Oil imperialism and the class struggle

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! no. 97 15 September/15 November 1990

'...one can say that the revolutionary movement in the advanced capitalist countries will remain a myth as long as the struggles of the workers in Europe and in North America against the capitalist system are not closely united against imperialism and world capitalism with those of the hundreds of millions of oppressed people in the colonies.' (Statement from the Popular Front for the Liberation of the Occupied Arab Gulf, May 1969)

The recent developments in the Arab Gulf have settled one decisive question of world politics. They have swiftly demolished the claim that the defeat of the socialist bloc and the end of the Cold War would inaugurate an era of democracy and peace between nation states. The massive build up of the US war machine in the Gulf shows how militarism and war are necessary characteristics of imperialism's defence of its interests all over the world. It shows that the capitalist system cannot survive without neo-colonial oppression to safeguard imperialist access to cheap sources of fuel and raw materials.

It is no accident that the first major development after the collapse of the socialist bloc has seen the biggest US military operation since the Vietnam war, to secure control of the world's largest oil reserves in the Middle East. Far from moderating imperialism's predatory character, the collapse of the socialist bloc has now removed all restraints on its drive to carve up and divide the world.

A second fundamental characteristic of imperialism emerging from war preparations in the Gulf is the growing clash of interests between the major imperialist powers. The lukewarm Japanese and German response to US requests for financial help with its military costs indicates their resistance to accepting unqualified US control of the Middle East and its oil. The current President of the EC Council of Ministers, Gianni De Michelis, reflected this position when he said '...there should be no taxation without representation.'

As we argued in FRFI 96 (August/September 1990), the London and Houston summits of the major imperialist powers forced the US to acknowledge the emergence of a world in which Japan and Europe, led by a united Germany, would become a challenge to the US and carve out their own sphere of influence throughout the world.

Already the new Europe's GDP is over 90 per cent, and Japan's 60 per cent, of that of the USA. Of the largest hundred companies in the world, 40 are from the EC, 39 from the USA and 15 from Japan. Of the 200 leading world banks, 65 are from the EC, 51 from Japan and 36 from the USA. The emergence of three more equally matched imperialist blocs makes new conflicts inevitable.

Under imperialism, the control of the world's oil supplies has always reflected the relative strength of the contending imperialist powers. British domination over Middle East oil began to be challenged in the inter-war years by US imperialism which by then was emerging as the major imperialist power. By the 1960s the US had achieved a dominant position in the Middle East. To safeguard their positions, Britain and the US created a system of puppet regimes throughout the region through military intervention in the Arab world: Iran (1953), Jordan and Lebanon (1958), Oman (1957-59 and 1965 onwards), Kuwait (1961), Bahrain (1956 and 1965), North Yemen (1962 and 1970), Saudi Arabia (1963).

In different periods, Zionism, Iran under the Shah, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, after its defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, have all played a critical role in defeating movements which challenged imperialism's hegemony in the region. Through repression and calculated handouts of a portion of oil wealth imperialism has succeeded in undermining the anti-imperialist movement in the Arab world.

Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait threatened to upset this strategic system of alliances in a period when the US economy, with an unprecedented foreign debt of some $600bn, was entering a recession while facing a challenge to its economic supremacy. It seized the opportunity to use its immense military might, built up in the Cold War years, to reassert its dominant international position.

The third and frequently ignored fundamental feature of imperialism exposed by the Gulf crisis is that the prosperity of the imperialist nations, embracing a significant section of the working class, is only possible through the plunder and exploitation of the oppressed nations. The resulting containment of the class struggle in the imperialist countries is dependent on this plunder and exploitation. Where labour and social democratic parties have emerged, they represent the interests of the more privileged layers of the working class. They have proved to be wholly dependent on imperialism and have been just as ready as the capitalist class to carry out imperialism's predatory actions.

In Britain, the Labour Party is continuing its long historical role as a loyal servant and agent of imperialism in the Middle East and the Gulf. When Iranian nationalist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq nationalised the oil industry in 1951, it was the Labour government under Attlee which organised a world-wide embargo of Iranian oil and conspired to bring down the Mossadeq government. This was accomplished in 1953 by the CIA with British complicity. The brutality of the British intervention in the Gulf under Labour governments in Oman (1964 and 1974) and South Yemen (Aden, 1964-1967) is well documented.

In keeping with this record and its class interests the Labour Party has adopted a position as warlike and as militaristic as the Tory Party. The United Nations cover for Labour militarism should deceive no one. Labour's emphasis on a UN role expresses only its leaning towards an alliance with European imperialism rather than harbouring, as Thatcher does, illusions of an independent British imperialism allied to the US. Like the US and the Tory Party, the Labour Party is determined to destroy any challenge to imperialism's strategic control of the region.

The miniscule Labour left's pacifism is in reality a fig leaf for imperialist intervention against the Arab people. They want to starve Iraq into submission, to subjugate it by 'peaceful UN sanctions' instead of a war which would see 'the Arab nations solidly united against the West.'

The abject failure of the British left to build a united opposition to imperialism's war drive is comprehensible only in the context of its subservience to the interests of the official Labour and Trade Union Movement.

The British left have refused to place demands for Kurdish and Palestinian self-determination at the centre of their work even though this would enable them to build alliances with the tens of thousands of Palestinian, Kurdish, Arab and Turkish workers in this country. Such unity could become a focus for drawing oppressed workers in Britain into organised political struggle. Instead they still harbour the illusion that the Labour Party and the official Trade Union movement are the instruments for political change in Britain. This reflects the petit bourgeois class character of these organisations which have always unequivocally refused to take the side of the oppressed in Britain or internationally.

The economic and political consequences of US imperialism's intervention in the Gulf will exacerbate inter-imperialist tensions. The near doubling of the price of oil and the cost of this military adventure threatens to send the world into a severe recession with devastating consequences for the oppressed nations.

Political opposition to imperialism in the Arab nations will become a focus for opposition elsewhere, especially in the Third World. The social and economic consequences of a recession in the imperialist countries offer the prospect for a renewal of class struggle. The opportunity exists to unite the struggles of workers in Europe and North America with the hundreds of millions of oppressed peoples opposing imperialism. It has to be seized. Without it, as the PFLOAG statement concludes, 'the revolutionary movement in the advanced capitalist countries will remain a myth.'

All revolutionary and democratic forces in the Middle East are opposing imperialism's war drive and the puppet governments which have welcomed and aided US forces. Communists in Britain should have no hesitation in joining these revolutionary and democratic forces. That is why the Revolutionary Communist Group advances the demands:

British hands off the Middle East!

Imperialist troops out of the Gulf!

Self-determination for Kurdistan!

Victory to the Palestinian revolution!

This article was also published as chapter 1.1 of The New Warlords: from the Gulf War to the recolonisation of the Middle East


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