The new age of imperialism

First published: April 1991

The Gulf War, the largest military offensive waged by imperialism since Vietnam, is one of those events which is so great in its impact that it clarifies not only immediate events but the entire historical course of which it is a part. The Gulf War both confirmed the analysis of world politics presented by Socialist Action in the last years – the new phase of imperialism, the new era of North-South wars, and the emboldening of imperialism due to the events in Eastern Europe – and at the same time, as with every major event, has deepened and extended that analysis. Socialist Action was able to play a role in the fight against the war out of all proportion to its circulation because it was prepared for it, and the course of world politics of which it is a part.

The Gulf War was not an aberration. Its cause, course and aftermath were the culmination of trends in world capitalism which have been developing since the beginning of the 1980s. Its roots lie in the changed relation of the imperialist economies, above all that of the US, to the world economy in general and the third world in particular.

From the aftermath of World War II – which can be taken as marked by the overturns of capitalism in Eastern Europe and the victory of the Chinese revolution – to the mid-1970s, there existed what might be termed an ‘era of reform’ in the relation of the imperialist economies to the third world. This does not mean that this period did not see many revolutions – on the contrary it saw revolutions in Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Iran, Grenada, Nicaragua and other countries. But it meant that the overall relation of the imperialist economics to the third world stabilised and stimulated the economies of the latter.

The economic basis of this relation was the huge export of capital from the imperialist countries to the semi-colonial ones. From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s the US alone pumped out $30 billion a year, in today’s prices, into the world economy. From 1960 to the mid-1970s the imperialist countries as a whole, the OECD area, exported a net annual average of $52 billion, in today’s prices, of capital to the semi-colonial countries. Considering that the entire annual investment of a medium-sized third world country such as Iraq is only $9 billion, the impact of such an immense outflow of funds in providing capital for growth and stabilising the third world economies is clear. Put in economic terms the defeat of the working class in the imperialist countries through fascism and World War II was so great that it generated surplus value on a scale sufficient to produce not only the long post-war boom in the imperialist countries but capital to create a period of reformism in the third world as well.

The result was rapid economic growth in the semi-colonial countries from the 1950s to the 1970s – growth more rapid even than in the imperialist countries themselves. Naturally this was uneven growth, growth characterised by vast inequality, growth determined by imperialist interests and oriented to sectors that served imperialist interests, growth to extract super-profits, growth which wrecked the environment, but it was, nevertheless, economic growth which brought rises in living standards to the mass of the population of the semi-colonial countries.

By 1960–70, World Bank and IMF figures show that a quarter of the population of the market economies, 25.2 per cent, were in countries catching up the industrialised world in terms of living standards and only 3 per cent in countries suffering a decline in GDP per capita. Declining GDP per capita, for major third world countries, was confined to Afghanistan, Algeria (due to the war of independence) and a small number of African states.

Politically the counterpart of this period of economic reform was the phenomenon, and later the formal movement, of ‘non-alignment’ launched organisationally at Bandung. A similar orientation had been pioneered earlier by the PRI in Mexico, Perón in Argentina, and Vargas in Brazil.

The political current of non-alignment combined verbal opposition to imperialism, and certain reforms carried out against it, with actual economic dependence on the flow of capital from the imperialist countries. This political current, bourgeois nationalism, progressively became the dominant tendency in the third world involving, as major figures and movements, Nasser, Nehru, Nyere, Nkrumah, Kaunda, Sukharno, the MNR in Bolivia, Peronism in Argentina, the Ba’ath in Syria and Iraq, and even, in a traditional US quasi-colony, Torrijos in Panama. In most cases, not all, the anti-imperialist rhetoric was given more military and political muscle by tactical alliances with the USSR.

Again in the majority of cases, not all (Vietnam, Algeria, the Portuguese colonies), the colonial empires were dismantled peacefully leaving in place ‘non-aligned’ regimes. Political reformism, political independence from the colonial powers, thereby accompanied economic reformism. This orientation, on the politico-military level, in large part reflected a fear by the imperialist states that an attempt to resist the demand for decolonisation would lead, at best, to a strong link-up between the national liberation movements and the USSR – and that such a combination would emerge victorious – and at worst the anti–imperialist struggle would grow over into a revolution against capitalism – as occurred in Vietnam and Cuba.

The current of open capitulation to imperialism in the third world at that time was a relatively small minority – its classic cases being Saudi Arabia and the other monarchies of the Gulf (and even these displayed anti-imperialist rhetoric in regard to Israel), and regimes such as that of Duvalier in Haiti and Somoza in Nicaragua.

Later, in the late 1960s and 1970s, a new type of pro-imperialist regime emerged in the military dictatorships in Latin America which were created to bloc the combination of social unrest and the impact of the Cuban revolution. But these, and similar, overtly pro-imperialist dictatorships remained confined to Latin America and the ‘Newly Industrialising Countries’ of Asia – South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. ‘Non-alignment’ was the dominant current in the third world.

With the onset of the crisis in the world economy after 1973 this situation drastically changed. In the imperialist countries the huge rise in the level of investment necessary to remain competitive with Japan and the most successful industrial states, coupled with the successful erosion by the working class in the imperialist states of many of the consequences of the defeats of the 1930s, led to economic crisis – a crisis deepened, but not created, by the oil price increases of 1973 and 1979. From having a surplus of capital to export to the third world the imperialist economies became desperately short of capital themselves. The US economy in particular – which had suffered relative decline throughout the post-war period due to its low level of investment – had the greatest capital (surplus value) shortage of all. Any attempt to generate extra surplus value/capital to overcome this situation through stepped up exploitation of the working class in the imperialist countries would only have deepened the political instability which had set in in the United States (under the impact of the Vietnam war) and in Western Europe (under the impact of the rise of working class struggles) from the late 1960s onwards.

As a result, after the mid-1970s, the entire orientation of the imperialist economies to the third world altered. From being suppliers of capital, the imperialist economics began to suck huge quantities of capital out of the third world through international debt and other means. The imperialist states moved from being a supplier of $50 billion a year of capital to the third world, in the two decades up to the mid-1970s, to extracting $100 billion a year from third world countries by the beginning of the 1990s. A turn-around of $150 billion dollars a year had taken place in a decade and a half.

This new intensification of imperialist exploitation played a decisive role in stabilising the economy of the imperialist countries themselves. Although the amount that could be extracted from each individual third world country was limited by their small GDPs, the turn-around in the capital flows from the third world as a whole was significantly larger than the export of capital from Japan and Germany combined which dominated discussion in the international financial press during the period after 1980. The $150 billion shift was equivalent to the entire balance of payments deficit of the United States.

The impact of such a scale of extraction of resources in terms of the damage it did to the third world economies must also be clearly grasped. $150 billion is equal to almost three times the total annual investment of India, 15 times the annual investment of Iraq or Egypt, 35 times the annual investment of Chile, or 150 times that of Tanzania. The extraction of such amounts of capital from the third world literally broke the process of capital accumulation in most semi-colonial countries.

The result, since the mid-1970s, and accelerating after 1980, has been declining GDP per capita in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East and a qualitative rise of world poverty. By 1980–88, countries comprising less than three per cent of the population of the capitalist world were in states catching up the imperialist countries in terms of GDP per capita. 51 per cent of the population of the capitalist states were in third world countries falling further behind the imperialist countries in relative terms, and 24 per cent were suffering declines in GDP per capita. In terms of absolute population figures the number of those in countries catching up the imperialist countries in GDP per capita fell from 601 million in 1960–70 to 90 million in 1980–88; the number of those in countries falling behind in relative terms compared to the imperialist countries rose from 1,030 million to 1,740 million; and the number in countries suffering declines in absolute GDP per capita rose from 71 million to 808 million. The era of reformism towards the third world had ended with a vengeance.

The inevitable result of this new economic situation was the break-up of the previous political patterns in the third world. The base no longer existed for regimes which combined rhetoric against imperialism with reforms based on imperialist economic assistance, because there no longer was any such aid.

The military dictatorships created in Latin America during the 1970s were also struck by this crisis. Their economic strategy, that of ‘export-oriented growth’ had relied, just as much as the earlier populist regimes, on imports of capital from the imperialist countries. With the drying up of this stream of imperialist capital the regimes of the ‘gorillas’ in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Chile progressively collapsed. Beyond this every single ‘non-aligned’ state was hit by crisis. Only the South East Asian economies (with the exception of the Philippines), which had been the privileged recipients of US and Japanese capital exports, escaped the crisis.

With the end of the base of stable reformism in the third world, not merely economic stagnation but political chaos set in. Entire countries – Uganda, Sri Lanka, Liberia – began to disintegrate. The most powerful semi-colonial country, India, became seriously destabilised with the decline of the original pillar of ‘non-alignment’, the Congress Party, and rising forces of separatism, the left, and, most significantly, Hindu chauvinism organised in the BJP. With rising political instability throughout the third world, three currents, of very differing weights, emerged from the disintegration of the previous era.

The first current, by far the strongest, was bourgeois regimes which supinely clung to imperialism hoping that it would solve their problems or, if that could not be achieved, would at least militarily maintain local capital in power. Thus Nasserism became Sadat and Mubarak – who made peace with Israel and betrayed the Palestinians before participating in the military attack on Iraq. The PRI in Mexico urges a free trade area with the United States which would destroy any remnants of Mexican economic independence and devastate its economy. The inheritor of Peronism, Menem, sunk to attempting to curry favour with the imperialists by sending Argentinian naval vessels to the Gulf – where they were so unsafe they were not allowed into the war zone. ‘Neo–liberal’ regimes, characterised by savage attacks on the living standards of the masses and supine capitulation to all imperialist demands, were created in Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Ghana and a series of other countries. Syria, even before its participation in the Gulf War, began to reorientate from limited confrontation with Israel and US imperialism to seeking to do deals with them.

If the new economic crisis undermined the ‘non-aligned’ reformist regimes, and led to the capitulation of major currents to imperialism, a second, minority, bourgeois development was that of maverick regimes, or maverick actions, based chiefly on marginal sections of the bourgeoisie, which attempted to maintain capital’s base by not merely rhetorical but actual anti-imperialist actions – usually of a confused, desperate and adventurist type carried out in a bureaucratic and authoritarian form corresponding to the nature of these regimes themselves. The classic examples of this were Galtieri’s attempt to seize back the Malvinas/Falklands from Britain, Noriega’s evolution in Panama – which combined drug running with aid to the FSLN government in Nicaragua – and Iraq’s attempt to seize Kuwait.

Such regimes, which attempt to maintain their stability by savage repression of the masses but specific actions against imperialism, are incapable of serious struggle, because any such struggle would require a social mobilisation which would inevitably tend to escape bourgeois leadership. Any successes gained by such governments are due to imperialist weakness because, in the last analysis, such regimes are more concerned to repress the masses than they are concerned with actions taken against either imperialism as a whole or against some specific imperialism (as with Galtieri and the Malvinas). Imperialism therefore is able to crush such regimes and any of their actions it finds unacceptable – although, as seen with the Malvinas, the invasion of Panama, and the Gulf, they constitute a destabilising element in world politics sometimes capable of utilising in a distorted way legitimate demands of the masses (for example Noriega’s use of the hatred of the way Panama has been colonised by the United States or Saddam Hussein’s attempt to appeal to the Arab peoples’ legitimate hatred of Israel, the role of the United States, and the way the Arab world was carved up by imperialism) and they create instability for the imperialists.

The third current to emerge from the collapse of the previous era – the weakest but still significant – were forces trying to limit or break the destruction wreaked by imperialism on their countries. These range from proletarian revolutionary forces, such as the FMLN in El Salvador, through the liberation movements in Eritrea and Tigre, and national liberation movements such as the PLO and ANC, to self-styled Stalinist forces, such as Sendero Luminoso in Peru.

The Islamic fundamentalists, in the Arab countries (although not always elsewhere), constitute a particular combination of the second and third currents. Their political leaderships, and a series of their demands (notably on women and also on the national question in many cases), are ultra-reactionary but in some cases they find themselves in conflict with imperialism and leading mass mobilisations directed against the consequences of imperialism for their countries – around the Gulf War, in the Islamic countries, the lead in the anti–imperialist mobilisations was shared by the left and the fundamentalists.

While the forces of straightforward bourgeois capitulation are today by far the strongest to emerge from the disintegration of the previous reformist order, their problem is that they have nothing to offer the masses outside the small handful of ‘Newly Industrialising Countries’. Economic decline, disease and starvation – famine and the reappearance of diseases which disappeared a century ago such as cholera in Peru – characterise the situation. Successive ‘stabilisation’ plans of the neo-liberals collapse – the latest being Collor’s in Brazil. A country such as Argentina, and a whole series in Africa, are actually undergoing decapitalisation – that is their levels of investment are less than the rate at which investment is used up each year.

The result is that no matter how dominant the pro–imperialist regimes superficially appear, they are extremely unstable in their social base. No stable regime of capital accumulation can be or has been created. If the ‘non-aligned’ bourgeois regimes, and the later military dictatorships in Latin America, both had a stable base because of the exports of capital they received from imperialism, the new bourgeois regimes have none. Increasing instability, in both a reactionary and a progressive direction, is the dominant feature of the semi-colonial world.

It is from this that the new problems and new military and political drive of imperialism arise. The imperialist states abandoned the direct political control, colonisation, of the third world both because they were compelled to, because of fear of revolution, and because they calculated, in the majority of cases, that they would be leaving behind stable bourgeois regimes that would guarantee imperialist interests and capitalist rule. But today no basis for such reformist regimes exists as the regime of capital accumulation in the third world is thoroughly disrupted. Under these conditions local ruling classes cannot be counted on to be stable enough to guarantee imperialist interests for a prolonged period. With no stable regime of accumulation in the third world the imperialist economies are forced once more in the direction of substituting their own direct military intervention for the reformism, or stable military dictatorships, based on capital exports which had characterised the previous post-war period.

The result is a massive reinforcement of direct imperialist military force in the third world. A process of recolonisation of the third world has begun. It in fact already started with the massive US military involvement in Honduras in order to confront the FSLN, the establishment in the last five years of US military bases in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, the invasion of Panama, and now, most dramatically, the Gulf War – and the much greater direct military involvement of the United States in the Middle East that will follow it. These trends are supplemented by acts of imperialist terror such as the bombing of Libya.

But if imperialism is forced to step up its military involvement in the third world, to recommence a process of recolonisation, the opportunity to do so was given by the events in Eastern Europe and the USSR. For the history of the Russian Revolution, and its extension, and the rise of decolonisation and the movements against imperialism were inseparable. They are interconnected expressions of the class struggle in the twentieth century.

The Russian Revolution was born out of the revolutionary wave which swept Asia and Eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. The revolution of 1917 was preceded by the Russian revolution of 1905 and the revolutions in Iran in 1905 and China in 1911, and was followed by the second Chinese revolution of 1926–27 and the growing national liberation movements in Vietnam and India before World War II.

After World War II the interrelation of the state created by the Russian revolution and the movement against colonialism and imperialism was even more direct. The Chinese revolution, and fear of the influence of the USSR, that is a non-capitalist state, directly stimulated the wave of decolonisation. The Soviet Union materially aided forces fighting against colonialism and then provided aid to the ‘non-aligned’ bourgeois regimes which emerged from decolonisation. Without the existence of the Soviet state, reinforced by its spread into Eastern Europe, and then by the Chinese revolution, the entire decolonisation of the post-war period would probably not have taken place.

The overturn of workers’ states in Eastern Europe in 1989, the huge victory this represented for imperialism, therefore created the basis for a new offensive of capitalism against the third world countries. The upswing of the relation of class forces which had created the movement of decolonisation after 1917, and even more after 1945, was broken. With the fear of anti-capitalist revolution greatly reduced by events in Eastern Europe, with Gorbachev leading the Soviet bureaucracy to a new and closer collaboration with imperialism, and the USSR itself apparently collapsing in chaos, imperialism was able to launch a major offensive not simply against Eastern Europe but against the third world. The 1989 events in Eastern Europe were therefore a fundamental turning point in world history not simply for Europe and for the workers’ states. They were also a fundamental turning point for the relation of the imperialist states to the third world.

By the events in Eastern Europe a rupture was created in the world political situation as it existed since World War II – including the Chinese revolution in the aftermath. From 1949 to 1989, despite the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions, the structure of world politics had remained essentially constant, with workers’ states in Eastern Europe and parts of Asia (plus Cuba) and rising struggle in the semi-colonial countries confronting imperialism – the last major wave of this struggle coming in the Iranian, Nicaraguan and Grenada revolutions of 1978–79. The events of 1989, in contrast, saw a fundamental change in this world situation through the restoration of capitalism in East Germany, the creation of a unified imperialist German state, and the fact that capitalism will clearly be restored in a series of, not necessarily all, countries of Eastern Europe outside the USSR. In 1989 the international working class suffered its greatest defeats since the 1930s.

Newly strengthened by these victories, imperialism immediately took the offensive against the third world. The Gulf War was simply the first paroxysm of this. If the break-up of capitalist stability in the third world created the need for massively stepped up imperialist intervention, Gorbachev’s course and the victories of capitalism in Eastern Europe created the possibility for imperialism to undertake it. The inevitable outcome of Gorbachev and the events of Eastern Europe is a massive new offensive of imperialism against the third world – one which will cost millions of lives.

Confronted with that development the general international line of class struggle, and simple struggle for humanity, which is called for is evident. It requires an alliance of the masses of the semi–colonial countries, plus the workers’ states, plus the working class and anti-imperialist movement in imperialist countries against the imperialist bourgeoisies and their projects. Such a line, however, is in direct contradiction with that of Gorbachev who, on the contrary, proposes an alliance between the Soviet bureaucracy and the imperialists against the mass of the third world – the Soviet alliance in the Gulf War being the advanced, although not at all exclusive, expression of this collaboration against ‘regional conflicts’. Imperialism itself, however, naturally utilises Gorbachev’s line not simply to step up its attacks on the third world but to tighten the grip on the USSR itself.

The imperialists themselves, indeed, are divided with one part favouring a deal with Gorbachev against the semi-colonial countries, that is the joint resolution of ‘regional conflicts’, and another part favouring an attempt to break up the USSR as a means of securing the restoration of capitalism within at least parts of its borders.

This sharp turn in the objective political situation, the most important since the post-war period, and the sharp clash it poses not simply with imperialism but with the line of the Soviet leadership starting with Gorbachev, necessarily produces the greatest political recomposition of the working class since World War II – in a fundamental historical sense the greatest since 1933 and the coming to power of Hitler (which was the last comparable, though greater, defeat of the international working class).

The starting point and driving force of this recomposition is that 1989 represented a new historical stage in the bankruptcy of Stalinism. The Soviet leadership was shown to be not merely incapable of extending socialist revolution – the Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban revolutions had all taken place against the line of the Soviet bureaucracy – but incapable of even defending the existing workers’ states. The Soviet bureaucracy had led Eastern Europe into a total impasse.

So great was the demoralisation and disorientation created by Stalinism that in Eastern Europe the working class, even if generally not organised as a class, rose in movements either acquiescing in, at best, or, at worst, actively sanctioning the restoration of capitalism. It was the greatest display of historical bankruptcy in history. In 1933, after the coming to power of Hitler, Trotsky wrote, ‘the German proletariat will rise again, Stalinism never’, and in 1989 it may be equally written ‘the East European proletariat will rise again, Stalinism never.’

While no analogy is exact, an analogy has to be grasped only in order to be discarded again later; the best starting point for the consideration of the international situation of the workers’ movement is indeed that following 1933. Then the international working class movement had been given, in the role it played in the rise to power of Hitler, an indelible lesson in the bankruptcy of Stalinism.

A decade followed in which the international working class movement recomposed itself – most advanced programmatically in the shape of the Fourth International but also in terms of mass currents in the emergence of Mao Tse-Tung’s leadership of the Chinese Communist Party against Stalin’s representatives, the emergence of what were to become the Tito leadership of the Yugoslav Communist Party and the Ho Chi Minh leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party and, it should not be forgotten, the mass Trotskyist LSSP in Sri Lanka and the major influence exercised by Trotskyists in Vietnam in the 1930s. In that decade a new more advanced political programme, that of Trotsky summarised in the Transitional Programme of the Fourth International, and eventually a new organisation, the Fourth International itself, were created alongside, in a few cases fusing with, mass currents to the left of the Soviet leadership. That programme and recomposition were forged not abstractly but in reaction to the greatest events of the world class struggle – the rise of Stalinism, its devastating role in Germany in 1923–33, the defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1926–27, the Spanish Civil War, the French popular front, and the Nazi-Soviet pact. Progressively a new understanding of the world working class vanguard, in some cases coherent and systematised (the Fourth International), in other cases (China, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam) reacting primarily to specific national situations, was created.

The new process of reorganisation of the international working class movement after 1989 is necessarily starting in the same way. Some elements of that emerging recomposition and leadership naturally predate the crisis of 1989 – the FSLN, the FMLN, and left currents in the working class movement, left currents in national liberation movements. In a different form and subject to different constraints, because it holds state power, but nevertheless part of a non-Stalinist current, is also the leadership of the Cuban Communist Party. Other new forces have been shaken up by the events of 1989 themselves or by their own national experiences.

Prior to 1989, however, the quasi-totality of such currents looked to the Soviet leadership, believing that whatever its crimes and ‘inadequacies’ the Soviet bureaucracy, in some sense, was on ‘their side’. It is Gorbachev’s course and the events of 1989 that have radically shaken this up. The most advanced forces of the international proletariat found themselves in total and direct confrontation with the line of Gorbachev on the Gulf, appalled by the events in Eastern Europe (and the tens of millions of deaths they know will follow from the imperialist offensive in the third world which the events in Eastern Europe make possible) and are forced to orientate independently. It is the greatest reorientation of the working class vanguard since 1933, driven by the greatest defeat since this period, and by the most important political events for four decades.

These vanguard forces, however, cannot be brought together, and a new more advanced programme or organisation formed, simply by ideas. It requires, as in the 1930s, huge common experiences. The Gulf War, after the negative experience of 1989 itself, was precisely the first of these events forging a new working class vanguard and new recomposition of the international working class – the contemporary equivalent of the Spanish Civil War, the French popular front, or the struggles in China against Japanese imperialism in the 1930s which forged a new working class vanguard after 1933. All forces throwing themselves actively into the fight against the Gulf War were going not simply against imperialism but also against Gorbachev. A whole range of forces engaged in that struggle – ranging from left social democrats, nationalists, and left Stalinists through explicit revolutionaries and involving a series of sections of the masses. All forces seriously participating in that struggle are politically interesting. The fight against the Gulf War was not simply vital in its own respect, to counter a crime of imperialist aggression, but also the first step in the international recomposition of the working class vanguard after 1989. The initial splits are evident:

* International social democracy was divided with, naturally, the majority and most parties siding with the imperialists (the Labour Party leadership, the French SP leadership), while a minority of parties took initially an equivocal position (the German SPD at the beginning of the war, to a lesser degree the Chevènement current of the French SP), and other currents violently opposed the war (the Campaign Group and probably the majority of Labour Party members in Britain).

* The Communist Parties divided. Gorbachev made the war possible through his line – culminating in voting for UN resolution 678 authorising the use of force. Other forces in the Communist Parties opposed the war and mobilised against it (the CPB and left wing of the CPGB in Britain). Many Communist Parties were split (the Italian communists). The Arab Communists took radically opposed lines – Jordanians opposing the war and the Egyptians giving it de facto support. The Cubans opposed the war and a number of Latin American Communist Parties issued a declaration after the war condemning it as ‘genocide’ against the Iraqi people.

* The overwhelming majority of the Greens opposed the war but a right wing minority of the Greens in Britain, more powerful in its leadership than in its membership, either supported the war or were equivocal. The East German Greens were deeply divided.

* The peace movement was divided. The majority of CND in Britain formed the backbone of the struggle against the war. But a small minority did not oppose the war and a somewhat larger part did not want to prioritise the fight against it.

* The ‘extreme left’ in Britain played in its majority a negative role. None supported the war, or were equivocal on it, but a large part of the British ‘extreme left’ played a disruptive and ultra-left role, looking not to how most effectively to oppose the imperialist war but how to pursue some sectarian goal. Furthermore the extreme left’s analysis was radically by-passed because, having earlier misunderstood the events in Eastern Europe, it failed to see how those events facilitated, indeed made inevitable, an imperialist onslaught against the third world. Outside Britain, however, the forces of the Fourth International played an entirely positive, and often central, role in the fight against the war.

* In addition to these already organised currents, millions of young people throughout the world took part in action against the war.

In most imperialist countries a combination of left social democrats, left Stalinists, left Greens, and the majority of the peace movement opposed the war in an alliance against the imperialists, Gorbachev supporters, right social democrats, Eurocommunists, right Stalinists, right Greens and right wing of the pacifist movement. In the semi-colonial countries the divisions traversed an even wider range of organisations – taking in nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists.

What was also notable, and clarified further their nature, was that those currents which had emerged leading the events in Eastern Europe fully supported the war. Czechoslovakia under Havel sent troops to the Gulf. Walesa and the Hungarian government declared support – as did chief aides of Yeltsin.
Internationally many of those forces which had been most enthusiastic about the events in Eastern Europe played no significant role in the anti-war movement or even supported it. A number of forces which had previously been on the intellectual left supported the war – the most notorious example in Britain being the role of ex–New Left Review editorial board member Fred Halliday.

The result was that a massive recomposition of forces took place not primarily on the basis of historical ideological references but, as is always the case, on the basis of the key current problems of the class struggle. The key alliances and political forces were formed accordingly.

Put historically, in the space of two years the international working class vanguard passed through two massive tests which brought it into violent conflict with the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev – the first being the events in Eastern Europe and the second, much more positive in that there was at least an anti-imperialist struggle and an anti-imperialist mass movement, being the Gulf. A major process of recomposition of the war was started as its leadership violently collided with Gorbachev.

Naturally one issue, even one as big as the Gulf War, is not enough to forge a new working class vanguard. That, as in the 1930s, will require second, third (and more) experiences. It is impossible to foresee exactly what the next such test and benchmark will be – meanwhile the crucial issues of the class struggle are pursued. But what is clear is that in the increasingly unstable state of the world economy, above all the third world but also, to a lesser degree, inside the imperialist countries, developments such as 1989 and the Gulf are inevitable. An enormous historical process has been put in train which will necessarily progressively produce not simply a major shift in the structure of world politics – that has already taken place – but, reflecting that, a major historical recomposition of the international working class movement. The task of socialists is to participate in that movement with every particle of strength they possess.

Finally how does the world stand after the events in Eastern Europe and the Gulf? For those with eyes to see it, capitalism and imperialism have not changed their nature one bit. They retreated from empire, and their open rule of the third world, after 1945 not out of democracy and peace but because they were compelled to – because the international relation of forces moved against them. The strengthening of capitalism through the events in Eastern Europe leads not to democracy and peace but to an ever more violent onslaught by imperialism. As Trotsky wrote, the decline of capitalism has turned out to be even more terrible than its rise.

But whatever the short term shifts, the outcome of that struggle is not in doubt. Its effect is to produce, as Trotsky put it, a new crisis of working class leadership.

The United States was able to defeat a medium-sized semi-colonial country in war only because of the criminal role played by the Soviet leadership under Gorbachev. Despite its apparent overwhelming military strength, the US had the greatest political difficulty to assemble its forces for that assault. Because of the economic chaos which grips the third world, the US will not be given a respite from such struggles – the Gulf is not the last but merely the first of many wars imperialism will have to fight. A new offensive of imperialist pillage and North-South wars is opening. In carrying out that struggle capitalism confronts the strongest force in the world – the 3,000 million people condemned to poverty and oppression by imperialism. Against that force not even the United States has or will prevail. What stands between them and victory is the crisis of working class leadership – above all expressed in the role of the Soviet and Chinese bureaucracies.

As regards the overall situation Lenin summarised it perfectly seventy years ago in Better Fewer, But Better – itself written on the eve of a wave of imperialist reaction created by Stalin’s role in the USSR: ‘In the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc, account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe… so that in this respect there cannot be the slightest doubt what the final outcome will be.’ Those words remained true as the Soviet state, despite the damage wreaked on it by Stalin, crushed Nazi Germany and as the people of China and Yugoslavia defeated both Stalin and the imperialists to create the post-war world. In that historical perspective the role of Gorbachev, and the crimes of Bush, are merely one of history’s more contemptible detours.

As regards socialists in the imperialist countries, let alone the people of the third world subject to the most savage attack for half a century, their position is clear. Imperialism would make us all complicit in its crimes. It has many more massacres on the road to Basra in store. In the famous words, ‘for the triumph of evil it is merely necessary that good people should do nothing.’ To permit a society that creates what was done to the Iraqi people is to turn one’s back on humanity.

Put politically, not morally – although proletarian morality has a deep role to play in the struggle – the consciousness and recomposition of the working class movement lags behind the objective reality. The gain of the Gulf War, in the long history of the crimes of humanity, is that it was not a defeat without powerful resistance – as was 1989 in Eastern Europe. Millions of people mobilised against the war in the third world and the imperialist countries and saw the bloody face of imperialism at first hand.

The fight against the Gulf War was a vital struggle that had to be fought in its own right and for the sake of the people of the Middle East. But it was also a first decisive link in the international recomposition of the working class, and its vanguard, in a new turning point in world politics and world history.