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World War I: Crime and Punishment

Photo by Don O’Brien | CC BY 2.0

In 1887, Frederick Engels made a chilling prediction of the war that would come in 1914:

The only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover of an extent of violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism.

This prediction was not the result of second sight. It was a conclusion derived from the premise that “war is the daughter of capitalism,” first proposed by Engels with Marx in The Manifesto of the Communist Party of 1848. “The bourgeoisie is always in a struggle . . . against the bourgeoisie of all foreign states,” they wrote, and this struggle is so bitter as to lead inevitably to an “industrial war of annihilation among nations.”

In his study, The Great Class War, Jacques Pauwels supports this thesis, focusing on those who suffered the most and on those who profited the most.  Bu his study goes further. From Pauwels’ analysis, the war emerges as both a crime and a punishment—a crime perpetrated by the capitalist powers and a punishment for the betrayal of socialism, in which the working class of the whole world paid the highest price. In 1914, the socialist leaders of the Second International voted in the parliaments of European (mostly) democracies to fund a fratricidal war, betraying the bedrock of socialist principles, international solidarity, in favor of social chauvinism. Pauwels’ book is informed (in a scholarly way) by the outrage of this betrayal, echoing Lenin in 1914:

On the socialist, more than the horrors of war – we are, after all, for the holy war of all the oppressed for the conquest of their homelands–weigh the horror of the betrayal perpetrated by the leaders of contemporary socialism, the horrors of the failure of the current International.

Darker still than the evidence of collusion of the social democrats with the capitalist bourgeoisie, is Pauwels’ proposition that this price—the mass slaughter of proletarians– was one of the war’s intended results. The decimation of masses of workers and colonials and the weakening of the socialist movement, which had been gaining political strength since the end of the 19th century, could not be unwelcome to the bourgeoisies on both sides.  It might have been included in the plan. From this reflection, comes Pauwels’ apt title, The Great Class War, a much-needed historico-materialist corrective to the chronically elegiac tone of historically unscientific and romanticized mainstream bourgeois narratives.

To be sure, as Pauwels illustrates, the war was a crime of unprecedented horror as even bourgeois historians, chroniclers, diarists, poets, novelists, painters, and musicians have acknowledged and documented.  The indictment of the war as a crime has been etched in the collective memory on the Anglophone side by the words of the English poet, writer, and decorated war hero, Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon threw the ribbon of his Military Cross into the Mersey River and made a stand against the war in 1917, submitting an explosive, potentially “treasonous,” and at the time scandalous statement to the British parliament:

I am making this statement as an act of willful defiance of military authority. . . . I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest.  (“Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration.”)

But it had never been “a war of defence and liberation,” Pauwels’ account points out.  Apart from the obscenely lucrative profits that the war provided to armament and industrial barons on both sides (all extensively illustrated in Pauwels’ book) coupled with the exploitative lucre extracted from the suspension of workers rights (also richly illustrated) by the emergency war economy, the war consisted of the great capitalist powers’ race for the conquest of the colonies, their natural resources, markets, and cheap labor.   What the social democrats failed or opportunistically refused to see Lenin grasped quite lucidly:

In reality, the object of the struggle of the British and French bourgeoisie is to seize the German colonies and to ruin a competing nation, which has displayed a more rapid rate of economic development.  (From “The War and Russian Social Democracy,” November 1914)

It had always been, The Great Class War argues, an intention by the ruling political and economic elite to set the world to sword and fire, ending in a murderous determination on all political sides to go ahead with the crime of aggression, pit man against man and nation against all for which ten million ephemeral lives were lost—the urban poor, the peasants and near serfs, the colonial subjects, and, too, the officer class of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie.  Initially swept into the war by the tide of propaganda of the upper-class culture of war idealism, Abrahamic-creed zeal, and national patriotism, the working class was urged with the collusion of the social democrat leaders of each belligerent nation, “Proletarians of the world, kill each other.”

The essential novelty—and it is a crucial one—of Pauwels’ study of WW I is the sustained, unflinching refusal to bend the knee to the authority of class-less perspectives from which the war has been traditionally represented even in the best accounts.  His study relies on the method of Marxist class analysis, woefully absent from dominant narratives of history.

In fact, Pauwels’ calm and uncluttered reliance on the scientifically elegant Marxian theory of history announced dramatically in the opening sentence of the Communist Manifesto– “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”—reminds me of a literary anecdote.

Reading an early draft of Ernest Hemingway’s WW I novel, A Farewell to Arms, F. Scott Fitzgerald sent Hemingway a ten-page letter, proposing an ending in these words:

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

At the bottom of the letter, Hemingway wrote a dismissive, “Kiss my ass.” After forty-seven attempts, Hemingway ended with a terse factual sentence of devastating emotional effect, “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” If Jacques Pauwels were a novelist and not a historian it would be tempting to call his book a “kiss-my- ass” sort of book, for its great merit is to reject the fanciful, windy notions of the “word-smiths” (I finally found a use for this dreadful phrase) of regime historians, who lavish words and wring their hands over the “tragic mistakes” that caused a war which supposedly no one wanted.

1918 marks the anniversary of the end of that first global industrial carnage. Why should we read yet another account? Because it is not “yet another account.” It is a Marxist historian’s publication, and such publications have dwindled to minimal numbers since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But, more significantly, it reminds us of several useful things in our own imperialist context of Western desperation to prevent the rise of competing powers (especially China’s) that could challenge Western global hegemony.  There is no discontinuity between WWI and today’s imperialist wars. There is no discontinuity between the social democrats of 1914 and those of 2018 (just look at Bernie Sanders, Podemos, Syriza, and a plethora of born-again social chauvinists and imperialists of liberal strands). There is no discontinuity between the aggression on and the coveting of territorial possessions by the Western powers of 1914 and 2018: today the Western powers attack, subordinate, decimate, and even exterminate one group of peoples after another. There is no discontinuity between the Western powers of 1914 and 2018 in their readiness and willingness to inflict on the world an industrial war of apocalyptic proportions; have the Western powers not been aspiring for decades to guarantee for themselves the possibility of an unpunished first nuclear strike?  Well then, there is no past here. The Great Class War is present and vicious, and I recommend reading it. If we have the slightest hope of a discontinuity—of overcoming this homicidal capitalist-imperialist system—we must feed this hope with the rising consciousness that this system can be and was beaten in 1917, when soldiers, workers, and peasants united in Russia, demanded, “Peace, land, and bread.” That was the only unintended and undesirable effect by the planners of the Great War, and it is one they have rued and bitterly fought ever since.

Jacques Pauwels’ The Great Class War is a contribution to the ideological front in the struggle for a world without wars, for in resetting the story of that war in the Marxist frame, he loosens our ties to idealist interpretations that obscure the class nature of wars, naturalize war as an inevitable part of life, and force us to assume and share a guilt that largely rests on the shoulders of a profiteering and exploitative class, which holds the power of decision making through its control of political, economic, military, police, and media powers and grants us a vote that is largely cosmetic. This is political consciousness-raising beyond the psychological notion of victimhood because it shows us the mistakes we have made—and must not repeat—and the victories we have achieved—and must strive for again—to liberate humanity from the scourge of war.

More articles by:

Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: lbohne@edinboro.edu

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