even if (unlike Japan) it has had its troops participating in as many UN “mandates” as possible, By contrast, the period has seen the emergence of China as a new rising power, a role we considerably underestimated in the past.

Finally for Russia, the analysis remains basically correct, in the sense that its position as a bloc leader in 1945 was already an “accident” of history. But the prediction that “despite its enormous arse­nals, the USSR will never again be able to play a major role on the international stage” and that it. is “condemned to return to a third-rate posi­tion” have not really been confirmed: Russia has certainly not become a world-wide challenger to the USA but it plays a far from negligible role as a “troublemaker”, which is typical of decomposition, which through its alliances and military interventions is exacerbating chaos all over the world (and it has had a certain success in Ukraine and Syria, has strengthened its position vis-a-vis Turkey and Iran and has developed a cooperation with China). We undoubtedly underestimated the resources of an imperialism with its back to the wall, ready to defend its interests tooth and nail.

The analyses of the report to the 20th ICC Congress (2013)

Locating itself in the framework of an increasingly barbaric and chaotic imperialism and of the growing impasse facing US policy, which could only further exacerbate military barbarism (axes of the report to the 19th congress[1]), the report puts forward four orientations in the development of imperialist confrontations which concretise the axes of the 91 OT:

 - The growth of every man for himself, expressed in particular by a multiplication of imperialist ambitions. This was expressed concretely by:

  • (a) the danger of military confrontations and the growing instability of the states of the Middle East: unlike the first Gulf war of 91, which was stirred up by the US and waged by an international coalition under its leadership, this highlights the terrifying extension of chaos;
  • b) the rise of China and the exacerbation of tensions in the Far East. The report’s analysis partially corrects the underestimation of the role of China in our previous analyses. However, despite an impressive economic expansion, growing military power and a more and more marked presence in imperialist confrontations, the report asserts that China does not have the industrial and technological capacities to impose itself as the head of a bloc and constitute itself as a global challenger to the USA.

 - The growing impasse of the policies of the USA as a global cop, in particular in Afghanistan and Iraq, has led to a further plunge into military barbarism “The striking failure of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan has weakened the world leadership of the USA. Even if the American bourgeoisie under Obama has chosen a policy of controlled withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and has been able to reduce the impact of the catastrophic policies of Bush, it has not been able to reverse the tendency and this has lead to a further plunge into military barbarism. The execution of Bin-Laden was an attempt by the US to react to this retreat in its leadership and underline its absolute military and technological superiority. However, this reaction has not called into question the underlying trend towards retreat”.

 - The tendency towards the explosive extension of zones of permanent instability and chaos:in whole swathes of the planet, from Afghanistan to Africa, to the point where certain bourgeois analysts, such as Jacques Attali in France, talks openly about the ‘Somalisation’ of the world”

 - The crisis of the eurozone (the PIGS – Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain) is accentuating tensions between European states and centrifugal tendencies in the EU “On the other hand, the crisis and the drastic measures being imposed are pushing towards the break-up of the EU and a rejection of the idea of submitting to the control of a particular country, i.e. are pushing towards every man for himself. The UK radically oppose the proposed measures of centralisation and in the countries of Southern Europe there is a growing anti-German nationalism. The centrifugal forces can also lead to a tendency towards the fragmentation of states, through the autonomisation of regions like Catalonia, Northern Italy, Flanders or Scotland….Thus the pressure of the crisis, through the complex inter-action of centripetal and centrifugal forces, is accentuating the process towards the break-up of the EU and exacerbating tensions between states”.

The four major orientations developed in the report also remain valid. They show clearly that the tension between on the one hand the push towards every man for himself and the efforts to control chaos, underlined by the 91 OT, are leading to an increasingly chaotic and explosive situation.

 The general development of instability in imperialist relations

Since the 2013 report, events confirm the slide towards increasingly chaotic inert-imperialist relations. But above all, the situation is marked by its highly irrational and unpredictable character, linked to the impact of populist pressures, in particular the fact that the world’s number one power is today led by a populist president whose reactions are extremely unpredictable. An increasingly short-term approach by the bourgeoisie and the strong unpredictability that results from it are above all features of the policy of the US gendarme, but can also be seen in the policies of other imperialist powers, the developments of conflicts in the world, and the growth of tensions in Europe.

The decline of the US superpower and the political crisis in the American bourgeoisie

The arrival in power of Donald Trump, surfing on the populist wave, has had three main consequences:

The first concerns the unpredictability of decisions and incoherence of US foreign policy. The actions of this populist president and his administration, such as the denunciation of transpacific and transatlantic treaties, of the climate agreement, the putting into question of NATO and the nuclear treaty with Iran, unconditional support for Saudi Arabia, the bellicose set-to with North Korea or the tensions with China, are sapping the bases of international policies and agreements which had been defended by different US administrations. His unpredictable decisions, threats and poker moves have had the effect of undermining the reliability of the US as an ally: the detours, bluffs and sudden changes of position by Trump not only make the US look ridiculous but are leading to less and less countries having any confidence in the US.

At the same time,: even if the American bourgeoisie under Obama, by opting for a policy of controlled retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan, was able to reduce the impact of Bush’s disastrous policies, it hasn’t been able to reverse the basic tendency towards the decline of the sole superpower, and the impasse of US policy has been sharply accentuated by the actions of the Trump administration. At the G20 the isolation of the USA on climate change and the trade war was obvious. What’s more, Russia’s involvement in Syria to save Assad made the US step back and led to a strengthening of Russia’s influence in the Middle East, particularly in Turkey and Iran, whereas the US has not been able to contain China’s advance from outsider status in the 90s to that of a serious challenger which presents itself as a champion of globalisation.

The risk of destabilising the world situation and augmenting imperialist tensions has never been so strong, as we have seen with North Korea or Iran: the policy of the US is more than ever a direct factor in the aggravation of chaos on a global level.

The second consequence of Trump coming to power has been the opening of a major political crisis within the US bourgeoisie. The constant need to try to contain the unpredictable decisions of the  president but above all the suspicions that Trump’s electoral success was largely due to support from Russia (“Russiagate”), a prospect which is totally unacceptable for the US bourgeoisie, points to a particularly delicate political situation within the US bourgeoisie and a difficulty in controlling the political game.

The incessant battle to “contain” the president plays out at several levels: the pressure exerted by the Republican party (the failed votes on getting rid of Obamacare), opposition to Trump’s plans by his own ministers (the minister of Justice Jeff Sessions refusing to resign or the ministers of foreign affairs and defence who “nuance” Trump’s proposals), the struggle for control over the White House staff by the “generals” (McMaster, Mattis). And yet these efforts don’t always stop things getting out of hand, such as in September when Trump made a deal with the Democrats to stymie Republican opposition to raising the debt ceiling.

Whatever the approach towards Russia (about which there can be divergences within the US bourgeoisie, as we shall see)), the accusations that Russia was mixed up in the presidential election campaign and that Trump has ties to the Russian mafia are extremely serious, since this would mean that for the first time ever a US president has been elected with the support of the Russians, which is unacceptable for the interests of the US bourgeoisie. If the inquiries confirm the accusations, they can only lead to impeachment proceedings for Trump.

The final consequence of Trump coming to power is the development of tensions over the options for US imperialism. The question of links with Russia is also a focus for clan confrontations within the US bourgeoisie. Since the main challenger today is China, would a rapprochement with the former head of the rival bloc and an important military power be acceptable for the US bourgeoisie in order to contain chaos, terrorism and the push from China? Could America contribute to the re-emergence of its Cold War rival and accept negotiating with it in certain areas? Would this make it possible to contain Chinese ambitions and also strike a blow against Germany? Within the Trump administration, there are numerous partisans of such a rapprochement, like Tillerson in foreign affairs and Ross in trade, as well as the president’s son-in-law Kushner. However, a considerable part of the US bourgeoisie (particularly within the army, the secret services and the Democratic Party) don’t seem prepared to make concessions at this level. In this context, the investigations into Russiagate, which imply the possibility of a US president being manipulated and blackmailed by an external enemy, are being widely exploited by these factions to make any rapprochement with Russia totally unacceptable.

The crisis of the US gendarme further exacerbates the push towards every man for himself among the other imperialist powers and the unpredictability of relations between them

Trump’s protectionist orientations and the USA’s exit from various international agreements is leading various powers, especially those in Europe and Asia, to strengthen their ties – without for the moment completely excluding the US – and to express their wish to become more independent from the USA and defend their own interests. This appeared clearly through the collaboration between Germany and China during the last G20 in Hamburg, and this collaboration between European and Asian countries could also be seen at the Bonn climate conference which aimed to concretise the objectives drawn up at the Paris conference.

The USA’s withdrawal is exacerbating the every man for himself tendency among the other big powers: we have already pointed to the aggressive imperialist stance of Russia which has enabled it to regain footholds on the global imperialist battleground (Ukraine, Syria). As regards China, in the previous report we still underestimated (a) the rapidity of its economic modernisation and (b) the internal political stability of China, which seems to have been strongly reinforced under Xi. China presents itself today as the defender of globalisation in the face of US protectionism and as a pole of planetary stability in contrast to the instability of US policies, while at the same time developing a military strategy aimed at increasing its military presence outside of China (the South China Sea).

This development of every man for himself can go hand in hand with the establishment of circumstantial alliances (China and Germany to orient the G20, the Franco-German tandem to reinforce military cooperation in Europe, China and Russia in relation to Iran), but these remain fluctuating and can’t be seen as bases for the emergence of real blocs. Let’s consider at this level the example of the alliance between China and Russia. The two powers share common interests, for example in relation to the USA in Syria and Iran, or in the Far East (North Korea) in relation to the US and Japan. They have also held joint military manoeuvres in both regions. Russia has become a major supplier of energy to China, thus reducing its dependency on the West, while China has massive investments in Siberia and supplies Russia with considerable amounts of consumer goods. However, Russia does not want to be subordinated to a powerful neighbor which it is already dependent upon to an unprecedented degree. What’s more, the two countries are also rivals in central Asia, South East Asia and the Indian peninsula: the project of the “New Silk Road” goes directly against Russian interests, while Russia is renewing its links with India, the main adversary of China in Asia (along with Japan). Finally, the rapprochement between China and the EU and with Germany in particular represents a deadly threat to Russia which could find itself squeezed between China and Germany.

The extension of zones of war, instability and chaos

Faced with the explosion of every man for himself, the efforts to “hold together the different parts of a body that is tending to break up” seem to be more and more futile, while the instability of imperialist relations makes for an unpredictable extension of areas of conflict.

The defeat of Islamic State will not reduce instability and chaos: the confrontations between Kurdish militia and the Turkish army in Syria, between Kurdish units and the Iraqi army and pro-Iranian Shia militias in Kirkuk in Iraq herald new bloody battles in the region. The stance taken by Turkey, which plays a key role in the region, is both central to the evolution of tensions and full of danger for the stability of the country itself. Turkey has important imperialist ambitions in the region, not only in Syria and Iraq, but in all the Muslim countries, from Bosnia to Qatar and Turkmenistan to Egypt, and is playing its own imperialist cards to the full: on the one hand, its status as a member of NATO is very unstable, given its taut relations with the USA and the majority of countries in Western Europe who are members of NATO, and also the tensions over the refugees and its difficult relations with Greece; on the other hand, it is now heading towards a rapprochement with Russia and even Iran, which is a direct imperialist competitor in the Middle East, while at the same time opposing itself to Saudi Arabia (refusal to withdraw troops from Qatar). At the same time, the struggle for power inside the country has sharpened, with the increasingly dictatorial practices of Erdogan and the revival of Kurdish guerilla activity. At this level, the USA’s refusal to extradite Gülen but also its support, arming and training of Kurdish militias in Iraq by the USA, are heavy with menace for the development of chaos inside Turkey itself.

The unpredictability of certain foci of tension is especially evident in the case of the North Korea. But while the root of this conflict is the increasingly overt confrontation between China and the USA, a certain number of elements make the outcome of this situation highly uncertain:

  • The ideology of the besieged fortress in North Korea, the advocacy of atomic weapons to respond to an inevitable attack by the Americans and the Japanese as an absolute priority, implies a high level of distrust towards its Chinese or Russian “friends” (and this in turn is based in certain experiences of the Korean partisans during the Second World War) and means that China’s control over North Korea is limited;
  • Trump’s poker moves, threatening North Korea with total destruction, raises the question of his credibility. This is leading on the one hand to an accelerated rearmament of Japan (already announced by prime minister Abe); but on the other hand, the unbalance in atomic weapons between the USA and North Korea (a different situation from the “balance of terror” between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War) and the sophistication of “limited” atomic weapons, does not rule out the threat of their unilateral use by the USA, which would be a qualitative step in the descent into barbarism.

In short, the zone of war, decomposition of states and of chaos is tending to widen more and more, stretching from Ukraine to South Sudan, from Nigeria to the Middle East, from Yemen to Afghanistan, from Syria to Burma and Thailand. Here we also have to point to the extension of zones of chaos in Latin America: the growing political and economic destabilisation in Venezuela, the political and economic chaos in Brazil, the destabilisation in Mexico which will get worse if Trump’s protectionist policies towards the country are carried through. To all this must be added the extension of terrorism, its presence in the day-to-day reality of Europe, the USA, etc. The chaos spreading across the planet means that there is less and less possibility for reconstruction (whereas this could still be envisaged for Bosnia or Kosovo), as shown by the failure of the policy of the reconstruction and re-establishment of state structures in Afghanistan.

The development of tensions in Europe

This factor, already seen as potentially present in the report to the 20th Congress, has accentuated in a spectacular manner in the last few years. With Brexit, the EU has entered a zone of considerable turbulence, while under the cover of protecting citizens against terrorism police and army budgets have risen noticeably in Western Europe and still more in Eastern Europe.

Under the pressure of economic measures, the refugee crisis, terrorist attacks and above all the electoral victories of populist movements, fractures within Europe are multiplying and antagonisms sharpening: economic pressure by the EU on Greece and Italy, the result of the Brexit referendum, the pressure of populism on European policies (Holland, Germany) and victories in the countries of Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary and recently the Czech Republic), internal tensions in Spain with the “Catalan crisis”. A gradual dismemberment of the EU, for example via a “several speed Europe”, as currently advocated by the Franco-German duo, would produce a marked intensification of imperialist tensions in Europe.

The relationship between populism (against the “elites” and their globalist, cosmopolitan ideas, and for protectionism) and nationalism was highlighted by Trump’s speech to the UN in September: “nationalism serves an international interest: if every country thinks of itself first, things will arrange themselves for the world”. This exacerbated glorification of every man for himself (Trump’s “America First”) weighs heavily on the Catalan conflict. Against the background of the euro crisis and the drastic austerity which came in its wake, we are seeing a dramatic interaction between populism and nationalism: one the one hand a part of the middle and petty Catalan bourgeoisie which “no longer wants to pay for Spain”, or the provocations of Puigdemont’s Catalanist coalition dominated by the left and faced with a loss of credibility in power; on the “Espagnolist” side, the nationalist reaction of the Spanish prime minister Rajoy who has to deal with a crisis in the Partido Popular, which is deeply mired in corruption.

“Militarism and war have been a fundamental given of capitalism's life since its entry into decadence…  if militarism, imperialism, and war are identified to such an extent with the period of decadence, it is because the latter corre­sponds to the fact that capitalist relations of production have become a barrier to the devel­opment of the productive forces: the perfectly irrational nature, on the global economic level, of military spending and war only expresses the aberration of these production relations' contin­ued existence”. (“Militarism and decomposition”). The level of imperialist chaos and military barbarism today, far worse than we could have imagined 25 years ago, expresses very clearly the obsolescence of the system and the need for its overthrow.



[1] This report was not published in our press. However, the reader can refer to the section on imperialist tensions from the resolution on the international situation adopted by the Congress.