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In this extract from the Introduction to his new book, Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World, John Rees looks at some of the forces that gave rise to the world in which we live.

John Rees, Timelines: A Political History of the Modern World (Routledge 2012), 212pp.

John Rees, Timelines: A Political History of the Modern World (Routledge 2012), 212pp.

This book is, of course, a selective history … The criterion on which selection was made has to do with the flash-points and fissures of contemporary politics. There is no reason why this book contains essays on Afghanistan and Vietnam, rather than, say, essays on Nigeria or Argentina, other than the fact that the former have become sites of crises in the modern Imperial system in a way in which the latter have not. But, selective as it is, the account that follows does give an overview of the shape of the modern world. It does so by delineating the shifting patterns of great power politics, and their effects on the fate of smaller nations, and the moments of resistance to these dominant powers by ordinary people, both in the metropolitan nations and in those they tried to dominate.

The first section of the book examines patterns of Imperial domination on a global scale. At the start of the twentieth century, the accumulated effect of the previous 100 years of industrial development in the core countries of the world economy was just impacting with its full-force on the international State system. Industrial development in nineteenth-century Britain, America, Germany, France, Italy, Russia and the Austro–Hungarian Empire and other countries in the core of the system had transformed the nature of Imperial rivalry. The Colonial Empires of the major powers had spread with increasing speed through Africa, the Middle East, South America and the Far East. Rivalry between them had bred a series of limited military conflicts throughout the nineteenth century, but a decisive settling of accounts was not long in coming as the new century opened. When it did erupt in 1914 it was a very different kind of war than any before it, and not just because of its geographical extent. It was an industrialized form of war and it involved civilians to an unprecedented degree. The victors were, by and large, those States with both the most modern industries and the most modern State structures that retained the fewest semi-feudal remnants. Thus, Britain, the US and France were the major nations on the winning side and the Russian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro–Hungarian Empire were among the main powers on the losing side. Germany, though an empire, was a recently unified and industrialized State, but its political structure retained important pre-modern elements. The losers were the empires in a more archaic state than their conquerors. They were multinational conglomerations on an almost medieval basis, rather than the more monolithic States which became the norm in the twentieth century. They were also, by and large, less democratic in structure and the weight of the aristocracy and Monarchy was greater within them (although this should not be overstated, particularly as in France and Britain universal suffrage was a post-First World War development). For these reasons, revolution in the defeated nations attained greater force than it did in the nations who were victorious, though revolutionary pressure existed here as well, and in Russia, Germany and in the Hungarian part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire it swept away the old State structure completely.

The First World War did, however, only lead to a partial rewriting of the Imperial order. The historian E. H. Carr was right to characterize the period from the First to the Second World War as a continuous period of Imperial rivalry which he called a new ‘Thirty Years War’. This is an accurate designation if for no other reason than the fact that the major Imperial rivalry that stood at the heart of the First World War – between Britain and France on the one hand and Germany and the Austrian part of the old Austro–Hungarian Empire on the other – continued to dominate the post-War period and eventually resulted in the Second World War. But while the old powers of Europe positioned themselves to re-fight the old wars, two new powers were growing in strength. To the west the US was becoming the powerhouse of Capitalist development – although this was partially masked by the catastrophe of the Wall Street Crash and the depth of the slump that followed – whilst to the east post-revolutionary Russia was also undergoing unprecedented industrial growth – though this ascent was also partially masked from view, in this case by the brutalities and chaos of Stalin’s counter-revolutionary regime. But during the Second World War itself, these nations were, militarily, the decisive forces. Indeed, the American economy was so strong that it became the foundation of victory in two wars: the European War against Germany and Italy and the Pacific War against Japan. Even more remarkably, the American economy’s civilian production also expanded. This was unique and, by contrast, Russia’s new power rested less on its economic growth, although this was also considerable from the 1930s to the 1970s, and more on the fact that its military forces had physically occupied Eastern Europe in their drive to Berlin.

So it is really the post-Second World War period that marks the second phase of Imperial rivalry in the twentieth century, the era of the Cold War. The previously dominant European powers were now only in the second rank, and over the next half-century even this position was only maintained by binding themselves together in ever-closer economic and, to a lesser extent, political unions. Instead, from 1945 until 1989 world politics was defined by the military and economic competition between the two superpowers and their attendant military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Within their spheres of influence dissent was crushed either by the main powers themselves or by the local ruling classes or the client movements acting for them. This was true in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 for the Russians. But it was also true in Iran in 1953 and Chile in 1973 for the US. On the political borders of the Cold War events sometimes threatened to, or actually did, turn into hot wars, as was the case in Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Panama. In some places repression also failed, notably in Poland in the 1980s for the Russians and in Vietnam for the US in the 1960s and early 1970s. Both were Imperial turning points.

The Cold War was always as much about economic competition as it was about military competition. Indeed, military competition was largely a form of economic competition. It was about whether the US or Russia would last longest in the race to spend ever increasing amounts of money on armaments without wrecking their own economies and provoking domestic unrest. The short and obvious answer to the question of who won seemed to be supplied by the revolutions of 1989 as the Russian bloc broke first. And in the obvious sense this is true. Russia and its allies were always smaller economies than the US and its allies and they broke apart first. But there is also a less obvious sense in which the US was a loser in the Cold War as well. The arms expenditures during the Cold War had sustained the post-Second World War economic boom which lasted from the late 1940s until the early 1970s, the longest sustained period of growth in the history of the Capitalist system. But the nations paying for the boom were not the only, or even the main, beneficiaries of the boom. The US and Russia might have been the largest economies, but they were not the fastest-growing economies. Arms expenditure limited their growth, while the money expended on it provided a growing market for their competitors. Germany and Japan grew faster, precisely because, as defeated nations, their arms expenditure was limited. But so did other economies not involved in the arms race in Europe, the Far East and South America. So it was that the US ended the Cold War militarily dominant but economically threatened in a way it had not been for most of the twentieth century. This has been made crushingly obvious by the rise of China, whose ownership of US debt in the world recession that began in 2008 is what stands between the US and bankruptcy.

It is this condition of US Imperialism – powerful militarily, but weakening economically – which has set the pattern for post-Cold War Imperial politics. The mismatch of US economic and military power predisposes the US to use force to overcome its economic weakness. It has attempted to win contracts with guns, or the threat of their use, rather than by economically competitive production. Nevertheless, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have proved the extremely limited efficacy of such a policy and created conditions in which rivals, from Iran to China, have prospered.

The second section of this book examines the process of Imperial competition from the point of view of the victims of Empire. It demonstrates that these people, so seemingly powerless compared to the forces ranged against them, have had a profound effect on the history of the twentieth century. They have disrupted the operations of Imperial powers and pointed out the limits of Colonial thought. From the start of the twentieth century up until the Second World War the metropolitan centres ruled their colonies directly, although always with the aid of local elites. The Cold War period was also a period of wholesale decolonization. One after another of the major powers were forced to grant independent Statehood to their former ‘dependencies’, as they were sometimes and revealingly called. The politics of independent, nationalist governments were varied, but whatever their ideologies – Nationalist, Socialist, religious, Capitalist – none have escaped the wider mechanisms of economic and politico-strategic dominance exercised by the major powers. Renewed revolutions have repeatedly challenged those ruling elites who have been too accommodating to the demands of the globalized market and the wishes of the Imperial powers. The latest and greatest of these revolts, the Arab Revolutions of 2011, have dramatized the fact that if revolution in the former Colonial World is to advance beyond replacing a dictatorial and exploitative elite bound to the Imperial powers with a ‘democratic’ and exploitative elite bound to the Imperial powers, it must deal with both the nature of the Capitalist system as well as the Imperialist system which grows out of it.

The final section of the book examines precisely this relationship between the rulers and the ruled in both its economic and political dimensions in some of the central conflicts of the twentieth century. Of course, these conflicts are rarely about pure and simple economic exploitation. In fact, the exploited and oppressed in the Capitalist system almost never experience the system as economic exploitation pure and simply. The mechanisms of class rule frequently involve a denial of democratic rights or discrimination on grounds of nation, race, gender or sexuality. So, when people resist they very frequently do so in the name of democratic rights, or justice, or equality as well as for economic reasons. This was certainly the case in the fight for civil rights in the US, in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa and, for that matter, in the campaign against the injustice of the poll tax in Thatcher’s Britain. It is also true for the Arab Revolutions of 2011. The task of the Left is to explain why these issues are rooted in the need of the Capitalist class to ensure continued economic exploitation and to relate these struggles to one another. The Left has often failed to raise itself to the level required to deal with this complexity because it treats struggles for democracy or equal rights as mere epiphenomena of a deeper, more central struggle. But however justified this might be at the level of social and economic analysis, it is not how struggles present themselves in the consciousness of those doing the fighting, or at least not at first. Where the Left has risen to this task, Socialist Revolution – the ultimate challenge to the Capitalist system – has become a live project. It became such in Russia in 1917, Germany in 1918, Hungary in 1919 and Spain in 1936. Likewise, although Socialist forces were weaker, a definite anti-system revolutionary potential also existed in Poland in 1980 and in South Africa in the early 1990s. In other places revolutionary minorities, while not able to realistically claim that they had a chance at taking power, were nevertheless important in shaping the critical struggles of their day, as was the case in the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, for instance. But in only one of these cases was the Left actually successful in overthrowing the entire system – Russia in 1917.

And so it is incumbent on the Left to address the questions that have arisen in the course of the tumultuous last 100 years in a more serious way and to develop a strategy which really does find an echo among the broad mass of people, enabling them to transform both the forms of oppression and the underlying exploitation which are characteristic of Capitalism as it enters the twenty-first century. This book will, I hope, contribute towards that project.

Buy Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World.

The Timelines book is based on John Rees’s Timeline series for the Islam Channel. Here is the episode on the Russian Revolution:

Tagged under: History
John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.


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