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.
Warsaw in ruins, 1945. Photo from Polish Press.
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.
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.
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
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.