The irrationality of capitalist war

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The question of war is not a recent discovery for the workers' movement. Already, towards the end of the 19th century, faced with sharpening competition between the great nations of Europe, revolutionaries posed the question of the perspective of war. Faced with the evolution of a capitalist system that was more and more a prisoner of its insurmountable contradictions, the workers' movement, with Engels at its head, clearly announced that the perspective would henceforth be "socialism or barbarism". During the Paris Socialist Congress at the beginning of the 20th century, Rosa Luxemburg made an intervention of great clear-sightedness in which she foresaw the possibility that the first great manifestation of the weakness of capitalism wouldn't be the sharpening of the economic crisis, but first of all the explosion of imperialist war. And that's what happened.

The causes of war

The bourgeoisie is not short of explanations for the wars that ravage the planet today. With a few nuances, one can quite easily make an exhaustive inventory of these explanations: oil, of course, and more broadly raw materials; but also religion, the defence of democracy, the need to subdue dangerous madmen, to impose respect for international law, the rights of man, the pursuit of a humanitarian aim, or quite simply, after everything else, human nature. As Victor Hugo says: "For six thousand years, war has pleased quarrelsome people. And God wastes his time making the stars and flowers".

Poetry has its charms, but there is even less chance of it transforming the world than philosophy. Is war inherent to human nature? Does man really like to fight so much? Is humanity condemned to engender evil minds, which always end up setting off explosions, and which can only be restrained by yet more weapons? As marxists, we firmly reject these explanations.

It is true to say that war is a part of the history of civilisations, but that's not a reason for concluding that war is an eternal phenomenon. War is part of the history of civilisations because, since it came out of primitive communism, humanity has only known societies divided into classes, that's to say societies of shortages and competition, including of course, capitalism.

Capitalism has known wars since its birth: for German unification in 1866, the Franco-German war of 1871, the American Civil War of 1861-65 that unified the country, and also the colonial wars.

But this situation took a qualitative turn in the 20th century. With the 20th century came two world wars that had their theatre at the very heart of the great capitalist nations. It saw millions of proletarians in uniform kill each other and above all it saw destruction the like of which had never been seen in the whole history of humanity: the deaths of millions of civilians under conventional or nuclear bombardments, deportations and the genocide of populations, destruction of entire areas of economic infrastructure. Since the Second World War, war on the planet has not stopped for one single second. It has hit every continent, sowing death and destruction. It is thus necessary to state that war threatens humanity more and more. If war in the 20th century takes on such breadth, it is because capitalism has come to the final stage in its evolution. Wars of the preceding century were products of a capitalism that was in full expansion. It allowed capitalism to develop in the framework of more solid national structures, as with the civil war in the United States, or it permitted the conquest of new markets, as in the case of colonial wars.

The First World War marked a break with the wars of the preceding century. Henceforth, the objective was no longer to allow capitalism to pursue its development but to steal markets from competitor nations, to weaken them and grab strategic positions. This confirmed the entry of capitalism into its period of decadence. Capitalism could no longer find new markets to conquer and at the same time was capable of producing much more than the existing solvent markets were capable of absorbing. Thus began a vast cycle of self-destruction.

Capitalist decadence is shown by a desperate flight into war. As Hitler said "Export or die"! Gigantic resources became necessary for these wars. With the decadence of capitalism all economic potential tends towards war and production for war. All technical progress, all scientific research, every discovery is dominated by the aims of war.

There is thus a profound difference between the wars in the period of ascendancy and those of the period of decadence. A difference which is not only quantitative but also qualitative. The concept of decadence is essential if we want to understand the nature of war in capitalism. In particular, we have to understand that wars in the period of decadence are fundamentally irrational from capitalism's own point of view.

The irrationality of war

When we talk of irrationality, we are not posing the question from a moralistic point of view, but rather as marxists, from a materialist and objective point of view. In the period of the decadence of capitalism, marxists characterise all wars as imperialist wars. All countries are imperialist, from the biggest to the smallest; all dream of conquering or destroying their neighbour, or of having a particular influence in a region, on a continent or over the whole world.

In the period of decadence the economic crisis is permanent and irreversible. The bourgeoisie is perfectly incapable of resolving this crisis, which doesn't depend on a good or bad management but is the expression of the internal contradictions of the mode of production itself.

At the time of the First World War, the bourgeoisie had the hope that the camp which came out victorious from the war would be able to impose on the vanquished a new carve-up of the world, and thus recoup the lost markets. But this war had already demonstrated the futility, even for the victors, of any such economic hopes. Every nation (with the exception of the United States for particular reasons) came out of it economically weakened, including the camp of the victors. This was glaring in the case of Britain, which had begun its fall as a great power. The development of war has shown itself since for what it is: an ineluctable product of the historic crisis of capitalism, pushing each nation, beginning with the biggest, to confront their competitors in a desperate fight for survival. Economic logic more and more gives way to the simple search for strategic positions in order to make war. The logic is war for war. One of the most striking examples of this madness is illustrated by the USSR, which was exhausted by the arms race with the USA to the point that its economy collapsed like a house of cards at the end of the 1980s. Once again, it is only by understanding the evolution of capitalism and its entry into decadence that we can comprehend the irrational nature of war today. And it's no surprise that some internationalist groups, though quite capable of denouncing war from a proletarian point of view, are at the same time incapable of seeing the irrationality of war. In fact these groups, in particular the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party and the different Bordigist groups either totally reject the concept of decadence (the Bordigists) or more and more call it into question (the IBRP). And this means that while these comrades clearly manage to stand up for internationalism, they can't provide a serious explanation for war, since they don't understand the difference that exists between the wars of decadence and those of ascendancy. They are reduced to seeing virtually every war as a 'war for oil'. The reality is much more than that. In the case of Iraq, for example, who today can support the idea that American intervention was mainly motivated by the need to control the production of oil in order to enrich the large American companies? The economic costs of the war far outweigh the profits of the oil companies. For US imperialism, control of Middle Eastern oil is far more a military goal than an economic one (see article on p6).

The same is true for ex-Yugoslavia, for Afghanistan, etc. In these places chaos and insecurity continue to reign - the very worst thing as far as normal capitalist business is concerned. In unleashing war, capitalism in decline destroys the very ground beneath its feet. This mad spiral is the product of the bankruptcy of the system and it means that history cannot move on without the destruction of this system.

What can the working class do?

On the road of its historic struggle, the working class comes up against imperialist war and is led to question it and rise up against it. Since its birth, the working class has distinguished itself from other classes by its internationalism. The proletariat has no country. Internationalism is a fundamental frontier between the classes.

When we say that all countries are imperialist, we mean that proletarians have nothing to gain and everything to lose by defending 'their' country under the pretext that they would be worse off under the domination of another. Proletarian internationalism is founded on the recognition that, for the working class, the enemy is the bourgeoisie, of its 'own' country or any other country.

What can the working class do today in order to defend internationalism? Today the bourgeoisie no longer mobilises massive numbers of troops from the ranks of the working class: war has become professional, even if the pressure of unemployment makes putting on a uniform a get-out for desperate workers. Today, war is declared under the most cunning reasons: fighting terrorism, unseating 'evil dictators', saving the lives of the hungry. But in the final analysis capitalist war always defends the interests of the dominant class. Terrorism remains a weapon of the capitalist state; even when the ruling classes pretend to fight it here, they use it elsewhere. 'Evil dictators' are used in the same way: damned here, anointed and protected elsewhere. Meanwhile starving populations continue to die of hunger, while more and more economic resources are poured into the coffers of war.

All nations are imperialist; all wars must be denounced. But denunciation is not sufficient; it is necessary to understand the real roots of war. The bourgeoisie knows very well how to 'denounce' wars. It uses a very dangerous weapon for this job: pacifism. Pacifism is not only the utopia of a capitalist world without war; it is also the means to enrol workers into a false anti-war stance, which really means supporting one bourgeois gang against another. In the final analysis, pacifism is the handmaiden of nationalism, the worst poison for the proletariat. It's not by chance that pacifism and 'alternative worldism' specialise in anti-American chauvinism, and that over the war in Iraq German and French imperialism have been able to exploit this ideology for their own sordid ends

The working class must thus denounce not this or that war, but imperialist war as such, the unavoidable product of a dying social order. Whatever specific forms these wars take today, the proletariat, particularly in the central countries, must maintain and develop its own class struggle against the growing attacks on its very conditions of life. This is the only basis for developing a more profound political consciousness of the necessity to overthrow the capitalist system on a world scale.

G, 29/6/04.