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Editorial: Imperialist rivalries today

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Dave Stockton looks at the increasing tensions between the great powers in the Far East and in Europe, with talk of New Cold Wars and increased arms spending – and what this means for socialist strategy in the years ahead.

THE TECTONIC PLATES of the world order established after the collapse of the USSR are shifting again. This is producing seismic effects: the political equivalents of earthquakes and tsunamis, wars, revolutions and counterrevolutions.

Across the globe, there are threats of economic sanctions: the cutting of oil and gas supplies, freezing financial assets, switching reserve currencies, investment strikes. Such dislocations of globalised capitalism could derail the fragile economic recovery. Civil wars, like that in Syria, are a threat in Europe, too. Ukraine has posed the potential of a new Cold War.

Even before the Ukraine crisis, events in the Middle East, in East and South East Asia, across sub-Saharan Africa and in Latin America showed that a new period of inter-imperialist conflict had opened up. This reflects what Lenin and Trotsky called a struggle for the division or, rather, the re-division of the world, an essential feature of capitalism’s final historic stage, imperialism.

The possibility of such conflicts had been driven out of most people's consciousness by two decades of a world with only one real superpower: the USA. In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the USA was hailed as the winner of the Cold War.

Antonio Negri’s Empire proclaimed Lenin’s Imperialism, with its model of conflicting great powers, hopelessly out of date. From the other side of the barricades, as it were, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history”. In fact, it is these impressionistic “theories” that need to go into the recycling bin.

Sycophantic pundits predicted an era in which peace would reign and huge expenditure on armaments could be diverted to spending on the welfare of humanity. Now, even to ask whether the swords were actually beaten into ploughshares could only provoke laughter. Instead of a return to the post-1945 period of major social reforms and increasing wages, the last two decades have seen a massive rollback of the welfare state.

Workers’ real wages have fallen and low paid and precarious employment have become the fate of the young, where they have any jobs at all. Neoliberalism, with its hatred of state spending on welfare, is still the economic orthodoxy of governments and international financial institutions.

Even the worst industrial and banking crisis since the 1930s, with no end in sight to low growth and stagnation, even in the recovery phase, has not altered this. The International Monetary Fund’s April 2014 report confirms the weakness of the recovery:
“An important concern is the possibility of a prolonged period of very low growth (‘secular stagnation’) in advanced economies, especially if new shocks were to hit these economies or if policies do not address crisis legacies as expected.”

The report continues by pointing out that the BRICs are less likely than previously thought to act as a locomotive of recovery:
“The evidence on the severe effect of financial crises suggests that a full reversal of the downward investment shift in advanced economies is unlikely… In emerging market economies, growth is expected to be about 1 percentage point a year less than that in the first decade of the 2000s.”1

Yet none of this prompts politicians, left or right, to advocate a return to Keynesianism; state investment in industry, jobs, housing, and higher wages. Greek-style austerity will continue to be imposed on any state that gets into trouble with the bankers and bond markets.

Speaking at a Global Forum on Spain, in March, Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, said:
“There is no doubt that the reforms that I have outlined for Europe and for Spain will take several years of determined efforts by both government and society” and that the “strong reform momentum must be maintained”. She called for a continued “shakeup” of the labour market, claiming reforms "should not benefit those in work but those without it.”2

That is neoliberal-speak for a shake-out of public sector jobs, a cut in real wages and replacement of secure full-time work with precarious jobs to save the state and employers having to pay unemployment benefit.

Despite the massive growth in the accumulated parasitic wealth of the super-rich, the parallel growth in poverty and the development of a larger and larger underclass, the underlying cause of the new period of crisis is the inability to sustain a high and rising rate of profit in production.

The massive increase in the proportions of fixed capital (high-tech automated factories and communications systems, etc.) relative to living labour (from which surplus value and profit are made) tends to depress the profit rate in production and drive capital away in search of other sources of profit, such as exchange rate speculation and financial derivatives.

Other means to offset the fall in the rate of profit in production, seeking super-exploitable labour at home and abroad, access to cheaper raw materials, expanding markets and finding new investment locations, all lead to sharpened competition not only between the huge corporations but also the great imperialist powers that protect and enforce their interests.

A new Cold War

Today, NATO relentlessly expands its membership into the countries of the former Soviet Bloc and even the former Soviet Union itself, increasing its troop deployments in countries directly adjacent to Russia. This is all in brazen violation of the promises repeatedly given to the last Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the first Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, in the period 1989-91.3

Now, NATO’s general secretary leads calls on its European members, at a time when most of them are slashing their social spending, to commit a greater portion of GDP to re-armament to enable them to “stand up to bullies”, meaning Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. In the words of NATO’s general secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen:

“The Ukraine crisis and what we have seen in Crimea has been a wake-up call and it must be followed by increased European investment in defence if we are to ensure a credible deterrence and collective defence in the future.”4

Hilary Clinton, who, in 2009, promised to “hit the reset button” in relations with Russia, now likens Putin’s actions in Crimea to “what Hitler did back in the ’30s”.5

Stephen F Cohen, the distinguished historian of post-revolutionary Russia, commented on the results of Clinton-Obama’s offer of a new relationship with Russia:

“Consider the most recent episode, Obama’s 2009 purported ‘reset’ of relations with Moscow, or what was called ‘détente’ in another Cold War era. Obama wanted three concessions from the Kremlin: assistance in supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, harsher sanctions against Iran and Russia’s abstention on the UN Security Council vote for a no-fly zone over Libya. The White House got all three. In return, Moscow wanted a formal end of NATO’s expansion to the former Soviet republics, a compromise on European missile defence and a cessation of direct American involvement in Russian political life. Instead, it got an escalation of all three offending US policies, again with virtually unanimous bipartisan and media approval.”

Cohen concludes, “in the name of ‘democracy’, the West has unrelentingly moved its military, political and economic power ever closer to post-Soviet Russia”.

It is instructive that under a supposedly liberal Democrat president, US foreign policy has taken a sharp turn to the right, aided by advisers like Brzezinski (see box, p7) and US Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland.

Nuland is a Republican neo-con and former adviser to George Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney. She played a key role in choosing the prime minister to be installed by the Maidan revolution, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, over Germany’s man Vitali Klitchko (revealed in her famous “fuck the EU!” phone call). Her candidate “Yats” was just the man because, as a former head of the central bank and economy minister, he is eager to impose the harsh austerity the IMF dictates, even boasting, “I’m going to be the most unpopular prime minister in the history of my country.”

The most sinister aspect of the US intervention was its willingness to use the fascist forces in the Maidan, the Right Sector, to abort the EU-sponsored deal agreed with Yanukovich’s supporters and the leaders of the opposition. This was essentially Germany's preferred option, flowing from the over-arching strategic goal of achieving a rapprochement with Russia. Determined to prevent this, the US secured a direct seizure of power and the ousting of the eastern oligarchs, knowing this would alienate the whole of eastern Ukraine, provoke Russia and, potentially, escalate into civil war.

As Kissinger recognises, some sort of neutralisation of Ukraine is the only way to stop the country being torn apart. But the US under Obama (and its British, Polish and Turkish NATO allies) has no such qualms. Thus, the inter-imperialist rivalry driving the Ukraine crisis involves not just a fierce conflict between Russia and the USA but growing tensions between a German-led EU and the USA.

Colour revolutions that are counterrevolutions

The US has been using the strategy of fomenting fake revolutions for the last decade and a half. It has proved to be not only the cheapest but the politically most advantageous way of removing regimes in regions it needs to control to maintain its challenged world hegemony and its declining economic might. While still the mightiest atomic superpower, its intercontinental ballistic weaponry is of no use outside of a nuclear Armageddon scenario.
The highly destabilising consequences of the militarised “humanitarian interventions” in Afghanistan and Iraq, reinforced arguments for a change of strategy. Whatever the catchphrase used to describe it, “soft power”, “smart power” or “noopolitik” (coined from the classical Greek noos, knowledge), the change of direction is a salutary lesson for the international left in the importance of strategic thinking, the centrality of political leadership and the need to link existing issues and problems to long term goals, however far removed those may, at first, appear to be.

Events in Ukraine today are a product of this strategy but it is one that has been developed and refined over more than a decade and was first seen in the so-called “colour revolutions”.

The US used “foundations”, such as Gene Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institute (AEI), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Freedom House and the International Center for Non-Violent Conflict (ICNC), to foment mass civil disobedience movements and give them objectives and leaders that fitted a Washington agenda for regime change.

The pioneering model was the Serbian group OTPOR and its role in bringing down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Whilst the Serbian revolution was certainly a real mass movement against a hateful tyrant, OTPOR was equally certainly plugged into the US intelligence system. It became a sort of laboratory for drawing into US service liberal and libertarian non-violent direct action activists but suborning them with huge cash injections.

The colour revolutions of the 2000s were the result: the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.
The Maidan Revolution of 2014 differed only in that non-violence was rapidly dispensed with, the liberals subordinated, the libertarians chased away and the neo-Nazis brought in.

Trying to surround Russia and China

Another aspect of the current strategy is Obama's “pivot to the Pacific” and his attempts to reduce commitments in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This means a major increase in the US naval and military presence in the Pacific, plainly aimed at “containing” China. There are already 320,000 US personnel stationed in bases from Japan, through Korea and Guam, to the Philippines and Australia. PACOM, the US Pacific Command, is seeking to spread its deployment around this vast perimeter, establishing new bases in as many countries as possible.

Washington has conducted joint naval exercises in the South China Sea with the Vietnamese and, in 2012, a large scale military exercise with Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, with observers from Burma/Myanmar. Even neutral India conducts such exercises with the USA. Effectively, the US is laying the foundations of a new Asian NATO to effect its encirclement of China.


What faces socialists, and indeed the entire working class movement today is not only a capitalism mired in crises, which our rulers and exploiters seek to solve by liquidating our historic gains, but a world of rival imperialisms. These include both new ones, trying to find room in the world to expand and dominate, and old powers desperate to hang on to what they have got and to hem in and forcibly restrain their up and coming rivals.

Just as capitalism seeks to unload its economic crisis onto the backs of the working class, so it seeks to make it pay for its wars and their preparation: a new arms race and intervention in local wars between the different powers’ subordinate allies.

Most importantly, as we have seen in Ukraine, it seeks to mobilise the opinion of its populations against its enemies via the use of the media under the principle “the main enemy is abroad”. The old imperialist democracies can mobilise their soft power, including support for human rights, gay rights, women’s rights, environmentalism, to stigmatise their enemies and prepare to focus hatred for their wars and blockades. This is, of course, not to say that this propaganda is all lies, or often even lies at all. The crimes of Russia and China on many of these fronts are real and socialists must support people in these countries fighting against them. The lie is that, for example, Afghanistan had to be invaded and occupied to liberate its women.

But if we must be wary of being dragged along behind US or EU imperialism’s colour revolutions and potentially its wars, neither must we simply reverse this and support Russia and China as some sort of anti-imperialist force.

The working class is an international class that cannot fight for its historic interest if it subordinates itself to either bloc or to any of the imperialist powers or, for that matter, to the capitalist ruling classes of the smaller nations. Class independence is critical, as is the recognition that in such a period we are not decades away from wars and revolutions.

The parties we need are not neo-reformist, electoralist ones or “broad” parties containing reformists and revolutionaries, tolerating one another till a crucial moment arises. That is the lesson of the Second International and the outbreak of the First World War, whose centenary we are marking. Revolutionary times demand revolutionary parties.

We face a new period of renewed economic crises and stagnation in a world where the hegemony of the major imperialist power, the USA, is being challenged by others: Russia, China and even, potentially, the EU. In addition, a number of regional powers are unwilling to continue to accept subordination to Washington or its agents in the IMF and World Bank and are being courted by rival imperialisms. These dynamics are now driving inter-imperialist clashes, and raising the inevitability of wars and revolutions.

Above all, revolutionaries will have to warn the working class to learn to tell the difference between legitimate democratic uprisings against tyrannical regimes, like those of the Arab Spring in 2011, continuing in Syria today, and counterrevolutions masquerading as revolutions, like that in the Ukraine. In all the imperialist countries, our guiding principle is that the main enemy is at home and a primary task is to mobilise against its calls for sanctions and other measures that lead on to trade wars, to cold wars and eventually to inter-imperialist war.


1 International Monetary Fund | April 2014,
2 March 2014,
4 Phil Stewart, Reuters, March 13