In a TV broadcast in 1965, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, one of the leading scientists working on the development of the US atomic bomb during World War Two, recounted his feelings when he witnessed the first atomic bomb test in the deserts of New Mexico in July 1945:
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another”.
Prior to capitalism, many societies had developed mythologies of the end of the world. The apocalypse anticipated by Judaism, Christianity and Islam, seen as the final destiny of this world, was understood to be the precursor of a new heaven and a new earth that would last for all eternity; whereas in the Hindu vision, new worlds and even new universes are endlessly born, dissolved and reborn in a vast cosmic cycle.
But if the idea of the apocalypse is not new, what is new in the capitalist mode of production is first, that the world inhabited by humankind for hundreds of thousands of years can be destroyed by the technologies that human beings themselves have created, rather than by supernatural beings or an inexorable fate. And second, that such a destruction would not be the prelude to a new and better world, but destruction pure and simple.
The atomic bomb tested in the desert in July 1945 would, one month later, be tested on tens of thousands of human beings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world would indeed not be the same. The atomic bomb was the “scientific” proof of something that many had already begun to suspect in the wake of the First World War: in the words of Sigmund Freud in 1929, that “men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of the current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety”.
Psychoanalysts of the future – if mankind is able to survive capitalism – will perhaps write treatises on the enormous psychological cost of living with the threat not only of individual death, but the death of humanity and perhaps even all life on earth. It’s already possible to discern many of the outward manifestations of this mental burden: the flight into nihilism and the numerous forms of self-destruction, the vain search for hope in returning to old apocalyptic stories, central in particular to Christian and Muslim “fundamentalism”. For Freud’s rival Jung, the wave of UFO sightings in the late 40s was a modern version of old myths: faced with the unbearable reality posed by the nuclear threat, there was a marked tendency to project one’s real fears into “things seen in the skies”, often accompanied by hopes that wiser beings would come and save us from our own follies. Little wonder that in 1952, during the Korean war, which many feared would explode into World War Three, the comrades of the Gauche Communiste de France were observing that “mental alienation in all its forms is to our epoch what the great epidemics were to the Middle Ages”.
The nuclear Sword of Damocles, from 1945 to 2017
The democratic ruling class justified the atrocities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the story that, on balance, it saved lives, above all American lives, because it made it possible to avoid a military invasion of Japan. In reality, the bomb was a warning directed less against the collapsing Japanese military than against the USSR which had only recently declared war on Japan and was asserting its presence in the Far East. So Hiroshima was more the first act of “World War Three” than the last act of World War Two. This third world war, the global contest between the American and Russian imperialist blocs, remained a “cold” war in the sense that it never took the form of a direct conflict between the two camps. Rather it was waged via a series of proxy wars with local states and “national liberation movements” doing the actual fighting, while the two superpowers supplied arms, intelligence, strategic support and ideological justification. At certain moments, however, these conflicts threatened to escalate into all-out nuclear confrontations, in particular, during the Korean War in the early 50s and over the Cuba crisis in 1962. And all the while the spiralling “arms race” meant that the two blocs were directing vast quantities of labour and research – which in capitalist terms, means vast quantities of money – into perfecting weapons that could obliterate humanity several times over. Politicians tried to reassure the world’s population with the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD – the idea that world war was unthinkable in the nuclear age because no one could win it. Thus the best guarantee of peace was to maintain and develop this gigantic arsenal of death. Or in other words: a Sword of Damocles hangs over your head? Get used to it, because it’s the only possible way to live.
After the collapse of the Russian bloc at the end of the 80s, the politicians tried a new line: the end of the Cold War would mean a New World Order of peace and prosperity. A little over a quarter of a century later, the words of George Bush Senior, the president who “delivered” the US bloc’s victory in the Cold War, sound extremely hollow. Prosperity remains a chimera for millions, and this in a world system constantly menaced by huge financial storms, like the one in 2008. As for the promise of peace, the breakdown of the discipline of the old blocs has engendered a series of increasingly chaotic military conflicts, above all in the area around the Biblical Armageddon – the Middle East. This region – already the scene of the Arab-Israeli wars, the war in Lebanon, the Iran-Iraq war, and the battle for Afghanistan – has hardly known a day when it was not being torn apart by war, from the first major military adventure launched by the US after the collapse of the eastern bloc – the 1991 Gulf war – to the current military nightmare stalking through Syria and Iraq. This conflict, perhaps more than all the others, reveals the profound irrationality and uncontrolled nature of the wars in this present phase. Unlike the proxy wars between the two blocs which dominated the previous period, we now have a war with so many sides and so many shifting alliances that it is increasingly difficult to count them. To keep himself in power, Syria’s president Bashir Assad lays waste large swathes of his own country, while the opposition to his rule splits into “moderate” and “radical Islamic” factions constantly at each other’s throats. The American-backed coalition against “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq is rent by rivalries between Shia militias and Kurdish peshmerga, especially following the controversial referendum on Kurdish independence which threatens to disintegrate the fragile Iraqi state; regional powers like Saudi, Qatar, Iran and Turkey play their own game and swap pawns and alliances to suit their immediate interests. Meanwhile the vast majority of the population is either forced to flee towards Turkey, Jordan or Europe while those that remain try to keep sane and survive in ruined cities like Aleppo, Raqqa, Mosul... Furthermore, these conflicts are linked to a wider band of equally intractable wars, from Libya to the Horn of Africa and from Yemen to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And this epidemic of warfare can no longer be isolated from the centres of western “civilisation”: the blowback of western involvement in these wars is the wave of refugees heading for the “haven” of Western Europe and the efforts of terrorist gangs like IS to take the war to the homelands of the “unbelievers”
These wars already provide us with a terrifying glimpse of what could lie ahead for the whole world if the destructive tendencies within the capitalist system are allowed to reach their full fruition. But there is another aspect to the spreading law of “every man for himself”: the reappearance of the nuclear threat in a new form. Under the reign of the blocs, the two superpowers had a real interest, and capacity, to limit the spread of nuclear weapons to themselves or to regimes that they trusted to obey their commands. The nuclear arming of China in the 1960s was a break in this chain of command because China had by then broken from the Russian bloc; but since the blocs came to an end “nuclear proliferation” has increased at some pace. India and Pakistan, two states which have already gone to war on several occasions and live in a permanent state of tension, now have nuclear weapons pointing at each other. Iran has made considerable steps towards acquiring one and numerous other regimes and even terrorist groups are no doubt quietly working to join the club.
But looming above all this today is the acquisition and piratical testing of nuclear weapons by the Stalinist regime in North Korea, while the world’s leading military power, the USA, is in the hands of an unpredictable narcissist who rode to power on the global populist wave. These two forms of “rogue regime” issue new threats of fire and fury against each other with each week that passes, and it is not possible to say that this is all bluster. There are, within both regimes, factors that constrain them from unleashing a nuclear holocaust. Trump for example does not have an entirely free hand because he is opposed at almost every turn by powerful elements in his own security and military apparatus. But these inner conflicts, like the populist wave itself, point to a loss of political control by the bourgeoisie which favour unpredictable, rash decisions. And more: behind the conflict between the US and North Korea lies a more global rivalry, between China and the USA. Meanwhile Russia remains the second most heavily armed nuclear power in the world, has recovered much of the status it lost with the collapse of the USSR, and is pursuing an ever more aggressive foreign policy, especially in the Ukraine and Syria. The danger of nuclear warfare remains as real as ever, even if the form it takes may have changed since the period 1945-89.
During the Cold War period, a considerable part of which was characterised by the economic growth that followed the Second World War, there was little awareness of what this growth might hold in store for the balance between man and the rest of nature. But the last few decades have shown how limited “mans’ control over the forces of nature” really are under the capitalist drive for profit, where looting, wastefulness and destruction have always dominated what Marx called man’s “metabolic exchange” with nature.
On October 19, The Guardian reported that “The abundance of flying insects has plunged by three-quarters over the past 25 years, according to a new study that has shocked scientists. Insects are an integral part of life on Earth as both pollinators and prey for other wildlife and it was known that some species such as butterflies were declining. But the newly revealed scale of the losses to all insects has prompted warnings that the world is ‘on course for ecological Armageddon’, with profound impacts on human society”.
We already knew, of course, about the alarming decline of the bees. And this is only one part of a tendency towards the mass extinction of countless living species, brought about by the poisoning of the air and seas by pesticides, industrial and transport emissions, and the veritable scourge of plastic waste. And this toxic cloud is also killing human beings at an increasing rate. The day after the article about insect decline, The Guardian published a new report that estimates that nine million people die every year as a direct result of pollution. Add to this the melting of the ice caps, the unleashing of superstorms, the droughts and wildfires all linked to man-made climate change, and the threatened “ecological Armageddon” more and more closely resembles the traditional stories about the world perishing in flood and fire.
Thus to the menace of destruction through imperialist war, the ecological question adds another and no less terrifying menace, but these two horsemen of the apocalypse will not ride separately. On the contrary: a capitalist world faced with dwindling vital resources, whether we are talking about energy, food or water, is far more likely to deal with the problem through exacerbated national competition, military pillage and robbery – in short, economic and imperialist war – than through the rational, planet-wide cooperation which alone could find a solution to this new challenge to human survival.
The other side of despair
Looked at one-sidedly, this summary of humanity’s situation can only induce despair. But there is another side: if the products of man’s own hands have become capable of “exterminating one another to the last man”, realising the darkest apocalyptic nightmares, so the same powers of production could be used to realise another ancient dream: a world of plenty where there is no need for one sector of society to lord it over another, a world that has gone beyond the divisions that lie at the heart of conflict and war.
It is one of contradictions in the evolution of capitalism that precisely at the point that such a world becomes materially possible – we would say round the beginning of the 20th century – this social order plunges mankind into the most barbarous wars in history. From this point on, its very survival becomes increasingly antagonistic to the survival of humanity. This is the most striking proof that capitalism, for all its intact capacities to innovate, to develop, to find remedies for its crises, has become obsolete, a fundamental obstacle to the future advance of our species.
The recognition of this reality is a key factor in the development of a revolutionary consciousness among the exploited masses who are always the first victims of capitalism’s crises and wars. The understanding that capitalism, as a world civilisation, had entered its epoch of decay, was a crucial factor in the monumental events set in motion by the revolution in Russia in 1917 – in the international revolutionary wave which forced the bourgeoisie to call a halt to the slaughter of the First World War and which, for an all-too-brief period, brought the promise of the overthrow of capitalism and the advent of a world communist society.
Today, such revolutionary hopes might appear to belong entirely to the past. But contrary to the ideology and active propaganda of the bourgeoisie, the class struggle has not disappeared from history and indeed, even before it takes on a generalised and conscious revolutionary character, still has an enormous weight in the world situation. During the Cold War, as we have seen, the ruling class tried to convince us that its MAD doctrine was preserving the planet from a third world war. What they would never tell us is that there was a more powerful “deterrent” to world war after capitalism entered its present phase of economic crisis at the end of the 60s. This was a factor that had been missing in the 1930s, when the economic depression did lead rapidly to war: an undefeated working class more prepared to fight for its own interests than to rally to the war plans of the bourgeoisie.
Today, the break-up of the blocs and the accelerating imperialist free-for all is another factor that makes a classic third world war a less likely scenario. This is not a factor that favours the proletariat however, because the threat of world war has been by-passed by a more insidious slide into barbarism in which, as we have argued here, the danger of nuclear warfare has by no means diminished. But the class struggle – and its escalation towards revolution – remains the sole barrier to the deepening of barbarism, the sole hope that humanity will not only avert the apocalypse of capital but realise all its untapped potential.
. J. Robert Oppenheimer on the Trinity test (1965). Atomic Archive. Retrieved May 23, 2008.
. Civilisation and its Discontents, London 1973, chapter VIII, p82
. Carl Jung, Flying Saucers, a Modern Myth of Things seen in the Skies, Bollingen Series: Princeton University Press, 1978
. Internationalisme 1952, ‘The evolution of capitalism and the new perspective’, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/21/internationalisme-1952
. The collapse of the “Soviet Union” was indeed partly the result of the vast burden of arms spending on an economy that was inherently much weaker than that of the US. But for a more comprehensive analysis of the roots of the crisis in the eastern bloc, see “Theses on the economic and political crisis in the eastern countries”, https://en.internationalism.org/ir/60/collapse_eastern_bloc