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Fight Against War

John West

The Nature and Causes of Modern War

Capitalist Expansion Ends in Open Conflict

(January 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 7, 26 January 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Ed. Note: This is the first of a series of four articles by Comrade West on the problems of the revolutionary fight against war. The remaining three will be entitled: The Struggle Against War, The League Against War and Fascism, and The United Front and War. Do not miss them!)

* * *

An integral part of the great aim of the revolutionary movement is the elimination of war. It has become almost commonplace to realize that modern war threatens not merely suffering and death to vast millions, but the actual destruction of human civilization, the thrusting of mankind back into barbarism. No one who, with the lessons of the last war in mind, has followed the recent developments in military technique, can doubt this to be literally true.

In the face of this prospect, it is the revolutionary movement alone that has a solution to offer. From the open war-glorification by Fascism to the futile gesturings of pacifism, all other forces in modern society are not merely powerless to prevent war but in fact aid in preparing war. The responsibility for the struggle against war rests wholly on the revolutionary movement.

The first step in the struggle against war is a clear understanding of the nature and causes of war. A mere pious horror at the dreadfulness of war – which is shared by the great majority of men – is useless, and worse than useless.

At the Bottom of War

The driving force of the capitalist mode of production is the necessity for the continual accumulation and expansion of capital. This necessity is inescapable. Capitalists must constantly attempt to expand capital, in order to maintain profits. But this attempt comes up against (indeed it is merely the reverse side of) the equally inescapable tendency under capitalism for the general rate of profits to fall. The fall in the rate of profits demands capital expansion, in order to retain an equal or greater total amount of profits; the expansion, however, in its turn involves an increased tendency of the rate of profits to fall, and, consequently, the still further need for capital expansion.

The necessity for the expansion of capital leads to the mighty development of the means of production, to the huge new machines and great factories and mines and railroads, the enormous corporations, the ever-growing monopolies. The expansion is, however, by its nature unregulated and chaotic, for two chief reasons, the first of which is dependent on the second:

  1. It is carried out on a competitive basis, not in accord with a rational and inclusive plan.
  2. It is developed with no relation to the needs of a consumer market.

From the point of view of capitalism, the “market” is only the means for transforming commodity-values back into capital-values for further use in the accumulation of capital. The market is therefore necessarily limited not by the potential needs of consumers (which are nearly boundless), but by the conditions of capitalist production itself – by the possibility of using the surplus value realized from the sale of commodities to produce more surplus value.

The tendency to uncontrolled expansion exceeds the limits; the capitalist created market can no longer “absorb” the products of the expanded capital equipment; expansion becomes over-expansion. The over-expansion is temporarily “corrected” by the periodic crisis, during which capital (i.e. the value of the means of production) is destroyed through falling price levels, bankruptcies and material deterioration. The point is reached where capital accumulation can once more proceed “normally”; the tendencies re-assert themselves on a new and still more violent scale, and the next crisis is rapidly prepared for.

Capitalism thus faces: (1) A chronic necessity for the accumulation of capital, i.e. for the recapitalizing of all present values and for new capital investments; (2) a periodic inability to find markets through which commodities turned out by the capital equipment can, by their sale to consumers, be re-converted into capital. During the decline of capitalism, this second periodic condition likewise tends more and more to become chronic, thus bringing about a lowering of the scale of capitalist operations. The necessity for capital expansion, however, continues in an even sharper form at the more restricted level.

These two conditions explain the fundamental basis of modern (imperialist) war.

Driven to Imperialist Expansion

Capitalists of every major capitalist nation are faced with the following situation: In order to sustain the system which sustains them, they must find continuous outlets for capital investment and re-investment; but the internal market, provided by the capitalist mode of production within any single nation, is not, sufficient to re-convert into capital values the values of commodities turned out even by existing capital equipment, much less of new. Consequently, the capitalists of each nation are forced to seek outlets for capital investment (and likewise consumer markets) beyond the national borders.

If we glance even for a moment at the history of the United States since the War, we can see this tendency everywhere manifesting itself.

International Tel. & Tel. builds and operates telephone and telegraph systems in Spain, Latin America, South America, and the Near East. General Electric buys heavily into the electrical industries not only of “backward” countries but of Germany, France and England. New York banks and investment bouses exploit the copper mines of Africa and the silver mines of Peru. The Standard Fruit Co. owns and operates the great orchards of Mexico; United Fruit, the orchards of Central America. The American Sugar Refining Co. expands it refineries in Cuba. Curtiss-Wright builds an airplane factory in China. Standard Oil and Texas Co. build oil refineries and operate filling stations all through the Far East, as well as in Bolivia, Venezuela and Mexico. The auto companies build plants in Canada and even (Ford) in England and Germany.

Capitalists Vie on World-Wide Scale

But the capitalists of England, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan are driven by the same scourge.

Since the world is limited in extent, since the areas available for new forms of capital expansion and exploitation are growingly restricted, conflict is not only likely but inevitable. The grandiose battle of the capitalists of the imperialist powers is fought on a world-wide scale. Into the colonies, mandates, “subject nations”, “spheres of influence”, flow the surplus capital funds, imperiously demanding to be set to work at making profits.

The political arms of the capitalists – the governments of their respective countries – are extended watchfully over the new investments.

They are ever ready to unseat a Central American government, threaten a native prince, wipe out “red bandits”, stop or start a revolution, send a flotilla of warships or a regiment of marines, resent an “insult to the flag”, if necessary set two countries – Bolivia and Paraguay for example – flying at each other’s throats to settle the dispute of Standard Oil and Shell over rights to an oil field.

To expose the foundation clearly, there must be added to this basic drive of capital for accumulation the closely related struggle for sources of raw materials, for control of shipping, for the ability to manufacture in countries where the standard of living is lower than in the home country, and the determination of the home capitalists to keep the home market for their own purposes by tariff’s, quotas, and exchange restrictions.

Capitalist Society Continually at War

The truth of the matter is this: In the stage of imperialism, capitalist society is continuously at war. This is the essence of imperialism. It is not a question of one war starting, then stopping, to be followed in a decade or two by a new war. It is war all the time, changing only in the form it takes, in the degree of violence.

The economic wars of capital expansion, of tariff and exchange and armament, and competitive exploitation roach a point where the attempt is made to find a political solution of the economic and social contradictions through war open and undisguised: imperialist-inspired wars between subject nations; wars of subjugation by imperialist nations against subject peoples and the converse wars of these peoples against their imperialist oppressors; the world-wide war of the imperialist nations among themselves. But, though producing a “boom” by loosening the bonds on capital expansion, by destruction of existing values, and by credit expansion, the open wars, far from solving the contradictions, only express their depth, and prepare for still more bitter conflict to come.

The Revolutionary War of the Workers

And throughout this bloody chaos is fought the war that gives historical meaning to the whole mad spectacle: the revolutionary war of the working class against its exploiters. This war, which, after generations of preparation, began on a world scale with the October revolution, continues within every country in a thousand varying forms, from strikes to armed uprisings to preparations for intervention in the Soviet Union, and will continue until the final issue is decided.

The disguises that war wears – appearing as due to “national” or “cultural” differences, as following from an assassination or an insult to the flag – must not be allowed to hide the fundamental conflicts which are the true source of modern war. Though these other factors may provide the final push that sets open war going or may modify the character of a war, there is nothing in their own nature that must necessarily lead to war. They are the tools of the forces making for war, not the cause of these forces. Nor should we be misled by those who tell us that the present tendency toward “economic nationalism” means the end of imperialism and consequently of imperialist war. The lessening of foreign trade and foreign investment during the crisis, far from removing the imperialist contradictions, only exaggerates them, only increases the relative importance of whatever foreign capital expansion and trade remains and makes ever sharper the struggle to capture and control it.

The general conclusion is inescapable: Modern war is neither accidental nor due to the evil of human nature nor decreed by God. War is of the very essence of imperialist-capitalism, as much a part of capitalism as wage labor. To speak of capitalism without war is like speaking of a human being without lungs. The fate of the one is inextricably hound to the fate of the other.

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