Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Seumas Milne and the ‘Multipolar World’: Clutching at Straws.

with 3 comments

‘s Multipolar World. 

On parts of the left a theory has gradually developed that an emerging “multi-polar world” is the best defence against American-led imperialism.

This view, taken from academic studies of international relations, and given a political edge, is behind many apparently bizarre positions.

Such as backing Beijing, Moscow, or even Tehran ‘against’ the ‘West’.

The tiny entrist faction, Socialist Action, has taken this to mean that the left should defend countries, like China,

In a conflict between the world’s greatest imperialist power and a former colonized and dominated country the most elementary position should be clear: anyone on the side of progress and justice defends semi-colonial, emerging China against the offensive of imperialism and its allies.

It is not even necessary to believe China is a socialist country to form this conclusion. It is simply necessary to take the same principled position that the left would take if the USA and its allies were to organize an assault on any other semi-colonial country whatever the character of the economic or political system in place.

Socialist Action, 14th May 2014. Jude Woodward.

An even less influential groupuscule, the Global Revolutionary Alliance,  carries this article,

John Morgan:  I’m not certain about a return to the bipolar model anytime soon. While we have seen the rise of new powers capable of challenging American hegemony in recent years – China, India, Iran, and of course the return of Russia to the world stage – none of them are capable of matching the pervasive influence of the American economy and its culture, nor of projecting military power around the world as NATO has been doing. At the same time, we can plainly see now that America and its allies in Western Europe have already passed their economic limits, now racking up unprecedented debt, and their power is beginning to wane.

Rather than the return of a bipolar world, I think we will see the emergence of the multipolar one, as Prof. Dugin has suggested, in which several nations wield significant power but none reigns supreme above all. In order to protect their interests, stronger nations will need to forge alliances with weaker ones, and sometimes even with other strong nations. But I think the era of the superpower is rapidly coming to an end.

The Morning Star frequently gives voice to similar arguments.

In that daily reviewing a book on the overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya Carlos Martinez allows himself to claim,

Thus Libya is a boon for Nato in the geostrategic context of the Project For A New American Century, the US’s desperate attempt to maintain its hegemony and prevent the emergence of a multipolar world order. 

This is a strategy of  “divide and ruin” — violating national sovereignty, creating civil wars and removing states that refuse to play ball, all in the interests of creating an unstable global political environment that only the Western powers have the military weight to control. 

It is a thread that runs through the wars in Libya and Syria, the Nato and EU-sponsored boiling pot in Ukraine, the “revolt of the rich” in Venezuela, the CIA-funded social media campaigns in Cuba and Barack Obama’s so-called Asia pivot. It’s the duty of all progressive humanity to recognise and oppose such a strategy.

Rarely however are the actual policies of the Russian Federation celebrated as a progressive side to these developments.

Nor expressed them clearly in the mainstream media.

Until, that is,  the Guardian journalist  has given them an airing in this week.

A real counterweight to US power is a global necessity is a strange ideological concoction.

Milne makes a number of sweeping claims.

He begins by blaming everything that has gone wrong in the Middle East on the US-led ‘world order’.

The results of the invasion of Iraq are certainly a major factor in the chain of events that have led to the present – multiple – crises in the region. The US and its allies bear a heavy responsibility. The invasion was wrong wrong and wrong.

But there is nothing on the politics of post-invasion Iraq, the rise of the Mahdi Army, the conflicts between Shiism and Sunnism, and a host of other developments that have flourished in the aftermath of this “shock”.

Most seriously he ignores  any internal causes for the steps beyond the traditional repression and intolerance of Islamist politics: the genocidal Isis/Islamic State. That’s as if, to give a comparison, as if Hitler could be explained in terms of the Versailles Treaty and the manoeuvres of the 1920s Great Powers.

For Milne it is not necessary to go further than geopolitics to account for the growth of an Islamist  totalitarian movement, based on ‘micro-states’ policies of ‘discipline and punish’, and killing, have their own life and own responsibilities. Why the Arab Spring has largely failed – outside of Tunisia – is another ‘non-US led’ issue.

For Milne there is one important topic: NATO (the ‘West’) is a  diabolical force that has been challenged – however partially – by Russia.

 But if the Middle Eastern maelstrom is the fruit of a US-dominated new world order, Ukraine is a result of the challenge to the unipolar world that grew out of the failure of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. It was the attempt to draw divided Ukraine into the western camp by EU and US hawks after years of eastward Nato expansion that triggered the crisis, Russia’s absorption of Crimea and the uprising in the Russian-speaking Donbass region of the east.

The Ukrainian right-wing has its own responsibilities and we are far from those who put the blame on ‘Russia’ for what has happened in the country.

But Milne makes the interesting claim that the President of the Russian Federation has appealed for a global way out of such crisis .

It fell on deaf ears.

But there is little chance of the western camp responding to Putin’s call for a new system of global rules. In fact, the US showed little respect for rules during the cold war either, intervening relentlessly wherever it could. But it did have respect for power. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, that restraint disappeared. It was only the failure of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – and Russia’s subsequent challenge to western expansion and intervention in Georgia, Syria and Ukraine – that provided some check to unbridled US power.

Yet they cannot stem the new multipolar system of powers.

Along with the rise of China, it has also created some space for other parts of the world to carve out their political independence, notably in Latin America. Putin’s oligarchic nationalism may not have much global appeal, but Russia’s role as a counterweight to western supremacism certainly does. Which is why much of the world has a different view of events in Ukraine from the western orthodoxy – and why China, India, Brazil and South Africa all abstained from the condemnation of Russia over Crimea at the UN earlier this year.

This has its limits, but they do not stop Milne’s claims to swell and swell.

But Moscow’s check on US military might is limited. Its economy is over-dependent on oil and gas, under-invested and now subject to disabling sanctions. Only China offers the eventual prospect of a global restraint on western unilateral power and that is still some way off. As Putin is said to have told the US vice-president, Joe Biden, Russia may not be strong enough to compete for global leadership, but could yet decide who that leader might be.

Despite the benefits of the emerging multipolar world, the danger of conflict, including large-scale wars, looks likely to grow. The public pressure that brought western troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan is going to have to get far stronger in the years to come – if that threat is not to engulf us all.

It would appear that there is something of the argument (used by New Left writers amongst others) that the old Soviet Union might be repressive and reactionary at home but by the sheer fact of its presence tilted global politics in favour of the left, bringing fear to capitalists and concessions to social democracy in its wake. More convincingly some asserted that the Kremlin’s support for national liberal movements was decisive. Less persuasively that it was its  saving grace.

Milne studiously avoids (as Shiraz points out) discussing Stalinism and its immediate aftermath.

He effectively asserts (or wishing) for something similar: that the ‘multi-polar world (Russia and China its chief among many heads) can provide £some check” to “unbridled” US power – as if Washington was a war horse needing constant restraint from….war.

How far is this shown by recent events?

Today’s Latin American left cannot have much of a debt to anything remotely resembling this, or to Putin – unless Milne can provide some evidence so far hidden from the rest of us.

Not can Russia be said to have played a role in supporting any left project or holding back the US (and more to the point, international capital) from blocking progressive policies.

China and Russia’s presence, as capitalist powers, suggests that globalisation is proceeding. It can hardly be expected that they will do anything that threatens the interests of …capitalism.

They are indeed both ‘imperialist’ in the classical Marxist sense that they export capital, and influence global politics by virtue of their economic power, not by persuasion. The conflicts they enter into are part of ‘their’ perceived interests in this respect.  Their only ‘challenge’ to neoliberalism is that their political structures are authoritarian and repressive.

Although their super-patriotism and moral conservatism (in Russia above all) appear to attract some European far-rightists and former leftists they hardly act as much of a ‘counterweight’ to a more direct menace to the left: the growth of the  populist and racist far-right in Europe – not to mention the rise of Islamist reaction in the Middle East and elsewhere. 

The existence of competing superpowers is more generally said to have been a major contributing factor to two World Wars in the Twentieth century – at least according to  Marxists.

Lenin, who is not the be-all–and-end-all on this topic, nevertheless  provided a useful  5-point definition of imperialism:

(1) the concentration of production and capital has developed to such a high stage that it has created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the merging of bank capital with industrial capital, and the creation, on the basis of this “finance capital”, of a financial oligarchy; (3) the export of capital as distinguished from the export of commodities acquires exceptional importance; (4) the formation of international monopolist capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers is completed. Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.

These terms are contested, and the role of political sovereign nations in a globalised world has altered, not to mention capital flows and the world division of labour.

One thing is also clear: the ‘multipolar’ model gives us little indication of how to support people’s such as the Kurds of Kobane, struggling might and main against the Islamist genociders – that is the  duty of international solidarity. 

But that does not matter for the left supporters of “multipolarism”:  Milne thinks that the “division of the world” between competing capitalist nation states is a progressive thing.

The left should, if we follow this advice, do all it can to favour the “emergence of a multipolar world order.

Written by Andrew Coates

October 31, 2014 at 6:10 pm

3 Responses

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  1. The Milne/Morning Star/ Counterfire/Socialist Action view of the world, in which we are obliged to support smaller capitalist states against America in the name of “multipolarism” is, in reality, the old popular-frontist, class-collaborationist “anti-monopoly alliance” applied to international geo-politics.

    It’s astonishing how many would-be trots fall for this Stalinist rubbish.

    Jim Denham

    October 31, 2014 at 6:48 pm

  2. I’d forgotten that one.

    Absolutely: the anti-monopoly alliance goes into the brew.

    Plus there is some academic stuff – i’ll look it up but I think some of the ideas behind multipolarisation can be traced all the way back to Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson’s 1996 book on globalisation,

    Globalization in Question: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globalization_in_Question

    Andrew Coates

    October 31, 2014 at 6:54 pm

  3. I do support a multi-polar world of a geopolitical environment. Competing capitalist interests gives workers more openings for class struggle.

    Outside a revolutionary period, the left should support a multi-polar world. This is not about reading the neo-fascist Dugin, or about reading Sam Marcy’s “global class war” stuff. This is about *partially* rehabilitating Alexander Parvus’s misguided “SPD left” position – backing Germany’s imperialist war efforts during a revolutionary period – and adapting a politically sanitized version of this to a non-revolutionary period.

    Jacob Richter

    October 17, 2016 at 5:10 am


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