1920s >> 1929 >> no-300-august-1929

Capitalism and War

When man’s control over nature was considerably less than at present, there was always the fear of thousands being laid low by famine and disease. The productive capacity and means of transport existing today have obviated the danger of famine; shortage in one part of the world being counterbalanced by abundance in other parts. And hygienic and medical knowledge enables man to check contagious disease in its early stages.

There remains, however, a fear which oppresses millions of people at the present time; the fear of war. The mechanical and chemical means of slaughter in existence today are so vast and terrifying that scarcely anyone can view the prospect of war between powerful nations without feelings of horror. In short it is not the natural elements that inspire the greatest fear, but man-made instruments of destruction.

The horror engendered by the contemplation of this danger gives rise to organisations with the abolition of war as their object.

So much has been written of late on the subject of peace and disarmament, and so much of it by people whose business it is, not to lay bare the actual causes of war, but rather to hide them ; and so much of it by well-meaning people who do not understand the causes, that it may be useful for the benefit of new readers to clarify the matter.

The first wars were fought between nomadic peoples in search of the means of subsistence, and as there did not exist any class division within the communities, the war was fought in the interest of the whole group, the spoils being enjoyed by all. With the rise of classes—which could not take place until it was possible for the producers to produce a surplus above their own needs —and the division of society into ruling and subject classes, wars were then waged in the interests of the rulers, and from that time onward have always been in the interests of the particular ruling class.

It is necessary to note that from the beginning wars had an economic cause, for it is the purpose of this article to show that all wars are at bottom the outcome of conflicting economic interests. A superficial knowledge of history, such as is imbibed at school, would lead one to think wars in the past have been due to bad rulers instead of good, or to the wickedness of foreigners, or maybe to religious differences ; that the last war was caused by the ambitions of the Kaiser, or by his habit of wearing his moustache at an angle of 45 degrees.

The crusades, in particular, are often alleged to have been fought because the Holy Land had fallen into the hands of the infidel Turk, the fact that they barred the trade routes to the East (the major cause) not being considered worthy of mention.

Under capitalism, production is carried on for profit, which profit is not realised by the capitalist until the articles are sold. As they cannot all be sold profitably inside the country of production, the surplus must be sold abroad.

When the capitalist nations came in contact with peoples in backward countries who did not welcome them as traders, they resorted to force of arms and forced their way into these countries. Obviously, this process has limits, and the big capitalist powers were bound to come into conflict over the division of the coveted areas.

When all the avenues of trickery, double-dealing, or “diplomacy,” have failed to bring about a satisfactory division, one side or the other plays its trump card—armed force—and the workers are called on to lay down their lives in the interests of their respective masters.

Modern capitalist powers stand little chance of waging war successfully without the support of practically the whole population ; for, apart from the huge armies engaged in the actual fighting, the arms and munitions have to be produced and transported, and the troops fed and clothed; smooth working is therefore essential.

This necessary support is forthcoming only because the workers do not realise their slave position, but believe they have interests in common with the capitalists ; this belief being assiduously fostered by the whole of the press and the professional politicians.

A typical instance may be given. Mr. Tillet, as chairman of the T.U.C., gave his views, along with prominent capitalists, in the Daily Herald of December 27, 1928, on the prospects of trade during 1929 :—

“If Britain is to recover her industrial prosperity and her lost markets, there must be courage, initiative and competence equal to the past.

Labour has its contribution to make and will respond, if invited. Trade Unionists as well as employers must move with the times in organisation and equipment, and catch the new spirit. I have no fear that the organised working-class movement, or its leaders will fail when the test comes.”

The Herald, of course, in its leading article comments favourably on Tillet’s views. Industrial prosperity could only be “recovered” by those who had formerly enjoyed it, and as the lot of the workers under capitalism has always been poverty, only the employers stand to recover anything, and it is precisely out of the struggle for markets, whether lost or newly discovered, that wars arise. Those who maintain that the workers have mutual interests with the employers in this struggle for markets should therefore maintain that it is to the workers’ benefit to engage in the wars arising therefrom, and such individuals, although they are fervent supporters of peace during peacetime, often become equally fervent recruiting agents in wartime, or, as Tillet puts it, they “move with the times.”

The Socialist attitude on this subject is clear and definite. Those who do not own the country cannot have it taken from them, and even a complete victory by one capitalist power over another, resulting in the complete subjugation of the vanquished state, would not benefit the workers of the victorious country, and would only mean a change of masters for the workers in the defeated country. The conditions of the workers in victorious Britain are—broadly speaking—similar to those obtaining in defeated Germany, whilst the capitalists of the allied countries have benefited at the expense of their fellow thieves in Germany.

When war broke out in 1914 other so-called working class parties were thrown off their balance and either supported the war or were divided on the subject. The Socialist Party alone pointed out the truth concerning the issues at stake and affirmed the unity of interests of the workers throughout the world and their antagonism of interests with the capitalists throughout the world.

There is a type of propaganda against war which is perfectly sincere but is the outcome of emotion rather than knowledge. This takes the form of drawing attention to the horrors of war, and such books as the recently published “All Quiet on the Western Front ” are regarded as excellent antiwar propaganda.

One can readily agree that modern war is a ghastly, horrifying, inglorious destruction of human life, but the mere realisation of this is not sufficient to prevent the workers from supporting war if they think they have an interest in doing so. Many went into the last war fully realising its horrible nature but not its sordid origin. Those who are swayed in one direction by emotion can be swayed in another direction if the emotional pressure brought to bear is sufficiently strong; and we know the power of the press to sway such people.

Then there are those who believe that it is the competition in armaments which is responsible for war, but a little thought should show them that this competition is itself an effect of a cause, and must continue so long as the cause remains.

The fact is that capitalism requires an armed force at its disposal for two reasons : to use against rival powers, and to use against the working class if they attempt to lay their hands on their masters’ property. The proposals of the Russian Government, therefore, for complete disarmament were fatuous nonsense equivalent to proposing to the capitalist powers that they commit suicide. All governments rely ultimately on armed might, the Soviet Government included.

The present writer recently heard a worker, unable to meet other criticisms, say “Well, at any rate, it must be admitted that the Labour Party is a peace party.” The idea behind such a statement is that wars are caused by the particular statesmen forming the government. This is entirely erroneous. No matter how much disposed towards peace a government may be, when the conditions are ripe for war the government is forced to take action in accordance with the interests of the ruling class, whether that government is labelled Conservative, Liberal, or Labour. So that even granting the Labour Party to be more in favour of settling international disputes by arbitration, it does not alter the fact that war is as likely to occur with “Labour” in the seats of power as it is with the Conservatives or Liberals there. In fact, if the Labour Party have the confidence of the workers to a greater extent than the other two parties it would be more convenient to the capitalist class to have a Labour Government to pave the way should war become inevitable from a capitalist standpoint.

Even if it were possible to abolish war within capitalism, capitalism would still remain, and it is the mission of the Socialist Party not to fight against particular features of the system, but against the system itself.

In conclusion, therefore, let us urge you not to waste your time with futile anti-war movements, but to join with us in working for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism, confident that with the ending of the system will end the danger of war resulting therefrom.

J. L.

(Socialist Standard, August 1929)

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