Communists haven’t always opposed the development of capitalism. During the American Civil War, communists threw their support behind capitalists. After his re-election President Lincoln received a letter of congratulations from the First International (though technically it congratulated the American people for re-electing Lincoln). This was in spite of the fact that Lincoln was obviously no communist. And the support of the Union cause by communists was not limited to words. Communists such as Joseph Weydemeyer and August Willich served as officers in the Union Army, rallying others to join the war effort.
This might all seem strange, given that communists in the present day are steadfast in their opposition to capitalism. Why would they have supported it in the past? What changed?
Our answer is that capitalism became decadent. In the 19th century, capitalism was in its ascendancy. It was a rising force taking on the old order of aristocratic rule, which was a society itself in decay. In the American South, the ruling class was not of birthright as in other parts of the world, but the laboring class of slaves were condemned to servitude with no means of escape. The destruction of this slave society liberated millions, and it paved the way for a new social order—one spreading from the North—which had advantages over the old system but was not free of drawbacks. The factory system and wage labor spread, and the opening of even larger markets fueled profits. By the end of the 19th century, the United States was a beacon of industrial capitalism and a competitor on the world stage. The Gilded Age, as it was called, saw migrations of many from the countryside, including freed slaves and their descendants, into the crowded cities. Immigrants arrived as well, seeking escape from unrest in their former countries. That unrest occurring in Europe in Asia was in part a transformation of those countries, from stagnant, largely peasant societies into quickly industrializing nations. The growing pains of capitalism were felt as more and more found themselves with nothing but their labor to sell.
The great powers of the world at the turn of the 20th century found themselves hungering for labor and resources, as no amount of growth could sate their appetite for profit. European powers, like Britain, that already had large military occupations throughout the world, were at an advantage, while newcomers to the scene had to race to carve up the world to obtain necessary resources to their own development. Resources like copper, rubber, coal, and oil became strategically necessary to continue commodity production. The firms that were given free reign to exploit those resources were often monopolistic, and in their conquest of an even greater market share, their interests became one with the state that was reliant on them to build up arms to defend against any and all competing national interests.
With this rise of capitalism came the rise of two great classes. With the rise of the capitalist class and the proletariat came struggle. Labor fought battles in the streets to obtain concessions, but the state always came to the loyal defense of its capitalist class. In this period, the working class began to see its interests as being in total opposition to those of its masters. Mass parties formed, and some grew powerful enough to enter national politics. It was not long before politicians found themselves with great power, and the lines between their own interest and the interest of the state blurred.
In the decades following this great arc upward for capitalist development came the bloodiest period in human history. The development of capitalism was always far from harmonious, but the period prior to the First World War would come to be known in Europe as La Belle Époque—the “beautiful epoch”—a period where prosperity within the imperialist powers seemed to be destined to bubble at the surface indefinitely. Underneath that surface, however, prosperity was a false promise for the working class. When the façade of harmony came crashing down, that hollow promise turned into an industrially advanced, mechanized nightmare the likes of which the world had never seen. It was, of course, the working class that would be asked—or condemned—to sacrifice for the interests of nation and state. Many workers had come to identify their own interests with that of the state, but many came to understand that in the war to follow their interests were more closely aligned to their “enemy”, the worker in the other trench, than with the officers that barked orders at either one of them. Unfortunately, the career politicians of the working class parties were left with a dilemma—to support the cause of proletarians of all countries, and to demand an end of their bloodshed, or to subordinate the working class parties to the cause of defending the interests of the nation. For many workers of the Social Democratic parties, the swift betrayal came as a shock. Few, if any, were prepared at that moment to comprehend what this travesty would mean for their class.
Communists mark the period of the start of the First World War to the beginning of the Russian Revolution as having profound implications for the proletariat. Throughout the years of brutality, the appeal to nation grew frail, the promise of a common national interest irreconcilably broken. A brave few stood up to the nationalist appeals and rejected the positions of the Social Democratic parties pitted against one another in alliance with their local capitalists. As the war raged on and the death count entered the millions, the calls of communists grew louder. While even in the early stage desertion and resistance from workers on the battlefield was “a problem”, it became apparent that the end to the war had was not in sight if the working class was willing to continue to fight it. By the end of the war, soldiers regularly refused orders. Mutinies in the Navy and strikes in the major cities cut plans for further conscription short. The eventual collapse of the military machines of Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary were brought about through organized proletarian resistance. With the collapse of the Russian Empire, and its rump bourgeois Provisional Government, came the rise of an explicitly proletarian, internationalist, and communist movement. Unlike the calls from the Social Democrats to continue bearing arms against their own class, this movement called for end to the war, and the beginning of a revolutionary civil war against the states that oppress proletarians the world over.
This decline marked the end of the overlap between the interests of communists and capitalists. In earlier times, the expansion of capitalism created the conditions necessary for socialism, specifically the global spread of large industry. But once that became a reality, there was no further use for capitalist development. And soon, the development of capitalism became not only useless, but it became self-destructive. Once that threshold was crossed, any support for capitalism only weakened the movement for socialism.
It is part of the nature of capital that it must expand. Unfortunately, the world is not such a big place, and capital grows like a weed. And with virtually every corner of the world engaged in capitalist production, there is nowhere left to go. So, capital must extract more from places it already controls. More time from workers, more resources from the Earth, more energy from fossil fuels. More of everything than we could hope to sustain.
That is why giant sections of the Amazon are being intentionally burned to ash. It’s not that capitalists don’t know the consequences of environmental destruction. They know as well as we do that the world is burning and every day brings us closer to extinction, but they can’t stop the expansion of capital any more than the Sorcerer’s Apprentice could stop all those brooms in Fantasia.
The logic of capitalist expansion tests the limits of our environment, and the limits of working class submission. As markets have expanded to every corner of the globe, rising movements of workers both in their workplaces and against the state have become commonplace. Ongoing strikes and protests are occurring simultaneously in multiple locations throughout the world. Often these movements make ambiguous demands, but even when the state concedes the movements have yet to accept a truce. Whether the fight is in Baghdad, Paris, Hong Kong, or Quito, the various states have yet to quell building resentment.
Capitalists have to serve the interests of capital. So whatever bargains they make, whatever reforms or regulations they promise, they can’t give us what we need. Appealing to them in the hope of fixing a broken world is pointless. Only the independent action of the working class can help us now.
There’s a saying that what you own owns you. There’s a kernel of truth in that, but it breaks down at a certain point. The working class doesn’t really own anything of significant value—not enough to make workers beholden to capital. So, it would be more accurate to say of capitalists, that what they own owns the world. The only way to save the world from being burned and pillaged and broken until we can no longer live on it is to get rid of ownership altogether. And because we own nothing, and are therefore owned by nothing, the working class is the only group free to do what needs to be done.