1. With the massive US offensive against Iraq, we enter a new stage in capitalism’s descent into military barbarism, which is set to aggravate all the other areas of open hostilities or simmering tensions around the globe. Even apart from the awful devastation which is being heaped on the hapless population of Iraq, the war can only have the effect of stoking up imperialist tensions and military chaos everywhere else. The preparations for the war have already given rise to the first open split between America, on the one hand, and the only other power which could pose as the candidate to lead a new anti-American bloc – Germany. The divisions between the great powers over Iraq have sounded the death knell of NATO, while at the same time revealing that Europe, far from being such a bloc already, is riven with profound divergences on the key issues of international relations. It has prompted another pole of the ‘axis of evil’, North Korea, to play its own hand in the crisis, with the danger that this will in the medium term extend the theatre of war to the far east. Meanwhile the third pole of the axis – Iran – is also playing the nuclear card. In Africa, France’s pretensions to being a ‘pacifist’ power are exposed by the increasing involvement of its troops in the bloody war in the Ivory Coast. The aftermath of war in Iraq, far from creating a new Middle Eastern ‘West Germany’ as some of the more facile bourgeois commentators have predicted, can only serve to create a huge zone of instability which will have immediate consequence of aggravating the Israel/ Palestine conflict and generating new terrorist attacks around the globe. The war against terrorism is spreading terror all over the planet - not only through the massacres it perpetrates on its immediate victims in the front lines of imperialist rivalry, but more widely in the shape of growing popular anxiety about what the future holds in store for the whole of mankind.
2. It is no accident that the racking up of military tensions ‘coincides’ with a new plunge into the world economic crisis. This has been manifested not only in the overt collapse of weaker (but still economically significant) economies like Argentina, but above all in the return of open recession to the US economy, whose debt-fuelled growth in the 1990s - portrayed as the triumph of the ‘new economy’ - was the great white hope of the entire world economic system, in particular the countries of Europe. These glorious years are now definitively at an end as the US economy is wracked by explicitly rising unemployment, a fall in industrial production, a decline in consumer spending, stock market instability, corporate scandals and bankruptcies, and the return of the Federal budget deficit.
A measure of the seriousness of the current economic situation is given by the state of the British economy, which of all the major European countries was presented as being best placed to weather the global storms emanating from the US. In fact almost immediately after Chancellor Brown declared that “Britain remains better placed than in the past to cope with the world economic downturn”, official figures were released showing that British manufacturing –in hi-tech as well as more traditional industries –was at its lowest point since the 1991 recession, and that 10,000 jobs are disappearing every month in this sector
Coupled with the sacrifices demanded by the spiralling increase in military budgets, the slide into open recession is already generating a whole new round of attacks on working class living standards (redundancies, ‘modernisation’, cuts in benefits, especially pensions, etc).
3. The situation facing the working class is thus one of unprecedented gravity. For over a decade, the working class has been experiencing the most prolonged retreat in its struggles since the end of the counter-revolutionary period in the late 60s. Confronted with the twin assaults of war and economic crisis, the working class has experienced considerable difficulties in developing its own struggles, even on the most basic level of economic self-defence. On the political level its difficulties are even more pronounced, as its general consciousness of the huge historical responsibility weighing on its shoulders has suffered blow after blow in the last decade and more. And yet the very forces whose first task is to combat the political weaknesses in the proletariat - the forces of the communist left -are in a more dangerous state of disarray than at any time since the re-emergence of revolutionary forces at the end of the 60s. The immense pressures of a decomposing capitalist order have tended to reinforce the long-standing opportunist and sectarian weaknesses in the proletarian political milieu, resulting in severe theoretical and political regressions which tend to underestimate the seriousness of the situation faced by the proletariat and its revolutionary minorities, and indeed to obscure any real understanding of the nature and dynamic of the entire historical epoch.
The crisis of US leadership
4. Faced with the collapse of the rival Russian bloc at the end of the 80s, and with the rapid unravelling of its own western bloc, US imperialism formulated a strategic plan which has, in the ensuing decade, revealed itself more and more openly. Confirmed as the only remaining superpower, the USA would do everything in its power to ensure that no new superpower – in reality, no new imperialist bloc – could arise to challenge its ‘New World Order’. The principal methods of this strategy were demonstrated forcefully by the first Gulf war of 1991:
- a massive display of US military superiority, using Saddam’s regime as a whipping boy
- the press-ganging of the other powers into a coalition that would give an air of legitimacy to the US operation, as well as providing a considerable portion of the enormous funds required. Germany in particular – the only real candidate to the leadership of a new anti-American bloc – was to pay the most.
5. If the Gulf war’s primary aim was to issue an effective warning to all who would challenge US hegemony, it must be judged a failure. Within a year, Germany had provoked the war in the Balkans, with the aim of extending its influence to a key strategic crossroads of Europe and the Middle East. It would take the best part of the decade before the US – through the war in Kosovo – could impose its authority in this region, having been opposed not only by Germany (which gave underhand support to Croatia) but also by France and its supposedly loyal ally Britain, who secretly backed Serbia. The chaos in the Balkans was a clear expression of the contradictions faced by the US: the more it sought to discipline its former allies, the more it provoked resistance and hostility, and the less able it was to recruit them for military operations which they knew were ultimately aimed against them. Thus the phenomenon of the US being increasingly obliged to ‘go it alone’ in its adventures, relying less and less on ‘legal’ international structures such as the UN and NATO, which have more and more functioned as obstacles to the US’s plans.
6. After September 11 2001 – almost certainly carried out with the complicity of the US state – the USA’s global strategy shifted onto a higher level. The ‘war against terrorism’ was immediately announced as a permanent and planet-wide military offensive. Faced with an increasing challenge from its principal imperialist rivals (expressed in rows over the Kyoto agreement, the European military force, manoeuvres over the policing of Kosovo, etc), the USA opted for a policy of much more massive and direct military intervention, with the strategic goal of the encirclement of Europe and Russia by gaining control of Central Asia and the Middle East. In the Far East, by including North Korea in the ‘axis of evil’, and by renewing its interest in the ‘struggle against terrorism’ in Indonesia following the Bali bombing, US imperialism has also declared its intention to intervene directly in the backyard of China and Japan.
7. The aims of this intervention are by no means limited to the question of oil considered uniquely as a source of capitalist profits. Control of the Middle East and central Asia for geo-strategic reasons was a matter of intense inter-imperialist rivalry long before oil became a vital element in the capitalist economy. And while there is a clear necessity to control the huge oil producing capacities of the Middle East and the Caucasus, US military action there is not carried out on behalf of the oil companies: the oil companies are only allowed to get their pay off provided they fit in with the overall strategic plan, which includes the ability to shut off oil supplies to America’s potential enemies and thus throttle any military challenge before it begins. Germany and Japan in particular are far more dependent on Middle East oil than the USA.
8. The USA’s audacious project of building a ring of steel around its main imperialist rivals thus provides the real explanation for the war in Afghanistan, the planned assault on Iraq, and the declared intention to deal with Iran. However, the upping of the stakes by the US has called forth a commensurate response from its main challengers. The resistance to US plans has been led by France, which threatened to use its veto on the UN Security Council; but even more significant is the open challenge issued by Germany, which hitherto has tended to work in the shadows, allowing France to play the role of declared opponent of US ambitions. Today however, Germany perceives the US adventure in Iraq as a real menace to its interests in an area which has been central to its imperialist ambitions since before the first world war. It has thus issued a far more open challenge to the US than ever before; furthermore, its resolute ‘anti-war’ stance has emboldened France, which until quite close to the outbreak of war was still hinting that it might change tack and take part in the military action. With the outbreak of the war, these powers are adopting a fairly low profile, but historically a real milestone has been marked. This crisis has pointed to the demise not only of NATO (whose irrelevance was shown over its inability to agree on the ‘defence’ of Turkey just before the war) but also of the UN. The American bourgeoisie is increasingly regarding this institution as an instrument of its principal rivals, and is openly saying that it will not play any role in the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq. The abandonment of such institutions of ‘international law’ represents a significant step in the development of chaos in international relations.
9. The resistance to US plans by an alliance between France, Germany, Russia and China shows that, faced with the massive superiority of the US, its main rivals have no choice but to band together against it. This confirms that the tendency towards the constitution of new imperialist blocs remains a real factor in the current situation. But it would be a mistake to confuse a tendency with an accomplished fact, above all because in the period of capitalist decomposition, the movement towards the formation of new blocs is being constantly obstructed by the counter-tendency for each country to defend its own immediate national interests above all else - by the tendency towards every man for himself; The powerful divisions between the European countries over the war in Iraq has demonstrated that “Europe” is very far from forming a coherent bloc, as some elements of the revolutionary movement have tended to argue. Furthermore, such arguments are based on a confusion between economic alliances and real imperialist blocs, which are above all military formations oriented towards world war. And here two other important factors come into play: first, the undeniable military dominance of the US, which still makes it impossible for any openly warlike challenge to be mounted against the US by its great power rivals; and secondly, the undefeated nature of the proletariat, which means that it is not yet possible to create the social and ideological conditions for new war blocs.Thus the war against Iraq, however much it has brought imperialist rivalries between the great powers into the open, still takes the same basic form as the other major wars of this phase: a “deflected” war whose real target is hidden by the selection of a “scapegoat” constituted by a third or forth rate power, and in which the major powers take care to fight using only professional armies;
10. The crisis of US leadership has placed British imperialism in an increasingly contradictory position. With the end of the special relationship, the defence of Britain’s interests requires it to play a ‘mediating’ role between America and the main European powers, and between the latter powers themselves. Although presented as the poodle of the US, the Blair government has itself played a significant role in bringing about the current crisis, by insisting that America could not go it alone over Iraq, but needed to take the UN route. Britain too has been the scene of some of the biggest ‘peace’ marches, with large fractions of the ruling class – not only its leftist appendages – organising the demonstrations; The strong ”anti-war” sentiments of parts of the British bourgeoisie express a real dilemma for the British ruling class, as the growing schism between America and the other great powers is making its “centrist” role increasingly uncomfortable. In particular, Britains arguments that the UN should play a central role in the post-Saddam settlement, and that this must be accompanied by significant concession to the Palestinians, are being politely ignored by the US. Although as yet there is no clear alternative, within the British bourgeoisie, to the Blair line in international relations, there is a growing unease with being too closely associated with US adventurism. The quagmire now developing in Iraq can only strengthen this unease.
11. Although the US continues to demonstrate its crushing military superiority to all the other major powers, the increasingly open character of its imperialist ambitions is tending to weaken its political authority. In both world wars and in the conflict with the Russian bloc, the US was able to pose as the principal rampart of democracy and the rights of nations, the defender of the free world against totalitarianism and military aggression. But since the collapse of the Russian bloc the US has been obliged to itself play the role of aggressor; and while in the immediate aftermath of September 11 the US was still able to some extent to present its action in Afghanistan as an act of legitimate self-defence, the justifications for the current war in Iraq have shown themselves to be completely threadbare, while its rivals have come forward as the best defenders of democratic values in the face of US bullying.
The first weeks of the military action have served mainly to create further difficulties for US political authority. Initially presented as a war that would be both quick and clean, it appears that the war plan drawn up by the current administration seriously underestimated the degree to which the invasion would provoke sentiments of national defence among the Iraqi population. Although the omnipresence of Saddams special units has certainly played a role in stiffening the resistance of the regular army through their habitual methods of coercion and terror, there has been a much more general reaction of hostility to the American invasion, even if this is not accompanied by any great enthusiasm for Saddams regime. Even the Shiite organisations, who were being counted on to lead an “uprising” against Saddam, have declared that the first duty of all Iraqis is to resist the invader. The prolongation of the war can only serve to aggravate the misery of the population, whether through hunger and thirst or the intensification of the bombing; and the indications are that all this will tend to increase popular hostility towards the US.
Moreover, the war is already exacerbating the divisions in Iraqi society, in particular between those who have allied themselves with the USA (as in the Kurdish regions) and those who have fought against the invasion. These divisions can only serve to create disorder and instability in post-Saddam Iraq, further undermining the USA claim that it will be the bearer of peace and prosperity in the region. On the contrary, the war is already stoking up tensions throughout the region, as demonstrated by Turkeys incursion into northern Iraq, the anti-American position adopted by Syria, and the renewal of sabre-rattling between India and Pakistan.
Thus, far from resolving the crisis of American leadership, the current war can only take it new levels
Decadence and decomposition
12. The plunge into militarism is the expression par excellence of the impasse facing the capitalist mode of production - of its decadence as a mode of production. As with the two world wars, and the cold war between 45 and 89, the wars of the period inaugurated since 89 are the most crying manifestation of the fact that capitalist relations of production have become an obstacle to human progress. Not only does this terrifying record of destruction (and production of the means of destruction) represent a staggering waste of human labour power in a period when the productive forces are objectively capable of liberating man from all forms of economic drudgery and scarcity, it is the product of and active factor in a dynamic that threatens the very survival of humanity. This dynamic has aggravated throughout the period of decadence: we only have to compare the levels of death and destruction brought about by the first and second world wars, as well as the global extent of each conflict, to understand this. In addition, while the third world war between the Russian and American blocs – a war that would almost certainly have led to the extinction of humanity – never took place, the proxy wars fought between them over four decades in themselves caused as many deaths as the two world wars combined. These are not merely mathematical or technological facts; they testify to a qualitative deepening of capitalism’s tendency towards self-destruction.
13. It is evident to any observer of the international scene that 1989 marked the beginning of a radical new phase in the life of capitalism. In 1990, Bush senior promised a new World Order of peace and prosperity. And for the intellectual apologists of the ruling class, the end of the ‘Communist experiment’ meant a new upsurge of capitalism, now at last a truly ‘global’ system, and armed with wondrous new technologies that would make its economic crises a thing of the past. Neither would capitalism be troubled by the contradiction between bourgeoisie and proletariat, because in the ‘new economy’ the working class and its struggles had ceased to exist. So evident was the dawning of the new age of globalisation, that even its most publicised opponents – the ‘global anti-capitalist movement shared practically all of the basic assumptions of its apologists. For marxism, however, the collapse of the Stalinist bloc was the collapse of a part of an already global capitalist system; and the period ushered in by this seismic event did not represent any flowering or rejuvenation of capitalism; but on the contrary, it could only be understood as the terminal phase of capitalist decadence - the phase we refer to as decomposition, the ‘flowering’ only of all the accumulated contradictions of an already senile social order.
14. The return of the open economic crisis in the late 1960s had in effect already opened a final chapter in the classical cycle of capitalist decadence - crisis, war, reconstruction, new crisis. Henceforward it would be virtually impossible for capitalism to reconstruct after a third world war, which would probably mean the annihilation of humanity or at best a regression of incalculable proportions. The historic choice now facing humanity was not merely revolution or war, but revolution or the destruction of humanity.
15. 1968 saw the historic revival of proletarian struggles in response to the emergence of the crisis, opening up a course towards massive class confrontations. Without defeating this resurgent proletariat, the ruling class would not be able to lead society towards war, which, even if it would certainly signify the self-destruction of capitalism, remained the ‘logical’ outcome of the system’s fundamental contradictions. This new period of workers’ struggles was manifested in three international waves (68-74, 78-81, 83-89); but the collapse of the eastern bloc in 1989, with its attendant campaigns about the fall of communism and the end of the class struggle, brought an important break with the whole of this period. The working class had not suffered a major historic defeat and the threat of a third world war, which had already been held at bay by the revival of the class struggle, was put even lower down history’s agenda by new objective barriers to the reconstitution of imperialist blocs, in particular the strength of the tendency towards ‘every man for himself’ in the new period. Nevertheless, the working class, whose struggles in the period 69-89 had prevented the bourgeoisie from imposing its ‘solution’ to the economic crisis, now more and more faced the consequences of its own failure to raise its struggles to a higher political level and offer an alternative for humanity. The period of decomposition, the result of this ‘stalemate’ between the two major classes, does not bring any positive fruits to the exploited class. Although the combativity of the class has not been wiped out in this period, and a process of subterranean maturation of consciousness could still be detected, especially in the form of ‘searching elements’, small politicised minorities, the class struggle overall went into a retreat which is still with us today. The working class in this period has been faced not just with its own political shortcomings but with the danger of losing its class identity under the weight of a disintegrating social system.
16. This danger is not fundamentally the result of the reorganizations of production and the division of labour necessitated by the economic crisis (eg the shift from secondary to tertiary industries in many of the advanced countries, computerisation, etc); it results first and foremost from the most ubiquitous tendencies of decomposition – the accelerated atomisation of social relations, gangsterisation, and most important of all, the systematic attack on the memory of historical experience and the proletariat’s own perspective that has been mounted by the bourgeoisie in the wake of the ‘collapse of communism’. Capitalism cannot indeed function without a working class, but the working class can lose, in time, any real awareness of its existence as a class. This process is daily reinforced by decomposition at a spontaneous and objective level; but it does not prevent the ruling class from consciously using all the manifestations of decomposition to further atomise the class. The recent rise of the extreme right, capitalising on popular fears of being overwhelmed by flood of desperate refugees from the countries most hit by crisis and war, is an example of this, as is the use of fears about terrorism to strengthen the repressive arsenal of the state.
17. Although capitalism’s decomposition results from this historic ‘stand-off’ between the classes, this situation cannot be a static one. The economic crisis, which is at the root both of the drive towards war and of the proletariat’s response, continues to deepen; but in contrast to the 68-89 period, when the outcome of these class contradictions could only be world war or world revolution, the new period opens up a third alternative: the destruction of humanity not through an apocalyptic war, but through the gradual advance of decomposition, which could over a period of time undermine the proletariat’s capacity to respond as a class, and could equally make the planet uninhabitable through a spiral of regional wars and ecological catastrophes. To wage a world war, the bourgeoisie would first have to directly confront and defeat the major battalions of the working class, and then mobilise them to march with enthusiasm behind the banners and ideology of new imperialist blocs; in the new scenario, the working class could be defeated in a less overt and direct manner, simply by failing to respond to the crisis of the system and allowing itself to be dragged further and further into the cesspool of decay. In short, a much more dangerous and difficult perspective confronts the class and its revolutionary minorities.
18. The necessity for marxists to understand there has been a major shift in the scenario confronting humanity is underlined by the growing threat that the mere continuation of capitalist production poses to the natural environment. More and more scientists are expressing alarm over the possibilities of ‘positive feedback’ in the process of global warming – for example, in the case of the Amazon, where the combined effects of logging and other encroachments as well as rising temperatures are dramatically accelerating the rate of destruction. If the destruction goes on unabated, this would release into the atmosphere further massive amounts of carbon dioxide, thus greatly increasing the overall rate of warming. In addition to this, the intensification of ecological dangers can only have massive destabilizing effects on the structure of society, the economy, and on inter-imperialist relations. In this domain, the working class can do little to halt the slide until it has won political power on a world scale, and yet the longer its revolution is delayed, the more the proletariat faces the danger of being overwhelmed, and the very bases for a social reconstruction undermined.
19. Despite its mounting dangers, the majority of the groups of the communist left do not accept the concept of capitalist decomposition, even if they can see its outward manifestations in the growing chaos at the international and social level. In fact, far from having a clear view of the perspective confronting the working class, the new and unprecedented period of decomposition has created a real theoretical disarray. The Bordigist groups have never had a firm theory of decadence, even if they recognize the drive towards imperialist war in this epoch, and are still capable of responding to it on an internationalist terrain. Neither have they been able to take on board the concept of the historic course elaborated by the Italian Fraction during the 1930s – the notion that imperialist world war requires the prior defeat and active mobilization of the proletariat. They thus lack the two basic theoretical building blocks of the concept of decomposition. The IBRP, while accepting the notion of decadence, has also rejected the Italian left’s concept of the historic course. Moreover, recent pronouncements by this current show that their grasp on the concept of decadence itself is slipping. A polemic with the ICC’s conception of decomposition reveals quite plainly the incoherence of the positions they are now tending to adopt:
“The tendency towards decomposition, which the ICC’s apocalyptic vision detects everywhere, would indeed imply capitalist society were on the brink of breakdown if it were true. However, this is not the case and if the ICC were to examine the phenomena of contemporary society more dialectically this would be apparent. While on the one hand, old structures are collapsing, new ones are arising. Germany, for example, could not be reunited without the collapse of the German Democratic Republic and the collapse of the Russian bloc. The countries of Comecon could not join the EU without the dissolution of Comecon etc. The process of collapse is at the same time one of reconstruction, decomposition is part of the process of recomposition. While the ICC does recognize that there is a tendency towards re-composition, they regard it as insignificant in the face of the predominant tendency towards decomposition and chaos. …..The ICC has failed to demonstrate how this tendency springs from the capitalist infrastructure. The difficulty it faces in doing this, springs from the fact that it is the tendency towards recomposition which springs from the forces of the capitalist infrastructure. In particular the continuing economic crisis, derived from reduced profitability of capital, is forcing weaker capitals into trading blocs, and these trading blocs are the skeletons on which future imperialist blocs are being built” (Revolutionary Perspectives no°27).
Faced with this hypothesis, it is necessary to make the following points:
- Marxism has always insisted
that the onset of the epoch of capitalism’s decline poses the historical
alternative between socialism or barbarism. Before waxing ironic about the
“apocalyptic” visions of the ICC, the comrades of the IBRP need to consider
whether they are underestimating the gravity of the world situation, and the
destructive dynamic imposed on capital by its historic impasse.
The question is not the timing of an immediate and final collapse; the tendency towards collapse is inherent in the entire decadent period, where the old framework for economic growth is absent, and the literal breakdown of the system is only held off by the necessary responses of the ruling class - state control of the economy and the flight towards war, which itself threatens collapse on an even more devastating level than the simple clogging up of the economic machine. Furthermore, the phase of decomposition signifies a real acceleration of this downward momentum. This is perhaps most evident at the level of imperialist relations where international competition is at its most ruthless and anarchic; at the economic level the ruling class is more able to mitigate the danger of untrammelled competition between national capitals (cf the US bourgeoisie’s recognition of the need to shore up its main economic rival, Japan);
- in the decadent period there is no ‘dialectical’ harmony between recomposition and decomposition. Decomposition is only the final phase of a tendency towards chaos and catastrophe that was already identified in the first congress of the Third International. In the decadent epoch, the war of each against all – not the invention of Hobbes, but a fundamental reality of a society based on generalized commodity production – is by no means done away with by the formation of huge ‘state capitalist trusts’ and imperialist blocs; as Bukharin already noted in 1915, these formations merely pushed the basic anarchy of capital onto a higher and more destructive level. This is the tendency that flows from the ‘capitalist infrastructure’ when it can no longer grow in accordance with its own laws. On the other hand there is in this epoch no spontaneous tendency towards recomposition. If by this the comrades mean reconstruction, this is at the cost of the tremendous physical destruction of imperialist war, and in any case is no longer a real possibility for capitalism today. On the other hand if they think that ‘recomposition’ expresses a natural and peaceful evolution of ‘modern’ capitalism this would seem to show the influence of ‘autonomist’ theories which reject the catastrophist vision that lies at the heart of marxism; by the same token, the partial acceptance of the ideology of globalisation, microchip revolution etc all point to a real concession to current bourgeois campaigns about a new ascendancy of capitalism;
- finally, if recomposition means that new imperialist blocs are already being formed, this is based on a mistaken identification between trading alliances and imperialist blocs, which are fundamentally military in character. The Iraq crisis has shown in particular that ‘Europe’ is totally divided over its relations with the US. The factors which prevent the formation of new blocs remain as valid as ever: profound divisions among potential members of a German bloc; the massive military superiority of the US; lack of ideological bases for new bloc, itself a further expression of non-defeated nature of the proletariat.
The irrationality of war in the period of decadence
20. The period of decomposition shows more clearly than ever the irrationality of war in decadence – the tendency for its destructive dynamic to become autonomous and increasingly at variance with the logic of profit. This is fully in character with the basic conditions of accumulation in the decadent period. The incapacity of capital to expand into new “outlying fields of production” more and more inhibits the ‘natural’ functioning of the laws of the market, which, left to themselves, would result in a catastrophic economic blockage. The wars of decadence, unlike the wars of ascendancy, do not make economic sense. Contrary to the view that war is ‘good’ for the health of the economy, war today both expresses and aggravates its incurable sickness. Furthermore, the irrationality of war in terms of capital’s own laws has intensified during the period of decadence. Thus, the first world war was aimed at a clearly discernible ‘economic’ goal – in essence, at grabbing the colonial markets of rival powers. To some extent this element was also present in World War II, although it had already been shown that there was no mechanical link between economic rivalry and military confrontation: thus in the early 20s the Third International was mistaken in its view that the next world imperialist conflict would be between the USA and Britain.
What created the impression that World War II had a rational function for capitalism was the long reconstruction period that followed it, leading many revolutionaries to conclude that capital’s main motive for war was to destroy capital and reconstruct it afterwards. In reality, war was not the result of a conscious aim for post-war reconstruction but was imposed on the capitalist powers by the ruthless logic of imperialist competition, demanding the total destruction of the enemy for predominantly strategic reasons.
This does not alter the fact that the drive to war is fundamentally a result of capitalism’s economic impasse. But the connection between crisis and war is not a purely mechanical one. The economic difficulties of capitalism at the time of the first world war were still only embryonic; the second world war broke out after the initial shock of the depression had begun to be absorbed. Rather the exacerbation of the economic crisis creates the general conditions for the exacerbation of military rivalries; but the history of decadence shows that purely economic rivalries and objectives have become increasingly subordinated to strategic ones. This is turn expresses the profound dead-end that capitalism has reached. After the second world war, the global conflict between the American and Russian bloc was almost entirely dominated by strategic concerns, since at no point could Russia pose as a serious economic rival to the US. And henceforward it was clear that world war would not solve capitalism’s economic problems, since this time it would lead to the final self-destruction of the entire system.
Furthermore the manner in which the period of the blocs came to an end also demonstrates the ruinous economic costs of militarism: the weaker Russian bloc collapsed because it was incapable of bearing the economic costs of the arms race (and was equally incapable of mobilising its proletariat for a war to break the strategic and economic stranglehold achieved by the stronger US bloc). And despite all the predictions about how the ‘fall of Communism’ would create a bright new future for capitalist enterprise, the economic crisis has continued its ravages ever since, in the west as well as the former eastern bloc countries.
Today, the USA’s ‘war on terrorism’ also involves the defence of the USA’s immediate economic interests at home and round the world, and US belligerence can only be increased by the rapid exhaustion of options for its economy. But it is fundamentally dictated by the USA’s strategic need to maintain and strengthen its ‘global leadership’. The immense cost of the major international operations mounted in the first Gulf war 91, Serbia 99, Afghanistan 2001 and the Gulf in 2003 refute the facile arguments about these being wars fought on behalf of the multinational oil companies or for the juicy contracts coming out of post-war reconstruction. The reconstruction in Iraq after the war will also be motivated by a political and ideological need: it will be an indispensable if not sufficient condition for an American domination of this country. Of course individual capitals can always make a buck out of war but the overall economic balance sheet is negative. The war on terrorism will bring no real reconstruction, no important new markets for the expansion of the US or any other economy.
War is the ruin of capital – both a product of its decline and a factor in its acceleration. The development of a bloated war economy does not offer a solution to the crisis of capitalism, as certain elements of the Italian Fraction thought in the 1930s. The war economy does not exist for itself but because capitalism in decadence is obliged to go through war after war after war, and to increasingly subsume the entire economy to the needs of war. This creates a tremendous drain on the economy because arms expenditure is fundamentally sterile. In this sense the collapse of the Russian bloc gives us a glimpse into the future of capital, since its inability to sustain an ever-accelerating arms race was one of the key factors in its demise. And although this was a result deliberately pursued by the US bloc, today the USA itself is moving towards a comparable situation, even if it is at a slower pace. The present war in the Gulf, and more generally the whole ‘war against terror’ is linked to a vast increase of arms spending designed to totally eclipse the arms budgets of the rest of the world combined. But the damage that this insane project will inflict on the US economy is incalculable.
21. The deeply irrational nature of war in the decadent period is also demonstrated by its ideological justifications, a reality already revealed by the rise of Nazism in the period leading up to the second world war. Thus, in Africa, country after country has submitted to ‘civil’ wars in which marauding gangs maim and kill with almost no semblance of ideological purpose, destroying the already frail infrastructure with no prospect of any post-war renaissance. The resort to terrorism by an increasing number of states, and in particular the growth of Islamic terrorism with its fantasies of suicide and death, are further expressions of a society in full putrefaction, caught up in a deadly spiral of destruction for its own sake. According to the comrades of the CWO, Al Qaida “represents an attempt to erect an independent Middle East imperialism based on Islam and the territories of the Ummayad Empire of the 8th century. It is not simply a movement expressing decomposition and chaos” (RP 27). In fact, such a reactionary and unrealistic goal is no more rational than Bin Laden’s other secret hope: that his actions will take us a step nearer to the final Day of Judgement. Islamic terrorism is a pure culture of decomposition.
In contrast to this, the justification for war by the great democratic powers still generally presents itself in the garb of humanitarianism, democracy, and other progressive and rational goals. In fact, leaving aside the immense gulf between the justifications offered by imperialist states, and the real sordid motives and actions that lie behind them, the irrationality of the USA’s grand enterprise is also beginning to emerge through the ideological fog: a new Imperium in which one power rules without contest, forever. History, and the history of capitalism above all, has already shown the vanity of such dreams. But this has not prevented the development of a new and profoundly backward-looking ideology to justify the whole project: the concept of a new and humane colonialism, which is being taken seriously by a number of American and British ideologues today.
The class struggle
22. It is vital to understand the distinction between the historic weight of the class and its immediate influence on the situation. In the immediate, the class cannot prevent the current wars and may be in serious retreat, but this is not the same as a historic defeat. The fact that the bourgeoisie is not able to mobilize the class for direct inter-imperialist conflict between the great powers, but has to ‘deflect’ the conflict onto second and third rate states, using not conscript but professional armies, is an expression of this historic weight of the class.
Even in the context of these ‘deflected’ wars, as the stakes involved are increased, the bourgeoisie is compelled to take preventive action against the working class. The organization of pacifist campaigns on an unprecedented scale (both in terms of the size of the demonstrations and their international coordination) testifies to the ruling class’s unease about the mounting hostility to its war drive both among the population in general and within the working class in particular. For the moment, the main thrust of the pacifist campaigns has been to emphasise their cross-class, democratic nature, their appeal to the UN and the pacifist intentions of America’s rivals. But already within the speeches being spat out from the rostrums of these protests there is a strong strain of workerist demagogy, talk about mobilizing the power of the trade union movement, of taking illegal strike action when the war breaks out, even the recuperation of classic internationalist slogans such as ‘the main enemy is at home’. Behind this rhetoric is an understanding by the bourgeoisie that the drive to war cannot avoid confronting the resistance of its main victim, the working class, even if actual class opposition to the war is currently restricted to isolated responses by workers or the activity of a small internationalist minority.
23. All this is evidence that the historic course has not been reversed even if, in decomposition, the conditions under which it unfolds have altered significantly. What has changed with decomposition is the possible nature of a historic defeat, which may not come through frontal clash between the major classes so much as a slow ebbing away of the proletariat’s ability to constitute itself as a class, in which case the point of no return will be harder to discern, coming as it would be before any final catastrophic end. This is the deadly danger faced by the class today. But we are convinced that this point has not yet been reached and that the proletariat still retains the capacity to rediscover its historic mission. To take into account the real potentialities within the proletariat, and to assume the responsibility it imposes on revolutionaries , it is all the more important not to begin from an immediatist analysis of situations.
24. Without a clear historical framework for understanding the present situation of the class, it is all too easy to fall into an immediatist attitude which can swing from moods of euphoria to the bleakest pessimism. In the recent period the main trend in the proletarian milieu has been to get carried away by false hopes about massive class movements: thus a number of groups saw the December 2002 riots in Argentina as the beginnings of a movement towards proletarian insurrection when the movement was not even posed on a basic class terrain in the first place; similarly, the firefighters’ strike in Britain has been interpreted as a focus for massive class resistance against the war drive. Or else, in the absence of open social movements, there has been a tendency to look to rank and file unionist bodies as the basis for preparing the class revival of the future.
25. In the context of the present historic course, the perspective for the class struggle remains the revival of massive struggles in response to the deepening economic crisis. These struggles will follow the dynamic of the mass strike, which is characteristic of the real class movement in the epoch of decadence: they are not organised in advance by a pre-existing body. It is through the tendency towards massive struggles that the class will regain its class identity, which is an indispensable precondition for the ultimate politicization of the struggle. But we should bear in mind that such movements will inevitably be preceded by a series of skirmishes which will remain under union control, and even when they assume a more massive character they will not appear straightaway in a ‘pure form’, ie openly outside of and against the unions, and organized and centralized by autonomous assemblies and strike committees. Indeed it will be more important than ever for the revolutionary minorities and advanced workers’ groups to defend the perspective of the formation of such organisms within the movements that arise.
26. There have been many such skirmishes through the 90s and they express the counter-tendency to the overall retreat. But their lack of any clear political dimension has been seized upon by the bourgeoisie to further increase the disarray in the class. A particularly important card in the 90s has been the coming to power of left governments, able to give a huge impulse to the bourgeoisie’s arsenal of democratic and reformist ideology; alongside this the unions have organized a number of pre-emptive actions to corral the growing discontent in the class. The most spectacular of these were the strikes in December 1995 in France, which even had the appearance of going beyond the unions and unifying at the base, the better to prevent this happening in substance. Since then union campaigns have been more low key, in line with the disorientation in the class, but a return to more confrontational responses can be discerned today in examples such as the public sector strikes called or threatened in Britain, France, Spain, Germany and elsewhere.
27. Marxism has always insisted that it is insufficient to look at the class struggle only in terms of what the proletariat itself is doing; since the bourgeoisie also wages a class struggle against the proletariat and its coming to consciousness, it has always been a key element of Marxist activity to examine the strategies and tactics used by the ruling class to forestall its mortal enemy. An important part of this is the analysis of which government teams the bourgeoisie tends to put together in response to different moments in the evolution of the class struggle and of the general crisis of society.
28. As the ICC noted in the first phase of its existence, the initial response of the ruling class to the historical resurgence of class struggle at the end of the 60s was to place its left teams in power, or to divert workers’ struggles by offering left governments as a false perspective for the movement. We then saw, at the end of the 70s, in response to the second international wave of struggles, the adoption of a new strategy, in which the right was brought back to government and the left went into opposition in order to sabotage the workers’ resistance from the inside. While never automatically applied in all countries, these strategies could nonetheless be discerned in the most important capitalist countries.
After the collapse of the eastern bloc, however, given the retreat in working class consciousness, there was no longer the same need to maintain this line-up, and in a number of countries center left governments, typified by the Blair regime in Britain, were favoured as the best ruling team, both with regard to the management of the economic crisis and the need to present capitalism’s flight into militarism as a new form of humanitarianism.
The recent rise of right wing parties to government office does not however mean that the ruling class is returning to a concerted strategy of the left in opposition The advent of right governments in a number of central capitalist countries is more the expression of the lack of coherence within the national bourgeoisies and between national bourgeoisies which is one of the consequences of decomposition. It would take a significant advance in the class struggle for the bourgeoisie to overcome these divisions and impose a more unified response – to return to the strategy of the left in opposition to deal with a serious revival of the class movement, and, as its ultimate card, the placing of an ‘extreme left’ in power in the event of a directly revolutionary threat by the working class.
29. Even if the main development of workers’ struggles will not be in direct response to war, revolutionaries should be attentive to the class responses that do arise, bearing in mind that the question of war will more and more become a factor in the development of a political consciousness about the real stakes of the class struggle, particularly as the swelling of the war economy will increasingly bring with it the demand for sacrifices in working class living standards. This growing connection between crisis and war will express itself first in the formation of minorities aiming to make an internationalist response to war, but it will also tend to inform the more general movement as the class recovers its confidence and no longer sees the wars being organised by the ruling class as proof only of its own powerlessness. (pacifism)
30. The new generation of ‘searching elements’, the minority moving towards class positions, will have a role of unprecedented importance in the future struggles of the class, which will be faced much more quickly and profoundly than the struggles of 68-89 with their political implications. These elements, who already express a slow but significant development of consciousness in depth, will be called upon to assist in the massive extension of consciousness throughout the class. This process reaches its highest point in the formation of the world communist party. But this can only become a reality if the existing groups of the communist left live up to their historical responsibilities. Today in particular this means facing up to the dangers that lie in front of them. For just as a surrender to the logic of decomposition can only deprive the class of its capacity to provide an answer to the crisis facing human society, so the revolutionary minority itself risks being ground down and destroyed by the putrid ambience which surrounds it, and which penetrates its ranks in the forms of parasitism, opportunism, sectarianism, and theoretical confusion. Revolutionaries today can have confidence in the intact capacities of their class, and by the same token in the capacity of the revolutionary milieu to respond to the demands that history is placing upon its shoulders. They know that they must retain a long term vision of their work and avoid all immediatist pitfalls. But at the same time they must understand that we do not have all the time in the world, and that serious errors made today already constitute an obstacle to the future formation of the class party.