June­–July 2015        

War in human history

Dáithí Mac an Mháistir

War has been a recurring feature of human social relations for the last ten thousand years, and, just as it has done throughout history, it continues to affect and shape our contemporary world in many and profound ways.
     Historically for Marxists the point, of course, has been not just to interpret the world but also to change it. However, neither interpreting nor changing the world is possible without first understanding the nature, origins and purpose of war.
     The value of Marxism as a discipline is that it offers an “integrating perspective on social relations.” For Marxists, therefore, the study of war is intimately related to the study of society as a whole. Marxists view war as it has variously manifested itself throughout history, not as something either random or innate to humankind but rather as reflecting the historical development of economic and social relations. Just as it was for Clausewitz, for Marxists too war is a continuation of politics by other means.
     To be more precise, war at its root is at one and the same time a continuation, extension and reflection of class politics. For Lenin, war was not only a continuation of politics but also “the epitome of politics.” The whole Marxist theory of history, or the materialist conception of history, is predicated on the central role that conflict plays in the transition from one epoch to the next, a point Marx made in his inimitable style in Capital when he stated that “force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.”
     Siniša Malešević of UCD makes the same point in his paper Sociological Theory and Warfare.* He shows how it was warfare that was primarily responsible for transforming “the pre-modern world of empires, kingdoms, tribal confederacies and city states into modern day nation-states.” He goes on to state that
             nearly all decisive moments in history which gave birth to modernity . . . were profoundly violent events, which involved highly destructive and brutal practices: wars, revolutions, genocides and prolonged suffering. In other words, modernity as we know it would be inconceivable without the historical legacy of organised violence.
    It is because of the critical role played by war in much of the change that has happened in world history that Leon Trotsky would refer to it as “a great locomotive of history.”
     “The roots of modern war” (1898) by James Connolly is a short article from the Workers’ Republic. It is a concise summation of the Marxist position on the ultimate causes and purpose of war throughout history and is worth quoting at length here for this reason. Connolly refers to the Belgian economist Émile de Laveleye to the effect that “capitalism came into the world covered with blood and tears and dirt,” and he goes on to state how
             the Cabinets who rule the destinies of nations from the various capitals of Europe are but the tools of the moneyed interest. Their quarrels are not dictated by sentiments of national pride or honour, but by the avarice and lust of power on the part of the class to which they belong. The people who fight under their banners in the various armies or navies do indeed imagine they are fighting the battles of their own country, but in what country has it ever happened that the people have profited by foreign conquest? The influence which impels towards war today is the influence of capitalism. Every war now is a capitalist move for new markets, and it is a move capitalism must make or perish.
    From the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to the “war on terror,” from the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath to the “Islamic State,” conflict and wars are 21st-century facts. Vijay Prashad’s “Anatomy of the Islamic State” in the Marxist is explicit in attributing the rise of Islamic State not to religious motivation in the first instance but rather to the actions of imperialist powers. He contends that “IS’s existence is premised not so much on divine history as on the history of imperialism in West Asia.” The classic Marxist position, as enunciated by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, with regard to the conditions necessary for ending war is applied here by Prashad to IS: “Only if the social conditions that produced the IS—the inequality and the despair—are altered could it be truly vanquished.”
     These conditions hold true not only in the context of the Middle East but for the ending of conflict and war everywhere and for all time: it is only with the overthrow of capitalism and the introduction of socialism that the conditions in which humankind can finally come to peace with itself will flourish.

*Siniša Malešević, Sociological Theory and Warfare (Stockholm: Forsvarshogskolan, 2011).

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