The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

International Situation:
Pandemic, Economic Chaos, Military Clashes, Threats of War

Oct 29, 2021

The following is a translation of a text that the French Trotskyist organization Lutte Ouvrière published in issue #220 (December 2021-January 2022) of its journal, Lutte de Classe (Class Struggle).

Capitalism and the Management of the Covid Pandemic

International relations both reflect and are dominated by the chaos of the capitalist economy in crisis.

The pandemic and the way governments have managed it illustrate the increasingly acute contradictions of the capitalist social organization. The evolution of capitalism itself binds economies and peoples into a whole that implies the need to organize society on an international scale; at the same time, it offers humanity the means to do so. And yet we see nationalistic tendencies in both thought and deed.

There are so many contradictions. Scientific and technological progress have allowed us to rapidly find the means to combat Covid but part of humanity is refused those means. A half dozen pharmaceutical trusts have the capacity to produce and distribute vaccines on an international scale but the capacity to plan on such a scale doesn’t stop them from competing just as ferociously with one another.

Private ownership of the means of production and the existence of national states combine to make it impossible for the vaccine to be something for the good of all humanity.

The pandemic and the sense of a common menace offered the governments in developed countries—those with a health system—an opportunity to impose national discipline under state authority. They used that opportunity in different ways, but the collective nature of the threat—the virus affecting the whole of the human race—has changed nothing in the class nature of the state, which remains the instrument of the bourgeoisie. The measures imposed on the population by the state, even when they are partially accepted, basically serve the interests of the dominant class.

It is also in the name of the fight against the circulation of the virus that states strengthened national barriers between peoples. Some did it “softly,” merely prohibiting or making travel from country to country more complicated. Others simply added health reasons to all the others that they use to justify the installation of barbed wire around their country to prevent migration.

Nothing better illustrates the contradictions of globalization under the aegis of capitalism than the claim that the pandemic could be stopped by national isolation, which is, of course, impossible. The “war against the pandemic” saw a surge in national egoism, with some states acquiring stocks of vaccines to the detriment of others, or refusing to recognize vaccines manufactured by others, etc. Above all, it widened the gap between imperialist and poor countries. In poor countries, only the ruling strata have access to vaccines, usually by traveling to more developed countries.

It is precisely the scientific and technical progress of humanity, its increasing capacity to measure the damage caused by the capitalist economy, by its crazy race for profit and its disastrous effects on nature, which have placed ecological problems at the center of public debate. More and more people understand that the most important of these problems, global warming and dwindling biodiversity, require international cooperation.

Natural disasters remind humanity that it is one big, indivisible entity, part of a wider group, that of living animals and plants. It is not simply human society but life itself that is threatened by this predatory form of economic organization.

Although this awareness is emerging, its only materialization so far has been useless and verbose international conferences like COP26. Here again, private property and national states constitute insurmountable obstacles to the pooling of the extraordinary means invented by human intelligence. Those obstacles make it impossible to take and implement decisions corresponding to collective needs.

Those who, in the environmental movement, are sincerely concerned about the future of the planet (and are not just using the green label to serve their political ambitions) are discouraged by the inaction of the major states. They have no alternative to offer but a call to individual consciousness. That choice is yet another way of delaying the emergence of the collective awareness that mankind needs to destroy the very foundation of the capitalist economy: private ownership of the means of production and the race for profit.

Unable to embrace solutions to social and environmental ills that would call into question its fundamental creed—the search for profit—capitalism in crisis pushes the defects of its social organization to an absurd degree: the “every man for himself” mentality adopted by individuals and peoples, the rise of the most aggressive forms of nationalism, the law of the jungle. This means that the most powerful dominate the weakest, the imperialist bourgeoisie dominates all the peoples of the globe.

The Superpowers of Today: United Against Peoples but in Competition with One Another

Complicit in subjecting peoples to their domination, the imperialist powers remain rivals. The recent submarine affair between France and Australia, or, more precisely, between French and U.S. imperialism, provided an eloquent illustration. It shows that their relations are based on a balance of forces, a power game in which a second-rate imperialism like France is reduced to verbal protests. The cancellation of a huge sales contract, worth tens of billions of euros, was deplored by French leaders; but what they resented above all was the brutal announcement of AUKUS, a new alliance in the Pacific between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. This was hard for France to swallow. After all, it still claims to play a major role in that part of the world, given its numerous possessions in the Pacific Ocean, including so-called French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna. The announcement was a brutal reminder that the U.S. can treat France as a mere vassal, with not even the appearance of respect.

The same “love / hate” relations between American imperialism and French imperialism, which are allies and rivals at the same time, is especially visible in Africa, in the former French colonial empire. Heads, they are allies: their relations are based on the U.S. sub-contracting the job of “global cop” to France in its African hinterland. The deal includes a French military presence, made possible by U.S. logistical support, in particular when it comes to deploying troops on the ground. Tails, they are rival imperialisms, fighting for access to natural resources and to existing or emerging markets.

A documentary broadcast on Arte (the Franco-German TV channel) spoke of a “second sharing out of Africa,” referring to the first sharing out at the Berlin Conference in 1884–1885, which saw European imperialisms agree on who would occupy and plunder what part of the African continent. As in 1884–1885, the struggle is not just about grabbing immediately exploitable resources—uranium, oil, iron, rare metals, etc. It is also about who gets to plant their flag on a territory, making it difficult for rivals to access it.

More generally, if the African continent is torn by never-ending wars between states or ethnic groups, it is not the resurgence of a distant past, of ancient tribal wars. Behind each conflict, directly or indirectly, there are rivalries between trusts, between imperialisms, and the maneuvers of clandestine services. All this is concealed, in particular by the secrecy inherent in the way capitalists conduct their business. Public opinion and even the bourgeois circles who claim to be “well informed” only see the tip of the iceberg—and maybe not even that!

The Belgian daily Le Soir (in its August 24, 2021 edition) described how the Rwandan army recently intervened in Mozambique to face jihadist armed groups. Why should Rwanda intervene in Mozambique when the two countries have no border in common? Part of the answer lies in the fact that, following the genocide of their ethnic group by the Hutus, the Tutsis reconquered power by building an army that was far more effective than most armies on the continent—whose military experience is in general reduced to oppressing their own people. The intervention of the jihadist groups, then that of the Rwandan army to bring some order back to the region, originated in the discovery of huge gas reserves in Mozambique. Another element in the picture was the rivalry opposing the Italian company Eni to the U.S. company Anadarco, and the French company TotalEnergy’s ambition to oust both of them.

What role exactly did those trusts play in the military moves? Only a limited number of protagonists could answer that question. One thing is for sure: Total was never going to make massive investments in a zone destabilized by uncontrollable armed groups.

European Imperialist States—Rivals Rather than United Partners

The second-rate imperialist states that make up the original core of the European Union share a common history. In order to survive economically, they had to join together, but it was impossible for them to do so entirely.

Given the size of their combined population, market and industrial power, the political leaders of these imperialist countries dream of the European Union becoming a strong economic power. However, their dream constantly clashes with the fact that their capitalists are all in competition with one another.

The economic crisis and the ups and downs in different sectors of the economy constantly test the complicated balance between rival powers within the European Union. Let’s take for example, the complex agreement between these countries on how much of each of the different forms of energy—coal, nuclear energy, hydroelectric power, wind power and solar energy—are to be distributed. The agreement is being called into question because of the sudden surge in the price of natural gas and oil, which was orchestrated by the major oil companies.

As a result, the 27 countries that form the European Union are divided. France and Spain have formed a sort of common front with the aim of reforming how the European system sets the price of electricity, where, as one journalist put it, "the most costly technology (natural gas) determines the wholesale price of electricity." Greece, Romania and the Czech Republic all agree with such a reform but Germany, the Netherlands and several other Northern European countries "prefer that the market regulates itself."

So now the European Union is divided into two opposing blocs based on their energy sources or simply their alliances.

The Jersey fishing dispute between France and the U.K. may seem trivial. But it isn’t trivial for the livelihood of the fishermen involved. And, more importantly, the fact that a British warship was sent into these fishing waters, even if only a show of force, indicates how tense relations are between two of Europe’s main imperialist powers. Plus, Brexit has had many other serious consequences, some of which have no real solution, like the issues surrounding Northern Ireland, which has one foot in the European Union through its ties with the Republic of Ireland, and the other in post-Brexit U.K. Others, like the disagreement over who should be policing the English Channel to prevent illegal immigration, are played out with the lives of migrants.

The Disputes That Divide European Institutions and What They Hide

The European Union hasn’t evened out the differences between the Western European imperialist countries and its poorer Eastern part and the Balkans. It has accentuated them. The economies of these poorer Eastern countries are dominated by German, French and Dutch trusts, which are in direct competition with American, British and Asian trusts. The domination by these trusts and how the populations feel about it give politicians in Eastern European countries the opportunity to use nationalist ideas, along with plenty of other reactionary and chauvinistic ideas, to oppose European institutions, as is the case in Poland and Hungary. The current political and legal disputes between Poland and the European Union over the primacy of national sovereignty or European laws are rooted in these relationships of domination.

In Hungary, a leader like Orban can all the more effectively engage in anti-immigrant demagoguery and present it as an illustration of national sovereignty—the axis of his objection to “Brussels bureaucracy"—as this demagoguery is largely shared by politicians across Europe. Orban put up barbed-wire fences along Hungary’s border with Serbia in 2015 and has already been imitated by the wall now being built along the border between Poland and Belarus. And we need not be reminded that the wall built by Spain around Melilla is much older (1996) than the one built by Orban or that the great powers of so-called civilized Western Europe have transformed the Mediterranean Sea and English Channel into deadly “barriers” in order to preserve their “Fortress Europe.”

In Eastern Europe, where peoples have mixed together for centuries, the governments’ growing nationalism has resulted in the increased oppression of national minorities. Some became minorities under the Treaty of Versailles and the Yalta Agreement, others through the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union (e.g. Russians in Ukraine and the Balkans; Hungarians in Romania, Slovakia and Serbia; Romanians and Hungarians in Ukraine, etc.). Their oppression is mostly limited to different forms of discrimination, notably in terms of education rights and the right to use their language for administrative purposes. But sometimes the oppression is more violent, as is the case for the Roma population.

In this region, having many different states doesn’t generally mean more freedom for minorities. On the contrary, it aggravates their oppression. The horror and bloodshed in the splitting-up of Yugoslavia shows in a negative way that a federal state is necessary, with the same rights for all the different peoples—an idea that for a long time was defended by the labor movement.

The oppression of national, ethnic or religious minorities is one of the fundamental characteristics of this world dominated by imperialism. It can only get worse during times of crisis.

While in many countries the oppression of minorities pushes them to migrate, like the Rohingyas in Myanmar for example, in others it sparks revolt against the central state as in Ethiopia. It’s a powerful factor of instability and destabilization in many regions around the world.

Disruption and Decomposing States

The disruption is permanently reflected in a high number of local and regional conflicts that devastate people and communities. These local conflicts lead directly to the intervention of regional powers (Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia) which, even if they are not initially manipulated by imperialist powers, sooner or later become their instruments.

The economic crisis is the direct cause of the current decomposition in the Lebanese state. It is aggravating many other disruptive forces, which were at the origin of the rivalries between French and British imperialism.

Whether ethnic or religious, these disruptive factors do not exist in Haiti. The state apparatus there is riddled with corruption, much to the benefit of armed gangs and against a background of endless poverty for the masses. The Haitian state’s official armed body, its state apparatus and its police are being replaced, progressively but violently, by private armed groups that thrive on robbery, kidnapping and blackmail. And this descent into the abyss is taking place not far from Florida, a region where the wealth of the bourgeoisie of the biggest imperialist power in the world is the most apparent.

From the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan to the war in Yemen by way of the simultaneous and successive wars that are tearing the Middle East and Africa apart, local and regional conflicts are plunging a whole section of humanity into suffering, death and destruction. This all results from imperialism’s domination over the world and is one of its major components. Not only can imperialism live quite happily with this, but it also uses it to maintain its domination. Its trusts gain from it by selling arms and munitions to the dominant elements of these countries. The corruption of local politicians helps trusts keep their hold on the riches. And pitting the dominated populations one against the other allows the imperialist powers to perpetuate their domination.

The imperialist world as a whole is a powder keg. Even more so in times of crisis when the existing tensions are aggravated. In addition, new tensions appear inevitably where there are oppressed masses being pushed into greater poverty. What has been happening in Sudan is a prime example.

What Spark Will Set off the Explosion?

The bourgeoisie is not only expecting it to happen at any time but is also preparing for it. Presenting the Soviet Union as the main enemy gave the imperialist leaders the pretext for their permanent arms race. Despite the dismembering of the Soviet Union, the arms race has never ceased or diminished. The imperialist powers have also continued their game of alliances and military pacts because every one of them sees a generalized conflagration as the inevitable future.

The British weekly The Economist devotes an article to “The number 1 European military power, France, [which] is preparing for the possibility of a high-intensity conflict between states.” It cites the man who is now the army chief of staff, Thierry Burkhard: “We really do have to prepare for a more dangerous world.” This means having what he calls “a toughening up” of the army. And he was pleased that “The Defense budget for 2019–2025 has been significantly increased to reach 50 billion euros annually at the end of that period, an increase of 46% compared with 2018," adding that "between 2010 and 2025, army equipment will have changed more than it did between 1970 and 2010.”

The article goes on to say: “The specter of a high-intensity conflict is now so widespread in French military thinking that the scenario has its own acronym—HEM ("Hypothèse d’engagement majeur" or “hypothesis of major engagement"). No adversary is named, but analysts mention not only Russia, but also Turkey or a North African country."

The same thing is happening on a much larger scale in the United States. The wars in Mali (for the French) and Afghanistan (for the U.S.) have really been no more than training exercises for the imperialist countries. Under the influence of the U.S., the major imperialist power, both military and diplomatic circles focus on a confrontation with China. This concern is widely reported by the world’s media.

A confrontation between two of the world’s most powerful states would be the start of a world war.

The China Sea, South-East Asia and its islands, starting with Taiwan—whose sovereignty is challenged—its straits, its major commercial routes, have become the planet’s danger spot. It’s also where two of the most powerful armies in the world are face to face. The press is almost unanimous in condemning “China’s aggression” and yet American warships are the ones right on China’s doorstep, and not the other way round. China is surrounded not only by American military bases, but also by a coalition of imperialist powers (Japan, Australia, the United Kingdom), with participating neighbors, the Philippines and India.

Following on from a headline in the Financial Times: “We have now entered Cold War 2.0,” there have been an increasing number of articles and publications recently which talk of “escalation.” In a recent book, Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a research director at the CNRS (France’s national scientific research center) in the field of strategy, asks the question: “China tomorrow: war or peace?” (Gallimard, 2021). The book does not of course answer the question but it gives a number of elements for thought. Some of them support the idea that the economic, diplomatic, and increasingly military competition between the two powers will lead inevitably to war. Others point to the fact that, since the confrontation between the U.S. and the Soviet Union did not lead to the third world war, there are even fewer reasons for it to do so between the U.S. and China, whose economies are so closely intertwined that conflict is unthinkable.

Let’s leave it to armchair strategists to develop hypotheses whose only link with reality is that they help to sell paper.

Despite the ever-stronger economic links between the U.S. and China, despite their industries, commerce and, above all, finance being interlinked—and in which the economic power of the U.S. is still dominant—war remains a possibility.

The powerful economic links between Great Britain and Germany on the eve of World War I, coupled with family ties between the ruling dynasties of Great Britain and Germany, did not stop the outbreak of war, which was crystalized around the opposition between the two imperialist powers.

In the relationship between the U.S. and China, the factor pushing to war is certainly not China, which is in a defensive position, but imperialism. War will break out either when it suits American imperialism or when it feels the need for it.

Contrary to World War I and, above all to World War II, there is no perceptible chain of events that allows us to predict how and when war might break out. But the imperialist bourgeoisie knows that it is inevitable and their chiefs of staff and their diplomats have never ceased to prepare for it. The media are already contributing to this by preparing public opinion for the eventuality.

Preparing public opinion is an important aspect of the strategic military preparation that is being carried out secretly by the chiefs of staff and behind the subdued language of diplomats, building alliances.

The previously quoted article in The Economist explaining how the French chief of staff prepares for war, mentions “working groups whose mission is to analyze the country’s ability to handle a high-intensity conflict” and goes on to say, "these groups are also studying such risks as ammunition shortages or the ability of society to resist, including whether or not citizens are ‘ready to accept a level of casualties that we haven’t seen since the Second World War,’ explains one of its members." Behind the cynicism is the cold determination of the bourgeoisie’s military servants.

For the people of Syria, Yemen, Somalia or Sudan, as for those in many African and Asian countries, war is already present. And no one can be sure that these wars, which are still local and regional, will not soon become the first stages of a future general confrontation. In the same way, the war in Ethiopia led by Italy from 1935 onwards or Japan’s invasion of Manchuria (1931) and then China (1937) were steps taken long before September 1, 1939.

War Is Imperialism’s Way of Life.

In the struggle against imperialism today, the activity of a revolutionary communist organization can essentially only be one of propaganda and explanation to the workers and militants. It consists in explaining that, beyond daily exploitation, the imperialist bourgeoisie’s domination, which is already behind a multitude of local and regional wars, carries within itself the seeds of a third world war. Only the overthrow of the bourgeoisie’s power can put an end to imperialism and avert the catastrophe that threatens to strike all humanity on an unprecedented scale, even compared to World Wars I and II, with respective death tolls of 18 million and 50 million people.

But as well as propaganda, it is also important in the bustle of everyday life to take the opposite stance from that of the bourgeoisie, its politicians and its media, by fighting not only chauvinism and xenophobia but also patriotism, i.e., any idea of class collaboration, common interests between the exploiting class and the exploited. There can be no common interests between those who are preparing a catastrophe for humanity and those who will be its victims! Abandoning internationalism is the biggest sign of betrayal of the proletariat.

In the Transitional Program, written in 1938, just one year before the start of the Second World War which had in fact already begun, Trotsky wrote: "The bourgeoisie and its agents use the war question, more than any other, to deceive the people by means of abstractions, general formulas, lame phraseology: “neutrality,” “collective defense,” “arming for the defense of peace,” “struggle against fascism,” and so on. All such formulas reduce themselves in the end to the fact that the war question, i.e., the fate of the people, is left in the hands of the imperialists, their governing staffs, their diplomacy, their generals, with all their intrigues and plots against the people.

Some of the “lame phraseology” may no longer seem relevant. Some will perhaps be recycled. The intellectuals who serve the bourgeoisie will invent new phraseology that is just as misleading. When the threat of generalized war materializes, the proletariat will inevitably be surprised and misled, dragged along behind its leaders as it was at the start of World Wars I and II. There have already been examples of mounting anti-Chinese violence in the U.S.

The future of the proletariat and of humanity will depend on the speed with which it rediscovers its class consciousness and its role in the transformation of society. Once war has started, this class consciousness can only do what Lenin wrote: “Turn imperialist war into civil war.”