Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Leader of the pack

(April 2003)

From Socialist Review, No.273, April 2003.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The war in Iraq has exposed splits between the imperial powers

The spectacle of French president Jacques Chirac trying to block George Bush’s path to war was one few people would have predicted in May last year when he was reelected president. The French ruling class had happily taken part in the last three US-UK wars, against Iraq, Serbia and Afghanistan. And France has its own very dirty record of imperialist violence in Africa. To see what motivated Chirac it is necessary first to be clear about the reasons for Bush’s push to war.

Oil is an important element. The area around the Persian Gulf has by far the world’s biggest known reserves of oil, and Iraq is known to contain many more as yet not fully explored reserves.

But why should giant firms like Boeing, General Motors or Microsoft get behind a war costing over $100 billion just to please oil companies whose profits would rise, at maximum, by one fifth of this figure?

People like Karl Kautsky tried to explain the First World War in terms of such merely sectional interests within each national capitalism. Their conclusion was that the way to end the war was for socialists to show the rest of the capitalist class that their real interests lay in peace.

By contrast the Bolsheviks Bukharin and Lenin stressed that the war grew out of struggle for dominance between entire capitalist classes in each state.

Until 11 September it was fashionable to say that globalisation involved the disengagement of the great capitalist firms from the national state. The reality was rather different. The great multinationals did their best to avoid the discipline of national states but all still used their connections to their own national states as a mechanism for pursuing their own international agenda.

US governments, Democrat and Republican alike, have traditionally been stacked full with top business figures. And they have used the government to pursue the general goals of their class ruthlessly at home and abroad. So when US industry seemed to be lagging behind Japan ten to 15 years ago, the Pentagon (under a Republican administration) set about overseeing the microelectronic sector. A few years later Clinton’s Democrat administration facilitated the merger of Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas to form the world’s biggest aerospace company. What was at stake was restructuring US capitalism to deal with economic challenges from Japan and Europe, and potential military challenges from China.

This is the background to the emergence of the group who now dominate US policy – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and their mentor, Richard Perle. They see the US ruling class as in a position to write the script of the whole world. The publication of their ‘Project for the New American Century’ spells out a programme for military and economic dominance.

The main advisers to previous administrations, Brzezinski, the Democrat, and Kissinger the Republican, had argued a different view. They pointed out that the US no longer enjoyed overwhelming economic superiority (its national output is only about the same as for the European Union), and concluded it had to form ‘multilateral’ coalitions to achieve its goals.

By contrast, the New American Century gang have a vision of a Us using its military might to dictate to the rest of the world’s capitalists. And where better to start than in the Middle East, the key to the oil and energy supplies of Europe, China and Japan, as well as the US?

French capitalism has a long history of dirigisme, with the state bureaucracy working with industrialists to shape the economy, with top executives moving between positions in the state apparatus and private firms like Peugeot, and with key industrial sectors still partly state owned. And France’s ruling class has long had its own equivalents to the Bush gang in the US, people with a sense of mission standing at the intersection of the state and industry.

The 1990s were a relatively successful decade for French capitalism. It managed to grow faster than Germany and to buy up important assets elsewhere in the world – water plants, banks and electricity generation plants in Latin America, many former stateowned utilities and rail networks in Britain, as well as Nissan in Japan, and the US Jeep manufacturer American Motors.

They cannot aspire to global dominance for France, but do see it as able to exercise enormous influence in parts of Africa and the Middle East. Some also see the chance of giving the lead to a more powerful, but somewhat humbled, German capitalism in jointly dominating the policies of the European Union and its new members in eastern Europe (where European investment and trade is much greater than American),

But this puts them directly in the path of the Bush gang, which is using Britain and Spain as Trojan horses inside the European Union and cutting them out of influence in eastern Europe. Put crudely, the drive of US imperialism to cement its global hegemony is threatening the dreams of the crusaders for French capitalism to put it at the centre of a European imperialism.

The British ruling class is caught in the middle. Half its investment and trade links are with the US, and half with western Europe. Hence Blair is caught by his enthusiasm for Bush just months before he was planning a euro referendum implying closer links with Chirac and Schroder.

Where will it all lead? The Bush gang are confident that rivalries between capitalist interests in Europe will prevent a fully fledged European imperialism emerging. But others inside the US ruling class fear that the sheer arrogance of the US administration will push them together.

The American Marxist historian and economist Bob Brenner said in a discussion recently that he found it impossible to believe there could be a return to bloody wars in the heartlands of advanced capitalism, as in 1914 and 1939. it is very difficult for any of us to imagine this. But a few years ago it was unimaginable that cities like Baghdad and Belgrade would be bombed.

Whatever transpires, real divergences of interest have been at work which are likely to find bloody expression in other parts of the Third World. And the very fact that these divergences have crystallised out with such sharpness can make politico-economic forces on both sides of the Atlantic go further than they ever intended. More is at stake than just personal pique from Jacques Chirac.

France’s ruling class has long had its equivalent to the Bush gang

Last updated on 27 December 2009