Evolution of the Means of Destruction

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Wolfgang Streeck, introducing a historical-materialist theory on the evolution of the means of destruction:

"In 1855, at the height of the Crimean War, Engels produced an extensively researched overview of the development of armaments in all European states.footnote7 As an industrialist, he found it useful not only to compare the progress of the destructive technologies of the time with that of the productive technologies, but to consider their inter-relationship. One question was whether military technology benefited more from civilian technology or vice versa—which of the two led the other. From a political-economic perspective, military technology could be no more than a by-product of its civilian counterpart. But couldn’t industrial mass production, based on standardized components—the essential prerequisite for what would become the ‘Fordist’ mode of production—be traced back to a certain Samuel Colt, whose invention allowed him to deliver 130,000 revolvers to the Northern states in the Civil War? Even more relevant for historical materialism was the question of whether, analogizing from the development of the means of production, the progress from hand-mill to steam-mill, one should postulate the ‘relatively autonomous’ development of what we might call the means of destruction—the replacement of the sword by the machine gun—as a second, parallel strand of historical development, entangled with the first but not identical to it." (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii123/articles/wolfgang-streeck-engels-s-second-theory)

States and Warfare

Wolfgang Streeck:

"Who is destroying whom in the technologically revolutionized relations of destruction developed by modern industrial societies? Engels’s reflections on warfare indicate that what he increasingly considered important was that the main beneficiary of military progress in the trinity of society-economy-state was the state. Only states had the resources to acquire the new, large-scale and centralized means of destruction and to build and maintain the labour forces, known as ‘armies’, required for their deployment. With this, however, the weight of the state relative to its economy and society inevitably grew beyond the role allocated to it by mid-nineteenth century political-economic theory—making the state decidedly more than a mere ‘committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie’,footnote8 or a ‘superstructure’ of the capitalist mode of production. The sheer scale of the new, state-owned powers of destruction was bound to unleash a competition between states that was additional to the rivalry between emerging monopolies and cartels in the capitalist economies—a competition sui generis for ever-more terrifying capacities for extermination, which to the societies involved could appear far more dangerous than the periodic crises caused by economic competition.

Under these conditions, was the successful revolutionary deployment of force to liberate society from the plague of capitalism a realistic prospect? Towards the end of his life, Engels seems to have felt compelled to smuggle the class war for socialism into the ‘world war of a hitherto unprecedented expansion and violence’ which he so presciently foresaw on the horizon; his detailed knowledge of the arms race then underway left him in no doubt as to its scale. In 1887, nearly three decades before the onset of World War One, he wrote:

Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process, they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of trade, industry and credit, ending in universal bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle . . . That is the prospect for the moment when the systematic development of mutual one-upmanship in armaments reaches its climax and finally brings forth its inevitable fruits.footnote9

The latest estimates are that 9.5 million died during a war unlike any seen before. For Engels, however, not even an event of this monstrous magnitude could bring the dialectic of history’s advance towards socialism to a standstill. At the end of the coming world war, he proclaimed, with that mixture of prediction and battle cry so characteristic of the early socialists, stood nothing other than the victory of the international working class:

Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class. This is the pass, my worthy princes and statesmen, to which you in your wisdom have brought our ancient Europe. And when no alternative is left to you but to strike up the last dance of war—that will be no skin off our noses. The war may push us into the background for a while, it may wrest many a conquered base from our hands. But once you have unleashed the forces you will be unable to restrain, things can take their course: by the end of the tragedy you will be ruined and the victory of the proletariat will either have already been achieved or else will be inevitable.footnote10

This was not wholly unrealistic, as the revolutionary wave of 1917–19 would later testify. Engels’s claim was that, in the wake of the forthcoming world war, the armed working classes of the then devastated countries would turn against their class enemies and, in a popular uprising, finally overthrow capitalism. After 1918 he could have pointed to the swathe of democratic reforms won in many countries—universal suffrage, trade-union rights, collective bargaining—as well as to the Russian Revolution, which was certainly assisted by the strategic operations of the German General Staff. As Engels understood, war waged as national struggle with conscript armies could serve to strengthen the working class in both the defeated and the victorious countries; the same was true initially after 1945.

If in the end capitalism remained largely intact, this was not solely due to the domestic balance of forces. As early as 1918, the internal order of the emerging nation-states had come to depend in part upon their international military position. On seizing power, the Bolshevik government immediately had to construct its own regular state military—the Red Army, under Trotsky’s command—to defend itself in a ‘civil war’ that was in fact primarily a foreign invasion. Engels would not have been surprised. In Germany, the social-democratic legal scholar Hugo Sinzheimer, founding father of German labour law and Frankfurt’s provisional police chief during the uprising of November 1918, warned a mass rally not to fight for a soviet republic—a Räterepublik—straight away, as this would inevitably, as in Russia, call forth an invasion by Western Allied forces. Elected eighteen months later to the Constituent Assembly, Sinzheimer was one of the drafters of the Works Council Article of the Weimar Constitution.

Historical research has shown that the European powers’ ruling circles expected the war on which they embarked in the summer of 1914 to be, like the skirmishes that preceded it, of short duration. Engels knew better, perhaps because he was among the few who properly understood the destructive power accumulated in the arsenals of the now fully industrialized nation-states. If not only capitalist relations of production but also inter-state relations of destruction persisted after 1918—if, in other words, states succeeded rather quickly in re-organizing their societies around national identities, whether by granting concessions to the working classes, by repressively incorporating them, or both—this was partly because in the industrial era, a well-armed enemy state can inflict more damage on a society than any endogenous economic crisis. The foreign state appeared more dangerous than domestic capital. No socialist revolution could protect you from it, but only a domestic army, just as the nineteenth-century Prussian Army had protected the German states from the Tsarist threat. For this reason the threat of international war blocked the path of class war: domestic relations of production were shored up by inter-state relations of force; class wars risked the danger of national defeat in state wars; and domestic elites could proclaim themselves the protectors of their peoples against other peoples’ means of destruction, proclaim the nation to be one great family—men protecting their mothers, wives and children—and make the distribution of the national means of production seem secondary to their defence." (https://newleftreview.org/issues/ii123/articles/wolfgang-streeck-engels-s-second-theory)