[Book] The First World War – A Marxist Analysis of the Great Slaughter


The present book originally appeared as a series of articles on the First World War and the Versailles Treaty in the years 2009-2016. With some minor editing, they have now been gathered together in book form, which will hopefully make them available to a larger audience in a more convenient form. I believe that the message of the book retains its full validity and actuality today.

To deal in an introduction with the contents of the book would be both tedious and unnecessary. However, a few words about the method with which I have approached the subject matter is perhaps in order. As a Marxist, I have dealt with the First World War and the Versailles Treaty as I deal with any historical subject, strictly from the standpoint of historical materialism.

It is, of course, tempting to attribute great changes in history to the actions of individuals – whether good or evil. History is made by the actions of men and women. To state that is to state the obvious. But it is too superficial to interpret history purely in terms of the subjective intentions of this or that individual. Such a method reduces history to an endless series of anecdotes without rhyme or reason. It is sufficient to note that the ends that individuals had in mind at the commencement of the events they had set in motion very frequently differ to what actually occurs, and are often their diametrical opposite. That is certainly the case with the First World War, and even more so in the one that followed in 1939 to 1945.

If history is merely a string of accidents, it cannot be understood. In the words of Henry Ford, it would be “just one damn thing after another.” But if the laws governing the universe, from the biggest galaxies to the smallest sub-atomic particles, can be explained and understood, if the evolution of every animal species can be explained by the laws of natural selection, why should the evolution of human society be excluded?

In saying this, it is not my intention to deny the role of individuals, or the complex interplay of political, economic, diplomatic and military-strategic factors that mutually interact to produce a kaleidoscope of events which, at first sight, is difficult to see as anything but incomprehensible chaos. To the untrained observer, the entire universe appears to be just such a chaos. But the scientist strives to penetrate behind this, and to discover the laws that govern nature. The entire history of science is precisely a constant endeavour to do just that.

Actually, anyone who takes the trouble to study history will immediately see that definite patterns emerge, certain processes are constantly repeated, and even certain types of characters emerge time and time again in definite circumstances. Marxists do not deny the role of individuals in shaping history. Indeed, in certain moments, that can be a decisive factor. But it is only one factor in a multifaceted interplay of elements, many of which are completely out of the control of individuals, and constitute powerful constraints to their ability to act at all.

The role of the individual in history

To anyone who wishes to arrive at a serious analysis of the causes of the First World War, and also its results in the Versailles treaty, I recommend a thorough study of Lenin’s book, written in 1916, at the high point of this monstrous carnival of violence, Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. Lenin explains how the division of the world between the imperial powers arose in the second half of the nineteenth century and why German imperialism, arriving on the scene after the French and the British, needed to fight for a redivision of the world. Today, over a century since it first appeared, this remarkable book still represents the most profound, scientific and accurate analysis of the phenomenon of imperialism.

Instead of a trivial description of individual politicians and military figures, the book lays bare the real mainspring of war in the modern epoch, which is the contradiction between the interests of different capitalist states, which in the last analysis, are the interests of the big banks and monopolies. Whoever does not understand this fact will forever be incapable of understanding the nature of modern warfare. And it remains just as valid today as it was then.

I regret to say that one would look in vain for any rational explanation of the First World War in the flood of books, articles and television programmes that accompanied the centenary of that event. Of course, we are aware that the mass media are concerned primarily with entertainment, and to dwell upon the peculiarities of individual personalities is considerably more entertaining than a serious study of facts, figures and processes.

Let us take just one example of how the apparently inexplicable conduct of one prominent player in the great game that led to the outbreak of war in 1914 can be entirely misunderstood if it is viewed merely as the eccentricity of an individual person, divorced from the class interests that in fact determined his conduct. I refer here to Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister. It has become customary to attribute Sir Edward Grey’s conduct on the eve of war as a manifestation of supreme incompetence, bumbling, blundering, or simple laziness.

These comments have been made so many times over decades, that they have become accepted as something given, obvious and incontrovertible. Here we have an explanation of the outbreak of war that is highly satisfying to those who wish to portray history as a mere sequence of inexplicable accidents. Great events are the results of either the stupidity or the genius of individuals. In this case, it is argued that Britain stumbled blindly into a war, led by an incompetent politician (or politicians) whose fervent wish for peace blinded him to the serious threat posed by the growing power of German militarism. Such an explanation also has the advantage of soothing the conscience of the British public, who have been reassured for generations that the war was all the fault of the militaristic Germans.

For many years, Sir Edward has been portrayed as a typical example of an effete English aristocracy, whose supine passivity and indifference to events on the Balkans was the result of an overweening sense of superiority that led to a dangerous sense of invulnerability. It is certainly not my intention to gainsay the accusations directed against the British ruling class and its political representatives, but in this particular case, I believe that Sir Edward has been seriously misunderstood. Trotsky was far more perceptive when he stated that, right up to the outbreak of war, British imperialism was playing a complicated and cynical game of bluff, which was intended to fool the German Kaiser and lull him into a false sense of security, and thus lead him into a trap.

The repeated offers from London to act as a kind of honest broker between France and Germany were, in point of fact, designed to create an impression that Britain would not lift a finger if the Germans attacked France. The Kaiser was, in fact, deceived by this cynical stratagem, although right to the end, he was never quite sure what Britain’s intentions actually were. But in the moment of truth, he was sufficiently sure that Britain would not get involved in the European land war to launch his assault on France, and as a first step, to occupy Belgium.

The German plan was based on the assumption that a lightning advance would secure a rapid capitulation by the French, and the British would remain as onlookers. This was a serious miscalculation. It was always very clear to the British ruling class and its political and diplomatic representatives – including Sir Edward Grey – that in the event of war, Britain would have to intervene to defend France against Germany. This was dictated, not for any sentimental or moral reasons, but for the fundamental interests of British imperialism in Europe. I will not develop these points any further here, since they are dealt with in some detail in the course of this book.

The great Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote: “War is father of all, and king of all. He renders some gods, others men; he makes some slaves, others free.” To modern ears, these words may sound excessively brutal. Yet the slightest knowledge of human history shows that wars are a fact of life, and important issues between nations have always been solved by violent means. This is still true today.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Western media predicted a future of peace and prosperity for the whole world on the basis of the capitalist system and the market economy. The ink was scarcely dry on the statements, when bloody wars erupted in the Balkans, in the territory of the former Soviet Union and in Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East. Today, the world is still torn by conflicts and wars, which ultimately have their roots in the unbearable contradictions produced by capitalism. In the words of Lenin, capitalism is horror without end.

When future generations look at the present epoch, they will experience the same sense of horror and revulsion with which we look on the cannibalism that was practised by our ancestors in bygone days. But although the indignant complaints of pacifists against war may be understandable, they are completely impotent to solve the problem that they so vehemently denounce. They can never eradicate war because they have never understood the causes of war, which, in the modern epoch, are rooted in the predatory nature of capitalism and imperialism.

The only way to abolish war is through the revolutionary abolition of capitalism. The only really just war is the class war. That is the real message of the present book, and hopefully it will provide some useful lessons to the present generation, who have the duty to carry this war to its final, victorious solution. A socialist world will be one in which unemployment, poverty, exploitation, oppression and war will be finally consigned to the dustbin history. Humanity will raise itself up to its full height in a world fit for men and women to live in.

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