10th November 2018
The commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice, following the cessation of hostilities in World War One, will dominate the news this weekend. The focus will be on the personal stories, the human interest angles, the tragic loss of life, all of which must be remembered and marked. There are civic and political occasions across Europe, which will be the opportunity for the current leaders of European nations to come together.
Activities to mark various centenary events across the whole period of the war have been going on for the past four years. In spite of this the public would be hard pressed to find the real causes and underlying consequences of a conflagration which took millions of military and civilian lives and devastated thousands more across the world. They would be even more hard pressed to find any acknowledgement of the crucial role of the Russian Revolution, not only in taking Russia out of the war but initiating the world’s first socialist state.
The attempt to bury the truth in talk of heroism and glory is not new but, in the period between the first and second world wars, there was at least some clarity of analysis within the ranks of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the form of R. Palme Dutt, particularly in his work World Politics 1918-1936 (Victor Gollancz Ltd 1936).
Palme Dutt in his chapter which considers the outcomes of the war is quite clear,
“The first fact to recognise about the eighteen years since the Armistice is that none of the world problems set by history since 1914 has been solved, many have intensified, and many new ones have been added, while the greater part of the “settlements” which followed the war have either broken down or are in the process of breaking down.”
Palme Dutt, in assessing the world situation in 1914, outlines the growing conflicts between the imperialist powers which had plundered the world throughout the nineteenth century and were now at a point where the division of the spoils could only be addressed by conflict. Most of the globe having been ‘conquered’ the only way in which to expand was to take from another competing capitalist power.
Capitalist concentration continually requires new markets and a rapidly developing Germany needed room to expand. British colonialism dominated the globe but this also made it more vulnerable to the rapidly emerging German imperial ambitions. New markets inevitably meant expanding into British markets and the British would not give up hard won imperial gains without a fight.
While war in Europe raged the real emerging power in the world, the United States of America, stood to one side, confident that its financial and corporate interests in Europe would be defended by the alliance of Britain, France and Russia in opposition to German advances.
The Russian Revolution, set in train in March 1917, marked the point at which US intervention in the war became essential to prop up the Allies and head off a potential German victory. As Palme Dutt states,
“The numerical and material superiority of the Allies through the accession of America, which finally secured them the victory, was itself the reflection of the revolution. It was the Russian Revolution of March 1917, with the consequent inevitable prospect of Russian withdrawal form the war and menace of Allied collapse, which was the decisive motive cause behind the American entry into the war, within four weeks of the Russian Revolution, to safeguard its interests already heavily mortgaged on the side of the Allies.”
The punitive reparations imposed upon Germany in the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 did not resolve the issues which led to war in 1914 and effectively laid the basis for the rise of Fascism in Germany and Italy. The seeds of World War Two were planted the moment that the first war was over. As Palme Dutt states,
“The treaties of spoliation which followed the war laid the seeds of future war. At the same time new conflicts in the extra-European sphere came to the forefront. In consequence, within two decades of the war of 1914 the issue of the re-division of the world had arisen anew in still sharper form.”
The issues present in 1914 and which led to further global conflict in 1939 remain unresolved. While the world balance of forces ushered in with the Russian Revolution may have changed once again, with the defeat of the Soviet Union, the capitalist class is no more able to agree amongst itself now than it was then. Tensions within the European Union are one expression of this, with secessionist tendencies likely to grow as the right wing gains more power in the existing bloc.
The United States continues to pursue an undeclared war against Iran while exercising its regional neo-colonial muscle to prevent progress in Latin America. A US / China trade war is shaping up to threaten what little stability there is in the world economy. Interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria have not succeeded in stabilising the influence of Western imperialism in the Middle East. Post Soviet Russia has its own emerging ambitions to regain some semblance of superpower status.
Palme Dutt’s words in 1936, preceding the Second World War, could equally be applied today,
“…the issue of the new division of the world is now definitely in the forefront, alike in respect of colonial territories, of the revision of frontiers in Europe, and of the distribution of power between the main States; war has already begun, not yet on a world scale, but on a regional scale, involving world issues….”
The centenary commemorations this weekend will not be reflecting upon the words of Palme Dutt, or the many others who have warned that capitalism cannot resolve its issues of greater accumulation and competition without conflict. We could do a lot worse than go back to those words now. Better still we could act upon them.