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What is the Decisive "Clash" of Our Time?


July 1, 1916, was the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. On that single day, the British suffered more than 50,000 casualties, of which 20,000 died. The battle went on for four months, leading to about a million casualties on all sides, and the war itself continued for another two years.

In the summer of 2006, the Israeli army stopped its attacks on Lebanon after losing about a hundred soldiers. The majority of the U.S. population has turned against the Iraq war after less than 3,000 dead. That indicates a major change in the mentality of the West, and this reluctance to die in large numbers for “God and Country” is a major advance in the history of mankind. From the neoconservative point of view, however, this phenomenon is a sign of decadence; in fact, one of the positive aspects of the present conflict, from their perspective, is that it ought to strengthen the moral fiber of the American people, by making them ready to “die for a cause.”

But, so far, it is not working. More realistic people, the planners at the Pentagon for example, have tried to replace waves of human cannon fodder by massive “strategic” bombing. This works only rarely — in Kosovo and Serbia it did succeed, at least in bringing pro-Western clients to power in both places. But it clearly is not working satisfactorily in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine or Lebanon. The only thing that might succeed, in a very special sense of course, would be nuclear weapons, and the fact that those weapons are the West’s last military hope is truly frightening.

To put this observation in a more global context, Westerners do not always appreciate the fact that the major event of the 20th century was neither the rise and fall of fascism, nor the history of communism, but decolonization. One should remember that, about a century ago, the British could forbid access to a park in Shanghai to “dogs and Chinese.” To put it mildly, such provocations are no longer possible. And, of course, most of Asia and Africa were under European control. Latin America was formally independent, but under American and British tutelage and military interventions were routine.

All of this collapsed during the 20th century, through wars and revolutions; in fact, the main lasting effect of the Russian revolution is probably the Soviet Union’s significant support to the decolonization process. This process freed hundreds of millions of people from one of the most brutal forms of oppression. It is a major progress in the history of mankind, similar to the abolition of slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Still, it is true that the colonial system gave way to the neocolonial one and that most decolonized countries have adopted, at least for the time being, a capitalist form of development. That provides some consolation to the ex-colonialists (and disappointment to the Western left that opposed colonialism). But such sentiments may reflect a misunderstanding of the nature of “socialism” in the 20th century and of the historical significance of the present period.

Before 1914, all socialist movements, whether libertarian or statist , reformist or revolutionary, envisioned socialism, i.e., the socialization of the means of production, as an historic stage that was supposed to succeed capitalism in relatively developed Western societies possessing a democratic state, a functioning education system, and a basically liberal and secular culture. All this disappeared with World War I and the Russian Revolution. After that, the libertarian aspects of socialism withered away, the majority of the European socialist movement became increasingly incorporated into the capitalist system and its main radical sector; the Communists identified socialism with whatever policies were adopted by the Soviet model.

But that model had almost nothing to do with socialism as it was generally understood before the First World War. It should rather be considered as a (rather successful) attempt at rapid economic development of an underdeveloped country, an attempt to catch up, culturally, economically, and militarily, by whatever means necessary , with the West. The same is true of post-Soviet revolutions and national liberation movements. As a first approximation, one can say that all over the Third World, people, or rather governments, have tried to “catch up” either by “socialist” or by “capitalist” means.

But, if one recognizes that aspect, the whole history of the 20th century can be interpreted very differently from the dominant theme about the “socialism that was tried and failed everywhere.” What was tried and actually succeeded (almost) everywhere was emancipation from Western domination. This has inverted a centuries-old process of European expansion and hegemony over the rest of the world. The 20th century has not been the one of socialism, but it has been the one of anti-imperialism. And this inversion is likely to continue during the 21st century. Most of the time, the “South” is strengthening itself, with some setbacks (the period surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union being a time of regression, from that point of view).

This has important consequences for both the Western peace movement and the old issue of socialism. There is some truth to the Leninist idea that the benefits of imperialism corrupt the Western working class ­ not only in purely economic terms (through the exploitation of the colonies), but also through the feeling of superiority that imperialism has implanted in the Western mind. However, this is changing for two reasons. On the one hand, “globalization” means that the West has become more dependent on the Third World: we do not simply import raw materials or export capital, but we also depend on cheap labor, working either here or in export-oriented factories abroad; we “transfer” capital from the South to the North through “debt payments” and capital flight, and we import an increasing number of engineers and scientists. Moreover, “globalization” means that there is a decrease in linkage between the population of the U.S.A. and their elites or their capitalists, whose interests are less and less tied to those of “their” country. Whether the population will react by adopting some pro-imperialist fantasies such as Christian Zionism or “the war against terrorism” or whether it will rather increase its solidarity with the emerging countries of the South, is a major challenge for the future.

On the other hand, the rise of the South means that there is no longer a relationship of military force that allows the West to impose its will, the U.S. defeat in Iraq being the most extraordinary illustration of that fact. Of course, there are other means of pressure ­ economic blackmail, boycotts, buying elections, etc. But countermeasures are increasingly being taken also against those methods, and one should never forget that a relationship of force is always ultimately military ­ without it, how does one get people to pay their debts, for example?

The main error of the Communists is to have conflated two notions of “socialism”: the one that existed before World War I and the rapid development model of the Soviet Union. But the current situation raises two different questions to which two different forms of “socialism” might be the answer. One is to find paths of development in the Third World, or even a redefinition of what “development” means, that do not coincide with either the capitalist or the Soviet model. But that is a problem to be solved in Latin America, Asia or Africa. In the West, the problem is different: we do not suffer from the lack of satisfaction of basic needs that exist elsewhere (of course, many basic needs are not satisfied, but that is a problem of distribution and of political will). The problem here is to define a post-imperialist future for the Western societies, meaning a form of life that would not depend on an unsustainable relation of domination over the rest of the world. Whether one wants to call that “socialism” is a matter of definition, but it would have to include reliance on renewable energy resources, a form of consumption that does not depend on huge imports and an education system that produces the number of qualified people that the nation needs. Whether all this is compatible with the system of private property of the means of production, and a political system largely controlled by those who own those means, remains to be seen.

This establishes a link between the struggle for peace and the struggle for social transformation, because the more we live in peace with therest of the world, the more we give up our largely illusory military power and stop our constant “threats”, the more we will be forced to think about and elaborate an alternative economic order. For the left, the defeat of the U.S.A. in Iraq, tragic as the war is, should be understood as good news; not only is the U.S. cause unjust, but the defeat will, or at least should, bring us to ask some fundamental questions about the structure of our societies and their addiction to an increasingly unsustainable imperialism.

It is a great tragedy that among Greens, at least among the European ones, this link has been totally lost during the Kosovo and the Afghanistan wars, which most of them supported on humanitarian grounds. It is equally tragic that the opposition to the Iraq war in the United States has been virtually non-existent and that the population has turned against the war almost entirely as a result of the effectiveness of the Iraqi resistance. This is partly due to the ideological misrepresentations that have spread widely throughout the left during the period of imperial ideological reconstruction that followed the end of the Vietnam war, specially concerning the “right” to “humanitarian intervention.” The left must clarify its own ideas first and then try to explain to the rest of our societies that we must adapt to an inevitable loss of hegemony. Indeed, there is no real alternative for the West, except to go back to the spirit of Battle of the Somme, but this time armed with nuclear weapons.

JEAN BRICMONT teaches physics in Belgium. He is a member of the Brussels Tribunal. His new book, Humanitarian Imperialism, will be published by Monthly Review Press in February 2007. He can be reached at




JEAN BRICMONT teaches physics at the University of Louvain in Belgium. He is author of Humanitarian Imperialism.  He can be reached at

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