Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Fight the power

(June 2000)

From Socialist Review, No.242, June 2000.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The crisis in Africa will not be helped by Western intervention says Chris Harman

A year after the Balkan War liberal and left opinion has once again been urging British military intervention – this time in Sierra Leone. The arguments for intervention are very much the same. The most horrible atrocities are being carried out and, faced with these horrors, people in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, have been begging British troops to defend them and stay in the country as long as possible. It seems the only choice is between intervention and leaving people to the most horrible of fates.

What is more, the main opposition to intervention has come from the Tories. They have been denouncing the Blair government for ‘risking’ British troops in an engagement which seems concerned only with humanitarian issues, as opposed to the west’s deeper strategic concerns in the Balkan case. Nevertheless, the logic of intervention is a disastrous one for anyone who cares about the future of people in the most impoverished parts of the Third World. To see why, you have to have a view of events that is wider than simply the latest horrors.

What is happening in parts of Africa like Sierra Leone is the concentrated, extreme manifestation of processes at work on a world scale. The 20th century saw the final conquest of the whole globe by capitalism. There is hardly anywhere not linked by a thousand ties to the world. But that has not meant a levelling up of conditions. Instead there has been what Leon Trotsky called ‘combined and uneven development’.

Capitalism first took root in a handful of European and European-settler states. The ruling classes of these states used the new economic strength it gave them to establish a global system of exploitation, pumping wealth into their pockets from all over the world but concentrating productive investment where they could most easily control it – in their own home bases. The imperial capitalist classes were forced to abandon direct colonial control of the rest of the world in the third quarter of the 20th century. But by that time two centuries of pillaging had stripped most local exploiting classes of the wealth to stand up successfully to those with entrenched market dominance. A few rulers managed to copy the brutal methods of the western capitalists and to build up industry of their own. Japan did this after the 1860s. Stalinist Russia did it after 1928, but at enormous cost to Russia’s workers and peasants. China’s rulers strove to do so at even greater cost to their people after 1948, and in the end succeeded in making certain coastal regions a viable part of the world system. The rulers of South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore also turned themselves into world class capitalists.

But in most other places the picture has been very different. This was certainly true of much of Africa. In the 16th and early 17th centuries the average economic level of Africa was little different from that of Europe. The impact first of the Atlantic slave trade and then of colonialism was to hold back – and even to push back – economic growth in Africa while it soared in Europe and North America. In the 1950s and 1960s newly independent African rulers found the only commodities they usually had to offer the world market were raw materials – and raw materials whose prices were in long term decline.

Some tried to emulate the example of Japan, Russia and China in pushing through state-run ‘development’ programmes of one sort or another – Nasser’s Egypt, Nkrumah’s Ghana, Boumédienne’s Algieria, Nyerere’s Tanzania. But they simply did not have the resources to do so beyond a certain point, and by the 1970s they were all turning to market-oriented approaches, usually laid down by the World Bank and the IMF.

These approaches left most African countries suffering all the faults of the world system, but no closer to sustained economic growth. Africa was a source of debt interest to the big banks and of a number of important multinationals, but its share of world trade fell from 3 percent to 1 percent. In the mid-1970s average African income was 12 percent higher than for ‘all developing countries’. Today African per capita incomes are 40 percent below the averages for the developing countries. From being slightly better off than the average Indian or Chinese person, the average African is now much poorer, with per capita incomes a fifth less than 12 years ago. Yet ruling classes across the continent still want to be up with the high flyers of international capitalism. If they can’t achieve this through economic methods, the system leaves them only one option – the use of force against their peoples and each other.

Early in the 20th century Nikolai Bukharin described the contending powers of the First World War as ‘imperialist robber states’, intent on supplementing economic profits by crude booty. At the beginning of the 21st century local ruling classes in the most impoverished countries see their only future in copying on a micro-scale what the great imperialist powers have long been doing on a macro-scale – the aspirant capitalist becomes a warlord. This applies as much to the capitalists who are parts of government as to those who are outside government. Gangsterism, capitalism, government and policing become merged. This is the picture in much of the former USSR, where KGB generals and former politburo members collaborate with rival mafias to siphon funds into western bank accounts, and it is also true in much of Africa.

Western military intervention is not going to bring such a state of affairs to an end. Inevitably it will end up backing one set of gangster capitalists against another – especially since some of the western multinationals with the greatest influence on government policy maintain very profitable links with favoured groups of gangster capitalists, supplying them with arms and hoping to get in on the act of supplying them with mercenaries. Let loose in Africa, western armies closely linked with those running such firms can only make appalling situations even worse.

It is 85 years since Rosa Luxemburg warned that the choice was socialism or barbarism, as ruling classes resorted to the most destructive methods in order to try to maintain their positions. We saw the horrors this could produce in one of the richest parts of the world system during the Second World War. Now we can see it in some of the poorest parts. The answer is not to urge the most powerful ruling classes, with the most destructive weaponry, to join the fray. It is rather to fight the global system they preside over. Demand that they annul debts. Demand that they stop arms sales. But don’t cheer their armies into battle.

Gangsterism, capitalism, government and policing become merged

Last updated on 22 December 2009