Mycenae c1200 BCE: soldiers marching to war

Ten thousand years of sorrow

Class exploitation and war go hand in hand. Jack Conrad explores origins, Greek warriors, Christian theology and the widely held idea that Marx and Engels urged the backing of the lesser evil

Steven Pinker opens his 2011 book, The better angels of our nature, subtitled Why violence has declined, by explaining why his real starting point is not with the “anarchy of the hunting, gathering and horticultural societies”, in which our species spent most of its evolutionary history. Instead he claims to trace a fivefold reduction in the chronic violence that “characterised life in a state of nature”, beginning with the onset of the “first agricultural civilisations and governments.” Pinker calls this the Pacification Process.

As one of those incorrigible, TED-talking, professional bourgeois optimists, Pinker finds it convenient to accept as a given the Hobbesian notion that we must have strong states, law courts, armies, police forces, prisons and all that crap, if our dark passions are to be curbed. Without that there can only be “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. In a phrase: “war of everyone against everyone”.1

By taking 8000 BCE as his point of departure, Pinker purports to show that life is slowly getting better, less fractious, more peaceful. Of course, a generalised nuclear exchange between the big powers would change that Pollyannaish picture in an incandescent flash. But there is a more substantial problem with Pinker’s account. He assumes that for the vast majority of our “evolutionary history” life was, yes, “nasty, brutish and short”.

However, the evidence that we have shows no such thing. Contemporary hunter-gatherer societies in sub-Saharan Africa, such as the San, can be taken as the inheritors and continuers of an original communism dating back 200,000 years or thereabouts. While Bantu herders and white colonial incomers have murdered and persecuted them, taken the best watering holes and killed off much of the big game, a militant egalitarianism still reigns amongst them. While undoubtedly some inter-personal violence happens, in particular between randy young men, would-be male despots are given short shrift. Humorous put-downs, walk-outs and culturally embedded levelling combine to maintain what Christopher Boehm calls an “anti-hierarchy”.2 Crucially, in terms of our discussion, there is an absence of war between San groups. There is, however, exogamous marriage, with males coming into the group, not females moving out. So it is make love, not “war of everyone against everyone”.

War certainly needs to be categorically distinguished from mere occasional inter-personal violence. Carl von Clausewitz, and his 1832 Vom Kriege (‘On war’), has, of course, provided the now standard definition. War, he says, is never a single act: it is a duel on an extended scale. War is an “act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfil our will”. War is the “previous” peaceful policy, the politics, of this or that tribe, state, class or party, continued by “other, violent, means”.3 War and peace are therefore opposites which constitute a unity. Where there is no war, neither is there peace.

Chris Knight, following Frederick Engels, has homo sapiens breaking with the violent alpha-male hierarchy that characterises our nearest living biological cousins, the chimpanzees and gorillas, and, with good reason, we think characterised our now extinct, early palaeolithic ancestors such as homo erectus and homo heidelbergensis. In his convincingly argued account, the human revolution consisted of a whole series of attempts - led by women, in alliance with their brothers and sons - before the new order was finally established. But this leap from ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ allowed language, symbolic culture and uber sociability to take off.4 Males were incorporated as the second productive sex. And, far from this original communism being based on scarcity, as Engels sometimes imagined, the exact opposite was surely the case. There was plenty of free time, lots of storytelling, weeks of collective play … and an abundance of megafauna for males to hunt, so as to provide the extended matrilineal family with meat.

Though it is incredibly sparse, the archaeological record shows none of the tell-tale signs of war in the lower and middle palaeolithic. That changes with a vengeance with what is still commonly called the neolithic revolution (it was perhaps closely connected with the mass extinction of megafauna outside sub-Saharan Africa and the onset of the Holocene). Hastily arranged mass graves have been discovered, dating from the third millennium BCE. Bodies appear to have been tossed in - they lie jangled one on top of the other - and there is not the least sign of reverence associated with ‘normal’ burials. Skulls are cracked and arrow points are embedded in bones. This and other such examples provide “a strong argument in favour of the warfare theory”, write Jean Guilaine and Jean Zammit.5

Indeed cave paintings from the time show groups of male figures, drawn using black or brown ochre, mostly armed with bows and arrows, clearly engaged in fighting each other. Even if this portrayal was not Stone Age news reporting, but mock battle (a kind of dress rehearsal), it unmistakably points to a definite reality: war. With the Bronze Age there come armed states, walled cities and the elite male profession of making war: the image and ideology of the warrior hero emerges.

The neolithic was, in fact, a counterrevolution which on the upside brought much improved tools, but on the downside women’s oppression, slavery and the imposition of a steep, pyramidical social hierarchy with, at the top, chiefs, priests and kings, who live off and exploit the labour of others. With cattle herding and sedentary agriculture, war, or the threat of war, comes, though, to be a social necessity. Booty, slaves, tribute, new lands could be gained through war - a constant temptation. By equal measure, raiders, conquerors, aspiring hegemons had to be fended off, if harvests, cattle, slaves and the other wonders of civilisation were to be protected. War is thereby made into a norm and the brief moments between wars are treasured under the name of peace. The Greeks venerated the goddess, Eirene; the Romans the equivalent goddess, Pax.

Just and unjust

That logically brings us to the concept of just and unjust wars. A quick glance at Wikipedia shows that the rulers of ancient Egypt and ancient China had some sort of notion of just wars. However, this amounted to little more than priests relaying that the gods, or the ancestors, were saying exactly what the pharaoh, or the emperor, wanted to hear. Defend the state from heinous foreign invaders, or invade this, that or some other suitably disrespecting - and vulnerable - foreign state to seize territory, slaves and exact tribute. Be they wars of defence or wars of aggression, they needed little in the way of justification.

Indeed amongst the warrior elite the excuse needed to launch a full-scale war could be nothing more than that their precious sense of honour had been dissed in some way. A provocation, real or entirely imagined, was, though, needed. After all, even the most bloodthirsty warrior chief must psych themselves up. But war is what gave them purpose, prestige and the wealth needed to bestow generous gifts to their band of armed followers. And, while war is undoubtedly a risky business, there was always the glorious prospect, the gods willing, of much loot. There was, naturally, the possibility of defeat, being killed, or being captured and sold into slavery. The gods are capricious, the Fates decide.

So, while Greek philosophers could entertain a doctrine of ‘natural slavery’, they also recognised that nothing more than bad luck could result in landing oneself in such an unfortunate predicament. Hence for Aristotle the object of military training is

… not to bring into subjection [slavery] those not deserving of such treatment, but to enable men (a) to save themselves from becoming subject to others, (b) to win a position of leadership, exercised for the benefit of the ruled, not with a view of being the master of all, and (c) to exercise the rule of a master over those who deserve to be slaves.6

The most famous account of Greek warfare, as everyone knows, is Homer’s Iliad. Though packed into a few short months, this great poetic work tells the story of the 10-year struggle between the Greek Achaeans and the Trojans, and the events that led up to the terrible conflict. Things begin with a beauty contest between the goddesses, Athena, Hera and Aphrodite, with the mortal Paris, a Trojan prince, awarding the prize - a golden apple - to Aphrodite. That brings gratitude from her and spiteful vengeance from the other two. With the help of Aphrodite, Paris wins the love of the Spartan queen, Helen, the most desirable woman in the world. Together they elope to Troy. Her husband, Menelaus, is outraged. He happens, though, not only to be king of Sparta: his brother is Agamemnon, the ruler of Mycenae, and the high king of all Greece.

To avenge Menelaus, and retrieve Helen, the Greeks raise a mighty army and launch a thousand ships across the Aegean to attack Troy. Homer has the subsequent long series of indecisive battles between Greek and Trojan warriors reflecting and being heavily influenced by rival Olympian gods and goddesses (code for the forces of nature). Plagues are inflicted, arrows guided, winds made unfavourable. The immortals too have their jealousies, their feuds, their favourites, their precious sense of honour. But it is clear that what really motivates the Greek kings and princes is booty: bronze, silver, gold and slave girls. The Iliad opens with the quarrel between Agamemnon and the mighty Achilles, the best Greek warrior, over the daughter of the priest, Chryses. He comes to the Greek camp with a generous ransom offer. Agamemnon is willing to give her up, but only in return for Achilles’ bed-mate, the beautiful Briseis. The two spectacularly fall out.

Fascinatingly, the only ordinary, rank-and-file Greek soldier named in the Iliad, as far as I know, is the “irrepressible Thersites”. Homer describes him as “the ugliest man who had come to Ilium”.7 Bandy-legged, with rounded shoulders, a game foot and an egg-shaped head: giving him such a physique makes him morally suspect for an elite audience. But Thersites is wonderfully eloquent in the general assembly of the Greek army. He tells the truth. Agamemnon always gets the first pick, when it comes to booty gained from sacked towns: he gets the gold, the choicest women to sleep with and make his own property. In other words, Thersites denounces the war with Troy as unjust. He calls for the rank and file to take to the ships and return home.

Odysseus, king of the little island of Ithica, beats Thersites over his back and shoulders with his staff and humiliatingly reduces him to tears. The rank and file, according to Homer, applaud his brutal action. They do not want kings insulted by this “windy ranter”.8 An unlikely story. Thersites was the spokesperson for the rank and file.

Of course, the Iliad is not history. It is even possible that Homer never existed. But through this epic work we gain access to the thought world of the ancient Greek elite … and, with Thersites, a glimpse of its popular opposition.

Probably, the attempt to develop a coherent doctrine of just wars came after the Roman empire is said to have adopted Christianity as its official religion in 380 CE. It should be added that Christianity had become the main popular religion by this time and the emperors clearly decided to first cohabit with and then coopt the Christian church’s top ranks of bishops, abbots and deacons. Empires, however, by definition rely on repression, exploitation and constant warfare. There is a big problem then when an empire cloaks itself in the Jesus religion. After all, the biblical Jesus teaches his followers about the virtues of peace, about turning the other cheek, about resisting not evil.

The circle was squared by the likes of Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), Isidore of Saville (c560-636 CE) and rather later, but most decisively, by St Thomas Aquinas (1225-74 CE). It is not “always sinful to wage war” according to Aquinas. Three requirements have to be met for a war to be judged as just. Firstly, it must be conducted by the “authority” of a legitimate “sovereign”, not a “private individual”. Secondly, the war needs to be undertaken against an enemy because they “deserve it on account of some fault”. Thirdly, belligerents should have “righteous intention”.9 Aquinas came to the conclusion that a just war could be offensive and that injustice should not be tolerated so as to avoid war. Nevertheless, Aquinas argued that violence must only be used as a last resort. On the battlefield, it was only justified to the extent it was necessary and soldiers needed to avoid acts of deliberate cruelty. Aquinas argued that it was only in the pursuit of justice that the good intention of a moral act could justify negative consequences, including the killing of innocent civilians during a war.10

The 1066 Norman conquest, the Crusades, the European wars of religion that spanned the 16th, 17th and early 18th centuries all came with prayers, relics and blessings of holy water. But, of course, Marxists seek to penetrate what lies behind the flim-flam and reveal the rival class forces involved. Nonetheless, to discount, to dismiss the ideas which people use to fight out their interests would be foolish in the extreme. The doctrines of Augustine, Isidore and Aquinas coloured, shaped and to some degree drove events and therefore have to be grasped in their own right.

However, after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the role of religion in justifying wars tended to decline. Diplomatic manoeuvre, international agreements and naked state interests came to the fore: Realpolitik. This is what we find with von Clausewitz. Militarily this reflected the era of well drilled, professional infantry and the line of bayoneted muskets. Not that the need for ideological mystification ends. The bourgeois revolutions in America (1776) and France (1789) roused the population using notions such as liberty, justice, patriotism and the rights of the people. This, not mindless square bashing and a miserly pay-packet, is what motivated volunteers and conscripts.

Marx and Engels

As a team Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were very much influenced by the French Revolution and its wars against the great powers of aristocratic Europe. In their early writings they used the words ‘revolution’ and ‘war’ “almost interchangeably”.11 Like most of their radical contemporaries, they saw the French republic under siege and mobilising the population to defeat the internal and external forces of counterrevolution. The actual history and the conflict between the pro-war Girondins and anti-war Jacobins need not concern us here.

With the battle of Waterloo in 1815, of course, Napoleon met defeat. However, the spectre of the French Revolution haunted aristocratic Europe. Out of fear the Holy Alliance came together and imposed a stifling reaction across the face of the whole continent. France had the Bourbon monarchy restored, much to the delight of returning aristocratic exiles. The franchise was restricted and ever more conservative governments followed. Russia, Prussia and Austria dismembered Poland and kept Germany divided into a patchwork of oppressive, petty, ineffective states. Even the mildest reformer was considered a dangerous subversive. Police spying and censorship were ubiquitous. Naturally there was opposition, indeed in 1830 and 1846 there were uprisings in Poland led by the szlachta (the revolutionary traditional aristocracy). While they commanded sympathy from across the spectrum of progressive opinion, the revolutionaries were crushed amidst much bloodshed. In France the same happened in 1830.

To end the period of reaction, to establish the most basic freedoms, it was necessary to make revolution - and to make revolution was to immediately confront the Holy Alliance (plus the global hegemon, Great Britain). Inevitably that meant revolutionary war - not in support of any existing state, but a war of ‘the Democracy’ against all reactionary powers, crucially the main enemy, Russia, and Britain.

This was the world that Marx and Engels came into as young revolutionary democrats who were making the transition to becoming full-blown communists. They therefore envisaged revolution across Europe involving the unity of a variety of opposition forces - in class terms proletarians, peasants, middle class professionals, the radical bourgeoisie; in party terms the Chartists in Britain, Agrarian Reformers in the US, Social Democrats in France and in Poland nationalists who were committed to an agrarian democracy (ie, not the szlachta). While, apart from in Britain, there was no immediate prospect of the working class coming to power, there was the immediate prospect of the bourgeoisie coming to power, especially in Germany, and the working class immediately beginning the fight against the bourgeoisie with a view to coming to power within a relatively short period of time (ie, permanent or uninterrupted revolution).

During the 1848 revolution, this strategy saw members of the Communist League and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (‘The organ of Democracy’ edited by Marx) advocating war against tsarist Russia. This was not, could not, be conducted by Prussia, let alone the petty German kingdoms and principalities. No, it was revolutionary Germany which fights and defeats its own autocrats through war and then spreads the flame of liberation to other countries in Europe by taking on the Holy Alliance. This, of course, could be a bourgeois-led revolutionary Germany, but, if that was the case, the popular forces - not least the working class - would already be exercising a decisive influence: perhaps they themselves would be on the verge of taking power. Either way, Neue Rheinische Zeitung committed itself to a foreign policy which sought the unity of a new Poland and support for the Italian, Hungarian, Czech and other such national movements.

That support did not, though, extend to other national movements - specifically those deemed to have made themselves into cat’s paws, agents, of the reactionary powers: eg, the Croats and other such south Slav peoples. Engels famously dubbed them ‘non-historic peoples’. It should be pointed out that, while this accurately described the political position of the leaders, it was a wrong call. After all, the aim should have been to split the masses from those who, out of their own selfish reasons, were willing to be used by Austria and Russia. Note, not long afterwards, Engels can be found describing the Serb and Romanian national movements as progressive, because they were aimed against pan-Slavism and Russian tsarism, as well as Ottoman rule.

Needless to say, Marx and Engels were quickly and decisively disabused of any illusions that they had in the revolutionary potential of the German bourgeoisie. They too knew all about the 1789 French Revolution, yet, whereas Marx and Engels drew inspiration, they recoiled in panic from the prospect of any re-enactment on German soil. The first stirrings of the working class movement in Germany had them pleading for a compromise with reaction. Their Frankfurt Assembly was full of cowards: it produced no Marat, no Danton, no Robespierre.

True, after the defeat of the revolutionary wave of 1848-49, Marx and Engels did look to conflicts between the existing powers as possibly producing conditions that could help revive the revolution. However, as far as I know, they only actively supported an existing capitalist power on one occasion. Their co-thinkers in the US tirelessly worked to get Abraham Lincoln elected in 1860 by winning over the large German-American population, especially in New York City, to vote for him. Their comrade and friend, Joseph Weydemeyer, served as a lieutenant colonel in the Union army, along with many other heroic red 48ers. Again and again Marx and Engels and their comrades urged Lincoln to play the trump card: freedom for black slaves in the south.

Eventually, in January 1863, after much hesitating, ‘Old Abe’ eventually agreed to violate the sacred rights of private property. The emancipation proclamation was issued. It proved a decisive move. What had been a constitutional war became a revolutionary war. Black regiments soon took to the field against the Confederacy. By the end of the war they made up some 10% of the Union army and were renowned for their aggression and bravery.

Using their position in the International Workingman’s Association in London, Marx and Engels also did their utmost to prevent the Palmerston government in Britain from intervening to tip things in favour of the Confederacy. And, of course, they unstintingly praised and gave intransigent support for the Lancashire mill workers, in their boycott of southern cotton, despite the suffering this caused them. A model of proletarian internationalism in the eyes of Marx and Engels.

All that was done in the full knowledge that victory for the Yankee north would see America fully independent from Britain for the first time and quickly elevate it into the first rank of nations. Once there, Marx and Engels predicted, it would prove not only a naval, financial and industrial rival to Britain, but an imperial challenger for global hegemony. On the positive side, however, now that black labour was no longer found in chains there was the possibility of forming an hereditary proletariat and putting a working class stamp on US politics.

There was too the 1870-71 Franco-Prussian war, which Marx initially - mistakenly - saw as an unprovoked act of aggression by Louis Bonaparte. But, as he half-suspected, it was the wily Otto von Bismarck who tricked France into firing the first shots and thereby excusing the pre-prepared crushing German counterattack. However, what needs to be understood with Marx and Engels is that they were never in the business of backing this or that ‘more progressive’ country against this or that ‘more reactionary’ one. They had long declared that workers have no fatherland - because nowhere were they in power. Their entire foreign policy was, therefore, designed to achieve two key objectives: (a) the formation of the working class in itself; (b) the formation of the working class into a class for itself.

So their side in the Franco-Prussian war was neither Prussian-led Germany nor Louis Bonaparte’s second empire. No, it was the Paris Commune and the anti-war wing of the working class movement in Germany, led by Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Babel. That is crystal-clear from their writings, their speeches to the IWMA, its resolutions, publications and letters to the press.

It should be added that towards the end of their lives both Marx and Engels became less and less pro-war and more and more pro-peace. Hence their emphasis on slowly building the power of workers’ organisations, using elections, including winning a majority, and defeating a reactionary coup, if need be through mutiny in the popular militia. They certainly worried that, while a general conflagration in Europe would bring crashing down one crowned dynasty after another, it would see millions dead and set back the huge progress the working class movement had been making by a decade or two. That was true especially for Russia.

Whereas once there was stagnation and reaction, increasingly they recognised the potential for revolution. In point of fact, in 1881 they write of the world revolutionary centre shifting from France to Germany and from Germany to Russia. It was, Marx and Engels thought, Russia, through a popular revolution, that would now stimulate proletarian revolution in Europe.

Potresov and Lenin

We must appreciate how little of Marx and Engels the first generation of Marxists had available to them. It was, after all, in my lifetime that the first English translation of the Grundrisse came out. The German ideology, The economic and philosophical manuscripts, the Dialectics of nature went unpublished even in German till the 1920s and 30s. Meanwhile, most of their journalistic articles and the mass of their letters gathered dust in archives and private hands.

In 1914 the best known writings of the Marx-Engels team on the subject of war was an 1897 collection of NRZ articles and Marx-Engels writings on the Crimean War, put together by Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling. Their aim was to counter pro-Serb sentiments being whipped up by the press in Britain and France. However, because of shifting diplomatic alliances, Russia joined the Anglo-French Entente in 1907 and the Ottomans aligned themselves with Germany-Austria. Therefore the Marx-Engels exposure of Russia’s war aims could serve the social-imperialists on either side in World War I.

German and Austrian social-imperialists tried to excuse themselves by claiming that Marx and Engels were rabid Russophobes: every war against Russia was a just war. In Russia, Alexander Potresov - one of the original Iskra editors alongside Lenin - insisted that Marx and Engels always chose the lesser evil: eg, they supposedly wanted the victory of Prussia over Austria in 1866 - not exploit the outcome. Potresov’s conclusion was that the Anglo-French-Russian Entente was to be preferred over the German-Austrian-Ottoman Central Powers.

However, the anti-war left largely accepted this framework as a given. But, they argued, events had rendered the views of Marx and Engels outdated. Lack of source material, the necessity of coming out with quick answers and prior assumptions, forced them to fashion a principled position out of an entirely bogus history.

Rosa Luxemburg took it for granted that Marx and Engels never changed their minds on Russia and were therefore plain wrong. The Russia of 1848 was hardly the Russia of 1905. Lenin, on the other hand, always highly respectful of Marx and Engels, developed a whole schema of the rising bourgeoisie being revolutionary till 1871, but then becoming thoroughly reactionary with the imperialist, final, stage of capitalism. In practical terms there is nothing wrong with this approach. It did, after all, allow the Bolsheviks to oppose both sides in World War I.

Nonetheless, as we have seen, it does Marx and Engels a great disservice. They were hardly champions of the capitalist class prior to the 1871 Commune. No, Marx and Engels championed the working class, which proclaimed that the “despots of all countries are our enemies”.12.

This article is the first part of the talk given to Communist University Spring 2024 by Jack Conrad. CU videos can be viewed at: youtube.com/communistpartyofgreatbritain

  1. T Hobbs Leviathan New York 2009, p72.↩︎

  2. C Boehm Hierarchy of the forest Cambridge MA 2001, p10.↩︎

  3. A Rapoport (ed) Clausewitz on war Harmondsworth 1976, pp101-22.↩︎

  4. See C Knight Blood relations London 1995.↩︎

  5. J Guilaine and J Zammit The origins of warfare; violence in prehistory Oxford 2005, p152.↩︎

  6. TA Sinclair (trans) Aristotle: the politics London 1992, pp435-36.↩︎

  7. EV Rieu (trans) Homer: the Iliad Harmondsworth 1976, p45.↩︎

  8. Ibid p47.↩︎

  9. T Aquinas, ‘Question 40 (four articles)’ Summa theologica pp3073-74: www.ccel.org/ccel/a/aquinas/summa/cache/summa.pdf.↩︎

  10. S Lazar and H Frowe (eds) The Oxford handbook of ethics of war Oxford 2018, p115.↩︎

  11. H Draper and E Haberkern Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 5, New York 2005, p19.↩︎

  12. Ibid pp125-64.↩︎