Understanding the Cataclysm

— Allen Ruff

Cataclysm 1914 —
The First World War and the Making of Modern World Politics
edited by Alexander Anievas
Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2015, 412 pages + bibliography,
Haymarket Books edition, 2016, $36 paperback.

WITH THE CENTENARY of World War I well underway, numerous books and articles on the causes, conduct, and consequences of the “Great War” have appeared. Outstanding among them is Cataclysm 1914, the collection of new perspectives and reappraisals on the war’s origins and outcomes, edited and introduced by the Cambridge-based Marxist historical sociologist Alexander Anievas.

The First World War, truly global in scope and impact, brought to an end 100 years of relative European peace, the absence of a Continent-wide conflict following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. It consigned four long-standing empires — Austria-Hungary under the Habsburgs, Romanov Russia, Hohenzollern Germany, and the Ottoman — to the dust bin of history and thereby altered the geopolitical and social terrain not just of Europe, but much of the globe.

The war gave impetus to national struggles and revolutionary movements across the Continent and far beyond while simultaneously furthering the ascent of the United States and Japan to “Great Power” status. An unprecedented act of “creative destruction,” it accelerated transformations in every sphere of human existence — economic, political, cultural, intellectual, scientific and technological. It “totalized” modern warfare by mobilizing entire societies as it slaughtered, maimed and displaced tens of millions.

The war set the stage for much that followed across the subsequent century by creating the conditions for the October Revolution, the birth of the Soviet Union, and the protracted “anti-communist crusade” against what was no longer merely a specter haunting Europe. As R. Craig Norton, the historian of the war’s left opposition pointed out elsewhere, “it was the war itself that became the crucible within which the conceptual paradigms and underlying assumptions that would come to dominate twentieth century socialist and communist thought were forged.”

At that level alone, the “Great War” ushered in a new epoch in world history and politics.The war also called into question, at least temporarily, liberal imperialist claims of “civilizing mission” and a corresponding notion of “progress,” often shared by socialists, that capitalism would bring “civilization” to the imperialized.

The conflagration and the punitive treaties that followed created the preconditions for the unevenly experienced boom and bust of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the ’30s and the related rise of fascism, which must be understood first and foremost as the highest stage of counter-revolution.
Ultimately, the antagonisms left unresolved and new ones unleashed by the war set the stage for World War II, in many ways best viewed as the final round of the century’s “Thirty Years’ War.”

Locating the Causes

Conservative and liberal explanations of the war’s causes have all too often focused upon the tangle of balance-of-power alliances among the major and lesser European powers that quickly unravelled following the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June, 2014.

Even while considering “imperial ambition” in the abstract and earlier conflicts in the Balkans or Africa as factors, innumerable works have described in minute detail the resulting “July Crisis” — the failure of “Great Power” diplomacy amidst parallel national mobilizations, the preceding military buildup on all sides, and the German high command’s miscalculated plans for a “preventive war” against Russia and France — to explain the catastrophe.

Some have even defined the plunge into the abyss as irrational, a seemingly inexplicable detour from the course of “progress”; the descent of “civilization” into some atavistic multi-nationalist mass hysteria.
Others, upholding the punitive verdict of the victors at Versailles, have long argued Germany’s primary, if not sole responsibility for the conflagration. Those maintaining that “war guilt” thesis have sought to explain what happened by weighing the Kaiserreich’s domestic, “internalist” antagonisms versus its “externalist” pressures and expansionist ambitions.

In contrast, the Cataclysm collection places the destabilizing dynamics of capitalist development in the pre-war decades front and center. The bulk of the essays do so by reassessing and expanding upon the analyses of Lenin, Trotsky and Bukharin.

These revolutionary Marxists, in the midst of the war and afterward, deepened earlier perspectives on the structural connections between capitalism, imperialism and war to explain not just the mass slaughter and the Second International’s overall failure to resist the patriotic gore, but as the basis of understanding for what became a refounding of revolutionary politics.

Numerous Marxist observers have long viewed the war as not just the failure of a liberal “international order,” the collapse of an established “balance of power” or merely the result of bad or miscalculated policy. Rather, it was seen as the direct outcome of a competition, propelled by capitalist imperatives, that accelerated during the 19th century “age of capital” and intensified during the globalized “Long Depression” of the century’s last quarter.

Not understandable merely in economic terms, that “new imperialism” of the prewar era, enshrouded in nationalist notions of destiny, “civilizing mission” and supremacy, also provided a hoped-for set of “spatial” and “temporal” fixes for increasingly concentrated, but crisis-prone and conflict-ridden class societies.

A number of the Cataclysm chapters employ the theory of uneven and combined development for understanding the political economy of the war’s causes and effects. Several of the authors including Anievas, historians Adam Tooze, Peter Thomas, and historical sociologist Neil Davidson expand upon Trotsky’s initial insights on the international dynamics of the era’s capitalist development; the unevenly experienced disruptions stimulated by the increasingly global flow of capital.

The pieces explore the material bases of the conflict rooted in the development of the “late arrivals” to the international “great game” — most notably Germany and Russian, and to a lesser extent, Japan — as well as the attempts of the then leading but increasingly challenged imperial powers, Great Britain and secondarily France, to maintain their global advantages.

They illustrate how financial capital, and transfers of technology, organizational forms and expertise from the more advanced capitalist centers, propelled industrialization and the construction of infrastructure, railroads and armaments that allowed the “arriviste” powers to accelerate, foreshorten and “leap frog” stages of capitalist development.

In such fashion, the essays illustrate how capital “cemented” and undergirded the Great Power “strategic alliances” that ultimately faced off in August, 1914. We learn, for example, of French capital’s financing of Russian industrial and military production; of German backing of a Turkish navy and railroad construction, and Serbia’s massive dependency on one creditor, France, in the decade prior to the war.

As Adam Tooze points out, foreign loans came with decisive strategic entanglements which in turn affected domestic politics while harnessing the most and least advanced economies together in dynamic and destabilizing combinations.

That skewed, crisis-generating development of specific sectors, grafted upon and coming at the expense of others, also accelerated the growth and ascent of capitalism’s contending classes, which in turn challenged the vested interests of the old absolutist order — the land and peasant-based nobility, gentry and military castes in Prussia, Austria-Hungary, Russia and elsewhere.

The resulting internal social and political tensions, heightened by the era’s increasingly frequent and severe global downturns, fanned nationalist and revanchist ambitions and imperialist expansion, conceived by various class elements as their antidote for social and political crises.

Revolution Unleashed

Historical sociologist Sandra Halpern’s “War & Social Revolution: WWI and the Great Transformation” notes that the war unleashed a social revolution that began to shift the balance of class power in Europe. This in turn would make the post-World War II transformation of European societies possible.

On the war’s origins, Halpern shows the interconnected dynamics of internal repression and external expansion that characterized the globalizing pre-war system of capitalist production, exchange and accumulation. The combined effects of the “Long Depression” of 1873-1896 and the resultant “rising red tide” of heightened class struggles — the militant upsurge of diverse socialist, anarchist and syndicalist movements, of organized left political parties, popular institutions and left-led trade unions — increased pressures within states as well as rivalries among the imperial powers that ultimately led to the war.

Halpern’s piece goes on to argue how the belligerents’ mass conscription of bodies (“levée en masse”) for the military and war industries, unprecedented “totalized war,” exponentially increased pre-existing social tensions in Europe, resulting in the threat and reality of revolution and ultimately the “great divide in modern European history.”

She reminds us that the working classes were not necessarily won over to the nationalist cause, and how mounting unrest on the home front and within the military ranks on all fronts escalated as the mass slaughter and deprivation dragged on. Then came the inspiration of the worker and peasant-based October Revolution, occurring not in the advanced centers of the imperial system but in its “weakest link,” and Russia’s subsequent exit from the war.

The wartime and postwar labor upsurge and the specter of the “Bolshevik menace” gave rise to ruling class reaction, a drive to contain and eradicate the revolutionary “virus” by ruling circles everywhere — and especially among those more conservative elements who, as Halpern points out, eventually came to view a rearmed and eastward-looking Germany as an advance bulwark against Bolshevism.

Racial Coordinates of Imperialism

London University sociologist Alberto Toscano, through a reexamination of W.E.B. Du Bois’ wartime essays, reengages the renowned scholar’s insights on the “racial coordinates” of capitalist imperialism with its racist, white supremacist dynamics.

Surveying Du Bois’ May 1915 “The African Roots of War,” Toscano conveys its probing analysis of the conflict not just as the result of capitalist competition and territorial ambition, but as a contest over who would get to further exploit black and non-white labor globally.

For Du Bois, “it was the competition for the labor of yellow, brown, and black folk that was the cause of… the War.”

Du Bois, Toscano reminds us, pointedly viewed the war as “a return onto (white) European soil… of the systematic violence and repression” that was long ongoing on the other side of a globalizing “color line” in the colonies; what Toscano calls the “boomerang effect” of imperialism. As Du Bois saw it, the “right to own and exploit darker peoples” had set the European powers to “fighting like mad dogs.”

At a time when Entente voices were condemning the German invasion of “poor little Belgium,” he noted the country’s “rubber horror” under King Leopold and that, “what Belgium suffers now is not half, not even a tenth what she [sic] has done to the Black Congo.” Imperialism in Africa, for Du Bois, exposed the true nature of European “civilization.”

 Du Bois saw the roots of war in the “jealousies engendered by the recent rise of armed national associations of labor and capital” in the “white metropolis” as well as a quest for the “safety valves” of imperial depredation. Surveying his arguments as they evolved through the war period, Toscano importantly points to a “global wages of whiteness,” psychological as well as material, and the role that a white supremacist cross-class social imperialism played before and during the conflict.

Examining the April, 1917 essay “Of the Culture of White Folk,” Toscano shows how Du Bois’ thinking on the war underwent a subtle shift in emphasis from that focus on a “democratic-despotic alliance of white labor and white capital” to a racialized “hyper-exploitation of a non-white global proletariat.”

Toscano situates Du Bois’ thinking by drawing parallels with Lenin’s and Bukharin’s materialist analyses of social chauvinism/imperialism and the formation of a “labor aristocracy” said to be “bribed” by the “crumbs” (Lenin) or, in Du Bois’ framing, the “loophole” of racial capitalism coming from the superprofits extracted from the colonized.

Toscano focuses upon Du Bois’ understanding of the crucial role of race in the development of social chauvinism among the more privileged strata of the white working class, and the part it played in impeding wartime working-class unity.

East and West

Tracking the continuities between Germany’s prewar and the postwar Weimar years, historian Shelly Baranowski traces the interwoven connections between national ambitions and domestic social pressures extending across the period.

Rather than viewing the history through an “internalist” vs. “externalist” binary, she illustrates how heightened and accelerated domestic class antagonisms and expansionist projects intertwined.

German expansionist desires for “Lebensraum” or “living space” made infamous by Hitler had their origins well prior to WWI, as the taking of territory to the east became a perceived necessity within various ruling circles — the absolutist state bureaucracies, the military, and  the “commanding heights” of German capital — who saw their overseas ambitions impeded by British imperial power.

The combination of defeat in the war, the postwar crises of civil war and economic disaster, and related resentments over the imposed peace, Baranowski tells us, sustained the dreams of “living space” and fueled a radical nationalism, culminating in the Nazi seizure of power in 1933.

Also taking a longer view, political philosopher Domenico Losurdo examines the differing impacts of the war and October Revolution, in 1914 and 1917, on the origins of two distinct strands of Marxism, “Eastern” and “Western.” The conditions and changing conceptions of the revolutionary process shaped the trajectories of the communist movement in the Global South and North.

He identifies two “struggles for recognition” with distinct protagonists — one in the advanced capitalist “West” carried out by the working class and the popular masses; the other in the “East” carried out by national movements  in India, Vietnam, Russia and China, etc. — attempting to shake off the oppression and dehumanization of colonialism.

The “East” and “West” occupied two distinct political moments and different inequalities, internal and external. The war and revolution had very different impacts on the development of revolutionary socialist strategy, which Losurdo illustrates in a discussion of the Chinese and Russian revolutions.

While the communist movement in the “West” developed within sovereign and privileged nations, the parties and movements in the East evolved within dependent and semi-dependent nations challenged by the combined legacies of the ancien regime and imperialism.

The longer-term effect was a “Western Marxism” that, in Losurdo’s estimation, was no longer able to challenge the existing order and stimulate a process of emancipation, and an Eastern variant deprived of valuable theoretical contributions.

Pointing out how the October Revo­lution fostered different strategic understandings, he argues that, for example, in the West science and technology came to be viewed as an integral part of the war-bred “New Leviathan” employed by the bourgeoisie to increase profit. But in the East, in Russia and China plagued by underdevelopment and “backwardness,” such forces of production came to be understood as essential for developing resistance against subjugation and oppression.

While noting the “trauma” of imperialized China well before 1914 and pointing to its “reawakening” stimulated by the Russian Revolution, Losurdo reminds us that as a result of Versailles, Japan took Germany’s concession in Shandung. That, in turn lead to mass student protests which then gave rise to the nationalist May Fourth Movement and ultimately, the founding of the Chinese Communist Party and what followed.

Independent scholar Lars Lih presents a provocative reevaluation of Lenin’s thinking during war by arguing that the Bolshevik leader’s position marked no departure or break with the pre-war position of the Second International, but was actually a reaffirmation of the “pre-war consensus of revolutionary Social Democracy” abandoned in 1914.

In Lih’s terms, Lenin employed a “rhetoric of aggressive unoriginality” in the years 1914-16 to show the essential continuity between the Bolshevik program and a pre-war Marxist consensus based upon Kautsky’s formulations of a “new era of war and revolution.”

Lih points out that as Lenin understood it, the failure of the International’s major parties was based upon the “betrayal” of the 1912 Basel Manifesto, in which the International members parties had pledged to use the outbreak of war to engage in revolutionary action or at least to work in that direction.

Several of the other Cataclysm essays stand out; among them, Neil Davidson’s examination of the war’s impact on classical Marxism’s “stage theory” of capitalist development, and the “end of the bourgeois revolution” in Europe marked by Lenin’s post-Bolshevik victory pronouncement that Russia would begin the transition to socialism. This piece, well worth a close reading, traces the evolution of Lenin’s thinking and Trotsky’s wartime influence upon it, induced of course by the conjunctural crisis that was the war.

There is no way in a brief review to do justice to all of Cataclysm’s diverse and provocative pieces. Some readers might find the writings somewhat dense or academic.  But a close reading will prove rewarding for anyone seeking to understand those forces that shaped the last century, and the causes and effects of the Great War that continue to ripple and resonate to the present.

July-August 2016, ATC 183

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <b> </b> <br> <br /> <a> </a> <em> </em> <strong> </strong> <cite> </cite> <code> </code> <ul> </ul> <ol> </ol> <li> </li> <dl> </dl> <dt> </dt> <dd> </dd> <div> </div> <img> <style> <font> </font> <blockquote> </blockquote> <hr>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.