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Issue #1648      July 23, 2014

The Great (Trade) War

Politicians and the mass media are leaping on the bandwagon of “commemorating” the outbreak of World War One. As Jeremy Seabrook’s article from Third World Resurgence, reproduced on the back page of last week’s issue of this paper, pointed out, “a campaign has been under way in Britain and a number of other countries to project this war between rival imperial powers as a necessary and just war”.

This attempted refurbishing of the Great War (as it was known at the time) as something noble, even glorious, echoes the way it was presented to the inhabitants of the belligerent countries themselves: it was sold as a war of defence, a war to save “gallant little Belgium” from the Hun, and ultimately as “the war to end war”, none of which were true.

Lenin correctly identified the nature of the Great War when he described it as “a trade war”, a war between capitalist powers in the age of imperialism for markets and colonies.

It had been brewing for 25 years. As capitalism develops in any particular country, it soon reaches a point where its accumulated profits can no longer be successfully (i.e. profitably) invested at home but must seek investment opportunities abroad. These may be investments in foreign companies or most profitably acquisition of colonies. Colonies provide exclusive access to raw materials and also markets for finished products from one’s own factories. Only when a capitalist country reaches this stage can it be described as having attained the imperialist stage, what Lenin designated “the highest stage of capitalism”.

The consolidation of capitalism in the 19th century saw virtually the whole world divided up – as either colonies or “spheres of influence” – between the European Powers plus Japan and the USA. Germany – previously a heterogeneous collection of independent principalities, only became unified in the latter half of the century, so – like Japan and the USA – came late to empire building. The three most extensive and profitable of the colonial empires were those of Britain, France and Russia. Other European countries – Spain, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany – as well as Turkey, also had colonies scattered across the world.

Russia too had only abandoned feudalism in the late 19th century, to embrace the development of capitalism instead. Its ruling class, both feudal and emerging trade-based, were determined to protect its vast colonial possessions in Central Asia and Siberia. They had already suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan in 1905.

Japan claimed Korea and Taiwan as its own while the USA lorded it over the Philippines, Panama and parts of the Caribbean, and under the so-called “Monroe Doctrine” barred any European or Asian power from establishing new colonies in Central or South America. British and German capital however waged a fierce financial war for economic dominance over South American trade and commerce.


Rivalry between the capitalist powers for raw materials and markets was inevitable. German capital in particular wanted its rivals’ colonies “reassigned” while British capital was equally determined to prevent German capital from threatening its leading position in the world. Russia, ally of France and Britain, was also aware that the most likely way for Germany to seek to obtain land and raw materials was expand to the East, into Russia’s bread-basket the Ukraine and from there into the sources of Russian coal and iron, the Donbas. Any rearrangement of the world’s empires could only be achieved by war.

And here one needs to remember that an additional impetus towards war was provided by the proprietors of the industries that would profit the most from war itself: iron and steel, petro-chemicals and of course armaments. The developing arms race was boosting their coffers most handsomely, but actual war would increase their profits exponentially. In the decade before 1914, they used their considerable influence to promote aggressive “gunboat diplomacy” wherever possible.

The world socialist movement observed the growing threat of war with alarm and determination to oppose it. And for many years did so with vigour and fine words. But when the heir to the Austrian throne was assassinated in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914 by a Serbian nationalist, bellicosity won the day almost without contest.

Russia was allied to Serbia, Germany was allied to Austria, as was Turkey. Britain and France were allied to Russia. But, as we have seen, treaty obligations were the least of their reasons for going to war. Britain, and the British Empire of which Australia was a part, had a problem however. They could hardly try to sell the war to their population on the grounds that the people should risk their lives to prevent German capital from interfering with the investment opportunities of the City of London. They needed some other pretext. They found it in Belgium.

The European powers had signed a treaty in 1839 guaranteeing Belgian neutrality. When Germany sought to strike at Serbia’s ally France in 1914, the German authorities sought Belgian permission to march through the country on their way to France. Belgium refused permission so Germany invaded Belgium and headed for France anyway.

Britain had a secret treaty with Belgium such that in the event of war between Britain and Germany, British troops could march through Belgium to attack Germany. Belgian neutrality was clearly a fiction as far as the British leadership was concerned , but “defending” it against the rapacious Hun was an effective and emotive tool for persuading the British people that participation in the war was right.

As the various European powers took the opportunity to foment patriotic fervour and declare war on one another and so launch their economies onto the war footing that they had been striving so long to achieve, the various social democrat parties fell into line and gave their support to the war. Only Lenin’s Bolsheviks in Russia and the Spartacus League of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany stood up to denounce the war as an anti-working class conflict.

The war eventually spread across the world, but was not referred to as a World War until after the Armistice in 1918. In the meantime 11 million people had died and disaffection with the elements of the ruling class deemed most responsible for the conflict had grown apace, so much so that as monarchies collapsed and governments were overthrown, imperialism itself took fright.

There were mutinies against the war as early as 1916 on the Western Front. By the beginning of 1917, the Russian Empire, still dominated by a rich aristocracy, and with a vast army incompetently led (like the British army) by officers who owed their rank to their birth and connections rather than to any military ability, had collapsed. Russian capitalists ousted the aristocrats (including the Tsar) and declared a (bourgeois) republic, but then wanted the Russian people to go on fighting Germany on behalf of Russian capital.

By October 1917, Socialist Revolution had swept Petrograd, the capital, and rapidly spread across the country. American capitalists, alarmed by the turn of events, saw their loans to the European belligerents threatened and moved to bring the USA into the war as an active participant. The sinking of the Lusitania provided the pretext they needed. By the middle of 1918, the USA was in action on the Western Front, mutinies and revolutionary agitation were everywhere, and the Soviet “experiment” was arousing interest among workers all around the world.

By late in 1918, revolution had actually broken out in Austria-Hungary, bringing that empire to an end. The Hungarian Communist Bela Kun led the workers of Budapest in forming a Soviet Republic. The German people too had had enough and the Kaiser fled. Red Revolution swept Germany, and German troops on the Eastern Front slung their rifles over their shoulders with the barrels pointing to the ground and resolutely marched home singing revolutionary songs.

Imperialism realised it faced a new enemy, an armed class enemy, and hastily brought the war to a close on the Western Front, with an armistice to allow the troops of its late enemy, the Central Powers, to crush the revolts in Hungary, Austria and Germany. Meanwhile the USA, Britain and 12 other countries sent troops to Russia to crush the Soviet Revolution there too.

But that was a step too far. The people had had enough of war. The horror and waste of the Great War was all too clear to too many people. They demanded the troops come home, that their governments get their “hands off Russia”, and that they get on with establishing the peaceful world they had promised.

There was nothing glorious about the Great War. There was sacrifice and heroism aplenty by the men in the trenches, at sea and in the air. But it was a war brought on by the captains of industry and commerce in order to boost profits and secure markets. It was, as Lenin said, a trade war. And the 11 million who were sent to their deaths, and the millions more whose lives were damaged by it, are a cost that should never be forgotten or forgiven. It is a cost charged exclusively to capitalist greed.

Next article – Culture & Life – The ANZACs were sacrificed for profit

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