Capitalism, Wars and Epidemics (II)

The second part of this contribution opens with a historical sketch of wars and epidemics from capitalism’s early expansion since the turn of the 16th Century: the discovery of the “West Indies” and the ensuing conquest of the Americas by Europe’s incipient colonialism, as well as its  expansion to Africa and the “East Indies”, until the era of modern imperialism, since the First World War. It focuses on the ‘natural’ spread of lethal diseases and epidemics as a consequence of the interaction of hitherto physically separated populations across continents, under the conditions of a merciless exploitation of slave and forced labor.

It continues by developing on biological warfare that only became systematically developed in the context of modern imperialism by all major rivaling powers, alongside chemical and – after WW-2 – in addition to nuclear warfare. Military-scientific programs for ‘weaponizing’ a diversity of biological agents (bacteria and viruses, like for instance anthrax, botulinum, plague or Ebola) and the yet limited attempts at “testing” and “applying” them in war conflicts are briefly reviewed, including the telling example of the Aun sect in Japan (formally a non-state actor).

This part concludes with some theses for discussion, and a brief rejection of the speculation that the present Covid-19 pandemic would have originated from Chinese military laboratory experiments.

3. Capitalism, Imperialism and the War of Microbes

In 1913, on the eve of the war, Rosa Luxemburg forcefully pointed out that the rise of capitalism is nothing more than the history of its crimes, its violence on a global scale, that it steeps into irreparable convulsions:

« [Capital] is not only born “from head to toe sweating blood and filth through every pore”, but it imposes itself upon the world step by step in this way, and thereby prepares, in ever more violent convulsions, its own downfall.» (1)

The Moloch of money

The development of capitalism, first in its commercial form, was accompanied by a first globalization. This was largely a policy of expansion, military conquests, colonization and exploitation on the scale of entire continents. The “discovery” of America by Columbus inaugurated microbial globalization. Bacteria and viruses that thrived on the Euro-Asian continent spread everywhere during the conquest. Infections such as measles, smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis destroyed whole populations. In Mexico, the Amerindian population fell from 25 million in 1519 to 1.5 million in 1580, and in Peru the fall was just as sharp: 10 million around 1530. (2) The same apocalyptic observation [could be made] in North America. Epidemics in South and Central America were progressing to the present-day United States in the early 16th Century. French settlers installed themselves in Canada and depopulation began immediately as a result of contact with Indian communities – in commercial and warlike form – and many communities disappeared even before they had learned that foreign ships had reached their shores. (3) This deadly march of pandemics lasted until the 19th Century: in the early 1880s, when capital built a Canadian Pacific Railway line through the interior province of Saskatchewan, the Natives of the province, hitherto protected from the germs of the whites, were dying at a rate of 9 percent per year. (4)

Let us add that the massively imported breeding system of the European settlers, who were living practically immune in the vicinity of domestic animals (cows, pigs, goat, horse and poultry), also unquestionably favored the appearance of unknown infectious epidemics in America.

When it was not a deliberate genocide, in which the victor would have knowingly used the microbial weapon, it is obvious that the Conquista, like any military conquest carried out on a large scale was an irreversible human disaster. (5) The Dominican Bartolomé de Las Casas, who never speaks of these deadly epidemics, gave a striking picture of the conquest of the Caribbean and the Americas by iron and fire:

“In forty years, as a result of tyranny and the infernal and unjust actions of the Christians, twelve million souls, men, women and children are dead. And to tell you the truth, I believe, and I don’t think I am mistaken, that there have been over fifteen million. […] During these twelve years, out of these four hundred and fifty leagues [of New-Spain], the Spaniards killed with knife and spear more than four million people, women and children, young and old, or burned them alive.” (6)

But it is undoubtedly the use of forced labor by the colonial authorities that deals the final blow, hitting a population already devastated by the microbial shock. Thirsty for gold and silver, the Spanish Empire reduced the natives, free and not free, to virtual slavery in the mines, but also serfdom on immense agricultural estates. Relying on the indigenous nobility (the caciques), who supported Cortès in order to better topple the Aztec power and maintain their caste privileges, the aristocracy of the hidalgos got rich by imposing wage slavery, i.e. a miserable wage set by the colonial state.

The prohibition of the enslavement of indigenous people, from 1542 onward, merely formalized their reduction to the status of serfs. It was also accompanied by a flourishing trade in black slaves, who were already being used on plantations on the Canary Islands. Las Casas, who had initially accepted the importation of black slaves for domestic use, soon repented. “Judging himself guilty by inadvertence”, the Dominican then hammered home: “The slavery of Blacks is as unjust as that of the Indians”. (7)

The development of the scourge of slavery in the Americas also had the perverse effect of importing other microbial scourges that did not exist on that continent. The introduction of the yellow fever virus, carried by monkeys from Africa, decimated the monkeys and the indigenous people of the Americas.

Forced labor, on the same title as slavery, (8) only spread at the height of the capitalist system both in Asia (9) and in Africa. Under Leopold II, the Belgian Congo, which was his personal property, saw a fierce serfdom being imposed by the large mining companies and big planters who shared their immense profits with the Crown. The colonial administration also imported more than 44,000 workers from Angola and Northern Rhodesia. These workers died of tick fever (caused by the rickettsia africae bacteria), influenza, pneumonia, exhaustion or repeated mining “disasters”.

We know, through the testimonies of Albert London and André Gide, about the human catastrophe of the construction of the Congo-Ocean railway line by French capital. It claimed more than 23,000 victims.

The historian Elikia M’Bokolo summed up very well the ecological, demographic and health disaster brought about by the brutal introduction of the capitalist system, which transformed human beings into flesh for profit or cannon fodder:

“The ecological disaster and the demographic catastrophe caused by the system of concessionary companies in the two Congos were only the extreme form of a much more general phenomenon that struck almost all the colonized regions: spectacular or deadly epidemics in Madagascar (plague) as in Senegal (yellow fever, plague) or in Ivory Coast (yellow fever); droughts and famines in areas as different as the Sahel and Angola; epidemics, epizootics, famines, wars and excess mortality mixed in an infernal cycle in Central and Eastern Africa.” (10)

Entire populations have thus been subjected to the yoke of rising capitalism since the 16th Century. Exploited to death, weakened by forced labor or slavery, unable to resist the pandemics that were taking place on the sea and land trade routes, they were sacrificed to the great Moloch, the god Mammon, the god of money extending his hold over the whole world:

Money is the executioner of everything, the Moloch to whom everything must be sacrificed. […] Money indeed appears as the Moloch to whom real wealth is sacrificed.c (11)

Capital appears as the Moloch who demands that the whole world be sacrificed to him. (12)

The biological arms at the time of the necrosis of Capital

The use of biological weapons (bacteria and viruses) is as old as war. The soldiers of Antiquity enhanced the destructive power of their arrows by dipping them in rotting flesh or in corrupted blood, i.e. by making them not only toxic but just as well infecting. Skythikon, a toxic specialty of the Scythian archers, was composed of as many poisons as well as of infecting organic products simmered in manure: this mixture caused not only a poisoning but also gaseous gangrene, tetanus or any other type of blistering infection. (13)

At the very beginning of the expansion of capitalism, we note the first use of biological weapons, during a commercial and colonial war. It was during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) that smallpox was used by General Jeffery Amherst, commander-in-chief of the British troops in North America. He wrote in July 1763, during the Pontiac War, when the revolt of indigenous peoples was raging. The use of biological weapons was part of a plan of “ethnic cleansing”, a veritable genocide avant la lettre:

“Couldn’t we find a way to spread smallpox among these tribes of disgruntled Indians? On this occasion, we must use every ploy in our power to defeat them.” (14)

And this “interrogation” is followed by a quick application using smallpox-contaminated blankets. This fine work finally earned him a seat in the House of Lords of Her Glorious British Majesty.

This technique of wiping out indigenous peoples was not forgotten in the last two centuries. It remains a “classic” of its kind. Let us take, among other examples, that of Brazil. The great landowners and their cronies “offered” to the native Indians clothing from hospitals to contaminate them with smallpox or other diseases apt of decimating their villages. (15)

The full development of capitalism and the deadly confrontation of imperialism on the scale of the planet has led to the scientific study of all biological agents that could be “militarized”, i.e. used in the same way as a chemical weapon (and a nuclear one as well since 1945). In order to maximize its lethality, the biological weapon must meet several criteria – known as the criteria of Theodor Rosebury (1904-1976) – namely: direct contagiousness, minimum infective dose, route of infection or intoxication, incubation period or duration of appearance of the first symptoms, survival in the environment, ease of production and storage, stability of stored products, (possible) therapeutics… (16)

In the course of studies conducted in the greatest secrecy, military strategists – USA, UK, Japan, USSR, France, Italy, etc. – noted the “prodigious effects” of the anthrax bacillus (Bacillus anthracis), stable in the environment, in powder or spray form, already in use during the First World War. (17) But also of the plague bacillus (Yersinia pestis), of the tularemia (disease transmitted to humans through contact with infected animals or by means of vectors, like ticks). The scientists of death also noted the “wonders” of viruses, very interesting by their microscopic size: they can pass through the filtering elements of the containment and individual respirators; there is no effective therapy outside of the prevention by vaccination.

The military “darling” may now be the smallpox virus – declared eradicated by the WHO on 8 May 1980 – which can be reactivated in the laboratory and spread, without a vaccine to stop it. (18) To this can be added the viruses responsible for encephalitis (tick-borne encephalitis, chikungunya, dengue, (19) yellow fever, Venezuelan equine encephalitis), transmitted by arthropods. Or the viruses transmitted by bats, which have been very well studied, especially in Chinese laboratories: Marburg virus, Lyssavirus from Australia, Nipah virus (Malaysia, India, Bangladesh), etc. In the case of insects, those correctly used in military programs (entomological warfare) (20) can serve as biological transmitters of plague, cholera, etc.

All these programs carried out in ultra-secret military laboratories are preparing for the biological wars of the future, which are akin to outright genocide. Used “experimentally” in the past, they had deadly effects, even if on a small scale.

Manchuria occupied by the Japanese Imperial Army (1932-1945) served as a testing ground for the germ warfare. The main research center (UNIT 731), located in Pingfang (Harbin province), comprised more than 150 buildings, five satellite camps and employed at least 3,000 scientists and technicians. These criminal scientists tested the agents of cholera, plague and anthrax on Chinese prisoners of war on a large scale. Nearly 3,000 prisoners perished in atrocious suffering. Biological attacks were carried out 12 times against Chinese cities, contaminating drinking water and food supplies with cholera, plague and anthrax. The death toll was in the thousands.

During the Ethiopian War (1935-1936), Mussolini – alongside the [chemical] gases he used extensively against the population and the army of the Negus – came very close to experimenting with his bacteriological weapons. Marshal Badoglio discouraged him, not out of “humanism”, of course, but out of simple strategic realism. All these “experiments”, after the defeat of Japan and the dismantling of Unit 731, served as a “model” for the “bacteriological engineering” of the USSR and the USA.

The USA conducted their research from 1942 to the late 1960s. Deadly substances were tested on their population, especially on prison populations and conscientious objectors. During the Korean War (1950-1953), the bacilli of anthrax, plague, and cholera were spread among the North Korean and Chinese enemy. Flies, fleas, etc., were used, as well as aerosols. In the latter case, the US army sprayed the enemy by air. (21) As the results were mixed, and following various incidents (“leaks” of bacilli and viruses), American biological weapons stocks were (officially) destroyed between May 1971 and February 1973…

Soviet state capitalism – dubbed “real socialism” by its ruling class – was not outdone in this biological arms race, from Stalin to Gorbachev. The militarization of a dozen pathogens entered the laboratory programs: anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, plague, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, typhus, Q fever (22), botulinum toxin produced by bacteria. In 1973, a few months after the establishment of an international treaty banning all research on biological weapons, (23) a State decree established an entity (BIOPREPARAT = Preparation of biological substances) with 40 research centers and production sites for bacteriological weapons. The manufacture of ad hoc missiles, rockets and bombs would find its purpose in the dissemination of pathogens. The program was officially stopped in 1992…

Such programs may also be aimed at the population of a state, where the dominant capitalist class numerical minority is planning mass racial genocide. In the ‘white’ South Africa of Apartheid, a top-secret project – conducted in 1985 by “Doctor Death” Wouter Basson – was put in place. It targeted the black population, using extreme means: Anthrax, Ebola, AIDS, cholera, mass sterilization, the use of ethnically selective chemical poisons. (24)

The case of Iraq is a textbook case of Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) warfare against “enemies from within”. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with its impressive biological arsenal, limited itself to the use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. From 16 to 19 March 1988, over the Kurdish town of Halabja, Iraqi army Mig (Russian) and Mirage (French) fighter-bombers spilled killer gases: mustard gas, Sarin and Tabun. The death toll was 5,000. Notably, these weapons “were mainly supplied by French, Belgian and German companies, whose engineers and chemists knew exactly what Saddam was up to… For years, the United States and its allies blocked international campaigns to convict Saddam for his use of mustard gas and nerve gas”. (25)

It is quite clear that the major capitalist powers (including China and Russia) have no intention of interrupting their biological warfare program. Accidental leaks of biological and/or chemical agents are well documented. The one in Dugway (Utah) in 1968 cost the lives of 6,000 sheep. The one in Sverdlovsk (Soviet Russia) in April 1969 was much more serious. The epidemic spread to cattle up to 50 km away. The military research center on the outskirts of Ekaterinburg (then Sverdlovsk) was the center of the leak.

Such “leaks” may [also] be deliberate, caused by multiple forms of bio-terrorism, involving religious or extremist sects – sometimes emanating from States that covertly arm terrorist groups. Let us recall some facts. In September 1984, the Rajneeshees religious sect, based in Wasco County, Oregon, spread salmonella on salads and raw vegetables served in restaurants in Dalles, resulting in 45 hospitalizations. The best known case is the Sarin attack perpetrated by the Aun sect in the Tokyo subway on March 19, 1995, which affected 5,500 people (including 12 lethally). The sect, with 50,000 members and a billion dollars in booty, had an advanced biological weapons research program. The cult had procured and stored anthrax and Q fever bacilli and botulinum toxin. It even sought to acquire the Ebola virus (which has a fatality rate of 90% in outbreaks). (26)

At the end of this second part, it can be argued that:

  1. The spread of microbes (bacteria and viruses) is favored by the extreme concentration of the world’s population (of which 50% lives in cities, often in the worst sanitary conditions, in polluted cities where fine particles promote the rapid spread of epidemics attacking the respiratory tract).

  2. Microbes, which follow the paths of hyper-commercialization and hyper-production of Capital, are proliferating as pathogens with the very sudden demographic explosion (3 billion people in 1960; 7.7 billion in 2020). They find free places in air transport: three billion passengers on all routes in 2013 worldwide; in 2017, four billion passengers. They are moving slower but just as inexorably at sea. The merchant navy, which accounts for 90% of world trade, has seen the embellishments of globalization. The number of ships – including passenger ships, such as the cruise ships, nowadays transformed into super-”Exodus” vessels – has increased from approximately 52,000 in 2013 to 58,000 in 2018.

  3. For large capitalist states, the preparation and entry into war justifies all military means, including the use of CBRN weapons in a generalized conflict. The use of biological weapons, which has been carried out on a small scale and on an experimental basis (Manchuria, Korean War) can become a monstrous reality if a global conflict breaks out. Bio-terrorism would then be carried out by the major imperialist powers, subcontracting their operations to mercenaries.

Some professional conspirators claim that Covid-19 came from Chinese military laboratories. This is probably to better rid their national bourgeoisie of its usual carelessness during its propagation. To that – for lack of a serious scientific investigation – one must answer that viruses do not wait for the self-serving elucubrations of the “sovereignists” to mutate again and again.

These inevitable mutations are the result of natural selection, in accordance with Darwin’s doctrine. (27) While there may be deliberate or accidental manipulations through genetic engineering, the outcome of which is uncertain (opening new Pandora’s Boxes), the best agent of the most dangerous viruses is not abstract “Man” but Capital itself.

By spreading “virally” on a global scale, Capital exacerbates pandemics, which are less and less controllable, often by the collapse of health systems (when they exist for half of humanity) and by the systematic destruction of the entire ecosystem by a Vampire Capital hungry for immediate profits.

PB/Pantopolis, April 1, 2020; rev. May 20, 2020.

Translation: H.C., June 30, 2020

Source: Capitalisme, guerres, pandémie : La crise mortelle de 2020 ?


1 Rosa Luxemburg, Die Akkumulation des Kapitals (1913). Part III. The historic conditions of accumulation, Ch. 31: Protective tariffs and accumulation (final clause).

2 Carmen Bernand, Serge Gruzinski: Histoire du Nouveau Monde. De la Découverte à la conquête, Fayard, Paris, 1991; Nathan Wachtel: La vision des vaincus. Les Indiens du Pérou devant la conquête espagnole, Gallimard, Paris, 1971.

3 Frédéric Dorel, La thèse du ‘génocide indien’ : guerre de position entre science et mémoire, Amnis n° 6, 2006 (online article).

4 Jared Diamond, De l’inégalité parmi les sociétés, Gallimard, 2000, p. 210.

5 In this it is comparable to the Mongolian conquests in the 13th and 14th Centuries, following the paths of the plague pandemic.

6 Très brève relation sur la destruction des Indes, Mouton, Paris-La Haye, 1969, pp.26, 48.

7 Saint-Lu (André), Bartolomé de las Casas et la traite des nègres, Bulletin hispanique, tome 94, n° 1, 1992, p. 37–43.

8 Elikia M’Bokolo, Le travail forcé, c’est de l’esclavage, L’Histoire, nr. 302, October 2005.

9 In Asia, notably in the Dutch Indies, a system of obligatory crops was imposed, the so-called ‘Cultuurstelsel’ (“culture” or “crop” system).

10 M’Bokolo, Afrique noire. Histoire et civilisations du XIX. siècle à nos jours, Hatier-AUF, 2004, p. 315.

11 Source: Karl Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie; II. Das Kapitel vom Geld – Der Umlauf des Geldes; b) [Das Geld als Zirkulationsmittel]. MEW Band 42, p.129. [See the Annex below for a full quotation]

12 Karl Marx, Theorien über den Mehrwert, Band III. Beilage: Revenue and its sources. Die Vulgärökonomie. [1.] Entwicklung des zinstragenden Kapitals auf Basis der kapitalistischen Produktion. MEW Band 26.3, p. 448. [See the Annex below for a full quotation]

13 Grmek (Mirko), Ruses de guerre biologiques dans l’Antiquité, Revue des études grecques, tome 92, fascicule 436-437, January – June 1979, p. 144.

14 L’Encyclopédie canadienne, 21 June 2019, article: Jeffery Amherst, premier baron Amherst.

15 Mércio Pereira Gomes, Os Índios e o Brasil, Editora Vozes, Petrópolis (State of Rio de Janeiro), 1991.

16 Lepick & Binder, article Guerre biologique, in: Dominique Lecourt, Dictionnaire de la pensée médicale, PUF, Paris, 2004.

17 The German and French armies used the agents of anthrax and glanders against “enemy” livestock (idem, p. 555).

18 To this can be added the Spanish flu virus, whose RNA was found in 2002 on victims buried in Norwegian permafrost. The RNA was sequenced in 2005. The unintentional or deliberate release of samples stored in one or more laboratories could lead to a pandemic on the scale of the 1918 – 1919 pandemic or even worse.

19 From January to early April 2020, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported nearly 1,173,000 cases of dengue fever and 355 deaths.

20 Before and during the Second World War, Japan, Canada, the USA and Germany embarked on insect vector programs: fleas carrying the plague, mosquitoes and biting flies, and beetles in the German case. The Cold War caused an explosion of research in all these fields, in which the USA and the USSR were the leaders. An American military program, which used the “right vector”, estimated the mortality rate at 50% in the case of an attack on a city, for the modest price of $0.29 (1976).

21 Stephen Endicott & Edward Hagerman, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1998. Also:Gordon Thomas, Les armes secrètes de la CIA, Nouveau Monde, 2006.

22 A so-called zoonosis; a disease transmissible from a vertebrate animal (cattle, sheep, goats) to humans.

23 The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), opened for signature on 10 April 1972, entered into force in 1975.

24 See: Tristan Mendès France, Dr la Mort. Enquête sur un bioterrorisme d’État en Afrique du Sud, 2002; Chandré Gould, Chemical and Biological Weapons: Lessons from South Africa, Foreign Policy, No. 1, 2005, pp. 109-121.

25 Barry Lando, Saddam Hussein, un procès sous influence, Le Monde, 17 October 2005.

26 Patrick Berche, Une histoire des microbes, John Libbey – Eurotext, 2007, p. 258.

27 Cf. Santé blog, 18 March 2020: COVID-19 : On avance sur l’origine du coronavirus.

Annex: The quotations from Marx

  1. Marx on money apropos Boisguillebert in ‘Grundrisse’, II. The chapter on money (note 11):

“The exchange value expressed in their [the commodities’] price has to be sacrificed, as soon as this specific transformation into money has become necessary. Hence the complaints with Boisguillebert (…) for instance that money is the henchman of all things, the Moloch to whom everything must be sacrificed, the despot of commodities. In the times of emerging absolute Monarchy with its transformation of all taxes into monetary taxes, money indeed appears as the Moloch, to whom real wealth is sacrificed.”

2. Marx on compound interest bearing capital in ‘Theorien über den Mehrwert’, Vol. III (note 12):

“The complete objectification, multiplication and folly of Capital is compound interest bearing Capital (…), in which it appears as a Moloch who requires the whole world as the sacrifice he is entitled to, and who never satisfies the just demands stemming from his very nature, but constantly sees them thwarted by a mysterious fate.”

Capitalism, Wars, Pandemic: The mortal crisis of 2020? A pamphlet that situates the corona-virus pandemic (Covid-19) in the destructive history of capitalism.

It has appeared in French with Éditions moto proprio, Paris, May 2020. ISBN: 9-791094-518151. Pdf-edition, 40 p. A4., 4 annotated chapters and a conclusion, with illustrations and supplementary texts.

The pamphlet can be freely downloaded from the Pantpolis blog. Prints: €3,- per copy. Its editor can be contacted by e-mail: