Capitalism and War



Following is the first installment of a two-part talk given by Carole Seligman, a National Committee member of Socialist Action, at the Socialist Action National Educational Conference, on Aug. 19, 1999.


Soon the bloodiest century of human history, a century dominated by the imperialist stage of capitalism, will be over. This has been the century that drew the entire world into two world wars and over 160 additional wars since the end of World War II.

This bloody century is characterized by war against civilians. During the first half of the 20th century, civilians made up one half of the war deaths. By the 1980s, civilians were 74 percent of war deaths.

Why is war is such an intrinsic part of capitalism? Can peace be achieved while capitalism is the dominant social system? These are the questions this talk will address.

Please forgive me in advance for some efforts to quantify, or use numbers, to show the barbarism we live under. To me the numbers are a shorthand way of indicating the horror, but perhaps the numbers help numb us to the reality, and show how even wars’ conscious opponents have used the capitalist’s language of seeing human beings as countable items, commodities.

World War I was supposed to end all wars. Ten million people were killed in that war. Twenty-five years later, at least 50 million people were killed in the Second World War. At the end of that war the United States unleashed the two worst single day atrocities in world history-the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki while Japan was trying to surrender.

But neither World War I nor World War II ended war. Each only laid the basis for the next wars.

In the 160 wars since World War II, another 25 million people were killed. One of those wars was Vietnam, a revolution for national independence and social reform, which the U.S. tried and failed to defeat. During that war and revolution, 58,000 American soldiers were killed and 4 million Vietnamese, mostly civilians, died.

  • The United States has bombed four separate countries this last year: Yugoslavia, Sudan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. They are still bombing Iraq daily.
  • The United States is the major arms supplier to nations at war. Since 1985, participants in 45 on-going conflicts received over $42 billion worth of U.S. weapons.

War in “peacetime”

In between these acts of open warfare, U.S. imperialism has waged “peace” with similar brutality.

On Aug. 11, 1999, an article appeared in The New York Times titled, “Archives Unearthed in Paraguay Expose U.S. Allies’ Abuses.” The archives expose Operation Condor, a 1970s secret plan among the police and military forces of six Latin American countries-dictatorships with close alliances and allegiances to the United States-to crush left-wing political dissent.

All six countries’ military forces were trained at the U.S.-run School of the Americas and all received U.S. military funding. All were at war against their own people.

Between the hot class wars U.S. imperialism engages in with soldiers and military equipment, are class wars the U.S. ruling class wages against workers and peasants and poor people here at home and throughout the world. Operation Condor was anything but peaceful, but the U.S. sent no soldiers into combat in these six countries-only CIA operatives, military trainers, weapons, and money.

Peacetime, in the time of capitalism, can only be understood as the preparatory interval between wars. That idea is intrinsic to understanding the socialist perspective on war and peace.

The military budget

The U.S. military budget, supposedly a peacetime budget, shows this very clearly. For the year 2000, the Clinton administration is seeking $554.9 billion for the military budget. This is an increase of $12.6 billion more than this year’s allocation.

The budget projections for the next five years include billions for Star Wars, now called the National Missile Defense. It includes $64 billion for the F-22 fighter jets at $200 million each. (This is five times the amount to provide health insurance for 11 million uninsured children, or eight times the amount to provide Head Start early childhood education for 1.2 million eligible but unserved pre-schoolers, or six times the amount to repair and modernize our schools.)

The United States has spent $14 trillion since World War II and currently spends 17 times the combined military spending of its six so-called enemies. It spends almost double the combined spending of the next five most heavily-armed nations after the United States.

Fully one-half of the taxes collected each year go for military expenditures. This includes the 80 percent portion of the national debt that pays for past military expenditures.

The Aug. 5 New York Times reports that the U.S. was continuing to put more arms into the hands of other countries than any other country, and increased its portion of world armament sales to a third of the total $7.1 billion in 1998. The U.S. jump in sales includes a very sharp jump in sales to underdeveloped countries.

In an Op-ed piece in the June 23 New York Times, Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica, accuses the U.S. of “strengthening dictators and worsening human misery abroad.” He writes, “the American arms are often turned against civilians,” and “the true weapons of mass destruction are the jet fighters, tanks, machine guns, and other military exports that the United States ships to non-developed countries.”

A partial list of places where U.S. arms have been turned on civilians can be found in the book, “Killing Hope, U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since World War II,” by William Blum. Just to give you a brief idea, I’ll read a list of some of them: Greece, Philippines, Korea, Iran, Guatemala, Middle East, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Congo, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Haiti .

This is the post-World War II peace we live in. And just to list some of these countries is to in no way do justice to the martyred workers and poor who were jailed, tortured, murdered and who suffered in every way a human can suffer for their actions, writings, or even thoughts of national self-determination, trade-union organizing, antiwar demonstrating, or exercising their rights to vote.

That is, they were jailed, tortured, or murdered by U.S. weapons in the hands of military forces trained by the United States, under puppet U.S. dictatorships-all to protect U.S. profits.

Within the U.S. this so-called peace we live in has nearly 2 million people imprisoned, including nearly one-third of Black men who are either imprisoned, on parole, or under the control of the courts. This peace includes a child poverty rate of over one-fourth of U.S. children.

Peacetime in the U.S. is also plagued by incredible violence, including among school children, who in some clear ways mimic the incredible violence of our system of war and preparation for war and a culture of alienation and violence.

Why is it surprising that a country, that is armed with an array of weapons of mass destruction, whose TVs show the dropping of bombs on foreign countries as if it were a sanitary video game, that has bombed four countries in one year, that spends half of the taxes it collects each year on war-related expenditures, whose very history is based on the genocide of the original peoples who inhabited America, and whose very wealth is based on the enslavement and genocide of African peoples is having an explosion of highly armed boys killing their fellow classmates? Our whole system is based on violence.

The systematic destruction of the Jewish people by the Nazi imperialist regime of the 1930s and ’40s Germany by the latest technological innovations, and its documentation by modern capitalist book-keeping techniques, likewise was a direct outgrowth of a rapacious capitalist system that had a long history of visiting destruction on its own people, colonies, and workers and peasants of opposing armies in the trench warfare of World War I.

A system that does what ours does to its own people, and to people around the world, can also do what the Nazis did to the Jews of Europe. That potential is part of the system, not a bizarre anomaly. To explain this, I want to go back to some of the early Marxist thinkers and organizers.

Why capitalism engenders war

In 1915, Russian revolutionaries Lenin and Zinoviev ( in a pamphlet called “Socialism and War”) said, “Capitalism, formerly a liberator of nations, has now, in its imperialist stage, become the greatest oppressor of nations. It has developed the productive forces to such an extent that humanity must either pass over to socialism, or for years, nay decades, witness armed conflicts of the ‘great’ nations for an artificial maintenance of capitalism by means of colonies, monopolies, privileges, and all sorts of national oppression.”

They were right. And since we did not pass over to socialism, the pre-condition for peace, we have seen decades turn into a century of wars for the artificial maintenance of capitalism by all the means Lenin and Zinoviev listed: colonies, monopolies, privileges, and all sorts of national oppression.

But, how exactly does capitalism cause wars? I’ll try to outline this:

The capitalist economy produces things for the market as long as a there is a profit to be made. Profit is invested in further production.

But no national capitalist state can have a self-contained economy because natural resources are unevenly distributed around the world. Also, the consumer market for the things produced cannot absorb the total, so markets for these things must be sought outside the national boundaries. Capital investment outlets must be sought outside the national boundaries as well.

The difficulties of finding markets for over-produced goods, and new sources for capital investment of profits, are magnified in the imperialist stage of capitalist development-where technology creates more efficient production using fewer workers, leading to a tendency for the rate of profits to decline (even while the gross amount of profits increase).

So the imperialist countries try to solve their problems (of increasing their profits by finding markets for their goods and investments) by lowering their costs for raw materials; by gaining, or holding control over sources of these raw materials and extending the range of the available commodity market; by getting new outlets for capital investment; and by the super-exploitation of peoples in the less developed areas of the world.

Technology is the part of this cycle that has so raised the stakes of imperialist wars over previous wars. After all, all history is the history of warring social classes. None of it was peaceful.

Today, the people (through taxes to the government) pay for the military to develop the technologies of killing, which may later be put to use by private industry. (Nuclear weapons technology has been adapted to nuclear power technology, food irradiation is a technological by-product of weapons-grade uranium production, and biological warfare technology has been adjusted for use as agricultural pesticides and herbicides).

In turn, technology increases human productivity, as fewer workers are needed to produce more goods. This exacerbates the competition for work at home and the over-production of goods, which pumps the process of foreign exploitation and the search for markets.

These aims-for cheap raw materials, cheap labor, and foreign markets in which to sell goods and make investments for capital- are pursued rapaciously during peacetime with the use of loans, tariffs, expeditionary forces, bribery, intrigue, corruption, and intelligence (as in CIA). But, the stakes for the competing nations are so high that, periodically, the contest breaks out in war.

Here’s how James P. Cannon, the revolutionary founder of American Trotskyism, talked about World War II in 1942, during the war, in a radio speech titled “How to Put an End to Imperialist War”:

“Like the First World War, the Second World War is a product of capitalism. It is a struggle for markets, for colonies, for spheres of investment, for control of raw materials, and control of trade routes.

“The conflicts now raging are for oil fields, rubber plantations, mines, food-producing areas, and strategic military bases. The imperialist armies follow trade routes and entrench themselves where the rich sources of raw materials exist.

“Imperialist war is a struggle for these concrete material things in a period when the world has already been divided up. It is not a struggle for fine ideals such as democracy and freedom of oppressed peoples but a brutal, ruthless, bloody struggle to redivide the world in the interests of different warring gangs of capitalists.”

Karl Marx explained the origins of industrial capitalism in the use of force: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement, and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production.”

Likewise, imperialism’s rosy dawn involved the starvation, misery and oppression of hundreds of millions of people of India, Africa, Ceylon, and Indo-China by British and French imperialism in the wake of their World War I victory.

In the wake of World War II, U.S. imperialism, the main beneficiary, gained firm domination of Latin America, free entry into the Far East, guarantees of access to key raw materials like rubber and the beginnings of world domination.

Eugene V. Debs, a revolutionary working-class organizer, equated the U.S. ruling class with the German rulers in his Canton, Ohio, speech during World War I. He said, “Conquest and spoliation of the weaker nations has always been the purpose of war.”

Eugene V. Debs’s anti-war speech

Let me quote at some length from Debs’s Canton speech since the whole attitude of socialists to capitalist war is so well expressed there.

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. In the Middle Ages when the feudal lords who inhabited the castles whose towers may still be seen along the Rhine concluded to enlarge their domains, to increase their power, their prestige and their wealth, they declared war upon one another.

But they themselves did not go to war any more than the modern feudal lords, the barons of Wall Street go to war. The feudal barons of the Middle Ages, the economic predecessors of the capitalists of our day, declared all wars. And their miserable serfs fought all the battles.

The poor, ignorant serfs had been taught to revere their masters; to believe that when their masters declared war upon one another, it was their patriotic duty to fall upon one another and to cut one another’s throats for the profit and glory of the lords and barons who held them in contempt.

And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose-especially their lives.

They have always taught and trained you to believe it to be your patriotic duty to go to war and to have yourselves slaughtered at their command. But in all the history of the world, you, the people, have never had a voice in declaring war, and strange as it certainly appears, no war by any nation in any age has ever been declared by the people.

And here let me emphasize the fact-and it cannot be repeated too often-that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace.

It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace.

“Yours not to reason why; yours but to do or die.”

That is their motto, and we object on the part of the awakening workers of this nation.

Reading this speech I almost felt like I was in the audience of socialist workers he addressed in Canton, Ohio.

As a mother, Debs speaks to me deeply, because I did not bear and raise children to be cannon fodder for capitalist war. As a teacher, I am not developing the skills and minds of small children so they can be fed into the military meat grinder of U.S. imperialism. As a worker with elementary human solidarity intact, I do not want to see the young generation of the working class sacrificed on the alter of profit.

Other socialist leaders

Joe Hansen, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party during World War II, said it most succinctly, “War is Wall Street’s slickest way of converting the blood of the workers into dollars.” He wrote this in 1942. It is still so true today.

The attitude of socialists toward war in peace was said beautifully by early American socialist Daniel DeLeon:

“At one side of the line, hypocrisy reigns supreme, slaughter being promoted under the pretenses of peace; it is the other side of the line, in the socialist camp only, that peace is a cardinal principle, a religion, a goal earnestly, sincerely, and devoutly pursued with all the intelligence at the command of the [human] race.”

(Part 2 will continue next month.)

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