#46 - Internationalism - the fight for a world without borders or capitalist exploitation.

Oct 1999


Just over 150 years ago, Marx raised the banner of internationalism. Capitalism, he said, was going to develop the economy on a world scale. But because it was based on the private ownership of the means of production and on the competition between capitalists, it would never unite the entire planet into a harmonious entity. Instead, the capitalist market would create and increase inequalities between different parts of the world. And far from weakening the national divisions which stood in the way of building a rational worldwide economy, the rival capitalist classes would reinforce these divisions.

But, added Marx, "working men have no country" - for the first time, history had produced a social class which was truly international. Throughout the world, workers were confronted with the same enemy, capitalist exploitation, and it was in their common interests to unite against this enemy, across divisions and national borders. As a result, as Marx's "Communist Manifesto" pointed out, it was the task of the working class to build a rational worldwide economy, based on the collective ownership of the means of production and the pooling together of natural and human resources, so as to compensate for the economic imbalance left by history between different parts of the world. So internationalism became the rallying cry of the working class movement across the world for subsequent generations.

150 years on, under today's decaying, crisis-ridden capitalism, it takes the bias and "quick buck" mentality of the system's beneficiaries and their blinkered supporters to deny that Marx's predictions have been entirely confirmed.

Saying that today's economy is international is stating the obvious. The development of productive forces over the past century has turned the world into a comparatively small place. Transport and communications have reduced distances so dramatically that resources from one part of the planet can be utilised in any other part of the planet. The collection and treatment of data from every corner of the world, which would have been impossible only two decades ago for technological reasons, are now carried out as a matter of course. Financial and banking institutions, multinational industrial companies, transport and parcel services, etc.. manage their operations on a worldwide scale, not just on a daily basis but by means of permanent instant coordination of all their activities. Never have the material bases for a rational worldwide organisation of the economy reached such a level of development.

But, at the same time, never have social inequalities, both within each country and between different countries, been so deep either. The flow of goods and capital across national borders has reached unprecedented levels, but these borders have never been so tightly controlled, especially against people coming from poorer countries. The activities of multinationals may well span dozens of different countries, but those that really count in the world economy remain largely dependent on the subsidies, procurement, protected markets and spheres of influence of their "native" national states.

Far from receding as a result of the internationalisation of society, nationalism has been on the increase over the past decades.

Admittedly, the periodic bouts of nationalist hysteria in the British media fall into the category of farce, while the rise of far-right parties in countries like France and Austria is more a potential threat than an immediate one.

But today's nationalism can have much more lethal forms. Thus nationalism was the pretext for the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia over the past decade - a pretext, because it was deliberately built up, by use of terror, by politicians and warlords who saw the breakup of Yugoslavia as their chance to have their own state, no matter how unviable. And the same mechanisms can be seen at work in parts of the former Soviet Union today.

Likewise the so-called "national", "ethnic" or "regional" civil wars which have plagued, often for years if not decades, many of the poorest parts of the world, share similar features. These wars are the means for aspiring strong men to bid for power using the blood of the people whose interests they claim to represent. And in the case of Africa today, the nationalism of the warlords is little more than a thin cover for rival imperialist interests operating by proxy.

In all these conflicts, nationalism under its various forms has been and remains a dead-end for the poor populations. The fact that no other alternative is offered to these populations - in particular the possibility of uniting against their oppressors, whether at home or from the rich countries - reflects the absence of a genuine internationalist movement, based on a communist programme.

In this respect, today's world is standing on its head. On the one hand the imperialist multinationals claim to champion a world economy free of outdated national boundaries - meaning, of course, that the borders of rival countries should be open to the free circulation of their goods and capital, under their control, while their own domestic markets should remain protected. On the other hand, the peoples of the poor countries, faced with the threat of imperialist looting, are told by radical nationalists that their only protection is to strengthen their national borders - when in fact, the only way out of poverty for them would be integration into a much larger economic entity, on a world or at least a regional scale, but of course free from imperialist looting and profit seeking.

The same absurd situation exists in the rich countries. In Britain, we hear textile magnates like Courtauld's justifying thousands of redundancies by the requirements of the international or so-called "global" economy. Yet the chief perspective offered over the years to workers against these job slashers by those who claim to represent the working class - from Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill to Ken Jackson - is what amounts to a nationalist "defence of British industry". As if setting up tariff barriers and import controls could create jobs and improve workers' conditions in this country! As if British bosses were more "lenient" exploiters than foreign companies!

This world needs to be put back on its feet. So-called "globalisation" does not mean that the economy has become organised on a worldwide, let alone on a rational basis, as it should be. It only means the intensification of the plundering of the world by a shrinking number of very rich companies. But this increased exploitation cannot be fought in the name of nationalism, whichever way it is packaged. On the contrary, it can only be fought by rebuilding a strong internationalist movement within the working class worldwide.

Nationalism - a recent idea

What are the origins of nationalism in the first place? It is often said that nationalist divisions and tensions are "rooted in the feudal past". These claims are ludicrous and in fact help to hide the responsibility of the major powers in today's bloodbaths, such as the recent wars in the former Yugoslavia. In reality, nationalism is a comparatively recent development.

In feudal times, and even by the end of the feudal era, the ideas of nation and patriotism had little meaning. Peoples' allegiance went first of all to the feudal strong men - local lords or kings - who were meant to defend them against territorial aggression. The monarchs themselves had no time for national considerations. Royal families often joined forces through marriages and the resulting kingdoms included populations which often had little in common. For a long time, for instance, Spain and Holland were part of the same kingdom, with France stuck in between, which formed a separate kingdom of its own. As to Britain, it should be recalled that the English monarchs include a number of "foreigners" - from William of Orange (a Dutch prince whose family owed its title to a small town in Southern France) to the ancestor of the present dynasty, who came straight from Germany.

Nor did it matter too much for the members of the landowning class, the feudal lords, whether the monarch spoke German, French or Italian, so long as the title which gave them ownership of their lands was still recognised.

As to the populations within these largely artificial kingdoms, they had little to do with the monarchic states anyway. The monarchs' concern was to keep the local lords under control, not the propertyless masses - that was the responsibility of the local lords. The populations spoke their own local languages or dialects regardless of what was spoken at the royal court. The laws they were bound to were largely local. Overall, their lives and outlook were defined by local factors. If feudal society generated any sense of belonging, it was at most at the level of a village or a town.

Even the English revolution of the 17th century did not change this state of affairs much. Despite the seizure of political power by an alliance dominated by the merchant class and large landowners, the monarchy still prevailed in British society. The state machinery remained decentralised to the extent that when the Act of Union was finally forced on Scotland in 1707, it did not even result in a common legal system across the new United Kingdom - an anachronism which has been retained until today.

On the other hand, when the French bourgeois revolution broke out at the end of the 18th century, it took an entirely different direction which was to set the agenda across Europe. A whole range of factors put the French revolution far ahead of its English predecessor. It took place more than a century later in a country which, due to being at the centre of on-going wars, already had a much more centralised state machinery. Unlike in England, it was the urban poor who played a decisive role in the revolutionary events, while the urban middle-class, which provided most of the revolutionary leadership, was much larger and less dependent on the old feudal classes. In any case, as a result, the French monarchy did not survive. The monarchic state and the social hierarchy that went with it were entirely wiped out.

The rising bourgeoisie found new ideological instruments to keep the exploited masses under control while allowing the interests of the new ruling class to be portrayed as "common interests". Hence emerged the concepts of "people" and "nation" - the "nation" allegedly expressing the general will of the "people". The aim, of course, was to conceal the deep inequalities and injustices that the bourgeois takeover left in society, after a revolution whose most radical wing had been motivated precisely by the fight against inequalities. But at the same time, this concept of "nation" was the ideological cover for the ambition of the rising bourgeoisie to develop a power house for its development - a large domestic market which would be free from all the obstacles to the circulation of goods and capital which had existed so far, while being protected from foreign competitors by stringent controls imposed by a centralised state machinery.

Hence nationalism was born as a device to deceive the exploited masses and to promote the competitive interests of the bourgeoisie.

It is worth noting in passing, however, that the founders of nationalism in the 18th century were much broader-minded than their present imitators. For instance, the same parliament which inscribed the French "nation" on its banner during the French revolution, immediately granted French citizenship to a whole number of Germans, English, Americans, Italians, etc.., as a reward for their efforts to "undermine the foundations of tyranny". And within its ranks sat, among others, an English-born American by the name of Thomas Paine who, being forced to flee London under the threat of conviction for high treason, had been elected as deputy by the town of Calais.

The painful birth of the "great nations"

The formation of the new nation-states was by no means a painless or swift process. Even in the case of France, where the radical nature of the revolution made changes easier and quicker, the process took a full generation before it was completed. All feudal property titles and duties were completely abolished, without compensation, in 1792 - unlike in Britain where some still remain in law today. But it took the dictatorial regime of Napoleon to introduce a unified legal system and generalise the use of the French language by force - through the compulsory conscription of vast sections of the population during the Napoleonic wars. It was the army that taught a large part of the French population to speak and read French.

Monarchic Europe had been a melting pot and a patchwork of ethnic and language groups, which had experienced a very uneven development, while being pushed backwards and forwards by rival dynasties. In the central part of Europe in particular, these groups had been tightly intertwined. So, for instance, there were populations speaking German-related dialects just about everywhere, from the north of today's Poland to Switzerland, eastern France, Czechoslovakia and even the Don valley, well inside today's Ukraine. On the other hand, Slav-related groups could be found over a huge territory whose southern border stretched from the north-east of Italy to northern Greece and the Black Sea.

By and large, apart from political factors, it was economic strength which determined the formation of the nation-states. The weaker groups were integrated into the economic sphere of the stronger groups. But of course, the success of this integration depended on the ability of the merged economy to compensate for uneven regional development and therefore on its dynamism and the prosperity it was able to generate.

Thus the small Scottish bourgeoisie agreed to the 1707 Act of Union in order to retain access to the much larger English market and benefit from its expansion. Despite the limited degree of centralisation of the British state, Scotland's integration into Britain was successful partly because of Scotland's small size but mainly because of the subsequent huge development of the British economy. This resulted in large-scale urban and industrial development in southern Scotland while making full use of the large pool of Scottish labour. The various dialects and languages which had been used in Scotland more or less disappeared and so did the idea of a "Scottish nation". The fact that Scottish nationalism resurfaced much later, from the 1930s onwards, is a totally different matter with which we will deal later.

Ireland, on the other hand, was treated in a completely different way. In Scotland, the local bourgeoisie and feudal classes always retained control of the land, but not so in Ireland. Cromwell's punitive expedition against Ireland, in 1649, resulted in the expropriation of two-thirds of Irish land, most of which ended up in the hands of the London merchants, who proceeded to turn the island into their colony. When Anglo-Irish Union was finally imposed in 1801, it was in the wake of the defeat of the United Irishmen's uprising. The balance of forces was overwhelmingly tipped in favour of the British bourgeoisie, for whom Ireland was to remain, for the foreseeable future, England's agricultural backyard. In this union, there was no benefit whatsoever for the Irish population except blood and tears - as was shown by the death toll of the great famine which killed 18% of the population in the mid-19th century. As a result of this annexation, the Irish national question remained unresolved. And even though it is posed in very different terms today, its resolution is still in question.

Outside Britain, all the other European "great nations" managed to unify the populations which they brought together by combining compulsion (through the centralisation of the state), rising prosperity and the mixing of populations into the new urban concentrations of the industrial era. But while Ireland is in many respects a unique case in Europe, the formative period of the nation-states left a string of unresolved problems across the continent, which re-emerged in a more or less explosive fashion later on - for instance the North-South divide in Italy, the Basque question in Spain, Corsican separatism in France, the three-way split between Flemish, French and German-speaking communities in Belgium, etc...

But as history has shown, the most dangerous powder keg left over by this period was that of Central Europe and the Balkans. During the 19th century and up to World War I, this region was the point of contact between three empires - czarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Ottoman empire. Unlike the old monarchies of Western Europe, the state machineries of these three empires were relatively centralised and sophisticated. Moreover, the anti-monarchic forces which began to emerge in these empires, in the 18th century, were split along language and cultural lines and generally weak. And by the time these anti-monarchic forces managed to build up some strength, that is by the mid-19th century, Central Europe and the Balkans were already at the centre of the rivalry between the main capitalist powers of the time - at first France and Britain, and later on Germany. Eventually the three monarchic empires had to make some concessions and a host of new "independent" states were created. Their borders were defined by the Peace of Paris (1856) and the Treaty of Berlin (1878). In both cases, the main capitalist powers arbitrated a series of local wars. As a result, rather than being drawn to reflect existing language and cultural divisions, the borders of the new states were drawn to take into account the specific interests of the rival bourgeoisies who brokered the deals.

The proletariat and the world market

The expansionist tendency of capitalism was nothing new, of course. In Europe itself, the French Revolution had signalled the beginning of a race for markets between the two existing capitalist powers of the time - that is Britain and France. And the colonial world has been the playing field of their rivalry ever since.

In 1848, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx described the expansionist nature of capitalism in the following terms: "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere. The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood."

Here was the great paradox of capitalism. Rising out of the emergence of the great nation-states, under the banner of nationalism, capitalism was forced by its own development to break free of the new borders it had itself created. Or as Marx put it in a text written in the same period, large-scale industry "produced world history for the first time, insofar as it made all civilised nations and every individual member of them dependent for the satisfaction of their wants on the whole world, thus destroying the former natural exclusiveness of separate nations." In these words, there was not just the description of a fact, but an expression of enthusiasm. Under Marx's own eyes capitalism was in fact creating the material conditions for the next stage of history. This unconscious and chaotic process which was welding the entire planet into one single economic entity, was paving the way for a worldwide economic organisation, which would replace capitalism eventually, that is communism. But unlike capitalism, the new society would be based on a conscious worldwide organisation, which would give productive forces a tremendous boost, thereby making it possible to bring all social inequalities to an end.

But as a result, the class which was to be the midwife of communist society, the proletariat, could have no stake in the existing nation-states. "The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality", noted Marx in the Communist Manifesto. But, replied Marx, "the working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got."

Sixteen years after the publication of the Communist Manifesto, the First International was launched, which embodied Marx's idea of proletarian internationalism. Quite naturally, this new organisation came out of a very practical need. The British bosses were constantly using the threat of hiring cheap continental labour in order to weaken the working class in Britain. The large London bakers, for instance, employed an overwhelmingly German workforce in order to undercut British wages. So an address was sent to the French working class in 1863, by a committee chaired by the shoemakers' union leader Ogden, proposing that close fraternal relations should be established between the European working classes. As a result, the following year, a delegation led by the socialist engraver Tolain came to London and, on 28th September, a packed meeting held in St Martin's Hall heard Tolain's statement and decided to elect a committee which would take responsibility for drafting the statutes of a new international working men's association. The First International was thus born.

Internationalism in practice

It must be said at this point that the idea of setting up such an International and the practicalities of organising it, posed relatively few problems at the time.

The repression following the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1848 had scattered a generation of political activists across Europe. Wherever these activists found themselves together, they had tended to associate along social lines. Revolutionary workers from Germany, such as the tailors Lessner and Eccarius and the miniature painter Pfänder, who became part of the organising committee of the new International, were already well acquainted with their counterparts from France, like Tolain and Perruchon, or from Italy, where the old radical republican Mazzini gathered behind him the small clandestine workers' movement.

The only exceptions, in a way, were the British working class leaders, who had never seen a revolution or even been outside their country in most cases. But then London had become the meeting point of Europe's revolutionary exiles and the most radical elements in the burgeoning British trade union movement, had soon found that these foreign activists were closer to their own Chartist or Owenite traditions than many established British leaders.

Besides, the events of 1848 had brought together the enthusiasm and hopes of this generation of activists. And by 1864, they all felt just as strongly in solidarity with the insurgents who had just been defeated in Poland as they had felt with the Parisian working class during the insurrectionary days of July 1848.

That being said the new International was by no means homogeneous, let alone "Marxist". In fact, Marx himself was only invited to join in as an afterthought, to help with the practical task of writing its inaugural address. It was a mixed bag which included the semi-religious republicanism of Mazzini, the crass trade-unionist outlook of some of the British leaders, the craftsmen's reactionary anarchism of the French Proudhonists and only a handful of genuine supporters of Marx's views. The important point for Marx, however, was that this International was prepared to agree to three main points which were formulated in its inaugural address as follows:

  • the independence of the working class: «The emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself»
  • the means to achieve this aim: «Capture of political power has become the great duty of the working class»
  • the international character of this aim: «The emancipation of labour is neither a local nor a national, but a social problem, embracing all countries in which modern society exists»

On the other hand, had Marx been given the choice, he would certainly have preferred a much more centralised and efficient organisation than the loose network which was set up in 1864. But he had no choice. Few of the activists involved were convinced of his ideas at this stage. Collective and fraternal trust had to be built, together with a recognised international leadership, before any further steps could be taken. In the meantime, the new International played a crucial role - that of providing a framework for practical solidarity between the European working class movements and, even more importantly, for educating and preparing a generation of working class activists for future revolutionary struggles.

19th century "globalisation"

The conducting thread behind Marx's reasoning when dealing with the main issues of his time was based on the fundamental idea that the interests of the proletariat coincided with the interests of society as a whole. Therefore any obstacle to the economic development of society went against the interests of the proletariat.

To illustrate this method of reasoning, it is worth recalling Marx's attitude in the debate over "free trade" versus "protectionism" - a debate which, by the way, is not all that different from today's debate over "globalisation" versus "regulation". Probably no issue generated so much heat among British politicians in the 19th century than the question of protectionism. The land-owning class and more generally the section of the capitalist class which depended most heavily on the domestic market for their profits, stood adamantly in favour of high tariff barriers - that is protectionism. On the other hand, the capitalists of the new large-scale industries, who were more dependent on imported raw materials and the development of new markets abroad, demanded the reduction of tariffs in the name of an idyllic free-market capitalism - they were the "free-traders". The working class movement, on the other hand, that is primarily the trade unions, were divided. Some, the most reactionary, sided with the "protectionists" on the grounds that tariff barriers protected existing jobs. Others, the most politically advanced, sided with the liberal "free-traders" on the grounds that lower tariffs would boost the creation of jobs and reduce food prices.

Marx's attitude was that both sides in the working class movement had a case. But at the same time, he argued that whereas the "protectionists" were the reactionary, nationalistic rearguard of capital, whose policy doomed the productive forces to stagnation, the policy of the "free-traders" went in the direction of their development and that of the world market - in other words of the necessary basis for a communist society to emerge.

Marx also argued that the fate of the working class did not have to be dependent on the policy of capital, that the workers' material conditions did not depend on tariffs but on the balance of forces achieved in the class struggle. As a result, he advocated that the working class movement should clearly oppose the "protectionists" while not condoning the real objectives of the bourgeois "free-traders".

In fact, in most of his political writings, Marx's criticisms were much more often aimed at the "free-traders" than the protectionists, if only because the "free-traders" were often adorned with a deceptive "radical" gloss. And the fact that Marx had no illusions whatsoever in the benefits of "free-trade" in and of itself was shown by assessments like this one: «The protectionist system is conservative whereas the free-trade system is destructive. It dissolves old nationalities and it pushes to extremes the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In one word the system of free trade will hasten social revolution. It is only in that revolutionary sense that I vote in favour of for free trade.»

Communism and nationalism

Marx and Engels' attitude to the nationalism of the oppressed was dictated by the same approach as that on the question of free trade: they gave priority to the reinforcement of the international working class movement as a whole. Of course, they always argued that the solidarity of the working class movement should be with the oppressed against the oppressors. But at the same time this did not imply blind, unconditional support for all nationalist demands. Nor did this imply the same attitude towards all national questions. Each case had to be considered within the context of the evolution of society as a whole.

The general solution of all national questions had already been formulated in the Communist Manifesto in the following terms: "United action, of the leading civilised countries at least, is one of the first conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat. In proportion as the exploitation of one individual by another is put an end to, the exploitation of one nation by another will also be put an end to. In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility of one nation to another will come to an end." But this long-term perspective could not constitute the only answer to the problems posed by national demands, where and when they were formulated.

One area in which such demands were most vocal was of course the Balkans. After the 1878 Congress of Berlin where Britain, Germany and France brokered a peace deal to end a two-year war between Russia and the Turks, the region was redivided. Rumania, a slightly enlarged Serbia and tiny Montenegro became independent, while Bulgaria, although independent, lost much of its territory. The rest of what used to be Yugoslavia until a decade ago, including Bosnia Herzegovina, remained under Austrian control. Macedonia, today's Albania and Kosovo and much of today's Greece remained under Turkish domination. Obviously not only was this alleged "settlement" bound to produce friction between the three regional powers (since the Bulgarian regime was closely linked to Russia) but it was bound to trigger widespread discontent among nationalities which had been deliberately ignored in the deal.

Among these nationalities were the so-called "southern Slavs", whose languages and cultural traditions were closer to those of Russia. Many were scattered across areas controlled by the Turkish and Austrian empires and their elites tended to look towards the czar for help to create an independent southern Slav state - a movement called "panslavism" at the time. Of course, the czar was only too happy to use these minorities to stir up trouble in his rivals' empires and this gave the reactionary czarist regime a "progressive" image in the region which it certainly did not deserve.

Engels exchanged a long series of letters with the German social-democrat Bernstein who argued in support of the "southern Slavs" on the basis that their liberation would bring panslavism (i.e. pro-Russian nationalism) in the Balkans to an end. In this case, however, Engels felt little sympathy for Bernstein's "protégés": "panslavism is nothing but the artificial product of the "educated classes" from the towns and universities, the army and employees; the countryside ignores it totally." Having defined the social content of panslavism - which was not a movement of the masses but reflected the aspirations of a section of the privileged classes - Engels proceeded to put the future of these parts of Europe still dominated by feudal empires into the proper context: "We must work toward the emancipation of the proletariat of Western Europe and everything should be subordinated to this objective(..) The proletariat's victory will free them [the Southern Slavs] inevitably and effectively, and not only on the surface as would the czar. This is why they must have at least as much patience as our proletarians, and all the more so as not only have they done nothing for Europe and its development, but they have actually been an obstacle to it. Allowing a world war to break out because of a few Herzegovinians, a war which would result in casualties numbering several thousand times more than the entire population of Herzegovina? This is not my idea of a policy for the proletariat."

The case of Ireland, on the other hand, was a different matter, in that it directly affected the British working class, which was the most advanced in Europe at the time.

Socially, the Irish nationalists, or Fenians, were a petty-bourgeois movement. But by opposing the systematic expropriation of tenant farmers by British landowners after the Great Famine, their movement had acquired what Marx described as a "socialist tendency in a negative sense" and, more importantly, a significant base among the poorest layers of the population. On the other hand, for a long time, Marx did not believe that it would be strong enough to shake Britain's grip, in particular due to the absence of any significant proletariat in Ireland. The only possibility he saw was for the British working class to bring its physical support to a revolutionary uprising in Ireland, thereby imposing the repeal of the Union. But even then, Marx left open the question of the future status of Ireland and considered an Anglo-Irish federation as a possibility.

Marx, however, soon reformulated his views as a result of the political apathy of the British working class. On the one hand, he argued, the fact that Ireland remained the backyard of the British landowning class reinforced this class and, therefore, the most reactionary trends in British society. On the other hand, he said, the deep split created within the ranks of the working class in England by the way Irish immigrants were used by the capitalists to undercut English wages and conditions was "the secret of the impotence of the English working class." And from this he concluded: "Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. And it is the special task of the Central Council in London to awaken a consciousness in the English workers that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is no question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment, but the first condition of their own social emancipation."

In Marx's view, therefore, the fight for the independence of Ireland and its achievement had become necessary steps both to bring down the wall of hostility which divided British workers and Irish immigrants, and to deprive the most reactionary layer of the British bourgeoisie of one of its main sources of political and economic power. Here again, rather than moral considerations, it was the most decisive factors from the point of view of the movement as a whole - in this case the balance of forces between the British working class and the bourgeoisie - which determined Marx's attitude.

The imperialist stage

The end of the 19th century marked a turning point «from the domination of capital in general to the domination of finance capital» as Lenin was to write later, in 1916. He described how the evolution of the world economy meant that capitalism had reached a stage where «a handful (less than one tenth of the inhabitants of the globe) of exceptionally rich and powerful states plunder the whole world simply by "clipping coupons"» - that is by collecting dividends.

Lenin pointed out the features of this new stage of capitalism, the imperialist stage: the concentration of production and the development of giant industrial monopolies, cartels and trusts; the fusion of banking capital with industrial capital; the export of capital abroad for investment and lending; the division of the whole world into the spheres of influence of the great powers.

This colossal concentration of production, the parallel expansion of the world market and its integration through the operation of finance capital confirmed Marx's prognosis as to the general tendency of capitalism to create the basis for its own replacement. In more concrete terms, Lenin described this tendency as follows: «When a big enterprise assumes gigantic proportions, and, on the basis of an exact computation of mass data, organises according to plan the supply of primary raw materials to the extent of two-thirds, or three-fourths of all that is necessary for tens of millions of people; when the raw materials are transported in a systematic manner to the most suitable place of production, sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles; when a single centre directs all the consecutive stages of work right up to the manufacture of numerous articles; when these products are distributed according to single plans among tens and hundreds of millions of consumers (the distribution of oil in America and Germany by the American oil "trusts") - then it becomes evident that we have socialisation of production, and not mere "interlocking"; that private economic and private property relations constitute a shell which no longer fits its contents, a shell which must inevitably decay if its removal by artificial means be delayed; a shell which may continue in a state of decay for a fairly long period (..) but which will inevitably be removed.»

However, in the meantime, the new imperialist stage also raised the prospect of new dangers. The surplus of capital accumulated from the huge development of the productive forces in the rich countries was pushing capitalists to search for new profits abroad. This expansion intensified the rivalries for sources of raw materials and new markets.

The policies of the states of the great powers were bound to be determined by these rivalries. This meant in short a general turn to militarism. Larger standing armies were needed; conscription of civilians was implemented as the need arose; armaments industries were developed with state subsidies and fleets of new ships were built for national navies.

True, in 1884, the Berlin Congress, had carved the world up between the handful of rich powers, with Britain at the fore. Hardly any territory was left unclaimed. But in the process, the lesser imperialisms like Germany, Italy and Japan, which had emerged more recently, were left out of the deal. Small and large skirmishes were therefore bound to take place, including between the main predators of the Berlin Congress.

Thus there were the wars against the colonial peoples to consolidate the existing colonial empires - such as the war in South West Africa conducted by the German army against the Herero peoples, and the Anglo-Boer war. But there were also wars between rival empires, from the war between Britain and Russia over Crimea, Japan and Russia over Manchuria, the US and Spain over Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

On a political level, nationalism became a cover for imperialist expansionism. It was the French socialist writer Anatole France, who put this in a nutshell when he said: "You think you are fighting for motherland, when in reality you are fighting for your bankers." Jingoism was now used to justify the most savage and predatory wars of domination and the tactics used were all the more barbaric because of the scale on which it was now possible to wage war thanks to the new developments in transport, communications and military technology. To bring capitalism to its highest level the rich powers drove society in the poor colonial countries to its lowest level of misery.

The working class movement and imperialism

In the last decades of the 19th century, attempts began to revive a new Marxist international organisation. The Second, or Socialist International gathered together in the late 1880s after a series of conferences, initially promoting the fight for an eight-hour day, and establishing the tradition of an International Labour Day, on the 1st of May.

The basis for this was the fact that the proletariat and its class organisations had grown by leaps and bounds in Europe and the USA on the back of the huge industrial development. Socialist parties, the legacy of the First International, were already established in all the major countries by this time, built and sustained often under illegal conditions such as in Germany. Indeed the largest section of the new International was the German Social Democratic Party or SPD, officially launched in 1890, after not only surviving 12 years of illegal existence but actually managing to achieve a considerable strength despite Bismarck's repression.

A number of socialist parties now also existed in France. In Britain, there were various smaller socialist parties like the Social Democratic Federation of Hyndman and a latecomer to the Second International, the Independent Labour Party of Keir Hardie which was one of those peculiar mixtures of so-called "christian socialism" and co-operatism common only in Britain. As to the Russians, they had formed the Social Democratic and Labour Party in 1893, under the leadership of Gregori Plekhanov.

This gave the Second International a size, importance and influence that the First International had never attained.

But the development of imperialism had political consequences for the working class and its political organisations. The super-profits flowing into the rich European countries, over and above the profits they squeezed out of their own working classes, meant that the capitalist classes were prepared to pay for social peace. They offered trade union leaders positions in the administration of the workers' insurance funds, labour exchanges and so on, in order to provide them with a stake in the system. At the same time, the role of socialist parties in municipalities and regional assemblies increased. They were no longer treated as pariahs by the Establishment and were soon in a position to manage sizeable budgets. This gave them a social status which they had never experienced before. It also attracted towards the social-democratic parties career-hungry politicians who had nothing to do with the working class or socialism.

All this resulted in the emergence in these parties of a growing layer of officials who were reluctant to rock the boat for fear of losing hard-won positions and who provided a fertile ground for reformist ideas or so-called "evolutionary socialism". They denied the need for a revolution by arguing that the electoral success of the socialists would in and of itself allow a gradual growing over of the state towards socialism.

Internationalism versus social chauvinism

The main issue of this period though, and the one which preoccupied the leaders of the Second International and the workers they influenced, was the threat of conflict between the three major imperialist powers for colonial markets. This dominated the congresses of the Second International. The final resolution of the Stuttgart Congress, in 1907, defined the general line of the International in case of war. It read: «Should war break out, they (the working classes of different countries and their parliamentary representatives) must do all they can to take advantage of the economic and political crisis precipitated by the war to rouse the masses and accelerate the downfall of capitalist class domination.»

Of course it was easy enough for all the participants, from the pacifists in the British ILP to the reformists in the German SPD to vote for such a radical-sounding resolution in peacetime - since it had no immediate consequences. But not everyone was fooled by this. Rosa Luxembourg, then a leading figure of the left wing of the German SPD, had already criticised the dominant trend of ideas among SPD leaders in a pamphlet entitled "Reform or revolution", published in 1899. She argued that there was no "Third", interim way available for the working class, whereby reforms would be granted gradually, improving its position. Antagonisms between the capitalists on a world scale were already reflected in open class warfare against workers at home and war against the colonial peoples enslaved abroad. The bourgeoisies of the imperialist countries were engaged in a struggle for world domination. The working class and poor would be the cannon fodder and the main victims, regardless of which nation they happened to live in. It was not a question, therefore, of attempting to interrupt preparations for war or war itself by general strikes, as Keir Hardie proposed in Stuttgart, but of going on the offensive without waiting any longer. The alternative posed by the new period of imperialism was: either socialism or barbarism.

The reformist current, already very strong in the ranks of the German SPD was to develop rapidly into what Lenin referred to as "social chauvinism" - that is, the acceptance of the idea of defence of the fatherland in the imperialist war. However, right up until 1914, the German party and the rest of the International appeared, at least in words, to support the resolution agreed in Stuttgart. But when the war finally broke out in August 1914, it was soon clear that the main leaders of the German SPD, the French Socialists and even Plekhanov in Russia were being rapidly converted to patriotism. Hyndman, of the British Socialist Party, had already been preaching armament against Germany for some time. Behind Keir Hardie's advocacy of resistance by general strike lay what amounted to pacifism at best. In the end, the socialist members of the German Reichstag voted the war credits - which meant supporting the war effort. They were immediately followed by their French colleagues.

Lenin summarised this shameful betrayal in the following passage: «Opportunism was engendered in the course of decades by the special features in the period of the development of capitalism, when the comparatively peaceful and cultured life of a stratum of privileged working men "bourgeoisified" them, gave them crumbs from the table of their national capitalists, and isolated them from the suffering, misery and revolutionary temper of the impoverished and ruined masses. The imperialist war is the direct continuation and culmination of this state of affairs because this is a war for the privileges of the Great-Power nations, for the repartition of the colonies and domination over other nations. To defend and strengthen their privileged position as a petty-bourgeois "upper stratum" or aristocracy (and bureaucracy) of the working class - such is the natural wartime continuation of petty-bourgeois hopes ...such is the economic foundation of present-day social-imperialism."

Politically, this was the end of the Second International as the organisation of the international working class.

Towards the world revolution

A minority of the organisations of the Second International refused to take the patriotic line, however. In March 1915, an International Women's Conference convened in Berne called for an immediate end to the war. There, under Lenin's influence a call was issued for a new international to be formed which marked a complete break with social chauvinism. It was out of this proposal that the Zimmerwald and Kienthal Conferences of 1915 and 1916 were convened, bringing together the small number of those who had remain loyal to the internationalist tradition.

However, it was the Bolshevik revolution, in October 1917, which provided the impetus for the rebuilding of a new International. Firstly, because the success of the Bolshevik party in leading the Russian proletariat to power gave it the kind of credit among the working class and its activists across the world, which no party had probably ever had before, not even the German SPD. And secondly because, given the accounts that the working classes of the belligerent countries had to settle with their own bourgeoisies in the wake of the war, the Russian revolution set an example which could only have a deep politicising effect.

One of the first priorities of the new workers' state in Russia, therefore, was the establishment of a new revolutionary Third International. Thus a congress was convened as soon as it was feasible, in January 1919 - though the civil war was still raging and it was extremely difficult to get into Russia.

The letter of invitation to the congress laid out its manifesto. And its first two points read as follows: «The present period is that of the decomposition and collapse of the entire world capitalist system, and will be that of the collapse of European civilisation in general if capitalism, with its insurmountable contradictions, is not overthrown. The task of the proletariat now is to seize state power. The seizure of state power signifies the destruction of the state apparatus and the organisation of a new apparatus of proletarian power."»

Unlike the loose association of the Second International, the Third International was to be a world party of the revolution, that is, a disciplined army capable of leading the proletariat along the road to power. And this army already had a leadership with the required experience and credit, in the shape of the Bolsheviks, thanks to their role in the Russian Revolution.

Unfortunately, the Third International only had five years until the victory of Stalinism in Russia paralysed it, before turning it into an instrument of counter-revolution. Moreover its launch came too late to allow the Bolsheviks to be of any help to the initial revolutionary wave, in Finland, Germany and Hungary. Nevertheless, these five years provide a clear idea of what the Bolsheviks had in mind in setting it up.

The first task assigned to the International was to turn its national sections into revolutionary parties - which was easier said than done as most of these parties had been shaped by the reformism of the Second International. There were issues on which the reformist elements proved particularly reluctant, thereby allowing the International to formulate the opposition between reformist and communist policies in concrete terms.

One of these issues was, for instance, the need for the communist parties to agitate against the colonial policy of their capitalist classes. This involved the setting up of illegal cells in the army, since the military were primarily used to police the colonies - something which the reformists were adamantly opposed to since it meant "breaking the law". It also involved helping to organise communist parties in the colonies themselves. These instructions created a scandal in the French party where racist prejudices about the "civilising" role of colonialism were still rife, while the Algerian Communist Party, which had been formed by a majority of the old Algerian Socialist Party, turned out to be entirely controlled by French settlers who did not want to have anything to do with recruiting Algerians, let alone giving them any say in the organisation.

Slowly, however, with much argument and factional fighting, the International was able to transform these reformist parties whose main activity had often been based around municipal and electoral activities, into communist organisations organised in small cells, based on factories and working class districts, so that they could intervene quickly should any development in the class struggle offer an opportunity. At the same time, communist MPs and trade-union officials learnt the duty and the advantages of submitting their activities to the control of the party - and those who failed to learn left or were expelled.

The Third International did not concentrate only, however, on the countries in which the Second International had been present. It also developed a policy directly aimed at the poor countries. Most of them had no socialist or communist movement of any kind, and hardly any industrial proletariat. But many had nationalist movements and the oppression of the imperialist powers gave to these movements a large potential social base among the poorest layers of the population. So the Bolshevik leaders set themselves the task of trying to influence these nationalist movements and, if possible, to form within their ranks a communist wing capable of laying the basis for a proletarian party at some point.

In this task the Third International had a tremendous asset - the credit won by the Russian Revolution in the poor countries for having recognised the right to self-determination of the many nationalities previously oppressed by the czarist empire. For Lenin, who was the artisan of this policy, recognising this right was the precondition necessary to preserve the possibility of future unity. And in fact most of the nationalities thus granted the right to secede (and who took it in most cases) chose later to join the USSR when it was formed as a federation, on the basis of equal rights for all nationalities.

It was the same approach to the national question which was adopted by the Third International in its attempts to make headway in the poor countries. But at the same time, wherever a communist organisation existed in a poor country, no matter how small the working class was, it insisted on the need for it to be organised separately from the other classes. Forming a front with the nationalist movements against imperialism or in the fight for independence from the colonial power was one thing, subordinating the interests of the working class or the poor masses to those of the nationalist petty-bourgeoisie was another. On the contrary this front was to be aimed at taking the leadership of the struggle against imperialism from the hands of the nationalists, on the basis of a proletarian programme.

Back to social-chauvinism

In 1922 at its fourth congress, the Third International's resolution on the Russian Revolution said: « The Fourth World Congress reminds proletarians everywhere that the proletarian revolution can never triumph within the limits of a single country; it can triumph only internationally, by developing into world revolution. Soviet Russia's struggle for existence, on behalf of the achievements of the revolution, is a struggle for the liberation of the oppressed and exploited proletarians of the entire world from the chains of slavery. The Russian proletarians have more than fulfilled their duty to the world proletarians as vanguard fighters for the revolution. Now it is the turn of the world proletariat to fulfill its duty.»

Yet, two years later, Stalin launched his offensive against Trotsky on the basis of a negation of this resolution: the era of the Stalinist doctrine of "socialism in one country" had started. And it was soon to be followed by Stalin's victory over the remaining leaders of the Russian Revolution. However, it is not a coincidence that Stalin chose this ground to focus his attacks on Trotsky and his supporters. By denying the need for the internationalisation of the revolution, Stalin insulated himself, his bureaucracy and the USSR from the outside world, knowing that a proletarian revolution anywhere in the world would inevitably revive the revolutionary spirit of the Russian revolution and be the death warrant of the bureaucracy.

It took more than the Stalinist turn for the internationalist tradition of the Third International to disappear completely, however. Probably the most outstanding demonstration of the survival of this tradition was the physical and militant support given by tens of thousands of communist party members and supporters who spontaneously joined the International Brigades during the Spanish civil war. Many of them died in Spain without realising that they had died for nothing - because Stalin's policy was to prevent a proletarian revolution at any cost.

But already the Popular Front turn imposed by Stalin on the International was reintroducing social-chauvinism through the back door. From 1934 onward, the communist parties were instructed to do everything in their power to conclude alliances with the reformist parties and if possible the bourgeois centre-left parties. In demonstrations, the Internationale, the traditional marching song of the communist movement since the Paris Commune, was replaced by each country's national anthem. And the red flag was left in the cupboard and replaced by a national flag. The future allies should not be frightened off, said Stalin's instructions.

The final turn came, however, with World War II and the invasion of the USSR by Hitler's troops. This time, everywhere, from Britain to India and South Africa to the USA, the communist parties became not only staunch supporters of the war effort against Germany but undertook to discipline workers in the factories to step up their productive efforts for the victory of their bourgeoisies.

Although Stalin waited until 1943 to formally disband the Third International (to please his new imperialist allies), it had been politically dead as an organisation representing the political interests of the international working class for a whole decade. The failure of the Third International to arm the German working class with a policy to fight Hitler's rise to power and the absence of any reaction within the International when Hitler's victory exposed this failure, had revealed its political bankruptcy.

Once again, the question of rebuilding a new International was posed. However, this time the activists who undertook this task were even fewer and their organisations weaker than in 1914, after the betrayal of the Second International. In most countries, these activists were completely isolated from the working class, often very inexperienced and confronted with systematic harassment by the Stalinists. In fact, the hopes of this small internationalist embryo relied largely on the political credit and experience of just one man - Leon Trotsky. And when eventually, in 1938, the groups around Trotsky decided to declare a new International - the IVth International - it was primarily in order to raise a flag and propose a programme for those who might rebel against an imminent second World War. But the founders of the IVth International had no illusions - they knew that, due to its weakness, they could not claim to be an alternative international leadership of the working class. For this to happen, new revolutionary developments in the run-up to the war would have to take place, with a new generation of working class activists coming to communism through their fight against the imperialist butchers, pulling behind them entire sections of the old Stalinist parties. Setting up the International was a militant duty in case such revolutionary developments did occur. But there was no guarantee that they would - and they did not. As a result, the IVth International effectively ceased to exist as a potential alternative after Trotsky's murder by Stalin's agents, in 1940. Once again, the international working class was left without an organisation representing its political interests. And this is still the situation today.

Toward a "global" paradise?

So, more than half-a-century later, how is can the problem of internationalism be posed today? And, first of all, what has changed on the international scene?

It is no longer so fashionable to use the word "imperialism" to describe the predatory behaviour of the rich capitalist countries towards the poor countries of the Third World, nor for that matter towards each other. Today, the word on everyone's lips is "globalisation". No doubt for some, this makes the world economic system sound as if it is something a bit like the Internet, and just as benign. But is it? Has capitalism changed? Is "globalisation" taking us towards an ultimate era of unlimited economic growth, stability and prosperity in a happily unified world?

This is no joke. Every week, hundred of books and articles are published by so-called "economists" to celebrate what can only be described as an act of faith - although not a disinterested one. In fact these true believers form a majority among the small world of bourgeois economic "experts". They staff most of the cosy jobs provided by the IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation and the various agencies which dictate austerity measures to Third World countries, so that the banks of the rich countries can keep receiving interest payments while the children of the poor countries die of malnutrition and endemic diseases.

The unlimited growth they worship is not that of the economy but purely that of profit, as reflected by the on-going upward curve of share prices on western stock markets. Never mind the millions of people pushed to despair by the occasional financial crisis in South East Asia, South America or Russia, as has happened over the past two years. What they call stability and prosperity is really the steady flow of wealth that the system sustains, from the working and jobless masses of the planet to the shrinking minority of the very rich in the imperialist countries.

These bigots wear such thick blinkers that they cannot see the social catastrophe generated across the world by the profit merry-go-round - but nor do they want to see it. Yet this catastrophe is "officially" exposed in the Human Development Report published annually by a United Nations agency. In 1997, it said for instance: «In more than a hundred countries per capita income is lower than it was fifteen years ago. [..] At the beginning of the sixties, the poorest 20% of the countries of the world were 30 times poorer than the richest 20%. Now they are 60 times poorer while at the same time the overall wealth has considerably increased. [..] Three quarters of the flow of direct foreign investment intended for the poor countries is in fact concentrated in less than a dozen countries, most of them located in Asia. Africa, meanwhile, only receives a few crumbs - 6% - and the least advanced countries, most of which are in Africa receive a miserly 2%.» As to the situation in the rich countries, we all know the effect of the massive destruction of human labour and productive forces through unemployment and factory closures over the past two decades.

Or the threat of a "global" evil?

There are those, however, for whom the term "globalisation" describes an entirely new "evil" - far more frightening than anything ever seen before.

Of course, the scale of the damage caused by imperialism today is frightening. But more frightening than the world slump in the 1920s and its consequences, including fascism in Germany and World War II? Certainly not, in any case not so far, even though no-one can tell what this crisis-ridden system has in store.

Fundamentally, Lenin's description of imperialism in 1916, which we quoted earlier, shows that the basic mechanisms of the system are the same: the centralisation of productive capital on a worldwide scale, the resulting planning of production which takes place within each multinational, the predominant role of finance capital, its concentration, etc.. All these are features which could just as well describe today's economic system.

Of course, there is a difference of scale. The degree of integration of whole the planet into the world market has increased considerably. So too has the concentration of production and the centralisation of its organisation. A few gigantic companies organise the economic activity of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people in a large number of countries across the world. Their policies are worked out on a world-wide scale. Take the "Ford 2000" strategy for example - aimed at developing a "world" car, which has the same basic platform and can be assembled in just about any country in the world, from common parts. Where Ford chooses to locate its production - in which countries and in which factories - depends now entirely on where and how it can maximise its profits at any given moment.

Likewise, the speed at which capital flows today, the total value of capital in circulation and financial transactions, the volume of international trade, all these factors have reached phenomenal proportions. But not necessarily as much as it seems. For instance, contrary to what one may imagine, the proportion of British-owned capital which circulates outside Britain is much smaller today than it was in 1914. And this is true for all the industrialised countries. As to the figures for international trade, they are also misleading, as, for instance, a significant part of this trade actually reflects movements of goods within one single multinational for the sole purpose of evading taxes.

On the other hand, what has really increased qualitatively is the share of capital available in the world which is diverted from the productive sphere towards the financial sphere - to the point where it is not unusual for a manufacturing multinational to make more profit out of its financial operations than out of its productive operations.

One factor in this has been the financial deregulation from the late 1970s onwards. By reducing the role of intermediaries, cutting financial costs and shortening the time necessary for transactions, deregulation made financial speculation more attractive as a means to make profit. But deregulation was an aggravating factor in the surge of speculation, not its cause. To find its cause, one has to go back further into the past, long before anyone thought of inventing a new word, to the early 1970s, when the world capitalist crisis re-emerged after the relatively prolonged respite of the postwar period. Faced with the threat of shrinking profit and a monetary system which was destabilised by the enormous debt of the rich countries, the capitalists of the rich countries began to refrain from increasing their investment in the productive sphere. And what else could they do with their spare capital, if not speculate?

In that sense, we are still confronted with the same imperialist engine, the same parasitism of finance capital, the same massive waste of human and material resources. Only, the accelerator pedal seems permanently stuck, while the gear handle jumps every now and then, unpredictably, causing major damage to the cogs in the gear box. How long the engine will last, we do not know. But what we do know is that it cannot last forever without some kind of breakdown.

Nationalism as a farce

In the context of today's internationalised world economy, how does nationalism manifest itself? As the saying goes, history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. In the case of nationalism today, it is both as farce and tragedy.

In Britain, the devolution of Scotland and Wales was certainly a convenient means for Blair to devolve political blame onto others, as well as a way to pacify a layer of career-hungry politicians and professionals who had been crying for cushy jobs for a long time. The prerequisite for this, however, was the stirring up of nationalist feeling here and there to make the whole exercise more plausible. In the case of Scotland therefore, there was a harking back to Robbie Burns and Sean Connery donned his kilt. But this hardly made a case for the existence of an "oppressed" Scottish national identity. And in the main the exercise has been a cultural game with no real economic stake, no matter what the Scottish National Party may say about "their oil" - unless they intend to recruit a tartan army to expropriate the British, but mostly American oil giants.

Of course, no-one can blame those Scottish working class voters who had the illusion, after 18 years of Tory government in London, that a Scottish parliament would be more receptive to their demands than Westminster. By now, however, the size of the salaries and the length of the paid holidays that the Members of the Scottish Parliament immediately proceeded to vote for themselves will have cast some doubt on this illusion - and fortunately so. Let us hope that they will now understand that the whole affair was a con and that, with or without a Parliament in Edinburgh, they will still be the subjects of capital, whether British, Scottish or otherwise - but who can tell the difference? This is the reality of the imperialist market: with or without devolution, or independence for that matter, Scotland is much too weak to protect itself against the exploitation of capital, even if its political leaders wanted that, which is not the case.

Ironically, while claiming to loosen the Union through the devolution process, Blair's government has made a point of raising the Union Jack over the issue of the euro. Yet, the reality, of course, is that British capital has no option but to join monetary union at some or other point in the future. The anachronistic survival of state machineries, each with its particular currency floating against that of its trading partners, is a hazard and an obstacle to the expansion of trade that British business can no more afford than its European rivals. So the whole saga around British "sovereignty" is designed to provide what is really a poor cover for Blair's attempt to win special privileges for British finance capital, and at the same time calm the fears of the most anti-European section of the electorate.

But this is on the same level as the ban on British beef declared by France and Germany. The issue here is not whether British beef is safe or not - although, on this, the last authority to trust is probably the British government. The real issue is that both the French and German governments, which are not particularly noted for their concern for public safety, are using British beef as a device to placate the anti-European section of their public opinion, to satisfy the demands of their domestic beef producers, and at the same time to put pressure on Blair to give away something in exchange for ending the ban.

The great designs of the 18th century idea of the "nation" are thus reduced to the level of tricks between rival market stall holders.

Nationalism as a tragedy

But when it comes to the poorer European countries like the former Yugoslavia, nationalism has turned into tragedy. In less than a decade the power games of the imperialist governments have succeeded in virtually destroying a country with a population of over 25 million.

Of course, the imperialist leaders blame the "ancestral hatred" that allegedly divided the former Yugoslavia. But how then did Yugoslavia hold together for 35 years? Was it not because, over these 35 years, Tito's regime, for all its shortcomings and despite its dictatorial nature, took measures designed to ensure that the various components that made up the country had enough reason to want to remain together?

The factors which precipitated the breakdown of Yugoslavia were both economic and political. From an economic point of view, the world crisis turned into an unbearable burden for the country's economy. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc which deprived Yugoslavia of its main markets, the Western economy was unwilling to provide the country with alternative markets and with the additional finance needed to modernise its productive industry. As a result, Yugoslavia sank deep into recession, factories closed down and poverty spread to areas where it had been unknown for a long time.

From a political point of view, this was the time chosen by regional politicians to try to gain sole control of their regional strongholds by distancing themselves from the federal government and raising half-forgotten national flags. When this move was encouraged, first by Germany and then by the European Union and the US government, the ambitions of the aspiring politicians went up one notch and they began to move towards secession. Slovenia broke away first, soon followed by Croatia. Except that in Croatia, the large Serbian minority became an easy target both for the Croatian far-right and the Serbian nationalists. The war started from there in June 1991, before moving on to Bosnia the following year.

Since then, from Bosnia to Kosovo, nationalist warlords have had a field day. The populations were forced to defend themselves against real or invented enemies. The terrorist policies of the nationalist armed gangs left them no option other than to serve as cannon-fodder for the warlords. But ultimately, it was the intervention of imperialism which fanned the flames at every stage, given that the main objective of each of these rival warlords was to gain the recognition of the west - and as a result a statelet for themselves.

The criminal role played by the imperialist leaders is this tragedy must never be forgotten. Particularly in its last act, in Kosovo, where they consciously chose to risk forcing an entire population to flee the country in the most terrible conditions, for the sole purpose of punishing Milosevic, their former partner in crime in the settlement of the war in Bosnia.

Nor should the role played by the nationalists be forgotten - whichever side they were on. Some of them may have been mere pawns in the hands of the imperialist powers. Others may have appeared to be on the side of the victims rather than on the side of the aggressors. But ultimately all of them had the same objective, that is to isolate "their" population from the others and at the expense of the others, in order to have "their" own state - regardless of the price to be paid by the population whose interests they claimed to represent.

And this price goes much beyond the suffering caused by the war itself. It goes even beyond the walls of blood which have been erected between the populations. It means the further impoverishment of all the populations concerned, since they will now be confined within totally unviable states, which can only become their prisons.

Whether there could have been another outcome in the former Yugoslavia is, of course, impossible to say. The fact was that no political force tried to build on the ties created between the populations by the previous 35 years of living together rather than resurrect half-forgotten divisions. Nor did any party emerge to propose a plan to deal with the growing poverty which was threatening the populations - by bringing all social privileges to an end and taking over control of the economy - or to offer to the populations of Yugoslavia the perspective of joining ranks with those of the neighbouring countries, within a federation of all peoples of the Balkans.

A proletarian communist party would have tried to propose all these policies. And it would have been able to use the powerful lever of a working class which had shown time and again its ability to join ranks across ethnic, religious and national boundaries, in order to fight in the class struggle. Whether it would have succeeded is another question. But in this crisis situation, as in so many others, the only policy which did not lead straight into a dead end was an internationalist policy based on the unity of the proletariat.

For an internationalist perspective

The re-emergence of nationalism, in its various forms, across the world is a consequence of the crisis of the capitalist system. In some cases, it is a direct consequence of growing poverty or the intensified rivalries between imperialist powers, or a combination of both. In other cases, it reflects a reactionary drift in society caused by the weakening of the working class movement due to the crisis.

In this context, any credible perspective must be aimed at the root cause - that is the crisis of the system itself. And this raises, once again, the old reformist question - can the capitalist system be reformed?

Since the financial crisis in South East Asia has exposed the dangers of the uncontrolled merry-go-round of finance capital, there have been repeated calls for more "regulation" of the financial markets. These calls have come from all sorts of quarters, including NGOs, social-democrats and even the far-left.

In substance, all these supporters of more "regulation" argue that the states should take on the responsibility of limiting financial speculation and capital flows - either directly or through the existing international agencies. Some argue in addition, that in order to alleviate the drastic social consequences of the past two decades, the states should stop the rolling back of public services and restore welfare payments. Petitions carrying tens of thousands of signatures have been circulated to that effect in Continental Europe and Northern America in particular.

One of the arguments often used by these critics of "globalisation", which is similar to that used by many of those who oppose Britain's joining the euro, is that the world market as it operates today, poses the threat of countries "losing control" of their own economies.

But since when has the population of this country had any control over the economy? Has even Blair's government any real control over the economy? If that was the case, would Blair and his ministers have allowed, for instance, the closure of so many factories in their own constituencies? Of course, they might have prevented these closures, by reading the riot act to the capitalists and threatening them with the only real effective sanction - expropriation. But they did not, because they chose to come to power to run the system as it is, not to threaten the profits of the capitalists. And this choice in itself leaves the Labour leadership with no real control over the economy, except the responsibility of meeting the bosses' demands.

And why should they make a different choice when it comes to financial speculation? Not only is this speculation a vital source of profit for British capital, it is also a vital source of finance for the state itself. One should not forget that regardless of Brown's "prudent" policy, his budget remains partly financed by the national debt. And how would Brown be able to carry on dishing out subsidies to British companies and guaranteeing a ridiculously low level of income tax to the wealthy if he was no longer able to count on the willingness of "investors", that is financial speculators, to buy government bonds? How would he pay for the over-priced procurement contracts on which large arms manufacturers such as BAe or GKN make a living?

Besides, there is no guarantee that "regulation" would protect the system from speculation. Look at all the cushy jobs of regulators, commissioners, ombudsmen, watchdogs and watchcats created over the past two years by the Labour government. They did not prevent disasters like the Paddington rail crash in October. Nor have they prevented the on-going under-funding of schools and the further degradation of the NHS. And nor would more regulation prevent financial speculation, because the capitalists would always find a way to by-pass the rules and the governments a reason to look the other way.

On the other hand, if the demand for "regulation" of capital flows was taken to its ultimate conclusion, it would imply raising border controls not only against capital flows but also against trade. This would mean that the working class would be expected to pay for the lost markets while agreeing to work for lower wages to make up for the unaffordable imports. Such policies have been implemented before - by Hitler's Germany in particular. Surely this is not what the global reformers want?

The truth is that whether it is called "imperialist" or "global" the world capitalist economy is not reformable. At best reforms would be ineffective. At worst they would shift the cost onto the working population and the jobless.

Those who, in the name of "realism", argue for the states (and it would require not just one, but all the main states) to "regulate" the least acceptable aspects of imperialism are utopians. The only "realistic" policy against the dangers of the global financial merry-go-round is to work at building the political organisation of the working class against capitalist exploitation in each country and to aim at the replacement of capitalism on a worldwide scale. It would certainly not be more difficult than attempting to get existing bourgeois states to reform their own system, but in addition it is an objective which could once again unite the world proletariat, from the rich and the poor countries, under the same banner of internationalism and communism. This is our programme.