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Imperialism and World War I: An Exchange

In response to:

'The Greatest Catastrophe the World Has Seen' from the February 6, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

In R.J.W. Evans’s review of books on the origins of World War I [NYR, February 6], there is no mention of the extensive discussion and debate at the time among European Marxists belonging to the social democratic parties of various countries. Books were written on the question by notable figures like Karl Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg, Nikolai Bukharin, and Vladimir Lenin, and many other socialists wrote analytical and theoretical articles. Several dozen of the latter are collected in the recent volume Discovering Imperialism—Social Democracy to World War I, edited by Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido (Brill, 2011).

As Marxists, they focused on economic propulsions underlying the drive to war. Here is one excerpt, by the Dutch socialist Anton Pannekoek:

That the pursuit of a world empire had to lead to such a terrible struggle was not understood by all countries in the same way. Some, such as England, the Netherlands, Portugal and partly France, traditionally had rich and vast colonies that offered their capital wonderful opportunities for good investments. But…there were other countries in which capitalism had developed, but they had few or no colonies. They were not satisfied; they too wanted a world empire, and if it was not voluntarily given to them, they were ready to take it by force.

Professor Evans writes of the world war that “a century on we still search for its causes.” The socialists were not of one mind on the causes of the war: they argued with each other and with non-Marxists. Unlike many of the views reported in the review, they mostly thought that the war was not a tragic accident but the inevitable consequence of imperialism. Their opinions should certainly be taken into consideration.

Walter Daum
New York City

R.J.W. Evans replies:

Walter Daum raises an important issue. My neglect of it mirrored the priorities of the books I was reviewing. Kautsky and Hilferding, Luxemburg, even Lenin are hardly mentioned. A generation ago that would not have been so; but Marxist analysis is today at a discount, and Daum does well to remind us that during the two decades after the death of its cofounder Friedrich Engels in 1895 (Marx himself had died twelve years earlier) it found a stream of powerful expositors, prominent figures of their day. Anton Pannekoek, whom Daum quotes, combined a fierce commitment to the emancipation of the working classes with pioneering contributions to the emerging science of astrophysics. The recent publication cited by Daum provides major texts from writers in the socialist camp that are very germane to reflection on the nature of the conflict that exploded in 1914, and they are accompanied by an excellent extended introduction from the two editors, Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido.

We need to distinguish between the theoretical pronouncements of these pre-war socialists and their contemporary political role. Their intellectual starting point was Marx’s claim that the internal contradictions of the capitalist system, above all its failure to sustain levels of profitability, would progressively undermine it. They explained the vast global expansion of economic activity by 1914 as a desperate attempt of the entrepreneurial class to exploit a shrinking body of fresh opportunities for investment and consumption. Since practically the whole world had now been colonized, the resultant clash of the great bourgeois powers and their ever more oligopolistic organization of business and finance capital would ineluctably lead to large-scale war. Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism provides a programmatic statement in its very title, though we should note that this most famous of the writings in question first appeared only in 1917, well after the outbreak of hostilities.

The arguments of these authors privilege economic factors in a disproportionate way. In fact business interests counseled against serious belligerence, and there is little evidence that such concerns featured in the calculations of decision-makers on the road to war. Besides, as Daum observes, ideologues on the left disagreed sharply among themselves. Whereas some looked to the general strike and violent revolution to exorcize the threat of war, others called for disarmament, arbitration, and an end to secret diplomacy. Some even thought imperialism itself a necessary and acceptable phase on the road to freedom across the world, whereby advanced bourgeois nations would civilize extra-European lands and prepare them for a socialist future.

The debate surveyed by Day and Gaido was overwhelmingly a Central European one before 1914, and therein lay its contemporary significance. Through its German protagonists, like Kautsky and Luxemburg, whose Socialist Party attracted millions of voters, it provided ammunition, some would still say, for Fritz Fischer’s now rather discredited thesis that the empire of the Kaiser actively favored war in order to contain and outmaneuver its domestic opponents, especially to play the patriotic card against a menacing and supposedly cosmopolitan workers’ movement. Through Austro-Marxists like Bauer and Hilferding the debate linked to the ever more acute tensions generated by the national question within Europe, above all the purportedly oppressive imperialism of the Habsburg elites that provoked the Sarajevo assassination.

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