Chris Harman

Thinking it through

History resumed

(October 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.135, October 1990, p.9.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

HOW RAPIDLY the conventional political wisdom can turn somersaults.

Two months ago the orthodoxy was that old style military confrontation was finished. History, in the sense of large scale conflicts between states and ideologies, had ended with the cold war. The world had moved towards acceptance of a single market framework in which firms would compete and collaborate with each other.

That was, of coarse, before Iraqi troops moved into Kuwait. After, the message was very different. Conventional opinion cheered as the US government began an unprecedented military deployment in the Gulf. Those who had greeted the end of empire only a few days before now urged a permanent US, or at least ‘multinational’, presence in the Arabian peninsula.

Fukuyama, the simple minded sage who had preached the ‘end of history’, rushed into print to add a corrective – a large part of the world was still stuck in the past, its leaders creating situations which forced the ‘post-historical’ countries to engage in old style military conflict.

What he did not recognise was the enormous similarity of this to the old rationale for imperialism.

Capitalism has always had two faces. On the one hand is has been a system in which the mere buying and selling of labour power allows the wealth of the ruling class to grow without the direct, physical compulsion so typical of slavery and serfdom.

On the other hand, however, capitalists have never been able to forswear the use of violence for long. In the system’s youth they needed state violence to break the control of pre-capitalist classes over the means of production. As the system got older state violence was always a vital weapon in the fight between established capitalisms and their newer competitors.

In the middle of the 19th century British capitalism held firm to an ideology that preached a world free from impediments to trade, in which states had minimal power and in which empires (except, of course, Britain’s) were a thing of the past.

Things were rather different for the newer capitalisms of countries like Germany. Their industries could not develop without looking to state power, first to protect themselves at home and then to break into world markets very much dominated by Britain.

It was precisely the clash between old British capitalism and the newer, state based capitalisms that gave rise to the classical imperialism as described by Lenin and Bukharin – the expansion of the old patchwork of isolated European colonies into rival empires that occupied virtually the whole globe.

Economics led to the construction of rival empires and the rival empires to two world wars.

Things were not so different with the origins of the cold war. American capitalism emerged from the Second World War with an economy which dwarfed all others. Its ruling class dreamt of a peaceful takeover of markets everywhere as the collapse of the Japanese, German and Italian empires was followed by the dissolution of those of Britain, France, Holland and Belgium.

But they faced an obstacle in the form of Stalin’s Russia. This relative economic weakling stood little chance of survival in unimpeded market competition, but had military power strategically placed to dominate the Eurasian land mass. Faced with Stalin’s hold over a sixth of the globe, the US could only hegemonise the rest by forgetting its 1945 talk of world peace and moving to construct a massive imperial domain.

What the recent renewed celebration of ‘the end of history’ expressed was the hope that the crisis of the USSR and disintegration of the Eastern bloc was at last allowing the American dream of 1945 to be fulfilled.

The celebrants forgot how much else had changed in the meantime. A host of new national capitalisms had taken root. And the US had lost its old massive economic superiority over the other Western powers.

Part of the reason for the US defeat in Vietnam 15 years ago was that its economy could no longer bear the burden of such a war. The only way now for it to carve out a world order under its hegemony is to get other states to do some of the dirty work for it.

It has therefore tried to build up client ‘sub-imperialisms’ that would strive for regional hegemony, and so advance its own global aims: the military regimes in Brazil and Argentina, the Shah’s regime in Iran, Marcos’s Philippines, the Egypt of Sadat and Mubarak, and of course, Israel.

But there has been one great weakness to this scheme. Most of the sub-imperialisms were badly damaged by the economic crises of the 1970s and early 1980s and burdened by huge debts thereafter. This hardly guarantees political stability. Revolutionary upsurges can overthrow the local rulers. And the rulers can turn their guns against vulnerable neighbours.

Maintaining ‘stability’ has come to mean, for US governments, juggling with rival clients, providing them with massive armaments to keep ahead of each other. Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East, where the political balance directly affects the price of the one raw material the advanced capitalisms use more than any other – oil.

But what if the juggling act fails, if one of the guard dogs becomes powerful enough to bite its master? That was the question raised by the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait. There was only one reply that American capitalism could give – to send its own troops in, to return to the old methods of military confrontation.

A world order built on the balancing between heavily armed but unstable medium sized powers is necessarily a dangerous, explosive world order.

But here’s the rub. America’s relative economic decline makes it increasingly difficult to bear the cost of such wars. Hence the way Wall Street panics, rather than rejoices, with each war scare. Far from history ending, a new and bloody phase of it is beginning – one that is going to be far from pleasant for the American ruling class.

Last updated on 29 May 2010