Address to 23rd International Communist Seminar, Brussels

Contribution of the Workers Party of Ireland

100 years ago, hundreds of thousands of men from Ireland marched off to fight for the British Empire in the great imperialist war. They went to war expecting to achieve contradictory things. The Irish nationalists had been told by their leader, John Redmond, that if they fought for the British Empire, they would secure their own parliament for Ireland within the British Empire, Home Rule. The Irish unionists had been told by their leader, Edward Carson, that if they fought for the British Empire, then they would be saved from Home Rule, and would continue to be part of the British state. But it was not just this political question of national independence that divided the Irish working class, but also the question of religious sectarianism. Of course, Ireland was far from the only country where imperialism successfully used nationalism to divide the working class.

The First World War divided the working class across Europe; the betrayal by many Social Democrats, who abandoned the principle of proletarian internationalism, helped imperialism successfully exploit nationalism to mobilise workers to kill each other in the interests of monopoly capitalism.

Writing shortly after the outbreak of the war James Connolly, who like Lenin, had refused to back the rush to support the imperialist war, wrote: “What then becomes of all our resolutions; all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future? Were they all as sound and fury signifying nothing?” (Forward, 15 August 1914)

The First World War was not about the freedom of small nations, the defence of European civilisation or protecting democracy. The First World War was the inevitable outcome of the political, social and economic forces produced by capitalism in the previous decades: it was, first and foremost, about imperialist powers seeking to seize control of the world’s markets, natural resources and productive capacity. In The War and Russian Social-Democracy published in November 1914 Lenin stated: "The European War, which the governments and the bourgeois parties of all countries have been preparing for decades, has broken out. The growth of armaments, the extreme intensification of the struggle for markets in the latest - the imperialist - stage of capitalist development in the advanced countries, and the dynastic interests of the more backward East-European monarchies were inevitably bound to bring about this war, and have done so. Seizure of territory and subjugation of other nations, the ruining of competing nations and the plunder of their wealth, distracting the attention of the working masses from the internal political crises in Russia, Germany, Britain and other countries, disuniting and nationalist stultification of the workers, and the extermination of their vanguard so as to weaken the revolutionary movement of the proletariat – these comprise the sole actual content, importance and significance of the present war.” (Collected Works, Vol. 21 page 27)

This remains the main aim of imperialism today, and the true cause of the many aggressive wars waged by the US and its allies since the counter-revolution and the overthrow of the socialist states.

In many respects the world today resembles the era before the First World War more than it does the era after the Second World War. This is due to the confidence capitalism has acquired with the undermining of socialist states in Eastern Europe, the attempts to diminish class consciousness and the creation of a unipolar world. In the most advanced capitalist countries, especially the United Kingdom and the United States, we have seen what is effectively a return to the economic ideology that dominated the nineteenth century: neo-liberalism shares a great many of the characteristics of laissez-faire.

Domestically, the state is operating increasingly in the interests of capital and against those of labour. Regulation is removed, the state’s role in the economy is slashed, trade union rights are rolled back through legislation and the judicial system, the gap between rich and poor grows, the grip of an oligarchy on power is tightened. Internationally, political, economic and military might is utilised to dominate smaller countries and to secure control of their resources. Puppet regimes are kept in power or coups and rebellions against governments supported depending on what the circumstances demand in the interests of the monopolies. The IMF, the World Bank, the WTO; the aircraft carrier, the drone, the cruise missile; the NGO, the school, the university - all forms of soft power as well as hard power are used to further imperialism’s control not just of governments but of peoples.

Many of the characteristics of imperialism today are, therefore, both very similar to and very different from imperialism a century ago. The days of vast empires ruled from London or Paris are gone, but they are not needed when the political and economic elites of developing countries share the interests and values of the global elite, and serve the interests of the major imperialist centres. Nor are they needed when the ideological dominance of neo-liberalism in a unipolar world means that it is thought natural that resources are exploited by foreign private companies for their profits, and not used by the government for the interests of the whole people. But the fundamental character of imperialism, as defined by Lenin, remains the same.

Inter-imperialist rivalry remains a very real force in the world today, but is much different in its nature than a century ago. We can see this, for example, in the European Union. Several of the imperialist powers whose conflict provoked World War One now cooperate within this imperialist bloc. Tensions remain between these powers, and among the member countries of the European Union, as the working class in Ireland knows only too well. However, on a global scale they act together, especially in the maintenance of trade relations with the former colonies that mirror the economic relationships of imperialism a century ago. Despite its continuing efforts to increase its military power, the EU remains relatively weak militarily, especially when confronted by a strong rival capitalist power such as Russia.

Of course, the major difference in inter-imperialist rivalry between today and the period before World War One is the hegemony of the United States, whose emergence as the leading imperialist power came about directly as a result of the two World Wars, and whose global hegemony dates from the collapse of the socialist states. In recent decades, the US has been extremely aggressive, whether in launching wars, placing the entire global population under electronic surveillance, or exploiting international institutions to enforce the neo-liberal form of capitalism on small states. The US is far and away the globe’s dominant military power, but its ability to use force is not as great as its military might would suggest. We need only look at Iraq and Afghanistan to see this. Where it is rivalled for regional dominance, its military forces are increasingly insufficient to intimidate strong regional powers. Its efforts to overthrow anti-imperialist governments in Latin America and Asia have failed. Economically, its position is under threat. That said, US imperialism is strong, both in terms of its military spending and capacity and in soft power. The so-called “war on terror” remains central to this strategy of bolstering and expanding US influence. It seeks to make any countries that remain outside its military alliances complicit in its efforts, as it does when moving troops through Shannon airport in the west of Ireland with the support of the Irish government.

In short, imperialism is more dominant than a century ago in its reach into the lives of working people across the globe, a fact made possible by the intensification of the globalising nature of capitalism identified in the Communist Manifesto: the bourgeoisie of the classical imperialist centres have indeed remade the world in their own image, but the dialectical nature of reality is at work here, with their political and economic domination declining as the former colonies developed their own capitalist economies. Imperialism is more dominant, but the old imperial powers are not. Where will this imperial rivalry lead? Open regional warfare involving the major capitalists powers should not be ruled out. Certainly they will continue to confront each other through proxies, whether proxy states or proxy political and paramilitary organisations, be they political parties, global corporations, mercenaries, or terrorist groups.

The Middle East and Asia have long seemed the most likely places for an outbreak of large-scale open conflict between major imperialist centres. However, recent events in eastern Europe suggest that there is an appetite among some for a confrontation with Russia there. More likely is the waging of war by other means, especially through energy resources and proxy political groups. The international Communist and Workers’ Parties, and the international labour and peace movements, must continue to oppose imperialist war-mongering, offering cooperation and solidarity as the alternative to imperialist competition and war. There is a special responsibility here upon Communist and Workers’ Parties in the old imperialist centres, where public opinion offers the possibility of some check upon military adventurism. This means being clear in our opposition to war-mongering, whether it comes from the traditional right or the remnants of social democracy. It also means greater cooperation among ourselves, especially at regional level.

Social democracy has since the First World War consistently promoted imperialist wars, and sometimes waged them with a zeal greater than that of the traditional conservative parties. This has particularly been the case during the triumphant period of neo-liberalism following the overthrow of many socialist states. It is essential that Communist and Workers’ Parties today expose the imperialist reality of social democracy every bit as ardently as Lenin did during the First World War.

Similarly, the reactionary nature of nationalism and chauvinism must be a constant theme of our message to the working class. Nationalism and chauvinism are used to divide workers within individual countries, and across borders. Proletarian internationalism is more important than ever. The far right in places like France have taken advantage of the collapse of the neo-liberal model and the implementation of so-called austerity to paint themselves as on the side of the workers, as the opponents of capitalism. We know this is a lie, and we know where this lie can lead. The presence of fascists in government in Europe for the first time in decades, the rise of neo-Nazi movements in Greece, Hungary, Ukraine and elsewhere, the murderous attacks on immigrants and anti-fascists form other reminders. Particularly vile, and particularly destructive of class consciousness, is the twinning of nationalism with religious identity. The imperialist mantra of “divide and rule” is alive and well in the world today, as a mere glance at the Middle East, India, and parts of Africa will confirm. The national bourgeoisie as well as imperialist powers benefit from this process and the damage it wreaks upon the workers’ movement. There are fewer greater impediments to progressive politics and to the communist cause.

Today, a century after World War One, imperialism continues to mean war. As the old imperialist centres decline and new ones rise, inter-imperialist rivalry grows sharper. The competition for control of resources from oil to gold to water will continue to cause friction among the imperialist powers, which will use every means at their disposal to ensure these resources are deployed for private profit. It is likely to continue to produce wars, especially attacks by imperialist blocs against small but resource-rich countries. Regional but limited war among the major imperialist centres cannot be ruled out in the coming years and decades. As a century ago, the imperialists will turn to nationalism and chauvinism, including racism and religious and ethnic sectarianism, to divide and weaken the workers’ movement. As a century ago, they will be aided by the betrayals of social democracy.

The EU, in common with the G8, serves the interests of big capital and the monopolies. It collaborates with the US and NATO. The attacks on social and economic conditions, the impoverishment of working people, the increased power of the monopolies is evidence of the anti-people political line of the EU and its member states. All G8 member states, with the exception of Russia and Japan are members of NATO. Japan collaborates closely with the US in its plans for the Asia-Pacific region.

And yet, in the midst of the crisis of capitalism, the profits of the war industries expand. Military expenditure increases. Most recently, the dangerous developments in Ukraine and Syria, where the hand of imperialism is clearly visible, underlines the threat imperialism poses to peace. As long as capitalism exists we will live with the constant threat of war. Capitalism can offer no solutions to the problems of the working class. It is the cause of those problems. Socialism is the only alternative which offers a solution.

The Communist and Workers’ Parties must constantly struggle to combat opportunist and chauvinist influences in the workers’ movement, to raise class consciousness and promote class solidarity and proletarian internationalism, to strengthen the struggle against imperialism in every country, to demand the dissolution of NATO, to challenge oppression and exploitation, to reject imperialist intervention and war, and to struggle ceaselessly for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of socialism.

Peace, Work, Democracy & Class Politics