By Domenico Moro
This year marks the centenary of the First World War, which began with the signing of the declaration of war by the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria on July 28, 1914. For the first time in history, and after a hundred years of relative peace, all major powers were involved in a war of global nature. The scale of violence, the suffering of combatants and the cost in human lives (16 million dead, of which 650,000 Italians) were unprecedented. The political and social balances were altered, producing revolutionary events like the Soviet October Revolution. At the end of it, Europe was exhausted and left with the poisoned fruit of fascism, which led to World War II, an even more dramatic “second half” of the First World War.
For these reasons, the “Great War,” as it was called by its contemporaries, remains etched on the collective psychology even today, as is evident from the dozens of recent publications and by the media, which has dedicated TV broadcasts and newspaper articles on the theme. Added to this is the coincidence that on the centenary we are seeing the outbreak of new wars, not only in the war-torn Middle East but also in the heart of Europe, in Ukraine, within an international context of increasingly widespread chaos, which leads us to establish similarities between what is happening now and what happened then. Is it possible, however, to talk about similarities and, if so, to what extent and what in particular?
Great War unforeseen?
Typically, the reconstruction of the causes of the First World War tend to show the outbreak of war as an event into which all the European governments were dragged almost in spite of themselves, in a sort of domino effect, without having foreseen the scale of what would happen. An example of this attitude is a article by Gianni Toniolo in financial daily Sole24ore on 27 July:
The war came in a succession of small steps moving, as in Christopher Clarke’s metaphor, like sleepwalkers. (…) The elites of all the countries involved were guilty of errors of omission, indifference, lack of clarity in assessing the long-term consequences of decisions of apparently little importance. If July 28 forces us to reflect this is first of all due to the need to look beyond the immediate tackling of crises, apparently unrelated to a multipolar world, whether in the South China Sea, the Middle East, or on the eastern borders of the ‘Ukraine.
In truth, the outbreak of the Great War and its dimensions were not entirely unexpected. With incredible foresight Friedrich Engels wrote in 1886 about the conflicts between European powers:
In short, there is a big mess and there is only one certain result: a mass slaughter of amplitude thus far never seen before, Europe exhausted to a point never seen before, finally, the collapse of the entire old system … the best thing would be a revolution in Russia.
Origins of WW1
However, it must be said that the causes of a global war were maturing for decades. They resulted from the crisis of the capitalist mode of production, which had given rise to the phenomenon of imperialism and the increasing struggle between the major capitalist powers for the conquest of markets for goods and capital, and for the control of sources of raw materials. In particular, British hegemony, that from the end of the Napoleonic Wars had guaranteed peace through the “Concert of Europe”, was failing due to the decline of the British economy in favour of new industrial powers.
Between 1870 and 1880, the US and Germany become respectively, among the industrial countries, first and second place, overtaking Britain and France. But while Britain and France possessed vast colonial empires and the US had a colossal domestic market, Germany, small and devoid of colonies, needed to secure a market outlet for its goods or risk a disastrous resolution of the contradiction between the enormous potential of its industry and market outlets.
An identical competition between the Great Powers had developed for the control of oil, in particular that of Mesopotamia, then under the Turkish control and which today coincides geographically with Iraq. Britain, in March of 1914, blocked Germany’s project that, through the construction of a railway between Baghdad and Constantinople, sought to obtain from the Ottoman government the rights to oil extraction. Thus the First World War was anything but the result of the improvident superficiality of European governments, but the necessary outcome of the structural crisis of the capitalist mode of production and the conscious showdown between imperialist states in the face of the crisis of hegemonic power.
Parallels with today
Departing from this basis, it is not very difficult to identify some similarities with today. We are now facing a crisis of capitalism of unusual dimensions that has no fixes and that is manifesting itself with a second and stronger wave of globalization. We are now facing the crisis of hegemony of the US power and a situation of international chaos. It is expected that within a few years, the domestic product of China will overtake that of the United States. In 2013 among the top ten multinationals, four were from “emerging” countries, one Chinese, one Russian (Gazprom, which is at the top) and a Brazilian; in 2004 there was only one. The crisis in the US, however, has some important differences with that of Great Britain.
Britain could offset its foreign trade and government deficits by exploiting India, thus maintaining the stability and the hegemony of the pound. In contrast, the US does not have any colony that can fulfill the same function and to finance its deficits must be able to maintain the dollar as the world currency, in order to attract foreign capital that it needs. Given that the dollar remains the global currency only to the extent that is used for transactions of raw materials and oil in particular, the US cannot afford to lose control of energy sources to its competitors. Energy resources means above all the Middle East, where the world’s largest reserves are to be found and from which Europe, Japan and China itself import most of their requirements .
The decline and the fragility of the foundations of their hegemony leads the US and other powers in difficulty such as France and Britain to behave more and more aggressively. Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were part of an offensive strategy aimed at restoring US hegemony. The difficulty in the management of direct interventions led the Obama administration to choose a strategy based mostly on a mix of air raids and wars by proxy, as seen in Pakistan-Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, and this year in Ukraine. The goal is not to acquire control of new territories, but to weaken states that are considered dangerous, instigating conflict between their allies and bringing war to their borders, as in the case of Russia. Social, religious and ethnic-linguistic divisions are levers used for this purpose. The result is a situation of increasing instability and chaos in the world.
The escalation in recent months not only in the Ukraine but also in Iraq – where the role of the US is at its least ambiguous – and Gaza is linked to some new facts that make the prospects of Western-led invasion less clear. In June, Russia’s Rosnet signed a contract with China for twenty-five years supply of oil at a volume of 600,000 barrels per day, double what it receives today, and Putin has not ruled out a rise to 900,000 barrels. In July, China took the first steps to make the yuan renminbi convertible in preparation for its rise as an international reserve and exchange currency. Finally, China, along with Russia and the other Brics countries have announced the establishment of a bank to fund development projects in emerging countries. All this threatens the control of Western imperialism over financial flows, raw materials for energy production.
It is very difficult to predict or define scenarios, assessing whether there is a possibility that the tensions that are piling up could result in a global war between the great powers. There are many variables to consider (including the role of Germany) and this is not the purpose of this article.
War and social democracy
The point to consider is that we are already at war. Italy in recent years has been engaged in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya and risks, due to the international role that its ruling class has decided to take in being increasingly involved in the escalation of war. It is in this context that we should learn from the historical experience of social democracy before the First World War. Despite the predictions of Engels, the heroic efforts of leaders like Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Liebknecht and Jean Jaurès (who was assassinated by a nationalist on July 31, 1914), and the commitment of the Second International congress in 1912 to struggle against war, the major socialist parties, especially the German and French, fell in behind their respective imperial nations.
Only a minority stood firm on the positions of the International, in particular the Bolshevik component of Russian social democracy, which even managed to turn the disaster of the war into a starting point for the construction of the first real attempt in history at creating a socialist state. The struggle for peace is not only a matter of ethics or morality, as well it should be, but should translate in political and social terms. The struggle for peace can only be a struggle against imperialism and in the first instance, against one’s own imperial power, and for a alternative model of society to capitalism.
Domenico Moro is an economist and a leading figure in the Party of Italian Communists (PdCI)
Translation by Revolting Europe