Nov 3, 2018
The following article is a translation of a text adopted by Lutte Ouvrière’s Congress; it was published in the monthly journal of the French Trotskyist organization, Lutte de Classe, issue #196, December 2018-January 2019.
The persistence of tensions in international relations is the expression of the length and deepening of the capitalist crisis.
Long gone is the time when, as the Soviet Union fell apart, the political leaders of the great powers and the scribblers at their service announced a peaceful future – and even, for the most stupid soothsayers, the “end of History.”
At the time, opposition between the two blocs concealed the fact that the imperialist world order was constantly being challenged due to the very nature of that order, based on the oppression of peoples and, even more fundamentally, on capitalist exploitation and competition.
The Soviet Union was presented in the West as the main disruptive element for the world order. In fact, the bureaucratic leadership was precisely one of its guardians, even while the bureaucracy tried to preserve its own interests within that order.
A quarter of a century after the Soviet Union disappeared, international relations have not eased at all.
Clashing interests between the imperialist powers themselves are now plain to see. As for the relations between the imperialist powers and the under- or semi-developed majority of the planet, those relations have never ceased to be, nor to appear as, relations of domination.
The leaders of the second-rate imperialist powers are always calling for “multilateralism,” which Macron tries to champion.
By multilateralism, those people never mean the lesser capitalist nations’ right to have their say. The phrase expresses, in diplomatic terms, the whining of less powerful imperialist countries who submit to the diktats of the United States. Trump merely voices, with his characteristic brutality, the balance of power among the imperialist powers themselves.
For the moment, the trade war is more verbal than real, so great is the economic interdependence between capitalist countries.
The measures considered or already implemented by the United States to protect some of its industries are detrimental to others which benefit from foreign subcontractors or suppliers of raw material.
The mere announcement or the partial implementation of protectionist measures, however, has repercussions on investments and capital movements in the financialized global economy, and contribute to making the economy even more chaotic.
Trade wars – even if limited to higher tariffs, tougher customs barriers and import quotas – do heighten tensions within international relations. And those tensions are not limited to diplomacy.
Worldwide military spending reached $1.7 trillion in 2017. That represents $230 per person around the planet. Armament spending accounts for the bulk of it. That tremendous amount is rising, and far exceeds Cold War levels.
Armament production has always been a major aspect of capitalist development. “Militarism,” said Rosa Luxemburg, “accompanies all historical phases of capital accumulation.” Government orders for armament and military infrastructure have always served to expand the market of the capitalist companies, and, in many periods, they were its driving force. And in capitalism’s imperialist stage, to repeat Rosa Luxemburg’s assessment, “capital uses militarism ever more vigorously in order to assimilate, by means of colonialism and world politics, the means of production and the forms of labor in non-capitalist countries or layers.” That tendency is exacerbated by periods of economic crisis.
On a global scale, arms production and trade keep growing, and French imperialism is one of the world’s main arms dealers.
The arms trade contributes to the plunder of under-developed countries in favor of imperialist powers. It is a new form of triangular trade: the imperialist powers – and a few others – run their arms industries in order to sell to the leaders of under-developed countries the means to suppress their people. The people are made to foot the bill for the tanks, aircraft and state-of-the-art missiles which contribute to keeping up profits in militaristic industries. Astronomical armament spending by the state in many poor countries feeds the armament trusts and banks in the imperialist countries.
War has never ceased on the planet since the end of World War Two: military intervention by imperialist powers against dominated peoples, wars of rivalry between regional powers, or civil wars fomented by local oppressors against their own peoples. They are a constantly renewed outlet for capitalists in the armament industry, as well as a testing ground for their products. War-related industries represent a major part of the waste of the planet’s resources and of the creativity of the human mind.
Rather than devoting a growing part of humanity’s collective intelligence to improve the conditions of human existence and ensure a controlled future for the planet, that collective intelligence itself turns on humanity. As a sign both of man’s immense capacities and of their diversion from the interests of the human race, space was transformed into a military exercise ground, and now “cyberwar” is becoming one aspect of military strategy.
The generalized acceleration of the arms race is a serious indicator of rising tensions in the world. The threat of war is not just a possibility, resulting from the very nature of capitalism, it is a concrete eventuality – at any rate it is in the eyes of the political and military officials of the bourgeoisie.
It would be vain to speculate about which local war could become generalized.
The Russian aircraft shot down on September 17, 2018 above Syria by Russia’s own allies on the Assad side may have remained just an incident, so eager were the protagonists to minimize it; it is nonetheless emblematic of the situation in the Middle East, riddled as it is by a tangle of armed gangs, planes and missiles, emanating from the official Syrian army as well as rebels and/or Israeli, Russian, Turkish or American participants. This of course does not mean that any incident may become generalized, let alone result in a worldwide conflagration. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand could not have sparked the first World War if it hadn’t been for the imperialist powers’ clashing interests, which were far more important than the insignificant person of a Habsburg crown prince.
For the moment, it is impossible to identify a fault line as obvious as the one which, from 1933 onward, that is to say when the Nazis came to power, indicated not only the beginning of the march to war, but even the configuration of the sides that would clash.
The treaty of Versailles, which purported to end the first World War, at the same time announced the Second World War, as the Communist International denounced at the time. German imperialism, which had been the big loser, was driven in the context of the economic crisis to take its revenge and to recover its lost zones of influence.
History never repeats itself identically. The military escalation this time might consist in a widening of local wars, as has already in some sense happened in the Middle East.
Many areas of tensions are perpetuated around the world, and new saber-rattling occurs. Let us not forget, in Europe itself, the very recent wars in the Balkans, or the conflicts between states born out of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia and Ukraine in particular, or the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. On a far larger scale, India and Pakistan are still in a state of belligerence which, in Kashmir, periodically manifests itself in armed clashes.
The imperialist world order is constantly being challenged.
The reactionary trend, which manifests itself in the rise of the far right in several countries, especially in Europe, has just materialized in Latin America, with the electoral victory of Bolsonaro, who will be sworn in as president of Brazil on January 1, 2019. Brazil endured so many years of a ferocious military dictatorship serving as a puppet of imperialism and devoted to the wealthy, the big bourgeoisie and the landowning aristocracy – it has now elected this reactionary former paratrooper thanks to a significant segment of poor voters, even among former supporters of Lula.
The responsibility of the left in this regressive step is huge! The Workers’ Party of Lula and Dilma Roussef, which was in power for thirteen years, has disappointed and betrayed the hopes of the poor masses. After politically disarming them, it drove them towards their worst enemies. Faced with the economic crisis and its consequences, the reformist left in power did the dirty work and faithfully administered the affairs of the big bourgeoisie and imperialism. Once that work was done, an obscure far-right politician could pick up the prize. The military hierarchy, which is responsible for twenty years of a ferocious dictatorship, appears absolved from its crimes, and can even afford to pose as “guardian of the Constitution and of democracy.”
Let us also point out the responsibility of a large part of the far left, which, tailing after the Workers’ Party, supported it for a long time, instead of warning the exploited classes against a power which claimed to be on the workers’ side only to betray them for the benefit of the wealthy.
Regardless of the policies of the government to come, Bolsonaro’s electoral success already represents an immediate threat. In that country, where social relations are so violent, it will encourage armed gangs – the official gangs of the police as well as those in the favelas, or those of big landowners in the country – to take on those who challenge “their order”: trade-unionists, landless peasants, anyone who fights or who appears like an opponent of the regime.
In many poor countries, the reactionary trend manifests itself with the resurgence and, more and more often, the establishment of reactionary forces, ethnic or religious, to represent, contain, and dominate the latent opposition to imperialism.
The 1917-1919 revolutionary wave, which carried the proletariat to power in Russia, sent a shock wave through the oppressed countries in that epoch. The hopes aroused by that proletarian revolutionary wave crystallized around revolutionary Russia the many forms of revolt against imperialist oppression.
Once the revolutionary wave ebbed, Stalinism turned those hopes into illusions in radical nationalist movements on the international scale. For a time, in order to deceive their popular masses, these movements hid behind the flag of communism. A first generation of nationalist leaders, directly or indirectly educated at the school of Stalinism, like Mao Zedong, Ho-chi Minh or Kim Il-Sung, came to power and served as examples for a great number of disciples from the nationalist petty bourgeoisie, from Asia to Africa and Latin America, to contain, check and take the lead of their peoples’ revolts.
Once Stalinism had done its work, the radical petty bourgeoisie in oppressed countries rejected the very words of communism and socialism, and moved towards the most reactionary and anachronistic forms of nationalism. That evolution occurred over a number of years, through a number of emancipation and guerrilla wars, victorious or not, from Latin America to Africa (especially Algeria). The popular uprising against the Shah of Iran in 1979 was the first to triumph under the leadership of avowedly reactionary forces. Since then, the poor and oppressed part of the population on the planet has experienced many other ways in which a resurgent past has encroached on the present (religious fundamentalism, ethnic identity, sectarianism). Under their influence and, if victorious, under their leadership, the opposition to imperialism is at best sterile, and most often forges new chains for the oppressed.
Only the revival of revolutionary communism and of conscious struggles of the proletariat can give a favorable prospect to the struggles against imperialist oppression.
A few intellectuals, more or less aware of the worsening of international relations and the ensuing threat of wars, speculate pointlessly to guess the fault line around which the next global conflagration will break out.
Some notice that more than a quarter of a century after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Western side is coming together again under the leadership of the United States, rerunning a Cold War of sorts against Russia. Let us remember that the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) was invented against the Soviet Union. And NATO did not cease to exist when the USSR dislocated. After integrating the former Peoples’ Democracies, then the Baltic countries, NATO has never ceased to be active towards other countries born out of the break-up of the USSR, notably Georgia or Ukraine. NATO remains one of the tools to resume a “modernized” form of the U.S. containment policy against Russia.
Others see China as the main rival of the United States.
Ever since the victorious revolution that brought Mao’s regime to power, China has undeniably represented a problem for U.S. imperialism.
We do not intend to go through the evolution of relations between China and the United States during the past seventy years. Recent history has gone past the time when Mao’s regime claimed to embody “genuine communism,” opposed to the “revisionism” of Khrushchev and his successors. While still nominally communist, with a self-proclaimed communist party still at the head of the state, the Chinese regime has essentially given up on what gave it originality: its refusal to submit to domination by the imperialist powers.
Over the last thirty years, China has evolved from being a state-run economy closed to the outside world, into an economy that is relatively open to capital from the imperialist powers. While maintaining a dictatorial form, the regime allows – and even encourages – the accumulation of private capital.
China has managed to ensure a significant place for itself on the global market. Its integration into the capitalist world economy, however, took place mainly through the medium of that very state apparatus, which enabled it for a long time to resist domination by the imperialist powers.
No matter the policy and the language of its leaders, the Chinese state was never established by a proletarian revolution. It was always the tool to defend the political interests of its national bourgeoisie, even at times when it seemed cut off from it, when it defended the future general interests of that bourgeoisie against the particular interests of some of its members.
As a legacy of the Maoist past – or rather, of the popular, mostly peasant uprising that brought Mao to power – the resurgent Chinese bourgeoisie now has at its disposal a state apparatus capable of resisting some imperialist pressure. It is not so much its communist label, which nobody believes anymore – the imperialist powers least of all – which constitutes China’s original sin in the eyes of imperialism. It is the capacity of its state in a still largely underdeveloped country to resist imperialism.
Statism and centralization have allowed China to develop its economy and come to the forefront of the international stage today. That statism, based upon the largest population in the world, is what allows it not only to become a military and diplomatic power, but also to extend its influence over a number of poor countries, particularly in Africa, thus challenging the former colonial powers in terms of trade.
The project to revive the “silk road,” China’s growing economic presence in Africa, its military bases abroad, particularly in Djibouti, feed the fantasies of a Chinese imperialism threatening world peace. The threat to peace, however, does not come from China, but from imperialism, especially U.S. imperialism. Chinese battleships do not cruise off the coast of New York City or Seattle, but American ships do crisscross the China Seas.
And even though the Asian counterpart to NATO, the military alliance ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has been dissolved, China is still surrounded by a system of alliances led by the United States, including a large part of East Asia, from Taiwan to South Korea, the Philippines and Japan.
The evolution of the relationship between the United States and North Korea seems to be easing tensions in that area, which was the scene of a military conflict that almost led to a world war in 1950-53.
A legacy of the Korean war and, even more so, of the division of the world into two blocs, the North Korean regime, now a hereditary dictatorship of the Kim family, has been able to resist imperialist pressures while benefiting from its population’s anti-imperialist feelings.
Being located at the intersection of three great powers’ respective areas of influence – China, the Soviet Union, now Russia, and the United States – once appeared as a weakness, but now represents a strength for the leaders of the regime. The latest Kim descendant in power, Kim Jong-un, has tried – so far, successfully – to gamble on the acquisition of nuclear armament in order to assert his determination not to be bullied by the United States. This bluff was also aimed at his own population, as it enabled him to brandish a radical nationalism, while urging the population to make sacrifices. It is likely that he did it as a way of integrating into the imperialist order, while trying at the same time not to become its victim too much – somewhat like the Castro regime acted in Cuba. In the imperialist world, countries that appear weak are mercilessly crushed.
Time will tell if the gamble pays off. But once again, what guarantees the safety of the North Korean state is not so much its little atomic bomb as the fact that China, Russia, and even American imperialism have no interest – at least for now – in running the risk of a crisis that would automatically involve three great powers, without even mentioning Japan which would be on the front line. Despite the publicity about Trump and Kim Jong-un’s meeting, the region continues to be one of the most serious areas of tension on the planet.
The Middle East remains the center of huge tensions. The appetites of various powers for its riches, and their military interventions, have turned it into a permanent battlefield, against a backdrop of material destruction, retrogression, and suffering for the population.
The Syrian civil war seems to have entered its final stage with the regime’s assault on the province of Idlib, where the various rebel militias have been cornered, the bulk of them jihadist groups. The military offensive has been combined with negotiations between the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Turkey – seeking to have Turkey stop its support for those groups, eventually to let them into the country, probably along with a new contingent of refugees.
It seems the war will end with the Damascus regime taking back control of virtually all Syrian territory. Russia’s intervention, beginning at the end of 2015, has enabled it to stabilize its military situation, and has prevented the country from falling into the hands of militias, including those of the Islamic State, which would have meant an utterly uncontrollable situation, like those in Afghanistan or Libya. Russia has helped the United States rescue the imperialist order, even if it is out of the question for American leaders to thank Russia.
Russia’s intervention has kept Syria and the region from falling into complete chaos, but there is a price for the United States to pay – and, incidentally, for its European allies: Russia’s and Iran’s influence have been reinforced. The protests of American and European leaders under humanitarian pretenses, their warnings against Syria’s use of chemical weapons – alleged or real – do not stem from any concern whatsoever about the population’s lot. They are meant only to ensure the presence of Western powers in Syria and the region.
The imperialist leaders preferred to avoid their own direct military intervention in the Middle East, after their setbacks in Afghanistan and Iraq. They have temporarily relied on the Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq, which had their own reasons to fight the advance of jihadist militias, but the imperialist powers haven’t displayed any intention of recognizing the national rights of the Kurdish people.
Imperialism continues to rely above all on local powers such as Israel, but also Saudi Arabia and its allies.
The Saudi regime wants to assert the place of its country as a major regional power allied to the United States, particularly against Iran. It has cut ties with Qatar, accusing it of complacency toward Tehran, with which Qatar shares the exploitation of large oil and gas deposits. Saudi leaders still support jihadist militias present in Syria, and above all they continue to fight a war in Yemen that is disastrous for the populations, backed up by the Emirates. In this enterprise, they are openly backed by American imperialism and Trump in particular, but also more hypocritically by France. Under the pretense of opposing Iran’s growing influence, once again a whole country is being destroyed, carved up into zones of influence over which the various militias squabble, while the population is driven to distress.
Trump’s decision to scrap the Iran nuclear deal worked out by his predecessor demonstrates above all the will to curb the reinforcement of Iran and its influence. This oil-rich country, with a large, educated population, has been trying to pursue a relatively independent policy since the fall of the Shah’s regime. Restoring economic relations with Western countries, which the nuclear deal allowed, would strengthen it further. By deciding to scrap the deal, American imperialism imposes its own choices on its Western partners, but also on its local allies. Thus Turkey, which has been trying for a number of years to strike a political balance between Washington, D.C. and Moscow, is being pushed to break its relations with Iran, even though they are essential for its economy. Trump topped that with sanctions imposing tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports into the United States. However symbolic the gesture, given the insignificance of those imports, it is another indication to Turkey and the other regimes that American imperialism intends to remain the boss in the region.
Trump’s decision to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem was probably motivated to a large extent by considerations of domestic policy, such as satisfying the Jewish and, above all, the evangelical electorates. But it is also a way to brutally assert U.S. support for its most reliable allies in the Middle East. Trump does not even pretend to seek a balanced solution to the Palestinian question through a peace process that has long become a fiction. Thus, Netanyahu’s government and the Israeli far right are encouraged to be even more inflexible, and the arrogance of those who advocate continuing the colonization and annexation of the West Bank is bolstered. For the Palestinian people, the prospect of having their rights recognized and having their own state seems even more distant. In Gaza, the isolation of the territory and the punitive policies of Israeli leaders make the situation still more tragic for the population.
In Turkey, president Erdogan’s decision to call for an early election in June 2018 reflected his anxiety about the worsening economic situation and his fear of losing power if the election took place at the scheduled later time. He won the election, but he couldn’t avoid the economic crisis which resulted in the collapse of Turkey’s currency over the summer. On top of the lack of confidence in economic prospects, there is the new embargo imposed by Trump concerning relations with Iran, and tensions with the United States. After years of growth, sustained to a large extent by bank loans, capital is moving out of Turkey, causing a currency depreciation similar to what is occurring in other so-called emergent countries. Many companies, indebted in dollars or euros, are now bankrupt. The plummet in purchasing power and the increase in lay-offs bring about a rapid aggravation in the situation of the population. Erdogan’s dictatorship is unable to completely stifle working-class reactions.
Today, the worsening of the social situation is perceptible throughout the whole region. At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, Iran was shaken by a flare-up of revolt essentially among the popular classes. In Iraq, over the summer, the population in the Basra area rose against a situation that had become unbearable, and even took on the Shia parties and militias that control the region. Even in Jordan, a country that is not used to protests, demonstrations and strikes took place in June against the worsening of living conditions, and resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister. Wars, material destruction, and economic chaos bring about an aggravation of the situation for the popular masses throughout the whole region, in a way that can be dramatic. Nationalist, sectarian or religious escalation and clashes cannot suffice to silence that unrest, which is now manifesting itself on the terrain of class.
After seven years, the so-called “Arab spring” has led to a dead end. In Tunisia, instead of a revolution, the regime has merely undergone cosmetic changes, with at best a measure of new civil liberties, but no improvement in the social situation. The social situation is deteriorating in the three countries of the Maghreb (Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco), causing upheavals in some regions, while a part of the youth go into exile. In Egypt, the dictatorship of Mubarak has been replaced by that of al-Sisi, which is even tougher. In Syria, the attempt to challenge al-Assad’s dictatorship has resulted in a civil war such that the victory of the regime may now appear as a lesser evil. In Libya, the struggle against Gaddafi’s regime was followed by an imperialist intervention which, under the pretense of saving the population from being massacred, eventually led the country to chaos. Thus, Libya has become the scene of confrontations between militias behind which loom imperialist rivalries, notably between French and Italian imperialisms. In order to enforce their policies against the people across the whole region, the imperialist powers have backed the most reactionary forces, often running the risk of losing control over them.
New social explosions are inevitable. It is impossible to tell when and where they might break out, but in the absence of proletarian revolutionary forces striving to wrest political power from the local bourgeoisies and aiming to overthrow the imperialist world order throughout the region, they risk leading into new blind alleys.
While he was elected in 2016 on the promise to “make America great again,” Trump has distinguished himself essentially by his reactionary speeches. For decades, each American administration has pursued a policy further to the right than the previous one. But whereas until now previous presidents, whether Democrat or Republican, glazed their policies with a socially acceptable veneer, Trump brags about his reactionary policies, flaunting his racism and misogyny: by taking measures against women’s rights, supporting policemen who murder African Americans, abusing athletes who take a stand, nominating a man suspected of rape to the Supreme Court, openly supporting the arms lobby. He is not the first president to have separated immigrant children from their parents, but he is the first to boast about it. His administration is actually part of an ongoing rightward drift. But he rubber-stamps old racist and sexist attitudes. Thus, he encourages the far right and aggravates the divisions existing within the working class. He also conceals the degradation of the condition of the working class.
Beyond his political demagogy, Trump has primarily endeavored to serve the country’s wealthiest. At the beginning of 2018, Republicans pushed through a tax reform: taxes will be cut by some 1.7 trillion dollars over the coming decade. These cuts will be distributed unevenly: over 1.4 trillion will benefit big corporations and the richest 5% of the population – the remaining 300 billion will be shared between the other 95% of people. Like previous tax cuts – under Reagan, Bush, and Obama – these will fuel speculation and serve to enrich a minority.
Stock markets are beating records, and many bourgeois economists themselves regard stock prices as excessive. If a new stock market crash should happen in the coming period, the United States would be quite at a loss to bail out its banks as it did in 2008. The budget deficit rises year after year, and public debt is soaring. With all the ingredients for a new crash ready, leaders of the treasury and the Federal Reserve and some big capitalists may be concerned about the future, but Trump and the capitalist class as a whole remain quite confident: like the first-class passengers on the Titanic listening to the band play as the ship was sinking, expecting that they could depend on the lifeboats, while third-class passengers were sure to drown!
“America’s economy is booming like never before…. Jobless claims are at a 50-year low,” boasted Trump at the United Nations. And, yes, the official unemployment rate is 3.9%, at its lowest since 1969, and half the average figure in eurozone countries. But when unemployment was at 5-6% under Obama, Trump himself said that it was actually 28-29%, maybe 35%, even 42%.
In fact, the employment situation is not getting better. Since 2010 there have indeed been new hires. But a large number of workers are part-time and, despite working one or more jobs, are still below the poverty level. While the proportion of the adult civilian population in the labor force – which measures the ratio of the population in or looking for work – was 66% in 2008, today it is 62.7%. 24 million adults between 25 and 54 years old are unaccounted for. And they are not just mothers. The truth is that, while more and more old people have to work to supplement their meager pensions, a great number of people in the prime of life are marginalized, often after years of casual work.
Trump won the election by multiplying protectionist promises, trying to touch a popular electorate, which has been hit by massive job losses in industry for 40 years. Two years later, the midterm elections on November 6 may tell whether his policy has kept his electoral base intact. Those who, out of disgust with Trump and his policies, his lies, and the scandals surrounding his presidency, will vote Democrat may complicate the second half of his presidency. But pushing the Democrats closer to power will in no way erode the domination of the American bourgeoisie over its state.
For now, protectionist measures target mostly China, with which the American trade deficit has grown from 80 billion dollars in 2000 to 335 billion in 2017. A growing number of Chinese products are now subject to taxes and quotas to enter the American market. China retaliates, but it has limited means: it buys from the United States one third of the amount of goods and services that the U.S. buys from China. In other words, the United States has less to lose in a trade conflict. With Europe too, America’s trade balance is in deficit by around 100 billion dollars, and Trump, as a good servant of the interests of his country’s companies, would like to trim the claws of their competitors. He may avail himself of the fact that the states composing the European Union, while associated in a customs union, are at variance and in competition between themselves. He may also depend on the centrality of the dollar in international exchanges, which for instance compels big European companies to comply with America’s orders to leave the Iranian market. Ultimately, he also depends on the military might of the United States.
Among measures to defend the interests of the bourgeois in his country, Trump can boast that he obtained Canada’s signature, after that of Mexico at the end of August, on a revised version of NAFTA. While the new agreement is not so different from the original, it opens up Canada’s agricultural market to U.S. goods, increases the proportion of auto parts produced in those three countries compared to the number produced in Asia, and it introduces some clauses against “social dumping” in Mexico, which will protect neither Mexican nor American workers.
The policy of the Trump administration, ultimately, seems aimed to reinforce the American competitive position, rather than to engage in a real trade war. At this stage, for instance, many of the customs measures he announced are not enforced. While some capitalists may support higher tariffs, the American bourgeoisie as a whole does not want a trade war. Neither does the Democratic party, which represents that bourgeoisie just as much as the Republicans do. Michigan automakers may want to reduce the proportion of Korean or Japanese vehicles on their domestic market, but the bulk of them are made in the south of the U.S. Besides, American automakers are not willing to pay more for steel, be it “made in USA”! And they want to still be able to sell their cars in the rest of the world. The U.S. administration is being flooded with thousands of exemption applications from companies that do not want to buy more expensive steel or overtaxed aluminum. Even from China, a good deal of “imports” into the U.S. primarily feed into the profits of U.S. capitalists, like the iPhones assembled in China, whose proceeds are reaped mainly by Apple.
The United States has other weapons besides customs tariffs in any trade war. With most international trade carried out in U.S. dollars, the U.S. can consume more than it produces, then print money or go into debt to finance its trade deficit. Finally, while the United States has indeed lost 5.5 million industrial jobs, that is, 30% of the total, over thirty years, the country’s industrial production has gone up by 60% at the same time. Job losses are caused mainly by higher productivity and capitalist greed.
We don’t know whether Trump’s recent sallies on international trade, which were partly motivated by the November elections, could lead to an escalation of protectionist measures, whose consequences would be difficult to foresee. We do know, however, that workers have no more to gain from free trade, which is one side of bourgeois economic policy, than they do from protectionism, which is merely another side.
Over a quarter of a century after the end of the Soviet Union, its main component, Russia, is still struggling to find its place in a capitalist world in crisis. All the more so as the crisis is getting worse, and the exacerbation of rivalries between the great powers that dominate the world makes it less likely for “newcomers” – the BRICS, including Russia alongside China, India, Brazil and South Africa – to find their place in the imperialist sun.
In this sense at least, the economic and financial sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and the European Union since 2014, allegedly due to the annexation of Crimea, serve the same fundamental goal as other sanctions, notably against China, in a context of worsening trade tensions.
Even when Russia – temporarily, and for its own particular reasons – happened to be on the same side as the great powers in Syria, a latent cold war of sorts was always going on. What the Kremlin presented as the recognition of its leading status by the “international community” – that is, the Western powers – merely amounted to granting it the role of an auxiliary, if decisive, force in defeating ISIS. But once that was achieved, the United States and its allies endeavored to systematically oppose, even forcibly, Russia’s pretension of establishing influence in the region.
Not that Russia could represent a real threat for the imperialist order, but because at a time when the capitalist world is sinking in a crisis for which it sees no way out, the imperialist powers must strive perpetually to strengthen their grip on the whole world.
The Ukrainian president Poroshenko said just that when, at the end of September, he referred to his country as “NATO’s eastern flank” against Russia. Although Kiev is not – yet – a member of NATO, Washington, D.C. and its allies make strenuous efforts to uphold that anti-Russian regime, which they regard as a war prize for the West.
In response to the loss of Ukraine, the second most important former Soviet republic, the Kremlin orchestrated Crimea’s “return to the motherland” in 2014, and the secession of the industrial East of Ukraine, Donbass.
This tug of war between Russia and the West, via Ukrainian proxy, has already caused over 10,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands of refugees, and immense destruction; it is a festering abscess on the side of Russian and Ukrainian societies.
In Ukraine, this war is used to justify the nationalist tidal wave that is sweeping the country, which reinforces the far right, enables the rule of armed gangs on behalf of mafiosi-oligarchs, and takes corruption to a level beyond that of the disgraced presidency of Yanukovych. The regime has reached such a state of decomposition that, as new presidential elections draw near, some voices are calling for the restoration of a strong power in Ukraine, as Putin did in a Russia left in ruins by Yeltsin.
In Russia, the “return forever” of Crimea has served Putin in his enterprise of jingoistic intoxication. He has made it into a national celebration, flaunting Crimea as a trophy and a testimony to Russia’s recovered greatness, in order to bind the population under the yoke of the Russian bureaucracy, and to make it forget about its lot, or at least about wanting to change it.
That benefited Putin last March: running for a fourth presidential term, he was reelected hands down against a gallery of sham challengers, after pushing aside the only politician who might have been a match for him, the xenophobic lawyer Navalny, an ardent critic of corruption and champion of the market economy, which made him the darling of Russian petty bourgeois and Western media.
Soon after his electoral triumph and while the Kremlin was celebrating another success, hosting the football World Cup, Putin found himself, for the first time in two decades, confronted with social unrest when the authorities intended to push back the retirement age by five years for men and eight years for women.
Putin, who had not once alluded to that “reform” during his campaign, had it announced by his Prime Minister in June: if the din of the World Cup did not suffice to muffle the discontent, the unpopularity of the measure would backlash on its announcer. And as one can never be too careful, the Kremlin banned all demonstrations in the large cities hosting the games.
A trade-union petition calling to scrap the measure gathered three million signatures in a few days. Subsequently, despite the ban and the summer holidays, a succession of gatherings took place with thousands and even tens of thousands of people.
The minor trade unions and parties listed as the opposition, took turns organizing days of mobilization, but they never addressed the workers in the workplaces, let alone called them to strike, while the regime was attacking the working class as such. In the face of widely shared opposition to the reform, as Putin’s popularity ratings collapsed, those unions and parties never even pretended to spread the movement beyond an active, but limited, fraction of the population. Growing social and political unrest would have put them in a difficult situation vis-à-vis the government.
And at the end of the summer, when Putin posed as an arbiter above the fray and pledged to make marginal amendments to the reform, the unions and opposition parties immediately approved.
That marked the end of the movement. But there remains what some of those millions of men and women, who sympathized with the movement even if they couldn’t or wouldn’t take part in it, may have learned over those three months: notably that the “good czar,” his regime, and those whose interests he serves – the high bureaucracy and the oligarchs – were willing to “work them to death,” as handouts and placards denounced. Also, that there is an irreconcilable antagonism between “them” and “us”; and if they, the wealthy, the exploiters, and the parasites, have the state and organizations such as the ruling party United Russia at their service, what the workers lack most of all is a party to defend their political interests, the interests of their class.
The March 25, 1957 Treaty of Rome instituted the European Common Market, trying to overcome some of the consequences of Europe’s division into national states, which stifled their economies against their rivals endowed with vast territories, particularly the United States. More than sixty years later, the so-called “European construction” has given birth only to a pathetic runt, a ridiculous caricature of what the unity of European peoples could and should be.
If the competition between the imperialist bourgeoisies of Europe and of the United States hadn’t been exacerbated by the 2008 financial crisis, the European Union may have shuffled along. But it is precisely in times of crisis and heightened competition that the bourgeoisies of Europe would need to unite in order to resist more powerful rivals. And yet, not only do they suffer severely from the law of the strongest, that is the United States, but the so-called European construction is cracking up on all sides. Even the common currency, presented at the time of its creation as a decisive step, showed during the euro crisis that it was common in name only, and that speculative capital could play the euro of imperialist countries, France and Germany in particular, against the Greek, or even the Portuguese, and maybe tomorrow the Italian euro.
Since the 2008 crisis, the European Union has been caught between one crisis and the next. The financial crisis, although it started in the United States, impacted the European Union as much, and even more. There has been the euro crisis, the brutal crackdown on Greece, the challenges against Brussels by the leaders of the Visegrad group in eastern Europe, Brexit and its consequences, the so-called migrant crisis, that is to say the various but abject responses by European Union states refusing to take in the migrants: the facade of unity is disintegrating rapidly, in economic as well as political terms.
Europe today is united essentially by the economic crisis and its social and political consequences. Everywhere the bourgeoisie is taking the offensive against the working class, with various degrees of intensity in the different countries that make up the European Union. Everywhere, the poverty of those who have been made jobless by the capitalist crisis is getting worse.
There is obviously a difference between the situation of the imperialist countries in Europe and the others. The formal equality between the countries of the Union conceals to a certain extent, but does not abolish the relationships of domination on the part of the countries in the imperialist part of Europe. Greece is an illustration of this: its laboring classes have been bled dry in the context of an austerity policy whose main beneficiaries have been the German, French, and British banks.
Nationalists and protectionists of all stripes in France periodically conjure up the Polish plumber, the Romanian or Bulgarian lorry-driver. But they have much less to say about the fact that after buying out those companies in the former Peoples’ Democracies which seemed profitable to them, the capitals of great companies, including Renault, PSA, Mercedes, or Toyota, still enjoy the eastern countries’ workforce, which is skilled but can be paid half or a third as much as in the imperialist countries.
For over a century the economy of Europe has been choking within the narrow framework of national states. And one century ago, Trotsky denounced the European states’ inability to unify the continent as the expression of the bourgeoisie’s inability to achieve anything that might contribute to the progress of humanity.
Europe paid for the rivalries between its imperialist bourgeoisies with two world wars, each side struggling to impose by dint of force and the violence of war the unification of the continent necessitated by the economic evolution.
The current state of Europe, the clash between national interests, the inability of the states not only to make joint decisions, but even to prevent dislocation, reveal how superficial and fragile the European construction over the last half-century has been, how contradictory and prone to splits.
Revolutionary communists fight for the prospect of the unification of Europe, to tear down all the borders that divide it up. This of course isn’t in contradiction – quite the contrary – with all the peoples being in charge of their own future, in collaboration with all the others.
But history shows, once again, that this prospect cannot be bargained into existence by national bourgeoisies; it can only be achieved with the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeoisie in all countries on the continent, and the taking of power by the proletariat.
The political debates that are about to unfold during the European elections are set to oppose two sides, one in favor of carrying the European Union further, the other against it. This discussion will be as biased as that which, opposing left to right, has served in France as the expression of democracy. The two opposite political sides care as little about Europe as they do about their peoples.
It should be noted that the nuance between the leaders of Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and more recently, Italy, who refuse to take in migrants on their soil, and those who, like Macron, pretend to act in a more humanist way, lies merely in the greater hypocrisy of the latter. If Orban erects barbed wire fences across the migrants’ land journey, Macron the “humanist” drives the humanitarian boats rescuing migrants away from French ports. Macron does not flaunt Orban’s brutal chauvinism. But making the reception of migrants conditional on a joint European position actually amounts to making it conditional on the explicit authorization by all European heads of state, including Orban.
One of the claims for elementary democratic rights is the freedom to circulate and settle in any European country for everybody, whether they were born on European soil or not.
Well beyond that basic expression of solidarity, revolutionary communists must fight against the rejection of migrants as one of the manifestations of the decay and rot of the capitalist organization of society. They must fight to integrate the migrants into the working class and its struggles.
Europe’s inability to unite is not that of one man, one party or one political side, but that of the bourgeoisie. That social class is no longer able to offer anything progressive to society. The very powerlessness of the bourgeoisie fuels the fantasies of sovereignists in general, and the far right in particular.
Revolutionary communists oppose all institutions of the bourgeoisie, be they European or national, in the name of the political interests of the proletariat and internationalism. Depicting, directly or indirectly, the bourgeois national state and its sovereignty to workers as a protection against bourgeois Europe – let alone flirting with bourgeois parties who brand themselves sovereignist – is reactionary nonsense. One of the most reactionary aspects of bourgeois rule is the division between national states, while the economy is more and more socialized on the world scale. It is precisely this socialization which makes the communist revolution not only possible but indispensable for any future conscious development of human society.
The persistent capitalist crisis is not an umpteenth cyclical crisis of the “free competition” era, from which capitalism eventually will recover. It was no longer the case already at the time Lenin described such crises in Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism: “This is something quite different from the old free competition between manufacturers, scattered and out of touch with one another, and producing for an unknown market…. Production becomes social, but appropriation remains private. The social means of production remain the private property of a few. The general framework of formally recognized free competition remains, and the yoke of a few monopolists on the rest of the population becomes a hundred times heavier, more burdensome and intolerable.... The development of capitalism has arrived at a stage when, although commodity production still “reigns” and continues to be regarded as the basis of economic life, it has in reality been undermined and the bulk of the profits go to the “geniuses” of financial manipulation. At the basis of these manipulations and swindles lies socialized production; but the immense progress of humanity, which achieved this socialization, goes to benefit the speculators.”
The current crisis is a crisis of civilization. It turns everything rotten, from international relations to individual behaviors. Answering the skeptics in his time, who claimed that “historical conditions were not yet ripe for socialism,” Trotsky asserted in the Transitional Program that “the objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten.”
Capitalism has survived the two global conflagrations it triggered. But the speed with which the Second World War followed the first shows how temporary the remission had been. The present crisis which, with its highs and mostly its lows, has been going on since the early 1970s; its slow and stifling dive into the economic and political doldrums testifies to the fact that the remission after the Second World War was just as provisional.
But if, from one remission to the next, capitalism survives itself, social life is dying. Between 700 and 800 million women, men, and children worldwide are doomed to undernourishment, with endemic outbreaks of famine, while humanity has all the means to end it. The polarization of riches into the hands of a parasitic minority who monopolizes the big means of production has never been so overwhelming. As a sign, among many others, of the catastrophic consequences of that polarization: in the United States, the beacon and most perfect embodiment of capitalism, which in the 1960s held the world record for life expectancy by far, life expectancy has begun to decrease. It is now below that of many Asian countries. Over there just as here, the very notion of social protection is losing any meaning.
Humanity recovered from the roughly 100 million deaths and immense destructions of the Second World War through statism enforced by the bourgeois states. In order to overcome the catastrophe, states had to substitute themselves for the “normal” functioning of capitalism, individual competition, and private property. That was, in a way, an homage paid by vice to virtue, the expression, in a monstrous form, of the profound tendency in economic and social evolution towards collective solutions.
Faced with the aggravation of the 2008 crisis, with the threat of financial crashes, it was again the states that intervened to bail out capitalism from the morbid consequences of the financialization engendered by its “normal” functioning. Despite the ever more brutal state therapy, however, the capitalist gangrene keeps getting worse.
Humanity is no longer threatened merely by local, or more or less generalized wars, but by its own activity, even when that does not aim at destruction. Many scientists are ringing the alarm and speaking up against climate change, pollution in the oceans, the irresponsible and irreparable destructions of the natural environment, and rising waters – to the point that humanity’s very survival is at stake, if no measures are taken.
But who might take these measures?
Even the most sincere environmentalists who evoke those threats have no answer. Because that answer can only come from the collective will of humanity when it controls its own social life. But this clashes, one way or another, with private property in the means of production and the congenital anarchy of the capitalist mode of production.
Never in its history has humanity faced such problems, which can only be solved at the level of the whole human community.
And never before has scientific and technical progress, from the internet to virtually instantaneous communication, given human beings so many means to make collective decisions and implement them.
Never before has the contradiction between collective interests and private interests had consequences so threatening for all of humanity.
The proletariat itself has been widely infected by the morality, the individualism, and the various forms of sectarianism, oozing from the decay of capitalism. Lenin already noted that “imperialist ideology also penetrates the working class, which is not separated from other classes by a Chinese Wall.” He made that remark in Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, in the middle of a world war. It was in the spring of 1916, just one year before the revolution in Russia, and the ensuing revolutionary wave.
For, at the same time, the proletariat remains, as it was in the time of Marx, the only social class whose class interests set it against the bourgeoisie and the capitalist system. It is also the only class objectively aspiring to collectivism. Only it can bring collective solutions to meet the challenges facing humanity.
How relevant these words, from the Transitional Program, remain: “Everything depends on the proletariat, i.e., chiefly on its revolutionary vanguard. The crisis of humanity is reduced to the crisis of revolutionary leadership.”
The reconstitution of this revolutionary vanguard has become vital. Rebuilding revolutionary communist parties and an international, that is to say the Fourth International, is the fundamental task in our epoch. The two will emerge out of the same rising of class consciousness: they will be both the index of and the instrument of its deepening through the struggle of the exploited classes against the exploiters. That class struggle will have to go the whole way, to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie’s political power on a world scale and its expropriation in order to lay the groundwork for a new social order, with no classes, where humanity will control its social life at last.