The founders of scientific socialism, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, pointed out that capitalism, through its direct application of scientific knowledge to production, promoted the human utilisation and control of the forces of nature far more rapidly and extensively than any previous mode of production. But they also warned that if the increasingly powerful forces of production called into existence by capitalism were not liberated from the control of the capitalist private profit system and subordinated to conscious social planning and regulation, they would be turned into increasingly powerful forces of destruction.
These contradictory results of the capitalist development of science, technology and large-scale industry — which flow from its contradictory combination of partial rationality (the subjection of productive activity within each capitalist firm to conscious planning) and overall irrationality (the regulation of overall social development and the realisation of social needs according to the blind "laws of the market," to the quest for private profit) — have reached their ultimate absurdity under late monopoly capitalism. In order to defend the existence of its world-wide system of exploitation, imperialism has amassed an arsenal of nuclear weapons capable of annihilating the entire human race. In its relentless pursuit of private profit, monopoly capitalism has harnessed the immense creative power of modern science and technology to the output of an ever-increasing mass of increasingly meaningless commodities, in the process destroying the global balance of biological and chemical processes that all life on Earth depends on for its survival.
War and the threat of nuclear annihilation
War is a product of the social and economic inequality that characterises class-divided societies. Throughout the history of human civilisation, conflicts between exploiting classes or between exploiting and exploited classes over the sources of social wealth (human labour and natural resources) have led to prolonged struggles between contending armies.
In their struggle to divide and redivide the world among themselves, the imperialist ruling classes have unleashed wars of historically unparalleled scope and destructiveness. Twice in the 20th century, imperialist capitalism has plunged the entire world into a global war causing the deaths of 10 million people in the First World War, and 80 million in the Second World War. Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, there have been more than 100 "local" wars, causing more than 20 million deaths.
War and preparation for war have become a permanent feature of the imperialist epoch, wasting enormous productive resources. Despite agreements to limit and reduce the production and stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, nearly 10% of the value of the world's annual production of goods and services and nearly a third of the world's annual expenditure on scientific research and technological development are devoted to the production of armaments and the maintenance of armed forces.
Ever since August 1945, when the United States' attack on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the first and, so far, only use of nuclear weapons in war, it has been clear that any new world war would be a nuclear war, which would unleash horrors even greater than those of the first and second world wars. Later scientific research into the "nuclear winter," and other likely after-effects of a global nuclear war, has confirmed the view that humanity would not survive a new world war. A war that promises self-destruction loses it main purpose — which is victory and enjoyment of the spoils of conquest.
Despite this, the US imperialists and their allies began feverish preparations for a third world war almost as soon as the Second World War ended. Their master plan for launching a nuclear war against the Soviet Union and China repeatedly reached dangerous levels — during the opening stages of the Cold War, during the US invasion of North Korea in 1950-51, during the Vietnamese people's final and decisive battle against their French colonial rulers at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, during the Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956, during the 1962 "missile crisis" in Cuba, and during the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war.
For a time, the development of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union, and later China, acted as a necessary deterrent against the imperialists again using nuclear weapons in war. But at a certain point, the stockpiling of nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union — a result of the Stalinist bureaucracy's purely military approach to the defence of the USSR — only provided the imperialists with a political pretext to justify the maintenance and expansion of their nuclear arsenal. This undermined attempts to build a mass movement for unilateral nuclear disarmament within the imperialist countries, particularly in the US itself.
The combination of unilateral initiatives to limit the nuclear arms build-up undertaken by the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and the favourable public response these initiatives generated, forced the US imperialists to enter into agreements to reduce some categories of nuclear weapons. However, the threat of nuclear annihilation still hangs over the world.
The imperialists will not voluntarily surrender the power that nuclear weapons give them to terrorise the working people of the world. As long as nuclear weapons remain in the hands of the imperialists, the danger exists that they will once again use them, particularly if, as in 1945, they are confident there will be no nuclear retaliation, and if they judge that their gains will outweigh the price they will pay in horror and hatred by working people at home and around the world.
While a mass campaign against imperialist militarism can limit the ability of the imperialists to wage war, in the final analysis only a successful struggle for power by the working class in the imperialist countries, above all the victory of the US working class, can disarm the imperialists and thus free humanity definitively from the threat of war and nuclear annihilation. As the experience of the mass movement against the imperialist war in Vietnam in the late 1960s and early '70s showed, mass campaigns against imperialist wars can contribute to the growth of consciously anti-capitalist forces in the imperialist countries. When linked to a general upsurge in the class struggle, such campaigns can enable such forces to mobilise the working class in a successful struggle for power, as was demonstrated by the Bolshevik party in Russia in 1917.