Only a few months ago, in a speech he made in Washington on 4 November 2011, the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State, William J. Burns, stated that during the next few decades, the Pacific will become the most dynamic part of the world and the most important for American interests. In this area, he added, more than half of the world population, key allies and emerging powers and some of the main economic markets are already concentrated. In the same month the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, wrote an article for the review Foreign Policy with an eloquent title: “The Century of the Pacific for America”.
The article in Le Monde Diplomatique/Il Manifesto (“When the Pentagon takes an interest in the Pacific”, March 2012), from which we have extracted this material and the quotations that follow, deals with the “future defence strategy of the United States” recently outlined by President Obama, which foresees “a reduction in the armed forces and the conclusion of some missions, in particular mechanized land operations in Europe and counter-rebellion operations in Afghanistan and in Pakistan [in order to] concentrate better on other regions – in particular Asia and the Pacific – and objectives: cyberwar, special operations and control of the seas” (our italics). The area interested by this control is, of course, the area reaching “from the Persian-Arab Gulf to the North-West Pacific, passing through the Indian Ocean and the China Sea”. For this reason the U.S. government has strengthened its official relations with Burma and is endeavouring to extend American commerce with Asia, encouraging “the adoption of a multilateral treaty on free trade: the TransPacific Partnership, TPP”, with the objective of “neutralizing China’s ascent and her influence on South-East Asia” (Burns again reminds us that half of merchant tonnage now passes through the south China Sea). Also in this perspective comes the U.S. plan for creating a new base at Darwin on the northern coast of Australia and President Obama’s refusal to reduce the forces of the Navy (whilst those of the army are reduced from 570 thousand to 490 thousand) becomes comprehensible. Naval forces (in particular aircraft carriers and flotilla), aircraft and new-generation missiles will thus constitute the core of U.S. “power projection” in the Pacific.
But is this really all about a … change of route, to remain in a maritime context?
In 1890, the U.S. admiral Alfred T. Mahan published a book entitled The Influence of Maritime Power on History, 1660-1783, in which, from a study of past “wars at sea”, he concluded the need for the American state to create, as quickly as possible, not only a robust merchant fleet, but – to protect it and “project it forwards” – an even more robust military fleet and a series of outposts in key points such as the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. Having established its own domestic situation (the Civil War, 1861-64; the conquest and colonization of the West, with the uprooting and genocide of the indigenous peoples), having formed a stable and growing home market, created an immense pool of labour as diversified as it was exposed to blackmail (bankrupt and proletarianized farmers, black ex-slaves, immigrants from the Old World and from Asia, as well as a large sector of working-class aristocracy represented by the “old” working class of Anglo-Saxon origin), U.S. capitalism could now take giant strides forward in its supreme phase, that of imperialism (substantially already in existence in the previous decades). Not by chance, the same year 1890, in which Mahan’s book was published and which coincided with the “closure of the Frontier” (in the West there no longer existed any “free” lands to colonize) and the last great massacre of the indigenous populations (at Wounded Knee), opened the decade of the so-called “Splendid Little Wars”, as the military campaigns (always under the pretext of … liberating oppressed peoples) in Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Phillipines, Hawaii were called: a geography of military interventions which created that very chain of outposts and encouraged the development of the arms industry – first and foremost the production of ships. The First and, mainly, the Second World Wars were to achieve the rest: the U.S. fleet emerged from them as a monstrous engine of war at sea.
As is demonstrated by the following article that we are re-publishing and which appeared in our party press in 1957, the strategy outlined by President Obama is nothing new: it merely carries on, with even more lethal destructive power, a trend already innate in the very nature of imperialism – namely “the imperialism of the aircraft carriers”.
The Imperialism of the Aircraft Carriers (1957)
Imperialism, in its general aspect of conquest and dominion of political and economic organisms by a superior state centre, is not exclusive to capitalism. Regardless of their social content, there exist numerous types of this same historical phenomenon: Asian imperialism, Greek and Roman imperialism, feudal imperialism and finally capitalist imperialism. What is of most interest to revolutionary workers is the substantial difference that distinguishes capitalist imperialism from its historical counterpart, i.e. feudal capitalism.
Always apart from their other fundamental differences, feudal imperialism and capitalist imperialism are clearly distinguishable, in that one reveals itself in state constructions with territorial and land-based foundations, whilst the other appears on the stage of history mainly as world dominion founded on naval hegemony and thus on the dominion of the great ocean routes. Under feudalism, the state power with land-based military supremacy could exercise an imperialist function; instead, under capitalism, which is the mode of production that has raised the production of commodities to unprecedented heights and exasperated to the maximum the mercantile phenomena already inherent in previous modes of production, imperialism is linked to naval supremacy, today air-sea supremacy.
Capitalist imperialism means first and foremost hegemony on the world markets. Yet, to win this supremacy a powerful industrial system and a territory ensuring it raw materials are not enough. A great merchant and armed navy is required, i.e. the means by which the great intercontinental routes of commercial traffic can be controlled. In fact, historical events show how the order of imperialist supremacy is closely linked in a mercantile capitalist régime to the order of naval supremacy.
The decline of the Republic of Venice, which surged to power and splendour in the age of the Crusades, started from its loss of the trade monopoly between Asia and Europe. Intercontinental traffic took place partly by sea, the Mediterranean and the Red Sea, and partly on land. In fact, since there was no canal crossing the isthmus of Suez, the goods carried by ships anchoring in the Egyptian coastal ports of the Red Sea had to be transferred to land and river transport that ensured connections to the Mediterranean ports, amongst which Alexandria was the most important.
The discovery of America had made Portugal and Spain the rulers of vast colonial empires, the first in the history of modern imperialism. The true precursors of U.S.-type imperialism, the Portuguese took no interest in the occupation of large territories, concentrating mostly on gaining possession of the essential world trade routes. In this grand plan it was vital for them to win hegemony in the Indian Ocean, the bridge between the most advanced continents at the time: Europe and Asia. This was how, starting out from Cape Colony, conquered at the beginning of the 1500s, they laid claim to Ceylon and Malacca, getting as far as the Sunda achipelago and later China, where they occupied Macao. But the mortal blow to Venetian supremacy came with Portuguese occupation of the island of Socotra and the Hormuz Straits, located respectively at the beginning of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. In this way, the ancient sea and land trade routes between Europe and Asia were interrupted and ships that attempted to break the Portuguese blockade were sunk mercilessly. To save their common interests, the Republic of Venice and the Egyptian Sultan then formed an alliance against the new lords of the Indian Ocean, but the allied fleet was defeated at the battle of Diu (1509).
The final outcome of the struggle was that intercontinental trade was deviated along the Atlantic routes, so that Lisbon became the centre of world trade and the capital of the age’s greatest imperialist power, whilst Alexandria rapidly declined. The Republic of Venice, despite the great blow, managed to last out for some time, but its imperialist primacy was now lost.
Later history has been no different. It demonstrates that bourgeois imperialism is the imperialism of shipping fleets, since its kingdom is the world market. Those who have world hegemony on the seas are candidates for hegemony in the field of world commerce, which is the real basis of capitalist imperialism. Two world wars have proved how the imperialism of land armies inevitably yields to the imperialism of naval fleets. Twice, land-based powers like the Central Powers and the Nazi-Fascist Axis faced the Anglo-Saxon powers, superior on sea and in the air, and twice they came out of the conflict totally defeated.
The Second World War introduced a new element, which can be explained by the century-old laws of imperialist development. Not only did the land-based powers register complete defeat, but also a power in their enemy camp – Great Britain – came out of the monstrous struggle defeated, not due to the destructive power of her enemies, but because of the superior naval and commercial potential of her greatest ally: America. In terms of the effects produced on world naval balance, for Great Britain the Second World War was to represent what the battle of Diu represented for the Republic of Venice. In fact England could not be said to be destroyed, but it was the end of her naval supremacy and hegemony. The downgrading of the fleet meant the disintegration of the British colonial empire which was held together precisely by its navy.
Today is the age of American imperialism. It is no coincidence that the United States repeated the strategic move inaugurated by the Portuguese in the XVth century, to the detriment of Europe. By blocking the waterborne transport of goods between Europe and Asia (we all know that the Suez Canal would not have been blocked if Nasser had not had U. S. support against England), the United States got Europe by the throat and destroyed once and for all what remained of British imperialist traditions. We know the imperialism of the dollar: it does not occupy territories, indeed it “liberates” those still burdened by colonial dominion and harnesses them to the chariot of its financial omnipotence, watched over by the most powerful air-sea fleet in the world. American imperialism appears as the purest expression of capitalist imperialism, which occupies the seas in order to dominate lands. Not by chance its power is based on its aircraft carriers, which are a concentration of all the monstrous degeneration of the capitalist mechanism, which breaks all relations between the means of production and the producer. If aeronautical technology absorbs the most advanced results of bourgeois science, the aircraft carrier is the point of convergence for all the branches of technology that the ruling class is so proud of. Those who are dazzled by Russian imperialism [1957 – ed.] to the point of forgetting the tremendous power of dominion and oppression belonging to the United States, risk falling victims to the democratic and liberaloid deviations that are Marxism’s worst enemies. Not by chance does liberal-democratic preaching have its greatest pulpit on the territory of today’s leading imperialism. They fail to see that Russia, whose expansionism still takes a colonial form (occupation of the territory of minor States), is still at a more primitive phase of imperialism, the imperialism of land armies, i.e. of the same type twice defeated in two world wars. Having said this, our definition of Russia does not change one iota: a capitalist State. We register the facts. All existing States are enemies of the proletariat and the communist revolution, but their power is not equally the same. What is most important for the proletariat, which sees all the States in the world joined against it as soon as it makes a move to seize power, is to be aware of the power of its greatest enemy, the one with most arms and able to strike in any part of the world. Prevalently land-based imperialism was typical of feudalism. This does not mean that imperialist powers possessing limited naval power pass on feudal traditions, for if this were true, Japan at the time of the Second World War would have reached a level of capitalism superior to that achieved by Germany, seeing that the Japanese fleet was more aggressive than the German. It means only that, in a competition between imperialist powers, or those aspiring to imperialism, the winner is the power that possesses the biggest fleet. In terms of capitalist conservation and repression, this is what is of most importance. And so, which world power can carry out class-police operations in any part of the world, if not the one that possesses the greatest power and mobility? Russia? No, even though events in Hungary seem to have conferred on her the diploma of leading gendarme in the world counter-revolution [the reference here is to the suppressed Hungarian revolt in 1956 – ed.]. In fact, the task can only be carried out by the United States, in other words by the imperialism of the aircraft carriers. To be precise, of the one hundred aircraft carriers.
At present [1957 – ed.] the U.S. Navy disposes of one hundred and three aircraft carriers, which – writes the Italian magazine Il Tempo – provide the bases for five thousand aeroplanes, including jets and medium-range bombers, as well as several hundred helicopters. In a few months time the shipyards of New York and Newport will deliver to the US Navy three more large aircraft carriers: the Ranger, theIndependence and the Kitty Hawk. Another of the same type (Forrestal class) has been ordered from the New York shipyards. These ships, at present the largest in the world’s navies, are 315 metres long, carry 100 aeroplanes each, can reach a speed of 35 knots and have a crew of 3,360 men and 466 officers. How much did the Forrestal cost? Two hundred and eighteen million dollars. These vessels will be outclassed in terms of size and features by the super aircraft carriers, class CVAN (Nuclear Attack Aircraft Carriers), which will be 85 thousand-tonners (compared to the 60 thousand of the Forrestals), will have a 400 metre-long flight deck and, powered by eight atomic turbines, achieve a speed and autonomy hitherto unknown to any naval power. Finally, these super aircraft carriers class CVAN will be equipped with remote-controlled missiles. Just imagine what this engine of dominion and warfare will start to become – with the fat defence budget announced by Ike [Eisenhower – ed.] – now that the USA is not only promising economic aid to the Middle East, which will have to accept it sooner or later, but is kindly offering to defend it, too, if it should ask (request … on command) for their benevolent military aid!
History has never witnessed such alarming power, permanently looming in the seas. The imperialism of the aircraft carrier is the latest, tremendous resource of class domination which has no intention of perishing. The proletarian revolution will have to fight its decisive battle with it. Lenin’s theses on the world revolution thus assume blazing clarity and the treacherous pseudo-doctrines of the “national paths to socialism” collapse miserably. The bourgeoisie cannot be defeated nation by nation, State by State, but only through a revolution of the continents and the rebellious embrace of the proletariat beyond all frontiers.
What guarantee would a revolutionary proletarian State have of lasting in any part of the world, should American imperialism be able to wield its tremendous weapons of destruction from the oceans? To crush the repressive power of capital the proletariat must rise up in arms all over the world against the ruling class. There is thus only one “path” to socialism: the international and internationalist path.
American imperialism, with its one hundred aircraft carriers, is not mounting guard for its own domestic safety alone. It is mounting guard for capitalist privilege in all parts of the world, wherever the proletariat represents a threat to bourgeois conservation. Why on earth, faced with an enemy class that is unifying its defences, should the proletariat fragment its own forces in individual nations? The superb American fleet, which today terrorizes the world, will become a heap of old iron if the volcano of the Revolution starts to erupt once again. But all the nations and continents must be set fire to: Europe, Asia, Africa, but most of all America. Then we shall see what a super atomic aircraft carrier becomes when the crew raise the red flag.
We do not hide the fact that there will be some time to wait before we see this happening. Yet we are sure that it would not be seen, either in the short term or later, if the proletarian avant-garde had not acquired a precise notion of capitalist imperialism.
(from "Il programma comunista", no. 2/1957)