‘Highest number of armed conflicts in three decades’: New study confirms explosive character of the current period

map of foreign interventions

The latest edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual Armed Conflict Survey paints a grim picture of the crisis-ridden capitalist world order.[1] The IISS is one of the most prestigious Western think tanks on security issues. It was founded in 1958 and has developed close relations with governments and military institutions. Hence, its outlook is representative of the worldview of important sectors of the ruling class in North America and Western Europe.

The extensive IISS study found that there are 183 regional and local conflicts underway in 2023 — the highest number in three decades. It describes “a world dominated by increasingly intractable conflicts and armed violence amid a proliferation of actors, complex and overlapping motives, global influences and accelerating climate change.”

It refers to “the recent global shocks caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine” as important factors contributing to global instability. (Bear in mind that the survey was finished for publication before the beginning of the current Gaza War — another “global shock”.) Furthermore, the IISS study points to the crucial role of the climate crisis in deepening the fragility of the global order: “The accelerating climate crisis continues to act as a multiplier of both root causes of conflict and institutional weaknesses in fragile countries.”

The authors of the study also point to the “intractability” of these conflicts, since they are the result of deep contradictions and, at the same time, there no longer exists a single hegemon — as the United States was in the past decades — that can impose the imperialist order in all regions of the world:

“At the core of the grim outlook for conflict globally is the current complexity of contemporary wars, which often feature a large number of diverse non-state armed groups as well as external interference. This, coupled with the diminished leverage of traditional resolution actors and processes, makes progress on their settlement a daunting task, contributing to their protractedness and resulting in little prospect for durable peace. The average duration of conflicts has increased over the last three decades amid an accelerated internationalisation of internal wars (which remain the most prevalent modality globally).”

Furthermore, the IISS study emphasises that many local conflicts have become intermixed with the attempts of regional and Great Powers to expand their spheres of influence: “Another driver of complexity has been the increasing internationalisation of civil wars, through the intervention of a growing number and range of regional and global powers in pursuit of their strategic interests.”

A historic period of capitalist crisis

The IISS is a bourgeois think tank with close relations to Western imperialist institutions. It therefore approaches the crisis-ridden developments in the world from a superficial and empiricist point of view, ignoring the deeper contradictions between classes and capitalist states. It is hardly surprising that non-Marxists cannot provide a Marxist analysis.

Nevertheless, the findings of the latest edition of the Armed Conflict Survey are a powerful confirmation of the Marxist analysis that we have elaborated in a number of documents in the past years. We have emphasised that capitalism entered a historic period of decay in 2008, characterised by economic crises, rivalry between the imperialist Great Powers (US, China, Russia, Western Europe and Japan) and revolutionary and counter-revolutionary explosions.[2] These contradictions have accelerated even further with the onset of a new era in 2019, characterised by a series of catastrophes (for example, the climate crisis, the COVID counter-revolution, the Ukraine War, the Gaza War).[3]

Capitalism is a doomed system that can offer nothing but crises and catastrophes. The only way out is the revolutionary overthrow of the ruling class and the construction of a global socialist society that would allow humanity to abolish oppression and exploitation and overcome the devastations caused by poverty, wars, and climate change.[4]

In such a historic period of decay, it is inevitable that confrontations between classes and states accelerate and increasingly take the form of wars between states as well as civil wars. Such armed conflicts inevitably deeply shatter the power of the ruling class and open the possibility for revolutionary uprisings of the working class and oppressed peoples.

The IISS book points out that most armed conflicts are civil wars; that is, conflicts that take place within a single country. Naturally, as non-Marxists, the authors do not differentiate between different types of such conflicts. However, we have always emphasised that one must distinguish between reactionary conflicts between two bourgeois camps where neither side represents the interests of the workers and oppressed, and conflicts where one camp reflects — even if is fighting under a non-revolutionary leadership — the aspirations of the masses for democracy, national rights, or social justice. An example for the former is the reactionary civil war in Sudan;[5] examples of the latter are the liberation wars of the rebels in Syria[6] or in Burma/Myanmar.[7] The wars in the Ukraine[8] and in Gaza[9] are not civil wars but liberation wars of oppressed peoples against imperialist aggressors (Russia and Israel, respectively).

This demonstrates why it is crucial for Marxists to concretely analyse the nature of such conflicts in order to develop a correct tactic: a dual-defeatist position in the case of a reactionary conflict on both sides, and a position of defence of the oppressed and for the defeat of the oppressor in the case of liberation wars.[10]

Conflicts with contradictory character

The IISS correctly points to the increasing number of conflicts with a complex character; that is, conflicts that involve both progressive elements of a liberation struggle of the oppressed as well as reactionary elements, such as regional or Great Powers, trying to utilise such conflicts to advance their own interests. Marxists have to analyse the concrete nature of a conflict and determine which one of the two elements is dominating.

Furthermore, they have to study the evolution of such a conflict to determine if its initially dominant element — for example, its primary character as a liberation war — weakens and the other, initially subordinated, element — in this case, inter-imperialist rivalry — becomes stronger. If such a process of transformation crosses the Rubicon, the nature of a given conflict changes. In such a case, Marxists have to adapt their tactics and replace the defence of the camp of the oppressed with a dual-defeatist position.[11] 

Unfortunately, various self-proclaimed Marxists have been incapable of determining the concrete character of such conflicts in a number of cases. Hence, they fail to side with the oppressed masses or, worse, support the reactionary aggressor. (For example, they support Russia against Ukraine or Syrian president Bashar al-Assad against the rebels.) Others identify with the progressive camp … but refuse to apply the anti-imperialist united front tactic. While they express their sympathy with the oppressed, they refuse to support the concrete forces fighting back. Referring to the petty-bourgeois-nationalist, Islamist or “right-wing” nature of these forces, such leftists shamefully refuse to join the camp of the oppressed and take a reactionary abstentionist opposition. [12] 

The fact that liberation struggles today are led by (petty-)bourgeois forces demonstrates the weakness of Marxists and the deep crisis of revolutionary leadership. However, it is impossible to overcome such a crisis by abstaining from the class struggle of the workers and oppressed people. Quite the opposite, such reactionary sectarians are doomed to remain isolated from the fighting masses.

The decisive task for Marxists today remains to join forces and to build an alternative force fighting for a socialist world. [13] 

Michael Pröbsting is a socialist activist and writer. He is the editor of the website http://www.thecommunists.net/ where a version of this article first appeared.


[1] International Institute for Strategic Studies: The Armed Conflict Survey 2023. The worldwide review of political, military and humanitarian trends in current conflicts, Routledge, London 2023. All quotes are from this book if not indicated otherwise.

[2] We have discussed our analysis of the current historic period on various occasions. See e.g. chapter 14 in Michael Pröbsting: The Great Robbery of the South. Continuity and Changes in the Super-Exploitation of the Semi-Colonial World by Monopoly Capital Consequences for the Marxist Theory of Imperialism, RCIT Books, Vienna 2013, . See also RCIT: World Perspectives 2016: Advancing Counterrevolution and Acceleration of Class Contradictions Mark the Opening of a New Political Phase, 23 January 2016, . See also Yossi Schwartz: The Historical Crisis of the Imperialist System, 29.08.2022.

[3] See on this e.g. Michael Pröbsting: World Situation: In the Midst of a Global Political Tornado. Notes on global developments characterized by the Ukraine War, inter-imperialist rivalry, global energy and food crisis as well as spontaneous mass protests, 13 April 2022; by the same author: A Peculiar and Explosive Combination. Notes on the current world situation, 6 October 2022; Medina Gunić: Recession, Energy Crisis, Strengthening of the Imperialist Blocs – The World Situation will change soon enough, 23 August 2022; RCIT: World Perspectives 2021-22: Entering a Pre-Revolutionary Global Situation, 22 August 2021.

[4] See on this e.g. the RCIT Manifesto: The Revolutionary Struggle in the Era of Capitalist Collapse, September 2023. 

[5] The RCIT has published numerous documents on the Sudanese Revolution and the subsequent civil war. They are compiled at a special sub-page on its website.

[6] The RCIT has published a number of booklets, statements and articles on the Syrian Revolution since its inception in March 2011, which can be read on a special sub-section on its website.

[7] See RCIT documents on the civil war in Burma/Myanmar compiled on a special sub-page on its website.

[8] See special page where all RCIT documents on the Ukraine War and the current NATO-Russia conflict are compiled.

[9] See special page where a number of RCIT documents on the 2023 Gaza War are compiled.

[10] See e.g. book by Michael Pröbsting: Anti-Imperialism in the Age of Great Power Rivalry. The Factors behind the Accelerating Rivalry between the U.S., China, Russia, EU and Japan. A Critique of the Left’s Analysis and an Outline of the Marxist Perspective, RCIT Books, Vienna 2019.

[11] See e.g. Michael Pröbsting: Marxist Tactics in Wars with Contradictory Character. The Ukraine War and war threats in West Africa, the Middle East and East Asia show the necessity to understand the dual character of some conflicts, 23 August 2023. 

[12] See e.g. Michael Pröbsting: Gaza War: Shamefully, some on the Left Support “Israel's Right of Self-Determination”. A critique of the ISA’s and CWI’s adaptation to Zionism and social-pacifism, 25 October 2023; by the same author: Ukraine War: Platonic Supporters. A dialogue with socialists who side with the Ukraine “in principle” but refuse to draw the necessary conclusions, 17 July 2023.

[13] See e.g. Michael Pröbsting: Signposts for Unity and Demarcation. Which issues of the current world situation could constitute the basis for rapprochement of revolutionary socialists? 23 September 2023.