Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

War and the Workers

John West

War and the Workers

I. The Nature and Causes of Modern War

To many persons, war seems to come as if it were a law, of Fate. In former days it used to be thought that war was a punishment send by God to punish men for their sins. Others believe that wars are due to the ambition or “lust for power” on the part of certain rulers or warriors. Still others think that wars result from what they call “racial or cultural antagonisms.” To many of these people it seems that war is a special and peculiar and frightful event that happens every so often, no matter what we try to do about it. Some of them, on the other hand, conclude that we could get rid of war if only we could get enough people to want to get rid of it, if we could develop a “will to peace” among Men.

All views of this kind are absolutely useless in helping us to understand what war is; and are therefore equally useless in the struggle against war – since we cannot struggle effectively against war unless we understand the true nature of war.

The first, the very first thing we must know clearly about 'war is that war is not something “special”, not something that “just happens”. War is, on the contrary, an essential and necessary part of the society we live in, that is, of imperialist-capitalist society. War is just as much a part of capitalism as wage labor, or big corporations, or lending money at interest.

There are in the modern world six great capitalist powers: Great Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Japan. These six nations control the world, with the exception of the Soviet Union. All other nations and peoples are subject to them, either directly as colonies, mandates, and dominions; or indirectly, through treaties, alliances, financial control, or some similar device. The real rulers of these six nations are, of course, those who own and control their productive plants – namely, their respective finance-capitalists. In one degree or another, the finance-capitalists of each of these nations face a similar problem:

The finance-capitalists control enormous amounts of capital. This capital must be put to use, that is, must be set to work making a profit. A profit cannot be made, however, unless a market can be found in which commodities can be absorbed at a price sufficient to cover “costs of production” plus a profit. But in none of these six nations is the internal or “home” market adequate to provide an outlet for the available capital. In part the finance-capitalists strive to overcome this deficiency by lowering their productive costs, and thus squeezing more out of the home market. To accomplish this, besides “internal” means such as reducing wages and building better machines (which as a matter of fact only exaggerate the difficulty), they must seek ever cheaper sources of the raw materials which enter into production – oil, coal, iron, copper, cotton, etc. In part, they are forced to try to sell their commodities in other, “foreign” markets. Above all, at the present time they seek new outlets for capital investment itself, new fields outside of their own national territory where capital can be poured in and an additional market created. It is this last feature particularly, the drive for external capital investment, for what is called “the export of capital”, which is the distinguishing mark of imperialism on a world scale.

Thus the finance-capitalists of each of the six great powers are faced with the same set of necessities, which they must strive for if capitalist production is to be kept going. These necessities depend not on their “wills” or “desires”, but upon the very nature of capitalist production. The choice of each group of finance-capitalists is: these things or ruin. (1) Each must strive to gain control over the great sources of basic raw materials. (2) Each must fight for commodity outlets in “foreign markets” – must attempt to build up export trade. (3) Each must find new outlets in extra-national territory for capital investment, in order to employ profitably the idle capital funds for which there is no use at home. In addition: (4) Each group of finance-capitalists must struggle to monopolize the home market, by means of tariffs, import and exchange restrictions, etc.; and (5) each must contend for control of incidental sources of profit, such as shipping, insurance, tourist trade, etc.

If we glance even for a moment at the history of the United States since the War, we can see these inescapable tendencies everywhere manifesting themselves:

International Telephone & Telegraph Co. builds and operates 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 houses 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. Standard Oil of New Jersey sends its geologists into Mexico, South America, the Near East, China. Firestone and United States Rubber build up plantations in Africa and Pacific islands. The automobile companies ship cars and trucks to every country of the world. The Aluminum Corporation corners the world supply of aluminium. Carefully controlled tariffs prevent foreign competition in the home market. The merchant marine is heavily subsidized by the government. The American Sugar Refining Co. expands its refineries in Cuba. 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 automobile companies build plants in Canada and even in England and Germany.

But exactly the same tendencies drive on the capitalists of England, Germany, France, Italy, and Japan.

The world, however, is limited in extent. The areas available for new forms of capital expansion and exploitation are growingly restricted. Conflict is therefore inevitable.

The truth of the matter is this: In the stage of imperialism, capitalist society is continuously at war. This is of 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.

Conflict at the “economic level” continues without interruption: economic struggles for sources of raw material, for new markets, for new fields of exploitation; tariff and exchange battles; competition for shipping and loans; exploration to discover new mines, oil wells, land for rubber and coffee and cotton plantations; and all the rest.

But the conflict can never remain at the purely economic level. The stakes are too high – failure at the economic level means the destruction of the defeated economic group. Therefore, the finance-capitalists must utilize constantly their political servants – the governments of their respective countries. And the governments are not slow to answer. They build up their military and naval armaments to almost unbelievable heights. 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. At the beck and call of finance-capital, the government, with the guns and cruisers and airplanes, snaps quickly to attention. That, indeed, is what the governments are for.

The economic conflicts and “minor wars” of capital expansion, of tariff and exchange and armament and competitive exploitation, reach 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, finally, the world-wide war of the imperialist nations among themselves, fighting for the re-division of the world. But, though producing a temporary “boom” by loosening the bonds on capital expansion, by the destruction of existing capital values and by credit expansion, the open wars, far from solving the conflicts, only express their depth, and prepare for still more bitter conflict to come.

The full story does not end even here. For throughout the bloody imperialist chaos, and expressing the deepest of all the conflicts, there is being fought constantly the basic and decisive war of our age: 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 in Russia, 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 war between the working class and the bourgeoisie is utterly irreconcilable, in a far more profound sense even than the titanic struggles between the imperialist powers themselves. It can never stop short of complete victory. And this will serve to demonstrate how vain is the belief that the Soviet Union can stand aside, even for a short while, from the imperialist struggles, in a pseudo-socialist “isolation”. In spite of its traitorous leadership, the Soviet Union still remains a working class state. The basic conflict between the Soviet Union and the imperialist powers, therefore, is deeper than that between any of the imperialist powers themselves. The fate of the Soviet Union is bound up inextricably with the fate of the whole world. The coming open imperialist war will involve in its roots the life or death of the Soviet Union.

The moral, religious, racial and ideological disguises that war wears must not be allowed to hide the fundamental conflicts which are the true sources of modern war. 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 one is inextricably bound to the fate of the other.

War and the Workers

Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 16.2.2005