Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

Socialism and war

The present century has been a century of wars. Some 10 million people were killed in the First World War, 55 million in the Second, 2 million in the wars in Indochina. And the two great nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, still possess the means to destroy the human race many times over.

Explaining this horror is difficult for those who take existing society for granted. They are driven to conclude that there is some innate, instinctive drive in human beings that leads them to enjoy mass slaughter. But human society has not always known war. Gordon Childe noted of Europe in the Stone Age:

The earliest Danubians seem to have been a peaceful folk; weapons of war as against hunters’ tools are absent from their graves. Their villages lacked military defences. [But] in the later phases of the Neolithic period armaments became the most conspicuous items ...

War is not caused by some innate human aggressiveness. It is a product of the division of society into classes. When, between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, a class of property owners first emerged, it had to find the means to defend its wealth. It began to construct armed forces, a state, cut off from the rest of society. This then became a valuable means of further increasing its wealth, by plundering other societies.

The division of society into classes meant that war became a permanent feature of human life.

The slave owning ruling classes of Ancient Greece and Rome could not survive without continual wars which procured more slaves. The feudal lords of the Middle Ages had to be heavily armed in order to subdue the local serfs and to protect their loot from other feudal lords. When the first capitalist ruling classes began 300 or 400 years ago, they too repeatedly had to have recourse to war. They had to fight bitter wars in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in order to establish their supremacy over the remnants of the old feudal rulers. The most successful capitalist countries, such as Britain, used warfare to expand their wealth – reaching overseas, looting India and Ireland, transporting millions of people as slaves from Africa to the Americas, turning the whole world into a source of plunder for themselves.

Capitalist society built itself through war. No wonder that those who lived within it came ‘to believe that war was both ‘inevitable’ and ‘just’.

Yet capitalism could never be based entirely on war. Most of its wealth came through exploiting workers in factories and mines. And that was something which could be disrupted by any fighting within the ‘home country’ itself.

Each national capitalist class wanted peace at home while waging war abroad. So while encouraging belief in ‘military virtues’ it also bitterly attacked ‘violence’. The ideology of capitalism combines, in a completely contradictory way, exaltation of militarism and pacifist phrases.

In the present century war preparations have become more central to the system than ever before. In the 19th century capitalist production was based on many small firms competing with each other. The state was a relatively small body that regulated their relations with each other and with their workers. But in the present century big firms have eaten up most of the small firms, so eliminating much of the competition within each country. Competition is more and more international, between the giant firms of different nations.

There is no international capitalist state to regulate this competition. Instead, each national state exerts all the pressure it can to help its capitalists get an advantage over their foreign rivals. The life and death struggle of different capitalists with each other can become the life and death struggle of different states, each with its huge array of destructive weaponry.

Twice this struggle has led to world war. The First and Second World Wars were imperialist wars, conflicts between alliances of capitalist states over the domination of the globe. The Cold War was a continuation of that struggle, with the most powerful capitalist states lined up against each other in NATO and the Warsaw Pact.

In addition to this global conflict, many hot wars have raged in different parts of the world. Usually they have been struggles between different capitalist states over who should control a particular region, such as the Iran-Iraq war which broke out in 1980 and the Gulf War in 1991. All the major powers stoke the fires of war by selling the most sophisticated military technology to Third World states.

Many people who accept the rest of the capitalist system do not like this grim reality. They want capitalism but not war. They try to find alternatives within the system. For example, there are those who believe the United Nations can prevent war.

But the UN is merely the arena where different states that embody the drive to war meet together. There they compare their strengths with each other, like boxers measuring up before a bout. If one state or alliance is easily more powerful than another, then both will see the pointlessness of a war whose outcome is known in advance. But if there is any doubt about the outcome, they know of only one way of settling the issue, and that is to go to war.

This was true of the two great nuclear alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Even though the West had the military edge over the Eastern Bloc, the gap was not so great for the Russians to believe themselves at a hopeless disadvantage. So, despite the fact that a Third World War would wipe out most of the human race, both Washington and Moscow drew up plans for fighting and winning a nuclear war.

The Cold War came to an end with the political upheaval in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the collapse of the USSR into its constituent republics in 1991. There was then much talk of a ‘new world order’ and a ‘peace dividend’.

Instead, however, we have seen a succession of barbaric wars – the war of the West against its former ally Iraq, the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the former USSR, the horrific civil wars in Somalia and former Yugoslavia.

No sooner is one military rivalry between capitalist powers resolved than another takes its place. Everywhere, ruling classes know that war is a way of increasing their influence and of blinding workers and peasants with nationalism.

You can loathe and fear war without opposing capitalist society. But you cannot end it. War is the inevitable product of the division of society into classes. The threat of it will never be ended by begging existing rulers to make peace. The armaments have to be wrested from their hands by a movement fighting to overturn class society once and for all.

The peace movements which emerged in Europe and North America at the end of the 1970s did not understand this. They fought to stop the introduction of Cruise and Pershing missiles, for unilateral disarmament, for a nuclear freeze. But they believed that the fight for peace could succeed in isolation from the struggle between capital and labour.

So they failed to mobilise the only power capable of stopping the drive towards war, the working class. Only socialist revolution can end the horror of war.


Last updated on 26 January 2010