The logic of conflict

A photograph showing wreath-bearing politicians standing solemnly at the Cenotaph in London; a camera panning over endless white crosses somewhere in the French countryside; a lone bagpipe playing ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ over an explosion of red poppies – these familiar scenes and sounds instruct us in how to perform remembrance of the First World War. We can expect to be, so to speak, bombarded by them even before the commemorations begin next August. What are they expected to teach us?

The war involved a tragic loss of life, especially of the young. Proportionally, Scotland suffered greater losses than every other nation except Serbia and Turkey. 26.4 percent of those mobilised; 10.9 percent of males of fighting age; 3.1 per cent of the population as a whole. The comparable figures for Britain and Ireland were 11.8 per cent, 6.3 per cent and 1.6 per cent. On the tragedy, everyone can agree; but ask why young and old had to die and the unanimity shatters immediately. Already the bookshelves are groaning under the weight of new volumes offering to explain the outbreak of war, in quite different terms. Some of these, like the efforts by Max Hastings and Jeremy Paxman, are essentially journalistic, respectively expressing the views of the conservative and liberal wings of the metropolitan elite. Others, like those by Christopher Clark and Margaret Macmillan, are genuine contributions to historical knowledge. As we shall see, however, in all cases the arguments have inescapably political implications.

The logic of conflict was set in motion by tensions between the metropolitan centres themselves. In this historical moment, threats to overseas markets and sources of raw materials would have been causes for war even if the territories involved had not been actual colonies.

There are essentially two dominant explanations of the war, both well represented in the centenary literature. One dates back to 1914 and was later enshrined in the Treaty of Versailles. It is, of course, that primary responsibility lay with Germany and to a lesser extent its allies Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Here is a recent example by Gary Sheffield, appropriately enough a former lecturer in Department of War Studies at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst:

“Britain went to war with Germany in August 1914 for similar reasons to those for which the country fought Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War: to prevent an authoritarian, militarist, expansionist enemy achieving hegemony in Europe and thus imperilling British security. Most historians argue that Germany and Austria-Hungary were primarily responsible for initiating the war (recent attempts to blame Russia are not wholly convincing). Whoever started it, the fact is that in 1914-18, Germany waged a war of aggression that conquered large tracts of its neighbours’ territory. As has often been pointed out, there were distinct continuities between the policy and strategy of imperial Germany and its Nazi successor.”

The ideological manoeuvre here is not exactly subtle: since most people who are not absolute pacifists tend to accept that Hitler’s Germany had to be fought, the comparison with imperial Germany nudges us towards the same conclusion in relation to the earlier conflict, thus conferring on it the undeserved dignity of a war against fascism. The focus on German untrustworthiness also neatly aligns with contemporary Europhobic fantasies about the emergence of a Fourth Reich within the EU.

Was there nothing authoritarian, militarist or expansionist in British behaviour then? Before the war Britain had allowed the death from starvation of five million inhabitants of Madras and presided over the invention of the concentration camp in South Africa. During the war Britain was allied with the feudal-absolutist Russian autocracy and engaged in violently suppressing the national aspirations of the Irish. By the end of the war – presumably in another of its regular ‘fits of absence of mind’ – Britain had ‘acquired’ several more oil-producing territories in the Middle East and helped establish the Zionist colony in Palestine. None of this exactly provides moral high ground from which to criticise Germany, which after all only sought what Britain already had – an empire.

The second dominant narrative is to move from what Clark calls an ‘overdetermined’ explanation involving German agency to an ‘undetermined’ one. From this perspective there are too many agencies involved for any ultimate cause to be identified. He begins his – in many ways highly impressive – book by invoking ‘contingency’ and ends by describing the war as ‘a tragedy, not a crime’, concluding that ‘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’. While this avoids making Germany solely or mainly responsible for the war, it also dispenses with the notion of responsibility altogether–or dissolves into a myriad of decisions leading to an unintended, if disastrous result.

Neither scapegoating (of Germany) nor absolution (of the Great Powers more generally) are adequate here. But nor is merely criticising the conduct of the war. In Britain, for example, it has long been acceptable to rail at the leaders of the British Expeditionary Force, the ‘donkeys’ of Alan Clark’s influential book and Oh! What a Lovely War! This sounds radical (and in Joan Littlewood’s show it actually was) but, as Clark’s own Conservative politics suggest, it can also function as an evasion rather than an explanation. Socialists should beware the easy satisfactions of denouncing Haig and Co for their stupidity, for this is both to insult and to exculpate them. They were not lacking in intelligence, nor necessarily unfeeling. They chose to send thousands over the top to their deaths because the military options were relatively limited and an ineradicable risk of being a soldier – although admittedly one under-emphasised by the Ministry of Defence – is to die in the pursuit of strategic objectives. After all, would the war have been acceptable if the levels of death and mutilation had been lower?

In fact, the generals, like the politicians and state managers, were trapped within a structural logic which first led to war and then determined their conduct of it. All historians obviously recognise that the main players were established or aspirant imperial powers; but this fact is rarely given any explanatory power, so long as ‘imperialism’ is simply regarded as coextensive with colonialism. Yet the concept, at least within Classical Marxism, does not simply involve relationships of domination by the metropolitan powers over the colonial and semi-colonial world, but also – and in this context, more importantly – relationships of rivalry between the metropolitan powers themselves, a rivalry which fused economic and geopolitical competition. For Connolly in Dublin, Maclean in Glasgow, Luxemburg in Berlin, Lenin in Zurich and Roy in Delhi, the outbreak of war may have been unintended, but it was not thereby avoidable, except by socialist revolution.

The example of the First World War is important for the left because it illustrates both the inherently warlike nature of capitalism and the way in which seemingly irrational decisions were in fact inescapable given the compulsions of competitive accumulation. All the major participating states were either already capitalist or in the process of completing the transition. Their empires were important to the metropolitan centres for economic reasons; principally as captive markets, less so as a source of raw materials (except in the case of Britain) and least of all as the destination of investments.

But even where colonies or ‘mandates’ had no direct economic rationale, this did not mean they were detached from the logic of capitalism. Once the race for imperial territory began in earnest during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, it became necessary for strategic reasons to seize territories which were often of no value in themselves–indeed, which were often net recipients of state expenditure–but which were essential buffers from which to protect those territories which were of economic value, like India. And in some cases the diplomatic alliances which eventually plunged the world into catastrophe had direct economic origins.

In the case of Russia, for example, grain exports and raw material imports for industry passed through the straits between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara or the Dardanelles and the Aegean. Early in 1914 Russia and her allies forced the Ottoman Empire to grant autonomy to the partly Armenian provinces of eastern Anatolia in order to pull the Christian Armenians under Russian influence. As a result the Turks began to form an alliance with Germany in order to protect the integrity of their empire.

In the case of Britain, surely the most ‘capitalist’ of all the European Great Powers, economic specialisation, and the consequent lack of self-sufficiency in food and raw materials, made her dependent on these being constantly available from overseas, which in turn required the Royal Navy to protect the merchant marine. Challenged by the other European Powers, above all Germany, in the naval arms race from the 1890s, Britain began to create the continental system of alliances that would pull her into war.

In both cases the logic of conflict was set in motion by tensions between the metropolitan centres themselves. In this historical moment, threats to overseas markets and sources of raw materials would have been causes for war even if the territories involved had not been actual colonies. This has contemporary implications, not because war is necessarily imminent between the core states of the world system; but direct confrontation is scarcely the only form of geopolitical rivalry. And here again the First World War is relevant.

The key participants had already been engaged in conflict-at-one-remove before 1914. The Boer War can be seen as a proxy war between Britain and Germany who backed, encouraged, trained and supplied the Boers. In the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, Germany supported Russia and Britain supported Japan. Since the end of the Cold War we have once again seen war ‘by proxy’, where the dominant states jostle for influence by supporting different sides in inter- or intra–state conflicts. The different sides supported by France, Germany and the USA during the disintegration of Yugoslavia was perhaps the first example of this strategy in the post-Cold War world; the conflict between NATO and Russia over Georgia (and the divisions within the NATO member states over attitudes to Russia) is the most recent; but similar alignments are beginning to take shape in Central Africa where France is already in the dominant position among the Western powers, but where China is rapidly extending its influence.

If the argument here is correct, then we may be entering a world situation which resembles in several important ways that of 1914. The moment of maximum danger for humanity will come if the contemporary capitalist great powers no longer express their different competitive interests by proxy in the Global South, or assert their interests over lesser states in the developed world itself, but when they directly confront each other on the geopolitical stage. In this perspective the origins of the First World War are not a matter for academic dispute, but a warning of what may await us, with different participants but even greater destructive capacity. In that sense we commemorate those who opposed the war, not simply because they were right, but because we may have cause to emulate them.