War and Resistance is a translation of the Swedish book Draksådd, originally published in 2004 and in the light of current events is as relevant as ever. It analyzes the most important wars of the past hundred years. It examines the role of the United Nations, civil disobedience and many other failed attempts to stop war. And as a contrast explains why other forms of resistance to war have been successful. This is the final chapter, all the others are available here as previous posts.
We did not conquer India for the benefit of the Indians.
We conquered India as the outlet for the goods of Great Britain.
We conquered India by the sword, and by the sword we should hold it.1
Lord Brentford, former British government minister, speaking in 1930
It must be clear from everything that we have written in this book that we think that imperialism is the fundamental cause of war in the 20th and 21th century. Of course, there are many different factors behind every individual war, but imperialism underlies them all. Yet, so far we have not defined what exactly we mean by the term imperialism. In this concluding chapter we want explain what we mean by imperialism. And what the alternative is.
At the end of the 19th century capitalism entered a new stage, which it has not surpassed yet. It is this new stage that we call imperialism. Important contributions about what distinguished imperialism were made by a liberal, J A Hobson, and a social democrat, Rudolf Hilferding. In 1916, Lenin made a thorough analysis of the statistics and other evidence on the development of capitalism.2 Here we concentrate on three of the main features that he analysed. Together they are the economic driving forces behind colonisation, the struggle for the division and re-division of the world by the major powers, and war.
Firstly, the development of finance capital is a defining feature of imperialism.
In the capitalist economies Marx described in the mid-19th century, there was more or less free competition between many capitalists. Most companies were small. But in the Communist Manifesto, as early as 1848, Marx and Engels foresaw that competition would inevitably lead to a concentration of capital. Some businesses succeed better than others. Small businesses are swallowed up or eliminated by larger ones; companies join forces in order to maximize their impact. Mergers and acquisitions result in a few dominating giant companies.
Lenin wrote about the strikingly high degree of concentration that occurred in the international electrical industry between 1900 and 1912. At the turn of the century, there were 28 electrical companies in Germany, divided among 7-8 different groups. Twelve years later, the industry was completely dominated by AEG (Allgemeine Elektrizitäts-Gesellschaft). A similar development in the US gave General Electric total control of the American electricity industry. Other key industries such as oil, coal, steel and chemicals underwent similar processes.
As large sums of money were needed for investment in the means of production – factories, machinery, raw materials – the banking system developed rapidly. Banks, too, became larger and fewer. Bank savings were lent to companies wishing to invest. Thus the capitalists who controlled the banks acquired ever greater power. In exchange for providing credit, they were able to command seats on company boards, shares, and agreements to enter into a partnership with other companies controlled by the bank. Banking capital merged with industrial capital and became finance capital.
Giant conglomerates, or syndicates as they used to be called, concentrated enormous sums of money and numerous industries in the hands of the finance capitalists. In 1912, for instance, John D Rockefeller and J P Morgan dominated the entire American banking system.
Even today, big companies are constantly merging or buying one another. Volvo, for instance, the flagship of Swedish industry, has been part of the Ford group. Ericsson’s mobile phones are made by a company set up in partnership with the Japanese electronics giant, Sony. These mergers and acquisitions achieve benefits of scale and specialisation, commonly referred to nowadays as ‘synergy effects’ and ‘focusing on core activities’. The larger the company, the better it is able to dominate the market, as do Microsoft, Intel and Cisco.
Economic concentration can be seen everywhere. 51 of the 100 largest economies in the world are not nation-states but companies.3 The 500 largest companies control about half of world trade and about 90% of foreign investment.4 A few people at the top of these giant companies wield enormous economic power. They do not hesitate to use this power to influence and blackmail elected governments. If they want war, they can get it.
Secondly, the concentration of money and power meant that the national market became too small.
Competition ascended to the international level. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels wrote: “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country.”
Competition between capitalists from different countries led to power struggles, the prize being the division of the world and the redistribution of its wealth.
Imperialists competed to acquire colonies. The French historian Driault wrote in 1907: “In recent years, all free territories in the world, with the exception of China, have been occupied by the European and North American powers. Several conflicts and shifts of influence and power have already occurred, and these presage more violent upheavals in the near future. For haste is of the essence: those nations that have not yet seized a share risk never being able to do so and thus missing out on the prodigious exploitation of the earth.”5
As capitalism did not develop simultaneously or equally around the globe, there was never any fair fight for markets between capitalists of various countries. Britain was the first country to be industrialised and therefore the first to become a major capitalist power. In the mid-19th century, when the British government introduced free trade, the country was seen as the ‘workshop of the world’. British capitalists imported raw materials from other countries and sold them finished industrial products at a sizeable profit. However, neither the US nor other European states (especially France and Germany) was happy about this arrangement. Protected by customs barriers, they built up their own industries and were soon capable of competing with Britain. By the end of the 19th century there were several major capitalist powers.
Every shift in the balance of economic strength between the great powers meant that political power had to be re-aligned globally. Some labour leaders, such as Karl Kautsky in Germany argued that what he termed “ultra-imperialism” could bring about stability and peace. Giant companies would enter into agreements with one another and therefore be more interested in peace than in war. Kautsky launched this theory in an article written a few weeks before the First World War.6 By the time it was published, in September 1914, it had already been overtaken by events. Agreements on prices or the carving up of markets never last long. Changes in power relations constantly lead to new showdowns. This struggle is sometimes conducted peacefully and sometimes by violent means. Any country, anywhere in the world, can become a scene of conflict, as competition is truly global.
Thirdly, imperialism leads to and thrives on the export of capital.
In the rich countries a “surplus of capital” arose.7 This capital was exported. Today such exports are called foreign direct investments. Economists estimate that foreign direct investments by the most developed countries prior to the First World War were at least as extensive as they are in the modern ‘globalised’ world. The proportion of GDP exported by the developed countries may even have been larger then than it was at the end of 20th century.8
Most capital was invested in other imperialist countries, thus challenging other imperialists on their home turf. But there was also a strong incentive to invest in the Third World. Wages and other costs were (and are) lower there, and companies were able to squeeze even more profit out of the workers. Africa, Asia and Latin America could also supply them with cheap raw materials. Foreign direct investments was the principal means by which imperialism exploited so called underdeveloped countries, whether they were colonies or not. The fact that most colonies became independent by the end of the Second World War did not change the basic character of imperialism.
When capital is exported from one developed industrial country to another, this contributes to trade and growth. However, export of capital to Third World countries normally leads to poverty and distress. How come it can make such a difference whether factories are built by domestic or foreign capital in the Third World?
Capitalism in the rich European countries emerged as a result of interaction between agrarian and industrial development. The agricultural revolution in 18th century Britain paved the way for the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Rural labour, food and capital was freed to build towns. The towns in turn mechanised agriculture.
A super-modern factory (that exports its products mainly to the developed countries), operating in a feudal or even more backward environment, is simply a solitary island in a sea of poverty and under-development. And actually reinforces backwardness.
The Mexican case
Mexico is a recent example of this kind of development. Since signing the NAFTA free trade agreement with the US and Canada in 1993, Mexico has seen capital flood across its borders as never before, drawn by the promise of cheap labour. Previously the fifteenth largest economy in the world, Mexico became the ninth largest by 2003. So far, it sounds good.
But 85% of all foreign investment has ended up in the six Mexican states closest to the American border. There, in what are called maquiladora industries, workers assemble components made in the US or Canada, and finished products are re-exported. Only 3% of the components come from Mexican subcontractors. Infrastructure and education have hardly developed at all.9
Goods followed the influx of American capital into Mexico. Mexican import of pork, for instance, increased by more than 700% between 1993 and 2003. Mexican agriculture suffered badly from the avalanche of imported American produce, delivered by giant farms equipped with the latest technology and heavily subsidised by the US state. Mexican rural areas have been devastated. Even domestic producers of toys, shoes and other industrial goods have had difficulty surviving.
Yet, Mexico has been in a relatively privileged position compared with other countries of the Third World. It has been able to export freely to the US and to Canada, with easy access to their markets. In spite of this, only a few of the very largest Mexican companies have benefited from the situation.10 In 1999, the total number of employees in the Mexican industrial sector was slightly lower than in 1985, and after 1999 the situation deteriorated further.11 During the first few years of the new century, 850maquiladora factories closed down, and employment elsewhere in the industrial sector fell as a result of the general downturn in the world economy and the switch to factories in China.12
As large numbers of unemployed and desperate people are constantly available for employment, wages in the maquiladoras remained low. After ten years of investment, wage costs were still USD 1.47 an hour for a worker on an assembly line in a maquiladora industry, which was a tenth of the wage costs in the US.13 Other workers have fared even worse. Average pay fell by almost 70% between 1980 and 2001. And during the first two years of the pro-business Fox regime, between 2001 and 2003, wages declined further.14 The working environment and job security are in a miserable state. Almost a million Mexicans have left their homes and found work in these maquiladores. In the process, they have lost all legal protection.
One tragic effect is the creation of a large-scale murder industry. Since 1993, four thousand women and girls have disappeared in Ciudad Juarez, one of the new industrial towns on the American border. Many of them have been found raped, tortured and murdered. Some were as young as six. Newly arrived women have been systematically singled out because their disappearance often passes virtually unnoticed. Far from pursuing the matter through the courts, their impoverished families in other parts of Mexico have usually not even had the means to collect the bodies. This is not the work of one or several serial killers. When murder is committed on such a scale, and only one person is prosecuted (despite the fact that many of the women disappeared in the town centre in broad daylight), a lot of money is clearly involved.
Journalists and independent investigators have begun to detect the outline of a cartel of rich businessmen, politicians at all levels, police officers and drug rings. They have organised themselves systematically to supply those with the right amount of money with the means to vent their hatred of women without fear of reprisal.15
In order to get away from the appalling situation, many in Mexico have taken advantage of an opportunity that most people in the Third World do not have – they leave. In the 1990s, three and a half million Mexicans emigrated legally to the US. At least a further four million moved there illegally. Thanks to these emigrants, imperialism has not proved a complete disaster for Mexico. Despite having the worst jobs in the US, the migrants managed to send home more money in 2003 than foreign investors spent in Mexico that year – USD 14 billion as against USD 10 billion.16
In India the same imperialist processes have been at work. Despite foreign investments and a relatively rapid growth rate for some time, poverty has increased. From 1981 to 2004 the number of people in abject poverty (on less than USD 2 a day) increased by 242 million.17
The picture is clear. In the Third World, imperialism creates industrial enclaves while ransacking the rest of the country. It either creates huge slum areas where jobless people try to eke out a living for themselves in one way or another – as in large parts of Latin America – or locks countless people into an ancient feudal system, as in India and Pakistan. Or both.
The domestic bourgeoisie in Third World countries is so weak that it neither can nor wants to struggle for land reform. Nor do they want to challenge foreign capital, on which they have become dependent. The imperialists themselves do not want to see progress in rural areas. Under-development is one of the reasons why they can pay low wages.
Loans, aid, and import controls as imperialism
There are others forms of capital exportation, besides direct investment, that can enslave poor countries – credit for example. In the early 20th century, it was France in particular that lent money internationally, primarily to Russia, and profited from the interest. In 1913, a banking magazine, Die Bank, wrote: “In such international business dealings, the lender always gets something back, whether it is a trade policy advantage or a coal station, the construction of a harbour, a fat concession or an order for artillery”.18 In the 1990s, the IMF and the World Bank adopted the same approach. They have lent huge sums to developing countries and then used the debt as a lever to get economic policies that benefit imperialism.
Aid is also export of capital. Economic assistance to the Third World may be tied or not tied. Tied aid programmes oblige recipient countries to spend their money on equipment and expertise from the donor countries. In practice, this means giving big companies export assistance. In the 1990s, tied aid comprised about 65% of the total volume of aid.19
The industrialised countries have erected trade barriers to protect themselves from those goods that the developing countries are able to export. At the same time as they insist that poor countries dismantle their import controls. The rich world subsidises its farmers to the tune of USD 300 billion every year while charging import duty on agricultural products from developing countries. Japan, for example, has imposed a 1 000% import charge on rice. And although it is more expensive to produce cotton in the US than in Africa, it is the Americans who export most. The reason is that American cotton growers received USD 4 billion in government subsidies. Likewise, import charges on articles like shoes and textiles are high. On average, tariffs applied by rich countries on the types of goods that poor countries produce are four or five times higher than the tariffs on goods usually imported from other rich countries. 20
To sum up, the concentration and integration of industrial and banking capital into finance capital, the internationalisation of capital and the export of capital – these three developments began to exert their influence at the end of the 19th century. Capitalism entered its imperialist phase, distinguished by cut-throat international competition and the plunder of weaker countries. This was the principal cause of war during the last century.
Ultimately, it might be argued, it is governments that rule, not big business. Whether governments come to power by democratic or other means, surely it is governments who make the decisions about taxes, laws, and war and peace?
The question is, however, who or what decides the decisions a government ultimately makes? Who influences whom? Who controls whom?
Rudolf Hilferding argued that as imperialism developed, the captains of industry acquired a new view of the state.21 Previously they had embraced liberalism, arguing in favour of minimal state intervention in order to encourage competition. But now they needed state machinery to help them fight foreign competitors, protect domestic markets, and pave the way for exports. They also wanted the state to be strong enough to protect their interests abroad and intervene abroad to create investment opportunities, even at the risk of conflict.
Although most big companies operate globally nowadays, they have usually not severed their ties with their ‘own’ country. There are of course some more or less stateless companies, particularly in small countries like Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands (but also in Britain, where few large companies survived the Thatcher years). However, on average two thirds of the sales and assets of the largest companies in the world are to be found in their country of origin. Furthermore, almost all of them have their head offices, their research and development facilities and their core production ‘at home’.22 This is not due to any loyalty to their country of origin: it is useful to have a government behind one nationally as well as internationally.
That the US government acts in the interests of American big business is hardly a secret after George W. Bush’s government, but that the Swedish government also acts in the interest of imperialism may come as a surprise.
Internationally, Sweden has a reputation of being an anti-imperialist force. Some people even believe it to be a socialist country. Although ex-Prime Minister Göran Persson supported the USA during the Afghanistan War and refused to openly criticize the Iraq War that began in 2003, the myth has survived. The truth is that Sweden is still what the Swedish Left used to call “a small but hungry imperialist nation”.
Capital is so concentrated in Sweden that one family, the Wallenbergs, own most of what is worth owning. In 1997, the Swedish business daily Dagens Industri explained: “The Wallenberg sphere has never had such a big influence on Swedish business as it has today. By means of multiple voting rights, control over blocks of shares, and loyal managers, it has built up an impregnable power base. Just a few years ago, there were those who ventured to challenge this business empire, but today the Wallenbergs are in complete control.”23 Whatever the politics of the government, it has to come to terms with this fact – unless it is prepared to break with capitalism.
More than half of everything produced in Sweden is exported. Wallenberg’s companies have three quarters of their sales outside Sweden. Exerting a decisive influence on conditions and policies in Sweden, they seek to gain the same kind of control in other countries. This is usually more difficult. Internationally they have considerably less clout than in Sweden. They may be able to exert a degree of influence on policies in small neighbouring countries such as the Baltic States, but their influence in countries like Germany, the US and Japan is almost negligible.
The Wallenbergs and other Swedish capitalists depend on the Swedish state to promote and defend their economic interests in the outside world. And in Sweden it is hardly a secret that the government adjusts its policies to ‘market’ demands, not only domestically but also abroad. The Social Democratic leadership helped Wallenberg by manoeuvring Sweden into the EU, despite widespread opposition from rank-and-file party members. The Wallenbergs’ most important markets are in the EU. In addition, the Wallenbergs wanted to join the EU to gain allies. Together with other European capitalists, particularly the German capitalists, they are stronger in the global struggle over markets against American and Japanese capitalists. The Swedish bourgeoisie has traditionally had strong ties to Germany.
The previous Social Democratic government have also organised major trade-delegations to strategic markets such as Indonesia, South Africa and China. It was not by chance that Göran Persson praised Chinese ‘stability’ when he visited the country. Trade visits to China are backed up by export funding programmes and foreign aid.
In November 2003, Stockholm’s Social Democratic Finance Commissioner Annika Billström visited Shanghai. She was there as “an expert aide to financier Jacob Wallenberg”.24 After meeting with top executives in Shanghai, she travelled with Jacob Wallenberg to a conference in Beijing for Swedish companies with interests in China, among them Ericsson, Volvo and Investor.
Successive Swedish governments, unlike, say, US governments, have long dressed up their foreign policies in ‘internationalist’ clothing, but that does not hide the fact that they end up acting in the interests of Swedish imperialism.
Transform the Labour Movement
With an enemy as mighty as imperialism, the struggle for peace is not for the feint-hearted. But the problem is not one of strength and courage.
The international working class is stronger today than ever before. It includes not only those who work in factories, but also those employed in service occupations of various kinds, in both the private and public sectors. Countless white-collar workers are labouring under the same pressures and are paid the same low wages as traditional blue-collar groups. All are wage-earners. Industrial workers alone numbered 115 million in the richest countries of the world in 1994, according to the OECD definition of a worker. That is three million more than in 1973, despite the oft-cited ‘de-industrialisation’ process. In the Third World (including the former Stalinist countries), the number of industrial workers rose from 285 million in 1980 to 407 million in 1994!25
Before or during every war described in this book, the working class has shown itself prepared to take action against warmongers. In Sweden during the Union crisis, in Russia during the First World War, in Germany in the thirties, in Italy and Greece during the Second World War, in India in the struggle for independence, in the US during the Vietnam War, in South Africa in the fight against apartheid, in northern Iraq during the Gulf War, and all over the world prior to the Iraq War. But the story of the workers’ own struggle has been concealed, because it was most often betrayed by its leadership.
There is no point in hoping that the leadership of the Labour Movement will go away, if one simply ignores it and organizes the struggle for peace outside the Movement. Any successful struggle must involve the Labour Movement – the workers’ parties and the trade unions. Otherwise it will not acquire any real strength.
It is necessary to understand that despite the many betrayals, the working class has consistently gone back to its organisations. Not because of its leaders but despite its leaders, and against them. Unions and workers parties are the instruments whereby the working class can change society, and a tug-of-war between right and left is constantly in progress in these organisations. Individuals cannot push the Labour Movement to the left, but a radical youth movement or a union movement can.
Those young people who were at the head of the anti-war protests in 2003 could have played a key role in the radicalisation of the Labour Movement. Just as young people did in 1905.
An independent united working class
But waging a struggle against the leadership of the Labour Movement in order to be able to unite the working class across national borders – both ideologically and organisationally – is not enough. The peace program of the working class must be completely independent for the movement to succeed. What does that mean for all those who took to the streets to demonstrate against the war on Iraq in 2003 and all those who since then want to struggle for peace?
To be independent it is necessary not to fall into the trap of choosing between evils, which have been formulated by our enemies. In a TV broadcast from the giant anti-war demonstration in February 2003, a reporter stuck a microphone in a young girl’s face and demanded that she choose between George Bush and Saddam Hussein. After some hesitation, she said “Saddam Hussein”. She probably chose him because he represented Iraq, and it was Iraq that was under threat from American bombs. In point of fact, however, the reporter’s question was absurd. One does not have to support Saddam Hussein (or Usama bin Ladin or the North Korean regime, for that matter) simply because one distrusts Bush.
When oppressed people fight for national and social freedom, one must of course take their side. But this does not mean supporting those in power in any way (capitalists, generals and other members of the elite), since they represent an obstacle to the liberation of the working class and landless peasants.
As it is almost always those in power who set the agenda and whose propaganda gets through, there is a strong pressure to take positions on artificial grounds. For or against. Good or evil.
A favourite trick of the elite in their attempts to place people in one fold or another is to mix incompatible concepts: red-and-brown, Islamic Communists, Trotskyite Nazis, and so on. Also, by demanding in practice that those who criticise must be prepared to take responsibility for everything that other critics stand for, they try to silence the debate.
It was perfectly possible to oppose the war in Iraq without supporting Saddam Hussein. In fact, Saddam’s dictatorship made it much easier for US imperialism to lay its hands on Iraqi oil. Resistance against the US invasion disintegrated because he was in power. In the end, nobody thought he was worth defending.
Our goal has never been to stop just one war. Millions of people are dying, still more are suffering and the environment is being destroyed on a monstrous scale. Immense sums that could be channelled into healthcare, education and food production are being squandered on weapons. But things don’t have to be this way. If the working class manages to revitalise the Labour Movement, it can take power in society, abolish imperialism and end all wars.
Time and again, working class people in different countries have joined together to throw off the yoke of capitalist oppression and exploitation. Often, young people have been the most enthusiastic and most active participants in the struggle for a better and fairer world.
But outbreaks of struggle occur suddenly and do not last for ever. As a rule, most people consider themselves fairly powerless in society. For how much power does an individual citizen have compared with the business leaders, media magnates and elite politicians of this world? In everyday life, it is difficult to feel that one is part of a wider collective or that workers together have enormous power. But that power is always present, and sometimes, when strikes or large demonstrations take place, those who are involved come into contact with it. When groups of workers begin to move in a certain direction, defying all obstacles placed in their way, things begin to happen – fast.
A socialist revolution in one country could count on an enormous amount of support from the working classes in other countries. It would awaken hope and inspire others to join the struggle and bring about a similar development in country after country. It would pave the way for a democratic federation of socialist countries throughout the world. This would put an end to imperialism and to war. For there is no reason why workers around the world should come into conflict with one another when they have the opportunity to make use of all the technological gains and all the fantastic resources that the earth has to offer to satisfy all human needs in harmony with nature.
An International Labour Movement which engages in active struggle, which is democratic, and which pursues a socialist course can provide the answer in humanity’s search for justice, peace and a better life.
THE PROLETARIANS HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE BUT THEIR CHAINS. THEY HAVE A WORLD TO WIN.
PROLETARIANS OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!
Concluding words of the Communist Manifesto 1848
1 Michael Nicholson: Mahatma Gandhi, 1991
2 Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916
3 Joseph J. Savitsky and Shahid Javed Burki: Globalization and the Multinational Corporation,
4 Dr Graham Lister: Global Health and Development, 2000. This is a UK government review
commissioned by the Department of Health.
5 Quoted in V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916
6 Karl Kautsky, Ultra-imperialism, 1914, http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1914/
7 V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916
8 Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson, Globalisation in Question, 1996
9 Business Week, 22 December 2003
12 Business Week, 22 December 2003
14 According to a study by Universidad Obrera de México (UOM).
15 Norma Edith Ramírez: Ciudad Juarez: Rich, Corrupt and Murderers, 2003
17 World Bank: Shaohua Chen and Martin Ravallion: Absolute Poverty Measure for the
Developing World 1981-2004, 2007
18 Quoted in V. I. Lenin, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916
19 E. Childers: Demokratisera FN, 1998
20 The Economist ,4 September 2003
21 Das Finanzkapital, 1910
22 Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson: Globalisation in Question, 1996
23 Dagens Industri, 5 February 1997
24 Dagens Nyheter, 2 November 2003
25 Kim Moody: Workers in a Lean World, 1997
About the authors
Kerstin Alfredsson joined the Young Social Democrats (SSU) in Jämtland, northern Sweden, in 1970, at the age of 14. She has been active in the Swedish Labour Movement ever since. Today, she belongs to the local branch of the Social Democratic party in Gubbängen, Stockholm. She has worked for many years as a librarian and has two children.
Jonathan Clyne became politically active at the age of 15, in the Italian movement against the Vietnam War. After moving to England in 1975, he joined the Labour Party Young Socialists. In 1980, he moved to Sweden and joined the Young Social Democrats. Today, he is a member of the Social Democratic Party in Stockholm. He worked as a chef for ten years before becoming the editor of the Marxist paper Socialisten. He has three children.
Lena Ericson Höijer joined the Young Social Democrats in Stockholm in 1972, at the age of 16. She began working as a home help and became a local shop steward with the General and Municipal Workers Union in 1979. She has since held a number of union posts including editor of MT, the union journal in Stockholm with a circulation of 90 000. She is an active member of her local Social Democratic branch and also of the local Social Democratic Women’s Association. She has one child.
As the authors of this book, we welcome a dialogue with our readers. Please send us your views, whether favourable or unfavourable. We would also be happy to help organise study circles based on the book’s theme, or to give talks, or to put you in touch with others who share the ideas in the book.
Or phone Jonathan Clyne at +46 707 600508
War and Resistance is a translation of the Swedish book Draksådd, originally published in 2004. It analyzes the most important wars of the past hundred years. It examines the role of UN, civil disobedience and many other failed attempts to stop war. And as a contrast explains why other forms of resistance to war have been successful.
God told me to strike at al-Qaida and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did, and now I am determined to solve the problem in the Middle East.1
George W. Bush, June 2003
In March 2003, the United States and the ”Coalition of the Willing” invaded Iraq. Five years later, at least one hundred thousand people, but maybe up to a million, had died and many more had been injured.2 Over four million people had become refugees, half of them in Iraq and half outside. Little remains of what was once one of the most prosperous and developed countries of the Middle East. Those parts of Iraq that are not controlled by the US army are run by sectarian gangs.
Today almost everybody understands that the official reasons given for the war – weapons of mass destruction, war against terror, axis of evil, introduction of democracy – do not amount to a row of beans.
9/11 and the rapid “victory” in Afghanistan provided the American government with the opportunity it needed to break Americans deep-seated distrust, which had endured since the Vietnam War, of using ground troops to invade another country. But neither were the real reason.
To say, as has become common, that the real cause of the war was oil is correct. However, at the same time it is not a sufficient explanation. There has always been oil in Iraq, what was it specifically in 2003 that drove the US to invade Iraq?
a. The Saudi royal family was tottering
Growing instability in Saudi Arabia was one of the chief reasons why the US was in such a hurry. 66% of all proven oil reserves recoverable with present technology at current prices are in the Middle East. This compares with 9% in Latin America and 6% in North America.3 The largest reserves are in Saudi Arabia, and the second largest in Iraq.
Predictions have been made that the demand for oil will increase by 40-50% up to 2025. Whether or not this prediction proves accurate, oil is a crucial raw material for the global economy, and Saudi Arabia plays a key role in the oil market. The country has functioned as a ‘tap’ that can be turned on or off to reduce or raise the price of oil.
Saudi Arabia is an out-and-out dictatorship. Political parties are forbidden, the press is censored, and no democratic elections have ever been held there. There are frequent reports of torture, and dissidents are jailed or executed. Thieves risk having their hands chopped off. Women are not allowed to drive cars. But the White House has had no objections. The US regime has long enjoyed excellent relations with the Saudi royal family.
For decades, the Saudi regime had seemed rock solid. Massive amounts of oil revenue had raised living standards for the population as a whole, despite the absurdly large share that the royal family and their intimates had taken for themselves. Education and health-care were free of charge. No tax was levied on private income. There was a social insurance system. Petrol, electricity, gas as well as air tickets were extensively subsidised by the state. The country attracted large numbers of guest workers from poorer countries in Asia.4
However, in 2003 the official unemployment rate was 25% – among men.5 Unemployment among women was not counted: most women are not allowed to work. Native Saudis had to fight for jobs, such as that of receptionist and security guard, that a few years earlier were performed only by immigrant labour. Income calculated as GDP per capita fell from USD 16 650 in 1981 to a record low of USD 6 527 in 1998. This meant that while GDP per capita in Saudi Arabia was on a par with the US earlier, by 1998 it was only a quarter of the American level. In 1999, the national debt amounted to 120% of national income.6
Discontent with the resultant budget cuts led to revolts and even to cases of mutiny in the army. Criticism was so widespread that the regime could no longer silence its ‘troublemakers’ completely. The unrest was openly discussed in a number of royal speeches, exposing a political divide in the royal family. The regime also tried to reduce the number of immigrants by imposing an extra 10% tax on their wages.
The Saudi establishment was split on the question of the royal family. A large faction took the view that the parasitic regime must be removed in order to prevent a grassroots uprising that could lead anywhere. Supporters of the monarchy, on the other hand, argued that a change at the top would open the floodgates, and the resultant drive for improvements would sweep away a great deal more than just the royal family.
In the shadow of this conflict among the elite, the fundamentalist Wahabi movement flourished. The ultra-orthodox sect was no new phenomenon in Saudi Arabia. For 250 years it has been closely allied to the al-Saud royal family.7 The Wahabi movement conferred religious legitimacy on the al-Sauds in exchange for being given a free hand to wage its holy war, or jihad. The movement was also in charge of education, the media, the vice squad and other administrative areas. The Wahabi manifesto, which states that one “must never support the infidels”, is compulsory reading in Saudi schools. Also drummed into young Saudis is the Prophet Mohammed’s message, “I will drive out the Jews and Christians from the Arabian Peninsula and leave none but Muslims”.
As long as the Cold War was under way and the Saudi Islamists were directing their jihad at the Soviet Union and its allies, the US was happy not to interfere. The fundamentalists’ advances in Nasser’s Egypt, Afghanistan, the Balkans and Central Asia had US backing.
When these fundamentalists turned against their former allies, however, it was a different matter. By criticising the corrupt practices of the ruling clique and American interests in the oil fields, and also by stirring up opposition to the US military presence in the ‘Holy Land’, the Wahabi movement exploited deep-rooted popular discontent in Saudi Arabia for its own ends.
In August 2002, excerpts from a report brought before the Pentagon’s Defence Policy Board (a consultative assembly of prominent figures, including Henry Kissinger and former vice president Dan Quayle) were leaked. There, Saudi Arabia is described outright as an enemy of the US and as “the kernel of evil”. The report goes on: “The Saudis are active at every level of the terror chain, from planners to financiers, from cadre to foot-soldier, from ideologist to cheerleader.”8 The report ends with a recommendation that the al-Saud family be given an ultimatum: Stop backing terrorism or face seizure of your oil fields and your financial assets in the US!
Other confidential US government papers claim that a break-up of Saudi Arabia would benefit US interests, and should therefore be encouraged.9 The US was particularly interested to see the oil-rich Shia Muslim provinces in the shore region closest to Iraq break away.
The Saudi regime could have been swept away at any time by internal forces of a less pro-American disposition. A pro-American puppet government in oil-rich Iraq would make it easier for the United States to deal with a crisis in Saudi Arabia.
b. Bush’s unpopular domestic policies
Another reason for invading Iraq as soon as possible was the situation in the US. Opinion surveys in January 2003 showed Bush’s policies to be highly unpopular.10 The budget deficit was substantial and social welfare programs were either being cut back or only keeping pace with inflation.11 Even his drastic tax cuts failed to find favour with the voters. To win the next election, Bush would have to divert the attention of the voters from class divisions, the budget deficit, unemployment, the healthcare crisis and corporate fraud. He needed an external enemy that could unite the American people. When the war began, some critics fell silent (or were refused media exposure) and many people rallied around the Commander-in-Chief.
To win the next election, Bush would have to divert the attention of the voters from class divisions, the budget deficit, unemployment, the healthcare crisis and corporate fraud.
Bush also had other reasons for going ahead with his war plans. He would have been pilloried by his neo-conservative backers if he had opted out. To get some idea of this group’s outlook on the world it is worth looking at a meeting in Virginia attended by 4 000 neo-conservatives. The gathering seethed with hatred of the “liberal establishment”, of professors who indoctrinated the country’s youth with “black Marxism” and taught them “to become faggots”. There were calls for income tax to be totally abolished and that Ariel Sharon, Israeli Prime Minister at the time, should be given a free rein. Arabs and Muslims had taken the Communists’ place as the main enemy, the meeting was told. Posters carried the message “Give war a chance – peace through greater force of arms”. There were badges inscribed “Fight crime – shoot back!”, car stickers declared “No Muslims = No Terrorism”, and T-shirts labeled “Pray for him”. The extreme right had taken Bush to its heart. And one of the speakers at the meeting was Vice President Dick Cheney. 12
c. Scaring others into line
A greater threat to US power-holders than Saddam Hussein’s regime was the revolts, protests and revolutionary movements that spread from country to country in Latin America. Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador all experienced strong leftist currents and open, simmering discontent with capitalism and imperialism. It was impossible for the US to invade these countries. Hitting Iraq would sound a warning to others. “A massive show of strength will help bring about a rapid Iraqi surrender and demonstrate America’s power to all other potential foes”.13
Contrary to the claims of the hawks in Washington, it was precisely the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime had already been disarmed that caused the US to declare war on Iraq and launch an invasion. Iraq’s military strength had been halved since 1991.14 Bush’s strategists counted on American military superiority to keep the war short. Following an overwhelming American victory in Iraq, they thought, trouble spots around the world would calm down and we would see a Pax Americana, a global peace wholly on American terms.
d. The oil companies and the war industry
Previous American presidents have sought to maintain a reasonable distance to the country’s major corporations. The American people on both right and left have always mistrusted big business. But with the kind of over-confidence that comes from dominating more than half of the world, the Bush administration was the first to be so open in taking the side of big business, and especially the big oil companies and the war industry. For these corporations, the war was about landing lucrative contracts and making billion-dollar profits.
Vice President Cheney and leading representatives of the ExxonMobil, ChevronTexaco and ConocoPhillips oil giants met secretly to discuss the war. Also at the meetings was the world’s largest supplier of services to the oil industry, Halliburton, whose chief executive used to be Dick Cheney himself. Cheney is also involved in Unocal (which has major interests in Afghanistan), ExxonMobil, Shell and ChevronTexaco.15
Other leading figures in the US administration with links to the oil industry included President George W. Bush himself, who is the son of oil magnate George Bush Sr (a former president) and the founder of the Arbusto oil company. (Arbusto is Spanish for ‘bush’). He is also a previous chairman of Spectrum 7 Energy and a former advisor to the Harken Energy Corporation. Ex-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, was a member of the ChevronTexaco board.16
A look at the Carlyle Group, an investment firm that managed almost USD 14 billion and invested enormous sums in the defense industry, exposes the links between the Bush’s government and the war industry. The former board chairman of the Carlyle Group was Frank Carlucci, previously head of the CIA and secretary of defence in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet. Carlucci was chairman emeritus of the Carlyle board and closely connected to Donald Rumsfeld. George Bush Sr worked for the company as a senior advisor, along with former secretary of state James Baker. The Carlyle executive board included a large number of George Bush Sr’s old colleagues, including Richard Darman, a former budget director in the White House. Colin Powell had been engaged as a speaker, and the group’s European activities were led by the former British Prime Minister John Major.17
The war had only been under way for a few days when the battle for reconstruction contracts began. The US leadership took the view that American companies should be given priority. Huge sums were at stake. Estimates of the value of these contracts varied from USD 25 billion to 100 billion. They involved the reconstruction both of the oil industry and of Iraq’s infrastructure. Electricity and water supplies, roads, power transmission, schools, hospitals and communications were to be restored. The more was destroyed in the war, the more would have be to restored afterwards.
In March 2003, the agencies of the US Department of Defence and the Pentagon were already dealing with bids. The bidders included Halliburton, its subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (who built the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba), and the giant Bechtel construction company (whose executives included Caspar Weinberger, formerly Reagan’s secretary of defence), as well as Schlumberg, Flour and others. All American.
In Britain, the news that US companies were being given priority aroused considerable anger. As British soldiers were taking part in the war, British companies should also be awarded contracts – this, it was thought, was only logical. The fact that it was not the same Britons that were risking their lives was not mentioned. What infuriated the British in particular was the revelation that under US rules, the American aid agency, USAID, which was to finance the construction of roads, bridges, ports and other infrastructure, was required to award the contracts to American companies first. British aid, on the other hand, went via the UN and the EU, which do not accord British companies special treatment. As a result, the British company, P&O Ports, lost the contract for the reconstruction of the port in Umm Qasr.
Aid agencies were not, of course, supposed to pay the bulk of the costs. The US administration had come up with a much better way of financing Iraq’s reconstruction without burdening the American taxpayer. When Clare Short, the British Secretary of State for International Development, resigned her post in May 2003 in protest at the war, she revealed that the US had demanded that Iraq’s oil revenue should be placed in a fund which the American-led coalition, not the UN, would preside over.18
Strategy for world dominance
As can be seen from the above, the US administration had a number of good reasons for going to war with Iraq precisely when it did, in March 2003. However, there was also a more long-term strategic interest in getting control over Iraq.
Already in 1997, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, President Bush’s brother, Jeb, and others signed a Statement of Principles issued by the neo-conservative think-tank called Project for the New American Century (PNAC).19 Several of its founders were given prominent US government positions when George W. Bush was elected. The PNAC tried to define the path the US should pursue following the demise of the Soviet Union: “As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s pre-eminent power … [What is now needed is] a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities.”20
The PNAC writes about building up American power more or less everywhere – even in space – and on being prepared to intervene in a range of countries. It also stresses the need to keep US troops in northern and central Europe, despite the stability there. The document expresses concern lest some alternative to the American military presence might evolve and “leave the US without a voice in European security affairs.” 21 In other words, the PNAC presents a “recipe for world dominance”.22
The acquisition of Iraq was an important part of this strategy. “The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.” 23 In fact, as far back as during the oil crisis of 1973-74, the idea that the US must dominate Iraq took root among people like Rumsfeld and Cheney. They both worked for the Ford administration, which was ousted as a result of the oil crisis.24
We want the president’s trip to turn the spotlight on the other Africa,
the new forward-looking Africa,
the Africa that is eager to play a full part in the global economy.1
US Secretary of State (1997-2001)
on President Bill Clinton’s trip to Africa in 1998
For those who live in areas where the state has lost control, most of the things associated with civilisation cease to work. The electricity grid collapses, roads fall into disrepair, drains become blocked (and often contaminate fresh drinking water in the process), schools close down, and healthcare becomes a distant dream for most people. Brutality takes the place of civilisation. Between March and September 2003 alone, some 7 000 women were brutally raped by roving bands of militiamen and soldiers in South Kivu, an eastern province in Congo-Kinshasa.2
“I’m in pain all the time,’ says Yvette Bukuru in a low voice, almost a whisper. ‘I can’t sleep, I can’t sit down and I can hardly walk. I can’t even cook for the family. I’ve no hope left.’ And yet – perhaps there is still hope. If she could only reach the hospital in Bukavu. We passed five roadblocks on the 60 kilometre journey between Bukavu and Kamanyolo. Five separate negotiations and demands for permits and papers. In fact, it was money they wanted – ultimately, it was all about dollars. How on earth is Yvette going to cope with the journey to Bukavu, lying up there on sacks of cassava and miscellaneous boxes and bundles together with twenty or thirty other passengers on the back of a swaying, clapped-out pick-up truck that veers along heavily pitted, winding roads overlooking steep slopes and precipices?”
In these areas there are no laws, no courts, no administration. Gang leaders (or warlords, as they are usually called) rule according to their whims. They are constantly fighting one another for control of raw materials, smuggling operations and the local population. Those with the guns call the shots – openly and without shame. Wars have ethnic, national or religious labels attached to them, and they grind on for year after year with no solution in sight.
In places where social structures have disintegrated, disease spreads epidemically. The victims of war, starvation and disease have become so numerous that there seems little point in trying to determine the actual figures.
The old and the new barbarians
History shows that progress is not automatic. Here, it is as though these societies have been pitched back hundreds or thousands of years into a state of barbarism. Not just in the usual sense of the word, meaning that people live in terrible conditions. Rather, the armed gangs can be compared with Genghis Khan’s hordes of barbarians who killed, raped and pillaged wherever they rode.
The earliest human societies were classless. People helped one another to gather food, hunt, and at a later stage, to till the soil. There was no need for any machinery of state (government, police, law courts, prisons, soldiers). Conflicts were resolved by means of discussion, and through the natural authority of the elders. With the emergence of private ownership of livestock and later of farmland, the old way of solving problems came under attack. During famines, cattle-herding nomads – the forerunners of Genghis Khan and his men – lived by looting and plundering instead of by herding cattle. These communities were hierarchical in structure, but they were not class societies in the Marxist sense. The chiefs were not an elite group which, through ownership of the means of production, lived off the labour of others. Rather, these were societies in which privileged individuals were able to acquire the bulk of what had been stolen from others. The similarity with today’s “failed states” is striking, although modern robber “states” incorporate elements from all of human history – slavery, feudalism and capitalism.
Not until some 5 000 years ago, following the establishment of private property in land, did communities begin to split up into classes with conflicting interests. Slaves worked, while the rest of society lived off what they produced. It was at this time that the state emerged as a separate armed force in society. It took upon itself the task of managing the rules of human coexistence – for better or for worse. It is often claimed that Marxists believe the state exists in order to keep the underclass in check. This is correct, but it is a simplification. The state is also needed to sort out conflicts within the ruling class in a peaceful manner, via laws and courts. When the state disappears without the working class assuming power and abolishing both private property and class society, the conflicts of the elite result in total chaos, and it is this we see in Africa (and Afghanistan).
One of the best analyses of the new barbarians is provided by a World Bank report.3 It makes clear that such gangs are primarily to be found in the poorest countries of the world. Poverty is the decisive reason for gangs, not religion, nationality or ethnic origin. There is a statistical correlation between ethnic origin and the existence of gangs, but the opposite of what could be expected – the greater the number of ethnic groups in a given country, the fewer gang-based civil wars there are. Ethnically speaking, Somalia is one of the most homogenous societies in Africa, yet it was the first country to descend into barbarism in the early 1990s.
Gang leaders are not motivated by political or ideological goals, although they often dress their real aims in such clothing (and some warlords may once have cherished political ideals), and nor are their motives ethnic, religious or national. They do, however, use ethnicity, religion and nationalism to create a sense of affiliation. In northern Uganda, Joseph Kony’s child army, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has been wreaking havoc since the late 1980s. The LRA originally presented themselves as Christian fundamentalists. Each member was to abide by the Ten Commandments to the exclusion of all else. But when the Islamic government in Sudan began financing the LRA (because the Ugandan government supported the Christian warlords in southern Sudan), they stopped eating pork and began turning towards Mecca to pray.
According to the World Bank report, the warlords’ prime reasons for behaving as they do are that they “fear the potential consequences of structural exclusion or are tempted by imagined wealth”. In plain English, this means that as the trough grows smaller, those with their snouts in it are scared of being pushed away, and seek to improve their competitive position by arming themselves. Either that, or they are simply greedy. For most workers and peasants, however, life is mainly about getting at staples like rice, cassava and millet.
Whenever an economy is in crisis, the divisions in the upper class also tend to deepen in the most highly developed countries. In 2007, it took 196 days for a new Belgian government to be formed after the elections. Debate may rage, but the machinery of state – the civil service, the law courts, the police, and the military – is expected to be above these conflicts, view them objectively and seek to maintain stability.
For the weaker economies in the Third World, however, the machinery of state itself is one of the stages on which the various factions act out their battles. In Pakistan, for instance, there is a power struggle between those that earn a fortune in the illegal economy and those that have to make do with the smaller legal economy. This has been seen as a struggle between Islamic fundamentalists and liberals, but in fact it is a struggle between thieves of different kinds over the share-out of the plunder.
The fundamentalists control the ISI, Pakistan’s secret police, and the liberals the parliament. But the fundamentalists are deeply split internally, as are the landowners and business leaders who oppose them. Consequently, the state is more or less powerless, and lurches from one crisis to another.
In the poorest countries of the world, the struggle is so fierce among the elite that they actually tear apart the machinery of state. Barbarism develops when all the ties holding together the elite are cut.
How private armies are created and armed
Those sections of the elite that do not control the army or parts of the army are forced to put together armed gangs of their own. Most of the recruits in these gangs are young, uneducated men. They differ markedly from their leaders. Strikingly many warlords were educated in the West. Charles Taylor, ex-president of Sierra Leone, studied in the US. Ahmed Tejan Kabbar, his successor, trained as a lawyer in Britain, and Johnny Koroma, former head of the Sierra Leone junta, attended Britain’s prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy. In southern Sudan, gang leader John Garang took his doctor’s degree in the US, while his rival, Riek Teny-Dhurgon, acquired a doctorate in Britain.
The poor foot-soldiers who join the gangs do so for different reasons. In Nigeria, a ‘prophetic’ leader, Marwa, deliberately turned to the homeless and the displaced, whose upkeep he guaranteed. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, on the other hand, recruited drug addicts as it considered them easier to control. One way of holding on to these recruits is to force them to commit atrocities where they were born. This means they can never return home. Children are easiest of all to recruit by force. The LRA in Uganda kidnaps children; many of them are under ten. They are taken from their homes at gunpoint. The boys are given weapons and forced to fight against the Ugandan army. Girls become the sex slaves of the LRA leaders.4 Where extreme poverty is present, the children do not even have to be kidnapped. They are easily purchased. Street children can be bought for 500 dollars in Kenya. Many, both children and adults, join voluntarily. A career with one or other of the gangs is preferable to starving to death or dying of a disease that can be easily treated.
One alternative to scraping together a gang of your own is to hire an international company. Private Military Firms (PMFs) are a phenomenon that gained in popularity in the early 1990s. The employees in these firms are ex-officers and soldiers who lost their jobs during the 1990s, when, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, disarmament was widespread. States and companies are customers, and the demand for PMFs appears to be substantial. The US government has used them in both Krajina and Colombia.
In Sierra Leone, two PMFs were involved in the conflicts. The first was the South African mercenary group Executive Outcomes. Their role was to fight on the side of President Ahmed Kabbah against the RUF rebels, and they in fact managed to keep him in power in 1996 and 1997. Once they left the country, he was rapidly deposed. The British PMF Sandline International moved in and made sure that he was reinstated in 1998. Although Sandline thereby breached the UN’s weapons embargo, the action had the tacit support of both the British ambassador in Sierra Leone and individuals in the British Foreign Office. Sandline’s bills were paid by the Sierra Leone government, and there is speculation as to how large a share was paid in the form of mining shares. The mines in question are diamond mines.5
If the gangs did not begin as breakaway groups from the army, they faced the problem of finding guns. In Somalia, where the government was weak, the gangs managed to loot military supply depots. But the bulk of the weapons that have fallen into the hands of African gangs came from Eastern Europe. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, arms have been freely exported.
In some African countries, a Kalashnikov – the classic weapon of the guerrilla fighter – costs just six US dollars. The number of small arms such as Kalashnikovs has grown exponentially in recent years, as has the number of landmines. Africa has the greatest concentration of landmines, totalling more than 30 million. They have killed and maimed countless people, many of them children. But advanced technology is not needed to commit genocide. Machetes will do.
Purchases by African states of heavy equipment such as attack jets, helicopters and tanks, fell from USD 4 270 million in 1988 to USD 270 million in 1995. Most gangs cannot afford such hardware. Prices, therefore, have tumbled. When Ugandan president Museveni wanted to buy tanks in 1999, he found that T-55s were available for USD 30 000 apiece, which was less than the cost of a Land Rover.6
Maintaining an army is an expensive business. A private army cannot levy taxes to raise money for equipment, clothing, food and lodging for its soldiers. In the poorest countries, not even the state can afford the cost. Then there are the soldiers’ wages. Some choose not to pay their soldiers at all, but to let them live on whatever they can loot. This, however, makes soldiers less reliable. Armies must therefore become what the World Bank calls business organisations to finance their activities.
“The question then arises, what type of business activity can rebel organisations compete with? Unfortunately, rebel groups have only one competitive advantage, which is their usually extensive capacity for violence. As a result, the business activity to which they are best suited is blackmail of different kinds, or activities that only require them to maintain military control over a certain area. These business affairs are usually linked to the exploitation of raw materials.”
Examples include timber in Liberia, diamonds in Sierra Leone, oil in Congo-Brazzaville and coltan7 in Congo-Kinshasa. In Afghanistan, opium has been the warlords’ business choice. Following the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan has been restored to its position as the world’s leading producer.
The market for all these products is in the rich countries. In one way or another, therefore, the warlords have to link up with the major international corporations.8 For example, coltan is taken from the Congo-Kinshasa under the protection partly of the Rwandan army (which thus helps finance its presence in Congo) and partly of Congolese warlords. Then coltan is shifted via numerous go-betweens in the US, Kazakhstan, China, Germany and other countries to the factories making Ericsson’s mobile phones, Intel’s computer chips, Hewlett Packard’s printers and Sony’s Playstations.
Communication between the gangs and the multinational corporations is more or less direct. Some gangs have learnt from the international finance market and sell future rights to their booty. In Congo-Brazzaville, ex-president Denis Sassou-Nguesso was able to finance his private army thanks to the USD 150 million paid to him by the French oil company Elf-Aquitaine for the future rights to his country’s oil reserves.9 The fact that the US company Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) already had an agreement with the government of the current president, Pascal Lissouba, made no difference to them.
Laurent Kabila, who succeeded Mobuto Sese Seko as president of Congo-Kinshasa, once boasted that all he needed to take power was ten thousand US dollars and a satellite phone.10 The dollars were needed to recruit a small army. This cost little, as Congo-Kinshasa was one of the poorest countries in the world. The satellite phone was needed to do business with foreign companies. In point of fact, he signed a contract with American Mineral Fields Inc. (AMF) in April 1997 worth a billion US dollars. The contract was for copper and cobalt, and the modernisation of a zinc mine in Kipushi in the south-east of the country, where AMF wanted to build the world’s largest zinc smelting plant. In exchange, the company lent Kabila a private jet, a satellite phone and a million US dollars in cash. A month later, he had seized power.
International business is not alone in supporting the gangs. The governments of neighbouring countries, which are often on the brink of barbarism, also want a chance to get rich. They can either finance and arm gangs to further their influence, or they can intervene themselves. Rwanda, Uganda, Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Libya, Burundi and Chad have all been involved in the Congo-Kinshasa. Such interventions tend to suck surrounding countries into the barbarism. Armies in occupied areas of Congo have transformed themselves into gangs who do business with multinational corporations on a more or less independent basis.11
Barbarism is competition with gun in hand, which leads to wars that never seem to end. Inevitably, the number of casualties increased in the 1990s.
While much of the World Bank’s analysis of the mechanisms behind civil war and the growth of the gangs is astute, their report does contain some fundamental flaws. Firstly, the authors have no perception of the role of imperialism (and their own role) in creating the poverty that caused the collapse of one society after another. They ignore the fact that the warlords were supported not just by international corporations, but also by imperialist governments. Nor do they mention that competing imperialist countries were supporting competing warlords. Imperialism not only deepened the various crises, but also prolonged them and made barbarism inevitable. The countries principally responsible for this were France and the US.
Former colonial masters: France
Africa’s share in world merchandise exports fell from 6.3% in 1980 to 2.5% in 2000. 12 Its share of global foreign direct investment, FDI, remained at about 3% in 2005. 13 In other words, Africa is an insignificant part of the global economy. However, for France, Africa is important. In contrast to Britain, it has kept a grip on almost all its former African colonies following independence. In addition, it has taken over Belgium’s role as the major influence in the former Belgian colonies. France is the country that invests most in Africa.14
Jacques Chirac, when he was President of France, described France’s role in Africa in the following terms: “France is not one of those countries that rediscovers Africa from time to time. We don’t suddenly drop in when there’s a political or economic crisis, or when there’s a natural disaster. For an extremely long time now, France has been a caring partner… Let there be no misunderstanding: France will not abandon Africa, we’re in for the long run.”15
In practice, this long-term commitment has been a case of France supporting its protégés in Africa through thick and thin. It has not mattered how corrupt, unpopular, or tyrannical the governments in question have been – France has backed them to the end.
The regime in the small, oil-rich republic of Gabon on the African west coast is one such protégé. Although most of the houses in the capital of Libreville lack running water, and one child in seven dies before the age of seven, Gabon has the highest consumption of champagne per capita in the world. Omar Bongo, the country’s leader for three decades, was handpicked by the advisors of French president de Gaulle. When forced to stand for election for the first time, in 1993, he lost. He travelled to Paris to seek guidance, and was instructed to simply ignore the elections results in the capital Libreville, and only count those in rural parts. He got the result he was looking for.16
Another of France’s protégés for three decades was Mobutu Sese Seko in Congo-Kinshasa (previously known as Zaire). In the 1960s and in 1977 and 1978, French troops were dispatched to the country to save Mobutu. His regime was one of the most hated in Africa. Mobutu and his cronies were masters at feathering their nests. In fact, a new phrase was coined to describe his rule –kleptocracy (rule by theft).
Congo-Kinshasa could be one of the richest countries in Africa. Besides coltan, the country is a world leader in the production of industrial diamonds. A quarter of the world’s cobalt is produced there, and the country has 80% of the world’s cobalt reserves. Congo-Kinshasa is also the sixth largest copper producer in the world. It possesses 13% of the world’s hydroelectric power potential, as well as oil reserves and coal deposits.
The country’s natural resources are yielding colossal returns. The Mbuji May diamond mine alone has annual profits of USD 450 million. Mobutu amassed a personal fortune of USD 5 000 million. In 1994, the Congo-Kinshasa had a national budget of USD 300 million, while Mobutu’s income was USD 327 million.17
France’s strategy of selecting its leaders and then supporting them by all means created a degree of stability in the 1950s and 1960s. Other sections of the elite usually played a subordinate role, albeit reluctantly. Economies grew and created the means for a larger share-out among the privileged upper classes. The alternative was being deprived of their fortunes by Soviet-backed rebels. In the 1990s, everything changed, and the French strategy led to the worst case of genocide since the Second World War.
The word genocide is often used casually to describe attacks on a particular ethnic group. But genocide is not simply a case of killing a large number of people. Genocide is the “deliberate extermination of a race, nation etc”.18 This means it makes no difference if one submits, if one is four years old or seventy, or if one changes ones religion or nationality – one is murdered all the same. That is what happened in Rwanda in 1994.
The Rwanda genocide
When Rwanda gained independence in 1962, the Hutus’ Freedom Party came to power. The Freedom Party introduced a form of apartheid, openly discriminating against the other main ethnic group, the Tutsis. Economic growth was sluggish. Most people tried to live off the land, but agricultural plots were too small. Bloody clashes occurred time and again.
In 1973, Juvénal Habyarimana seized power in a coup. Right until the genocide began,
“he had powerful friends and champions throughout the western world. The most steadfast were from France, and included President Mitterrand, his son, and many other important diplomats, politicians, officers and senior civil servants. In Kigali, Habyarimana had a strong, loyal ally in French Ambassador Georges Martres, whose dedication to the interests of the regime led to the joke in local diplomatic circles that he was really the Rwandan ambassador to France.”19
“French troops assisted in the expansion of the Rwandan army from about 6 000 on the eve of the invasion to some 35 000 three years later. French troops interrogated military prisoners, engaged in counter-insurgency, provided military intelligence, advised FAR20 officers, and offered indispensable training to the Presidential Guard and other troops, many of whom became leading genocidaires. Throughout this period, the French army worked closely with Rwandans widely known to be associated with, if not guilty of, murder and other human rights abuses.”21
In 1991, the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) launched an invasion from bases it had built up in Uganda. French troops played a key role in preventing a RPF victory. After the invasion attempt, the leaders of the Hutus decided to put an end to the rivalry once and for all. This was to be achieved by exterminating the Tutsis.
The French were fully aware of the careful planning that preceded the genocide. A commission of inquiry in the Belgian senate concluded that the Belgian authorities had known of these preparations as early as 1992, and had informed France. But the French government had continued to arm Habyarimana’s troops. In January 1994, the UN Peacekeeping Office in New York had been warned by its own forces in Rwanda that training and planning for the murder of 1 000 Tutsis every 20 minutes had now been completed.22 But the UN made no move. The head of the Rwandan UN office was Kofi Annan. Nor was the US willing to back UN intervention, having just burnt its fingers in Somalia. Instead, following the deaths of ten of its troops, the UN reduced its force in Rwanda from 2 500 men to 270.
When President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in April 1994, the presidential guard and Hutu militiamen launched their massacre of the country’s Tutsis.The Hutu militiamen were able to attract others to help them. This can partly be explained by the desperate lack of food and supplies. In 1989, American coffee wholesalers, aided by the US administration, successfully lobbied for the abolition of the International Coffee Agreement. This agreement had kept prices up. When it was terminated, prices tumbled to half their former level, and remained there for the next four years. Rwanda’s export income was also halved, as coffee made up 60% of the country’s exports. At the same time, the World Bank and the IMF forced upon Rwanda one of their Structural Adjustment Plans.23
Malnourishment increased in the country and only two thirds of the population had access to clean water. Almost one child in five died before the age of five. According to the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, the Hutu militias hoped that they would be given land, if they exterminated or chased out the Tutsis. Mass murders with machetes and knives spread rapidly. Many were forced to kill their neighbours. Panic-stricken Tutsis fled to Christian churches, but were caught in death-traps when the Hutu clergy let the killers enter. Not even young children were spared. After three months, almost a million people had been killed, and some 220 000 children had been orphaned.
Even after the genocide had begun, France secretly continued to supply the Rwandan government with arms for at least a month.24
Stephen Lewis, former Canadian ambassador to the UN, declared himself amazed at France’s involvement from beginning of the genocide to the end. ‘’We repudiate the position of the government of France, the position that asserts they had no responsibility,’’ he said. ‘’They were closer in every way to the Habyarimana regime than any other government. They could have stopped the genocide before it began. They knew exactly what was happening.’’
Worse, he said, the French peacekeeping mission eventually sent to the region allowed a huge number of Hutu attackers to flee the country to neighbouring Congo-Kinshasa, ‘’thereby ushering in the larger Great Lakes catastrophe.’’
‘’There is almost no redemptive feature to the conduct of the government of France.’’25 All this took place while France was ruled by a ‘socialist’ president – François Mitterand.
The Hutu militias were finally put to flight. Following their departure, the French army, with the support of the UN Security Council, established a protected zone in the south-west of Rwanda where many of those responsible for the genocide took refuge. Several hundred thousand Hutus subsequently fled via the French zone into Congo-Kinshasa. The Hutu militiamen who were principally responsible for the attacks took control of refugee camps in Congo, and used them as military bases for raids against the new Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government. After a while, the refugees became hostages. The Hutu militia prevented them from returning to Rwanda once the situation had calmed down, using them instead them as human shields. They also attacked the Banyamulenge ethnic group in Congo-Kinshasa. The Banyamulenges were Tutsis who had been living in Congo-Kinshasa for centuries. This development led to what has been called Africa’s First World War.
The US enters the fray
Before discussing that war, another actor has to be introduced on the African stage – the United States. Africa has always been at the bottom of the list of regions that the US was interested in. In 1996, while Europe had investments totalling USD 400 billion in Africa, American investments there were worth only USD 8 billion. In the latter part of the 1990’s, the US began to display a growing interest in Africa. A comparison between US investment in 1983-87 and in 1993-97 shows a five-fold increase. The greatest magnet was the discovery of oil. In 2000, about 14% of US crude oil came from Africa, against 18% from the Middle East.26
Compared to their positions on Iraq, the US and France could be said to have more or less changed roles in Africa. In Africa, it is the French who behave arrogantly and are openly brutal in their actions, while the Americans have been more cautious and sought to present themselves as peace brokers. In practice, however, the US has been as cold-blooded as France. The US has lent support to various dictatorships and gangs in order to strike at others, and improve its position. Washington’s closest ally in Africa has been Yoweri Museveni in Uganda. His economic reforms have been held up as a model for other countries to follow. Museveni took power in 1986 on the back of a civil war. Ten years passed before he held his first elections. When he finally did so, he only allowed candidates from his own party. It was scarcely surprising that he won almost 70% of the vote.27
The Americans’ awakened interest in Africa set them on a collision course with France. Eduard Balladur was the French prime minister at the time of the Rwandan genocide. When discussing the atrocity with a French parliamentary committee of inquiry, he noted that key figures in the Tutsi-led RPF troops had received American military training, while serving in the Ugandan army. RPF leader Paul Kagame had also been trained in the US. In several cases, the US and France have ended up on opposite sides in African armed conflicts. Such a confrontation between different imperialist powers had not been seen since the Second World War.
It was the RPF that took control in Rwanda once the killers in the Hutu regime had been overthrown, although formally speaking the country was ruled by a coalition. The RPF enjoyed good relations with the US. So, despite investing heavily in Rwanda, both economically and militarily, France has lost ground. Bernard Debre, a minister in Balladur’s government, could not disguise his bitterness at this development: “This must be said: if France was on one side, the Americans were on the other. They armed the Ugandans, who armed the Tutsis. I don’t wish to present it (the genocide – authors’ note)as a power struggle between the French and the Anglo-Saxons, but the truth must be told.”28
Africa’s first ‘great’ war
In Congo-Kinshasa, Mobutu’s French-backed regime was in a state of collapse. To divert attention from his corrupt rule, Mobutu decided to ally himself with the Hutu militia controlling the refugee camps in the east of the country. Together, they began driving all members of the Banyamulenge ethnic group into Rwanda. The Banyamulenges defended themselves, and an alliance was formed bringing together a broad spectrum of opposition groups of differing ethnic origins. The leader of this coalition, the ADFL, was Laurent Kabila. The alliance was supported by the Rwandan government, which wanted to put an end to the attacks launched by the Hutu militia from Congo-Kinshasa. Uganda, too, supported the ADFL, as Mobutu had backed Islamic rebels in that country. And backing Uganda and Rwanda was the US, anxious to curtail French influence in the region.
Angola also lent its support as UNITA had bases in Congo. UNITA was a bandit gang originally financed by South Africa to fight against the Stalinist regime in Angola. Its leader, Jonas Savimbi, managed to become one of the richest men in the world.
Kabila’s alliance crossed the whole of Congo-Kinshasa, from the border with Rwanda in the east to Kinshasa in the west, in just seven months. Mobutu’s ill-paid and corrupt army collapsed like a house of cards once Kinshasa had been captured in May 1997. But Kabila scarcely had time to change the country’s name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic Congo, before the alliance foundered. Kabila (who had fought with Che Guevera in Congo) established friendly relations with the leaders of Cuba and China, and talked about nationalising parts of the economy. This caused the Banyamulenges to revolt. They swiftly won the backing of both the US and France, who had no problems uniting against any attempts to remove the possibility of nationalisation.
Kabila lost control of the situation, and began to support the Hutus instead. Namibia, Zimbabwe, Libya, Burundi and Chad all entered the conflict, as did mercenaries on both sides. In addition, the Sudanese government has sent troops to the Congo-Kinshasa to fight Uganda, which supports the guerrillas in southern Sudan.
Complete chaos. The various alliances were fragile, and the various groups in them changed sides whenever it suited them. Laurent Kabila was eventually murdered and replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila. Rwanda and Uganda, who both helped start the bloodshed, later began warring with each other in pursuit of greater influence in the region. The Congo-Kinshasa fell apart. 5.4 million died according to one estimate.29The largest amount of casualties for any single war since the Second World War.
Barbarism or socialism?
These wars are by no means exceptions in Africa, there have been many more involving Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Burundi and others. In most conflicts, the same ingredients recur: imperialism’s destruction of the economy and society, desperation born out of extreme poverty, battles for control of raw materials, barbaric tendencies, and conflicts between various imperialist powers. Also present are such nightmare elements as child armies, mutilation and huge numbers of destitute refugees.
“If you want to know the value of a diamond, you should take all the arms and legs they have cut off and place them on one side, and all the diamonds that have been dug up over the past ten years and place them on the other side. Then you divide one by the other, and that is the price of a diamond in Sierra Leone.”30
Barbarism does not benefit imperialism, even if it is imperialism that is responsible for its development. Imperialists would prefer to exploit the Third World in peaceful, controlled circumstances. So they became increasingly obliged to intervene militarily in Africa. The British military moved into Freetown (Sierra Leone), the French into Abidjan (Ivory Coast), and the Americans into Djibouti, as though establishing a succession of colonial trading posts. They more or less managed to quell the gangs within these cities, but rarely outside them. Thus Africa has began to be re-colonised. It has become more and more difficult for the major powers to rule by proxy. They are no longer able to trust local rulers, but are obliged to step in and exercise power themselves. This is hardly likely to lead to peace.
People hope to receive protection as a result of their ethnic, religious or national affiliation, and their leaders seek to build on this and exploit it – only to betray their supporters whenever there is the slightest chance of lining their own pockets. To place one’s faith in a better life on affiliation to a group, which has no capacity for constructing a non-exploitative society is to fall into a deadly trap. But what is the alternative?
In South Africa, people of all races, religion and ethnic affiliation were organised by the COSATU union movement, by the ANC national liberation movement, and by the Communist Party. All listed socialism as an objective. The successful struggle against apartheid was waged principally by the working class, by means of a series of bitter strikes and protests. The South African regime sought to split people up into races and ethnic groups. That was the whole point of the apartheid system. Blacks were not the citizens of a unified South Africa, but had their own ‘homelands’ based on their tribal affiliation. In these Bantustans, blacks were to develop separately and decide their destinies for themselves without any interference from the whites, who would decide over ‘their own country’. The South African apartheid government also encouraged violence between different ethnic groups, using Zulu Chief Buthulezi and his Inkatha movement to try and provoke tribal conflict. This tactic failed. The only reason why apartheid collapsed was that the working class was strong in South Africa. The need for solidarity is not a matter of taste or a moral question for the working class, but is built into the material fabric of society. ‘United we stand, divided we fall’.
In the rest of Africa, the working class is very weak, excepting Nigeria and Egypt. But by uniting the working class throughout Africa behind the goal of a socialist federation, this problem can be overcome. Such a strategy would result in the working class receiving the support of Africa’s farmers and peasants, who are the majority of the population, and who would for the first time be given an alternative to meaningless slaughter. It was this that the Bolsheviks managed to achieve in Russia in 1917.
Rosa Luxemburg wrote the following in The Junius Pamphlet31 midway through the First World War.
“Friedrich Engels once said: ‘Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.’ What does ‘regression into barbarism’ mean to our lofty European civilization? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means.
This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses towards its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war.”
Unfortunately, the choice has already been made in large parts of Africa, but not by the people. The inevitable consequences of imperialism have been forced upon them: depopulation, desolation, degeneration, and societies that are beginning to resemble great cemeteries.
1 Time, Classroom Edition, 30 March 1998.
2 Dagens Nyheter, 2 November 2003. Congo was divided into two nations.
Both have changed names many times. To make things simple we follow the custom of identifying them by the names of their capitals. Thus we call the Democratic Republic of Congo: Congo-Kinshasa. And the Republic of Congo: Congo-Brazzaville.
3 World Bank: Breaking the Conflict Trap, 2003
4 The Economist, 6 September 2003
5 Axess, September 2002
6 Steven Metz: Refining American Strategy in Africa, 2000
7 Coltan is a mineral combining two metals, columbite and tantalite, and is
used in mobile phones and computer chips.
8 International Peace Information Service, Supporting the War Economy in the
9 World Bank Report: Breaking the Conflict Trap, 2003
11 IPIS: Supporting the War Economy in the DR Congo, 2002
14 www.arabic.news.com 11 November 1998
15 BBC special report, December 1998
17 Jordi Martorell: Mobutu Overthrown: What next for the new Congo? 1997
18 The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 1977
20 Forces Armees Rwandaises (Armed Forces of Rwanda)
22 Länder i fickformat, Rwanda Burundi, 1999
23 Website of the International Coffee Organisation, and the Michigan
State University Agricultural Economics department’s special website on Rwanda Food Security Research, quoted in Internationalen, 5/04.
24 Reports in the conservative French daily, Le Figaro, cited on the BBC, 21
25 New York Times, July 8, 2000
26 Steven Metz: Refining American Strategy in Africa, 2000
28 Therese LeClerc: Who is responsible for the genocide in Rwanda? 1998
29 Washington Post, January 23, 2008
30 Socialist Appeal: Sierra Leone: The nightmare legacy of imperialism, 19 May
31 Also known as The Crisis of Social Democracy
When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land.
They said: “Let us pray”. We closed our eyes.
When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.1
Africa is a seething cauldron of desperation. Hunger, disease, plunder and tyranny are generating wars and perpetual flows of refugees. But the wars are no longer between different nation-states. In the 1990s, people in many countries have had to rely on armed gangs to ‘protect’ them against other armed gangs. The central machinery of state has crumbled and lost control. In practice, many governments have become gangs just like any other. The term ‘failed states’ has been coined to describe this condition. “A failed state is defined as a state whose structures and institutions have broken down to such a degree that it is no longer possible to identify any overall, generally recognised authority.”2 Africa is a continent torn to shreds. In this chapter we explain how this is rooted in Africa’s colonial past. In the following chapter we take a closer look at the anatomy of barbarism and some of the wars in Africa in the 1990’s.
Africa, a rich continent – now devastated
During the Iron Age in Ghana, royal power was rooted in Stone Age communal husbandry. The kings were obliged to distribute the surplus, and take responsibility for the welfare of all. Al-Idrisi, who wrote extensively about Africa in the 12th century, described how the rulers of Ghana had a thousand guests, and served food and drink on a scale never previously witnessed. Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan scholar and writer who travelled in Africa in the 14th century, visited the East African city of Kilwa in 1331 and described it as “one of the most beautiful and well-built cities in the world”. And in the early 16th century, Moroccan writer Leo Africanus portrayed Timbuktu as a seat of learning. The market for handwritten books was so great, he wrote, that the merchants made a greater profit on books than on any other wares.3
In 1497, three Portuguese ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope under the captaincy of Vasco da Gama. Imperialist powers began establishing trading posts along the African coast en route to China and India. At first, no attempt was made to penetrate the inland. There were few roads, the rivers had perilous waterfalls and the white newcomers frequently died of fever. But when the slave trade got under way, traders began conducting raids along the rivers. Between 1600 and 1867, at least 11 million people were sold as slaves, primarily to America.4 Millions more were forced into slavery in Africa itself.
Then came colonisation. Belgium was first. Following his extensive travels up the Congo River, Henry Morton Stanley had long sought to persuade the British to colonise the region. But it was King Leopold of Belgium who first reacted to Stanley’s accounts of the riches in the Congo. Stanley returned to Africa in 1878 on a Belgian royal commission. On his previous trips, he had forcibly recruited local natives as bearers and guides. Now he began to introduce slave labour on a major scale.
At the end of the 19th century, this was a fairly simple task. The larger kingdoms in the rainforest region around the Congo River had been decimated during a 200-year Portuguese reign of terror. What remained of the old kingdoms had withdrawn along the Congo’s tributaries, and had tried to reconstruct functioning communities. They were unable to defend themselves against the machine-guns of raiding parties.
Stanley’s commission was to persuade the local kings to surrender their wealth to Leopold. He achieved this by deception, threat and terror. The colonisers seized the local population’s food supplies. Women were systematically taken hostage to force men to work for expedition parties, in the rubber plantations, or in other forms of slave labour.
Terrified of the advancing Europeans, people fled from their villages and fields. Those who survived the gruelling work, or escaped being shot, often starved to death. Over a 30-year period in the late 19th and early 20th century, almost ten million people died in the Congo. The process was portrayed as a commendable exercise in free enterprise, aimed at putting an end to the Arab slave trade.5
The imperialists carve up Africa
When other states saw Belgian imperialism enriching itself in the Congo, the scramble for Africa began. The British and the French were the most successful. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-85, six Western powers – Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – had divided Africa between them. Borders were drawn as straight lines on the map with no consideration whatsoever for how people or ethnic groups lived. Thirty years later, when the First World War broke out, Ethiopia and Liberia were the only African countries not to have been transformed into colonies.
The Berlin Conference did not spell the end of big-power conflicts. The French dominated West Africa, and wanted to open up a route to East Africa. The British controlled territory from Egypt in the north down to South Africa. In 1898 these two lines of expansion intersected on the Nile River in southern Sudan. The troops clashed at the village of Foshada. For weeks, Britain and France were on the brink of war. Frantic negotiations in Paris and London ended in a French withdrawal in exchange for certain other African regions. France had been weakened internally by the Dreyfuss affair, and was also anxious to enlist the support of the British in the forthcoming war against Germany, which it knew was inevitable. Britain in turn was not prepared to relinquish any part of the Nile as its entire Egyptian colony was dependent on the river.
Africa was the last of the world’s continents to be colonised. This was not because it was uninteresting from an economic viewpoint. Africa possesses enormous riches – gold, diamonds, copper, and, of more recent discovery, oil. Also, the continent has huge fertile tracts. But Africa lacked the infrastructure and centralised rule found in China and India. Adam Smith has observed that in many respects 18th century China was economically superior to Britain, although it was not a capitalist country. “The poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe.”6 China had governments that levied taxes, financed armies, and maintained roads and navigable channels. The Chinese state built giant edifices such as the Great Wall. India, too, had a central government.
In China and India, the colonisers, by means of enforced compromises with the ruling elite, were able to get their hands on more or less complete systems of exploitation, despite China never having been formally colonized. In Africa, they usually had to create a privileged class. To achieve this, they often played off one community against another. “If you help us enslave village X, we’ll leave you in peace.” If a conflict already existed between different groups, the colonisers took over by arming one of them.
In Rwanda and Burundi, the Tutsis in the region were traditionally cattle herders, while the Hutus were peasants. The Tutsis developed a military that enabled them to conquer and control large areas of grazing for their herds. They subdued peasants and forced them into economic dependence by hiring out livestock to them. But the dividing line between Tutsi herders and Hutu farmers was not a rigid one. Intermarriage was not uncommon, and people could swap ethnic affiliation. A Hutu who acquired a cow could build up a herd of his own and become a Tutsi (if you had more than ten head of cattle, you were a Tutsi), and vice versa.7 Also, some clans contained members of both groups.
Colonial rule deepened the difference between the two. Only Tutsis were allowed an education, and they were taught that they belonged to a superior race. Ethnic separation was consolidated by introducing ID cards showing which group each person belonged to. This was particularly absurd in view of the fact that the two groups shared the same language, culture and predominantly Christian religious beliefs.
Once the imperialists had established their rule in Africa, plunder could begin in earnest. One of the first to realise what was going on was Edmund Morel, a shipping agent. During the late 1890s, he regularly supervised the loading and unloading of cargo ships on the Congo trade route. He noticed that every ship arriving at the port of Antwerp was packed with precious commodities such as rubber and ivory. The ships that returned to Africa contained only soldiers, arms and ammunition.8
The colonial scramble had a profound effect on Africa. People starved, because imperialism robbed them of the possibility of growing food for themselves. Africa is a large continent with a widely varied climate and different natural resources, vegetation and types of rainfall. The colonial masters saw to it that each country developed its special potential, not in terms of what benefited the population most, but in terms of what could be sold cheaply on the world market. Various exploitation models emerged.
Countries like Zambia and Congo were above all copper producers. Ghana (known prior to independence as the Gold Coast) mined gold. Sierra Leone specialised in diamonds. In these countries, various coercive measures were employed to turn peasants into mineworkers. In recent years, oil production has also become important, in countries such as Nigeria, Gabon, Angola and Sudan.
In eastern and western Africa, both of which have climates that suit European immigrants, the Africans were first driven off the land, and then employed as plantation workers. Coffee was produced in Angola, and tea and coffee in Kenya. In Zimbabwe, the colonisers invested in tobacco growing and cattle breeding.
Most African countries, however, had neither access to mineral deposits of any great size nor a climate that European immigrants found congenial. By demanding that taxes be paid in cash, there the colonial regimes forced people to produce crops that could be exported. This model is called cash crop production. It was put into practice at the expense of food production for the country’s own population. In Senegal, half of all the arable land is used to produce peanuts for margarine factories in the West; in Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda the cash crop is coffee; in Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast, cocoa; in Mali, Niger and Sudan, cotton; and in Malawi, tobacco. All these crops, whether farmed on large-scale or small-scale holdings, required intensive use of the soil and lead to soil depletion. The response was to import chemical fertiliser (which of course entailed additional cost). Most cash crops are also sensitive to drought.
Countries with few natural resources were forced to supply labour instead. Mine and plantation owners used the colonial administrations in Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and parts of Mozambique and Malawi as employment offices. Most paid a fee to the colonial government, which saw to it that the workers were transported far away from their homes.
Imperialism succeeded in totally destroying the social and economic fabric of African society. Africa has become a place where 75-80% of the population lives off the land, and the bulk of the GDP come from farming, but where a third of the continent’s food supply has to be imported. 80% of all malnourished children in the Third World live in countries where most of the soil is used for the cultivation of export products for the industrialised countries.9
The post-colonial era
The majority of African countries gained political independence in the 1950s and 1960s. But economically they remained in the grip of the imperialist states, which hampered their progress. Many African leaders turned to the Soviet Union and its planned economy. Several countries began labelling themselves as socialist states. The former Portuguese colonies of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau abolished capitalism in 1975, following the revolution in Portugal, and established Stalinist dictatorships. Later, they were followed by Ethiopia. Many more nationalised at least parts of their industry. In doing so, they managed for a while to erect limited protective walls around their economies. The rapid rate of economic growth in the West at that time helped stabilise the economic situation in Africa, at least in the 1950s and 1960s. The people also benefited.
But the continent was not peaceful even in this period. The apartheid regime in South Africa supported the UNITA terror group against the Angolan regime, and RENAMO against the government of Mozambique. The Angolan government in turn sought help from Cuba, whose troops fought off UNITA’s attacks. Between 1975 and 1991, this war cost the lives of 1.5 million people.10 In Uganda, Idi Amin organised massacres. In Congo, Ethiopia and Nigeria, parts of the population tried to break away and were brutally dealt with. But although barbarism showed its face from time to time during this period, it was not until the 1990s that it spread throughout the continent.
The WTO, IMF and World Bank paved the way
In their infancy, the industries of all the big powers had been carefully protected by trade barriers, to allow them to grow strong. The story was the same in South Korea, one of the few ex-colonial countries that managed to develop into an industrial nation. For the developing countries, the collapse of the Soviet Union reduced their choices. Left to stand alone against the forces of imperialism, they had to abandon their policies of state ownership and import controls. Advances were reversed.
The IMF (International Monetary Fund), the WTO (World Trade Organisation), and the World Bank were the main tools for opening up the developing countries to international corporations. These institutions are a part of the UN system, and they are supposed to help former colonial states with loans and advice.
The WTO was founded in 1995, and drew up a set of global regulations governing such matters as trade, investment and patent rights. While all member countries have a vote and decisions are taken by consensus, the WTO itself has noted on its own website that “Some of the most difficult negotiations have needed an initial breakthrough in talks among the four largest members.” Until recently, these ‘quadrilaterals’ or ‘quads’ (the EU, US, Canada and Japan) usually decided the direction of the WTO. However, they do not always get things all their own way. At the WTO meeting in Cancún in Mexico in 2003, the talks broke down after 21 of the strongest developing countries jointly opposed the imperialist states.
The IMF and the World Bank are reliable tools of imperialism. A member state’s share of the vote is determined by how much its government has invested. In the IMF, representatives of seven countries – Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and the US – have 48% of the votes between them, and in the World Bank they have 46%.11
The IMF’s Structural Adjustment Plans, SAPs, forced countries to transform themselves into neo-liberal deregulated economies. Even before the fall of the Soviet Union, some countries had to submit to structural adjustment. After 1989, almost none of the poor countries managed to evade the SAPs. Around a hundred states were drawn into these programmes.
As leverage to help enforce their plans, the IMF took advantage of the developing countries’ extensive debts. When the post-war economic upswing in the imperialist states came to an end in the mid-1970s, the problems of the developing countries worsened. In the 1980s, they sought to compensate for this by borrowing money from private banks, governments and international institutions. But the growth that was supposed to pay for these loans failed to materialise. Instead, interest rates went up, while the prices of raw material exports from the developing countries went down. The debts grew dramatically.
According to UNICEF, the world’s poorest countries, those in sub-Saharan Africa, paid USD 12 billion a year in interest charges on loans in 1997 (and should have paid a further USD 8 billion, but quite simply lacked the means to do so). For between a third and a sixth of the amount they paid in debt service charges, they could have placed all children in the region in school.12
The SAP approach was to attack union rights, privatise, cut back welfare safety nets, abolish government grants for water, food, electricity and other essentials, let in the big international corporations, encourage the one-sided production of cash crops, and peg the local currency to the US dollar.13 If it failed to introduce structural adjustments, a country could not expect to be granted loans by the World Bank or the IMF, nor in many cases could it expect any further development aid from the industrialised countries. Not that aid amounted to much. Annually, it was a mere tenth of the sum of money that flowed out of Africa into the pockets of finance capital.14
A growing number of poor
Nowhere have the SAP’s benefited workers or poor peasants. “Unemployment has increased. The price of public services such as healthcare and education has gone up, income gaps have widened, and small and medium sized business have been eliminated by competition from the trans-national companies that have entered the market.”15
Numerous domestic companies (often state-owned) have gone bankrupt as a result of IMF requirements. One of many places where this happened was Zimbabwe. After it fell into the IMF’s clutches in 1990 the production of goods declined by 40% within five years.16 In Pakistan, the government’s compliance with the demands of the IMF and the World Bank resulted in 7 200 factories closing down between 1998 and 2002.17
Peter Griffiths described his experiences as a World Bank consultant in Sierra Leone in the early 1990s.18 The oil refinery there had just been privatised when he arrived. This resulted in power cuts in most parts of the country, despite an increase in oil consumption. The reason was that the private refinery would only accept payment in dollars, something that the oil-fired power station supplying most of the country with electricity lacked. It was closed down. As a result, the sound of thousands of small diesel generators was heard from the richer areas of the capital, Freetown. Together these generators consumed more oil than the power station.
Peter Griffiths describes how an attempt to privatise the state-owned centre for food imports brought Sierra Leone to the brink of mass starvation. The World Bank claimed that it wanted to encourage local producers by abolishing imports of subsidised food. The problem was that an increase in domestic food production would take years to achieve. In the interim, hundreds of thousands of people, most of them already under-nourished, would be denied access to cheap imported food. They would quite simply die. Only at the last moment was the World Bank’s insane project called off.
There are different ways of presenting statistics on poverty in the world, and different results can be obtained depending on what criteria you use. Whichever way you count, however, Africa south of the Sahara is the poorest region of all. Today, Africa as a whole, with a population of 600 million, has a smaller GDP than the Netherlands. Most countries are in a worse shape today than in the 1960s.19 The poorest countries are in a worse state than in 1820.20
War and barbarism have developed out of this miserable situation. The way barbarism works, what drives it, and how it is financed are described in the next chapter.
2 Caroline Holmqvist in Axess, September 2002
3 Basil Davidson: Africa in History, 1969
4 Populär historia, No. 1/97. Statistics on the slave trade.
5 Adarn Hochschild: Kung Leopolds vålnad, 2000
7 Länder i fickformat, No. 213, 1999
8 Adarn Hochschild: Kung Leopolds vålnad, 2000
9 T.P. Tomich, P. Kilby and B.F. Johnston: Transforming agrarian economics, 1995
10 IISS, Military Balance 2002, 2003
11 United Nations Development Programme 2002
12 UNICEF, State of the World’s Children 1997, quoted at www.bread.org/hungerbasics/
13 www.theecologist.org The IMF formula: generating poverty
14 United Nations: Human Development Report, 1992
15 On 10 April 2002, the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter described a report (The Structural
Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative) on the outcome of the World Bank’s and the IMF’s policies. The headline was “World Bank policies a fiasco”. The report had been compiled by governments and a large number of organisations, and had taken four years to assemble. The SAPRI report is at http://www.saprin.org/global_rpt.htm
16 Länder i fickformat, Zimbabwe, 1999
17 Manzoor Ahmed: Speech in London, January 2003, www.ptudc.org
18 Peter Griffiths: The Economist’s Tale, 2003
19 Steven Metz: Refining American Strategy in Africa, 2000
20 United Nations: Human Development Report, 1999
A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting
on its shoes.1
The ethnic cleansing that took place in Yugoslavia is often put down to ancient hatreds re-surfacing. However, over the centuries, the southern Slavs (Yugoslavia means the country of the southern Slavs) have been subjected to a number of foreign occupations, and have frequently joined together to fight the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires.2 Likewise Josip Tito, president of Yugoslavia until 1980, united Yugoslavs of all nationalities in a struggle against Hitler’s Germany.
It was the bureaucratic rulers of various Yugoslav republics, who after Tito’s death, laid the basis for destroying this traditional unity. But the decisive reason for ethnic cleansing was disagreements among greedy imperialist powers. This has been effectively hidden by a veil of lies about the civil war in Yugoslavia.
The Yugoslav bureaucracy brings nationalism to life
In 1989, Milosevic reduced the autonomy of two of Serbia’s regions – Voyvodina and Kosovo. This ran counter to Tito’s policies. By ensuring that the various republics were all kept strong, Tito had sought to guarantee equality between nationalities. This policy was now turned on its head. The Serbian leaders, in claiming their republic’s right to absorb these two autonomous provinces, had dealt the federation a death-blow.
The main reason for this madness was that the economies of Eastern Europe began to experience severe problems in the 1980s. After the Second World War the state-controlled planned economy led to rapid economic development. Growth at 11-13% a year was higher than any West European country, despite the absence of democracy. But the bureaucratic nature of the plan lead to greater and greater problems, especially after 1973 when Yugoslavia was forced to borrow from the IMF as a result of the oil crisis. The IMF demanded and got a decade of ‘frugality’ during the 1980s. The bureaucracy desperately cast around for ways of rescuing themselves and their privileges.
As Serbia played a key role in the federation, bureaucrats in other parts of Yugoslavia started to feel threatened. In response to Serbian nationalism, they began developing a Slovenian, Croatian, Macedonian, and in time a Bosnian nationalism. They had some popular support for this policy as people saw how badly Milosevic had begun to treat the Albanian minority living mainly in Kosovo.
In May 1990, Franjo Tudjman was elected president of Croatia. Of the 4.7 million people living in the republic at the time, 600 000 were Serbs. Even before the election, Tudjman had declared that one of his first priorities on taking office would be to ‘remove’ a number of Serbs employed in the Croatian civil service, the police and the media. “There are five or six times as many as there should be,” he said. He dreamed not only of cleansing Croatia of Serbs but also of extending Croatia’s borders. Bosnia, he argued, was an essential part of a geopolitical unit with Croatia. At the time, Croats made up just 20% of the Bosnian population; 30% were Serbs and 40% Muslims.
Like Tito, Tudjman enjoyed appearing in public in a white uniform with oversized epaulettes, and he was happy to have compliments heaped on him by Croatian public officials, such as the ‘Prometheus of Croatia’ and ‘Reviver of Croatia’s Patriotic Spirit’. He took a firm hold on the Croatian media. He also praised the Ustase government of the 1940s as “a manifestation of the Croatian people’s yearning for a sovereign state.” 3 Tudjman denied the Holocaust, and claimed that only 900 000 Jews died. He took the view that these deaths would not have occurred had the German army triumphed over the Soviet Union, which would have paved the way for “a geographical solution” of the Jewish question. A “reserve” could have been established in eastern Poland or in Madagascar.4
There was no great difference between Tudjman and Milosevic (or for that matter between Tudjman and Slovenian leader Milan Kucan or Bosnian leader Alija Izetbegovic). Tudjman and Milosevic were equally responsible for the war that broke out between Serbia and Croatia following the latter’s declaration of independence. Later, Tudjman and Milosevic made a secret deal in 1991 to divide Bosnia between them.5
Germany goes its own way
Neither the EU nor the US was prepared to recognise Croatian sovereignty, but Germany did, and eventually got the EU to do so too. This revealed another dimension of the new world order. While the United States’ military might is greater than ever, its political superiority is no longer of the same magnitude. During the Cold War, the US was the undisputed leader of the capitalist world. The big Western powers stood united under American leadership against their common enemy. But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, imperialist powers became increasingly split. The fact that American political supremacy is being called into question by other imperialist powers is due not only to the fall of the Soviet Union, but also to the United States’ weakening grip on the world economy. Although the US is still a heavyweight, its share of world production has declined since 1945. In 1950, the country accounted for 40% of the world’s GDI (Gross Domestic Income), while in 1990 the figure was down to 23.5%.6
For the first time since the Second World War, Germany decided not to adopt the same stance as the other imperialist powers on an important issue in the international arena. The country had undergone a period of rapid economic growth, East and West Germany were reunified, and via the EU the country dominated Europe. Germany had traditionally regarded Croatia and Slovenia as part of its sphere of influence, while Serbia mainly belonged to the Russian sphere. The German government wanted to regain its influence in Croatia and Slovenia.
Former German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher describes in his memoirs a meeting he had with Slovenian president Milan Kucan. When Kucan spoke of Slovenia’s drive for independence, Genscher had not opposed the idea, but simply urged him to “proceed slowly”.7 Both before and after this meeting the EU had officially expressed its opposition to the partitioning of Yugoslavia. Nascent trade wars tend to express themselves in political conflict.
In June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. This immediately led to armed clashes with Yugoslav government forces as Belgrade refused to recognise the breakaway. In December 1991, Germany became the first country to recognise the two as independent states. The commission that the EU had set up to examine the Yugoslavia question had not even had time to present its report. The German government swiftly declared the Croatian regime to be champions of democracy in Yugoslavia. The fact that Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman was a known denier of the Holocaust was not considered relevant. The true nature of the regime was concealed. A German committee of inquiry led by Christian Tomaschat concluded that the way Croatia protected minorities was “of exemplary importance for the continuing protection of minorities in Europe”.8
Once it had recognised Croatia and Slovenia, Germany worked hard to persuade other countries to follow suit. A breakthrough came when it managed to get Britain to recognise Croatia in exchange for British exemption from the social chapters in the EU’s Maastricht treaty.9 Once Britain had swung behind Germany, the rest of the EU and the US reluctantly gave their support as well.
Britain, France and the US were not opposed to the government in Serbia, although they since then have portrayed Milosevic as the greatest villain imaginable. They considered him the best guarantee of stability in Yugoslavia, as he was the regional strongman. In point of fact, these big powers gave him a certain amount of support, by introducing an arms embargo under UN auspices against all the federal republics. Serbia controlled most of the old Yugoslav army, and as no-one was to be supplied with new weapons (although in practice weapons poured into both Croatia and Serbia), it held an advantage. Serbia eventually defeated Croatia.
By the time an UN-sponsored ceasefire was agreed in 1992, Serbia had taken over a third of Croatia’s territory. The UN stepped in with a peacekeeping force, but did little more than patrol the new borders. In contrast to their mission in Iraq, the UN troops were not there as peacemakers, but as peacekeepers. Everything they did was to have the consent of all parties involved. It was an impossible task, but how could it be otherwise when the United Nations was anything but united?
Inevitable ethnic cleansing
The next step in the escalation of ethnic conflict came in March 1992 when Bosnia’s leading bureaucrat, Alija Izetbegovic, proclaimed Bosnia an independent state. He did this partly because he feared growing Serbian dominance, but he also hoped to exploit the fact that the war had weakened both Serbia and Croatia, enabling the Bosnian establishment to take a larger slice of the cake.
Izetbegovic was an Islamist. As a 22-year-old, he had published a newspaper entitled Mujahid (‘The Warrior’), and in 1983 he had been jailed for writing The Islamic Declaration, which included the statement: “Peace or coexistence between the Islamic faith and non-Islamic institutions is not possible”. During the 1990s, his party’s slogan was “In our country, with our faith”, and he accused Western financiers of “diluting the Islamic essence” in Bosnia. When he died in October 2003, the International War Crimes Tribunal was investigating the extent of his responsibility for the intern ment and murder of civilians during the war.10 Bosnia was not a nation. There were no linguistic, religious, or historical grounds. Nor was there a national consciousness. Ethnic groups were closely integrated. Most were good neighbours and celebrated one another’s religious holidays. The Muslims were highly secularised. They drank alcohol and dressed as Europeans. When fundamentalists arrived from Iran and Libya at the beginning of the war to support their Muslim brethren, the Bosnian Muslims found their behaviour totally unacceptable.
This time the German government was not as anxious, as in the case of Croatia and Slovenia, to defend the right of nations to self-determination. This time it was the United States that acted hastily, despite the fact that American intelligence agencies unanimously agreed that if the US recognised Bosnia, it would explode.11 Hans-Dietrich Genscher comments sourly: “The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina – the second Yugoslav war – began later, and it was not Germany that initiated recognition of Bosnia-Herzegovina. On the contrary. In early March 1992, Washington proposed that the US and the EU act in unison.”
The US government did not wish to be left without a voice in a crumbling Yugoslavia, and was therefore prepared to take the risk that Bosnia would indeed explode.12 The US and the EU recognised Bosnian independence. The new state immediately began to fall apart. Those parts of the old Yugoslav army that were stationed in Bosnia stayed there, re-named themselves the Bosnian-Serbian Army and proclaimed an independent Serbian republic, Republika Srpska. Serbia immediately attacked Bosnia. At first, Croatia provided support to Bosnian Croatian armed groups in Bosnia, but in 1993 it attacked Bosnia directly. The UN arms embargo made it impossible for the Bosnian government to defend itself. In contrast to Croatia and Serbia, it had little opportunity to breach the embargo. The country was surrounded by Croatia and Serbia, and had very limited economic resources.
In the space of 60 days following independence, tens of thousands of people died, mostly Muslims, and a million people were forced to flee. The civilian population lived under constant threat, and the only defence they could count on was that of ‘their’ nation’s army. In such circumstances, nationalist sentiment spread like wildfire. By the time peace arrived, over two million people had fled, half the Bosnian population.
The imperialist powers disagreed on how to handle Bosnia. This dissension was reflected in a number of votes at the United Nations. In 1993, for instance, the US (and a number of Muslim countries) sought to lift the arms embargo against Bosnia, but not against Croatia and Serbia. The proposal was rejected by the Security Council due to the opposition of Britain, France, Russia, China, and others. Because of these differences, the UN managed to produce a record amount of documentation about the conflict. During the 18-months period from the outbreak of hostilities in Bosnia, the Security Council adopted 47 resolutions, and the Council President issued 42 written statements. It was an attempt to paper over the differences between the imperialist powers.
One plan after another was put forward in search of peace. These ranged from proposals to separate the ethnic groups to proposals to force them to live together. Both methods would have simply fostered further antagonism, the first by legitimising the split into ethnic groups, and the second by forcing one ethnic group to accept the rule of another group’s power-crazed leaders. The UN could not suggest any other alternative.
The UN betrays Srebrenica
The UN established a number of safe areas. These were towns, such as Srebrenica, where Bosnian Muslims were in a majority, but where the surrounding population comprised Bosnian Serbs. Under an agreement between all parties, these areas were to be demilitarised and left in peace.
In August 1993, a new plan was presented – the Union of Three Republics Plan. Bosnia was to be partitioned into a Muslim, a Croatian and a Serbian republic. Amazingly, in order to make the borders straighter, the UN was prepared to hand over some of the safe areas to the Serbs, and other areas to the Bosnian Muslims. The plan was rejected by Izetbegovic.
The Bosnian Serb leaders decided to implement the plan themselves, in their own brutal fashion. Srebrenica was a Muslim enclave in an area dominated by Serbs. When it was captured by Serbian forces, unarmed Bosnian Muslim men and boys were abused and killed indiscriminately. The soldiers hit them with cudgels, forced them to kneel in prayer in the Muslim fashion, and then shot them.13
Srebrenica had been designated a safe area by the UN, which was thus obligated to protect its inhabitants. But the small, lightly armed Dutch UN force stationed there, Dutchbat, had no chance, and repeated requests for air support were denied at various levels of command. As the UN had disarmed the local people, they were unable to defend themselves. Around 6 000 were executed in Srebrenica.14
The UN itself estimates that up to 20 000 people died in or around its ‘safe areas’. A tragic and monumental fiasco.
The imperialist powers exploited and reinforced the nationalist monster unleashed in Yugoslavia. They were unable to agree on how to return the beast to its cage, so things were simply allowed to run their course. Ethnically cleansed, geographically integrated areas were the inevitable result.
Reading between the lines, it is clear that the UN report on Srebrenica agrees that it that the catastrophe was due to disagreements among imperialist powers: “There are occasions when Member States cannot achieve consensus on a particular response to active military conflicts, or do not have the will to pursue what many might consider to be an appropriate course of action. The first of the general lessons is that when peacekeeping operations are used as a substitute for such political consensus they are likely to fail”.15
Croatia attacks Serbia
Shortly after the Srebrenica massacre in August 1995, another war broke out. Croatia had been massively rearming since the 1992 truce with Serbia. Germany had made sure that Croatia did not suffer from the sanctions that afflicted Serbia when the two states jointly attacked Bosnia in 1993-94. So Croatia had never had trouble raising loans to finance its arms purchases. It now attacked Serbia and succeeded in driving hundreds of thousands of Serbs out of their homes in the province of Krajina. Croatia thereby acquired an ethnically cleansed, geographically cohesive area (Croatia and Slovenia are today the ethnically ‘cleanest’ republics in former Yugoslavia). When the Croatians sought to press on to Banja Luka, a Bosnian Serbian town in a Bosnian Serbian area, the Americans stopped them in their tracks.
This is how Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy in the region, described a meeting he had with Croatia’s president Tudjman on 17 September 1995:
“I told Tudjman the [Croatian] offensive had great value to the negotiations. It would be much easier to retain at the table what had been won on the battlefield than to get the Serbs to give up territory they had controlled for several years. I urged Tudjman to take Sanski Most, Prijedor, and Bosanski Novi, all important towns that had become worldwide symbols of ethnic cleansing. . . . Banja Luka , I said, was a different matter.
“As we spoke, the road to this largest Bosnian Serb city appeared to lie open to the Croatian offensive, although it was not at all certain whether the city could be taken. We knew that [Croatian Defence Minister] Susak wanted to go for it as quickly as possible. On the other hand, I told Tudjman, the city was unquestionably within the Serb portion of Bosnia. Even if it were captured, the Federation would have to return it to the Serbs in any peace negotiation. Finally, capturing Banja Luka would generate over 200 000 additional refugees. I did not think that the United States should encourage an action that would create so many more refugees. I concluded my comments with a blunt statement: ‘Mr. President, I urge you to go as far as you can, but not to take Banja Luka’.” 16
In November 1995, all parties signed the Dayton Agreement to end the war. The Security Council approved the agreement. The UN forces were pulled out, and tens of thousands of NATO-led troops took their place. A fragile federation of Croatian, Serbian and Muslim areas was established in Bosnia. A period of relative stability followed – until the next major conflict arrived, this time centring on Kosovo.
NATO bombs Serbia
Milosevic’s persecution of the Kosovo Albanians was pushing them into an armed struggle for Kosovan independence. The imperialists, therefore, had no choice but to clamp down on Milosevic, as an independent Kosovo could have had disastrous consequences. As Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov put it: “If a fire burns in Kosovo and spreads to Macedonia and Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina, a major war could erupt in the Balkans.”17 An independent Kosovo would be able to link with Albania and form a Greater Albania. This in turn would split Macedonia, where the population was 40% Albanian. Greece had claims on Macedonia, as did Bulgaria. Turkey, on the other hand, was on the side of Albania against its old arch-rival, Greece. A war might pit two NATO nations, Turkey and Greece, against each other.
There was also another reason for the bombing campaign. The US welcomed a chance to seize the initiative in the Balkans. Previously, it had tended to lag behind Germany and Russia, and to some extent behind France as well. Since the Gulf War, US arrogance had grown considerably. Now the Americans were prepared to act without the cover of the UN. However, these were not the reason given for bombing Serbia. Instead, the media in the west suddenly placed Milosevic on a par with Hitler.
Yugoslav and NATO representatives met at the palace of Rambouillet in France. NATO’s demands on the Yugoslav regime were nothing less than a complete provocation. They required NATO occupation, not just of Kosovo, but of the whole of Yugoslavia. NATO troops were to have access to the entire country, with no legal restrictions. NATO personnel were to be immune from legal process, and NATO was to have access to all telecommunications, including TV broadcasts, free of charge. No government of a sovereign state would countenance such demands. Furthermore, the proposed agreement stated that:
“The economy of Kosovo shall function in accordance with free market principles”.18
So Milosevic rejected the demands and NATO dispatched its bomb planes to Yugoslavia.
For 77 days, NATO bombed Serbia. Swedish Social Democratic MPs Karin Wegerstål and Bengt Silfverstrand visited the war-torn country shortly after the bombing stopped.
“We have seen totally bombed-out factories, oil depots blown apart, ruined roads, railways and bridges. We have spoken to engineers who have described the difficulty of keeping Belgrade’s power supply going after all the bombing. We have spoken to parents about how they tried to allay their children’s terror during the attacks.
“In Nis, we saw what remained of the bombed-out university, the effects of splinter bombs (!) on an emergency clinic at the local hospital, the vegetable market that had been bombed in full daylight, a bombed-out tobacco factory, a bombed-out oil depot and so on. Some 40 000 workplaces had been totally destroyed in this city alone.”19
The US and NATO cited humanitarian grounds for the destruction – the need to protect the Kosovo Albanians from Serbian terror. But Karin Wegerstål and Bengt Silfverstand noted:
“The overwhelming bulk of the human suffering and material destruction that can be seen in Kosovo occurred after 24 March (1999). This has been suppressed, to justify NATO’s war of aggression. What the bombing was supposed to prevent, it caused instead, in infinite measure.”
This view is confirmed by Colonel Bo Pellnäs, a Swedish peace negotiator in the Balkans and the Belgrade representative of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe).
“Despite the massacre in Racak20, it would be wrong to claim that mass expulsions were taking place in Kosovo, or acts of genocide, before the war broke out. Such claims are patently absurd as the OSCE had twelve hundred observers stationed there.”21
Despite NATO’s superiority in terms of resources, the outcome was hardly what US president Bill Clinton had foreseen. For a start, Milosevic’s position in Yugoslavia was strengthened during the actual bombing. The opposition, which had previously been very active, came out in support of him. Those who did not were forced to remain silent. A Serbian journalist, Dejan Lukic, put it like this: “We’re all behind Milosevic now, whether you like it or not. Thanks to your bombs, he has become a national hero, to the opposition as well.”22 Colonel Pellnäs shares this assessment.
“It could be argued that the bombing imposed a severe mental strain on the Serbs, who up to then had not been directly affected by the fighting in the Balkans, and that it consequently hastened the transfer of power in Serbia. But you could equally well argue – and perhaps to better effect – that Milosevic would have been removed from office even earlier if the war had not come along and actually strengthened his position for quite some time.”23
NATO propaganda sought to portray the Serbian people as a whole as brutes. In the final stages of the war, NATO probably realised that it could not be won, and the bombing degenerated into a campaign of terror against the civilian population. The aim was to punish the people for their unwillingness to obey NATO and get rid of Milosevic.
Moreover, NATO planes failed to crush the Yugoslav army. They bombed both the Swedish and the Chinese embassies, Kosovo Albanian refugees and Bulgaria, but were still unable to get at the Serbian forces. NATO did not dare bring in ground troops, partly because they feared becoming embroiled in a new Vietnam War and partly because the NATO countries could not agree. The alliance was already split. In Greece and Italy in particular, both of which were NATO members, there were massive protests against the bombing war. It was Russia that finally ensured Yugoslavia’s surrender in the negotiations to end the war. Without Russian backing, Milosevic realised he could not continue fighting. The US for its part was not yet prepared to go it alone. Milosevic remained in power. It was not until the working class took matters in its own hands that Milosevic was removed. And they accomplished it swiftly.
The working class brings down Milosevic – without bombs
At the elections held in September 2000, opposition leader Vojislav Kostunica triumphed. Milosevic, however, refused to concede the election and step down. The following eye-witness report explains what happened next.
“From the early morning hours, one could hear the sound of numerous horns from cars, trucks and buses pouring into downtown Belgrade from every highway. Apart from national symbols and anti-Milosevic slogans, many of them proudly waved their trade union flags. Word on the street was that they came to the capital in order to finish up what they had started a few days earlier, when most of the factories in Serbia had been shut down and a general strike announced.
In 1996, people had also flowed into the squares in all the big cities across the country, demanding justice and calling for all-out civil disobedience. Then, middle class professionals and the student movement were at the core of events. Local small businesses, cinemas, theatres, schools and universities responded to the opposition calls and went on strike immediately, but industry remained untouched by these movements.
This time the wave of strikes went deeper. Fewer than 100 factories were working across the state. It started with public transport and garbage collectors and culminated in the country’s most important coal mines in the Kolubara district. This particular strike threatened to leave half of the country without electricity.
Everything that happened that day grew directly out of the general atmosphere and the initiative came from the people. Opposition leaders got ‘caught off guard’ and were pretty hesitant and got left behind in the beginning. The masses probably made them go further than they imagined in their wildest dreams.
People organised spontaneously and took over crucial buildings. Most ‘private’ TV stations and newspapers that were also controlled by the regime were freed without much trouble. National Television was guarded by the police for a short period of time, after which they scattered. Many of them took off their uniforms and joined the masses, others desperately tried to stop the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets (real shoot-outs were also reported).
‘Rioting’ and’ looting’ was reported all around, however the targets were obviously not chosen according to the level of material gain. Foreign observers may not understand this, but each object that was torn down had some kind of symbolic significance. For example an exclusive perfume shop in the centre of the city was looted because it is believed that it belongs to Milosevic’s son. The parliament represented political oppression, and the National TV building represented media propaganda and lies upon which this system had laid its foundations. They were both burned to the ground. The local police station was not spared either. Unknown quantities of weapons were taken from this station before it was set on fire.
By the evening most of the battles had already been won. ‘Belgrade is ours!’ could be heard from thousands of throats. Anger slowly transformed into happiness and rioting into celebration. People started to debate and organise among themselves spontaneously. Some of them took things out of the parliament and TV building and continued to destroy what was left of it; others claimed that things should be collected in one place and saved because they are all ‘our things’ and we’re going to need them in the future.
Opposition organisers and politicians finally re-appeared and started to make speeches to ‘calm down the masses’. Vojislav Kostunica (the opposition presidential candidate) was announced as the ‘new president of the country’ and people greeted him with cheers. During his speech a spontaneous chant started to come from the crowd: ‘Let’s go to Dedinje!’ (‘Dedinje’ is a residential area where most of the high profile bureaucrats and army generals live, including Milosevic). The people felt that it was time to seize the moment and ‘go all the way’ while the enemy was still breathless. Kostunica assured the crowd that it was all over; that there was no need for further fighting and that the police wouldn’t intervene.”24
Other eye-witnesses have reported the similar things.
“ A revolutionary crowd with its spirit up can do anything, and policemen or soldiers, who are merely armed with guns, quickly understand that they can’t do much against that kind of thing. I first guessed that the revolution would succeed when I saw a line of 13 armed policemen trooping nervously into the offices of an opposition party and being greeted with cheers and back-slapping after they’d decided to come over to the demonstrators.”25
These accounts show that it was through the determination of the workers that Milosevic was removed in a matter of days. They did what the Western powers had been unable to do in spite of their more or less unlimited military resources and the billions they had paid out in bribes.
These days in Belgrade show something else as well. A handful of opposition politicians can kidnap a movement they played little part in, and they themselves were afraid of. Their first task was to remove the working class from the stage of history and to salvage the substance of the old order after the working class had destroyed its symbols and removed Milosevic.
Had the power of the working class instead been harnessed to achieve a socialist society it would have put an end to ethnic violence in Yugoslavia, just like the coming to power of Tito after the Second World War had.
The first and deadliest ethnic conflict in the region was during the Second World War, when the German Nazis established a vassal state, Croatia. The Croatian Nazi organisation Ustase was allowed to do as it wished. Its goal was a Greater Croatia, and its members were prepared to kill all Serbs and (what are now) Bosnians who stood in their way. Their actions and ideas were paralleled by the Chetniks, former soldiers of the old Serb-dominated royalist army who established guerrilla bands, and whose goal was an ethnically pure Greater Serbia. An estimated 1.7 million people died in Yugoslavia during the Second World War, most of them as a result of the crimes committed by these two organisations in their sectarian struggle. Yet in the middle of this bloodbath, unity developed across ethnic lines. By 1945, Tito’s forces were victorious because “they also offered an ideal – a dream of ‘brotherhood and unity’ – that would link the nations or peoples of Yugoslavia.” 26
After the war, Yugoslavia became a federation comprising the republics of Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Montenegro. The Yugoslav population became increasingly inter-ethnic. Serbs, Croats, Albanians, Slovenians and other ethnic groups lived as neighbours, and inter-married. To ensure that the Serbs did not dominate the country, Tito saw to it that economic resources were channelled fairly to all republics. Croatia and Slovenia became the most developed regions of Yugoslavia. National conflicts were confined to squabbles between different sections of the bureaucracy, as they sought to assert themselves within the federation.
However, Yugoslavia was never a socialist state. Tito came to power not at the head of a democratically organised working-class, but an undemocratic guerrilla army drawn from the peasantry. He had a great deal of support and he broke with capitalism and nationalised the means of production, but control of economic planning and workplaces was firmly in the hands of a privileged bureaucracy. This left open the possibility of ethnic hatred re-emerging.
The international working class acts
The leaders of the international labour movement fell in line behind the imperialists. Social Democratic governments in Europe gave their backing to NATO’s bombing of Serbia, just as they had earlier supported the bombing of Iraq. Nonetheless, compared to during the Gulf War, the rank-and-file of the Labour Movement protested strongly in many parts of Europe. In Greece, which is a NATO member, 97% of the population opposed the bombing – despite the fact that 55% were against Milosevic. Daily demonstrations were held around the country. The Greek Trade Union Confederation organised a four-hour strike in protest against the war. The Railway Workers’ Union publicly declared that if NATO intended sending ground troops and war materials to Yugoslavia, its members would make sure the Greek railways were not used for the purpose.27
Protests were also widespread in the port city of Salonika, which is used as a base for NATO operations. Several NATO convoys on their way to Macedonia were halted by angry demonstrators. In early May, demonstrators changed road signs so that a NATO convoy en route to Macedonia ended up in a vegetable market on the outskirts of Salonika. There, it was showered with tomatoes and other vegetables. In one district in Crete, where the Suba NATO base is situated, the local county council leader declared that he “could not be responsible for the physical well-being of the US soldiers.”28
In Germany, the powerful IG Metall union declared its opposition to the bombing. In Sweden, a campaign was launched by leading Social Democrats and party activists. Other parties and organisations were also involved, but Social Democratic ‘rebel’ MPs Karin Wegestål and Bengt Silverstrand lent the campaign weight. A demonstration in Stockholm in May drew 2 500 participants at short notice. All this showed that the potential exists. It shows that the internationalism of the working class is a force to count on, even when the Social Democratic party leaders are moving in another direction.
In addition, the protests of the European working class and its relatively close links to Yugoslavia had a further effect. Although discord among imperialist powers bares the main responsibility for the wars in Yugoslavia, they felt obliged to supply considerable resources to stabilise the situation in former Yugoslavia. After all, Yugoslavia is in Europe, close to the home base of several imperialist powers. In Africa things have been different. Although Africa is also the victim of imperialism and imperialist discord, it has been allowed to sink into a modern form of barbarism.
2 Jasminka Udovicki and James Ridgeway: Burn this house, 1997
3 Washington Post, 30 April 1990
4 The New Republic, 25 November 1991
5 Financial Times: Slicing Up the Bosnian Cake, 8 August 1995
6 Penn World Table 5.6, National Bureau for Economic Research, March 1997
7 Hans-Dietrich Genscher: Erinnerungen, 1995
9 Financial Times, 14 August 1999
10 The Economist, 25 October 2003
11 George Kenney, a senior official in the US State Department, in an interview in the
documentary, Yugoslavia the Avoidable War, 2002
12 Washington would later repeat this tactic in Macedonia. The EU expressed opposition
to independence on the grounds that democracy in Macedonia was flawed, but was unable to stop it. Instead, the EU had to content itself with forcing upon Macedonia the absurd name of ‘the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’, or FYROM.
13 The UN Special Report on Srebrenica
14 The Netherlands institute for war documentation,http://www.srebrenica.nl
16 Quoted in www.un.org/peace/srebrenica.pdf
17 Financial Times, 24 mars 1999
18 Se article 11
19 Svenska Dagbladet, 12 July 1999
20 In January 1991, about 40 Kosovo Albanians had been massacred in the village of
Racak. Some died fighting, but 23 were found executed in a ravine outside the village.
21 Dagens Nyheter, 8 February 2004. The observers were withdrawn three days before the
22 Guardian, 3 April 1999
23 Dagens Nyheter, 8 February 2004
24 Excerpts from an eye-witness account of the events of 5 October 2000 published on
25 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/959484.stm, World Affairs Editor John
Simpson, 6 October 2000
26 BBC: Tito’s Yugoslavia, 5 April 2003. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/
War and Resistance is a translation of the Swedish book Draksådd, originally published in 2004. It analyzes the most important wars of the past hundred years. It examines the role of UN, civil disobedience and many other failed attempts to stop war. And as a contrast explains why other forms of resistance to war have been successful.
We really need the Russians.
We need someone with as much power as the United States,
’cos it’s like a kid with a bomb.1
Neil Young, Canadian rock musician
The Gulf War in the early 1990s represented the first demonstration of the United States’ role in the New World Order. It showed the arrogance that the world’s only superpower had developed, and the brutality it was prepared to use when it was allowed to proceed without constraint. But hidden from most people, another drama unfolded during the Gulf War – an uprising of the Iraqi and Kurdish people against Saddam Hussein. It was an uprising that the US and its coalition did not support, on the contrary, they helped Saddam crush it.
Background to the Gulf War of 1990-91
After the Mullahs took power in Iran in 1979, the British and US governments increased their support to Saddam’s Iraq. They encouraged him to attack Iran in 1980. Nominally a border dispute, the war between Iran and Iraq lasted until 1988 and claimed around a million lives.2 During this period, the US and the other Western powers provided support to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in the form of huge amounts of weapons (including chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, the WMDs), military training, sophisticated technology, satellite pictures and billions of dollars.
In 1987, Iraq imported 40% of its food from the US. In 1989, the US was the largest market for Iraqi oil and Iraq received a billion dollars in loan guarantees. Only Mexico received more credit.3 Iraq was also given extensive support by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, both fearing that the anti-monarchist mood in Iran would spread to their monarchist dictatorships. Meanwhile, the arms industry was busy selling weapons to both sides. The UN did not respond in any way to the Iraqi attack on Iran, neither with condemnation nor with demands. No sanctions were imposed.
The Western imperialist powers and their ally, Turkey, sat back and watched as Saddam oppressed Kurds and Shia Muslims inside Iraq, a development that ‘strengthened stability’ in the region. When the war between Iraq and Iran ended, Saddam Hussein launched an offensive known as Al-Anfalagainst the Kurds rebelling in the north. According to Human Rights Watch, between 50 000 and 100 000 Kurds were murdered in northern Iraq during this operation.4 Hundreds of thousands were forcibly resettled, Kurdish women were raped and some 4 500 Kurdish villages were destroyed by bombs and bulldozers. When Saddam murdered around 5 000 Kurds in the town of Halabja in northern Iraq in 1988 during the offensive, his forces used chemical weapons produced in the West.
A year before the Gulf War began, Kurdish representatives had visited the US to inform the administration about Iraq’s repression of the Kurds. “The Americans replied that it was in the interests of the US to support Saddam as he was ‘an important figure for US policy in the area’, and that Saddam looked after Western interests in the region.”5 Later the US and other Western powers tried to portray themselves as the protectors of the Kurds in northern Iraq.
Saddam’s atrocities were not revealed to the world until he acted against the interests of US imperialism by invading Kuwait. Suddenly, he was a ruthless dictator, a new Hitler, who had to be stopped at all cost. But Saddam had been a dictator and an oppressor for years. The only difference was that he no longer had the blessing of the Western powers.
Saddam Hussein’s error of judgement
The conflict between Iraq and Kuwait stemmed largely from oil-production and the oil-price situation. Iraq came out of the Iran war a wounded country, deeply in debt. Iraq needed a good price for its oil. Immediately after the war, however, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates began exceeding the production quotas set by the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), flooding the market and causing oil prices to tumble.
Thanks to its enormous investments in the West, totalling over USD 2 billion, Kuwait could afford cheaper oil prices, but for Iraq the loss of oil revenue was disastrous.6 Saddam Hussein denounced Kuwait as conducting “economic warfare” against Iraq, and claimed that Iraq stood to lose a billion US dollars a year for every dollar that the price of oil fell by. He demanded economic compensation for this loss, as well as the right of ownership to the two islands that blocked Iraq’s access to the Persian Gulf and also to the Rumalia oil fields in Kuwait.
In July 1990, when Kuwait continued to reject Iraq’s economic and territorial demands and to deny OPEC’s request that it keep within the production quota set for it, Iraq began to concentrate troops on the border. It seems unlikely that Iraq would have dared move into Kuwait unless it had received permission from Washington, or at least had not been forbidden to move in. In fact, the US ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie, had expressed herself in a way that could be interpreted as an ‘OK’. In a reply to Saddam Hussein in July 1990, she stated: “I have direct instructions from the President to seek better relations with Iraq. […] Our opinion is that you should have the opportunity to rebuild your country. But we have no opinion on inter-Arab conflicts like your border disagreement with Kuwait.”7 The Iraqi regime may well have thought it had the continued backing of the US for this war, just as it had for the war against Iran.
This, however, was a bad mistake. Allowing Iraq to become a major power in the region was not at all in Washington’s interests. The US preferred to divide and rule. It had no wish to let Saddam Hussein gain control of Kuwaiti oil, which was of vital strategic importance to the US. It also wanted to protect Saudi Arabia’s territory and oil, as it had been doing since the 1930s. Saudi Arabia could be the next in line for Saddam’s aspirations.
Moreover, in the months prior to the Kuwait crisis, the US senate had been demanding cuts in the military budget. The Cold War was over and some senators argued that the US no longer needed to spend so much money on arms. But General Norman Schwarzkopf believed that the US should establish a permanent presence in the Gulf, and in a White Book he identified Iraq and Saddam Hussein as “the optimum contenders to replace the Warsaw Pact”.8
In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The White House immediately denounced the invasion as a blatant use of military aggression, demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Iraqi forces, and announced that it was considering all options.9 Within 24 hours, a US warship loaded with a special task force, fighter jets and bombers was on its way to the Gulf. Within a few days, thousands of US soldiers and an armoured brigade were stationed in Saudi Arabia, the Americans’ closest ally, after Israel, in the Middle East.
UN Resolution 678
While Iraq plundered Kuwait and turned the country into its 19th province, the US built up its forces in Saudi Arabia. The US worked hard to put together an international coalition in order to push through resolutions and sanctions against Iraq in the UN Security Council, and to finally win backing for the forthcoming war. The new global situation – with the Soviet Union in crisis and disintegrating – enabled the US and its allies to persuade the UN Security Council and the General Assembly to lend the US their moral authority. The Security Council introduced tough and wide-ranging economic sanctions against Iraq. A trade and arms embargo was imposed and all Iraqi assets abroad were frozen.
The US and its allies also wanted the UN to accept a resolution that would give the coalition free rein. This freedom was achieved by means of the remarkable Resolution 678 adopted by the UN Security Council at the end of November 1990. The document gave a group of unnamed member states the right to use armed force at a time of their own choosing, against targets that they themselves choose, to visit upon the Iraqis whatever degree of death and destruction they considered appropriate, and not to end the attack until they themselves felt the time had come to do so. All this in the name of the United Nations.10 It was adopted by 12 votes (the US, Soviet Union, Britain, France, Canada, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Finland, Malaysia, Romania and Zaire) to 2 (Cuba and Yemen), with one abstention (China).
The methods used by a rich imperialist country to enlist support for the war provides an insight into how it can get its way in the UN and other international forums. The US and its allies quite simply bought off, bribed or threatened other countries, both within the Security Council and outside it, in order to gain the necessary backing. The crisis-hit Soviet Union was given USD 3 billion. Egyptian and Syrian participation in the coalition was ensured by means of debt write-offs worth USD 25 billion in Egypt’s case and USD 2 million in Syria’s.11 Military aid to Kenya was resumed.
Yemen, on the other hand, which had voted against the resolution, was punished severely. “That was the most expensive ‘no’ vote you ever cast,” Thomas Pickering, the American ambassador to the UN, told the Yemeni ambassador, Abdallah Saleh al-Ashtol. An American aid package of USD 70 million was cancelled the following day, and 900 000 Yemeni guest workers were ejected from Saudi Arabia.12
The UN resolution gave Saddam an ultimatum to pull out his forces before 15 January 1991. In all likelihood, the Iraqi regime was taken by surprise by the US response. Saddam was forced to realise that by invading Kuwait, he had bitten off more than he could chew. Already in early August and again in October 1990, Iraq had signalled its willingness to pull its troops out. In return, it wanted sole rights to the Rumalia oilfield, guaranteed access to the Gulf, an end to the sanctions and a solution of the problems concerning oil prices and oil production. The US, however, was unmoved by these approaches. At first, it even denied their existence.
All alternatives that offered a diplomatic way out of the crisis were obstructed by the Americans. As the 15 January deadline neared, Iraq made its first offer to negotiate. On 11 January, Arab diplomats at the UN said they had received reports from the pro-Iraqi countries of Algeria, Yemen and Jordan indicating that Saddam was prepared to withdraw from Kuwait if he received guarantees that Iraq would not be attacked.
He also wanted an international conference to discuss Palestinian grievances and the border disputes between Iraq and Kuwait. According to the diplomats, the Iraqi dictator wanted to wait for a day or two after the deadline to show that he had not been afraid. He was of course very frightened indeed.
For the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US was now in a position to flex its muscles as the only remaining superpower. At last, the American establishment had the chance to avenge both its defeat in Vietnam and everything it had been obliged to tolerate since. It wanted to crush Iraq, using overwhelming force. Thereby the American public was going to be convinced that interventions abroad should again be undertaken, as this could be done without incurring any substantial loss of American lives. The display of total military superiority was also a warning to leaders and peoples in the former colonial territories of the world.
90 000 tons of bombs on fleeing soldiers
At midnight on 15 January, the US-led coalition attacked Iraq. The war lasted for more than 40 days. To avoid mass protests at home, the true motives for the war and what actually went on had to be hidden behind a wall of lies and distortions. ‘Eye-witnesses’ described in live interviews on American TV how they had seen Iraqi troops pull babies out of hospital incubators and leave them to die on the floor. There were also stories of raped and murdered women, and men whose tongues had been cut out. It subsequently turned out that these accounts had been made up by an American public relations firm paid for the task by wealthy Kuwaitis. Those who had given their tearful accounts on TV had never set foot in occupied Kuwait.13
The American coalition quickly gained air supremacy, and after knocking out the Iraqi anti-aircraft batteries, was able freely to bomb Iraqi armed forces, as well as infrastructure, industry and other civilian targets. The ‘smart bombs’ were by no means as smart as they were claimed to be. Not that it would have made much of a difference if they had been, as less than 7% of the bombs used in the Gulf War were of the ‘smart’ type. This was admitted by the Pentagon long afterwards. There were massive carpet-bombing raids across the country. 70% of the 90 000 tons of bombs dropped on Iraq and Kuwait – equivalent to seven Hiroshima bombs – ‘missed’ their military targets. Many of them landed in built-up areas and caused what in military jargon is termed “collateral damage”.14
After a month of fighting, Baghdad announced again that Iraq was prepared to withdraw from Kuwait. This prompted Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet president at the time, to present a peace plan. It was rejected by the United S.tates
When the Iraqi economy had been destroyed and Iraqi military resistance broken, it was time for the US ground offensive. The demoralised Iranian forces, shattered by incessant bombing, had no chance. US ground troops moved into Iraq and Kuwait, and attacked the fleeing soldiers, who were disoriented and in disarray. Tens of thousands were killed.
Tanks hauling giant snowploughs drove alongside the Iraqi trenches, shooting into them, whereupon the ploughs covered them over with heaps of sand. Thousands were buried, dead or alive, along the Iraqi front line, which stretched for more than 110 kilometres. These tanks and bulldozers were then used to bury dead and wounded Iraqi soldiers before the media was allowed access to the battlefield. Not a single armoured vehicle from the coalition was hit by Iraqi fire. The officer who led the ‘Desert Storm’ operations later admitted that most of the Iraqi vehicles had been shot to pieces from behind.15
A month after the offensive against Iraq begun, the Soviet Union proposed a new peace plan. Saddam Hussein accepted it and ordered his troops to withdraw to the positions they had held prior to the invasion, in full accordance with UN resolution 660. The US replied that no retreat was in evidence. It maintained that the Iraqi forces were fighting on, and that American forces therefore intended to continue the war. On the following day, Saddam announced on Baghdad radio that Iraqi troops had begun to withdraw from Kuwait and that the withdrawal would be completed the same day. The US called this “a scandal” and “a cruel deception”.
Eye-witnesses in Kuwait confirmed that the withdrawal had in fact begun the day after Saddam had accepted the Soviet peace plan and was in full swing by evening.16 The retreat began 36 hours before the allies reached Kuwait City.17 When Iraqi forces were in full retreat on the two motorways leading from Kuwait to Basra in southern Iraq, US planes bombed the defenceless columns of vehicles. The first attacks came at roughly the same time as White House spokesman Martin Fitzwater was promising that the coalition would not attack Iraqi forces leaving Kuwait. Almost every vehicle on these two roads was destroyed: tanks, armoured vehicles, lorries and ordinary cars.
“The planes fired a wide range of missiles, splinter bombs and napalm B, the type that sticks to your skin and goes on burning. Returning pilots boastfully described it to the pool reporters as ‘duck-hunting’ and ‘a turkey hunt’. Others compared it to fishing in a barrel. Defenceless people had been burned alive in their vehicles or shot when they ran for cover.”18 Among the dead were many civilians, most of them Iraqi guest workers who had been left in Kuwait and were now trying to get home. While the elite soldiers of the Republican Guard, most of whom were strongly pro-Saddam, got away, Iraq’s demoralised conscript army, largely comprising oppressed Kurds and Shia Muslims, was slaughtered.
The allies entered Kuwait City, now abandoned by the Iraqis. The following day, Bush ordered a ceasefire and Iraq accepted the terms of the truce. But the massacre of Iraqi soldiers and civilians continued. A column of soldiers and civilians was attacked en route from Basra to Baghdad. The killings were the work of the 24th Division led by General Barry McCaffrey.
Seymour Hersh, who won the Pulitzer Prize for revealing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, showed how the 24th Division bombed an eight-kilometre long Iraqi column for hours, destroying some 700 Iraqi tanks, armoured vehicles and lorries.19 Soldiers, civilians and children alike were killed. McCaffrey later described the bloodbath as “one of the most amazing scenes of destruction I have ever been involved in. There were no serious American losses.”
This was not war, but wholesale, one-sided butchery. Up to half a million Iraqi men, women and children were killed or died as a direct result of the US-led UN attack on Iraq in 1991. According to the US administration, 148 Americans were killed in the war. And in many cases US losses were due to ‘friendly fire’ from coalition troops. 20
The disaster continues after the war
The Gulf War left almost two million people homeless. Iraq’s electricity grid, water supply, sanitation facilities, telecommunications, healthcare, agriculture and industrial infrastructure had largely been destroyed, paving the way for epidemics and famine. The type of warfare practised in the Gulf contravened the 1949 Geneva Convention, which explicitly prohibits attacks on targets that cause widespread civilian losses. On the other hand, no war has ever been conducted in accordance with the Geneva Convention since the time it was introduced.
During the Gulf War, the US forces used depleted uranium for the first time in their grenades, missiles and rockets. These left behind tons of radioactive and toxic waste in Iraq and Kuwait, causing a six-fold increase in leukaemia and lymphoma cancers, and a major increase in birth deformities. Because of the sanctions, children had no access to the medicines and radiotherapy that could have saved their lives, or even to painkillers. Since 1991, the annual cancer rate in Iraq has doubled, and the situation has been particularly severe in southern parts of the country bordering on Kuwait. Certain types of extremely lethal cancer have multiplied. These include breast cancer in girls as young as twelve, bone cancer in young children, cancer of the urinary tract in teenagers and nasal tumours among infants. Such cancer cases were not previously found in Iraq.
By 2000, grave deformities afflicted 2%, compared with 0.01% before the war, of all new-born babies in southern Iraq. Many of these children are born with several deformities and die within a month.21
NATO denies that the deformities and increased cancer rate in Iraq are due to depleted uranium. As early as April 1991, however, Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority warned in a secret report that “if depleted uranium enters the food chain or the water, this will cause potential health problems”.22
During the 1990s, the US and Britain continued to take advantage of the UN mandate, and bombed Iraq. The UN’s harsh sanctions against Iraq remained in place throughout the period between the first US invasion and the second, in 2003. As early as 1995, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that the bombings and sanctions had caused the death of 560 000 Iraqi children.23 Children died from malnourishment, diarrhoea and dehydration due to the lack of clean water and good food. They died of infections that could easily be cleared up with ordinary penicillin.
Denis Haliday, the UN’s coordinator of humanitarian relief to Iraq, resigned in 1998 in protest, after 34 years with the agency. He explained why: “Most importantly, I have found that the impact of the sanctions … is simply incompatible with the spirit and the word of the United Nations Charter.” Almost a third of the Iraqi people were suffering from malnutrition, he added, the education system had largely collapsed and schools had neither water nor sanitation. “We are in the process of destroying an entire society”.24
In the space of a decade, the war and the sanctions transformed one of the Arab world’s most highly developed countries into an impoverished Third World country, without deposing Saddam Hussein or ending his life of luxury.
The unwanted fight against Saddam
During the Gulf War, the imperialist powers had urged the Iraqi people and oppressed groups such as the Kurds and the Shia Muslims to rise in revolt. After years of persecution, they were ready. Yet when it began, the US did not support it all. They did not want a popular revolution, in Iraq or elsewhere. A revolution in Iraq would have inspired people to rise up in other parts of the Middle East, which would have been disastrous for the US’s New World Order. In Britain, representatives of the Iraqi opposition were put in jail during the run-up to the Gulf War.
A report written after a study trip to northern Iraq in 1994, excerpts of which we republish below, gives a vivid account of how the uprising began in Southern Iraq, how this inspired Kurds in Suleymania to rise and take things much further, how this in turn spread to other Kurdish towns, and how it was finally crushed.
The workers performed miracles. Despite the very limited size of the working class, they managed to defeat Saddam’s troops in a matter of hours with hardly any loss of life, something neither thepeshmerga25 guerrillas nor the coalition troops had managed. Shoras, workers councils, were set up to democratically run society. It was a heroic uprising, but it failed.
The report provides a clear picture of what happened. The workers had power in their hands, they could have organised a massive popular struggle against Saddam, but instead the leadership of the Iraqi Kurdistan Front, IFK,26 sat down to negotiate with Baghdad.
They gave up the fight before it had barely started. Tragically, people were urged to flee up into the mountains, where tens of thousands died of cold and starvation, while the IFK attacked the only bodies that could have organised the struggle against Saddam – the shoras.
On February 29 1991, when the ground offensive had forced the Iraqi military to retreat, large sections of the Iraqi army turned against Saddam Hussein. Reports say that the rebellion began in Basra in south-eastern Iraq after a tank had driven around the city shooting portraits of Saddam to pieces. The rebellion then spread rapidly to other towns in southern Iraq, such as Koot, Omura, Nasria, Samawa, Najaf, Kurbala, Hilla and Mosaib.
When the people rose in southern Iraq, various groups prepared to follow suit and began to arm themselves in parts of northern Iraq. Many Kurdish towns were liberated without the Iraqi army offering any great resistance.
The shora movement in Suleymania
On the morning of 7 March 1991, everything happened spontaneously.. Small groups were beginning to take to the streets by eight o’clock in the morning, shouting slogans.
These groups swelled as men, women and children joined them. They began collecting weapons, then attacked official buildings around the town. Within a few hours, most of the city was in the hands of these armed citizens.
On 8 March, thousands paraded through the streets of Suleymania under banners proclaiming ‘Revolutionaries, set up your own shoras!’, ‘Women are vital to the revolution!’ and ‘Towards Kurdish autonomy!’. The uprising heightened the general political consciousness, among women, men and children alike.
People immediately began setting up shoras (workers councils) throughout Suleymania. Most were in the form of neighbourhood committees: people organised where they lived. A few took the form of workers’ councils at important workplaces. Among the first groups to be organised were mobile paramedics, who collected blood donations for those injured in the fighting. Others repaired the town’s water and electricity supplies, which had been out of order for some time.
Around 12 March, two delegates were sent to Hawlir (Erbil) to spread the news so that the movement was not confined to Suleymania. Five meetings were held in three days, and led to the establishment of 35 shoras there. This number later increased to 42.
Each shora had committees or working groups responsible for food distribution, medical care, radio stations, newspapers, defence and administrative matters. The shoramovement organised its own milita or peshmergas to protect themselves from attack or counter-revolution.
When Saddam’s troops advanced on the Kurdish areas of Iraq, the neighbourhood committees in Suleymania sent two peshmerga units to Kalar, and a symbolic troop of 80peshmergas was dispatched to help the people of Kirkut.
The conflict between the shoras and the Iraqi Kurdistan Front
On the morning of 8 March, the PUK’s 7th battalion, comprising 200 peshmergas, entered Suleymania. On arrival, they were totally unaware that the town had been almost completely liberated. The IKF arrived the following day. On 12 March, however, they began publicly attacking the shora movement.
On 16 March, the anniversary of Halabja, the shoras and the IKF both staged big demonstrations around town, and on the following day a Supreme Shora was elected for Suleymania as a whole. This supreme ‘authority’ was not allowed to make decisions itself but only to draft proposals that were then sent to all the shoras for a vote.
On 18 March, the IKF declared all shoras illegal and ordered them to disband. Thus, after just nine days in the town, the IKF demanded an end to the spontaneous self-organisation of the people. It viewed the Supreme Shora as a threat. It planned to rebuild the town’s institutions and re-install both the old administration and the factory managers that the workers’ councils had ousted. On 20 March, an anti-IKF demonstration paraded through the streets of the town.
Nawshiwan, second-in-command of the PUK and leader of its left tendency, declared that “We must crush the movement that has raised the red flag”. The IKF used its radio station as a propaganda mouthpiece to berate the neighbourhood committees. The conflict remained unresolved until the town once again fell into Saddam’s hands on 3 April. The IKF dared not take up arms against the neighbourhood committees, and the committees for their part could not agree internally how to approach the IKF. On at least one occasion, a former manager called in IKF peshmergas to stop a mass meeting at a workplace, in a bid to physically break up a shora.
When the neighbourhood committees sent armed militia to confront Saddam’s troops, the IKF refused to provide them with weapons. Instead, PUK leader Talabani flew to Baghdad to negotiate. This came to be known as the ‘kisses in Baghdad’, as TV pictures of Talabani kissing Saddam on both cheeks were cabled out to the world.
The inner workings of the neighbourhood committees
The committees had a number of internal disagreements. One of these concerned what position they should take in relation to the political parties in the Kurdistan Front. Some wanted to attack the parties, arguing that they functioned as external bodies of authority pursuing their own special interests. Some wanted to negotiate with them and reach compromises, which would have weakened the power of the councils. Many others were unwilling to concede that the IKF had a social base, and thought the front could just be ignored. The more militant tendency called for the committees to be turned into autonomous revolutionary units, an armed people ready to defend the authority of theshoras.
A further source of conflict within the shora movement was the question of whether the neighbourhood committees were a working-class organisation or whether all citizens should be allowed to join, whatever their class affiliation. Three days after the IKF had declared the shoras illegal and called on them to disband, only one of 50 in the town had complied. An example of the contradictions that existed within the neighbourhood committees was that while their practical actions were revolutionary and socialist, they nevertheless demanded liberal rights and bourgeois democracy.27 And strangely enough, it was the Marxist-Leninists28 who were the driving force behind this. They argued that a bourgeois revolution was necessary before there could be a socialist revolution. From this viewpoint, allying oneself with bourgeois elements is totally logical.
Saddam regains control
On 2 April, Saddam’s troops advanced on Suleymania and shelled the town. Kirkut had fallen a few days earlier. The leaders of the IKF had already left for the Iranian border, but their peshmergas were still in the town and declared their willingness to help defend it. After midnight, the PUK leader, Talabani, went on the radio and urged everyone to flee into the mountains. He painted a terrifying scenario, saying Saddam would use chemical weapons, as he had in Halabja in 1988. When Saddam’s troops rolled into town 12 hours later, more than 90 per cent of the population had already fled and the streets were still full of people on their way out of town. After two weeks, people began returning from the mountain. During the ensuing months, negotiations took place between the Iraqi Kurdistan Front and Saddam Hussein’s regime. But this was largely a facade, part of Saddam’s strategy to play for time.
The July uprising
On 18 July, the people of Suleymania rose again and ousted Saddam’s troops from the town, in little more than an hour. All that was left were eleven wrecked tanks. The same thing had happened in Hawlir the previous day. During the 18 July uprising, the IKF drove around the streets of Suleymania with loudspeaker cars, urging people to go home.
The shora movement was a social uprising with a high level of popular participation, but it never extended beyond the towns of Suleymania, Hawlir and Kirkuk. In all, some 95shoras were established there. The popular uprising in Suleymania was a social revolution in that all workplaces and factories of any size were expropriated by the workers and run by the workers’ councils and mass meetings.
All this is taken from the report.29
The US regime had no doubts about which side to support in the conflict. The American forces broke off their advance on Baghdad when the popular uprising began: “Commanding General Norman Schwartzkopf allowed Iraqi helicopters to fly across U.S. lines to attack and destroy rebelling Shiites and Kurds in the north and south, but then refused to allow Republican Guard units – who had risen up against Hussein – to reach their stores of weapons.”30 Information about the Kurdish revolt never reached the general public while the fighting was in progress.
In 1991, the American Government had all the cards in its hand. It hardly met any resistance at all. Most of those who saw the TV version of the war accepted that the US, fighting under the UN flag, had been the liberator of Kuwait. It was the beginning of an unbridled, and stupidly short-sighted, US arrogance, which has been an important factor in world politics and war since then.
Just a few months after the ‘ceasefire’ in Iraq, it was time for the next war. The dissolution of Yugoslavia and the subsequent war were not something the US or any other imperialist power wanted, but war broke out because the interests of different imperialist powers collided.
1 Uncut magazine
2 John Pilger: Hidden Agenda, 1999
3 Noam Chomsky: Man kan inte mörda historien, 1995
4 Human Rights Watch Commentary, 22 March 2002.
5 Magnus Hörnquist, Torfi Magnusson and Rikard Warlenius: Kurdistan, 1994
6 E. Childers and B. Urquhart: Renewing the UN System, 1994
7 James Ridgeway: The March to War, 1991
8 John Pilger: Distant Voice Books, 1992. Quoted at
9 William Blum: Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (2000)
10 E. Childers and B. Urquhart: Renewing the UN System, 1994
13 Dagens Nyheter, 19 January 2003
14 John Pilger: Hidden Agenda, 1999
16 Washington Post, 3 March 1991
17 J. Chediac: The Massacre of Withdrawing Soldiers on ‘The Highway of Death’, 1992
18 John Pilger: Hidden Agenda, 1999
19 Seymour Hersh: Annals of War: Overwhelming Force, published in The New Yorker, 22
20 John Pilger: Hidden Agenda, 1999
21 Dagens Nyheter, 3 March 2001
22 William Blum: Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II (2000)
23 Sarah Zaidi and Mary C. Smith-Fawzi, Health of Bagdad’s Children, The Lancet 346, no.
8988 (2 December 1995): p. 1485; See also the editorial in the same issue, Health Effects of Sanctions on Iraq, p. 1439.
25 The peshmergas were guerrilla fighters.
26 The Iraqi Kurdistan Front (IKF) was an alliance of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan
(DPK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and a number of smaller parties. The DPK is the oldest guerrilla group in Kurdistan, dating back to the 1920s. Its leader Massoud Barzini inherited the position from his father, Mustafa Barzani. Clan loyalty still plays an important role in Kurdistan, especially in rural areas, where the DPK are active. The PUK is a breakaway group from the DPK but is also a clan-based party.
27 This sentence shows the political confusion of the authors. There is in fact no
contradiction between fighting for ‘bourgeois democracy’ – the right to vote, freedom of speech and assembly, and so on – and revolutionary socialism. However, there is a contradiction between fighting to put the bourgeoisie into power and letting the workers and peasants themselves run society.
28 The Marxist-Leninists comprised the remnants of the Maoist movement of the 1970s.
In other words, they were supporters of the Stalinist regime in China.
29 Magnus Hörnquist, Torfi Magnusson and Rikard Warlenius: Kurdistan, 1994. The authors
went to Iraq on a study trip sponsored by the Swedish Governments Agency for development projects in the Third World, SIDA.
30William Rivers Pitt: War on Iraq, 2002
Whatever has overstepped its due bounds is always in a state of instability.1
Seneca the Younger, Roman philosopher, 1st Century AD
The era of the Cold War and the wars of national liberation came to an end in 1989 when the Berlin Wall collapsed.
The new world situation did not mean the end of war. The entire world
entered a new epoch, one of spiralling instability – economic,
political, social, diplomatic and military. And the number of casualties
increased. However, wars in the new situation had characteristics that
were different from those of the 1950’s to the 1980’s. In the following
chapters we look at the three types of wars that developed in the
1. The first set of wars was caused directly by the collapse of the
Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Defence spending in Russia
fell by 95% up to 1998.2 The American ruling elite was intoxicated by
the power that had come their way and by the opportunities this opened
up. Having acquired military superiority, they attempted to redraw the
political map by attacking regimes they wished to eliminate – in Iraq,
Serbia, and Afghanistan. At the same time, wars broke out in the former
Soviet Union – in Moldavia, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Chechnya.
2. Global economic problems and the removal of the Soviet ‘threat’
meant tougher competition between the big capitalist powers. This led to
France and the US supplying arms to different sides in wars in Africa –
in Rwanda, Congo-Kinshasa, Congo-Brazzaville, and Sudan. It also led to
war in Europe for the first time since the Second World War – in
3. The crisis of the developed countries economies caused the
economies of many of the developing countries to go into free fall at
the same time as Soviet oriented movements disintegrated at the same
pace as the Soviet Union. Africa suffered the most. In the wake of
growing poverty, civil wars broke out. These wars began to turn the
clock back. In many parts of Africa something approaching barbarism
began to spread.
The Iraq war begun in 2003 includes elements of all these wars.
To understand these types of wars, it is necessary to understand how
and why the new world situation developed. The end of the post-war boom
in the mid-seventies prepared the ground. The end of Stalinism in
Eastern Europe decisively pushed the world into instability.
1974/75 saw the deepest downturn in the world economy since the end
of the Second World War. Since then, economic development has been
increasingly unstable. The recessions that developed in the early 1980s,
the early 1990s, and at the beginning of the new century, were all
deeper than those that occurred during the post-war upswing. All
eighteen major financial crises since the Second World War have
occurred after 1974.
Although the economy boomed for periods both in the 1980s and the
1990s, recovery was not as complete as before. Class divisions continued
to widen and, in most countries, there were cutbacks or stagnation in
many areas: the public sector, terms of employment, job availability,
pay, and working environment. Workplace stress increased greatly.
Between 1947 and 1973, productivity (production output per hour
worked) in the OECD countries increased at an average annual rate of 3%.
Growth in productivity means that there is more for all to share.
Between 1974 and 1991, the increase was only 1% a year.
Productivity rose again to an average annual rate of 1.3% between
1992 and 1998, mainly as a result of an intensification of work. The
rate then leaped ahead for a few years, which led to hopes that
investment in computers and IT would end the economic problems that had
started in the mid-1970s. But these predictions proved over-optimistic.
As early as 1989, Robert Solow, winner of a Nobel Prize for economics,
pointed out: “You can see computers everywhere but in the productivity
statistics”.3 This is a crucial point.
Industrial production in the West was computerized in the 1970s, and
offices in the 1980s. During the 1990s, people’s homes filled up with
computers. Homes, however, are hardly likely to generate much of an
increase in productivity. The Internet, which developed rapidly in the
late 1990s, may well have a more lasting effect on productivity. It
makes the distribution of goods more efficient and makes it easier for
companies to purchase what they want. But this process will take time
and it will never be enough to bring about any great change in Western
If the rise in productivity in the late 1990s was not caused by the more widespread use of computers, what did cause it? The answer is that it was due to a higher rate of computer production.
When the breakthrough came for personal computers, production was moved
out of garage workshops, and into hyper-modern factories that cost
billions to build. This meant that production became far more rational –
so efficient that the average productivity rate soared, despite the
fact that the rest of the economy was performing poorly. The American
economist Robert Gordon spelled it out: “The productivity performance of
the manufacturing sector of the United States economy since 1995 has
been abysmal rather than admirable. Not only has productivity growth in
non-durable manufacturing decelerated in 1995-99 compared to 1972-95,
but productivity growth in durable manufacturing stripped of computers
has decelerated even more.” 4
The development of productivity is heavily dependant on investments.
Investment in new machinery, better buildings and distribution systems,
enable goods to be produced more cheaply and efficiently.
The big difference between economic activity during the upswing after
the Second World War and the situation in later years lay in a decline
in investments. In the EU zone, the investment rate fell from an
average of about 25% of the GDP in the 1950s and 1960s, to about 20% in
the 1980s and 1990s. In Japan, it fell from around 35% to 30%, and in
the US from 20% to 18%.5
What are the reasons for the low rate of investment since the 1970s
compared to the previous period? To understand this, it is first
necessary to give an outline of how a business cycle works.
The cycle begins with some capitalists investing in new machinery.
This allows them to produce the same or better goods cheaper. They do
this in order to stay ahead of the competition and earn bigger profits
than their rivals. Employers who make machines will have to employ more
people. The new people employed will get higher wages than when they
were unemployed. Thus demand for consumer goods rises and employers in
the consumer goods industries will employ more people as well. This
leads to greater demand, and further investment.
A spiral of growth, a boom, has begun.
However, this cannot go on for ever. The first companies to invest in
new machinery make a larger profit than those that come after.
Everybody has to follow suit, if they are not going to fall hopelessly
behind. When everyone is standing there with large, expensive new
machines that churn out any number of goods, all find it harder to sell
their goods – at a profit. A crisis of over-overproduction develops.
According to Marx, the reason for this is that too much money has been
invested in new equipment in relation to the size of the workforce. 6
This leads to what he calls the tendency of the profit rate to fall.7
Once profits have fallen to the extent that the least profitable
companies no longer have resources to invest, unemployment increases.
People buy less and investments dry up.
A downward spiral, a recession, begins.
However, just like when things go up, when they go down they don’t go
down for ever. When enough investments have been destroyed to restore
the balance between machines and employees, profits will be restored.
The machines are seldom destroyed physically. Normally, it is their
value that is destroyed. This happens, for instance, when machinery is
auctioned off for a fraction of its original price after a bankruptcy.
The companies that have not gone bankrupt are strengthened by the
disappearance of others. Profits rise and the ground is prepared for
The key question is this: At what level of investment have profits
fallen enough for the economy to turn downwards? Why was it at around
27% of GDP in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s but at 22% in the 1970s and
Economic development can be thought of as a combustion engine, where
investment is the petrol. The more petrol you inject, the faster the
engine goes – but only up to a certain point, after which the engine
chokes unless you add more air. It is the growth in world trade that
provides the capitalist engine with air.
After the Second World War, the rapid growth in world trade that
resulted from the economic dominance of the US led to an unprecedented
economic upswing. As world trade expanded, the benefits of
specialization and large-scale production made sure that the value of
machines (and wages) could be reduced even during the boom. This kept
profits high, even at high levels of investment. Slumps mainly expressed
themselves as a fall in the rate of growth, not as contraction of the
Since the early seventies, investment levels have declined for three main reasons.
1. Trade conflicts
Despite all the talk about globalization, trade barriers made it
increasingly difficult for world trade to develop. In time, Germany and
Japan rose and began to challenge the US in the economic arena. The
world was divided up into three big trade blocs, each of them led by a
powerful imperialist state. Tension between the blocs was great. In
1999, it caused the collapse of the trade talks organized by the World
Trade Organization (WTO) in Seattle. Nor were later trade talks
In North America, the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement)
zone, including Canada in the north and Mexico in the south, was formed.
It was dominated by the US. The US also viewed the whole of South
America as its backyard and tried to negotiate a pan-American trade bloc
that would embrace the whole continent.
In Europe, through the European Union, the EU, the European capitalists tried to unite against their competitors. 8
Thirdly, Japan sought to extend its role internationally.
While countries within the various blocs have integrated to some
extent since the 1970s, the growth in world trade has slowed
considerably despite all the talk of globalization.
Although it got nowhere near the level of the 1950s and 1960s, world
trade picked up a bit in the 1990s. This was due to more trade within
the trading blocks. However, the effect on the growth of production was
less than previously. The existence of trading blocks has increased the
incentive to move factories in search for cheaper labor and bigger
subsidies. This appears in the statistics as a growth of world trade,
but it does not actually increase the amount of production. During the
recession in 2002-2003 world trade actually fell. The following graph
(Average annual percentage change in volume terms).
Relatively unobserved, a qualitative change occurred in trade
disputes during the 1990s. Previously, the combatants engaged mostly in a
war of words. Now, they began using more painful methods to out-compete
one another. To start with, they used non-tariff barriers (import
regulations, technical requirements, legal complexities, etc) as “a
strategy for impeding world trade”, to quote the Office of the US Trade
Representatives.9 This led to different systems for DVDs and mobile
phones in the US and Europe, for instance, and different environmental
Trade sanctions were also imposed more frequently. As a result of the
EU’s insistence on limiting the import of ‘dollar bananas’, in favour
primarily of bananas from the former French colonies, the US imposed
trade sanctions on a whole series of European products. These included
Swedish ginger snaps and sewing machines from the Swedish company
Husqvarna. Subsequently, trade sanctions were imposed as a result of the
EU refusal to import American meat treated with hormones. Disputes
between the US and Japan over the sale of spare vehicle-parts, and
between the US and Canada over timber, also resulted in trade sanctions.
The steel trade was hit. Even the collective agreement governing the
Swedish cinema industry was affected by this trade war. The 2004
agreement was delayed as a result of American objections that Swedish
public funding created unfair competition for Hollywood. Which is
absurd, as without public funding there would be no films made at all in
Swedish, and Swedish films hardly compete with American films outside
The EU countries were also feuding with one another. Germany with
France. The poorer EU countries with the wealthier. And Britain with
everyone else. But they agreed on one thing: Keep out the US and Japan! Increasingly,
this became the glue that bound them together. The EU, accordingly, did
not back down on the banana issue, despite the fact that the
restrictions clearly infringed the WTO regulations they themselves
helped to draw up.
2. Speculation and debt
The instability caused by the decrease in world trade was compounded
by the reappearance of massive speculation. Although a normal part of
life under capitalism, speculation had played relative insignificant
role during the post-war upswing. Then, high profits could be earned by
making investments in production. As world trade declined, it became
more profitable to use money for speculation. In 2000, the American
Stock Exchange was estimated to be worth 150% of the country’s GDP,
which was almost twice as much as in 1929 (the year of the Wall Street
Crash). Stock values increasingly lost touch with the actual value of
the companies concerned, especially in the IT sector.
Money invested in the stock exchange is not translated into
investment in actual production.10 Stock-market money is part of a giant
pyramid game. There is also a huge trade in derivates, bonds, art and
not least – currencies. Before 1973, the US dollar was the world
currency. Most other currencies were pegged to the dollar, and the
dollar was tied to gold. This ensured financial stability. In those
days, 90% of all international monetary transactions were payments for
goods and services. Twenty years later, such payments accounted for
only 10%. The rest was speculation.11
Debt has the same effect as speculation. In the US, private sector
debt was, by 2001, at its highest level since the Second World War – 68 %
of GDP.12 In many other industrialized countries, the debt rate was
even higher. State debt also reached record levels.
3. Cuts and lower living standards
Spurred by increased competition on the world market, capitalists
tried to compensate themselves by attacking workers’ pay and working
conditions, and the public sector, even during a boom. As living
standards declined, the market for many of the capitalists’ products,
and consequently investments, also declined. The capitalists were sawing
off the branch they themselves sat on.
Thus, the barriers to capitalist development – national boundaries
and private ownership of the major companies – that were partially
overcome during the post-war upswing, grew and become more difficult to
surmount. A capitalist world economy dominated by the US became a thing
of the past (although the USA’s military dominance was larger than
ever). State intervention in the economy and the welfare state eroded.
The system had greater difficulty in recovering from each crisis.
The fall of Stalinism
The other crucial reason for the rising instability in the world was
the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Eastern bloc.
The collapse was preceded by growing economic problems, but the problems
were of a very different kind from those that imperialism has to
In the Soviet Union, capitalism and the rule of the landlords were
abolished, but power was not in the hands of the workers. There was a
peculiar combination of economic planning and ruthless dictatorship.
Despite the dictatorship, considerable progress was made in a number of
fields. In 1917, Russia had been a backward, semi-feudal country with a
largely illiterate population. The Soviet Union, however, grew into a
modern developed economy with a quarter of the world’s scientists, with
health and educational systems that could compete with anything the
West could offer, and with the capacity to put the first satellite in
orbit and the first man in space. By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union
was a powerful industrial nation that in terms of output had overtaken
the rest of the world in a number of key sectors, such as oil, steel and
cement. All this was achieved without unemployment or inflation. Prior
to perestroika (Gorbachov’s reform programme), which was
launched in the late 1980s, the price of dairy products and meat had not
risen since 1962. The price of bread, sugar and most food products had
not gone up since 1955. And rents were extremely low.13
After 1965, growth begun to slow. At the end of the Brezhnev era
(Brezhnev died in 1982), the Soviet economy was completely stagnant. In
1936, Leon Trotsky wrote: “It is possible to build gigantic factories
according to a ready-made Western pattern by bureaucratic
command—although, to be sure, at triple the normal cost. But the farther
you go, the more the economy runs into the problem of quality, which
slips out of the hands of a bureaucracy like a shadow. The Soviet
products are as though branded with the grey label of indifference.
Under a nationalized economy, quality demands a democracy of
producers and consumers, freedom of criticism and initiative —conditions
incompatible with a totalitarian regime of fear, lies and flattery.”14
During the Stalinist era, the bureaucrats had only been required to
take simple decisions, like “more steel industry” or “more agriculture”.
But when the volume of goods approached the million mark, this small
elite of bureaucrats could no longer manage the economy. As there were
no broad-based democratic controls to guide them in their work and no
profit-hungry market to provide brutal, short-term solutions, the
problems piled up. Moreover, the whole system was thoroughly corrupt,
which is inevitable in a totalitarian state. Stagnation was unavoidable.
As the economy stagnated, dissatisfaction with the system grew. Many
people could accept oppression as long as there was a steady improvement
in their living standards, but once this was not forthcoming,
oppression became intolerable. In many Eastern European states, the
general discontent erupted in mass demonstrations. Among the slogans
heard from the crowds on the streets of Berlin in 1989 was: “It’s we who
are the people!”
The bureaucrats in power were not happy with the situation either. In
part this was because they were feeling the pressure from below, but an
economy that did not grow at all also meant bad times for many in the
bureaucracy. They began to look for a way out of the crisis. This was
during the late 1980s, a period when the fragile boom that had been
gathering momentum during the decade reached its peak. Western media
proclaimed that all crises were over, and that the economy had entered a
new period of long-term growth. Imperialism had already enmeshed many
of the Eastern European countries by giving them large loans. When the
economic crisis became deeper in Eastern Europe they pushed harder. The
resistance of the bureaucracy crumbled. Many also hoped that if they
became capitalists they would do well for themselves.
The Berlin Wall opens, a new world order is proclaimed
On the night of 9 November 1989, the gates in the Berlin Wall were
opened. When the astonished Berliners finally realised that the passage
between East and West was truly permitted, wild scenes of rejoicing
broke out. Young people climbed up on to the hated monument that had
divided the city since 1961 and began hacking off pieces of concrete
with hammers and chisels. Others played music and danced on top of the
Wall. People threw themselves into one another’s arms, laughing and
crying, at the place, where in previous years, fleeing East Germans had
been caught by the bullets of the border guards. Many people have
testified to the sense of release and joy they felt during the
spontaneous festivities that would grip Berlin for days.
Those who celebrated in Berlin were witness to a turning point in
history. It was not just a wall that fell in 1989 – the entire Eastern
bloc of Communist countries, which had been ruled by dictators since the
Second World War, had begun to disintegrate. Two years later, the
Soviet Union was no more.
“We won!” trumpeted an editorial in the Wall Street Journal,
arguing that the capitalist system had finally defeated all form of
socialist experiment. The Cold War era and the balance of terror were a
thing of the past. American political economist Francis Fukuyama went so
far as to assert that it was not just the end of the Cold War but “the
end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological
evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the
final form of human government.15
George Bush the elder, who was US president at the time, promised a
future of peace and growing prosperity throughout the world. He called
it the New World Order. A new world order did develop. But it was
nothing like what Bush had promised.
By the end of the 1990’s the 200 richest people in the world owned as
much as the two billion poorest.16 Statistics from the UN’s Human Development Report 2002 claim
that this was not due to a redistribution from the poor to the rich,
but because things got better for everybody, just more so for the rich.
The report says that the proportion of the global population living in
extreme poverty declined from 29% in 1990 to 23% in 1999. However, the
improvement recorded during the decade was almost entirely due to growth
in a handful of East Asian countries. By far the largest among them was
China, whose economy was to a great extent state-controlled. In China
alone, the number of people living under the poverty line declined by
147 million between 1990 and 1998.17 (Over the same period, however, the
gap between rich and poor in China widened.) Other countries with
growth economies included Mongolia and Vietnam that also had mainly
In the African countries south of the Sahara, the number below the poverty line increased in
the 1990s from 242 million to 300 million. In Latin America, too, the
number of extremely poor people increased in the 1990s, as it did in
Central Asia, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The UN’s Human Development Report for
2003 warned that the socio-economic situation worsened in 21 countries
during the decade. UN studies showed that in the 1980s only four
countries had experienced such lengthy declines.
Furthermore, at the end of the 1990s, the World Bank moved the
international poverty line by a few hundredths. In the case of the
Middle East and North Africa, this change in how statistics were
compiled halved the number of people living in extreme poverty from 4 to
2%. In Latin America, the number was reduced from 24 to 15%.18
Rearmament costs and new wars
1989 was followed by several years of military disarmament around the
world. Costs fell globally by about a third, up to 1998.19 This was
mainly due to the collapse of Russia’s planned economy. But by 1996, the
US had already begun to increase its defence spending, and after 1998
the overall global curve turned upwards. Since then, rearmament costs
have risen every year. The US, which even before 11 September 2001
accounted for 36% of the world’s defence spending, increased its lead
further. In 2003, it accounted for 43% of all arms purchasing around
During the decade, the total number of people killed in wars between states fell
by two thirds, to 220 000, compared with the 1980s. (In the 1980s, it
was the war between Iraq and Iran that claimed most lives.) But the
number of deaths in civil wars increased to 3.6 million. Half of all civilians killed in war were children.21
The wars listed below involve major conflicts that began in the
1990s. Wars that ended before 1994 are not included, and nor are deaths
indirectly caused by war, through starvation, disease and the like. Even
if the figures may not be totally accurate, they give an idea of the
Azerbaijan (22 000 dead), Kashmir (26 000 dead), Sierra Leone (43 000
dead), Chechnya (47 000 dead), Eritrea (50 000 dead), Tajikistan (51
000 dead), Sudan (54 000 dead), Algeria (87 000 dead),
Bosnia-Herzegovina (90 000 dead), Afghanistan (90 000 dead),
Congo-Kinshasa (109 000 dead), Liberia (150 000 dead), Burundi (212 000
dead), Somalia (359 000 dead), Rwanda (815 000 dead). 22
The New World Order brought a downward spiral of disintegration,
chaos and violence, each war serving as a catalyst to further decline.
2 Swedish Peace and Arbitration Association (18 December 2003).
4 The Economist, 22 July 1999
5 Swedish economic report: LO-ekonomerna: Ekonomiska utsikter, 1997
6 Marx uses the more precise expressions ‘constant capital’ for machines, factories and raw
materials, ‘variable capital’ for the employees, and ‘organic composition of capital’ for the relationship between the two.
7 The profit rate is the relationship between, on the one hand, expenditure on labour, raw
materials and machinery, and, on the other, profit. Adam Smith, John
Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes also noted the tendency for the rate
of profit to fall.
(Average annual percentage change in volume terms)
9 Statement issued on 2 April, 2002
10 Doug Henwood: Wall St.,1998
11 Bror Perjus: Casino Jorden, 1998
12 Michael Roberts: Deflation and Depression, 2002
13 Ted Grant: Russia – from Revolution to Counter-Revolution, 1997
14 Leon Trotsky: The Revolution Betrayed, 1936
15 Frances Fukuyama: End of History?, 1989
16 UN Human Development Report, 1999
17 Mats Wingborg and Markus Larsson: Har världen blivit bättre? 2003 (www.forumsyd.se)
The figures are taken from the World Bank.
18 Sven Lindquist, Dagens Nyheter, 5 november, 2003
19 The data is taken from the 1999 Yearbook of the Stockholm International
Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
20 Dagens Nyheter, 18 June 2003, quoting the 2003 SIPRI Yearbook.
21 These figures have been taken from the UN’s Human Development Balance Sheet 2002 and
seem low when compared with other reports. The proportion of civilian
war victims increased dramatically during the century as a whole. At
the beginning of the 20th century, 10% of the war dead were civilians,
while at the beginning of the 1990 as many as 90 per cent of those
killed in war were non-combatants.
War and Resistance is a translation of the Swedish book Draksådd,
originally published in 2004. It analyzes the most important wars of
the past hundred years. It examines the role of UN, civil disobedience
and many other failed attempts to stop war. And as a contrast
explains why other forms of resistance to war have been successful.
”How did you arrive at that resolution on Sierra Leone?”
I’d asked an American diplomat on his way out of the UN building in Manhattan.
”You don’t want to know,” he replied.
”Resolutions are like hot dogs. If you knew how they were made, you
wouldn’t eat them. You just swallow. You don’t ask any questions.”
Linda Polman in the book We Did Nothing –
Why the truth doesn´t always come out when the UN goes in
East Timor1 was a Portuguese colony. When Portugal’s fascist dictator
António de Oliviera Salazar was overthrown in a revolution in April
1974, the people of East Timor saw their chance for independence. In
November 1975, Fretilin, the leading resistance movement under
Portuguese colonialism, declared East Timor an independent state. But
imperialist powers were afraid that East Timor might develop into an
Asian Cuba. Moreover, there were rich deposits of natural gas and oil
in the waters around East Timor that they wanted to get their hands on.
The United Nations played an absolutely shameful role in helping them
achieve this end.
The 1975 massacre – no sanctions
Within weeks of East Timor being declared independent, the Indonesian
military invaded East Timor with the backing of the American and
Australian governments. The invasion was launched on the day after US
President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger left
Indonesia, where they had met General Suharto. “We [the US] sent the
Indonesian generals everything that you need to fight a major war
against somebody who doesn’t have any guns. We sent them rifles,
ammunition, mortars, grenades, food, helicopters. You name it; they got
it. And they got it direct.”2
Previously confidential documents from the Department of Foreign
Affairs shows that Australia was aware of Indonesian plans to invade
East Timor more than a year before the military acted in 1975. Documents
from 1974-76 show that Australia’s former premier Gough Whitlam
(Labour!) strongly advocated incorporating East Timor into Indonesia.3
The Indonesian army instigated a bloodbath that was scarcely reported
in the Western press. One Timorese in ten – 60 000 people – were
murdered in a matter of weeks. In 1989, Amnesty International estimated
that since the invasion, the Indonesian military had killed about 200
000 of East Timor’s population of 600-700 000. Other reports spoke of
Five days after the invasion, the UN denounced it as a typical
example of an international act of aggression. The US abstained from
voting. No sanctions were imposed and no other action was taken. Time
and again, representatives of the East Timorese people appealed to the
UN. In 1989, Bishop Belo (the Catholic bishop of East Timor) wrote to
the UN Secretary General at the time, Pérez de Cuéllar, begging for
help from the outside world. The response came five years later,
from the new Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He wrote: “The
United Nations is determined to do everything in its power to achieve a
final, just, comprehensive and internationally acceptable solution”.5
Countries such as the US, Australia and Britain continued to supply
the Indonesian regime with money, investments and arms up until 1998.
The Australian government reached an agreement with Jakarta to exploit
the rich reserves of natural gas and oil in the Timor Gap. Oil
prospecting contracts were signed with oil companies from Australia,
Britain, Japan, the Netherlands and North America.6
Swedish companies, too, have benefited from the oppression, with the
approval of the ‘neutral’ Swedish government. After 1995, sales of
Swedish arms and ammunition to Jakarta increased, with exports
totalling more than SEK 64 million (about € 6.4 million) in 1996. Paul
Beijer (head of the division for strategic export control at the Swedish
Ministry for Foreign Affairs) said that there was “little risk” of the
arms exported from Sweden being used to violate people’s human rights.
Jens Petersson, Secretary General of the Swedish Peace and Arbitration
Association , notes that prior to independence Swedish anti-aircraft
guns were used to attack the East Timorese guerrilla army.7
Terror and the 1999 referendum
In May 1998, Indonesian dictator General Suharto was overthrown by
militant students, workers and peasants. The tyranny in East Timor had
frequently been a focus of attention for the Indonesian mass movement
that was fighting the government. Activists from the Timorese liberation
movement took part in mass meetings in Indonesia, and freedom for East
Timor was one of the demands of the Indonesian student movement.
Suharto’s first successor was Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, a close ally
of the ousted dictator and a man of like mind. In January 1999, in an
attempt both to appease the masses and to give his regime a more
democratic image in the eyes of the world, he offered to hold a
referendum in East Timor. The voters were to choose between independence
and Timorese autonomy within Indonesia’s national borders. Habibie was
also affected by a change of stance among the leaders of the Timorese
liberation movement. Fretilin leader Xanana Gusmão and others had moved
to the right and abandoned their Marxist rhetoric in favour of support
for a market economy. Habibie doubtless reasoned that a free, capitalist
East Timor was far less threatening than a socialist one. The ruling
class in Indonesia was apparently not unanimous in its support for this
step. Powerful elements in the military were critical of the referendum.
A free East Timor would not only mean that Indonesia risked losing
access to Timorese natural resources. There was also a danger it might
serve as inspiration to the liberation struggle of oppressed people in
parts of Indonesia, such as West Papua and Aceh. The divergence of views
among the ruling class was not a reflection of any sudden sympathy for
the East Timorese cause, but simply of disagreement on how best to
maintain exploitation there.
When Habibie announced the referendum, the Indonesian military
immediately began building up, training and arming paramilitary gangs
(militias) in East Timor. These gangs had been in existence for some
time, but were now extensively reinforced and given a vital role to
play. In May 1999, Indonesia, Portugal and the UN signed an agreement
scheduling a referendum for August 1999. The vote was to be organized
under UN auspices, but controlled by the Indonesian military.8
This was the signal for the second massacre of the East Timorese
people. The gangs sought to terrorize them into voting for autonomy and
against independence. Defenseless, unarmed people were raped, beaten and
murdered by the gangs, under Indonesian army control. During this
time, UN observers were in place but did nothing to intervene. They just
observed. The referendum was postponed many times by the UN, and the
gangs continued to terrorize the population.
All the UN managed to do was to lull the East Timorese into a false
sense of security, by giving them the impression that they were under
the protection of the ‘international community’.
As part of the May Agreement, the liberation movement was to lay down
its arms. The leaders of the independence movement trusted the UN,
chose the path of non-violence and disarmed their supporters. This
mistake was costly for the people of East Timor. In the absence of armed
and organized resistance, the gangs were free to do as they pleased.
Xanana Gusmão, head of the National Council for Timorese Resistance,
CNRT, an umbrella body for pro-independence groups such as Fretilin, the
right-wing UDP and a number of smaller organizations, used his position
to urge the people not to make any move to defend themselves against
the brutal attacks of the gangs and the Indonesian army.
When young Timorese activists wanted to mobilize the people in
massive demonstrations against the gangs’ attacks, Gusmão rejected the
idea. In a CNRT statement in May 1999, he declared that such a move
would “only give the militia further reason to continue murdering the
people” and called on everyone to “follow the UN line” in preparing for
The vote was eventually held at the end of August 1999. The people of
the region displayed tremendous courage and a clear determination to
fight for their freedom. Despite the threats and violence of the gangs,
nearly everyone took part, and the result was clear and unequivocal.
Almost 80% voted for total independence.
Directly after the result became known, the pro-Indonesian
paramilitaries exacted terrible retribution. The military and the
Indonesian elite wanted to show the Timorese, and the other oppressed
peoples of Indonesia, that the price of independence was a heavy one.
People were raped, maimed and murdered indiscriminately. Some 200 000
were driven from their homes, and almost all the buildings in the
capital of Dili were looted and razed to the ground. Schools, hospitals
and other infrastructures were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of
people were forced to flee to Indonesian West Timor.
During this horrific wave of terror, the UN appealed to the
Indonesian army to pull back the gangs and protect the people of East
Timor. The UN did so despite the fact that the Indonesian military had
for years been oppressing and murdering the East Timorese and that it
was they who were ultimately responsible for the paramilitary gang’s
Xanana Gusmão and the other pro-independence leaders continued to
place their trust in the UN. They appealed to the UN to intervene to
stop the killings, though for 25 years the UN had been indifferent to
the suffering of the East Timorese people. Gusmão also advised the
Falintil guerrilla forces not to hit back at the gangs. In the beginning
of September 1999, five days after the referendum, a CNRT statement
urged the people “not to do anything that could be interpreted as
starting a civil war”.10 In point of fact, a bloody, one-sided civil war
was already under way in villages and towns throughout East Timor.
3 000 guerrillas of the Falintil movement, who had been fighting the
Indonesian army in the jungle for 24 years, were standing passively by
while the paramilitaries were murdering unarmed and defenceless
civilians just a few hours’ journey from their base. In full accordance
with the May Agreement, José Ramos Horta, another of the independence
movement’s leaders, praised the “incredible discipline” of these
soldiers He added that they had acted “on direct orders from Xanana
It would have been perfectly possible to set up armed self-defence
groups based on elected neighbourhood, village and town committees of
workers, peasants and young people. Such groups would have been able to
organise the majority of the East Timorese people and confront the
gangs. Young Timorese in fact made moves in this direction during the
final weeks of the terror, but were strongly advised to hold back by the
leaders of the freedom movement.
Australian workers expressed their solidarity by organizing strikes
and boycotts directed against Indonesia. Telecommunications and dock
workers organized economic sanctions. All postal deliveries to
Indonesian companies and diplomatic bodies were stopped. No repairs of
telephone lines to Indonesia were undertaken. At a number of airports,
construction workers initiated a blockade against flights from Australia
by Garuda, the Indonesian airline. Mass demonstrations drew tens of
thousands of students and workers from all over the continent. 40 000
took part in Melbourne and 20 000 in Sydney.12
Protests also broke out in other countries, such as Portugal, Canada
and the US. On the American West Coast, dock workers refused to handle
Indonesian cargoes. In Canada, postal workers set an example by
stopping all deliveries in any way connected with Indonesian interests.
“We have not the slightest doubt that the Indonesian government can
start and stop the violence whenever it likes,” declared the head of
the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, Dale Clark. “Our action, like the
actions of other trade unions, is intended to pressure them into
stopping the violence.” The Canadian Labour Congress refused to handle
goods and services to or from Indonesia. Had the whole international
Labour Movement mobilized, the Indonesian regime would have been
UN administrators take over
Western governments came under pressure, but were not prepared to do
anything that might damage their relations with Indonesia. Instead, they
waited until the Jakarta regime had achieved its aims, i.e. had lain
waste East Timor as a warning to other peoples in Indonesia.
In September 1999, eight days after the Indonesian government had
agreed to let UN troops into East Timor, the first units of the UN’s
force arrived on the island. This force was mainly comprised of
Australian soldiers. The Australian government was anxious to have a
say in the new country’s future.
In October 1999, the Indonesian parliament formally approved the
referendum outcome. But it took another two years, until August 2001,
for a constituent assembly to be elected. In the meantime, the UN ruled
the country via a transitional administration, the UNTAET, and with the
aid of peacekeeping forces and special UN police. Backed by both Gusmão
and Horta, UN administrator Sergio Vieiera de Mello13 was invested with
powers similar to those of a colonial master. He was authorised to
appoint ministries comprising UN officials and hand-picked East
The UN administrators were not keen to hand over community planning
and organization to the grassroots bodies of the independence movement,
assembled in the CNRT. After the Indonesian troops left the island in
September 1999, these organisations had taken over responsibility for
local government, the police and the judiciary, and had organised the
distribution of emergency food supplies. An internal UNTAET report,
leaked to the press, showed that the UN’s strategy took power out of the
hands of ordinary East Timorese and their organizations. Instead, new
structures were erected, led by foreigners.
“CNRT involvement in the distribution of
humanitarian assistance has been extremely important due to the fact
that the NGOs have been incapable of organiszing food distribution …CNRT
have the strong support and trust of the majority of the population,
and are highly coordinated and efficient in their management of
programmes”. 14 Nonetheless, the report recommended that CNRT
involvement be reduced because “their direct involvement creates
pressure from the population”. Another report recommends that the UNTAET
take over the CNRT’s role as “it is essential that … UNTAET is seen to
be the administrative authority”.
These reports are in sharp contrast to the claims of the UN
administrators that they were in East Timor to help the inhabitants
develop basic skills in how to run a country. The East Timorese
activists already possessed these skills. What the UN in fact did was to
select, train and build up a more trustworthy corps of officials,
technicians, police, military and diplomatic staff: a corps that could
be counted on to show loyalty to the capitalist system.
Another sign that the UN was in practice creating a colonial-style
administration was its decision to make Portuguese the official
language of the new country – despite the fact that only 8% of the
population spoke it. Portuguese was the language of the new oligarchy
and the East Timorese elite, while the overwhelming bulk of the
population spoke Tetum. Moreover, the UNTAET decided that the American
dollar was to be the national currency – a choice that showed the true
nature of Timorese ‘independence’. A year after independence, workers,
peasants and the poor were still using the Indonesian rupee, which
naturally was not accepted in the country’s new restaurants, bars and
A hollow independence
East Timor became a divided country. While UN personnel, business
people (mainly Australians) and the Timorese elite lived in luxury, the
great majority of peasants and workers had to eke out a living in
extreme poverty. The presence of the 10 000 well-paid ‘peacekeepers’ and
other UN staff, most of them earning around USD 50 000 a year, changed
the face of the capital, Dili. Just a few months after the Indonesian
military, police and gangs had totally destroyed and burnt down the
city, new luxury hotels, bars, restaurants and other facilities were
being built for the rich. Expensive cars plied the streets of the city.
East Timor was described in the Australian media as a future tourist
and tax haven. A journalist gave a lyrical account of the picturesque
attractions that people with money could enjoy in East Timor, and
offered the following tip: “Do as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan did on
his recent visit – enjoy good food and wine served in the ruins of a
After all these events, ordinary Timorese lived in extreme poverty.
In 2002 many could not fill their stomachs. Over 40% lived below the
poverty level of 0.55 dollars (55 cents) a day, and over half of the
population were illiterate.17 Most Timorese in Dili lived in shacks or
the ruins of houses without roofs. No health service worthy of the name
was available to ordinary citizens. More than twice as many women died
giving birth in East Timor as in the rest of South-East Asia. The
country’s only significant export product was coffee, but falling prices
in the global market led to a sharp fall in GDP growth in 2002.
The difficult conditions under which ordinary workers had to live in
East Timor, and the huge wage gap between them and the Timorese employed
by the UN, led to worker protests and even instances of open rebellion
against discrimination and miserable living standards. As the economy
had been destroyed by the rampaging gangs, the main employers were the
UN administrative machine, foreign charity organizations and a limited
number of foreign companies. When almost a thousand job-seekers gathered
in March 2000 to demand information about their job applications from
the UN administrators, they were met by UN forces armed with riot
shields, batons and tear gas.
In August 2001, a constituent assembly was elected in East Timor. The
Fretilin Party won a majority of the votes. Mari Alkatari was appointed
prime minister and Xanana Gusmão president. When Independence Day was
celebrated on 20 May 2002, the poverty of the new state and the hollow
nature of its sovereignty became plain to all. The festivities were
entirely financed by sponsors, whose names and logos were carried on TV
and radio, on banners and even on a memorial to the ‘Heroes of the
Resistance’ that was to be erected in a planned park.18 The biggest
sponsors, of course, were the oil and gas companies looking forward to
reaping huge profits from the reserves in Timorese waters. Meanwhile,
the Australian and Timorese governments were arguing about where to draw
the line between their respective territorial waters.
On Independence Day, 2002, the UN mandate expired. But the UNTAET was
promptly supplanted by a new UN body, UNMISET. This was later replaced
by UNOTIL, whose mandate ended in 2006. However,”a series of events
culminating in a political, humanitarian and security crisis of major
dimensions led the [Security] Council to prolong UNOTIL’s mandate and
ultimately in August 2006 to establish a new mission – UNMIT.”19
All in all, the role of the UN in East Timor is a complete failure.
Many, not only in East Timor, have had high hopes that the UN can be an
instrument for peace. However, the UN’s entire history and organization
show that the UN cannot fulfil these hopes, and that what happened in
East Timor was no accident.
The UN structure
Prior to the end of the Second World War, representatives of the
three strongest Allies – Winston Churchill (Britain), Franklin D.
Roosevelt (US), and Josef Stalin (Soviet Union) – met at Yalta in the
Crimea to divide the world into spheres of interest. During the
conference, the basic framework for a future international peace
organization was drawn up. The United Nations Charter begins by
declaring that the organization was founded by the victors in the Second
World War in order to “save future generations from the scourge of
war”. It goes on to affirm the goal of social and economic development
for all peoples. The UN’s Declaration of Human Rights came into being.
Most of the UN’s power is concentrated in the Security Council. The
Council is dominated by five countries with the right of veto.
Originally, those were Britain, the US, the Soviet Union, France and
Taiwan. Taiwan has since been replaced by China. Only the Security
Council may adopt decisions that are binding on the UN member states,
including coercive economic and military measures. Thus the vast
majority of member states are required to submit to actions that are not
of their own making.
The General Assembly, at which all the member states are represented,
is entitled to discuss all matters that come within the UN’s remit –
with one important restriction: When something is being discussed in the
Security Council, the General Assembly is not allowed to submit any
proposals concerning that particular issue unless requested to do so by
the Council. The US took advantage of this clause when a number of
states requested that the Vietnam War be raised. The Council was split
and unable to reach a decision, but as the war was on the Council
agenda, the General Assembly was not allowed to discuss it.20
The UN structure shows that at best the organization can be a forum
for the ventilation of views. But whether anything is actually done
about the issues discussed is entirely up to the big powers. If they
fail to agree, the UN is paralyzed and disregarded.
One step the UN can take, other than military intervention, is to
introduce sanctions. During the Cold War, the UN Security Council only
twice imposed sanctions on an individual country – Rhodesia in 1966 and
South Africa in 1977. In both cases, the aim was to forcibly bring
about the abolition of systematic racial discrimination. The sanctions
imposed on Rhodesia had no effect, as South Africa continued to supply
the regime with everything needed.
The sanctions against South Africa, on the other hand, are often
put forward as contributing to the collapse of apartheid in the early
1990s. While the sanctions may have aggravated the situation somewhat
for the country’s white leadership, the role played by the black workers
and the black youth community was decisive. They fought for years under
very difficult conditions to bring down the regime, and it was they
who ultimately brought about its downfall.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the UN Security
Council has imposed sanctions more often. But only in the case of Libya
did these have the desired effect. Libya was the first country to be
exposed to UN sanctions aimed at “combating international terrorism”.
After a seven-year embargo on weapons and air flights, Libya agreed in
1999 to hand over two persons suspected of the Lockerbie bombing in
1988. One of them was subsequently acquitted by a panel of three
Other UN sanctions said to target terrorism (Afghanistan, Cambodia,
Sudan), genocide (Rwanda) or others forms of indiscriminate violence
(Angola, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Liberia, Haiti) have had little or no
In the 1990s, Iraq was subjected to the most wide-ranging sanctions
that the UN has ever directed at an individual country. And this time
the sanctions had an impact – a disastrous one. Estimates show that 400
000 children below the age of five died.22 Saddam, meanwhile, remained
The UN Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Milosevic’s
regime on three separate occasions: the arms embargo of 1991-95, when
Yugoslavia was torn apart, economic sanctions at the time of the Bosnian
war of 1992-95, and finally another arms embargo in the early stages of
the Kosovo crisis. The economic sanctions were far-reaching. Under
Resolution 757, member states were not allowed to import goods or
products from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and
Montenegro). No products were allowed to pass the Yugoslav borders,
except for certain medicines and other goods approved by a UN committee.
This naturally caused suffering among the people of Yugoslavia, but the
sanctions had very little effect on the behaviour of the Belgrade
Dispatching UN forces to different parts of the world has had one
clearly perceptible effect: prostitution and violence against women
increased.23 In the Cambodian capital of Phnom Phen, for instance, the
number of prostitutes increased from 6 000 in 1992 to 20 000 the
following year, due to the presence of the UN peacekeeping force,
The demand for prostitutes was high among UN troops. Unemployed or
under-paid young women from Romania, Moldavia, Bulgaria and Belarus were
lured away by offers of well-paid jobs, or were quite simply kidnapped
and taken away by force. They were then sold from country to country,
illegally taken across borders in cars and boats and offered in markets
where they were undressed and sold like cattle. They ultimately ended
up in brothels in Bosnia and Kosovo, where they were kept confined as
debt slaves, forced to sell their bodies day and night. If they tried to
escape they risked their lives. There were up to ten brothels in every
major Bosnian town or city, concentrated around the bases of the 20
000-strong UN-mandated NATO-forces.24
Can the UN be reformed?
When confronted with the facts about how the UN works in practice,
many in the Labour Movement call for the organization to be reformed and
made more democratic. They believe that while the UN may be a tool of
imperialism at present, it could become an anti-imperialist force for a better, fairer world.
The Programme of Principles issued in 1999 by the Young Left in Sweden is a case in point:
“The UN could become an important
international organ for dialogue and conflict resolution. Today, the UN
is powerless as it is controlled by the US, which dictates how it is to
operate. If the UN is to become a proper instrument for a just world
order, the poor countries must be given a greater say and the UN must be
made more democratic. This means that the right of veto must be
abolished, along with the practice of having permanent members of the
Security Council. Such changes should be accompanied by an increase in
the UN’s powers and resources.”
But who actually ‘represents’ the poor countries in the UN? The
answer is, of course, the governments of the Third World – largely
dictatorships and quasi-dictatorships – the governments of countries
where the leaders live in luxury while the people starve. These leaders
are economically and militarily dependent on imperialism, and mainly sit
docilely on their laps. Some, like the prime minister of Malaysia,
occasionally make rhetorical gestures to appease their own people and
denounce the ravages of imperialism. Occasionally, too, some
unpredictable dictator like Saddam Hussein will act against the
interests of the big powers – but only to further his own ambitions, not
to alleviate poverty in his country.
Many of these countries also pursue local imperialist policies with
the approval of the big powers. Turkey, for instance, fights the Kurds,
and finances and supports rebels and warlords who murder and plunder in
northern Iraq. For the most part, such countries willingly allow the
imperialists to exploit their natural resources and workers under
appalling conditions. In the Sudan, the government attacks and murders
its own people so that the big corporations can plunder the country’s
oil reserves in peace. Military and paramilitary groups are despatched
in Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador to harass, jail and murder
organized workers. In India and Brazil, soldiers and riot police are
used against workers and poor peasants fighting for better conditions.
The leaders of many poor countries are not afraid of using nationalism,
racism or ethnic violence to divert attention from the causes of the
miserable conditions in which most people are forced to live.
The UN would not be more democratic if the governments of
Afghanistan, Iran and DR Congo were to be given a greater say, or if
more power were placed in the hands of the Indonesian, Pakistani,
Nigerian, and Algerian government. These governments are definitely not a
part of the solution but a part of the problem, and they must be
overthrown. But this is something the UN will not concern itself with.
Even in the hypothetical situation that the bulk of Third World
governments decide to pursue policies for peace in a democratized UN,
what would happen? The UN’s day-to-day activities, its officials and its
agencies are financed by powerful capitalist countries. Without the
money of the imperialist powers, the UN is nothing but a collection of
50 000 or so officials who would not even get paid. The UN would
When the UN was founded in 1945, the Security Council was introduced
because of the lessons learned from its predecessor – the League of
Nations. The US, which took the initiative to start the League, never
became a member. The Soviet Union was not allowed to join until the
late 1920s, and was expelled a few years later. Germany quit in 1933,
because the big powers were not granted the right of veto. The League’s
standing was much reduced as a result. After the Second World War, it
was understood that if a United Nations was to be a viable proposition,
the big powers would have to be given the right of veto.
Principles about democracy and human rights do not govern the world.
Nor is it governed by a powerless international gathering of officials
in a building in New York. International conflicts have never been
resolved and will never be resolved by simply presenting the best
arguments. They are decided by the economic and military balance of
power that prevails. The UN exists in an imperialist world. It is a part
of and a product of it. Reformed or not, the UN has nothing with which
to offset the vast military and economic might of the imperialist
powers, led by the US. The brutal experience of East Timor confirms once
again that workers solidarity is shown to be the only realistic
1 After independence East Timor changed its name to Timor-Leste. For the sake of
simplicity we use the name East Timor throughout as the chapter in the main takes up East Timor’s struggle for independence.
2 According to Philip Liechty, the CIAs contact man in Jakarta at the time. See http://
4 John Pilger: Hidden Agenda, 1999
6 Noam Chomsky: Man kan inte mörda historien, 1995
7 Amnesty Press, No. 4, September 2000
8 Mike Head and Linda Tenenbaum: East Timor’s Independence: Illusion and Reality, 18 May
9 Jean Duval & Ted Grant: East Timor: Can We Trust the United Nations? September 1999
10 Mike Head and Linda Tenenbaum: East Timor’s Independence: Illusion and Reality, 18 May
11 Australian Financial Review, 14 September 1999
12 Jean Duval: Referendum in East Timor, 6 September 1999
13 Sergio Vieira de Mello was killed in a bomb attack in Iraq in 2003
14 Sam King: Discrimination in East Timor. www.greenleft.org.au/back/2000/389/389p3.htm
15 Jean Duval: One Year after the Independence Referendum, September 2000
17 The UN’s Human Development Report, 2002
18 Mike Head and Linda Tenenbaum: East Timor’s Independence: Illusion and Reality, 18 May
20 Segerstedt Wiberg: Mötesplats FN, 1990
21 Eds. David Cortright and George Lopez: The Sanctions Decade, 2000
22 Global Policy Forum: Iraq Sanctions: Humanitarian Implications and Options for the
Future, August 2002
23 Louise Olsson: Gendering UN peacekeeping, Dept of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala
24 Amnesty Press: No. 2, April 2001
We should declare war on North Vietnam. . . .
We could pave the whole country and put parking strips on it, and still be home by Christmas.1
Ronald Reagan, US President 1981-89, in
a statement in October 1965.
I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever
called me ‘nigger’.2
Muhammed Ali, on why he refused the draft.
In Vietnam the mighty US army suffered its one and only major defeat, so far.
How was this possible? Was it the guerrilla war in Vietnam combined
with student struggle in the US that was responsible? This is commonly
how it is presented, but in reality it was the struggle of the American
working class that decided the issue.
The US comes to Vietnam
Vietnam became a French colony in middle of the nineteenth century.
During the Second World War Vietnam was occupied by Japan. After a
crushing defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, France was forced to pull out
of Vietnam, ending a century of colonial rule. The Vietnamese Communist
Party led by Ho Chi Minh was poised to take control of the country.
China and the Soviet Union probably feared that such a setback would
be too hard to swallow for imperialism and might upset the Cold War
balance of terror between the great powers. Instead of letting the
French army pull out, they insisted on a settlement that would compel Ho
Chi Minh to withdraw his troops to North Vietnam, and leaving the
French occupying the south. France would continue to administer the
southern part of the country until a general election in 1956, and the
victor at that poll would then rule the entire country.
The US president at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, said later that he
believed Ho Chi Minh would have won 80 per cent of the vote.3 So, a
general election was never called. Ngo Ding Diem, a Vietnamese living in
the US, was flown to Vietnam and installed in office instead. By
injecting massive political, economic and military support, the US
created a new state in South Vietnam. This state then began to attack
both the opposition in the south and North Vietnam.4
The American government did not want another country to leave its
sphere of influence. Moreover, traditional imperialist interests played a
part. The conservative newspaper U.S. News and World Report carried an article headed Why the US is risking war in Indochina.
It explained: “One of the world’s richest areas is open to the winner
in Indochina. That’s behind the growing U.S. concern … tin, rubber,
rice, key strategic raw materials are what the war is really all about.
The U.S. sees it as a place to hold – at any cost.”5
The war was also about the export of capital, i.e. the exploitation of cheap labour. This is how the influential magazine Business Week expressed
it in 1963: “Late in the 1940’s – and with increasing speed all through
the 1950’s and up to the present – (in) industry after industry, U.S.
companies found that their overseas earnings were soaring, and that
their return on investment was frequently much higher than in the
In South Vietnam, the Communist Party organised a guerrilla army,
the NLF (National Liberation Front), to fight Diem and the US. Due to
the extensive support from the population, particularly in rural areas,
the guerrillas were able to carry out rapid attacks and then vanish
back into the jungle. Increasingly, the Americans response was to
terrorise the population in order to get at the guerrillas. By 1967,
killing entire families had become an integral part of the CIA’s
campaign in South Vietnam.7
Operation Rolling Thunder and the Tet Offensive
As the South Vietnamese government proved incapable of defeating the
guerrillas, the US was drawn deeper into the war. American military
intervention in Vietnam began in 1963. In August of that year, US
President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam. Six
months later, Operation Rolling Thunder got under way. In that campaign
alone – which lasted for five years – more bombs were dropped on North
Vietnam than were used throughout the Second World War. This
corresponds to about 150 kilos of bombs for every man, woman and child
in Vietnam.8 Two million Vietnamese and 50 000 American soldiers were to
die in this war. The trees across 10% of the country’s surface were
defoliated with the help of toxins, primarily Agent Orange, in a bid to
get at the guerrillas, who used the jungle as cover.9
The number of American soldiers in Vietnam rose from 23,300 in 1963
to 184 000 in 1966. In January 1969, their number peaked – at 542 000.
Despite this, the US was unable to subdue the country. And on the night
of 31 January 1968, the North Vietnamese army and the NLF launched the
Tet Offensive. The guerrillas broke the truce they had promised to
observe during the Vietnamese New Year celebrations, and stormed into
more than 100 cities and towns, having first launched a diversionary
attack in Khesan province. One of their targets was the South Vietnamese
The Americans were caught by surprise by the Tet Offensive, and the
NLF even managed to take over the US embassy in the capital. They had
accumulated weapons, ammunition and explosives at a secret location in
preparation for the attack. In the middle of the night, a group of
guerrilla soldiers drove up to the embassy in a taxi. Within minutes
they had shot the Marines on guard and taken control of the building.
The guerrillas also stormed the headquarters of the US and the South
Vietnamese armies, as well as the giant US army base at Bienhoa, north
of Saigon airport. Fourteen guerrilla soldiers attacked the leading
radio station in Saigon. After having controlled it for 18 hours, they
blew themselves and the entire building into the air. The NLF also made a
half-hearted attempt to stage an uprising in urban areas. The response
was very limited.
The size and range of the Offensive astounded the American generals.
One of them said later the pattern of attack on the map resembled a
pinball game, with lights flashing for each raid. Without doubt, this
was one of the most daring and remarkable campaigns in military history.
The North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap had begun preparations for
it in 1967 when he realised that the war had reached a military
In military terms, the Tet Offensive was not a success. The NLF lost
over 50 000 fighters, as compared to 6 000 Americans and South
Vietnamese. The NLF also lost almost its entire command structure in
South Vietnam. Within days, the guerrillas had been driven out of most
of the positions they had captured.
The Tet Offensive was both the high point of guerrilla activity and
the beginning of the NLF’s marginalisation in the continuing war. It
was the regular North Vietnamese army that took over most of the
fighting in the south after the Tet Offensive.
The Offensive nonetheless represented a vital turning point in other
respects. It had a strong impact on working-class opinion back in the
US and internationally. For the first time, Americans were effected by
the crucial role television can play in a major war. Fifty million
viewers saw the devastation caused by war. The US administration could
no longer present it as a nice, clean operation that would soon be over.
Then, when news of the Song My massacre (in the small village of My
Lai) began to leak out in the media, opposition to the war grew
The Song My massacre
At dawn on 16 March 1968, a group of American soldiers moved into My
Lai. Between 450 and 500 people, mainly old men, women and children,
“Those Vietnamese who were not killed on
the spot were being shepherded by the first platoon to a large drainage
ditch at the eastern end of the hamlet. After Grzesik left, Meadlo and a
few others gathered seven or eight villagers in one hut and were
preparing to toss in a hand grenade when an order came to take them to
the ditch. There he found Calley, along with a dozen other first platoon
members, and perhaps seventy-five Vietnamese, mostly women, old men and
children. Calley then turned his attention back to the crowd of
Vietnamese and issued an order: “Push all those people in the ditch.”
Three or four GIs complied. Calley struck a woman with a rifle as he
pushed her down. Stanley remembered that some of the civilians “kept
trying to get out. Some made it to the top. . . .” Calley began the
shooting and ordered Meadlo to join in. Meadlo told about it later: “So
we pushed our seven to eight people in with the big bunch of them. And
so I began shooting them all. So did Mitchell, Calley… I guess I shot
maybe twenty-five or twenty people in the ditch . . . men, women and
children. And babies.” Some of the GIs switched from automatic fire to
single-shot to conserve ammunition. Herbert Carter watched the mothers
“grabbing their kids and the kids grabbing their mothers. I didn’t know
what to do.”
Some GIs. . . didn’t hesitate to use
their bayonets. Nineteen-year-old Nguyen Thi Ngoc Tuyet watched a baby
trying to open her slain mother’s blouse to nurse. A soldier shot the
infant while it was struggling with the blouse, and the slashed at it
with his bayonet. Tuyet also said she saw another baby hacked to death
by GIs wielding their bayonets. Le Tong, a twenty-eight-year-old rice
farmer, reported seeing one woman raped after GIs killed her children .
Nguyen Khoa, a thirty-seven- year-old peasant, told of a
thirteen-year-old girl who was raped before being killed. GIs then
attacked Khoa’s wife, tearing off her clothes. Before they could rape
her, however, Khoa said, their six-year-old son, riddled with bullets,
fell and saturated her with blood. The GIs left her alone . . . .
In the early afternoon the men of Charlie
Company mopped up to make sure all the houses and goods in My Lai 4
were destroyed. Medina ordered the underground tunnels in the hamlet
blown up; most of them already had been blocked. Within another hour My
Lai 4 was no more: its red-brick buildings demolished by explosives,
its huts burned to the ground, its people dead or dying.”10
It later transpired that officers higher up were responsible both for
the massacre, and for the attempts to cover it up. However, only four
soldiers were brought to trial and only one of them, William Calley, was
convicted. After three years of house arrest, he was pardoned by
President Nixon and released. The Song My outrage was one of the more
brutal events of the war, but the abuse and killing of civilians was
commonplace. In for example Operation Speedy Express focused on the
Mekong Delta in early 1969, the US army claimed that 10,899 enemies were
killed. Yet only 784 weapons were seized.11
It was not until 13 November 1969, more than one and half years after
the event, that the true story of what happened at Song My emerged in
the American media. As the war continued, American journalists
increasingly dared to tell the truth about the Vietnam War. This was
because public opinion more and more swung against the war. A few years
earlier, journalists would have been fired if they had ventured to
report the facts. But by the end of 1969, such persecution would have
led to an uproar.
US national security adviser Henry Kissinger realised after the Tet
Offensive that: “Regardless of how effective our actions are, the
present strategy can no longer reach its goals within the period or with
the level of force that is acceptable to the American Public.”12 The US
is a highly developed country where the working class makes up the
overwhelming bulk of the population. It is the working class that is the
Initially, just as at the invasion of Iraq, many workers supported
the Vietnam War. However, that declined as the war continued. A look at
which groups expressed the greatest dissatisfaction is particularly
interesting. A Gallup poll conducted in January 1971 showed that 60% of
those with a college education advocated withdrawing the troops from
Vietnam and 75% with a high school education supported such a move,
while as many as 80% of those with only an elementary education were in
favour. These facts have become completely obscured.13
At a popular exhibition entitled Resistance at Stockholm’s
modern art museum, Moderna Museet, the only picture showing workers was
one of American construction workers in hard hats beating up protesting
students. The exhibition was supposed to be about struggle from the
1960s onwards. The impression it gave was that the only Americans
principled enough to stand up against US imperialism were students and a
handful of courageous individuals.
On a number of occasions in the 1990s people were asked to estimate
what percentages of people at different educational levels were against
the war in 1971. They estimated that 90% of all those with a college
education were against the war, and that just 60% of those with only an
elementary education were opposed to it.14 An almost complete reversal
of the facts.
The working class pays, the rich benefit
The American workers’ opposition to the war was based primarily on
their own experiences. It was their children who were called on to do
the dirty work in Vietnam. And it was their children who came home in a
body bag, or maimed or mentally disturbed, because of a war that was not
their own – a war that in no way benefited them. The children of the
rich were often able to avoid being drafted as they were studying at
university (students were exempted from the draft), or alternatively
they were given comfortable jobs as officers far from the horrors of
war. Also, it was the workers who paid for most of the war, via their
A total of 2 590 000 Americans took part in the war at one time or
another. Inevitably, there was interaction between them and the working
class back home. The soldiers influenced their thinking, and vice versa.
Many returning soldiers could doubtless agree with the following
description, published in June 1971, of how far resistance had developed
within the US military.
“The morale, discipline and battle
worthiness of the U.S. Armed Forces are, with a few salient exceptions,
lower and worse than at anytime in this century and possibly in the
history of the United States. By every conceivable indicator, our army
that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with
individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their
officers and non commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited
where not near mutinous… While no senior officer (especially one on
active duty) can openly voice any such assessment, the foregoing
conclusions find virtually unanimous support in numerous
non-attributable interviews with responsible senior and mid-level
officer, as well as career non-commissioned officers and petty officers
in all services.
- They have set up separate companies, writes an American soldier from Cu Chi, quoted in the New York Times,
for men who refuse to go into the field. It is no big thing to refuse
to go. If a man is ordered to go to such and such a place he no longer
goes through the hassle of refusing; he just packs his shirt and goes to
visit some buddies at another base camp. Operations have become
incredibly ragtag. Many guys don’t even put on their uniforms any more…
The American garrison on the larger bases are virtually disarmed. The
lifers have taken our weapons from us and put them under lock and
key…There have also been quite a few frag incidents in the battalion. …
‘Frag incidents’ or just ‘fragging’ is
current soldier slang in Vietnam for the murder or attempted murder of
strict, unpopular, or just aggressive officers and NCOs….Word of the
deaths of officers will bring cheers at troop movies or in bivouacs of
certain units…Bounties, raised by common subscription in amounts
running anywhere from $50 to $1 000, have been widely reported put on
the heads of leaders whom the privates and Sp4s want to rub out.
Shortly after the costly assault on Hamburger Hill in mid-1969, the GI underground newspaper in Vietnam, G.I. Says, publicly offered a $10 000 bounty on Lt. Col. Weldon Honeycutt, the officer who ordered (and led) the attack.
The issue of ‘combat refusal’, an
official euphemism for disobedience of orders to fight – the soldier’s
gravest crime, has only recently been again precipitated on the frontier
of Laos by Troop B, 1st Cavalry’s mass refusal to recapture their
captain’s command vehicle containing communication gear, codes and other
secret operation orders.
As early as mid-1969, however, an entire
company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade publicly sat down on the
battlefield. Later that year, another rifle company, from the famed 1st
Air Cavalry Division, flatly refused – on CBS-TV – to advance down a
dangerous trail…’Search and evade’ (meaning tacit avoidance of combat by
units in the field) is now virtually a principle of war, vividly
expressed by the GI phrase, ‘CYA (cover your ass) and get home!’
That ’search-and-evade’ has not gone
unnoticed by the enemy is underscored by the Viet Cong delegation’s
recent statement at the Paris Peace Talks that communist units in
Indochina have been ordered not to engage American units which do not
This account was published just six months before the US began
withdrawing its ground troops and Nixon initiated his Vietnamisation
policy (meaning that American soldiers were no longer to be directly
involved in the fighting). The quote is from the Armed Forces Journal,
an official army publication, and is included in a book by the eminent
military historian Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr.15 Heinl is not alone in
writing about the disintegration of the American military. Such accounts
have almost become a genre in their own right.16
Another example: “During the years of 1969 down to 1973, we have the
rise of fragging – that is, shooting or hand-grenading your NCO or your
officer who orders you out into the field. (…) The US Army itself does
not know exactly how many … officers were murdered. But they know at
least 600 were murdered, and then they have another 1 400 that died
mysteriously. Consequently, by early 1970, the army [was] at war not
with the enemy but with itself’.”17
It was not the brutality of war as such that led to the
disintegration of the US Army. The important thing in war is for
soldiers to believe in what they are doing. During the Second World War,
many soldiers were willing to fight fascism and defend democracy.
However much US propaganda sought to present the Vietnam War as a fight
for a better world, it soon became clear to the soldiers involved that
this was not what the war was about. At the end of the Second World War,
too, American soldiers had reacted rebelliously to government efforts
to re-deploy them to fight the Communists in Italy and elsewhere.
Back home in the US, ordinary workers were strongly influenced by
what their sons and brothers had experienced in Vietnam. And they did
not just sit back and await developments. As early as 1965, some 25 000
people gathered in Washington, 20 000 in New York and 15 000 in
Berkeley, California, to protest against the war. In April 1967, as
many as 300 000 people demonstrated in New York.
A series of ‘moratoriums’18 were organised throughout the US by the
two largest anti-war organisations. The largest of these protests took
place on 15 October 1969. An estimated five million people took part in
it in one way or another. They joined demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins
and other organised activities. Some people did only small things, like
lighting a candle or leaving their headlights on. In New York, the
mayor proclaimed a day of mourning and ordered public flags to be flown
at half mast. Soldiers in Vietnam also demonstrated their support, by
wearing black armbands.
The largest demonstrations took place on 24 April 1971. 300 000
people assembled in San Francisco, and in Washington between 500 000 and
700 000. This was probably the largest political demonstration in the
history of the country – at least up until 15 February 2003 when a
million people gathered in New York to protest against the war in
Protests were also organised at universities. During the post-war
economic upswing, US universities and colleges had increasingly opened
up, and by the late 1960s the students included millions of young people
from working-class backgrounds. Many of the largest and most militant
protests took place at universities that were not Ivy League and could
hardly be described as the preserve of the rich: Kent State, San
Francisco State, and the state-run universities in Michigan, Maryland
and Wisconsin. In the early 1970s, however, these protests began to
wane. Different left-wing sects came to dominate the student movement
and tear it apart with fruitless arguments. The anti-war movement, by
contrast, now began to attract a great deal of support from organised
The position of the Labour Movement
In the 1930s, the US Labour Movement grew in strength and became
radicalised at an astonishing speed. In the 1950s, however, union
bureaucrats dominated. Ordinary workers were showing less inclination to
take part in union activities, partly because their situation had
improved but also because of the hysterical anti-Communist mood in the
early years of the Cold War. In the 1960s, union activities picked up
again. Although the workers were better off financially, they were still
doing the same dirty jobs and were still being ordered around by
dictatorial managers. Many strikes ensued, not least in heavy industry,
and the labour unions launched recruiting drives among farm workers,
hospital staff and white-collar workers. But the union bureaucracy was a
millstone around the movement’s neck.
The bureaucracy was personified by George Meany, president of the
AFL-CIO, the largest union confederation in the world. He made no bones
about his opinion regarding the Vietnam War. In May 1965, he declared
that the AFL-CIO would support the war “no matter what the academic
do-gooders may say, no matter what the apostles of appeasement may
say”.19 In August 1966, the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO issued the
statement that: “Those who would deny our military forces unstinting
support are, in effect, aiding the Communist enemy of our country – at
the very moment when it is bearing the heaviest burdens in the defence
of world peace and freedom”.20
It is not easy for an opposition to make its voice heard when it is
openly harassed and persecuted. In 1967, a resolution opposing the war
was brought before the AFL-CIO Congress. 2 000 delegates voted against
the resolution, six in favour. But in June 1969 the United Auto Workers,
UAW, quit the AFL-CIO and set up the Alliance for Labor Action together
with the Teamsters (transport workers). The Alliance called for an
immediate end to the war.
As time passed, a growing number of labour unions came out against
the Vietnam War. Individual unions began openly supporting anti-war
demonstrations, and new members flocked to join them. By 1972, unions
representing 4 million of the country’s 21 million workers had
officially declared their opposition to the war. At the 1972
presidential election, half of all ‘union households’ voted for the
Democratic candidate, George McGovern, who was demanding an immediate
troop withdrawal from Vietnam. They did so despite the fact that for the
first time in the organisation’s history, Meany had refused to give
AFL-CIO support to the Democratic candidate.
However, the ground had begun to shake beneath Meany’s feet. The
number of strikes, including wildcat strikes, increased. Even the
traditionally conservative construction workers did not behave the way
in which they were usually presented in the media. In June 1970, a
reporter accompanied a group of activists visiting building sites in
Chicago to distribute anti-war leaflets. He saw that 90% of the workers
the activists talked to were against the war, and almost all felt it was
really stupid to assault students for their opposition to it.21
The logic of the anti-war movement was such that people began to feel
sympathy for the Vietnamese. In July 1977, an opinion poll asked the
question: “Assuming that the President recommended helping Vietnam,
would you like your representative in Congress to approve a plan to send
food and medicine there?” 60% said yes and only 29% no.22
In the United States, no parliaments were stormed, no barricades
were built and no presidents were deposed (at least not until two years
after the US military had been pulled out). Nor was the working class
well organised and consciously fighting for a new society, such as the
Swedish working class when they ended the attempt to go to war in 1905,
or the Russian working class in 1917, or the German in 1918. But
special circumstances that have existed neither before nor since meant
that the Vietnam War was ended nonetheless.
The movement of the Vietnamese people was part of the anti-colonial
struggle that had successfully swept through the world in previous
decades. This gave the Vietnamese people self-confidence and moral
support from all who had been through a similar experience. They were
strengthened further because they were not only fighting to get rid of
something, but were also struggling for a better society. A society that
they could see had improved the lot of many poor countries throughout
the world. They were prepared to fight to the bitter end. The Cold War
meant that they got large supplies of weapons from the Soviet Union.
Although Vietnam was a good place for capitalist exploitation, it was
not of vital economic importance to US imperialism. A section of the
American capitalists therefore began to feel that it might be better to
cut their losses, when the war dragged on. The resolve of the American
establishment to continue the war was further sapped by international
protests. Giant rallies against the US war effort in Vietnam attracted
workers and young people throughout the world, not least in Sweden,
where the anti-war movement united the left. Olof Palme, then a
government minister, caused an international sensation by joining a
demonstration alongside the North Vietnamese ambassador.
In military terms, American military power was far superior to the
Vietnamese. The US controlled the air space and could go on bombing for
as long as they wished. Although the war was expensive, and was
beginning to affect the economy, they still could have gone on for
years. But the war could not be financed if the working class refused to
pay for it. Nor could it be maintained if the working class refused to
The American Labour Movement is, in some respects, different to the
European. It is less organised and not as strong, but that also means
that the bureaucracy is relatively weak. There is no Labour Party. The
Communist Party has hardly any influence. There is no tradition of
reformism and Stalinism. In Europe the reformist leadership within the
movement has been the main hindrance to the anti-war movement ever since
the outbreak of the First World War, and the Stalinist bureaucracies
since the degeneration of the Soviet Union. The small bureaucracy in
the US Labour Movement is openly pro-capitalist. When American workers
began to question official truths, there was almost nobody with
authority to get them ‘on track’ again, i.e. almost nobody who could
play the role of an ‘honest broker’ between the demands of the workers
and the wishes of the capitalists. Almost nothing can dampen class
conflicts once they break out. Had the American Government sought to
press ahead with the war, the US would have been on the brink of
In 1975, after 28 years of war, imperialism was finally forced to
leave Vietnam. Once again the independent movement of the working class
was decisive for defeating imperialism. Given the heroic struggle of
the Vietnamese (backed up by many national liberation struggles
throughout the Third World), the protests of the Labour Movement
internationally, the weakness of the Labour bureaucracy in the US, the
fact that US imperialism could afford to let Vietnam go, meant that the
American workers opposition to the war brought the troops home.
3 The memoirs of President Eisenhower: Mandate for Change, 1963
4 Robert K. Brigham: Battlefield Vietnam: A brief history. http://www.pbs.org/
5 US News and World Report, 4 April 1954. www.plp.org/vietnam/vn6.html
6 20 April, 1963. Ibid.
7 Douglas Valentine: Fragging Bob, 2001
8 Steve Forrest: The Tet Offensive.
9 Jim Hensman: Vietnam 1945, 1986
10 Seymour Hirsch: My Lai 4: A Report on the Massacre and Its Aftermath, 1970
11 Christopher Hitchens: The Trial of Henry Kissinger, 2001
12 Steve Forrest: The Tet Offensive,
13 BBC: War and protest – the US in Vietnam (1971),
14 James Loewen: Lies My Teacher Told Me, 1995
15 Robert D. Heinl J: The Collapse of the Armed Forces, 1971
16 See for instance GI Resistance: Soldiers and Veterans Against the Viet Nam War.
A Bibliography, 1991
17 http://home.mweb.co.za/re/redcap/vietcrim.htm, unofficial website of the US Army’s
18 A moratorium is defined in the dictionary as an agreed suspension of activity.
21 Phillip Foner: US Labor and the Vietnam War, 1989
22 New York Times/CBS News
War and Resistance is a translation of the Swedish book Draksådd,
originally published in 2004. It analyzes the most important wars of
the past hundred years. It examines the role of UN, civil disobedience
and many other failed attempts to stop war. And as a contrast
explains why other forms of resistance to war have been successful.
This is Chapter 9.
It takes a whole night
to make a day
The Arab people have for centuries shared a common language,
religion, culture and history. They lived in a territory that extended
from Iraq in the east to Mauritania in the west. During medieval times
their rulers were strong rivals to many European powers. But after that
they went into a period of decline and were occupied by the Ottoman
Empire, centred on Turkey, and later Britain, France, Italy and Spain.
To stop a new powerful Arab nation emerging has always been a top
priority of imperialism. For a long time they have skilfully used the
game of divide and rule as means to this end.
Various leaders in the region have played along with this, hoping
thereby to maintain themselves in power. This has lead to one war after
the other. But despite this, every once in a while, unity has been
forged between workers of different religions and nationalities.
Divide and rule
When Turkey allied itself with Germany in the First World War, the
British promised the Arabs independence as a means of gaining their
support against Germany. In October 1915, Sir Henry McMahon, the British
High Commissioner in Egypt, wrote to the Sherif (Emir) of Mecca, Husayn
ibn Ali, declaring that “Great Britain is prepared to recognise and
support the independence of the Arabs in the regions within the limits
demanded by the Sherif of Mecca”.1
In June 1916, Husayn led an Arab uprising and, together with the
British, marched north to throw the Ottoman forces out of Trans-Jordan,
Palestine and Syria. The British forces were led by T.E. Lawrence,
better known as “Lawrence of Arabia”.
But the British had no intention of allowing a strong Arab nation to
develop. Even before Husayn’s rebellion, they had reached a secret
understanding with France and Russia. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, as it
was known as, was made public by the Soviet government after the Russian
revolution.2 Drawing lines on a map, the three big powers divided up
the Arab region into spheres of interest.
Areas roughly equivalent to present-day Lebanon and Syria were to
belong to France. Jordan and Iraq fell to Britain, and Palestine was to
be jointly administered by the British, French and Russians. The
Agreement also allowed a limited autonomy for Arabs in some parts of the
region, but Husayn inb Ali’s plans for an independent Arab nation were
never even considered.
The British also sought the support of Jewish leaders in the First
World War. After the successful Arab uprising against the Ottoman
rulers, Lord Balfour, the British home secretary, wrote a letter to Lord
Rothschild, leader of the Jewish community in Britain. In this letter ,
the so called Balfour Declaration, he wrote that Britain would do its
best to facilitate the establishment of a national home for the Jewish
people in Palestine.
Most Jews, however, were not interested in settling in Palestine at
this time. In 1914, 660 000 of the 800 000 Palestinian population were
Muslims, a tenth were Christians, and less than a tenth were Jews.3
After the First World War, the League of Nations implemented the
Sykes-Picot Agreement in all but name, apart from giving Palestine
entirely to the British in 1920. Arab uprisings against this continued
more or less throughout the period between the two world wars, causing
Britain and France to relinquish direct control of the region little by
little, but not before they had found dependable monarchs (often
imported) in whose hands they could safely place the reins of power. In
1922 they let Egypt go, in 1932 Iraq and Saudi Arabia, in 1943
Lebanon, in 1946 Jordan and Syria, in 1967 South Yemen, and as recently
as 1971, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. This enabled
them to sow division between Arabs. In practice, the French and British
continued to control most of the Middle East until the end of the
Second World War, when the US emerged as the leading power.
One of the conditions of the British mandate from the League of
Nations was that a homeland was to be created for the Jews. Despite this
and the Balfour Declaration the British government did little to honour
this pledge. As early as 1921, Winston Churchill, then minister for
colonial affairs, issued a White Book which declared that Jews would
never be allowed political supremacy in Palestine (nor Arabs, either,
for that matter).
Arab and Jewish leaders had conflicting national interests, yet Arab
and Jewish workers often joined together in their struggle to win
better terms from the colonial administration and private employers. One
example is the conflict at the Nesher quarry and cement factory in the
mid-1920s. When the factory was being built in 1924-25, Jews working
there were paid 20 piastras an hour and worked an eight-hour day. The
80 Egyptians employed at the site were paid only 10 piastras an hour and
had to work for nine or ten hours a day. When the Jewish workers went
on strike, demanding 25 piastras an hour, recognition of their trade
union and other improvements, they asked for and received the support of
the Egyptian workers. After a two-month strike, most of the Jewish
workers’ demands were met, but the Jewish owner fired the Egyptians. The
Jewish workers then voted 170 to 30 to stay out until the Egyptians had
However, the Jewish trade union confederation Histadrut (which denied
Arabs full membership until 1959) pressured the Jewish workers into
returning to work. The Egyptians were sent back to Egypt. Jewish
leaders were not the only ones to oppose all forms of joint struggle.
The Arab leadership was equally anxious. Nonetheless, in the decades up
until the partition of Palestine, joint actions were also staged by
Jewish and Arab bakery workers, railway workers, bus and taxi drivers,
dock workers, oil workers and others.4
In the 1920s, Communist parties often played a crucial part in
bringing Jews and Arabs together. Leopold Trepper, himself a Jew, and
later to become a Soviet master spy in Hitler’s Germany, describes how
in his memoirs.5 The party, originally dominated by Jews, founded an
organisation called Unity (Ichud in Hebrew, Itachat in Arabic). Its
programme was very simple.
> Fight to open up Histadrut (the Israeli trade union confederation) to
Arab workers and create an international trade union.
> Create opportunities for contact between Jews and Arabs, especially b
means of cultural events.
Unity was an immediate success. Towards the end of 1925, it had
branches in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv and in farming villages where
Arab and Jewish labourers worked side by side. The branches multiplied
in number. In late 1926, the movement held its first national
conference, attended by over a hundred delegates, of which forty were
Arabs. The influence that the movement began to exert on the kibbutz’s
worried the Histadrut leaders, who failed to understand how Jews and
Arabs could wage a joint struggle.
Unity was persecuted by the British occupying power, and opposed by
Zionist organisations and reactionary Arabs. Trepper himself was
constantly in and out of prison. But it was Stalin, not domestic
repression, that destroyed the movement. Everywhere, Stalinist
bureaucrats were replacing Marxist internationalism with their own
narrow nationalist policies. The Comintern (the Communist
International) adopted a resolution in 1928 calling for the
“Arabisation” of the Palestine Communist Party. This was in line with
the theory of “socialism in one country”, which meant that each nation
was to pursue its own struggle. Accordingly, Stalin dissolved the
Comintern in 1943.
More British deception
In 1936, Arab opposition to the British occupation escalated,
resulting in what has been described as the first Intifada. In April, a
general strike developed into a full-scale uprising. The Arab
leadership just managed to bring the movement under control. In October
the strike ended. The British government responded with brutal
repression. Among its tactics was one that has become highly popular
with the present Israeli government – the demolition of Arab housing.
The British government then set up the Peel Commission to determine
how to gain control of the situation in Palestine. In 1937, the
commission proposed dividing the country into a Jewish part (involving
the forced resettlement of a quarter of a million Arabs), an Arab part,
and an area that the British would continue to rule themselves. The
Arabs refused to accept the Peel plan, and local uprisings continued
In that year, the British government changed its mind once again
about the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In another White
Book, it offered Palestine the prospect of independence in ten years
time. This was partly due to the mass struggle of the Arab people, but
also because Britain once again wanted the support of the Arabs in the
fight against Hitler. Jewish support in the war was taken for granted.
The British declared that they would retain power in Palestine until
such time as the Arabs were ‘ripe’ for independence. The 1939 White Book
was incompatible with the mandate issued to the British by the League
of Nations, and was denounced by the League’s Permanent Mandates
Commission. But the big powers were now preparing to settle their
differences with war, and the League of Nations had become an
During the Second World War the British government stopped Jewish
emigration to Palestine, sometimes with catastrophic results. The
Struma, a scarcely seaworthy ship, overcrowded with approximately 790
Rumanian Jews fleeing from Nazi persecution, arrived in Istanbul in
December 1941. The Turkish authorities did not allow the refugees ashore
and asked the British if the ship could be allowed to sail to
Palestine. Churchill’s government refused. The pro-German authorities in
Bulgaria would not let the ship return to their country. A two-month
stalemate was ended when the Turkish authorities towed the ship out to
sea without a proper engine, a sail or an anchor. After a night adrift
on the open sea, the Struma sank, following an explosion. A Soviet
submarine may have torpedoed the ship by mistake. Only one person
An upswing for Zionism
Despite such tactics, the British imperialists failed in their bid to
stop the flow of Jews to Palestine. During the Great Depression of the
1930s the US imposed tougher restrictions to halt the flow of
immigrants, and with the German Nazis trying to annihilate the Jewish
people altogether, many Jews considered resettlement in Palestine the
only safe alternative.
Some Zionists organised themselves into guerrilla groups such as
Irgun and Stern, and in pursuit of a Jewish state launched a violent
campaign against both the British and the Arabs. Under Menachim Begin,
who later became prime minister, Irgun was responsible for the bombing
of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, where the British military HQ was
located. Some 90 people died. Nor did Irgun and Stern hesitate to use
terror tactics against the Arab population. In November 1947, they
began driving Arabs out of towns where the population was mainly Jewish.
Five months later, Irgun terrorists entered the village of Deir
Yassin west of Jerusalem and slaughtered at least 150 people, mostly
women and children. The Stern group was responsible for the murder of
Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, the UN’s emissary in the region. One of
the Stern leaders was Yitzhak Shamir, who later succeeded Begin as
Many Jews in Palestine were against both the practices and the aims
of the two gangs. The leftist Zionist organisation Hashomer Hatza’ir
(and a number of liberal Zionists) wanted to establish an independent
More workers unity
After the Second World War, people revolted throughout the world
against tyranny and colonialism. In Palestine, too, the struggle
exploded. In April 1946, a major strike was launched in Palestine that
developed into the largest manifestation of solidarity between Jewish
and Arab workers ever seen in the country.
Jewish and Arab postal, telephone and telegraph workers initiated the
strike and rapidly extracted far-reaching concessions. However,
against the recommendations of the union leadership they overwhelmingly
turned the offer down. Then Jewish and Arab railway workers also came
out on strike. A united struggle of all railway and postal workers was
unprecedented, even middle and lower level white-collar government
employees took part in the strike. Less than a week after the first
postal workers had come out, around 23 000 government employees were on
strike. Tens of thousands of workers employed at British military
bases, along with the petroleum workers in and near Haifa, considered
joining the strike.7
This could have been the final nail in the coffin of the colonial
administration. However, the movement was quashed through the joint
efforts of the Histradut leadership, right-wing Zionists, Arab
nationalists, and PAWS’ (Palestinian Arab Workers Society) conservative
wing. Consciously or unconsciously, their actions paved the way for
the bloody partitioning of Palestine. Immediately after the strike
ended, there was an upsurge in violence between Arabs and Jews.
Independence and Israel becomes the US’ most trusted ally in the Middle East
To escape the mess they had created, the British raised the Palestine
question in the newly-formed United Nations. The UN’s Special
Committee for Palestine voted 33 to 13 in favour of splitting Palestine
into a Jewish and an Arab part. Ten countries abstained from voting,
among them Britain. In practice, therefore, Israel was created against
Britain’s will. On 14 May 1948, the state of Israel officially came into
Encouraged and armed by the British, Arab states around Israel
launched a war against the embryonic Jewish state. The Jordanian army
was equipped and trained by the British and was led by a British
officer, John Bagot Glubb. British Royal Air Force planes took part in
the war. On 7 January 1949, the Israelis shot down four RAF planes.8 The
British refused to comply with UN recommendations and open the
country’s ports to Jews. They maintained their blockade of the
Mediterranean to prevent reinforcements from reaching Israel.
Initially, the American administration also backed British policy in
the region. The Americans imposed an arms embargo on the new Jewish
state and maintained it throughout the early stages of the war between
Israel and the Arab states. Saudi Arabia was the United States’
largest and most important ally in the Middle East. That was where the
oil was, then as now. The Americans had strongly backed the al-Saud
family when it seized power in Saudi Arabia and proclaimed
independence in 1932.
The American elite, however, were split on the issue. Some
sympathised with the Israelis, and they were backed by others who viewed
support for the Jewish state as a way of reducing Britain’s influence
in the Middle East and thereby strengthening America’s position in the
region. When a truce was declared, the US lifted its embargo.
Despite British military assistance, the Arab states were soundly
defeated in the war. Israel seized more territories than had been
allotted to it in the 1947 UN resolution to divide Palestine. By way of
revenge, Jews who had long been living in Arab countries were brutally
driven out. Arab Jews became an underclass in Israel.
For many years it was claimed that the Soviet Union supported the
Palestinian cause from the outset, but this is not true. The Soviet
Union voted for the creation of the state of Israel. After the Second
World War, the Stalinist regime found itself at odds with its former
‘allies’ and cast around for support elsewhere. As Britain was against
the establishment of Israel, the Stalinist bureaucrats saw the creation
of the Jewish state as a blow to British aspirations in the region.
Accordingly, they sent weapons to Jews in Palestine via Czechoslovakia.
Later, the roles were reversed. In the 1950s, Egypt seemed to be
planning to abolish capitalism. When Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal
in 1956, Britain, France and Israel invaded Egypt. The Soviet Union
supported Egypt against Israel.
The Americans were totally against the invasion of Egypt, as it
risked damaging their oil dealings in the region. President Eisenhower
threatened a boycott unless Israel withdrew its troops from Sinai. In
the end Israel complied.
However, in the 60s the US shifted its stance more firmly in favour
of Israel. In Syria, capitalism and feudalism were abolished following a
military coup in 1963. Iraq also began to shift towards the Soviet
sphere. Saudi Arabia was a highly unstable, despotic state in which
slavery was not formally abolished until the 1960s. Revolution
threatened the whole region. The US concluded that Israel was the state
that would be its most reliable ally in the Middle East.
Israel was granted special privileges. The US providing it with the
largest per capita amount of aid for civilian purposes ever granted to
any country. Israel has received seventeen times as much money per head
of population as other countries received under the Marshall Plan for
post-war reconstruction in Europe. In addition, Jews outside Israel
donate huge amounts to the Israeli economy every year.
In contrast to most poor countries, Israel has been permitted
substantial trade restrictions on imports. At the same time, it has
benefited from favourable export terms, particularly for exports to the
US, which was its principal trading partner for many years. In
contrast to most poor countries, Israel could therefore develop into an
Palestinian resistance begins
The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) was founded in 1964 at
the initiative of Egypt’s President Nasser. It is an umbrella body for a
wide range of organisations. The largest of these is al-Fatah, which
has links to the Socialist International. Some of the other groups used
to call themselves Marxist. The PLO has never had a cohesive ideology,
apart from its earlier objective of crushing the state of Israel. Prior
to 1967, the PLO had little support among Palestinians. It was not until
after the Six-Day War in 1967, when many Palestinians came under
Israeli occupation, that the PLO gained mass support.
The PLO began its struggle with a guerrilla war, inspired by Vietnam
and Cuba. Their base were the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon that
grew up when many Arabs were driven out of Israel in 1948 and 1967. But
the situation differed considerably from Vietnam or pre-revolutionary
Cuba. The PLO attacked a state that enjoyed the support of most of the
population. There were no mountains or jungles for the guerrillas to
hide in. Only open ground lay between the refugee camps and the
guerrillas’ targets in Israel. Guerrilla war had no chance of
The PLO’s reliance on guerrilla warfare, and later diplomacy, also
made it economically and militarily dependent on the Soviet Union and
reactionary Arab states. All the dictatorial Arab governments in the
countries surrounding Israel treated the Palestinians badly seeing them
merely as a means of diverting the struggle against their own regimes
into a struggle against Israel.
The PLO soon fell out with the Jordanian king. He found the presence
of another armed force in his territory unacceptable. It represented a
threat to his despotic rule. In September 1970, “Black September”, he
launched his armed attack against the PLO. Many Palestinians died, all
were disarmed, and the PLO was thrown out of Jordan.
The PLO headquarters ended up in Tunis. Driven out of Jordan,
defeated by Israel in Lebanon, isolated from the Palestinian people,
their leader Yasser Arafat survived on handouts.
This was not the end of the struggle. On the contrary, it was the
beginning of the real struggle. In December 1987, the Intifada began.
The PLO’s terrorist activities had caused most Palestinians to become
passive. Why do anything when there were heroes doing things for you? It
was enough to cheer them on. But once the PLO was defeated the majority
of Palestinians began to take control over their own fate.
The Palestinians were spurred to action by the terrible situation
they found themselves in (and still find themselves in). All
Palestinians in the occupied territories, apart from a small
middle-class, lived in abject poverty. Millions were stuck in giant
refugee camps. Those who did not live in the refugee camps were not
much better off, usually occupying tumbledown houses with no sanitation.
Unemployment was very high and poverty appalling.
On top of all this, the Palestinians had no legal rights whatsoever
and were brutally repressed by the Israeli army. They had to put up with
confiscation of their land, the destruction of homes belonging to the
families of suspected terrorists, arrests without trial for up to
twelve months (and subject to extension), and curfews of up to 40 days’
It was the Palestinians themselves who financed the oppression. Two
and a half times more was sucked out of the occupied areas in the form
of taxes than was returned in the form of public investments. The tax
authorities collected tax under military escort.
The Intifada was very different from the guerrilla warfare that had
preceded it. It mainly took the form of large demonstrations and
throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. Between 1968 and 1975 there was an
average of 350 ‘violent incidents’ a year in Israel/Palestine. During
the first six months of the Intifada, there were 42 355 such incidents.
The Intifada was an uprising that involved the entire population and was
organised from the bottom up, without any interference from the PLO.
Neighbourhood committees were set up to organise the protests and began
to develop along democratic lines. Women were brought into the struggle.
When the Palestinian economy collapsed under pressure from the
Israelis, the neighbourhood committees began organising community
services such as food supply, education and healthcare. It was the
start of a revolutionary movement.
Israel responded by raising the level of oppression. In 1988, Prime
Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who was later awarded the Nobel peace prize)
ordered Israeli troops to “break demonstrators’ bones”.9 Amnesty
International reported that medical staff in prisons often found
themselves “in conflict with medical ethics”.10 Torture was even
sanctioned under Israeli law, which is unique for a supposedly
democratic country. Since 1987, Israelis are allowed to exert “physical
and psychological pressure against Palestinian detainees”.11
The Israeli violence failed to deter the Palestinians. Instead, it
strengthened their resolve, and cemented a Palestinian national
consciousness. Previously Arabs living in Palestine had seen themselves
more as a part of the Arab nation than as specifically Palestinians.
The Intifada created major problems for the Israeli regime. For the
first time since the partition of Palestine after the Second World War,
Palestinian protests found a big response among Jews. Three years (for
men) or two years (for women) of military service in the occupied
territories – during which the soldiers were exposed to the hatred of
the entire population, stone-throwing young Palestinians, and having to
regularly beat and shoot civilians – took its toll. During and after the
Intifada, tens of thousands of Israelis left the country on completion
of their military service to try and find peace of mind in countries
such as Thailand, Japan and the US.
The Israeli peace movement experienced an upswing and organised mass
demonstrations that drew crowds of between 50 000 and 100 000, in a
country of little more than four million people. Senior military
officers also expressed strong doubts about the possibility of a
military solution to the conflicts on the West Bank and in the Gaza
Strip. They saw how the whole army was being demoralised.
The ground was prepared for the two movements to link up. But it
never happened. Because on what program should they have fused? Dividing
the area into a Palestinian state and a Jewish state? Or creating a
secular state in which Palestinians and Jews have equal rights? Neither
were, or are, a realistic alternative.
As a result of the Intifada an agreement was reached in 1993
providing for a transitional period of Palestinian self-rule on the West
Bank and Gaza. This was an extremely limited form of autonomy, and
there has been no transition to independence. In fact, since then the
possibility of achieving Palestinian independence has receded. Israel
did initially agree to provide a certain amount of weapons to a
Palestinian police force in the autonomous areas, as long as the police
was controlled by people that had allied themselves with Israel.
However, they will never be prepared to accept the presence of anything
that could be a threat. Consequently, the Israeli army intervenes time
and again in Palestine.
Nor does Palestine stand a chance economically. There is scarcely a
Palestinian economy worth speaking of. About a third comes from foreign
sources (foreign aid, Palestinian guest workers in other countries, etc)
and a third from exports to Israel. Palestine is an economic dwarf
compared with Israel. Israel has a population almost twice the size of
Palestine and a GDP almost forty times as large.12
To get their economy moving, the Palestinians need help. The US is
not going to provide it, and nor are the other rich countries. Olive oil
is not as attractive as crude oil. Also, capitalism is currently
undergoing a phase of economic decline, mass unemployment and crisis in
the rich countries as well. In the absence of economic progress, poverty
will continue and with it popular revolt. And further Israeli
Then there is the crucial problem of water. Many of Israel’s
freshwater reserves are in Palestinian territory. Of the West Bank’s
water, 86% goes to Israel, ten per cent to the Jewish settlers and just
four per cent to the Palestinians. The water is already beginning to
dry up. As a result, saltwater is entering the wells. On the West Bank,
Palestinians are having to buy 70% of their water from the Israelis, at a
high price. In the Gaza Strip, a million Palestinians have to share 55
million cubic meters of water while 7 000 Jewish settlers have 20
million cubic metres at their disposal.13Israel would never accept an
independent Palestinian state taking control over the water in
There is also the problem of the many Palestinian refugees. Jews are
automatically entitled to settle in Israel, but Israel has always
refused Palestinians the same right. The UN refugee organisation UNRWA
has more than three and a half million Palestinian refugees on its
books. A third of them are in UNRWA camps.14 Israel is not going to
accept them coming to live in an independent Palestinian state as this
would mean that Palestine had a larger population than Israel.
Finally, there are 1.4 million Palestinians living in Israel itself.
On what side of the border should they live if two truly independent
states were established? During the latest uprising many Palestinian
Israelis begun to take a more active part in the protests. Not
surprisingly, the Israeli government views Palestinians holding Israeli
citizenship with suspicion. Many have lost their jobs and been denied
access to higher education.
A Palestinian state would give the Israeli government an excuse and
an opportunity to throw them out. In all probability, the two-state
solution would lead to a bloody wave of ethnic cleansing.
The PLO’s earlier call for a secular state with equal rights for Jews
and Palestinians is also doomed to failure. It is no surprise that the
PLO has now abandoned the idea. Israel is even less likely to accept a
state in which Jews are in a minority than to agree to a separate
Palestinian state with a population larger than Israel’s own. Also, the
Israelis had good reason to view the PLO’s ‘secular state’ with
suspicion. A closer look at the proposal shows that it would mean a
majority of the Jews being thrown out of Palestine.
The PLO Covenant from 1969 states: “The Palestinians are those Arab
nationals who, until 1947, normally resided in Palestine regardless of
whether they were evicted from it or have stayed there. Anyone born,
after that date, of a Palestinian father – whether inside Palestine or
outside it – is also a Palestinian”. But in Article 6, it states: “The
Jews who had normally resided in Palestine until the beginning of the
Zionist invasion will be considered Palestinians”. This means that the
millions who arrived after 1947 could not become Palestinian citizens.
Where would they go? And how would they be ‘convinced’ that they have to
Jews and Palestinians cannot be brought together in a secular state
unless the fundamental social and economic problems of the area are
solved. Tensions are too great. That is why virtually everyone is
seeking a way out by dividing the country. But a genuine two-state
solution could cause a major disaster. There is no ‘practical’ solution
to the problem – within the framework of the capitalist system.
The solution is a set-up that may appear ‘abstract’ or ‘theoretical’
today. The only kind of unity that is possible in the Middle East is
working class unity across all national, ethnic and religious
boundaries. Only the working classes share a common interest. Beneath
all the prejudice, disappointment and fear, this truth remains.
Suspicion and hatred can be overcome through joint struggle against a
common enemy and for a socialist future. There is no alternative if the
goal is peace and prosperity. All tyrannical regimes in the region must
be overthrown. Only the working class has the strength to accomplish
this, and its strength has grown in the half-century that has passed
since the state of Israel came into being. Today, the majority of Jews
and Palestinians in the region are no longer peasants and farmers but
Marxists in the 1920s, convinced of the need for a joint struggle for
socialism, found ways of uniting Jews and Arabs. They simply followed
the example of the Russian Bolsheviks. Before 1917, Russia was a country
wracked by anti-Jewish pogroms. But in October of that year the Russian
working class massively supported the Bolsheviks, half of whose central
committee members were of Jewish origin.
If the workers used their strength to establish a socialist
federation throughout the Middle East, with self-determination for all
national and ethnic groups, the region’s economic problems could be
solved. Turkey uses only a small part of its water reserves. In pursuit
of a better society for all, people could share Turkey’s water,
Israel’s technological expertise, the sheiks’ riches, the oil, and all
the money that would otherwise be wasted on weapons. The problem is not
a lack of resources but who owns them and how they are used. A region
torn apart by imperialism has to be reunited.
1 From Great Britain. Parliamentary Papers, 1939, Misc. No. 3
2 Ronald Stockton: Teaching the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, 1993
3 Justin McCarthy: Population of Palestine, 1990
4 Yossi Schwarz: Arab-Jewish Workers’ Joint Struggles Prior to the Partition of Palestine, June 2003.
5 The Great Game, 1975
8 Mitchell Bard: The war of 1948, 2003
10 Amnesty International Country Report: Under Constant Medical Supervision, 1996
12 CIA World Fact Book
13 Evert Svensson: Vägen till Palestina, tvĺ folk och ett stycke jord, 2002