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How can we stop wars?

July 12, 2002 | Pages 6 amd 7

HUMANKIND IS naturally aggressive, naturally territorial--and naturally warlike. You can find this claim in all sorts of places--in school textbooks and nonfiction bestsellers, in newspapers and throughout the media. In effect, we're told that people are programmed by their genetic makeup to go to war. But is this "common sense" belief true?

In this special feature, Socialist Worker columnist PAUL D'AMATO, whose "The Meaning of Marxism" columns appear every other issue, shows why the claim that humans are naturally warlike lets the real culprits off the hook--and he explains how socialism would eliminate the horror of warfare forever.

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IT HAS become common currency--especially during the period of the last two decades, as mainstream ideas shifted to the right--to view human behavior as biologically innate. People make war because they're human--and therefore warlike--goes the claim.

These fashionable ideas, though continually offered as fact, have no foundation in any science. They are, in fact, ideological inventions that help bolster the status quo--alongside ideas like "the poor are poor because they don't try hard enough."

As the late left-wing biologist Stephen J. Gould wrote, "How satisfying it is to fob off the responsibility for war and violence upon our presumably carnivorous ancestors. How convenient to blame the poor and the hungry for their own condition--lest we be forced to blame our economic system or our government for an abject failure to secure a decent life for all people."

Search as they may, biologists will never find a war gene--because violence isn't innate to humans. For every example of "aggression" in human behavior, we can also find examples of peaceful cooperation and sharing.

And if human beings are naturally warlike, one wonders why it's necessary for governments to take young men going into the military and put them through a rigorous retraining to make them capable of systematically killing other humans.

The idea that humans have a natural propensity to war is hardly an explanation, any more than the idea that humans naturally try to enslave each other. It's easier to debunk the idea that slavery is natural--after all, slavery was abolished--but war is sadly still with us. But there was a time when defenders of the status quo argued that slavery was natural--and therefore eternal.

In short, war can't be understood by looking at the biological or psychological characteristics of individuals. It can only be understood in a social and historical context.

The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes believed that war was humanity's natural inclination. Only a state, granted a monopoly of armed force, could intervene and enforce peace and prevent the constant "war of all against all." This has become the "common sense" view of warfare and the state--and, as Gould points out, a convenient ideological justification for the violence of ruling classes around the world.

But states haven't always existed. In fact, for most of human history, humans lived in gathering and hunting societies where there were no judges, police or armies, no slaveowners or slaves. From what we know of these societies, there was little or no warfare in some--for example, among the Shoshone in the Western U.S., hunters and gatherers who lived in small, nomadic bands in the desert.

What's more, the character of war in pre-class and pre-state societies was vastly different from modern warfare. There were no professional groups of fighters--no special separation between the fighters and ordinary people. Humans were hunters or fighters, as conditions demanded.

These early societies consisted of small bands of people, spread out over large territories, foraging for food and sharing it among themselves--with groups of families occasionally coming together to form larger bands in order to engage in larger activities like a collective hunt. In such circumstances, there were both elements of cooperation and sharing--within bands and between loose collections of bands--and elements of competition for scarce resources.

But scarcity is a relative term. Gathering wild plants and hunting wild animals yields only enough for small populations spread out over large territory. Any sudden depletion of either supply could create conditions for inter-band warfare--or, alternatively, the application of new technologies to increase the supply of food.

But war wasn't as prevalent in pre-class societies for the simple reason that such societies didn't produce surpluses over and above their subsistence needs. One group couldn't seize the wealth of another, because it had no way to carry or preserve it. Nor could one person be enslaved by another--for the simple reason that no one could be forced to produce wealth above and beyond their own subsistence needs.

This explains why in earlier forms of warfare, captives were either killed or simply adopted by the winning side, and war itself often consisted of skirmishes producing light casualties.

Only with the rise of agriculture and the production of a surplus--which in turn produced the first ruling classes (the keepers of the surplus)--did warfare become a systematic practice, engaged in by specially armed subjects of the ruler in order to gain extra surplus and slaves. The rulers in turn created loyalty among their armed retainers by giving out the spoils of conquest--land, slaves and goods.

But the struggle for the surplus didn't just produce wars between rival kingdoms. Class society also gave rise, inevitably, to violent conflict between social classes over how the surplus was used. From slave and peasant rebellions to uprisings of workers against capitalism, the whole history of humanity, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels put it, is one of class struggle, "now hidden, now open."

This is war of a very different kind--between oppressor and oppressed. "Force," wrote Engels, "plays yet another role in history, a revolutionary role…In the words of Marx, it is the midwife of very old society pregnant with a new one, it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilized political forms."

This system breeds violence

WARFARE ACCOMPANIED capitalism from its birth.

As Karl Marx wrote in Capital, "The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into the preserve for the commercial hunting of Black skins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production."

Vast wealth--what Marx called "primitive accumulation," which provided the springboard for modern industrial capitalism--was gained, in most instances, through outright plunder.

"In order to get possession of Malacca," wrote Marx, "the Dutch bribed the Portuguese governor. He let them into the town in 1641. They went straight to his house and assassinated him, so as to be able to 'abstain' from paying the 21,875 pounds which was the amount of his bribe. Wherever they set foot, devastation and depopulation followed. Banjuwangi, a province of Java, numbered over 80,000 inhabitants in 1750 and only 18,000 in 1811. That is peaceful commerce!"

From its inception, there has been an inseparable relationship between the economic and political in capitalism's development. As the new merchant capitalists in Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England became more powerful, they depended on their "home" governments to use force to extend their markets and sources of raw materials and goods. What we know today as the freewheeling pirates of the open seas were often employees of a state, hired to capture and plunder the booty stolen, extracted or extorted from some part of the world by another state.

With the rise of modern capitalist industry came the need for capitalists to expand their markets overseas on an even greater scale. First in Britain, with its new textile industry, and later in other parts of Europe and the U.S., countries began to develop manufacturing industries capable of producing for millions.

Capitalist production burst the bounds of the nation-state, producing increasing economic tensions between governments seeking overseas markets and colonies--a process that came to a head in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as the world became completely carved up between a handful of European powers. Modern imperialism--the rivalry between the world's most powerful states over control of the world's wealth--was born, and it has given us two world wars that have killed tens of millions, as well as countless smaller wars since.

As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote, "The way the governments propose to solve this problem of imperialism is not through the intelligent, organized cooperation of all of humanity's producers, but through the exploitation of the world's economic system by the capitalist class of the victorious country; which country is by this War to be transformed from a Great Power into the World Power."

There have certainly been changes in the character of imperialism since Trotsky wrote these words in 1915--direct colonial rule, for example, was almost completely abandoned after the Second World War. But in its essence, imperialism remains.

For example, in his new book, left-wing journalist John Pilger gives a chilling description of how the U.S. and Britain worked with the Indonesian military in the mid-1960s to overthrow a new government led by the nationalist leader Sukarno.

The CIA gave coup leaders a list of 5,000 people to murder. After the new dictator Suharto unleashed a slaughter that killed more than 500,000 people, corporate executives from the U.S., Britain and elsewhere met with the new regime to carve out various business concessions--and rewrite the country's laws to make them more "open" to foreign economic control.

As the Russian revolutionary Lenin--quoting the 18th century military writer Clausewitz--often said, "War is a mere continuation of policy by other means." That's why any discussion of war under capitalism has to go beyond questions like "who fired the first shot"--to the underlying causes of the war and the economic aims of the combatants.

For example, Japan fired the first shot in the Second World War, but that doesn't mean the war was one of Japanese aggression and American defense. It was a rivalry between Japan and the U.S. over the control of the Pacific region.

Today, the U.S. is seeking to ensure that it keeps its position as the "world power"--and deters all other challengers to this role. Bush's "war on terrorism" is driven not by some desire to make the world safe from terrorism, but to justify use of unrestrained "state terror" to pursue its own economic interests.

Fighting for an alternative

WE LIVE in a world of abundance in which there is no longer any justification for war. Given a different social order--one based on planned production and distribution for human need--it would be possible to provide everyone with a healthy existence without reverting to warfare or the exploitation of one by another.

But unlike pacifists, who believe that appeals to reason and moral persuasion can convince those who rule today to act differently, we understand that war is built into the fabric of capitalism. War will therefore only be abolished when the weapons of the world's ruling classes are wrested from their hands.

The war in Vietnam ended in a victory for the independence movement because of a combination of mass protests at home, armed resistance to the U.S. occupation in Vietnam itself--and the disintegration of the U.S. army as soldiers increasingly refused to fight.

Even more titanic battles will be necessary to get rid of capitalism and relegate the weapons of war to the museum where they belong. "As long as human labor power, and, consequently, life itself, remain articles of sale and purchase, of exploitation and robbery," wrote Trotsky, "the principle of the 'sacredness of human life' remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains. To make the individual sacred, we must destroy the social order which crucifies him."

Read more of Paul D'Amato's arguments for socialism in his biweekly column "The Meaning of Marxism," which will resume in the next issue of SW.

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