The situation after World War 2

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In the wake of World War II, the national movements in the colonies evolved in two ways, both of which continued within the dynamic established in the previous decades. In the first place, the years after World War II saw a massive trend towards a relatively peaceful decolonisation; despite the existence of powerful and sometimes violent national movements in India, Africa, and elsewhere, the majority of the old colonial powers readily acceded to the ‘national’ independence of most of their former colonies. In an article written in 1952, the French group Internationalisme (which had split from the Italian Left in 1944 over the question of the formation of a party in the midst of the deepening counter-revolution) analysed the situation thus:

It was once believed in the workers’ movement that the colonies could only be emancipated within the context of the socialist revolution. Certainly their character as ‘the weakest link in the chain of imperialism’ owing to the exacerbation of capitalist exploitation and repression in those areas, made them particularly vulnerable to social movements. Always their accession to independence was linked to the revolution in the metropoles.

These last years have seen, however, most of the colonies becoming independent: the colonial bourgeoisies have emancipated themselves, more or less, from the metropoles. This phenomenon, however limited it may be in reality, cannot be understood in the context of the old theory, which saw colonial capitalism as the lackey pure and simple of imperialism, a mere broker.

The truth is that the colonies have ceased to represent an extra—capitalist market for the metropoles; they have become new capitalist countries. They have thus lost their character as outlets, which makes the old imperialisms less resistant to the demands of the colonial bourgeoisie. To which it must be added that these imperialisms’ own problems have favoured – in the course of two world wars – the economic expansion of the colonies. Constant capital destroyed itself in Europe, while the productive capacity of the colonies or semi-colonies grew, leading to an explosion of indigenous nationalism (South Africa, Argentina, India, etc). It is noteworthy that these new capitalist countries, right from their creation as independent nations, pass to the stage of state capitalism, showing the same aspects of an economy geared to war as has been discerned elsewhere.

The theory of Lenin and Trotsky has fallen apart. The colonies have integrated themselves into the capitalist world, and have even propped it up. There is no longer a ‘weakest link’: the domination of capital is.equally distributed throughout the surface of the planet.” (‘The Evolution of Capitalism and the New Perspective’, Internationalisme, no.45, 1952.)

The bourgeoisies of the former colonial empires, weakened by the world wars, found themselves unable to maintain the colonies as colonies. The ‘peaceful’ disintegration of the British Empire is the best example of this. But it was primarily because these colonies could no longer serve as the basis for the enlarged reproduction of global capital, having themselves become capitalist, that they lost their importance for the major imperialisms (in fact it was the more backward colonial powers like Portugal which clung most tenaciously to their colonies). Decolonisation was actually only a formalisation of an already extant state of affairs: capital no longer accumulated by expanding into pre-capitalist regions, but on the decadent basis of the cycle of crisis, war, and reconstruction, by waste production, and so on.

But the accession of the former colonies to political independence in no way represented their real independence vis a vis the main imperialist powers. After colonialism comes the phenomenon of ‘neo-colonialism’: the major imperialisms retain their effective domination of the backward countries by means of the economic stranglehold which they exert: the imposition of unequal rates of exchange, the export of capital by ‘multinational’ corporations or the state, and their general predominance on the world market which forces the Third World countries to gear their economies to the needs of the advanced capitals (via ‘monoculture’, establishment of cheap labour export industries by foreign capital, etc). And of course, backing all this up there is the armed might of the major imperialisms, their willingness to intervene politically and militarily to defend their economic interests. Vietnam, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Hungary, Czechoslovakia – these and other countries have been the scene of direct intervention by a major imperialism out to protect its interests from unacceptable political or economic change.

In fact ‘peaceful’ decolonisation is more an appearance than a reality. It takes place within a world dominated by military imperialist blocs, and it is the balance of forces between these blocs that determines the possibilities of peaceful decolonisation. The advanced capitals have shown themselves willing to agree to national independence only in so far as their former colonies remain under the domination of the imperialist bloc to which they adhere. Because World War II was only a redivision of an already saturated world market, it could only lead to a new global confrontation between the powers which came out on top after the slaughter had abated: in this case, primarily America and Russia. Consequently the second major trend after World War II was a whole new proliferation of national wars through which the major imperialisms sought to defend or extend their spheres of influence only Provisionally agreed upon after the world war.

The wars in China, Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and elsewhere, were all products of the balance of forces after World War II, as well as of the continuing inability of capitalism to provide for humanity’s most basic needs, and the extreme social decomposition of the former colonial regions. In these wars the main imperialisms rarely confronted each other directly: local conflicts served as mediations for the overriding conflict between the ‘Super Powers’. No less than during the world war itself, these wars demonstrated the continuing inability of the local bourgeoisies to combat the domination of one imperialist power without relying on another. If a national bourgeoisie escaped the tentacles of one bloc, it immediately fell into the maws of another.

To give a few examples:

  • In the Middle East the Zionists fight the British-backed Arab armies with Russian and Czech arms, but Stalin’s plans to draw Israel into Russia’s sphere of influence fail, and Israel is integrated into the US orbit. Since then, Palestinian resistance to Zionism, having previously relied on British and German imperialism, is forced into the hands of imperialist powers hostile to the US or to Israel: Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China;
  • In Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh helps the French and British defeat the Japanese; then under the aegis of Russia and China he defeats the French, and inflicts wounding blows on the Americans;
  • In Cuba, Castro withdraws from the US orbit to fall unambiguously into the hands of Russian imperialism.

Undoubtedly individual imperialist powers are weakened here and there by these wars and realignments. But each time one imperialist power is weakened, another becomes stronger. Only those who see something ‘non-imperialist’ in the Stalinist regimes can find something progressive in the passing of a country from one imperialist bloc to another. But whatever the theoretical contortions and fantasies of Trotskyism, Maoism, et al, in the real world the chain of imperialism remains unbroken.

This is not to imply that the local bourgeoisies are always merely puppets of the ‘Super Powers’. The local bourgeoisies have distinct interests of their own and these are also imperialist. Israel’s expansion into the Arab territories, North Vietnam’s invasion of the South and expansion into parts of Cambodia, India and Pakistan’s rivalries over Kashmir and Bengal –  all these are necessitated by the iron laws of capitalist competition in the epoch of imperialist decay. In addition to acting as agents of the big imperialisms by accepting their aid, advice, and arms, local bourgeois factions themselves become imperialist pure and simple as soon as they grab control of the state. Because no nation can accumulate in absolute autarky they have no choice but to begin to expand at the expense of ether nations even more backward, and thus engage in policies of annexation, unequal exchange, etc. In the epoch of capitalist decadence, every nation state is an imperialist power. Nevertheless, it remains the case that all these local rivalries can only take place within the more global rivalries of the main imperialist blocs. The smaller countries have to follow the global demands of the major powers in order to win their help in furthering their own local interests. In certain exceptional cases, a previously minor power can accede to a place of considerable importance on the worldwide imperialist arena. China, because of its size and wealth of natural resources is one example, while a country like Saudia Arabia, was, for a strictly limited period, another. But the emergence of new major imperialisms hardly weakens the grip of imperialism as a whole. And even with these latter examples, the fundamental rivalry between the US and Russia continues to dictate world policy. China, for example, broke with Russia in the early sixties and attempted briefly to pursue an ‘autarkic’ policy. But the deepening of the world crisis, with its consequence of reinforcing the two main blocs, has increasingly forced China to integrate itself into the US bloc.

All the post-war developments have amply proved the falsity in this era of the tactic of giving support to national liberation movements in order to weaken imperialism. Far from weakening imperialism, these movements only serve to tighten its grip on the world, and to mobilise sections of the world proletariat into the service of one or another imperialist bloc.