Imperialism and World War I
The Great War from the Russian Perspective: Review of Dominic Lieven's "The End of Tsarist Russia"
I ended my Summer readings [written in 2015] with Dominic Lieven’s new book “The end of Tsarist Russia: The march toward World War I and Revolution” (Viking, 2015, 430 pages). It was a good decision. As the weather gradually became cooler, bright colors lost their shine, climatic changes reflected the gloom which everyone who reads good books about the origins of World War I must feel. Perhaps it would have been even better to have read it in late November.
The book gives not only the story of the slide into the War from the Russian perspective (and using new Russian archival sources), which as Lieven writes, is often overlooked in English-language historiography, but presents a more general discussion of the causes that led to the War. It is that second part which interests me in this blog, although I would strongly recommend the book to those who are interested in the first part too (that is, in the world as seen from St Petersburg after the humiliations of Tsushima and Bosnian annexation).
The fundamental reason for the outbreak of the War was, according to Lieven, imperialism. In the early 20th century world, a country could not be a great power if it did not control vast areas with their resources and people. To be an Empire was to be glorious, and to sit among the first rank of peoples. Lieven reminds us that this "disease" was not limited to European powers but inflicted also the United States, whose conquests of the Philippines and Cuba at the turn of the century, and brutal handling of Colombia in order to build the Panama canal, are often treated lightly.
The problem with the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) was that their imperialism could only be exercised in Europe, because they were continental powers and came late to the scramble for colonies when most of the “unoccupied” land was already taken. But the problem with being imperialist in Europe was that one unavoidably had to clash against another great power. As Lieven writes, so long as great powers were in conflict in Africa (the two Moroccan crises), global war was unlikely: Africa and even Asia, were not sufficiently important to the Europeans to risk a general war. A compromise could be found (after all it was other people’s land anyway). Only Europe could produce a world war.
This continental imperialism was even more perilous for the world peace when practiced by Austria that exhibited two features shared by no other great power. It was a multinational empire with constant conflicts between its nationalities and in a permanent search of a constitutional solution to this aporia (a feature which it shared with Russia), but it was also an empire in decline (a feature which it did not share with Russia), and was perceived as such by itself and by the others. It thus needed splendid external conquests to convince itself and the world that this perception was false. So in order to “box” in the top league the Habsburgs had to show muscle. This led to the paranoia and the overstretch, and ultimately to the Great War.
Now, what I find most interesting is Lieven's unambiguous singling out of imperialism as the culprit. (Towards the end of the book, p. 339, Lieven writes that one cannot but be surprised that the world war had not broken out before 1914). This dovetails nicely with the theory of imperialism as proposed by Hobson, and then expanded by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin to explain the outbreak of the War (even if Lieven in Chapter 1 dismisses this view--to endorse it implicitly only a few pages later when discussing the retreat from the free trade of all powers save England).
I use this late Marxist view on the origin of the war to explain in my forthcoming book (“Global inequality: A new approach for the age of globalization”, Harvard University Press, April 2016) how the Kuznets cycle of increased inequality was broken by the malign forces of the Great War. Lieven’s definition of imperialism is about power: “…empire is first and foremost about power. Unless a state is…a great power, it cannot be a true empire. But empires are great powers with specific characteristics. These include rule over huge territories and many peoples without the latter’s explicit consent” (p. 4). This “power-political” theory of imperialism somehow hangs in the air: it does not explain why being an Empire was important to the ruling classes nor what tangible benefits (in addition to the mostly symbolic) they derived from it.
What Marxist theories of imperialism have on top of what Lieven proposes is that they firmly account for imperialism as the product of domestic economic conditions, and especially the insufficient aggregate demand which is, in turn, the result of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth. To any visitor of (say) Bath in England, where I was recently, that power conferred by imperialism is very visible, and it is economic. It is from the money made from conquests and slave-cultivated sugar plantations that many of the beautiful summer houses in Bath and elsewhere in Europe were built. So to be an “empire” provided manifest and numerous economic advantages.
This is a review, done from this particular, economist’s angle. But if I were to write a more general review, I would have also discussed other aspects of Lieven’s book. Let me conclude by very briefly mentioning a couple, mostly for those who may be interested to read the book as a more conventional narrative of the origin of the World War I. (By the way, Lieven’s book is, in my opinion, vastly superior to the recent centenary harvest of World War I bestsellers. It is a very good complement to Ferguson’s 1999 “Pity of War” about which I wrote here and which hardly mentions Russia and the Eastern front at all.)
In the beginning of the book, Lieven argues that the war was, at the origin, a war over the control of Eastern Europe (Russia vs. Germany) and that Ukraine played a key role on that battlefield. He is aware that it might lead to the accusations of unabashed “presentism” (back-casting the present into the past) and defends himself from it. But in reality, he never takes up this thread seriously, and although we learn of Ukrainian Galician nationalism and how it was stoked by the Austrians (as a counterweight to the Russian support of pan-Slavic movements within the Habsburg Empire), the importance of Ukraine just fades. Paradoxically, at the end of the book Lieven explicitly discounts it himself (p. 387).
Lieven is right in his critique of the Versailles peace agreement (Chapter 8) as having excluded the two preeminent European powers (Germany and Russia). Once America withdrew beyond the Ocean and England was too busy with her colonial possessions, the maintenance of the entire arrangement fell on to France, much too weak for that role.
The narrative of the slide into the war, which covers the period from the Berlin Congress in 1878 to August 1914, has, as all such narratives, strong elements of a Greek drama. The sense of hopelessness is heightened by the realization that although we know today the huge destruction that the War visited upon Europe and its civilization, if we were in the shoes of the key policy makers of the time, with their visions of the world, it was preciously little--close to nothing--that we would have changed to the course of events. So even the knowledge of how catastrophic the war was for all the sides would not have been sufficient, if history were somehow to be replayed today, to avoid bringing us back to this melancholy moment of July 28, 1914. This is the most depressing part of Lieven’s book, and he was, I think, right to end it on a very pessimistic note where today yet an even greater, nuclear, calamity that might end the entire civilization cannot be excluded.