Imperialism, from its origins to the Great War it caused

(An excerpt from The Great Class War 1914-1918, by Jacques R. Pauwels, published by James Lorimer, Toronto, 2016)

The Great Class WarThe nineteenth century was the century of the Industrial Revolution, and in each industrializing country, economic productivity increased rapidly. Supply thus overtook demand and that produced the very first crisis of overproduction as early as 1873. (Earlier, economic crises had typically been caused by underproduction, a situation in which demand exceeded supply.) In most industrially developed countries, namely in Western and Central Europe, but also in the United States, countless small producers fell by the wayside as a consequence of this newfangled economic “depression.” A relatively restricted number of gigantic firms, essentially corporations rather than family-owned enterprises, associations of firms known as “cartels” and, of course, big banks, henceforth dominated the economic landscape.

“Big business” had strutted onto the stage of history. On the one hand, these big firms competed keenly with each other, but they also concluded agreements and collaborated to share raw materials and markets, set prices and agree on other ways to avoid as much as possible the inconveniences and indeed, dangers, of all-out competition in a theoretically “free” marketplace — and of course also to defend their common interests against foreign competitors as well as their own workers and other employees.

In this new constellation of capitalism, the big banks played an increasingly important role. They raised the capital needed to make largescale industrial production possible and, when such production yielded megaprofits, looked for opportunities all over the world to invest the rapidly accumulating stocks of “new” capital. The big banks thus became partners, major shareholders and even owners of big corporations. Concentration, gigantism, oligopolies and even monopolies characterized this new stage in the development of capitalism. It is in this context that some Marxist scholars have coined the term “monopoly capitalism.”[1]

The industrial-financial bourgeoisie was initially enamoured with laissez faire, the classical liberal doctrine developed by Adam Smith that assigns to the state only a minimal role in economic life, namely that of a “night watch.” But in the late nineteenth century, the role of the state rapidly increased in importance as far as capitalists were concerned, for example as a buyer of mass-produced industrial goods such as cannon and other modern weapons, supplied by huge firms such as Krupp and financed by the big banks.

In every country, the industrial-financial elite consisted virtually exclusively of “national” banks and corporations, as “multinationals” had not yet appeared on the scene. This elite therefore also relied on state intervention for protection against foreign competition, protection provided in the guise of customs duties on imported goods, even if that violated the dogma of free markets and free trade. Thus emerged “national economic systems” that competed ruthlessly with each other. (Britain, for example, whose industry was the world’s most advanced and therefore most competitive, eagerly promoted international free trade at that time; conversely, the United States repudiated free trade and doggedly practised protectionism to shelter its developing industry against competition from abroad, especially from Britain.)

State intervention, referred to as “dirigisme” or “statism” by economists, was henceforth also stimulated by the fact that it was only with the assistance of a strong state that industrialists and bankers could achieve control over territories beyond the national borders. Achieving control over foreign lands was increasingly perceived by the leaders of the national economies to be imperative. Indeed, such possessions could serve as exclusive markets for their finished products and investment capital, and sources of raw materials and cheap labour; consequently, they constituted tremendous assets in the increasingly competitive capitalist arena.

The capitalist system, essentially a European phenomenon, had involved overseas conquests — mythologized as “great discoveries” — ab initio. The ruthless appropriation of the land, riches and labour of people — especially in the form of slavery — in other continents had provided a mighty stimulus for the capital accumulation that capitalism happened to be all about.[2] 15 In the nineteenth century, however, the explosion of productivity in the context of the Industrial Revolution required more elbow room or living space for the industries of the countries involved in this boom. The expanding “national economies” needed more and more raw materials, cheap labour and markets for their finished products to be able to continue to grow and to compete economically with other countries. Consequently, all industrial powers sought to achieve control — direct political or indirect mainly economic control — over territories where these desiderata were to be found. In other words, they tried to turn foreign lands into colonies or protectorates or snap up all or parts of the territory of weak countries small and even big. A big country that found itself in the crosshairs of ambitious powers was China, where European states established minicolonies or “concessions,” thus degrading the once mighty Middle Kingdom to the status of “semicolony.” Another vast country from whose territory European powers carved attractive morsels — such as Cyprus — was the Ottoman Empire.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, then, capitalism stretched its tentacles all over the globe and morphed into a world-system. In 1902, this new, worldwide manifestation of capitalism was given a name by a British economist, John A. Hobson, “imperialism,” and it was to be thoroughly analyzed from a Marxist perspective in 1916 in a homonymous pamphlet by a Russian socialist, Vladimir Ulyanov, who used the nom de plume Lenin. Lenin wrote his treatise on imperialism during the Great War, an Armageddon that was the fruit of the keen rivalry, ruthless competition and increasing hostility and bellicosity generated in the context of imperialism, as we will see in the next chapter. But here we must remain focused on the role played by imperialism in the upper-class struggle against democracy, a struggle that also led directly to the Great War.

Projects for colonies or protectorates, undertaken under the auspices of a strong state, in other words, the formation of capitalist “empires” — or “imperialism” tout court — enjoyed the favour and support of the entire upper class. Bourgeois bankers and industrialists obviously constituted the driving force behind these projects, which yielded precious resources, exclusive markets and so on. But territorial expansion was likewise favoured by the landowning aristocrats, who still associated a person’s or nation’s power and prestige with the fattest possible portfolio of territorial possessions — exactly as in the Middle Ages.

To adventurous scions of noble families, imperialism brought opportunities for prestigious careers in the conquering armies and in the governance and administration of newly acquired territorial possessions. The prestigious sinecure of viceroy (governor-general) of India was thus de facto reserved for earls, viscounts and other blue-blooded gentlemen. (Ladies did not need to apply.) Moreover, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the aristocrats invested increasingly in capitalist activities such as mining. Consequently, they looked kindly on the acquisition of foreign real estate rich in important minerals. The British and Dutch royal families, for instance, became major shareholders of firms such as Shell, a leader in the worldwide search for petroleum that was just getting under way because of the advent of the automobile and the ongoing switch from coal to petroleum as fuel for ships.

Imperialist projects also appealed to the romantic imagination of the lower-middle class, the petite bourgeoisie. More importantly, they seduced even the working class, and that was no coincidence. Imperialism revealed itself to be a useful instrument for the elite’s antisocialist, antidemocratic and counterrevolutionary strategy. First of all, it served to rid the “mother countries” of a good number of the redundant, restless, and potentially troublesome members of the “dangerous classes” of whom, according to the then trendy theory of Malthusianism, there were just too many.

Members of the demos, ranging from petty bourgeois to the lowliest proletarians, and including denizens of the cities as well as the countryside, could be shipped to the colonies, lands of “unlimited opportunities” where they could “improve themselves” by farming stolen Indigenous land in settler colonies or, in exploitative colonies such as India, by choosing from a smorgasbord of job opportunities such as soldier in the occupying forces (with the possibility of rising to the rank of corporal or even sergeant), foreman on plantations and in mines, clerk in the colonial administration and missionary. All these positions offered more decent pay than any job available at home, plus, as a cherry on the sundae, the prestige and satisfaction of lording it over the native underlings, and, as members of the white race, feeling far superior to people of colour. (White supremacy, like racism in general, was an integral part of imperialism, the worldwide manifestation of capitalism, and is therefore intimately linked to capitalism.)

thus, while imperialism primarily served economic purposes, it also proved useful as a kind of social safety valve and in this context it was referred to as “social imperialism.” Imperialism defused social tensions in the metropoles, that is, the industrialized and capitalist powers that were the masters of colonies, not only by causing a cohort of potentially dangerous proletarians to disappear from the scene. Even more important was the fact that thanks to the economies of scale and monopolies that attended colonial expansion, resulting in lower costs and higher margins, capitalists in the imperialist countries raked in “superprofits.” This enabled them to throw some crumbs off the table, so to speak, conciliating demands by reformist socialists and trade unions for higher wages, better working conditions and basic social services, demands (and collective action) without which these improvements “could not have occurred.”[3]17

In the imperialist countries of Central and Western Europe, the previously hopelessly miserable life of the proletarians thus began to improve in the late nineteenth century and a “labour aristocracy” of relatively prosperous and therefore appeased wage-earners emerged. But this relative prosperity of the lower class in the imperialist heartland, later to be known as the Western world or Global North, was made possible by increasing misery for the denizens of the colonies, later to be called the Global South. Put differently, the great misery generated in Europe during the earlier phase of capitalist-style industrialization was exported to distant lands inhabited by people of colour. It was in similar fashion that the prosperity and liberty of the white population of the US, including the working class, was made possible by the exploitation and oppression of African Americans and a genocide of the Indigenous peoples.[4]18 The ruthless exploitation of Chinese immigrants also played a role in this respect. As the Black sociologist and activist W. E. B. Du Bois formulated it in an article published in May 1915, “the white workingman has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers [sic].’”[5]19

In the metropoles, the majority of socialists thus developed warm feelings towards a “fatherland” that was now treating them better and making it possible for them to feel superior to people of colour at home or in faraway lands. The socialists thus became more and more nationalist and less and less internationalist. They even internalized racism of the white supremacist variety, an essential ingredient of the imperialism that had improved their lot. (As Zak Cope has pointed out in an eye-opening book, Divided World, Divided Class, these historical circumstances constitute the material basis, in the Marxist sense, of racist prejudices, which did not originate in a historical vacuum.)

Towards the people of colour, at home or in the colonies, the socialists did not display the least solidarity; to the contrary, socialist leaders such as Eduard Bernstein in Germany and Émile Vandervelde in Belgium were eager partisans of colonialism and revealed themselves to be champions of “social imperialism”; they became known as “social-chauvinists.” Only a minority of the leaders and rank-and-file of the socialist parties continued to believe in the need and ineluctability of revolution; the majority discreetly migrated from revolutionary towards “evolutionary” or “reformist” socialism. In light of this, we can begin to understand why, in 1914, the “proletarians of the world” were not to take advantage of the opportunity to start the revolution, as Lenin would exhort them to do, but went to war to defend the beloved fatherland — and proceeded to exterminate each other.[6] 20

Social imperialism weaned the workers from revolutionary socialism, as it was meant to do.[7] 21 And so, thanks to the social-imperialist strategy of the upper class, the revolutionary danger had mostly dissipated by the end of the nineteenth century. But were the nobility and the bourgeoisie aware of that? Obviously not. Indeed, officially at least, the revolution remained the great objective of socialist parties in Germany, France and elsewhere and of the Socialist International. While most socialist leaders switched silently from revolutionary to reformist socialism, a sometimes noisy minority of leaders and followers remained faithful to Marxian revolutionary orthodoxy. In addition, the first years of the twentieth century, the so-called Belle Époque, in reality a time of great social misery, featured countless crises in the form of demonstrations, riots and strikes. “Waves of plebeian agitation” inundated the industrialized countries. In Britain, the years from 1910 to 1914 were an epoch “pregnant with revolutionary change.” And the situation was even more serious in Russia. As was the case elsewhere, within the country’s upper class there arose a deep pessimism, a great fear, a sentiment summarized as follows by a member of the nobility: “We are about to witness things the world has not seen since the Barbarian invasions. A barbarous era will soon start and will last for decades.”[8]22

Particularly traumatic were the numerous major strikes, forms of agitation that were perceived as harbingers of a great revolution that was on the march. They were organized by labour unions that were becoming increasingly radical and demanding. Almost equally traumatic for the nobility and the bourgeoisie were the electoral victories achieved by the socialist parties in countries such as Germany, France, Belgium, and even the United States, victories that also reflected considerable support from the petite bourgeoisie. In the parliaments, socialist deputies became more and more numerous and managed to secure more and more concessions in the form of democratic reforms of a political and social nature. Where was all this going to end? What if someday the socialists would win a majority, enabling them to realize their loudly trumpeted plans for the same kind of “great transformation” that was certain to be the result of a revolution?

In multi-ethnic (and multilingual) countries, moreover, the spectre of the social revolution was the Siamese twin of a national revolution, in other words, an uprising of one or more ethnic or linguistic minorities. In Britain, for example, the Irish Question was on the verge of degenerating into a civil war. And in Austria-Hungary, the Slav minorities displayed signs of great unrest. Minorities within a country looked dangerous, but an even greater menace loomed in the form of the millions of people of colour, the supposedly inferior denizens of colonies such as India and semicolonies like China, lair of a chimera known as the “yellow peril.”

Last but not least, the established order was a sexually repressive patriarchal order, and it felt threatened by the movement for the emancipation of what had hitherto been considered to be the “weaker sex.” In Britain, the “suffragettes” struggled to obtain the right for women to vote, for a sexual revolution and even for pacifism and socialism. The British elite was not amused. One of its prominent members, the writer Rudyard Kipling, expressed the fear that Britain might thus “demasculinize” and degenerate into a militarily impotent nation, doomed to be dropped from the lofty perch of the great powers. From this perspective, war, presumably an eminently masculine activity, seemed likely to bring much-needed relief.[9]23

Despite all these problems, the upper class continued to do well, even very well. For “those above,” or the “one percent”, as we might call it today, it was indeed a Belle Époque, a kind of golden age. Democratic concessions had been made, reluctantly so, but were limited. The bourgeoisie and (especially) the nobility remained solidly entrenched in all key positions of state power. Nowhere was there any question of genuine democracy in the sense that the common people provided much input into the business of the state or were pampered by the state with considerable social benefits.

On the other hand, the patricians lived in genuine fear of the revolutionary menace. How real was this menace really? Was the revolution about to break out tomorrow, next year, ten years from now or maybe never? As perceived from the perspective of the European elite, the situation was uncertain, confusing, ambivalent. The tension was becoming unbearable; it drove the good burghers crazy. Concessions brought no relief; so many had already been made, and they only led to an escalation of expectations.[10] 24

What was needed was a drastic remedy, an Endlösung or “final solution,” to use an infamous term coined later by Hitler. What provided such a solution, or so it seemed, was war, the great alternative to revolution. This had been demonstrated by historical events starting with the French Revolution, which had been “tamed” by (mostly Napoleonic) warfare; and intellectuals such as Nietzsche were screaming from the rooftops that war was the great antidote to revolution.

Everywhere in Europe, the upper class had the feeling that a race was going on between war and revolution. This race was about to be decided soon, but nobody knew exactly when, and nobody knew who would win, but one thing was certain: A victory of the revolution would mean the end of the wealth, power and privileges of the nobility and the bourgeoisie, the collapse of their world and the end of civilization, of their civilization.

Conversely, a triumph of war would mean the end of the revolution and therefore a consolidation, and a new lease on life, of the established order, to the advantage of the nobility and the bourgeoisie. Under those circumstances, it is understandable that the elite hoped that war would win its race against revolution. And it is also understandable that the elite hoped that this victory would come as soon as possible and worked hard to bring it about, in other words, looked for a convenient pretext to unleash the dogs of war. To wait was indeed perceived to involve a great risk, the risk that revolution could suddenly break out and thus win the race, with fatal consequences for the ruling class. How much longer could one afford to wait before Mars would come to the rescue?

It is in this context that aristocratic and bourgeois leaders in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, St. Petersburg and London were looking for a way to start a war. The high command of Germany’s armed forces even considered starting a “preventive war” against France and Russia without bothering to come up with an excuse. This was in 1905, when Russia was weakened by war against Japan and a revolution at home, but the scheme was ultimately discarded. It was realized that a solid excuse was needed, a pretext that was sufficiently believable to persuade the social democrats to support the war.

In 1911, a diplomatic imbroglio, the famous Second Moroccan Crisis, also known as the Agadir Crisis, appeared to be a magnificent opportunity to draw swords to hawks in Berlin as well as Paris. But some political heavyweights, including Emperor William II, got cold feet at the very last moment. It was a mistake not to take advantage of that opportunity, was the complaint voiced by quite a few political and military leaders in Germany a little later, in 1912, when a major electoral victory of the social democrats, that is, socialists, seemed to bring the Reich to the brink of the revolutionary abyss. Their conclusion: The next opportunity, no matter how trivial, should definitely be taken advantage of. For similar reasons, the same conclusion was reached in the other capitals, Vienna, St. Petersburg, Paris and London.

In the end, it was a tragic but rather trivial incident, the assassination of the Austrian-Hungarian heir to the throne in Sarajevo, on June 28, 1914, that was to furnish the desired pretext. This time, the occasion was in fact used to start the war that was supposed to trump revolution, even if some leaders again got cold feet, but a little too late.

In any event, the assassination in Sarajevo was certainly not the cause of the war that “broke out” or, to put it more accurately, was unleashed on that occasion. Europe and the US had been accustomed for some time to such assassinations, as a Russian tsar, a French president, a Habsburg empress and an American president had been killed by anarchists in previous years, but none of these tragic events had served as a casus belli. The infamous murder in Sarajevo was not a genuine reason for going to war, but it provided the perfect pretext for the European upper class to unleash a war to which it had aspired for quite some time, at a moment when waiting no longer seemed to be an option.

The so-called Great War certainly did not erupt unexpectedly, like a bolt of lightning in a clear blue sky. The aristocratic and bourgeois leaders who still ruled the European countries at the time did not enter the war like “sleepwalkers,” as suggested by the title of a book by an Australian historian, Christopher Clark. They went to war with wide-open eyes and clear heads, very well prepared for a conflict they had wanted for quite some time already and from which they expected great things, full of confidence, and enormously relieved that they entered a war, a foreign conflict, thus avoiding a domestic conflict, a class conflict, a revolution — or so they thought.

Jacques Pauwels is a historian

Luciano Canfora, 1914, Sellerio, Palermo, 2006.

Luciano Canfora, La democrazia: Storia di un’ideologia, Laterza, Bari, 2008. (Original edition: 2004)

Neil Faulkner, No Glory: The Real History of the First World War, Stop The War Coalition, London, 2013.

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire 1875–1914, Abacus, London, 1994. (Original edition: 1987)

Arno J. Mayer, The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War, Verso, London and Brooklyn, 2010. (Original edition: 1981)

Herfried Münkler, Der Große Krieg: Die Welt 1914 bis 1918, 4th edition, Rowohlt, Berlin, 2014 (Original edition: 2013).

Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism, New York, Harper & Row, 1972. (Original edition: 1955)

Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, The Untold History of the United States, Gallery Books, New York, 2012.

Eric Williams, Capitalism & Slavery, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1994. (Original edition: 1944)

[1] Hobsbawm (1994), pp. 34–43.

[2] Faulkner (2013), pp. 14–15.

[3] We refer to studies of slavery such as the classic opus by Eric Williams.

[4] Faulkner (2013), p. 15.

[5] Stone and Kuznick, p. xvii.

[6] See e.g. the remarks on the function of uniforms in Germany in Münkler, pp. 64–65.

[7] Hobsbawm (1994), p. 305.

[8] Quoted in Canfora (2008), p. 162; see also Schorkse, p. 69.

[9] Canfora (2006), p. 41; Canfora (2008), p. 163; Mayer (2010), p. 310.

[10] Quoted in Canfora (2008), p. 105.

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