This year marks the most poignant of all historical anniversaries, 1914. That year the modern world was born. A long period of gradual development, of rising living standards, increasing knowledge, culture, progress, science and hope, vanished overnight. In the bright European summer of 1914 humanity stumbled into a nightmare from which it has never escaped. Like some inexplicable childhood trauma, the events of that year continue to haunt our waking dreams and shape our worst fears. Through this descent into a world ruled by an automatic, unconscious, machinery of barbarism — reason appeared to drown, in oceans of gas, mud, barbed wire, missiles and machine gun fire.
The strongest man was reduced to a creature weaker than a squealing rat. His greatest quality measured by his ability to drive bayonets into the bellies of his unknown brother, whose guts would feed a hundred rats and ten thousand maggots. These creatures were the real victors of the titanic battles for an inch of mud fought in Europe during the four years 1914-1918.
At an extraordinary International Socialist Congress held in Basel, Switzerland on Nov. 24 to 25, 1912, the mass workers’ parties of Europe warned of the danger of an impending war. They understood that it would be born out of the rivalry between the economic and strategic interests of the main capitalist powers.
Their Manifesto against war declared:
The great European peoples are constantly on the point of being driven against one another, although these attempts against humanity and reason cannot be justified by even the slightest pretext of being in the interest of the people.
The proletarians consider it a crime to fire at each other for the profits of the capitalists, the ambitions of dynasties, or the greater glory of secret diplomatic treaties.
The proletariat is conscious of being at this moment the bearer of the entire future of humankind. The proletariat will exert all its energy to prevent the annihilation of the flower of all peoples, threatened by all the horrors of mass murder, starvation and pestilence.
To the capitalist world of exploitation and mass murder, oppose in this way the proletarian world of peace and fraternity of peoples!
One cannot fault the clear understanding evidenced in these militant words, yet when the decisive moment arrived, the mass Social Democratic parties voted to send the workers to war. Nationalist rhetoric and patriotic sentiment replaced the rational class-based analysis of society. The exploiters and exploited of each country were united under the national flag and the workers merrily marched off with fresh flowers on their lapels to the cheers of their loved ones.
Why were mythical national symbols able to galvanise workers behind God, King and country, when decades of class struggle had created mass Marxist parties internationally that had so clearly identified the real causes of the war and the means to stop it? Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Russian Bolsheviks, was dumbfounded when news reached him that the German Social Democrats had voted for war! Not only did he know its leaders personally, but many of them had known Marx and Engels and been thoroughly trained in the school of Marxist theory. How could one explain such betrayal?
Lenin returned to the fundamentals of dialectical materialism to understand the actions of the leaders of European Social Democracy. His analysis of the global capitalist system, in which the wealthiest capitalist states dominated and enslaved the rest of the world, led to his theory of imperialism. The imperialist countries, enriched by colonial plunder, had generated the material conditions for the emergence of a labour bureaucracy whose words spoke of revolution, but whose deeds were conciliatory with their own ruling class. They sought gradual reform of capitalism rather than its overthrow. This conflict led to the pro-war votes by the parties of Social Democracy and the consequent collapse of the Second International in 1916.
This war, this living hell, this inferno that engulfed the masses, was all the more incredible, as the entire historical development of production by brains and hands was concentrated on human destruction. And then the masses awoke.
Rebellion in the French army led to a strike by tens of thousands of soldiers in 1916. In the East, 5 million Russian troops were missing, captured or killed – many deserted. In Russian cities, revolts broke out and strikes and hunger marches erupted. These cries of utter desperation reawakened the dreams of revolution. The idea of a socialist transformation of the world was reborn. Out of the trenches rebellion gripped the minds of the starving masses, and despair gave way to hope and a thirst for knowledge. The forces of a new world were galvanised in 1917 behind the slogans ‘Land, Bread and Peace!’ The exploiting classes around the world trembled as the masses rose up against their war. The final death knell of this slaughter was brought about by revolution in Germany, in November 1918.
In distant China, students, workers and intellectuals were enraged by imperialist peace plans that maintained the occupation of Chinese territory. In 1919, the May Fourth Movement opened the path to the Marxist ideas that would inspire the Chinese revolution. But lest we forget, let us explain to new generations that the imperialist system that gave birth to World War I still stalks our planet like the Grim Reaper.