The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848.
And here let me emphasize the fact and it cannot be repeated too often that the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices, the working class who freely shed their blood and furnish the corpses, have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace. It is the ruling class that invariably does both. They alone declare war and they alone make peace. Yours not to reason why; Yours but to do and die. Eugene V. Debs, June 16, 1918, Canton, Ohio.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. Dr. Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967, Riverside Church, New York.
The Capitalist System is a War System
Marx and Engels declared in their famous 1848 manifesto that capitalism was a world system. Due to cutthroat competition every corporation, every bank, every small business would need to expand or it would be defeated in the marketplace by more successful competitors. Therefore, competition would lead to consolidation, a shift from many economic actors to declining numbers of them. This process of capital accumulation extended to the entire globe.
Lenin argued that by the dawn of the twentieth century, competition had led to monopolies within countries. States driven by monopolies expanded all across the globe. Competing states often engaged in war. Their expansion also generated resistance, rebellion and revolution around the world. In sum, the capitalist system by its very nature was a war system.
In addition, capitalist economies, particularly imperial powers such as the United States, required natural resources, cheap or slave labor, land, customers for products, and opportunities to invest accumulated profits in overseas corporations, and banks. In the post-World War II period, capitalist expansion even required the establishment of a global debt system that would increase the possibility of penetrating the economies of countries that incurred debts.
The realities that Marx identified in the nineteenth century are relevant today in two ways. First, given technological advances, what economists call neoliberal globalization is the logical extension of his insight that capitalism needs to “establish connections everywhere.”
Second, given episodes of resistance to capitalist expansion, conflict and violence in the global system are likely to occur from time to time among capitalist states (each seeking to enhance their own monopolies), between capitalist states and emerging socialist states that reject the very premises of capitalist economics, and between capitalist states and marginalized people who rebel against capitalist/imperialist intrusion.
In the twentieth century hundreds of wars and covert interventions resulted in deaths exceeding 100 million people. Between 1945 and 1995 the United States alone was involved in wars, civil conflicts, and covert operations that cost more than 10 million deaths. Most of this violence was justified as a response to a demonic Soviet Union and “international communism” threatening “the free world.” The defense of the “free world” usually was fought out in the Global South. In fact, in the twentieth century the vast majority of victims of the capitalist war system were people of color, primarily non-combatants. And adding to the direct human cost have been the devastation of the land, the extraction of basic resources, and the destruction of viable communities and self-sustaining social systems.
Impacts of the Capitalist War System in Imperial States
Foreign policy has always been inextricably connected to the struggles for social and economic justice; including worker and human rights. And, as a consequence, foreign policy has always been used as a tool to distract, divide, and cloud the consciousness of working people everywhere. Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party and four-time candidate for president of the United States, was jailed for his speech in Canton, Ohio decrying United States participation in World War I because of its profoundly negative consequences for the working class at home.
Debs pointed out that American “democracy” allowed no real opportunity for workers, the people who fought its wars, to determine whether to go to war or not. Workers were not allowed to hear and read all about the consequences of military participation. Before and during World War I, the United States government created a propaganda arm, The Committee on Public Information, to disseminate information to the citizenry promoting the United States entry into the war in Europe. Opponents of the war, such as Debs, were silenced. It was during the war that the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia and began to establish an alternative to the capitalist war system. President Wilson and his Secretary of State Robert Lansing warned of the danger of this threat to “democracy” and “freedom.”
As Debs implied, the capitalist war system needed impressionable military recruits to fight the wars in the name of a higher good while banks and corporations expanded their presence on a worldwide basis. But the capitalist war system which recruited foot soldiers also required the accumulation of money capital to pay for the wars and the capacity to develop “connections everywhere.” And after the second world war, during the Cold War, trillions of dollars have been wasted on the establishment of a worldwide network of military bases and outposts; troop deployments; space, drone, aircraft, and nuclear technologies; and a security apparatus that has its electronic and personnel tentacles in virtually every other country.
In addition, the development of a military capability to maintain and expand the capitalist system became a profitable business in its own right. What President Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” is a dense network of profitable connections between huge corporations, banks, universities, think tanks, and manufacturing facilities in virtually every city, town, state, and most importantly, Congressional District. The United States after World War II created what Andrew Bacevich, international historian, called a “permanent war economy.”
Economic Consequences of the Capitalist/War System
Dr. Martin Luther King, in his famous speech at Riverside Church in New York City, spoke of the devastating consequences of the Vietnam War on the Vietnamese people and the poor and oppressed at home. To him, the carnage of war not only destroyed the targets of war (their economies, their land, their cultures) but the costs also misallocated the resources of the nation-states which initiated wars.
Every health and welfare provision of the government, local, state, and federal, was limited by resources allocated for the war system. Health care, education, transportation, jobs, wages, campaigns to address enduring problems of racism, sexism, homophobia, environmental revitalization, and non-war related scientific and technological research were reduced almost in direct proportion to rising military expenditures. Over half the US federal budget goes to military spending past and current. And the irony is that the money that is extracted from the vast majority of the population of the United States goes to military budgets that enhance the profits of the less than one percent of the population who profit from the war system as it exists.
“I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.” Since 1967 when he made that speech, Dr. King would surely have added a long list of other wars to the Vietnam case: wars in Central America and South America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. and the more than 1,000 bases and outposts where US troops or hired contractors are fighting wars on behalf of capitalist expansion. Meanwhile the gaps between rich and poor people on a worldwide basis have increased dramatically with some twenty percent of the world’s population living below World Bank defined poverty lines.
The Meaning of the Capitalist/War System for Today’s Progressive Movements: Bringing the Peace Movement Back In
Paradoxically, the left and progressive forces in the United States are intuitively aware of the points long ago proclaimed by Marx, Debs, and King. Libraries are full of analyses and data that corroborate the basic arguments made above. But the recent resurgence of a new socialist left and an energized progressive majority, have not developed analyses and programs that make the necessary connections between capitalism and human misery at home and the war system abroad.
First, discourse on the left has been derailed by an overzealous concentration on alleged connections between Russia and the outcome of the US election. Mountains of hyperbolic allegations about the alleged source of evil, Vladimir Putin, have led the media (and many progressives) to channel foreign policy discussion away from military budgets, bombings of Syria, sending more troops to Afghanistan, covert operations in Latin America, reversing steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba, to a renewed Cold War with the successor state to the Soviet Union.
Second, many grassroots activists, seeing the need to target their energies to local and state politics, and single issues nationally, have taken the view that adding foreign policy to the agenda, complicates movement building. In fact, the exciting campaign of Bernie Sanders also dealt only marginally with foreign policy. And Sanders mostly spoke of foreign policy when his opponents, including the Hillary Clinton campaign, raised questions about his visits to Nicaragua and Cuba in the 1980s. In retrospect, it seems obvious that progressives should link the possibility of a financially sustainable health care system or free tuition for college to reductions in military spending.
Third, progressives have tactically avoided pressing and necessary conversations about the past and present, and how a progressive United States government could participate in the future international system. For example:
There needs to be a serious discussion of twentieth century socialism: both governments and movements. Sectors of the left in the United States have been unwilling to have a textured analysis of the strengths as well as the weaknesses of socialist regimes, what some refer to as “really existing socialism,” and how distortions of those systems were connected to US imperialism.
There needs to be a serious conversation about twenty-first century developments in Cuba, Vietnam, China, the state of Kerala in India, and what remains of the Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America. As long as such conversations are avoided, the progressive base will be diverted by the twentieth century trope about the “evils of communism.”
There needs to be detailed analyses of military spending. Much of that work is being done by the War Resisters League, The Cost of War Project, and others, but little of it finds its way into grassroots campaigns for progressive politicians or campaigns in support of single-payer health insurance.
Finally, there is a need to address important questions not often discussed. Two stand out: first the doctrine of the inevitability of war which cripples everyone’s political consciousness; and second, the celebration of grotesque violence in popular culture. These are not abstract issues that belong only in the classroom or the church sermon. They need to be highlighted. And the writings and speeches of Marx, Debs, and King would support the view that assumptions about the inevitability of war and the glories of violence are intimately connected to the capitalist/war system.
In short, the emerging socialist movements, the burgeoning progressive campaigns, and the peace movement must reconnect in fundamental ways: theoretically and practically. War, the preparation for war, and human misery everywhere are inextricably connected.