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The socialist alternative to a system of violence and poverty
A world without war

January 17, 2003 | Page 11

PAUL D'AMATO shows why war and violence are built into the fabric of the capitalist system--and how socialism offers the vision of a world without war.

THE HISTORIAN Eric Hobsbawm calculates that 187 million people have died from wars in the last century. That's more than the total world population a thousand years ago--and about a tenth of the world population at the beginning of the last 100 years.

If U.S. rulers get their way, the 21st century promises similar, if not worse, barbarism. Given this grim picture, it's tempting to view war as something that is inherent in human nature--something that we're "hard-wired" to do.

This concept of humans as natural aggressors has been reinforced by various pseudo-scientific studies that invariably compare humans to other animals in order to show that we are innately aggressive.

The ideas of "social Darwinism"--that the most "fit" humans rise to the top and the least "fit" sink to the bottom--have long been a justification for oppression and inequality. According to this view, human beings "naturally" divide up into rich and poor, "naturally" fight one another and "naturally" lead to a hierarchy of intelligence based on class and race. So any attempt to create a world free of inequality, poverty and war must be doomed to failure.

But this view doesn't hold up. Though we humans are part of the animal world, we are also distinct from it. "From any dominance of biologically or inherited predetermined reactions that may prevail in the behavior of other animals," writes left-wing anthropologist Ashley Montagu, "man has moved into a zone of adaptation in which his behavior is dominated by learned responses." For humans, therefore, our biology isn't our destiny. Whereas the nature of animals is determined by their physical and biological evolution, human nature is malleable and changing.

So, for example, while there is certainly evidence of war in some pre-class societies, the character of warfare was very different. The early New England colonist Roger Williams, for example, noted that among the Narragansett Indians, fighting was "farre lesse bloudy and devouring than the cruell Warres of Europe."

Among the Plains Indians, war parties tried to avoid combat that resulted in death, and "counting coup"--touching an enemy's body with a hand or a special stick--ranked as a higher deed than killing someone. And for 5,000 years, prior to the rise of agriculture, there is no evidence that the hunter-gatherer Anasazi culture of the southwestern U.S. engaged in any warfare at all.

The development of systematic warfare is connected with the rise of class society--the brief period in the existence of humans in which a minority has ruled over the majority. With the rise of class society, we find the emergence of the state--and of special armed forces whose purpose is both to protect the position of the minority, as well as to pillage the wealth produced in other societies.

Modern warfare, then, has economic rather than biological roots. But even the wars of conquest by Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire pale in comparison to the violence of warfare as it has developed under capitalism.

Capitalism is founded on the competitive rivalry for markets and profits. It began to emerge as an economic system in the 15th and 16th centuries, and war was a key component from the beginning--war for territory, war for slaves, war for resources.

In fact, the accumulation of capital necessary to fuel the development of industrial capitalism in Europe came from the plunder of the Americas and Africa--especially from the development of the slave trade.

"The discovery of gold and silver in America," wrote Karl Marx, "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 a preserve for the commercial hunting of Black skins are all things that characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production." Thus, it was for the opportunity to enslave and exploit the peoples and resources of the world that the newly emerging European powers built large navies to fight each other.

This competition on a world scale grew more intense as industrial capitalism emerged. Capitalism creates an integrated world economy. But that integration doesn't lead to peaceful relations between states. On the contrary, it has led to continual competition over who will be the world's dominant power.

We no longer have a world divided between many contending military powers, as in the early 20th century, nor a Cold War world divided between two superpowers, like what followed the Second World War. The U.S. is the sole "hyperpower" today--dominant both economically and militarily over its rivals.

The logic of imperialist rivalry, however, compels the U.S. ruling class to find ways to continually demonstrate its dominance--lest there be any challengers to its informal empire. That's why this has not been an era of peace.

War isn't "hard-wired" into our brains, but it is "hard-wired" into capitalism. So the continued existence of war is bound up with the existence of capitalism itself. It can't be abolished unless the class interests that it rests on are abolished.

Most "solutions" for ending war, unfortunately, assume the opposite--that war can be excised like a cancer, while the world remains divided between capitalists and workers, and between dominant and weak nations.

As historian John Keegan explains in the conclusion of his book A History of Warfare, "Politics must continue; war cannot. That is not to say that the role of the warrior is over. The world community needs, more than it has ever done, skillful and disciplined warriors who are ready to put themselves at the service of its authority."

Leaving aside the absurd contradiction of armed soldiers waging war to prevent war, Keegan's idea of ending war is for the world's dominant powers--for they are the ones who control the "world community"--to come together and militarily impose peace.

But war is a product of the rivalry between these very powers. That's why war and politics can't be separated. So long as "politics" continues--that is, so long as the world remains divided between exploiting dominant classes whose policies are aimed at gaining and controlling the maximum plunder--war will remain with us.

The only source of genuine internationalism is the international working class. War won't be ended until the majority in society rise up, seize control of the wealth that they create and take the weapons from the hands of ruling classes that thrive on plunder. Only then will we be able to relegate the weapons of war to the museum where they belong.

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