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  • Published in Theory
Banksy: Napalm

Banksy: Napalm

In the first part of 'Socialism and War' John Rees looks at capitalism and war

This short pamphlet was written in 1990 in response to the first Gulf War. In four brief sections it set out the essential socialist case that war is rooted in capitalist competition, that the leaderships of Labour Party type social democratic parties have usually supported war despite the protestations of their left wing members, that the only effective inoculation against the chauvinism and patriotism that inevitably accompany even minor conflicts is Lenin’s attitude that the defeat of one’s ‘own’ country is the lesser evil, and that only a socialist society would be able to finally and irrevocably break the drive to war.

The 21st century has given us no reason to revise these opinions, and plenty of evidence that they are more relevant than ever. From the bloody disasters of the Afghan and Iraq wars to the bombing of Libya, from the superpower stand-offs over Georgia in 2008 and the current crisis in the Ukraine, it is clear that imperial conflict shapes and disfigures our world still.

Imperialism is an old and bloody monster. But its advocates rarely step forward in their true colours. From rescuing ‘poor little Belgium’ from ‘German militarism’ in the First World War to ‘humanitarian intervention’ to rescue ‘oppressed Muslim women’ today they always stress the most progressive reasons for the most barbaric bloodshed. Some of the left always have and always will go along with such arguments. Even the far-left sometimes find it just too difficult to carry the argument that their own rulers are really those with most blood on their hands.

This short pamphlet is re-issued in the hope that a new generation will come to be part of what has been one of the greatest anti-war eras since the Second World War. The war-mongers will not rest. Neither should we.

1. Capitalism and War

Capitalism is the most bloody and warlike society in human history. The armies of Alexander the Great were a fraction of the number of dead in the Vietnam War. All the weapons possessed by the Crusaders of the Middle Ages could not do the damage in a week that a modern ‘daisy cutter’ bomb dropped in Afghanistan can wreak in seconds. The last 100 years in particular has seen enough people killed in wars to have depopulated the known world in previous eras.

Capitalism was born a murderous infant and its appetite for slaughter has grown as it has aged. The first capitalist state, England, had no sooner settled accounts with Charles I and the old order than it turned to butchering the inhabitants of its first colonies in Ireland and Jamaica.

The American settlers had barely thrown off the yoke of British rule before they set about annihilating the American and Canadian natives of those lands. Meanwhile the British had found fresh blood to let in India, Africa and elsewhere.

The French Revolution saved the country from the ancient oppression of the monarch and his nobles, but as soon as the capitalist class was secure Napoleon’s armies set out to create an empire, the last shreds of which French forces still fight to defend today.

As industry spread across the globe, these first capitalist states were joined by others~Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia~in their hunt for gold and slaves, oil and opium, markets, cheap labour and strategic advantage. The competition between them gave us the First World War. The same development of industry which led to the imperialist rivalries that sparked the war also ensured it was the most bloody which had ever been fought .

Weapons of mass destruction unimaginable before the development of industry now killed millions. Tanks and machine guns, gas and aircraft made this the first war in which the majority of dead were the victims of other soldiers, not of disease. The British alone lost 20,000 dead in a single day on the Somme and one million dead in the four years of war. And if capitalist industry caused the war it also had to keep the war going. Directed labour, censorship, conscription and the bombing of towns made this the first total war, a war fought at home as well as on the battlefield.

The First World War did nothing to solve the crisis that had produced it. The economic crises of capitalism continued and the latecomers to the imperialist contest still chaffed at the limits set by the older powers. The Second World War broke out just 20 years after the peace conference that was supposed to set up a new international order.

The intervening years had worsened all the obscenities which characterised the First World War. More lives were eaten up by more terrible weapons, culminating in the United States' use of the atomic bomb against an already beaten Japan. Civilians were more than ever the targets of warfare, as the carpet bombing of Dresden and other German cities by Britain testified. The Russians alone lost 20 million dead.

At the war's end the major powers dusted themselves down and once again began preparing for another. Spending on arms reached unprecedented levels. Nazi rocket scientists were quickly brought to the US and Britain to help perfect the weapons they had begun work on under Hitler. Within five years the Korean War was under way, at a cost of 1.5 million lives. Within a decade of its end the Vietnam War had begun, in which 55.000 US troops would die. The Vietnamese struggle for liberation eventually cost 2.5 million dead, many of them peasants murdered by US soldiers, carpet bombing and napalm attacks. Millions died in Iraq as a result of sanctions and the first and second Gulf Wars.

But Korea, Vietnam and Iraq are only the best known wars to have gripped the world since the peace celebrations in 1945. In fact the world has not been at peace for a single day since then. Over 80 wars have kept the generals and the munitions industry busy. The death toll is somewhere between 15 and 30 million people. Today some 10 countries are in the grip of war.

And the victims cannot simply be numbered by counting those killed by bombs and guns. Today millions of refugees have fled their homes within their country. It is a migration greater than the homeless hordes who crossed Europe at the end of the Second World War.

Even when no shot is fired, the incalculable billions poured into the arms industry mean that every day babies and old people, the sick and the homeless, the poor and the dispossessed die because the means to save their lives has been used up in weapons production.

So why is our system so bloody? Why does the carnage grow with each succeeding generation? Could there be a capitalist system without war? The key feature of capitalism, as right-wingers constantly tell us, is competition. Competition drives the least efficient to the wall, we are told, so that only the most profitable survive. Firms, be they the corner shop or the Ford corporation, are constantly looking for new customers or markets, for cheaper suppliers and to pay their workforces less than their rivals. "The national interest" is defined as the defence of "our" markets and “our” industry.

In the economic textbooks this competition is portrayed as entirely peaceful, conducted only through the impersonal operations of the market. In reality it has never been peaceful. The capitalists have never stuck to the rules either when they deal with their workers or with their rivals. Hired thugs or the police will break up union meetings and the army will break strikes. The police and the law, the press and the courts have always been at the beck and call of the employers to ensure that wages stay low and unions stay cowed. From the Tolpuddle Martyrs through the General Strike of 1926 to the Great Miners' Strike of 1984, that is the story of the class struggle in Britain.

When it comes to dealing with their rivals, the major capitalists are equally unscrupulous. Industrial espionage, price fixing, cartels and monopolies are part of the everyday functioning of the system. So is violence. In the 17th century English privateers raided their Dutch and Spanish competitors. As soon as the British capitalists got hold of the state they built a navy to do the job professionally. In the 18th century the troops of the East India Company, eventually backed up by the state, subdued India and threw out the rivals to English capitalism. In the 19th century British troops and the British navy extended the empire throughout Africa, Asia and the West Indies~all to ensure that British capitalists could gain access to cheap raw materials, new markets and cheap labour.

All the while, but especially from the end of the 19th century, British troops fought not only the people of the colonies but their rivals from other capitalist powers. However, over this period the economic competition between different capitalist firms had changed the nature of capitalism. As competition bankrupted the least profitable firms, their markets and factories were taken over by the more profitable companies. Consequently the average size of firms tended to rise. Capitalism ceased to consist of a number of different firms competing in each industry and became a system where one or two large firms dominated each industry. Indeed they often dominated more than one industry.

As the corporations grew they increasingly burst through national boundaries. International monopolies or oligopolies dominated international markets. And as the firms became larger they became ever more intertwined with the state and its armed forces. Multinational capital depends on the armed forces of the state to defend it from its rivals and from popular revolts in countries where it has profitable investments, just as it relies on the police to protect it from its workers at home.

As the corporations grew, the state came to take a much greater interest in their running. After all, if there are a dozen aircraft or motor car firms in a particular country the state will not worry if one of them goes bust. But if there is only one giant motor car or plane manufacturer in a country the state cannot look on with a disinterested stare as it goes to the wall.

This is particularly true of the arms industry. Capitalists have often favoured state ownership of all or some of the arms industry, just as Tories favour close government control of the police. Their functions are simply too vital to the capitalists for it to be left to the vagaries of the market.

So as the 19th century came to a close the interests of the state and of big business were more closely interconnected than ever before. The same growth in industry meant that new and more terrible weapons were now available to the state. As the means of production grew, so did the means of destruction they could produce. And, unlike the 17th century when the Dutch and the English were the only two capitalist states battling for colonial power, there were now a host of competing great powers~Britain, Germany, the United States, Japan, Italy, France and Russia.

Marxists called this system imperialism. It has dominated the fate of the 20th century as the globe has been divided and re-divided among the competing powers. The Russian state, under Stalin and his heirs just as under the Tsar, has been a major imperialist power. The brief moment of light that was the 1917 revolution was snuffed out by competition with the other imperialist powers.

Industrialisation in Russia was carried out at the expense of the peasantry and the working class because Stalin was determined to build an economic and military machine that could match those of Germany, Britain and the US. Nothing makes this point so forcefully as the scene recorded by Churchill at the end of the Second World War.

The Tory leader who gave the order to shoot miners in Britain sat down with the butcher of the Russian Revolution to divide the spoils. Churchill wrote on a sheet of paper that Russia would have 90 percent of the say in Romania, Britain 90 percent in Greece and so on. He pushed this across to Stalin, and he later wrote. "He took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back. It was all settled in no more time than it takes to set down”.

That competition between the powers has never halted. Treaties and peace pledges have been broken. The League of Nations, set up to keep the peace after the First World War, failed to stop either the rise of fascism or the outbreak of a new world war. The United Nations, set up for the same reason after the Second World War, has either proved as impotent as its forerunner or has itself acted as a weapon of war. In whatever way the major capitalist powers have tried to regulate the military competition between them, they have always failed.

Competition, the drive to accumulate factories, banks and transport facilities faster than your rivals is at the root of war. It was so when capitalism was born and it is still so today, despite the fact that the consequences are more ruinous than they ever were. To rid society of war we have to rid it of the system that fosters war. To get rid of military competition we have to get rid of the economic competition that succours it. For the generals to be forced from the battlefield, the capitalists who arm them and on whose behalf they do battle must be forced from the factories and offices.

Tagged under: Socialism
John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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