War, Peace and Capitalism: Is Capitalism the Harbinger of Peace or the Greatest Threat to World Peace?

One of the political arguments for capitalism has always been that it could tie people up with the relatively benign business of moneymaking, thus diverting them from the more nefarious activities of seeking power and making war, to which they might otherwise be prone (Hirschman 1977). It is still often presumed that capitalism is pacific, because it knits people together within and among countries in the bustle of production and exchange, consuming their attention and raising the costs of war. A very different idea of the properties of capitalism is captured by Wood: ‘I am convinced…that capitalism cannot deliver world peace. It seems to me axiomatic that the expansionary, competitive and exploitative logic of capitalist accumulation in the context of the nation-state system must, in the longer or shorter term, be destabilising, and that capitalism – and at the moment its most aggressive and adventurist organising force, the government of the United States – is and will for the foreseeable future remain the greatest threat to world peace’ (1995, p. 265 – see Chapter 9). This chapter discusses whether there is a clear Marxist position on war or on the links between war and capitalism. It then shows the consequences of not adopting a historical political economy perspective. It argues for the relevance of a historically minded analysis of contemporary war in which the role of capitalism – advanced and nascent – is central but complex.


Marxist theory is concerned with social conflict, with crisis, and with the commonplace brutality of social relations in many circumstances. The Marxist analysis of capitalism highlights the founding violence of this form of social organisation through primitive accumulation. After the establishment of capitalist relations of production there remain inherent tendencies towards occasional crisis. And a Marxist analysis also stresses the significance of class conflict, where exploitative relations are bound to generate antagonism of various forms. Further, classical Marxist ideas of how capitalism could be supplanted by a different and even more progressive mode of production sometimes revel in imagery of violent conflict. For all this, however, there is not much – certainly in Marx’s own writings – that directly explains war or the relationship between war and capitalism. This is so despite the fact that Marxist theory was elaborated at a time characterised by major civil wars (including the American Civil War) and international wars, and despite the fact that both Marx and Engels were attentive readers of Clausewitz.

However, there are components of original Marxist thinking that suggest some perspectives on war and capitalism that might be absorbed into a historical political economy of contemporary conflicts. To begin with, Marx saw war as archaic. Marx, recall, waxed rhapsodic about the historically transformative powers of capitalism. Capitalism was revolutionary in its progressive consequences for human society. One of the senses in which capitalism was superior to any previous set of social relations was precisely that it was not a system of perpetual warfare in the literal sense. For medieval European society more or less had been that – a society in which war was the dominant institution and peace merely an occasional interlude. This was an Enlightenment insight: for arguably peace was only invented during the Enlightenment as a serious prospect, and there were considerable hopes that, having overthrown the institutions of the ancien régime, societies would be able to live without war.

If war as a central institution of society was made archaic by capitalism and bourgeois society, nonetheless war could play a role in the success of capitalism. In several places Marx writes that social relations as they take shape in war and military organisations can accelerate the development of the productive forces. ‘In general, the army is important for economic development. For instance, it was in the army that the ancients first fully developed a wage system … This division of labour within one branch was also first carried out in the armies. The whole history of the forms of bourgeois society is very strikingly epitomised here’ (quoted in McLellan 1977, p. 342). Providing for armed forces has often generated innovations that have then spread through societies. Famously, the concept of sizes and ready-to-wear clothing developed during the American Civil War from the need for uniforms. Indeed, capitalism, war and modern nation states fed off one another in an extraordinarily expansionary combination from the seventeenth century onwards (Tilly 1990). Capitalism has a distinctive technological dynamism. Military demand, the compulsion of war, and ideological urgency in the perceived threat of war have harnessed this dynamism with dramatic effect. Since the early days of capitalism arms manufacturers (in the seventeenth century especially British, Dutch and French) competed for export markets in Europe, America, and elsewhere, including Africa where the arms trade was integral to the slave trade and where this trade revolutionised warfare. More recently, of course, the appliance of capitalism’s technological concentration to military ends has fuelled a phenomenal arms race and, especially since the end of the Cold War, a proliferation of industrial production of arms internationally.1 A nice example of the power of the interests of arms-oriented capital overriding liberal idealism was the announcement, in December 2001, that the British government was planning to approve an export licence for a military air traffic control system (costing well over the average for civilian systems) to Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world.2 This is but one example of the persistent links between states and military productive interests, a set of linkages that used to be taken as so powerful that it dominated capitalist economies and became known as the ‘military industrial complex’, or MIC. The MIC idea has rather faded from view, as indeed has the argument that military expenditure and war-related production might be positively necessary to the survival of the capitalist economy.

One way in which some Marxists have viewed capitalism as especially amenable, at least, to war is through the development of underconsumption theory. From this perspective, common particularly in the 1970s, capitalism is prone to crisis when its reliance on the exploitation of labour contradicts the need for sufficient demand for commodities produced in capitalist relations of production. Military production – and the expansion of an MIC, driven by state procurement – has sometimes been seen as an inbuilt mechanism within capitalism of defence against underconsumptionist crises. To the extent that military preparedness requires realisation in war to justify continued investment, then this argument would support a pro-war tendency within capitalism. At the very least, one could argue that the strength of capital tied up in military production and provisioning contributes greatly to the shaping of foreign policy and the way wars are fought. For example, US military technology has evolved a particularly strong commitment to air power; and US military commitments in, for example, Afghanistan in 2001, have seemed to some critics to rely inordinately on air power. However, there has been strong criticism of the underconsumptionist position, chiefly on the grounds that in jumping straight from a very abstract theory to instant explanation of empirical facts it provides no mediating links, that its underlying theory of capitalist crisis is overwrought, and that it is completely arbitrary to assign exclusively to the military the potential for moderating tendencies to crisis in capitalist economies (see Chapters 9 and 15).3

Nonetheless, there is a final sense in which capitalism might well inherently support the likelihood of violent conflict. For capitalism is by its very nature conflictual: the logic of desperate competition that compels capitalists – especially perhaps when framed within nation states and the organisation of national interest – could be expected to generate regional and international violence, including violence in the form of war. This tendency might be mitigated, however, by the fact that capitalism is transnational and develops complex interconnectedness between people. The key, however, is to see the independence of the nation state as the principal unit of political organisation and international legitimacy, shaping capitalist competition into a potentially lethal form. There might not be anything inherently warlike about capitalism, but when it is harnessed to national power and competition it easily becomes so. Here the role of the French government, in particular, in backing and arming the Habyarimana regime in Rwanda that unleashed genocidal violence in 1994 against (mainly) Rwandan Tutsis is an obvious example. So too is the rather more complex US involvement in the Middle East as part and parcel of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict and also the wider social and political conflicts that bred al-Qa’ida terrorism from the late 1990s onwards. Here it is not simply ‘the national state’ but the configuration of political influence on the US state that has held together much of the Middle East in a vice of artificial stability through support to regimes in Egypt and Israel, among others.

For surely it is the combined causal powers of capitalism and national interest (along with a range of other material and ideological factors) that are realised in arms races and military engagements among capitalist nations. Similarly, it is the combined causal powers of the transition to capitalism (the prolonged, traumatic ‘moment’of change), the non-linear history of state formation, the diverse roles of non-national collective identities, and the interests of international capital that are realised in the ‘civil wars’ of the world in recent years. Thus, while there has often been a tendency to insist on the total subordination of war and militarism to capitalist production logic, this is never analytically very successful. Marx and Engels themselves ultimately portrayed war as ‘a relatively independent variable in the ever-changing human scene’ (Gallie 1978, p. 79).

Further, although the causal powers of capitalism are central to any understanding of modern conflict, these cannot be ‘read off’ effortlessly from some rigid logical schema. Rather, all the ambiguities of capitalism are revealed in the relationship between capitalism and violent conflict. Capitalism can mitigate the proclivity to war just as it can in different circumstances provoke war. Capital tends to require peace but often thrives on conflict. The expanding domain of capital may knit together different peoples in a common association around the possibilities and political challenges of bourgeois society; but at the same time the international reach of capital may raise the stakes of local conflicts. Obvious examples of this last tendency include the markets for high-value primary commodities that play a central role in sustaining and scaling up conflicts around the world: markets for diamonds; the vast set of linked economic activities relying on oil; or the mobile phone, games console and space technology industries and their hunger for coltan, the heat-resistant metal whose deposits are concentrated in the Kivu districts of eastern Congo (Kinshasa) and whose extraction is fought over by contendingCongolese, Rwandan, Ugandan and other regional groups.

There is an accommodation between capitalism and other factors, such as the nation state, and a social propensity to violence, that is independent from specific historical epochs. Capitalism itself remains of central significance, however, as of course does the scope within capitalist society for political struggle to have real consequences. From this perspective, we should be wary of analyses that repeat in reverse the errors of some strains of radical analysis. For example, Shaw (2000) suggests that the institutions of war fed on capitalism and, once sufficiently engorged, squashed and subordinated the capitalist mode of production. This to some extent is what E.P. Thompson argued when he claimed there was in modern industrial society a ‘logic of exterminism’. For all those enamoured by the attractions of Western liberal values and the defence of ‘civilisation’, it is certainly salutary to recall the thread of extreme and mass viciousness in modern Western society. Modern exterminisms were prefigured in Montaigne and Swift (for example, in Gulliver’s Travels, in the Houyhnhnms’ debate on whether to exterminate the entire population of crude, human-like Yahoos). European genocidal tendencies, far from being the exclusive preserve of Nazi Germany, arguably have been more general and are rooted in imperial ideology and crude social Darwinism. These tendencies were realised not just in the Holocaust but before then in colonialism and were captured perfectly in a single phrase spoken in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness by Kurtz: ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ (Lindquist 1997). However, the human imagination of violence has been a rich one for centuries and for centuries it has been realised horrifically. There is little real evidence of a peculiarly modern social death wish. Arguably, what we see in genocide, in the nuclear arms race, in ethnic cleansing and so on is less a logic of exterminism and more some of the particularly morbid forms in which dynamic capitalism in advanced countries and insecure capitalism in developing countries manifests its linkages with competitive collective identities and a historically entrenched human violence.

A related discussion is that among sociologists concerning whether ‘war and violence are parts of modernity and not only of its genesis’ (Joas, quoted in Roxborough 1999, p. 494). Roxborough’s answer is that war could well persist as part of modernity for three reasons: conflicting values (since peaceable consumerism and commercialism might not be the sum total of value sets possible within modernity); aggregation problems (the ways in which individually rational decisions and preferences become aggregated through institutions might then favour a clash between particular interest groups outweighing majority wants, or, simply, there may be miscalculation leading to blundering into war); and limitations on rationality (cognitive frameworks or ideologies may lead people to misunderstand their predicament and go to war as a result). Shaw goes further: rather than stating that war remains an ongoing possibility given the shortcomings of modern rationalism he argues that the genocidal tendency in recent wars (e.g. in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia) shows precisely that ‘in modernity, war is the problem’ (emphasis in original).4 The focus of these contributions seems to me misplaced. In Shaw all historical ambiguity is lost under the weight of the contemporary ‘mode of warfare’ and the logic of exterminism. Capitalism is entirely subsidiary, simply a contingent and enabling factor. Meanwhile, Roxborough sustains a sense of ambiguity in modernity but excludes the material and the Dynamics and tensions of capitalism as central to that historical ambiguity visà- vis war. Neither approach adequately captures the relational content of social, economic and political conflict that is implied more effectively in Marxist traditions of political economy.

In short, if we combine the interest in the origins of capitalism and the underlying relations sustaining it with a recognition of the ongoing propensity to contradiction, crisis and competition, with an awareness of the historical independence of violent conflict from specific material epochs, and an awareness of how those specifics nonetheless shape and carry the baton of war, then we have a powerful basis for understanding contemporary conflicts.


The flip side of the ‘logic of exterminism’ school of thought is liberal optimism. Most contemporary analyses of war fall in the liberal camp. Contrary to Marx’s ‘tragic view of history’, the liberal interpretation of war and peace is based on the assumption that all good things go together. Economic progress and political progress are mutually supportive and enjoy an entirely uncomplicated relationship. ‘The liberal dream which stemmed from the Enlightenment project was that the modernisation of society would lead to the disappearance of war’, as Roxborough puts it (1999, p. 491). Naturally, therefore, the persistence of war must mean that there has simply not been enough modernisation.

Again reflecting a lackof capacity for ambiguity or complexity, the ‘liberal interpretation of war’ inherited from the nineteenth century considers war to be always and exclusively negative in its consequences. Although there were important empirical challenges to this stance early in the twentieth century, the frame of mind survived and reappeared in various forms, including exercises working out the total economic costs of war in developing countries. If there is a liberal interpretation of war, there is also a liberal interpretation of peace and the transition to peace. According to this position, Western democracy is self-evidently a ‘good thing’, as are NGOs, adjustment to a more market-based economy, and so on; and the relationships among these factors is also unproblematic. Hence the model for peace is to nurture governments that commit to structural adjustment policies and strongly to encourage a swift introduction of procedural democracy in the form of ‘free and fair’ elections.5

So, war is a terrible thing that arises from lack of modernity and makes things worse, always. This often translates into the causal connection presumed by many between poverty and war. Poverty causes war and war causes poverty. Another dimension of the liberal perspective on violent conflict is the mentality of collapse. For most such analyses argue or presume that wars in developing countries are a function of collapse and reversal – of the state, of modernisation, of development. Wars, particularly the post–Cold War conflicts, are commonly seen from this view as apolitical, untouched by ideology but rather driven by base greed and/or a social retreat into conflicts of ethnic animosity inherited through some process of (assumed) social Darwinism. There is little scope from this perspective for inquiring whether conflicts might be part of a tumultuous and long process of state formation and the establishment of capitalism, not just a threat to that process; little scope for seeing that although all war is sickening some wars might nonetheless have progressive consequences.

A particular and more formal variation of the liberal perspective on war is built on the axioms and institutional influence of neoclassical economics. According to this approach, civil war is the outcome of rational choices of individuals seeking to maximise their utility and faced with a trade-off between co-operation and conflict. Conflict will be chosen under certain circumstances that determine whether or not conflict is more profitable at the margin than cooperation. The most common factor tipping the scales of choice towards conflict is poverty. For, it is claimed, the poor have a ‘comparative advantage in violence’: this is because they have next to no other opportunities, therefore the opportunity cost of engaging in violence is close to nil. Models along these lines are, however, purely abstract and speculative until there is some effort to make them empirically operational. Some effort has been made to do this, for example, by claiming that ‘greed’ rather than ‘grievance’ explains the incidence of civil wars.

The trouble is that empirical applications of these models are unsuccessful. The empirical tests do not perform very well. They are constructed from data whose reliability and comparability is highly questionable. And they are poorly designed: both because the samples are sometimes biased and because the variables used as proxies (because they can in principle be quantified) for more direct concepts identified in the abstract models do not correspond neatly to their theoretical counterparts. A high share of primary commodity exports in total GDP, a preponderance of young males in the population structure, and low average years of schooling are taken in one model (Collier 2000) to signal the influence of ‘greed’ before being tested for correlation with the incidence of civil war. Yet it is equally plausible that strong informational content for these three variables may indicate, instead, widespread social frustration and ‘grievance’. Alternatively, such a conjuncture (lots of young, uneducated and therefore [sic] unemployed males surrounded by primary commodities) might be the starting point to explore the complex interaction between, or joint determination of, greed and grievance.

Varieties of liberal analysis are all unsatisfactory and restrictive. They treat the material dimensions of war as fetishes: giving magical causal powers to degrees of resource concentration or fixing the determinants of conflict in optimal combinations of poverty, demography and other variables. Efforts to incorporate the social have no historical or relational content. Furthermore, any pretence to capture human agency through the incantation of rational choice is belied by a staggering determinism: the choice is always made, written in the econometric stars. However elusive the understanding of war might ultimately be, it has to address the material, it must be historical and relational (what is conflict if not relational?) and it has to allow for human actions and policy decisions. Surely, also, a useful analysis of conflict must contain some focus on historical change or transition. Only an analysis rooted in a Marxist tradition can hope to meet these demands.


The briefest illustration of the war in Angola – a country at war more or less constantly over the past 40 years – helps to tie together the themes of this chapter. Despite first impressions, Angola does not neatly fit the template analyses currently on offer. Resources play a role in the war, but the conflict is not simply produced by oil and diamond abundance, though it is indeed reproduced through this abundance. The instrumental use of violence by greedy elites is a characteristic of the war but can only be appreciated against a more subtle history of power struggles and grievances. Various forms ofsub-national collective identity have helped shape the divisions in the war; however, to claim to ‘explain’ this war by reading from a score of ethnic fragmentation would be laughable. Angola’s is a ‘civil war’ that has been fuelled by external interests throughout. And so it is an international war (now as it was during the Cold War), but it has never been a ‘proxy war’ pure and simple. Furthermore, Angola’s current spate of warfare bears some of the features of what are often called ‘new wars’; yet it cannot be understood as anything other than a war with old and enduring roots.

It is only possible to begin to make sense of war in Angola through a historical analysis of capital and of clashing class interests and wrenching experiences of class formation, from the moment the Portuguese arrived in the late sixteenth century to the present day. Such an account would bind together: the consequences of initial encounters with merchant capital fuelling the slave trade and with industrial capital generating technical innovations in and exports of guns from Europe; the organisation of the colonial economy, including the ways in which differences in the spread of capitalism overlapped with the beginnings of distinct zones of Angolan nationalism (shaped by domains of different mission groups and their schools); the way that the ferocity of the Cold War scaled up rival conflict among anti-colonial groups; the logic of oil and diamond markets; and the way in which foreign companies currently seem to be acting as vehicles of, and influences on, the foreign policies of major powers.6 Obviously, wars like Angola’s owe a great deal to contingency, to national interest, to local specificity; but equally obviously they are driven by the compulsive logic of capital.

Social transformation and state formation in Angola have been extraordinarily disruptive and drawn out and remain incomplete. Given its own history, and against the background of European history, this is hardly surprising. It might also be noted that ‘peace’ in Angola – where vast numbers of people have been forced away from rural subsistence livelihoods by the privations of war – will not bring an end to this process and its brutality. For all the well-meaning policy advice that will be meted out during a peace process and its aftermath, about ‘reconstruction’ and so on, it may be expected that the accumulation of land and other assets, primitive accumulation to be sure, will dominate the real politics of Angola and will – if other ‘post-conflict’ experiences (in Nicaragua, Mozambique, El Salvador) are any guide – continue to be characterised by violence.


The analysis of war shows capitalism at its most ambiguous. It might even be that there is this paradox: that capitalism is actually in some ways more pacific than most other known forms of social organisation, but at the same time many of its qualities lend themselves better than other modes of production to increasing the intensity of conflict. This chapter has shown how war or social violence and the transition to capitalism are commonly bound together. It has also shown how in the contemporary world economy there is a distinctive binding of this traumatic transitional ‘moment’ and the interests of advanced capitalist nations, consumers and enterprises. This kind of analysis should make one wary of the pretty prognostications of liberal theory and policy advice. And it should alert one to the possibilities for horrendous conflicts to be associated with progressive outcomes: if this is the case there is a need to look for where those outcomes might emerge from in war and how to promote their manifestation. The analysis has also shown that war is likely to remain a feature of our world.

Christopher Cramer



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  1. Engels captured the anxious peace of the arms race well: ‘Peace continues only because the technique of armaments is constantly developing, consequently no one is ever prepared; all parties tremble at the thought of world war – which is in fact the only possibility – with its absolutely incalculable results’ (Gallie 1978, p. 92).
  2. On the politics of the British arms trade, see Pythian (2000).
  3. On the economic consequences of military expenditure see Smith (1977).
  4. Shaw’s argument is developed around the concept of ‘new wars’, coined by Kaldor (1999).
  5. Even this involves turning a blind eye towards manipulation by international managers or at the very least towards some of the shortcomings of election conduct in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mozambique, etc.
  6. Through the Cold War period, US oil companies tempered American hostility to the MPLA government with whom they did a roaring trade; more recently, French government officials have been allegedly embroiled in corruption scandals including Elf Aquitaine’s interests in Angola.