War, militarism and imperialist blocs in the decadence of capitalism, Part 1

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Printer-friendly versionSend by emailThe formidable armada being deployed by the Western bloc in the Persian Gulf (see the editorial in International Review n°51) has been a brutal reminder of the real nature of the capitalist system, a system which, since its entry into decadence at the beginning of the century, has led to the grow­ing militarisation of the whole of society, which has sterilised or destroyed a considerable proportion of human labour, and which has turned the planet into a vast powder keg.

At a time when the main governments of the world are making great speeches about arms reductions or even disarmament, what’s going on in the Middle East clearly gives the lie to any illusions about the ‘easing’ of military tensions, and illustrates in a striking manner one of the major components in today’s imperialist rivalries: the offensive of the American bloc, which is aimed at pushing forward the encirclement of the Russian bloc, and which in the first place involves bringing Iran to heel. These events, in which there has been a high level of cooperation between the naval forces of the main Western bloc countries, also underlines the fact that the sharpening of economic rivalries between these same countries doesn’t at all stand in the way of their solidarity as members of the same imperialist bloc. It also shows that the climate of war covering the whole planet doesn’t only take the form of military tensions between the two great blocs but also of confrontations between certain countries linked to the same bloc, as is the case with the Iran-Iraq conflict in which the latter country is being backed by the main Western countries.

All these issues, essential elements for the struggle of the working class and the development of its consciousness, are examined in the article that follows.

The workers’ movement faced with war

From its inception the workers’ movement has paid particular attention to the different wars that have taken place between capitalist nations. To give but one example, we can mention the posit­ions adopted by the first international organisation of the working class, the International Workingmen’s Association, on the American Civil War in 1864 [1] and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 [2]. However, the attitude of the working class towards bourgeois wars has evolved in history, going from a position of support for some of them to a categorical rejection of any participation in them. Thus, last century revolutionaries could call on workers to lend support to this or that belligerent nation (the North against the South in the American Civil War, Germany against France of the Second Empire at the beginning of their conflict in 1870), whereas the basic position of all revolutionaries during the First World War was precisely the rejection and denunciation of any support to either of the two camps. In 1914 it was this change in the position of the working class towards war which marked the point of cleavage within the Socialist parties (and particularly in German social democracy) between those who rejected any participation in the war, the internationalists, and those who referred to the former positions of the workers’ movement to justify their support for their national bourgeoisie [3]. And in fact this change in position corresponded to the change in the very nature of wars brought about by the fundamental shift of capitalism from its ascendant to its decadent period [4].

This transformation of capitalism and, con­sequently of the nature of war, has been re­cognised by revolutionaries since the beginning of the century, and particularly during the First World War. It was on the basis of this analysis that the Communist International was able to declare that the proletarian revolution was on the agenda. Since its origins the ICC has adhered to this analysis, in particular to the positions of the Gauche Communiste de France which, in 1945, pronounced itself very clearly on the nature and characteristics of war in the period of the decadence of capitalism:

“In the epoch of ascendant capitalism, wars (national and colonial wars, wars of imperialist conquest) expressed the upward march of the fermentation, reinforcement and expansion of the capitalist economic system. Capitalist production found in war the continuation of its economic policies by other means. Each war could justify itself and repay its costs through the opening up of a new field for greater expansion, thus ensuring the greater development of capitalist production.

“In the epoch of decadent capitalism, war, like peace, expresses this decadence and acts as a powerful acceleration on it.

“It would be a mistake to see war as a phenom­enon in itself, negative by definition, a destr­uctive obstacle to the development of society, in contrast to peace, which would then be seen as the normal and positive side of the develop­ment of production and society. This would be to introduce a moral concept into an objective, economically determined course.

“War was an indispensable means for capitalism, opening up the possibilities of ulterior dev­elopment, in the epoch when these possibilities existed and could only be opened up through violent methods. In the same way, the downfall of the capitalist world, which has historically exhausted all the possibilities for development, finds in modern war, imperialist war, the expression of this downfall which, without open­ing up any possibility for an ulterior develop­ment, can only hurl the productive forces into an abyss and pile ruins upon ruins at an ever-increasing pace.

“Under capitalism, there is no fundamental opposition between war and peace, but there is a difference between the ascendant and decadent phases of capitalist society and, consequently, a difference in the function of war (and in the relationship between war and peace) in the two respective phases. While in the first phase war had the function of enlarging the market with a view towards a greater production of consumer goods, in the second phase production is focused essent­ially on the production of the means of destruction, i.e. with a view towards war. The decadence of capitalist society is strikingly ex­pressed in the fact that whereas in the ascendant period wars led to economic development, in the decadent period economic activity is geared essentially towards war.

“This doesn’t mean war has become the goal of capitalist production, which remains the prod­uction of surplus value, but it does mean that war, taking on a permanent character, has become decadent capitalism’s way of life,” (Report to the July 1945 conference of the Gauche Communiste de France, cited in the “Report on the historic course” adopted at the 3rd Congr­ess of the ICC, in International Review n°18).

The confirmation of the analysis of the communist left

These lines were written in July 1945 when the world war had barely finished in Europe and was still being fought out in the Far East. And everything that has happened since then has fully confirmed the analysis contained in them, even more than one could have known at the time. Whereas after the First World War there was, up until the beginning of the ‘30s, a certain attenuation in inter-imperialist tensions and a significant reduction in armaments, none of this happened after the Second World War. Since ‘peace’ was re-established there have been about 150 wars in the world [5], killing tens of millions of people, and amply proving that “under capitalism there is no funda­mental opposition between war and peace”, and that “war, taking on a permanent character, has become decadent capitalism’s way of life.” And what characterises all these wars, like the two world wars, is that unlike those of the previous century, at no time have they permitted any progress in the development of the productive forces, having had no other result than massive destructions which have bled dry the countries in which they have taken place (not to mention the horrible massacres they have provoked). Among a multi­tude of examples of the wars that have taken place since 1945, we can take that of Vietnam, which, according to those who in the 1960s and 70s were demonstrating under the flags of the NLF [6], would make it possible to build a new and modern country, whose inhabitants would be freed from the calamities which accompanied the old Saigon regime. Since the reunification of this country in 1975, not only have the Vietnamese population not had any peace (the old ‘armies of liberation’ have been converted into an occupying army in Cambodia), but also their economic situation has got worse and worse to the point where, at its last Congress, the ruling party had to admit that the economy was bankrupt.

The destruction caused by the two world wars and its consequences

However catastrophic they may have been, the destructions provoked by the different wars which have taken place since 1945, and which have main­ly affected the weakly developed countries, are obviously on a lesser scale than those caused by the First and above all the Second World Wars, which involved the most developed countries in the world, especially those of Western Europe. These two wars, so different from those of last century – for example the one between France and Germany in 1870 – are indeed in the image of the transformations undergone by capitalism since that time. Thus, the 1870 war, by permitting the reunification of Germany, was for this country a major precondition for the formidable development it went through at the end of the 19th century, while even for the defeated country France, it didn’t really have negative consequences in spite of the 5 million gold francs handed over to Germany for the departure of its troops: it was during the last three decades of the 19th century that France went though its most import­ant industrial development (illustrated in particular by the universal expositions in Paris in 1878, 1889 and 1900).

In contrast to this, the two great wars of this century which, at the beginning, involved the same two antagonists, had as their main con­sequence not a new step forward in the develop­ment of the productive forces, but an unprecedent­ed devastation of the productive forces, and in particular of the most important of them — the working class.

This phenomenon was already flagrant during the First World War. To the extent that it was the main capitalist powers confronting each other, the majority of the soldiers sent to the front were workers in uniform. The bloodbath that the war represented for the working class was in proportion not only to the bitterness of the fighting and the ‘efficiency’ of the new weapons used during the course of the war (armoured cars, gas warfare, etc), but also to the level of mobilisation involved. Contrary to the wars of the past which only threw a small proportion of the male population into combat, practically the entire male population of fighting age was involved in the general mobilisation [7], and more than a third was killed or gravely wounded in the fighting.

At the same time, while on the Western front the world war had a limited territorial extension and thus largely spared the main industrial reg­ions, it caused an almost 30% drop in Europe’s production. This was mainly the consequence of the enormous puncture in the economy made by the requirement to send a major part of the working class and by the use of over 50% of the industrial potential in the production of a arms. This in turn led to a dizzying fall in productive investments and thus to the wearing out, obsolescence, and non-replacement of industrial installations.

An expression of the fact that the capitalist system had sunk deeper into decadence, the dest­ruction caused by the Second World War was on a much wider scale than that caused by the First. While certain countries like France had a smaller number dead than in the First World War owing to the fact that they were defeated right at the beginning of hostilities, the total number of dead was around four times higher (about 50 million). The losses suffered by a country like Germany, the most developed country in Europe, with the most numerous and concentrated prolet­ariat, rose to over 7 million, or three times more than in 1914-18, three million of them being civilians. In its growing barbarism, capit­alism was no longer content to devour the workers in uniform – the whole working population was not only mobilised into the war effort (as was the case with the first world conflict) but also had to directly pay the price in blood. In certain countries, the proportion of civilians killed exceeded by far the number of soldiers killed at the front: for example, out of the 6 million lost in Poland (22% of the population), ‘only’ 600,000 were killed in the fighting. In Germany, 135,000 human beings (more than in Hiroshima) were killed in the 14 hour bombardment (in three successive waves) of Dresden on 13th February 1945. Nearly all of them were civil­ians, and the great majority workers. The working class residential neighbourhoods were greatly favoured by the allied bombardments because this made it possible both to weaken the country’s productive potential at a lesser cost than by attacking industrial installations, which were often underground and well protected by anti-aircraft fire (even though, obviously, these installations weren’t spared either) and, at the same time, to destroy the only force capable of revolting against capitalism at the end of the war, as it did between 1918 and 1923 in this same country.

On the material level, the damage was of course considerable. For example, while France had a ‘limited’ number killed (600,000, of which 400,000 were civilians), its economy was ruined, notably by allied bombing. Industrial production fell by almost a half. A number of urban areas were reduced to ruin: a million buildings were damaged or destroyed. All the ports were systematically bombarded or sabotaged and were obstructed by sunken ships. Of 83,000 kilometres of railway, 37,000 were damaged, as well as 1900 viaducts and 4,000 road bridges. The number of locomotives and coaches was reduced to a quarter of its 1938 total.

Germany also of course found itself in the front line of material destruction: 750 out of 958 river bridges, 2,400 railway bridges and 3,400 kilometres of railway (and that only in the sector occupied by the western Allies); out of 16 million residences, nearly 2,5 million were uninhabitable and 4 million damaged; only a quarter of the city of Berlin was left intact and Hamburg alone suffered more damage than the whole of Britain. In fact, the whole economic life of the country was disrupted, resulting in a situation of material distress which was without precedent:

… in 1945, the disorganisation was general and dramatic. Any revival was made difficult by the lack of raw materials, the exodus of whole populations, the scarcity of skilled workers, the stopping of transport, the collapse of the admin­istration ... The mark lost all value and there was a return to barter - American cigarettes served as money; under-nourishment was general; the post no longer worked; families lived in ignor­ance of what was happening to those closest to them; general unemployment made it impossible to find the necessities of life; the winter of 1945-46 was particularly hard, and coal and electricity were often lacking (...) only 39 million tons of coal were dug in 1945 and only 3 million tons of steel produced in 1946; the Ruhr was only working at 12% of its capacity.” (H. Michel, La Seconde Guerre Mondiale).

This very incomplete catalogue of the devastation caused by the two world wars, and particularly the last one, is an illustra­tion of the fundamental changes that have taken place in the nature of war between the 19th and 20th centuries. In the previous century the des­truction caused by and the cost of wars were simply the ‘expenses’ of capitalist expansion, expenses which in general were amply recovered by subsequent returns. Since the beginning of this century, they have been a bloodletting which has ruined all the belligerents, the ‘victors’ as well as the ‘vanquished’ [8]. The fact that capitalist relations of production have ceased to be the condition for the development of the productive forces, that they have in fact become heavy fetters on this development, is clearly expressed in the level of the ravages suffered by the econ­omies of both countries which have been at the heart of the historic development of these relations of production: the countries of Western Europe. For these countries in particular, both world wars resulted in a major decrease in their relative importance on a world scale, both on the economic and financial level and on the military level, to the benefit of the USA, on which they have become more and more dependent. In the final analysis, the irony of history is that the two countries which emerged best equipped economically after the Second World War, despite the considerable destruction they went through, were precisely the two main defeated countries: Germany (which moreover had its Eastern provinces amputated) and Japan. There is an explanation for this paradoxical phenomenon which, far from refuting our analysis, fully confirms it.

In the first place, the revival of these count­ries could only have taken place thanks to the massive economic and financial aid supplied by the US, mainly through the Marshall Plan, this aid being one of the essential means whereby the USA ensured the unfailing loyalty of these countries. By their own forces alone, these countries would have been completely unable to enjoy the economic ‘success’ they did. But this success, particularly for Japan, can above all be explain­ed by the fact that, for a whole period, the military effort of these countries, as ‘vanquished’ countries, was intentionally limited by the ‘victors’ to a level far below their own. Thus the proportion of Japan’s GNP devoted to the arms budget has never gone beyond 1%, which is well below the amount spent by the other main countries.

The cancer of militarism eats away the capitalist economy

We see here one of the major characteristics of capitalism in its period of decadence, and this is something which has been analysed by revolutionaries in the past: the enormous economic burden of military expenditure, not only in periods of war but also in periods of ‘peace’. Contrary to what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in The Accumulation of Capital (and this is the only major criticism of this book), militarism does not at all represent a field of accumulation for capitalism. On the contrary: whereas producer goods can be incorporated into the following productive cycle as constant capital or variable capital, armaments constitute pure waste from the standpoint of capital itself, since their only destiny is to go up in smoke (including in the literal sense) when they aren’t responsible for massive destruction. This fact is illustrated in a ‘positive’ way by a country like Japan, which has been able to devote the best part of its production, notably in the high-tech sectors, to developing the foundations of its productive apparatus. It is this (apart from the low wages paid to the workers) which explains the perform­ance of its commodities on the world market. This reality is also demonstrated in a striking manner – but this time in a negative sense – in the case of a country like the USSR, whose back­wardness and acute economic difficulties are to a very large extent the result of the enormous hole made in its economy by arms production. When the most modern machines, the most highly qualified workers and engineers are nearly all mobilised for the production of tanks, planes and missiles, there’s not much left for making, for example, components for the huge number of tractors that are immobilised, or for making goods trucks for carrying the harvests which are left to rot while the queues lengthen outside the food shops in the towns. It’s no accident that the USSR today is trying to loosen the vice-like grip of military expenditure by taking the initiative in the negotiations with the USA over arms reduction.

Finally, even the world’s leading power is unable to escape the catastrophic consequences of arms expenditure: the USA’s enormous budget deficit, which hasn’t ceased growing since the beginning of the 1980s (and which, having permitted the much-vaunted ‘recovery of 1983’, can now be seen clearly as one of the factors responsible for aggravating the crisis) has accompanied, in a remarkably parallel manner, the considerable growth in the defence budget since that time. This situation in which the military sector grabs hold of the flower of the productive forces (the industrial and scientific potential) is not unique to the USSR: the position is iden­tical in the USA (the difference being that the level of technology set in motion for the const­ruction of tanks in the USSR is well below that used for building tractors in the USA, and that the computers sold on the mass market in the USA are copied by the USSR for its military needs). In the USA, for example, 60% of public research is officially devoted to armaments (in reality, 95%): the atomic research centre at Los Alamos (where the first A-bomb was made) is systematic­ally the beneficiary of the most powerful comp­uters in the world as soon as they appear (Cray 1 then Cray 2 and Cray 3); the organism known as CODASYL which in the 1960s defined the computer programming language COBOL (one of the most used in the world) was dominated by the representat­ives of the American army; the new language ADA, which is destined to become one of the ‘standards’ in world computing, was created on direct orders from the Pentagon... Many more examples could be given of the total domination over the key sectors of the economy by the military. All of this is evidence of a considerable sterilisation of the productive forces, particularly those with the highest performance, both in the USA and in other countries [9].

These facts about the world’s number one power are only an illustration of one of the major phenomena of the life of capitalism in its deca­dent phase: even in periods of ‘peace’ the system is being eaten away by the cancer of militarism. On a world scale, according to the UN’s estimate, 50 million people have jobs involved with the defence sector, among them 500,000 scientists. In 1985, some $820 billion was spent on war across the world (or nearly the equivalent of the Third World’s debt).

And this madness can only grow from year to year: since the beginning of the century military expenditure has multiplied 35 times (in ‘real’ terms at constant prices).

Armament and the consequences of a third world war: the barbarism of decadent capitalism

This permanent progression in the arms sector is concretised in particular by the fact that, at present, Europe – which would con­stitute the main theatre for a third world war – harbours a destructive potential incomparably greater than at the outbreak of the Second World War: 215 divisions (as opposed to 140), 11,500 planes and 5,200 helicopters (as opposed to 8,700 planes), 41,000 combat tanks (as opposed to 6,000), to which must be added 8,600 armoured vehicles of all kinds. Without counting naval forces, we can then add 31,000 artillery pieces, 3,200 anti-tank weapons and all kinds of missiles, ‘conventional’ and nuclear. Nuclear arms them­selves will not disappear when and if the recent agreement between America and Russia to scrap intermediate range missiles is carried out. Alongside all the bombs carried by planes and short range missiles, Europe will continue to be threatened by some 20,000 ‘strategic’ warheads transported by submarines and intercontinental missiles as well as by tens of thousands of nuclear shells and mines. If a war broke out in Europe, even if it didn’t take a nuclear form, it would result in the most terrifying ravages (notably through the use of combat gas and the new ‘quasi-nuclear’ explosives which are far more devastating than classical explosives). It would also annihilate all the economic activity which depends on transport and the distribution of electricity, which would be paralysed: the populations spared from the bombing and the gas would die of hunger!

Germany, in particular, would constitute the main theatre for the fighting and as a consequence would virtually be wiped out. But such a war would not stop at the use of conventional weapons alone: as soon as one of the two camps saw that its situation was deteriorating, it would first of all start using its own nuclear arsenal (artillery with nuclear shells and short-range nuclear missiles with ‘low-level’ warheads) and then, after an equivalent response from the other side, it would turn to its ‘strategic’ arsenal of tens of thousands of high level nuclear war­heads: this would mean, purely and simply, the destruction of humanity [10].

Such a scenario, however insane it might seem, is by far the most probable if war broke out in Europe: it’s what NATO has in mind if its forces are overrun by the Warsaw Pact in conventional confrontations in this part of the world (this strategic concept is known as ‘graduated respon­se’). We can have no illusions in the possibility of the two blocs ‘controlling’ such an escalation: the two world wars, and particularly the last one, which ended with the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, have already shown that the total absurdity of the capitalist mode of production is expressed not only by the increas­ingly crushing weight of militarism on the econ­omy, nor by the fact that war has lost any real economic rationality, but also by the incapacity of the ruling class to control the juggernaut hurtling towards total war. But while this tend­ency is not new, its full development, which corresponds to capitalism’s continuing plunge into decadence, introduces a new element: the threat of the total destruction of humanity, which only the struggle of the proletariat can prevent.

The second part of this article will attempt to draw out the present characteristics of the inter—imperialist confrontations and in particular the significance of the deployment of the western armada in the Persian Gulf.

FM, 30/11/87.



[1] See the address sent on November 29, 1864 by the General Council of the IWO to Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of his re-election and the Address to president Andrew Johnson on 13 May, 1865.

[2] See the two addresses of the general council on the Franco-German war (July 23 and September 9 1870).

[3] The official social democratic press in Germany welcomed the war against Russia as follows: “The German Social Democracy has always hated Czarism as the bloody guardian of Euro­pean reaction: from the time that Marx and Engels followed, with far-seeing eyes, every movement of this barbarian governments down to the present day. . . The time has come when we must square accounts with these terrible scoundrels, under the German flag of war,” (Frankfurter Volksstimme, July 31, cited by Rosa Luxemburg in The Crisis in the German Soci­al Democracy, in the Merlin Press edition of The Junius Pamphlet.

Rosa Luxemburg replied as follows: “After the Social Democratic group had stamped the war as a war of defence for the German nation and Euro­pean culture, the Social Democratic press proceded to hail it as the ‘saviour of the oppressed nation’. Hindenburg became the executor of Marx and Engels” (ibid).

Similarly, Lenin wrote in 1915: “The Russian social-chauvinists (headed by Plekhanov), refer to Marx’s tactics in the war of 1870; the German (of the type of Lensch, David and Go) to Engels’ statement in 1891 that in the event of war against Russia and France together, it would be the duty of German socialists to defend their fatherland (…) All these references are outrageous distortions of the views of Marx and Engels in the interest of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists... .Whoever refers today to Marx’s attitude towards the wars of the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie and forgets Marx’s statement that ‘the workers have no fatherland’, a statement that applies precisely to the epoch of the reactionary, obsolete bourgeoisie, to the epoch of the socialist revolution, shame­lessly distorts Marx and substitutes the bourgeois for the socialist point of view,” (Socialism and War, Peking, p.16-17).

[4] This is why certain political currents, like Bordigism or the GCI, who are today incapable of understanding the decadent character of the cap­italist mode of production, are unable to explain why, from an equally proletarian point of view, Marx could support Germany against France at the beginning of the 1870 war (as long as Napoleon III had not been overthrown and Germany had not invaded France), while Lenin denounced any participation in the First World War.

[5] The list of all these wars would take up a whole page of the Review. As an illustration we will cite only the most important and murderous ones: the wars in Indochina and north Africa between 1945 and 1962 which resulted in France’s departure from these regions; the 5 wars involv­ing Israel and the Arab countries (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982); the Vietnam and Cambodia wars between 1963 and 1975 (in the latter country, after the intervention of Vietnam at the end of 1978, the war is still going on); the brief but very bloody war between China and Vietnam at the beginning of 1979; the war in Afghanistan which has lasted 8 years and the one between Iran and Iraq which is also into its eighth year. We can add the numerous conflicts in which India has been involved since its independence, which was won under the leadership of the ‘non-violent’ Gandhi (wars against Pakistan in Kashmir and in Bangladesh) and, most recently, the war against the Tamils in Sri Lanka. To this list must be adjoined the dozens of wars which have ravaged and continue to ravage black Africa and North East Africa: Angola, Mozambique, Uganda, Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, etc, and, obviously, Chad.

[6] National Liberation Front: the movement led by Ho Chi Minh, which was to take power in Vietnam when the Americans left the country.

[7] For example, the Napoleonic wars, which were the most important in the 19th century, never involved, on the French side, more than 500,000 men out of a total population of 30 million, whereas during the First World War over 5 million French soldiers were mobilised, from a population of 39.2 million.

[8] Both in the first and the second world wars, the only country that can be seen as a ‘victor’ was the USA, whose level of production after the conflicts was well above its pre-war level. But this country, for all its importance in these two wars, especially the second, was granted a privilege denied to the countries at the origin of the conflict: its territory was a thousand miles from the combat zones, which enabled it to escape both civilian losses and the destruction of its industrial and agricultural potential. The other ‘victor’ in the second war, the USSR, which emerged from it as a world power, mainly by establishing its domination over Eastern Eur­ope and part of the Far East, paid a heavy price for its ‘victory’: 20 million dead and consid­erable material destruction, which played a large role in keeping its economy at a level of development well behind that of Western Europe and even most of its ‘satellites’.

[9] The theory of the ‘positive feedback’ which military research gives to the economy and the civilian sector is a vast hoax, immediately refuted when you compare the civilian techno­logical competitiveness of Japan and West Germany (which devote 0.01% and 0.1% respectively of their GBP to military research) to that of France and Britain (0.46% and 0.63%).

[10] Studies of the consequences of a generalised nuclear conflict show that the 3 (out of 5) billion human beings spared the first day would not survive the calamities of the days that followed: radioactive fallout, deadly ultra—violet rays following the disappearance of the ozone layer, glaciation resulting from a dust-cloud that would plunge the earth into a night lasting several years. The only form of life that would survive would be bacteria, at best some insects.