The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

November 11, 1918:
The end of one butchery foretelling the next one

Nov 17, 2008

This article is translated from the November 7 issue of Lutte Ouvri re (Workers Struggle), the paper of the revolutionary group of that name active in France.

Ninety years ago, on November 11, 1918, World War I ended. The pounding of artillery and the whistle of shells were finally silent on the Western front – in the countryside, the villages and cities devastated by more than four years of war.

One by one, the allies of the German empire signed an armistice: Bulgaria on September 30, the Ottoman empire on October 27, Austria-Hungary on November 3. Finally on November 11, an armistice was signed in France between Germany and French military representatives, acting in the name of the Entente Allies (France, England, the U.S. and Italy). The Central Powers came out of the war defeated, while the Entente emerged victorious, as much as this word can be used for such disastrous results.

15 million dead ... why?

The dead, wounded, permanently disabled, widows and orphans were counted in the millions. The historians count about nine million dead in uniform: 2,000,000 for Russia, 1,800,000 for Germany, 1,500,000 for Austria-Hungary, 1,400,000 for France, 900,000 for Britain, 600,000 for Italy, 400,000 Ottomans, 100,000 Americans ... In France, one soldier out of six didn’t return. Civilian populations didn’t escape the slaughter: there were 2,000,000 civilian dead in Russia, 1,000,000 in Serbia and Austria-Hungary, 800,000 in Germany and 800,000 in Rumania – dead from famine and bombing, without counting the massacre of the Armenians nor the ravages of the Spanish flu, which was all the more murderous since it hit exhausted populations.

Why did all this happen? In history texts, the start of these four years of mass murder is generally presented as the consequence of a crazy act by one person: on June 28, 1914, a Serb student assassinated the Habsburg archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was due to inherit the Austro-Hungarian imperial crown. On July 28, Austria-Hungary, supported by Germany, declared war on Serbia. Russian mobilized, and in response, on August 1, Germany declared war on the Russia of Czar Nicolas II, and on August 3 on France. One declaration of war followed another, with other countries sucked into the whirlpool: Great Britain, Japan, the Ottoman empire, and later, Italy. In Europe, the game of alliances led to almost 70 million men called up and, beginning in 1917, five million U.S. soldiers.

In fact, the June 28 assassination only furnished a pretext for the start of a conflict which had been brewing for a long time. Two camps had gradually formed, around Germany and Austria-Hungary on the one hand, around France, Czarist Russia and Great Britain on the other. There was never-ending conflict between the two camps: in 1905 France and Germany over Morocco; in 1908 Russia and Austria-Hungary over Serbia; with conflicts in the Balkans between 1912 and 1913.

The big powers carried out a frantic arms race, particularly between Germany and Great Britain for domination over the seas. Governments passed laws increasing the size of armies. The global competition between European states had arrived at a critical point.

After the imperialist division of the world, a redivision

By the second half of the 19th century, colonial conquests had placed Great Britain far ahead in plundering: in 1876, it had extended its domination to 8.5 million square miles and 250 million people. France was far behind, but dominated Algeria, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Madagascar, New Caledonia and Indochina. At the end of the 19th century, Belgium, Germany and Italy had also carved out space in the race for colonies. In Africa, by 1918, only Liberia and Ethiopia were still legally independent. 122 million Africans were dominated by one or another European state. The situation was the same in Asia and Oceania, while British imperialism dominated South America, with the U.S. dreaming of replacing it.

In this world, which had been entirely divided up, the only possibility for expansion was to redivide territory. Capital accumulated in the imperialist countries sought markets in colonial or semi-colonial countries, not with the goal of developing them, but first of all assuring themselves profits in return. Lenin wrote in 1916, “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of ‘advanced’ countries. And this ‘booty’ is shared between two or three powerful world plunderers armed to the teeth ... who are drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty.”

The war, the product of capitalism

The end of the war might have brought the end of this system. In Russia in 1917, the workers succeeded in pulling down Czarism and in installing a workers power, that of the soviets. In Germany, in November 1918, came the fall of the Kaiser and the revolution of the workers councils. Other revolutionary movements followed throughout Europe, in Hungary and Italy. Unfortunately the bourgeoisie, with the aid of reformist Socialist parties, succeeded in getting the situation back in hand and in isolating revolutionary Russia, which became the USSR.

At the peak of the war, in the horror of the trenches, many had sworn that it would be the “war to end all wars,” for they thought that after this experience a reasonable humanity could never envisage falling back into such a degree of abomination. It wasn’t going to be. Neither the defeat of the Central Powers nor the “victory” of the Allies, nor the redivision of territory to redivide the plunder, would resolve the problems of capitalism.

In Italy, which emerged victorious but exhausted from the war, the failure of revolution allowed the fascist movement of Mussolini to take power in 1922. In conquered Germany, the defeat of the revolution opened the way to extreme right-wing movements advocating revenge which were inspired by the Italian example.

Hardly had World War I for the division of the world ended then people could feel the dawn of World War II, which was the attempt to redivide the world brought by the peace treaties of 1919. After the stock market crash of 1929, the generalized economic crisis opened the way to Nazism in Germany. The march to war resumed.

“Capitalism carries war within it like heavy clouds carry a storm,” said the French socialist Jean Jaur s. Two times in the 20th century, the capitalist system showed itself capable of precipitating the world into generalized wars. And if, since 1945, the incontestable superiority of the U.S. prevented any open conflict between the imperialists, the rivalries between them have supported, when they didn’t directly provoke countless wars in the underdeveloped countries, which taken together were almost as murderous and destructive as the two world wars.

In 2008, in this period of financial crisis, the imperialist system shows that it isn’t less crazy than it was in 1914 with World War I, 1929 with the Crash or in 1939 with World War II. This aberrant, unjust system, based on the frantic search for profit, still threatens humanity with a lunge into barbarism.