We are living in a fragile and unstable world. But perhaps that has always been the lot of humankind – certainly, it is a state of affairs as old as capitalism.

Capitalism was never a warm, cuddly, stable social system. It came into the world dripping with blood from every pore, as Marx described it, laying waste to old forms of production and ways of life in favor of new, more efficient manufacturing. Since then it has combined nearly uninterrupted transformation of the instruments of production with immense wealth for a few and unrelieved exploitation, insecurity, misery, and racial and gender inequality for the many, along with periodic wars, and a vast zone of countries imprisoned in a seemingly inescapable web of abject poverty.

Yet as bad as that record is, its most destructive effects on our world could still be ahead.

Why do I say that? Because capitalism, with its imperatives of capital accumulation, profit maximization and competition, is the cause of new global problems that threaten the prospects and lives of billions of people worldwide, and, more importantly, it is also a formidable barrier to humankind’s ability to solve these problems.

Foremost among these, in addition to ecological degradation, economic crises, population pressures, and endemic diseases, is the threat of nuclear mass annihilation.

With the end of the Cold War, most of us thought that the threat of nuclear war would fade and with it the stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

But those hopes were dashed. Rather than easing, the nuclear threat is more palpable in some ways and caches of nuclear weapons are growing. And our own government possesses the biggest stockpiles by far. Much like previous administrations, the Bush administration has continued to develop more powerful nuclear weapons, but with a twist: it insists on its singular right to employ nuclear weapons preemptively in a range of military situations. This is a major departure from earlier U.S. policy – the stated policy of all previous administrations was that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort to be used only in circumstances in which our nation is under severe attack.

Meanwhile, today’s White House bullies demonize, impose sanctions, and make or threaten war on states that are considering developing a nuclear weapons capability. Bush tells us that this policy of arming ourselves while disarming others should cause no anxiety because, he says, his administration desires only peace and has no imperial ambitions. Not surprisingly, people greet his rhetorical assurances skeptically, especially as it becomes more and more obvious that his administration’s political objective is not world peace, but world domination, cunningly couched in the language of “fighting terrorism.”

It is well that millions of peace-minded people distrust Bush’s rhetoric. The hyper-aggressive gang in the Oval Office and Pentagon and the absolutely lethal nature of modern weapons of mass destruction make for a highly unstable and explosive situation that could cascade out of control. War has a logic of its own.

But skepticism alone is not enough. It has to be combined with a sustained mobilization of the world community – the other superpower in this unipolar world – if the hand of the warmakers in the White House and Pentagon is to be stayed.

A heavy responsibility rests on the American people. For we have the opportunity to defeat Bush and his counterparts in Congress in the November elections. Such a defeat will be a body blow to the policies of preemption, regime change, and saber rattling, and a people’s mandate for peace, disarmament, cooperation, and mutual security. The world will become a safer place.

In the longer run, however, it is necessary to replace the system of capitalism. With its expansionary logic to accumulate capital globally and its competitive rivalries, capitalism has an undeniable structural tendency to militarism and war.

This doesn’t mean that nuclear war is inevitable. But it does suggest that nuclear war is a latent, ever-present possibility in a world in which global capital is king. Whether that occurs depends in large measure on the outcome of political struggle within and between classes and social movements at the national and international level.

In the 20th century, the world community escaped a nuclear Armageddon, but will we be so lucky in this century? No one knows for sure. What will improve our chances immeasurably is the skill with which socialist and left forces link the immediate struggles for peace in the election arena and elsewhere with the longer-term task of transcending capitalism and constructing a socialist society, in which the drive to accumulate capital and maximize profits and, in turn, the tendency to aggression, militarism and war, is completely absent.

Sam Webb is chair of the Communist Party USA.
He can be reached at swebb@cpusa.org.