XII. Is World War III Inevitable? (Critical Notes on Michael Roberts)




Note of the Editorial Board: The following Chapter contains several figures. For technical reasons these can only be viewed in the pdf version of the book which can be downloaded here.





The RCIT has repeatedly pointed out that the acceleration of the rivalry between the Great Powers since the beginning of the new period in 2008 will unavoidable result in a new World War. The only chance to avoid such an apocalyptic scenario is, as we state in the “Theses on Revolutionary Defeatism in Imperialist States”, the revolutionary class struggle of the working class against the imperialist warmongers resulting in their overthrow.


Many socialists reject such a perspective. Let us deal with some arguments which have been put forward by Michael Roberts. Roberts is a Marxist economist who regularly produces well-conceived analyses of the capitalist world economy. In a recently published essay he elaborates his thoughts about the possible end of the present long depression and the transition to a new phase of long boom. We will first quote the relevant paragraphs of his article and then critically discuss its contents. In a chapter titled “A new phase of imperialism ahead?” Roberts writes:


The world economy is in a Long Depression. However, world capitalism will not stay in this depressed state. Eventually, probably after another slump that will destroy sufficient value (the value of means of production, fictitious capital and employment), profitability for those capitals that survive will rise again to start a new upwave in investment and growth. This assumes, of course, that the class struggle does not lead to the forces of labor triumphing over capital in any major imperialist economy.


A new wave of globalization is thus possible. There are yet more human beings in the world to be exploited and there are always new technological innovations that can provide a new cycle for expansion of value and surplus value. There are still huge reserves of labor as yet untapped, particularly in Africa. The latest UN projections for the world’s economies show that Africa is expected to dominate population growth over the next ninety years as populations in many of the world’s developed economies and China shrink. Africa’s population is expected to more than quadruple over just 90 years, while Asia will continue to grow but peak about 50 years from now and then start declining.


Can capitalism get a further kick forward from exploiting these hundreds of millions coming into the labor forces of Asia, South America, and the Middle East? While the industrial workforce in the mature capitalist economies has shrunk to under 150 million; in the so-called emerging economies the industrial workforce now stands at 500 million, having surpassed the industrial workforce in the imperialist countries by the early 1980s. In addition, there is a large reserve army of labor composed of unemployed, underemployed, or inactive adults of another 2.3 billion people that could also be exploited for new value.[1]


Lenin liked to say about Maxim Gorki – a famous Russian writer and socialist supporter of the working class struggle who, however, made bad blunders in politics – that one should not judge too harsh about him. He is a great artist, Lenin said, and one should not expect such people to find their way in the labyrinth of class struggle. Michael Roberts provokes a similar judgment about great economists. His writings on the world economy are often excellent and we have referred to them repeatedly in our economic analyses. But in the field of politics, this former supporter of Ted Grant’s centrist CWI/IMT tradition, has not overcome the shortcomings of this political teachers.


For example, he still considers China to be a non-capitalist “deformed workers state”. [2] Unfortunately, his theory about a new long boom is not much better. His main arguments for predicting the possibility of a new long boom are basically i) that eventually another slump will destroy sufficient capitalist value in order to create the preconditions for profitable investments and ii) that there are still large sectors of labor forces in Africa and other parts of the semi-colonial world which could be integrated into the capitalist process of exploitation.


Of course, it is true that major slumps can destroy huge amounts of capitalist value and this, in turn, is a precondition for a period of capitalist upswing. And it is also true the growing young population in Africa and Asia could be integrated into the capitalist market.




Population Growth and Long Upswings




However, there are a number of flaws in this thesis. Let us deal first with the argument of the young population in Africa. As a matter of fact the growth rates of the world population were higher in the past decades than they are currently and they are predicted to be even lower in the decades ahead. (See Table 26 and Figure 31)




Table 26. Total Population of the World by Decade, 1950–2050 (historical and projected) [3]


Year                       Total world population                    Ten-year growth


                                (mid-year figures)                              rate (%)


1950                       2,556,000,053                                      18.9%


1960                       3,039,451,023                                      22.0%


1970                       3,706,618,163                                      20.2%


1980                       4,453,831,714                                      18.5%


1990                       5,278,639,789                                      15.2%


2000                       6,082,966,429                                      12.6%


2010*                     6,848,932,929                                      10.7%


2020*                     7,584,821,144                                      8.7%


2030*                     8,246,619,341                                      7.3%


2040*                     8,850,045,889                                      5.6%


2050*                     9,346,399,468                                     


* Projected




Figure 31. Average annual rate of population change, for the world and major areas, 1970-2050 [4]






In Figure 32 we can see that the working-age population grew in all parts in the world from 1970 to 2015 but is predicted to decline in all parts of the world (except Africa) in the decades ahead.




Figure 32. Percentage of the Population aged 15-64, by Region, 1970-2030 [5]




So in summary, the “huge reserves of labor” have grown much larger in the past than they are predicted to grow in the future. And despite a higher growth rate of the working population (than predicted for the future), the growth rates of the capitalist world economy were declining in the past decades as we have demonstrated in chapter 1. In short, it is devoid of logic to assume that the lower population growth rates in the future could be the basis for a long upswing of capitalism.


Let us add, that the declining dynamic of capitalism was not even reversed after the collapse of Stalinism in 1989-91, when the disappearance of the degenerated workers states in Russia, China and other parts of the world added hundreds of millions of additional labor force to the capitalist world market. We note in passing that various revisionists at that time assumed that this event would open a period of long boom – something against which we always strongly argued against. [6]




What are the Conditions for Long Upswings?




The second argument of Michael Roberts is also flawed. True, a slump destroys capitalist value. But the history of capitalism in the epoch of imperialism has demonstrated that a slump in itself, or the destruction of capitalist value in general, is not sufficient to create the conditions for a long period of capitalist upswing. Let us recapitulate: economic and military catastrophes led to massive destructions of capitalist value in 1914-18, 1929-33, 1937 and 1939-45 and then we had the severe recessions in 1974/75, 1980-82, 1990-91, 2000-01 and the Great Recession 2008-09. Only in a single case (the World War II) did this open the road for a long period of capitalist upswing. So it is obvious that such slumps are not a sufficient precondition for another capitalist boom.


This leads us to the issue of the causes of a long period of capitalist upswing. Michael Roberts makes the mistake of approaching the issues from an eclectic economistic point of view (maybe not untypical for an economist). He imagines understanding the historical development by analyzing this or that factor of the economy. However, it is not for nothing that Marxists speak about the “political economy”. Capitalism does not exist exclusively as a mode of production but is also a socio-economic formation. The economy can not exist without a state to regulate the class contradictions and the world economy can not exist without nation states.


Capitalism in the epoch of imperialism is characterized by historic tendency to decline, as Marxists have explained repeatedly. [7] In contrast, supporters of the mechanistic theory of long waves believe that there is a kind of trans-historical law that a period of capitalist upswing must be followed by a period of capitalist depression to be followed by a period of capitalist upswing and so. It seems that Michael Roberts also adheres to this wrong conception. [8]


As we have explained somewhere else, Marxists recognize the period of the “Long Boom” in the 1950s and 1960s. But one has to see that this period was an exception in the imperialist epoch, a result of extraordinary historic circumstances. First, the world war caused massive capital destructions. Second, fascism resulted in historic defeats for the working class. Add to this the devastating role of the Stalinist bureaucracy which betrayed revolutionary working class struggles in 1945-48 and, by this, helped the stabilization of capitalism. Furthermore Stalinism agreed with the imperialist powers in establishing a reactionary world order – the “Yalta agreement” – which lasted more or less until 1989-91.


Finally, and particularly important, World War II resulted in the emergence of an undisputed hierarchy of the imperialist powers with the US as the absolute hegemon. This was not the case after World War One which did not result in the emergence of a hegemonic imperialist power. Hence the tumultuous 1920s and 1930s resulting in World War II. It was the reordering of the inter-imperialist relations resulting from Germany’s and Japan defeats and the undisputed U.S. dominance which meant that for a whole historic period – effectively until the late 2000s – the rivalry between the imperialist Great Powers played only a secondary role.


So what, theoretically, could be the preconditions for a new period of long capitalist boom? We elaborated in an essay published some time ago the following arguments:


[T]he precondition for this are:


* that the ruling class inflicts historic defeats on the working class and by this lowers the price of the commodity labour to a qualitative lower level,


* that a huge mass of superflous capital is destroyed (via wars or similar catastrophes) and


* that a new capitalist world order under the undisputed hegemony of an imperialist power is formed (in the 19th century this was Britain, after 1945 it was the USA) (…)


Could we experience another long boom in the future, similar to that in the 1950s and 1960s? From a Marxist point of view, it would be wrong to exclude such a possibility. But it would be equally wrong to envisage such a possibility as a simple repetition of the events that led to this upturn. The monopoly capitalism of the 21st century is not the same as that of the 50s and 60s. The productive forces have developed enormously since then, and with them also the destructive forces. A world war today would have immeasurably worse consequences for humanity than World War II (including the wiping out of part of humanity and the destruction of civilization). The fine interconnection of the globalized world economy means that any serious regional upset – whether economic, political or military – would engulf the whole planet. The likelihood of even a temporary lessening of imperialist contradictions and a new long upturn is therefore much less than during the middle of the 20th century. The alternative, “socialism or barbarism”, on the other hand, arises sharper than ever in the 21st century. The more imperialism decays in its senility, the more explosive its contradictions become. The preconditions for a temporary escape from its decline and another boom period would be an unprecedented massive destruction of capital, huge historic defeats for the working class and a war between the Great Powers so that a leading imperialist power could stabilize the world situation as an absolute hegemon. In other words, capitalism would require such barbaric methods that it would put the survival of humanity in question.[9]


Of course, it would be wrong to exclude any theoretical possibility of a longer life span of capitalism. It would be wrong to exclude a scenario that a nuclear war between Great Powers results in the annihilation of one side and the relatively unharmed situation of the other camp. Or that one part of the planet is destroyed by an environmental catastrophe or a pandemia and another is not. Theoretically, such devastating events resulting in the widespread annihilation of millions of people as well as industry and infrastructure could theoretically create the conditions of a new capitalist upswing. However, it does not need much explanation that socialists have no reason to speculate or even to build a perspective of struggle on such a scenario which would definitely represent a horrible social regression.




An Element of Kautskyanism




Let us finally emphasize that our insistence on the inner dynamics of capitalism resulting inevitable in wars is in accordance both with the lessons of history as well as with the classic teachings of Marxism. It has always been the case in the history of class societies that Great Powers and Empires did not peacefully hand over power to a rival. They always tried to keep their power by any means necessary and their rivals attempted to topple them with the same ferocity. Just think about the rivalry between the Roman Empire and Carthage, between the Chinese Three Kingdoms (Wei, Shu and Wu), between China and Japan, between Britain and France or between the modern Great Powers involved in the two World Wars of the 20th century.


In fact, it is a classic position of Marxists to recognize that the contradictions between the capitalist monopolies and the imperialist Great Powers can not be mitigated by some economic slumps. No, these antagonisms must inevitable result in world wars. This has been always a basic assumption of Lenin.


War is no chance happening, no “sin” as is thought by Christian priests (who are no whit behind the opportunists in preaching patriotism, humanity and peace), but an inevitable stage of capitalism, just as legitimate a form of the capitalist way of life as peace is.[10]


“…sums up, as it were, modern monopolist capitalism on a world-wide scale. And this summary proves that imperialist wars are absolutely inevitable under such an economic system, as long as private property in the means of production exists.[11]


Under capitalism, particularly in its imperialist stage, wars are inevitable.[12]


In fact, it would be a petty-bourgeois illusion to imagine that the escalation of the rivalry between the Great Powers does not inevitable result in a new World War if the working class does not overthrow capitalism on this planet and destroys imperialism. Such a pacifist myth has already been raised long time ago by the founding father of centrism, Karl Kautsky. He proclaimed, only a few weeks after the beginning of World War I (!), that it would be possible to transform violent, imperialist capitalism into a peaceful “Ultraimperialism”.


What Marx said of capitalism can also be applied to imperialism: monopoly creates competition and competition monopoly. The frantic competition of giant firms, giant banks and multi-millionaires obliged the great financial groups, who were absorbing the small ones, to think up the notion of the cartel. In the same way, the result of the World War between the great imperialist powers may be a federation of the strongest, who renounce their arms race. Hence from the purely economic standpoint it is not impossible that capitalism may still Jive through another phase, the translation of cartellization into foreign policy: a phase of ultra-imperialism, which of course we must struggle against as energetically as we do against imperialism, but whose perils lie in another direction, not in that of the arms race and the threat to world peace.[13]


Lenin pointed out many times that this was a reactionary dream aimed at pacifying and disarming the working class and confusing its perspective of revolutionary struggle against the capitalist class. In a preface to a book of his collaborator Nikolai Bukharin on imperialism, he commented on Kautsky idea:


With Kautsky, in particular, his clear break with Marxism has not taken the form of a denial or neglect of politics, or of a “leap” over the political conflicts, upheavals and transformations, so numerous and varied in the imperialist epoch; it has not taken the form of an apology of imperialism but of a dream of “peaceful” capitalism. That “peaceful” capitalism has given way to non-peaceful, aggressive, cataclysmic imperialism Kautsky is forced to admit, because that is something he had admitted as far back as 1909 in the paper in which he last produced some integrated conclusions as a Marxist. But if it is impossible to toy in rude, simple fashion with the dream of a straightforward retreat from imperialism to “peaceful” capitalism, why not let these dreams, which are essentially petty-bourgeois, take the form of innocent speculation on “peaceful” “ultra-imperialism”? If the international integration of national (rather nationally isolated) imperialisms is to be called ultra-imperialism, which “could” remove the conflicts, such as wars, political upheavals, etc., which the petty bourgeois finds especially unpalatable, disquieting, and alarming, why not, in that case, make an escape from the present highly conflicting and cataclysmic epoch of imperialism, which is the here and now, by means of innocent dreams of an “ultra-imperialism” which is relatively peaceful, relatively lacking in conflict and relatively uncataclysmic? Why not try to escape the acute problems that have been and are being posed by the epoch of imperialism that has dawned for Europe by dreaming up the possibility of it soon passing away and being followed by a relatively “peaceful” epoch of “ultra-imperialism” that will not require any “abrupt” tactics? Kautsky says precisely that “such a [ultra-imperialist] new phase of capitalism is at any rate imaginable”, but that “there are not yet enough prerequisites to decide whether or not it is feasible” (Die Neue Zeit, 7 April, 1915, p. 144). There is not a whit of Marxism in this urge to ignore the imperialism which is here and to escape into the realm of an “ultra-imperialism” which may or may not arrive. In this formulation, Marxism is recognised in that “new phase of capitalism” which its inventor himself does not warrant can be realised, while in the present stage (which is already here) the petty-bourgeois and profoundly reactionary desire to blunt the contradictions is substituted for Marxism.” [14]


We would not be mistaken to say that historically speaking we are entering a pre-WWIII period. To avoid any misunderstanding, we do not assume that such a World War III is around the corner. What we currently see with the Global Trade War is a prelude, a beginning, of a longer historic period of preparations of such a devastating war. Yossi Schwartz, a leading comrade of the RCIT, pointed out in an article that the ruling class must deal severe historic defeats to the working class before it can mobilize it for such a World War.


Without such a series of demoralizing defeats, WWII would never have existed. Today, the international working class has not yet been defeated. The outcome of the growing crises of the world economy will lead either to socialist revolutions or defeats that will open the road to a third world war.[15]


The conclusion of this is not to be petrified about such dangers but rather to organize the working class vanguard on a sober perspective and a revolutionary program for struggle against the imperialist warmongers.


Finally, if the imperialist Great Powers are not smashed by revolutionary international working class, their rivalry will lead to World War III. The working class can only end this continuous chain of misery, wars and catastrophes via a world socialist revolution. Rosa Luxemburg’s statement that humanity is faced with the alternative “Socialism or Barbarism” is more relevant than ever. Under the conditions of the early 21st century, the concretization of Luxemburg’s statement means: “Socialism or Widespread Death through Climate Destruction and World War III”![16]


[1] Michael Roberts: Imperialism, globalization and the profitability of capital, in: Rupture Magazine, Issue 1, https://rupturemagazine.org/2018/01/25/imperialism-globalization-and-the-profitability-of-capital/

[2] We have dealt with this myth here: Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South, chapter 10, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/great-robbery-of-the-south/; Michael Pröbsting: World Perspectives 2018, p. 59 (Footnote 99), https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/world-perspectives-2018/.

[4] The World Population Situation in 2014. A Concise Report, United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York, 2014, p. 4

[5] Population 2030. Demographic challenges and opportunities for sustainable development planning, United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, New York, 2015, p. 24

[6] See e.g. the book by Richard Brenner, Michael Pröbsting, Keith Spencer: The Credit Crunch - A Marxist Analysis, London 2008.

[7] Our analysis has been summarized, among others, in: Michael Pröbsting: The Catastrophic Failure of the Theory of “Catastrophism”, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/the-catastrophic-failure-of-the-theory-of-catastrophism/; Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South, chapter 3, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/great-robbery-of-the-south/; Michael Pröbsting: Imperialism, Globalization and the Decline of Capitalism, in Richard Brenner, Michael Pröbsting, Keith Spencer: The Credit Crunch - A Marxist Analysis, London 2008, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/imperialism-and-globalization/

[8] For our critique of the theory of long waves see e.g. Michael Pröbsting: The Catastrophic Failure of the Theory of “Catastrophism”, pp. 22-24; Richard Brenner: Globalization and the Myth of the New Long Wave, in: The Credit Crunch - A Marxist Analysis, http://www.fifthinternational.org/content/globalisation-andmyth-new-longwave

[9] From an essay of the author written in 2007, quoted in Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South, pp. 376-377, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/great-robbery-of-the-south/

[10] V. I. Lenin: The Position and Tasks of the Socialist International (1914) ; in: CW Vol. 21, pp. 39-40

[11] V. I. Lenin: Imperialism. The Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916) ; in: CW Vol. 22, p. 190

[12] V. I. Lenin: The Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. Groups Abroad (1915); in CW 21, p. 162

[13] Karl Kautsky: Der Imperialismus, in: Die Neue Zeit 32-II., 1914, 21, p. 921, in: English: Karl Kautsky: Selected Political Writings (edited and translated by Patrick Goode), The Macmillan Press, Hong Kong 1983, p. 88, http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1914/09/ultra-imp.htm

[14] V.I.Lenin: Preface to N. Bukharin’s Pamphlet, Imperialism and the World Economy (1915), in: LCW Vol. 22, pp. 105-106

[15] Yossi Schwartz: Capitalist Trade and the Looming 3rd World War, 15 July 2018, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/capitalist-trade-and-looming-3rd-world-war/

[16] RCIT: World Perspectives 2016: Advancing Counterrevolution and Acceleration of Class Contradictions Mark the Opening of a New Political Phase. Theses on the World Situation, the Perspectives for Class Struggle and the Tasks of Revolutionaries (January 2016), Chapter II, https://www.thecommunists.net/theory/world-perspectives-2016/; see also RCIT: Six Points for a Platform of Revolutionary Unity Today, February 2018, https://www.thecommunists.net/rcit/6-points-for-a-platform-of-revolutionary-unity-today/