Socialism 101: Is war inherent to capitalism?

By Kevin McLoughlin

Virtually everyone supports the idea of ‘world peace’, yet today in 2022 there are nearly 40 different wars or conflicts ongoing. And with the Russian invasion of Ukraine the threat of nuclear war, and the annihilation of us all, is greater now than it has been for decades. But why is this so?

The fact is that despite what their propaganda says, war is inherent to capitalism because it is a system based on profit, competition and the constant need to expand, which inevitably comes at the expense of competitors – there can’t be peaceful coexistence. Any capitalist that wants to get ahead has to squeeze as much as possible from their workers – by working them harder and longer and paying them less. But they have to do so ahead of their capitalist rivals, to secure their share of the market or control of resources.

Now while capitalists may often have recourse to various underhanded acts against their rivals, they don’t engage in violent conflict against one another because the capitalist state has a monopoly on violence with its control of armed forces such as the police and army – it can arbitrate disputes between capitalists within the same state. However, capitalism is an international system and the market is global but divided between nations with their own capitalist states, which act to protect and where possible advance the interests of their own capitalist classes. The most powerful states exert their influence on the world stage as imperialist powers, dominating all others but competing with each other – as tensions continually ratchet up.  

This competition between nation states representing rival capitalist classes is the ultimate source of the wars, which vary in scale and intensity, that plague our world. 

Of course war is also big business. Wars are waged not for great ideals, but for land and resources, e.g. the war in Iraq was about access to oil for US companies, not Saddam Hussein’s brutality. Almost $2 trillion is now spent annually on ‘defence’, an amount that has risen each year for the last eight years and is now expected to increase dramatically. Even at the height of the pandemic economic crash in 2020, the 100 biggest arms companies reached record sales of $531 billion

Aside from private armaments companies themselves, the only interests served by this defence spending are those of the capitalists classes – in protecting their property from foreign competitors, but also from their own working classes, who have no interest whatsoever in any capitalist war. In fact the working class is the sure loser in any such war, regardless of the outcome. 

That’s why socialists are the most consistent opponents of imperialist war. At the same time we are not pacifists. Pacifism, regardless of how genuine, isn’t really an appropriate or practical response to war because, if attacked, people have a right to defend themselves, and organised resistance of the working class to war can be powerful. Seeking peace by hoping to convince capitalist warmongers to renounce violence in their pursuit of profits and power is futile.

We oppose imperialist wars, because none of the major powers – the US, the EU, the UK, China or Russia – offer anything but continued inequality, oppression, environmental destruction and war. The nationalism they promote to whip up support for their adventures must be rejected. Any notion that we should back our rulers in wars against people in other countries is a ruse to deflect from the class war they are waging against us. The Communist Manifesto said it best: “Workers of all countries, unite!” 

International working-class struggle and solidarity have always been the most vital weapons in the arsenal of the anti-war movement. And a socialist world, based on real democracy and public ownership and planning of the economy, is the only way to win world peace.

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How capitalism works

Capitalism is based on the private ownership of production - the firms, workplaces and finance system. Under capitalism everything is a commodity that can be bought and sold. Basic necessities like food, water, clothing and housing all must be paid for and are a source of profit to the bosses or capitalist class - sold for more than they cost to produce or supply.