A Marxist explanation of imperialism, and Australia's role in it

Published: 01/11/2023

Written by: Sandra Bloodworth


“I will never apologise for the United States. I don’t care what the facts are.”

– George Bush Senior in 1988 when a US missile cruiser in the Persian Gulf shot down an Iranian passenger jet, killing 290 people.

“We think the price is worth it.”

– Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, in December 1996 when it was reported that UN sanctions had killed 576,000 Iraqi children under five.

Today, in the name of “freedom” and “democracy” – hope-laden words – at least 250,000 Iraqis lie dead, Iraqis and Afghanis live with the brutality of military occupation by the US and its allies and over 20,000 US soldiers are dead or maimed.

In July and August 2006, we saw the depths of depravity the US and its allies such as Israel are prepared to go to in order to extend US influence in the Middle East and deny the Palestinians their rights. Israel’s destruction of the infrastructure in Gaza created what the world’s aid agencies called a humanitarian crisis. As if that wasn’t enough, Israel continued to kidnap Palestinian MPs to drive home the point that democracy US-style means having to elect governments that kowtow to the US’s demands, or else take the full force of Israel’s barbarity. Then the destruction of the infrastructure of almost the whole of Lebanon by Israel and its invasion of south Lebanon ended with at least 1300 civilians dead and a quarter of the population displaced, only to return to homes bombed, burnt and turned to rubble. Beirut looked like a rubbish tip, clean water was almost impossible to get, hospitals had been destroyed, schools flattened and the coastline was an environmental disaster with oil from a deliberate hit on a power station killing wildlife, destroying the fishing industry and covering the tourist beaches with sludge.

The Western media went into overdrive to marginalise, demonise and slander as anti-Semitic anyone who protested about this devastation. But in a world where facts are irrelevant, and language is used as if we are living in a never-ending Mad Hatter’s tea party, the protests of millions keep alive some sense of human sanity. However, if we are to not just protest, but begin to challenge the source of the barbarity, we need to understand what we are up against.

At a glance it would be easy to think that the West’s domination of the Middle East and unflinching support for Israel’s crimes against humanity is driven by sheer racism. A slide show depicting the history of Israel that I received in my email during the slaughter in Lebanon in 2006 included quotes from the founders of Israel and prominent figures from that state’s history who are held up as heroes. By the end of it I was almost sick with anger. Arabs were referred to as “cockroaches”, “greedy crocodiles”, “two-legged beasts”. There was a proposal to use “ultimate force until the Palestinians come crawling to us on all fours”. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir promised in 1988 that the Palestinians “would be smashed like grasshoppers…heads smashed against the boulders and walls”. When I turned to the news, Israeli spokespeople were promising there would be no limit to their offensive against Lebanon.

In Robert Fisk’s book Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War an Israeli army officer was quoted as saying during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon “I know you are recording this but personally I would like to see them all dead…I would like to see all the Palestinians dead because they are a sickness everywhere they go”. By the time that invasion was over, West Beirut was destroyed, between 14,000 and 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians were dead and 2,000 Palestinians had been massacred in the camps of Sabra and Shatilla by the fascist Phalange while the Israelis, commanded by Ariel Sharon, stood by and watched (or perhaps even assisted).

It is only because of the arrogance of the West, the acceptance that US might is right and therefore its allies are always right that meant this history could be almost erased from popular consciousness in spite of international outrage at the time. This erasure meant that in 2006 Israel could get away with pretending they attacked Lebanon because the Hezbollah resistance movement had dared to capture two Israeli soldiers. The truth was the attack was planned well in advance, just as the 1982, 1993 and 1996 invasions were. Seymour Hersh, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist, revealed in the New Yorker that the US and Israel had been planning the 2006 invasion of Lebanon for a year. The same arrogance and racism allows the media to propagate anti-Muslim racism in the name of a supposed “war on terror”, to countenance the use of torture, the shooting of innocent civilians on London streets in the name of “protecting the community”, and the rewriting of laws we thought protected at least some rights won in the past. All of this to ensure that anyone who gets on the wrong side of warmongering governments can have their lives wrecked by police harassment and detention without trial.

Racism is used to justify imperialist domination, and that domination breeds racist attitudes. But the racism is not what drives imperialism. So how can these abominations happen? The idea that Bush is a homicidal maniac surrounded by greedy bastards is appealing. But it implies that we just need well-intentioned politicians and business people. But remember, the history of domination, blood and filth in not just the Middle East, but in Africa, Asia and Latin America by the Western powers preceded George W Bush by two centuries. As the Indian writer Arundhati Roy said in her book An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire: “It’s true that [Bush] is a dangerous, almost suicidal pilot, but the machine he handles is far more dangerous than the man himself”.

Understanding that machine provides us with the tools we need to disable it.

– Sandra Bloodworth, September 2006

Capitalism breeds war

Two Russian revolutionaries – Vladimir Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin – explained why war is an inevitable result of capitalism when they analysed the causes of World War I. Capitalism is a system of competition, but there is an inbuilt contradiction: successful companies buy up those that go broke, getting ever bigger. Lenin wrote: “Marx had proved that free competition gives rise to the concentration of production, which, in turn, at a certain stage of development, leads to monopoly”. Ever-bigger capitalist corporations combine in cartels to keep rivals out of the market. Just think of OPEC, the modern cartel of oil exporting states. Their website sums it up: “OPEC’s mission is to…ensure the stabilisation of oil prices in order to secure…a steady income to producers and a fair return on capital to those investing in the petroleum industry”.

By the twentieth century, giant corporations had developed interests extending far beyond the borders of their national state. They struggle to out-compete each other in an increasingly integrated world market (these days it’s called globalisation). Microsoft, Shell, Nike and BHP-Billiton are typical.

However, contrary to many contemporary anti-globalisation theories, we are not just confronted with marauding multinational corporations. National states have to control “spheres of influence” in order to maximise access to raw materials, markets for goods and investment, trade routes and the like for their multinational corporations. They may use economic and political means, but “the mutual relations of those states – [are] in the final analysis the relations between their military forces”. Lenin and Bukharin concluded that imperialism – the competition between powerful nations to dominate areas of the globe – defines modern capitalism and this makes war inevitable.

By the end of the nineteenth century, new powers like the US and Germany were jostling for influence as they came up against the old British empire, which dominated the globe, and the empires of other European powers such as Spain and France. The world was divided up with no new areas into which capitalism could expand without challenging the colonial rule of the old empires. As Sidney Lens put it in his book The Forging of the American Empire:

“[By a combination of] aggressive diplomacy, a war with Spain in 1898, economic penetration, and innumerable interventions and threats of intervention, the American Leviathan converted [Spain’s colonies] into a vast sphere of influence controlled by the United States much as the old British colonies were by Britain.”

German ambitions to extend their influence came up against the other European powers as they tried to expand their territory in the heartlands of capitalism. This, and not the shooting of a grand duke, was the reason the great powers took the world to the gates of hell in World War I. This was why 20 million were killed – so that it could be settled which capitalist powers would rule which parts of the world. And it has been the basic cause of every war since.

The economic competition which drives the system is said to encourage humans to be efficient, creative and hard-working. But because its aim is to accumulate more and more capital to out-compete rival capitals, it leads to competition between whole states as they defend the capitalists based in their territory. Competition between nation states inevitably means military competition and war. No amount of diplomacy, no arbitration by an “international community” can prevent wars as long as capitalism exists.

Twentieth century imperialism

As Lenin and Bukharin predicted, World War I did not end the drive to war; it only laid the basis for a further redivision of the world between the major powers. World War II was an imperialist war, not a war for democracy. “War for democracy” – sounds eerily familiar doesn’t it? That’s because the machine was the same – only the drivers were different.

The war ended with a new repartitioning of the world – by Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill. Stalin got Eastern Europe and the West got the rest. The wishes and aspirations of the populations were irrelevant. Three tyrants, heading up the imperialist armies that won the war, but who now saw themselves in competition for world influence, just drew convenient lines on maps.

The resultant Cold War after 1945 was a stand-off between two new superpowers, the Stalinist USSR and the US. The massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction by both sides were justified by two complementary lies. Capitalism was defending “freedom” from the tyranny of “communism”, and vice versa, the “workers’ states” – which were in reality state-run capitalist states – were a bastion against vile capitalism. It finally ended when this madness brought on the collapse of the USSR’s imperialist bloc between 1989 and 1991.

However, the inbuilt contradictions of capitalism gave rise to a new balance of power. The lunacy of wasting billions of dollars on more than enough nuclear weapons to blow the earth away sustained the longest economic boom ever. Germany and Japan, forbidden to rearm, gained an economic advantage, riding on the back of the boom to modernise their economies without the burden of military spending. By the end of the long boom in the mid-1970s, the US was no longer the overwhelmingly dominant economic power it had been.

The dominance of the US ruling class increasingly rested on military rather than economic might. They needed to send a message to other rising powers such as China, Japan and a united Europe that the US could and would take on any state that challenged its status as the world’s superpower. But the defeat in Vietnam had undermined US confidence. When Saddam Hussein, their former bully boy in the Middle East, looked too independent, they seized the opportunity, not to rid the world of the “new Hitler” as they proclaimed in 1991, but to strike a blow for their future. “Humanitarian” interventions in places such as the Balkans and Somalia were used to put the “Vietnam syndrome” behind them. And they bamboozled even some on the left into believing that US might could be humane.

A typical example was Salon magazine editor David Talbot. In the January 3, 2003 issue of Salon, Talbot explained that by the time of the 1999 Kosovo war,

“I had come fully round to a conviction I had not embraced since I was a boy: America is not only capable of using its unrivalled power for good – it must. When waves of American bombers began striking at Serbian military installations and power plants in spring 1999, I felt a kind of unmitigated pride.”

September 11, 2001 and the War of Terror

The attack on the World Trade Centre towers in September 2001 was just the opportunity the US had been preparing for. You think this sounds like a conspiracy theory? Then don’t take my word for it. Look at what leading members of the US administration said. Condoleezza Rice, then Bush’s national security adviser and later his secretary of state, asked senior national security staff to think about how to “capitalise on these opportunities”, which were “shifting the tectonic plates in international politics” to US advantage. “I really think this period is analogous to 1945 to 1947”, she told Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker. “And it’s important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions and all of that before they harden again.”

While crying crocodile tears over the deaths of US citizens, Bush planned invasions which would ensure that many more tens of thousands of other nations’ citizens and thousands of US soldiers would die or have their lives destroyed by war. He constantly implied that Saddam Hussein was involved in the attack when there was no evidence of that, and cynically used the opportunity to convince a majority of Americans that the invasions were necessary to protect “our way of life”.

And there were more defections from the anti-intervention camp that helped give Bush’s arguments credibility. Richard Falk – after prefacing his October 29, 2001, Nation article “Defining a just war” by saying that he had never supported any US shooting war since his childhood – described the war in Afghanistan as “the first truly just war since World War II”, and added, “[I]n retrospect I think the NATO war in Kosovo achieved beneficial results”. Falk explicitly rejects the “form of anti-war advocacy [that] rests on a critique of the United States as an imperialist superpower or empire”.

But the attack on the World Trade Centre towers did not change anything about the nature of the system and imperialism. The US remained the dominant superpower with enough military might to destroy the world several times over. And the US is still the world’s largest economy, despite its relative decline. The supposed “war on terror” is nothing more than the US ruling class’s drive to shore up their empire. And the terrorists gave them the opportunity they had been preparing for. Saddam and al-Qaeda are just a convenient pretext for US military bases in the strategic, oil-rich Middle East and Afghanistan, a corridor for supplies of natural gas and oil from Central Asia. But much more than control of that strategic commodity is at stake. It is about an increasingly belligerent capitalist class who rely on military might to prevent a challenge to their power. Bases in Afghanistan complete the encirclement of China, a potential rival. The wars demonstrate the barbarity the US is willing to unleash on any power such as China, Russia or a united Europe, if they get ideas of challenging US hegemony.

Nuclear war – the logic of imperialism

Bush’s drive towards a nuclear strike against Iran is, from the point of view of the US rulers, not madness, but the most reliable way to ensure they remain top imperialist dog. Facing the rising economic and strategic power of rivals such as Europe, and particularly China, the US desperately needs to use the one great strategic advantage it possesses – its overwhelming military superiority. While the US now finds itself vulnerable economically, on the military front it is unchallengeable, possessing more than half the world’s military firepower.

But – and here is the catch that has dogged the US since its humiliating defeat in Vietnam – all the weaponry in the world is useless if you can’t use it, or even threaten to use it, for fear of revolt at home, or the prospect of a “quagmire” abroad. Because of this, the US cannot accept “defeat” in Iraq, Afghanistan or Lebanon. That would be to accept the beginning of the end for the US empire. And so, as defeat in Iraq led to war in Lebanon, defeat in Lebanon has the potential to lead to war in Iran or Syria, or attacks elsewhere around the globe, as the US grows more and more desperate to prove it can put down anyone who dares to stand up to it.

From the point of view of humanity, such murderous logic is unthinkable. But it is the logic of twenty-first century capitalism: a system which feeds on the blood and rubble of Lebanon; a system that now threatens to turn the whole Middle East into a theatre of war and human misery. It is a brutal, ugly reality. But there is no avoiding it.

Australia’s role in the imperialist system

The British invasion of Australia established a white colonial settler state, similar to places like South Africa, Algeria and Israel. Built by invading Europeans and based on the dispossession of the indigenous population, they all have a racist, paranoid history. One of the strongest recurring narratives of Australia’s history is a racist fear of the “yellow hordes” of Asia and fears of “instability” – which can mean anything from democracy or national liberation movements to terrorism. “Stability” ensures orderly trade, access to sea lanes and the opportunity to exploit resources such as timber and gold in the region with minimal opposition. And it lessens the risk that radical movements will spread their ideas to Australia. Susan Windybank and Mike Manning, in a paper “Papua New Guinea on the Brink” in March 2003, summed up this central theme of the last 150 years: “Australia’s security environment is at its most benign when the strategic balance between the major powers in the Asia Pacific region is stable, and neighbouring nations are doing well”.

Australia, as a white colonial settler state, has had aspirations to be the dominant power in the South Pacific since the mid-nineteenth century. As early as 1883, the Age summed up the colonial mentality which has framed foreign policy ever since: 

“It is…important to Australia that New Guinea should be annexed… England can afford to disregard the extension of French colonies in distant areas [but] our security is at stake. Sooner or later…we shall have to intimate unmistakably that no foreign annexations will be permitted in countries south of the [equatorial] line.”

A defence policy document 120 years later echoes the same proprietorial attitude:

“Our proximity to South-East Asia gives us a strong stake in this region’s stability. The region encompasses important communication links and sea lanes vital to our trade interests – up to 20 percent of world sea cargo transits the Malacca Straits. Terrorism threatens South-East Asia’s stability and prosperity and our interests in the region.”

According to a 2002 Defence White Paper, Australia’s main strategic objectives are: (1) to “foster the stability, integrity and cohesion of our immediate neighbourhood… We would be concerned about major internal challenges that threatened the stability and cohesion of any of [this region’s] countries”; and (2) “to avoid the emergence in the Asia Pacific region of a security environment dominated by any powers whose strategic interests might be inimical to Australia’s”.

This explained an outburst of sabre-rattling about launching pre-emptive strikes against “terrorists” in the Asia Pacific from John Howard in 2003. He caused a wave of protest from South-East Asian countries, reminiscent of when he announced that Australia was to be the US’s deputy sheriff in the region some time before. Malaysia’s New Straits Times denounced Howard as “Uncle Sam’s foremost flunky”, while a Philippines senator said Howard “is not a Crocodile Dundee who can treat the whole of Asia as an extension of the Australian outback”.

Howard was also criticised in Australia, with the Age declaring that his comments “may have raised suspicions about the place that Australia seeks for itself in the region. Mr Howard, experienced politician that he is, should have known that some things are not worth saying”. But Howard’s comments were no blunder. They were a calculated warning to neighbouring countries of Australia’s increasingly aggressive military stance. Unsurprisingly, the US immediately came out in support of Howard, issuing a statement that “The President of course supports pre-emptive action”.

Claiming to be the US’s deputy sheriff and invoking the pre-emptive strike doctrine was no mere sycophantic Howard frolic. It had been official Australian government policy at least since the 1999 East Timor intervention. In the atmosphere created by the “war on terror” and the US’s increasingly belligerent stance, Australia – as a middling power on the world stage, but one sheltering under the prestige and power of the US umbrella – grasped the opportunity to boost its own role.

The US Alliance – is Australia the lackey of the US?

From the earliest days, budding Australian capitalists – insecure in a colonial settler state close to Asia – were intent on expanding their control over the region to keep out potential rivals such as France and Germany. Today it’s China, Japan and India. To keep such strong nations at bay, Australian strategists have always looked to an alliance with a superpower which could also guarantee Australia’s right to plunder surrounding countries. So Australia has often been more hawkish than the superpower. Just re-read The Age quote from 1883.

Australia remained under the shelter of the British Empire until World War II; but the war changed the imperialist balance of power. With the emergence of the US as the world’s economic powerhouse and only the USSR as a rival military power alongside the decline of Britain’s empire, Australia’s post-war Labor government began the shift to ally with the US. But it was the Menzies conservative government that clinched the shift in 1951 when the ANZUS treaty was signed. This consolidated Australia as part of the anti-Communist bloc. The Australian government saw it as part of establishing Australia as dominant in the region and containing any future threat from China. Bob Catley summed it up in his book Globalising Australian Capitalism: “[F]rom 1948–1973, the Asia Pacific region was of concern to Australia mainly as an object of strategic purpose focused on…the assessed strategic threat posed by Communism”.

So gradually, in spite of lingering racist concerns, Japan’s rapid growth made it an important trading partner, and the “yellow peril” – the expression of the Australian ruling class’s paranoid racism – shaded into the “Red Menace of Communism” in China.

Ever since the signing of the ANZUS treaty, there have been those who insisted that this was against “Australia’s interests”. Left-wingers who argue this forget that “Australia’s interests” are the interests of the capitalist class, not those of all of us who live here. And in terms of extending the interests of Australia as it became a middling power on a world stage, the umbrella provided by the US gave the Australian ruling class substantial clout in the region they would otherwise not have.

And, just as with Britain’s patronage, they have often been more hawkish than the US. In the 1960s Australia begged the US to be allowed to send troops to Vietnam. In 2000 a Defence policy paper declared: “Australia has a vital interest in supporting long-term US strategic engagement in Asia and in helping prevent destabilising strategic competition among the regional powers”.

So Australian governments have not been dupes of Britain or the US, even when they have participated in their wars. George Bush spelled out the payback for Australia’s support for the invasion of Iraq: “Security in the Asia Pacific region will always depend on the willingness of nations to take responsibility for their neighbourhood, as Australia is doing – and America is grateful”. What better endorsement of colonial aggression could any middling power want? Australia can invade, dictate political developments and impose colonial rule in the sure knowledge that any challenger must ultimately face the world’s mightiest terrorist state.

The Australia/US Alliance is central to Australian imperialist interests. That’s why both Liberal and Labor are unequivocally committed to it and why – if they want to have Kirribilli in their sights – every ALP leader drapes him- or herself in the US flag as readily as Howard. But a more “independent” foreign policy would not be any more progressive. When Australia’s rulers have been more “independent”, it has always meant acting more aggressively than the major imperialist powers.

Australia’s new imperialism

Australia boasts the biggest economy in East Asia and the Pacific apart from China, Japan and Korea, and a military budget many times that of Indonesia. South-East Asia’s top five military spenders, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam, had a combined military budget of US$14.3 billion in 2004, according to the United States’ National Bureau of Asian Research. Australia’s defence budget for 2003 was $15.8 billion. And in line with the 2000 Defence White Paper, it increases every year by at least 3 percent in real terms and is set to do so until 2015. However, in May 2006 the Howard government proudly announced that they had exceeded the proposed increases of 2000 in every one of the six years since. Then in August 2006 Howard announced another $10.5 billion increase and a drive to expand army numbers, emphasising that this was necessary because the government expects “increasing instances of destabilised and failing states in our region”. The other reason for this boost to militarism was to ensure Australia could continue to participate in barbarities “not dissimilar to Afghanistan and Iraq”. This followed a few days after the treasurer, Peter Costello, had declared that Australians should brace themselves for more than fifty years of war against “terrorism”.

There is quite a bit at stake which makes this expansion of the military a good investment for Australia’s capitalist rulers. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, five of the top eight destinations for Australia’s merchandise exports are in Asia (six if you include New Zealand); in 2005 19.7 percent went to Japan, 10.2 percent to China (and growing fast), 7.7 percent to Korea, 3.9 percent to Taiwan and 4.8 percent to India. Only 3.8 percent went to the UK and 7.4 percent to the world’s biggest imperial power and Australia’s strategic ally, the US; 7.2 percent went to NZ. Seven of Australia’s top ten export markets are in Asia. Australian business interests control half of Fiji’s economy and dominate the Solomons. The Solomons have no military of their own, since Australia opposed the formation of a defence force last year.

Both conservative and ALP governments portray Australia’s role in “our backyard” – that arrogance again – as benevolent, even “humanitarian” interventions to prop up “failed states” or to defend “democracy” from “instability” – which included everything from national liberation and democracy movements to strikes and demands that multinationals give back some of the wealth they steal from poor Pacific nations. Just as the “humanitarian” interventions of the 1990s by the US prepared the ground for the wars we’ve seen this century, so Australia’s intervention in East Timor in 1999 laid the basis for Australia’s new imperialist role. And it got the backing of most of the left and labour movement, providing an opening for Howard to boost defence spending and to begin to play a more openly imperialist role in this region. For one thing, they stole East Timor’s oil, and provided the environment for what became known as “cockroach capitalists” who have nothing but profits and racist disregard for the rights of the East Timorese. The idea that Australia could use this dominance for humanitarian purposes is a sick joke when you consider its sordid history of backing massacres and dictators in the region.

In 1965, General Suharto seized power in Indonesia by a coup against Sukarno, the nationalist leader who had come to power when the Dutch were thrown out by a national liberation revolution. Suharto’s supporters slaughtered up to a million leftists. The Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt quipped: “With 500,000 to a million communist sympathisers knocked off, I think it’s safe to assume a reorientation has taken place”. The Australian embassy in Jakarta described the massacres as a “cleansing process”. Paul Keating, former Labor treasurer and then prime minister during the ALP governments of 1983 to 1996, assessed the Suharto coup in his book Engagement. Australia faces the Asia Pacific: “The coming to power of [Suharto’s] New Order Government was arguably the event of single greatest strategic benefit to Australia after the second World War”.

Because Sukarno’s “romantic nationalism, incompetent economic policies and dangerous international adventurism” would have meant that “Australians would have faced three decades of uncertainty, fear and…massively greater defence spending”. Yes, this is the ALP leader’s attitude to probably a million deaths and a dictatorship which lasted for three decades. He follows in a tradition of putting imperialist interests over the interests of those who tend to vote Labor, the mass of working people in Australia. Whitlam before him was unceremoniously dismissed by the governor general because he failed to suppress trade union militancy which was winning workers pay rises when the bosses wanted cuts to deal with the world recession. But just before his dismissal Whitlam served Australian capitalism well by giving Indonesia the go-ahead to invade East Timor.

Australia turned a blind eye to Indonesia’s bloody suppression of East Timor for 25 years, continues to support the repression of the West Papuan and Aceh independence movements, and re-established links with the Indonesian Special Forces, Kopassus, a world leader in terrorism, within four years of them being driven out of East Timor. The Australian government supplied attack helicopters to help PNG suppress the Bougainville independence movement, and continues to give considerable military aid so that PNG can suppress any resistance to the economic austerity measures and privatisations demanded by Australia. And Labor does not object.

Like the United States, Australia is using the September 11 attacks and the Bali bombing as an excuse to project its power in the region. As the 2002 Defence Policy document threatens:

“South-East Asia and the South Pacific face major challenges due to political weakness, decline in governance, and difficulty in grappling with terrorism. If these trends continue, there may be increased calls on the Australian Defence Force for operations in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood.”

By 11 September 2001, Australian strategic planners were bemoaning an “arc of instability” which ran from Aceh through Ambon and East Timor, West Papua, PNG, Bougainville, the Solomons and Fiji. These imperialist attitudes to the people of the Pacific, not concern for their welfare, are the motivating force behind the Solomons deployment and recolonisation of PNG. And it is no coincidence that, after invading Iraq, the Australian government was confident to launch a full-scale military assault on a defenceless neighbour. On July 1 2003, Howard declared that since “rogue and failed states” too often become a base for “terrorists and transnational criminals”, Australia should “take remedial action and take it now”. The Solomons intervention marked a shift to a more overtly imperialistic foreign policy. “The reality”, Howard declared, “is that with the greatest goodwill in the world, many [Pacific nations] are too small to be viable in the normal understanding of the word”.

The fact that the Australian government carried off this operation successfully laid the basis for embarking on recolonising PNG. A report titled “Papua New Guinea: On the Brink” was issued by a right-wing think-tank. It pushed for the Solomons invasion and called on the government to adopt a more “activist” approach in order to safeguard the profits of Australian oil and mining companies. After all, in Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer’s opinion, the sovereignty of such countries is “not absolute”.

Then in December 2003, while world attention was focused on the atrocities in Iraq, our very own imperialist bunch of thugs, the Howard government, were planning to recolonise Papua New Guinea. Alexander Downer announced that 250 armed police “will spearhead an ambitious $2.4 billion, five-year package in a bid to bring stability to PNG”. Senior Australian bureaucrats took control of key areas of government such as finance and police and key posts such as PNG’s Solicitor General, deputy police commissioner, prosecutors and senior judges. Australians set about imposing economic restructuring to achieve “improved efficiency” – code for savage cuts to government spending and privatisation that Australia, the IMF and World Bank had been trying to enforce since 1997. Police were given a crash course of one week to become familiar with local languages and customs!

PNG Prime Minister Michael Somare rightly opposed this takeover as an assault on PNG sovereignty. But threatened with the withdrawal of $350 million in aid – 20 percent of their budget – plus ongoing political interference by the Australian government, his cabinet overruled him. The necessary “agreement” was signed at a ministerial meeting in Adelaide in his absence. Police began arriving before Cabinet ratified it or the PNG parliament passed legislation granting immunity to Australians for any crimes they commit while there. Australia took over PNG with the dubious “agreement” of a government on the brink of collapse. In 2005 Australian police left under pressure from the PNG government and could only return in 2006 without the guarantee of immunity for crimes committed by Australian forces. Nevertheless, the earlier imposition of Australian rule demonstrates the lengths to which the Australian government will go to shore up Australian imperialist interests. And with or without permission from governments under economic or political pressure, the motivation for takeovers and policing are the same.

PNG is the world’s fourth-largest gold producer. Untrammelled access to this wealth is a powerful motivation for Australia to maintain its influence there. But profits are not the only or even the main motivation. At stake is what is regarded as Australia’s strategic interests. Defence strategists fear that the “arc of instability” they have been warning about for years can encourage rebellions, people smugglers and a passport black market, making it possible for refugees to hop borders.

The Age spelt out the self-interest that motivates this recolonisation of PNG, proclaiming it as “Australia’s next step in taking a leadership role in the Pacific to enforce order”. They failed to mention that PNG’s “dysfunctional institutions”, an official justification, are the result of decades of colonial rule. Successive Australian governments, both Liberal and Labor, have had only one concern; that is to ensure Australian companies’ control of the region’s rich resources and to secure Australia’s control over strategic trade routes through the Pacific region. The 2002 Foreign Policy White Paper, “Advancing the National Interest”, pointed out that since 1999, profits made by Australian companies in the Solomons had fallen from $99 million to an all-time low of $55 million. Blaming “poor governance” rather than Australian self-interest for this state of affairs and the civil strife which gave Australia the pretext to invade, the paper went on to warn that it is “not in Australia’s interests” to have a number of such “failed states” in “our” backyard, and suggested that the government should not let accusations of “neocolonialism” prevent it from adopting a more pro-active approach.

How can we stop war?

Understanding imperialism is the first step towards building a movement that can avoid the pitfalls that have disoriented anti-war movements. Imperialist aggression and wars are the logical outcome of this competitive, rapacious system; they’re not just the result of mistaken policies by this or that government. And as capitalism ages, it is getting worse. The days of boom are over with no sign of a return, so the massive expenditures on armaments and invasions such as the expected three trillion dollars on the occupation of Iraq, have to be paid for by cuts to workers’ living standards. Unlike in the 1960s, when the Vietnam War did not stop living standards improving, poverty in the US is increasing and social spending is under attack as a result of the neoliberal agenda which has been hegemonic since the mid-1970s.

Once we recognise that wars are inevitable in capitalist society, it follows that we can’t rely on parliamentary parties that want to run this system. The US Democrats, in the midst of a massive anti-war campaign, ran John Kerry, a pro-war candidate, for president in 2004. The fact that the anti-war movement was dominated by an “Anybody But Bush” campaign meant energy and resources went into the useless project of trying to get Kerry elected. But, understandably, more voters opted for the real thing rather than “Bush lite”. The result was a setback for what could have been a growing anti-war movement.

Here in Australia, the ALP government enthusiastically sent troops to the Persian Gulf in 1991. They did not campaign against the occupation of Iraq, and their weak opposition to it has always hinged on the idea that Australian troops would be better deployed slaughtering people somewhere else. When Israel was destroying Beirut and murdering the civilian population in August 2006, the ALP leader, Kim Beazley – known as “bomber Beazley” with good reason – came out stridently in favour of these crimes against humanity. “Israel, you are not alone!” he trumpeted, “We stand with you”. And when Howard announced the extra $10 billion for defence, the ALP attacked it as too little, too late!

Even the Greens, who use anti-war rhetoric, don’t consistently campaign to mobilise demonstrations against war, and they actually support the use of imperialist Australian troops to interfere in states in “our neighbourhood”. Their opposition to the barbarity in Iraq is mostly based on the analysis that “our” troops should be ready and in reserve for these colonial exercises. Like the ALP, they do not oppose Australia’s participation in the occupation of Afghanistan. This is not surprising when you look at the history of these kinds of “radical” parties when they get into government. The German Greens campaigned for years against war and the nuclear industry. Once in government, they attacked anti-nuke campaigners, sent troops to bomb the Balkans in the mid 1990s, and more recently enthusiastically backed Israel’s war on Lebanon.

The pro-imperialist positions of supposedly anti-war parties are the logical outcome of wanting to run the system that breeds the wars in the first place. You end up justifying some wars, rather than consistently opposing every aspect of militarism.

To end war we will have to build a movement that mobilises the strength of the mass of people to demonstrate, strike and organise so that governments and bosses know they will have no peace while they occupy, bomb or exploit other countries. That movement needs to be implacably opposed to imperialism, fighting every deployment of imperialist troops, whatever the “justification”. Because there will never be peace while there is the injustice, the domination and the resulting racism which are the central features of this ever-increasingly vicious and competitive twenty-first century capitalist system.

The socialist alternative

In order to get rid of war and racism, we have to fight to get rid of the capitalist system that puts profits before people. We need to fight for a better world, where wealth and power are not locked in the hands of a few, and where human need replaces the profit motive – a world where the tragedies of Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon could never happen. Such a society – socialism – cannot be handed down from above, it must be created by workers themselves. In the process of fighting for a better world, workers will have to confront and discard the ideological baggage that keeps us divided against each other – such as racism and nationalism. For without unity, we simply cannot win. Workers and the oppressed will have to make common cause, in our common interests.

But while history has shown time and again that such common cause and united struggle is possible, it does not happen automatically. The ideological grip of capitalism is strong, and the ruling class has many ways – the media, the education system and so on – to disseminate its poisonous ideas. The task of socialists is to fight these ideas, to be involved in the struggles of today, arguing the need for unity and solidarity and attempting to demonstrate it in practice. It is a huge task, and our forces today are very small. We need to build a mass organisation that can bring together those people who want to change the world, that can learn and keep alive the lessons of past struggles and unite the most militant, politically experienced workers in action. That obviously won’t happen overnight, but we can lay the groundwork today. As individuals we are weak and powerless. But when we start to act together, we can make a difference. So if you want to make a difference – if you hate the kind of society that inflicts war and starvation and poverty on millions while lining the pockets of a few, if you are angry about what continues to happen to the people of the Arab world; if you detest the racism imperialism breeds, in particular anti-Muslim bigotry as the justification for the “war on terror”; if you want a world where everyone can live decently, achieve their individual potential and realise their aspirations regardless of their race – then you should join us in the fight for socialism.