In the 20 years running up to the First World War there were approximately 100 binding agreements between the Great Powers promising peaceful coexistence. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague was set up in 1899 “with the object of seeking the most objective means of ensuring to all peoples the benefits of a real and lasting peace, and above all, of limiting the progressive development of existing armaments”. This was at the behest of the peace-loving Tsar Nicholas II of Russia (nickname: Bloody Nicholas).
It is fairly easy to understand why the ruler of a lesser power would want to stem an arms race he knew he couldn’t win. But there was a wider, less cynical belief that somehow war could be avoided by convincing the ruling classes of Europe to behave differently. After all, war, so destructive of people and property, is surely not in the interests of the system?
The left wing version of this notion was developed by Karl Kautsky, a leading member of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), as the First World War was beginning. Kautsky argued that it was only a section of capitalism that benefited from war — finance capitalists, whose profits relied on export of capital and thus required ever-expanding empires, and arms manufacturers, who relied on war and the threat of war for their profits.
This minority of the capitalist class, according to Kautsky, had managed to convince the majority of industrial capitalists that they could only defend their interests in the colonies — raw materials and labour — through war and empire-building. In fact, said Kautsky, the capitalists of different nations could agree peacefully to divide up the world and exploit it.
He wrote in Imperialism and the War (1914), “There is no economic necessity for the continuation of the great competition in the production of armaments after the close of the present war. At best such a continuation would serve the interests of only a few capitalist groups. On the contrary capitalist industry is threatened by the conflicts between the various governments. Every far-sighted capitalist must call out to his associates: Capitalists of all lands unite!”
Kautsky was for peace, but he believed there could be a capitalist peace — that imperialism was just one of several options for the system.
His Russian contemporaries, Lenin and Bukharin, strongly challenged this idea. They developed the classic Marxist theory of imperialism, centrally in Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism and Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy. They argued that military competition for markets between capitalist nations is an inevitable development of peaceful competition. As the system aged it changed — the small units of capital characteristic of early capitalism swallow each other up into larger and fewer concerns and monopolies.
At this stage of development, Bukharin argued, economics is organisationally fused with politics. The sheer scale of production in the industrialising nations could no longer be contained within the geographical boundaries of the state and had to reach out beyond those limits. The interests of these large firms are increasingly merged with the state — and it backs them up politically and militarily in the name of the national interest. It builds up armies and weapons, invades countries where necessary to grab resources or to safeguard trade routes and markets, establishes spheres of influence and alliances — and it will go to war against other powers to defend any of these things.
Each war ends in a settlement, a new division of the world between the powers, but these agreements never hold. Capitalism is a system locked into relentless production, and this develops unevenly — some capitalist states will grow more quickly than others, and demand a re-division of the world to favour them.
This analysis of imperialism as “the method of competition between state capitalist trusts” was true of the First World War, and the 1920s and 1930s confirmed it at a new level. The unprecedented economic crisis of the period drove each national capital to turn to increasing degrees of state intervention and direction along with protectionism and closed trading blocks.
Nazi Germany was an extreme example of a state-directed economy in which the needs of individual capitalists were subordinated to the needs of national capital. Production was geared towards the military with the aim of breaking into nearby markets currently closed to it. As in the First World War, German capital took a gamble that, as a latecomer to the imperialist table, it could grab the markets it needed to compete with more established powers.
Churchill meets Stalin
The victory of the Allies over Nazi Germany paved the way for a new re-division of the world. Even before the Second World War was over, in October 1944, Churchill famously went to Russia to meet Stalin and proposed a post-war division of Europe between the Allies, hurriedly scribbled out on a note: “Romania: Russia 90% others 10%; Greece: Britain 90% Russia 10%; Yugoslavia 50-50…” Stalin marked the page with a tick and the agreement was made. But despite this, for the next 45 years the world would be locked into the Cold War, with the new great powers grating against each other in a new formation.
Though they had been allies in the Second World War, Russia and the US now took opposing sides, and though Churchill had carried the note to Stalin, Britain was already losing its position in the global hierarchy. The American H-bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima were as much about asserting US dominance as smashing the Japanese regime. They were not just a warning to Stalin, but to Britain, France and Germany too.
The shadow of the bomb hung heavy over the world in the immediate post-war years, and the fact that all-out nuclear war didn’t happen does not mean that the threat wasn’t real. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 was the first time in history that the US military went to DEFCON 2. It was a moment of real brinkmanship and, even though the US had many more nuclear warheads than Russia, both had more than enough to obliterate each other several times over.
The impact on society was huge. A whole number of films from the time testify to how close the possibility of annihilation felt. The War Game, a 1965 BBC film, told of a conventional war that escalated to nuclear confrontation; 1964’s Dr Strangelove and Fail-Safe both tell of unintended missile launches that lead to all-out nuclear war; The Bedford Incident (1965) ends with blistering celluloid as a nuclear submarine explodes; while Ladybug, Ladybug (1963) examines the distorting fear of living in a world so utterly out of our control.
This sense of alienation is important. As Lenin, and Marx before him, pointed out, the capitalists are trapped by the system as much as workers are. Each capitalist or group of capitalists represented in a state is locked into competitive accumulation versus other capitalists. Any capitalist who does not exploit in order to accumulate will be driven out of business by others. This relentless drive leads to economic crises, leaving some capitalists bankrupt while others benefit, while in the longer term the whole system tends towards stagnation and social crisis.
The consequences of this endless race are dire. It is clear today, for example, how such competitive accumulation is causing catastrophic climate change with unprecedented speed.
No individual capitalist controls the system and neither are they able to group together with all the other capitalists in what Kautsky called a “super-imperialism” to peacefully and rationally run the world. Any capitalist who tries to understand the destructive dynamic and change their behaviour would, again, be driven out of business by their competitors. As long as they stay in the game they benefit from it in wealth and power. So they tend to identify with their system, call it civilisation, and fight to defend it.
So while the notion of nuclear world war is in many ways completely irrational — missile madness — it also flows completely logically out of the level of development of capitalism in the 20th century. As Lenin wrote in 1917, “The capitalists partition the world, not out of personal malice, but because the degree of concentration which has been reached forces them to adopt this method in order to get profits.” Since the end of the Second World War this partitioning and repartitioning has been enforced through the threat of nuclear force among other things.
The fight against war
It is important to understand the systemic causes of war because it leads to particular conclusions about how to campaign against and how to end war. In the 1950s and 1960s a mass movement against nuclear weapons grew up, led by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). It involved hundreds of thousands of people in marches, protests, meetings and debates. “Ban the bomb” is a slogan that any decent human being can get behind, and they did. But it also suggests a particular kind of politics, namely that we can have capitalism without the bomb, if only we can convince a broad enough layer of society to reject it and politicians to legislate against it.
Socialists argued that the bomb is a class issue. We have to be part of peace and anti-war movements and build them. But we also have to do that by agitating for an anti-war, anti-imperialist position among workers who may not currently reject war — because it is they who have an interest in overthrowing the whole system. This is precisely what socialist John Maclean did in Glasgow’s Clydeside during the First World War.
The threat of nuclear war receded after Cuba and up until the “New Cold War” of the early 1980s. There were still wars, notably in Korea and Vietnam, and there were tensions within the blocs — China versus Russia, Western Europe failing to back the US in Vietnam. But the end of the world feeling dissipated. This was not because of any change of heart from the ruling classes, but because the post-war economic boom allowed all sides to expand without treading on each other too badly.
The US was able to win the Cold War in the end because it forced Russia into a new arms race in the 1980s, which bankrupted it. American capitalism used its military might to attempt to force a new division of the world. It wanted to defeat the Russian empire in order to stop it from grabbing more resources — e.g. West Germany with its skilled workforce and highly developed industries — and to extend its own influence further east, through expanding Nato. The US also sought to exert its influence over Western Europe and bring France and West Germany into line.
But Russia was also locked into this battle. It had to attempt to keep up with the West in order to defend its own markets and resources — even if the price was risking internal unrest as people’s living standards were driven down while all resources were poured into new missiles systems.
The Cold War was not a clash of ideologies, but a struggle between different competing sections of international capitalism. Military conflict can, of course, take on its own logic beyond the immediate parameters of economic competition, but the economic base always reasserts itself. It is the fundamental defining factor.
After the Cold War
Since the end of the Cold War we have seen new missile defence systems put in place, such as George W Bush’s “Son of Star Wars” programme, which can nuke us from outer space. We’ve seen the neocons (who believed Nixon’s problem in Vietnam was his unwillingness to use nuclear weapons) running the US and instigating the “war on terror”. It seems likely that they were willing to use nuclear weapons against Iran — but were prevented by the massive worldwide movement against war in Iraq.
We have seen the US-backed settler state in the Middle East, Israel, attack Palestine again and again, and we have seen Nato’s rivalry with Russia played out once again in Ukraine. President Obama, though he seemed so different from George W, has been driven to engage in numerous wars in his six years in office.
For the most part, wars since 1945 have not played out in capitalism’s heartlands; it has been millions of people in poorer parts of the globe that have suffered the most. In part this is because of the growing interpenetration of the wealthiest parts of capitalism — Europe, the US and East Asia. Most capitalists will avoid destroying their own capital invested in other states if possible. Nonetheless, the logic of imperialism remains and will always drive capitalists to clash with each other.
This does not mean that cataclysmic nuclear world war is inevitable, but it does mean that the only way to ensure against it permanently is to do all we can to foster working class self-emancipation. This was the conclusion Lenin’s theory of imperialism led to — and it was the reality of what the Bolsheviks did in Russia during the First World War. They built an anti-imperialist movement from the factory floor up — and it ended the war on the Eastern Front.
Lenin understood that any capitalist “peace” is only temporary. Permanent peace can only be won through revolution.
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