Nov 12, 2018
One hundred years ago, on November 11, 1918, fighting stopped on the Western Front. Soldiers stopped hearing the roar of cannons, and stopped fearing for their lives. The First World War which had begun in August 1914 had cost more than 10 million soldiers’ lives, turned whole populations into refugees, destroyed towns, villages, and farmland.
What was the reason for this butchery? There are still historians today who explain it as an irrational explosion of counterposed nationalisms, as if the war had not been prepared for a long time by the various states, driven by very precise economic interests and objectives.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife by a young Serbian nationalist on June 28, 1914 was nothing but the trigger that set off the already loaded gun to start the world war. Austria sent an ultimatum to Serbia, once it had the assurance that Germany would back Austria up. The Russian government made contact with its allies, France and Britain. One month later, on August 4, the war started. It would last more than four years. In May 1915, after hesitating, Italy entered the war on the side of England, France, and Russia.
This war which would cut down not only the European populations, but also Americans and many people from the colonial countries, was at root caused by the rivalries among the big European imperialist powers, Britain, France, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was the period before the U.S. had moved in to dominate the world, when the U.S. really controlled only its “backyard” of Latin America plus the islands of the Philippines. Britain and France between them had conquered and colonized almost the whole continent of Africa and most of Asia, not to speak of Canada and Australia. They had carved up “independent” countries like China into zones of control. The British and French denied German industries and banks access to these territories, in other words, to most of the world. In order to redivide these immense territories dominated by Britain and France, Germany had no recourse but the force of arms.
Everyone could feel this war coming in advance, and it was one of the main preoccupations of the workers and the socialist parties. But after the declaration of war, the big majority of socialist workers’ parties in each country fell in line to serve their own respective states, in the name of defense of the fatherland.
This was treason to their own ideas and to the working class. Before the war, these parties had called on workers to prepare to stop the fighting by concerted action in all countries. Only a minority of socialists in the imperialist countries – most notably the Bolsheviks, one of two fractions of the Russian socialist party – refused to capitulate and remained steadfastly under the banner of internationalism. (In the U.S., socialist militants like Eugene Debs and hundreds of unnamed IWW militants continued to oppose the war – despite prison, lynchings and terror used against them.)
Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued for the working class to transform the imperialist war into a class war against the bourgeoisie that had caused the conflict, in order to overthrow it and put the workers in power. In 1917, this is exactly what happened. In Russia, the revolution brought to power the councils of workers, soldiers, and peasants: the soviets. The government that came out of the October revolution immediately announced its intention to negotiate peace, which was concluded on March 3, 1918. These events in Russia reverberated across all of Europe, where more and more people were turning against the war.
After the United States – already the biggest financial and industrial power in the world – entered the war on the side of Britain and France, Germany’s defeat was only a matter of weeks. The continuation of the war, in particular the German offensives of July-August 1918, appeared to those in the trenches, the ports, and factories as a hopeless massacre, especially when the population was exhausted. Mutinies, strikes, and desertions multiplied during the month of August 1918. At the beginning of November, the sailors at the German port of Kiel refused to go into combat. The German revolution began. Austria, Germany, and their allies capitulated, one after another.
The armistice of November, 1918 did not end the fighting, however. Beginning at the end of 1917, another war had started. French troops based on the Balkan front and in Eastern Europe were turned against the Soviet Union and the revolutions that had begun in many countries in Europe, as well as against uprisings that had started in the Middle East.
The U.S. emerged from World War I as an increasingly dominant imperialist power throughout the world. The war resulted in a redivision of the world to satisfy the ambitions of British, French, and U.S. imperialisms. But its settlement laid the groundwork for the next war, that would start in just two decades.
The two World Wars were not accidents, nor the consequences of dangerous policies, but the inevitable result of conflicts between rival imperialisms. The French socialist Jean Jaurès expressed this historical destiny clearly: “capitalism brings war like clouds bring the storm.” This is still true today, and will be true as long as this system remains.
The militarism developed within their populations by the imperialist states is not only aimed at giving the states the means to fight each other, but also to engage their populations to serve their goals of pillage throughout the world. The only way out for the populations engaged in an imperialist war by their state is to turn the war into a war to overthrow their own bourgeoisie.
The workers, the youth, must watch out for the patriotic declarations of their governments as for the plague, and battle against the xenophobic and nationalist politics that lay the groundwork for conflicts to come.