War & Revolution: a review of the 20th century

A century of war and revolution passes. Sacrifice on a scale unimaginable at the start of the twentieth century has failed to deliver the planet from capitalism. Valuable experiences have been achieved with lessons for the century to come. Socialism has raised its banner, only to have it torn down. For as long as capitalism exists it will deny the achievements of socialism in the twentieth century, but they will haunt it, until finally capitalism is surpassed by socialism. TREVOR RAYNE examines the lessons of 100 years of struggle.

The dazzling scientific advances marking the nineteenth century continued into the twentieth century. This terrific resource and creativity has produced a century exceeding all others in wars – 250 – and war dead: over 110 million – six times as many as killed in wars in the preceding century. Human productivity has accelerated beyond anything recognisable in earlier epochs. In 1900 world gross domestic product stood at $1 trillion; today it is approximately $40 trillion (at 1990 $ prices). In the first 50 years output quadrupled, in the last 50 years it has grown tenfold. Amidst this vast production of wealth, 80 countries – almost half the countries of the world – are getting poorer. One billion of the planet's six billion people cannot meet their daily needs to survive; one in five have to live on less than a dollar (62 pence) a day. Half the world lives on less than $2 a day. In 1820 people in Britain had six times the income per head that people in Ethiopia have today. Almost 200 years ago, before most of the great benefits of empire and industrial revolution, British people's incomes exceeded the incomes of one third of the world's countries today. To talk of progress, of development for much of humanity in this century is a lie.

The great forces of production brought into the twentieth century now threaten to destroy the capitalist relations of production that direct their use. All that capitalism achieves is turned against humanity and the planet. Just as the productive forces offer the prospect of release from want and deprivation, so they are used to generate new reckless wants among youth. The poor are encouraged to imitate the excesses of the richest country in the world, while basic needs are left untended. World expenditure on marketing now exceeds half that spent on education. The number of televisions per head of population has doubled in twenty years. Films and TV shows are now the USA's biggest export. In the last thirty years computers, satellites and telecommunications have combined to transform communications. They are turned to warfare, the tyranny of the $55 trillion derivatives market and the $1.5 trillion a day currency casino. In 1998 the click of a mouse wiped $2 trillion off world output: 13 million people were thrown out of work in East Asia and real wages cut by 40-60% in Indonesia. Global organised crime is estimated to gross $1.5 trillion a year, about the size of the British economy. Police and governments are entwined as the radius of its power expands. Money laundering is put by the International Monetary Fund at 2-5% of world gross domestic product – all done in the blink of an electronic eye.

Just as science offers the prospect of the amelioration of our relationship to nature and solutions for diseases, so its products are directed in a systematic war against the sustainability of human life upon planet Earth. Water availability is 60% of its 1970 levels. Forest coverage is also down 40% in 30 years. Global warming accelerates, deserts spread, species loss proceeds. Storms grow in frequency and intensity: flooding, devastation, crop failures. Air pollution kills three million people a year, the incidence of cancer increases, new cancers appear, diseases thought to be eradicated return to places they ravaged a hundred years ago. As the productive forces are developed so the relations of production demand of them ever more irrational and destructive uses – nature takes its revenge.

What fate awaits us if we do not change course? Just when the mad destruction of nature must be slowed down, capitalism presses harder on the accelerator. Warning signals have been flashing for 40 years. Is humanity unable to save itself? Will half the planet accept their function of ensuring the well-being of a parasitical elite? Will they accept hunger and hopelessness, being objects of pity and charity – or are they going to do something about it? Are the only routes out of poverty and despair going to be crowded with gangsters and murder, or are the oppressed going to recognise their common enemy and combine to remove it?

The majority of scientists are employed by multinational corporations. Is the mass of humanity going to allow science to be used by these monsters to find diabolical new ways of exploiting and killing us, or are we going to take science and use it to solve our problems?  If people will not resist, then socialism was a fine idea but it has no future. If people want to fight, they need socialism if they are going to win.

Imperialism: monopolies and militarism
What socialism has to offer is a theory about how the world develops and a guide to how to change it. It offers the most complete understanding of society and conforms with the interests of the many not the few. Lenin saw capitalism develop into imperialism as the twentieth century began. All the achievements of capitalism in raising living standards in a handful of oppressor nations have been bought by the misery of many more people in the majority of oppressed nations. Central to imperialism and the twentieth century have been giant monopolies that dominate capitalist production and markets. These, not the lies about free markets and competition, dictate reality. A mere handful of companies control the world trades in oil, grain, metals, cotton, sugar, telecommunications etc.

The combined assets of Deutsche Bank, UBS and Citibank exceed the size of the British economy. Shell is bigger than Greece, General Motors bigger than Thailand and Wal-Mart bigger than Colombia, comparing company sales with national economies. These monopolies must expand or die. They are thrown into conflict, spheres of influence are fought over and states mobilised to pitch armies into battle. The forces of production become the forces of destruction. Monopoly capitalism is distinguished by a maximum devotion to militarism and a minimum fondness for peace.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Britain, Germany and the USA carved up Samoa. Britain annexed Somalia, Tibet, the Boer republics in South Africa and large parts of Africa; the USA annexed Colombia, Panama, Haiti and the Dominican Republic; Japan seized Korea and part of Sakhalin island; Belgium took the Congo; France got Thailand, parts of Africa and so on. On the eve of the last decade of the century the USA mounted its biggest military operation since Vietnam to invade Panama. In the last decade of the century US troops were deployed and then withdrawn from Somalia; they re-entered Haiti and Colombia. France, Britain and the USA manoeuvre behind local armies in the battle for the Congo. BP has taken back in the Caucasus what it had to surrender to the Bolsheviks, and Shell has bought into Kazakhstan's gas reserves. The former socialist countries are pounced upon by these wolves, Yugoslavia torn limb from limb. US and British planes continue to patrol the Iraqi skies, enforcing a blockade that kills 4,000 Iraqi babies and children a month. The symmetries between the beginning and the end of the century are disgusting. What testimony to the reactionary, destructive role of capitalism today and vindication of Lenin's analysis.

The century of mass production produces violence and barbarity on a scale never seen before. The First World War cost $2.85 trillion and took 10 million lives, including over one million British lives, 3.16 million German lives and six million Russian lives. The Second World War cost $4 trillion and took 80 million lives, including 450,000 British lives, 408,000 US lives, two million Japanese lives, 6.22 million German lives, 6 million Jewish lives and 23-27 million Russian lives. It closed with the threat of global annihilation in the mushroom clouds over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The explosive power of the current nuclear stockpile is 1,600 times the explosive power used in World War Two. It cost over $9 trillion. Does humanity accept this century as a model to be built on, are we going to put up with more of the same? It is not possible.

Inter-imperialist rivalry is intensifying: the different positions taken in the Gulf War, the scramble for the Balkans, the recurring threats of trade war, revived military budgets point to a cataclysm beyond even the horrors of the twentieth century. The frequency of wars is accelerating: in the 1950s the annual average number of wars was 10; in the 1970s 10-20; in the 1990s the average is over 30. Two world wars bought only a temporary respite for capitalism. Its underlying structural problems remain unresolved.

The Bolshevik Revolution 

'The actuality of the revolution: this is the core of Lenin's thought and his decisive link with Marx.'


Lenin saw that imperialism alters the structure of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. Superprofits are used to create a labour aristocracy in the working class, a section of the class with an interest in imperialism. This has been the mainstay of stability for capitalist rule in imperialist nations and critical in allowing the bourgeoisie to wage war against the oppressed people. The division in the working class has its political expression in the development of social democracy. Social democratic parties dragooned the working class into the First World War and have been effective instruments of capitalist rule since, supporting war efforts from the North of Ireland to the Gulf, the Malvinas/Falkland Islands to the Balkans.

The October 1917 Russian Revolution was made against the war policies of the social democratic government. Its slogans of 'Peace, land and bread' and 'All power to the Soviets' are needed by the mass of humanity today. The Bolsheviks nationalised the banks and the land, workers took control of the factories, inherited wealth was abolished, equal rights for women proclaimed and the church separated from the state. The poor took command. Eighteen foreign armies invaded Russia. The RAF gassed Red Army troops at Archangel. By 1922 the internal and external armed counter-revolutionaries had been defeated by the Red Army led by Leon Trotsky. The socialist revolution swept through the old Tsarist empire and the Soviet Union was created. Germany's revolution was drowned in blood in 1919 and its leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht murdered by the social democratic government. Nevertheless, although the failure in Germany was a terrible blow, Lenin credited the international working class with doing enough to weaken the hand of imperialism, thereby allowing the new socialist state to survive.

With a series of five-year plans the Soviet people eliminated poverty and hunger, raised education standards and reached a level of production able to compete with imperialism. This was a tremendous achievement for a previously poor, mainly rural, semi-feudal country. Under imperialism Russia would have sunk into the distress inflicted on India or Brazil.

Whatever its problems the Soviet Union was an inspiration to humanity and source of progress. Its very existence was a warning to the capitalists, an incentive for them to make concessions when they could afford them, such as welfare expenditure in the imperialist countries and formal independence in the colonies. The existence of the Soviet Union created space in which anti-colonial struggles could advance.

The costs borne by the Soviet people in defence of their land and state are staggering: what a debt is owed them for confronting and repulsing 90% of the Nazi army stationed on the eastern front. As the Red Army drove on towards Berlin, the US and British ruling classes mobilised not to defeat fascism but to defend their interests as much from socialism as from German and Japanese imperialism. British, US and other European governments were content to stand by and watch German and Italian fascists support Spanish fascism against democracy in 1936-39 when 1.2 million people were killed. Communists and the Soviet Union gave the greatest support to Spanish democracy. Communists' role in defeating fascism in Europe was and is an inspiration. Between 1945 and 1948 100 million people in eight countries over a quarter of Europe's land area joined the socialist camp. To the east China was about to rise up. History was turning towards socialism. Humanity was hauled back from an abyss of capitalism's own making.

The national liberation struggles
For much of the last half-century the main battle between imperialism and socialism has been fought out in the oppressed nations, in the struggle for national liberation. For China the cost was over five million people killed in the war against Japanese occupation, and 1.5 million people killed in wars between the pro-US Kuomintang government and the Chinese communists before the People's Republic was declared in 1949. The Long March of 1934-35 led by Mao Zedong is an epic of military history and human endurance whose impact will reverberate through the coming century. Four million people were killed in Korea between 1951-53 resisting US and British-led forces. Chinese volunteers helped roll back the invaders to South Korea. In 1959 Cuba rose up right under the noses of US imperialism. Horribly surprised, the US mounted the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion which was quickly overcome. With Soviet help, the Cuban revolution survived. From 1964-73 Vietnam and Indochina withstood three times as much destructive fire-power from the USA as was unleashed by all sides in World War Two. Four million people were killed before the Vietnamese claimed victory in 1975. In the wake of the Vietnamese advance a revolutionary wave swept through thirteen countries between 1974-80: Laos, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran, Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome, Cape Verde, Zimbabwe, Grenada and Nicaragua. Imperialism marshalled its response. How the socialist bloc responded would be crucial.
Counter-offensive and retreat
Social democracy in the main imperialist nations did nothing to help the newly-liberated countries. It sided with imperialism. During the first half of the 1980s the US military bombed and shelled Lebanon/Syria and Libya with impunity and invaded Grenada in 1983. The most reactionary and racist killers from El Salvador to Angola, Cambodia to Afghanistan were plied with money and weapons and social democracy in Europe hardly murmured. Over one million people were killed in Mozambique, three quarters of a million in Angola, a quarter of a million in Central America and 1.5 million in Afghanistan to drive these peoples away from socialism. When popular revolts did occur in Haiti and the Philippines, imperialism acted quickly to replace its unpopular front men, Duvalier and Marcos, to retain control. Between 1980-88 not one revolutionary movement came to power.

US military spending in the early 1980s was triple the rate of the late 1970s. It was paid for by huge borrowing, funded by west European and Japanese purchases of dollars and investments in the USA. By this time Soviet military spending consumed 17% of national income. Imperialism intended to break the Soviet Union with record military budgets and by raising the costs of supporting the national liberation movements. Between 1950-70 Soviet industrial production grew at triple the rate of US industrial production, but by the late 1970s the Soviet economy was lagging behind the main capitalist countries. During the 1970s the USA proposed a policy of 'linkage' in which arms reductions would be exchanged for shifts in Soviet policy towards the Third World. These were deals similar to that struck by the USA and Soviet Union over Cuba in 1962 when the Soviet Union agreed to remove missiles from Cuba in exchange for an assurance that the USA would not invade the island.

Soviet premier Kruschev's 1956 'peaceful coexistence' with capitalism, but with 'competition' between the two systems, turned into Andropov's 1983 line that Third World socialist states would have to rely on their own resources; this in turn was superseded by Gorbachev's 'common human interest' of the different systems and their 'common class interests' as 'interdependent states' – a far cry from Marx and Lenin's understanding of the predatory nature of capitalism. By 1986-87 Soviet New Thinking had it that imperialism was not necessarily hostile to socialism; capitalism could flourish in the Third World – witness the Asian Tigers; Third World revolutions did not aid the security and development of the Soviet Union and Third World socialist states should join the world market to develop. Conferences were held in Moscow to overcome the divisions between the communist and social democratic parties – divisions that Lenin insisted upon. This is the road that was followed: from international class solidarity of the workers and oppressed to desertion of the southern African revolution; to encouraging the Palestine Liberation Organisation in 1988 to come to a 'two states' deal with Israel; to withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and then on to unbridled Great Russian chauvinism attacking Chechnya, nationalism and racism rife in the former Soviet republics.

It is said that socialism failed in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe because it was overthrown or committed suicide. Capitalism has never succeeded there except for a small minority of people. If it is said that the socialist experiments in the different states and republics failed, what does capitalist success look like? In 1999 Russia's national income is forecast to be $167 billion, making it smaller than Belgium's, a country of 11 million people. Russian output is now half the 1991 level. Of 12 former Soviet republics all have undergone a fall in output: Ukraine down 65%, Moldova 70%. For eight of the republics output has halved or more than halved. Of 13 east European countries, 10 have seen output drop: Latvia down 40%, Bulgaria 34% etc. All of this destruction has taken place under policies of privatisation, price liberalisation, trade liberalisation, introduction of competition, banking reforms and introduction of stock markets.

Russia is now the most unequal society in the world in terms of wealth distribution. Its health and education services are wrecked. Life expectancy among Russian males has fallen more precipitously than for any other country recorded in peacetime, from over 65 to under 58. Western human rights groups report that torture is now routine in Russian police stations. Half of all detainees are subjected to asphyxiation, beatings and electric shocks. This is the triumph of capitalism and failure of socialism.

The Russian revolution lost many of its best workers defeating counter-revolution and fascism. The bourgeiosie entered the communist parties, self-serving careerists who turned those parties into means of securing privileges above those of the workers. The working class lost control of the party and the state. Workers' democracy, so critical for the advance of the revolution, was lost to a caste of party officials, state and industrial managers, scientific and cultural workers. In short, capitalist norms and relations of production reasserted themselves. It would only be time before their political expression reared up to challenge the state when it became a barrier to their enrichment.

The century ahead
Were capitalism able to meet the needs of humanity then there would be no need for socialism. If capitalism is able to raise living standards for the majority of people in the imperialist countries then there is little prospect of a struggle for socialism here. However, capitalism cannot meet the needs of the majority of people and is increasingly unable to meet the needs of a growing proportion of the people in the imperialist countries. Inequality is growing, poverty is growing in Britain, USA, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden etc. Crisis is confronting the system.

Financial instability precedes a depression. The 1929 Wall Street Crash resulted in a 65% drop in world trade within four years. By 1932 capitalist countries had up to 50 million unemployed. Germany's unemployment rate reached 44% with a further 26% on part-time work. Fearing revolution, Deutsche Bank and Dresdner Bank swung behind Hitler and the Nazis to save German capitalism. Ultimately, this is where capitalism leads if it is not replaced by socialism.

In 1987 over $500 billion was wiped off Wall Street in a single day. The Chicago futures derivatives market dropped 36% in two days. Tokyo's Nikkei Dow market fell 49% in 1990; it is now less than one third of its 1990 level. In 1995 came the Mexican peso crisis with its $50 billion bail-out. 1998 saw the Asian Tigers crash in a massive implosion of debt; there followed the collapse of the Russian banking system, then the threat of Brazil's banking system being blown away in this blizzard of speculation. Half of all US households now own shares worth $7 trillion, 40% of the US stock market. Their incomes, pensions, standards of living are resting on this precipice. One more speculative storm and poverty may not be the curse of a few in the midst of plenty, it will be the lot of the majority. Then where will the people turn? Will fascism once more wade through the rubble into world war?

Socialism lives in Cuba
Socialism's banner still flies in Cuba. The Cubans have not renounced the principles of socialism. This small country has not surrendered to imperialism. Cuba showed the world the spirit of Che Guevara and internationalism when Cuban soldiers repulsed the South African Defence Force from the capital of Angola in 1975 and then broke its teeth at Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 when most of the socialist bloc were getting ready to surrender. Guided by socialism, not one school or hospital has been closed in Cuba despite the merciless US blockade and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba's people have not had their lives plunged into ruinous poverty as have the people of the former Soviet Union. Imperialism ensures that they have difficulties, but in Cuba the priority is not private profit, the enrichment of a few at the expense of the many, but social solidarity. Cuba sees itself rallying the oppressed against imperialism. Struggling against the tide, we can learn from Cuba's example. This is the trench from which we can turn the tide. With the defiance of Fidel Castro: Socialism or Death.

 FRFI 152 December 1999 / January 2000


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