Lessons of 1914: Imperialism means war

Reams of WW1 historiography serve only to conceal the essence of that terrible conflagration – which gave birth in its turn to the era of proletarian revolution.

The first world war, a result of the inbuilt and inescapable contradictions of capitalist imperialism, was both proof of the rottenness and decay of that system and the beginning of its end. As a system, imperialism has been declining ever since, notwithstanding some shortlived jubilation following the counter-revolutions in the socialist countries of Europe and central Asia. Imperialism today, while driving ever harder to war, is enmeshed in an even deeper crisis that drove it into the war of 1914-18. A new wave of revolutions is bound to be the result, and workers everywhere are duty-bound to prepare the forces necessary to achieve a lasting victory.

This article is based on the presentation made by Comrade Harpal Brar to an international seminar in Brussels to mark the centenary of the start of the first world war. It was later published in the November 2014 issue of Lalkar. Its increasing relevance today in consequence of the conflict in Ukraine has prompted us to republish this important analysis.

Whereas the 1914-18 war was an interimperialist industrial-scale slaughter for the redivision of the world between two imperialist coalitions, the conflict in Ukraine is neo-nazi Nato’s proxy war, using Ukrainians as cannon fodder, against Russia, aimed at dismembering Russia, looting its vast resources and exploiting its highly-skilled, educated and cultured population.

The real socialists, such as the Bolsheviks, rightly denounced the first world war as imperialist and predatory on both sides, which the working classes were duty-bound to denounce and to use as the occasion to overthrow their own ruling classes, instead of joining them in the name of the ‘defence of the Fatherland’.

The conflict in Ukraine, on the other hand, is an imperialist war on the part of Nato, while Russia is fighting an existential war for self-defence. Socialists, therefore, have a duty to side with Russia and work for the defeat of Nato.

However, there are quite a number of parties who call themselves socialist – even communist – that have described the Ukraine conflict as ‘interimperialist’ – some even going to the length of characterising it as ‘imperialist’ on Russia’s part. Such disgraceful parties are beyond redemption and need to be exposed as the agents of neo-nazi Nato – as purveyors of imperialist ideology in the working class.

There is an urgent need to bring home to the working class the knowledge that the analysis of the first world war cannot be mechanically transplanted onto the present situation in Ukraine. And also to help them understand that the defeat of Nato in Ukraine promises to advance the cause of the proletariat and oppressed people all over the world. Precisely for this reason, Russia must be supported in its just defensive war.


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first imperialist world war. This war was a momentous event which:

  1. Created new nation states.
  2. Turned the United States of America into a leading world power, replacing British imperialism as the premier imperialist predator.
  3. Ushered in the October Revolution – heralding the era of proletarian revolution and the downfall of imperialism.
  4. Through the Versailles treaty prepared the ground for the second world war, which in turn gave birth to a mighty socialist camp and accelerated the rising tide of national-liberation movements.
  5. Sowed the seeds of all the troubles afflicting the present-day middle east.

Chronology of events leading to the war

28 June 1914 – A Serbian nationalist by the name of Gavrilov Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Ferdinand, during a visit to Sarajevo in Bosnia.

23 July 1914 – The Austrian government, accusing the Serbian government of complicity in the assassination, issued an ultimatum threatening war if the latter did not cooperate fully with its investigation and with the suppression of anti-Austrian agitation on Serbian territory.

28 July 1914 – Finding the Serbian government’s reply unsatisfactory, Austria ordered mobilisation for war against Serbia and opened fire on Belgrade.

30 July 1914 – The Russian tsar ordered his army to mobilise in support of Serbia, motivated by imperialist expansionism and a desire to extinguish the fires of revolution at home.

01 August 1914Germany, in support of Austria, declared war on Russia.

02 August 1914 – The tsar declared war on Germany.

03 August 1914 – Germany declared war on France, because Russian mobilisation threatened Germany and France was allied with Russia in the Triple Entente (an alliance between Britain, France and Russia).

04 August 1914 – Fearing that German domination of Europe would threaten the security of the British empire, Britain declared war on Germany.

Since Russian mobilisation had practically ranged Germany against the Triple Entente, Germany came up with an answer through the Schlieffen plan, which envisaged a six-week knock-out campaign against France through Belgium as a prelude to moving the bulk of German forces east to confront mighty Russia.

The above lays out the sequence of events that were used as a pretext for the war, but were not its real cause, which we shall deal with later on.

Mass slaughter

The first world war was characterised by killing on an industrial scale. In four years of fighting, it claimed the lives of well over ten million men, with twice as many wounded. German losses in the war totalled 1.8 million dead, not counting the 750,000 civilians who died of hunger and starvation.

Britain lost nearly 900,000 soldiers; including the wounded, British casualties came to two million. By the end of the first year of the war, the French had suffered nearly a million casualties, the Germans 800,000, and 86,000 of the 120,000 British Expeditionary Force sent to France had been killed or wounded.

On 22 October 1914, 27,000 French soldiers met their death in just one day.

Individual battles from WW1, with their colossal loss of life, became seared into the memory of the European peoples.

The battles of Passchendaele (a million dead or wounded), Verdun (700,000 casualties), the Somme (in excess of a million casualties) and the Marne (half a million), have come to symbolise the industrialised slaughter of millions of people at the hands of the bloodthirsty system of imperialism, which twice plunged humanity in the 20th century into world wars, together claiming the lives of 100 million workers, with twice as many wounded, in order to decide which group of the imperialist banditry was to grab what share of the booty.

The scale of the savage butchery, only exceeded during the second world war, may be gauged by reference to the battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July 1916, and in which Britain suffered 60,000 casualties in a single day.

In 1917 alone, Italian casualties amounted to a third of a million. The French lost a quarter of their men in the very first month of the war.

Attempts to confuse the working class

Bourgeois papers and media have been full of discussion about the centenary of the war – most of it useless, designed to confuse the working class and the oppressed peoples.

In Britain, the thrust of the media coverage has been to blame Germany for this mass slaughter on a gigantic scale and to portray Britain’s role as that of a ‘defender of democracy’ and sovereignty of nations, it being further stated that Britain went to war because she was outraged by the German violation of the neutrality and sovereignty of Belgium – forgetting of course to mention that ‘plucky little Belgium’ had then only recently slaughtered ten million Congolese in its very lucrative colony.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The first world war was an imperialist war fought by two imperialist coalitions. It was a war for domination – a predatory and imperialist war on both sides; a war in which the proletariat of the belligerent countries had no interest in defending their respective fatherlands.

It is impossible to avoid discussion, and controversy, on questions of war and peace. Not merely because these questions are of the highest theoretical and scientific significance, but also because war, devastation and the destruction of human life on a vast scale confront us at every turn.

Leaving aside the two world wars, which together claimed the lives of 100 million people, maimed many more and caused unprecedented material destruction on an unimaginable scale, imperialism has seen to it that the world has not witnessed literally a single year of peace since the end of the second world war in 1945.

Millions of people have been slaughtered in the imperialist wars led by US imperialism against the people of Korea, Indo-China, Congo, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya and Syria.

And now, as these lines are being written, US and EU imperialism are busy preparing the conditions for a war with Russia, through the destabilisation of Ukraine, with the sole aim of preserving, and extending, their domination over the entire region stretching from the middle east to the former eastern republics of the erstwhile Soviet Union – as well as a means of securing total world domination.

However, in all these discussions on the burning questions of war and peace, the most important thing that is usually forgotten, which receives insufficient attention, and which, therefore, causes so much futile controversy, is that “people forget the fundamental question of the class character of the war; why the war broke out; the classes that are waging it; the historical and historic-economic conditions that gave rise to it”. (War and revolution, lecture by VI Lenin, 14 May 1917)

We find it necessary, therefore, to restate the Marxist-Leninist teachings on this question of exceptional importance, with the aim of ensuring that these teachings, and these alone, permeate the working class and the oppressed peoples in their struggles for proletarian revolution and national liberation through the overthrow of imperialism.

These teachings, fully corroborated by life, are as follows.

War – a continuation of policy

First, according to Leninism, war is the continuation of politics by other (forcible) means.

This famous dictum of Clausewitz, one of the most profound writers on military questions, has always rightly been regarded by Marxists as “the theoretical foundation for their understanding of the meaning of every war”. (Speech by VI Lenin to the eighth All-Russian conference of the RCP(B), 2 December 1919)

In order to evaluate a given war, and define one’s attitude towards it, one must look at the class character of the war – ie, at the classes waging the war, and the policy and aims pursued by those classes prior to the war – and not merely at who attacked first.

While the philistine is capable of justifying any war by the formula that “the enemy has attacked us”, “the enemy has invaded my country”, and by pleading the “defence of the fatherland”, Marxism, with its refusal to stoop to the level of the philistine, requires “an historical analysis of each war in order to determine whether or not that particular war can be considered progressive, whether it serves the interests of democracy and the proletariat and, in that case, is legitimate, just, etc”. (A caricature of Marxism and imperialist economism, by VI Lenin, 1916)

Looking at any particular war in its historical perspective, Marxism says: “If the ‘substance’ of a war is, for example, the overthrow of alien oppression .., then such a war is progressive as far as the oppressed state or nation is concerned. If, however, the ‘substance’ of a war is redivision of colonies, division of booty, plunder of foreign lands .., then all talk of defending the fatherland is ‘sheer deception of the people’.” (Ibid)

How, then, asked Lenin, are we to reveal and define the ‘substance’ of a war? He answered this question as follows:

“War is the continuation of policy. Consequently, we must examine the policy pursued prior to the war, the policy that led to and brought about the war. If it was an imperialist policy, ie, one designed to safeguard the interests of finance capital and rob and oppress colonies and foreign countries, then the war stemming from that policy is imperialist war. If it was a national-liberation policy, ie, one expressive of the mass movement against national oppression, then the war stemming from that policy is a war of national liberation.”

Lenin added: “The philistine does not realise that war is the ‘continuation of policy’, and consequently limits himself to the formula that ‘the enemy has attacked us’, ‘the enemy has invaded my country’, without stopping to think what issues are at stake in the war, which classes are waging it, and with what political objects.” (Ibid)

Comparing the first world war (decidedly an imperialist war on both sides) with the French revolutionary wars of the 18th century against monarchist, autocratic, semi-feudal and reactionary Europe, the latter, said Lenin, were nothing but the inevitable continuation of the policy of the victorious revolutionary classes in France.

When France’s bourgeoisie and revolutionary peasantry overthrew their monarchy, got rid of their nobility and established a democratic republic in a most revolutionary fashion, this shook the whole of semi-feudal Europe to its foundations.

As a result, all the monarchist nations of Europe formed a coalition and “lined up against revolutionary France in a counter-revolutionary war”. And during this war, the revolutionary people of France revealed “gigantic revolutionary creativeness” similar to the creativeness and energy they had displayed during the revolution – and on a scale “never shown for centuries”.

“This example,” said Lenin elsewhere, referring to the French revolution and the war of the French people at the end of the 18th century, by way of stressing the indissolubility of an economic and historical connection between every war and the policy preceding it, “it seems to me, deserves particular attention, because it shows us clearly something now forgotten at every step by bourgeois newspapermen when they play on the prejudices and the philistine ignorance of the quite undeveloped masses, who do not understand this indissoluble economic and historical connection between every war and the policy preceding it of each country, each class that was in power before the war and achieved its aims by so-called ‘peaceful’ means. So-called because the ruthless methods required, for example, to ensure ‘peaceful’ domination over the colonies, can hardly be called peaceful.

“Peace prevailed in Europe, but continued because the European peoples’ domination over hundreds of millions of colonial inhabitants was effected by constant, uninterrupted, neverending wars which we, Europeans, do not consider to be wars, because all too often they resembled not wars, but the most brutal slaughter, extermination of unarmed peoples.” (War and revolution, lecture by VI Lenin, 14 May 1917)

Only after careful consideration of the class character of the war can the proletariat determine its attitude towards such a war. In its attitude to any given war, the proletariat must be guided by the principles of proletarian internationalism and by its duty to contribute to the preparation, and acceleration, of the world proletarian revolution.

Lenin, developing Clausewitz’s analysis further, stated that “War is not only a continuation of politics, it is the epitome of politics.” (Speech by VI Lenin to the seventh All-Russia congress of Soviets, 5 December 1919)

In other words, under the conditions of capitalism, war is not an aberration. It is not a break from the norm of political struggle, but quite the opposite, especially in the latest stage of capitalism – imperialism. Wars under capitalist imperialism are normal business – as normal as the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie and the subjugation of the oppressed nations by a tiny handful of imperialist oppressor states.

Only bourgeois pacifists and opportunists in the working-class movement can view peace as something in essence distinct from war, for they have never grasped the fact that war is a continuation of politics by other (forcible) means; that imperialist war is a continuation of imperialist politics of peace, and that imperialist peace in turn is a continuation of the politics of imperialist war. That imperialist wars grow out of imperialist peace, which in turn prepares the ground for further imperialist wars.

Just as the politics that the ruling classes of the belligerent powers pursue during the war are the continuation of the politics pursued by them long before the outbreak of the war, likewise the peace following war is merely the continuation of the “very same politics, with a registration of the changes brought about in the relation of forces of the antagonists as a result of military operations. War does not alter the direction of prewar policies, but only accelerates their development.” (The peace programme by VI Lenin, 25 March 1916)

Inevitability of wars under capitalism – the first world war

Unlike the Kautskyites and their latter-day descendants, with their theories of ultra-imperialism and collective imperialism, which are nothing but a masked defence of imperialism and vain attempts to hide from the working class the contradictions inherent in imperialism, which inevitably lead to war, Leninism teaches, and life confirms, that modern war is a product of imperialism, and as such cannot be eliminated without putting an end to imperialism – an end to the exploitation of one human being by another and one nation by another.

“It is beyond doubt,” observed Lenin, “that capitalism’s transition to the stage of monopoly capitalism, to finance capital is connected with the intensification of the struggle for partitioning the world.” (VI Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Chapter 6)

The last time that the big powers were able to divide the world ‘peacefully’ was at the Berlin conference, which lasted from 15 November 1884 until 26 February 1885. The Berlin conference started the ‘scramble for Africa‘, in which Great Britain led the way. While in 1876, only 10 percent of Africa was ruled by Europeans, by 1900, 90 percent of the African continent was under European rule.

Apart from China, the world had been completely divided up by this time. In 1900, British, French, German, Russian, Italian, Japanese and American troops invaded China to crush the nationalist revolt and defend a string of ‘concessions’ (small colonies) on Chinese territory.

One of the major basic features of imperialism, that of the transition from pre-monopoly free-competition capitalism to its monopoly stage, is that it marks the completion of the territorial division of the world among the most powerful capitalist states. Once this partition has been effected, there can only be redivision and repartition, consequent upon change in the relative strength of the various imperialist countries due to the law of uneven development, whereby some countries spurt ahead and others lag behind.

If, as happens often, those countries who were economically weak yesterday, and therefore whose share in the global booty is relatively meagre, race ahead of their rivals and become more powerful, thus rendering the old division obsolete, they cannot fail to demand a new division – a new partition – on the basis of bourgeois ‘justice’.

The new, younger and stronger robbers claim the same ‘sacred’ right to rob as the older and fatter bandits. This can only be achieved by the former robbing the latter, as the younger robbers “came to the capitalist banqueting table when all the places had been taken up”.

And these matters, under the conditions of capitalism, are settled by means not very peaceful, for “finance capital and the trusts do not diminish but increase the differences in the rate of growth of the various parts of the world economy. Once the relation of forces is changed, what other solution of the contradictions can be found under capitalism than that of force?” (VI Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916, Chapter 7)

In the middle of the 19th century, Britain was the workshop of the world. It produced 50 percent of the world’s cotton fabric, 60 percent of its coal and 70 percent of its steel. By 1914, however, it was producing just 20 percent of the world’s cotton fabric, 20 percent of its coal and 10 percent of its steel.

On the other hand, Germany and the USA had both overtaken Britain as industrial powers. But Britain possessed the largest empire, ruling over a fifth of the world’s land mass and a quarter of its people. Its colonies were three times the size of French colonies and ten times the size of Germany’s.

In parallel, there was the growth of monopoly. This made way for the transformation of free-competition capitalism to monopoly capitalism – finance capitalism.

For over a decade, Britain and Germany had been engaged in an arms race. Between 1899 and 1914, Britain increased its fleet of battleships from 29 to 49 and formed an alliance (the Triple Entente) with France and Russia.

British military expenditure rose by 150 percent between 1887 and 1914. By 1913, France had built up a 700,000-strong army, backed by three million reservists. Likewise in Germany, spending on the army and navy increased tenfold between 1870 and 1914. In the last four years of ‘peace’, the aggregate military spending of the great powers had trebled. When the war broke out, six million conscripts were sent immediately to the front, with another 13 million held in reserve in the rear.

These figures show two things very clearly. First, that the balance of power between Germany and Britain had changed very much in favour of Germany, and second, that both sides had long been in preparation for a war that was bound to take place sooner or later, in view of the discordance between the new balance of forces and the old division of the booty between the powers. Eventually this war broke out in the summer of 1914, as there was no peaceful way of resolving the basic contradiction between the two opposing sides.

As Lenin pointed out at the time, had the Triple Entente gone to war to safeguard Belgian neutrality, as it hypocritically pretended, in such a case “the sympathies of the socialists would, of course, be on the side of Germany’s enemies”.

But, he added, “the whole point is that the Triple Entente is waging war not over Belgium: this is perfectly well known and only hypocrites conceal this. Britain is grabbing Germany’s colonies in Turkey; Russia is grabbing Galicia and Turkey; France wants Alsace-Lorraine and even the left bank of the Rhine; a treaty has been concluded with Italy for the division of the spoils (Albania, Asia Minor) …”

Lenin went on to say that “the defence of the fatherland” had no relevance in the first world war, which was an “imperialist war, war between reactionary-bourgeois, historically obsolete governments, waged for the purpose of oppressing other nations”.

He went on: “Whoever justifies participation in the present war perpetuates imperialist oppression of nations. Whoever advocates taking advantage of the present embarrassments of the governments to fight for the socialist revolution champions the real freedom of really all nations, which is possie only under socialism.” (VI Lenin, Socialism and War, 1915, Chapter 1)

Earlier in the same article, Lenin stated that from 1876 to 1914 the six ‘great’ powers had grabbed 25 million square kilometres – an area two and a half times the size of Europe. In the process, they had managed to enslave over half a billion inhabitants of colonies and subjected them to brutal treatment. And, he went on to say: “the Anglo-French bourgeoisie are deceiving the people when they say they are waging war for the freedom of peoples and for Belgium; actually they are waging war for the purpose of retaining the colonies they have inordinately grabbed.

“The German imperialists would free Belgium, etc, at once if the British and French would agree ‘fairly’ to share their colonies with them … from the standpoint of bourgeois justice .., Germany would be absolutely right against England and France, for she has been ‘done out’ of colonies, her enemies are oppressing an immeasurably far larger number of nations that she is … but Germany is fighting not for the liberation, but for the repression of nations.

“It is not the business of socialists to help a younger and stronger robber (Germany) to rob the older and overgorged robbers. Socialists must take advantage of the struggle between the robbers to overthrow them all. To be able to do this, the socialists must tell the people the truth that this war is … a war between slave owners to fortify slavery.” (Ibid)

As for Russia, capitalist imperialism had been fully revealed by tsarism’s policy in regard to Persia, Manchuria and Mongolia. As Lenin repeatedly pointed out, in no other country was the majority of the population so brutally oppressed as in Russia.

Of the 170 million inhabitants of Russia at the time, approximately 100 million (57 percent of the population) were oppressed, treated as aliens and denied all rights. Tsarism was fighting not merely to retain this prisonhouse of nations, but to extend it, by seizing further territories and crushing the liberties of other peoples.

Further, tsarism considered the war to be an instrument for diverting attention from the rising discontent within Russia itself, and as a means of suppressing the rising revolutionary movement – as did other imperialist powers, especially Germany and Austria.

It was the endeavour of tsarist Russia, as of other imperialist powers, to increase the numbers of peoples oppressed by it, and thus to perpetuate existing oppression and undermine the fight for freedom at the time being waged by the great Russians themselves. In view of this, on the part of Russia too, the war stood out for its profoundly reactionary, anti-liberating and counter-revolutionary character.

Besides, the powers that comprised the Triple Entente had concluded secret treaties for the repartitioning of the world. After the October Revolution, the Bolshevik government published these treaties and exposed the fraud and hypocrisy of the imperialist assertions that they were fighting for the liberty of nations against German militarism and expansionism.

“‘Finance capital strives for domination, not for freedom,’ observed R Hilferding correctly in his ‘Finance Capital’. Domination is the substance of imperialist policy, both in its internal and external policy.

“Imperialism strives to violate democracy, strives towards reaction both in foreign politics and in home politics. In this sense, imperialism is undoubtedly, the ‘negation’ of democracy in general, democracy as a whole, and not of only one of the demands of democracy, namely self-determination of nations.” (A caricature of Marxism and imperialist economism by VI Lenin, 1916)

And further: “War is a continuation of policy … ‘world domination’ is, to put it briefly, the substance of imperialist policy, of which imperialist war is the continuation.”

The two world wars of the 20th century, as well as the scores of ‘small’ wars waged by imperialism, especially US imperialism, from the predatory wars against the people of Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to those against the people of Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon (the last two waged by US imperialism through its Israeli zionist surrogates), are eloquent proof, if proof be needed, of the Marxist-Leninist teachings on the question of war.

Just wars

Marxist-Leninists do not oppose all wars. Apart from imperialist wars, there are other wars, wars which are just, which move mankind forward, and which, therefore, deserve the support of the proletariat. “Socialists cannot,” said Lenin, “without ceasing to be socialists, be opposed to all war.” (The military programme of the proletarian revolution by VI Lenin, 1916)

Wars that socialists, far from opposing, are wholeheartedly in favour of, are:

(a) War against the bourgeoisie

First: civil wars waged by the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie. “Anyone who accepts the class struggle,” said Lenin, “cannot fail to accept civil wars, which in every class society are the natural, and under certain conditions, inevitable continuation, development and intensification of the class struggle. That has been confirmed by every great revolution. To repudiate civil war, or to forget about it, is to fall into extreme opportunism and renounce the socialist revolution.” (Ibid)

Marxism teaches, and life confirms, that no ruling class voluntarily gives up its rule and retires from the scene without a fight. What is more, in the face of the growing mass movement of the oppressed, the ruling exploiting classes are almost unfailingly the first to resort to counter-revolutionary violence to suppress and crush the oppressed classes.

In these circumstances, the oppressed class, if it does not want to betray its own fundamental interests, if it does not want to give up its historical right to rebel, its right to revolution, has no choice but to counter with revolutionary violence the counter-revolutionary violence of the oppressing class.

Although the working class would prefer not to resort to violent means, peaceful revolution is but a rare phenomenon, for no ruling class gives up its class privileges and class rule willingly, voluntarily and peacefully.

(b) Wars against absolutism

Second: there are wars against absolutism and mediaevalism, as for instance in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states and statelets, Nepal, the Philippines and many other countries in Asia and Latin America.

In these places, medieval autocracy and absolutism, in close alliance with imperialism, especially US imperialism, subjects the people to a barbarous existence, deprives them of the most elementary civil liberties, and stands in the way of economic and social progress.

The struggle of the peoples of these countries for a democratic revolution, for the overthrow of mediaevalism, is as just, legitimate and progressive as was the revolutionary struggle of the various European people against feudalism and alien oppression in the period from 1789 to 1871.

Therefore, this struggle deserves our wholehearted support. The freedom of the peoples of these countries from the shackles of serfdom, the destruction of the most vile, harmful and reactionary institutions (as for instance serfdom, autocracy and patriarchal savagery), the utter rout of despotism and the latter’s protector, imperialism, would have a most beneficent and morally uplifting effect of the peoples of these countries and open before them a vista of economic development and national and social progress.

Capitalism, which during the epoch of 1789-1871 played such a progressive and liberating role in the struggle against serfdom, feudalism, absolutism and alien oppression, long ago (between 1890 and 1910) gave way, through the concentration of production, to monopoly capitalism – imperialism, which strives for domination and not freedom.

“Free trade and competition have been superseded by a striving towards monopolies, the seizure of territory for the investment of capital and sources of raw materials … From the liberator of nations, which it was in the struggle against feudalism, capitalism in its imperialist stage has turned into the greatest oppressor of nations.

“Formerly progressive, capitalism has become reactionary; it has developed the forces of production to such a degree that mankind is faced with the alternative of adopting socialism or of experiencing years and even decades of armed struggle between the ‘great’ powers for the artificial preservation of capitalism by means of colonies, monopolies, privileges and national oppression of every kind.” (Ibid)

It is precisely this desire for the artificial preservation of capitalism that explains and underpins imperialism’s support for feudal reaction in the middle east and elsewhere, and which is a sure sign of its utter decay and parasitism.

“A more striking example,” observed Lenin, “of this decay of the entire European [and American, we should add] bourgeoisie can scarcely be cited than the support it is lending to reaction in Asia for the sake of the selfish aims of the financial manipulators and capitalist swindlers.” (Backward Europe and advanced Asia by VI Lenin, 18 May 1913)

(c) Wars of victorious socialism

Third: the wars waged by victorious socialist countries against imperialism in defence of socialism, against bourgeois states attempting to crush the socialist states would be just, legitimate and progressive and, therefore, worthy of the support of the whole of progressive humanity.

Such, for instance, was the war the Soviet Union waged against the imperialist predatory coalition in the early days of the Soviet regime. Such, too, was the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet people against the Nazi marauders, unleashed upon the Soviet Union by German imperialism.

Such indeed would be the wars today of the DPRK, Cuba, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam and Laos, etc, were imperialism to dare to launch wars against these countries.

(d) Wars of national liberation

Last: there are the wars of national liberation waged by the oppressed nations against colonialism and imperialism. Such were the wars waged by the Chinese people against Japanese imperialism, the Korean and Indo-Chinese peoples against Japanese, French and US imperialism, and such are the wars presently being waged by the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine against Anglo-American imperialism and their surrogate, Israeli zionism.

Such also was the war of resistance by the Libyan people against the entire might of the imperialist camp, which resulted in the overthrow of the legitimate Libyan government, the murder of its head of state, the slaughter of tens of thousands of Libyan people, and the wholesale destruction of the country’s infrastructure, leaving it in ruins as a ‘failed’ state.

And such is the war of resistance of the Syrian people, led by the Ba’ath party against imperialist-backed murderers and jihadists who have been wreaking havoc on this beautiful country with its great secular traditions.

In the words of Lenin: “The history of the 20th century, this century of ‘unbridled imperialism’, is replete with colonial wars … One of the main qualities of imperialism is that it hastens the development of capitalism in the most backward countries, and thereby extends and intensifies the struggle against national oppression. That is a fact. It inevitably follows from this that imperialism must often give rise to national wars.” (The military programme of the proletarian revolution, 1916)

In the case of such national-revolutionary wars, in case of wars of national resistance against imperialist brigandage, it is incumbent on the socialists and proletarians of the oppressor nation to side with the oppressed nation and wish, and work for, the defeat of their own imperialist bourgeoisie, for “socialists always side with the oppressed”. (Open letter to Boris Souvarine by VI Lenin, 15 December 1916)

Moreover, “any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory ‘great’ powers”. (VI Lenin, Socialism and War, 1915, Chapter 1)

It is sad to have to remark, but would be shameful to cover up the fact, that large numbers of ‘socialists’ in the centres of imperialism today, even those who call themselves communists, have failed, on one pretext or another, to support the resistance of the victims of imperialism against the predatory wars waged against them by imperialism – from Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan to Palestine, Libya and Syria.

In doing so, these shameful ‘socialists’ have betrayed socialism, flouted the basic principles of proletarian internationalism, and sunk to the level of despicable flunkeys of their own imperialist bourgeoisies. In this category must be included some of the leading lights of the misnamed Stop the War coalition in Britain who, while pretending to oppose imperialist wars, act more often as apologists for imperialism’s wars on the pretext of the defence of some abstract principles of ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’.

War cannot be abolished without the overthrow of capitalism

Further, Marxism-Leninism teaches that it is impossible to eliminate war without overthrowing imperialism, for as long as imperialism lasts, wars are inevitable.

“Imperialism,” wrote Lenin, “has put the fate of European civilisation at stake: this war, if there does not follow a series of successful revolutions, will soon be followed by other wars; the fable of the ‘last war’ is an empty, harmful fable, a philistine ‘myth’.” (Position and tasks of the Socialist International, October 1914)

Failing the overthrow of imperialism, any ‘peace’ following a war can be no more than a truce and a continuation of imperialist war:

“Neither the bourgeois pacifists nor the socialist pacifists realise that without the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois governments, peace now can only be an imperialist peace, a continuation of the imperialist war.” (Bourgeois pacifism and socialist pacifism by VI Lenin, January 1917)

Thus the struggle for peace must be inextricably linked with the struggle to eliminate the division of society into classes, with the struggle for revolution and socialism, for “it is impossible to escape imperialist war, and imperialist peace … which inevitably engenders imperialist war, it is impossible to escape that inferno, except by a Bolshevik struggle and a Bolshevik revolution”. (The fourth anniversary of the October Revolution by VI Lenin, October 1921)

In an earlier article, Lenin had emphasised the connection between peace and the end of a class divided society thus: “The proletariat struggles against war and will always struggle against it unremittingly without, however, forgetting for a moment that war can be abolished only with the complete abolition of society’s division into classes.” (>European capital and the autocracy, 5 April 1905)

Imperialist wars, whether interimperialist or those waged by imperialism against the oppressed peoples, wars waged for the division of spoils and for the robbery of weak nations, with their resultant destruction and devastation, ruination and exhaustion of all peoples, the torments of hunger and misery to which they subject the masses of the people – bring humanity face to face with the dilemma: “either sacrifice all culture or throw off the yoke of capitalism by revolutionary means, eliminate the domination of the bourgeoisie and win a socialist society and lasting peace”. (For bread and peace by VI Lenin, 14 December 1917)

Opportunist distortions on the question of war and peace

The opportunists of the Second International, and their latter-day descendants, the Khrushchevite revisionists, have built up a veritable arsenal of distortions on the question of war and peace – with the sole purpose of prettifying imperialism and blunting the fighting capacity of the proletariat through a combination of covering up the danger of war represented by imperialism and intimidating the masses with the notion that war would destroy humanity.

Kautsky’s renegacy went so far as to assert that the source of war was not imperialism but the liberation movements of the oppressed nations and the USSR, which he referred to as a ‘dictatorship’, while the imperialist states presumably were nothing but pure democracies.

Revisionists and opportunists are forever attempting to obliterate the distinction between just and unjust wars and to propagate the erroneous theory that weapons are the decisive factor – and that, therefore, in view of the overwhelming superiority in armaments enjoyed by the imperialist states, it is pointless for the proletariat and the oppressed people to confront imperialism through armed combat.

Instead of linking the struggle against war to the struggle for the abolition of imperialism, to the elimination of the division of society into classes, the opportunists spread the illusion that ‘world peace’ can be maintained, and equality of nations secured, through ‘disarmament’, and that the money saved by disarmament can be put aside for the assistance of backward countries – failing to grasp the simple truth that imperialism is in the business of extracting the maximum of profit in the pursuit of which it seeks domination, not freedom and equality.

Imperialism would not be imperialism if it stood for assisting people at home, never mind the oppressed peoples abroad.

It was not for nothing that Lenin exposed the hideousness of such theories put forward by the opportunists, pointing out that their pacifist utterances merely served “as a means of colonising the people, as a means of helping governments to keep the masses in submission in order to continue the imperialist slaughter!” (To the workers who support the struggle against the war, and against the socialists who have deserted to the side of their governments, 30 December 1916)

Ever since the outbreak of the first world war, it is social democracy, having betrayed the working class and joined the bourgeoisie, which has played the chief role in stupefying the masses on questions of war and peace – as indeed on every other question.

It was not for nothing that Josef Stalin observed that “social democracy is the main channel of imperialist pacifism within the working class – consequently, it is capitalism’s main support among the working class in preparing for new wars and interventions.” (Results of the July plenum of the CC, report by Josef Stalin to a meeting of party activists in Leningrad, 13 July 1928)

On the question of war and peace, as on so many other questions, Khrushchevite revisionism was to follow in the footsteps of Bernstein, Kautsky and other leading revisionist social democrats of the renegade Second International.

Khrushchevite revisionism and war

The Khrushchevite revisionists went further even than the social democrats, by turning to nuclear fetishism and nuclear blackmail as the theoretical basis and guiding principle of its policy on the question of war and peace, and a number of related issues. It came to hold that, with the appearance of nuclear weapons, the distinction between just and unjust wars had been rendered obsolete.

“The atomic bomb,” asserted the Khrushchevites, “does not distinguish between imperialists and working people, it strikes at areas, so that millions of workers would be killed for every monopolist destroyed.” (Open letter of the CPSU CC to all party organisations, 14 July 1963)

According to Khrushchev and his fellow renegades, all the major contradictions in the world – that between capital and labour, between imperialism and socialism, between imperialism and the oppressed nations, and the interimperialist contradictions between various imperialist countries – had all ceased to exist with the emergence of nuclear weapons.

In their view, there remained but one contradiction – namely, the fictitious contradiction fabricated by them between the alleged ‘common survival’ of imperialism and the oppressed classes and nations on the one hand, and their complete annihilation on the other.

Struggle against opportunism

Opportunism expresses bourgeois policy within the working-class movement; expresses the interests of the petty bourgeoisie and the alliance of a tiny section of the bourgeoisified workers with ‘their’ bourgeoisie against the interests of the oppressed proletarian masses.

The first world war accelerated the development of opportunism and transformed it into social chauvinism – it transformed the secret alliance between the opportunists and the bourgeoisie into an open one.

Social chauvinism, which amounts to the defence of the privileges, advantages, robbery and violence of one’s ‘own’, or every, imperialist bourgeoisie, constitutes a total betrayal of all socialist principles and convictions.

Opportunism and social chauvinism have the same economic basis – namely, the interests of a tiny section of the privileged workers and of the petty bourgeoisie, who defend their privileged position, their ‘right’ to crumbs from the profits ‘their’ national bourgeoisie obtains from the robbery of other nations, from the advantages of their position as the ruling nation.

Likewise, they share the ideological and political content that is class collaboration instead of class struggle: renunciation of revolutionary methods of struggle; assisting one’s ‘own’ government in its embarrassed situation instead of taking advantage of such embarrassments for revolution. That opportunism is the basis of social chauvinism is clear from the conduct of the opportunists in the decade leading up to the start of the first world war.

At the 1907 Stuttgart international socialist congress, while international Marxism was opposed to imperialism, international opportunism was already in favour of it. As soon as the war broke out, almost all the opportunists became social-chauvinists.

The history of the international working-class movement over the last 100 years furnishes irrefutable evidence that the misfortunes of the working-class movement are inextricably connected with the influence exerted by opportunism over the working class. Opportunism in the working class, far from being an accidental phenomenon, has deep economic roots – namely, in the superprofits extracted by the bourgeoisie of the imperialist countries from the robbery of the entire world, a part of which can be, and is, used to bribe the upper stratum of the workers – the labour aristocracy – and thus engender a split in the working class.

This upper stratum of ‘bourgeoisified workers’, thoroughly petty-bourgeois in their lifestyle, in the size of their earnings, and in their world outlook, serve as “the principal social … prop of the bourgeoisie … the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism. In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, they inevitably, and in no small numbers, take the side of the bourgeoisie, the ‘Versaillais’ against the ‘Communards’ …

“Unless the economic roots of this phenomenon are understood and its political and social significance is appreciated, not a step can be taken toward the solution of the practical problems of the communist movement and of the impending social revolution.” (VI Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916, Preface to the French and German editions)

Two years after he wrote these lines, Lenin returned to the question at the second congress of the Communist International. During his speech, he posed the question: how was the persistence of opportunism in Europe to be explained? Here is the answer he gave to this very important question:

“Because the advanced countries have been creating their culture by the opportunity they have of living at the expense of a billion oppressed people. Because the capitalists of all these countries obtain a great deal more than they would have been able to obtain in the shape of profits resulting from the robbery of the workers in their own countries.”

Out of the vast sums thus obtained, it is possible to use a portion for the purposes of bribing the labour aristocracy in all sorts of ways:

“The whole thing,” continued Lenin, “reduces itself precisely to bribery. This is done in a thousand different ways: by raising culture in the largest centres, by creating educational institutions, creating thousands of soft jobs for the leaders of the cooperative societies, for the trade union leaders and parliamentary leaders. This is done wherever modern, civilised, capitalist relations exist. And these billions of superprofits serve as the economic basis upon which opportunism in the working-class movement rests.” (Speech by VI Lenin to the second congress of the Communist International, 3 July 1920)

Lenin expressed himself in even stronger terms elsewhere. Recognising the reality of the division of the world into oppressor and oppressed nations, he described the differences in the condition of workers in these two groups as follows:

“(1) economically, the difference is that sections of the working class in the oppressor nations receive crumbs from the superprofits the bourgeoisie of these nations obtains by extra exploitation of the workers of the oppressed nations. To a certain degree the workers of the oppressor nations are partners of their own bourgeoisie in plundering the workers (and mass of the population) of the oppressed nations.

“(2) politically, the difference is that, compared with the workers of the oppressed nations, they occupy a privileged position in many spheres of political life.

“(3) ideologically, or spiritually, the difference is that they are taught, at school and in life, disdain and contempt for workers of the oppressed nations. This has been experienced, for example, by every great Russian who has been brought up or who has lived among great Russians.” (A caricature of Marxism and imperialist economism, 1916)

Thus is formed, on the basis of imperialist superprofits, the alliance between the bourgeoisie and the upper stratum of the proletariat in the imperialist countries – an alliance that is directed against the interests of the proletarian masses at home and the oppressed nations abroad.

Ever since the outbreak of the first world war, this alliance has been represented in Europe by social democracy. In Britain, the political expression of this alliance is the Labour party, which right from its inception has been, is now, and will always be a bourgeois labour party, representing the interests of British imperialism and the upper sections of the working class and the petty bourgeoisie.

Labour is a party of opportunism and social-chauvinism. Unless a ruthless struggle is waged against this party, it is pointless and hypocritical cant to talk about the struggle against imperialism, about Marxism-Leninism, about the movement of the proletariat, or about proletarian revolution.

From this, Lenin concluded: “The only Marxist line in the labour movement is to explain to the masses the inevitability and necessity of breaking with opportunism, to educate them for revolution by waging a relentless struggle against opportunism,” and by demonstrating that the opportunists are “alien to the proletariat as a class … are the servants, the agents of the bourgeoisie and the vehicles of its influence”; that “unless the labour movement rids itself of them, it will remain a bourgeois labour movement”. (Imperialism and the split in socialism by VI Lenin, October 1916)

And further: “Most dangerous … are those who do not wish to understand that the fight against imperialism is a sham and humbug unless it is inseparably bound up with the fight against opportunism.” (VI Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1916, Chapter 10)

Opportunism and the first world war

In the run-up to the then-impending first world war, there were large-scale demonstrations of working people against its outbreak in almost every imperialist country. As soon as the war broke out, however, almost all the socialist parties belonging to the Second International – with the sole honourable exception of the Bolshevik party in Russia – betrayed the working class and deserted to the side of their respective bourgeoisies in the name of ‘defending the fatherland’.

The German Social-Democratic Party, the largest and most important party in the Second International, gave stark evidence of its utter renegacy when all its 110 members of parliament voted for war credits on 4 August 1914. In so doing, they betrayed the solemn commitments they had formulated in the November 1912 Basle Manifesto of the Second International, which had characterised the then-coming war as imperialist and committed all socialists to turning such a war into a civil war against the bourgeoisie. With actions such as these taken by nearly all the socialist parties, the Second International collapsed.

Towards the end of the war, revolutionary situations arose in a number of countries, including in Russia and Germany. While in Russia, led by the Bolshevik party, which had waged a 30-year long struggle against opportunism, the Russian proletariat stormed the citadels of Russian imperialism, in Germany, the betrayal by social democracy led to proletarian defeat.

War, blockades, the disruption of food supplies and of other necessities of life, the astronomical rise in consumer prices, falling consumption and widespread hunger spread epidemics towards the end of the war. The influenza of 1918-19 is reliably believed to have killed 20 million Europeans and probably 100 million people worldwide.

These conditions obliged the working class of many European countries to turn against the war – and, even more importantly, against the whole system of exploitation.

In March 1917 (the February revolution), the Russian tsar was brought down by a revolutionary insurrection in Petrograd. The November 1917 Great October Socialist Revolution overthrew the provisional government, which had been committed to continuing the war.

The Bolsheviks rallied the workers, peasants and soldiers of Russia with the slogans “All power to the Soviets” and “Peace, land and bread”. The new revolutionary government made peace with Germany, nationalised factories, and encouraged the peasantry to take control of the land. By taking Russia out of the war, the October Revolution ended the slaughter on the eastern front.

Other imperialist countries also faced trouble at home. In France, there were mutinies in the army, widespread desertions, and demonstrations of soldiers singing revolutionary and antiwar songs.

In Germany, 200,000 engineering workers went on strike against cuts in the bread ration in April 1917. Disaffection permeated the sailors of the fleet at Kiel. Poor conditions, harsh military discipline and the privileges of the officer class had helped to fill the cup of discontent to overflowing.

In January 1918, a wave of strikes spread across Germany, with half a million workers out in Berlin and half a dozen other industrial centres. Workers’ councils emerged spontaneously.

Though Germany got some reprieve through the Brest-Litovsk treaty, enabling it to concentrate its forces on the western front, this proved to be short-lived, and the German reinforcement faced the Americans as well, who were arriving on the front at the rate of 300,000 a month.

By the autumn of 1918 (between September and November), the central powers had collapsed. As a result, there was a revolutionary upsurge in Austria, making way for a coalition led by social democrats, whose main job it was to save Austrian capitalism. On 29 October 1918, German sailors mutinied, and by 3 November Kiel was controlled by a revolutionary council.

Within days, huge demonstrations broke out all across Germany, with scores of German towns controlled by workers, sailors and soldiers. By 9 November, the revolutionary movement had spread to Berlin. Karl Liebknecht addressed a crowd of several hundred thousand from the balcony of the imperial palace and proclaimed a “social republic” and “world revolution”. These developments helped to bring the war to an end on the western front.

With the help of social democracy, the German bourgeoisie was to go on to murder Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and defeat the German revolution.

Thus it can be seen that the striking contrast between the successful Russian revolution and its failure in Germany is eloquent proof of Lenin’s insistence on the need to fight against opportunism.

Bourgeois historiography of the war

“The bourgeoisie turns everything into a commodity, hence also the writing of history. It is part of its being, of its condition for existence, to falsify all goods: it falsified the writing of history. And the best paid historiography is that which is best falsified for the purposes of the bourgeoisie.” (Preparatory material for the history of Ireland by Friedrich Engels, 1870)

A phenomenal amount has been written on the ‘Great War’, with about 25,000 books and scholarly articles produced on it since 1918.

At the end of the war, in view of the horrendous slaughter, Britain found itself in the grip of a pacifist delusion; all certainty that Britain had waged a brave, just and necessary fight disappeared.

The widespread sentiments of the masses were often expressive of the incipient protests, anger and consciousness regarding the reactionary character of the war. Since, unlike in Russia, there was no revolutionary party in Britain at the time capable of utilising these sentiments for a revolutionary struggle against British imperialism, they found their outlet in the dead end of bourgeois pacifism and daydreaming about a world without armaments and war, simultaneously with the continued existence of capitalism.

There was a total lack of any ability or willingness, consciousness or courage, to connect the war with imperialism and to relate imperialist war to imperialist peace.

As the trickle of memoirs turned into a flood, the sentiment of ‘waste’ multiplied, with British commander-in-chief Douglas Haig being portrayed as the “butcher of the Somme” – a callous nincompoop who had presided over the loss of two million British casualties.

Even before the end of the war, the horrendous slaughter of so many innocents, which had turned the mood in the trenches to one of sober resignation, plunged working-class communities into mourning and moulded middle-class patriots into antiwar poets, creating fertile ground for antiwar activity.

This sense of disillusionment and cynicism was reinforced by the Versailles treaty, which imposed extraordinarily harsh terms on Germany and, while holding the latter solely responsible for the war, allowed the victors to get down to the business of redividing the world – the sole purpose for which the war had been fought on both sides.

The French grabbed Togo and Cameroon in west Africa, the British secured Namibia in southern Africa and Tanzania in east Africa. In the middle east, while the French were given Syria and Lebanon, the British received Palestine, Jordan and Iraq.

Only the Turks proved strong enough to prevent the carve-up of their country. On 16 April 1919, showing their true liberatory character, the British authorities perpetrated the Amritsar massacre, in which General Dyer’s armed thugs killed over 1,000 innocent Indians.

John Maynard Keynes, in his The Economic Consequences of the Peace, denounced the Versailles treaty for the treatment it meted out to Germany. (1920)

Basil Liddell Hart, a widely-read British military theorist whose battalion had been almost totally destroyed at the Somme, in addition to attacking the professional fitness of British generals questioned the very decision for Britain to get involved in a bloody land war on the continent in the first place.

In the early 1960s, Alan Clarke’s The Donkeys, concentrating on the early failures of the British military leadership, played to the stereotypes of the ‘chateau generals’ commanding thousands of men to their deaths before comfortably tucking into a sumptuous dinner.

Clarke’s book inspired Joan Littlewood’s 1963 satirical musical Oh! What a Lovely War, which was later made into a film.

It is in this context that the current and relatively recent historiography of the war must be seen.

The controversies concerning the causes, strategies and consequences of WW1 refuse to be laid to rest. Earlier this year, Michael Gove, then the education minister, attempted, not very successfully, to ‘reclaim’ the centenary commemoration on behalf of those for whom the war was a just cause fought for ‘liberal values’.

He complained that for too long the war had “been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh! What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer, Blackadder, as a misgotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths.”

Apart from the small matter that not everyone critical of Britain’s participation in, or conduct of, the war, can be characterised as a left-wing academic, what Gove, if he had any interest in the truth, should have said is that, apart from those who belong to the Leninist tradition, almost everyone of the countless writers on the war – supporters as well as opponents – have been guilty of spreading myths, illusions, misrepresentations and downright falsehoods of one kind or another.

In this context, we wish to mention the following historians who have entered into the fray on this question in the relatively recent past.

Margaret MacMillan

Margaret MacMillan, warden of St Anthony’s college at Oxford. In her book The War That Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (written October 2013), she pins primary responsibility for the war at the doorstep of Germany – and to a lesser extent on Austria-Hungary.

While she does not entirely accept the thesis advanced by Fritz Fischer, who caused a sensation in the early 1960s by arguing that his country’s annexationist aims predated the Great War and bore a close resemblance to the Nazi war aims, she does perceive German militarism and the commitment of general staff under Helmuth von Moltke to fighting a two-front war, requiring rapid and unstoppable mobilisation, as a catalyst.

In issuing a ‘blank cheque’ to Austria-Hungary by offering unconditional support for its punitive attack on Serbia following the Sarajevo assassination, says MacMillan, the German leaders were prepared to risk war. She adds that the three men with the power to decide between war and peace – the Kaiser, von Moltke and Chancellor Theobald von Berthman-Hollweg – saw opportunities rather than threats.

MacMillan makes it clear where her sentiments lie at the very beginning of her book, when she describes the sacking of the historically important city of Louvain in August 1914. According to her, since neutral Belgium had the audacity to resist the German advance as per the Schlieffen plan, the German soldiers vented their frustrations on the city and its people. And Louvain was only a foretaste of what was to come.

Christopher Clark

By contrast, Christopher Clark, Professor of Modern European History at Cambridge, says in his The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (2012), that the start of the war “was a tragedy not a crime. The two sides simply sleep-walked into it.”

He goes on to say: “There is no smoking gun in this story, or, rather, there is one in the hands of every major character.” The last sentence, however inadvertently inserted, means a lot more than Mr Clark must have intended it to mean. For surely, the two imperialist blocs had been preparing for this war over a long period of time, with the aim of grabbing each other’s colonies, markets, spheres of influence, raw materials and avenues for investment.

Britain and France could have satisfied Germany by making over to her a portion of their vast empires and other sources of loot. Equally, Germany could have decided to rest content with the much smaller share she already possessed. If either of these imaginary scenarios had come to pass, there would have been no war.

But this is not how things happen in the world of finance capital. Imperialism would not be imperialism if it did not give rise to regular repartitioning of the world. Who is to blame either side for being driven to it? The answer lies, or rather the solution to the problem lies, in the revolutionary overthrow of the entire system.

An important theme of Mr Clark’s is the breakdown of the international order that had kept the “long peace” in the 19th century. The absence of institutions to resolve conflicts led to “rapid-fire interactions among heavily-armed autonomous power-centres confronting different and swiftly-changing threats, and operating under conditions of high risk and low trust and transparency”.

It was, he says, ignoring the elephant in the room, not the existence of two opposing alliances that helped plunge Europe into war, but the weakness of those alliances and uncertainty about intentions within them. Decisions were driven by contingency rather than any strategic plan.

He concludes: “The protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.”

Sir Max Hastings

In his book Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914, Hastings has no time for Mr Clark’s reluctance to apportion blame.

Germany, he writes, deserves the most blame because it alone had the power to stop the conflict and decided not to do so.

Niall Ferguson

In his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), Ferguson portrays the British empire as an instrument for the promotion of commerce, the provision of clean government, the establishment of the rule of law, and the creation of conditions for an eventual transition to parliamentary democracy.

He says that he does not claim, as did Lord Curzon, that “the British empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen”, nor, as General Smuts claimed, that it was “the widest system of organised human freedom which has ever existed in human history” – the empire was never that altruistic.

Nevertheless, he maintains “that no organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour, than the British empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organisation has done more to impose western norms of law, order and governance around the world.

“For much of its history, the British empire acted as an agency for relatively incorrupt government. Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that the empire enhanced global welfare, in other words, it was a Good Thing.”

It was the staggering cost of fighting the imperial rivals, he says, that ultimately ruined the British empire. In other words, “the empire was dismantled not because it had suppressed subject peoples for centuries, but because it took up arms for just a few years against the far more oppressive empires. In the end, the British sacrificed the empire to stop the Germans, Japanese and Italians from keeping theirs.

“Did not that sacrifice alone expunge all the empire’s other sins? It did the right thing, regardless of the cost. And that is why the ultimate, if reluctant, heir of Britain’s global power, was not one of the evil empires of the east, but Britain’ most successful former colony, ie, the USA.”

If this isn’t an unreserved and subservient apologia for Anglo-American imperialism, and an utter falsification of history, one would be hard put to find one. Professor Ferguson’s defence of British/American imperialism reminds one of the following shrewd observation made by Georgi Plekhanov:

“Marx said very truly that the greater the development of antagonism between the growing forces of production and the extant social order, the more does the ideology of the ruling class become permeated with hypocrisy. In addition, the more effectively life unveils the mendacious character of this ideology, the more does the language used by the dominant class become sublime and virtuous.” (Fundamental Problems of Marxism, 1907)

There is, however, method in the madness of the bourgeoisie and its intellects – its ideological and political representatives. For the fight over the past is actually part of the struggle to control the present and the future.

Whatever the intentions of the bourgeois intellectual gentry, the net result of their writings – in this case on the question of the first world war – is to absolve imperialism from being the cause of the slaughter of hundreds of millions of innocent people and to prepare them for present-day imperialist wars and carnage.

What real educational purpose is served by history books and articles that portray the imperialist world war as either a ‘mistake’, an ‘accident’ or a ‘tragedy’ into which the two armed imperialist camps, having prepared over decades for precisely such a war, simply ‘sleepwalked’?

What value can writings have that present the war as a struggle between ‘good’ (ie, on the side of the imperialist bourgeoisie of their choice) against ‘evil’ (the opposing bourgeoisie), between ‘democracy’ (ie, Anglo-American and French imperialism) and ‘autocracy and militarism’ (ie, German and Austro-Hungarian imperialism)?

What can one learn from histories that portray the Anglo-American imperialist bourgeoisie, no less bloodthirsty and rapacious than the German bourgeoisie, as having been motivated in this war by the sole desire to ‘defend liberal values’ and ‘promote democracy’?

Even less is there to learn from histories that attribute the outbreak of the war to Germany’s ‘violation of the neutrality and territorial integrity’ of Belgium – which, we are reminded, the European powers had pledged to respect by the 1839 Treaty of London.

As to histories that with a serious mien attribute the outbreak of the war to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo – just 37 days before Britain declared war on Germany – these are simply laughable fairy tales, meant for the entertainment of subnormal sections of humanity.

Bourgeois historians of the war, by their inability or unwillingness to emphasise the very real and close connection between modern war and imperialism, simply divert the proletariat from the task of overthrowing imperialism as the only means of getting rid of war. As such, they merely serve to prepare the ideological and political conditions for both present-day and future imperialist wars.

Imperialist crisis and preparations for new wars

Imperialism is now gripped by its worst-ever crisis, and this crisis is driving imperialism ultimately to war as the only way out. No one can say with certainty who the next big war will be between. One thing, however, is certain: ie, that beginning with the war against Yugoslavia, through the wars in the middle east, to the present troubles in Ukraine, imperialism is engaged in encircling Russia and China.

It is attempting to encircle Russia because Russia is the only country with the armaments that can challenge the armed might of US imperialism, and because of the vastness of its resources. Meanwhile, China is targeted because, in addition to its social system, it is well on course to become the largest economy in the world in the next half decade (in fact, on the basis of purchasing power parity, it is already the largest economy), and this economic might is enabling China to become the dominant power in Asia as well as, through its economic aid to Africa and Latin America, to encroach on imperialism’s traditional ability to loot unhindered.

Should imperialism dare to launch a war against Russia or China, devastating though such a war would be, it will sound the death knell of imperialism.

If the first world war ushered in the Great Socialist October Revolution; if the second world war gave birth to a mighty socialist camp covering a third of the word’s territory and a quarter of its population; any war against Russia or China would put an end to imperialism in its entirety.

Should such a war break out, it is the deeply-held conviction of our party that the proletariat in the imperialist countries ought to side against its own bourgeoisie and work for the victory of Russia/China in resisting imperialist domination and subjugation, and for proletarian revolution in their own respective countries.

Imperialism – the eve of proletarian revolution

Imperialism has sharpened all the contradictions to the extreme: the contradiction between labour and capital; the contradiction between a handful of imperialist oppressors and the vast majority of humanity inhabiting the oppressed countries; and the contradiction between the various imperialist groupings.

Spurred on by the economic crisis, it is driving full steam ahead towards war.

Imperialism, by sharpening all the contradictions of capitalism, faces humanity with the choice: either revolution or war and barbarism.

The Leninist theory of revolution and Leninist tactics and methods of organisation offer the only road to salvation as the proletariat comes face to face with this stark choice: “Either place yourself at the mercy of capital, eke out a miserable existence and sink lower and lower, or adopt a new weapon – this is the alternative imperialism puts before the vast masses of the proletariat. Imperialism brings the working class to revolution.” (JV Stalin, The Foundations of Leninism, 1924, Chapter 1)