Socialist Worker

Why do wars happen?

by Martin Smith
Published Sat 27 Oct 2001
Issue No. 1772

The war against Afghanistan has raised many issues about violence in society. Here we answer some of those questions.

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. 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 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 hunter-gatherer societies lived their lives. But only a few hundred years ago such societies existed in many regions of the world. Even today there are remnants of hunter-gatherer societies in Africa and Latin America.

Anthropologists and archaeologists have studied these societies and have built up a picture of how these people lived. It is likely that the very notion of war would have been utterly meaningless.

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 needs. Clay pots were also produced that could store grain and other foodstuffs. The development of agriculture meant 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 began to live off the labour of everyone else. Societies were divided into classes for the first time. 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, but 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.

Every class society has brought with it war and bloodshed. Slave societies like ancient Rome were built on conquest and war. Feudalism, which developed over 1,000 years ago, was just as violent. During the Middle Ages much of Europe was plunged into total war. European kings and their knights organised Crusades to the Holy Land. In the name of bringing civilisation and Christianity, knights burnt and plundered towns and cities across the Middle East and North Africa.

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 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 its destructive capacity. 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.

A complex division of labour now divides up the tasks of devising, manufacturing, transporting, targeting and unleashing weaponry. No previous society could imagine such a process, or the horror of the atomic bomb, both created and used under capitalism.


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What Socialists Say
Sat 27 Oct 2001, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1772
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