The Real Cause of the Beginning and End of WWI

Explanations of the cause of WW1 and its ending are always carefully avoided every year as regularly as the commemoration itself.

Submitted by Internationali… on November 11, 2019

Last year we were treated to a host of state sponsored celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. And this year, like every other year since the war ended, celebrations of the memories of those who died will once again take place. Obviously, there have been many emotional declarations about the terrible tragedy of this war. But in all these commemorations, in the expressions of regret for lives lost, the honouring of dead heroes, in the declarations of the politicians in the newspapers and on TV, the events which actually led to governments putting an end to the war are never mentioned.

Historians talk about the military defeat of the central empires, Germany and its Austrian ally, but the decisive element which led to Germany asking for an armistice is carefully avoided: the revolutionary movement which developed in Germany at the end of 1918. Nor has there ever been any question of identifying the real responsibility for this butchery — and this is quite understandable. Of course, the "specialists" have pored over the archives of the different governments to conclude that it was Germany and Austria who agitated for war. The historians have also shown that the war aims of the Entente powers were quite specific. However, in none of their “analyses“ is the real cause of the war pointed out: the capitalist system itself! And this is again perfectly understandable: only Marxism can explain why it wasn't the "will" or the "rapacity" of this or that government which lay at the root of the war, but the very laws of the capitalist system itself.

The Fundamental Causes of the World War

Bukharin in Imperialism and World Economy made clear that the key features of the new phase of capitalism, marked by the first world war, were imperialism and state capitalism. Lenin borrowed freely from Bukharin in his own “popular outline” in Imperialism – the Highest Stage of Capitalism. The aim of the book that Lenin wrote in 1916 was to identify the fundamental causes of the war in imperialist rivalry and to explain that this rivalry was not simply a belligerent policy taken up by the “great powers“ but an inherent part of a new period in the existence of capitalism.

While Lenin did not go beyond monopoly capital's search for 'super-profits' abroad through the export of capital, both he and Bukharin saw that the war was not the result of the bad policies or the ill will of this or that governing clique; it was the ineluctable consequence of the development of the capitalist mode of production. In this sense, these two revolutionaries denounced with the same energy any "analysis" which sought to make the workers think that there was an "alternative" to imperialism, militarism and war within capitalism. Thus Lenin demolished Kautsky's thesis about the possibility of an "ultra-imperialism" which could establish an equilibrium between the great powers and eliminate their military conflicts. He also destroyed all the illusions about "international arbitration" which men of "good will" and the pacifist sectors of the bourgeoisie presented as the means to reconcile the antagonists and put an end to the war.

Finally, Lenin used the same terms to explain why it was Germany which played the role of sparking off the World War (this is the big idea of those who are always looking for the country responsible for the war) while at the same time treating the two contending imperialist camps in exactly the same way:

"Against the Anglo-French group, another capitalist group was pitted, even more rapacious, even more bandit-like, one which had come to the capitalist banquet late, when all the places had been taken up already, and bringing with it the latest processes of capitalist production, more developed techniques and incomparably superior business organisation ... therein lies the key to the economic and diplomatic history of the last few decades, which are known to all. It alone indicates to you the solution to the problem of the war and conclusion that the present war is the product of the policies of the two colossi which, well before the present hostilities, had extended the tentacles of their financial exploitation all over the world and had divided it up economically. They had to clash with each other, because from the capitalist point of view, a new division of the world had become inevitable." - Lenin, The War and the Revolution

Working Class Revolution Ends the War

The imperialist war that resulted from the contending powers trying to increase their share of the spoils resulted in the spilling of much blood (and most of it working class). By 1917-8 the working class on both sides had had enough. It was the political hold of the kings and emperors of the Central Powers which collapsed first as the anger of mutinous troops and half-starved populations turned from demanding an end to the war to outright revolution. They were inspired by the Russian Revolution and Bolshevik calls for workers elsewhere to rise up and create a world soviet republic. Armistices had already been signed by Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria-Hungary before 11th November. It was only because the Allies wanted unambiguous surrender from Germany that the war continued. The delay only encouraged the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils throughout the land. "Kaiser Bill" saw the writing on the wall and ran away to the Netherlands. Meanwhile the Social Democratic Party took over in Berlin and Philipp Scheidemann hastily announced that Germany was henceforth a (parliamentary) republic before the councils could proclaim their own soviet republic. Working class uprisings had stopped the war between the "great powers" before 11th November. Now the capitalists were more concerned to save their economic system based on profits produced by wage labour from communist revolution than to wage war with each other.

The Class War after the War

In April 1918 the Allies had invaded Russia in order to crush the revolution. This campaign continued after the Armistice. For them, defeating the revolutionaries threatening capitalism was now more important than the war against each other. Britain and France only withdrew from the Russian campaign in April 1919 because of the strikes and mutinies of soldiers and sailors, many of them sympathetic to Bolshevism and who refused to fight. In January 1919 a "strike" at British army bases grew into a massive mutiny of more than 20,000 troops. With the support of locals, they took control of British army headquarters in Calais. General Byng was sent to put down the mutiny but his troops refused to fire and the army was forced to concede demands for improved conditions. Like the mutinous soldiers of the French Black Sea fleet, these troops were not going anywhere near Russia.

Within Britain the same issues were in play. There were no victories for the working class to celebrate. After the Armistice, tens of thousands of battle-weary soldiers found themselves stuck in filthy barracks, still subject to harsh military discipline for months on end as they waited to be de-mobbed. This was one of the biggest causes of the frequent mutinies which occurred after the war, but it was by no means the only one (increasingly, soldiers and sailors resisted being used to put down "Bolshevism"). One of the earliest mutinies occurred in January 1919 in Folkestone where two thousand troops refused to be herded back to France and led a procession of ten thousand or more through the town, cheered by the local population.

Lloyd George’s “land fit for heroes” was a long way from reality. The soldiers-just-out-of-uniform were returning to join a malnourished, poorly-housed, over-worked working class still facing severe food shortages, price hikes and bread rationing. Increasingly many would be without a job but as yet there was a revived militancy (even the police had been on strike in 1918) and belief in a better future within the working class as the optimism generated by the Russian Revolution held sway.

But the British state was more prepared to nip in the bud any move by workers than the working class was ready for socialist revolution. Aside from the military divisions ready to combat "domestic unrest" (as in Glasgow in 1919) and the plans to introduce martial law and detain “suspected troublemakers” (as Sylvia Pankhurst was in October 1920) if necessary, British capital had a relatively sophisticated political system which it could adapt to pull the wool over working class eyes. Before the war was over, parliament had passed the Representation of the People Act to provide a democratic cover for the rule of capital. For the first time all men over 21 had the right to vote. The much-lauded "votes for women" only applied to women over 30 who were graduates and/or whose husbands owned a certain amount of property. The hastily organised "Khaki election" of December 1918 – long before most soldiers had returned home and after a short 3 week campaign mainly about war reparations, punishing Germany and repatriating enemy aliens – presented no social programme whatsoever.

Unsurprisingly there was a very low voter turnout, but it served Lloyd George’s scheme for a Liberal/Conservative coalition government and neatly kept the new democratic political debate on the same old ground of the class that had taken Britain into the war. On this national parliamentary ground there was no room for debate about a new communist society where the working class could exercise power via a network of directly-elected councils (or soviets) and manage production directly to meet social needs. Even before the Labour Party myth that state control of industry is a step towards socialism, the extension of the right to vote enabled Lloyd George’s Liberal/Conservative coalition to claim democratic legitimacy for the British capitalist state. It undermined (though did not extinguish) the natural sympathy of workers in Britain for the achievement of the Russian working class.

The Socialist Alternative

After another imperialist world war and seventy years of counter-revolution nationalist propaganda is growing. The unthinking commitment to the national flag and acceptance that “national interest” is the central guide to activity is an insidious poison that enters just about every step in daily life. It is part of the web of lies and deceits that helps them maintain their power and control over the great majority – those whose work produces all the wealth in society. Embedded in all that nationalist clap trap is the toxic idea that somehow those, by an accident of birth, born in one country are intrinsically different from those born in another. Such nonsense is apparent even to liberals lacking any understanding of class society.

"But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand-grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they never tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony – Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy?" - Remarque

Unfortunately, the material needs of the capitalist system mean that the horrors unleashed by nationalism – not just war but the whole range of racism and xenophobia – are prices well worth paying to keep the working class confused and divided.

Socialists, on the other hand have always seen that the overthrow of capitalism is the essential bridge to ending war and genocide. The Marxist revolutionary, John Maclean, wrote in December 1915:

"We socialists, who believe that the only war worth fighting is the class war against robbery and slavery of the workers, do not mean to lay down our lives for British or any other capitalism. If we die we shall die here defending the few rights our forefathers died for…."

Or as Rosa Luxemburg said of the First World War:

"This bloody nightmare of hell will not cease until the workers of Germany, of France, or Russia and of England will wake out of their drunken sleep; will clasp each other’s’ hands in brotherhood and will drown the bestial chorus of war agitators and the hoarse cry of capitalist hyenas with the mighty cry of labour, “proletarians of all countries unite!“"