Donald Trump has just become the seventh US President in a row, starting with Jimmy Carter, to undertake military action in the Middle East. In every case, the consequence has been to make things worse. Yet, rather like financial pundits and stock market bubbles, we are told each time, that “this time its different”. And, each time, of course it is not different, each time, the liberal interventionists shriek with moral outrage at some atrocity, that means that “something must be done”. What they really mean is not that “something must be done” that would actually make a real difference to make things better, but that “something must be done” salve their consciences.
And, of course, their moral outrage is always filled with complete hypocrisy. A large part of the problems of conflict in areas of the globe such as in the Middle East, Africa and Asia stems from the policies of colonialism that liberal capitalism and mercantilism pursued in previous centuries, in a greedy search for commercial profits, interest and rent. In the twentieth century, many of the butchers that have been in place, and carried out atrocities against their people, are butchers that were either put in place, or féted by the so called “democratic” imperialist states of the West. Even today, the liberal interventionists are very selective in whose actions they express moral outrage against, and demand action against.
They express no moral outrage against the butchers and despots of the Gulf monarchies, for example. On the contrary, despite the fact that they provide the money, arms, weapons and ideas of the Islamist terror groups such as ISIS, and Al Qaeda, Britain and the US supply them weapons and training, and the US is assisting them in bombing “beautiful babies” in Yemen. No such moral outrage is express against the use of “white phosphorous” against Palestinian “beautiful babies”, by the Bonapartist butchers in Israel. Instead, anyone who even suggests criticism of their actions is labelled “anti-Semitic” !So long as the butchers are carrying out butchery in the general strategic interests of western powers, they are fine, it appears.
The US provided Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons, and advice on how best to use them, for example, when he was being used as a tool of US foreign policy to fight a war against Iran, in which millions died. The US used Osama Bin Laden, and provided him with weapons to fight the Russians in Afghanistan, and then used him as a go between with the butchers, and criminals of the Kosovan Liberal Army, to stir up ethnic violence in Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians, which then provided the US with an excuse for intervention, in Kosovo, which simply replaced pogroms against Albanians by Milosevic's forces, with pogroms and ethnic cleansing of Kosovan Serbs by Albania forces, whilst NATO watched on.
The same consequence occurred in Iraq, where the dominance of Sunnis, backed up by the Sunni regimes of the Gulf, was replaced by Shia domination, and an oppression of Sunnis that opened the door to support for ISIS within Sunni communities. Its not that the “democratic” imperialist powers want there to be no strongmen, in charge, only that the strongmen in charge, are their strongmen, reliably acting in their interests. In that case, moral outrage at atrocities can be set aside, or we are told, can only be dealt with over time, by dialogue, and increased trade and arms sales, so as to “exert influence”.
As Trotsky put it back in the 1930's explaining why it was crass and superficial to back “democratic” imperialism even against a fascistic dictator.
“I will take the most simple and obvious example. In Brazil there now reigns a semi fascist regime that every revolutionary can only view with hatred. Let us assume, however, that on the morrow England enters into a military conflict with Brazil. I ask you on whose side of the conflict will the working class be? I will answer for myself personally—in this case I will be on the side of “fascist” Brazil against “democratic” Great Britain. Why? Because in the conflict between them it will not be a question of democracy or fascism. If England should be victorious, she will put another fascist in Rio de Janeiro and will place double chains on Brazil. If Brazil on the contrary should be victorious, it will give a mighty impulse to national and democratic consciousness of the country and will lead to the overthrow of the Vargas dictatorship. The defeat of England will at the same time deliver a blow to British imperialism and will give an impulse to the revolutionary movement of the British proletariat. Truly, one must have an empty head to reduce world antagonisms and military conflicts to the struggle between fascism and democracy. Under all masks one must know how to distinguish exploiters, slave-owners, and robbers!
(Trotsky - Anti-Imperialist Struggle is key to Liberation, Writings 1938-9)
And Trotsky had personal experience of such liberal intervention going back to his time as a war correspondent in the Balkans in the period leading up to World War I. Then to the liberal interventionists were full of moral outrage at the atrocities being committed, by the ruling Ottomans. And, then as now, as Trotsky sets out the liberal media were very selective about the outrages they covered, and when Trotsky and other journalists sent back reports of the outrages being committed by the liberal interventionists themselves, their reports were censored.
In his writings on the Balkan Wars, Trotsky describes this censorship by the liberal media.
“Your censorship has not pursued military aims, it has not been concerned to safeguard military secrets, but rather to conceal 'secrets' of quite a different order: all the black spots, all the cruelties and crimes, all the infamies that accompany every war, and your war in particular. That is what you have striven above all to hide from Europe! You have indulged in the senseless dream of hypnotising European public opinion and making it believe not what was true, not what you yourselves know to be true, but what you wanted to get accepted as true. You wanted to make Europe believe that the armed Turkish peasants, workers and hamals (porters) whom the ruling caste of Turkey transforms into an instrument for enslaving the non-Turkish nationalities, and the Turkish working masses, constitute 100 percent embodiments of cruelty, barbarism, and bestiality. And you wanted to make Europe believe that the Bulgarian army – from the lowest-ranking soldier working in the cookhouse up to commander in chief Savov, from whose brow you have not managed to wipe the stamp of that indictment for embezzlement, that the whole of this army constitutes a living embodiment of the highest ideals of right and justice.” (p 282-2)
“You defined your war as a crusade for civilisation against barbarism. You strove, with your pencils and scissors, to adjust all our telegrams and correspondence to those two categories. But now Europe will learn that the path of the crusading army was marked by crimes that must evoke shudders and nausea in every cultured person, in everyone capable of feeling and thinking.” (p 282-3)
And today, the liberal interventionists have a greater difficulty, because whether it is in Iraq, or Libya, or Syria, it is not even a question of being able to side with “democratic” forces but of opposing both some ruling Bonapartists, and, opposing the Islamist terrorists opposing the Bonapartist regimes! The liberal interventionists square this circle by dreaming up their own, fantasy “democratic” forces, who they claim will then fill the void.
In Iraq, the CIA and the State Department had for years cultivated their own “democratic” politicians, who they envisaged could simply be slotted into position once Saddam was removed. In fact, none of the US's chosen candidates came anywhere near being able to fill that role, as the country, as any first year Politics student could have advised them would happen, descended into sectarian schisms, once elections were called, so that instead of a democracy based upon the normal horizontal cleavages of class and status that exist within bourgeois social democracies, the vertical cleavages along lines of religion, ethnicity, and tribe were blown wide open, and could only be resolved by some new Bonapartist figure imposing order from above.
The same thing happened in Libya. The liberal interventionists mistook the passive support of a large number of unorganised, and atomised individuals, understandably wishing for a quiet life, and some prosperity, for active, organised mobilisation. They should have learned from Lenin, that in practice you do not need a majority behind you, only that the majority do not actively rise against you. Or they should hhave learned that lesson from Trotsky in relation to the Spanish Civil War, where he criticised the Stalinists, liberals and social-democrats for their popular frontist approach based upon retaining the support of the liberal bourgeoisie, when, in fact, as he showed, that liberal bourgeois, no longer existed, apart from its superficial political representation in parliament.
Anyone who had studied this history, and the writings of Lenin and Trotsky who lived through such events would have known what was likely to happen in Iraq, in Libya, and, of course, the same thing happened in Egypt, in line with the predictions I made at the time. In the end, it comes down to those forces that are most organised, and disciplined and able to enforce their will on society, and that is never those whose political activity amounts to nothing more than passively casting a vote every so often.
The justification for the censorship, of the atrocities carried out by the interventionist forces and their allies, then as now was that the interventionist forces were undertaking actions that liberals and progressives themselves supported, such as the liberation of peoples from Ottoman rule. But, as Trotsky pointed out to the Russian liberal Miliukov who justified the liberal intervention in the Balkans, and closed his eyes to the atrocities committed by the “liberal interventionists”,
“An individual, a group, a party, or a class that ‘objectively’ picks its nose while it watches men drunk with blood massacring defenceless people is condemned by history to rot and become worm-eaten while it is still alive.
“On the other hand, a party or the class that rises up against every abominable action wherever it has occurred, as vigorously and unhesitatingly as a living organism reacts to protect its eyes when they are threatened with external injury – such a party or class is sound of heart. Protest against the outrages in the Balkans cleanses the social atmosphere in our own country, heightens the level of moral awareness among our own people. The working masses of the population in every country are both a potential instrument of bloody outrages and a potential victim of such deeds. Therefore an uncompromising protest against atrocities serves not only the purpose of moral self-defence on the personal and party level but also the purpose of politically safeguarding the people against adventurism concealed under the flag of ‘liberation’.” (p 293)
The dishonesty of the liberal interventionists is not just that they are selective about what atrocities they express moral outrage against, but in that they fail to actually deal with the question of objective historical and social laws. They want to bury their head in the sand, and pretend that we live in the best of all possible worlds, where the will is sufficient to bring about the end. They want to imagine that the world everywhere essentially conforms to their own cosy middle class existence. So, they are happy to demand or support such liberal intervention against this or that tyrant, but they never have any plan, any thought as to what happens after the tyrant is deposed, because they simply assume that the existence of the tyrant was some kind of aberration from the norm that has to be corrected, in the same way that liberals assume that monopolies are aberrations that have to be corrected by anti-monopoly policies. They never consider that monopolies arise, because of the normal functioning of capitalism, and they never consider that tyrants arise for their own set of objective historical and social laws.
Why do tyrants or Bonapartist regimes exist? We could go back to Thomas Hobbes and Leviathan, who told us that because life is “solitary, nasty, brutish and short”, and that people thereby are prepared to grant absolute power to a sovereign provided the sovereign acts to mitigate those vicissitudes of life. And, of course, the neo-cons themselves take on board that Hobbesian dictum, because whenever they sense that their own “sovereign” power is threatened, they rush to show to their citizens that only the power of the state protects them from external dangers, be it of some rogue state, unknown terrorists, or whatever. It may be the case that thousands of times more people die in a year from obesity, or road accidents than from terrorist attacks, but the fear, the power granted to the state arises from the fear of the terrorist, not the fear of the motorist or the fast food producer. Its against the terrorist or foreign power that the state must act, not against the producer of fast food, or the car makers, and in order to act, the state must be granted almost unlimited power, and billions of dollars for armaments, for surveillance and so on.
But, this Hobbesian view cannot be the full answer as to why Bonapartist figures arise. As society develops, life becomes less ““solitary, nasty, brutish and short”, and yet such regimes continue to exist. The answer is that the state is based upon civil society, and at certain times, the divisions that exist within all societies become more acute. Between nations this is called the Thucydides Trap. Thucydides wrote,
"What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta."
It is essentially the same condition within society that Marx describes in relation to class struggle, and that Trotsky discusses in relation to Permanent Revolution. So long as some social force, some section of civil society is strong enough to exert state power and dominance, society and social relations can be fairly peaceful and stable, even if that stability implies a denial of rights and equality for the non-dominant sections of that society. The horizontal cleavages within society along the lines of rank, caste, status, and class imply that a ruling class/caste is able to exert dominance, and as Engels describes in Anti-Duhring, in relation to the “Force Theory” in history, this dominance cannot simply flow from the ability to exert greater force than others. It is based upon the material conditions in society, and in particular, on the development of the economic and social relations.
Once those economic and social relations develop to a level whereby some other class begins to grow in significance, it begins to demand changes in society, and thereby the challenge the established order. An existing ruling class challenged by such a power, just as in the case of Athens and Sparta, will attempt to hold on to power, and so an inevitable violent clash arises. Wherever, two social forces are equally balanced, and so relatively weak, or where both are absolutely weak, neither can exert sufficient power to dominate the society, and so some third force, in the shape of the state, rises above society, and imposes order in its own name.
But, societies in many instances are not simply divided along the lines of these horizontal cleavages that intensify with economic and social development. Societies are also divided along the lines of vertical cleavages, or ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation etc. Once again these cleavages may be relatively or absolutely weak or strong. Go back a hundred years, and in most major British cities there were regular social conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. Yet, they did not generally have more impact on social cohesion than did class divisions. In Northern Ireland, that was not the case. The divisions between Catholics and Protestants, were more decisive than were class divisions, which is why it became impossible to build solid labour movement organisations that bridged the divide.
The strength of these vertical cleavages in each society are themselves a function of other material conditions. In Northern Ireland, it was the links between Protestant Unionism, and British Tories and the British state, which underpinned the privileges that enshrined Protestant Ascendancy. And, when the level of economic development is low, even minor advantages for one social group can be significant.
In general, the higher the level of economic and social development, the stronger will be the horizontal cleavages in society, driving towards a weakening of the vertical cleavages, in relative terms, and vice versa. Societies that are more homogeneous, that have fewer vertical cleavages, will always tend to be more stable than those that are not, until such time as economic and social development leads to a rupture along the horizontal cleavage.
In countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt there are, however, significant vertical cleavages, and in part that is due to the artificial construction of those states at the start of the last century by British and French colonialism. The state power, therefore, is not just a reflection of the division of society along class lines, but also a reflection of this division of society on religious, ethnic and tribal lines. No group in society is powerful enough to rule politically in its own name, confident of no challenge from some other group. Each groups is relatively weak, and threatened, and so the state itself in the form of some Bonapartist strongman, rises above society, above all these contending social forces, to establish order.
The liberal-interventionists are dishonest, because they fail to set out, therefore, that in order for these societies to function as any kind of bourgeois democracy, they require a great deal more economic and social development, so that the vertical cleavages are diminished in significance. Alternatively, the vertical cleavages have to be recognised, and the existing states split up, into confessional states, that thereby have greater homogeneity, though, in reality, that would not now prevent wars breaking out for regional dominance between these new states, in the same way that Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States are engaged in a series of proxy wars against Iran, each in turn being backed by other global powers.
The truth about the policy of liberal interventionism is that, wherever, in the world it is proposed, it logically implies a return to old style colonialism. The Bonapartist regimes exist in these states for real material reasons that will not go away simply by a change of regime, that really means replacing one figurehead with another. Today, bourgeois-democracy can only exist as a social-democracy. No state could survive on the basis of 19th century small scale capitalism. The global economy is dominated by large, socialised industrial capital. But, social-democracy can only exist, on the basis of a large middle class of “functioning capitalists”, that implies also a large, educated working-class, that is socialised and incorporated into the political structures, which provide safety valves for the distributional struggle over revenues.
That means that any state must have a high degree of economic and social development for such bourgeois democracy to exist. Indeed, that has always been one of the functions of Bonapartists from Cromwell through to Bismark and Bolivar, to bring about the accumulation of capital and economic development of society. The liberal interventionists have to accept the truth that capitalist development, in the face of a series of cross-cutting cleavages in many societies, requires the imposition of order from above by often brutal means. To pretend otherwise is sheer moralising.
If the liberal-interventionists really want to bring about peace and harmony, they have to be prepared to become old style colonialists. They have to become the state power themselves, imposing that order from above, and they have to use that state power to bring about the necessary accumulation of capital and economic development of the particular society, and its social relations. But, such a colonial policy to bring that about, is not something that can be done in a matter of years, or even decades. It would require the imposition of a colonial regime for at least a century.
Yet, the reality is that none of the developed capitalist states have any appetite for such an expenditure of time, energy and capital. On the contrary, they dropped colonialism after the first half of the last century, because of these overhead costs, and because it implied confrontations between colonial powers over who would have the writ over particular areas of the globe.
In which case, the actions of the liberal interventionists are simply moralising, and attempts to salve their conscience, by appearing to “do something”, even though that something always makes matters worse.
Trotsky was accused by the liberal interventionists of his day, such as Kirrillovich, of being a doctrinaire, for opposing their intervention. But, Trotsky, rightly pointed out that we cannot assign the tasks of history to others, who will always follow their own agenda, and not ours, even when they claim to be acting in a progressive manner. If we want peace in Syria, only the Syrian people can bring it about. If the liberal interventionists want to do something, they should demand action by Britain and other countries to stop jihadists going from there to fight in Syria; they should demand an end to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other countries, which finds its way to the jihadists; they should demand that Britain and other western powers stop kowtowing to the Gulf Monarchies for the sake of economic benefit.
But we should oppose vigorously all outside intervention.
As Trotsky replied to Kirrilovich's criticism of Trotsky's doctrinairism, for opposing the intervention,
“To speak of the 'liberation' of Macedonia, laid waste, ravaged, infected with disease from end to end, means either to mock reality or to mock oneself. Before our eyes a splendid peninsula, richly endowed by nature, which in the last few decades has made great cultural progress, is being hurled back with blood and iron into the dark age of famine and cruel barbarism. All the accumulations of culture are perishing, the work of fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers is being reduced to dust, cities are being laid waste, villages are going up in flames, and no end can yet be seen to this frenzy of destruction...Face to face with such reversions to barbarism it is hard to believe that 'man' is a proud sounding word. But at least the 'doctrinaires' have one consolation, and it is not small: they can with a clear conscience say, 'Neither by deed nor word nor thought are we guilty of this blood'” (p 332)