Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Masters of war?

(July 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.166, July/August 1993, p.8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘Imperialism is stronger than ever.’ That was the response of a fair chunk of the left internationally after the final collapse of the USSR two years ago. They took George Bush’s talk of ‘the new world order’ and simply turned it upside down, accepting its basic contention about US power but saying ‘bad’ where he said ‘good’.

For them, as for Bush, the only thing that had stopped the US doing whatever it had wanted in the past was the existence of an allegedly ‘socialist’ bloc. With this destroyed, nothing could halt US dominance of the rest of the world, especially the ex-colonial countries of the Third World. The war against Iraq was said to prove the point. Bush boasted he had buried the ‘Vietnam syndrome’ in the Arabian desert. The left accepted that, now there was no more hope of ‘Soviet’ help, liberation movements everywhere were doomed.

Indeed, a few individuals, led by a former Maoist professor at the London School of Economics, Fred Halliday, even drew the strange conclusion that now that the USSR could not help liberate the Third World, it was necessary to turn to the US and its puppet, the United Nations.

Socialist Review always held a contrary view. We did not underestimate the might or the horror of the weaponry at the disposal of the US. The huge bout of arms spending in the Reagan years provides the US military today with a technological momentum that can exact a high price in blood from its opponents. Nor did we attempt to disguise the crude imperialist aspirations of those wielding the weaponry or to pretend that somehow the masters of war turned into doves of peace the moment they chose to don blue helmets.

But we did insist that imperialism was weaker in the 1990s than it had been 20 years before, not stronger. For it was an illusion to believe that it had been the Soviet Union which had forced Britain, France, Belgium and Holland to retreat from direct control of much of Asia and Africa by the early 1960s or which produced the precipitate flight of the Americans from Vietnam in May 1975.

Rather, the spread of capitalism itself had created, in much of the Third World, new classes with aspirations which were not as easily crushed by imperialist might as their parents’ and grandparents’ had been. At the same time, the rising costs of intervention had weakened the old imperial power when it came to economic competition with countries like Germany and Japan who had lost their colonies decades before.

The moment of truth for the American war against Vietnam came in the spring of 1968 with the Vietnam National Liberation Front’s Tet Offensive. American big business suddenly realised it could not afford to pay for the war and Wall Street did not hesitate to tell President Lyndon Johnson truths that his political advisers were afraid to. Opposition to the war began to spread out from a narrow student milieu to influence vast numbers of young people who did not want their lives ruined by a cause they came to see as intrinsically wrong. When asked why he did not nuke North Vietnam, Johnson did not point to the Russian bomb, but rather asked his advisers who would defend the White House against a million student protesters.

Today it is even more difficult for US imperialism to try to dominate the rest of the world. The US economy has declined in strength compared with those of Europe and Japan in the intervening decades. And those who would resist America’s schemes, for whatever reasons, have themselves gained in sophistication and knowledge with the worldwide advance of technology.

NATO generals have given the game away when faced with demands for them to intervene massively in the Balkans. They have rushed to insist that the victory against Iraq was only possible because of exceptional circumstances and cannot be repeated at whim elsewhere. It was, they insist, a massacre like that of Omdurman in 1898 – when British machine guns slaughtered 11,000 lightly armed Sudanese across open ground – not a real battle like that which faces anyone who tries to dabble in the horrific and heavily armed combats of Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Yugoslavia, they say openly, would be like Vietnam. And whatever Bush’s boasts of two years ago, a Vietnam for them still means a defeat.

Hence the series of farces in the middle of the Yugoslav tragedy. The diplomatic circus moves from venue to venue, with conference following conference, peace plan after peace plan, while the fighting on the ground grows more intense, underlining the inability of the great powers to impose any ‘order’ on a region close to the centre of Europe.

Even the old fashioned – and bloody – colonial adventure in Somalia is beginning to worry them. When the US went in at the end of last year, the scarcely concealed subtext was about thwarting the alleged spread of Islamic fundamentalist influence from Iran through Sudan to the rest of North Africa. Now US planes pound parts of Mogadishu from the air because the generals fear their 30,000 troops getting drawn into face to face fighting on the ground. They know the road to Sudan might well not lead to another Omdurman, but to the sort of defeat General Gordon suffered in Khartoum 20 years before.

Meanwhile, the regimes which the Americans rely on to defend their interests in North Africa, from Algeria though to Egypt, are more precarious than ever. And even that stalwart of reaction, the Saudi monarchy – not that far across the Red Sea from Mogadishu – is, according to some reports, facing deep problems.

My enemies’ enemies are not always my friends. The petty bourgeois politicians who use the slogans of Islam to mobilise the masses in Algeria and Egypt are as hostile to the mass of workers and peasants holding power as are the torturers in Iran. Still less can the rival ethnic cleansers of Serbia and Croatia be regarded by anyone on the left as being on our side.

Yet the inability of Western imperialism to make them follow its orders shows its weakness, just as surely as its inability to boss about the thugs and murderers of the old Soviet bloc used to. It is a weakness that genuine liberation struggles will be able to use to their advantage.

Last updated on 18 June 2010