By Rob Ferguson
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The killing fields of capitalism

This article is over 6 years, 4 months old
How should we define mass violence, such as that against the Rohingya? Rob Ferguson raises questions about the terms ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Issue 429

Since August over half a million Rohingya refugees have fled their homes and villages in Rakhine state in Myanmar. Villages, homes and mosques have been put to the torch in what the military term “clearance operations”. Thousands of civilians, including children, have been brutally killed and many tortured and raped.

The United Nations describes the Rohingya as “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”. In two months half the pre-2015 Rohingya population of 1.1 to 1.3 million have been forced from their homes; over 1 million Rohingya have fled Myanmar since the 1970s.

The Rohingya crisis is the latest horrific example of mass violence directed against a population based on their ethnicity, nationality, race or religion now referred to as “ethnic cleansing”. How are we to explain such explosions of violence, repression and mass killing?

Most commentary assumes, even when acknowledging the historical roots of such violence, that such divisions are somehow an inevitable consequence of antagonisms based on ethnic and religious difference. For socialists, however, the task is to examine the roots of such violence within capitalism itself.

The terms “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are both recently coined. The term genocide dates from the end of the Second World War. “Ethnic cleansing” first came into widespread use during the Balkans war of the 1990s. They have, however, gained widely recognised currency as terms that describe a horrific feature of modern history.

“Ethnic cleansing” is generally understood to refer to the use of mass violence against a civilian population in order to seize territory, “genocide” to refer to the attempt to physically destroy a population in whole or in part. Nonetheless, the use and definition of both terms is contested. The UN definition for example does not include mass killing as a necessary condition of “genocide”. Both “ethnic cleansing” and “genocide” are sometimes used to describe the same events. There are also debates as to whether artificial famines should be considered genocidal, or whether genocide can include mass killings of political opponents.

If definition is an issue, the use and application of these terms is often framed by considerations beyond the nature and character of such atrocities themselves. Governments and states can be quick to acknowledge atrocities by a rival while ignoring those committed by themselves or an ally. The US and Britain go to great lengths to identify atrocities when they need to justify military intervention. They ignored Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Al-Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the 1980s when they supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Later they cynically invoked it as part justification for the Iraq invasion.


We can see the same cynicism in how history is treated. Some British historians are attempting to portray the British Empire as ultimately benevolent, despite the ruin, death and conflict it brought. The state of Israel refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide of 1915 because it does not wish to offend Turkey, a key ally in the region.

It is also sometimes possible to become entangled in difficulties ourselves. In wishing to highlight particular sufferings, there can be a tendency to weigh one atrocity against another in ways that divide or separate victims. However, for socialists, it is important to draw universal lessons about the system in which we live from these horrors.

Massacres and mass killings of civilians in wars of religion and conquest have marked the history of class societies. However, it is with the dawn of the capitalist system that we see the rise of nation states as we understand them today, sharing common languages and “culture”. The very forging of such nation states involved the suppression of minorities, their cultures, religions, languages and dialects, often violently.

Karl Marx described the emergence of capitalism “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt”. The slave trade, that consumed the lives of an estimated 12 million black Africans, fuelled the industrial revolution. Settler-colonialism opened up the vast resources of the Americas and the Antipodes on the back of genocide of their indigenous peoples.

As the capitalist system developed, competition between capitals and states gave rise to what Marxists call “imperialism”. This is not simply a matter of major powers exerting military might and domination over others but a system of economic and military competition that encompasses all states. It is from such an understanding of the world system that we need to examine how forms of violence such as ethnic cleansing and genocide emerge.

The ethnic cleansing that ravaged the former Yugoslavia was the first time mainland Europe had seen such mass violence and terror since 1945. The names of towns now riven by war and ethnic violence had been prime destinations on the pages of travel brochures.

However, since the 1970s alone the victims of ethnic cleansing and genocide constitute a very long list. They include the Vietnamese “boat people” — the ethnic Chinese driven from Vietnam; millions of Bengalis, driven out by the Pakistan military in Bangladesh during the 1971 war; the Cambodian genocide under Pol Pot; the Kurdish population of northern Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s “Al-Anfal” campaign; the slaughter of Tutsis by the Hutu regime in Rwanda; the African population of Darfur in Sudan and Shia, Sunni and Kurds, expelled from their neighbourhoods and regions by rival militias in the aftermath of the Iraq war.

As many of these examples illustrate, wars between states and imperialist conquests have often acted as engines of ethnic slaughter.

During the Russo-Turkish wars of the 19th century the Tsars launched campaigns of extinction against the Circassians and other Muslim peoples. Hundreds of thousands fled to the Ottoman Empire, only to flee again after the Ottoman defeat in the Balkan Wars of 1912–13.

The First World War was triggered by conflicts in the ethnically mixed Balkans. In 1915 the rulers of the Ottoman Empire embarked on the forced deportations and ethnic cleansing of the Armenian population, culminating in genocide.


After the collapse of the German, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1918, new nation states emerged from the ruins. They all included significant national minorities and mixed national groups. The victorious powers insisted on treaties that guaranteed rights and freedoms to minority populations. This was not out of concern with their fate but fear of further instability and conflict after the catastrophe of war.

The treaties remained a dead letter. Greece and Turkey embarked on an “exchange of populations” involving 2 million people, with Muslims expelled from Greek territory and Orthodox Christians expelled from Turkey. The compulsory “exchange” was promoted and supervised by the League of Nations. After the First World War many European states laid claims to each other’s territory on the basis of populations that spanned across borders; these claims then became an engine of militarism in the Second World War.

The Holocaust was the most systematic, industrialised genocide of modern times. The extermination of 6 million Jews was an attempt by the Nazis to wipe out every Jew in Europe. Millions of Poles, Slavs, Roma and others were killed purely on racial grounds.

Unlike the settler-colonial genocides the Nazi Holocaust was driven by ideology, not the seizure of territory. The percentage of Europe’s Jewish population slaughtered exceeded the death toll of other populations many times over, with the partial exception of the Roma. This is not to say there was no connection between the Final Solution and the millions of other victims, quite the contrary. The Nazis believed that their utopia could only be achieved by the destruction of “Jewish power”; this belief contributed to the Nazis’ determination to wage a war of conquest.

It is important to recognise the unique character of the Holocaust, not least because far-right and fascist organisations are once more on the rise. Yet the same forces of nationalism, racism and imperialism that give rise to the horrors we have discussed here also drove the Holocaust. These events are in this sense therefore all inextricably connected.

This is why it is a mistake to set the suffering of one set of victims against another. Right wing governments in Eastern Europe are now systematically relativising or downplaying the Holocaust by highlighting other wartime deaths. This is in order to rehabilitate the war criminals and Nazi collaborators of the pre-war regimes while promoting racist and Islamophobic hate of refugees and migrants today.

Some supporters of Israel justify the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians on the basis that Jews have a higher claim to territory to call their own because of the Nazi genocide. This sometimes fuels a counter-response that can downplay the significance of the Holocaust. Both should be resisted. The Holocaust stands as ultimate condemnation, not only of fascism but the capitalist system that gave it birth, a system that has generated ethnic cleansing and genocide from its inception.

The Holocaust was the most extreme of the many onslaughts on minority populations throughout the Second World War. Up to 2 million Poles were expelled from territories annexed by Germany. In the Soviet Union, Stalin ordered the deportation of the Crimean Tatars and the entire Muslim populations of Chechnya and Ingushetia to the gulag; up to 40 percent died of disease and malnutrition. At the end of the war millions of ethnic Germans were expelled from Eastern Europe.

The immediate post-war era saw 6 million Muslims expelled from India in 1947 to what became Pakistan; 5 million Hindus and Sikhs were ethnically cleansed in the reverse direction. In 1948 Zionist militias ethnically cleansed 700,000 Palestinians from their land in the nakba — the catastrophe.

Although “ethnic cleansing” is a generic term used to describe expulsions of populations, there are significant differences between the examples discussed here. The ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatars, the Armenians, and the Palestinians are examples of an oppressed population excluded from territory by force and terror by a powerful state, or in the case of Palestine, settler-colonial militias.


However, in the case of the “population exchange” between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s or Partition in 1947, rival ruling classes on both sides drove the expulsions and ethnic cleansing. This was also true, in essence, of the Balkan War during the 1990s. The ruling elites of Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and Bosnia sought to carve out territory against their rivals, and used ethnic divisions as a mechanism for doing so. Bosnian Muslims were the principal victims (although the single biggest expulsion was of 200,000 Serbs from Krajina); however, it was ruling class rivalry to seize control of territory for their new states that drove the conflict.

Such distinctions are important because our interest as socialists is to forge unity among workers of all nations against their rulers. This means fighting for unity with oppressed nations and minorities, particularly among workers of the oppressor nation. However, not all such conflicts are between oppressors and oppressed. We need to resist the argument that inter-communal violence is the inevitable consequence of deep-seated ethnic, cultural or religious antagonisms. This is used to justify accepting such divisions and institutionalising them.

The conflicts we have touched on here have to be understood within the context of an imperialist world order. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 were rooted in the rivalries that exploded on a world scale in 1914. The Greco-Turkish war and exchange of populations were a consequence of the rivalry for regional dominance after the war. The Balkan War of the 1990s was a result of European powers, particularly Germany, seeking dominance after the collapse of the Soviet Union; Germany encouraged Croatia and Slovenia to break away from the former Yugoslavia to advance the imperialist interests of the European Union. Nato fuelled the national divisions while the Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica were left at the mercy of Serb ethnic cleansers by the UN. The Nato campaign, under the banner of “humanitarian intervention”, then set a template for war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the case of the Rohingya, media and politicians focus on the Myanmar military regime and the failure of one-time human rights icon Aung San Suu Kyi to condemn the slaughter. Yet the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya is not to be explained solely in terms of the internal politics of Myanmar.

The Myanmar ruling class has, since independence, struggled to impose a national identity over a highly diverse society riven by the legacy of British colonial rule. However, today imperialist competition is exerting huge pressures on the regime. Myanmar has become a pivot for geo-political dominance in south east Asia; its territory offers China the possibility of a land and sea route that by-passes the Malacca Strait, dominated by US naval power. China, India and Myanmar are looking to develop Sittwe, on the coastline of Rakhine state, as a major port and energy pipeline route that could alter the geo-political map of the region. It is in this context that the regime is conducting its onslaught on the Rohingya in Rakhine state.

Conflicts have to be examined in the concrete. There are grounds for distinguishing between attempts to use mass violence to seize territory and the extinction of a population as an end in itself. That is not to place victims in a hierarchy of suffering. The genocide of native Americans was precisely a settler-colonial project to seize land. Ethnic cleansing and expulsion can bleed into genocide as in the case of the Armenians and can lead to episodes that take on a genocidal character such as Srebrenica.

Terminology is important; however, socialists’ prime concern is how to fight to end a world system that has generated the slaughter of entire populations from its inception.


For the liberal mainstream, crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing are aberrations, a departure from norms of society that modern state and global institutions are designed to roll back. Legalistic frameworks of international law are invoked as correctives but dispensed with when real interests are at stake. Yet, as the philosopher and social theorist Zygmunt Bauman has argued, such crimes against humanity are not a “failure” but a “product” of capitalist society.

The Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the nakba, the Balkan War, Partition, the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya are horrific episodes in a long history of racial and religious violence. The fate of the Palestinians, the Rohingya and other oppressed peoples should be cause for solidarity and common struggle for us all.

Yet they are also a consequence of a world divided into competing nation states, founded on notions of racial and ethnic superiority, dominated by imperialism and riven by crisis. The struggle to end the specific suffering of oppressed peoples has to be part of a wider revolutionary struggle for a totally different society, a society of international solidarity and true humanity.

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