Of the 36,524 days of the twentieth century, not one was free of war. It’s impossible to know if actual fighting occurred every day, but somewhere on the planet armed militias faced each other in trenches, bunkers, warships or warplanes, ready to shoot on command. Some, such as the armed blockade of Cuba, the destruction in Africa and the border war between Pakistan and India, are decades old. The occupation and division of the Middle East, by this or that European power, goes back even further to the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution.
It’s a no-brainer that capitalism relies on military force to further the quest for profits. People throughout the world know that the current Iraq war was launched to permit big oil corporations to grab the country’s oil reserves. We also know that war predates capitalism by millennia. Yet it has never been such an endemic feature of human society until the turn of the last century.
Causes of war. In 1916, Vladimir Lenin, one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, published the definitive analysis of the economic basis of the global market, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. He had a dual purpose: to provide an explanation of the roots of war in the profit system and to argue forcefully against those who had split the international workers’ movement by supporting their “own” capitalists in World War I, which was then still ravaging Europe and the Middle East.A 2006 research paper by the University of Maryland’s Milton Leitenberg claims that 230 million people died as a result of conflicts in the hundred years before 2000. Given that Western sources often overestimate those killed under the regimes of Stalin and Mao Zedong, but underestimate the victims of Western governments, this figure is probably accurate. But a very recent article in the British Medical Journal concludes that previous methods were inaccurate by two-thirds. The authors estimate that, as a result of conflicts, 378,000 people died globally each year between 1984 and 1995. They admit, “our estimates capture only direct violent deaths from war, not all excess deaths attributable to war.” So perhaps 700 million people have died from war since 1901. That’s equivalent to the planet’s entire population in 1750.
He defined imperialism as “capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.”
This global system, he argued, has five features: (1) the concentration of production and capital into created monopolies which play a decisive role in economic life; (2) the creation, on the basis of finance capital, a financial oligarchy created by the unity of industry and banks; (3) markets based on the export of capital rather than commodities (4) the formation of international monopolist, capitalist associations which share the world among themselves, and (5) the territorial division of the whole world among the biggest capitalist powers. Perpetual war, then, derives from the internationalisation of capitalist markets.
Historic delay. As Lenin wrote his pamphlet, the Russian Revolution was just an angry glint in the eye of the working class of Petrograd. Eighteen months later, the workers and peasants were in power in the former Tsarist Empire, a vast country spanning one- sixth of the world’s land mass. The European powers (including the USA), previously at each other’s throats, spent five years attempting to secure Russia for the inevitable carve- up. But the Soviet Union drove the invaders out. Although it later degenerated, the new workers’ State held out against imperialism for another 70 years. Its example inspired revolutions across the planet. The “complete” division of the world was postponed for generations. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the conquest of Eastern Europe and the reintroduction of capitalism into China, the drive to create imperialist spheres of influence has accelerated to top speed. But Lenin’s position was a manifesto, not an almanac — his principles still hold true.
Some debt with that? The merging of the banking system with industry is so complete that it’s almost invisible. Want some furniture? Get it with no repayments for two years using our store card! General Electric will sell you a lamp or a locomotive and lend you the funds through its integrated finance arm. The Macquarie Bank is a major builder and operator of toll roads and airports.
People complain about the lack of shopfront branches, but in reality they’re everywhere. Every retail outlet has a bank teller in the form of a card reader. No major industrial investment decision is made without the OK of a “finance partner.” If the bank withdraws support, you’re toast. The sub-prime mortgage crisis in the U.S. was driven by an unholy partnership of big developers and Wall St. And the reason foreclosures in Cincinnati reverberate in Clifton Springs is because the global economy now relies on profits made from trading capital rather than goods. The trouble is that most of the capital traded is negative — that is, debt. Trading in the mortgages of the poor is OK until they can’t pay. Then you have a wad of worthless paper.
The power of monopoly. BHP-Billiton, which seems certain to take over its largest rival, Rio Tinto, is by far the largest mining conglomerate in the world. Rio Tinto has just used its market position to gouge a 97% price rise out of Chinese iron ore buyers. These vast corporations can treat their biggest customers with contempt. We all know about the oil cartels. There are two: the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and an Anglo-American association comprising Exxon Mobile, Chevron, Total, Shell and British Petroleum. Can’t pay to fill the car? Too bad — these companies are so big they can dictate terms to the U.S. government.
Even the supermarket groups are expanding into food cartels, controlling everything from field or factory to checkout. Part of the reason for the global food shortage is that they are directing food to where it can be sold for the most money and driving down workers’ wages to the point where they can’t afford to buy what food there is.
No war but the class war. Lenin’s thesis on the complete carve-up of the world’s territories was less of a prediction than a polemic against those “socialists” who delivered millions of working people to the slaughter by backing their own bourgeoisie. He held firmly to the Marxist position that things will not get that far because we, the working people of the world, will not permit it. Imperialist war is the internationalisation of the everyday class war we all experience at the hands of bosses, police and politicians. The Bush regime’s slogan “War on Terror” actually reflects this. We are defined as the terrorists, those who resist the carve-up of the planet. That’s why so-called anti-terror laws are uniformly draconian. They are not aimed at “foreign” jihadists — they’re aimed at us. Marxists have always said that the main enemy is at home. Hell, the enemy knows who its opponents are — that’s what WorkChoices is about!
It follows that we have to look beyond the veil of nationalism. The Cuban workers organising armed defence of their apartment blocks, the Palestinian youth defending their homes with rocks and slingshots, the Iraqi workers defending their oilfields with small arms are all holding out against the same enemy. Imperialism in Afghanistan, Iraq and across the Pacific carries an Australian gun and speaks with an Australian accent. That’s no coincidence. It’s just the local capitalists staking their own territorial claim. The advent of the imperialist era, with its non-stop murderous violence means that we have to fight the class war on two fronts: at home, by sweeping capitalism off the continent, and globally, by solidarising with others fighting against our common oppressors. We must rebuild the international socialist movement so disastrously split in 1914. That means joining a revolutionary organisation and making it happen. If we are to have peace in the 21st century, we’ll have to fight for it.