By Martin Thomas
A right-wing group is now cock-a-hoop in Washington. They advocated US war on Iraq at a time when almost all the USA's ruling circles considered the idea crazily risky. They feel vindicated in their view that blasts of US military power can ratchet the whole world, bit by bit, into a levelled-out free-market arena - their ideal of democracy and liberty.
One of their main reference points is a Washington think-tank called the Project for the New American Century. Dick Cheney (now vice-president), Donald Rumsfeld (now Defence Secretary), Paul Wolfowitz (now Deputy Defence Secretary), and Jeb Bush (Governor of Florida, and President George W's brother) all signed the Project's founding statement, in June 1997.
The director of the Project for the New American Century, a man who suspects not only Colin Powell but also National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice of being unsoundly "dovish", is William Kristol.
His father Irving Kristol, also in his time a leading "neo-conservative", chose to entitle a 1977 autobiographical article "Memoirs of a Trotskyist", and to credit his Trotskyist youth as the time which taught him to read, argue and think seriously and intensely.
In fact Irving Kristol (and William Kristol's mother Gertrude Himmelfarb, a well-known historian) were organised Trotskyists for only a few months in 1940, when Kristol was 20. They joined Max Shachtman's Workers' Party after the split with James P Cannon's Socialist Workers' Party, and then within a few months quit as part of an "anti-Bolshevik" faction, the "Shermanites", which joined the Socialist Party and after a few years dissolved, its members drifting rightwards.
What the Kristols have retained as they moved right is a bent for generalisation, a universalist outlook, quite unusual in the US culture of pragmatism, academic specialisation, and now post-modernism. It is a curious and scary moment that gives them a high role in policy-making.
Their catchphrase was first coined by Henry Luce in his magazine Life, of 17 February 1941. Luce was urging the USA to join World War Two. According to him, the economic power of the United States had made the 20th century already an American century, but the century had thus far proved "a profound and tragic disappointment" because the USA had failed "to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence."
The USA should therefore abandon isolationism - strong in the 1930s - and return to the doctrine of its "international police power" enounced by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.
By joining the war, Luce argued, the USA could "guarantee freedom of the seas and of commerce, and send engineers, builders, doctors and educators throughout the world". He saw this as the USA being "the Good Samaritan of the entire world... the sanctuary of the ideals of civilization... the dynamic centre of ever widening spheres of enterprise..."
In his own idiom, Luce was reprising the ideas of British free-traders from the era when Britain was the world's great industrial power. George Canning, Tory Foreign Secretary in 1822-27, supported the independence of the South American countries from Spain with the view that free trade would make them the "farm" serving the industrial metropolis of Britain. After Canning, British foreign policy was dominated for decades by his Whig successor, Henry Palmerston, who, as Karl Marx put it, "inherited from Canning England's mission to promote constitutionalism" internationally.
For the more vehement free-traders, according to the historian Elie Halevy, "political economy was transformed into theology... the immediate demand for a fiscal reform passed over into the grandiose dream of mankind reconciled and disarmed by the universal levelling of frontiers".
It is a recurrent dream for capitalism: a world harmonised by free trade. Dazzled by the marvels of market adjustments among shopkeepers and small businesses in their High Streets, capitalist ideologues imagine a self-regulating, prosperous bustle spread world-wide.
Of course, the High Street needs police. The world market needs police. And, since no world government is plausible any time soon, only the strongest state can be that police. Free-trading Britain insisted on the British Navy's domination of the seas.
Although radical free-traders wrote pamphlets advocating the liberation of all colonies, in fact free-trade Britain liberated no colonies. According to the historians of "The Imperialism of Free Trade": "The usual summing-up of the policy of free-trade empire as 'trade not rule' should read 'trade with informal control if possible, trade with rule when necessary'." Palmerstonian free trade was a policy of "shams and contradictions" (Marx) which drifted into the "high imperialism" of the end of the 19th century. Britain lost supremacy. The different wealthy powers all policed their own rival colonial empires, with trade not free at all.
At the end of World War One a first effort was made at a new free-trade utopia, by US President Woodrow Wilson. It quickly foundered. The world divided into trade blocs and lurched towards World War Two.
At the end of World War Two the USA produced about 70 per cent of the advanced capitalist world's total output. The basis of the British Empire had been shattered by the very war that Churchill had conducted with the aim of saving the Empire. The French and Dutch empires were in worse condition. The USSR had seized large territories in Eastern Europe, but was heavily war-damaged.
Luce's phrase, "the American century", made sense to US strategists. What was good for General Motors would be good and feasible not only for America but also for the world. They designed a new world system, to be organised by US-led institutions - United Nations, IMF, World Bank, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, NATO.
Western Europe and Japan were reconstructed. US military governments in West Germany and Japan could hand over to functioning parliamentary systems. In south Korea, US occupation forces carried out one of the most radical anti-landlord social revolutions in history, effectively expropriating all the landlords' holdings without compensation and handing them over to small farmers.
Yet the scheme soon led into a new mess of "shams and contradictions". Stalinism showed unexpected vitality. It triumphed in China, after decades of US involvement to keep an "open door" there for Western trade. The gush of Luce was replaced by the rancour of McCarthyism and the Cold War, as the USA's ruling circles searched sourly for "who lost us China".
The USA continued to press cautiously for the dismantlement of the old European empires, but its "defence of the free world" became a series of brutal military operations to back up vicious dictatorships, in a scramble to "contain communism". The climax of that policy was the infamous Vietnam war of 1965-75. After losing that war, the USA continued to lose ground to Stalinism until about 1980.
The new factories of Germany and Japan established lower production costs than the USA, and began to invade the USA's own home markets from the mid 1960s. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the large new working classes which had grown up in the USA's sphere of influence rebelled against capitalism, with movements like the French general strike of 1968. By the 1980s, it was common wisdom that the choices for the USA's rulers were between different ways of managing the relative decline of their country and its model of capitalism.
The internal decay and then, in 1989-91, collapse of Stalinism; the steady working-through of the "globalising" trends inherent to capitalism and revived after World War Two, and thus the accumulation of exceptional advantages for the USA as the world's financial centre; and the widespread defeats of workers' movements in the 1980s, have now combined to create a new moment when US ideologues aspire to remould the world.
Every free market is in fact built on the back of exploitation, and generates within itself monopolies, vested interests, and power battles as well as impersonal economic rivalries. The New Centurions' vision of short, sharp blasts of US power creating a harmonious world must therefore drift into shams, contradictions, and stubborn brutalities.
Whether they can even keep on top in Washington long enough to drag the world into another war of their design depends on the class struggle: on whether the working people of Iraq, of the USA and of Western Europe, prove troublesome enough to sober up the US ruling class.
The New Centurions are keen to maintain the USA's ability to police the world against future rivals, European or Chinese. Some socialists argue that their influence reflects a US ruling class anxious about eclipse. It seems to me more likely that their ascendance reflects a US ruling class confident of hegemony (for now). The threats to US hyperpower from Europe or China lie in a relatively distant future, at least on the scale of today's government policy-making.
Greater, if less visible to the New Centurions, and certainly more important for socialists, are the "internal" threats to US hyperpower - the subversive, "globalised" working-class forces generated by a world "globalised" under US hegemony.
In the mid 19th century, Marx denounced the "sophisms" of the British free-traders. "Do not allow yourselves to be deluded by the abstract word freedom. Whose freedom? It is not the freedom of one individual in relation to another, but the freedom of capital to crush the worker... All the destructive phenomena which unlimited competition gives rise to within one country are reproduced in more gigantic proportions on the world market". Yet he also wrote: "Do not imagine that in criticising freedom of trade we have the least intention of defending the old system of protection... In general the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive... The free trade system hastens the social revolution".
Today, too, a "multi-polar" world, with a number of different big capitalist powers vying for hegemony, is no improvement over a "unipolar" one from a working-class or socialist point of view. Capital marches across the world today with an American accent, and often in the most arrogant tones, but to recast anti-capitalism as anti-Americanism is to cut ourselves off from the world's most potent force against US imperialism - the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-lingual US working class.
Against a world united by US capitalist power, we should fight, not for a world of many capitalist centres of power, but for a world united by working-class solidarity.