War, Famine and Disease

The short article which follows is our latest translation from Kommunist (No. 3) of 16 May 1918. Details about its author, Afanasi Lomov, can be found in our earlier article (leftcom.org), but the article is mainly of interest for its recognition of the effects of the First World War, “the global imperialist massacre”, on the economic life of capitalism. Lomov lays bare the disruption to food supplies across the world because of the war but also does not leave the mounting problems in Russia out of the equation. The Soviet regime inherited a food disaster from the two previous regimes of the Tsar and the Provisional Government to which there was no simple answer, given the general collapse of the economy itself. Various sources reckon that in the Russian Civil War (1918-20) the number who died from malnutrition and disease (mainly typhus and typhoid) outweighed those of actual combatants by a factor of seven or eight.

This has been repeated regionally in our own day. The famine in Yemen brought about by the imperialist conflict waged on its soil over the last few years has been flagged up repeatedly by the UN (see leftcom.org) but the current coronavirus crisis is threatening to create the same dire situation on a global scale. According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) 60% of the world’s workers work in the “informal economy”. Selling street food or changing money may allow them to eke out a living in normal times but today it means their income has fallen by 60% or has been lost entirely. They have no access to unemployment benefits and literally face starvation. The head of the ILO warned a Financial Times Zoom business conference that

There is another pandemic that is coming and it’s a pandemic of hunger of biblical proportions.

Financial Times, 18 May 2020

He is backed by the research of the Food Security Information Network (fsinplatform.org) which knew that 135 million people already faced starvation before the pandemic (often due to imperialist war and climate change) but says this will double in the coming months.

Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable at this time. Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers on the sites in the oil-rich Middle East have been sacked and not paid for work done. Many have found themselves stranded, penniless and threatened with torture by the local police when they protest. In India itself the lockdown (announced with 4 hours notice!) has forced half a million migrant workers to try to walk back to their villages, initially facing police harassment and brutality along the way. Close to 400 million schoolchildren across the globe are estimated to have lost their main source of nutrition with the ending of school meals.

Currently the world still has enough food to comfortably feed all but this situation is changing. In India people are starving whilst fields are full of a bumper harvest which no-one is gathering in. The USA throws away about 30% of the food it grows in “normal times” but that is set to increase as livestock reared for slaughter cannot reach markets. Low income states which rely on food imports will face a logistical nightmare and potential humanitarian catastrophe. It is already happening in some places. In April in Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital,

people desperate to eat set off a stampede during a recent giveaway of flour and cooking oil, leaving scores injured and two people dead.

Asha Jaffar, a volunteer who brought food to families there had a message for the “we are all in this together” brigade

The coronavirus has been anything but a great equaliser. It’s been the great revealer, pulling the curtain back on the class divide and exposing how deeply unequal this country is.


This could be repeated a hundred times across the world. Millions in the US, who have yet to receive government aid, queue for hours to get food at food banks and the number of such in the UK which stood at 2 million before the virus has risen by 300%. (See leftcom.org)

In many countries across the world including Honduras, South Africa and India, protests have sometimes led to looting as hunger has driven people to desperation. But such desperation does not in general generate class solidarity and the system will survive via repression and the odd palliative. A real movement for change can only come from a more cohesive class war. One which brings the world’s workers together in a conscious international movement to put an end to the system which spawns the misery of war and famine. The creation of such a movement is no less important today than it was a century ago.

The Next Famine

The global imperialist massacre caused not only the loss of millions of people, but also terrible material poverty. The productive forces of the warring populations are so exhausted that in the years to come, the whole of humanity will be subjected to brutal hardship. One of the gravest consequences of the war will be a global famine, the terrible warning signs of which are already clearly emerging.

According to the International Institute of Agriculture of Rome(1), which has studied the situation of the twenty main countries of the world, in the course of the economic year of 1915-16, the production of bread fell by 14% compared to the five previous years. The same tendency exists in the production of the five main grains (wheat, rye, oats, barley and corn), the harvests of which in 1915-16 were 9% lower on average than the five previous years. The area under cultivation has been reduced everywhere, particularly (leaving Russia aside for a moment) in France, the country that has seen the greatest decrease (36% for wheat compared to 1913). In England in 1916, the wheat harvest fell by 18% from that of the previous year. The same tendencies are emerging in the countries of the Austro-German coalition, where difficulties concerning food supplies are very acute.

According to the same statistical data, for the year of 1917-18, the European countries overall were missing 160 million quintals that they imported from other continents.

The chief suppliers of flour are the USA and Argentina. But during the war, the harvest fell in these two countries as well: for example, in 1916-17 the wheat harvest was 35% lower than that of 1915, so exports to Europe fell by the same proportions. Over the course of nine months (from 1 July 1916 to 1 April 1917), the USA only exported 146,851 thousand bushels(2) (in 1915-16, it was 187,112 thousand bushels and in 1914-15, 269,545 thousand bushels). Thus, in two years, exports fell by 122,694 thousand bushels, that is, about 80%.(3) The same tendency can be seen in the exports of Argentina. There, at the beginning of the economic year of 1916-17, they had planned exports of up to 11 million quarters of wheat(4), but in the end the country could only export 100,000 tonnes to Europe!

Nor can Russia provide a sufficient quantity of wheat to European markets, because it has nothing to export. Now, with the loss of the wheat-rich regions of the South and the South West, the whole European part of Russia will experience an acute lack of wheat.

Against the bloody background of the imperialist massacres that lasted four years, the gigantic, horrible shadow of “King Famine” hangs over us. At the sound of the cannon, between the bullets and shells, it will glide along with muffled steps until it has the whole world in its fiery embrace.

A. Lomov


(1) Economic review of Mr G. B., published in the third issue of the Международная политика и мировое хозяйство (International Politics and Global Economy). (Editor’s note)

(2) The English bushel is 36.369 litres, the American bushel 35.239 litres.

(3) More likely 50% according to Kowalski, Kommunist, op cit. p. 253

(4) Measure equivalent to a quarter of a bushel.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020