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Special edition of Eszmélet journal - Colonialism and Wars from Historical Perspectives


States and Wars in a Global Perspective

by Melegh Attila

This special issue is focusing on the topic of colonialism, wars and their impact on further development during the colonial period and in the historical epoch afterwards. Our authors demonstrate not only how colonial and imperialist wars have been integral parts of the capitalist system in a concrete historical epoch. States and their violent conflicts are related to the movement of capital, market logic and capital formation. In this respect Ayanie stresses the role of foreign capital in struggles among factions of capital in Africa, Basso focuses on the class element in colonization, while Böröcz talks about “legacies of colonialism”, “world war”, and the various forms of physical, social, economic, cultural, mental and psychological violence that have been selectively waged on the societies outside the core of the world-system. This is a very important message, especially today when several wars are fought and many of them are misunderstood as anti-imperialist wars. It is more accurate to see them as related to the reorganization of capitalist markets and capitalist blocks. In other words, they are not anti-colonial fights from a critical point of view. Krausz in his plea for a truly socialist turn clearly talks about imperialist wars in our current era without alluding to progressive anti-colonial fights. It is also a vital point for us to understand how the capitalist system and its regional variants evolve and what perspectives progressive forces and socialism can have based on the historical links between wars, states and capitalism. Basso rethinks some ways in which historically progressive and revolutionary forces could position themselves against imperialist forces. Basso gave the following global historical analysis, showing where progress can be located. According to him, it cannot be found in Europe but in Africa: Against this new colonialism the exploited classes of Africa are called to fight again, on all levels. The work of the anti-colonial revolutionary wars of the past must be completed with a second phase of the anti-colonial revolution which will have its epicenter moved much more “down” than in the past, towards the proletarianized working masses of the cities and the countryside, a second time of social wars – and not only wars against foreign oppressors. As indeed we have already begun to see in the Arab uprisings of 2011–2012, in the cycle of the great South African workers’ struggles of 2012–2014, in the Sudanese and Algerian squares in 2018–2020, and now in the turmoil in course in western Africa. The most daring of African revolutionaries had already somehow foreseen it: the liberation of Africa from colonialism and imperialism can be complete only and exclusively with the liberation of this and other continents from capitalism. 

The non-Eurocentric approach, critical of capital, is very important theoretically when the state and its development is considered. Mészáros has argued that the state and inter- or intra-state violence cannot be exempted from internal and, very important, external class antagonisms and contradictions. Importantly, these contradictions shape the rule of capital and its external and internal control over processes of reproduction within some historical specificities and conditions of colonial and postcolonial history. In his last book, titled Beyond Leviathan, István Mészáros summed up this point, also shared in this booklet. 

Thus, the internal and external dimensions of self-assertion of all antagonistic political formations are inseparable. Accordingly, not only the internal repression of the structurally subordinated class but also war, on ultimately unlimitable scale, must be endemic to this usurpatory mode of antagonistic overall decision-making from which the overwhelming majority of society must be substantively excluded. (Mészáros 2022, 62–63) 

So, we cannot be surprised that colonialism and wars on the one hand and capitalist economic development on the other hand are linked to each other internally as well as externally. Only formal theories of development, like modernization theory, can separate these elements in their non-conclusive analyses. But even in the literature critical of modernizationism, up till now we have had little demonstration of whether colonial and imperialist wars themselves explain later economic development especially in the longer run. And this is exactly what Böröcz shows in his novel research note. He argues and demonstrates through a statistical model that those who colonized and made wars on others, could literally sky-rocket in later development, even in the long run: 

There appears to have been systematic contemporary economic advantages and disadvantages associated with societies’ historical records of engagement in wars. Wars make a significant (positive or negative) contribution to the “economic performance” of states. There exist clearly measurable longue durée consequences to war crimes committed as part of the construction and maintenance of the colonial system; those consequences are positive on part of those whose states had committed those colonial atrocities and negative for those who suffered them. 

This is all the more frightening as the victims of the aggressors not only lost momentum in economic development after national liberation (so important for progressive forces as explained by Basso), but even when after several decades, globalization favored those who have committed very significant crimes historically. Even more, victims of such processes could be blamed for their “savageness” as they could get into a spiral of wars. 

This has clearly been shown in African histories of state development. In our booklet, Ayanie shows that, in the fifty years elapsed after colonization, more than 100 separate, violent armed conflicts have occurred in the continent, conflicts that lasted on average more than two years. But, as opposed to colonial and racist discourses on tribalism and ethnic fights his work also demonstrates statistically “that the historical development of the global capitalist market explains the perpetual and complex conflicts in contemporary Africa”. According to Ayanie’s analysis, both the presence of foreign direct investment and higher levels of capital formation, together with the export of raw materials, are positively and strongly associated with the continuity of wars. Interestingly, he also points out that trade openness was negatively related to war making, which might suggest that “normal” trade instead of foreign and exploitative intrusion actually increase the likelihood of peace. This might be generalized. We see the rise of tensions in our era due to reconfiguring capitalist blocks, as shown by trade “deglobalization” and securitization, pointed out by several authors including even World Bank experts like Pinelopi (Penny) Goldberg in her talk on the crisis of globalization at the United Nations University. Wars and violent conflicts are, thus, not the simple outcome of more connections; instead, they are endemic, political-economic tools throughout the history of capitalism.

This is why it is very important to reflect upon how non-capitalist mixed economies can be reconceptualized in the 21st century as raised by Krausz below. Such models will not emerge from history automatically. Beyond the unfolding crisis, the historical change requires the rise of real movements with historically constructed and inherent interests in overcoming the crisis and the wars. Furthermore a knowledge of new models is also needed together with the belief that they are viable. This booklet, the proposed information center (Krausz 2023) and the ongoing conference series are our contribution to this development, when we live under the threat that capitalist states can drag us into self-destructive, violent wars over false pretexts. Mészáros also warned and encouraged us in this manner. He wrote about the need to avoid the total destruction by overcoming the Leviathan state so often seen as a hope for false socialistic illusions. 

That is the case because in our time, in view of the objectively accomplished changes that in the course of history produced the now readily available powers of total destruction, a way must be found to extricate humanity from the ever more dangerous – potentially, in a literal sense, self-annihilating – decision-making practices of the Leviathan state. There can be no hope for the survival of humanity without that. (Mészáros 2022, 42)

Literature cited 

Ayanie, Fikadu T. (2023). Globalization of Market Economy and Enduring Wars in Contemporary Africa: A Polanyian Perspective. In this volume. 

Basso, Pietro (2023). Revolutionary Wars in Africa against Colonialism. In this volume. 

Böröcz, József (2023). War as an Instrument in Building Global Economic Inequality: A Research Note. In this volume. 

Goldberg, Pinelopi (2023). Globalization in Crisis — Confronting a New Economic Reality. Onilne/Oslo, 10 October 2023, UNU-WIDER, WIDER Annual Lecture. 

Krausz, Tamás (2023). Can We Learn from History? Not backwards but forwards, to socialism – A few comments on the topic. In this volume. 

Mészáros, István (2022). Beyond Leviathan: Critique of the State. New York: Monthly Review Press.

To access the complete publication please download the attached document below.

Eszmelet Special Issue-Colonialism and Wars from Historical Perspectives
PDF letöltése • 1.16MB


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