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Neil Faulkner


Britain, the outbreak of the First World War,
and the role of the individual in history

(Spring 2009)

From LSHG Newsletter, Spring 2009
Copied from the London Socialist Historians Blogspots.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Neil Faulkner replies here to Harry Ratner’s article 1914 and the Role of the Individual, which we published in LSHG Newsletter, issue 31.

I am replying to Harry’s article because it is directly relevant to my own research, and he has made several related points with which I disagree. Since I am currently writing on precisely these matters, I am keen to garner wider opinions. (See note at end)

I want to discuss four areas of disagreement.

1. Uncoupling social reality

In a general sense, I think Harry’s approach involves, at various points, an uncoupling of things that are dialectically linked. He opens, for instance, by distinguishing sharply between approaches which stress the ‘determinist’ element in history (‘the unfolding of objective laws’) and those which stress the ‘voluntarist’ (‘the importance of the individual’). What is crucial, however, is that choices (‘voluntarism’) are constrained and facilitated by social structures and processes (‘determinism’). Because of this, the dichotomy at the heart of his discourse is not, in my view, helpful. To underline the point, let me offer two further examples of the same tendency to uncouple aspects of social reality that are in fact best understood dialectically – that is, as part and parcel of a single whole. I will then explore these further as important points in their own right. First, I would cite the sharp distinction he draws between Britain and France – ‘fully capitalist nations’ – and Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary – where the capitalist class did not ‘control the state machine’ but were subordinate to ‘a landed-military class headed by an hereditary emperor’. Second, I would cite the sharp distinction he makes between ‘capitalist war …inspired … mainly by the struggle for markets and outlets for the investment of capital’ and wars motivated by ‘pre-capitalist considerations of military strength’. These two points are closely linked, in that he implies that the ‘fully capitalist nations’ of Britain and France engaged in the former, and the ‘autocracies’ of Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary in the latter.

2. Denying the bourgeois revolution

History is messier than Harry allows. The classic bourgeois revolutions are the exception, not the rule. Indeed, the bourgeois revolution from below is an ‘ideal type’ rather than a lived reality. Even in France, which produced the classic of the classics in 1789–1794, there was much unfinished business still to be worked out in 1830, 1848, and even 1870–1871 – just as Britain has 1688, and the US 1861–1865. More importantly, however, one has to grasp that the bourgeois revolution was global, such that a breakthrough in one part of the world system bestowed such competitive advantages that other ruling classes were put under enormous pressure to create unitary states and to reform and modernise. Thus we have ‘bourgeois revolutions’ from above. Surely the classic example of this is Bismarck’s creation of the German Empire? By 1914, Germany had overtaken Britain to become the greatest industrial power in Europe. The fact that the German state was a hybrid, mixing elements of autocracy and constitutionalism, and that the German ruling class included disproportionate numbers of traditional military-aristocrats, does not alter the fact that Germany was essentially a capitalist-imperialist state.

Is Harry aware of the implications of arguing otherwise? It would mean rejecting the approach of all the leading contemporary Marxists – notably Lenin in Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism, and Bukharin in Imperialism and World Economy – who argued that the First World War was an imperialist war. Does he really wish to do that? He is also at odds with Lenin on the class nature of Russia. Central to Lenin’s analysis in The Development of Capitalism in Russia is the idea that capitalism was developing rapidly as a result of the impact of the world market, of competitive pressures, and of various reforms from above. And the essential accuracy of Lenin’s account was then proved, of course, by the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.

Even Austria-Hungary was industrialising rapidly – such that she could mobilise and deploy over 3 million men within months of the outbreak of war, and sustain four years of modern attritional warfare.

It is perhaps worth adding that, were it not the case that we can have bourgeois revolutions from above – in which capitalism develops to a considerable extent under the leadership of traditional elites and state structures – Trotsky’s theories of ‘combined and uneven development’ and of ‘permanent revolution’ would be unhinged, and along with them, our ability to make sense of much of the history of the 20th century.

There should be no great surprise in all this. Traditional elites and new capitalist elites are rarely divided by irreconcilable class antagonisms. Both are property-owning classes, and, while there may be much conflict between them, especially during periods of transition, a deal can usually be cut. In Bismarck’s Germany, the Prussian aristocracy survived and evolved as a class of big farmer-landowners, army officers, and civil servants – at the same time as the German bankers and industrialists became the most powerful national group of capitalists in Europe.

3. Denying the imperialist character of the war

This brings me to the necessary corollary of Harry’s argument: denying that the First World War was first and foremost an imperialist war rooted in the development of competitive capital accumulation. Thus, because of the supposedly precapitalist character of the Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian states, ‘the main and proximate causes of war were not primarily and directly economic competition between capitalists, but the old-fashioned military-strategic considerations which pre-dated the establishment of purely bourgeois regimes’.

I think this perspective is a multi-layered muddle. First, there is the point already made, that capitalist interests were powerful elements within the ruling class and therefore part of ‘the national interest’ in Russia, Austria-Hungary, and especially Germany. Second, there is confusion between two levels of analysis: the way in which competitive capital accumulation underlay colonial rivalry, diplomatic tensions, the arms race, and the outbreak of war; and the immediate expression of these contradictions in great power confrontation in 1914. It is not a matter of either/or. Capitalist (i.e. economic) competition and great-power (i.e. geopolitical) competition fused in the crisis of 1914. The result was a military confrontation – the first modern industrialised war of attrition – without precedent in human history. The First World War, in other words, was not like the limited wars of the 18th and 19th centuries precisely because it was a war between modern capitalist states – i.e. a war between both states and the opposing blocs of capital that those states represented.

Third, there is the assumption that because certain powerful capitalist interests – like the City of London – were not pushing for war in 1914, this negates the argument that the First World War was an imperialist war: ‘there was a large body of opinion in business and financial circles which did not welcome the prospect of war as it disrupted trade and created uncertainty’.

This argument has a long lineage. It was the argument of Bernsteinian revisionism before the First World War. It faces two compelling objections. First, it is a reductionist argument that implies that general capitalist class interests can be read directly from the contemporary statements of groups of bankers and industrialists. Of course City bankers did not want a war in July 1914: they saw it as a threat to normal business and profit-making. That is not the same as it being in the interests of British capital to allow German domination of the Continent. It was not, and once the threat was clear, and the politicians who represented them had made their decision, the City bankers, along with the rest of the British capitalist class, did support the war.

But there is a second, yet more important counter-argument. Harry simply has not got a handle on the degree to which the ruling classes of Europe had lost control of the situation. 1914 is a supreme example of ‘alienation’ and ‘reification’ – of the products of human labour being turned into a monstrous mechanism of destruction with its own logic and momentum – into something capable of plunging humanity into an abyss of death, destruction, and waste, without anyone being able to stop it. It is a measure of the madness of capitalism – of a world divided into competing blocs of capital and competing nation-states – that this can happen. In fact, hardly anyone wanted any sort of war in 1914, and no-one, positively no-one, wanted the war they actually got. The ruling classes of Europe found themselves locked into certain courses of action by the international treaties and mobilisation timetables on which their security had come to depend. And that nexus of interlocking political and military responses had, of course, been forged by the pressure of mounting capitalist and geopolitical competition in the years leading up to the war.

4. Decontextualising the individual

My final point concerns Harry’s detailed argument about the role of the 19 members of the Liberal Cabinet in determining Britain’s entry into the First World War – with all its manifold implications. The nub of his argument, of course, is that they could have decided otherwise, and that had they done so, the effect on 20th century history would have been immense. Let me say at the outset that I think individuals can make a uge difference. That is sometimes true in a ‘great man’ sense: I suspect that the October Revolution would not have happened but for the role of Lenin in building and leading the Bolshevik Party. It is more often true in the less obvious sense that many individuals, organised and educated in specific ways, can become a decisive historical force: an example might be the way in which several thousand Bolshevik Party members in Petrograd in July 1917, because of their organisational discipline, political understanding, and rootedness inside the working class movement, prevented mass demonstrations in the city from turning into a premature and potentially disastrous uprising. (The contrast is, perhaps, with the Spartakus Rising of January 1919, when a young, inexperienced, weakly-rooted party failed to prevent the decapitation of the revolutionary movement in Germany.)

But the Liberal Cabinet of 1914? Is Harry really arguing that the ‘radical-pacificism’ of a handful of ruling class politicians might have yielded a different decision at this moment of supreme crisis for British capitalism? Had there been a mass movement against the war, had the labour and trade union leaders come out unequivocally against it, the Cabinet might have split and the Government fallen. But this was not the case: the British ruling class was allowed to make its own decision. And it chose war because war was in its class interest.

It was not an accident that the British political decision revolved around Belgium. Domination of the Continent by a single power, and control by that power of the Channel Ports, constituted a direct and immediate threat to British national security, British control of the seas, and British communications with its empire. The British had fought major wars against Philip II in the late 16th century, against Louis XIV in the early 18th century, and against Napoleon in the early 19th century, precisely to prevent a single power dominating the Continent and controlling the Channel Ports. Britain faced that threat again in 1914 (and, of course, in 1940). This time the sense of peril was heightened by the fact that German capitalism had overtaken British capitalism and was continuing to grow much faster; a peril reflected most tangibly in the pre-war Anglo-German naval arms-race. Both traditional geopolitical interests and new capitalist interests were at stake.

Can I finish by recommending an interesting primary source on this? The first volume of Churchill’s The World Crisis, 1911–1918 is highly instructive. From this it is clear that Churchill and other leading members of the Liberal Government regarded Germany as Britain’s principal European rival for at least a decade before 1914; and that this became a definite sense that war was highly possible, even likely, from the time of the 1911 Agadir Crisis. Churchill, appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in the wake of this crisis, immediately put the Navy on a pre-war footing: ‘I intended to prepare for an attack by Germany as if it might come next day. I intended to raise the Fleet to the highest possible strength and secure that all that strength was immediately ready.’

The British ruling class had long been preparing for war when the crisis of July 1914 broke. It made a carefully considered decision in line with its national class interests. Only a massive working class revolt from below could have stopped it. British involvement in the First World War was not an accident of history: it was structured by the realities of geopolitical and imperialist competition at the beginning of the 20th century.

Harry’s approach, on the other hand, seems to absolve British capitalism specifically, and world capitalism more generally,of responsibility for the carnage and chaos of 1914–1918.

Neil Faulkner


The project I am engaged in was flagged up in Newsletter 28 (Autumn 2006). I am beginning to write a grand narrative, provisionally entitled War and Revolution, 1914–1923, that will attempt an integrated history of the entire world crisis, giving equal coverage to the imperialist world war and the global revolutionary wave which ended it. Negotiations with a publisher appear to be approaching a conclusion.

The project was conceived initially as a joint one with Pete Glatter. His untimely death has deprived me of a wonderful friend and colleague with whom I was very much looking forward to working. The project will not, perforce, be very different. That it will nonetheless happen in some form I know he would want. In making a success of it, I will be even more dependent on the criticism of fellow Marxist historians than would have been the case had Pete and I been working together. I hope the LSHG will offer me the opportunity to present the occasional paper over the next four years as the research proceeds and the book is drafted.


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