August 17, 2014

On the Centenary of the First World War

Prabhat Patnaik

IT is one hundred years ago that the first world war had broken out, a war which had been unprecedented not just in terms of the savagery and scale of destruction of human lives, but in its scope and nature as well. There are at least three ways that it differed from all previous wars. First, it was not confined to a particular location but covered, simultaneously, an enormous front, stretching from north-western Europe to Mesopotamia. Napoleon too, of course, had fought a war where the front had shifted from Egypt to Russia, but it had shifted; the battles had moved from one location to another. It was not an enormous front where a war was fought simultaneously, as in the First World War. Secondly, it was a war where the combatants were not just one or two European powers but a large number of countries drawn from all over the globe. Even though the colonised countries were not officially declared as combatants, large numbers of persons from these countries were recruited to fight the war on behalf of their colonial masters, a fact which Lenin saw as being of great historical importance, since it imparted both military training and an awareness of the world to these sections of the colonised people. Thirdly, it was a war whose economic underpinnings were quite palpable. These related not just to the motive, namely the acquisition of a larger slice of the globe as an actual or potential raw material source, an actual or potential market, and an actual or potential destination for capital exports; they related too to the profits made by the big monopoly combines from the war effort itself. The relation of this war to capitalism therefore was clear and pronounced, unlike in the case of the Napoleonic wars where conquest per se to install the Emperor’s kith and kin on thrones all over Europe, and hence to expand, in the manner of old feudalism, the area over which surplus was extracted, had been a major consideration. All these features, and hence the new conjuncture that produced a war with these features, were captured most accurately by Lenin in his theoretical writings, and above all in his theory of imperialism. Though the theory drew heavily upon the work of JA Hobson and Rudolph Hilferding, it constituted a totality of understanding that was not only sui generis but also profound. Indeed one would not be wrong in claiming that no single theoretical endeavour has ever captured an entire conjuncture so completely. The theoretical comprehension of a conjuncture must also point to the direction of praxis. The most complete development of theory, as Lukacs had once remarked, is when theory bursts into praxis. And this is exactly what Lenin’s theory did. The fact that capitalism, through the operation of its immanent tendency towards centralisation of capital, had moved from the “free competition” to the “monopoly” stage; the fact that this had brought about a change in the nature of the capitalist State; the fact that in every major capitalist country a “personal union” had developed between big financiers, big industrialists and top personnel of the State; the fact that this combine glorified the idea of the “nation” to justify a war to re-partition a world that had already been divided up among major powers, but in a manner not reflecting their prevailing strengths: all these were highlighted to explain the war and capture the conjuncture. But the conclusion which followed from this was as direct and obvious, as it was bold and unconventional in the context of the Second International, namely that the imperialist war must be turned into a civil war. Instead of killing fellow workers across the trenches on behalf of the monopoly combine of “one’s own country”, the workers of each country must turn their guns against the rule of its “own” monopoly combine. THREE BURNING QUESTIONS This breathtakingly simple but breathtakingly bold course provided answers, simultaneously, to three burning questions. The first had been raised by Eduard Bernstein: when does capitalism, as a mode of production become historically obsolete, bringing its overthrow on to the agenda? Bernstein’s own answer was: when it heads for an economic breakdown; and since capitalism had shown no such signs and was unlikely to do so, the proletariat would be better occupied in “reforming” the capitalist system, getting more concessions out of it, than in being stuck in the outmoded project of a revolutionary overthrow of the system. Strangely enough, Bernstein’s premise that the historical obsolescence of capitalism needed to manifest itself in its heading for an economic breakdown was accepted even by his opponents in the German Social Democratic Party, even those belonging to its revolutionary wing like Rosa Luxemburg who developed a theory of accumulation of capital to argue the inevitability of an eventual collapse of the system. As against this, Lenin’s answer was that the very fact that capitalism had entered into a period of wars for repartitioning of the world, was indicative of its “moribund” character, that monopoly capitalism brought social revolution on to the agenda; it was the eve of social revolution. The second question for which Lenin’s theory provided an answer was: what should be the attitude of the proletarian movement to the war? Within Social Democracy there were three answers: first, there were the “social chauvinists” who simply lined up behind “their” respective monopoly combines. Then there were those in the “centre” like Karl Kautsky who took the position that while they would not support aggression by their own particular country, they would support the defence of their country against aggression by other countries. And finally, there was the Left which was totally opposed to the war. But even within the Left there was no common position. Rosa Luxemburg for instance had proposed a pan-European working class movement for peace. Lenin’s advocacy, which became the Bolshevik position, not of a struggle for peace, but of a struggle against the rule of monopoly capital instead of a struggle on behalf of the rule of monopoly capital, against monopoly capitals of other countries, which is what the world war entailed, thus broke fresh ground, and provided the most direct and practical answer. The third question to which Lenin’s theory provided an answer was: how does mankind get out of the predicament that has led to the war itself? This was not just a question before the working class movement or before the Marxists. Most thinking people, not just Marxists but even people belonging to other ideological strands as well, had this feeling that a denouement had been reached, that things could not continue in the old way, and that something new had to occur. Even a liberal anti-Communist like John Maynard Keynes in an article in The Yale Review, written in 1933, ie, long after the First World War had ended, argued that while he disagreed with the Bolshevik path, he saw the need for a new path. And Georg Lukacs, the Marxist philosopher, before he became a Marxist, had written as follows in the middle of the war, prior to the Bolshevik Revolution: “..the Habsburg and the Hohenzollern rulers would defeat the Romanovs in this war, which would be a good thing; the Western liberal democracies would defeat the Habsburg and the Hohenzollern rulers, which again would be a good thing; but then who would protect us from the Western liberal democracies”? This sense of a “missing something” was overcome by the Bolshevik Revolution, which is why Lukacs became a complete supporter of the Revolution and came over to the revolutionary cause. And Lenin’s theory had already worked out the answer to this problem of the “missing something”. Lenin believed that a revolutionary conjuncture had begun, of which the war was an expression. The post-war treatment of Germany by the victorious powers, who imposed incredibly massive reparations, was, as he emphasised before the Communist International, quoting John Maynard Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace, an even more resounding confirmation of the “rottenness” of the system. This was not to say that capitalism “could never change” thenceforth, but that this question of how capitalism could change to overcome this conjuncture was an idle, scholastic, question: long before capitalism could change to overcome this conjuncture, mankind would have overthrown capitalism. Even after the German Revolution had failed and the prospects of revolution in Europe had abated, Lenin was looking towards a revolution in India and China, and writing: “In the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, and China, etc account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe”. The conjuncture that Lenin had talked about, which was characterised above all by intense inter-imperialist rivalry, lasted, in the exact form in which Lenin had depicted it, until the end of the Second World War, after which there was a muting of this rivalry. In addition, capitalism restructured itself in a number of ways to ward off the immediate revolutionary threat to its existence. The muting of this rivalry however enhanced the threat to the socialist camp, which eventually led to a collapse of socialism over a substantial part of the globe. RELENTLESS AGGRESSION AGAINST SOCIALIST CAMP There is a tendency, in discussing the reasons for this collapse, to put the blame for it exclusively upon the internal problems of socialism. These problems of course were there, but focusing exclusively upon them has the effect of implicitly suggesting that socialism is so problem-ridden that it is unworkable. What is missed in this is the relentless aggression against the socialist camp, against the Soviet Union in particular, that was carried out by imperialism as it emerged and progressively strengthened itself after the Second World War, with its internal rivalry muted. What is missed is that the socialist bloc always stood for world peace, for the breathing space to develop the economies and improve the material conditions of life of the workers; but imperialism would not allow them that space, and would hold the threat of war and annihilation permanently over them, right down to Ronald Reagan’s “star wars” porogramme. Even though the conjuncture theoretically comprehended by Lenin’s analysis changed, owing inter alia to the immanent tendency towards centralisation of capital that Lenin himself, following Marx, had emphasised (which led to the emergence of international finance capital and an eschewing of acute inter-imperialist rivalry), and even though as a consequence socialism suffered a setback, the revolutionary transformations essayed during that period, have had a lasting impact. One can cite the saving of mankind from fascism and the process of decolonisation as to obvious legacies of these revolutionary transformations. New conjunctures favourable to socialism will arise in future; but on the centenary of the First World War it is worth looking back to the conjuncture inaugurated by it which changed human history forever.