In his final years, Frederick Engels was deeply concerned about the seeming inevitability of a world war of mass extermination. In his 1887 introduction to a pamphlet by the German socialist Sigismund Borkheim, Engels pointed to “a world war,”
of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. 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 depredation 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.… Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class. (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 26 [New York: International Publishers, 1975], 451)
A little over a year later, Engels wrote even more pessimistically to Paul Lafargue of “the most terrible of eventualities”:
a war in which there will be 10 to 15 million combatants, unparalleled devastation simply to keep them fed, universal and forcible suppression of our movement, a recrudescence of chauvinism in all countries and, ultimately, enfeeblement ten times worse than after 1815, a period of reaction based in the inanition [exhaustion] of all peoples by then bled white—and, withal, only a slender hope that bitter war may result in revolution—it fills me with horror. Especially when I think of our movement in Germany, which would be overwhelmed, crushed, brutally stamped out of existence, whereas peace would almost certainly bring us victory (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 48, 283).
Engels was stunned by the “ghastly effects” of the new anti-personnel artillery shells filled with melinite high explosives that shot people “to pieces,” employed by the French Legionnaires in their brutal colonial war in Dahomey in 1892–94. Dahomey, with its large standing army (including its elite Amazon troops), tried to resist the French forces by means of conventional warfare, only to be crushed by superior weaponry. The new armaments so devastatingly employed in the colonization of Africa would soon be used, Engels intimated, by capitalist countries everywhere. It spelled the absolute end of revolutionary barricade fighting. “If the military fight,” he wrote, “resistance [by workers] becomes madness.” The same armaments accentuated the fact that another greater madness was in sight, namely, that of an exterminating world war (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 50, 21, 548–49).
Engels’s answer to the prospect of a world war engulfing Europe and its colonies was the active promotion of a class strategy for disarmament in his Can Europe Disarm? in 1893. The notion of disarmament was a new concept at the time and was not to be taken up formally until the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907. In a climate of universal male conscription and preparation for war, Engels argued for reducing standing armies (“service with the colours”) and their replacement with trained militias, effectively arming the people for their own defense. His proposals put him in direct conflict with German Social Democratic leaders such as August Bebel (Marx and Engels, Collected Works, vol. 27, 373; Hal Draper and E. Haberkern, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, vol. 5 [New York: Monthly Review Press, 2005], 179–88). When the First World War came in 1914, the German Socialist Democratic Party, along with most of the socialist parties of Europe, backed the war efforts of their various states, giving way to all the horrors that Engels had feared. The First World War itself set the stage for the October Revolution in Russia in 1917.
All of the major imperial powers invaded Soviet Russia in 1918 to support the “White” forces in the Civil War. After its victory in the Civil War, the young Soviet Republic came out strongly in favor of “general disarmament,” but on proletarian terms. V. I. Lenin himself had helped define this approach through his support of Engels’s strategy of the disarmament through reduction of standing forces to be accompanied by the arming of the working population. This general stance was carried forward by the Soviets at the Hague Peace Conference in 1922. At the Hague Conference, Karl Radek, representing the new Soviet Union, called for evacuation of foreign troops from all colonized countries, the “disarmament of all White Guard organizations (Fascisti, civil guards, Orgesch), and for the arming of the working masses” in all nations. Disarmament was thus turned into a class issue, rooted in socialist internationalism (Karl Radek, “,” www.marxists.org; V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 36 [Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1977 printing], 172–73; V. I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 39 [Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974 printing], 499–503).
Today, the situation is vastly more complex and dangerous than in the 1890s, when Engels first brought the disarmament issue to the fore. Global annihilation by nuclear weapons can be set in motion at any moment at the mere touch of a button. Disarmament therefore has less to do with reducing standing armies than going after the “national security state” in the overall capitalist state structure, along with the entire military-industrial complex. The chief objectives in any socialist disarmament strategy are: (1) an end to imperialism; (2) abolition through international agreements of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction; (3) elimination of foreign military bases; (4) adoption of the principle of indivisible security governing the relations between nations; (5) acceptance of multipolarity; and (6)—as the basis for all of this—working-class, popular, democratic control of the means of production (and thus the means of destruction). Disarmament in the twenty-first century is itself necessarily revolutionary and has to be understood in class-struggle and anti-imperialist terms.
In the June 2023 issue of Monthly Review, we noted the death on April 19, 2023, at age 85, of our long-time comrade and friend, Michael A. Lebowitz, one of the leading Marxist theorists of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Lebowitz was born in New Jersey of working-class parentage. Studying economics, he soon became a Marxist in the face of the contradictions of neoclassical theory, influenced in part by his own class background and interests. He did graduate studies in economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he joined the editorial board of Studies on the Left in the early 1960s, also co-chairing the economics workshop for the 1962 Port Huron Statement of Students for a Democratic Society. In 1965, he took a position as a professor of economics at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
In the early 1980s, Lebowitz began a major restudy of Marx’s economics. On October 6, 1982, he wrote to John Bellamy Foster,
Everything I have been doing lately starts from a reconstruction of Marx’s method; where it ultimately will lead is anyone’s guess although the result seems to be increasingly a criticism of Marx’s text (and, even more, of Marxists for failing to understand what Marx was doing—and, thus, not being able to identify his lapses). The most important byproduct (I think) thus far is the argument that Capital is one-sided and the failure to write his anticipated volume on wage-labour had enormous implications.… A lot of what I am doing is a test of the hypothesis that an understanding of Marx’s method yields more interesting results than the eclecticism that goes under the name of Marxism.
It was this general thesis on the one-sidedness of capital that was to lead, a decade later, to Lebowitz’s Beyond Capital: Marx’s Political Economy of the Working Class (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), republished in a revised and expanded edition in 2003, which then won the coveted Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize. Beyond Capital was a revolutionary work in Marxian theory precisely because it raised the issue of the incompleteness and one-sidedness of Capital from the standpoint of what Marx had called “the political economy of the working class,” as opposed to “the political economy of capital.”
Following the publication of the first edition of Beyond Capital, Lebowitz became increasingly involved in struggles of socialist transition. Already in the early 1980s, he had begun participating in the international Marxist theoretical discussions occurring annually in Yugoslavia. In 1997, he went to Cuba, where he met Marta Harnecker, who was to become his life partner. In 2004, they left for Caracas, where they were to be advisers to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution. It was as a result of these experiences, combined with his profound studies of Marx, that Lebowitz wrote a series of extraordinary works on socialist transitions, actual and potential, including Build It Now: Socialism for the 21st Century (2006); The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (2010); The Contradictions of “Real Socialism”: The Conductor and the Conducted (2012); The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now (2015); and Between Capitalism and Community (2020)—all published by Monthly Review Press. More recently, he returned to the analysis of Marx’s Capital directly, some of the fruits of which will appear in Monthly Review this fall. (For more information on Lebowitz, see Federico Fuentes, “,” Green Left, May 12, 2023, www.greenleft.org.au).