Prior to the French Revolution, in what the French have called the Ancien Régime, not democratic but authoritarian states were the general rule in what was to become known as the Western World, that is, Europe and its “neo-European” overseas possessions. Such states provided the political “superstructure” of the prevailing, centuries-old social-economic system, feudalism, a system whereby a landowning minority of noble and ecclesiastical “lords” – consisting at most of five percent of the population – appropriated most of the wealth generated overwhelmingly by the labour of the majority of the population, the peasants, and partly by a small but growing class of artisans, merchants and other folks living in the cities or “boroughs”, bourg in French and therefore known as bourgeois, burghers. In other words, a tiny minority exploited the majority. The Church tried hard to rationalize this system, but was never able to do so satisfactorily, as demonstrated by the high frequency of peasant rebellions and heretical movements, so the ecclesiastical socialization efforts needed to be complemented by harsh state repression. In other words, maintaining a social-economic system in which a minority exploited the majority, required a repressive, authoritarian, un- and anti-democratic state.
Major anti-feudal, “proto-democratic” movements emerged as early as the Middle Ages, for example, the 14th-century Swiss rebellion against Habsburg rule, associated with folk hero William Tell; the uprising in the Netherlands against the country’s overlord, the absolutist Spanish monarch, in the 16th century; and the movement of the Levellers during the Civil War in England in the mid-17th century. As for the American Revolution, it was really a rebellion by the colonial elite, mostly slaveholders, against the metropolitan authorities in London, and therefore not a genuinely democratic phenomenon; however, its ore did contain some democratic nuggets. Even so, it was the outbreak of the French Revolution, in 1789, that kickstarted the advance – sometimes resembling a march, sometimes a crawl - towards democracy.
The democratization process is unquestionably one of the paramount themes of modern history. Not surprisingly, in mainstream historiography, as in politics, at least in the Western World, that process is often linked to the more or less contemporary emergence and development of capitalism, creating the impression that they are two sides of the same coin, a kind of Siamese twin called democracy-and-free-markets. However, even a cursory critical look at modern history leads to a very different conclusion, namely that capitalism has never been very fond of democracy.
First of all, capitalism was closely associated with, and benefited greatly from, terribly undemocratic practices, during its very beginnings in early modern history, Those practices included conquest of foreign lands, subjugation and wholesale massacres of their inhabitants, theft of their possessions and resources, forced labour, and slavery; they triggered a systematic transfer of riches from the Third World/Global South to the First World/Global North or, more accurately, from the majority of the denizens of the first to a minority of the inhabitants of the latter.
Second, the ideology spawned by capitalism in its 18th-century mercantile manifestation as a kind of codification and justification of capitalist practices, became known as liberalism because it emphasized freedom, not democracy. But freedom is an abstract and vague concept, so about freedom of liberalism we should ask questions such as: whose freedom was it, and freedom to do what? The freedom of liberalism was (and is) not the freedom for everybody to do as she or he pleases and even less to be free from whatever, for instance poverty, but essentially the freedom of the capitalists. But capitalists, the owners of the means of economic production, are always a minority in comparison to the wage-earning workers, who constitute the majority of the population. They are therefore not fond of democracy, a system that purports to empower and benefit the working, wage-earning demos.
That is why the liberal bourgeoisie typically disliked democracy, and why prominent liberal theorists such as Tocqueville and J. S. Mill warned about the dangers of democracy. According to Luciano Canfora, Tocqueville “loved liberty with a passion, . . . but not democracy". In England, the term “democracy” had a pejorative connotation until the end of the 19th century.
However, the European bourgeoisie did support the drive for democracy at least for some time, namely from the start of the French Revolution in 1789 until the end of another revolution in Paris, namely in June 1848. When the “Great Revolution” broke out in 1789, the European bourgeoisie still belonged to the politically powerless majority of ordinary people that was kept under the thumb of the aristocratic-ecclesiastical minority within the political context of feudal, authoritarian, and mostly “absolutist” monarchist states. Consequently, women and men of all ranks of the bourgeoisie participated eagerly in the French Revolution or, outside of France, sympathized with that revolution either openly or secretly. During that “heroic” historical phase of its history, the bourgeoisie, together with artisans and other plebeians, formed a pro-democracy plebeian bloc that challenged the forces of feudalism and fought to achieve democratic reforms.
The bourgeoisie thus developed a phobia with respect to revolution, the principal vector of democracy; it ceased to be a revolutionary class and joined the nobility and the Church in the antidemocratic camp. With the bourgeoisie’s ascension into the elite, the all too brief “heroic” phase of its history came to an end.
Unlike the artisans and other petty bourgeois folks who remained plebeian, the haute bourgeoisie - or upper-middle class - emerged as the major beneficiary of the revolutionary changes brought about by the second revolutionary wave, in 1848. It managed to acquire considerable political power and became a partner of the nobility (and the Church) in a new, hybrid kind of ruling class. But during the revolutions of 1848 it also became clear to the haut-bourgeois industrialists, bankers, etc. that their plebeian partner in the revolutionary struggles, the urban working class, which had pulled most of the chestnuts out of the revolutionary fires, wanted even more radical democratic reforms; and these reforms included changes that contravened the bourgeoisie’s liberal principles and threatened its newly acquired power and privileges. (Even the abolition of slavery, one of the great revolutionary achievements, was opposed by the bourgeoisie as a violation of the rights of property-holders.) The bourgeoisie thus developed a phobia with respect to revolution, the principal vector of democracy; it ceased to be a revolutionary class and joined the nobility and the Church in the antidemocratic camp. With the bourgeoisie’s ascension into the elite, the all too brief “heroic” phase of its history came to an end.
In most countries - still typically monarchies, though no longer of the absolutist type - the bourgeois gentlemen, now bankers and industrialists and such, were happy to leave the bulk of the political power in the hands of the nobility, while they focused on accumulating wealth and, with it, economic power. What they shared with the noble lords (and the Church prelates) was a common enemy, the poor, restless and potentially revolutionary lower orders, the “dangerous classes”, the folks described by Edmund Burke, in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, as the “swinish multitude”, and feared in France as les classes dangereuses, the “dangerous classes”. The bourgeoisie found it reassuring to have on its side the aristocracy, the class that traditionally yielded the army commanders and high-ranking officers, folks who were available and keen to report for counterrevolutionary and antidemocratic duty at any time and had much experience in the field. After all, by 1848 it had become clear not only that the cause of democracy advanced primarily via revolution, but also that the most effective weapon against revolution, and therefore a most useful antidemocratic instrument, was war.
Military might could be used to simply crush revolutions, of course, as the Russian and Habsburg potentates did in 1848 in Milan, Budapest, and other cities, to the great relief and satisfaction of the well-to-do burghers. But military service and martial pursuits in general, in one word: militarism, also made it possible or easier to instill respect for authority in folks of the lower orders, to neutralize potential revolutionaries by submitting them to military discipline and/or physically removing them to distant battlefields, and to displace the people’s revolutionary aspirations with nationalist fervour by redirecting their attention from domestic class enemies to foreign foes. (Napoleon had domesticated the French Revolution that way.)
The rather antidemocratic forces of militarism and nationalism were thus to be favoured and stimulated by the bourgeoisie as well as the aristocratic and ecclesiastical pillars of the upper class in the era between 1848 and 1914. Waging war or even just preparing for it, favoured the aristocracy, traditionally the “warrior class”, but increasingly also the bourgeoisie, whose industrialists – like Krupp – made plenty of money by mass-producing modern weapons as “military-industrial complexes” emerged in most countries. Increasing military expenditures, often requiring huge loans benefiting bankers, would over time also prove useful by making it possible to declare many demands for democratic change to be unaffordable: as Göring was later to say, “guns” were more important than “butter”. (President Truman similarly declared during the Cold War that the US could not afford both health care and rearmament.)
In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and it functioned as the catalyst of a transition from burgeoning mercantile to booming industrial and financial capitalism, making bourgeois bankers and industrialists considerably richer and more powerful. But the Industrial Revolution also stimulated the growth of a working class, henceforth increasingly consisting of industrial workers occupied massively in factories rather than artisans active in small numbers in manufactures or workshops. It was under the auspices of this wage-earning, propertyless working class, a demos increasingly referred to as the “proletariat”, motivated by socialism and antagonistic to capitalism, that advances towards democracy continued to be made after the repression of the revolutions of 1848.
The situation of the working class was rapidly changing in comparison to 1789 and 1848. The workers now had a program, an ideology, a socialist ideology, and they were getting organized. Indeed, increasing numbers of them were joining socialist (or “social-democratic”) political parties that subscribed to the socialism of Karl Marx. While they also pursued democratic reforms, such as the introduction of universal suffrage, the socialists made it clear that the “great transformation” they longed for was to be brought about by means of – what else? - revolution. Revolution was unavoidable because capitalist exploitation triggered an increasing pauperization that would ultimately cause the proletariat to overthrow the system: thus spoke Karl Marx.
During the second half of the 19th century, and until 1914, the situation increasingly resembled the pre-1789 Ancien Régime in that a rich, powerful, and privileged minority, this time consisting of a fusion of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, again dominated and exploited a poor and oppressed majority, causing that majority to look for a way to “break its chains”. Aware of the danger, and determined to defend its wealth, power, and privileges, the patriciate consisting of the aristocratic-bourgeois tandem or “symbiosis”, to use a term coined by Joseph Schumpeter, typically retrenched in authoritarian states, mostly powerful, still quasi-feudal empires, to protect itself against a plebeian majority that seemed determined to achieve its democratic aspirations via revolution. To combat revolutionary movements, these states did not hesitate to resort to bloody repression, as Russia’s tsarist empire had demonstrated in 1848 and was to demonstrate again in 1905. But even less authoritarian states, such as France’s bourgeois Third Republic, did not hesitate to spill blood, as exemplified by the ruthless repression of a popular and indeed democratic uprising in the French capital in 1871, the Paris Commune.
In quite a few countries, however, the bourgeois-aristocratic upper class opted for a different approach. It introduced reforms of the kind demanded by the socialists, in some cases even including universal suffrage, but the potentially significant democratic impact of these measures was diminished, if not entirely neutralized, by a variety of stratagems, including censitary suffrage, single-member voting districts in case universal suffrage could not be avoided, unelected parliamentary upper chambers, and bureaucratization. This adoption of democratic style, but not substance, created an illusionary, fake democracy, a phenomenon we like to designate with a neologism: pseudomocracy. France, Britain, and virtually all other Western countries eventually adopted this system.
Pseudomocracy was predestined for a long career; it is still very much with us today, as was confirmed by a recent study showing the US not to be a democracy but an oligarchy, an oligarchy of extremely rich folks, a plutocracy, but made to look like, and claiming to be, a democracy. However, whenever faux democracy failed to perform its latent anti-democratic function as expected and the capitalist bourgeoisie and its aristocratic and ecclesiastical partners within the upper class perceived their wealth and power to be threatened, they did not hesitate to dispense with pseudomocratic ceremonial, throw off the mask of democracy, and turn to outright dictatorship. This happened in Italy in 1922, Germany in 1933, Spain in 1936, Indonesia in 1965, Greece in 1967, Chile in 1973 - and in [the rest of] Latin America and the Caribbean on countless occasions.
The historical circumstances in which the cause of democracy received support or encountered opposition and thus advanced, stalled, or regressed, changed drastically towards the end of the 19th century as capitalism, originally a European phenomenon, morphed into a worldwide manifestation, imperialism. This involved the colonization – or, as in the case of China, “semi-colonization” – of countless countries in what was to become known as the Third World or Global South. And it implied the ruthless exploitation and oppression of millions of people – as well as an occasional genocide. The landowning aristocratic and capitalist bourgeois gentlemen who ruled the Western world in either blatantly authoritarian or pseudomocratic fashion were now masters of virtually the entire world.
A small minority of rich and powerful men - Western, white men – henceforth lorded it over hundreds of millions of almost exclusively coloured folks, and the members of the globe’s super-rich “1 percent” are today virtually exclusively denizens of the Western world. In that exploitative and repressive worldwide system, there was no room for any form of democracy, not even pseudomocracy. Any attempt by the “natives” to formulate or pursue democratic demands, in other words, to oppose colonial rule, was met with harsh repression, even quasi-genocidal repression, as in the case of the insufficiently meek Hereros who were virtually exterminated by Namibia’s German masters in the early 1900s. Capitalism had not furthered the emergence of democracy in the European heartland of the Western world, where it was born, and it did not develop a fondness for democracy when it matured in England and elsewhere in that same corner of the world. But when it donned the mantle of imperialism and became a worldwide system, it became über-antidemocratic.
As it morphed into a worldwide, imperialist manifestation, capitalism became extra undemocratic because imperialism involved expropriating and exploiting millions of colonial denizens, a most undemocratic practice, on an unprecedented scale. This super-exploitation, disastrous for millions, generated super-profits, and a modest part of these could be, and was, used to pay higher wages and otherwise improve the working and living conditions of proletarians in the metropoles. This “social imperialism” satisfied many of the “reformist” socialists’ demands, and it also created plentiful opportunities for lower-class white folks to achieve relative prosperity and social ascent via careers in the colonial armies and administrations, and as missionaries, careers that also enabled them to feel superior to the coloured natives. In the Western heartland of imperialism, rather than being increasingly pauperized, as Marx had predicted, the working class thus morphed into a relatively prosperous “labour aristocracy” that abandoned its revolutionary aspirations in favour of “reformism”, that is, the pursuit of even more improvements of their lot within the established order.
The reformist socialists’ leaders as well as rank-and-file sensed that their “betterment” had been made possible by the super-exploitation involved in imperialist expansion. And so did the petty bourgeoisie, which likewise shared in the benefits of imperialism, a petty bourgeoisie into whose ranks many socialists were in fact ascending. (This embourgeoisement of the socialists was famously described by a contemporary sociologist, Robert Michels.) In Europe, at least in the continent’s imperialist heartland, the plebeians thus internalized the imperialist ethos, including a variety of racism, namely white supremacy. (It must be acknowledged that the socialists never espoused anti-Semitism, which – together with white supremacy - tended to infect the aristocracy and bourgeoisie.) The white-supremacist variety of racism made it possible to rationalize the great misery, long at home in Europe but exported, so to speak, to the colonies as the result of the natural inferiority or at least backwardness of their coloured denizens; it simultaneously obfuscated the real reason for poverty in the Global South, namely imperialist exploitation. Capitalism in its imperialist manifestation thus not only did not export democracy to the colonies, but even managed to impair the democratic impulses of plebeians in the imperialist metropoles by propagating racism.
While continuing to pay lip service to the need for unity among proletarians and to push for democratic progress within the imperialist metropoles, the reformist socialists displayed no solidarity whatsoever with coloured proletarians. They never took any action to promote democracy in the colonies, though they did occasionally speak out against the most glaring abuses of colonialism. In the US, white workers, including socialists, similarly failed to display solidarity with Blacks or, for that matter, with the Amerindian population. The democracy they pursued was a democracy for the white man only, for “Nordic people’, and not for presumably inferior coloured people, a “Herrenvolk-democracy” in which Blacks were “de facto disenfranchised”. Within the West’s working class, social imperialism promoted not only the white-supremacist version of racism, but also nationalism. The reason for that was that the labour aristocracy tended to credit the “fatherland” for the improvements in its lot. This explains why, in 1914, not all, but most socialists of the belligerent countries were to rally behind the flag.
By generating unprecedented profits, diminishing the revolutionary ardour of the socialists, and integrating much (but not all) of the lower class into the established order, imperialism showered the Western world’s upper class with considerable benefits. It also strengthened this demographic minority’s intrinsically vulnerable position vis-à-vis the popular masses, of which a part remained restless and potentially revolutionary, as exemplified by the socialists who continued to believe in the need for, and inevitability of, revolution. Not surprisingly, the latter were particularly numerous in Southern- and Eastern-European countries that did not participate, or were less successful, in imperialism’s great worldwide robbery, including Russia; Lenin was their most famous example. Later on, these revolutionary, rather than reformist, socialists would become known as communists.
But even for the elite, imperialism also had a very dangerous dark side. It generated jealousy, rivalry, tension, and conflict among the great imperialist powers in general, and ultimately between two blocs of great powers. And this in an era when the fashionable ideology of social Darwinism promoted the idea of “survival of the fittest”, the notion that competition and conflict led to either glorious triumph or disastrous defeat. As we have seen, this situation inevitably led to war, to what was to be known as the Great War. However, in each country, the upper class looked forward to war for two reasons. First, each side was convinced that it was certain to win but that time was not on its side, so that it was better to settle the issue sooner, rather than later. And the second reason involved considerations with respect to democracy and revolution.
The Belle Epoque, thus called because the rich were becoming richer thanks to imperialism, was actually a time of increasing misery for European plebeians except the privileged labour aristocracy, and the imperialist heartland was rocked by demonstrations, riots, and massive strikes. Revolution was in the air again, and socialist parties, which had never officially abandoned their revolutionary goals, tormented the upper class with ever-escalating demands for new political or social reforms, including universal suffrage where it did not yet exist; and they made electoral gains wherever the elite had found it necessary to widen the suffrage. It is now obvious that the socialists’ demands for reform were democratic but far from revolutionary; even so, they were perceived to be threatening by burghers as well as lords and prelates. As the socialists scored major electoral victories in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, it was feared that even pseudomocratic stratagems might not prevent them from coming to power sooner or later and carry out their revolutionary designs.
In this tense situation, the upper class, the bourgeoisie as well as the nobility and the Church, started to view war as the solution - the only, the definitive or, to use Hitler’s expression, the final solution - to the mounting problems. Even to the most peace-loving burgher or lord, it looked as if a race was on between war and revolution. If revolution was to win, it would be the end of their wealth, power, and privileges, the end of their world. If, on the other hand, war was to prevail, it would mean the end of the revolutionary menace. Consequently, war was longed for by the elite and welcomed with great relief when it finally came in the summer of 1914.
The Great War, then, was an ambiguous affair. On the one hand, it was an imperialist war, a fight for supremacy between two antagonistic blocs of imperialist powers. But it was also, and arguably primarily, a war to avoid revolution and to counter democracy, it was the upper-class’s great counterrevolutionary and antidemocratic project. But to openly admit this, was impossible. That is why rationalizations were conjured up, that myths were created. The most famous of these myths was the notion that it was the “war to end [all] wars” and, above all, the myth inspired by President Wilson’s cynical proclamation that it was a war for democracy. The utter falsehood of this claim appears clearly from two facts. First, the side that supposedly represented democracy in 1914 included Europe’s most authoritarian empire, Russia, while Britain was arguably less democratic than Germany with its already developed social services and even universal suffrage, the latter admittedly emasculated by pseudomocratic subterfuges such as governmental accountability to the emperor, rather than the people’s representatives. Second, the fact that, in the Middle East, Britain followed up its victory by stamping out of the ground some extremely undemocratic, quasi-medieval states such as Saudi Arabia, while co-victor France ruthlessly crushed a popular movement to establish a democratic and bilingual state in Alsace.
As a counterrevolutionary and antidemocratic project, the Great War proved to be an utter failure. First, the conflict “pauperized” the lower class, even the “labour aristocracy”, thus triggering revolution, as Marx had predicted. In Russia, a major revolution broke out in 1917 - and succeeded. The Russian Revolution and its fruit, the anticapitalist and anti-imperialist Soviet state, were to bring about many changes that benefited the great mass of working people, women, and ethnic minorities. How? First, while the Soviet Union certainly never qualified as a Western-style liberal democracy, it undoubtedly advanced the cause of socially focused democracy and considerably increased the standard of living of its population during the approximately seven decades of its existence. Second, the Russian Revolution triggered revolutionary and quasi-revolutionary situations in many other countries between 1917 and 1919, popular mass movements that forced the ruling upper classes to quickly introduce major democratic reforms of a social as well as political nature, such as universal suffrage and the eight-hour workday, to lower the revolutionary pressure. It was a major irony of history that the Great War thus delivered revolution and a surfeit of democracy to an elite that had expected it to eliminate the revolutionary menace and arrest and even roll back the democratization process.
However, the Western world’s upper class - still a duo, but henceforth with the capitalist bourgeoisie high in the saddle and the aristocracy as shield-bearer - was determined to undo that outcome, to claw back the democratizing concessions it had made only reluctantly, namely to avoid a worse scenario, all-out revolution à la russe. It proved able to do so because the democratic innovations that had been introduced, such as universal suffrage, had left intact most of the pseudomocratic steel frames erect behind democratic facades. In Weimar Germany, for example, arguably Europe’s most democratically advanced state after the Great War, the upper class remained solidly ensconced in the executive, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, the police, as well as the army – and also retained its control of most of the mass media. Even so, businessmen and bankers, the Reich’s capitalists par excellence, as well as large landowners, university professors, and other upper-class folks ardently wished, and worked for, the return of 24-carat authoritarian state structures such as the former Hohenzollern empire. They hated real democracy, put up only reluctantly with pseudomocracy, and longed for a truly authoritarian system.
In many countries, the elites did manage, sooner or later, to substitute more-or-less democratic governments with old-fashioned dictatorships. Unsurprisingly in view of what we have seen earlier, this tended to involve high-ranking military personalities, often of aristocratic background, such as Horthy in Hungary and Pilsudski in Poland. However, it was often found to be more opportune to install dictators that did not so obviously smack of pre-1914 ancien régimes such as those of the Habsburgs or the Hohenzollerns, regimes that may have been recalled with nostalgia by the upper class but definitely not by the popular masses.
It is in this context that the upper class discovered the usefulness of anti-democratic and counterrevolutionary movements collectively known as fascism. The origins of these movements may be traced back to “proto-fascist” militias such as the “free corps” that had been instrumental in suppressing the revolution of 1918-1919 in Germany. They were antidemocratic to the core, but in the typically pseudomocratic postwar settings, featuring universal suffrage, they were capable of drumming up a good measure of popular support, if only among the petty bourgeoisie. Why? Unlike the conservative parties that had traditionally enjoyed the elite’s favour, the fascist movements were led by “charismatic” plebeian types. These personalities, typically former socialists or front soldiers, had internalized the upper-class ethos, but they could speak the language of the people; and enhanced their popular appeal by falsely claiming to lead movements that were anti-establishment, anticapitalist, “socialist”, even “revolutionary”.
The first fascist leader to be catapulted into power by his country’s upper class, already in 1922, was Mussolini. But it was after the onset of the Great Depression, in late 1929, that fascists would become particularly useful to the upper classes and therefore enjoy their support and, where possible, be brought to power by them. This continued throughout the following decade which, in the US, was to be called the “dirty thirties” because of the crisis but also as the “red thirties”. “Red” because, as in most of Europe, ordinary Americans increasingly proved to be impressed by the industrial and social achievements of the Soviet Union and attracted to its revolutionary socialist ideology, henceforth known as communism.
Thus returned the revolutionary menace that had haunted upper-class gentlemen (and ladies too) before 1914; it seemed to them that fascism, politically the binary opposite of communism, was the perfect instrument for eliminating that menace. As we have seen, thanks to elite support, and sometimes thanks to support from already existing fascist regimes, fascists were able to come to power in many if not most European countries. They replaced democracies, or rather, pseudomocracies, in which the upper class had found it difficult to remain in control and was traumatized by fear of red revolution. Wherever fascists came to power, the reds were ruthlessly eliminated politically and even physically, and the upper-class twin of aristocracy and bourgeoisie could breathe easily again, as in the good old authoritarian days such as those of Kaiser Billy.
Better still, in the bigger countries the fascists also proved to be imperialists on steroids, and their imperialist policies generated sumptuous benefits for capitalists, including huge orders for weaponry and bank loans to finance armament programs. Fascist imperialist ambitions also raised the prospect of conquering (or reclaiming) territories, within and without Europe, desirable because bursting with important raw materials and available as exclusive markets for industrial products and investment capital.
Fascism, then, a most undemocratic phenomenon in theory as well as practice, partnered wonderfully with the capitalism of industrialists and bankers because it stimulated production and profitability in addition to eliminating a revolutionary menace that appeared particularly threatening in the context of the Great Depression.
Eliminating the (real or perceived) red menace domestically, as Hitler did in Germany, was greatly appreciated by capitalists in Germany and watched with satisfaction by capitalists in other countries. But the neutralization of communism in individual countries did not rid international capitalism of an unwanted “counter-system”. This socialist alternative to capitalism was the Soviet Union, fruit of the great Russian Revolution of 1917. And its existence was all the more resented because in the 1930s the Soviets’ socialist experiment was actually doing very well: it experienced a kind of Industrial Revolution and did not suffer from mass unemployment, while the capitalist world remained mired in the Great Depression, seemingly with no exit in sight. This caused increasing numbers of denizens of the Western world, including intellectuals and other middle-class folks, to believe that capitalism was doomed and the future belonged to socialism.
And so, while prior to 1914 the revolution feared by the upper class had only been a chimera, in the interbellum the word became flesh, so to speak, that is, the revolutionary menace revealed itself to be incarnated in a country, a big and increasingly strong country, the Soviet Union.
Before 1914, Europe’s elite had believed that war would pre-empt revolution. Now, in the 1930s, they hoped for a war to destroy the embodiment of revolution, the Soviet Union. But the fiasco of the armed intervention of Britain, France, etc., in revolutionary Russia had demonstrated to the leaders of these countries that their own populace was not willing to supply the required cannon fodder for such a “crusade” and all too many of their plebeians sympathized with the Soviets.
It is also in this respect that fascism proved to be useful, especially Germany’s national-socialist variety. Hitler was more than eager, as he had first made clear in Mein Kampf, published in the early 1920s, that he was determined to use the military might of the Reich to destroy the Soviet Union and thus to rid international capitalism of its great nemesis. And the German industrialists, bankers, and other pillars of the upper class were only too happy to collaborate in this project, since the destruction of the Soviet state was to provide the highly industrialized German heartland with a “complementary territory” featuring plenty of natural resources, even petroleum, as well as an inexhaustible pool of cheap “native” manpower, in other words, an über-colony to be exploited ad libitum, comparable to Britain’s India and America’s Wild West,
It is with this scenario in mind that the leaders of Europe’s two major democratic, or rather, pseudomocratic powers, Britain and France, conjured up the contorted so-called appeasement policy. They started by allowing Hitler to rearm the Reich to the teeth, thus violating the Versailles Treaty with impunity, and later let him expand and strengthen Germany by annexing Austria and other territories to the East. The intention was to encourage and facilitate Hitler’s great eastern ambition while pretending, for the benefit of public opinion, to make concessions to preserve the peace. This policy reached its nadir in the Munich Agreements of 1938. However, the appeasement policy’s contradictions eventually raised Hitler’s suspicions and caused him to seek a temporary arrangement with the Soviets, which materialized in the guise of the infamous 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov or Hitler-Stalin Pact.
The association of capitalism with antidemocratic fascism in general, and Nazism in particular, thus led directly to the Second World War. The notion that it was all the fault of Hitler, of Hitler alone, assisted by a few other criminals, is a myth, actively promoted, as we have seen, in Germany, where it serves to obfuscate the historical fact that the German upper-class not only put Hitler in power and benefited from his dictatorship, but also profited handsomely from his crimes and from a war he may be said to have unleashed on their behalf. But the British and French elites are also far from blameless in the matter, since their convoluted appeasement scheme, encouraging Hitler’s plans for aggression against the Soviet Union, actually triggered the war.
It is to divert attention from this nasty fact that it has become customary in the Western world to ignore the shameful Munich “pact” and loudly proclaim the signing of the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union as the Big Bang of World War II. In reality, it was thanks to this pact that the Soviet Union was to survive the Nazi onslaught that came in 1941 and ultimately defeat Nazi Germany - for the good of all of Europe and the entire world.
In the meantime, the war proved to be an excellent affair for the capitalists of most if not all belligerent countries, even those that ended up on the losing side. Factors such as looting occupied countries and the massive use of slave labour made it possible for German corporations and banks to make plenty of money until the bitter end, and they could survive defeat in 1945 without major damage, at least in the western (and largest) part of the country, thanks to an American connection that we have explored in other studies. In occupied countries such as France and Belgium, industrialists and bankers (and wine-dealers!) accumulated unseen riches by producing for – in other words, collaborating with - the Germans who, respectful of the rules of capitalism, paid the bills. Collaborating capitalists also took full advantage of the socially regressive policies imposed by the Nazis, including a low-wage policy and the elimination of labour unions. As Annie Lacroix-Riz has demonstrated in a recent analysis of the “purge” (épuration) of French collaborators in 1944-1945 and the persistent myths about its severity, the historical reality is that French capitalists also managed to survive unscathed the inglorious departure of their Nazi customer and “tutor”; some highly visible exceptions merely confirm that general rule.
American industrialists and bankers also did exceptionally well thanks to a war that created a solution for the Great Depression’s key conundrum, insufficient demand, and rapidly revived the US economy. At first it was not even necessary for the country to become actively involved in a conflict that was originally mostly European. Sales and bank loans first to Britain, and later to other countries, allies of Britain, facilitated by the system of Lend-Lease, boosted production and profitability to unprecedented levels; and the conditions attached – to be “carved in stone” by the 1944 Bretton Woods Agreement - ensured that Britain and other Lend-lease customers would maintain an “open door” for US products and investment capital, thus ending up in a position of subordination to US imperialism. The international capitalist order that was to emerge from World War II was thus to reflect the same undemocratic relations that characterized the hierarchical domestic situation within each capitalist country: domination of the rich and powerful, and subordination of the others. The notion that, like 1914-1918, 1939-1945 was a crusade for democracy, is a fantasy.
The war also allowed the many branch plants of US corporations that had settled in Germany after World War I to register even higher profits than those already achieved prior to 1939, mostly thanks to the production of weapons and other materiel needed by Hitler’s war machine. And at least until Pearl Harbor, American oil trusts earned fortunes supplying the Nazis with much of the fuel needed by the panzers to roll all the way to the outskirts of Moscow and later, but only one-way, to Stalingrad. By the end of the war, a huge part of Germany’s industrial assets was in fact American-owned, or else owned by German partners of US corporations; and they were remarkably intact, since – surprisingly? - US and British bombers had preferred to lay their lethal eggs on the densely inhabited and more easily identifiable nests of urban working-class districts, thus castigating the victims, rather than the enablers and beneficiaries, of the Hitler-regime.
It is hardly surprising that, at war’s end, the US government and occupation authorities in Germany, teeming with corporate types, proved determined to save German capitalism and German capitalists, including high-ranking Nazis, even war criminals, with whom wonderful business had been done. A long, but still too short, chapter of this book focused on this intriguing aspect of the war. But the Western media, Western historiography, and Hollywood mostly ignore it in favour of the plethora of feel-good myths about the second Great War.
War is anti-democratic in many ways, but first and foremost because it means misery and death mostly for ordinary people, for “the many” of the demos; and World War II did exactly that. But for the upper-class “few”, for oligoi such as industrialists and bankers, that conflict revealed itself to be a wonderful cornucopia of profits. In the US, the upper class benefited in yet another way from the Armageddon of 1939-1945, and it did so already long before its own country entered it in the final month of 1941. By stimulating production, the war also eliminated unemployment and brought the working class plenty of jobs that were well-paid not thanks to the generosity of the employers but thanks to bottom-up pressure in the form of “collective action”, mainly strikes. Having to pay higher wages – except to Black workers, for whom the unions continued to do preciously little – was something the bosses hated, but it did not prevent them from pocketing huge profits. And they benefited from the fact that the end of the depression and its misery took the wind out of the sails of the many Americans who had clamoured for radical if not revolutionary change during the “red thirties”.
American industrialists and bankers had nothing against Hitler and his Nazism. His racism did not bother them, most of them were racist themselves, virtually all of them were white supremacists, and many were also anti-Semites. One of the most famous “captains of industry” was Henry Ford, who had popularized judeo-bolshevism in a blatantly anti-Semitic book that had provided Hitler with much inspiration. The US elite undoubtedly regretted that the German dictator had started a war not against the despised Soviet Union but against Poland, Britain, and France. However, thanks to his war, their branch plants in Germany were doing wonderful business, even better than they had already done thanks to him before 1939. From the vantage point of the US upper class, the war raging in Europe was wonderful. Uncle Sam himself did not even have to participate in it, and had no plans to do so, even though a faction of the elite, including President Roosevelt himself, sympathized with Britain.
The US had prepared plans for war against a number of countries, but Nazi Germany was not one of them. War against Germany was unwanted and unplanned, but Japan was a different kettle of fish. War against America’s great rival for imperialist supremacy in China and the rest of the Far East had been planned and was very much wanted. As we have argued in a book focused on the role of the US in World War II, The Myth of the Good War, such a war was unleashed through provocation and deceit. It was supposed to be a short, easy, and victorious “splendid little war”. But Washington had greatly underestimated the Japanese; even more importantly, Pearl Harbor unexpectedly caused Hitler to declare war on the US. Clearly, then, the US stumbled into war against Nazi Germany. And while Uncle Sam’s contribution to the victory against Nazi Germany, an extremely undemocratic foe, was to constitute an important effort on behalf of the democratic cause, objectively speaking, it is obvious that he did not join the war against Hitler for the sake of democracy, freedom, justice, and so forth, as Hollywood was to try very hard to have us believe.
In the Western world, the landings in Normandy in June 1944 are generally considered to be the turning point of the Second World War. In reality, the tide of war had already turned in the second half of 1941, when the Soviets’ unexpectedly tough resistance slowed down and eventually halted the German Blitzkrieg, culminating in the Red Army’s counter-offensive launched on December 5, 1941, a few days before Pearl Harbor. But very few people were aware of that. However, a little more than one year later, after Nazi Germany’s crushing defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, the entire world knew that Hitler’s Reich was doomed. When the Western allies came ashore on Normandy’s beaches in June 1944, they did so less to defeat Nazi Germany than to prevent the Soviets from doing the job single-handedly and probably occupying all of Germany and liberating virtually all of Europe in the process.
As it became obvious that the defeat of Nazi Germany was near, the American leaders increasingly felt that they had stumbled into the wrong war, that they were fighting against “the wrong enemy”, Hitler-Germany, with on their side “the wrong ally”, the Soviet Union. After all, Hitler-Germany’s reactionary, undemocratic, and racist Nazi ideology did not really offend capitalist-imperialist sensibilities and was in fact quite compatible with the white-supremacist values espoused discreetly by most American leaders but quite openly by high-profile personalities like General Patton. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, had always been, and continued to be, abominated as the incarnation of revolutionary socialism, as an unwanted counter-system to capitalism, and as an obstacle to imperialist expansion.
The Soviets had been useful allies, and their Red Army had been extremely successful, but they had paid a very high price. The “Anglo-Americans”, on the other hand, had not suffered similar losses, had been able to build up their strength, and, unlike the Soviets, had a powerful fleet of bombers. Under these circumstances, Washington and London felt that they were able (and entitled) to decide the fate of post-war Germany and the rest of Europe with no, or only minimal, input from Moscow. It was to show who would be the boss that, under the noses of the Soviets, so to speak, Dresden was wiped off the face of the earth by American and British bombers. And it was for the same purpose that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were to be obliterated six months later. In the US and Britain, these massacres were deemed useful by a handful of decision-makers, a few men at the very top of the elite, but abhorred by the common people, or at least by many of them; in Germany and Japan, hundreds of thousands of members of the demos were victimized by these strikes, while the ruling elites were largely unaffected. Bombing, as practised during the Second World War, was a most undemocratic affair.
The plans for post-war Europe that were being concocted in Washington - with increasingly less input from Britain, henceforth a junior partner of the US – were very different from what the men in the Kremlin had in mind. If the Red Army had liberated all of Europe, the Soviets would certainly have authorized the implementation of radical, quasi-revolutionary changes planned by resistance fighters in occupied countries ranging from Greece via Yugoslavia and Italy to France and beyond, for whom a mere return to the prewar order was not an option. These plans were not in the interest of “the few”, especially the industrialists and bankers and other members of the elite who had been filofascists and Hitler-appeasers in the 1930s and who had gone on to prosper by collaborating with the Germans, a sin for which retribution was certain to be exacted. But they were definitely in the interest of “the many”, that is, the ordinary, wage-earning working people. The implementation of these plans would therefore have signified a major advance for the cause of democracy. The presumably un- and anti-democratic Soviets would have had no reason to oppose these democratic changes, since they would have been very radical, if not revolutionary, and likely to involve the introduction of some form of socialism. Such a scenario did in fact unfold in Yugoslavia, where Tito’s anti-fascist partisans conjured up a revolutionary political and social-economic system that would be described as “communism with a human face”.
Unlike the Soviets, the Americans (and British) had no reason to be pleased with the democratic plans of the resistance movements. For liberators coming from the “land of the free”, a country that considers itself to represent the nec plus ultra of democracy, it would of course have been appropriate to allow this democratic bottom-up process to unfold in countries whence they chased the Nazis, but this is not what happened.
The American liberator acted more like a new occupying power, as Charles de Gaulle remarked on one occasion, and obstructed the incipient democratic process as much as possible. The general reason for that was that the US leaders sympathized with Europe’s upper-class folks, mostly capitalists like themselves, and were determined to save capitalism in Europe despite its intimate association with fascism; and that implied opposing any reforms, no matter how democratic, with the slightest anticapitalist flavour. The radical, quasi-revolutionary programs of the resistance movements – and of antifascists in general - threatened to trigger major losses, and perhaps even ruin, for banks and corporations. The latter had done well under the auspices of home-grown fascist regimes or Nazi occupation authorities and were not happy that the democratic sun was rising again, so they looked to the American liberators for relief.
Unsurprisingly, in the countries they liberated – first Italy, in 1943 already, then, in 1944, France, Belgium etc., the Americans and British were quick to disarm and politically neutralize the resistance, preventing them from implementing their radical programs, no matter how popular. Conversely, they protected the fascists and Nazi collaborators who had been so good for business, including the business of US banks and corporations with branch plants in Germany and occupied Europe. Even known war criminals benefited from Uncle Sam’s indulgence in this respect. All too many fascists and collaborators were allowed to remain in positions of power, for instance in government bureaucracies and in the judiciary, and were enlisted to assist in the task of impeding democratic reforms as much as possible.
Here we encounter another anomaly that invalidates the mythical paradigm of capitalism’s love of democracy. The US, which had always championed the interests of American capitalism, emerged from World War II as the “pilot country” (paese guida) of international capitalism, as Domenico Losurdo has called it. Determined to save capitalism, the Americans systematically sabotaged the popular plans for democratic reforms formulated by European resistance fighters and antifascists in general; conversely, they held a protecting hand over the heads of fascists, unrepentant antidemocrats, and even made eager use of their services.
It is similarly telling that in 1945 the Americans did not liquidate Franco’s dictatorship and restore democracy in Spain, as they could have done with a wave of the hand, and as the majority of the Spanish people hoped they would do. Instead, the known mass murderer was adopted as a bona fide member of what would soon euphemistically be called the “free world”. As far as Uncle Sam was concerned, the first of the world wars had not been a war for democracy; the second one was neither a war for democracy nor a war against fascism.
Let us briefly focus on Germany’s western reaches, which were occupied by the Americans and their allies. It is simply not true that, as the well-known British historian Tony Just would have us believe, the Americans’ “objective was to . . . plant the seeds of democracy and liberty in German public life”. The US authorities’ paramount concern was to protect capitalism, that is, the interests of corporations and banks, and the German elite in general, against what they perceived to be the menace of democratic changes planned by the country’s antifascists; these plans included socialization of enterprises, and they enjoyed massive popular support. The Americans were keen to preserve capitalism everywhere, of course, but particularly so in Germany. Why? At war’s end, much German capital happened to be American-owned, especially since the wartime boom had caused US investments in the Reich to increase considerably through reinvestment of profits, and most of these assets had survived the war without much damage, since they had not been targeted for serious bombing.
It is therefore hardly surprising that, in the Western occupation zone of Germany, the Americans sabotaged the anti-fascist forces’ efforts to establish a genuinely democratic Germany, turned “denazification” into a charade, and made it possible for the Reich’s traditional upper class to retain its wealth and power – and for US branch plants to keep their assets and keep accumulating profits in the greater part of Germany. To make that possible without being bothered by the Soviets, who were supposed to provide input into the postwar reconstruction of all of Germany, a new pseudomocratic federal republic was established in the Western occupation zones; its centers of power teemed with unrepentant Nazis while the communists, who had been Germany’s most ardent anti-Nazis, were outlawed. (That would not have been possible in a unified Germany, over which authority would have had to be shared with the Soviets, which is why the Americans, not the Soviets, preferred to divide the country.) Under presumably democratic management, the “new and improved” Germany – first its western half, eventually the entire country – was to function as a transatlantic bridgehead for Uncle Sam and has in fact done so until the present time.
In the Western parts of Europe, liberated by the Americans and their allies, democracy thus did not fare very well. Conversely, in Europe’s eastern reaches, liberated by the Soviets, democracy did not do as badly as Western historians and media would have us believe. In fact, it did comparatively well.
First, the Soviets unquestionably performed a service for the cause of democracy by taking away the power and privileges of the local elites and socialized their property for the benefit of the people in its entirety; the Church and the nobility thus lost the huge amount of real estate they had acquired, most if not all of it thanks to war and other forms of violence, in the course of many centuries. The Soviets thus brought about changes that had been accomplished in France 150 years earlier, at the time of the Great Revolution: they dismantled much, though admittedly not all, of the old “feudal” infrastructure.
The elite had typically been “merely” philofascist, but Eastern Europe also teemed with full-blown fascists, either members of homegrown “nationalist” fascist movements or volunteers who had joined the Waffen-SS or other Nazi organizations. This un- and antidemocratic brood was ruthlessly eradicated by the Soviets. It is not surprising that fascists eager to escape retribution at the hands of the Soviets and/or resistance fighters, not only in Germany’s eastern reaches but throughout Eastern and much of Central Europe, fled as fast as they could to seek – and find – protection behind American (or British) lines, and many of them ended up as immigrants in South or even North America. To the Americans it did not matter that these fascists (or collaborators) were enemies of democracy; what mattered, was that they could present solid anti-Soviet credentials.
Second, the Soviets did in fact introduce some kind of democracy to Eastern Europe, a part of the world where democracy had hitherto failed to prosper. Under Moscow’s auspices, local anti-fascist forces set up “people’s republics”. Those states were certainly not democratic in the Western, liberal sense, but they did reflect a socially focused type of democracy that allowed working men and women to benefit from guaranteed employment, elaborate social services, free education and medical care, etc.
The Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany enhanced the prestige of the country and of its socialist system all over the world, including Western Europe, where it inspired and encouraged the radical and even revolutionary aspirations of the popular anti-fascist forces that surfaced as the war came to an end. As had been the case at the end of World War I, the fear of revolution again caused the upper classes to quickly introduce democratic reforms of a political as well of a social nature, even as the new master of the western half of the continent, Uncle Sam, worked hard – overtly as well as covertly – to limit what he perceived to be damage caused by democratization. The result was the welfare state, a phenomenon that made it possible for people in Western Europe to enjoy, for a duration of over three decades, the highest level of social as well as political democracy in modern times.
Welfare-state democracy was not perfect democracy, far from it, As in the case of the earlier big wave of democratic reforms that had swept over Western Europe after the First World War, the upper class managed to retain most of its power and wealth despite having to make significant democratic concessions. It managed to do so again thanks to pseudomocratic stratagems, of which two new types became prominent at the time.
First, an awful lot of power was stashed away, so to speak, beyond the view and the reach of elected representatives of the people, in secret services staffed – via appointment, not election, of course – with conservative and reliable members of the elite, often known philofascists, such as Allan Dulles of the CIA, and former fascists like Reinhard Gehlen of the West-German secret service, a de facto branch of the CIA. The reason why America’s wartime secret service, the OSS, was disbanded in 1945, only to resurface soon thereafter as the CIA, was to get rid of the surfeit of anti-fascist, i.e. left-wing, folks that were considered useful during the war, when fascist countries happened to be the enemy; unlike philofascists like Dulles, these personae were definitely non gratae in the CIA.
Thus was born the extremely undemocratic Frankenstein monster that is now sometimes referred to as the “deep state”. Ever since the end of World War II, these secret services – and not just the American CIA and the British MI6 – have not merely been collecting information but also formulating and implementing domestic and foreign policy, and this has involved bribery and blackmail, drug dealing, assassinations, sabotage and other destabilization projects, false-flag operations, and full-blown acts of war, such as the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. It also involved disseminating shameless, sometimes Goebbels-style propaganda, via the mainstream media, controlled by the CIA either directly or indirectly through Operation Mockingbird. Mike Pompeo, secretary of state in the Trump administration, recently acknowledged that the CIA, which he headed in 2017-2018, operated in this ruthless manner: “I was the CIA director. We lied, cheated, and stole”.
As we have seen, pseudomocratic fetters on democracy also include allowing unelected high-ranking military personalities to enjoy enormous powers without significant oversight from elected officials. In the US, Pentagon generals may thus be said to influence and even formulate policies without authorization from Congress or from the supposedly all-powerful tenant du jour in the White House. Not so long ago, for example, the Pentagon bluntly overruled one of the few sensible plans formulated by President Trump, namely, to withdraw troops from parts of the Middle East.
A second new and important pseudomocratic instrument useful for the purpose of emasculating democracy has been the advent of supranational organizations able to impose decisions on countries even against the will of an overwhelming majority of the population. The most undemocratic of these is probably NATO, supposedly an alliance of equals but de facto nothing other than a branch of the Pentagon. One may ask how democratic it was for European governments in the late 1940s, in the context of a widely publicized but non-existent Soviet threat, to lock their countries seemingly forever into a state of vassalage to Uncle Sam’s military elite. It also speaks volumes about the un- and antidemocratic nature of NATO that its US godfather and supremo, Uncle Sam, rushed to integrate a remilitarized Germany into the atlanticist “alliance” and immediately parachuted recycled Nazi generals into its top echelons.
As for the European Union, that international organization is a more ambiguous case. While it has unquestionably achieved much good in terms of reconciliation and cooperation among European nations, it has not become the “social Europe” dreamed of by many, but is very much a capitalist Europe, committed to the implementation of neoliberal policies crafted in Brussels with little or no input from the European demos and their elected national governments. The European Union has also tended to comply all too slavishly with US wishes regarding relations with countries in Washington’s crosshairs, e.g. by going along with sanctions that were arguably unjustified and proved harmful to Europe itself.
It is not unreasonable to believe that the European Union behaves too much like a vassal of the US because it is dominated by Germany, an American bridgehead in Europe since 1945, as we have seen. The country’s secret service was set up as a branch of the CIA, and a few years ago it came to light – but was all too quickly “forgotten” by the mainstream media – that the Americans listen in on Chancellor Merkel’s telephone conversations. That deserves a short comment about the freedom presumably brought to Germany by its American liberators in 1945.
The Soviet Union, presumably antidemocratic and an enemy of freedom, whose liberation of Germany’s eastern reaches is usually described in the West as a brutal conquest, withdrew from the country about thirty years ago, and the German population was undoubtedly happy to see them go. The Americans, on the other hand, who like to think of their conquest of western Germany as a liberation and who were presumably keen, as Tony Judt writes (apparently in all seriousness), to bring not only democracy but also “liberty” to Germany, have maintained a significant number of troops in Germany until the present day. The majority of Germans are far from happy about this military presence, especially since it includes missiles and atom bombs, making their country a primordial target in the not entirely unlikely event of a US war against Russia or, for that matter, China. Their country may have been liberated by the Americans a long time ago, but the liberty they regained is not unlimited, they are still not free to get the “Yanks” to follow the example of the Russians and go home. The Americans appear determined to stay indefinitely, as they formally confirmed just recently, in January 2021. Italy has been similarly occupied by American forces since its pseudo-liberation in 1943.
The reason for continuing to occupy Germany is undoubtedly that country’s importance as a US outpost in the heart of Europe, useful not only militarily but also politically, especially in view of Germany’s preponderance within the European Union. And Uncle Sam is also staying because much of the economy of Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, is owned or closely connected to US capital, so an armed presence serves to protect America’s economic interests, that is, the interests of American capitalism. Leaving Germany would be the democratic thing to do, but the Americans stay, because capitalist interests trump democratic niceties. Who was it again who said that capitalism and democracy love each other?
The Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazism, an imperialist behemoth eager to turn Eastern Europe all the way to the Urals into a gigantic colony, also boosted the movements for independence and a homemade variety of democracy in the colonies and semi-colonies of the Western countries. If most if not all the colonies were to become independent relatively shortly after 1945, which constituted a major step forward for the cause of democracy, it was mostly thanks to their own efforts, but also because Moscow provided considerable moral and material support. Conversely, this democratic development of worldwide importance was opposed tooth and nail by colonial powers such as France, which reflected the fact that they were not genuinely democratic but merely pseudomocratic. Even more resistance to this democratic surge in the Global South emanated from the US, the new hegemon of capitalism in its worldwide manifestation, imperialism, another paragon of faux democracy, whose neocolonial ambitions were to become increasingly obvious. In other words, the postwar democratic surge in the Third World was supported by the anticapitalist and presumably undemocratic Soviet Union and its satellites, but opposed most stubbornly by the capitalist and supposedly democratic Western world.
The genuinely democratic aspirations of the denizens of the Third World could be achieved only via revolution, that is, via the overthrow – not necessarily involving violence - of the colonial political and social-economic order, via independence. Not surprisingly, in view of what we have learned about the dialectic of revolution and war, the fanatical resistance of the imperialist powers to the forces of democracy and revolution in the Third World involved the counterrevolutionary weapon par excellence, war.
In the years following the end of World War II, the French, British, and Dutch waged murderous war against independence movements in Vietnam, Kenya, and Indonesia, but in vain. The most infamous of the “hot” variety of the wars fought within the context of the Cold War were the very hot conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, where millions of people, including countless women, children, old folks, and other non-combatants, were killed, mostly from the air. But war was not the only weapon in Uncle Sam’s arsenal of antidemocratic and counterrevolutionary weapons. Coups d’état were organized in Iran in 1953, for example, and in 1960 assassination served to eliminate the newly independent Congo’s popular leader, Lumumba, and to replace him with a dictator. The patently anti-democratic policy of the US was also reflected in unconditional support for right-wing, quasi-fascist regimes, such as Apartheid South Africa, where the Americans helped the regime to locate and arrest Nelson Mandela.
Let us follow Sherlock Holmes’ advice and ask the cui bono question: “who benefited” from this systematic antidemocratic policy, this war against the Third World? The answer is obvious. The beneficiaries were the corporations and banks of the US and its Western allies, whose products and investment capital always found wide-open doors through which to enter countries where the US had successfully snuffed out or neutralized democracy, and through which to haul out super-profits made possible by looting natural resources (often ruining the natural environment) and exploiting cheap labour in sweatshops. Here we have yet another case where the cause of capitalism advanced thanks to setbacks for the cause of democracy – and of the environment. Countries that were “neo-colonized” this way also frequently found American army bases mushrooming on their territory, which purported to prop up comprador regimes, discourage the “natives” from trying to play with democratic fire again, and to “project American power” in that part of the world. As for the environment, it is a fact – all too rarely mentioned by our media – that the US military is the biggest polluter on earth, something that has not yet come to the attention of media-darling Greta Thunberg.
Imperialism originated in the late 19th century, and has developed ever since, under the auspices of the capitalists and for their benefit. As we have also seen, the super-profits earned in the Global North thanks to super-exploitation of the Global South have caused crumbs to fall off the richly loaded table of imperialism, to be enjoyed by ordinary people in the metropoles of the West. As in the case of the “labour aristocracy” of the late 19th and early 20th century, this serves to dampen potentially revolutionary aspirations and minimize sympathy for, or worse, stimulate racist antipathy against, the coloured folks in what Trump called “shithole countries”. And it also causes all too many people to approve of the wars now incessantly waged where the need for democracy and the concomitant potential for revolution is greatest, the Third World/Global South.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of communism in the Soviet Union did not amount to a triumph for democracy, to the contrary. Capitalism marched into Eastern Europe, brought with it the old feudal as well as bourgeois elites who were able to reclaim most of their former assets, power, and privileges; destroyed the socially focused type of democracy that had existed there since 1945; created unemployment and widespread misery; nullified gains made by women, and generated an exodus of futureless young people. In other words, capitalism came in, and democracy went out.
Capitalism was supposed to bring at least purely political democracy of the liberal type, but that failed to happen. A conservative Canadian newspaper recently lamented that Eastern Europe is now teeming with
The article failed to mention that, thanks to the disappearance of communism and in the context of the comeback of capitalism, fascism also resurfaced in Eastern Europe. In 1945, the Soviets had eradicated much but unfortunately not all of it. What survived of the fascist brood went underground, to be kept alive with help from the CIA and, later, the latter’s alter ego, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which “does overtly what the CIA does covertly”, and was thus able to raise its ugly head again after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 2014, a coup d’état against a democratically elected government, orchestrated by the US via “point persons” such as Victoria Nuland, made it possible in Ukraine for the government, bureaucracy, judiciary, police, army, etc., to be infested with neo-Nazis.
The author of the article also notes that the sad state of democracy in Eastern Europe “contributes to the steady retreat of democracy around the globe”. But he refrains from investigating that issue. Perhaps he fears that doing so might reveal the truth, namely that the contemporary regress of democracy is very much the result of the progress of capitalism in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That would expose the falsehood of the myth, cherished by Western mainstream media, including the paper in which that article was published, of the loving relationship of capitalism – a.k.a. “the free market” – to democracy.
On the other side of the Berlin Wall, in Western Europe, democracy did not fare much better than in the European East. Relieved of a competing “counter-system”, capitalism took advantage of the opportunity to return to its favourite, “unbridled” and very nasty manifestation, typical of the 19th century, and started to dismantle the welfare state. This has yielded increased profits for capitalists, but at a heavy price paid by ordinary people in terms of unemployment, lower or stagnating wages (despite greatly increased labour productivity), and a far lower quantity and quality of social services and benefits even though the cost of living has risen considerably.
In Western Europe too, democracy has suffered while, and because, capitalism has prospered. Not only socially focused but also political democracy has regressed. Indeed, as the uselessness of the traditional political parties in the face of the difficulties experienced by ordinary people has caused the latter to turn increasingly to xenophobic, racist, fascist or quasi-fascist parties that blame problems on scapegoats, particularly immigrants and refugees. The uselessness of the major political parties in a pseudomocratic system similarly caused millions of ordinary Americans to espouse the illusion that Donald Trump was the saviour who might bring back prosperity.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, a major setback for democracy, have proved to be wonderful for capitalism, and not only for a born-again capitalism behind the former Iron Curtain and for capitalism in Western Europe and the rest of the Western world, including the US. It has also boosted Western capitalism’s worldwide, super-exploitative, and aggressive manifestation, imperialism, in its favourite hunting ground, the Third World or Global South.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, the only other superpower, the “pilot country” of imperialism, the US, felt totally free to impose its will on the Third World, forcing governments to abandon not only socialist experiments but also nationalist economic policies that may have been democratic in the sense of being in the interest of their citizens but contravened the interests of US or other Western banks and corporations. When resistance was encountered, Uncle Sam no longer had to worry about the response of the Soviet bear but was free to use even full-fledged warfare to achieve imperialist objectives.
The signal was flashed when the dust of the crumbling Berlin Wall had barely settled, namely with the Gulf War of 1991. This new “splendid little war”, to be followed up in 2003 by a full-blown American conquest of the victim, Iraq, made it possible for that country’s petroleum riches to benefit US oil trusts, rather than its citizens. This nakedly imperialist undertaking was absurdly proclaimed to be an effort to bring democracy to the Middle East. In reality, the project was extremely undemocratic because it resulted in death and misery for millions of people, again mostly civilians.
Likewise symptomatic of this undemocratic character was the fact that the Americans imposed on Iraq a constitution of their liking, intended to benefit not the country’s people but foreign investors, that is, oil trusts and other corporations and banks of the US and members of the “coalition of the willing”, imperialist countries that had participated in the 2003 mugging of Mesopotamia. The claim that Iraq was invaded for the sake of democracy is also belied by the fact that the US-led alliance against Saddam Hussein included Saudi Arabia, arguably the least democratic country in the region. Finally, the war against Iraq also had a most undemocratic effect for ordinary Americans, who had to do most of the killing and the dying and also had to pay for the high cost of the war with their taxes, while the huge profits generated by the war and the conquest of the country were privatized for the benefit of the elite. War veterans ended up in cemeteries, mental hospitals, or lineups of the unemployed, while capitalists laughed all the way to the bank.
The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, while generating huge profits for a handful of already filthy rich folks, have failed to yield decisive victories, and successful outcomes are not in sight, certainly not in Afghanistan or in Syria. One major problem is continued resistance of the unhappy “natives”, as in Afghanistan.
A second problem is the fact that, virtually imperceptibly, the world ceased to be unipolar. Today, the US is no longer the sole superpower it was when the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War was declared to be won, and history was ridiculously claimed to have come to a happy end with the triumph of “liberal democracies and free-market capitalism of the West”. Russia, which under Yeltsin seemed poised to become a US vassal, has developed impressive military muscle under Putin; the Cold War is on again, the Russians have prevented Uncle Sam from achieving his (and Israel’s) goals in Syria and are deterring him from taking military action against other recalcitrant countries like Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela.
An even more formidable challenger is China, which the US, after its victory against Far-Eastern rival Japan, had once believed to “own” but “lost” to Mao. The “Middle Empire” has been overtaking the US economically and perhaps also militarily, and its virtual eradication of poverty, a spectacular achievement of socially focused democracy, had turned its peculiar brand of socialism – “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – into a formidable counter-system of capitalism. From Washington, capital of the “pilot country” of capitalism, China looms like a greater threat than the Soviet Union had ever been, not only to America’s status as the world’s hegemon but also to capitalism as the social-economic system for which, as Margaret Thatcher used to crow, “there was no alternative”. China is a threat because its success may inspire countries of the Global South, to which it belonged but from which it escaped, to follow its example. As the Canadian economist Alan Freeman has put it,
Until the end of World War II, China was a huge but powerless country and the Chinese were among the poorest people on earth. Today, thanks to a revolution, more accurately, a long and often difficult revolutionary process, China is powerful and prosperous.
The case of China illustrates how democracy, at least socially oriented democracy, has historically advanced mostly via revolution. But, as we have seen in this book, the other two great historical revolutions, the French and Russian Revolutions, triggered domestic and foreign counterrevolutions that relied on war against France and revolutionary Russia, or later the Soviet Union, to further their antidemocratic cause. A big foreign enemy, the US, together with its Western vassals and domestic Chinese counterrevolutionaries, similarly oppose China today. So far, they have made use of unconventional warfare, including “information wars”, spreading unsubstantiated Sinophobic horror stories, not so long ago about conditions in Tibet and now in Xinjiang. They hope that somehow it will prove possible to arrange for China to be carved up, just like Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. But the prospects for a third success of this nature are not very good. Washington has therefore also been rattling its sabre and seems prepared to risk an all-out war in a desperate effort to prevent the irresistible rise of China, at US expense, to the status of the world’s number one superpower – and to rid international capitalism of an all too successful counter system.
The era of revolution and war, with democracy at stake, is far from over. The struggle goes on.
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^5000The mainstream imperialist media lie CONSTANTLY. Literally 24/7. And it's getting worse.
All of them do it: radio, tv, the newspapers, the movies. The internet. No exceptions.
The corporate Big Lie is pervasive and totalitarian. CBS does it. NBC does it. ABC does it.
CNN does it. FOX does it. NPR does it. And of course the NYTimes and WaPo do it.
Thousands of "diverse" voices telling you the same lies. Enough to convince anyone.
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