Socialism or barbarism: War under capitalism

Printer-friendly version

"Matters have reached such a pitch that today mankind is faced with two alternatives: it may perish in barbarism, or it may find salvation in socialism. As the outcome of the Great War it is impossible for the capitalist classes to find any issue from their difficulties while they maintain class rule...Socialism is inevitable, not merely because proletarians are no longer willing to live under the conditions imposed by the capitalist class, but further because, if the proletariat fails to fulfill its duties as a class, if it fails to realize socialism, we shall crash down together to a common doom." (Rosa Luxemburg, Speech to the Founding Congress of the KPD)

Announced sixty years ago, this warning has acquired and acquires today an acute reality and current relevance. However, the correctness of this point of view, the only one which corresponds to the historical situation in which we live, does not, despite the sad experience of these sixty years separating us from the moment when those lines were written, represent the most widespread opinion - far from it.

From international confrontations to localized conflicts, localized conflicts preparing new international confrontations, the present and the preceding generations have been so marked by this atmosphere, this situation of permanent world war since the beginning of this century, that they have great difficulty in understanding its mean­ing and significance, and the perspectives that derive from it.

An all-pervasive ideology

An historical phenomenon, world war, through its omnipresent and permanent character, ends up haunting the spirit and becomes in the common view a natural phenomenon, inherent to human nat­ure. It goes without saying that this mythical view in the true sense of the term is largely nourished, supported and spread by the carriers of the dominant ideology, who are past masters of this permanent situation of war and the prep­aration for world war.

Pacifist ideology is itself the indispensable complement of this myth since it creates feel­ings of helplessness about every preparation for or situation of war.

At a moment when tensions are more and more sharpening on a worldwide scale, when the means of destruction are being accumulated at such a rapid pace that it is difficult to keep abreast with it, and when the world economic crisis, the source of world war, is plunging into a bottomless abyss, the old sermons are churned out more than ever.

"In face of the spectacular effectiveness of the American military-industrial system, it must seem astonishing that no consensus has been establish­ed in the USA around the idea that war, or its preparation, creates prosperity ...       

"Whereas periods of peace have always correspond­ed to periods of desolate (sic!) economic depr­ession, the high points of the economic conjunc­ture over four centuries now (broadly speaking, as far as Europe is concerned) have always been periods of conflict: the Thirty Years War, the Religious Wars (and their reconstruction), the European Wars of 1720, the Austrian War of Succession and the Seven Years War, with a pinnacle of prosperity in 1775, then - as after every peace-time depression - the wars of the Revolution and of the French Empire, followed by those of the end of the century at the moment of the Second Empire, then the First and Second World Wars." (J.Grapin, Forteresse America, ed Grasset, p 85)

This quotation summarizes the essentials of the dominant and decadent thought of our epoch. Dressed up in the clothing of common sense and objectivity, its goal is to justify war by a pseudo-prosperity; its method is confusion and historical amalgams, its philosophy returns to the crude morality of man being belligerent by nature. It comes as a surprise to nobody therefore that in the chapter from which the passage quoted was taken, one can read:

"It seems that man is organically incapable of replying to the question, ‘if he isn't making war, what is he to do?'"

We totally reject this ahistorical and meta­physical thought which traces a common trait in every war, from the Middle Ages to the last two world wars.

An amalgam between all the wars in the period to the present day is an abstraction and a complete historical falsehood, Both in their course and implications and in their causes, the wars of the Middle Ages are different to the Napoleonic Wars and the wars of the 18th century, just as the two world wars are different to all of these.

In affirming such absurdities, the theoreticians of the contemporary bourgeoisie stand far below the bourgeois theoreticians of the last century, for example General Von Clausewitz who declared: "Semi-barbarian Tartars, the republics of the ancient world, the lords and the merchant cities of the Middle Ages, the kings of the 18th century, the princes and finally the peoples of the 19th century: all waged war in their own manner, went about it differently, using different means and for different goals ..." (General Von Clausewitz, On War)

That the ideologists, advisers, researchers, parliamentarians, military men and politicians express and defend - and they are appointed to do so - this vision of the world in which war is presented as the driving force of history, is not surprising. What, on the contrary, is really terr­ible, is when we find this same approach among those who want to be a revolutionary force. Stripped of its moral attributes and other misty considerations about human nature, this time it's through an aura of a supposed materialist anti-marxist approach that certain currents of thought arrive at the same conclusions, considering war to be the driving force of history. This is what is behind the idea that war is a favorable obj­ective condition for a world revolution, behind the judgment of militarism as being a solution to overproduction, behind the vision of wars - and we are dealing here with world wars, peculiar to our epoch - as the means of expression and the solution to the contradictions of capitalism.

We don't want to say here that these elements share the preoccupations of the bourgeoisie and its advisers, something which would be gratuitous and unfounded. We don't question their conviction, but rather their analysis, approach and method.

This consists in brushing over the whole history of this century and of its two world wars, minimizing the present paramount importance of the al­ternative that is so vital for action: revolution or world war, radical transformation of the means and the goals of production, destruction of bour­geois political power, or the equally radical destruction of human society.

In the period between the two wars, revolutionar­ies saw in the perspective of a second world war, which approached more rapidly with each year, the future of the revolutionary process. Thus they en­visaged this future not as a catastrophic perspec­tive but as one opening the door to revolution as in the years 1917-18. The Second World War and its course cruelly destroyed this illusion. The strength of these comrades resided not in a blind obstinacy incapable of putting in question a false vision contradicted by historical reality, but on the contrary in their capacity to draw the lessons of historical reality, thereby permitting revolutionary theory to make a step forward.

The historical evolution of the question of war

Capitalism was born in dirt and blood, and its worldwide expansion was punctuated in the 19th century by a multitude of wars: the Napoleonic Wars which were to shake the feudal structures which were suffocating Europe, the colonial wars on the African and Asiatic continents, wars of independence such as in the Americas, wars of annexation such as in 1870 between France and Germany, and a host of other ones ...      

All of these wars represented either a culmin­ating point in the development of capitalism in its march of conquest across the globe, or the overturning of the old agricultural and feudal political structures in Europe. In other words, through these wars, capital unified the world market while dividing the world into irredeemably competing nations.

But all things come to an end, and the dizzying ascent of capitalism in its conquest of the world came to an end too, in the limitations of the world market. By the end of the last century, the world was divided into colonial ownerships and zones of influence between the different dev­eloped capitalist nations. From then on, war and militarism started to take on another dynamic: imperialism, the struggle to the death between the different nations for the division of the world, the limited extent of which no longer sufficed to satisfy the expansionist appetites of them all - appetites which have become immense in relation to their previous development. In order to describe this situation, we couldn't do better than Rosa Luxemburg, who drew the following pic­ture:

"As early as the eighties a strong tendency to­wards colonial expansion became apparent. Eng­land secured control of Egypt and created for itself in South Africa a powerful colonial emp­ire. France took possession of Tunis in North Africa and Tonkin in East Asia; Italy gained a foothold in Abyssinia; Russia accomplished its conquests in central Asia and pushed forward into Manchuria; Germany won its first colonies in Africa and in the South Sea, and the United States joined the circle when it procured the Philippines with ‘interests' in Eastern Asia. This period of' feverish conquests has brought on, beginning with the Chinese-Japanese War in 1898, a practically uninterrupted chain of' bloody wars, reaching its height in the great Chinese invasion and closing with the Russo-Japanese War of 1904.

"All these occurrences, coming blow upon blow, created new, extra-European antagonisms on all sides: between Italy and France in Northern Afr­ica, between France and England in Egypt, between England and Russia in central Asia, between Russ­ia and Japan in Eastern Asia, between Japan and England in China, between the United States and Japan in the Pacific Ocean ...            

"... it was clear to everybody therefore, that the secret underhand war of each capitalist nation against every other, on the backs of the Asia­tic and African peoples must sooner or later lead to a general reckoning, that the wind that was sown in Africa and Asia would return to Europe as a terrific storm, the more certainly since incr­eased armament of the European states was the constant associate of these Asiatic and African occurrences; that the European world war would have to come to an outbreak as soon as the part­ial and changing conflicts between the imperial­ist states found a centralized axis, a conflict of sufficient magnitude to group them, for the time being, into large, opposing factions. This situation was created by the appearance of Ger­man imperialism." (Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet)

With the First World War, war thus radically changed its nature, its form, its contents and its historic implications.

As its name implies, it becomes worldwide, and it impregnates the entire life of society in a permanent manner. The capitalist world as a whole cannot re-establish a semblance of peace, except in order to wipe out a revolutionary upsurge such as in 1917-18-19, or, under the irresistible pressure of contradictions which it does not control, in order to prepare a new conflict at a higher level.    

This was the case between the two world wars. And since the Second World War, the world has not wit­nessed a single moment of real peace. Already at the end of the last one, the axis of a future world war was posed - namely the confrontation between the Russian and American blocs. Simil­arly, the dimension which it would take was est­ablished by the atomic bombardment of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Thus, whereas in the last century militarism re­mained a peripheral component of industrial production, and whereas warlike confrontations themselves found their theatre of operation on the periphery of the developed industrial centers, in our epoch armaments production is bloated out of all proportion to production as a whole and tends to take over all the energies and vital forces of society The industrial centers become the stakes and theatre of military oper­ations.

It is this process of the military sector supp­lanting and subordinating the economy for its own purposes which we have witnessed since the begin­ning of the century, a process which today is undergoing a shattering acceleration.

World war has its roots in the generalized crisis of the capitalist economy. This crisis is its source of nourishment. To this extent, world war, the highest expression of the historical crisis of capitalism, summarizes and concentrates in its own nature all the characteristics of a process of self-destruction.

"In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity - the epidemic of overproduction .... And why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce ." (Communist Manifesto)

From the moment when this crisis can no longer find a temporary outlet in an expansion of the world market, the world wars of our century express and translate this phenomenon of the self-destruction of a system which by itself cannot overcome its historical contradictions.

Militarism as an investment: war and prosperity - militarism and the economy               

The worst of errors concerning the question of war is to consider militarism as a ‘field of accumulation', an investment of some kind which will be profitable in periods of war, and war itself to be a means, if not ‘the means' of the expan­sion of capitalism.

This conception, when it is not a simple justification for militarism as with the ideologies of the bourgeoisie already quoted, consists of a schematic vision on the part of revolutionaries, coming for the most part from a wrong interpretation of wars in the last century.

The exact position of militarism in relation to the totality of the process of production could give rise to illusions in the phase of worldwide capitalist expansion and the creation of the world market. By contrast, the historical sit­uation opened up with the First World War, in placing war in an entirely different context to that of the preceding century, cleared up any ambiguities about a ‘military investment'. In the last century, when wars remained local and short-lived, militarism did not represent a productive investment in the true sense of the term, but always a wasteful expenditure. In any case, the source of profit did not lie in the exploitation of the workforce in uniform mobilized under the national flag, in the productive forces immobilized in the forces of destruction which weaponry represents, but solely in the enlargement of the colonial empire, of the world market, in the sources of raw materials exploitable on a large scale and at almost zero wage costs, in newly-created political structures permitting a capit­alist exploitation of the work force. In the dec­adent era, apart from companies producing armam­ents, capital, considered globally, draws no pro­fit whatsoever from armaments production and the maintenance of a standing army. On the contrary, all the costs engendered by militarism are going down the drain. Anything that goes through the industrial production of armaments in order to be transformed into means of destruction cannot be re-introduced in the process of production with the aim of producing new values and commod­ities. The only thing which armaments can give rise to is destruction and death - that's all.

This argument about ‘military investment', basing itself on the experience of the wars of the last century, is not new We can find exactly the same thing being defended by Social Democracy at the time of the 1914-18 war. Listen again to Rosa Luxemburg:

"According to the official version of the leaders of the Social Democracy, that was so readily adopted without criticism, victory of the German forces would mean, for Germany, unhampered, boundless industrial growth; defeat, however, industrial ruin. On the whole, this conception coincides with that generally accepted during the war of 1870. But the period of capitalist growth that followed the war of 1870 was not caused by the war, but resulted rather from the political union of the various German states, even though this union took the form of the crippled future that Bismarck established as the German Empire. Here the industrial impetus came from this union, inspite of the war and the manifold reactionary hindrances that followed in its wake. What the victorious war itself accomplished was to firmly establish the military monarchy and Prussian Junkerdom in Germany; the defeat of France led to the liquidation of its Empire and the establishment of a republic.

But today the situation is different in all of the nations in question. Today war does not function as a dynamic force to provide for rising young capitalism the indispensable political conditions for its 'national' development." (Rosa Luxemburg, Junius Pamphlet)         

Moreover, this quotation is of twofold interest, because of its content, to be sure, but also because it stems from Rosa Luxemburg. As it happ­ens, all the revolutionary militants who defend the idea that militarism can constitute a ‘field of accumulation' for capital draw on the argumentation in a text by the very same Rosa Luxem­burg, a text written before the war of 1914-18 (The Accumulation of Capital) and which contains a chapter in which she herself defends the erron­eous idea that militarism constitutes a ‘field of accumulation'.

We see here, how the experience of the First World War made her radically revise her position (an example which our comrades should follow!)

War and prosperity

The other facet of this myth of militarism as an investment can be expressed in the following man­ner: the military domain perhaps burdens public finances at the beginning, provoking enormous deficits, devouring a large part of the social wage, consuming an important and essential part of the productive apparatus which of itself can no longer be used for the production of the means of consumption - but, after the wars, all these ‘investments' are justified by a new phase of prosperity Conclusion: military investment does not become productive immediately, in the short term, but it does so in the long term.

The so-called ‘prosperity' which followed the First World War was relative and limited. In fact, until 1924, Europe was sunk in an economic mire (especially in Germany where this more took on cataclysmic proportions), so that by 1929, its production levels had hardly caught up with those of 1913. The only country where this term had a semblance of reality was the USA (from where the term ‘prosperity' originated), a country whose contribution to the war was the most limited in duration and which suffered no destruction on its own soil.

As far as the period of reconstruction following World War II is concerned, while it spanned the years from 1950 to the end of the ‘60s, this is fundamentally because the productive apparatus ­of the leading economy of the world, far ahead of all the others, that of the USA, had not been destroyed by the war. With a production represent­ing 40% of total world production, the USA could permit Europe and Japan to reconstruct, despite the terrible destruction of the Second World War. Having arrived late on the world market, bene­fitting from the immense resources offered by the vast American continent, both with regard to materials and extra-capitalist markets, American capitalism - up until the mid-twenties - followed a somewhat specific dynamic in becoming the prin­cipal economy of the world, while old Europe was being plunged into crisis (the USA only particip­ated in the First World War, very minimally). It's only around 1925 that, having exhausted the resources of its own dynamic, US capital began to plunge into crisis, a crisis with the dimensions of the American economy.

It's in this way that the American economy, with the Second World War, turned all its energy ‑ militarily, to be sure - towards the rest of the world, while still being spared the destruction of war on its own soil.

One of the manifestations of this situation was the constitution of the Russian bloc, and at the end of the Second World War this gave rise to the ­conditions for a new worldwide confrontation, the preparations for which are accelerating today.

In twenty years world capitalism has cleared out every crack and crevice, exploited to the last square foot of the globe every possibility of extending the world market. One of the expressions of this is decolonization which opened these pseudo-autonomous nations to the free play of the competition of the world market - in other words to the struggle for influence between the two great imperialist blocs. This results in the fanning of the flames of local conflicts which, from Africa to Asia, have continued ever since as moments in the confrontation between the two great imperialist blocs.

One can call this ‘prosperity' perhaps; we for our part call it by its name: butchery, barbarism and decadence.

War as a controllable process

We have stated above that the characteristic of the crisis of overproduction, self-destruction, finds its highest expression in world war.

The same goes for the capacity of capitalism to control the military spiral and the mechanisms of war. Just as the bourgeoisie is incapable of mastering the process which plunges the economy into a chronic and increasingly devastating crisis, it is incapable of mastering the increasingly murderous military machine which menaces the     very existence of humanity.

Moreover, as with the economic crisis, each measure which the bourgeoisie takes to protect itself rebounds against it. Just as, in face of overproduction, it decides on a policy of general indebtedness, not seeing that this policy of desperation projects the crisis to previously unattained heights - and with no way leading back; in the same way, in face of the military threat posed by its adversary, a particular bourgeois bloc decides to develop more and more powerful weaponry, not seeing that the adversary ends up doing the same, and that this race never stops.

The characteristics of nuclear armaments make this situation very clear. At the end of the Second World War they had become a dissuasive force: the USSR would never have taken the risk of a world war in face of the menace of the atomic umbrella of the US bloc. However, by the end of the ‘50s, the USSR had equipped itself with armaments of a similar nature. For the first time in its history the USA found itself menaced on its own territory.

At this point we were still being reassured: nuclear armaments would remain a ‘deterrent force'. An immense chasm separated classical armaments from nuclear armaments, and the latter were supposed to have the vocation of holding back the two great world powers from any step towards a direct confrontation.

The history of these last 15 years, from the end of reconstruction to the present day, has swept aside this happy dream. In the course of these 15 years we have witnessed, slowly at first but in an accel‑erating manner, a process of the modernization of every kind of armaments, both conventional and nuclear. Nuclear weaponry has been miniaturized and diversified. Long-range missiles with massive firepower (inter-continental missiles) are being supplemented by middle-range types with a selective firepower (the famous SS-20 and Pershing which are springing up like mushrooms in eastern and Western Europe); these weapons are aimed at making possible a geographically limited nuclear confrontation.

Moreover, in addition to the parade of nuclear weapons developed for the purpose of retaliation, there is the development of defense systems, in other words of selective anti-missile systems, systems culminating at the present moment in what is known as 'star wars', with the employment of satellites.

On the other hand, conventional weaponry, in the process of its accumulation and modernization, is itself integrating its own nuclear firepower; a development which finds its clearest contemporary expression in the neutron bomb, a ‘close combat' nuclear weapon, in other words usable in a conven­tional conflict. A happy prospect and a fine succ­ess!

The alibi for the bombardment of Nagasaki and Hiroshima was, as stupid as it may seem today, ‘peace'. The same goes for the first big atomic bombs. In reality, the historical crisis of capitalism and the armaments race which it gives rise to has only succeeded in closing the gap which used to exist between conventional and nuclear weaponry, thereby delivering the material means of escalating the lowest level of conventional conflict to the highest level of massive destruction.

In conclusion we can say not only that the bourgeoisie is incapable of controlling armaments development today, but that in the event of a world-wide conflict it will not be able to control a terrible escalation towards generalized destruction.

From a certain point of view, the slogan ‘socialism or barbarism' is outdated today. The development of the decadence of capitalism means that today things must be posed as follows: socialism or the continuation of barbarism, socialism or the destruction of humanity and of all life-forms on earth.

We have arrived today at a fateful point in the history of humanity, where the existence of fantastic material and scientific capacities provide the means either for self-destruction or for total liberation from the scourge of class society and of scarcity.

We have dealt elsewhere with the argument that war will be a favorable condition for a revolutionary initiative (see our articles in IR 18 - ‘The Historic Course' - and 30 - ‘Why the Alternative is War or Revolution'). Here, therefore, we shall only examine some aspects of this question.

Those who affirm that world war is a favorable, even necessary condition for a revolutionary pro­cess, base this extremely dangerous assertion on ‘historical experience': the history of the Paris Commune which arose after the siege of Paris in the war of 1870, and even more so the experience of the Russian Revolution.

Our way of viewing history teaches us exactly the contrary. The experience of the first revolutionary wave, which gave rise to a fantastic uprising in which the working class succeeded in emerging from the butchery and the ruins of four years of war and affirm its revolutionary internationalism, will not repeat itself.

Looked at more closely, the situation at the beginning of this century shows us that this was a particular situation from which we cannot extrapolate the characteristics of our century, unless we do so negatively.

In any case, it mustn't be lost sight of that the first revolutionary wave, launched in Russia, did not spread to the principal countries. Neither in Britain nor in France, and even less so in the USA, did the working class succeed in taking up the revolutionary flame lit in Russia and in Germany.

We are not inventing anything in drawing the bal­ance sheet that war is the worst possible situation in which to launch a revolutionary pro­cess At the beginning of this century in Germany for example, revolutionaries drew the same lesson:

"The revolution followed four years of tear, four years during which, schooled by the social democracy and the trade unions, the German proletariat had behaved with intolerable ignominy and had repudiated its socialist obligations ... We Marxists, whose guiding principle is a recognition of historical revolution, could hardly expect that in Germany which had known the spectacle of 4th August, and which during more than four years had reaped the harvest soon on that day, there should suddenly occur on 9th November, 1918 a glorious revolution, inspired with definite class consciousness and directed     towards a clearly conceived aim. What happened on 9th November was more the collapse of the existing imperialism than a victory for a new principle." (Rosa Luxemburg, ‘Speech to the Founding Congress of the KPD')

The Second World War, much more devastating and murderous, longer and more colossal, expressing at a higher level its worldwide character, did not in the least give rise to a revolutionary situation anywhere in the world. In particular, what allowed for fraternizations at the front during the First World War - the prolonged trench warfare in which the soldiers of the two camps were in direct contact - could not be repeated during the      Second World War with its massive use of tanks and aircraft. Not only did the Second World War not constitute a fertile terrain for the beginning of a revolutionary alternative, its disastrous consequences lasted much longer than the war itself. Thereafter, it took two decades before the struggle, the combativity and the sparks of consciousness of the proletariat reappeared in the world at the end of the ‘60s.

Twice this century, world war has rung out the darkest hour. The second time, the raging storm of barbarism unleashed on humanity was incomparably more powerful and destructive than the first time. Today, if such a catastrophe were to take place again, the very existence of humanity would be under threat. Apart from the ideological plague which, in a war situation, infests the consciousness of millions of workers, erecting an iron barrier against any tentative towards a revolutionary transformation, the objective situation of a world turned to ruins would wipe out this possibility.

In the event of a third world war, not only would any possibility of historically overcoming capitalism be swept away, but moreover we can be almost certain that humanity itself would not survive it. This underlines the crucial importance of the present struggles of the proletariat as the only obstacle to the outbreak of this cataclysm.

M. Prenat

General and theoretical questions: