After being charged taxes for working on their land by feudal lords, many European workers then came under the yoke of capitalists, forced to accept undignified and unsafe working conditions in factories and inadequate pay for the work they did. But these European capitalists, and their State protectors, soon met with crisis for their irresponsibly fast consumption of raw materials and the intense competition between them. Prices plummeted and factories closed under the pressure. Inevitable popular resistance followed, and capitalists began to worry about the growth in anti-capitalist tendencies. To ensure they had enough resources to keep factories open, they began their gradual invasion, exploitation and robbery of Africa and parts of Asia.
Not content with what they had stolen, they lusted after territory ‘belonging’ to other capitalists. The only way to take it, they knew by now, was through violence. And in 1914, events in Europe suddenly gave them a justification for conflict. World War One also provided them with the opportunity to divide European workers – who were all being exploited by capitalists in their respective nations and were being encouraged by left-wing revolutionaries to unite in order to bring about a socialist revolution across the continent. The breakout of war disrupted the momentum of this socialist movement, with national capitalists rallying the People behind the patriotic defence of ‘King and Country’.
In reality, the fight was neither between peoples nor cultures. It was a capitalist war over colonial territory between the ruling classes of Europe. However, they obviously couldn’t risk dying themselves, so they sent the working classes to fight their European brothers and sisters. These workers stood nothing to gain from the conflict, apart from a fictional ‘victory for their country’ in which, in reality, the capitalists would be only ones to benefit.
Of course, those leading the armies had to be members of the upper class, as they were the only ones who had received enough education to do so. Some of them died and, on a human level, the loss of the ‘potential’ of any human life is indeed sad. But the socio-political reality is that they were from a privileged class whose wealth derived from the exploitation and robbery of people in their own countries and abroad. They were the enemies of the working classes, not their brothers. European workers hadn’t started the war, but they were the ones who would die in their millions fighting it: the exploited; the oppressed; and the innocent. The loss of their lives is the real tragedy of the conflict. For the capitalists, it was worth losing these workers in order to ensure their continued profits. After all, there were always enough workers around to exploit.
The more logical fight would have been that of the exploited against the exploiters and, in Russia, that is precisely what happened. In one of the most revolutionary chapters of European history, Russian workers fought against their rulers – and then against foreign forces who desperately wanted to prevent the triumph of a workers’ state – and they won! The resulting bureaucratic domination of Stalinism may have discouraged other European workers from doing the same since, but the Russian Revolution continues to stand as the only truly positive thing to come out of the First World War – representing as it did the fact that workers could indeed defeat their exploiters!
Today, a lack of political consciousness among working classes in imperialist nations means that many continue to give their lives in pointless wars that only benefit rich capitalists. Whether they fight in the Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere, members of the working class continue to join their countries’ armies – convinced that they are ‘protecting their nation’. Nonetheless, the omnipresence of the media today makes it very difficult to encourage the majority of people in any one nation to support a war on foreign soil.
But as long as the powerful want war, they will do their very best to convince us that it is in our ‘national interest’. And it is something that we, as citizens in imperialist nations, are only beginning to learn now – one hundred years after the First World War. If we had learned it before, we would have already overthrown the greedy, war-loving capitalist class that rules our societies.
We are not born to be ignorant. In fact, we’ve shown ourselves to be quite a forward-thinking species on occasions. So, thinking forward, let’s finally learn the lessons of the past. Let’s get rid of those who exploit us once and for all, rather than continuing to fight amongst ourselves as they get richer and richer at our expense!