Polemic with the CWO: Imperialist conflict or capitalist 'peace'?

Printer-friendly version

The ideology of globalisation has generated many myths - as much by its ‘opponents’ as by its advocates. In particular there is the idea that multinational corporations are out of the control of nation states and can move capital to wherever they can make the most profit, regardless of the local circumstances. Ralph Nader wants to save capitalism from the big corporations. Noam Chomsky denounces unaccountable private power and the international institutions which impose the ‘Washington consensus’ of ‘neo-liberalism’. The power of ‘international capital’ (which can be used to mean the US, or big corporations, or the biggest powers, or just an abstract ‘evil’) is presented as being so great that it can even overcome the drive of national capitals towards war. In the words of a leftist group, the “pillage” of the poorest countries continues, not in the same way as the 19th century, but with “the urbane international banker replacing the colonial soldier and tax collector” (Workers Liberty, July 2000). To back up this view that the big global corporations now rule the world, it has been said that t has been said that ‘no two countries with a McDonalds have ever gone to war’.

Reality lies elsewhere. Not just because the handful of McDonalds in Belgrade did not prevent the bombing of Serbia by US-led forces, nor simply because of the sheer number of imperialist conflicts either in progress or simmering across the globe. Since the start of the twentieth century, the marxist current has developed its understanding of the intimate relation between the concentration of national capital in the hands of the capitalist state, and the tendency for all states to be pushed into pursuing imperialist policies. This was analysed at the time of the First World War by revolutionaries such as Lenin, Bukharin, Luxemburg and Gorter. They all demonstrated the tendency towards state capitalism, where all enterprises follow the dictates of the national state, and the tendency towards imperialist conflict, all within a capitalist system that had reached its historic limits once it covered the planet. If ‘globalisation’ means anything, it’s what capitalism achieved at the beginning of the 20th century, by creating a world economy. It did not remove the basis for imperialist conflict, as Kautsky argued with his theory of ‘ultray of ‘ultraimperialism’, (“the joint exploitation of the world by internationally united finance capital in place of the mutual rivalries of national finance capitals”, as Lenin cited Kautsky in Imperialism, the highest stage of capitalism, 1915). No, it brought these conflicts to a veritable paroxysm.

Today, at the start of the 21st century, while much has changed - imperialist blocs have come and gone, forms of state control have changed - the essential framework established by the marxist movement has been verified by history.

The influence of globalisation myths

Unfortunately, while the ICC is convinced of the validity of the marxist framework for understanding today’s imperialist conflicts, this is not shared throughout today’s proletarian political milieu. In particular, the Communist Workers Organisation, and the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party of which it is a part, have, in recent years, made a number of concessions to globalisation ideology.

In the 1997 revision of the IBRP’s platform we read that imperialism as a process “recognises no state frontiers and commands no national loyalties from the indigenous bourgeoisie of the peripheral zones. These latter are part of an international capitalist class and are just as enmeshed in the machinations of international finance capital as the bourgeoisie of the traditional capitalist metropoles.” The conclusion drawn from this is that “the modern capitalist state is national only in the sense that it is dominated by the bourgeoisie of a certain nationality. In other respects it remains an agent of international capital and the particular imperialist grouping to which it is presently allied.” (Revolutionary Perspectives 14, p28). While initially it did not seem that this applied to a major power such as Britain, this is not now so clear. In RP 19 they write: “Globalisation has further made protection of national interests virtually impossible for a single second order state such as Britain. These can only be protected by a larger grouping of states. The actual nature of ‘National Interests’ has also changed. Globalisation of production has produced such a penetration of foreign capital that it is no longer shat it is no longer strictly correct to speak of ‘British Capital’ and British Capital’s ‘interests’” (RP 19, p 29)

The danger is that, in doing away with ‘British Capital’, the CWO remove the basis for the very existence of British imperialism. For the IBRP “the WTO [World Trade Organisation] is part of the club run by the richest capitalist powers and their multinationals. Its purpose is to oversee the pulling down of any national barriers that might impede the creation of a true global economy for today’s giant monopolies” (Internationalist Communist 18). The role of such as the British state has changed as “governments now find that the way to defend the interest of the national capital is to play the role of broker and creator of political and social stability for international finance capital” (Revolutionary Perspectives 17). It appears that British national capital (if it exists at all) is only a facilitator for unidentified (but probably US dominated) international capital. Logically, this would undermine any foundation for British imperialism.

Conflict in Ireland. Or not.

Any analysis has to be tested in practice. The ICC’s insistence on the break-up of the western bloc following the collapse of the bloc once dominated by Russia, the end of the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the US, the pursuit of an independent imperialist orientation by Britain, and the retaliation by the US, give a framework for understanding the events of recent years in Northern Ireland. In particular, the Good Friday Agreement has broadly benefited the US at the expense of British imperialism, which has put forward many obstacles to its imposition.

For the CWO, what’s been going on in Northern Ireland has involved rational decisions, based on almost exclusively economic considerations, made by powers almost without conflicting interests. In RP 9 (winter 98) they identify a coincidence of US and British interests in the unfolding ‘peace process’. “The US was decisive in originating and maintaining the process... A major aim is to expand investment opportunities... The British state wishes to disentangle itself from its military commitments in Ireland” (p6).

In RP 11 they insist that “the economic motives for Britain to cut itself free of the burden of Northern Ireland are obvious and far outweigh any benefits she might derive from holding onto the province” (p15). Delving into demography, they see the ‘obvious’ implications of the erosion of the Protestant majority and argue that “the more farsighted leaders of Unionism can see this and the majority of their supporters have now concluded that greater co-operation and greater integration with the South is in their best interests” (p15) In this view the rational Unionists and their supporters have accepted integration with the South and only “the Neanderthal rump of Unionism around Paisley will not accept this”, (ibid).

The verdict of the CWO on the Good Friday Agreement is that “in practice Irish Nationalism and Ulster Unionism have been superseded. Both the British and Irish bourgeoisies see their interests as being better served by prostrating themselves at the feet of international capital. Their aim is primarily to create the best conditions for attractonditions for attracting international capital to both the Northern and Southern parts of the island. The godfather of this deal and the main beneficiary will be US imperialism” (RP 11, p13). The comrades admit that “under capitalism there can be no lasting peace” (ibid), but it is difficult to square that assertion with their view of Ireland, where the US is the main beneficiary, ‘international capital’ is happy with its investment opportunities, and the British and Irish bourgeoisies are grateful for any crumbs left on the table. While the CWO say that periods of peace “will become less frequent” and that “ultimately capitalism offers us ideologies which lead to the barbarism of war” (ibid p16) it is hard to see how that applies to Ireland where the bourgeoisie has ‘superseded’ the main nationalist ideologies.

In RP 15, they return to the inevitability of the ‘Anglo-American’ peace process. While acknowledging that the Unionists/loyalists oppose the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, this is a minor matter, as “the outdated Unionist resistance clinging to forms and relationships which no longer harmonise with the needs of imperialise needs of imperialism will be swept aside - only the timescale is in doubt” (p7). The implications of this remark are not dwelt on. The Unionist parties and loyalist terrorists are vital instruments of British imperialism in Northern Ireland, particularly against the possibility of an independent united Ireland. As Trotsky said in 1916 “an ‘independent’ Ireland could only exist as an outpost of an imperialist state hostile to Britain”. To say that unionist resistance will be inevitably swept away by the US is to imply that Britain is incapable of defending its interests in its own backyard.

Possibilities for ‘normalisation’

As time has passed the CWO have become more aware of the ‘obstacle’ of Unionism. In RP 18, while they see a narrow majority of the Official Unionists following the Good Friday Agreement, they acknowledge that “this is a very fragile arrangement and the position could collapse into chaos” (p29). But having used the awful c-word, which puts in doubt the smooth running of the US operation, they still insist that “the bourgeoisie, no matter how bigoted, invariably act ited, invariably act instinctively to maintain their own interests… the ‘hidden hand’ of profit-rates... is more than capable of countering residual attachments to the Union Flag” (ibid). If “dissident” Unionists don’t recognise what’s in their interests, then “immense pressure” will be brought to bear on them. What form would this pressure take? A strong lecture to Mr Paisley on ‘how to better recognise where your interests lie’ or maybe something more forceful?

No, the reason that the so-called ‘dissidents’ act the way they do is not because of ‘bigotry’ or ‘backwardness’, but because the disruptive actions of many in the loyalist camp serve the interest of British imperialism. Marxist analysis is a very concrete affair. If you examine the statements and activities of the Unionist parties, the loyalist terrorists and the British state in Northern Ireland, you’ll find that they are not identical. This either means that they have different interests to defend, which neither the CWO nor the ICC have ever suggested, or that they are different expressions of the defence of British imperialism’s interests. This is the ABC of marxism: idC of marxism: identifying the different forces in society and how their interests are advanced. After the Omagh bombing, for example, the CWO rightly talk of a “victory to the ‘forces of democracy’ - i.e to the capitalist state” (RP 12, p2). But, in starting the article, they describe the Omagh bomb as “pointless savagery” as if the devastating effect of a car bomb could not serve the interests of the ‘rational’ forces in capitalist society. In terms of the interests of the capitalist state it wasn’t “pointless”. Regardless of who exactly planted it, it helped to strengthen the state’s repressive apparatus.

In RP 18, the CWO repeat what they described in RP 15 as the central features of the “convergence” between US and British interests:

“ - The preparedness of the British bourgeoisie to abandon the state structures established in the early 1920s

- The desire to demilitarise the situation and to ‘normalise’ investment opportunities in an aopportunities in an area of low wages and a divided working class heavily imbued with varieties of bourgeois ideology.

- The absence of any significant imperialist power with the desire or ability to manoeuvre against the USA/Britain in the area

- The co-option of the bourgeoisie in the Irish Republic into the process

- The full agreement of the main Loyalist terrorist organisations - unsurprising given their links to the British state - to support the imperialist ‘peace’ process.” (p28)

The vision presented here is alarmingly close to the dominant one presented in the media in Britain. Press and TV say that, with sectarian prejudice put to one side, it has been possible, with the help of the US, to embark on a ‘peace process’ that will make Northern Ireland ‘normal’. The only problems are the dissidents and terrorists, but they have been marginalised by the others who are doing their best for ‘peace’. For the ’. For the CWO, the bourgeoisie, particularly the US, want to demilitarise the situation and to normalise investment opportunities. The only problems come from the outdated Unionists, and the US will marginalise them if they get out of hand. The CWO have crossed no class lines, but their analysis echoes strongly the propaganda of the bourgeoisie. For the capitalist media what has happened in Northern Ireland is the triumph of rational people in the pursuit of ‘peace’. For the CWO it is the triumph of rational capitalists in pursuit of profit.

Polemics should be used to clarify

It should be underlined that throughout their intervention the CWO have not neglected the wider imperialist picture. They have for some time asserted how “the bourgeoisie in both Britain and Ireland are caught, in more than the geographical sense, between a German-led Europe and their old American links” (RP 18, p29). While this is true, the comrades seem to think that the dominance of the US and Germany is so overwhelming that the lesser powers are no longer capable of struggling in defence of their own interests.

Britain is undeniably a 2nd-rate power, but still very much an imperialist force defending its interests in many regions across the planet. One of the main priorities of the dominant faction of the British bourgeoisie is how to do this independently of other powers, particularly the US. There is still a fundamental tendency towards the formation of imperialist blocs, and there are substantial elements within the British bourgeoisie that advocate a pro-US orientation; this has provoked a long history of tensions within the ruling class in Britain. But, for revolutionaries, identifying the main tendencies within the bourgeoisie is an important task, no matter how tedious it might seem. Class consciousness is not just a self-consciousness, it also means ‘know your enemy.’

In RP 18 the CWO refers to the “ICC’s ‘topsy-turvy’ interpretation of history” (p29) on the question of Ireland. They say that it is “obsessive” to see the dominant faction of the British bourgeoisie having an independent orientation. When they say that Britain is ‘caught’ between Germany and America, they are at least right in identif right in identifying the only two powers who, ultimately, have the capacity to dominate an imperialist bloc. What they miss out is the material reality that drives British capital to try and defend its own interests, against the encroachments of other major imperialisms.

They also criticise us for seeing “the Irish Republicans as reliable clients of the US bourgeoisie against the British state.” ‘Clients’ is the CWO’s word - we have tended to describe Sinn Fein and the IRA as pawns, agents of US imperialism. In the CWO’s analysis, their assertions point to most (or all?) forces in Ireland serving the interests of the US, the “main beneficiary” of the ‘peace process’. Yet the CWO seem to suggest that the mainstream republicans are ‘unreliable’ when, in practice, of all the different groupings, Sinn Fein and the IRA have been the most keen to stick to the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday Agreement, the best defenders of the ‘Pax Americana’.

So, when the CWO paraphrase our position as seeing that “‘part of the British state’ is now an agent of thes now an agent of the US and an irreconcilable opponent of the British bourgeoisie” (RP 18, p29) they are shocked by our “peculiar method”. Yet what could be more straightforward. Sinn Fein have ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, which is an organ of British imperialism (albeit one taking a form forced on it by the US). So long as Britain and the US do not have shared interests then Sinn Fein will be “irreconcilable” to British interests at certain levels, while still prepared to implement policies for the Executive that satisfy capitalism’s needs in areas like Health and Education. It is difficult to know what most offends the CWO: that we identify British capital as defending its own interests, or suggest that the British state is not merely a conduit for ‘international finance capital’. And as for the IRA, do the CWO want us to believe that this republican faction is an instrument of something other than US imperialism? And if so, what?

The ICC’s analysis of Ireland is an attempt to identify the contradictory and antagonistic forces involved in the situation. When the CWO say that some Unionists are far-sighted enough to appreciate the necessity for a United Ireland, or that the Ireland, or that the British government wants to disentangle itself from Ireland, we disagree. We have consistently shown that the Unionists continue their virulent defence of the link with Britain, and that British governments (and oppositions) have not for a moment flinched from upholding the Union.

We will continue, at every opportunity, to insist on what the groups of the communist left have in common: the shared heritage, the basic positions of principle. It remains the case that the CWO and the ICC are the only groups in this country who consistently denounce all the bourgeois gangs involved in the carnage in Ulster, and who defend an internationalist orientation for the working class. At the same time, our differences in the analysis of an evolving situation do have important implications. The ICC has identified the tendency toward an imperialist free-for-all, and shown how the antagonism between the US and Britain lies behind the conflict over the ‘peace process’. The CWO denies there is any real conflict as “British and American interests are able to accommodate to each other” (RP 18, p29). Where the ICC has tried to demonstrate what the period following the break-up of the blocs has meant in terms of meant in terms of the intensification of imperialist antagonisms, the CWO has clung to a view of the rational bourgeoisie examining the state of its accounts in order to determine imperialist policy - in so far as any nation can even be called imperialist. For us this approach makes dangerous concessions to the bourgeoisie’s campaigns about globalisation, a central aim of which is to mask the reality of imperialist conflict in the period since the disappearance of the blocs. Globalisation ideology repeats Kautsky’s fantasies of a world unified and pacified by the pursuit of commerce. Real life demonstrates that since the collapse of the blocs imperialism has increasingly employed military force, countries have fallen apart or are divided by warring factions, and the bourgeoisie has more and more resorted to archaic and religious ideology in the reinforcement of nationalism. Capitalism is not calmly putting aside its divisions and proceeding with the rational process of capital accumulation. It is driven by the economic crisis into increasingly destructive imperialist conflicts, which only the revolutionary struggle of the working class can prevent from escalating into total barbarism.

Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Political currents and reference: 

General and theoretical questions: 

Recent and ongoing: