Something’s lurking around the corner – but it isn’t a world war
A reader in Greece has sent us the article below. We publish it as informative and a contribution to the discussion about whether the war in Ukraine is likely to lead to a Third World War.
The devastating one-two punch delivered to the world economy by the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russo-Ukrainian war has fuelled fears that World War Three may soon break out. With no other historical event to compare the current crisis to, many take their cue from how World War One killed the first wave of globalisation in 1914 and conclude that the end of our second wave of globalisation is nigh.
Although world trade as a percentage of world GDP is currently down to 52 percent (the same level as in 2009), we are very far from the nadir of 5 percent registered in 1945 at the end of World War Two. Because of the tendency to conflate or confuse the order of historical events, the decline in world trade is incorrectly seen by many to be a harbinger of world war. Yet it was the other way around with the demise of ‘Globalisation 1.0.’ Moreover, World War Two did not erupt immediately after 1918. It took twenty-one years of interwar isolationism, protectionism and the Great Depression to trigger it.
How realistic is the outbreak of a major international war in the foreseeable future? The causes of World War One were imperialism, militarism, nationalism and the alliance system. Although present in the equation today, these factors are considerably less dynamic than they were at the end of the long nineteenth century in 1914. Imperialism has been replaced by transnational organisations and multinational corporations. Militarism is also significantly weaker. If the war in Ukraine is the prelude to World War Three, where is the will to fight on the part of the Russian aggressor? It appears that only the Ukrainians possess this quality. The same may be said about the explosion of nationalism in Ukraine, which is the exception that proves the general rule. Nationalism was necessary for capitalism’s gestation from feudalism with its myriad tariffs and customs barriers that hindered trade. In our technologically connected world, nationalism is an anachronism that has no lasting power against large multinational corporations and transnational organisations like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
When Russia’s oil-and-gas-fuelled economic expansion wound up in 2008, President Vladimir Putin put everyone on a daily diet of Great Russian chauvinism and idiosyncratic imperial revanchism. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels had ten years to work their propaganda. Putin has had a good fourteen—and the efforts bore fruit. Ask the average Russian teenager what they know about the 1917 revolution and they’ll shrug their shoulders. Yet like parrots they’ll repeat that Joseph Stalin saved the planet from fascism in World War Two. Never mind that it was the Soviet people who defeated the Nazis—and not Stalin. The Red Tsar’s purge of the Red Army shortly before the war began and murder of the Soviet Union’s top military minds, his myopia over Hitler’s plans and other blunders that cost the lives of millions of people, make his role in the war much less than heroic, to say the least. Nevertheless, under Vladimir Putin the victory of the Soviet Union against the Third Reich was quickly turned into a hypostasis of the Russian state. Quite tellingly in terms of his intention to attack Ukraine under the pretext of fighting Ukrainian Nazis, Putin had legislation passed in July 2021—just six months before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine—that make it a crime to equate Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler. In a word, the Kremlin uses Hitler to whitewash Stalin.
Kremlin propagandists speak of a ‘sacred national war’ in Ukraine but most Russians, particularly in St. Petersburg, Moscow and other large cities, are ceasing to be idiots—to use the term in the original, ancient Athenian sense of ‘idiotis,’ that is, an individual who does not participate in the common affairs of the demos, or ruling body of free citizens. Russians are waking up from a 22-year slumber. They see that their grey FSB mouse-turned-emperor is naked—and from the waist down this time. Moscow insists that the ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine was imperative in order to pre-empt an attack from NATO. However, increasing numbers of people understand that Putin’s real motive was to distract the public’s attention from a tanking economy and gain ratings through a short, victorious war.
The closest parallel in Russian history to what we are witnessing in Ukraine’s snow-covered fields of fertile chernozem, or black soil, is Tsar Nicholas I’s attempt in 1853 to bolster his regime via a ‘short, victorious war’ in Crimea. The results were catastrophic. The war lasted until 1856, the Imperial Russian Army was soundly defeated, the treasury was drained (leading to the sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867), and Russia’s influence in Europe was seriously undermined. The humiliation in the Crimean War forced Russia’s educated elites to recognise that rapid modernisation was the only way to recover the empire’s status as a European power. This was a catalyst for social reforms in the 1860s, including the abolition of serfdom and the overhaul of the justice system, local self-government, education and military service.
For a world war to be on the cards, a fight between two opponents must swiftly turn into a fight between many. Russia today is more isolated than she has ever been. The Islamic State in the Greater Sahara has more allies than does the pale moth, as Russians pejoratively refer to their president. China is at best a lukewarm ally and even an engagement of NATO forces against Russian troops in Ukraine will not see the Red Dragon leap to Putin’s defence. A war between the United States and China is a non-starter because globalisation has bound the world much more tightly together than it has ever been. Were such a war to start, it would be an armed conflict between a buyer and seller, a consumer and a producer—and all parties would lose. China is a giant with clay feet, as the pandemic of recent protests in cities across the country suggest. Xi Jinping and the elite in Beijing fear worker unrest like death. They know that their privileges—and very survival—depend on their ability to ensure that people are not unemployed.
While a world war may be necessary to kill Globalisation 2.0, it is not an imperative for socialist revolution. In the early 1920s, for instance, a massive workers’ movement developed in Germany. Organised in councils (Arbeiterräte), these people were devoted to a general struggle against exploiters and the seizure of economic power by associations of worker collectives. They opposed patriotic defensism (defence of ‘their country’) and were hostile to all governments, including their ‘own’ leaders in Berlin. The workers’ councils rejected political parties and trade unions, which they regarded as fundamentally anti-democratic because they invariably have leaders who make all the important decisions and followers who do as they are told.
This was also true in Russia, where workers’ councils, or soviets, first appeared in the Revolution of 1905. Unlike political parties or trade unions, they answered to no one but their own collective and their elected representatives were recallable by the majority. The councils held de facto power in working class neighbourhoods in St. Petersburg and Moscow after Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate in February 1917. The rest, as they say, is history. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party came to power on the rising tide of soviets, then quickly swept the workers’ councils off the political stage and replaced them with its own dictatorship—which then morphed in the thirties into Stalin’s personal tyranny. Naturally, the USSR presented itself as anti-capitalist. From the standpoint of capitalists the world over, this was confirmed by the supposed abolition of private property and the free market. From the perspective of Soviet workers themselves, however, their government, though endlessly spewing Marxist phraseology, was in fact a harsh exploiter. This was also felt by the workers in the Communist Bloc, especially when the Soviet Union ordered an armoured division into East Berlin in 1953 to crush a rebellion by East German workers—which set a precedent for the armed interventions in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Whether the Soviet Union was state capitalist or a ‘deformed’ or ‘degenerated’ workers’ state, as some argue, it certainly was no paradise for most people. The USSR had very little in common with socialism, if of course by socialism we mean a society without exploitation and classes. Not for nothing did many Russians call their country the ‘land of the great lie.’ The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was neither a union (Moscow ruled despotically over the regions), nor soviet (the workers’ councils were eliminated), nor socialist (workers’ self-management was destroyed), nor republican (there were no free elections). Every word in this “USSR” was a bald lie.
War is not a necessarily condition for anti-capitalist revolution. Most analysts neglect to mention or are simply unaware of the fact that the revolution in Russia might very well have broken out before the guns sounded in August of 1914. Analysis of the extensive data collected by Tsar Nicholas II’s Factory Inspectorate for the period from 1900 to 1914 shows a sharply rising strike wave, particularly in the empire’s capital, St. Petersburg. In the first six months of 1914 alone some 2 million people went on strike—and their demands were political rather than strictly economic. If anything, the outbreak of WWI seriously dampened the workers’ movement, which picked up again in a big way in 1916 following Russia’s Pyrrhic victory against Austria-Hungary during the Brusilov Offensive.
Recent history is peppered with efforts by workers’ councils to challenge the establishment (both capitalist and ‘communist’) during peacetime. Among others, these include Poland in 1956 and 1980-81 (rady rabotnicze), Mexico in 2011 (comités trabajadores), Hungary in 1956 (szovjetek), Italy in 1968 (consigli di fabbrica), Spain in 1936-37 (comites trabajadores; although formed during a war, this was a civil war), France in 1968 (comités d’entreprise), Czechoslovakia in 1968 (zavodnie rady) and Iran in 1978-79 (shoras).
Neither Moscow nor Kiev can win the war in Ukraine. A prolonged, bloody stalemate is much more likely. This of course is pregnant with grave dangers, and not just for the leaderships of the two belligerent countries. During the early interwar years one hundred years ago, the philosophy behind the League of Nations’ use of sanctions against a recalcitrant Germany was based on the observation during the Great War of how the British naval blockade had led to anti-war demonstrations and strikes in Germany (activities which the Nazis would later deem a ‘stab in the back’). The idea was that by making the Germans suffer economically, they would rise up against their government—as they had in 1918, when Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate and escape to his relatives in Holland. However, the Ruhr Crisis in 1923, and the insane hyperinflation in Germany that ensued, threatened to have quite the opposite result. American trepidation that a socialist revolution might rip Germany asunder and lead to the replacement of the centre-left Weimar government by one openly friendly to the USSR, showed the limits of economic sanctions. In other words, it is far from inconceivable that the current sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s regime may actually trigger unrest and revolution in the West and around the world.
The consequences of this war are enormous and will end up weakening rather than strengthening NATO. The world’s ‘middle class’ is receiving its coup de grace and poor countries will suffer terrible privations, including famine. Social stability will be shattered and there will be anger and polarisation everywhere, especially in China and the United States, where inequality is extreme. Sky-high energy prices and inflation work as a counterincentive to the strengthening of NATO. Most member nations—including the United States, which has clearly forsaken its role as the world’s policeman—do not want to spend more money on keeping the organisation alive.
Instead of the beginnings of a new world war, what we are witnessing is the stage setting for global turmoil and revolution with people in many countries challenging their establishments and demanding drastic change.