Thursday, 4 March 2010

Notes for an Essay on the First World War and the Breakdown of Capitalism


1. In his book War and the International Leon Trotsky makes two interrelated points. First point is he relates the origins of the war to the historical development of capitalism. Second point is to outline the development of a strategy for the international working class in the face of the betrayals by the leaders of the Second International especially that of the SPD e.g. German Social Democracy.

2. The SPD repudiated the decisions of its own congress to provide support for their own ruling elite’s support of the war. Recently orthodox Marxist positions on the war have come under attack from a number of high profile historians. Later on in the article these positions will be discussed.

3. The war exposed somewhat cruelly the conception that capitalism had somehow overcome its contradictions and that all governments could settle their differences by negotiation and diplomacy. The breakdown was anticipated by Karl Marx when he wrote.

4. “In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

5. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society”.

6. In his book The War and the International Leon Trotsky makes a similar point “The forces of production which capitalism has evolved have outgrown the limits of nation and state,” Trotsky wrote in the very first sentence of his analysis. “The national state, the present political form, is too narrow for the exploitation of these productive forces. The natural tendency of our economic system, therefore, is to seek to break through the state boundaries. The whole globe, the land and the sea, the surface as well as the interior have become one economic workshop, the different parts of which are inseparably connected with each other.”

7. If you analyse the proceeding thirty years before the First World Warsaw the emergence of Imperialism. The handful of few industrialized capitalist nations domination of the world. At the head of these countries stood huge corporate and banking conglomerates who were exporting capital on a global scale. These rival powers battled for the control of markets and sought even cheaper labour in Africa and Asia.

8. Under these conditions there arose conflict between Germany and Britain. Some historians have put this down to the personality of Kaiser Wilhelm 11. This was not the case. It was the product of the rise of German capitalism and its challenge to the previously dominant Great Britian.More than a decade before the 1st World War the conflicts between the major imperialist powers had culminated in the formation of an alliance which pitted the Triple Entente against the Triple Alliance.

9. Trotsky again “The future development of world economy on the capitalistic basis means a ceaseless struggle for new and ever new fields of capitalist exploitation, which must be obtained from one and the same source, the earth. The economic rivalry under the banner of militarism is accompanied by robbery and destruction which violate the elementary principles of human economy. World production revolts not only against the confusion produced by national and state divisions, but also against the capitalist economic organisation, which has now turned into barbarous disorganisation and chaos. The war of 1914 is the most colossal breakdown in history of an economic system destroyed by its own inherent contradictions.”

10. For Trotsky the war not only signalled the downfall of the nation state but it ended the historical role of capitalism. This analysis came under sustain attack from many quarters. Figures such as Woodrow Wilson said this was not a breakdown of capitalism and hence no need for socialism. A large amount of the historiography written on the First World War has occurred after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Much of this has sought to deny the revolutionary implications of the war. One such historian had no such opinion Elie Halevy (1870-1937) “In his lectures of 1929, revised in 1936 (published in 1938; The Era of Tyrannies), Halévy argued that the world war had increased national control over individual activities and opened the way for de facto socialism. In opposition to those who saw socialism as the last step in the French Revolution, he saw it as a new organization of constraint replacing those that the Revolution had destroyed”.

11. Many of today’s historians have sought to overturn this type of socio-economic or ‘Marxist’ historiography. One thing comes to mind is that if Marxism is dead then why some much literature is being written to disprove it.In many ways the First World War is still a contemporary issue and defines our epoch.

12. Right Wing historians such as Niall Fergusson have utilised the collapse of the Soviet Union to justify their right wing theories. For most of the twentieth century, even right-wing historians have had to adapt themselves to the political and ideological consequences of the Russian Revolution—how the world’s first successful socialist revolution inspired millions in a belief that there was an alternative to imperialist brutality, a belief that survived even after the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin. It was de rigueur to deplore the slaughter of the First World War, but now there is a generation of historians who are increasingly eager to revise the judgement of earlier researchers. They can do so without doing obvious violence to evidence and principles of historical methodology. At a cursory glance all the apparatus of a history book is present in The Pity of War. There are extracts from contemporary accounts by statesmen, generals and ordinary soldiers from all sides; there are statistics, economic, military and sociological; there are contemporary photographs showing scenes of carnage and men relaxing behind the lines. There are, of course, extensive footnotes. The immediate impression is of a book at once scholarly yet sensitive. On closer inspection, however, a very different book emerges. It is a carefully camouflaged glorification of war.

13. Another point about Ferguson is his attempt to individualise the war. To do so he concentrates on the motives of business to the exclusiveness of objective developments. Nick Beams argue “Ferguson adopts the crude method deployed by so many in the past. According to his view, for the analysis of Marxism to be valid we must be able to show that political leaders made their decisions on the basis of a kind of profit-and-loss calculus of economic interests, or that there was a secret cabal of businessmen and financiers operating behind the scenes and pulling the strings of government. Failure to find either, he maintains, cuts the ground from under the feet of the Marxist argument”.

14. The rise of German imperialism coincided with the struggle for geo-political interests of the great powers. The fact that the great powers could not come to an agreement over carving up the world disproved Karl Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism. It is clear that Britain and no less Germany were motivated by long term interests.

15. “You are the clearing-house of the world,” he told them. “Why? Why is banking prosperous among you? Why is a bill of exchange on London the standard currency of all commercial transactions? Is it not because of the productive energy and capacity which is behind it? Is it not because we have hitherto, at any rate, been constantly creating new wealth? Is it not because of the multiplicity, the variety, and the extent of our transactions? If any one of these things suffers even a check, do you suppose that you will not feel it? Do you imagine that you can in that case sustain the position of which you are justly proud? Suppose—if such a supposition is permissible—you no longer had the relations which you have at present with our great Colonies and dependencies, with India, with the neutral countries of the world, would you then be its clearing-house? No, gentlemen. At least we can recognize this—that the prosperity of London is intimately connected with the prosperity and greatness of the Empire of which it is the centre.” [32] Cain and Hopkins, British Imperialism (London: 2002), pp. 195-196.

16. The conflict between Lenin and Karl Kautsky over the possibility of ‘ultra imperialism’ has a great deal of resonance today.Kautsky was the most finished example of the attack on Marxism. Kautsky’s main point was that Capitalism had not exhausted itself and that the war did not represent the death agony of capitalism. He believed that the working class was in no position to launch an offensive against capitalism.

17. “There is no economic necessity for continuing the arms race after the World War, even from the standpoint of the capitalist class itself, with the exception of at most certain armaments interests. On the contrary, the capitalist economy is seriously threatened precisely by the contradictions between its states. Every far-sighted capitalist today must call on his fellows: capitalists of all countries, unite!”

18. This was refuted by Lenin who said “Socialism,” Lenin wrote, “is now gazing at us through all the windows of modern capitalism.” [47] It was necessary, he insisted, to examine the significance of the changes in the relations of production that were being effected by the development of monopoly capitalism. There was not just mere interlocking of ownership. A vast global socialisation of production was taking place at the base of monopoly capitalism.



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