The Great War As Class War

The cover to Pauwels’ latest book

A review of Jacques R. Pauwels, The Great Class War, 1914-1918, James Lorimer & Co. Ltd., 2016 (632 pp.)

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” — Marx & Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848

World War I was an unprecedented global upheaval. By the time the Paris Peace Conference was underway, more than 40 million soldiers and civilians—disproportionately those of working-class and peasant background—had been slaughtered. Four major empires, one of which extended back six centuries, had disintegrated. And in the most significant event of twentieth-century history, a beleaguered Russian working class, fed up with imperialist bloodshed, rode their own discontent to power under Bolshevik leadership. These sweeping and complexly interwoven changes all had one thing in common. They were all the product of the first truly modern, mechanized, industrial war.

In light of how pivotal it was for the trajectory of revolutionary politics, one would expect there to be a veritable library full of quality English-language Marxist overviews of the conflict. Yet the selection is sparse, certainly when compared to the available titles about World War II. On the latter topic, one need only browse Haymarket Books or perform a couple of Internet searches to find a set of easily accessible worthwhile titles.[1] When it comes to World War I, by contrast, the closest we come to a Marxist survey has been provided by the Bolsheviks’ writings from the 1910s and 1920s, as well as a smattering of later historians usually writing on specific aspects of the conflict for the purpose of discussing a broader theme or chronology.[2] In short, Pauwels’ book, though not based on his own archival research, is a breath of fresh air.

Pauwels’ Synthesis

It argues that the First World War is best understood as an attempt by the governing coalition of bourgeois and semi-feudal classes to try to forestall a militant workers’ and peasants’ struggle for democratic rights and socialism. Drawing generously from the work of Arno Mayer, Pauwels makes the case that in the run-up to war European states, even those like England and France that had undergone relatively early bourgeois revolutions,  were dominated by personnel drawn from the old order of landed aristocrats. Their prepotency as dominant partners alongside a timid bourgeoisie translated into state policies shaped decisively by a worldview blending social Darwinism and Nietzschean philosophy, combined with an identifiably feudal glorification of warfare as a tool of state-building and internal purification.

If Pauwels recapitulates Mayer’s argument about the persistence of semi-feudal governance in the early twentieth century, he moves beyond Mayer in his discussion of how that governance played out in an increasingly monopoly-capitalist world. Pauwels contends that by the early nineteenth century, beginning with the French and American revolutions occurring in the wake of the burden introduced by the Seven Years War, the reliance on warfare as a normal and expected means of conducting politics began to result in a dialectical pattern by which foreign conquests conditioned internal upheavals against the political order, which further primed state officials to channel discontent abroad. The bourgeoisie signed onto these destructive policies decisively in the aftermath of the Paris Commune in 1871 not only because they, too, were deathly afraid of a restive class of toilers, but also because foreign military ventures allowed the capitalists to export investment abroad, to secure markets for excess domestically produced industrial goods, and to pillage foreign lands for the raw materials necessary for industrial expansion.

Karl Kautsky, leader of the SPD in 1914 when the party voted in support of German war credits

While the decrepit semi-feudal aristocracy and the irresolute bourgeoisie coalesced into a counter-revolutionary bloc, the affiliated parties of the Second International played a subtler role. Even as they remained faithful to the Marxist program of international revolution in words, their leadership adapted to a state of affairs in which they and many of their rank-and-file members benefited economically and politically from the plunder of the colonial world. Parliamentary seats could be ceded and reforms granted, in the eyes of the aristocratic-bourgeois bloc, as a stopgap to preclude more revolutionary changes. In the process, West European socialist parties became increasingly integrated into the functioning of the existing bourgeois states, and “[t]he struggle for reforms within the existing system thus received priority over the revolutionary struggle for an alternative system” (p. 129). The result, as Pauwels phrased it, was that “the theoretically internationalist socialists became increasingly receptive to the gospel of nationalism” (p. 129).

If the socialist parties were largely under the leadership of committed reformists by 1914, why was war deemed necessary by European governments? The answer, elaborated in Pauwels’ best chapter in a book chock-full of rewarding chapters, is that the working classes still struggled—often violently—in spite of their misleaders and, ironically, in ways that catapulted their reformist leadership to more prominent positions within government. Synthesizing research spanning the past seven decades, Pauwels notes that the Russian Revolution of 1905 in particular touched off a chain reaction of intense upheaval by workers around Europe. Workers’ unrest heightened in the years immediately preceding 1914, with major strikes waves from Spain to Germany to Italy to the United Kingdom (where the years 1910-1914 were often described as “the great unrest”). Joined by the rise of democratic movements by women and national liberation struggles in such disparate places as China and Southwest Africa, the workers’ onslaught shook the counterrevolutionary governing coalition in Europe to its very core. Perceiving a growing crisis, the leading officials of European governments desired war to purify the national body politic once more. They were waiting only for a “pretext,” (p. 170) which came on June 28, 1914. With the assassination of Franz-Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of an empire that had recently and fearfully suspended its parliament, the aristocratic-bourgeois governing coalitions in Europe declared war on each other in hopes of defusing the class war at home.

Led by their social-chauvinist leaderships in the official socialist parties, the workers went to war “without enthusiasm” and “acquiescently,” at least in comparison to the middle classes above them (p. 182). And when they began arriving on the front lines, the domestic turmoil that had so tormented the ruling elites came to an abrupt halt. As Napoleon Bonaparte had done over a century before, the aristocratic-bourgeois coalition seemed to have successfully channeled domestic revolutionary fervor abroad. But matters quickly became more complicated. The massing casualties inflicted by Europe’s newly mechanized arsenals came disproportionately from the plebeian classes. Meanwhile, similarly reflecting the class structure of European societies at the time, the military command structure consisted mainly of aristocratically-minded officers whose military training reflected a bygone era of saber charges and cavalry skirmishes.

World War I was marked by trench warfare and the use of industrial and chemical weaponry

Even as early as 1914, disillusionment among the working-class base of the military set in. Death tolls mounted quickly, while the quick victory expected on all sides failed to materialize. Stationary trench warfare characterized life on the front. The governing coalitions fueling the war attempted to combat the growing apathy with a barrage of propaganda, but – as evidenced by a raft of first-hand accounts, memoirs, and cultural artifacts like songs and poems that Pauwels deftly adduces – these efforts could blunt but not overcome the daily reality experienced by the soldiers. Their officers’ carefully cultivated pre-war plans dashed, and confused by the lack of progress, they mounted massive offensives from Neuve-Chapelle to Artois—but to no avail. By 1915 the conflict had become a genuinely world war, with battles raging in colonial possessions in the Near East and Africa, fueling the need for even more manpower, propaganda, and of course death. Bulgaria, New Zealand, Australia, and eventually the United States (economically bound up with the Allied Powers and not wishing to miss out on a redivision of imperial spoils) entered the war in earnest. Yet there was no end in sight.

Discontent roiled on the battle front as well as on the home front. As the war entered its third year, food shortages, high prices, news of the deaths of loved ones, along with an obvious lack of progress toward victory, drove worker militancy of the kind that the wars were in part designed to combat. Soldiers began disobeying orders and firing on the military police sent to enforce them (as happened in the Belgian town of Alveringem on New Year’s Eve, 1916). Desertions also multiplied, even as rebellions began throughout the major empires. The culminating event in this process was the toppling of the Romanov Dynasty in Russia, and its eventual replacement by the one party that seemed serious about putting an immediate end to Russian involvement in the war–the Bolsheviks, who not coincidentally also encouraged national-independence revolutions. With the noose tightening around their necks in Germany and Hungary, and Russia’s Romanovs serving as a reminder of the likely outcome, the ruling regimes of Europe finally opted to terminate the conflict in 1918.

Otto von Bismarck, the epitome of the aristocratic-minded governing coalition that persisted through WWI

In the end, the war was a disaster for more than just the workers and peasants. As Pauwels describes it, “[t]he war that was supposed to be an antidote to revolution actually produce[d] the revolution” (p. 491). Similarly, where revolutions were not drenched in blood, the democratic reforms that had so troubled the pre-war governing coalitions became near-universal components of the concessions packages that the European rulers offered to tamp down on the incipient workers’ uprisings. (These, predictably, were negotiated with the nervous labor bureaucracies whose positions were becoming alarmingly precarious.) Along with the advance in democratic rights came the eclipse of the semi-feudal landowners who had hoped war would mark a return to the days of old. Though the aristocracy “had not yet been counted out”—other than in Russia, where a proletariat loosed from reformist misleaders delivered a knock-out blow—the bourgeois financiers and industrialists had “revealed themselves to be far better managers of the industrial conflict that the Great War happened to be” (pp. 533, 536).

It would take another war twenty-one years later, this one also spurred by the exploiting classes’ aim of rolling back revolutionary politics not just in their own societies but also in the form of revolutionary success in the Soviet Union, for the mentalités of the old order to vanish completely from the imperialist state apparatus. And in one of the last and most provocative sections of the book, Pauwels accurately details the roots of fascism in the exploiting classes’ desire to stamp out workers’ revolution at all cost, whatever the toll in human lives, even at the risk of unleashing another brutal international war among competing imperialists. That that war similarly ended in disaster—an outcome that enhanced the prestige and greatly expanded the territorial hegemony of the Soviet Union for the next generation—precipitated a shift in strategy by which socialism was to be combatted through a “cold war.” Such a change in strategy carried over, notes Pauwels in the concluding chapter, into the use of “war” as a metaphor for state-directed polices combatting “terrorism.”


Pauwels’ book contains so many valuable insights that it is easy to lose sight of the tremendous importance of the book’s central argument. In contrast to the existing Marxist (and non-Marxist) literature, which tend to focus on entangling alliances by countries with different imperialist interests, Pauwels places class struggle front and center. Alliances among contesting imperialist powers were an important expression shaping how the crisis in ruling class hegemony played out, but Pauwels reminds us that these were alliances drawn up by states whose primary interest was exploiting and suppressing workers at both at home and abroad—that success at one required success at the other. That fact is not just one aspect of the war among many others, but should be the starting point for any Marxist treatment of imperialist war. Prior English-language works have spilled much ink discussing the imperialist powers’ exploitation of nations, but none have made domestic class struggle a foundational component of the history of World War I.

Another great strength of Pauwels’ work is in the way it handles the question of nationalism. He reminds readers that it is not only a bourgeois force, perhaps historically the primary one, dividing and co-opting working-class movements, but that it was also the ideological backbone of early modern military state building. It therefore continued to be viewed by state officials conditioned by a pre-monopoly-capitalist political culture as a panacea to domestic turmoil, without accounting for the ways modern industrial warfare could have consequences that are far more destructive than constructive to national cohesion.

The brilliance of The Great Class War is evident in how far Pauwels’ analysis outstrips his explicitly formulated arguments. Take the argument that World War I was a watershed in relegating the older semi-feudal aristocracy to junior partners in governing coalitions, and that World War II delivered the final coup de grâce. Is this not consistent with Lenin’s occasional remarks after 1914 that “[w]ar and economic ruin have forced all countries to advance from monopoly capitalism to state monopoly capitalism”? The result, according to Lenin, was “state-controlled capitalist production, combining the colossal power of capitalism with the colossal power of the state into a single mechanism.” Or in other words, what we see with the transition during the Thirty Years’ Crisis, beginning with World War I and consolidating itself with World War II, was a process roughly analogous to how the capitalist labor process evolved from “formal subsumption” to “real subsumption.” Except it was not the labor process that was undergoing real subsumption in this case. Rather, it was the state, already having been captured by a now-monopoly-capitalist class, being fully integrated into the processes, dynamics, and functioning of monopoly-capitalist production and governance.

Jacques Pauwels, the author of The Great Class War

These conceptual tools enable a slightly different, perhaps deeper reading of Pauwels’ work. In keeping with the point above about the changing relationship between nationalist warfare to the ideological underpinnings of bourgeois rule, the defeat and elimination of semi-feudal aristocratic officials was the byproduct of how the forces of production (and destruction) under monopoly capitalism had developed to such an extent that warfare was no longer compatible with the older, aristocratic strategies of governance.  World War II marked the last hurrah (to date) of war as a preferred policy-making tool to be pursued by state actors conditioned to think somewhat rationally, because all-out war between imperialist rivals began to involve such wide-ranging alliances and such destructive weaponry that it proved far too risky to the bourgeoisie’s hold on state power. From that moment forward, the bourgeoisie’s preferred strategy for defusing workers’ struggles was to divide and co-opt them domestically rather than order them en masse to their deaths abroad.

The result was a dramatic change in warfare’s relationship to society. As not only capitalist production relations but also strategies of war-making became fully streamlined with monopoly capitalism, the older ways of imperialist warfare came to be replaced by the fragmented and containable skirmishes of the Cold War (usually proxy conflicts in the developing world, a present-day example of which is Syria), followed by the more abstract and diffuse “war” against “terror.” The structural integration of war-waging with the monopoly-capitalist state clarifies why the biggest economic and technological transformations of our day were generally undertaken by the state itself for military purposes. In the United States, the most easily adduced examples of this trend (apart from nuclear energy and weaponry) are the development of the Interstate Highway System and the Internet, both of which were government undertakings driven by Cold War military considerations. Interestingly, Soviet theorists recognized and discussed at length these ramifications, referring to them as constituting a “scientific and technological revolution” (STR) that commenced as state-monopoly capitalism fully consolidated in 1945. And while much of that literature is obscure, it demonstrates that the crisis facing the older aristocratic-bourgeois bloc was not merely one of class struggle, but of class struggle occurring in a context where the bourgeois states of Europe had achieved a level of development incompatible with the ethos of the older landed elites.

Pauwels also could have engaged more directly with the theory of uneven and combined development (UCD), the centerpiece of Trotsky’s politics of permanent revolution. Unlike the mostly forgotten Soviet-era literature about the STR or state-monopoly capitalism, UCD has been an important concept in debates and work in international-relations theory, particularly in its more historical variants. The work of Alexander Anievas – nowhere to be found in Pauwels’ text or bibliography – has been at the cutting edge in applying these concepts to an analysis of the two world wars. For Anievas, UCD is essential to understanding the decision to go to war by the differentially situated states presiding over economies at different levels of development.

In contrast, Pauwels is so focused on placing class struggle at the core of his analysis that he tends to treat it in an undifferentiated way from country to country. Certainly, he notes that it succeeded in precipitating a revolution in Russia and nearly did so in several other countries, but he leaves unexplained why it was in Hungary, Russia, and Germany where the class struggle was particularly heated, and presented unique opportunities that were absent in the United Kingdom or in France. What the former three countries had in common was sharper class antagonisms resulting from the sudden importation of large stocks of fixed capital from earlier developing capitalist societies. These new factories required a significantly sized labor force—a labor force that was jarred violently from the countryside and in the process confronted a set of political institutions poorly adapted to handling their grievances.

That Pauwels fails to address this reality is especially disappointing in light of its importance to the work of Fritz Fischer, whose work he does discuss, and who argued that an antiquated and teetering German governing caste turned to war to shore up its position in face of crescendoing working-class unrest. Anievas, whatever the issues with his work, to some extent follows Fischer and agrees with Pauwels that the domestic class struggle—the “combined” aspect to UCD—was essential to explaining why the structural antagonisms hard-baked into the imperialist order played out the specific way they did and when they did from 1914 to 1945. The lack of engagement with Anievas or his work, as with the absence of the concept of state-monopoly capitalism, limits the already powerful analytical pay-off of Pauwels’ work.

One final weakness in Pauwels’ account lies in his discussion of the rent-taking aristocracy. Building off the work of Michel Winock, Pauwels argues that throughout most of Europe, with the potential exceptions of France and England, this aristocracy was “still the ruling as well as the governing class” (p. 208). Yet the idea of a Europe still teeming with feudal ruling classes strains the historical imagination as well contravenes the historical record. While it is true much of the strategically vital wealth in those societies remained agricultural and rent-based (which is why the bourgeoisie needed the semi-feudal aristocracy as a governing partner), the agricultural rent extracted in the early twentieth century was primarily of a capitalist nature. Neil Davidson, in his invaluable account of the bourgeois revolutions, concludes that the rent extracted by landowners by the late-nineteenth century tended to more and more to be of a capitalist nature, functioning much as land rent does in capitalist society today.

While these weaknesses are worth noting, they do not detract from the overall power of Pauwels’ interpretation. He has done a great service to Marxists seeking to understand the domestic roots—indeed, the class roots—of the so-called “Great War.” That his latest book has attracted so much commentary here should be seen as a sign of its strength rather than its weakness. His book stands as a moving testament to what can happen when a militant working class, armed and trained in the weapons of war, splits from bourgeois misleadership and pursues its ultimate class interests. That experience also profoundly shaped Trotsky’s understanding of how to approach the bourgeois military and attempt to split its enlisted rank-and-file from the capitalist officer corps. His military leadership of the October Revolution inspired him to codify a long-standing tradition within Marxist politics, in a program known as the Proletarian Military Policy (PMP). It will be the subject of our next post.


[1] Among them are Ernest Mandel’s The Meaning of the Second World War, Donny Gluckstein’s A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance Versus Empire, and Chris Brambery’s The Second World War: A Marxist History.

[2] For instance, sweeping surveys such as Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Extremes and Neil Faulkner’s Marxist History of the World have decent but brief discussions about the First World War. Alex Anievas’s edited volume Cataclysm 1914 also contains much of value but does not cohere into an overarching historical interpretation as to why the war broke out specifically at the time that it did, and how it did or did not relate to previous and subsequent conflicts. The closest to an analysis of such matters are Alex Anievas’s highly suggestive Capital, The State, and War, which focuses on what he appropriately calls the “Thirty Years’ Crisis” spanning both world wars, West German historian Fritz Fischer’s translated edition of the classic Germany’s Aims in the First World War, and Arno Mayer’s The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War (upon which Pauwels draws for much of his conceptual groundwork). By contrast a rich German-language literature, written from a broadly Marxist tradition, developed in the East German academy in the 1960s and 1970s. This literature is discussed at some length in the volume German History in Marxist Perspective.

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