World War I Russian infantry in 1917. Source: Wikimedia World War I Russian infantry in 1917. Source: Wikimedia

The causes of the First World War and Russian Revolution can be located in the imperialist tensions of world capitalism argues Dominic Alexander

It is difficult to harbour ambivalent feelings about the Russian Revolution. It is usually either celebrated or bitterly regretted. One common lament is that the revolution would not have occurred if the First World War had not put a such a strain upon the rickety Tsarist state, such that it fell apart under the pressure of industrialised warfare. If not for this cataclysm, it is implied, the Russian state might have allowed some sort of liberal capitalism to evolve.

This would have been a deeply unlikely scenario in any case, but the real problem with the notion is that it ignores material reality: imperialist conflicts were inherent to the international system of the time. To treat the First World War as being a contingent event, unconnected with the problems of Russian state and society, is to ignore the clear historical relationship between imperialist war and the dynamics of capitalism. It is precisely that connection which is regularly denied. Not only does conventional thinking maintain a separation between economics and the political decisions which led to war, but it is often maintained that capitalism, left to its own devices, would naturally prevent war. In this view, war, and specifically the First World War, was the accidental product of political failings and not at all the product of systemic conflict.

Capitalist expansion had by 1900 had reached unprecedented heights, and the era might legitimately be described as an age of globalisation. Great cartels had arisen within the new industrial powers, such as Germany and the United States, and the cheerleaders of capitalism hailed its beneficent impact on humanity, much as they have in our more recent phase of globalisation. One English liberal, Norman Angell, argued that it would be against all capitalist interests, particularly of financiers, to go to war. For him, capitalism promoted cosmopolitan and peaceful trade.[1]

Angell’s ideas in the War of Illusions are not a little reminiscent of the view propagated almost a century later, beginning in the 1990s, that international capitalism is a supremely progressive phenomenon. At its most vapid, there was Thomas Friedman’s extrapolations from the assertion that no two countries with a MacDonald’s outlet had ever gone to war with each other. The wider view assumes that international trade breaks down the backward nationalisms which alone lead to war. A right-wing-liberal notion now, in one form it actually appeared among German social-democrats before the First World War. Karl Kautsky notoriously suggested that capitalism was reaching a phase of ‘ultra-imperialism’, where interests were so interconnected that war would be impossible.

The First World War should have ended all such talk of the progressive nature of ‘globalisation’, but it is a tribute to the persistence of ideological thinking that it hasn’t. Indeed, the systematic denial of the economic causes of the war was noted as early as 1966 by a decidedly non-Marxist historian, who nonetheless argued that trade competition between Britain and Germany lay at the root of war:

‘It has, I know, been fashionable for more than a generation to deny this interpretation. In the reaction against Marxist slogans of ‘imperialist war’ and ‘the last stage of capitalism’, scholars have leaned over backwards to expunge the slightest taint of economic determinism from their lucubrations. Yet doctrine was never a valid guide to knowledge, at either end of the ideological spectrum, and this effort to rule out material considerations as causes of the World War betrays naïveté, or ignorance about the nature of power and the significance of power relations for the definition of national interests.[2]

It is also sometimes claimed that capitalist rivalry cannot have been the cause of the world war, because it began as a conflict in the underdeveloped east of Europe, between two of the least industrialised powers, Austria and Russia, over a largely agricultural state, Serbia. This argument should carry little conviction, firstly because the occasion of a conflict breaking out over a quarrel in one corner of the world hardly accounts for that issue leading to a world war. The reality of Anglo-German imperialist rivalry, as just one other dimension, cannot be swept away that easily. Secondly, backward as Austria and Russia might have been in comparison with Britain, France and Germany, the dynamics of their imperial rivalry were just as capitalist as those of the Western powers.

Russia had been a major player in European international conflict since the eighteenth century, of course, but after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the reality of advanced, capitalist imperialism had increasingly borne down upon the standing and prestige of the Tsarist state. Russia was humiliated by the Anglo-French invasion of the Crimea, despite the famous debacles on the other side. If Tsarism was to continue to be a real power on the international stage, and expand at the expense of its traditional enemy, the Ottoman Empire, something had to change.

The result was a kind of revolution from above, imposed by a faction of reform minded nobility around Tsar Alexander II, in which the single most important measure was the abolition of serfdom. The peasants gained their legal freedom, but little of the land, and they were burdened with the long-term debt of ‘redemption payments’. These measures were precisely designed to keep the peasantry poor and dependent on the landowners, therefore providing the economy with a cheap labour force to fuel industrialisation. Thus, from this decisive step in Russia’s transition towards capitalist social relations, the international context of imperialism was a driving force. To suppose that the actions of Russian imperialism in 1914 were somehow separate from the wider world of capitalist imperialism is indeed to remain resolutely blind to ‘the nature of power and the significance of power relations for the definition of national interests’. Not for the first time, and not for the last time in Russian history, it was the ruling class’ need to compete with other powers that significantly determined the path of internal economic development.

Russia thus began along the road of serious industrial development, particularly from the 1880s onwards, alongside an accelerated internal expansion into its eastern Siberian territories. A trans-Siberian railway connecting European Russia with the Pacific enabled the Tsarist state to harbour designs upon a sphere of influence in China. China was of course seen as a great prize, and every power wanted influence there and at least a share of its potential markets. For Russia, this drive to the east ended with another great humiliation in its catastrophic defeat during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 over Manchuria. This marked the rise of Japan as the first Asian great power of the modern period, but also re-focused Tsarist ambitions westwards.

Another area of significant tension all through the nineteenth century was the whole region of central Asia, where both Russia and Britain were suspicious of each other’s presence and intentions. The British saw all Russian advances between the Caspian Sea and China as a potential threat to India, the real centrepiece of its empire. The long history of mistrust, and indeed proxy wars with the nineteenth-century British invasions of Afghanistan, ended with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which defined their differing spheres of influence. Persia (Iran), and its oil, was neatly divided into northern and southern halves, so that the economic interests of the two imperialisms could accommodate each other without too much friction. Such an amicable subjection of a formally independent state was perhaps only possible because of all the other international tensions and rivalries both Russia and Britain were concerned to contain.

Russia’s rivalries with other imperialisms reveal the extent to which competition between the powers for access to markets and resources had reached every corner of the globe. Again, this exposes the absurdity of the argument that World War I had nothing to do with capitalism.[3] The logic of Russia’s rivalry with other powers had everything to do with markets and resources, and was as equally capitalist as that between Germany and Britain.

The alliance between France and Russia is usually presented in the simply strategic terms that France needed a firm guarantee against possible German hostility. On one level, of course, this was the case. The outcome of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, which led to the unification of Germany, was widely recognised as changing the balance of power in Europe. France lost the province of Alsace-Lorraine, and had to pay substantial reparations to the new German state. Marx himself presciently observed that ‘the war of 1870 carried a war between Germany and Russia in its womb just as surely as the war of 1866 [between Austria and Prussia over German unification] had carried that of 1870’.[4] However, strategic considerations are always as much about economic interests as anything else.

German unification meant that both Britain and France lost the markets for their manufactures in the previously fragmented heart of the German region. Instead they faced a powerful new rival, which soon began to seek colonial expansion in Africa and Asia. When Germany restricted Russian access to loans, while German exports to Russia were declining in importance, French investment there began to soar.[5 ]Russian railways and heavy industry in general were increasingly funded by French loans during the 1890s in particular. Germany, not long beforehand the rising industrial power, overtaking France and rivalling Britain, now also began to look nervously at the industrial, and therefore military, potential to its east. By 1912, a secret ‘War Council’ of German military and political leaders explicitly discussed the desirability of war in the window of time before Russian industrial capacity became too strong for Germany to challenge.

It was not only Germany which was alarmed about threats to its strategic-industrial position. As early as 1896, there was a so-called ‘midsummer madness’ in British political circles, where the threat of German exports to the British economy were dwelt upon with notable panic both in parliament and the newspapers.[6] This kerfuffle anticipated the much more deadly insistence that ‘Britain must proclaim her resolve to intervene’, that is go to war with Germany, on the part of the conservative political and newspaper interests during July and August 1914.[7] In 1800, Britain had been so far ahead of other powers that it could face a number of rivals simultaneously, but this was no longer the case in 1900. It had to decide whom it could face down, and with whom it had to compromise.

After the ‘Fashoda incident’ of 1898, where British and French troops confronted each other in the Sahara Desert, Britain increasingly sought to defuse colonial quarrels with France. This led to an ‘entente’ in 1904. An alliance with Japan was signed even before that in 1902. An understanding that one day Britain would have to accept a subordinate role in relation to the United States was probably also working its way through the minds of the establishment (the Japanese alliance was abandoned after the war, essentially at the behest of the US[8]). That left Germany as the rival that could be confronted in order to preserve as much of British predominance as could be salvaged.

While the First World War found its spark in the Balkans, even here, the logic of capitalist imperial rivalry is easy to see. The decline of the Ottoman Empire had been a source of almost constant tension throughout most of the nineteenth century, notably lying at the origin of the Crimean War. The national independence struggles of the Balkan peoples certainly complicated matters, but it was the competition between Russia and Austria over their spheres of influence there which turned these tensions into a global issue.

Britain and France may not have had direct interests in the peninsula, but both were intensely interested in who controlled the eastern Mediterranean. This is why in the 1850s both powers had been intent on propping up Ottoman power against any possible Russian advance towards control of Istanbul and the straights between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. That maritime route was of obvious strategic importance for Russian trade and expansion. Control over the increasingly important Middle East was also at stake, and there France and Britain were in competition with Germany, who had invested heavily in the Berlin-Baghdad railway. It won’t do to imagine that the Balkan Peninsula was some strategic backwater of little interest except to enfeebled pre-modern empires.

At stake when Austria issued its ultimatum to the Serbian government, almost a month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was not just the independence of one poor state. Serbia had, in 1903, violently changed dynasties in a coup that also moved it from being effectively an Austrian client state to a significant regional ally of Russia. In the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, it had doubled in size at the expense of the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria. At least in the fears of the Austrian ruling class, this made Serbia a potential Balkan equivalent of Prussia for Germany or Piedmont for Italy; the core state for the creation of a larger national entity, in this case of southern Slavs. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, already riven by the national ambitions of the many subjected peoples within its borders, would thereby be unravelled.

For Russia, the stakes were perhaps not much lower. As noted, the Tsars had been humiliated not long before in the Russo-Japanese War, and the simultaneous revolution of 1905. The revolutionary mood of the country had been building up once again in the years before 1914. In this context, the loss of an important regional ally would do significant damage to the state’s self-confidence, and ruling classes cannot afford to lose their cohesion over such matters when they face serious internal unrest.

In experiencing a rising wave of working-class unrest, Russia was not alone. Similar social struggles were destabilising the Kaiser’s rule in Germany, while the Social Democrats had become the biggest party in the Reichstag. The ruling clique explicitly turned to an aggressive, imperialist foreign policy as a means of suppressing internal socialist and democratic pressures. Britain also faced a rising tide of discontent, a growing Labour Party, which, if decidedly un-revolutionary even compared to the only ostensibly Marxist German SPD, was still threatening the Conservative-Liberal political duopoly. Even more dangerously, there was a rising independence movement in India, as well as discontent on a massive scale in Ireland.

The imperialists in Austria, Russia, Germany, France and Britain went to war in 1914 not because of diplomatic blunders, or because of individual acts of arrogance and short-sightedness, although there was plenty of all that. They did not go to war through the tragic accident of an alliance system that committed the powers in spite of themselves. They certainly did not go to war because of a ‘rogue state’ in the Balkans, as Christopher Clark’s recent book would have it.

They went to war because they were all driven by an economic system that could only be saved from crisis by continual expansion. This required increasing political and military power over other parts of the globe, but this brought each imperial system into increasingly fraught competition with the others. The sequence of events, the timing and the location of the outbreak of war could all have been quite different, if circumstances had turned out otherwise, but given the workings of the system, a major war was overwhelmingly the most likely outcome. The only realistic alternative to imperialist war in the years after 1900 would have been an uncompromising break with the logic of imperialism. To the great loss of humanity, this did not happen before 1914, but the impact of the horrific war which ensued did nonetheless open up the possibility of a different kind of world.


[1] On Angell and the First World War see Duncan Marlor, Fatal Fortnight: Arthur Ponsonby and the Fight for British Neutrality (London 2014), p.87

[2] David S. Landes, ‘Technological Change and Development in Western Europe’, in The Cambridge Economic History of Europe VI: The Industrial Revolution and After, Part I, eds. H. J. Habakkuk and M. Postan, (Cambridge 1966), p.554.

[3] See for example, Ruth Henig, The Origins of the First World War (Oxford 1989), p.39, and Margaret MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace (London 2013), pp. 256-9.

[4] Cited in Hans-Ulrich Wehler, The German Empire 1871-1918 (Leamington Spa 1985), p.84.

[5] Wehler, German Empire, pp.190-1.

[6] Landes, ‘Technological Change and Development in Western Europe’, p.555.

[7] For an excellent description of this see Douglas Newton, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War, 1914 (London 2014), p.67 and chapter 6 in general.

[8] Tony Norfield, The City: London and the Global Power of Finance (London 2016), p.29.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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