The slaughter of British tourists in Uganda has prompted the 'concerned' press to remind us of the terrifying scale of the war and chaos afflicting the entire African continent. An article in The Guardian of 6 March includes a list of the countries hit by war, genocide and internal collapse: Algeria, Sierra Leone, Congo Brazzavile, Sudan, Ethiopia/Eritrea, Rwanda/Burundi, Angola, Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda and nda/Burundi, Angola, Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda and Lesotho. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was a full scale confrontation between states, in which tens of thousands died over a worthless piece of land. The war around the Congo "described as the first continent-wide war, is reshaping Africa. A host of countries have been drawn into the conflict over Congo: Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Sudan and Chad on one side against Uganda and Rwanda on the other" (The Guardian, 6.3.99).
Nor is this military barbarism limited to Africa. The leaders of India and Pakistan have been talking peace, but the tensions between these powers have only been sharpened by their recent displays of nuclear sabre-rattling. The fighting between Muslim factions in Afghanistan has not gone away despite the predominance of the Taliban. The arrest of Kurdish leader Ocalan by the Turks is only one episode in the continuing guerilla war there. Israel has again invaded Lebanon in response to Hizbollah attacks on its troops. In Iraq, an 'undeclared war' is still going on: since the formal termination of the Desert Fox campaign, US and British planes have carried out over 100 military attacks on Iraqi installations, with the aim of gradually destroying Iraq's air defences. In Europe itself, the situation in Kosovo remains extremely tense despite the fragixtremely tense despite the fragile 'peace agreements' signed in Paris. In Northern Ireland, the Good Friday 'peace agreement' is once again teetering on the brink.
Ten years ago, when the Berlin Wall came down, we were told by the politicians and the media that the downfall of 'Communist Totalitarianism' meant the end of global military conflict, and made the world safe for peaceful trading, free enterprise, and economic growth. Today the world economic crisis is there for everyone to see, with the collapse of the Asian tigers and dragons, of Russia and Brazil, and the growing recession in the world's leading economies. Those promises of 'globalised' economic prosperity look ridiculous today.
As do the promises about world peace. Since the collapse of the eastern bloc we have seen more, not less military conflict in the world. In 1991 we had the war in the Gulf and the beginning of the war in ex-Yugoslavia, and both areas are still wracked by war at the end of the decade. The situation has been the same in Africa, even if the generalisation of the conflicts has reached a new level in the last year.
Local conflicts and the role of the great powers
The ruling class, ever anxious to hide the true nature of its system, has tried throughout this decade to explain each aughout this decade to explain each area of conflict in its own local terms. Wars in Africa are due to old tribal hatreds, and the same is more or less true for the Balkans and Ireland. The hatred between India and Pakistan is the result of religious differences, as is the fighting in Afghanistan. And so on. The added advantage of these explanations is that when the major world powers intervene directly in these conflicts, it makes it easier to present their intervention as being motivated by a concern to impose a bit of reason and humanity on these crazily outdated conflicts.
But as the conflicts become more and more widespread, it becomes harder and harder to deny that there are common features to them. Thus, The Guardian of March 6 accompanied its inquiry into the wars in Africa with a 'What can be done' piece, analysing how the impossible burden of debt weighing on Africa has led to the break-down of the economic and social fabric, fuelling the violent rivalries that are tearing these countries apart.
This is closer to the truth: war and militarism are indeed aggravated by the descent of the economy into the abyss, and it has long been a policy of the centres of world capitalism to push the effects of the crisis onto the more peripheral areas of the planet. In fact, at the economic level, Africa has more or less been abandon has more or less been abandoned to its fate. And in a deeper, historic sense, the omnipresence of war in this century is the most telling proof that capitalism, as a mode of production, has reached a total impasse.
But particular wars are not the automatic product of a particular degree of economic crisis. Indeed, war in the twentieth century has more and more detached itself from purely economic considerations. What it expresses above all is the jockeying for strategic advantage between the great capitalist powers who have divided up the planet. The imperialist nature of war in this period also determines the conflicts between local capitalist rivals. In short, all of today's wars are imperialist wars.
Hiding the imperialist nature of war
Ever since the first world war - whose capitalist/imperialist nature was more obvious, and which provoked a world wide proletarian revolutionary movement - the bourgeoisie has been trying to conceal this reality from the exploited. It presented world war two as the product of a fight between two systems - democracy and fascism. It presented the Cold War in a similar way, only this time 'communism' (in fact, Stalinist state capitalism) took the place of fascism. The ideology of the ruling class could not deny the reality of the conflict betweethe reality of the conflict between the American and Russian blocs, but it could at all costs seek to prevent its capitalist and imperialist nature being understood.
With the collapse of the imperialist bloc around the USSR, there could be no more myths about part of the world being 'non-capitalist'. In the new situation, imperialist rivalries didn't disappear. They merely followed new fault lines, as the USA's former allies began to contest its authority more and more. And just as during the cold war most of the conflicts were fought as proxy wars through local allies (Korea, Vietnam, Middle East, Africa, etc) so in the 'new world order' the great powers have fed local conflicts to further their particular interests. The war in ex-Yugoslavia has typified this: at different stages, we had Serbia being backed by France, Russia and Britain; Croatia and the KLA by Germany; Bosnia by the USA. The same story in Africa where the Americans have backed Islamic fundamentalists against the French in Algeria, while the French have backed the Islamic regime in Sudan against Christian rebels supported by the USA and Britain. During the genocide in Rwanda the French supported the Hutu death squads and America and Britain backed the Tutsis. By the same token, the principal target in the USA's attacks on Iraq has not been Saddam and his almost exhauen Saddam and his almost exhausted economy. Saddam has again and again been used as a whipping boy to prove that America is the world's supercop, to warn its great power rivals that no one can mess with the US.
In short, the wars ravaging the world are not simply the result of local nationalist rivalries, nor of the misfortunes unleashed by the world economic crisis, even if both these are real factors. They also have to be understood as the result of growing rivalries between the great imperialist powers, even if this aspect remains largely hidden by all the talk of 'humanitarian' intervention.
At present there is no rival bloc to stand up to the US, so there is no short-term threat of world war. But this does not make the world situation any less dangerous. In the period of the two blocs, there was a certain restraint imposed on local antagonisms by the needs of the bloc. Today the slogan is 'every man for himself': not only are the USA's former allies defying the big boss and dabbling in all kinds of contradictory intrigues and alliances, but the third and fourth rate imperialisms are more and more cocking a snoot at the big powers and going their own way. The escalation of the war in the Congo, where neither France nor America have succeeded in keeping control over the local states and factions, expresses this very clearly.
Capitalism is sinking into a global morass of chaos which can devastate entire continents without actually reaching the stage of world war. And despite the reassuring propaganda of the bourgeoisie, the great powers, the so-called 'western allies', the British, French, Germans, and Americans, do not constitute a civilised barrier to the spread of all this horror across the world and towards the very centre of the system. On the contrary, their role in Africa, ex-Yugoslavia or Iraq shows that they are the main fomentors of chaos and war. And this is above all true for the principal guardian of new world order, the world's gendarme, the USA: less and less able to mobilise the other big powers behind it, it is compelled, as in the Desert Fox operation, to go it alone, in flagrant disregard for the formalities of the UN or even NATO. The US has now become the principal exponent of the philosophy of each for themselves.
For the working class, the sober recognition of the dangers facing mankind should not lead to despair, but to the growing understanding that the war and barbarism now sweeping the world can only be ended when workers' struggles develop into a revolutionary attack on the very heart of the capitalist beast. WR, 6.3.99