The first world war resulted in 40 million casualties: 15 to 19 million deaths and 23 million wounded. (Population of the world was less than two billion – so, in today’s terms, think 150 million casualties).
It’s one of the major things on which it can be said ‘the Bolsheviks got it right’. They opposed the war as an imperialist one.
Here’s (excerpts from) what Lenin had to say in a lecture ‘War and Revolution’, May 1917:
From the point of view of Marxism, that is, of modern scientific socialism, the main issue in any discussion by socialists on how to assess the war and what attitude to adopt towards it is this: what is the war being waged for, and what classes staged and directed it. We Marxists do not belong to that category of people who are unqualified opponents of all war. We say: our aim is to achieve a socialist system of society, which, by eliminating the division of mankind into classes, by eliminating all exploitation of man by man and nation by nation, will inevitably eliminate the very possibility of war. But in the war to win that socialist system of society we are bound to encounter conditions under which the class struggle within each given nation may come up against a war between the different nations, a war conditioned by this very class struggle. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility of revolutionary wars, i.e., wars arising from the class struggle, wars waged by revolutionary classes, wars which are of direct and immediate revolutionary significance. Still less can we rule this out when we remember that though the history of European revolutions during the last century, in the course of 125–135 years, say, gave us wars which were mostly reactionary, it also gave us revolutionary wars, such as the war of the French revolutionary masses against a united monarchist, backward, feudal and semi-feudal Europe. No deception of the masses is more widespread today in Western Europe, and latterly here in Russia, too, than that which is practised by citing the example of revolutionary wars. There are wars and wars. We must be clear as to what historical conditions have given rise to the war, what classes are waging it, and for what ends. Unless we grasp this, all our talk about the war will necessarily be utterly futile, engendering more heat than light.
We say: if you have not studied the policies of both belligerent groups over a period of decades so as to avoid accidental factors and the quoting of random examples if you have not shown what bearing this war has on preceding policies, then you don’t understand what this war is all about.
These policies show us just one thing continuous economic rivalry between the world’s two greatest giants, capitalist economies. On the one hand we have Britain, a country which owns the greater part of the globe, a country which ranks first in wealth, which has created this wealth not so much by the labour of its workers as by the exploitation of innumerable colonies, by the vast power of its banks which have developed at the head of all the others into an insignificantly small group of some four or five super-banks handling billions of rubles, and handling them in such a way that it can he said without exaggeration that there is not a patch of land in the world today on which this capital has not laid its heavy hand, not a patch of land which British capital has not enmeshed by a thousand threads. This capital grew to such dimensions by the turn of the century that its activities extended far beyond the borders of individual states and formed a group of giant banks possessed of fabulous wealth. Having begotten this tiny group of banks, it has caught the whole world in the net of its billions. This is the sum and substance of Britain’s economic policy and of the economic policy of France, of which even French writers, some of them contributors to L’Humanité, a paper now controlled by ex-socialists (in fact, no less a man than Lysis, the well-known financial writer), stated several years before the war: “France is a financial monarchy, France is a financial oligarchy, France is the world’s money-lender.”
On the other hand, opposed to this, mainly Anglo-French group, we have another group of capitalists, an even more rapacious, even more predatory one, a group who came to the capitalist banqueting table when all the seats were occupied, but who introduced into the struggle new methods for developing capitalist production, improved techniques, and superior organisation, which turned the old capitalism, the capitalism of the free-competition age, into the capitalism of giant trusts, syndicates, and cartels. This group introduced the beginnings of state-controlled capitalist production, combining the colossal power of capitalism with the colossal power of the state into a single mechanism and bringing tens of millions of people within the single organisation of state capitalism. Here is economic history, here is diplomatic history, covering several decades, from which no one can get away. It is the one and only guide-post to a proper solution of the problem of war; it leads you to the conclusion that the present war, too, is the outcome of the policies of the classes who have come to grips in it, of the two supreme giants, who, long before the war, had caught the whole world, all countries, in the net of financial exploitation and economically divided the globe up among themselves. They were bound to clash, because a redivision of this supremacy, from the point of view of capitalism, had become inevitable.
The present war is a continuation of the policy of conquest, of the shooting down of whole nationalities, of unbelievable atrocities committed by the Germans and the British in Africa, and by the British and the Russians in Persia which of them committed most it is difficult to say. It was for this reason that the German capitalists looked upon them as their enemies. Ah, they said, you are strong because you are rich? But we are stronger, therefore we have the same “sacred” right to plunder. That is what the real history of British and German finance capital in the course of several decades preceding the war amounts to. That is what the history of Russo-German, Russo-British, and German-British relations amounts to. There you have the clue to an understanding of what the war is about. That is why the story that is current about the cause of the war is sheer duplicity and humbug. Forgetting the history of finance capital, the history of how this war had been brewing over the issue of redivision, they present the matter like this: two nations were living at peace, then one attacked the other, and the other fought back. All science, all banks are forgotten, and the peoples are told to take up arms, and so are the peasants, who know nothing about politics. All they have to do is to fight back! The logical thing, following this line of argument, would be to close down all newspapers, burn all books and ban all mention of annexations in the newspapers. In this way such a view of annexations could be justified. They can’t tell the truth about annexations because the whole history of Russia, Britain, and Germany has been one of continuous, ruthless and sanguinary war over annexations. Ruthless wars were waged in Persia and Africa by the Liberals, who flogged political offenders in India for daring to put forward demands which were being fought for here in Russia. The French colonial troops oppressed peoples too. There you have the pre-history, the real history of unprecedented plunder! Such is the policy of these classes, of which the present war is a continuation. That is why, on the question of annexations, they cannot give the reply that we give, when we say that any nation joined to another one, not by the voluntary choice of its majority but by a decision of a king or government, is an annexed nation. To renounce annexation is to give each nation the right to form a separate state or to live in union with whomsoever it chooses. An answer like that is perfectly clear to every worker who is at all class-conscious.
On the question of America entering the war I shall say this. People argue that America is a democracy, America has the White House. I say: slavery was abolished there half a century ago. The anti-slave war ended in 1865. Since then multimillionaires have mushroomed. They have the whole of America in their financial grip. They are making ready to subdue Mexico and will inevitably come to war with Japan over a carve-up of the Pacific. This war has been brewing for several decades. All literature speaks about it. America’s real aim in entering the war is to prepare for this future war with Japan. The American people do enjoy considerable freedom and it is difficult to conceive them standing for compulsory military service, for the setting up of an army pursuing any aims of conquest a struggle with Japan, for instance. The Americans have the example of Europe to show them what this leads to. The American capitalists have stepped into this war in order to have an excuse, behind a smoke-screen of lofty ideals championing the rights of small nations, for building up a strong standing army
Those interested in the socialist movement should read the Basle Manifesto of 1912 adopted unanimously by all the socialist parties of the world, a manifesto that was published in our newspaper Pravda, a manifesto that can be published now in none of the belligerent countries, neither in “free” Britain nor in republican France, because it said the truth about war before the war. It said that there would be war between Britain and Germany as a result of capitalist competition. It said that so much powder had accumulated that the guns would start shooting of their own accord. It told us what the war would be fought for, and said that the war would lead to a proletarian revolution. Therefore, we tell those socialists who signed this Manifesto and then went over to the side of their capitalist governments that they have betrayed socialism. There has been a split among the socialists all over the world. Some are in ministerial cabinets, others in prison. All over the world some socialists are preaching a war build-up, while others, like Eugene Debs, the American Bebel, who enjoys immense popularity among the American workers, say: “I’d rather be shot than give a cent towards the war. I’m willing to fight only the proletariat’s war against the capitalists all over the world.” That is how the socialists have split throughout the world. The world’s social-patriots think they are defending their country. They are mistaken they are defending the interests of one band of capitalists against another. We preach proletarian revolution the only true cause, for which scores of people have gone to the scaffold, and hundreds and thousands have been thrown into prison. These imprisoned socialists are a minority, but the working class is for them, the whole course of economic development is for them. All this tells us that there is no other way out. The only way to end this war is by a workers’ revolution in several countries. In the meantime we should make preparations for that revolution, we should assist it. For all its hatred of war and desire for peace, the Russian people could do nothing against the war, so long as it was being waged by the tsar, except work for a revolution against the tsar and for the tsar’s overthrow. And that is what happened. History proved this to you yesterday and will prove it to you tomorrow. We said long ago that the mounting Russian revolution must be assisted. We said that at the end of 1914. Our Duma deputies were deported to Siberia for this, and we were told: “You are giving no answer. You talk about revolution when the strikes are off, when the deputies are doing hard labour, and when you haven’t a single newspaper!” And we were accused of evading an answer. We heard those accusations for a number of years. We answered: You can be indignant about it, but so long as the tsar has not been overthrown we can do nothing against the war. And our prediction was justified. It is not fully justified yet, but it has already begun to receive justification. The revolution is beginning to change the war on Russia’s part. The capitalists are still continuing the war, and we say: Until there is a workers’ revolution in several countries the war cannot be stopped, because the people who want that war are still in power. We are told: “In a number of countries everything seems to be asleep. In Germany all the socialists to a man are for the war, and Liebknecht is the only one against it.” To this I say: This only one, Liebknecht, represents the working class. The hopes of all are in him alone, in his supporters, in the German proletariat. You don’t believe this? Carry on with the war then! There is no other way. If you don’t believe in Liebknecht, if you don’t believe in the workers’ revolution, a revolution that is coming to a head if you don’t believe this then believe the capitalists!
Also worth checking out is Lenin in July 1915 on ‘The defeat of one’s own government in the imperialist war‘. He gives Trotsky a serving for being a ‘social chauvinist’.
Lest we forget.