system shock
July 21, 2016 9:29 AM   Subscribe

 
So I guess the first piece is saying, 'no, inequality did not cause the First World War'?
posted by latkes at 10:29 AM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


It seems like article one is saying that the standard interpretation of WWI was that it was the outgrowth of the "scramble for Africa", etc, and that this was the outgrowth of economic inequality in the great nations. That is, elites had a bunch of capital that should have gone to the workers and been spent in democratic ways but instead elites sought economic outlets via colonialism, hence the scramble, hence the war.

But the article says that this is wrong, that relations between the great powers were actually pretty stable when the only thing on the table was colonialism and that savings at home do not generate adventure abroad. The article seems to say that WWI was ideological rather than economic, and that international finance generally did not want the war.

I guess this makes sense, although I'm not qualified to evaluate it, since everything we've seen since modernization really got going is international elites working together to screw the workers, wherever the workers may be.

I guess I'd be interested in trying to break out instrumental wars, like Iraq (where it seems like the war is intended to stir the pot in the Middle East and to provide certain domestic advantages) and wars-that-occur-of-themselves that no one really wants. I still tend to feel that war is the forcing house of capital, a great place to test things and get money from the government, as long as it's a small enough war.

I'd also be interested in whether there was a change in finance capital's perspective on the war after war profiteering became better understood and larger scale.
posted by Frowner at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2016 [8 favorites]


I pretty much skimmed the first link, because it's long and yeah, nobody believes that any more (except Milanovic, apparently), so why go to so much trouble to refute it? But my eye was caught by this:

I myself, having a quarrelsome and disputatious nature, prefer to dwell on Milanovic’s ‘endogenisation’ of the Great War that I strongly disagree with.


This guy would be right at home on MeFi!
posted by languagehat at 10:46 AM on July 21, 2016 [9 favorites]


the problem with pseudoErasmuses argument is that if you accept that 19th century colonialism wasn't aggressively mercantilist and that 19th century capitalism and finance was integrated and globalised then, by current reckoning, shouldn't WWI have been impossible? I mean, no two countries which have McDonalds have ever gone to war, right?

His answer is to trot out the German irrational inferiority complex theory, which is even less credible than "Lenin-Hobson". If 19th century capitalism looks familiar, even without formal colonialism, then WWI should be frightening. And his description of the Great War as a singular event is strange, given we had to refight it just twenty years afterwards. So, either the Germans are just crazy or maybe global war is structurally embedded in global capitalism...
posted by ennui.bz at 12:08 PM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


nobody believes that any more

So what is your sense of what people do believe about the cause of WWI, then?
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 12:27 PM on July 21, 2016


Everyone I know has a vague understanding of the start of WWI with sort of a dropped middle - it was "caused" in some nebulous way by imperialism and "caused" in some proximate way by an assassination. I would venture to suggest both that this reflects the trickiness of assigning an overriding cause to the war and that there may have been multiple causes. Mommsen's "Topos of inevitable war" was considered pretty respectable in left-leaning circles nearly twenty years ago when I took a seminar on modern German historiography.

I'm not sure that "it was mere cynical conflict among elites over access to colonies" versus "it was because people believed! in! war! as an active good" is really especially helpful.

Questions that come to mind:

1. What effects did popular belief have on government action? What channels existed between ordinary people and people in a position to make decisions about war?

2. How integrated was global finance? No-two-McDonalds, etc, but surely global finance is a smidge more integrated now than in 1914?

3. What conflicts might exist between different financial sectors?

4. What were the connections between big business people and high ranking politicians? Who had whose ear?

I'm pretty sure these are all answered by scholarship at this point, but the answers may be a little obscure to the common reader.
posted by Frowner at 12:55 PM on July 21, 2016 [2 favorites]


> So what is your sense of what people do believe about the cause of WWI, then?

They believe all sorts of things, most of them wrong. Why did WWI happen? Answer: It's complicated.
posted by languagehat at 1:32 PM on July 21, 2016 [5 favorites]


by current reckoning, shouldn't WWI have been impossible? I mean, no two countries which have McDonalds have ever gone to war, right?

World War I was not a failure of economic independence. The states that were economically interdependent and connected were not the ones that fought each other, and when those economically interdependent states did clash, war broke out. War occurred because of a lack of integrated markets, not because there was too much capitalism.

So, either the Germans are just crazy or maybe global war is structurally embedded in global capitalism...

The latter would be square with the following well supported empirical propositions: states with integrated markets fight less, states who trade more fight less, states with more developed capitalist economies fight less, states who sign trade agreements fight less, pairs of states that are liberal capitalist economies fight less, etc.

So what is your sense of what people do believe about the cause of WWI, then?

The same cause of every war: bargaining failure.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:54 PM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah: one of the weaknesses of the Marxian economic determinist explanation for the war was that global conflict was in no one's economic interests. It simply couldn't be predicted on those grounds. There's an ILP penny pamphlet from 1911 I came across recently that argues that war between Britain and Germany was unthinkable because Britain was Germany's biggest trading market. It's interesting to reflect on what some of these economic determinists made of the war's causes after the Armistice. From what I've seen, "disillusionment" bedded in when observers realised retrospectively that there had been no plan, no logic to events. Explanations then turn towards cynicism and blanket moral judgements: the belief that the whole thing had arisen from the stupidity of the pan-European elites and a simple desire for loot on the empires' peripheries, a hunger finally satisfied (for the victors, at least) at the Paris Peace Accords.
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:40 PM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


Which is to say, anyone interested in how radicals and leftists in Britain interpreted the war's origins within the war's own cultural moment should read (and think about the contemporary readership and reception of) E. D. Morel, Robert T. Reid, J. M. Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt in addition to Hobson and Lenin ...
posted by Sonny Jim at 2:49 PM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


I thought the second article, by Lucian M. Ashworth, was really interesting. It's nice to get the perspective of early 20th century theorists of international relations. I think the conclusion, that the concept of war was stuck in an 18th century framework, seems highly plausible as a major factor contributing to the outbreak of war. That also explains how baffled and outraged many people were after the war, because the conceptual understanding of war had changed completely. It was impossible for those who had watched, or gone through, industrialized war to fathom the mindset that ruled five years earlier.

As for modern parallels, a lot of people seem to be stuck on the idea that a modern war would resemble World War II. I fear that understanding may one day lead to something truly catastrophic. Actually, scratch that. I fear it may one day lead to something truly catastrophic again, because that sort of nonsense thinking led to the invasion of Iraq, complete with invocations of Churchill and Chamberlain. The wars of the past usually seem noble. It's a testament to how stupid and horrible the First World War that even a hundred years later it still is seen as an atrocity.
posted by Kattullus at 3:21 PM on July 21, 2016 [5 favorites]




War occurred because of a lack of integrated markets, not because there was too much capitalism.

the first link presents evidence that the markets were integrated: India selling to Japan, Japan to the US, and Britain making up for a current account deficit by returns on foreign investments. French and German finance cooperating in the Balkans, etc.

He's actually arguing against the standard neoliberal thesis.
posted by ennui.bz at 4:45 PM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


The fundamental cause of the war has to be militarism, which I would define as the idea that wars are generally advantageous to at least one of the parties, and possibly better than a zero-sum game. That mindset drove states (particularly Germany) to arm/rearm in the expectation that they could initiate or join an advantageous war, or that they had to defend themselves against being gobbled up by another state. This mindset wasn't so unreasonable: it was what European history and colonialism had led them to expect. Also, nobody had really contemplated what that century's profound changes in technology implied for the course of wars. It wasn't just the improvement in armaments (WW1 still used cavalry troops, but also tanks, poison gas and machine guns) but things like steamships, railroads, and preserved food. Generals saw the new armaments as ways to win battles, but the new infrastructure meant that (with fresh troops and supplies) battles would never be won.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:34 PM on July 21, 2016 [4 favorites]


the first link presents evidence that the markets were integrated: India selling to Japan, Japan to the US, and Britain making up for a current account deficit by returns on foreign investments. French and German finance cooperating in the Balkans, etc.

Markets were integrated. All over. But war broke out where markets were integrated less and war did not break out where markets were integrated more.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:38 PM on July 21, 2016


But at least in the case of France and Russia, markets were integrated because of a military alliance. There's also the matter of explaining the link between market integration and peace/war. What is the mechanism of influence here?

You could divide the causes of the war in positional (what place do the actors find themselves in, for instance economically or culturally) and accidental (who was there, what their history was).

Germany did find itself in a position where its industry and food supply were dependent on seaborne trade; the Royal Navy could strangle its economy unless it found a way to beat it. Unfortunately for Germany, the British were able to raise huge amounts of money by implementing a progressive income tax and thus won the naval arms race.

Poor decision-making, vanity and incompetence have been factors in starting wars all over history. Examples include the War of 1812, where an utterly unprepared US tried to invade Canada while Britain was busy with Napoleon only to find itself twarthed by good British preparation and in great danger once French forces were beaten on the continent, and the Iran-Iraq War, where Saddam's forces were quickly booted out of Iran once Khomeini had consolidated power.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:23 PM on July 21, 2016 [1 favorite]


global conflict was in no one's economic interests

No one country's economic interests, sure.

Armaments manufacturers, as usual, made out like bandits.
posted by flabdablet at 1:18 AM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


I take a longer view: I blame Commodus for not following up on Marcus Aurelius's almost-successful campaign in Germania and therefore missing a real opportunity to finally romanise the Germans. Because of that failure they retained their ancient habit of invading Gaul periodically.
posted by Segundus at 3:35 AM on July 22, 2016 [4 favorites]


I wrote the inequality/ww1 thing, and I was not arguing for or against neoliberalism, capitalism, or the market-integration=>peace hypothesis. I argued narrowly about whether the "maldistribution" of income and wealth was a major cause of the Great War. But it so happens addressing that question involves examining the many supposed linkages between income inequality and the outbreak of war. Those linkages include capital exports, international financial integration, colonialism and imperialism, etc.

Ennui.bz says

"His answer is to trot out the German irrational inferiority complex theory"

I don't think I give an answer about the causes of the Great War. There's no answer, and even if there were, we couldn't be sure. We can only know which theories don't fit the facts. But IF you do think Germany's Weltmacht is the right answer, then some of the facts about the German decision-making process do fit that theory. Also I think it's pretty undeniable that the German governing elites were an agrarian-military class with rather different values from the increasingly urban German society at large.
posted by pseudoerasmus at 5:38 AM on July 22, 2016 [7 favorites]


I wrote the inequality/ww1 thing

You did? Hello! It was very interesting.

I guess what it raises mostly for me is questions about how popular and sorta-popular (let's say "national mood" and "professional class mood") affect the decisions made by politicians, and what benefits politicians tend to see accruing from war.

If I recall my Mommsen correctly (and it's been years) quite a lot of it went to show that there was a popular perception that Germany would eventually have to go to war. What does a "popular perception" actually do?
posted by Frowner at 6:15 AM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


> I wrote the inequality/ww1 thing

Welcome, and thanks for a thoughtful, non-aggressive comment!
posted by languagehat at 7:24 AM on July 22, 2016 [2 favorites]


Languagehat said: nobody believes that any more (except Milanovic, apparently), so why go to so much trouble to refute it?

Well, economic historians don't give the idea any thought, and Great War historians don't either. But it's still a popular idea amongst certain segments of the old left -- Milanovic is not an isolated phenomenon. Jeremy Corbyn (the current head of the Labour Party in the UK) mentioned it back in 2013 as part of the discussions for the Great War Centenary: here
posted by pseudoerasmus at 9:49 AM on July 22, 2016


But it's still a popular idea amongst certain segments of the old left -- Milanovic is not an isolated phenomenon.

Would you put Milanovic in the "old left" camp? I've read his book and he seems more like a centrist-liberal type, modulo his unorthodox views on immigration. He calls for redistributive taxes, more multilateralism, better education... things straight out of the liberal playbook.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 11:41 AM on July 22, 2016


Last night my eight year old asked me who started the first world war. My knee-jerk response was "everybody."

Was I wrong?
posted by Pazzovizza at 2:11 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Everybody's rich people.
posted by ridgerunner at 2:27 PM on July 22, 2016


I never thought WWI was much different than the Seven Year War that George Washington started except for machine guns and torpedoes. There was no great peace across the land before or after it. It's not hard to find territorial and trade wars, and colonialism during all of the age of sail. Back in 1602 The Dutch-Portuguese War involved a dozen kingdoms on four continents.

Maybe its a failure of imagination, but I can't see why someone would think the abstraction of wealth would reduce conflict over resources and power. Maybe the ongoing Russian Civil War influenced their thinking? Can anyone recommend a good book or two on that?
posted by ridgerunner at 3:52 PM on July 22, 2016


> Can anyone recommend a good book or two on that?

You're in my wheelhouse! Two great books are W. Bruce Lincoln, Red Victory: A History of the Russian Civil War, and Evan Mawdsley, The Russian Civil War. Basically, everything Lincoln wrote is worth reading; the Civil War book is the last of a trilogy on the period of WWI and the Revolution(s) that I frequently recommend.
posted by languagehat at 5:47 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


Only Mawdsley is available in ePub, but the price for the trilogy is right. Maybe now I'll find out how losing two fleets to Japan in '05 affected them internally.

Thanks
posted by ridgerunner at 7:09 PM on July 22, 2016


Can anyone recommend a good book or two on that?

The second half of Chamberlin's history of the Russian Revolution. Victor Serge's Year One of the Russian Revolution (doesn't cover the entire Civil War). If you're interested in a broader historical view (as hinted at from your 1905 war reference), Fitzpatrick and Carr have good short histories of the Russian Revolution.
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 10:08 PM on July 22, 2016 [1 favorite]


The linked article's point about agrarian-military elites reminds me of Arno J. Mayer The Persistence of the Old Regime: Europe to the Great War.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:23 AM on July 23, 2016


> The second half of Chamberlin's history of the Russian Revolution. Victor Serge's Year One of the Russian Revolution (doesn't cover the entire Civil War). If you're interested in a broader historical view (as hinted at from your 1905 war reference), Fitzpatrick and Carr have good short histories of the Russian Revolution.

Carr is antiquated and tendentious (he was an unrepentant admirer of the Soviet Union and tried to suppress books critical of it) and Chamberlin and Serge are absurdly antiquated (though the latter is a brilliant writer all of whose books are worth reading); Fitzpatrick is recent and pretty good. For general histories of the revolution(s) I always recommend (besides Lincoln) Harrison Salisbury's Black Night, White Snow: Russia's Revolutions 1905-1917 (itself somewhat antiquated, but it doesn't matter because he's presenting a mass portrait, not a historical interpretation) and Orlando Figes' A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 (recent and superb).
posted by languagehat at 8:56 AM on July 23, 2016


languagehat, if Chamberlin and Serge are "absurdly antiquated", the authors both have the merit of being present in Russia in the years shortly after the Revolution, which is, so far as I can tell, not true of any of the authors you recommended.

You seem to hold Fitzpatrick in high esteem; she thinks that Chamberlin's account is "still the best general work on the Revolution and Civil War." At least, that's the quote from her on the back book cover. And re-reading her (short, but useful) review of the historiography of the Revolution in the introduction of her book, she doesn't seem to change that opinion.

As far as Serge goes, I recommend that book for a few reasons. One, he is an excellent writer (I'm glad we can agree on that). Two, he presents the Bolshevik perspective on the events in the first year of the RR in a way that is compelling and understandable. Three, he does not limit his account to Petrograd, or even Russia, but also incorporates the very important international context in which the RR was taking place (Finnish Civil War, Baku Commune, Ukraine, etc.). Lastly, the Haymarket edition also includes his essay "Thirty years after the Russian revolution," which is a very worth reading retrospective on the RR from a sympathetic revolutionary. Granted, a more recent book on the subject like Rabinowitch's The Bolsheviks in Power is a more up-to-date and scholarly effort on the same time period, but for the reasons above I still prefer Serge.

Carr has his limitations; the critique I'm familiar with is that he is an "institutionalist" and neglects history that wasn't made inside high-level decision making bodies. Nevertheless, I think he's useful to read both because, of course, these decisions do matter and since other, later histories don't cover the same topics since (I presume) Carr already discussed them. Some of his work, yes, is dated in some respects; the 2004 introduction to his short book, however, is useful in highlighting these deficiencies. The same introduction discusses his fluctuating attitude towards the USSR. The reception of Carr's work, "tendentious" or otherwise, seems to fall broadly along political lines.

That partisan reception does not seem to be true, however, of Figes' book, which seems to have been positively received by all sides, despite his clearly negative opinion of Lenin and the Bolsheviks (according to Hobsbawm's review of it).
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 1:09 PM on July 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


> languagehat, if Chamberlin and Serge are "absurdly antiquated", the authors both have the merit of being present in Russia in the years shortly after the Revolution, which is, so far as I can tell, not true of any of the authors you recommended.

Uh, yes? And? I mean, eyewitness reports are great, I love them, but if someone wants an introduction to a historical phenomenon, I presume they want first and foremost a reasonably dependable analysis informed by the perspective that comes only with the passage of years. Chamberlin was excellent for his time, but for Fitzpatrick to call his book "still the best general work on the Revolution and Civil War" is either ill-informed or (much more likely) disingenuous and a dig at her more recent competition. I don't, in general, "hold Fitzpatrick in high esteem"; I dislike her early work, when she was making a name for herself with "revisionist" history aimed at showing that hey, Stalinist Russia wasn't so bad after all, but once she got tenure she was able to relax and stop focusing on being cool and épater le bourgeois, and her recent books have been quite informative, including her history of the revolution (and I particularly liked Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s).

As far as Serge goes, I recommend that book for a few reasons. One, he is an excellent writer (I'm glad we can agree on that). Two, he presents the Bolshevik perspective on the events in the first year of the RR in a way that is compelling and understandable.

Yes indeed, as does Trotsky; between them and Sukhanov (a grumpy non-Bolshevik Marxist whose The Russian Revolution, 1917: A Personal Record is essential reading—I wrote about it here), we can get a multi-dimensional take on what it felt like to be a lefty witness of those hectic days.

I know we come at these things from very different political perspectives, but I always enjoy discussing them with you; it's rare to find someone who cares about it and knows the same names I do!
posted by languagehat at 2:40 PM on July 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Last night my eight year old asked me who started the first world war. My knee-jerk response was "everybody".

I think you should have said "the Kaiser".
posted by Segundus at 3:00 PM on July 23, 2016


Uh, yes? And? I mean, eyewitness reports are great, I love them...

Now that I think about it, neither of the authors were eyewitnesses of the events that they wrote about in the books that I mentioned. Chamberlin arrived in 1922 (his account ends in 1921), Serge in 1919 (his account ends in 1918). I think. But they did both arrive right when their respective written narratives ended, strangely.

(Of course Serge provides plenty of eyewitness accounts of a lot of things in his indispensable Memoirs; Chamberlin also wrote about his time in Russia elsewhere.)

Yes indeed, as does Trotsky; between them and Sukhanov...

True enough, but I wouldn't want to recommend one of these mammoth accounts (not to mention Carr's complete history!) to a casual/introductory reader. Additionally many Marxists often write polemicizing against other radical positions, which are great for Marxist nerds but superfluous to understanding the general picture (e.g. Trotsky grinding his axe against the "epigones"). Serge avoiding that kind of internecine denunciation makes his account more accessible. His book is available online here, btw.

I know we come at these things from very different political perspectives, but I always enjoy discussing them with you

Likewise!
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles at 3:50 PM on July 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


« Older The kappa may be adorable, but it has very few...   |   How To Fix Flying Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments