10 March 2023
Audio of a talk based on this article at an online meeting on 26 February 2023:
In January, the influential French academic Emmanuel Todd told Le Figaro newspaper that the “Third World War has begun.” The historian and anthropologist argued that the conflict in Ukraine, “moving from a limited territorial war to a global economic confrontation between the whole of the West on the one hand and Russia backed by China on the other, has become a world war.” Todd’s understanding of the world is not Marxist, and his pronouncement of WWIII is premature, but he is right to sound the alarm over the imminent danger of the military and economic showdown between US-led Western imperialist forces and the Russia-China alliance triggering a global conflagration of unimaginable devastation.
Given that all of the “great powers” involved have nuclear weapons, the prospect is, without exaggeration, the end of human civilization and a descent into barbarism and suffering for generations. According to the National Post (5 March 2022):
“Russia retains the largest stockpile, of roughly 4,500 nuclear warheads, according to estimates from the Federation of American Scientists. Along with the United States, which has around 3,800, the two nations hold about 90 per cent of all nuclear weapons in the world—about the same ratio as at the end of the Cold War. (Both Russia and the U.S. have a reserve of warheads that are retired and waiting dismantlement, bringing their totals up to nearly 6,000 warheads apiece.)”
It would take an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead about half an hour to deliver its payload from the US to Russia or vice versa. Every major city in the main warring countries would be destroyed in a nuclear exchange employing even a fraction of these states’ available arsenal, as would many in allied countries. After the initial detonations, radiation and the environmental and atmospheric consequences of the blasts would leave virtually no place on Earth unscathed. A scholarly study published last August indicated that “a week-long war involving 4,400 weapons and 150 Tg, or 330.6 billion pounds, of [atmospheric] soot—such as one that would occur between the U.S., its allies and Russia—would kill 360 million people directly—and more than 5 billion from starvation” (CBS News, 16 August 2022). Even a “conventional” war in which both sides agreed not to push the button (and somehow honored that pledge) could kill millions of people, collapse the global economy and thrust tens and perhaps hundreds of millions into misery and starvation.
Yet aside from Todd and a handful of others, representatives of the ruling elite in the West (whether intellectuals, politicians, prominent capitalists or the media servants of empire) have exhibited no real understanding or concern over the gravity of the situation—or, insofar as they do, it is to project their own willingness to initiate a nuclear war onto the “new Hitler” Vladimir Putin. Indeed, some of the more brainless elements have mused that a nuclear war might have only a limited impact and that the use of “tactical” nuclear weapons (i.e., smaller bombs) might not trigger Armageddon after all, leading the New York Times to worry last year that “their use [is] perhaps less frightening and more thinkable” than that of “the behemoths of the Cold War.”
Most talking heads in the Western media have ignored the dangers and bigger picture, contenting themselves with inane chatter about Ukraine’s sovereignty, China’s disregard for democracy or other self-serving and hypocritical narratives. In Russia, public discourse has been largely shaped by a framework that portrays the conflict in Ukraine not only as a matter of military self-defense but also cultural and civilizational differences, while the Chinese rulers advance a more materialist yet narrowly nationalistic outlook based on Stalinist Realpolitik. Marxists, by contrast, have a responsibility to explain clearly the foundations of the present tensions and articulate a political perspective that reveals a path away from species suicide and towards human solidarity and peace—the path towards a classless, communist world.
In the post-WWII era, the existence of the Soviet Union had created room for non-imperialist countries to exercise some degree of autonomy and national sovereignty over their natural resources. In 1961, the “non-aligned movement” (NAM) was launched by Yugoslavia, India, Ghana, Indonesia and Egypt and involved several other countries, including in the Middle East. Although NAM members distanced themselves from the USSR, its example of a non-imperialist (indeed, non-capitalist) alternative had emboldened these countries to attempt to carve out some level of independence. The imperialists responded with intervention in different arenas to assert control but most of their attention was focused on the Cold War.
Following the capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union in 1991, the technocrats of American imperialism envisioned a “unipolar” world dominated by the United States. US-based corporations, straddling the globe, would face few restrictions to extracting enormous profits from dependent countries everywhere through a “free trade” regime administered from Washington and backed up by the unparalleled military might of American armed forces. Recalcitrant governments in Eastern Europe and other neocolonial countries that sought to maintain state ownership of lucrative natural resources, subsidize their own national capital or shield their populations from the vicissitudes of the global market could be toppled by the US military. A truly global Pax Americana would usher in an epoch of unrivaled US dominance, naked capitalism, imperialist exploitation and even (wherever popular discontent could be easily contained) low-level liberal democracy—the ideological window-dressing for the entire enterprise. Securing the Middle East would cement the foundations of the “unipolar” world headquartered in Washington.
American imperialism’s first target was oil-rich Iraq, governed by erstwhile ally Saddam Hussein. Under the pretext of opposing Baghdad’s invasion of Kuwait—a military operation that the Baathist dictator believed had Washington’s blessing—the US and its allies launched the Gulf War of 1991 (aka “Operation Desert Storm”), openly regarded by both Republican and Democrat politicians as among the “first tests” in a post-Soviet New World Order in which “there is no substitute for American leadership,” according to then-President George Bush Sr. Support for the war was ginned up at home through a cartoonish propaganda campaign in which Hussein was presented as the “new Hitler” (the first of many reincarnations) whose depraved soldiers ostensibly murdered babies in hospital incubators. In the end, the Bush administration, after scoring a relatively quick victory on the battlefield, opted to leave Hussein in power while bolstering US forces in Kuwait as a beachhead in the region.
Democratic President Bill Clinton upped the ante with the signing of the “Iraq Liberation Act” in October 1998, which made “regime change” in Baghdad official US policy and aimed to create a permanent American military presence throughout the Middle East. No opposition was seen at that time from Russia, which had descended into economic disarray and dependency following the restoration of capitalism and was governed by the corrupt and pliant Boris Yeltsin. (In 1996, Clinton had interfered in Russian domestic politics to secure the re-election of the unpopular Yeltsin, who had privately asked his American master to postpone NATO expansion in Eastern Europe “for a year and a half or two years” so as not to further undermine his position at home [Washington Post, 26 June 2020].) In December 1998, the US and its British ally conducted a four-day bombing campaign of Iraq (dubbed “Operation Desert Fox”), ostensibly to punish the country for its supposed failure to comply with UN weapons inspectors (see “Hands Off Iraq!” 1917 No.21). As before, Hussein remained in power, but the intentions of the American imperialists in the region were clear.
Clinton followed up this display of imperial firepower with NATO’s brutal 78-day aerial bombing campaign of Yugoslavia in 1999. “Precision-guided” airstrikes targeted Serbian bridges, factories, refineries, power stations, water-pumping stations, schools, hospitals, houses and apartment buildings, all perversely designated as “collateral damage” by NATO officials and the good-dog corporate media. While presented as an attempt to prevent “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” by Serbs against Kosovo-Albanians, the attack on Yugoslavia, much like the war on Iraq, was a low-risk imperialist military assault on a “rogue” neocolonial regime—this time that of local strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
In addition to subduing Serbia, policymakers in Washington were intent on maintaining America’s pivotal role in European affairs at the expense of their German, French and Italian rivals while seeking to extend US leverage within what was formerly a Soviet zone of influence. NATO’s Yugoslav mission was the first time that Germany had gone to war since the days of the Third Reich and thus represented something of a watershed moment for German imperialism. Berlin tended to view the Balkans as its sphere of influence and initially tried to block with France and Britain to handle Serbia rather than letting the Americans intervene. However, US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright successfully drove a wedge between Germany and its EU partners in the lead-up to the Rambouillet Agreement, which set the stage for the NATO bombing campaign. The day before the bombs began to fall on 24 March 1999, Clinton let slip that cementing a strong US-European partnership “is what this Kosovo thing is all about” (cited in Masters of the Universe, ed. Tariq Ali, 2000).
During the Yugoslav war, American forces bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three journalists. It is worth noting that this supposed “fatal error” (for which Clinton was forced to apologize) was the result of the embassy being the “only target … nominated” for bombing by the CIA, according to later testimony of its director, George Tenet, before the House Intelligence Committee. Beijing rejected Washington’s explanation and the Chinese ambassador to the UN declared the strike a “crime of war” committed against his country. Berlin, still upset over the US sidelining Germany, threatened to hold a public inquiry over the bombing, as the first decade of the “unipolar” world drew to a close.
Over the first two decades of the 21st century, the notion that the United States would be able to control the globe without serious challenge slipped like sand through the fingers of Washington’s imperialist planners. Beginning with a bold gambit to accelerate the march to a US-dominated world, the period ended in humiliating defeat and the demotion of the American eagle to a lower branch on the tree of imperialism—although still as its most powerful predator.
The story goes back to 1997, when a group of out-of-office Republicans—including film noir villains Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz—established the neo-conservative think tank, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), whose stated aim was to promote “American global leadership” and “shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests.” In September 2000, the PNAC cabal published an influential report, “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century,” which admitted: “the United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” The PNAC conspirators’ perspective, which distinguished itself from the more isolationist “paleoconservatism” of the Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party, represented an enthusiastic embrace of the “regime change” strategy pursued by both Republicans and Democrats.
The neocon faction assumed power in the contested November 2000 presidential election with the victory of simpleton George W. Bush (his vice president, Cheney, called the shots). Less than a year later, they launched the global “war on terror” ostensibly in response to the September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Instead of Saudi Arabia—the US client state that was home to most of the attackers—the Bush/Cheney administration immediately targeted Afghanistan, where 9/11 “mastermind” Osama bin Laden (a former CIA asset against the Soviets) was said to be residing. In October 2001, the US launched the cynically named “Operation Enduring Freedom” against Afghanistan. The assault was carried out by the Anglo-American imperialists (US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) alongside Germany, France and Italy with the support of other countries, including Russia, governed by its newly elected president, Vladimir Putin.
However, widespread early support for the “war on terror” among imperialist powers began to falter as it became clear that Washington had much broader ambitions. From the beginning, Rumsfeld (now secretary of defense) sought a pretext to extend the military response to Iraq, which had no connection to the 9/11 attacks whatsoever. Years later, retired American general and former NATO head Wesley Clark, who oversaw the military alliance’s barbaric assault on Serbia in 1999, revealed that Iraq was not the only target considered:
“About 10 days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon, and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the generals called me in. He said, ‘Sir, you’ve got to come in and talk to me a second.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re too busy.’ He said, ‘No, no.’ He says, ‘We’ve made the decision we’re going to war with Iraq.’… “So I came back to see him a few weeks later, and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, ‘Are we still going to war with Iraq?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s worse than that.’ He reached over on his desk. He picked up a piece of paper. And he said, ‘I just got this down from upstairs’—meaning the secretary of defense’s office—‘today.’ And he said, ‘This is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.’”
—Democracy Now!, 2 March 2007
The pretext for going to war with Iraq in March 2003 was the bogus claim that Saddam Hussein had acquired “weapons of mass destruction”—an “Emperor’s New Clothes” absurdity that the corporate media earnestly relayed. Washington’s main EU rivals (with the notable exception of Tony Blair’s Britain) were suspicious of a US-led war to control Iraq—possibly connected to the fact that 30 percent of their oil came from the Persian Gulf. In October 2000, Baghdad requested that the UN, which had been tightly monitoring the country’s oil sales, allow it to receive payments for oil exports in euros, replacing the US dollar as the currency of exchange. It is perhaps not surprising that Paris and Berlin decided to sit out “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
Furious at European “treachery” over Iraq, one Pentagon insider told the Observer (16 February 2003) that an angry America would seek to “harm the German economy.” Rumsfeld famously dismissed France and Germany as “old Europe” while the Pentagon, under orders from Wolfowitz, “barred French, German and Russian companies from competing for $18.6 billion in contracts for the reconstruction of Iraq, saying it was acting to protect ‘the essential security interests of the United States’” (New York Times, 10 December 2003).
The Afghanistan and Iraq wars combined cost the lives of more than half a million people, according to the conservative estimate of Brown University’s Costs of War Project. As we noted a decade after the beginning of the Afghan War:
“In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, it proved much easier to depose the existing regime than to establish effective control over a hostile population. Revolutionaries opposed the occupation of Iraq from the beginning and, as in Afghanistan, defended all blows struck against the occupiers and their hirelings by indigenous resistance forces. In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, the imperialist crusaders have failed to achieve their central strategic objective—the creation of a stable client regime to provide a base for the direct military control of the enormous oil resources of the region.”
—“Pathologies of Capitalism,” 1917 No.34
The destruction did not stop with Afghanistan and Iraq, as US imperialism, increasingly ensnared in a military imbroglio of its own making, continued to pursue plans for total domination of the Middle East and Northern Africa. In 2011, Washington led a NATO bombing campaign to assist CIA-backed proxy forces in Libya. The US had armed and equipped jihadi rebels to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi (again presented as Adolph Hitler 2.0). Qaddafi had been a sometimes problematic yet essentially toothless client, but US corporations were eager to get their hands firmly on the country’s valuable oil and natural gas reserves. Of course, claims of “genocide” in Libya used to generate popular support in the West were no more credible than that of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq in 2003, but once again the mainstream media played along (see “Libya & the Left,” 1917 No.34). Today, Libya is in chaos, as rival political factions vie for control of a decimated country where torture and open slave-trading are now common.
Beginning in 2014, American imperialism led a military operation to remove the Syrian Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad (miraculously, another “Hitler”). Pro-imperialist ideologues seized on and promoted internal opposition to an oppressive dictatorship to manufacture consent for “regime change.” The so-called “Syrian Revolution” was rapidly hegemonized by the Islamist jihadi descendants of the Muslim Brotherhood and local al-Qaeda affiliates, who received an ample supply of weapons and funding from CIA “rat lines” orchestrated by the US, working with regional allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar (see “Middle East Chaos,” 1917 No.38). Today, US forces occupy approximately one-third of Syria, including many of the oil fields and agricultural resources in the country’s northeast. More than 350,000 people have died and millions have been displaced as a result of Western imperialist interference, though the Assad government remains in place.
By the time the “war on terror” brand ended with America’s defeat in Afghanistan in August 2021 (the longest war in US history), the US military-industrial complex and a handful of financial parasites on Wall Street had done very well out of it. Over two decades, the top five US defense contractors (Boeing, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics) saw a near ten-fold increase in the value of their shares, while “defense stocks outperformed the stock market overall by 58 percent during the Afghanistan War” (The Intercept, 16 August 2021). However, an estimated $8 trillion had been pumped into the “war on terror” and the returns for the ruling class as a whole could not justify continuing the gargantuan expense of a failing military adventure. US capitalism was caught in a downward spiral that began a generation earlier—later accelerated by the 2008-09 economic crisis and then the Covid-19 disaster (see “Whither America? Class, Crisis & Imperial Decay,” 1917 No.43).
The war on terror, and the broader post-Cold War campaign to create a “New American Century” of unipolar domination, was not simply the result of the capture of the American state by neocon war hawks. Changes in personnel and the ideological commitments of leaders do have an impact on the direction and amplitude of military excursions, but the ultimate drive for US foreign interventions is the structure of American capitalism and the global imperialist order of which it is the leading component. The nature of this system has been well understood by Marxists for more than a century and, despite the important ways in which it has evolved over time, imperialism remains fundamentally the same system that gave birth to the First World War.
More than any other Marxist theoretician, V.I. Lenin helped develop a materialist conception of imperialism. In his 1916 pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, he wrote:
“If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism. Such a definition would include what is most important, for, on the one hand, finance capital is the bank capital of a few very big monopolist banks, merged with the capital of the monopolist associations of industrialists; and, on the other hand, the division of the world is the transition from a colonial policy which has extended without hindrance to territories unseized by any capitalist power, to a colonial policy of monopolist possession of the territory of the world, which has been completely divided up.”
While direct territorial conquest has always been an important feature of the imperialist world order, the system can and does operate without it, since the essence of imperialism is a global web of exploitative production relations that serve to extract surplus value from the working class in “developed” countries and from entire countries in the “developing” world. As we previously explained:
“During the two decades between the first and second world wars, global capitalism had a far more protectionist and autarkic character than it had prior to 1914. This changed after World War II, as the U.S., presiding over the liquidation of the European colonial empires, sought to unite the ‘free world’ against the challenge posed by the expansion of the Soviet bloc and the Chinese Revolution. American planners actively discouraged protectionism among U.S. allies and were prepared to make concessions to integrate them into a new capitalist global order. During the early years of the ‘American Century,’ Washington relied on the formal equality of the ‘free market’ to guarantee U.S. supremacy. Under the American imperium, neocolonialism replaced direct colonial rule and economic subservience was mediated by multi-national institutions, particularly the United Nations, World Bank, IMF and General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.”
—“Roots & Fruits of Imperialism,” 1917 No.39
Contemporary finance capital takes the form of giant, nationally-based “transnational corporations,” which dominate global production and trade and are fused with their national states. The economic activity of these corporations abroad has not only stunted and deformed the growth of poor countries (ensuring that they remain poor) but is also responsible for the exploitation of billions of people in the scientific, Marxist sense of the term. The process of surplus value extraction under imperialism involves a variety of mechanisms, including direct investment (capital export), interest payments and even land rent (see “Imperialism & Global Inequality,” 1917 No.31).
While Marxists talk about the world imperialist “system,” it is vital to note that it is not some unified mechanism of exploitation pitting a cohesive group of great powers against their victims, but rather a contradiction-ridden and fractured complex of relations rooted in “overripe” and decaying capitalism. As Lenin explained, imperialism involves monopolistic and oligopolistic companies (and the states that back them) competing with each other for a slice of the global economic pie—a competition that eventuates in military conflict. While the shift from direct occupation to neocolonialism in the post-WWII era involved an attenuation of inter-imperialist rivalry, that attenuation was conditioned by the existence of the Soviet Union as a counterbalance and perceived alternative and therefore a threat to capitalism. In this context, imperialist competition over the spoils from poor countries saw a downgrading of direct military conquest, although it was never entirely absent. The imperialist order today still possesses the features of neocolonialism, but in the post-Soviet era, amid the death agony of the US empire, inter-imperialist war over control of spheres of influence is back on the agenda.
The contemporary landscape of the imperialist order has been shaped by the rise of Russia and China as global powers. These two countries have become primary targets of the declining and fragmenting US-led imperialist bloc. As we outlined in “Imperialist Rivalries Escalate” (1917 No.41):
“The long-term downward trend in the [US] profit rate has fostered deindustrialization, the hypertrophy of fictitious capital and soaring public and private debt, while a decline in the organic composition of capital (the ratio of constant capital to variable capital and surplus value) through bankruptcies has not occurred on a scale big enough to restore robust growth. Instead, having absorbed the shocks of the 2008 financial crisis and recession, the state has sought to transfer the thrust of the blow to the working class in the form of austerity. Combined with the disastrous military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq (as well as destabilizing interventions in Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere), the erosion of the material foundations of the most powerful empire in human history has created new possibilities for geopolitical realignments.”
Russia, emerging from over a decade of disintegration caused by the 1991 counterrevolution, clawed its way back to imperialist status in the first decade of this century. Although a weaker and economically more backward imperialist power than its chief Western rivals, Russia’s massive corporations nonetheless export a significant amount of capital to neocolonies, while the country is a leading producer in key industries—including nuclear power, aerospace, chemicals, metallurgy, advanced weaponry and of course oil and natural gas—and has managed to successfully leverage its power in various territories. Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar al-Assad, for instance, was a decisive factor in shifting the balance of power back to the regime and blocking US plans in the Middle East. More recently, Russia sidelined the French and American imperialists during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war by negotiating a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia outside the Minsk Group, the long-standing framework for dealing with the conflict in the Caucasus. It also deployed some 2,000 Russian “peacekeepers” to the front lines of the conflict, shoring up support for key neocolonial ally Armenia and projecting further Russian power in the region (see “Nationalism & Nagorno-Karabakh,” 1917 No.43).
Much more important, of course, has been Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine since February 2022—eight years after the Washington-backed “Maidan” coup that installed a Western-friendly regime in Kiev dominated by anti-Russian Ukrainian chauvinists. Threatened by yet further eastern expansion of NATO, Moscow took decisive action to secure its periphery and demonstrate to the US and its NATO allies that Russia refuses to be pushed around in Eastern Europe (see “NATO Provokes Russian Attack on Ukraine,” 1917 No.45). The ongoing Ukraine war, essentially a proxy conflict between Russia and the Western imperialist alliance, is a defining event of the global order in the early 21st century.
Alongside Russia’s re-emergence as an imperialist competitor has been the growing influence of China over the past two decades. Yet China is not itself imperialist—its economy, while integrated into global capitalism, rests on fundamentally different foundations. China is what Marxists call a deformed workers’ state. It is based on a post-capitalist system that integrates market mechanisms into an essentially state-run planned economy dominated by a petty-bourgeois bureaucracy, making China qualitatively the same as the Stalinist-controlled Soviet Union (see “Whither China?” 1917 No.31). While China is subject to the same contradictions that ultimately destroyed the USSR, the parasitic caste centered in Beijing has proved more resilient than its former Soviet counterparts. The penetration of foreign capital and market forces into the Chinese economy over the last 40 years, particularly in the coastal Special Economic Zones, along with the emergence of a layer of indigenous Chinese billionaires, has bolstered capitalist restorationist currents. At the same time, however, the CCP bureaucrats have managed (for now) to leverage the capitalist-assisted development to support a growing planned economy, where the operation of the market is significantly moderated and frequently overridden by state control and the central role of state-owned enterprises.
China has sought to facilitate its economic growth by allying with energy-rich Russia, which is something of a pariah among imperialist states. Just three weeks before the start of the Ukraine war, for instance, Beijing and Moscow announced a 30-year deal for Russia to supply natural gas to China through a new pipeline—and to conduct transactions in euros, further undermining the US dollar. The statement accompanying the announcement reiterated the two countries’ vision of a “multipolar” world, i.e., challenging the hegemony of American imperialism. Putin and Xi Jinping have made no secret of their desire to act as alternative “poles” to which the economies of the neocolonial world can orient. The increasing integration of the Russian and Chinese economies (through mechanisms like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Eurasian Economic Union and the BRICS organization) is accelerating in response to the aggression of an increasingly desperate United States.
Yet the alliance between Russia and China is fraught with its own difficulties. Russia has been willing to undercut its American rival through price discounts on its energy commodities, but its ultimate goal is to secure a bigger piece of the highly lucrative global market. As an imperialist country, its aims are exploitative, and Moscow’s talk of respecting the sovereignty of developing countries is disingenuous. While the Chinese Stalinists are no friends of the oppressed, the fundamentally different nature of China’s economy means that it lacks the predatory character of the imperialists. Beijing has been careful to maintain a formally “neutral” stance in the Ukraine war (for instance with its 12-point peace proposal released on the anniversary of hostilities), as it seeks to maintain its important and growing economic ties to Europe.
China has also been deepening economic ties with neocolonies in Asia, Africa and beyond in what is perceived in Washington as a major challenge to American hegemony, but it is doing so largely by offering a better deal than US imperialism. In “Whither America?” (1917 No.43) we observed:
“China’s efforts to secure its own economic interests via the colossal ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI) present another major challenge to American influence in Eurasia. Announced in 2013, the BRI includes plans for an overland economic hub and a maritime trading area:‘[President] Xi’s vision included creating a vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, to Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia. Such a network would expand the international use of Chinese currency, the renminbi, and ‘break the bottleneck in Asian connectivity,’ according to Xi. (The Asian Development Bank estimated that the region faces a yearly infrastructure financing shortfall of nearly $800 billion.) In addition to physical infrastructure, China plans to build fifty special economic zones, modeled after the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, which China launched in 1980 during its economic reforms under leader Deng Xiaoping.’
—Council on Foreign Relations, 28 January 2020
“To facilitate sea trade, the Chinese deformed workers’ state announced that it ‘would invest in port development along the Indian Ocean, from Southeast Asia all the way to East Africa and parts of Europe.’ Beijing has already spent hundreds of billions of dollars (out of more than $1 trillion anticipated) on the project, and over 60 countries have indicated some level of involvement. Washington views the BRI as a direct challenge to its own influence in South and Central Asia, the Middle East and even Europe.”
The prospect of accessing China’s markets and connecting to the vast network it is establishing in Asia has contributed to a partial fracturing of the weakened Western bloc. Italy, for instance, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the BRI against the wishes of the US, though the country’s divided ruling class has waffled over it. Rome is torn between its integration in the EU, NATO and what remains of the Washington Consensus on the one hand, and its important economic ties to China on the other. New Zealand, with its proximity to Asia, finds itself in a similar predicament—Wellington has also signed a MoU for the BRI. Germany also has a complicated economic relationship with China, its largest trading partner.
The rise of Russia and China on the world stage has forced a declining American imperialism to reassess its strategy for global domination, though the US ruling class remains tactically divided over whether to emphasize its opposition to one or the other (in an effort to split the alliance) or treat them as a unified bloc that needs to be confronted. Even in the first decade of the century, at the height of the “war on terror” in the Middle East, American imperialist politicians were discussing the need to “pivot” to Asia to counter the influence of China (and to a lesser extent Russia). The failure to secure the Middle East for US corporations tipped the balance under the Obama administration, and Trump simply followed suit. The Nation (July 2016) reported:
“All of this—the aggressive exercises, the NATO buildup, the added US troop deployments—reflects a new and dangerous strategic outlook in Washington. Whereas previously the strategic focus had been on terrorism and counterinsurgency, it has now shifted to conventional warfare among the major powers. ‘Today’s security environment is dramatically different than the one we’ve been engaged in for the last 25 years,’ observed Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on February 2, when unveiling the Pentagon’s $583 billion budget for fiscal year 2017. Until recently, he explained, American forces had largely been primed to defeat insurgent and irregular forces, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan. Now, however, the Pentagon was being readied for ‘a return to great-power competition,’ including the possibility of all-out combat with ‘high-end enemies’ like Russia and China.”
In December 2017, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy stated:
“China and Russia want to shape a world antithetical to U.S. values and interests. China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and reorder the region in its favor. Russia seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.”
A summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, a major document outlining the strategic framework of the military component of the US empire, noted that America’s “competitive military advantage has been eroding” in the face of what it calls “inter-state strategic competition,” i.e., rival state powers. While the document mentions Iran and North Korea, its primary concern is with China and Russia, whose actions are denounced with unblinking hypocrisy as aimed at “gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” The Pentagon’s desire to “sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power that safeguard the free and open international order” means that the use of military force (or the threat of that force) against Russia and China is an essential bulwark of US economic dominance: “Failure to meet our defense objectives will result in decreasing U.S. global influence, eroding cohesion among allies and partners, and reduced access to markets that will contribute to a decline in our prosperity and standard of living.”
This is not simply a case of the military-industrial complex seeking a new bogeyman (in place of Islamic fundamentalism) to justify soaring government investments; it is a recognition that the decline of American economic power, which has allowed both Russia and China (each in its own way) to expand its influence, will have to be supplemented by direct military confrontation. In other words, the unipolar dream is over—the nightmare of a third world war is beginning to take shape.
An important precursor—possibly the trigger—of WWIII may turn out to be the Ukraine War. Moscow’s “special military operation,” launched in February 2022, came in response to US/NATO intervention in Ukraine extending back at least to 2014—an intervention that, from the beginning, was aimed at wrenching Ukraine away from Moscow’s control and weakening Russia.
In 2004, the US had supported the so-called “Orange Revolution,” which prevented the election of presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovich, who was inclined to be friendly to Russia. Yanukovich eventually managed to win the presidency in 2010 by defeating the West’s preferred candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko. In February 2014, open civil war erupted as Yanukovich, who had courted Western support, rejected an austerity bailout package on offer from the EU and pivoted back to Russia for assistance. The US sponsored the “Maidan” movement that toppled Yanukovich and installed Western-friendly elements. Openly fascist forces—which had been central to Maidan—were subsequently integrated into the country’s military while the Ukrainian chauvinist regime in Kiev passed laws targeting Russian speakers in the east. Moscow responded by covertly supporting separatist forces in the Donbas (who soon set up autonomous governments in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics [DPR/LPR]) and annexed Crimea, home to Russia’s strategic Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol.
In late 2014 and early 2015, Kiev and Moscow signed the Minsk Accords, which sought to put an end to fighting in the Donbas. Keeping the break-away Donbas republics in Ukraine was, to some extent, serving the interests of Russia, which could thus retain influence within the country. Essentially, however, the Minsk framework bought time for the Western-backed government in Kiev, which ignored its obligations and spent the ensuing years fighting to control the whole of the Donbas. As we noted last year:
“Volodymyr Zelensky was elected president in 2019 largely as a ‘peace’ candidate but quickly moved to escalate tensions and offer up Ukraine as a willing tool of Western imperialism. In June 2020, Ukraine became a NATO ‘Enhanced Opportunities Partner,’ providing ‘troops to Allied operations, including in Afghanistan and Kosovo, as well as to the NATO Response Force and NATO exercises.’
“Zelensky, currently the darling of Western liberals, launched a campaign to forcibly re-integrate the DPR and LPR into Ukraine in early 2021. Kiev shut down leading opposition television channels and seized assets belonging to the family of Viktor Medvedchuk (a Ukrainian-Russian oligarch aligned with Moscow), including an oil pipeline. Zelensky’s former security adviser, Oleksandr Danyliuk, admitted that the Ukrainian president’s moves were explicitly designed to please the Biden administration and ‘fit in with the U.S. agenda’ (Time, 2 February 2022). As the US State Department cheered on Kiev, Russia responded by stationing 3,000 troops near its border with Ukraine.
“In March 2021, NATO’s Defender-Europe 2021 joint exercises were held across Europe, with Ukraine as one of the participating countries. These US Army-led military operations brought together some 28,000 multinational troops ‘to build readiness and interoperability between U.S., NATO and partner militaries’ in Europe. The following month, Zelensky sought to fast-track Ukraine’s membership in NATO, declaring that ‘NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas. Ukraine’s MAP [Membership Action Plan] will be a real signal for Russia’ (Al Arabiya News, 6 April 2021).”
—“Ukraine & the Left,” 1917 No.45
Western imperialists were clearly integrating Ukraine into NATO, although holding back formal membership. NATO had been expanding eastward since the 1990s, and the US now has thousands of troops stationed in Eastern Europe, alongside large military deployments of other member states on Russia’s border.
A direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO was almost triggered in June 2021 when a British Royal Navy destroyer passed into territorial waters claimed by Russia off the coast of Crimea. The incursion, intended to send a clear warning to Russia and perhaps test its response capabilities, came just days before “Exercise Sea Breeze 2021,” which involved NATO members (including the US, Britain, France and Canada) sending “5,000 troops, 32 ships, 40 aircraft, and 18 special operation and dive teams” ostensibly to “enhance maritime security” in Russia’s backyard pool (Ukrinform, 22 June 2021).
In response to this and other provocations, Russia built up forces along its border with Ukraine. While preparing for an invasion, Moscow was also angling for assurances from Washington that Ukraine would not be permitted to join NATO. The Biden administration refused to take membership off the table (although Ukraine formally joining NATO was not in the works) and Putin took the bait, launching the invasion on 24 February 2022. In the early months of the conflict, marked by both advances and setbacks for Moscow, Russia swallowed up four Ukrainian territories (the two Donbas republics plus Zaporizhia and Kherson), which, along with Crimea, are now officially part of the Russian Federation.
NATO countries immediately pledged to send weapons and money to Kiev. At the time, we observed:
“The present war is not simply a conflict between Russia and neocolonial Ukraine—the real protagonists are Russia and NATO. Although the government in Kiev cannot be said to be a mere agent or proxy of Western imperialism as it still exercises some degree of autonomy, this is rapidly diminishing.”
—“Ukraine & the Left,” 1917 No.45
In total, the US Congress has, since the beginning of the war, allocated more than $100 billion of military and other assistance to Ukraine—much of which doubles as a subsidy for American “defense” contractors. Behind the scenes, Ukraine’s armed forces (which still include open neo-Nazis) have essentially been turned into a NATO military. Last year, the Wall Street Journal (13 April 2022) reported that NATO forces—including from the UK and Canada—had “transformed Ukraine’s military up and down the ranks, from foot soldiers to the defense ministry to overseers in parliament” by providing “classes, drills and exercises involving at least 10,000 troops annually for more than eight years.” In addition to other war materiel, the US, UK, Germany and Spain have promised to send advanced tanks to the Kiev regime.
Although differences continue to exist between Kiev and NATO, mainly about the extent of military aid, it is clear that the latter is calling the shots. Germany’s foreign minister recently let slip that her country is indeed “fighting a war against Russia” via NATO’s Ukrainian proxy (Newsweek, 25 January 2023). In a sense, the question now is not whether the conflict in Ukraine is a proxy war between Western imperialism and Russia, but if it is merely a proxy war. To what extent are American, British, German and/or other Western imperialist military forces present in Ukraine and directly involved in the fight against Russia? There are numerous reports that this is already happening covertly, though NATO leaders deny it. Whatever the specific involvement of outside forces at any given point, Ukraine is the frontline in NATO’s war against Russia.
Despite surface-level agreement amongst West European leaders, the war in Ukraine—pushed most vehemently by Washington—poses a thorny problem, and fissures within Europe are already visible. In fact, the European Union has been a divided project since its inception. Two decades ago we noted:
“The EU originated in the aftermath of Hitler’s failed attempt at ‘European integration’ under the swastika as a U.S.-sponsored attempt to develop closer economic and political ties between the major West European powers. Washington’s overtly counterrevolutionary strategic objective was to strengthen West European capitalism against both the Soviet Union and indigenous pro-socialist elements of the workers’ movement. The first step was the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 when France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed the Treaty of Paris. European ‘integration’ took a further step in the 1957 Treaties of Rome, which created both the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community. In 1986, the Single European Act extended the scope of European policymaking and sought to rationalize decision-making. The ‘European Union’ born of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty represented a significant deepening of the project through the Economic and Monetary Union and agreement on launching the Euro as a single currency.”
—“Imperialist Expansionism & the EU,” 1917 No.28
While in some ways the midwife of the EU, Washington has never felt an affinity for the baby—in particular its “Old Europe” axis, the Franco-German bloc. The French ruling class has historically sought to use the EU to gain a greater degree of independence from the US, and has even at various points been cold on its membership in the American-dominated NATO. Its German counterpart has been more comfortable in the alliance while seeking to use an expanding EU as the framework within which to compete with US companies in the new markets that opened up in Eastern Europe following the counterrevolutions.
The reassertion of Russian power on the global stage and Washington’s aggressive response have changed the calculus, straining Germany’s relationship with other EU members and even calling into question the future not only of the EU but of NATO itself. While the weight of the past and Germany’s institutional integration into both NATO and the EU have bottled up the contradictions for the time being, they may yet explode with little warning. The German economy has long relied on Russian energy sources (going back to the days of the Soviet Union) and the EU project as a whole rests on access to Russian energy commodities. As we observed in “Imperialist Rivalries Escalate”:
“German capitalists reacted badly to the Western sanctions demanded by Washington following the events in Ukraine in 2014 and were stung by Moscow’s cancellation of the South Stream oil pipeline. Germany depends on Russia for about half of its natural gas imports, 40 percent of its crude oil imports and 30 percent of coal imports—somewhat more than other West European countries (New York Times, 11 July 2018). When Trump provoked Germany at the July 2018 NATO summit for being ‘captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia,’ Chancellor Angela Merkel tersely replied that Germany ‘can make our own policies and make our own decisions’ (Ibid.).”
Despite its stated goal of becoming independent of Russian energy, Germany has no good alternative to it, and the desire of American energy companies to block out their Russian competitors is not matched by a capacity to fully replace them. Industrial capitalists and other sectors of the German ruling class are aware of this and have been queasy about the sanctions imposed on Russia. Last March, Siegfried Russwurm, president of Germany’s leading business group (the Federation of German Industries), pointed to a further complication when he noted that a boycott of Russian natural gas “would have ramifications for the whole of Europe as the continent’s gas network has not been designed for gas flows from west to east.”
It is difficult to parse the contradictory statements being put out by German authorities. On 19 January, Express reported:
“Germany claims to have completely cut energy ties with Russia after being one of the most dependent countries on its supplies in Europe. German Finance Minister Christian Lindner argued that the country has found alternatives to Russian energy and no longer relies on its imports. He said the nation has diversified its energy mix, getting its hands on new sources of power amid the war in Ukraine and supply squeezes from Russia.”
Four days later, Bloomberg published an article that claimed the contrary:
“Germany is still years from substituting Russian pipeline gas imports with liquefied natural gas capacities, according to estimates by the country’s Economy Ministry….
“[I]t will take until 2026 for Germany to install 56 billion cubic meters of domestic LNG import capacity, about the same it imported by pipe from Russia in 2021, the Economy Ministry wrote in an answer to a set of questions by the Left Party. By 2030 those capacities are seen at 76.5 billion cubic meters, or about 80% of total German gas consumption in 2021.”
In what amounts to an act of war not just against Russia but also against Germany (and other EU countries), the US blew up three of the four Nord Stream natural gas pipelines to Western Europe in late September 2022, according to veteran investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. With this stunning move, Washington was hoping to prevent possible backsliding by Berlin in its commitment to the US-led sanctions against Russian energy (winters are cold in Central Europe), even if it meant tanking European economies—indeed, that too may have been part of the plan. The industrial sabotage, which the US has tellingly declined to investigate, also has the benefit of sealing off a major source of profits for its Russian rival while increasing revenues for its own energy corporations.
Berlin’s initial hesitancy to send its Leopard tanks to the Kiev regime, under pressure from both a pleading Zelensky and his masters in Washington, could be a sign that, despite the utter subserviency of current Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Germany’s ruling class is capable of an about-face. It is a possibility, although an unlikely one, that the US may inadvertently force Germany into an alliance with its historic enemy Russia. Given the complicated economic and geopolitical relations on the continent (many of the countries that lie between Germany and Russia are, for instance, beholden to the US), such a realignment of Berlin’s foreign policy would really only be conceivable as part of a reassertion of aggressive German imperialism within Eastern Europe, coordinating with Moscow to divvy up the spoils—a major shift requiring a new regime in Berlin.
The present German government is likely to try to ride out the Ukraine crisis and maintain its institutional commitments, despite the economic hardship. Four days after the war began, Ukraine applied to join the EU—a move immediately supported by Poland and seven other former Eastern Bloc countries. Germany and France at first expressed reticence at the proposal, but by June 2022 had agreed to support Ukraine becoming a candidate member. However much their economies are being damaged by a war and sanctions regime for which Washington bears primary responsibility, Germany and France today do not possess the internal political configurations that would allow them to break out of the current framework.
In January, four-star US Air Force general, Mike Minihan, sent a memo to his officers in which he predicted that the US will be at war with China over Taiwan “in 2025.” In February, President Biden ordered the Air Force to shoot down what US officials claimed was a Chinese “spy” balloon in the midst of a corporate media-induced public hysteria campaign. These events are simply the most recent in a long series of provocations. A decade before Biden assumed the presidency, his former boss, Obama, sent a clear message to Beijing:
“I have directed my national security team to make our presence and mission in the Asia Pacific a top priority. As a result, reductions in U.S. defense spending will not—I repeat, will not—come at the expense of the Asia Pacific.… Indeed, we are already modernizing America’s defense posture across the Asia Pacific. It will be more broadly distributed—maintaining our strong presence in Japan and the Korean Peninsula, while enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia.”
—Obama White House website archives, 17 November 2011
Washington’s strategy includes encouraging internal divisions within China, such as its 2019 sponsorship of “democracy” protests in Hong Kong (see “Defend China against Pro-Imperialist ‘Democracy’ Campaign!” 1917 No.42). The US government’s commitment to “democracy” in Hong Kong is as empty as its feigned concern for the alleged “genocide” of the Uighurs in Xinjiang—both have been weaponized to isolate Beijing internationally. It is possible that the American imperialists may be foolish enough to invoke either or both of these issues as a “humanitarian” pretext to use its “strong presence” in the region to intervene militarily (perhaps they will discover that Xi is a “Chinese Hitler”).
In July 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a major policy speech in which he articulated Washington’s break from preceding administrations’ unsuccessful approach to overturning the Chinese revolution: “We must induce China to change in more creative and assertive ways, because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity.” In fact, the policy of undermining China’s relationship with regional allies and beefing up America’s military presence had already begun under Obama and even George W. Bush. In his first foreign policy speech as president (4 February 2021), Biden promised to “take on directly the challenges posed by [sic] our prosperity, security, and democratic values by our most serious competitor, China,” pledging to “confront China’s economic abuses; counter its aggressive, coercive action; to push back on China’s attack on human rights, intellectual property, and global governance.” A senior administration official acknowledged to the Wall Street Journal (10 June 2021) that Biden was effectively continuing much of his predecessor’s policy in relation to China because “some of the work the Trump administration was doing was essential.”
Washington views recent Chinese development efforts in Eurasia and Africa, as well as Beijing’s own formidable military capacity, as a threat to “American prosperity,” i.e., the ability of US corporations to exploit the populations and natural resources of the world. The 2018 National Defense Strategy summary warns:
“China is leveraging military modernization, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighboring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage. As China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.”
The Pentagon identifies the “Indo-Pacific” (encompassing around half the world’s population) as one of three key regions, along with Europe and the Middle East, in which the US must seek to maintain its ability to project military power. It has also routinely interfered to engineer regimes favorable to US corporations in Africa and South America.
All told, “the United States has approximately 800 formal military bases in 80 countries, a number that could exceed 1,000 if you count troops stationed at embassies and missions and so-called ‘lily-pond’ bases” (The Nation, 24 January 2018). Since its defeat of Japan in WWII, the United States has viewed the Pacific as a sphere of influence it administers jointly with its junior imperialist partners Australia and New Zealand (and Japan itself), maintaining a string of military bases right in China’s backyard. The Pentagon has a presence of more than 375,000 civilian and military personnel in the Asia-Pacific region, including 50,000 troops in Japan. There are over 28,000 US troops stationed in South Korea equipped with fighter jets and anti-ballistic missile technology. Other key hosts of American troops include Australia and the US territory of Guam. The island nation of Palau recently “invited” the US to establish military bases there to counter growing Chinese influence.
Yet not everyone in the region is eager to paint a “red, white and blue” target on their forehead. When the Pentagon announced it was seeking to place land-based, intermediate-range missiles capable of countering Chinese firepower in the Pacific, even traditional regional allies such as Japan balked at the prospect of being caught in the crosshairs (Los Angeles Times, 10 June 2020). In 2020, the Philippines (long an American vassal state) announced that it would terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement that allowed the US to use Philippine bases and conduct joint military exercises in the country. However, the recent election of a new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., brought the Philippines back in line, allowing the US to expand its military presence in order to counter China.
Dominance of the South China Sea has become a focal point of US aggression against China. The 2020 “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” states:
“As part of our worldwide freedom of navigation operations program, the United States is pushing back on Beijing’s hegemonic assertions and excessive claims. The United States military will continue to exercise the right to navigate and operate wherever international law allows, including in the South China Sea. We are speaking up for regional allies and partners, and providing security assistance to help them build capacity to withstand Beijing’s attempts to use its military, paramilitary, and law enforcement forces to coerce and prevail in disputes.”
The key factor in the South China Sea is Taiwan, where the Chinese bourgeoisie decamped after its defeat in the social revolution of 1949. Since the Nixon administration, American foreign policy has held the so-called One China Policy, whereby Washington recognizes the CCP government in Beijing as the sole regime in all of China (including Taiwan), though Taipei maintains that Taiwan is the “Republic of China” while not formally declaring independence. The “pragmatic” One China Policy is not a US endorsement of Beijing’s claims over Taiwan, a territory that has benefited from the assistance of the United States over the decades—particularly in the realm of security. Washington maintains ties with the Taipei government via the “American Institute in Taiwan,” formally a private corporation but serving as the de facto embassy since 1979.
In 2016, Tsai Ing-wen of the separatist Democratic Progressive Party became president of Taiwan. Placating the more hardline independence wing of her party, she waffled on her support for the “1992 Consensus” that has governed cross-Strait relations for a quarter century. Instead of yanking the leash on its Taiwanese dog as it had done in the past, Obama’s White House supported Tsai as a counterbalance against China.
The Trump administration continued this policy. In his July 2020 speech, Pompeo declared:
“And so our Department of Defense has ramped up its efforts, freedom of navigation operations out and throughout the East and South China Seas, and in the Taiwan Strait as well. And we’ve created a Space Force to help deter China from aggression on that final frontier.”
The so-called “freedom of navigation” campaign involved sending “the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, along with dozens of aircraft, cruisers, destroyers and a B-52 bomber, to conduct naval exercises” near Taiwan (see “Provoking China,” 1917 No.43). Picking up where Trump left off, Biden sent then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan last August along with several warships and a flotilla of combat aircraft. Pelosi’s Republican successor, Kevin McCarthy, is planning a similar trip later this year. Washington’s goal is to dismember China and beat it into subservience. This is a dangerous fantasy—another powder keg waiting to explode into a world war.
While taking no responsibility for the Stalinist caste that controls the Chinese deformed workers’ state, Marxists advocate unconditional defense of the country against imperialist attack and domestic counterrevolution. Our perspective is one of proletarian political revolution to place power in the hands of the Chinese working class. Such a revolution would not fundamentally change the centrally planned character of the Chinese economy, but it would introduce democracy into both planning and consumption. It would also involve expropriating the layer of Chinese capitalists that has been allowed to develop, along with the foreign corporations that have used the country’s working class as a source of cheap labor to exploit. A Bolshevik-Leninist government in China would seek to turn the workers’ state into a beacon of hope for the world—an organizing center for socialist revolutions around the globe.
Our defense of China does not extend to its imperialist ally, Russia. Marxists favor the military defeat of all imperialist powers in any direct confrontation or proxy war, such as in Ukraine today. So too in a future world war pitting any configuration of imperialist countries against each other, we call on workers in the belligerent states to “turn their guns around.” This perspective, known as revolutionary (or dual) defeatism goes back to Lenin’s policy during WWI. Five years before the outbreak of WWII, Trotsky explained:
“Lenin’s formula, ‘defeat is the lesser evil,’ means not defeat of one’s country is the lesser evil as compared with the defeat of the enemy country but that a military defeat resulting from the growth of the revolutionary movement is infinitely more beneficial to the proletariat and to the whole people than military victory assured by ‘civil peace.’ Karl Liebknecht gave an unsurpassed formula of proletarian policy in time of war: ‘The chief enemy of the people is in its own country.’ The victorious proletarian revolution not only will rectify the evils caused by defeat but also will create the final guarantee against future wars and defeats.”
—“War and the Fourth International” (1934)
Liebknecht’s notion, often translated as “the main enemy is at home,” guides Marxists in the West to emphasize the struggle for the defeat of the NATO imperialists, just as Marxists in Russia would focus on settling accounts with the Russian ruling class. Leftists who embrace an imperialist ruling class’s war aims show themselves incapable of articulating a revolutionary program.
Whether in China or in the imperialist countries, the key to achieving workers’ power—the key to averting world war—is the construction of an international communist party. It is the urgent duty of revolutionaries everywhere to join forces to build such a party around a coherent and genuinely Marxist program. The acute threat of WWIII that hangs over our heads may abate for a time, but the danger will always be present so long as capitalism persists. Only by winning the working class to the struggle to overthrow its oppressors will humanity be able to survive. The task is world-historic in importance and difficulty; it means we must “bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old,” as the timeless Wobbly song “Solidarity Forever” envisioned. It requires revolutionaries to set aside sectarianism and to reject opportunism—to not be afraid to be unpopular when the masses are still under the hypnosis of imperialist propaganda and bourgeois ideology. It requires revolutionaries to carefully study the lessons of the past and boldly intervene in the workers’ movement, fighting to make the truth popular.
Ukraine & the Left (1917 No.45)
Whither America? Class, Crisis & Imperial Decay (1917 No.43)
Provoking China (1917 No.43)
Imperialist Rivalries Escalate” (1917 No.41)
Whither China? (1917 No.31)