Did September 11 mark ‘new stage of world history’?

By Patrick O'Neal, The Militant, Vol.65 No.38, 8 October 2001

Commentators in the media as well as capitalist politicians have struck a constant theme in the aftermath of the September 11 attack: “The day the world changed,” they say. That phrase, taken from the headline of the British Economist magazine, is one example. Washington, London, and other imperialist governments are hoping to convince working people and middle-class layers that a new world has dawned, and that their moves to war in Afghanistan, the militarization of the United States, restrictions on workers' rights and constitutional liberties are being taken simply in response to the attacks in New York and Washington.

The reality, however, is that the response of the Bush administration to the September 11 attacks, far from being a break with the recent past, is consistent with the accelerated trajectory of the handful of superwealthy families who rule the United States over the last decade and a half, under successive Republican and Democratic presidents. The Bush administration has simply seized on the events to try to push further and faster along this course.

Working people will find the origins of the U.S. rulers' war drive and assault on their rights not in the September 11 events, but in the very marrow of the imperialist system, and more specifically in the “mold-shattering changes that swept world politics between the October 1987 near-meltdown of the world's stock markets, and the so-called Mexican peso crisis that hit in December 1994,” as Mary-Alice Waters write in the introduction to Capitalism's World Disorder: Working-Class Politics at the Millennium. The book is a collection of speeches by Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes published by

Pathfinder in 1999. Waters adds:

From the fall of the Berlin Wall to the disintegration of the Stalinist apparatuses in the Soviet Union; from the defeat of the white-minority apartheid regime in South Africa to the strengthening of socialist Cuba's world vanguard role; from the brutal and destabilizing imperialist assault on Iraq to the opening of the twenty-first century Balkan Wars; from the bursting of the Japanese economy's miracle ‘bubble,’ to the sharpening economic and social indigestion suffered by the German capitalist rulers as they tried to swallow whole the east German workers state—the post-World War II pattern of the twentieth century came to a convulsive end.”

1987 stock market crash

The 1987 stock market crash signaled not just the collapse of the balloon of paper values that had built up in the previous half-decade, it also registered the international capitalist economy had entered the downward side in a long curve of capitalist development, as seen in a historic decline in the rate of profit following the end of the postwar expansion and profit boom more than a decade earlier.

“To reenter a road of accelerating and self-feeding capital accumulation, the exploiters must inflict crushing defeats on the working class; drive under giant quantities of the weakest and most outmoded capitals at home and abroad in a ruthless competition for markets and profits; and invest in new industries and technologies that qualitatively expand their productive capacity” said the SWP's 1998 resolution, “What the 1987 stock market crash foretold.”

“This course would require the capitalists to jack up the rate of exploitation of the working class to a degree that could only be achieved by longer hours of work and intense speedup,” the resolution added, which is exactly what the employers pushed to achieve in the 1990s. But to accomplish this, “would require chronic unemployment and defeats of the unions on a massive enough scale to sap workers confidence,” and deal blows to working people around the world, the resolution added.

U.S. imperialism lost the Cold War

The imperialists suffered another objective blow within the next couple of years with the fall of a succession of Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

At first, the U.S. rulers celebrated the defeat of these ruling parties. But, “As time passes, we hear less and less of such triumphalist language,” Barnes wrote in Capitalism's World Disorder. Many capitalist figures had hoped that, with the application of imperialist advice, pressure, and some investment, capitalist property relations would be rapidly reinstated. But experience quickly showed that the conversion to a market economy faced historic obstacles.

Referring to the 1917 overthrow of the rule of the Russian landlords and capitalists, Waters and Barnes wrote in the introduction to New International no. 11, which featured the report “U.S. Imperialism has Lost the Cold War:” “What was opened by the October revolution in Russia cannot be finessed out of history. Capitalism can only be established in those lands through bloody counterrevolution.” Washington's defeat in the Cold War impelled it to prepare, “with cold-blooded awareness, for what it is convinced must eventually be done….The state power of the working class must still be overthrown by military might.”

The U.S. ruling class had maintained the hope that the “Cold War” could wear down the working class and weaken the workers states enough to make it possible over time to move in for the kill. “But they failed,” Barnes says. “The bureaucratic caste was not an adequate surrogate. It had contradictory, not identical interests to those of the imperialists. Most important, it could not defeat the working class in the workers states” nor could it “permanently limit the degree to which the colonial peoples encroached on the prerogatives of capital,” he writes. “And now imperialism, in a much weakened position compared to half a century ago, finds itself still confronting the working classes in these horribly degenerated workers states, as well as the communist-led socialist revolution in Cuba—but without the ability to rely on the massive counterrevolutionary apparatus of Stalinism as a buffer against uncontrolled forces in the world class struggle.”

In pursuit of that objective, Washington has pushed to expand NATO, the European military alliance dominated by the U.S. imperialists, eastward to the very borders of the old Soviet Union. The U.S. rulers' actions have increased conflicts between Washington and its European allies and rivals, as well as within the anything-but-unified European Union.

Meanwhile, the crippling blow dealt to Stalinist regimes, and the parties they sponsored abroad, by the events of the late 1980s, opened the possibility for workers and farmers to begin to link up with their brothers and sisters internationally, and to reknit the continuity with revolutionary communism that had been torn apart by the Stalinist counterrevolutionaries.

“The disintegration of the bureaucratic castes, abandoning all pretense to speak for communism or represent the interests of the working class and its allies internationally, has removed an enormous roadblock that for decades stood in the way of revolutionary fighters finding their way to Marxism,” wrote Waters and Barnes.

Assault on Iraq

As these changes were gaining momentum, Washington organized its massive assault on Iraq, beginning with a several-month embargo and blockade, and building up to a massive offensive by air, land, and sea. It is useful to remember, in face of the hypocritical statements of U.S. ruling figures over the past weeks, that the U.S.-organized “air assaults inflicted massive death and destruction, and 150,000 or more Iraqis were cold-bloodedly massacred during the one-hundred-hour invasion and ‘turkey shoot’ that culminated the war,” said Barnes in Capitalism's World Disorder.

“This slaughter,” said Barnes, “along with similar unreported operations during [the first President] Bush's heroic hundred hours ranks among the great atrocities of modern warfare.”

The refusal of the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein to organize effective national defense—saving its best armed units for the crushing of the national and popular rebellions that followed the war—guaranteed the imperialists a military victory. “Nonetheless,” says Barnes in Capitalism's World Disorder, “The outcome of the Gulf War was not the big victory that Washington initially pretended.” Among other things, Washington had hoped to put far behind it the widespread distrust among working people of capitalist institutions, including the officer corps, and disbelief in their rationale for their brutal military adventures mood often referred to as the “Vietnam syndrome.”

The kind of alliance cobbled together by Washington for that war would not be put together again. An alliance of all the imperialist powers and many bourgeois governments in the Gulf region and Middle East, with open backing in the United Nations Security Council from Moscow and Beijing, had come together to support Washington. But such a combination of powers would never again come to agreement on a war or similar major military operation…. Conflicts will accelerate internationally and open up the next stage of world capitalist disorder.

The failure of Bush's attempts to draw any active support in its “war of terrorism” from other imperialist powers, outside of the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, or to form a pro-war alliance of governments in the Middle East, confirms the accuracy of that assessment.

One of the key political conclusions of Opening Guns of World War III rings particularly true today: “Washington's Gulf war and its outcome did not open up a new world order of stability and UN-overseen harmony,” as claimed by Bush in the first short-lived flush of victory. “Instead,” wrote Barnes, “it was the first war since the close of World War II that grew primarily out of the intensified competition and accelerating instability of the crises-ridden old imperialist world order. It is the increasing internal strains within this declining order that drove Washington to launch its murderous military adventure.”

Clinton—a war president

The administration of Democratic president William Clinton deepened and expanded the course represented by the Gulf War. Under Clinton, the White House pressed towards the greater use of its military forces abroad, and began preparing in earnest for their use alongside other repressive institutions at home, in the expectation of deepening class struggles on U.S. soil.

Speaking in 1993, Barnes described Clinton as “a war president.” “That includes international economic and financial wars that will end up destabilizing capitalism and threatening real wars, as they always have throughout the history of capitalism,” he said in Capitalism's World Disorder. “It will include the cold-blooded use of assaults against oppressed and exploited peoples and nations, in order to further advance Washington's dominant position in the imperialist feeding chain.

“U.S. imperialism will use its weight,” continued Barnes, “be it police power, be it economic coercion, be it grinding pressure on the job, be it threats abroad, be it organizing direct military intervention or precipitating bloody struggles in other countries it pretends to stand above—in order to try to compensate for the disintegration of the stability of an expanding, self-confident capitalist social and economic order…. Economic instability, social dislocation, and political radicalization—right and left: that is what all of us are slowly but surely being pulled into.”

During the eight years of Clinton's rule, U.S. armed forces were sent to Somalia and Yugoslavia; cruise missile attacks were launched on Sudan and Afghanistan, under the pretext of punishing “terrorists” accused of attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa; and regular air strikes were conducted in the no-fly zones imposed on Iraq after the Gulf War—a practice continued by Bush's government.

Attack on workers at home

The Clinton administration was marked by a simultaneous offensive against the rights of working people at home. Federal death penalty laws were demonstratively broadened. Congress bolstered the legislative weaponry at the disposal of the courts and the cops, including powers of indefinite “preventive detention” and measures aimed first at immigrant workers, including the summary deportation of alleged “illegal” immigrants.

Clinton's anti-working-class measures included a 1996 act that gave terrorism a broad definition, raising the prospect of such a charge being leveled against those involved in struggles by unions, farmers, or against imperialist war.

Under the banner of the fight against drugs, Clinton's 1994 crime bill weakened protections provided under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure. The same banner provides the rationale for the buildup of U.S. military involvement in a number of Latin American countries—a buildup aimed at the struggles of workers and peasants against local landlords and capitalists, and the governments that serve them.

In expanding these attacks on democratic rights, Bush has used the full range of legislation introduced by Clinton, from the anti-immigrant measures—some of which have been modified in the face of the dependence of U.S. capitalists on immigrant labor, and under the impact of a succession of equal-rights and other struggles by immigrants and the labor movement—to the death penalty, and frame-up trials of alleged “spies.”

Commenting on these moves in talks published in the Pathfinder title Cuba and the Coming American Revolution, Barnes stated that there is no “reason to anticipate some tidal wave of repression right around the corner. But the U.S. rulers are already shifting gears from the last decade. They know they will face more and bigger battles as international capitalist competition drives them to slash wages, extend the workday, intensify speedup, cut social security protections, and crush the unions. And they are preparing to defend their class interests.”

Before a joint session of Congress September 20, Bush announced the formation of the Office of Homeland Security, a move, like the massive and unprecedented military deployments on U.S. soil over the prior nine days, was prepared under the Clinton administration. The Pentagon changed its structure for the first time during Clinton's presidency to include a North American Command and began training military forces for use inside the United States. Congress authorized the Pentagon in 1999 to place specially trained National Guard units in the largest population centers for possible deployment.

The reality of imperialist rule

Washington's assaults abroad and abrogation of rights at home serve the same end: to maintain the imperialist order and the super profits that it shovels into the pockets of the ruling class. This system exacts a terrible toll on the vast majority of working people of all countries.

“Americans, think why you are hated all over the world” read a banner held by Pakistani working people protesting the looming attack on Afghanistan. Writing earlier this year in the Militant, in a series of articles entitled “Communism and Labor's Transformation of Nature,” Steve Clark noted the enormous disparity of resources across the globe. “Roughly 2 billion people,” he wrote, “have no access to modern energy—either to electricity, or to modern sources of fuel for cooking and heating.”

Altogether the imperialist countries of North America, Europe, and the Pacific, with 14 percent of the world's population, consume 57 percent of the electricity. Excluding Japan and China, on the other hand, the countries of Asia and the Pacific, with 31 percent of the world's population, consume only 10 percent of the electricity; and the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, with nearly 10 percent of the world's population, consume only 1 percent of the electricity.

This system was established through, and has been marked by, a series of brutal wars. Imperialist conflicts took at least 100 million lives in the 20th century.

’We’ and ‘they’

Workers and exploited farmers in the United States have no common interests, in wartime or peacetime, with the imperialist rulers, Barnes explained in “The Opening Guns of World War III.” During the Gulf War, he said, “we explained to our co-workers and others why the U.S. government is not ‘our’ government, but the government of the employers, of the capitalists, of the imperialist exploiters and oppressors of working people the world over—’their’ government.

He returned to this theme in Cuba and the Coming American revolution:

Our class enemy is the capitalists themselves and the two-party system that in the United States serves as the central political prop of their rule. We have no common interests with the capitalists. Everything they try to tell us about “our country,” “our way of life,” “our language,” “our industry,” “our factory” are lies. The “our” is the heart of the lie. It's a diversion aimed at dividing us from those with whom we do have common interests—the workers, farmers, and exploited toilers of all countries. All of us share the same class enemies: the imperialist ruling classes, and the domestic landlords and capitalists dominated by imperialism the world over. That's the only “we” and “they” that has any meaning for working people.

In wartime pressures mount on vanguard workers, farmers, and anti-imperialist fighters to fudge this fundamental question. Let “us” mourn the tragedy “together” goes one refrain often heard in New York, for example. Many forces who claim to speak for the working class and for socialism have adopted that framework.

“The terrorist attack on September 11 has shaken all of us,” said Sam Webb, the national chair of the Stalinist Communist Party, USA, in a September 21 statement. “Indeed, people are questioning long held assumptions that inform how we think about our lives, our families, and our nation's future.” Webb adds, that “no country, not even ours, is an impenetrable fortress able to safeguard people's livelihoods and lives. This lesson has been brought home with enormous force.” This, the CPUSA chair says, signals “a sea change has occurred in our nation's life.”

Sea change in working-class politics

But long before Sept. 11, 2001, workers and farmers in the United States and around the world had already gone through a sea change. In the opening chapter of Capitalism's Word Disorder, entitled “A Sea Change in Working-Class Politics,” Barnes describes the upturn in resistance, and the development of a vanguard of workers and farmers steeled in recent struggles. Speaking in 1998, he contrasts this to the immediate aftermath of the Gulf War.

“Battered by the way imperialism's brutal assault on Iraq ended, without a fight, and lulled by the extension of the Reagan-Bush economic expansion, our class went into retreat for more than half a decade,” he said. This period had passed, said Barnes in the 1998 speech. A sea change in working class politics had already occurred, he emphasized. “The most important aspect of it,” he said, is “that a shift in mass psychology is taking place in the working class in the United States of America”

The sea change had begun by early 1997, at the latest, he said. That's when it became clear that no matter what the legacy—in an industry, in a union, in a region, among any segment of working people—no matter how limited the results of previous struggles, what happens now in any struggle has less and less connection to earlier defeats… A new pattern is being woven in struggle as working people emerge from a period of retreat, resisting the consequences of the rulers' final blow-off boom, of ‘globalization’—their grandiloquent term that displays imperial arrogance while it masks brutal assaults on human dignity the world over. The emerging pattern is taking shape, defined by the actions of a vanguard resisting indignity and isolation, whose ranks increase with every single worker or farmer who reaches out to others with the hand of solidarity and offers to fight together.

As the imperialists accelerate their offensive at home and abroad, the stakes in linking up with this vanguard in formation rise. Seven years earlier, Barnes had described how communist workers tackled the same tasks during the Gulf War. Writing in “Opening Guns of World War III, he explained that in carrying out this campaign against imperialism and its war drive:

We have consciously avoided the political trap of functioning as communist workers in peacetime, and then sliding toward acting as radical pacifists in wartime. We act as the communist component of the vanguard of the working class, at all times and under all conditions. We have been confident that a working-class campaign carried out in this way will be politically attractive to and will draw in fighters—whatever their social background, especially among the youth—who oppose imperialist war, who want to understand the roots of such wars, and who seek ways to act on their convictions.”