Theses on War

- 1- Wars, conflicts between armed enemies, have been a continuous feature of human history, through a succession of modes of production and social formations. Yet, within Marxist theory, war has been underthematized; its theoretical dimensions inadequately addressed. While the structure, nature, organization, strategy and tactics of warfare are integrally linked to a given mode of production (e.g., feudal war is different in nature from capitalist war) they are not reducible to it; war, like other spheres or domains of social existence, possesses an autonomy vis a vis the economic realm – an autonomy that must be acknowledged in order for the phenomenon of war to be grasped within Marxist theory.

- 2 - Capitalist war, war against external enemies of the capitalist state, first emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in two distinct forms. From the end of the age of religious wars in Western and Central Europe -- wars between Catholics and Protestants -- in the seventeenth century, wars that turned Europe itself into a charnel house, to World War One, wars between rival capitalist states were confined to hostilities between armies, in which the defeat of an enemy did not entail his destruction, and in which the distinction between combatant and non-combatant, soldier and civilian, was by and large respected. Such wars, fought to consolidate the emerging nation-state or to expand its frontiers, typically led to the re-drawing of the political map, but not to the expulsion or extermination of populations. A second type of war, war between capitalist states and pre-capitalist states or societies, colonial wars, the expression of a nascent imperialism, did involve the reduction to slavery or the extermination of native populations, ideologically constructed as sub-human or non-human.

- 3 - With World War I, the nature of inter-imperialist war was transformed, in large part because of the advances in military technology and the transformation of the ideology of nationalism into racism and xenophobia. The former made possible the mass slaughter of millions of conscript soldiers on the battlefields, while the latter turned the “enemy” from a rival to be defeated into a “foe” to be annihilated. In a certain sense, the conditions prevailing in colonial wars were now transposed to the wars between capitalist states themselves: mass murder of the enemy.

- 4 - With World War II, inter-imperialist war was transformed into race war, in which the development of military technology made it possible to erase any distinction between combatant and non-combatant, soldier and civilian, and in which xenophobia and racism made the extermination of the foe – now primarily the civilian population -- an integral part of the very structure and organization of war. While this was particularly clear in Hitler’s war on the Eastern front, and in the genocide of the Jews and Gypsies, it also characterized Japan’s war in China, and the Anglo-American strategy of strategic bombing of German and Japanese cities, culminating in the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All subsequent capitalist wars have retained this character of race war, from the war waged by the US in Vietnam to the war waged by Russia in Chechnya, and including the wars fought by Israel to control the Palestinian territories, and the current American “war on terrorism.”

- 5 - Since World War II, however, in addition to the wars waged by capitalist states, there have emerged guerilla wars or partisan wars waged by capitalist proto-states. These wars, whether waged by the Tamil “Tigers” in Sri Lanka, Hamas in Palestine, Abu Sayaaf in the Philippines, the UCK in Kosovo, in short, all the multifarious “national liberation struggles” dear to the left and leftists, including the attacks launched by al-Qaeda against the US on September 11, share the character of race war that has now become the hallmark of capitalist war in this epoch. All “construct” the Other as a foe to be ethnically cleansed or exterminated, a foe defined in biological or quasi-biological terms: Singhalese, Jew, Christian, Slav, “infidel, in the above examples.

- 6 - Marxist theory must confront the changes in the nature of war that have been wrought by capitalism, and their link to the transition from the formal to the real domination of capital. In seeking to articulate a strategy and tactics for the working class, the collective laborer, confronted by a war in which its own members are designated as an integral part of the racial foe to be exterminated; in which the death of its own human mass is one of the objectives of the very war waged by the capitalist or proto-state (partisan army), Marxists must do more than simply repeat the mantra of “revolutionary defeatism.” Clearly, defeatism remains a class line, and no form of “defensism” of any kind can be anything but a capitulation to the class enemy; an acceptance of the genocidal “logic” of capital. However, the application of defeatism has to adjust to the conditions in which the working class has been ideologically constructed as an integral part of the racial Other, the foe to be exterminated. To break that ideological construction, to smash the very form in which workers themselves have been subjectivated, is an even more formidable task today than it was in the early part of the twentieth century; and that because of the totalitarian domination of the law of value over all domains of social existence today. Yet, it is precisely that task that revolutionaries must undertake, if the barbarism of capitalist – race -- war is not to swallow up the planet.


Home Issues of IP Texts Discussion IP's French site Links