The year 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I and the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II. These two catastrophes killed nearly 100 million human beings, destroyed the social infrastructure of dozens of countries and ended with two nuclear bombs being dropped on densely populated cities in Japan. The end of the World War II was quickly followed by the Cold War between the last major economic power still standing — the United States — and the Soviet Union, itself the product of a socialist revolution led by the working class to overthrow czarism and end involvement in World War I.

By some estimates the Cold War between 1945 and 1991, which ostensibly ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, resulted in global death and destruction far exceeding the 100 million deaths of the first two world wars. War efforts prosecuted by U.S. imperialism in places like Korea, Vietnam and Cambodia led directly to the deaths of several million people. CIA-backed coups and proxy wars — from Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, to Afghanistan and Nicaragua in the 1980s — destabilized governments, destroyed entire countries and created the pretext for future wars.

After the Soviet Union was dissolved by its Stalinist bureaucracy in 1991, U.S. leaders spoke of a new world order, a unipolar moment that would produce dividends of peace for generations. Prominent political theorists of the time, such as Francis Fukuyama, predicted that the dissolution of the Soviet Union represented the end of history — that is, that market capitalism had triumphed and had no viable alternatives. The socialist alternative posed by the 1917 Russian Revolution was firmly a thing of the past. Historian Eric Hobsbawm declared that all the essential questions — whether the world would be peaceful or face nuclear annihilation, be socialist or capitalist, be rational or irrational — were definitively answered in the period between World War I and the end of the Soviet Union: the short 20th century, he called it.

But 23 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, is this the case? Do we now live in a more peaceful, rational society than we did a quarter century ago?

On the contrary; the geopolitical situation is even more volatile. In nearly every facet of social life, conditions and prospects have deteriorated for the majority of people on the planet. Unending imperialist war is now a normal feature of American life.

After the supposed end of history, the first Bush administration almost immediately invaded Iraq. Eight years of crippling sanctions under the Clinton administration followed, under which UNICEF estimates nearly 500,000 Iraqi children died. A brutal U.S.-led NATO bombing of Serbia (in what was then part of Yugoslavia) closed the 1990s.

The presidential administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have openly invaded, occupied or bombed no less than seven countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and now Syria). A 2008 poll by the British polling agency Opinion Research Business carried out in association with its Iraqi research partner, the Independent Institute for Administration and Civil Society Studies, estimated over one million Iraqis had been killed as a result of the U.S. invasion in 2003. Millions more fled, and sectarian violence was stoked as an unspoken U.S. policy.

Eleven years on, the U.S. military is again bombing Iraq and its neighbor Syria. Democratic pretenses have been shelved. Obama openly asserts his right as executive to assassinate anyone, including U.S. citizens. The U.S. government oversees a massive, illegal spying program.

In Ukraine, the U.S. State Department allegedly helped to facilitate a right-wing coup, led in part by the fascist Svoboda party and its paramilitary shock troops, Right Sector. This provocation against Russia has led — for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — to veiled military threats between the two largest nuclear-armed powers. Germany and Japan are now re-militarizing, the latter in open hostility to China.

Underlying the military antagonisms, a new and immense global economic crisis is building. One economic bubble after another has burst — the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the dot-com bubble, the subprime mortgage crisis of 2007, the Great Recession of 2008 and countless state and corporate defaults. Inequality has soared and social infrastructure rots. Nowhere is the crisis more blatant than Detroit, where a bankruptcy proceeding is robbing the working class of hard-won past social gains. Buildings and services that can be privatized are sold to Wall Street speculators — the same financial gamblers responsible for the 2008 crash who were given trillions of dollars in bailouts.

Such is the outcome of the supposed end of history and the short 20th century.

I encourage students, faculty and staff to consider an alternative perspective: that of the unfinished 20th century, which holds that all the historical problems of the 20th century remain unresolved. This will be the subject of a talk on campus sponsored by a group to which I am staff advisor, the International Youth and Students for Social Equality. The lecture, entitled “Imperialism and the World Wars of the 20th Century: Historical Lessons and Present Dangers,” is in the Michigan League Ballroom Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. It is being given by David North, a noted socialist author and Chairman of the World Socialist Web Site’s International Editorial Board.

Matthew Morley is a Senior Research Assistant in the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research at the Institute for Social Research.

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