Much is made in conventional analyses of the origins of the First World War of the immediate triggers - the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, or the German attack on 'neutral' Belgium - eliding the deeper historical reasons for the conflict that claimed millions of lives. Most analyses in the mass media are likely to begin and end there in adjudicating the justness of the War and self-evident German guilt.
Below is an analysis that rejects such an approach in favour of exploring the deeper class and historical roots of the War - in the rise and rivalries of European colonialism, and the capitalists who headed their domestic economic and political systems.
Every significant 'event' has a pre-history the study of which may illuminate its causes. In the case of WWI, there is a myth that its outbreak not only had no cause other than German aggression, but also that its outbreak ended the 'long peace' between the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo and 1914. Yet, that entire era was punctuated with killing on a massive scale - in Africa and Asia and elsewhere - by colonial powers. But, as Lenin argues below, in a speech of May 1917, killing Africans and Asians on an industrial scale did not even count as warfare in the eyes of colonial powers. Yet, it is in the struggle among European states for colonies that the roots of WWI were sown.
That's an argument that is unlikely to be heard too frequently over the next few years as the 'victors' declare WWI as rooted in the fight for freedom, the rule of law, and for justice. That's why the article below, just a small extract from a much longer speech, is so important.
V. I. Lenin War and Revolution
A LECTURE DELIVERED MAY 14 (27), 1917
Published: First published April 23, 1929 in Pravda No. 93 SOURCE: “Marxists Internet Archive”https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/may/14.htm
It seems to me that the most important thing that is usually overlooked in the question of the war… is the question of the class character of the war: what caused that war, what classes are waging it, and what historical and historico-economic conditions gave rise to it.
We must be clear as to what historical conditions have given rise to the war, what classes are waging it, and for what ends. Unless we grasp this, all our talk about the war will necessarily be utterly futile, engendering more heat than light.
We all know the dictum of Clausewitz: “War is a continuation of policy by other means.” …This writer… challenged the ignorant man-in-the-street conception of war as being a thing apart from the policies of the governments and classes concerned, as being a simple attack that disturbs the peace, and is then followed by restoration of the peace thus disturbed, as much as to say: “They had a fight, then they made up!”
…All wars are inseparable from the political systems that engender them. The policy which a given state, a given class within that state, pursued for a long time before the war is inevitably continued by that same class during the war, the form of action alone being changed.
Peace reigned in Europe, but this was because domination over hundreds of millions of people in the colonies by the European nations was sustained only through constant, incessant, interminable wars, which we Europeans do not regard as wars at all, since all too often they resembled, not wars, but brutal massacres, the wholesale slaughter of unarmed peoples. The thing is that if we want to know what the present war is about we must first of all make a general survey of the policies of the European powers as a whole…. We must take the whole policy of the entire system of European states in their economic and political interrelations if we are to understand how the present war steadily and inevitably grew out of this system.
What we have at present is primarily two leagues, two groups of capitalist powers. We have before us all the world’s greatest capitalist powers Britain, France, America, and Germany who for decades have doggedly pursued a policy of incessant economic rivalry aimed at achieving world supremacy, subjugating the small nations, and making threefold and tenfold profits on banking capital, which has caught the whole world in the net of its influence. That is what Britain’s and Germany’s policies really amount to. I stress this fact. This fact can never be emphasised strongly enough, because if we forget this we shall never understand what this war is about….
On the one hand we have Britain, a country which owns the greater part of the globe, a country which ranks first in wealth, which has created this wealth not so much by the labour of its workers as by the exploitation of innumerable colonies, by the vast power of its banks which have developed at the head of all the others into an insignificantly small group of some four or five super-banks handling billions of rubles, and handling them in such a way that it can he said without exaggeration that there is not a patch of land in the world today on which this capital has not laid its heavy hand, not a patch of land which British capital has not enmeshed by a thousand threads. This capital grew to such dimensions by the turn of the century that its activities extended far beyond the borders of individual states and formed a group of giant banks possessed of fabulous wealth. Having begotten this tiny group of banks, it has caught the whole world in the net of its billions. This is the sum and substance of Britain’s economic policy and of the economic policy of France…
On the other hand, opposed to this, mainly Anglo-French group, we have another group of capitalists, an even more rapacious, even more predatory one, a group who came to the capitalist banqueting table when all the seats were occupied, but who introduced into the struggle new methods for developing capitalist production, improved techniques, and superior organisation, which turned the old capitalism, the capitalism of the free-competition age, into the capitalism of giant trusts, syndicates, and cartels. This group introduced the beginnings of state-controlled capitalist production, combining the colossal power of capitalism with the colossal power of the state into a single mechanism and bringing tens of millions of people within the single organisation of state capitalism. Here is economic history, here is diplomatic history, covering several decades, from which no one can get away. It is the one and only guide-post to a proper solution of the problem of war; it leads you to the conclusion that the present war, too, is the outcome of the policies of the classes who have come to grips in it, of the two supreme giants, who, long before the war, had caught the whole world, all countries, in the net of financial exploitation and economically divided the globe up among themselves. They were bound to clash, because a redivision of this supremacy, from the point of view of capitalism, had become inevitable.
The old division was based on the fact that Britain, in the course of several centuries, had ruined her former competitors… In 1871 a new predator appeared, a new capitalist power arose, which developed at an incomparably faster pace than Britain… This rapid development of capitalism in Germany was the development of a young strong predator, who appeared in the concert of European powers and said: “You ruined Holland, you defeated France, you have helped yourself to half the world now be good enough to let us have our fair share.” What does “a fair share” mean? How is it to be determined in the capitalist world, in the world of banks? There power is determined by the number of banks, there power is determined in the way described by a mouthpiece of the American multimillionaires, which declared with typically American frankness and typically American cynicism: “The war in Europe is being waged for world domination. To dominate the world two things are needed: dollars and banks. We have the dollars, we shall make the banks and we shall dominate the world.” This statement was made by a leading newspaper of the American multimillionaires. I must say, there is a thousand times more truth in this cynical statement of a blustering American multimillionaire than in thousands of articles by bourgeois liars who try to make out that this war is being waged for national interests, on national issues, and utter similar glaringly patent lies which dismiss history completely and take an isolated example like the case of the German beast of prey who attacked Belgium. The case is undoubtedly a real one. This group of predators did attack Belgium with brutal ferocity, but it did the same thing the other group did yesterday by other means and is doing today to other nations.
…. Obviously, the question of which of these two robbers was the first to draw the knife is of small account to us. Take the history of the naval and military expenditures of these two groups over a period of decades, take the history of the little wars they waged before the big war “little” because few Europeans died in those wars, whereas hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the nations they were subjugating died in them, nations which from their point of view could not be regarded as nations at all (you couldn’t very well call those Asians and Africans nations!); the wars waged against these nations were wars against unarmed people, who were simply shot down, machine-gunned. Can you call them wars? Strictly speaking, they were not wars at all, and you could forget about them. That is their attitude to this downright deception of the masses.
The present war is a continuation of the policy of conquest, of the shooting down of whole nationalities, of unbelievable atrocities committed by the Germans and the British in Africa, and by the British and the Russians in Persia which of them committed most it is difficult to say. It was for this reason that the German capitalists looked upon them as their enemies. Ah, they said, you are strong because you are rich? But we are stronger, therefore we have the same “sacred” right to plunder.
That is what the real history of British and German finance capital in the course of several decades preceding the war amounts to. That is what the history of Russo-German, Russo-British, and German-British relations amounts to. There you have the clue to an understanding of what the war is about. That is why the story that is current about the cause of the war is sheer duplicity and humbug. Forgetting the history of finance capital, the history of how this war had been brewing over the issue of redivision, they present the matter like this: two nations were living at peace, then one attacked the other, and the other fought back. All science, all banks are forgotten, and the peoples are told to take up arms, and so are the peasants, who know nothing about politics. All they have to do is to fight back!
Ruthless wars were waged in Persia and Africa by the Liberals, who flogged political offenders in India for daring to put forward demands which were being fought for here in Russia. The French colonial troops oppressed peoples too. There you have the pre-history, the real history of unprecedented plunder! Such is the policy of these classes, of which the present war is a continuation.