Great Objectives and Grand Strategy

Yet Again the Crucial Question:
The "Center"--Can it "Hold"?...
Some Lessons from Historical Experience

By Bob Avakian

Revolutionary Worker #1136, January 27, 2002, posted at

The RW is currently running this series of excerpts from an unpublished work by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian, "Great Objectives and Grand Strategy." Although written over a year ago, this work--and these excerpts in particular --contain much that is very relevant to the current crisis and war. This is the 10th in this series.

This article, with its discussion of contradictions within the U.S. ruling class, not only historically but in the present period, was written before the conflict around the U.S. Presidential election that installed George W. Bush. But it is noteworthy that, in the conclusion of this article, it is pointed out: "The question remains as to when and how these significant and in some ways deep divisions [within the ruling class] will again boil to the surface and with what effect, not only within the ruling class itself but more broadly in society as a whole."

Previously, I have spoken to lessons that can be drawn from the experience of Hannibal in his battles against the ancient Roman empire. There is another important, strategic dimension in which it is worthwhile to learn from this experience of Hannibal's. This has to do with the reasons why (at least as analyzed in the book Hannibal, by Theodore Ayrault Dodge, an American military officer writing at the end of the 19th century) Hannibal, even after delivering a devastating defeat to the Roman army at Cannae (in what is now Italy), was not able to capture Rome itself and was ultimately unable to defeat--and was later vanquished by--Rome. What I'm referring to especially is how the representatives of the Roman ruling class (as concentrated in the Senate in particular) pulled together and even sacrificed their own particular interests for the greater good of Rome, in the face of the threat posed by Hannibal, especially after the devastating defeat he delivered to prize Roman legions at Cannae. In other words, in this context--even under such extreme pressure, and with significant parts of the Roman army shattered and in shambles--the Roman state was able to re-group and, as we would say, the center "held" in that case.

How does this apply to the U.S. imperialists today? We would have to say that, like the Roman ruling class of that time and its political representatives, the U.S. ruling class has so far shown a strength and resilience in being able to keep its center together, and hold its ranks together, including in conditions representing a severe test for them. We've had the experience of the Vietnam war--where, as even Henry Kissinger had to admit, there was serious conflict within the ruling class, and correspondingly a definite political paralysis, but ultimately the imperialists were able to resolve that without its developing into a legitimacy crisis (or a Constitutional crisis), let alone a full-out revolutionary crisis. (Having said that, it is important to emphasize that things did get pretty close to a serious Constitutional crisis; and we do have to consider whether even a revolutionary crisis might have developed, especially if the revolutionary movement had made further qualitative advances and in particular had developed an actual proletarian vanguard that could have rallied the revolutionary masses to mount a more fundamental challenge to the whole system. But, while there is definitely some value in exploring these questions up to a certain point, particularly with an eye to the future, it is also important to keep in mind that the weaknesses of the revolutionary movement at that time--including the fact that such a proletarian vanguard did not exist, and was not able to be brought into being during that period--was itself, in certain important aspects, an expression of the character of the class struggle and the relative strengths of the contending class forces at that point.)

Generally, throughout its history, it has to a large degree been a strength of the U.S. ruling class, politically--and a reflection of its underlying material strength--that it has been able to maintain its unity and cohesion and to keep the more narrow interests of particular sections of that class from overwhelming its larger interests. We are going to have to take this into account.


With this in mind, it is worth examining an experience which put the U.S. ruling class to a severe test during the Korean War. This had to do with MacArthur's role as the commander of U.S. forces there and his conflicts with the Truman administration, and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff, over major policy questions related to that war. It is very clear that MacArthur, on the basis of the prestige and reputation he acquired through World War 2, and his position as Far East Commander of U.S. forces, pretty much ran roughshod over the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Truman for awhile, or at least set the tone and the terms of things, to which they were forced to respond, during the early stages of the Korean War. This didn't immediately reach any kind of crisis proportions because once the U.S. imperialists re-grouped from the initial blow they took in Korea--and particularly once they went ahead with the Inchon landing--their forces were rolling up the North Koreans and winning one victory after another.

There was some controversy about the Inchon landing before it was launched, and MacArthur had to insist on having his way, but he got it, at that point. It was a successful landing and did turn the tide of the war in the U.S. imperialists' favor, in the short run. They began marching pretty much uninterruptedly toward the Chinese border. All of which further increased MacArthur's prestige and power. But, at that point, there developed a sharp division in the U.S. ruling class over whether to carry the war to the Chinese and into China itself, which is what MacArthur wanted. He wanted to actually try to roll back the victory of the Chinese revolution--even to involve Chiang Kai-shek's troops in the fighting--either on the calculation that this would not become a wider war involving the Soviets or that, if it did, so be it, the U.S. would fight it through. But the U.S. ruling class rallied around Truman and rebuffed MacArthur. And the fact is that the implementation of MacArthur's orientation might very well have led, ultimately, to a devastating defeat for imperialism and a great qualitative advance for the world proletarian revolution, even though at the cost of tremendous destruction and the loss of perhaps tens, or even hundreds, of millions of lives.

Now, it is interesting and significant that the ruling class turned decisively against MacArthur only after his efforts to take the war to the Chinese began to lead to a debacle--when the Chinese entered the war in a massive way and began to administer severe defeats to the U.S. armed forces (and their allies). At that point, the U.S. ruling class was put to a serious test, because MacArthur was basically defying Truman and wanted to continue to escalate the war--not only to engage in a larger-scale fight with the Chinese in Korea, but to broaden the war, or to do things that would threaten to broaden it in a significant way--and this is when, finally, in the face of actual insubordination by MacArthur, Truman stepped in and relieved MacArthur of his command. This could have become a very serious crisis within the U.S. ruling class, and in American society as a whole, but the imperialists were able to resolve it before it developed into such a crisis. In fact, MacArthur himself ultimately accepted this, rather than rallying sections of the army against Truman, for example, and even attempting something like a coup.

This ties in with the fact that the interests of the U.S. ruling class were not fully on the line at that stage, although it should not be underestimated how serious a situation--and in a real sense, crisis--this was for the U.S. imperialists. Yet they did hold together then.

(Another, although lesser, example of conflicts involving "heroic war leaders" of the U.S. imperialists and their differences with official policy centered around General George Patton at the end of World War 2. Patton--who was already creating controversy by his advocacy of the use of "ex" Nazis in administrative posts in Eastern Europe--actually called for re-arming the Germans to fight the Soviet Union. In this, Patton was anticipating the emergence of the contradiction between imperialism, headed by the U.S., and the [then] socialist Soviet Union as the main contradiction the imperialists would be facing--and indeed the principal contradiction in the world as a whole. But this did not mean that the imperialists were then prepared, at all costs, to go to war with the Soviet Union or that it would have been in their interests to engage in such a war at that point. This was resolved without a tremendous struggle--and Patton's view never became more than a "maverick position"--within the U.S. ruling class.)


Then, if we look at the "Vietnam era," on the one hand very sharp contradictions and conflicts developed within the U.S. ruling class, and there was a certain very real paralysis associated with that. Still, not only throughout that war but when it came to the Watergate scandal--right after the U.S. had essentially withdrawn, in defeat, from the Vietnam war--once again the ruling class held together. There was apparently noise made by Alexander Haig at that point--rumblings about mobilizing troops to surround the White House to "protect Nixon"--but Nixon himself ultimately acquiesced and resigned from office. He put up a lot of resistance and was stubborn up to a point, but ultimately he stepped down. I think that, to a significant degree, this represented a kind of "imperialist self-sacrifice" on Nixon's part and was done out of consideration for what Nixon perceived to be the larger interests of the system and the ruling class. He resigned rather than bringing things to an all-out crisis--minimally a Constitutional crisis--which would have resulted if, for example, he refused to resign and refused to accept impeachment, and beyond that tried to rally forces to his side, even rallying parts of the army (as Haig was purportedly talking about doing). In any case, when all was said and done, the ruling class was able, once again, to hold together.

Now, here again, even with the serious crisis that Vietnam actually did bring for the system and the ruling class, this was not a case where they had no choice but to continue the war at all costs and fight it to a thorough resolution--in other words, put everything on the line. They had both the necessity but also the freedom, in those circumstances, to pull back and re-group internationally, even though it cost them some further losses in the short run. And, correspondingly, in their intra-ruling class struggle, they had the maneuvering room to work this out without it coming fully to a head.

But that's not to say that, either in the situation with MacArthur in Korea or Nixon and Vietnam (and Watergate), things couldn't have gotten more out of hand. The ruling center could have become more unraveled, the center might not have held fully. And things did get pretty close in those situations, even though they didn't get to the point of extreme crisis. Still, we do have to recognize, because it is part of the objective reality we have to deal with, that the U.S. ruling class was able, in those circumstances, to once again assert what has been a certain historic strength on its part--having to do with its underlying material strengths as well--its ability to hold together in a situation of significant crisis and strain.


At the same time, we should not forget that there has been the historical experience of the Civil War in the U.S., an all-out crisis for the ruling class (or the contending slave-owning and capitalist classes represented in the ruling structures and institutions), which literally fractured into two antagonistic camps. There was, in that situation, the particularity that this Civil War was an expression of the intensifying contradiction between two different modes of production--developing capitalism centered in the north and the slave system in the south--both of which had, up to that point, been represented in the same ruling structures and institutions. These two modes of production came into antagonism at a certain point, leading to the Civil War to resolve this antagonism. While that particularity is significant, it is not necessary for there to be conditions such as those--where there is an antagonism between forces actually representing different modes of production--in order for a crisis to erupt which qualitatively undermines the cohesion of the ruling class, contributing in a major way to a legitimacy crisis and possibly even a revolutionary crisis.

Looking forward toward our strategic revolutionary objectives, we can see the importance of certain ways in which, even now, there is an aspect of the fraying, if not yet a real unraveling, of the unity of the ruling class. One sharp example is the recent Clinton impeachment. Now, there is apparently an effort to somewhat "shore up" the "center" through having politicians who have been identified as part of the "moderate center" be the leading contenders in the upcoming Presidential contest (i.e., George W. Bush and Al Gore--and this illustrates how far to the Right the "center" of bourgeois politics has been moved!). But the fact remains that the kind of intra-ruling class conflict that, with the Clinton impeachment, erupted into a serious, open political battle, has not at all disappeared nor even been fundamentally mitigated, even though that particular confrontation (that is, the impeachment battle) was resolved short of a Constitutional crisis, let alone a revolutionary crisis.

The question remains as to when and how these significant and in some ways deep divisions will again boil to the surface and with what effect, not only within the ruling class itself but more broadly in society as a whole. And even if, the next time intra-ruling class contradictions erupt into serious conflict, this does not lead even to a real legitimacy (or Constitutional) crisis--let alone an actual revolutionary crisis--it will still provide important openings for the proletarian revolutionary movement to advance with a strategic orientation of looking ahead toward the eventual eruption of a revolutionary crisis.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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