1914 – 1918: CAPITALISMS 1st GLOBAL WAR!

Much has already been said this year (2014), about the causes of the First World War. Its military and political personnel, their conduct, and its positive or negative outcomes have once again been extensively reviewed. Such was the scale of devastation to life, limb, infrastructure and property, that even after 100 years this ‘war to end all wars’, as it was once optimistically described by the British Liberal reformist, Lloyd George, simply cannot be ignored. Undoubtedly there is even more detailed narrative dissection to come. However, what has been missing and is almost guaranteed to still be missing within the upcoming plethora of discussion and analysis from pro-capitalist sources will be the underlying economic causes of this first world-wide war.

So in this 100th anniversary year of the 1914-18 war, it will once again be eloquently and comprehensively analysed from the military, the political, the historical, the psychological and even the social perspective, all of which are important to consider. However, the underlying economic basis of modern wars which, since the 17th century lies in the extraordinary expansionist propensity of the capitalist mode of production, will generally be ignored. Yet understanding this cancerous economic pre-disposition is vital. For this reason the following sections will consider this underlying economic feature in more detail along with some of the available political material which explicitly recognises this underlying expansionist motivation  for wars of conquest.

The full-scale military engagements of the 1914 – 18 war started during August 1914 and ended in September 1918, but this period of brutal hostilities merely identifies the military and political phases of what by then was a centuries-old war between national based capitals strewn across the developing nations of Europe. Yet despite these previous epochs of aggressive competition, this 20th century industrial scale war and its enormous loss of human life, was a first.  It was the first fully globalised demonstration of the extreme lengths national and international capitalist elites are prepared to go in order to protect or achieve their international domination of the capitalist mode of production.

As we will see below, for a real understanding of the complexity of the social, political and military events of the 20th century (or the 21st century) and their outcomes it is necessary to first understand the motivational economic processes of capitalist mode of production. This economic foundation of how societies function will be in the main ignored by mainstream historians as they assemble the material and construct their narratives on the war.  For this reason, the economic analysis and insights of Adam Smith and Karl Marx are a necessary addition to making sense of such appallingly destructive episodes among the human species. Hence a few extracts from these sources will be introduced later.

From agricultural to industrial based wars.

Of course civil wars and belligerent wars of conquest pre-date the domination of the capitalist mode of production. Since the dawn of civilisations, ruling elites, supported primarily by agricultural surpluses, have sought to extend their ability to exploit people and resources and have done so in order to accumulate and consume the wealth produced by human communities.  To do so, they have often had to fight  each other in order to assert their domination and control. The elites of the capitalist mode of production, therefore, did not invent continental scale wars. However, the advent of the capitalist mode of production, has added a qualitative and quantitative twist to the ancient personal motivation for elite conquest and particularly since this mode began to dominate.

First of all, under the capitalist mode of production the motivation of greed has spread to a new and more extensive economic and financial class among the elite – the big capitalists and small capitalists (bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie). In addition these two classes, have along with the middle classes,  increased their membership by a considerable degree and have managed to dominate social and political discourse along with political power. Second, in addition to this individual and bourgeois class-wide greed the particular existential motivation, noted above also emanates from the economic necessities contingent upon the capitalist mode of production.

This existential driving force arises as a consequence of the necessary investment requirements of those who own and invest capital in commodity production or circulation. That is to say the dominating need for an incremental return on their investments ie., the requirement for profit on capital. Third, the industrial and scientific techniques introduced by capitalism enabled the mass-production of advanced weapons of destruction and in this way assured the massive loss of life among the estimated total of 9 million plus men recruited to fight each other to the death.

Capitalisms ‘inner’ need for economic expansion.

This necessity for the continual expansion of production and return on capital arises because under the capitalist mode of production, production is undertaken to create and augment existing wealth (as money capital), by producing – and selling – commodities and services which contain surplus-value. To maintain and/or augment their capital, capitalists need not only to produce such ‘goods’ as quickly as possible but to successfully sell them. However, once the goods and services they manufacture have exceeded the numbers that can be sold locally, they are compelled to try to sell them elsewhere or suffer loss.

Therefore, when the home market is saturated, foreign markets are sought. They are even invaded where new markets do not volunteer to accept these surplus goods. In order to effect a return on investment of capital, the productive capacities of capitalist industries are continually enlarged and extended creating more and more commodities hence the need for more and more outlets. In order to preserve and augment capital via surplus-value extracted from the labouring population, the aim is that the entire mass of commodities should be sold. Under the capitalist mode of production there is therefore a;

“……general competitive struggle and the need to improve production and expand its scale as a means of self-preservation and under penalty of ruin. The market must, therefore be continually extended, so that its interrelations and the conditions regulating them….become ever more uncontrollable.” (Marx. Capital Volume 3. Page 239/240.)

This inner need to insatiably produce for the self-expansion of capital (surplus-value transformed into profit) rather than social need is the cancer eating away at otherwise healthy working communities and the ecology of the planet. One way devised by the elite to extend the market because of the expanding scale of production was via colonialism. The need for ever more markets via colonialist expansion was recognised by the bourgeois economists before the advent of the more comprehensive analysis of capital by Marx. For example, Adam Smith noted;

. “The effect of the colony trade, in its natural and free state, is to open a great though distant market, for such parts of the produce of British industry as may exceed the demand of the markets nearer home of those of Europe, and of the countries which lie round the Mediterranean sea.” (Adam Smith. ‘Wealth of Nations. Book 2, Chapter 7 part 2. Emphasis added RR)

As Smith notes in this section of this seminal book, the products of capitalist industry in one country had already exceeded the demand of local and Mediterranean markets. Therefore, colonies were sought for their ability to absorb the surplus production. He also noted that trade with these colonies also encouraged increases in the productive capacities of the home country. In Smiths view, with regard to America; ‘The colonies were so good at providing cheap raw materials and absorbing surplus production that the bourgeoisie of every capitalist country wanted them and having gained them by conquest wanted exclusive access to them.’ Already Adam Smith writing in the 18th century, noted the economic nature of the coming clash of nations.

“Every European nation has endeavoured, more or less, to monopolise to itself the commerce of its colonies, and upon that account, has prohibited the ships of foreign nations from trading to them, and has prohibited them from importing European goods from any foreign nation.” (Adam Smith. ‘ibid Book 2, Chapter 7 part 2.)

Or as Hannah Arendt  was to put it, in developing her theme of how capitalism engenders Totalitarianism;

“When capitalism had pervaded the entire economic structure and all social strata had come into the orbit of its production and consumption system, capitalists clearly had to decide either to see the whole system collapse or find new markets, that is to penetrate new countries which were not yet subject could provide a new non-capitalistic supply and demand.” (‘The Origins of Totalitarianism’. Hannah Arendt. Chapter 5 part 3.)

The conquest of colonies and the battles to hang onto them and/or take them away from other national based capitalists covers a long period of European history. This economic history is glossed over – yet frequently referenced – in the often superficially romanticised era of the Dutch, Spanish, French and English battles in wood and sail fighting frigates and piratical galleons. Yet the economic underpinnings of this wood and canvas colonialist period are essentially the same as those which appeared prior to the First World War when fighting ships were by then manufactured in steel and powered by coal.

However, by this later industrialised period the whole world had been largely carved up and controlled or colonised by the advanced capitalist countries of Europe. The only way to grab more in the early 20th century was to take it from another capitalist country.  So as in the case of colonial warfare, the First World War was not ‘inevitable’ or ‘necessary’, nor was it ‘God’s will’ or the ‘hand of destiny’, as far too many historians have claimed. The motivation was essentiall the same – economic competition for further resources and markets. As such it was pre-planned. Thus;

“…the war that erupted in August 1914 was widely anticipated, rigorously rehearsed, immensely resourced and meticulously planned. By 1913, the leaders, if not the led, were anticipating and planning a major continental war. (1913. ‘The eve of War’. Paul Ham. Chapter  3.)

The capitalist nations which took part.

By the late 19th century the world was dominated by two great European capitalist powers, Britain and France and the two continental powers of the United States of America and Russia.  Capitalist Britain, in particular had become, in its own words, the workshop of the world and controlled (ie exploited) the inhabitants and habitations of much of the accessible planet. The development of French capital was somewhat behind that of Britain, but after much competition an accommodation in 1860 (the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty) between these two European  powers had been reached.  But this new war dragged others into it.

“The First World War involved all major powers and indeed, all European states except Spain, the Netherlands, the three Scandinavian countries and Switzerland. What is more, troops from the world overseas were, often for the first time, sent to fight and work outside their own regions.” (‘Age of Extremes’. Eric Hobsbawm. page 23.)

Nevertheless, the primary combatants were Germany and its allies – the Triple Alliance – on the one-hand and Britain and France on the other – the Triple Entente. However, both these two main powers attracted allies, in the form of Turkey, Hungary and Austria on the German side and Czarist Russia on the British and French side. The elites in these allied countries had their own economic problems and ambitions caused by the development of capitalism within their borders and the penetration of foreign capital within their industries. Take Germany for example;

“In 1913 German industries were the most advanced in Europe, German cities were rapidly expanding, and the nation confidently entertained huge ambitions. German mines and factories now outpaced Britain’s in the production of pig iron and steel.” (1913. The eve of War. Paul Ham. Chapter 1.)

This expanded raw material production needed additional outlets for further commodity  production or for export and represented a serious competitive threat to other European capitalists, particularly Britain. For this reason, the British and French liberal elites wanted Germany’s ambitions curtailed and the conservative reactionary elites in these countries wanted them ‘crushed’. So those in the countries noted above became  partners in the struggle for the acquisition or defence of territory and resources and willingly, if not enthusiastically, participated in the war.

Particularly beneficial prizes of war anticipated by all capitalist and pro-capitalist elites – at that time – were the middle-eastern territories of the former Ottoman Empire. These areas were seen as ripe for conquest, control and capitalist development, by all major participants in the first world war. The eventual fulfilment of this  ‘middle-east’ ambition at the end of the First World War had repercussions that are still unfolding in the 21st century. As we shall see, the expanded capacities of capitalist production and the need for profitable outlets were undoubtedly the motivating forces for war. And these economic reasons were made clearest by Germany.

The monstrous Blockade.

A ‘Decree’ in Berlin as early as 1806 lays out the essential complaint of German Capitalistsprimarily against those based in Britain. The British navy, on the orders of the capitalist elites in government, regularly intercepted merchant vessels and blockaded harbours and ports of trade against many competitive merchants (ie Holland, Spain and France) from the continent – including those of Germany. Point 5 of the Berlin decree asserted;

“That this monstrous abuse of the right of blockade has no other object but too impede communications between peoples and raise the commerce and industry of England upon the ruins of industry and commerce of the continent.” (Included in ‘The Process of Industrialisation 1750 – 1870’ Volume 1. edited S. Pollard & C. Holmes. page 278.)

There are numerous governmental and industrial documents from this period and later stating such complaints and others, with regard to capital expansion. Many of them are conveniently gathered together in a book entitled ‘Germany from defeat to Conquest’ by W.M. Knight Patterson, from which a few extracts will be taken. One further example  was made in a speech by a delegate at a Pan-German Association Congress in 1912. This speech, given two years before the outbreak of war, contained the following transparent declaration.

“Our people has since grown enormously in numbers…at home discontent is rife….Germany’s boundaries are too narrow. We must become land hungry and acquire new territories for settlement,..” (Baron von Vietinghoff-Scheel. Quoted in ‘Germany from Defeat to Conquest’. WM K Patterson. page 23. Emphasis added. RR. )

Note the three common capitalist/colonialist themes ‘population growth’, ‘discontent’ at home’ and the need for ‘territorial expansion’ . Numerous such statements from the German based capitalist and pro-capitalist elite about the need for territorial expansion were made prior to the invasion of Belgium in 1914, which triggered the 1st world war. The vaguely worded economic formulation of ‘territories for settlement’ allowed for multiple interpretations and multiple aspirations. To those capitalists wishing to farm, it meant the possibility of obtaining free or cheap land.

For those in capitalist mining activities, the prospects of new areas of lucrative extraction; for industrial capitalists, new factories and labour to exploit; for those in banking and finance capital, new investment opportunities; for state bureaucrats, new regions of administration; for the military, new outposts of command and control. These sectors of the capitalist and pro-capitalist elite were at one in anticipation of this aggressive expansionist project. In 1914, the first year of the 1914-18 war, a petition from a consortium of German capitalists made the integrated needs of big-capital quite clear.

“Coupled with the demand for a Colonial Empire that shall be fully adequate to Germany’s  many sided economic interests, the security of our financial and commercial future,… It should be specially noted at the end of this note that the political, military and economic objects which the German people should do their best to obtain are intimately connected with each other and cannot be separated.” (Quoted in: ‘Germany from Defeat to Conquest’. WM K Patterson. Page 56.)

Can the economic motives be made any clearer than that? And Germany was then merely articulating what was already assumed – and much of which had already been seized – by other capitalist controlled nations in Europe. These nations had previously expanded and controlled large expanses of territory and resources, throughout the world. It is estimated that over-producing European capitalist countries by this time controlled at least 50% of global territory and even a higher proportion of the important sea routes required for international trade. From 1870 on German capital, late on the scene, but by then also vastly over-producing, merely wanted to challenge and usurp other nationally based capitals for global control of the available land, resources and transportation routes.

The German war aims as expressed in 1916.

After two years of brutal warfare in which millions of working people –  conscripted into the various armies – had died agonising deaths, the German Supreme Command issued a declaration of their underlying war aims. The following is a much reduced abstract of the seven acquisitive resource demands communicated to the German Foreign Office to be presented later to the British led Triple Entente .

1. Modifications of the Prussian frontier to our advantage…..decisive interest in the railway system.

2. ..annexation up to  the line Gulf of Riga, to the west of Riga, passing Vilna to the east……the inclusion of the Kingdom of Poland.

3. Belgium. Absorption of the mineral wealth of the Campine..taking over the railway system. Right of occupation….The annexation of Leige with corresponding stretches of territory.

4. France. …the coal districts of Briey and Longwy.

5. Return of the Colonies…Acquisition of the Congo State.

Predictably, the Allied opponents of the German military alliance rejected these terms and demanded the return of all occupied territories to their original people along with confiscated resources, so the war continued. By this refusal and these counter-demands, the allies – led by the British – were able to present themselves and appear as the ‘good-guys’ in opposition to the ‘nasty’ Germans and this was what the allied propaganda churned out and to some extent still does.

This was the basis of the eventual application of ‘war-guilt’ status to Germany and the imposition of reparations by the Treaty of Versailles when the allies finally won in 1918.  So the real ‘nasty’ elements in the First World War were on both sides of this carefully prepared and engineered conflict between rival nations. They were the capitalists and pro-capitalist politicians of both allied camps in this ruthless competitive struggle for economic and financial supremacy.

The allied insistence on returning to the previous status-quo merely meant returning to the pre-war global domination by British and Anglo-Saxon capitalism, but now with the added benefits collected in the process of the war effort. These economic and financial benefits were something of a life-line to a crumbling British ‘financial’ Empire, which had been previously established by the gun, sabre and warship.  They were gained by the re-drawing of boundaries in Europe, mainly to the disadvantage of Germany and in the drawing of new boundaries in the middle east. The war had not only killed millions, but had also de-stabilised or destroyed the former remnants of the Ottoman Empire opening new avenues of financial exploitation in this area of the world. But the aftermath of this war also created the anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist struggles in these and other areas. A final word from another commentator on one of the many dystopian outcomes of the 1914-18 war.

“The tensions between Israel and Palestine are the products of the First World War, and the states of Iraq and Syria were given their present shape by the peace settlements that followed that war. All four countries still have bones to pick with the British.” (‘The First World War’. Hew Strachan. Introduction.)

The books mentioned in this article are well worth the read for the detail they include, but most of them are all also notable for the detail they omit. With the exception of ‘Germany from Defeat to Conquest’, by WM K Patterson, not one of them seem to have understood (or at least have a critical understanding) of the capitalist mode of production and the role this mode plays in promoting modern aggressive warfare. In general only the political, legal, military and moral superstructures of capitalism are closely examined by bourgeois historians. Yet this capitalist mode with its economic and financial needs for resources and markets is the substantive foundation upon which the political, legal, moral and military superstructures are erected.

Although these superstructures can gain a relative degree of independence from time to time, they are nonetheless dependent upon the economic base and the majority of those who staff them will ultimately act in unity to protect and extend that economic base – when the need arises.  We are currently living through a new period of intense existential crisis for the capitalist mode of production. A new phase of relative overproduction in the economic, financial and social areas of this capitalist mode is replicating under modern conditions, essentially the same problems associated with the outbreak of war in 1914 and again in 1939.  It cannot be surprising therefore if we have also entered a new period of wars, uprisings and potential revolutionary situations.

Roy Ratcliffe (August 2014.)

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2 Responses to 1914 – 1918: CAPITALISMS 1st GLOBAL WAR!

  1. naj5 says:

    Interesting piece. You’re completely correct that inter-capitalist competition was the root cause of WW1. But there were other factors.

    In 1871, Karl Marx wrote that governments use war as a fraud, a ‘humbug, intended to defer the struggle of the classes’, and that strategy was certainly a factor in WW1.

    An article describing this factor, and its implications, can be found here:
    https://libcom.org/history/world-war-one-100-years-counter-revolution-mark-kosman

    • Hi Thanks for your comment. Yes of course as I mention in the article there are other factors,but this short piece was intended to provide evidence rather than assertion of the economic factors. Thanks also for the link to another view. Regards, Roy

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