World War One and the major treaty which ended it comprised a world-changing tsunami rolling round the globe. Not only is there a connection between the terms of the Versailles Treaty and the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany, and not only was the rise of anti-Western, pro-Communist feelings in China exacerbated by the Treaty, but the War itself had mind-boggling consequences upon humanity– physically, mentally, socially, economically, politically, and what you might call spiritually. One could start a long list of the gigantic consequences of the War– but the particular consequence of World War One I wish to spotlight today is the Russian Revolution, especially the Bolshevik component of it.
Lenin had not been surprised at the outbreak of hostilities… “Imperialist wars are absolutely inevitable under such an economic system, as long as private property in the means of production exists,” he wrote in 1916’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage Of Capitalism. And he had no need to comb the diplomatic dispatches to determine why the Guns Of August went a-blazin’ in 1914. The true nature of, and reasons for, the cataclysm were… “naturally to be found, not in the diplomatic history of the war,” he writes, “but in an analysis of the objective position of the ruling classes in all the belligerent countries.” In other words, this was not a war about national self-determination, nor about saving democracy or about ending war in general, nor even about assassinated Arch-Dukes. This war, as nakedly as any ever fought in the dismal annals of human history, was about wealth and power. Specifically, it was about the relative split of plunder between the major imperialist powers. If you want to boil it down even further, you wouldn’t be completely off-base if you said World War One was fought because a rising German power was demanding a greater share of the plunder, and Great Britain was unwilling to relinquish its dominating position (nor willing to admit that the decline of its Empire was inevitable).
Lenin realized what many a Western citizen did not… that Capitalism had fundamentally changed since Adam Smith and David Ricardo wrote about the virtues of competition and specialization. By the early twentieth century, the Capitalist reality had little to do with the Capitalism ideal… “Private property based on the labor of the small proprietor, free competition, democracy– all the catchwords with which the capitalists and their press deceive the workers and the peasants– are things of the distant past,” writes Lenin. “Capitalism has grown into a world system of colonial oppression and of the financial strangulation of the overwhelming majority of the population of the world by a handful of advanced countries.”
It was “indisputable” to Lenin that World War One was caused by the competition “between two or three powerful world plunderers armed to the teeth” who were “drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their plunder.” Lenin called the War “imperialist,” annexationist,” and “predatory.” He described it as “a war of plunder,” as well as “a war for the division of the world.” The imperialist nations were murdering men by the millions “for the partition and repartition of colonies” and for the re-determination of “spheres of influence.” Lenin painted the conflict as the duel between the Anglo-French Capitalists and the German Capitalists “for financial world supremacy.”
So how did the Russians become involved in this Western European grudge match? According to Lenin, just as the French craved control of Syria and the British lusted after Mesopotamia, the Tsar’s government had its greedy eye on Constantinople– and all thought a little war was just the ticket to their dreams.
In a weird way, all this reminds me — blown up to a gargantuan, grotesque scale– of the 2008 housing bubble… The game was being played… its perpetuation looked guaranteed… no one wanted to be the fool who set out the game and got left behind. But of course, the bubble always bursts. Always. You can quote me on that.
As devastating and terrible as the war was, Lenin saw clearly that the war, as well as the terms of its peace, was “opening the eyes of the millions and tens of millions of people who are downtrodden, oppressed, deceived, and duped by the bourgeoisie.” He continues… “Thus, out of the universal ruin caused by the war, a world-wide revolutionary crisis is arising which, however, prolonged and arduous its stages may be, cannot end otherwise than in a Proletarian Revolution in its victory.”
In, Letters From Afar (written in early 1917), Lenin credited World War One with “vastly accelerating the course of world history” by “engendering world-wide crises of unparalleled intensity– economic, political, national, and international.” The war enabled, at long last, “the filthy and blood-stained cart of the Romanov monarchy” to be “overturned at one stroke.
Tsar Nicholas II had allowed the Russian people to be butchered at the front. Learning of the mass murder of their sons and husbands, the “anger of all classes” was roused against his regime. Also, Lenin reminds us, there was the easily overlooked but very important fact that the war had “wiped out a very large part of the old commanding personnel, composed of die-hard aristocrats and exceptionally corrupt bureaucratic elements.”
Reflecting on how quickly the Tsarist government fell, Lenin credited the “extremely unique historical situation” of the war, which caused to combine in Russia “absolutely dissimilar currents, absolutely heterogeneous class interests, absolutely contrary political and social strivings.”
The success of the Russian Revolution, said Lenin, was due to a “special combination of international circumstances that temporarily shielded us from imperialism. Imperialism had other things to bother about besides us.” Lenin explains that, while Russia was overthrowing its authoritarian government, “the whole of the great social, political, and military might of modern world-imperialism was split by internecine war into two groups. The imperialist plunderers involved in this struggle had gone to such incredible lengths, were locked in mortal combat to such a degree, that neither of the groups was able to concentrate any effective forces against the Russian Revolution.”
Lenin described it as “paradoxical but true that our revolution broke out at so fortunate a moment when unprecedented disasters involving the destruction of millions of human beings had overtaken most of the imperialist countries, when the unprecedented calamities attending the war had exhausted all nations.” At such a juncture in history, “neither of the two gigantic groups of plunderers was in a position immediately either to hurl itself at the other or to unite with the other against us.”
It was only this that saved Russia from being thoroughly defeated from the outside. The Russian army, completely devastated, was actually disbanded when the Russians pulled out from the war following the Revolution. “We have no army,” stated Lenin bluntly in a 1918 speech. “We cannot hold it. The best thing we can do is to demobilize it as quickly as possible.” The army, said Lenin, had “suffered incredible torture” in the war into which it had been thrown “technologically unprepared.” The soldiers, said Lenin, cried out, “We are drowning in blood. We cannot go on fighting.”
Lenin compared the situation of a Russia with a demobilized army in a time of a ferocious Capitalist conflict to that of “a tame domestic animal” lying “side by side with a tiger.”
As preoccupied as the West was with its self-slaughter, it nevertheless did what it could to influence events in Russia once it was recognized that Russia was growing unstable. In Letters From Afar, Lenin makes the completely believable claim that at the time of the Russian Revolution “the British and French embassies, with their agents and connections,” […] “had long been making the most desperate efforts to prevent” a “separate peace” between Tsar Nicholas II and the German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Lenin goes so far as to assert that the British and/or French had “directly organized a plot in conjunction with the Octobrists and cadets, in conjunction with a section of the generals and army and St. Petersburg garrison officers, with the express object of deposing Nicholas Romanov.” The implication is, at that point, the Western powers were afraid that Nicholas would back out of the war, and so they wanted to place someone more tractable in power. Interestingly, Lenin makes no mention of how the Germans assisted his own voyage to Russia to take part in the Revolution.
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I’d like to end this, my last post on Lenin, with one of my favorite Leninsms. Speaking of the beating that the Russian people suffered during World War One, Lenin remarks that…
“A man who has been thrashed is worth two who haven’t.”
My experience has been that this statement is utterly true. The man who has been thrashed becomes less afraid of the punch, for he knows what to expect, and he knows he has survived it before, he will survive it again. Also, with the landing of the first blow, he has already begun the process of building up a certain callousness to injury, and he has received a lesson on how to behave under the pressure of being beared down upon by great force. Additionally, the defeated man may burn with a fierce desire to avenge his humiliation. Thus, the man who has fought and lost is tougher and braver than the man who has never fought, and is probably likewise tougher and braver than the man who has fought but never lost, for that man has never had to suffer the pangs and humiliation of defeat.