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John Rees

Imperialism: globalisation, the state and war

(Winter 2001)

From International Socialism 2:93, Winter 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The bombing of Afghanistan in October 2001 marked the beginning of the third major war in a decade. The first of these conflicts, the Gulf War of 1991, left 100,000 Iraqi conscripts and civilians dead. The second, the Balkan conflict of 1999, brought war involving the great powers to mainland Europe for the first time since 1945. But the most recent conflict is the most threatening because it is truly global in its consequences. Afghanistan is an impoverished country a little smaller than the state of Texas with little industry, minuscule armed forces and no central government. But, once it became the object of an armed imperial crusade, it stands at the centre of a widening circle of instability.

Two of Afghanistan’s bordering states, Pakistan and India, are nuclear powers. Since the bombing of Afghanistan began their dispute over Kashmir has once again resulted in armed clashes. The Saudi ruling elite, the largest single recipient of US foreign aid, is distancing itself from its paymasters in fear of revolt from below. Israel has taken its war against the Palestinians to unprecedented lengths, threatening a general conflict in the Middle East. Such a conflict will become almost inevitable if US government hardliners get their way and the war widens to include a renewed attack on Iraq.

The 1990s saw a new peak for the last century in the annual number of wars – 34 in 1992. And in 1994 we saw the highest number of war-related deaths since 1971. Regional and civil wars in Iraq, Somalia, the Balkans, Rwanda, Liberia, Turkey, Chechnya, Angola and Algeria have produced these records and increased the number of refugees by 50 percent during the last ten years. [1] But if we want to understand why our world has become so much more unstable and violent we must examine the longer term economic and political processes that culminated in the wars of the last decade.


The huge extension of international trade, finance and production by multinational corporations is at the core of most people’s understanding of the term ‘globalisation’. And this meaning does indeed capture an important part of what has been happening to the world economy. But it is worth being more precise about the different pace of development in each of these three areas.

Capitalism has always been an international trading system, and as the system has grown the volume and extent of trade have grown with it. International trade tripled between 1870 and 1913, as Europe and America industrialised. The slump and protectionism in the inter-war period curtailed international trade, but US arms spending and its hegemony of the post Second World War global economy led to renewed growth. The value of world exports grew from $315 billion in 1950 to $3,447 billion in 1990. And post-war trade has been much more a trade in manufactured goods, and much more between industrialised nations, than the earlier period of exchange of manufactured goods from industrialised countries for the raw materials of less developed, peripheral economies. [2]

The growth in international financial transactions has been even more spectacular. The ratio of foreign exchange transactions to world trade was nine to one in 1973. By 1992 it had risen to 90 to one. International bank lending has also grown dramatically. As a proportion of world trade it was 7.8 percent in 1965, but by 1991 it had risen to 104.6 percent. There has also been a massive growth in the market for government debt. This has led to a huge expansion of government bonds held in the hands of ‘foreigners’. [3]

International production has been slower to develop than international trade and finance. Much of what is commonly thought to be new about globalisation refers to this process of creating international networks of production by means of foreign direct investment (FDI). The stock of FDI in the world economy increased from $68 billion in 1960 to $1,948 billion in 1992. This marked a percentage increase of FDI in world production from 4.4 percent to 8.4 percent over the same period. But over 90 percent of FDI is concentrated in ten developed countries, and about 66 percent originates in the US, Germany, Britain and Japan. [4]

This international extension of the capitalist system has undoubtedly enhanced the power of major multinational corporations. On one estimate, the top 300 transnational corporations account for 70 percent of FDI and 25 percent of the world’s capital. The sales of the largest 350 corporations account for one third of the combined gross national product of the advanced capitalist countries. [5] But we should be careful in attributing all the enhanced powers of these corporations to the growth of the world market, as the more economistic accounts of globalisation tend to suggest. There have been some crucial ‘political magnifiers’ that have enhanced the impression of an unstoppable growth in the power of multinational corporations.

The great cycle of defeats for the working class which began in the mid-1970s are at least as important in explaining the growing power of big business in the last 25 years. These defeats were central in undermining the welfare state consensus that had prevailed among governing elites since the 1950s. This in turn paved the way for the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy that has done so much to facilitate and legitimise globalisation. In particular this process helped transform the notion of the state from one in which government acted as a balance and corrective to market forces into an ideology of government as the handmaiden and advocate of big business. The reality was, of course, that the state remained the closest ally of big business.

And without the fall of the Berlin Wall and the advance of Western-style capitalism in Russia and Eastern Europe, the ideology of globalisation simply would not have had the purchase that it achieved in the last ten years. After all, what would globalisation be if half the industrial world had still been beyond its reach? But the Berlin Wall did fall, and the economies of Eastern Europe suffered the full force of the gale of ‘creative destruction’. The triumph of the market was shortlived, its consequences hard felt, and the instability it brought a major factor in the drive to war.

This is why it is important to record the failure of globalisation. The spread of neo-liberal doctrines and the deregulation they promote has led to disastrous economic consequences for much of the globe. The World Bank’s figures on poverty give us one important indicator:

These figures, rapidly becoming the most quoted economic figures in the world, show that about one quarter of the world’s population is below the lower poverty line ($1 a day) and about half below the upper poverty line ($2). The percentages have declined very slowly in the two poorest regions, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, and quite sharply in China and other parts of East Asia, but they have risen sharply in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Over the ten years covered by these estimates the total number of poor people in the world...has either stayed about the same or risen. [6]

These figures do not cover the period in which the South East Asian economies collapsed after the 1997 crash. And neither do they tell us about the growing inequality between rich and poor even in those societies, like China, where industrialisation is lifting the general standard of living. The cumulative effect of this process is to create economic turmoil, social dislocation and political conflict. And in this soil the seeds of war are sown.

The state and globalisation

The role of the state has certainly been significantly altered by globalisation, but it has not been weakened. Even in the area of direct government ‘interference’ in the economy, the devil supposedly banished by the Reagan-Thatcher years, the facts are at variance with the ideology. From the Savings and Loans rescue by the American Federal Reserve during the last recession to the handouts given to the ailing airline industry in the current recession, there is a lot more ‘Keynesianism’ around than the free market boosters would like to admit.

Neither have the international and domestic police functions of the state been at all diminished by the growth in international production. To give only one pertinent domestic example, the growth of international production has created, as it must, an international working class and therefore a global labour market. This in turn creates an international migration of labour, just as early industrialisation sucked labour from the land into the mill towns, northern cities and metropolis of 19th century Britain. The attempt to control this process to its own advantage has enormously increased the police powers of the state over immigration and asylum issues.

Internationally the state remains indispensable in underpinning the activities of multinationals. There are no proposals, even from the most hysterical free marketeers, to return to the infancy of the capitalist system, when corporations like the East India Company would employ their own troops. Armed action or the threat of armed action by the state remains the last resort for every capitalist corporation whose markets or production facilities are endangered by international rivals, be they states, other corporations or restive foreign populations unconvinced of the virtues of the free market.

This economic and military relationship with the state is one hallmark of capitalism in the 20th century. And although the fall of the Stalinist states and the privatisation policies of many governments give the impression that this relationship has weakened, this is in fact not the case. It has long been understood, for instance, that the US arms industry’s private firms are utterly dependent on the state underwriting their existence.

These, then, are the senses in which the role of the state remains consistent with its past. But globalisation has also set in train some contradictory trends. Crucially, globalisation has accelerated the trend for states to attempt to control the development of the system through international and intergovernmental organisations. The World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are all US-led institutions designed to shape the global economy. The European Union seeks to make European capital an effective competitor in the world market. And NATO has long been the security arm of Western capital. These and a host of other similar bodies mostly predate the current phase of globalisation, but they have gained renewed prominence because of the growth of the system. None of the institutions can override the authority of the nation-states that compose them. They are as much the site of conflict and paralysis as they are the embryo of ‘international government’, but they do mark an attempt, particularly by the major states, to co-ordinate a response to the unruly powers unleashed by the growth of market forces. This then is the supranational trend enhanced by globalisation.

In reaction to this process a renewed nationalism is also being fuelled. This can take a number of forms. Those nations impoverished by globalisation and excluded from the elite clubs of the major powers can react by refurbishing a nationalist response. This has been a constant motif in Russian politics and in the politics of the Balkan successor states ever since the collapse of Stalinism, in China, in Iraq, and in Indonesia since the fall of Suharto. Even at the core of the system the fear and insecurity, the sense of powerlessness induced in ordinary people when they are confronted by private and state bureaucracies of international dimensions, find expression in the reactionary nationalism of, for instance, Haider and Berlusconi.

The search for a stable cultural identity in the midst of a changing and unpredictable world also fuels many nationalist movements that seek to break apart current nation-states. Scottish nationalism, Basque separatism and Palestinian nationalism have their more or less muscular, more or less progressive counterparts around the globe. The rise of Islam must also be seen in this context.

The dual process that is working its way through the system was first noticed by Lenin and Bukharin during the First World War. Modern capitalism involves two contradictory drives: the first is the centralisation of capital on a national scale and therefore its ever closer relationship with the state; the second is the internationalisation of the system, the growth of multinationals and international trade. It is the contradiction thrown up by this paradox that, again and again in the last century, had to be resolved by war or revolution.

There is one final response to the process of globalisation and the internationalisation of state power which has the greatest potential to express a real alternative to the global ruling elite – the revolt from below. This revolt stretches from the strikes and protests against privatisation, like the struggle against water privatisation in Bolivia, through the general strikes in Africa, to the near-insurrectionary movements that overthrew Milosevic and Suharto. It is a revolt that is far from homogeneous in methods or aims. Its subjects would not necessarily recognise each other as allies nor agree on strategy or tactics. But for all its variegation, this revolt has gradually taken on an increasingly widespread and self conscious form in the last ten years. The emergence of a global anti-capitalist movement since the great Seattle demonstration of 1999 has provided a common language and identified a common enemy in a way that has not been true of any international movement of revolt since the defeat of the last great upturn in struggle in the mid-1970s.

We will return to the prospects for this movement. But now we must look at how the process of globalisation, and the network of state and supra-state institutions, have given rise to war in the last ten years.

The wars of the ‘Soviet succession’

The collapse of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe is one of the greatest political events in the lifetime of anyone born after the Second World War. Events of such great magnitude sometimes paralyse our thought. We simply assume that their consequences are so obvious that we do not need to draw them out. But this is an illusion. The shockwaves from the fall of the Berlin Wall are still reconfiguring the international landscape. The interaction between this crisis in the state system and globalisation is the key to understanding the drive to war in the contemporary capitalist system.

First, let us remind ourselves of the geographical extent of the collapse of the Stalinist Empire. Afghanistan defeated the Russian army in 1989, materially contributing to the decline of the regime. But it was the East European revolutions that sealed the fate of the ‘outer empire’. The ensuing crisis in Russia and the fall of Gorbachev then led more or less directly to the collapse of the ‘inner empire’. From Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia on the Baltic, through the Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia in the Caucasus, to Kazakhstan and the Central Asian states, former ‘Soviet republics’ gained their independence.

It was not clear at first how much of its former empire the remaining Russian state would be able to control. It was obvious that the most westerly parts of Eastern Europe had gone. German unification alone was enough to make sure that Poland, Hungary and what was still then Czechoslovakia would be under Western tutelage. But in the early 1990s the fate of Yugoslavia and the inner empire was by no means so clearly defined.

The break-up of Yugoslavia arose from the determination of the Western powers to dominate the region, to extend NATO into Eastern Europe, and to secure the southern flank of this newly expanded block. The newly unified Germany recognised Croatia and Slovenia, the nearest and most prosperous Balkan state, at a time when even the US was still formally in favour of a unified Yugoslavia. As the break-up of the Yugoslav federation became ever more likely, the Western powers, particularly Britain and the US, courted Serbia as the dominant power. In the Bosnian war Western intervention ensured partition between Serbia and Croatia. The consequent strengthening of Milosevic’s Serbia eventually led to opposition from the US and pointed the way to the Kosovo conflict.

The internal relations of the Balkan states themselves, however, do not explain the Balkan War of 1999. If this had been all that was at stake then Milosevic could probably have quite happily continued persecuting ‘Albanian terrorists’ with the blessing of the Western powers. Long before the Balkan War NATO strategists had been debating transforming the organisation from a ‘defensive alliance’ into one that could undertake ‘out of area operations’. Some two years before the Balkan conflict, for instance, former US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and former Secretary of State for Defence William Perry were arguing that ‘the danger to security ... is not primarily potential aggression to their collective [NATO] territory, but threats to their collective interests beyond their territory ... To deal with such threats alliance members need to have a way to rapidly form military coalitions that can accomplish goals beyond NATO territory’. [7]

In the very same month that the bombing of Serbia began, another longer term Western strategy came to fruition as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became part of NATO. This massive extension of the western military alliance transformed the strategic geography of Eastern Europe. NATO’s military border no longer ran between East and West Germany but thousands of miles to the east. It now ran from Poland in the north, down the border between the Czech and Slovak republics, coming to rest on the Balkan states. On the other side of the Balkans lay NATO’s southernmost members, Greece and Turkey. The Balkans pierced the newly enlarged NATO frontline at a crucial juncture. For this reason alone, ‘stability’ was more than an internal Balkan affair as far as the NATO powers were concerned.

President Clinton expressed NATO’s war aims clearly enough in an International Herald Tribune article at the time. Clinton insisted that to achieve ‘lasting stability’ in the Balkans, ‘the European Union and the United States must do for south eastern Europe what it did for Europe after World War Two and for Central Europe after the Cold War ... We can do that by rebuilding struggling economies, encouraging trade and investment, and helping the nations of the region to join NATO and the European Union.’ The nations of the area, Clinton continued, were already responding to ‘the pull of integration’ by sticking with their pro-market reforms and ‘supporting NATO’s campaign’. [8] Thus globalisation and war go hand in hand.

The new Iron Curtain between Western and Eastern Europe did not exhaust the Balkans’ strategic importance for the Western powers. The fate of this region is closely tied to another crucial area of post Cold War instability – the arc of oil states running up from the traditional spheres of Western interest in Iran and Iraq to the Caspian Sea and the newly independent states on Russia’s southern rim.

Almost nothing was known about the issue of Caspian oil and gas resources outside the oil industry and some specialist publications when the Balkan War began. Indeed, the then British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, thought that any link between the Balkan War and these resources was so astounding that he took the time to ridicule the idea in the New Statesman. [9] But during the course of the war and its aftermath information accumulated that proved the anti-war critics correct and the minister misinformed.

There can now be little doubt of the oil and gas reserves that lie in the Caspian and Central Asian region. For instance, Ahmed Rashid’s authoritative account argues:

The Caspian represented possibly the last unexplored and unexploited oil-bearing region in the world, and its opening up generated huge excitement amongst international oil companies. Western oil companies have shifted their interest first to Western Siberia in 1991–1992, then to Kazakstan in 1993–1994, Azerbaijan in 1995–1997 and finally Turkmenistan in 1997–1999. Between 1994–1998, 24 companies from 13 countries signed contracts in the Caspian region. [10]

One careful estimate of the oil reserves in the region records:

Most of the oil and gas reserves in the Caspian region have not been developed, and in many areas ... remain unexplored. Proven oil reserves for the entire Caspian Sea region ... are estimated at 15–29 billion barrels, comparable to those in Western Europe (22 billion barrels) or the North Sea (17 billion barrels).

Proven natural gas reserves are even larger ... comparable to North American reserves. The prospect of potentially huge hydrocarbon reserves is part of the allure of the region ... While this is not enough to create another Middle East, the region’s possible reserves could yield, if they become proven, a quarter of the Middle East’s total proven reserves. [11]

Robin Cook’s main objection to seeing a strategic importance for the oil lobby in the Balkan War was that the oilfields of the Caspian were thousands of miles away from the Balkans. But as playwright Harold Pinter responded, ‘To get oil from the Caspian Sea into the hands of the West you can’t use buckets. You need pipelines, and those pipelines have to be installed and protected’. [12] But Robin Cook need not have taken the word of a vociferous opponent of US imperialism like Pinter. He need only have asked his staff to supply him with the words, spoken only a year before the Balkan War, by US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson:

This is about America’s energy security ... It is also about preventing strategic inroads by those who don’t share our values. We are trying to move these newly independent countries toward the West. We would like to see them reliant on Western commercial and political interests rather than going another way. We’ve made a substantial political investment in the Caspian, and it’s very important to us that the pipeline map and the politics come out right. [13]

Or he might have taken the words, also spoken in 1998, of then Russian president Boris Yeltsin:

We cannot help seeing the uproar stirred up in some Western countries over the energy resources of the Caspian. Some seek to exclude Russia from the game and undermine its interests. The so-called pipeline war is part of this game. [14]

The US government was committed to finding a pipeline route that avoided both Russia and Iran. This point was first demonstrated in practice during the 1999 Balkan War, when plans were advanced for the pipeline from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey, from where oil would be shipped westward through the southern Mediterranean and Aegean. The completion of the pipeline from Baku to Suspa on the Black Sea, from where oil would move onward through the Bosphorus Straits, made the point a second time. US Secretary of State on Caspian Basin Energy Issues, John Wolf, had announced on 9 July 1999 that the US Trade and Development Office (UTDO) would give between $600,000 to $800,000 for expansion of the Baku-Suspa line. But, as the US analysts Strategic Forecasts report, ‘this manoeuvre only completes half the picture’:

The US still wants to avoid a confrontation with Turkey about environmental issues in the Straits. Thus, in late June, the UTDO acknowledged that it was exploring other options regarding oil transport in the region, including a proposed Trans-Balkan pipeline from the Bulgarian port of Burgos through Macedonia to the Albanian ports on the Mediterranean. The UTDO said the construction of an additional pipeline out of the region was likely, although it stressed that it was ‘firmly committed’ to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline project. As relations between Moscow and Washington continue to deteriorate on a strategic level, and as the situation in Chechnya becomes increasingly unstable on a tactical level, the prospect of eliminating Russia from the oil transport picture becomes more enticing to both the US government and Western oil companies ... There is a marked shift to make enlargement of the Baku-Suspa route and a Trans-Balkan pipeline an imperative, and to close this issue once and for all. [15]

And after the war the revival of plans for a Bulgarian-Balkan pipeline made the point a third and definitive time. On 2 June 1999 the US Trade and Development Agency (TDA) awarded:

... a $588,000 grant to the Bulgarian Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works to partially fund a feasibility study on the development of a trans-Balkan pipeline, which will cross Bulgaria, FYR Macedonia and Albania, ultimately linking the oil resources of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea region with Western Europe ... ‘The competition is fierce to tap energy resources in the Caspian region,’ said TDA Director J. Joseph Grandmaison. ‘Over the last year, TDA has been actively promoting the development of multiple pipelines to connect these vast resources with Western markets. This grant represents a significant step forward for this policy and for US business interests in the Caspian region’. [16]

Since this award was made the consortium involved has given a final completion date for the pipeline as 2005. No such project could have continued without a NATO victory in the Balkan War.

But the Balkan War was about much more than oil – it encouraged the imperial ambitions of the NATO powers in the Caspian region and beyond to Central Asia. There had already been military contacts with the former Soviet republics, but the Balkan War accelerated this process. At the same NATO summit in Washington where Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic became members there were informal discussions about the formation of a loose alliance of Caspian and Central Asian states. The name of this alliance was GUUAM, after the initials of Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan and Moldova. At the same Washington summit Javier Solana, the former defence minister in the Socialist Party government of Spain, secretary general of NATO during the Balkan War, and now European Union foreign policy chief and Middle East envoy, insisted that NATO could not be fully secure without bringing the Caucasus into its security zone. [17]

Even before the Balkan War the US ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme and Cenbat, the Central Asian peacekeeping battalion, were extending the diplomatic and military reach of the Western powers deep into this new zone of conflict. In one training mission in 1997 US paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne landed in Kazakhstan to join operations with local troops after a 23-hour flight from Fort Bragg. NATO advice had already been offered during military manoeuvres by Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Georgia designed to protect the Baku-Suspa oil pipeline. [18] The Strategic Research Development Report 5-96 of the US Centre for Naval Warfare Studies describes the Partnership for Peace as:

Activities of ... forces that provide dominant battlespace knowledge necessary to shape regional security environments. Multinational exercises, port visits, staff to staff coordination – all designed to increase force inter-operability and access to regional military facilities – along with intelligence and surveillance operations ... [So] forward deployed forces are backed up by those which can surge for rapid reinforcement and can be in place in seven to 30 days. [19]

What was happening was an opening up of the great swathe of the globe dominated by Eastern Europe, Russia, the Caspian and Central Asian states to Western multinationals and military strategists after their long Cold War exclusion. In many ways it marked a reversion to patterns of interstate conflict that predated the rise of the Stalinist states in Eastern Europe and, indeed, even the Russian Revolution. The Balkans were, of course, the arena in which the ‘Eastern Question’ was fought out in the second half of the 19th century. Then the major powers were fighting for advantage as another old empire, this time the Ottoman Empire, collapsed. Then, as now, the area represented a gateway to the east and the southern Mediterranean.

Part of what lay further east was the Caspian region. ‘Do you know how they pronounce Baku in the United States?’ the journalist John Reed asked his audience when he spoke in that city at the 1919 People’s Congress of the East. ‘Oil’ was the answer. And indeed the Caspian had long been the site of rivalry between British, Russian, French, Turkish and other imperial interests. It was again in the Second World War when Hitler drove east before running short of fuel and being defeated at Stalingrad. His plan was to take the saving prize of Caspian resources, and then to drive south for the even greater prize of Persia and Iraq.

Afghanistan, the current site of conflict, has a no less inglorious imperial past. Standing as the buffer between India, the jewel in Britain’s imperial crown, and Russia’s south eastern empire bordering China, and astride the old Silk Road east-west trading route, Afghanistan could not fail to find itself the battleground of empires. The very phrase ‘the Great Game’, coined to denote this rivalry, was first used here. So it is again today. The Russians are still players, but the British, long gone out of India, return only on the vapour trails of the United States.

There is unfolding across the whole of this region from the Balkans to Afghanistan a 21st century ‘Scramble for Africa’. Like the original, there are certainly enough economic motivations to fuel this enterprise – not just oil and gas, but some new markets for other commodities, new arms contracts, new sources of cheap labour. But, also like the original, the scramble for Asia does not solely involve proven economic advantages. Just the prospect, even the unproven prospect, of new materials and markets is enough for corporations and states to want to exclude their competitors. Diplomatic, strategic or military advantage, even where no immediate economic gain is likely, is enough to motivate governments.

In this respect the close links – geographical, economic and political – with the pivotal location of modern imperial rivalry, the Middle East, would be enough to make both the Caspian and Central Asia central to the concerns of the Western powers. The stability of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, still a far greater reservoir of oil than anywhere else, has been a central concern for the imperial powers for more than a century. This is why the Gulf War was the first decisive episode of the new imperialism. But the fate of this area is now bound up with the larger zone of conflict.

Just consider two basic points. The whole debate about oil pipelines in the Caspian, the Balkans and Turkey is driven by the fact the Western states and corporations do not want to export through either Iran or Russia – despite the fact that both are favoured by the oil companies because they are cheaper than the options now being developed. And the search for alternative oil and gas reserves and alternative pipelines, the ‘multiple pipeline routes’ strategy that is now official US policy, is driven by fear of dependence on the Middle East alone. Finally, the course of the war in Afghanistan has demonstrated beyond doubt that the stability of Israel, Saudi Arabia and, perhaps, Egypt rests on the conduct and outcome of that conflict. As US ambassador Nathan Nimitz argued, ‘Pax NATO is the only logical regime to maintain security in the traditional sense ... [and] must recognise a need for expansion of its stabilising influence in adjacent areas, particularly in south eastern Europe, the Black Sea region (in concert of course with the regional powers ...) and in the Arabian/Persian Gulf. The United States must continue to play the major role in this security system’. [20]

United States policy and United States power

A strange thing happened during last year’s presidential election in the United States – there was a debate on foreign policy between the candidates, Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. This was strange for two reasons. Firstly, there aren’t usually debates on any issue of substance, especially not foreign policy, between the candidates in US presidential elections. Secondly, very few people noticed.

If we recall this debate now it can begin to tell us a little about the thinking of the American elite, the people who have propelled us all into three major wars in a decade. Essentially, Bush and his team accused the Clinton White House of damaging the military by inadequate defence spending, of involving America in too many overseas commitments, and of pointless attempts at ‘nation building’ in the Balkans and elsewhere. As Bush’s soon-to-be National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, put it, ‘We don’t need the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten’. [21] Gore responded by accusing Bush of ‘isolationism’. He defended Clinton’s record of ‘humanitarian intervention’ by insisting that ‘nation building’ was exactly the task taken on by the US in Germany and Japan after the Second World War – precisely the theme of Clinton’s war aims article during the Balkan War, as we have seen.

The course of this debate is uninteresting. But what is interesting is that Bush has completely reverted to his opponents’ position within months of becoming president. Military leaders were startled to find Bush submitting Clinton’s 2002 defence spending plans to Congress virtually unaltered. Secretary of State Colin Powell rushed to tell the NATO meeting in Brussels in February 2001 that the US would not be pulling back from the Balkans: ‘The simple proposition is that we went in together, we will come out together’. [22] Finally, of course, Bush has now committed the US in Afghanistan to a far more extensive and dangerous ‘nation building’ task than Clinton ever considered.

If we look beyond the posturing of the presidential debate we can see the real physiognomy of the wider ruling elite, which by no means breaks down on party lines. Here we can see some of the real forces, and real divisions, in the policymaking structure of the US, particularly in regard to the area where the current war is being fought.

When the Clinton administration came to power in 1992 its main concern was to promote good relations with post-Stalinist Russia. Concern with the Caspian and Central Asian states was seen as a distraction or, worse, a provocation to Moscow. Clinton’s leading Russian adviser and later Deputy Secretary of State, Strobe Talbott, insisted that US support for the Yeltsin regime was a vital bulwark against the return of ‘Communism’. The Department of Defence was also keen to secure Russian co-operation over nuclear non-proliferation. Officials avoided criticising Russia’s internal policies as part of this ‘Russia first’ approach.

This approach began to change in the mid-1990s. One important issue was oil:

By mid-1994, however, the region’s energy potential ... had begun to attract renewed interest, and the ‘Caspian region’ enjoyed a remarkable vogue among a small, vocal group of policymakers. By the middle of the decade, there were conferences on the Caspian in Washington almost every week, new institutes were founded to study Central Eurasian history and politics, bilateral business councils created for every country in the region. Cabinet secretaries and members of Congress made numerous visits. In Baku and Tashkent in particular, expectations rose to the point of envisaging special relationships with the Americans comparable to those between the US and Saudi Arabia or Iran under the Shah. [23]

Out of all this a new strategic concept had emerged by the late 1990s – the New Silk Road. Promoted by the recently established Caspian inter-agency group at the National Security Council and a new presidential adviser on Caspian issues, this plan foresaw ‘a “corridor” of prosperous, stable and secular states more or less allied with Western interests and providing a balance to what were considered to be Russian, Iranian or Chinese regional ambitions’. In 1998 Congress first introduced a ‘Silk Road Strategy Act’ to establish multiple pipelines to bring Kazakh, Turkmen and Azeri oil and gas to market. [24]

The evolution of this policy was part of a wider shift in the Clinton administration’s foreign policy profile led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Polish-born Brzezinski is a central figure in the American foreign policy elite, and to follow his career is to see the evolution of a central strand in US policy. Brzezinski was Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, and he had considerable influence on the first Clinton administration through his ally and Clinton’s National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake. Brzezinski was an early advocate of NATO expansion and, through Lake, was instrumental in getting Clinton to commit himself to this course as early as 1994. Brzezinski’s influence continued in Clinton’s second administration, when his former pupil at Columbia University, Madeleine Albright, was made Secretary of State. Albright had also worked under Brzezinski in the Carter administration. [25]

Brzezinski’s ‘three grand imperatives of imperial geostrategy’ are ‘to prevent collusion and maintain security among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to keep the barbarians from coming together’. And the most pressing task is to ‘consolidate and perpetuate the prevailing geopolitical pluralism on the map of Eurasia’ by ‘manoeuvre and manipulation in order to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that could eventually seek to challenge America’s primacy’. Those that must be divided and ruled are Germany, Russia, China, Iran and Japan. [26]

It was Brzezinski who infamously defended US support for the Taliban thus: ‘What is more important in the world view of history? The Taliban or the fall of the Soviet Empire? A few stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?’ [27] And once this task was performed, and NATO expansion achieved, Brzezinski became a firm advocate of war in the Balkans. This was in part because he saw the Balkan War as a testing ground for US policy throughout the whole Caspian and Central Asian area: ‘In the Brzezinski scheme of things ... “Serbia” is Russia, and Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc., are the Ukraine, the Baltic states, Georgia and the former Soviet republics of “the Eurasian Balkans”.’ [28] And, of course:

… having become an advocate for American oil companies wishing to establish themselves in the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia, Brzezinski regards American predominance in this region ... as a prime objective. With this in mind, apart from alliances with China and Turkey, our champion of democracy takes a positive view both of the strengthening of relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan (with the Taliban acting as cement) and of the Islamic resurgence in Saudi Arabia as well as Iran (with which he favours an alliance). [29]

It does not take great perspicacity to see in this scenario the outlines of US diplomacy in the Afghan conflict, notwithstanding the small alteration that the ‘few stirred-up Muslims’ are giving the US elite more trouble than Brzezinski foresaw.

The Brzezinski strategy has not gone unopposed among America’s rulers. Some, like Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher, were ambivalent about NATO expansion. Some have seen Islam as a threat rather than a useful counter in the game of geopolitical realpolitik. Some, like Strobe Talbott, started out the 1990s with a more benign and inclusive attitude toward Russia, hoping that it could be brought into the Western camp as more of an ally than a competitor. But a combination of the catastrophic performance of the Russian and former Soviet republics’ economies, deeply authoritarian governments throughout the region, and the logic of two wars in three years have given the ‘expansionists’ ascendancy.

The Bush cabinet itself is a remarkable group of people. Vice-president Dick Cheney is an oil executive and the former Secretary of Defence. Condoleezza Rice is the director of a transnational oil corporation and a Russian scholar. Secretary of State Colin Powell has no diplomatic training but was, of course, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War. Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defence, is a former chief executive officer of Searle Pharmaceuticals and was, with Dick Cheney, the featured speaker at the Russian-American Business Leaders Forum in May 2000. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, argued passionately for action to overthrow Saddam Hussein in the late 1990s. It is safe to say that the central concerns of this group are oil, Russia and the military.

In any case, the real barrier to the ‘expansionists’ lies less in the internal divisions in the American ruling class and more in the limits of American power. And, for all that US power seems unassailable, the truth is that it has very real limitations.

The basic paradox underlying the US imperial project at the beginning of the 21st century is this – it has military capability beyond the reach of most of its competitors, but it does not have the economic capability to rebuild a world economy repeatedly suffering recession and slow growth at its core, and devastation in much of its periphery. This contrasts with the highpoint of American hegemony in the immediate post Second World War period. Then the proportion of American economic power in the world economy as a whole was much greater, underpinning its political and military reconstruction of Europe, and its inheritance of responsibility for those areas of the world left behind by the retreat of European colonialism. [30] Then arms spending by America could sustain the longest boom in the history of capitalism. Now, however much it may assist the US economy in the short term, arms spending is not capable of once more lifting the world economy into a period of expansion in which growth rates are once again double the current average for the industrialised economies.

This economic context has profound relevance to the fate of the Eurasian zone of conflict that we have been examining. Globalisation and the opening up of the Russian sphere of influence have ensured an economic and military rush into this area by the US and other Western powers. But the economic aspect of this has certainly been no new Marshall Plan capable of bringing the prosperity that so many assumed would follow the collapse of Stalinism. The Russian economy itself underwent a disastrous crisis in the 1990s, deepened by the South East Asian crash in 1997. In the former Soviet republics much investment has been promised but relatively little has been delivered, especially if we exclude oil and gas related resources. And in the period 1997-1999 Central Eurasia’s trade with the rest of the world declined by 40 percent. The consequence is that since 1997 life expectancy, literacy, and fertility and nutrition levels have fallen in nearly every country in the region. Population growth in Kyrgyzstan fell by 31 percent in 1999, in Armenia by 25 percent in 1998, and in Afghanistan by an average of 15 percent a year. [31]

All this is a long way from the ‘prosperous corridor’ dreamt of by the best and the brightest at the NSC in the mid-1990s. Now the US and the other major powers have a darker vision of their purpose in the region. As the 1990s progressed, they were inclined to see it as an extension of Afghanistan – described by one Indian expert as ‘the perpetual vortex of a storm that spews forth all manner of evil’. [32] Conveniently forgetting their own part in creating this storm, ‘all the major powers with interests in Central Eurasia regard maintaining stability there as the most important issue’. [33]

So where globalisation has failed, the military must step in. This is the pattern time and again in relation to the oil pipelines. The Baku-Ceyhan pipeline was delayed for a long period by the Turkish state’s inability to deal with the Kurdish revolt. The Baku-Suspa route was imperilled by Chechen separatists who, on one occasion, blew up an existing pipeline. The Bulgaria-Albania pipeline was impossible until NATO’s victory in the Balkans. The Afghan civil war eventually forced the cancellation of the Unacol pipeline from Tajikistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. Thus geopolitical strategy both contradict and mutually reinforce each other.

Russia, China and the new imperialism

The major powers agree on the ‘need for stability’, but they do not agree on how this is to be achieved. One critical relationship, that between the US and Russia, has inevitably been worsened by the ‘expansionist’ policy that now guides America. Vladimir Putin may welcome the licence that the ‘war against terrorism’ gives him to pursue the war in Chechnya. He may even gain more leverage in the bargaining over the abandonment of the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty because the US needs his support for operations in Afghanistan. But the fundamental direction of Russian foreign policy since the late 1990s, and especially since the Balkan War, has been to become more assertive of its interests in the ‘near abroad’.

The change began with the ‘Primakov doctrine’, named after Russia’s foreign minister from 1996 to 1998, which called for a strengthening of opposition to the influence of ‘outsiders’ in Russia’s ‘near abroad’. But it was in the late 1990s that this became a more serious approach. Russia released a new defence doctrine calling for stronger defence arrangements with the former Soviet states and a major increase in defence spending. At the January 2000 Confederation of Independent States summit Putin proposed, and for the first time the other CIS leaders accepted, a greater Russian role in co-ordinating defence ‘against terrorism’. Thus Putin’s coalition preceded Bush’s by more than a year and a half. Putin will be well aware that closer co-operation with the Soviet successor states over ‘terrorism’ can lead to greater co-operation in resisting US and NATO expansionism.

China has its own interests in ‘maintaining stability’ in its border province with Afghanistan. On the broader canvas it is the subject of overtures from both Russia and the US. The US, for instance, is both trying to assist China’s passage into the World Trade Organisation and override China’s objections to its ‘theatre missile defence’ strategy. China, in response, has been advocating the doctrine of a ‘multi-polar’ world designed to limit unilateral action by the US, undermine its commitment to the deployment of forces in the region, and unsettle those countries that host US bases. This approach was the subject of a joint Chinese-Russian communiqué when President Jiang Zemin visited Moscow in November 1999.

A Sino-Russian alliance is one development the US fears most, as Brzezinski made clear. There have been signs that some such understanding may develop, despite the fact that neither China nor Russia can, for the moment, afford to completely alienate the US. In the last five years a new regional organisation has been built up – the Shanghai Group. Its members are China, Russia, Kazakstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The group co-operates on a range of trade, cultural, security and military affairs. The alliance has resulted in the sale of Russian C-30 fighters to China. And, of course, China and Russia are both opposed to US plans for missile defence.

Other lesser powers – Pakistan is the obvious current example – negotiate the treacherous waters between pleasing the major powers and sustaining their own interests.

This picture illustrates two fundamental aspects of the new imperialism that I recorded at its birth. The first is that the new imperialism is much more complex and unstable than the old bi-polar world of the Cold War:

… the central feature of the new imperialism is that even the greatest of the great powers is no longer so great that it has the same capacity to structure the world, or even particular regions of the world, that the two superpowers had at the height of the Cold War. They now try to control a less stable world while still competing with each other. Sometimes they will achieve this through mutual but unstable agreement, sometimes through economic competition, sometimes by war or the threat of war, and most often through a combination of all of these ... It [is] precisely in the combined and uneven competition that the instability of the system rest[s]. [34]

Secondly, the new fractured ‘multi-polar’ world inhibits the US from being able to act alone. As the Gulf War showed:

International co-ordination is not just a question of cloaking US power in multilateral clothes. The US found such multinational co-ordination necessary as well as desirable. Unilateral military action against Iraq was too dangerous and unilateral economic action was impossible. So the need for international action speaks of US weakness, not strength. [35]

These characteristics of the system have become more pronounced in the two major wars since the Gulf War. In the Afghan war the degree of bribery necessary to form an international ‘coalition’ reached epidemic proportions.

Pakistan was a ‘rogue state’ before the Afghan war because it fought a war with India over Kashmir and continued testing nuclear weapons, and because General Musharraf came to power in a military coup. Now the sanctions imposed are being lifted, debt is being rescheduled, aid and loans offered, and renewed fighting in Kashmir ignored by the US. In short, a new rogue state, much more dangerous than Afghanistan, is being created before our eyes.

The last, bloody edition of Russia’s war against Chechnya was conducted after NATO’s attack on the Balkans. This fact, as the Russian government clearly appreciated, nullified Western criticism. Now George Bush has given Putin’s ‘war on terrorism’ legitimacy. But US troop deployment in Uzbekistan, where the government already looks to reviving its pipeline projects with US oil companies, and other Central Asian states is sowing the seeds of future conflicts. China, the second great long term imperial competitor for the US, has won a partial lifting of sanctions on the sale of military equipment. These were first imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. [36]

In the Middle East the bribery involves increased instability at every turn. the ‘war against terrorism’ has unleashed the Israeli state’s armed forces on the Palestinians, inflamed Arab opinion and called into question the stability of pro-US governments in the region. In response the US is selling rockets to Egypt, even greater numbers of fighters and missiles to Oman, and has allowed Syria a place on the UN Security Council. There has even been a purely verbal US commitment to a Palestinian state. The arms will stay in the Middle East – the promise of a Palestinian state will not. Cynicism and anger about the ‘peace process’ will deepen as yet another imperial promise is broken.

America was created as a modern nation by white settlers who offered the native population of that continent weapons and commodities in return for the destruction of their society. More than three centuries later the seeds of future wars are being sown by the US government’s need to ply an unwilling world with arms and money in order to sustain its imperial dominance.

The left and imperialism

The fall of Stalinism has had a profound effect on the left. For the duration of the Cold War imperial rivalry was, by definition, a bi-polar affair. This was true despite the fact that the actual conflicts were mostly fought in the Third World, sometimes by proxy. The collapse of the USSR, which so many identified with socialism, led to a widespread pessimism on the left. For many it seemed as if the US was now the unchallenged ruler of the globe, no longer subject to challenge by other powers. A host of theorists have come forward to testify to this untrammelled power.

The trend began early in the 1990s with the popularisation of Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that the fall of Stalinism meant that there were no longer any serious challenges to the liberal democratic, free market model embodied by the US. The corollary was that no two states so constituted would ever fight a war. The common or garden version of this idea is that ‘no two states with a McDonald’s have ever gone to war’. In other more left wing accounts the US appears as an all-powerful ‘hegemon’, whose actions are accounted for simply in terms of its ability to oblige its allies and enemies to do its bidding. These accounts have a familiar feel because they reproduce some of the arguments first advanced by Karl Kautsky, the theoretician of the Second International.

Kautsky argued that the capitalist system in the early 20th century had entered an ‘ultra-imperialist’ era. The key characteristic of ultra-imperialism was that conflict between the major powers was now impossible because capitalist firms had become so large, and the economies of the major capitalist powers so integrated, that conflict between them would be too damaging to contemplate. Kautsky foresaw ‘a federation of the strongest imperial powers who renounce their arms race’ and therefore ‘the threat to world peace’. Modern accounts of the monolithic power of the US reach a similar conclusion. There may be ‘colonial’ wars, but no general conflict can result from them because the power of the US is so overwhelming.

There is of course a grain of truth in this argument. US military capacity is the greatest in the world. And the US economy has boomed in the 1990s while some of its post Cold War competitors have, like Japan, faltered. But what Kautsky ignored, and what the modern advocates of monolithic imperialism ignore, is that the imperialist system remains the site of conflict between the major powers. The US does have by far the greatest military arsenal in the world, but its ability to underwrite the economic stability of the system has declined greatly in the post-war period. And the social and political instability that results from this fact constantly throws up challenges to US power.

These challenges rarely begin with conflicts between major powers. More typically they involve, as they have done throughout the history of imperialism, minor powers – ‘rogue states’ in the modern parlance. But confrontations between the imperialist states and smaller nations frequently come to involve rivalries between the imperialist states themselves. The relative economic decline of the US, plus the fact that even militarily it is powerful but not all-powerful, means that the troubled business of coalition building is unavoidable. Equally unavoidable is the fact, greatly feared by US strategists, that other nations may build coalitions against the US. A succession of ‘colonial’ conflicts may be necessary before such divisions between the major powers threaten a major war – but the root causes of such a conflict exist in the new imperialism.

This situation is strongly reminiscent of the unstable and shifting alliances characteristic of the imperialist system before the Cold War. Then too there was a dominant power, Britain. But this did not prevent either colonial wars or the eventual emergence of the conditions for a war between the major powers. Indeed, it is arguable that the rivalries inherent in the modern world order make imperialism a much more war-prone system that the fearful stability of the bi-polar Cold War.

The fall of Stalinism has also had a second and equally profound effect on the left’s thinking. This concerns the struggle against imperialism. From the time of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution in the late 1920s much of the left internationally identified socialism with state control of the economy, no matter how authoritarian and undemocratic the regime. This identification was made significantly greater when the Stalinist model was extended to Eastern Europe, China, Cuba and a variety of other post-colonial regimes after the Second World War. For the Communist parties and their fellow travellers, including many in social democratic parties, this meant that regimes which found themselves in opposition to imperialism also had ‘progressive’ social structures. Cuba or North Vietnam, for instance, were not only to be supported because they had the right to national self determination, but also because they were in some way inherently progressive, even socialist.

The fall of Stalinism has thrown this worldview into confusion. In each of the major wars of the last decade a section of the left has effectively sided with imperialism because it equated undemocratic and authoritarian regimes that were the victims of imperialism with imperialism itself. For Fred Halliday, a longtime opponent of imperialism, for instance, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was such an unacceptable regime that it justified the full onslaught of the greatest military powers in the world. For Mark Seddon, editor of Tribune, and many others on the left the nature of the Milosevic regime justified the imperialist bombing campaign against Serbia. And today many on the left found the Taliban such a uniquely reactionary regime that it justified the US and British war against Afghanistan.

The most elementary logical distinctions, if nothing else, seem to have been overridden in these arguments. For instance, one does not have to be a supporter of any of these regimes – indeed, one can be politically opposed to them all – and still maintain opposition to imperialist intervention. The basic principle of the rights of nations to self determination requires us to allow the exploited and oppressed people of these nations to settle accounts with their own tyrants. No one, either on the left or the right, suggested during the long and bloody history of the apartheid regime in South Africa that the appropriate response to such tyranny was to let loose the armed forces of America or Britain. Any imperial intervention, as long experience in Africa has taught us, would not help. Only the acts of the working people of South Africa, even if their struggle was long and pitted with setbacks, could ultimately bury the regime. The left internationally could and did aid this struggle, thus banishing the accusation that respecting the rights of nations to self determination is to abandon the local populations to the mercy of their dictators.

Neither, for most of the Stalinist-influenced left, were these criteria ever applied evenly. There is, for instance, a dictatorial regime ruled by an authoritarian figurehead with a well developed cult of the personality, that suppresses freedom of speech, exploits the workers and peasants, and puts into concentration camps individuals of whose sexual orientation it disapproves. The regime is Fidel Castro’s Cuba. None of this should detract from the left’s desire to oppose US imperialism’s attempt to overthrow the Cuban regime, but it should guide us in how we handle similarly authoritarian regimes that do not happen to adopt progressive rhetoric.

Such regimes are likely to multiply in number. The state capitalist model of development is much less common. Anti-colonial struggles have given rise to ruling classes of new nations who now increasingly try to carve their own space in the world system by striking deals with the major powers. Such arrangements are, of course, no guarantee that today’s imperial ally will not turn into tomorrow’s imperial victim – as Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic and Mullah Omar can all testify. But what this illustrates is that we cannot decide whether or not to oppose imperialism simply on whether or not we find the past or present behaviour of the regime to be progressive.

In the era before the rise of Stalinism this was more clearly understood, at least on the revolutionary left. Writing in the early 1920s Georg Lukács commented on the fact the 19th century ‘movements for unity of Germany and Italy were the last of these objectively revolutionary struggles’ for national liberation. The difference with modern struggles for national liberation, Lukács observed, is that they are now:

… no longer merely struggles against their own feudalism and feudal absolutism – that is to say only implicitly progressive – for they are forced into the context of imperialist rivalry between world powers. Their historical significance, their evaluation, therefore depends on what concrete part they play in the concrete whole. [37]

It follows that:

Forces that work towards revolution today may very well operate in the reverse direction tomorrow. And it is vital to note that these changes ... are determined decisively by the constantly changing relations of the totality of the historical situation and the social forces at work. So that it is no very great paradox to assert that, for instance, Kemel Pasha may represent a revolutionary constellation of forces in certain circumstances whilst a great ‘workers’ party’ may be counter-revolutionary. [38]

Lukács is generalising from positions developed by Lenin during the First World War. Lenin, for instance, was well aware of the shortcomings of the national bourgeoisie in the oppressed countries:

Not infrequently ... we find the bourgeoisie of the oppressed nations talking of national revolt, while in practice it enters into reactionary compacts with the bourgeoisie of the oppressor nation behind the backs of, and against, its own people. In such cases the criticism of revolutionary Marxists should be directed not against the national movement, but against its degradation, vulgarisation, against the tendency to reduce it to a petty squabble. [39]

Consequently Lenin was determinedly opposed to those on the left who qualified their opposition to imperialism on the basis that those facing imperialism did not hold progressive ideas:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable ... without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses ... is to repudiate social revolution ... [which] cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably...they will bring into the movement their prejudices, their revolutionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital

The dialectics of history are such that small nations, powerless as an independent factor in the struggle against imperialism, play a part as one of the ferments, one of the bacilli, which help the real anti-imperialist force, the socialist proletariat, to make its appearance on the scene. [40]

We do not live in the era of the Russian Revolution, but it is still true that whether or not we oppose imperialism is determined by the totality of relations in the system at any one point, and not only by the internal character of the regimes that find themselves, however ineffectively, opposed to imperialism.

Imperialism, anti-imperialism and socialism

Imperialism is an evolving system. Since the very earliest days of capitalism, international expansion has been written into its structure. The union with Scotland and the colonisation of Ireland formed one of the first capitalist states, Britain. Both events were decisively shaped by the revolution of the 17th century. And one of Britain’s first post-revolutionary wars was with the second major capitalist state of the day, the Dutch republic. Emerging capitalist states and declining pre-capitalist empires fought for dominance in America, Africa, Asia and the Far East. For two centuries British, Dutch, French, German, Italian and other major powers struggled to conquer the globe, and subdue indigenous populations and minor powers.

The apogee was reached in the 20th century as wholly capitalist powers clashed in two world wars, and again and again in countless colonial conflicts. At the beginning of the century Lenin and Bukharin outlined the two contradictory drives that still dominate the modern capitalist system. Bukharin wrote, ‘Together with the internationalisation of economy and the internationalisation of capital, there is going on a process of “national” intertwining of capital, a process of “nationalising” capital, fraught with the greatest consequences’. [41] Globalisation on the one hand and the massive military-industrial network of the modern state on the other are the modern form of this contradiction. The result is that economic competition and the inequality and instability it creates constantly reproduce military competition and war. The drive to war has broken apart and reconstituted the imperialist system throughout the 20th century.

Since the Second World War formal colonies have largely gained their independence. Oppressed nations have come and gone, fought their battle, and joined the international system of states in more or less subordinate ranks. This process began with the American colonies in the 1770s and ran through to the liberation of Ireland and India, among many others, in the 20th century. But that does not mean that the national question has disappeared – merely that it has, like imperialism itself, evolved new forms. The indigenous ruling classes that took the place of their colonial overlords have often struggled to suppress new nationalist forces within their, often artificial, boundaries. So it was, for instance, that the new post-independence Indonesian ruling class fought to suppress the East Timorese. Equally these new ruling classes have struggled with the still ever-present economic and military strength of the major powers. And this returns us to the need, as Lukács argued, to assess each anti-imperial struggle from the standpoint of the whole contemporary alignment of forces in the imperialist system.

There is, however, one relatively consistent social position from which this assessment can best be carried out. As their rulers and would-be rulers twist and turn between colonialism and independence, accommodation and belligerence, the inescapable power of the international economy and the weight of the great states bear down on the workers and peasants of these societies. It is here that we find the one great enduring force opposed to the imperial system throughout its long evolution. Whatever its changing shape – from the primitive accumulation of the slave trade, through the early colonies, to the great imperial wars of the 20th century – these classes have stood in opposition to the system. Their struggle has certainly not always been victorious. It has often lain dormant for great lengths of time. But it has, nevertheless, risen again and again to confront both the imperial powers and the capitalist system from which they grew.

Karl Marx made the essential point that no matter how much the spread of capitalist relations may transform the economic structure of what is now called the Third World, no matter how many nations attain independence, the fundamental task of human liberation still falls to working people. Writing of British rule in India he argued:

All the English bourgeoisie may be forced to do will neither emancipate nor materially mend the social condition of the mass of the people, depending not only on the development of the productive powers, but on their appropriation by the people. But what they will not fail to do is to lay down the material premises for both. Has the bourgeoisie ever done more? Has it ever effected a progress without dragging individuals and peoples through blood and dirt, through misery and degradation?

The Indians will not reap the fruits of the new elements of society scattered among them by the British bourgeoisie till in Great Britain itself the now ruling classes have been supplanted by the industrial proletariat, or till the Hindus themselves shall have grown strong enough to throw off the English yoke. [42]

The British were eventually driven from India, but the fundamental task that Marx outlined remains unfinished. Since Marx’s day the working class in India and elsewhere in the Third World has grown to be able to take a much more prominent role in dealing with the inheritors of imperial rule, be they indigenous bourgeoisies or new foreign powers. The growth of the international working class has, nevertheless, been a slow process. Workers are only now, perhaps, a majority of the world’s oppressed and exploited. Various forms of ‘extra-economic’ coercion over labour remained a feature of the system well into the 20th century. In the less industrialised economies the working class is more differentiated into agricultural and semi-proletarian layers than elsewhere. And peasants still form a very large proportion of the world’s oppressed and exploited. But for all this, as one important study shows, ‘as the colonial era gave way to post-colonialism after the Second World War, so the traditional division of labour began to change. A substantial, if uneven, industrial development began in many areas of the Third World which significantly altered the social and economic conditions of labour’. [43] This was a new international division of labour that:

… fundamentally restructured the relations of production in the Third World, with the emergence of a substantial manufacturing sector oriented on the world market. The ‘world market factories’ carried out super-exploitation of their mainly female workers, but created the conditions for the emergence of a ‘classical’ confrontation between labour and capital. [44]

We have seen this long term economic process of class formation begin to express itself, albeit unevenly, in class consciousness and class organisation. If we think of the unions in countries as distant as South Africa, South Korea, Brazil and Indonesia we can see the possibilities. And, as part of this process of class organisation, political consciousness and political, sometimes overtly socialist, organisations have begun to grow. These currents are by no means homogeneous, even among socialists, where reformist and revolutionary alternatives both exist. And socialism, however defined, is by no means the only or the major set of ideas contending to express resistance to the system. Nationalism and Islamic ideas, to mention only two of the most prominent trends, command the support of many millions of workers, peasants and the poor around the globe.

Nevertheless, socialists do have a better chance than for many generations to build support for their views. Globalisation has created an international working class bigger than at any time in the history of capitalism. But it has failed to create a system that can sustain an acceptable livelihood for millions of workers. One consequence of this is a renewed drive to war characteristic of the contemporary imperial structure. The fall of Stalinism means that there is no ideological enemy to blame. This situation has therefore created a crisis of confidence in the system. The physical expression of this crisis is the international anti-capitalist movement.

It is in this anti-capitalist movement, now arguing its way to also being an anti-imperialist movement, that socialists can begin to win a much wider audience for the idea that working people have the power to overthrow the rule of capitalism and imperialism. Moreover, they can begin to successfully advance the view that the system can be replaced with an international system of co-operative labour so organised that it meets the needs of those who produce social wealth. The alternative is that we to allow our rulers to continue the routine business of imperialism – the organisation of human misery.


1. R. Leger Sivard, World Social and Military Expenditures 1996 (Washington 1996), p. 17.

2. M. Parvizi Amineh, Towards the Control of Oil Resources in the Caspian Region (New York 1999), pp. 5–6.

3. Ibid., pp. 7–8.

4. Ibid., pp. 6–7.

5. Ibid., p. 11.

6. B. Sutcliffe, 100 Ways of Seeing an Unequal (London 2001), p. 14.

7. Quoted in A.G. Frank, Caspian Sea Oil, Still the Great Game for Central Eurasia, a review essay of M.P. Croissant and B. Aras (eds.), Oil and Geopolitics in the Caspian Sea Region (Westport, Conn. and London 1999), [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

8. W.J. Clinton, On Track In Kosovo Toward Balkan Renaissance, International Herald Tribune, 24 May 1999.

9. ‘We have demonstrated that we were willing to undertake military action, not to seize territory, not for expansion, not for mineral resources. There is no oil in Kosovo ... there is only some dirty lignite.’ Robin Cook, interviewed by John Lloyd, New Statesman, 5 July 1999, p. 19.

10. A. Rashid, Taliban: Oil, Islam and the New Great Game in Central Asia (London 2000), p. 144.

11. M. Parvizi Amineh, op. cit., pp. 82–84.

12. H. Pinter, The NATO Action in Serbia, in T. Ali (ed.), Masters of the Universe? NATO’s Balkan Crusade (London 2000), p. 333.

13. Quoted in Caspian Pipeline Tug Of War: Washington Favours Geopolitics Over Economics, International Herald Tribune, 9 November 1998.

14. Quoted in A. Rashid, op. cit., p. 156.

15. Strategic Forecasts report, Ajerbaijan Forces Pipeline Issue (1999), [Note by ETOL: This link has not been checked.]

16. US Trade and Development Agency press release, 2 June 1999.

17. See A.G. Frank, op. cit.

18. Racing For Arms, The Economist, 5 June 1999. For more detail see J. Rees, Oil, Gas and NATO’s New Frontier, New Political Economy, vol. 5, no. 1 (March 2000), pp. 100–104.

19. Quoted in A.G. Frank, op. cit.

20. Quoted ibid.

21. See International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Survey 2000/2001 (London 2001), p. 63.

22. Ibid.

23. K. Weisbrode, Central Eurasia: Prize or Quicksand?, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Adelphi Paper 338 (London 2001), p. 23.

24. Ibid., p. 24.

25. See G. Achcar, Rasputin Plays at Chess: How the West Blundered Into a New Cold War, in T. Ali (ed.), op. cit., pp. 66–72.

26. Ibid., p. 72.

27. Quoted in A. Rashid, op. cit., p. 130.

28. D. Johnstone, Humanitarian War: Making the Crime Fit the Punishment, in T. Ali (ed.), op. cit., p. 154.

29. G. Achcar, op. cit., p. 74.

30. For a more elaborated account of this process, see J. Rees, The New Imperialism, in Marxism and the New Imperialism (London 1994), pp. 67–71.

31. See K. Weisbrode, op. cit., p. 19.

32. Ibid., pp. 19–20.

33. Ibid., p. 20.

34. J. Rees, The New Imperialism, op. cit., p. 117.

35. Ibid., p. 121.

36. J. Wilson, S. Goldenberg, E. MacAskill, J. Steele, New Brothers in Arms – Cans and Intelligence, The Guardian, 20 October 2001.

37. G. Lukács, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of his Thought (London 1977), p. 46.

38. G. Lukács, History and Class Consciousness (London 1971), p. 311.

39. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 23 (Moscow 1964), p. 61.

40. Ibid., vol. 22, pp. 355–357.

41. N. Bukharin, quoted in A. Brewer, Marxist Theories of Imperialism: A Critical Survey (London 1980), p. 106.

42. K. Marx, quoted ibid., p. 58.

43. R. Munck, The New International Labour Studies (London 1988), p. 33.

44. Ibid.

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