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Fourth International, September 1942


James Cadman

Geopolitics: An Imperialist Myth


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.9, September 1942, pp.273-276.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


Since Hitler’s rise to power, we have heard persistent and yet vague talk of an entirely new set of political and economic doctrines, called Geopolitics, which the Nazis have presumably formulated as their guiding principles of action. This theory of Geopolitics has been attributed not merely to Nazi ingenuity but to German thought for the last century or more, an expression of the allegedly age-old German dream of world conquest.

Geopolitics is a theory that history is determined by the struggle of peoples to utilize their geographical environment to the best advantage. In its early development, as a scientific study of the economic significance of geography, it expressed the needs of the rising industrial bourgeoisie for areas of investment and had its adherents in every one of the rising capitalist powers. It was only in the era of monopoly capitalism that Geopolitics was adopted as an all-embracing justification for imperialism. What began with Hugo Grotius, Montesquieu and Immanuel Kant as an attempt at a science of political economic geography, has been perverted into an eclectic compilation of imperialist apologetics.

The principal “authorities” on Geopolitics in its most virulent and modern form have been Germans. But this is entirely due to the belated economic and political development of Germany, which necessitated a more outspoken expression of its needs than did the earlier and more gradual development of the French and British empires. Germany, economically backward and politically disunited until 1870, made its first bid for economic power and political cohesion at a time when France and Britain were already far along the road of capitalist development and empire-building. What France and Britain were doing, the Germans were dreaming and writing about. It was amid the Sturm und Drang of striving for national unification that the first real formulators of Geopolitics appeared in Germany. Karl von Clausewitz, military theoretician par excellence, in his theories on “Space” (“Raum”) and the importance of topography in warfare, provided much of the material which later writers expounded in political form. Frederick List was to the German bourgeoisie what Adam Smith was to Britain. A student of American Federalism and a staunch advocate of the policies of Alexander Hamilton (with whom he collaborated in America), List recognized Germany’s need for unification and sought unassailable national frontiers which he thought could alone insure peace. With the Rhine as a permanent barrier between France and Germany, the Alps between France, Italy and Austria (he advocated the return of Lombardy-Venetia to Italy so that the natural frontier would be in the Alps) and the Pyrenees as a bulwark between France and Spain, the status quo could be indefinitely sustained. He hailed the Monroe Doctrine as a great forward step by the United States in creating a political and economic entity.

The British Geopoliticians

However, these musings and speculations of these and other German theoreticians, (Fichte, Karl Ritter, Von Treitschke) were meanwhile being substantiated in actuality by the tremendous spurt in colonial and overseas expansion on the part of Britain and France. Thus, while it was a German ideal, Geopolitics was being practiced by the other imperialist powers, which were also producing in this field a literature of their own. The most prolific thinker in the English geopolitical school was Sir Halford Mackinder, Director of the London School of Economics, whose ideas bear a remarkable resemblance to those of the Nazi school of Haushofer and Banse. Mackinder held that all of European history has been predominantly shaped by the struggle of oceanic against non-oceanic powers. Europe and Asia constitute the world’s core, the “heartland” as he termed it, and Britain, Australia, Japan and the Western Hemisphere are merely appendages of that core. Hence he advocated an alliance of Britain, the United States and Japan to ward off an impending German-Russo-Chinese combination. Mackinder was here merely expressing the anxiety of Britain at Germany’s fast-growing might and at Czarist Russia’s potential threat to the Near East, and was desirous of an alliance with the other two newer imperialisms to maintain the status quo.

Another Englishman who went far toward bringing Geopolitics into its modern form was Lord Curzon, one of the most brutal Viceroys of India and Secretary of Foreign Affairs in 1919, who dealt primarily with the problem of frontiers. He held that the growing complexities and intricacies of modern political and economic relations require a more flexible frontier-system, more adaptable to the particular needs of each nation, thus alleviating the necessity for frontier changes through war and conflict. Consequently, spheres of influence and protectorates must be granted to the more important states to allow them economic expansion without having to cope with rigid and inflexible borders. It can easily be seen how this scheme fitted in with Britain’s policy of gradual infiltration into the Near, Far and Middle East as the initial step toward direct control. Curzon also advocated creating buffer states between the important continental powers in order to keep them apart, for instance Afghanistan between Britain and Russia. This theory in no way took into account the increasing trend toward domination of smaller states by the larger imperialists and the inability of the smaller ones to maintain any but a nominally independent status – a trend speeded up by Curzon himself when he instigated the 1920 Polish attack on Soviet Russia and attempted to dictate the Curzon Line as the boundary between Poland and Russia. Curzon’s attitude toward frontiers is similar to that of the Nazis, who hold that frontiers must be judged only by what is convenient or expedient at any given moment.

We come now to the geopolitical writings of the Nazi school and primarily to those of Karl Haushofer, head of the Geopolitical Institute in Munich. Paraded as science, the Haushofer school is merely a façade to mask the imperialist aims of the Nazis, a pseudo-theory comprising a conglomeration of falsehoods and distortions, entirely illogical and inconsistent, twisted and polished to justify each new war or seizure.

Haushofer’s ideas comprise everything the Nazis have ever put forth to explain their actions. Briefly it runs as follows: The human will creates a group; the group forms a people; this people needs a certain area in which to survive; struggles then ensue among the different “races” for control of the areas of “Lebensraum” (living space), resulting in the survival of the stronger and more virile “races” through the satisfaction of their territorial (geopolitical) needs. The state is the instrument of the people for the furtherance of their legitimate economic needs and as such it must coordinate the entire economy of the nation on a total war footing – this is the Nazi “explanation” for state oppression and suppression. From this basis are built up all the now familiar Nazi slogans and phraseology: the degeneration of the British Empire and Germany’s need to inherit Britain’s mantle, etc.

The contradictions are voluminous. The world consists of three geopolitical areas – Europe, Asia and the Western Hemisphere – Haushofer originally “proved,” and the United States is geopolitically entitled to control South America. Why, then, does the Axis now attempt to contest America’s position in the New World? Prior to the Stalin-Hitler pact, Haushofer wrote in his magazine, Zeitschrift der Geopolitik, that Russia was nothing but a patchwork of minorities, racially impure, and must eventually fall under German control; after the pact he hailed Russia as one of the great geopolitical units of the world and insisted that Persia, Afghanistan and the entire Middle East must logically belong to it. With each new action the “theory” is altered to meet the new situation. The Nazi geopoliticians enthusiastically greeted such diverse characters as Chiang Kai-shek, Vargas of Brazil and Mohandas K. Gandhi as “fascists” at various times. This however merely corresponded to Nazi foreign policy; whoever took measures against England and America fell into the category of good “fascists.”

The Nazis have established schools for the study of “geo-medicine” and “geo-physics,” “geo-psychology,” etc. These are nothing but training grounds for imperialist functionaries who will be sent to conquered countries and colonies.

The opportunism and inconsistencies of this pseudo-theory refute the myth that Geopolitics is a scientific “blueprint” for conquest, a plan which minutely sets forth in great detail every new Nazi operation. Actually, capitalist states are by their very nature incapable of such planning even for conquest; they are driven by the basic contradictions within the capitalist system from one attempted conquest to another, and they must all strive for world domination in order to prolong their existence for another period. Rather than the foreign policy being framed around Geopolitics, it is Geopolitics which is constantly changed to meet each new switch in foreign policy. The lack of honesty in the Nazi statements and claims is not due to the inherent baseness in German character invented by the Churchill-Roosevelt brain trust, but because the Nazis are unable themselves to ascertain beforehand what their next move will be. They are driven onward and onward by the insatiable demands of German capitalism and the pseudo-science of Geopolitics must serve as their “alibi” to the world and particularly to the German people.

The basic argument on which the entire “theory”, rests is that the struggle of peoples to conquer their geography is the main historical determinant. But the geography of the world has changed very little within the last several thousand years. That is, given certain geographical conditions to begin with, man has built up gradually a complex system of productive, social and economic relationships in which the factor of geography has been relegated to minor importance. On the other hand, the class struggle has been of paramount significance in the entire history of world civilization since primitive communism. The part played by geography in any period is decided by the productive advances achieved through the class struggle. For instance, mountains and oceans constituted virtually impassable barriers to world intercourse for ages, until the advent of modern industry through the victory of the bourgeoisie over feudalism. The demonstrable falsity of the “theory” of Geopolitics will not, however, prevent the imperialists from using it – not only the fascists but also the “democrats.”

American Geopolitics

A significant example of American imperialist interest in this field is the work of the Sterling Professor of International Relations at Yale, Nicholas John Spykman, who has just published a widely-hailed book, America’s Strategy in World Politics. American foreign policy since the time of Washington, he says, has been divided into two schools, the isolationist and the interventionist or internationalist, each of which has been dominant during certain stages of America’s development. This is true enough, but we must seek its real meaning.

The “internationalist” school during the last century comprised the business and commercial groups, which had economic ties with Europe and Asia. On the other hand, the same groups sought a monopoly of the trade of the Western Hemisphere and it was the “isolationist” Monroe Doctrine of 1823 which constituted the first major step to eliminate European competition. The Monroe Doctrine was based on a theory of isolation, justified in geographical terms. It was the expressed opinion of the Founding Fathers that the American continent ought to develop in conformity with its own character and geographical conditions, free from the complications of the European political system. Consequently when the danger of European intervention into South American affairs was imminent, Monroe extended this principle to include all of South America: “It is impossible that the Allied Powers (Holy Alliance) should extend their political system to any portion of either continent without endangering our peace and happiness ...” This typical “geopolitical” argument unquestionably served a progressive purpose at that time, helping to protect the newly-created South American republics against the invasion by the reactionary Holy Alliance. Again, during the Civil War period, it served to put a stop to the seizure of Mexico by the third Napoleon.

However, with the growth of American monopoly capitalism during the latter part of the 19th Century, and the consequent entry by the American bourgeoisie into the great international struggle for markets, the “isolationist” arguments of the Monroe Doctrine gradually became the façade behind which Yankee imperialism masked its own greedy intentions. This was evidenced during the Spanish-American War and later in the invasion of the Central American states by United States Marine contingents, when it was maintained that the United States must assume the burden of protecting the Western Hemisphere against foreign tyranny. McKinley’s declaration that it was the “God-given responsibility of the United States to Christianize and civilize the ‘heathens of the Philippine Islands’” represented the first big step from Western Hemisphere “isolationism” to the global “White Man’s Burden” idea of Cecil Rhodes and Rudyard Kipling. American capitalism had now entered the stage where, just as in the case of Germany, Geopolitics became the ideological prop for the needs of the capitalist class.

Before Pearl Harbor, certain sections of the American capitalist class were hesitant to venture irrevocably beyond Western Hemisphere “isolationism” to the “internationalism” advocated by Spykman. But with the war and the huge expansion of America’s productive facilities and the weakening of Europe’s, it has become evident to even the most rabid “isolationists” that American imperialism must assume the leadership in any post-war attempt to regenerate capitalism on a world scale.

Spykman leaves the idealistic fig-leaves to others and outlines America’s role in “geopolitical” terms warmly praised by Time magazine as “rigidly realistic.” (A Communist renegade, now part of Henry R. Luce’s brain trust, proclaims Spykman as a “Leninist of the Right.”)

Spykman says America must play the dominant and supreme role in the event the Allies are victorious because her tremendous industrial machine and her secure geographical location entitle her to that role. He believes that it must be “our” purpose to play the other powers against each other, particularly by propping up Germany as a bulwark against possible Soviet expansion, and Japan against a potential Chinese expansion. He writes:

“Strange as it may seem at this moment it is quite conceivable that the British Government would not relish the idea of a Germany so completely defeated that it could not defend itself against the invasion of victorious Russian armies. It is even conceivable that Washington might become convinced of the cogency of the British argument that asks for the continued existence of a powerful Germany. A Russian state from the Urals to the North Sea can be no great improvement over a German state from the North Sea to the Urals. The present war effort is undoubtedly directed against the destruction of Hitler and the National Socialist Party, but this does not necessarily imply that it is directed at the destruction of Germany as a military power. Similar reasoning is applicable to the Far East. The danger of another Japanese conquest of Asia must be removed, but this does not inevitably mean the complete elimination of the military strength of Japan and the surrender of the Western Pacific to China or Russia.” (p.460.)

Thus, by balancing off the various powers against one another and supplying each of them with weapons so that an equality of armaments can be achieved, peace “for a time” can be maintained. Spykman poses no solution for wars in general, stating that any such attempted solution would be utterly utopian and unrealistic. By acknowledging the “legitimate” desires of certain great powers for certain areas (Germany’s need for central Europe, for example) and by insuring a certain equality in armament between all, America can play the role of arbiter and judge in any disputes which might arise, at the same time insuring itself of substantial export markets. He terms the “League of Nations” as a “Balance of Power,” which failed due to an unfortunate disproportion in the strength of England and France vis-à-vis Germany and Japan.

Spykman’s statements concerning the Soviet Union are of vital significance in view of Stalin’s policy of harnessing her to the Allied war machine. Not only does Spykman find communism just as “distasteful” as Nazism, but, in proposing that the Allies may possibly have to bolster up Germany at the end of the war in order to ward off a “too powerful Russia,” Spykman is already visualizing Allied action against the spread of revolutionary forces, for he knows quite well that the present exertions and losses of the Soviet Union are weakening her even if an Allied victory comes, so that any action by the Red Armies could only be taken in coordination with a widespread European revolutionary movement.

Spykman’s attitude toward China is similar, as the following quotation indicates:

“A modern vitalized and militarized China of 450 million people is going to be a threat not only to Japan but also to the position of the Western powers in the Asiatic Mediterranean. If the balance of power in the Far East is to be preserved in the future as well as the present, the United States will have to adopt a protective policy toward Japan.” (p.470.)

Equally revealing is his attitude toward Latin America. The United States must eventually use force against the Latin American states, he says, because of the economic incompatibility of the two areas; South America is a competitor of the US in international export trade and this country cannot absorb much of South America’s products. This divergence of interests, he accurately points out, results in resentment on the part of South Americans at Yankee attempts to dictate their foreign policies. While this resentment can be partially offset by loans, trade concessions and political pressure, the United States will eventually have to resort to naked force to compel submission from certain of the more stubborn South American nations.

During the post-war period, South America must, beyond all shadow of a doubt, fall into the American “geopolitical sphere,” says Spykman. South America as a consuming market must be opened up to US industrial might, while any attempt by South America to develop domestic manufactures of her own, must be “discouraged.” He also proposes the seizure by the United States of all the foreign (British, French and Dutch) possessions, strategic bases and outposts in South America: “With the United States in possession of the strategic naval bases, the economic life of the region is internally at the mercy of the Colossus of the North.” (p.278.)

Such are the “geopolitical” conclusions of the Sterling Professor of International Relations at Yale University. He speaks not merely for himself, but for a powerful section of the American ruling class.

Moreover, all this, Spykman says, presupposes far-reaching domestic changes within the United States. Democracy, he says, lacks the fiery appeal of communism or fascism, it has lost its fire, its ability to evoke passionate enthusiasm and fervor in the hearts of its citizens; consequently, without a basic change of its principles and values in a more totalitarian direction, it will be impossible for the American nation to meet the Axis with the same crusading zeal which permeates the Germans and Japanese. Under the guise of an American version of the “science” of Geopolitics, Spykman coldly outlines the future course which American imperialism, just as its European counterparts, must inevitably try to follow, the course toward totalitarianization and fascism.

Geopolitics, it is clear, is not a science but an imperialist myth. Geographical “problems” exist only in the sense that capitalism forces peoples into violent competition with one another in the course of which arguments from geography are used as a means for enslavement and exploitation while raw materials are denied the poverty stricken millions who need them. Under an international socialist economy, geography will no longer constitute a political or economic barrier to world-wide amity and cooperation, and the raw materials of the earth will be utilized for the collective use of mankind.

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