To achieve peace we must understand the real cause of war


from the New Unionist, November 2001

To achieve peace we must understand the real cause of war

It would be difficult to find anyone who'd insist that war is a good thing. Mass killing and property destruction don't strike most people as exemplary human activity. Yet organized warfare has been a central characteristic of what we call civilization, which has existed for the past 5,000 years or so.

When faced with such a history of unrelenting combat, it is tempting to conclude that human beings have a natural tendency to fight, that it is part of our biology - "human nature."

A variation on this theme is that it is the male part of humanity that is naturally aggressive and violent, and since the rulers of nations have been men, they are the cause of war.

While these arguments are handy excuses for the existence of war, neither hold up to scientific and historical scrutiny.The earliest human communities survived by gathering nature-provided foods - nuts, berries, roots - and by hunting animals. A few such societies still exist in the world, and have been studied by anthropologists.

Generally, warfare was unknown among such peoples. Their culture was marked by equality and cooperation, where aggressive behavior was discouraged and disparaged. Characteristic of these first societies was the absence of private property, and with its absence the absence of competition to acquire property.

War is thus not a result of human nature. If it were, it would exist among all peoples and cultures.

Warfare does come on the scene when there is something to fight over: property.

Society developed beyond its early gathering-hunting stage when people learned how to produce food rather than rely on what nature had placed at hand. The growing of fruits and vegetables - horticulture - allowed people to settle down in permanent communities. It widened their range of knowledge and curiosity about the natural world, which led to further economic developments.

People enjoyed the increase in the number and variety of products they had to consume. But they had to pay a price for the new wealth. They now had to devote more of their time and attention to the work of producing those things and less to the pure sensual pleasures of natural existence.

It is at this stage of economic development that the temptation to acquire property without work, by instead raiding the neighboring tribe and taking what they had, arose. This was the level of development of most American Indian tribes at the time of the arrival of the Europeans.

But at this point the idea of private property, belonging to one individual and no one else, was still largely absent. The kill of the hunt and the booty of war belonged to the community as a whole, and was divided up equally among all the members of the clan or tribe for individual use and consumption, but not private accumulation.

Next in the line of economic development came agriculture and animal breeding.

Agriculture was the cultivation of large fields rather than small gardens, and allowed the large-scale production of grains, foodstuffs which could be stored and accumulated beyond immediate needs. Breeding animals also made for a regular reproduction of food supplies and the accumulation of surpluses, people no longer having to rely on the uncertain success of hunting.

The wealth of a people now depended on the amount of territory it could control for agriculture and grazing land for sheep, goats and cattle. The advances in food production allowed populations to rapidly expand in the Middle East, where these developments were occurring 5 to 10 thousand years ago. But as the available land was constant, a competition arose among the growing populations for land, a competition decided by war.

Within the tribes, the agricultural surplus fell under the control of men. Within the division of labor between men and women it was the men, not tied down by children and the domestic chores, who wandered about and traded the surplus goods with other villages and tribes. Due too to the increasing economic importance of warfare, which was also conducted by men, the social status and influence of women fell in relation to men.

With growing surpluses of food more of the labor of the community could be devoted to non-food production, of implements and utensils, clothing, ornaments and other items of expanding variety. As different peoples specialized in different forms of production, trade among them grew, and with trade a new economic power arose: money. Centers for trading were established, which became the first cities.

The need for standing military forces to protect and expand the territory of a people, and the need for centrally-organized economic projects such as irrigation systems, led to the development of a new form of government. Unlike the kinship-based democracies of old tribal society, the new governments were based on territory, reflecting the importance of land and agriculture. They were governments ruled by military leaders, the kings, who established their centers of power and administration in the fortified cities.

These rulers used the military forces at their command not only to battle foreign enemies, but also to enforce their will on their own people. They collected taxes from the people, and they distributed what had formerly been communally-owned land to themselves and their fellow warriors, priests and bureaucrats as their private property.

By making the land their private property they could enjoy and accumulate the wealth the land produced without having to work it themselves. They could do this because their newly-organized political powers, the powers of the newly-formed governments called states, could be used to force other people to do the work.

The people forced to work the agricultural estates of the big landowners who controlled the state were the captives of war, who were made slaves. Society was now divided between slaves and free citizens, and between women and men.

But there was also a growing division between rich male citizens who owned a lot of land and slaves, and poor male citizens who owned little if any property. With this full development of class division based on ownership of private property and economic exploitation, and with governments organized as militarized states, we arrive at the glorious dawn of Civilization.

This was the system of the great empires of the Mediterranean and Middle East - Babylon, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome.

Warfare was a key component of the imperial system because of the need to conquer other nations for more land, slaves and taxes, and conquer them at the expense of other empires. If a people couldn't make war it perished or was enslaved. Because warfare was necessary for survival, the best warriors were glorified and their attributes of aggression and merciless violence against "the enemy" admired rather than condemned.

Rome was the last of these empires. Despite its unparalleled success at empire building it fell victim to the "internal contradiction" of the imperial system. The costs of making new conquests and the administration of conquered territories eventually exceeded the wealth that could be extracted from them. Rome went into an extended period of decline, and eventually its empire broke up under attack from the tribes of northern Europe.

Since the fall of Rome, Western civilization has experienced two other social systems, feudalism and capitalism. Warfare was a central institution of both because the same competition for property continued, though in different forms.

The battles among the feudal lords eventually led to a few being able to control large territories and to become kings of consolidated nations. Once the national boundaries of Europe were pretty much set, the competition spread to other continents.

The European states of the 15th through 17th centuries competed for supremacy in international trade, which led to many wars. In the 18th and 19th centuries they competed for colonies for the raw materials to feed their growing industries, and markets for their finished products. It was this economic competition that led to the then unprecedented slaughter of World War I, as later admitted by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.

Modern industrial capitalism has its own internal contradictions, and the system collapsed in the 1930s with a worldwide crisis of "overproduction." The only way out of the Great Depression proved to be another world war.

Today, global capitalism is policed by the uncontested military forces of the United States. Capital now needs unrestricted access to the resources and markets of the entire globe, and any resistance on the part of non-Western peoples to domination by Western capitalism is crushed by military force. The West controls these regions politically by supporting puppet governments in the third world, which it supplies with the weapons to suppress their own people Of course, we seldom hear of U.S. for- eign relations spoken of in this way. Instead of the economic causes of international conflict and war being explained, we are given ideological reasons for our government's actions abroad. When the Soviet Union was the biggest obstacle to U.S. economic expansion, it was supposedly a contest between "communism" and "democracy." Now that it's "Islamic fundamentalism" that raises the biggest resistance, it's our "good" against their "evil."

War, for all its suicidal possibilities, is not irrational. It is a necessary and unavoidable institution of economic systems based on the competition for property, resources and economic opportunity. What is irrational is to continue an economic system that operates on the assumption that there is a scarcity of resources, a scarcity that requires competition to allocate them for greatest "efficiency," when no such scarcity exists.

In fact, the progressive, revolutionary feature of capitalism - its development of the means of wealth creation - has given us an industrial system that can meet the material needs of all and be the basis for the free cultural development of all, rather than for some at the expense of others which is the unavoidable case in situations of scarcity. Yet the way wealth is distributed under capitalism, for the profit of the few rather the benefit of all, creates just such conditions of artificial scarcity which inevitably produce conflicts and wars between nations.

An economic system is not the way it is because of the way people are. People are the way they are because of the way the system is.

As we learn from pre-civilized communities, cooperative economic systems without private property and without political states promote peaceful, humane values. On the other hand, property-centered systems inevitably promote division, strife and conflict among people.

So it is a grave mistake to think that peace can be achieved within a competitive, acquisitive system. And it is a mistake to think that the political institutions that exist to further the aims of such a system, including through the planning and execution of war, can be transformed into peace-promoting bodies.

It doesn't make any difference how many well-meaning people are elected to office, or how many women instead of men, or how many blacks instead of whites. The government must continue to act in ways supportive of the economic system upon which it is based.

The elected peace candidates won't change the system; the system will change them. Anyone who doubts this need only examine that sorry specimen, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone. Or, failing to be converted into "practical" politicians, they will be isolated from the real powers of decision-making and eventually become discouraged and give up.

To be effective a peace movement must direct itself to the task of replacing the economic system that causes war. Since this can be done only through the organized action of the great majority, the movement must work to inform itself and the working class at large about the program for establishing a socially-owned, cooperative economic system. Telling people what they already know, that war is bad, is not enough. What needs to be said is how to change society so war will no longer be necessary.

While this seems like an awesome task, one that postpones the achievement of peace to the distant future, we should keep in mind that decade after decade of protests, demonstrations, petitions, civil disobedience and peace campaigns have failed to stop or even slow the spread of war and weapon buildups throughout the world.

If social revolution is the only way to eliminate war, the sooner we begin organizing for that the sooner will we arrive at our goal of peace.