Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fallacious Arguments: The Threat of War (1980)

From the June 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

It would be rather nice were we not all blown up in a nuclear war, but it is by no means certain that we shall not be. Why is this? Perhaps there has been a conscious and reasoned decision on the part of the world's population to put an end to the unsatisfactory standard of life. After all, did Dostoevsky not say that suicide was the only form of freedom? If the rush to mass destruction is the result of a world debate, in which a majority expressed the opinion that life on earth is no longer worthwhile and we should all transfer to the mythical kingdom of God, why were socialists not invited to put our ideas to it? The reason is that there has not been such a debate. Unlike the inconsequential matter of whether or not the British capitalist class should join the Common Market, there has been, and will be, no referendum to ask "the public" whether they fancy being blown up. There is nothing democratic about war.

Exterminating human beings seems to be an unintelligent way of running a society, especially when it is considered that the main purpose of a society is to ensure the survival of its inhabitants. One would think that any system of society that ceases to ensure survival would meet with the disapproval of its members. But there are a number of currently popular arguments that are intended to justify mass legalised murder:
  1. The economic argument. War can be profitable for one or other of the sides.
  2. The philosophical argument. Rationality is an inadequate method of explaining and solving social problems. We should recognise that humans will sometimes act in ways that cannot be explained and the causes of war are attributable to such inevitable irrationality.
  3. The moral/religious argument. The enemy in war is invariably immoral, valueless and ungodly and thus deserves to be killed.
  4. The anthropological argument. Men like fighting because they are naturally aggressive. (And women like bandaging their wounds because they are naturally caring and impressed by the virility of warfare.)
  5. The political argument. Murder is right when it is in defence of the Queen/President/State/State-to-be/ideology.
Such justifications of war are wholly unworthy of popular acceptance. Yet they prevail, which must either mean that the majority of people agree with them, or that the majority of people are excluded from making decisions about their own survival. To account for both possibilities, we shall first consider why the above-mentioned "justifications" are unworthy of working class acceptance, and we shall secondly consider the means by which the majority of the world's population can voice our rejection of war.


Wars in a capitalist society are concerned with profit accumulation, the concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a class that owns and controls the means of wealth production and distribution. According to the recently published report of the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Wealth and Income, 1 per cent of the British population owns more wealth than the bottom 80 per cent. Wars are not fought between the owners and non-owners of wealth, but between one set of owners and another. Every war in the history of capitalism has been fought, directly or indirectly, to secure markets or raw materials. Russia and China, as much as their power rivals in the West, are concerned with this squalid battle over who owns what in and on the earth, for they are both state capitalist countries obsessed, no less than their avowedly capitalist enemies, with markets and profits. If it were made clear to the majority that wars are fought to protect and expand the prosperity of a minority class then the workers, who are expected to fight the wars and who gain nothing, would cease to accept the economic argument. The businessmen of seventeenth century England responded in this way when many of them refused to finance the commercial adventures of William III: they realised that there was nothing in it for them and so told William what he could do with his foreign policy. The economic nature of modern war is disguised by conditioning the majority to believe that the interests of society (survival) are the same as the interests of the owners of the means of life (profit). Their battles are our battles. We die for them, they live off us. Nation first.

More enlightened members of the working class will recognise that the struggle that should concern them is not that between rival sections of the capitalist class, but that between the two main classes of society: those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess. They will realise that the power and wealth of the capitalists results from the acquiescence of the working class to exploitation, to be paid wages that are less than the value of the commodities that they produce. In September 1914, The Socialist Standard published a statement on war that made clear the real interest of the working class:
"Whereas the capitalists of Europe have quarrelled over the questions of the control of trade routes and the world markets, and are endeavouring to exploit the political divisions and blind passions of the working class of their respective countries in order to induce the said workers to take up arms in what is solely their masters' quarrel, THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, having no quarrel with the working class of any country, extends to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism." 
The plunder of war is part of the economic rationale of capitalism and so it is no use complaining about "unjust" wars. What is required is a social system in which the material interest of the many rather than the few is what constitutes justice.


Ever since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century there has been a school of thought that has rejected rationality as a way of explaining and changing social affairs. Irrationalists argue that human beings are motivated by inexplicable accidents of sentiment and that it is impossible to work out a method of understanding how and why social phenomena occur. Faith, trust and sensual responsiveness are the guidelines to which they direct. Many fascists in the early twentieth century argued that the inhumanity of society was due to innate stupidity, malleability and lack of consciousness on the part of the mass of people. "The masses" were seen as stooges to be used by an elite for its own purpose. The link between such anti-democratic beliefs and the similar beliefs of Leninism is based upon a common perception of the limitations of human self-assertion. The Irrationalist idea of "the masses" has understandable appeal among those who seek to lead people. It supposes that only a minority is capable of scientific thought, that most people are blended into the crowd and have no desire to act in their own interests, and that consequently irrational events like war are inevitable. Such views are likely to be attractive to "intellectuals" who imagine that they are members of the intelligent minority and are not as susceptible as the masses.

It is not justifiable to conclude that irrational social behaviour is an inevitable human feature. In an anti-social environment like capitalism, that contrives to keep its wage slaves in the most degraded, unfree and stupid condition, the forces of rationality are fighting an uphill battle. But the contradictions of capitalism will force workers to see the folly of their own irrational ideas.


Moralists and religious believers are forced to present rewards for being good and punishments for evil-doing. So, if you kneel in the church and obey the law you get to heaven, and if you are hungry and steal some food you go to Hell. When wars take place moralists are brought in to tell the fighters that they are doing God's work because the enemy is evil. One of the early members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain said that the sight of the priests blessing the guns in 1915 made him first consider becoming a socialist. In the last war the messengers of God blessed the aeroplanes of both the British and the Nazis before they went off to carry out their respective holy missions of murder.

Most workers accept morality because they feel powerless to reject the guidance of their rulers. The church encourages this sense of impotence by telling us that not only is it sinful to kill, but it is unpatriotic and sinful not to kill when our masters so decide.


Anthropologists who have asserted that homo sapiens is essentially aggressive have been opposed by many empirical observations. Where there is a social harmony of interests, non-aggressive, cooperative people are found. It is not "human nature" for men to wish to kill one another, and if it is why do they have to wait for a legal decree before war can commence? The anti-social conception of mankind is not indicative of inherent human characteristics, but of a system that forces people to act inhumanly and, in that sense, unnaturally. The myth about "the Glory of War" has been somewhat exposed by stories that have followed the war in Vietnam: war is not about bravery and heroism, but about the indignity of plunder and the inhumanity of slaughter. Of course, there might be some people who do wish to kill other people for pleasure. But should society accommodate the perverse tastes of the would-be killers? At present it does, and we are told that "It's a Man's Life in the Army".


The least convincing justification of war is the argument that murder is alright if it is in defence of something that people fanatically believe in. For example, there is no doubt a considerable number of people in Britain who would be prepared to lay down their lives for the Queen. Perhaps it would be a solution if they were simply to lay down their lives and be given honorary peerages; this would at least prevent involving those of us who do not want to die on behalf of monarchs, nations or beliefs. Islamic fanatics, left-wing insurrectionists and nationalists like the IRA are not only claiming the right to die for their cause, but are demanding that other workers die with them. A system of society that compels workers to fight for a nation that they do not own is urgently in need of being removed. If there is a nuclear war – or even a serious conventional war – millions of workers would die in defence of countries that are not and cannot be theirs. The workers have no country and therefore no worker should fight in a war.

There is no need for war, just as there is no natural need for poverty or mass starvation or housing shortages or hospital waiting lists. It is because society is organised to provide profits for the few rather than satisfaction for the many that these problems face us. There is no immediate likelihood of the world being destroyed by natural means, but there is more than a slight probability that it will be destroyed by the social madness of mankind, a madness that is created and maintained by the long outdated ideology of capitalism.'The working class has only to say "stop" and the entire present. system of society will cease to be. We have only to take the means of wealth production and distribution into the common ownership and democratic control of the whole community to put an end to the need for fighting over markets and resources and frontiers. We need only withdraw our consent to capitalism, in a majority, to set in motion the revolution from the pre-history to the civilised history of society. Or alternatively, perhaps we ought to pray to the sky that we're not blown up. At least that way one cannot be accused of being naive, or worse still, of being a social revolutionary.
Steve Coleman


Imposs1904 said...

June 1980 done and dusted.

ajohnstone said...

"There is no immediate likelihood of the world being destroyed by natural means.."

I wonder if Coleman would have re-written that comment toay when we do face existential threats from Climate Change and Global Warming