70 years ago, November 1939

Seventy years since the outbreak of World War II: Causes, Consequences and Lessons

Published on WSWS, by David North, 29 October 2009.

… Thus, in the final analysis, the cause of the war was not to be found in the actions of one or another state that precipitated the shooting. The causes lay in the essential nature of the imperialist system, in the logic of the struggle of powerful capitalist national states to maintain—or achieve, depending on the circumstances—a dominant position in an increasingly integrated global economic order.

The Marxist analysis: 

In the years preceding the war, the international socialist movement had held a series of congresses in which it had warned of the deadly consequences of developing imperialism and the militarism it encouraged. The Second International, which had been founded in 1889, declared again and again its unrelenting opposition to capitalist militarism and pledged to mobilize the working class against war. It warned the European ruling class that if war could not be stopped, the International would use the crisis created by war to hasten the overthrow of capitalism.

But in August 1914 these pledges were betrayed by virtually all the leaders of European socialism. On August 4, 1914, the German Social Democratic Party—the largest socialist party in the world—voted in the Reichstag in support for credits to finance the war. The same patriotic position was taken by socialist leaders in France, Austria and Britain. Only a handful of major socialist leaders took a clear and unequivocal stand against the war, among whom the most important were Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg … //

… The lessons:

The critical question that flows inescapably from any examination of World War I and World War II is whether such catastrophes could ever happen again. Were the wars of the 20th century some sort of horrifying aberration from a “normal” course of historical development? Is it possible to imagine the reemergence of international disputes and antagonisms that would make the outbreak of World War III possible?

The answer to this question does not require far-fetched speculation. The real question is less whether a new eruption of global warfare is possible, but how long do we have before such a catastrophe occurs. And, flowing from that second question, the next and most decisive question is whether anything can be done to stop it from happening.

In weighing the risk of war, bear in mind that the United States has been engaged repeatedly in major military conflicts since 1990, when it first invaded Iraq. During the past decade, since 1999, it has waged major wars in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf and in Central Asia. In one way or another, all of these wars have been related to the effort to secure the dominant global position of the United States.

It is highly significant that the increasing use of military force by the United States takes place against the backdrop of its steadily deteriorating global economic position. The weaker the United States becomes from an economic standpoint, the more inclined it is to offset this weakness through the use of military force. There are, in this specific respect, disturbing parallels to the policies of the Nazi regime in the late 1930s.

Moreover, keeping in mind the 2002 Strategic Doctrine, the United States confronts an expanding array of powers whose economic and military development are viewed by State Department and Pentagon strategists as significant threats. As the balance of economic power shifts away from the United States to various global competitors—a process that has been accelerated by an economic crisis that erupted in 2008 and which continues to unfold—there is an ever greater temptation to employ military force to reverse the unfavorable economic trend.

Finally, if we recall that World War I and II arose out of the destabilization of the old imperialist order dominated by Britain and France as a result of the emergence of new competitors, it is not unlikely that the present international order—in which the dominant power, the United States, is already riven with internal crisis and hard-pressed to maintain global dominance—will break down beneath the pressure exerted by emerging powers (such as China, India, Russia, Brazil, the EU) which are dissatisfied with existing arrangements.

Add to that the growing intra-regional tensions that threaten at any moment to erupt into military confrontations that could trigger interventions from extra-regional forces and lead to a global conflagration. One need only to recall the tense situation which arose in the summer of 2008 as a result of the conflict between Georgia and Russia.

The world is, in other words, a powder keg. It is not necessarily the case that the ruling classes want war. But they are not necessarily able to stop it. As Trotsky wrote on the eve of World War II, the capitalist regimes toboggan to disaster with their eyes closed. The insane logic of imperialism and the capitalist nation-state system, of the drive to secure access to markets, raw materials and cheap labor, of the relentless pursuit of profit and personal riches, leads inexorably in the direction of war.

What, then, can stop it? History shows us that the frightful mechanisms of imperialism can be jammed only by the active and conscious intervention of the masses of the world’s people—above all, the working class—into the historical process. There is no means of stopping imperialist war except through international socialist revolution.

In 1914, Lenin, opposing the betrayal of the Second International, declared that the imperialist epoch is the epoch of wars and revolution. That is, the global economic, social and political contradictions that gave rise to imperialist war also create the objective foundations for international socialist revolution. In this sense, imperialist war and world socialist revolution are the responses of different and opposed social classes to the historical impasse of capitalism. The correctness of Lenin’s assessment of the world situation was confirmed with the eruption of revolution in Russia in 1917.

For all the changes that have occurred since the beginning of World War I 95 years ago and World War II 70 years ago, we still live in the imperialist epoch. Thus, the great questions that confront mankind today are: Will the development of political consciousness in the international working class counteract the accumulating destructive tendencies of imperialism? Will the working class develop sufficient political consciousness in time, before capitalism and the imperialist nation-state system leads mankind over the abyss?

These are not questions for purely academic consideration. The very posing of these questions demands an active response. The answers will be provided not in a classroom, but in the real conflict of social forces. Struggle will decide the matter. And the outcome of this struggle will be influenced, to a decisive degree, by the development of revolutionary, that is, socialist consciousness. The struggle against imperialist war finds its highest expression in the fight to develop a new political leadership of the working class.

Only a few months after the outbreak of World War II—a catastrophe made possible by the betrayals of the reactionary Stalinist, social democratic and reformist labor bureaucracies—Trotsky, the supreme political realist, wrote: … (full huge long text).

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