On June 28, 1914, an attack carried out in Sarajevo (capital of Bosnia, the Balkans), by Gavrilo Princip (young member of a Bosnian nationalist organization) ended the lives of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir to the throne of the Austro -Hungarian Empire) and his wife. It was the triggering fact for the First World War (or the Great War, as it was called at the time), and a month later the Austro-Hungarian troops invaded Serbia (also in the Balkans). That was the trigger, but it could have been another as well: for several years, the world (and essentially Europe) lived what was called the “armed peace”, which was waiting for its outburst.
By Alejandro Iturbe.
In the First World War, two coalitions were faced: the allies (Britain, France and Russia) on one hand, and the “Central Powers” (Germany and Austro-Hungarian), allied to the Turkish – Ottoman Empire, on the other hand. Before the war, Italy was associated with the “Central Powers” but as soon as the war began, it changed its position and joined the Allies. The fighting took place centrally in Europe, but there were war zones in Asia and Africa too.
From the military point of view, the war incorporated new and modern weaponry, some of great cruelty (if the terms fits), like the use of “mustard gas.” In Europe, the two fronts had different characteristics. The Western was characterized as a “war of position” or “trenches:” strong militarized lines on both sides (very close together) and gigantic battles (that caused thousands of deaths on both sides) to win narrow strips of land (sometimes not even that). In the eastern (along the Russian Empire), the battles were also too harsh, and had high costs. However, there was more mobility like the successful German offensive on the outside of the Russian Empire or the Russian offensive that nearly decimated the Austro-Hungarian army.
This war marked the biggest mobilization of soldiers ever seen, at that time, in one single conflict: approximately 70 million people participated (60 of them, European). The human cost was frightening: approximately 10 million people died and as many were injured and/or mutilated. It was a really tragedy for humanity.
From the political point of view, Marxism characterized it as an inter-imperialist war. To understand this concept, it is necessary to look at some processes analyzed by Lenin in his 1916 book that explains the causes of war (1). In that book, he defines the emergence of a distinct phase of capitalism, at the same time superior and in decadence (imperialism), characterized, amongst other central factors, by the emergence of financial capital (merging of bank and industrial capital with the predominance of the former), the exportation of that capital, and the creation of large banking-industrial conglomerates. From that base, the imperialist powers, to ensure markets and natural resources to their companies, dominated the rest of the countries as colonies or semi colonies.
Some imperialist nations had belatedly come to this “deal”, or were not satisfied with it and wanted to “re-discuss” it by means of war. This was the case of Germany, a great industrial power but weak in colonial possessions, which wanted to dispute with England the role of the world’s biggest power. The great human tragedy that the war meant was also a great tragedy for the working class and the exploited sectors: the workers and the poor peasants from each side were killing each other, by millions, to defend their imperialist bourgeoisies.
From the point of view of workers, both tragedies were, ultimately, the result of the betrayal of the Second International (or International Socialist), whose main parties (including the German and French CPs) supported their respective imperialist countries and called the workers to fight for them. It was a policy that Lenin named as “social patriotism”, and described it as “treason.”
It exceeds the scope of this article to analyse the factors that merged to allow this betrayal to happen; but it meant the death of the Second International (built during the previous three decades) as a fighting tool. For workers, it was as important as the defeat of the war itself.
The betrayal of the Second International was confronted by minor sectors of organizations and leaders. In this opposition, two wings came together. One was “pacifist”: its goals were limited to stop the war and achieve peace, and thus, end the slaughter among workers.
At the same time, they thought that a future restructuring of the Second was possible.
The other tendency proposed a line of “revolutionary defeatism” (“the defeat of imperialism itself is the lesser evil”), as a way of transforming the inter-imperialist war into a revolutionary workers’ war and the masses against their own bourgeoisies. Its main exponents were Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks. The tendency was also integrated by Trotsky (back then, part of the left Menchevism), Rosa Luxemburg (back then imprisoned in Germany) and Karl Liebcknecht (leader of the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party). In this context, Lenin postulated the need to build a new international organization.
Both sectors came together to the Zimmerwald Conference, held in Switzerland, in September 1915.
In words of Trotsky in “My Life”: “It seemed that all the world internationalist fit in just four cars“. Some declarations and common resolutions against the war came out from that Conference. However, it was a tactical and temporary unity, without strategic agreement between the two wings.It is interesting to see the prospects that opened, at that time, due to the analysis of each sector.
If reality was considered in a mechanical way, the combination of the great objective defeat for workers that the war meant and the great subjective defeat of the Second International’s breakdown, meant to prepare for a long period of retreat and withdrawal from the strategic perspective of socialist revolution. For Lenin, on the contrary, the great bourgeois crisis, represented by the war and the hardships and suffering imposed to the workers and the masses, opened the objective conditions of a revolutionary situation in Europe.
Consistent with that, he began to prepare his Bolshevik organization to intervene in the revolution that could occur in Russia. Life proof him right: the Russian revolutionary process began in February 1917 with a solid core of several thousand cadres and militants, clarity and strategic firmness, and tactical skill facing specific situations; the Bolsheviks won the leadership of the Russian workers and poor peasants, and they seized power in October 1917. Thus, they began the construction of the first workers’ state in history. In parallel, the Third International (or Comintern) was founded: the largest attempt to build an international revolutionary leadership with mass weight, until nowadays.
Since his return to Russia, Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks (with his whole group), and also played a central role in the Russian revolutionary process and the construction of the Third.
Other revolutions were calved by the war. The most important was the one initiated by the collapse of the army and the fall of the German Empire (end of 1918). Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebcknecht did not lack revolutionary decision. But, unlike Lenin (and despite its broad political influence among German workers), they had not built a strong organization of cadres but an ordinary loose and very weak one. Because of this weakness, the Spartacist League (a split from the German Social Democratic Party) did not have the necessary conditions to lead the first raising wave of the German revolution. It payed dearly for it: Rosa and Karl were killed in January 1919 by order of the government, which had a Social Democratic majority.World War I ended in November 1918 with the victory of the Allies. It changed the political map of Europe and other regions of the world. Four empires sank: the German, the Austro-Hungarian, the Turkish-Ottoman, and the Russian.
Germany was subjected to harsh conditions by the victors, but (by the failure of various revolutionary waves in the country) a tendency that would try to “re-discuss” the imperialist hegemony in World War II emerged: Nazism. England and France were victorious, and they even expanded their colonial domains. Nevertheless, strategically they began an irreversible setback against a newly emerging imperialist power: the United States.
Another essential change in the political map was the birth of the USSR, the fisrt workers’ state in history. The subsequent course of this and other experiences would be the topic for other specific articles, but its emergence was an element that marked many of the processes of the twentieth century.
The combination of the two events (the WWI and the October Revolution) initiates what the Argentinian Trotskyist Nahuel Moreno called “the era of workers’ and socialists revolutions” (2), which he defined as an “epoch of wars, crises and revolutions”. In more than the hundred years that had passed already, this epoch was expressed in different stages of the class struggle (defined by the balance of forces), but we believe we are still in this stage. Wars, crises and revolutions are at the order of the day, but one of the elements (the crisis of the revolutionary leadership, explained by Trotsky in the Transitional Program) has become a determining factor in the course of these revolutions. As long as the revolutionary reladership is not built, the revolutionary processes will be frustrated or will go “round in circles” to restart, even more aggravated, while capitalism-imperialism plunges humanity into a major decline and increasing degradation.
We fully believe in the strategic validity of taking power at the national level, and the need for the international socialist revolution. We also believe that the resolution of the leadership crisis involves building national revolutionary parties and a revolutionary international modeled on the Third International (defended by Trotsky against Stalinism when founding the Fourth International).
The IWL (with its modest forces) attempts to intervene in the revolutionary processes service this urgent task.
(1) “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” (1916)
(2) “The revolutions of the twentieth century” (1984)
Translation: Camila Polgar.