First World War Today
R Arun Kumar
HEADS of 83 countries, monarchs and elected presidents/prime ministers included, converged in Belgium to commemorate the centenary of the World War (the war to end all wars!), while Israel is bombarding Gaza. New York Times reporting the event writes “Some took the moment to recall more modern crises in the Middle East and Europe that are rooted in the fighting between 1914 and 1918 that toppled empires and redrew the world map. Some dwelled on a vision of reconciliation among former foes”. The report quotes Prince William, the British prince, who is second in line of succession to the British crown as saying, “We were enemies more than once in the last century, and today we are friends and allies”. He chose to remain silent on the differences that exist between Britain and Germany on European Union, the economic crisis and other issues.
Wall Street Journal reporting on the same event quotes French President Francois Hollande: “How can we stay neutral when a people, not far from Europe, is fighting for its rights and territorial integrity? How to stay neutral when a civilian aircraft can be shot out of the sky? When there are civilian populations being massacred in Iraq, minorities being persecuted in Syria? When in Gaza a murderous conflict has been going on for over a month…we cannot stay neutral, we have an obligation to act. Europe has to take its responsibility to act, along with the U.N. We cannot simply invoke a cult of memory, we have to take our responsibilities”. The socialist president, surprisingly forgot to mention Libya, where fighting is still going on.
The omissions are not mere 'slip-of-tongue' for both Prince William and President Hollande. Their mention is deliberately avoided – one, to show that everything is fine between Germany, the current dominating economic power in Europe and Britain, the fading star and two, as it was the French who played an active role in destabilising Libya. In spite of their best of efforts, the speeches at the commemoration events fail to hide the divisive and destructive role of imperialism, yesterday and today.
For the record, First World War was unlike any other war that had taken place earlier. It lasted for a little over four years, it involved all major powers and troops from all over the world fought against each other. India Gate, the iconic monument in Delhi was built in memory of the Indian soldiers who had lost their lives fighting for the British empire in the First World War and the War is replete with similar tales of many soldiers fighting for their colonial masters. More than nine million combatants and seven million civilians died in this War. The map of the world underwent a complete overhaul after the War, several empires tumbled and new nations took birth. The Ottoman empire collapsed, the Austro-Hungarian empire ceased to exist and Tsarist Russia saw the first socialist revolution. EJ Hobsbawm states: “No old government was left standing between the borders of France and the Sea of Japan”. Importantly, many of the present-day conflicts in the West Asian region, including the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, are an off-shoot of the First World War.
All those observances and news reports commemorating the War which had such far-reaching consequences on world polity, are virtually silent on the real reasons that led to the First World War. They confine themselves to reporting the shooting of the Austrian prince as the reason for the War, deliberately hiding the fact that this incident served only as a trigger for the explosion of the simmering internal contradictions of the period. Hobsbawm states that this War, “unlike earlier wars, which were typically waged for limited and specifiable objects, was waged for unlimited ends”.
Explaining the character of the War and what these 'unlimited ends' are, Lenin writes: “The European and world war has the clearly defined character of a bourgeois, imperialist and dynastic war. A struggle for markets and for freedom to loot foreign countries, a striving to suppress the revolutionary movement of the proletariat and democracy in the individual countries, a desire to deceive, disunite, and slaughter the proletarians of all countries by setting the wage slaves of one nation against those of another so as to benefit the bourgeoisie – these are the only real content and significance of the war”.
One of the enduring legacies of the First World War was the triumph of Great October Socialist Revolution and the establishment of socialist Russia. Lenin combated the 'ultra-imperialism' theory propounded by Kautsky, exposed how the inter-imperialist contradictions give rise to wars and used the maturing contradictions of the period to strike at the 'weakest link in the imperialist chain'. This was a world changing event as it had demonstrated that establishment of a society bereft of exploitation is indeed achievable and is not a 'project of dreams'. This drew attention of the people world-over and triggered the formation of Communist Parties in many countries across the globe.
Lenin, through his polemics and tactics centering around the First World War, showed the way forward for the international communist movement in the correct application of Marxism to the concrete conditions. It is on the question of analysing the War that the bankruptcy of the leaders of Second International was exposed, which ultimately led to its collapse. Lenin writes: “The tremendous crisis created within European socialism by the world war has (as is always the case in great crises) resulted first in enormous confusion; it then led to a series of new groupings taking shape among representatives of various currents, shades and views in socialism; finally, it raised, with particular acuteness and insistence, the question of what changes in the foundations of socialist policy follow from the crisis and are demanded by it”.
Further elaborating, he demonstrated that these 'foundations' would be strong only if they are rid of social-chauvinism and opportunism. “Advocacy of class collaboration; abandonment of the idea of socialist revolution and revolutionary methods of struggle; adaptation to bourgeois nationalism; losing sight of the fact that the borderlines of nationality and country are historically transient; making a fetish of bourgeois legality; renunciation of the class viewpoint and the class struggle, for fear of repelling the 'broad masses of the population' (meaning the petty bourgeoisie) – such, doubtlessly, are the ideological foundations of opportunism...The war has merely brought out, rapidly and saliently, the true measure of this prevalence”. Pronouncing the Second International 'dead', “overcome by opportunism”, Lenin wanted the Third International to be “purged not only of 'turncoats', but of opportunism as well”.
Lenin writes: “The experience of the war, like the experience of any crisis in history, of any great calamity and any sudden turn in human life, stuns and breaks some people, but enlightens and tempers others. Taken by and large, and considering the history of the world as a whole, the number and strength of the second kind of people have...proved greater than those of the former kind”.
For all of us who are concerned about the growing inequalities, endless wars, cyclical crises and exploitation of man-by-man, the most important 'experience' that Lenin had taught us from the First World War, is how to “rouse and stir up the people” and “to take advantage of the crisis so as to hasten the downfall of capitalism”.
In a world striven with regional conflicts and increased dominance of imperialism, it is our duty to learn from the lessons offered by the First World War, hundred years ago. The scars of the War still continue to haunt us, not only in Palestine where nearly 2000 Palestinians died in the Israeli genocide, but in every country penetrated by international finance capital and imperialism. Imperialism, though holding a dominant sway over the world, is not left unchallenged. New groupings are taking shape representing 'various currents, shades and views of socialism', indicating a deep churning taking place among those who want to see a world free from exploitation. Fearing that this churning will once again acquire a revolutionary direction, Communist Parties and Communism as an ideology are termed irrelevant and targeted for vilification. This only proves to what extent the apologists of imperialism and ruling classes fear them, because unlike other theories, Marxism-Leninism is not a utopia, but a 'theory of praxis'.
It is upon us to make real, what they fear. Lenin warns: “Will the situation last long; how much more acute will it become? Will it lead to revolution? This is something we do not know, and nobody can know. The answer can be provided only by the experience gained during the development of revolutionary sentiment and the transition to revolutionary action by the advanced class, the proletariat. There can be no talk in this connection about 'illusions' or their repudiation, since no socialist has ever guaranteed that this war (and not the next one), that today's revolutionary situation (and not tomorrow's) will produce a revolution”.