WEAPONS ARE produced under capitalism on a mass scale, like in these factories during the First World War


Why is there so much killing?

WAR AND killing have been a constant feature of the 20th century. But does this history mean that human beings are inevitably warlike? Is it possible to live in a world without war? MARTIN SMITH explains why socialists say that it is.

Have there always been wars?

NO. FOR the vast majority of human existence war has played no part in people's lives. For most of human history, people lived in "hunter-gatherer" societies. These people roamed in small groups, hunting animals and foraging for food. Each day people picked and hunted only what they needed to survive. Nobody owned the land, and both men and women lived and worked together and shared the spoils of their labour. There was no such thing as class. There were no kings and queens and no armies. Any disputes and quarrels that occurred were settled by the whole group.

The continual movement of peoples meant that there was no accumulation of wealth because everything had to be carried. Nobody knows exactly how huntergatherer societies lived their lives. But only a few hundred years ago such societies still existed in many regions of the world. Even today there are remnants of hunter-gatherer societies in Africa and Latin America. Anthropologists have studied these societies. Archaeologists have excavated ancient sites and studied the remains that have been discovered. Between them they have been able to build up a picture of how these people lived. It is likely the very notion of war would have been utterly meaningless to them.

Why did wars begin?

THE FIRST big changes in the way people lived occurred about 10,000 years ago. Instead of relying on nature to provide them with food, people began to develop skills that enabled them to cultivate crops and domesticate animals. This enabled human beings to produce more food than before, and to create a surplus over and beyond their immediate daily needs. Clay pots were also produced that could store grain and other foodstuffs. The ability to store surplus food meant people did not have to spend all their time gathering food to ensure basic survival. It gave people the time to develop new skills and better tools.

The development of agriculture meant that humans were able to settle down in one place. Eventually villages turned into towns and towns grew into cities. As humans developed new ways of producing the necessities of life their relationship with one another was also transformed. Once a surplus was produced, the question of who controlled it arose. A minority of people in society began to live off the labour of everyone else. Societies were divided into classes for the first time. And once wealth could be stored, wealth could also be stolen from other groups.

Over time the wealthy created a state—composed of armies, judges and priests—to protect their interests. These armies not only protected the existing wealth of a group, they were also used to conquer other tribes' land and steal their food. For the first time in human history the idea of going to war made sense. These changes did not happen overnight. They occurred over thousands of years. But eventually organised warfare for the purpose of defending or expanding territory became a central part of class society.

Who benefits from war?

EVERY CLASS society has brought with it war and bloodshed. Slave societies like ancient Rome were built on conquest and war. The rulers of Rome conquered tribes in search of slaves and plunder. Over 2,000 years ago Julius Caesar invaded Gaul (France). He boasted that he put over one million people to death. Feudalism, which developed over 1,000 years ago, was just as violent. During the Middle Ages much of Europe was plunged into total war. For example, European kings and their knights organised Crusades of the "Holy Lands". In the name of bringing civilisation and Christianity, knights burned and plundered towns and cities across the Middle East and North Africa.

The expansion of the Roman Empire and the wars in the Middle Ages created fabulous wealth for a small number of rich and powerful individuals. They brought misery for the conquered. But these wars also impoverished the poor city dwellers and farmers of the victorious nations. They were made to work harder and forced to pay more taxes to pay for the wars. Peasants were left starving and penniless as their rulers forced them to hand over more and more of their crops so their kings could feed the armies.

There was resistance. The poor in ancient Rome organised uprisings and protests against their treatment. There were also huge peasant rebellions during feudalism.

Is capitalism more violent than other societies?

YES. AS societies have developed and advanced, changes have brought benefits for human society. But they have also meant the development of new and more sophisticated weapons of murder and destruction. So the stone axe was replaced with the iron sword, which in turn was replaced by the gun. But this process is intensified immeasurably under capitalism. That is because capitalism is based on competition and the drive for profit. Competition constantly forces capitalists to devise new ways of outdoing their rivals. This enormously increases the productive capacity of the system. But it also increases the destructive capacity of the system.

So from the very beginning capitalists have invaded other countries. They have gone to war to rob other countries of their raw materials, and to turn the people into slaves or cheap labour. As other countries expand their empires, they come into conflict with other major powers, resulting in wars that have torn up whole continents and killed millions at a time. Today's weapons of mass destruction can devastate whole cities at the flick of a switch. A complex division of labour now divides up the tasks of devising weaponry, manufacturing it, transporting it, targeting and unleashing it. No previous society could imagine such a process, nor the horror of the atomic bomb, both created and used under capitalism.

Should socialists oppose all wars?

THE VAST majority of wars are fought for the interests of the rich and powerful. But sometimes oppressed people fight back. Socialists are not pacifists. We support the struggles, the fightbacks and the resistance of the oppressed. Slaves, for example, were right to fight back against slave owners. In 73 BC Spartacus led a slave rebellion against the Roman Empire. The slaves fought for their freedom while the Roman Empire mustered up its armies to crush the revolt and ensure slavery continued. Roman legions butchered around 100,000 slaves, including Spartacus.

Socialists support oppressed countries fighting back against foreign rule, like the fight for the independence of India or of various states in Africa. We do not, however, support attempts to strengthen one oppressive power rather than another. The violence of struggles against the system is infinitesimally small in comparison with the violence of the system as a whole, and the violence the rich always unleash to defend their wealth and power when it is challenged. But challenging and overthrowing the rulers of the world today is the only way of ever establishing a world without war.

Just as capitalism breeds war, it also creates a working class that has the power to establish a world without war. The 20th century has been a century of workers' revolution and revolt. Socialists support and encourage these struggles, because they alone have the potential to create a new society free from war and class divisions. If workers seize control of production, of the factories and the offices, they have the power to break the hold of a minority over the majority and to organise society for need and not for profit.

Such a society would put an end to the economic competition of capitalism and the militarism it gives rise to. Such a society would open up the possibility of cooperation between human beings across the globe. It may take violence to create such a society and overcome the ruling class, but it would be the violence to end all violence. Socialists fight to change society because we want to live in a world where eventually war will seem completely ridiculous, just like it did to our ancestors thousands of years ago.