Wednesday, November 12, 2014

A Visit to the Museum - Noyes on Culture and Barbarism



A Visit to the Museum – notes on Culture and Barbarism

From Irish Marxist Review 11.

For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

Clearly Walter Benjamin’s statement about mankind’s so-called cultural treasures corresponds to certain basic propositions of historical materialism. The whole emergence of ‘civilization’ was predicated on and associated with the division of society into classes i.e. on exploitation and oppression. In particular the development of ‘culture’ and ‘the arts’, whether we are speaking of philosophy, poetry, drama, architecture, sculpture or whatever required the existence of a social class freed from the drudgery of producing its own food and other basic material needs and thus able to devote large amounts of its time to learned pursuits and this in turn required that these basic activities be performed for them by others – slaves, servants and peasants.

Moreover, the maintenance of such a state of affairs was possible only with the development of a strong central authority standing above society and exercising a virtual monopoly of decisive physical force, i.e. a state, willing and able to act, when required by the interests of the dominant class, with extreme barbarity.

However, speaking personally for a moment, it was the actual experience of visiting various museums and galleries that brought home to me just how direct and intimate has been the relationship between many of the highest achievements of human culture and the extremes of human barbarism.

In the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, part of the Winter Palace of the Tsars, there hangs Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. The central feature of this wonderful painting is the father placing his hands on the back of his kneeling son in a gesture of exceptional tenderness, love and acceptance. The picture was bought for the Hermitage in 1766 by the Empress Catherine the Great who came to the throne by means of a coup against her husband Paul III in 1762 in which she had him murdered.

Remove your gaze from the painting and turn to the nearby gallery window. It looks out on the infamous Peter and Paul Fortress which stands directly on the other side of the Neva River. The Fortress was, of course, the legendary place of incarceration of political prisoners under Tsarism. In 1718 Peter the Great had his own son, Alexei, tortured to death there because of his involvement in a conspiracy.

In Venice there is the famous Bridge of Sighs which runs from the Doge’s Palace to an adjacent building. The Doge’s Palace is one of the main landmarks in Venice visited by millions annually. It contains work by Titian, Palladio, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo and many other masters. The Bridge of Sighs is also a famous sight beneath which pass gondolas.

The Bridge of Sighs, Venice

But it was not from the romantic sighs of lovers that the Bridge got its name: rather it derives from the fact that the Bridge led directly from the court room in the Palace to the dungeons and torture chambers next door.

Florence is the leading city of the early Renaissance and one of the most important centres of art in the world – the city of Giotto, Massaccio, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo. It has two focal points: the extraordinarily beautiful Duomo (Cathedral), with its magnificent dome designed by Brunelleschi and its Campanile(bell tower) built by Giotto, and the Piazza della Signoria containing a replica of Michelangelo’s David, Cellini’s great Perseus and the magnificent Palazzo Vecchio.

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Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence.

In 1478 a long standing conflict between the Medici Family who ruled Florence at the time and their banker rivals, the Pazzi Family came to head. The Pazzis, in alliance with the Silviatis (papal bankers in Florence) and with the tacit support of Pope Sixtus IV, launched a coup. On Sunday 26 April during High Mass at the Duomo before a crowd of 10,000 they attacked Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici. Giuliano was stabbed nineteen times and bled to death on the cathedral floor but Lorenzo, though wounded, escaped and rallied his supporters who counterattacked, capturing and killing the conspirators. One, Jacopo de Pazzi, was thrown from a window of the Palazzo, then dragged naked through the streets and thrown into the River Arno. Others were hung publicly from the walls of the Palace.

Twenty years later in 1498, the radical preacher, Girolamo Savanarola, who denounced the corruption of the church and was much admired by Botticelli and Michelangelo, was hung and burned at the stake in the Piazza della Signoria after being subject to torture by the strappado[1].

This unity of opposites between culture and barbarism is nowhere as clear as in Rome. Rome of the High Renaissance and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was also, of course, Rome of the Papacy (held at various times by the Borgias, the Medicis, the Della Roveres and the Farneses) which was legendary for its corruption, decadence and murderous intrigues and which together with the Jesuits and the Inquisition launched the Counter-Reformation at the Council of Trent in 1545. So the Rome of St.Peter’s and the Vatican museums is also and simultaneously the Rome of brutal repression such as the public roasting in the Campo de' Fiori of Giordano Bruno, for the ‘crime’ of heresy.

But it is the ruins and art of Ancient Rome – the Colosseum, the Forum, the Capitoline Museums, the thermal baths of Caracalla - that most starkly embody the culture/barbarity relation. This is because they were and are so bound up with institution of slavery. The Colosseum, even its ruined state, is a building of awe inspiring splendour but the purpose it served was unspeakable: the systematic slaughter of human beings and animals for ‘sport’.

Unfortunately the dependency of art on barbarism has not ended to this day albeit the links are more indirect and less overt. The New York Museum of Modern Art, generally regarded as the most influential museum in the history of modern art, was the creation of,.and run by, the Rockefeller Family who amassed their vast fortunes through Standard Oil (forerunner of ExxonMobile); no reader of this Review should need reminding of the link between blood and oil. Another of America’s leading art museums, The Getty in Los Angeles, is also based on oil money – in this case the fortune amassed by Jean Paul Getty via the Getty Oil Company. New York’s second most important modern art museum is the Guggenheim, housed in a famous building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The Guggenheim differs from MOMA and the Getty in that it arose not from oil money but from gold mining in the Yukon.

In the UK the Tate Britain was built on the sight of the old Millbank Prison with money made by Henry Tate whose fortune derived from the sugar trade which had its roots in slavery in the Caribbean. By coincidence, if you look across the River Thames from the steps of the Tate what you see is Vauxhall Cross, the Ziggurat like headquarters of MI6.

Vauxhall Cross, London


And for most of the last 30 years the contemporary art scene in Britain has been dominated by Charles Saatchi who made his wealth through the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency which established itself by running Margaret Thatcher’s election campaign in 1979. People who have worked for Saatchi testify not only to his ruthless capital accumulation but to his personal brutishness– a fact confirmed by his public assault on his wife, Nigella Lawson.

One of the largest collections of African art in the world is housed in the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren in Belgium. How did that art get there? It is only necessary to pose the question to grasp the answer. It was hardly donated by the Congolese in gratitude for the kindness bestowed on them by King Leopold and his associates[2].

These examples can be multiplied almost indefinitely because Marx’s statement that ‘the ruling ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class’ applies with as much force to the area of the arts as it does to philosophy, law, religion or education; indeed even more so where painting, sculpture and architecture are concerned because the physical and monetary resources for the making, storage, display etc of such work are more than are needed to write a book or a poem. And because, to quote Marx again, ‘If money … comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.’[3]

Therefore the question is what are the implications of this intimate association between culture and barbarous oppression? One view, much favoured by tyrants, rulers and their agents and apologists is that the cultural achievements justify or redeem the barbarism. This was concisely expressed by the deeply cynical Harry Lime in The Third Man.

Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love - they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.

An opposite, and in my view preferable, position is that no art, no matter how wonderful is worth a single human life. Then  there is also the attitude, common in left wing and radical circles, that all art and culture of the past and all ‘established’ art of the present is so contaminated by and implicated in the barbarity and brutality of the ruling classes that it should be totally rejected in favour of a new ‘people’s’ or working class art. This was the view taken, for example, by the Dadaists in Zurich in World War 1. It was the culture and art of the past, they argued, that  had culminated in the mass slaughter in the trenches, which claimed 10 million lives or more, and therefore it deserved only to dispensed with and destroyed. A similar position was taken by the Proletarian Culture movement (known as Proletcult) in Russia immediately after the 1917 Revolution; they rejected all ‘bourgeois’ art in the name of a new working class art that they believed they were in the process of creating.

Walter Benjamin himself, with whose observation this article began, stopped short of outright rejection but concluded that because the cultural treasures of the past ‘have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror’ the historical materialist ‘views them with cautious detachment’.

However, the classical Marxists such as Marx and Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg took a rather less detached and rather more positive view of the great art of the past. They argued that this cultural heritage – despite its roots in slave, feudal and capitalist society – was something which the modern working class should not reject or destroy but should aim to take over from the bourgeoisie and make widely available to the masses. Marx, for example, is known to have been a great enthusiast for the literature of Ancient Greece, especially Aeschylus, and for Shakespeare. Engels particularly admired Balzac despite his reactionary views (for his realistic depiction of French society). Lenin regarded the plans of the Proletcult as rather juvenile ultra-leftism and Trotsky variously defended Dante, Shakespeare and Pushkin on the grounds that reading their work, regardless of its overt political stance, would enrich the human personality and our understanding of life.

In support of this latter position I would add that although humanity’s ‘cultural heritage’ was, and remains, dominated and largely owned by the ruling classes and thus unavoidably associated with and tainted by their barbarism, the relationship between the art (and the artists) and the rulers is also marked by many contradictions.

For example, the Medici family, overall, dominated Florence during the Renaissance and after[4], and also were patrons of the young Michelangelo. Nevertheless there was also resistance to Medici rule and Michelangelo’s David was commissioned by the City Council to celebrate the success of the city in deposing them and it is clear that Michelangelo himself was hostile to the Medicis, just as he also had conflicts with Pope Julius II who commissioned the Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Similarly the Tsars may have bought up paintings by Rembrandt but Rembrandt himself, and his art, was a product of the Dutch Revolution which was broadly anti-imperial and progressive in character.[5] And the Rockfeller family’s MOMA in New York may have promoted Picasso but Picasso was a leftist and, for a time, a Communist. Even when the artists are not in anyway radical their work often embodies values that are far more humane than those of the ruthless tyrants and billionaire exploiters for whom they end up working.

It is class society, not the art itself, which makes artistic achievement rest on barbaric and exploitative foundations and while artists can and do struggle in various ways to free themselves from this dependence it is ultimately a contradiction that can be resolved only by ending class society.

After the Revolution I am sure we can find many positive uses for the awesome Colosseum including housing an exhibition devoted to Spartacus and the great slave revolts.



[1] A gruesome mechanism that broke the shoulders.
[2] Belgian colonial rule in the Congo, especially under King Leopold, is legendary for its extreme brutality.
[3] Karl Marx, Capital, Vol I, London 1974, pp.711-12.
[4] For a period the Medicis were driven out of Florence but in the period of reaction after 1527 they returned as hereditary rulers – a position they retained for 200 years.
[5] See John Molyneux, Rembrandt and Revolution,  Redwords, London 2001.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Mass Revolt Sweeps Ireland



Mass Revolt Sweeps  Ireland

Last Saturday (1 November) saw an extraordinary wave of protest across every town in Ireland. In a country of only 4.5 million around 200,000 took to the streets against the government’s proposed water charges. This follows on an immense national demonstration of over 100,000 in Dublin on 11 October.

If the overall figure is massive it is in the detail that the real scale of the revolt shows itself. In Letterkenny, a town of 20,000 in Donegal, about 10,000 people marched. In Drogheda, population 38,000, it was 8000. In small towns like Swords, north of Dublin, and Bray, south of Dublin, Sligo in the North West and Waterford on the South coast, the figure was about 5,000.

Even in very small places like Fermoy in Cork (population about 5000) and Gorey (9,000) there were 1-2 thousand on the streets. 

In Dublin, where the movement is most developed, there were about 30,000 in the city centre at the GPO but there were 25  protests at the same time in other parts of the City. Most of these were thousands strong.

To give readers a flavour of the day, this is what happened in my neighbourhood of Drimnagh. The demo began outside my house where we gathered about 40 neighbours behind our banner. From there we marched to local shops, where our ranks swelled to six hundred. Then we marched through the local area growing to over a thousand and down to a major roundabout about a mile away where we met up with four other marches. In all about 4000 or so occupied and held the roundabout.

It was a feature of many of the marches that they engaged in civil disobedience blocking key roads, roundabouts and LUAS (tram) lines but such were the numbers the guardai (police) were powerless to intervene.

The day of action was called by the Right2Water campaign which was set up on the initiative of People Before Profit and involves also the Socialist Party, the Anti-Austerity Alliance, Sinn Fein, and Unite, Mandate and the CPSU.

However the real driving force comes from grass roots organisation in local communities. All the marches have been very working class in composition.

The foundation of the movement was laid in organisation in the working class estates since September to prevent the installation of water meters,. This is reflected in the fact that one of the most popular slogans is ‘Stick your Water Meters up Your Arse!’.

But there is also political generalisation. Other popular slogans are ‘Enda (Kenny) in your ivory tower, this is called People Power!’ and, with its echoes of Palestine, ‘From the Rivers to the Sea, Irish Water will be Free!’.


The radicalisation of the Irish working class is also seen in recent election results and opinion polls which show the decline of all the mainstream parties (Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour) and the rise of Sinn Fein and the far left.

This great people’s revolt is the culmination of six years of relentless austerity, unjust charges and cutbacks which have left working people with their backs to the wall. Now they have a sense of their power and believe they defeat the hated Water Charges and bring down the government.

From here the movement through numerous local actions to another great national demonstration on 10 December, a working day which involves a call to Stay Away from work and lay siege to Parliament.

John Molyneux













Friday, August 08, 2014

The Grim 'Logic' of Zionism



The grim ‘logic’ of Zionism

John Molyneux

This article was written for the special Palestine Solidarity issue of Irish Socialist Worker.
 
Leon Trotsky once wrote that if the young Stalin had been able to foresee the monster that he was to become he would have recoiled in horror. Much the same could be said of those founded the state of Israel.

If we think of the Jewish people in the 19th and early 20th century when Zionism took shape the outstanding figures who come immediately to mind are the likes of Marx, Heine, Einstein, Freud, Proust, Kafka, Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky, Niels Bohr, Emma Goldmann, Chagall, Mahler, Schoenberg, Kafka, Durkheim, Benjamin – intellectuals, artists, scientists, revolutionaries, predominantly humanitarian and progressive. Of course these are exceptional individuals but nevertheless their character is neither accidental nor genetic. It reflects the peculiar position of the Jews as an oppressed people in the history of Europe, many of whom, in rebelling against their own oppression became champions of human liberation in a much wider sense.

The Zionists who came to Israel as ‘pioneers’ on the early kibbutz and who established the Israeli state in 1948 were not that far removed in their consciousness and character, except for being Zionists, from the people listed above- almost all them would have considered themselves ‘progressive’ or ‘liberal’, most were secular, many were atheists and some would considered themselves socialist, even Marxist. It should be remembered that that the kibbutz were ‘communes’, egalitarian and collectivist in their internal regimes and practice. So how did it come to the horror we now see played out before the eyes of the world – the bombing of schools and hospitals, the targeting of kids on the beach, the daily slaughter of children, the hate-filled racism that calls for ‘death to the Arabs’ and sits on the hillside at Siderot to watch and celebrate the killing?

It was precisely the working out of the logic of Zionism. As a political movement Zionism was simply the demand that the Jewish people should be able to have their own state. This could be, and was, presented as something entirely reasonable, fair and just. The French had a state, the British had a state, the Germans, the Italians, the Dutch etc.,etc, - it seemed that every people had a state. Why not also the Jews? Surely only a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite could deny the Jewish people this right? And the fact that Jews had suffered centuries of racist persecution and oppression made this case seem all the stronger. On this basis millions of liberal, progressive and anti-racist people round the world supported or sympathised with the Zionist project.

Unfortunately there were, from the outset, two ‘small’ problems with this project. Where was the state to be located and how was it actually to be set up? By the time Zionism established itself as a political movement there was nowhere in the world to which significant numbers of Jews could be attracted which was vacant. It was clearly not going to be possible to persuade the Jews of New York or London, Berlin or Vienna or even Kiev and Warsaw to migrate en masse to Northern Siberia or the Greenland icecap. Moreover this was a period in which, as Lenin kept pointing out in his analysis of imperialism, the entire world or almost the entire world, had been divided up between a handful of great powers – Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Japan, USA etc.
The combination of these two problems meant that there was there was, in practice, only one way that a specifically Jewish state could be established – that was as a settler state in a territory occupied by an economically and politically weaker people. And given the fact that the Jews were a scattered and oppressed minority in Europe, initially without their own armed forces, this could only be realised with the backing of one or more of the imperialist states that actually controlled all possible sites for the projected Zionist state.. This meant that to achieve its aim Zionism was forced to go cap in hand to imperialism.

But why should any imperialist power want to support this project? Sympathy for the oppressed Jewish people? Colonial empires were not based or built on sympathy for the oppressed and besides the rulers whose backing was required were precisely the rulers responsible for the centuries of oppression and discrimination. There was only one way that the forces of imperialism would facilitate the founding of a Zionist state and that was if they considered it in their interests and the Zionist leaders understood this. What they had to offer was to be the loyal outpost and representative of imperialism in the area in which they settled. As Sir Ronald Storrs, the first Governor of Jerusalem, at the time of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, said a Jewish homeland in Palestine ‘will form for England a little loyal Jewish Ulster in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism.’ And thus the fate of Zionism was sealed. Whatever the subjective intentions of its pioneers, whatever the ideals of the early kibbutzim, Israel would develop as an imperialist settler state and this had built into it a logic of racist barbarism.

Before returning to how this logic has worked itself out in the history of Zionist Israel we should remind ourselves that there is nothing unusual or specifically Jewish about this phenomenon. Racism against non-Europeans and people of colour as a whole arose from European enslavement and conquest of the rest of the world beginning at the end of the 15th century but it was always particularly virulent among settler populations who were at the sharp end of this process: think of the Boers (Dutch) in South Africa, the White Settlers in ‘Rhodesia’, the Australians and the Aborigines, the French Pieds Noir in Algeria and, of course, the European settlers in America.pushing relentlessly westwards at the expense of the Native Americans. To the settler the indigenous population – dispossessed and oppressed- is perceived as a permanent existential threat that needs to be ‘pacified’, subdued or disposed of and the ideological justification for this inevitably develops an intense racist dynamic.

Zionism, born out of a (profoundly mistaken) response to racism, has turned inexorably into one of the most extreme racisms on the face of the earth. Sometimes people are perplexed by this transformation. How, they ask, could a people who suffered so much persecution resort to behaviour that so mimics that of their erstwhile oppressors? Again it has to be said that such transformations are not rare in history. The Dutch who revolted against Spanish Habsburg rule in the 16th century establish in the Dutch Republic the most ‘liberal’, tolerant and progressive society in Europe at the time but the moment they became colonialists, in the Dutch East Indies, Southern Africa etc, they turned into brutal racists. Similarly the Puritans who went to North America to escape religious persecution in England become the initiators of the long genocide of the indigenous population and later the same fate befell many of the Irish emigrants. Or think of Cromwell himself – a (bourgeois) revolutionary hero in England; a monster in Ireland.

Now consider the position and mindset of the Zionist Jewish settlers in Palestine arriving and establishing themselves in the first half of the 20th century. This land is to be their land, their ‘Jewish homeland’ where they will live in security free of, or protected from, the racist persecution that had been their lot hitherto. That is their premise, the very principle and goal of the Zionist movement and their whole reason for being there. But how can this claim be justified – and people need justifications for others and for themselves?

The Zionists have deployed several justifications – and they all have directly racist implications. One of the first was to deny the existence of the Palestinians. This was often expressed in the slogan ‘A land without a people for a people without a land’[1]. Given the manifest existence of the Palestinian people and their evident objection to being dispossessed and colonized this denial inevitably morphed into the claim that even though they may exist there was something inherently wrong with them. They were uncivilized, savages, much inferior by nature to the Jews. In other words the Zionist justification for a Jewish state picked up on and slotted into the central idea of European racism developed to justify empire. This in turn fed the notion that it was the Jews who had built up and developed the country ‘out of the desert’, the condition in which it had allegedly been left by its Palestinian inhabitants ( who were ‘lazy/savage/uncivilsed etc) and were therefore entitled to it – a justification which exactly paralleled that used by White South Africans.

Finally there was the religious justification: Israeli was ‘the promised land’, given to them by God since the days of Moses because they were God’s ‘chosen people’. This religious claim was not, as is often thought, the driving forcing or central tenet of Zionist ideology (which was generally secular rather theological and focused on Jewishness as a cultural/ racial identity rather on Judaism as a religion) nevertheless it was seized on and deployed, often cynically, because religion is always useful for justifying wars and doubtless this myth was particularly useful in parts of America. But if the Jews were God’s chosen people and God gave Israel to the Jews then the racist implications for the Arabs were unavoidable: they were ‘not chosen’ and they should get out of the place.

The situation and role of the Israeli settler state compounds and exacerbates this racist tendency. Let us take the Israelis at their word: all they want is to live in peace and security in their homeland. But they cannot live in peace and security because they are surrounded by hostile Arabs. Why are the Arabs hostile? Because have they have been dispossessed and ethnically cleansed. This cannot be admitted so it must be because Arabs, or is it Muslim, are innately anti-Semitic. But if Arabs are innately anti-Semitic then every Arab and every Palestinian is an enemy. Security turns into a requirement to drive out the enemy or crush them to the point where there can be no more resistance – no more stones thrown or rockets fired.

Perhaps what they need is secure borders. But the borders are never secure  because beyond them to Lebanon and Syria in the North, to Jordan in the East, to Egypt in the West are more than a hundred million Arabs and Muslims with whom it is their role as imperialism’s watchdog to be in conflict, and millions of Palestinian refugees who obstinately continue to dream of returning to their homeland. So the borders must be extended and extended again and the enemy within must be subdued and subdued again. So there is permanent war. And so the desire creeps up for some way out: for some ‘final solution’. Thus, in the grimmest of dialectics, Zionism, born out of racism and confirmed by genocide, itself becomes ever more racist and genocidal.

Was there an alternative? Yes – the alternative of Marx, Luxemberg, Trotsky and innumerable other Jewish socialists, leftists and workers, namely not to set off in search of a Jewish state in a non-existent vacant place but to stay and fight anti-Semitism and the capitalist society that gave rise to it as an integral part of the international struggle of the working class. And essentially that remains the alternative today only, tragically, it must now also include as part of its perspective the defeat of Zionism and imperialism in Palestine and the Middle East by the Arab masses and their international allies.

John Molyneux
















[1] The slogan appears to have been coined in 1843 by an English Christian ‘restorationist’ [who wanted to restore ‘the Holy Land’ to the Jews] but was taken up by many others such as the Earl of Shaftesbury and echoed by Israeli PM Golda Meir  in her 1976 statement in the New York Times. ‘There is no Palestinian people. There are Palestinian refugees’.

What did they die for?



What did they die for?

John Molyneux

This essay was written for the recently published Irish Anti-War pamphlet World War 1: what did they die for?

World War 1, which began on 28 January 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918, was the largest and deadliest war in history up to that point in time and subsequently has only been exceeded in terms of scale and casualties by World War 2. 

It was fought between the Allied (or Entente) Powers, principally Britain, France and Russia plus the United States after 1917, and the Central Powers, principally Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. However, over forty countries were drawn into the conflict including places that were completely peripheral to the main issues, such as Panama, Nicaragua and Liberia, or nations whose very existence remains unknown to most people today, such as the Dervish State, Jabal Shammar and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-20).

In all it claimed at least 37 million casualties, which can be divided roughly (by their very nature these figures cannot be exact) into 16 million or so dead and 20 million or so wounded. On the Allied side (the victors!) there were 5,525,000 military dead, including about 49,000 Irish, and nearly 13 million military wounded compared to 4,386,000 military dead and 8,388,000 wounded on the side of the Central Powers (the vanquished!). To these figures have to be added over 4 million missing from the Allies and 3.6 million missing from the Central Powers. Given that casualties on the ‘winning’ side substantially exceeded those on the losing side it is very clear that victory was purchased with the lives of soldiers.

The question that leaps out from these bare but grim statistics is simply, ‘What did they die for?’ When one looks more closely into how they died – for example the 20,000 British soldiers, including over 3,500 Irish, who died marching into machine gun fire on the first day of the Battle of the Somme[1] or the hideous calculated deaths from the poison gas used by both sides[2] - the question only becomes more urgent.


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British troops blinded by poison gas in 1918.




Attempts to answer this question usually come from the perspective of a particular nation – what did Irish soldiers die for?, or British? or German? And so on. This is understandable, particularly in the case of Ireland where precisely the absence of any clear national interest is so striking. As Yeats’s Irish airman put it:

Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan's poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.

WB Yeats  An Irish Airman Foresees his Death.


Nevertheless a nation-centred question favours a nationalist answer - ‘they died for their country’, British for Britain, Germans for Germany, etc.. Instead in this essay I want first to pose the question in general terms, to ask what the war was about as whole for its various participants and on that basis return to the matter of what the Irish might be said to have died for at the end. I want to begin by considering the two currently dominant views of the origins and nature of the war: these are a) that the war was basically the responsibility of Germany or Germany and Austria-Hungary, and b) that the war was essentially an accident, or series of accidents – the various governments sleepwalked into it.

It was Germany’s Fault.

The view that the war was caused by German (and Austria-Hungarian) aggression was, of course, the line of the British, French and Russian governments, strongly backed by their respective media, at the time, as well as the basis on which Irish people were urged to participate and the premise for the punitive terms of the Versailles Treaty at the end of the War. It will also be the assumption underpinning the British Conservative government’s plans to commemorate the War’s centenary.

Proof that this view is still very influential in academic circles was provided by the BBC. In February of this year they asked ten leading British historians to answer the question ‘Who started World War 1?’ [http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26048324]. Of the ten, six answered unequivocally Germany or Austria-Hungary and Germany. One answered Austria-Hungary and Germany plus Russia, three also apportioned some blame to Britain, France, Russia and Serbia and one held Serbia mainly responsible.

Sir Max Hastings said

No one nation deserves all the responsibility for the outbreak of war, but Germany seems to me to deserve most.  It alone had the power to halt the descent to disaster at any time in July 1914 by withdrawing its “blank cheque” which offered support to Austria for its invasion of Serbia.

Professor Gary Sheffield stated,

The war was started by the leaders of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Vienna seized the opportunity presented by the assassination of the archduke [Franz Ferdinand] to attempt to destroy its Balkan rival Serbia. This was done in the full knowledge that Serbia’s protector Russia was unlikely to stand by and this might lead to a general European war.

Germany gave Austria unconditional support in its actions, again fully aware of the likely consequences. Germany sought to break up the French-Russian alliance and was fully prepared to take the risk that this would bring about a major war. Some in the German elite welcomed the prospect of beginning an expansionist war of conquest. The response of Russia, France and later Britain, were reactive and responsive.

Professor John Rohl argued

WW1 did not come about by accident or because diplomacy failed. It broke out as the result of a conspiracy between the governments of imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary to bring about war, albeit in the hope that Britain would stay out.

And Professor Gerhard Hirschfield stated

Long before the outbreak of hostilities Prussian-German conservative elites were convinced that a European war would help to fulfil Germany’s ambition for colonies and for military as well as political prestige in the world.


The strength of this viewpoint, apart from being music to the ears of the British establishment, is that it does correspond to a number of well known facts about the actual outbreak of hostilities. It is true that the Austro-Hungarian government responded to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by the Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip (which had not in itself caused much stir in Vienna) with a ten-point ultimatum to Serbia that was deliberately designed to be unacceptable. It is true that Austria-Hungary proceeded to mobilize even when Serbia accepted the ultimatum with the exception of two minor points. It is true that the German government gave unconditional backing to Austria-Hungary in this in the full knowledge that this was likely to lead to war with Russia and its ally France [Though they hoped Britain would stay out]. Thus it is clear that Austria-Hungary and Germany both wanted war in August 1914 and that, as the German historian Fritz Fischer was to show in his famous work Germany’s Aims in the First World War, the German government consciously wanted to use the war to establish its own empire in mitteleuropa, i.e. a corridor of German power from Berlin to Baghdad, as well as expanding its empire in Africa.

However, this position has two major weaknesses. The first is its focus on how the war actually started in contrast to the wider historical context in which the war was prepared. The second is that establishing the culpability of Austria-Hungary and Germany is not at all the same as establishing the innocence of Russia, France and Britain.

The question of ‘who fired the first shot?’ or ‘who started it?’, the traditional question posed in relation to the playground scrap, is completely inadequate in determining responsibility for wars. For example, the Algerian War of Independence was undoubtedly ‘started’ by the Algerian FLN on 1 November 1954 with a series of attacks on French targets, if we leave out of account the inconvenient fact that Algeria had been subject to brutal French colonial rule since 1830. Similarly the Irish War of Independence was ‘begun’ by Irish Volunteers who refused to accept the further prolongation of centuries old British rule.

Gary Sheffield argues that Austria-Hungary acted ‘in the full knowledge that Serbia’s protector Russia was unlikely to stand by and this might lead to a general European war’ and that, ‘Germany gave Austria unconditional support in its actions, again fully aware of the likely consequences’. But if Austria- Hungary and Germany were fully aware the likely consequences, why did this not also apply to Russia, France and Britain?

And if the likely consequences were European War we also need to ask why that was the case. Take the example of Russia which we are told was Serbia’s protector. Why was Russia Serbia’s protector? The idea that Tsarist Russia, that prison house of smaller nations from the Baltic to Central Asia, was deeply committed to the rights of the Serbian people has about as much credibility as the idea that America waged the Vietnam War out of its passionate concern for the freedom of the South Vietnamese (who they had been more than happy to hand back to the rule of the French). No, Russia was Serbia’s protector for the same reason that Austria-Hungary wanted to crush it – because this served their imperial interests in the area.  From the standpoint of its geo-political interests, Russia, whether Tsarist, Stalinist or run by Putin, has always wanted to control as much of the Balkans and the Black Sea area as possible, regardless of the wishes of the local people. In reality Russia was not in the least forced or obliged to go to war over Serbia – it did so because it calculated that this was in its interests.

Exactly the same applies to France and to Britain. Nothing obliged them to go to war in solidarity with Russia except their own calculation of their own imperialist interests. To the argument that they were ‘honour bound’ to do so because of treaties they had made there are several powerful replies. Why did they make those treaties in the first place? Britain, France and Russia were not ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’ allies: For much of the 18th and 19th century Britain treated France (not Germany) as its main enemy and they fought several major wars. In the Crimean War of 1853-56 Britain and France fought against Russia. The term ‘jingoism’ dates from a popular music hall song in 1877

We don't want to fight but by Jingo if we do                                                                We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too
We've fought the Bear before, and while we're Britons true
The Russians shall not have Constantinople
Moreover, the rulers who signed these treaties never showed any compunction about tearing them up when it suited them. The Italian government was part of the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria but in August 1914 opted out of the alliance (on the grounds that it only covered defence) and stayed neutral until May 1915 when they declared war on Austria-Hungary, so clearly the treaties were not sacred. But, of course, there is a much deeper question involved here. Is it reasonable to sacrifice the lives of two million French and British citizens to keep ‘the word’ of a few aristocrats and emperors?
The role of Russia is important here for another reason. Germany had a (deserved) reputation for militarism and authoritarianism. Consequently the argument that Germany started the war was, and is, supplemented with the argument that it was necessary to resist Germany in the name of democracy and freedom. In truth there was very little to choose between Germany and France and Britain in this regard. In 1871 the German army had collaborated with the French army to suppress the Paris Commune, slaughtering 30,000 people on the streets of Paris in one week. Britain, obviously, recognized neither democracy nor freedom in any of its innumerable colonies, beginning with Ireland, and Britain was far short of being a democracy in 1914 with only a small minority of men and no women having the vote. But the fact that France and Britain were fighting in alliance with Russia destroys the argument completely as Tsarist Russia was known worldwide as the declared enemy of democracy, freedom and any kind of liberal progress. Because of this the British pro-war propagandists of the time played down the role of Russia, concentrating on the behaviour of Germany, and this is still true today.
Conversely in Germany the pro-war propagandists of the time played up the war against Russia precisely so that they could present themselves as defending progress and ‘civilization’ against backwardness, reaction and barbarism. This was especially the case with the social democrat and ‘socialist’ advocates of the war[3]  In her anti-war pamphlet, ‘The Junius Brochure’, Rosa Luxemburg quotes extensively on this theme from the German social democratic press of August 1914.
When it comes to defending our country against bloody Czarism we will not be made citizens of the second class…
…the Social Democrats, since the fight is against Russian Blood-Czarism, against the perpetrator of a million crimes against freedom and culture, will allow none to excel them in the fulfillment of their duty…
We are fighting to defend ourselves not so much against England and France as against Czarism. But this war we carry on with the greatest enthusiasm, for it is the war for civilization.[4]
But, as Luxemburg went on to point out, the German Kaiser and Russian Tsar were not only blood relatives and close personal friends, but had been political allies and partners in crime in crushing democratic, national and working class movements right up to the outbreak of war.[5]
The role of ‘bloody Czarism’ in Germany was the mirror image of the role of ‘Prussian militarism’ in Britain. In both cases shining the spotlight on the (real) crimes of their chosen enemy, while leaving the rest of the scene in darkness, helped the rulers in each camp to conceal their own motives from their respective populations, i.e. those who would do the actual dying. In this respect World War 1 was much like most wars. Governments and their associated media always claim to be waging a defensive war against an evil enemy.
It was a chapter of accidents
There are many historians, politicians and journalists who like the idea that history is basically a chapter of accidents. They favour, as they often put it, the notion of a cock-up to a conspiracy. In this case the argument that no single country or group of countries was to blame, but rather the various governments of Europe sleepwalked into war, almost against their best intentions, enjoys considerable currency and support.
One famous historian who popularized this view was A.J.P.Taylor with his 1963 book The First World War. ‘The statesmen,’ he argued, ‘were overwhelmed by the magnitude of events. The generals were overwhelmed also … All fumbled more or less helplessly… No one asked what the war was about.’[6]
More recently, John Keegan, probably Britain’s most eminent military historian, maintained that:
The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice.[7]
And Niall Ferguson in The Pity of War claimed that, ‘It was something worse than a tragedy…It was nothing less than the greatest error of modern history.’[8] The error, he argued, was on the part of the British government which should have stood aside and allowed Germany to dominate Europe (including defeating France). This would have produced a ‘continental Europe …not wholly unlike the European Union we know today – but without the massive contraction in British overseas power entailed by the fighting of two world wars’.[9] [Ferguson is a strong supporter of the British Empire]. He also suggests that this might have spared the world the Russian Revolution and Hitler.
Most recently Christopher Clark, in The Sleepwalkers –how Europe went to war in 1914, has produced a sustained polemic against the idea of German war guilt and any blame centered approach:
...the quest for blame predisposes the investigator to construe the actions of decision-makers as planned and driven by a coherent intention. You have to show that someone willed war as well as caused it…the view expounded in this book is that such arguments are not supported by the evidence.
The outbreak of war in 1914 is not an Agatha Christie drama at the end of which we will discover the culprit standing over a corpse in the conservatory with a smoking pistol. There is no smoking gun in this story; or rather there is one in the hands of every major character. Viewed in this light, the outbreak of war was a tragedy not a crime.[10]
The ‘sleepwalkers’ thesis clearly cuts across those who would seek a militaristic or nationalistic ‘celebration’ of the war as a war for ‘democracy’ or ‘freedom’ or those, like the victors at Versailles, who wanted to pin all the blame for terrible slaughter on Germany. Beyond that, however, it can sit with a range of political standpoints. For the right wing Niall Ferguson it goes along with presenting the War as an error from the point of view of preserving the British Empire. For the military historian, John Keegan, who was actually a supporter of the Vietnam War, it permits an air of resigned neutrality and objectivity. At the same time it can be linked to a more radical perspective which condemns the war as the responsibility of stupid and unaccountable crowned heads – of the main protagonists only France was a republic – or depicts it, as in the famous  Blackadder series, as the fault of a foolish, out of date class of aristocrats wedded to a mindless jingoism of king and country for which they were quite happy to sacrifice the great unwashed.
But regardless of the politics with which it is associated the ‘sleepwalkers’ thesis is  unconvincing history. Like the idea of it all being Germany’s fault, it fits some of the facts of the immediate outbreak of war: the almost accidental character of the assassination in Sarajevo (the Archduke’s carriage took on a wrong turning into the path of Princip); the fact that British Foreign Secretary, Edward Grey, probably did not want to go to war at that time and tried to avoid it; that to some extent the same was true of both the Kaiser and the Tsar; that many (though not all) of the leaders on both sides appear to have anticipated only a short war and so on. However, like the German war-guilt analysis, the sleepwalkers thesis shows its inadequacy when we look at the bigger picture.
For a start it is reasonable to ask why, if the war was somehow a mistake, the respective governments – on finding themselves caught up in an ongoing catastrophe – did not extricate themselves from it by making peace. Even in late 1916 after the terrible slaughters of Verdun and the Somme, and even in 1917 after the Russian February Revolution and the fall of Tsarism, these rulers were determined to fight on whatever the human cost. When, after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks took Russia out of the war, the Entente powers denounced them bitterly.
But the main point is one that has much wider implications for historical method. It is possible to sleepwalk over a cliff only if there is a cliff in the vicinity available to be walked over. It is possible for kings, emperors and politicians to stumble blindly into a catastrophe provided that a catastrophe is waiting to happen, that the necessary conditions for it have been prepared.
In the case of the First World War it is abundantly clear that it was a war which had been prepared over a considerable period and that informed people were well aware that it was coming. The division of Europe into two antagonistic power blocs had developed over decades. The Triple Alliance between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy had been formed in 1882 (and survived, at least nominally, until Italy’s defection in 1915); the Triple Entente between Britain, France and Russia was initiated by the entente cordiale signed in 1904 and formally established in 1907. There was a prolonged naval arms race between Britain and Germany from 1906-1914 which involved Britain in the construction of 29 Dreadnoughts (battleships) compared to the 17 built by Germany. And well before the Sarajevo assassination there was a series of ‘international incidents’– the Tangier Crisis of 1905/6 , the Agadir (in Morocco) crisis  of 1911 and the first and second Balkan Wars in 1912 – each of which had the potential to spark a war.
Above all there is the fact that anti-militarists across Europe were acutely conscious of the approach of war and repeatedly warned against it. By far the most important anti-war force at the time was the Second (or Socialist) International including the mass German Social Democratic Party with its one million members. In 1907 the congress of the Second International at Stuttgart passed a lengthy anti-war motion stating that
The Congress confirms the resolutions adopted by previous international congresses against militarism and imperialism …
Wars between capitalist states are, as a rule, the outcome of their competition on the world market, for each state seeks not only to secure its existing markets, but also to conquer new ones. In this, the subjugation of foreign peoples and countries plays a prominent role…Wars are favored by the national prejudices which are systematically cultivated among civilized peoples in the interest of the ruling classes….
The Congress, therefore, considers it as the duty of the working class and particularly of its representatives in the parliaments to combat the naval and military armaments with all their might..
If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective,.
In 1910 at the 8th congress in Copenhagen ‘a resolution was made on the International’s position on war and struggle, firming up the proposals made… at the congress in Stuttgart.’[11] And then in 1912 at Basel:
 ‘The discussion mainly centred on the threat of world war which was hanging over Europe; not only did the congress urge the Balkan states to band together in resistance to Austro-Hungarian imperialism, it also identified that “the greatest danger to the peace of Europe is the artificially cultivated hostility between Great Britain and the German Empire,” which was a reference to the arms race and growth of petty nationalism in these two countries…
Essentially, the congress was called at Basel to reinforce the International’s firm stance of “war on war” which had been declared in Stuttgart and Copenhagen, and a call to Socialists to “exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective.”[12]
The war, therefore, was anything but accidental or unexpected. If it had not broken out it in August 1914 it would most probably have done so in 1915 or 1916. If we are to understand what the First World War was really about and answer our initial question of what the sixteen million died for we need to examine how and why this international situation developed; in short we need to look at the big picture.
The Big Picture 
By looking at the big picture I mean first of all examining the system of state rivalry that developed in Europe over about five centuries along with the relationship of those rival states to the rest of the world. World War 1 was both a culmination of that long process and a product of significant shifts and developments within it.
Let us take 1492 – Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas - as a point of departure Obviously this is partly arbitrary – there can be no single ‘starting point’ in processes of this kind; nevertheless it is a significant milestone not because Columbus ‘discovered’ America (a falsification from several points of view) but because his occupation of Hispaniola (St.Domingo/Haiti) inaugurated the European conquest of all the Americas  and indeed the epoch of European domination of the whole world. As Karl Marx noted in the Communist Manifesto it ‘opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie’ and ‘gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known’.[13]
For much of the 15th century Portuguese explorers had been inching their way down the west coast of Africa and in 1488 Bartolmeo Diaz rounded the Cape of Good Hope. At the same time the Portuguese began to come into conflict with Spain regarding the ownership of the Americas. In 1494 Pope Alexander VI intervened to draw a dividing line through South America, with Spain being granted everything to its west and Portugal everything to its east.[14]
Before long a new rival appeared on the scene: England, in the shape of Francis Drake and other pirates/ explorers/ heroes (depending on your point of view) preying on gold-and-silver laden Spanish galleons along the Spanish Main (the Spanish controlled coast of Central and South America). This, along with English support for the Dutch Revolt against Spain in the Low Countries, evoked as a response the unsuccessful Spanish attempt to invade England by means of the Armada in 1588.
What happened with the Dutch is interesting here. The English supported the Dutch Revolt, which began in 1556, in order to weaken its main enemy, Spain. But as soon as the Dutch Republic established its independence from Spain in around 1600, becoming Europe’s first fully bourgeois state in the process, it set about acquiring its own global empire. This stretched from New Amsterdam (New York) and Pernambuco (part of Brazil) in the west to Batavia (the Spice Islands or Indonesia) in the east, and from Spitzbergen in the far north to the Cape of Good Hope in the far south. It then came into sharp conflict with its erstwhile supporter, England, and the result was four Anglo-Dutch Wars in the mid-17th century largely over control of trade routes, which included a Dutch  attack on the Thames estuary and the naval Battle of the Medway in 1667.
The 18th century began with two major wars: the Great Northern War (1700-1721) which was essentially between Russia and Sweden (with minor British and other participation) and which established Tsarist Russia, under Peter the Great, as a major power at the expense of Sweden and Poland-Lithuania; the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) which pitted Britain against France over who should rule Spain but also included what was known as Queen Anne’s War fought in North America. This ended in a compromise at the Treaty of Utrecht with the French nominee getting the Spanish throne but France ceding territory to Britain in North America.
The rivalry between Britain and France continued and, after a series of minor conflicts, resulted in the Seven Years War (1756-63) which drew in Prussia, Russia, Austria, Spain and others and was fought in Europe, North America, South America, Africa, India, and the Philippine Islands. Britain emerged successful establishing its dominance over France in North America and India.
But this was rapidly undermined by the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) which saw the establishment of the United States. Then came the French Revolution of 1789. The European Monarchies – Britain, Prussia, Austria, followed by Russia – responded to this in 1793 with the French Revolutionary Wars ending in French victory and the Peace of Amiens of 1802. With France now ruled by Napoleon war soon broke out again and eventually a grand coalition of all the European powers defeated Napoleon and France at the Battles of Leipzig and, finally, Waterloo and secured the (temporary) restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. These wars were fought on an international scale with battles, especially naval battles, from the West Indies to Egypt to India.
The 19th century, after Waterloo, proved relatively peaceful in Europe. There were a number of wars between specific states such as the Crimean War (1853-56) between Russia and Britain, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 (the last two of which established a united Germany). And there was also the particularly devastating American Civil War (1861-65). However, between 1815 and 1914 there was no major European war involving all or most of the major powers.
This overview is, by its nature, incomplete and selective. Not only does it omit numerous minor European conflicts it systematically omits the innumerable, virtually continuous wars of colonial conquest being waged by European powers, and especially Britain, throughout this period, from Cromwell in Ireland to the Opium Wars in China via many ‘Indian wars’ in North America, ‘Zulu Wars’ in Africa and so on. Nevertheless the purpose of the overview is to enable us to see a pattern which will be of assistance in understanding the First World War, and this it does.
The pattern is simple and clear: it is that with the emergence of the system of nation states and the development of the capitalist economic system the principle European states repeatedly fought each other for the purpose of acquiring territory both in Europe itself and throughout the rest of the world.
Of course, from time to time, religion, patriotism, honour, glory and such like were invoked to justify these wars and, perhaps, sincerely believed but the main driver of the process as a whole was the acquisition of land, labour, raw materials, trade and markets which, in combination, formed the basis of political power. In short they were empire building and by the time we get to 1914 all the main players held substantial empires and, apart from France, openly described themselves as such.
It is important to remember that while today neither Obama or Putin or Merkel or Cameron would dream of saying that they were taking military action to defend or extend their respective empires, this was not the case at all in the late 19th and early 20th century when, at least as far the mainstream discourse was concerned, ‘defense of the empire’ was seen as an entirely legitimate and laudable policy goal.
Another ‘pattern’ or point of continuity worth noting is that throughout this period it became an ever more entrenched ‘principle’ of British foreign policy that no single power should be permitted to establish hegemony over continental Europe. This was not out of some spirit of fair play – Britain had no problem with its own hegemony over the entire Indian sub-continent – but on the, very realistic, grounds that any such European hegemon would be highly likely to pose a threat to Britain’s global empire.
However, although it is true that the First World War constituted a culmination of these four centuries of development this is not the whole story. We also have to explain why the 19th century post-Napoleon saw relative peace, at least within Europe, and why that relative peace then turned so dramatically into total war.
To understand this we have to look at the nature of European and global capitalist economic development in this period.[15] The main body of the 19th century was, as Eric Hobsbawm (following Marx) called it, ‘the age of capital’. It was when industrial capitalism, emerging from the late eighteenth century industrial revolution in Britain, came into its own and started to dominate the world – a time of factories and mills, steam power and railways, coal, iron, steel and engineering. As we know it was Britain who took the lead in this and became for a while ‘the workshop of the world’ and the single most powerful country, economically and militarily, with, of course, by far the world’s largest empire.
But as the century wore on industrial capitalism began to forge ahead in a number of countries – in the United States, Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern Italy and, eventually, even parts of Russia – and at the same time the earlier ‘free competition’ between large numbers of small firms began to be replaced by the dominance of giant monopolies and finance capital.
As a result of this, and partly in response to ‘the long depression’ of 1873-9, the corporations and banks increasingly looked outside Europe for investment opportunities. Moreover, they turned to their respective governments and their armed forces to provide the necessary political and military backing for these ventures. In short the last quarter of the 19th century saw a huge rise in imperialism with formal annexation or colonization increasingly replacing the earlier establishment of informal control or influence.
This affected the whole world but was particularly exemplified by the ‘Scramble for Africa’, initiated by King Leopold II of Belgium’s acquisition of the Congo. In 1876 only 10 percent of Africa was under European rule. By 1900 more than 90 percent was colonised.[16].
For a period it was possible for each of the European powers to expand their colonial possessions in competition with each other but without colliding head on. The United States could expand westwards to California (at the expense of the Native Americans) and Tsarist Russia could consolidate its hold on Kazakhstan and Central Asia while menacing Constantinople. But this could not continue indefinitely. Before long, actually by the beginning of the 20th century, almost the whole world was divided up between them. Writing in 1894 the great German sociologist, Max Weber, saw where this would lead:
Only complete political confusion and na├»ve optimism can prevent the recognition that the unavoidable efforts at trade expansion by all civilized bourgeois-controlled nations, after a transitional period of seemingly peaceful competition, are clearly approaching the point where power [MW’s emphasis}alone will decide each nation’s share in the economic control of the earth.[17]
Lenin, somewhat later, made the same basic point.
Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.[18]
And
…the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completed the seizure of the unoccupied territories on our planet. For the first time the world is completely divided up, so that in the future only redivision is possible, i.e., territories can only pass from one “owner” to another, instead of passing as ownerless territory to an owner[19]
It is this struggle for division and redivision of the world that produces the world war. To this general conclusion one further point must be added. The imperialist division of the world as it occurred in the late 19th century was not in proportion to the economic strength of the main players. Britain, and to a lesser extent France, because they had acquired many of their respective empires in an earlier historical period, were massively over represented in terms of colonial possessions. Whereas Germany, which was the most dynamic and powerful economy within Europe at that time, was hugely under represented because it was such a late developer having only become a unified nation state in 1870.
It is this which explains why in 1914 Germany appears as, and can easily be presented as, the main aggressor, and therefore guilty of ‘starting’ or ‘causing’ the war. From the point of view of the rulers of Germany, Britain (‘perfidious Albion’) and France are greedy; they have more than their fair allotment of colonies and are arrogantly refusing to share them. From the point of view of the rulers of Britain, they are content with the existing arrangement and are ‘only’ trying to defend their legitimate property (India, Rhodesia, Kenya, Ireland etc.etc.) from an aggressive and belligerent upstart.
But there is no reason at all why we should take the point of view of either the rulers of Germany or the rulers of Britain, or regard Britain’s determination to protect its vast empire as more legitimate than Germany’s aspiration to acquire one, or vice versa.
From the standpoint of the ordinary people of all the belligerent states there was no reason to back one set of imperialists against or to choose between them. What is abundantly clear is that the rulers of all the imperial powers involved were willing to sacrifice, and go on sacrificing, the lives of millions of ‘their’ citizens for the sake of defending or extending their respective empires.
And this is the answer to our original question. What did the sixteen million die for?  They died, on whichever side they fought, for the imperial ambitions of their respective ruling classes. It is a bleak and tragic answer. But it has to be said, for what we are dealing with is not only a tragedy but also, what Ferguson and Clarke and others try to deny, a crime – one of the most terrible crimes in the history of humanity.
Bringing it all back home
When we consider the Irish dead, the 49,000, this conclusion is particularly galling for not only did they not die ‘for Ireland’ or for freedom or for any justifiable cause, they died for precisely the empire who had for so long oppressed Ireland. To put this in perspective we should note that in the 30 years of ‘the Troubles’ in the North approximately 3500 died (of whom 705 were British soldiers), in the Irish Civil War the death toll was 3-4000, in the War of Independence it was about 2000, and in the Easter Rising it was 466 (116 British Army). The loss of Irish life in the First World War therefore was more than four times that in all these conflicts put together. One has to go back to the suppression of the 1798 Rebellion to find any comparable blood letting in Ireland (apart, of course, from the famine).
The pro-war propaganda and recruitment posters of the time are available online and can be seen at http://www.ww1propaganda.com/world-war-1-posters/irish-ww1-propaganda-posters?page=3  . Here are examples: they are sickening viewing.
    
The ‘Play a man’s part’ poster on the right is the kind of crude stuff for which Wilfred Owen’s great poem ‘Dulce et decorum est’ was the definitive answer. The poster on the left is deeply ironic in that the scene depicted was to destined come to Irish homes in a few years, not at the hands of German soldiers but in the shape of British Black-and- Tans, many of them veterans of the World War.
The Irish politicians who collaborated in this – the likes of John Redmond and John Dillon -  and sent so many young Irish men to their deaths in the vain hope that the British Empire would reward them with a painless granting of Home Rule committed an unpardonable betrayal of their own people.[20]
The Catholic Church began (though it later changed its position) by supporting the war ‘to save Catholic Belgium’. This was a piece of cynical deception on numerous grounds: the German assault on Belgium had nothing to do with it being Catholic but was solely to do with its location between Germany and France; Ulster Protestants (2000 of whom died on the Somme) were also urged to defend ‘poor little Belgium’, with the ‘Catholic’ left out; Belgium was small but not poor and a significant and exceptionally brutal imperialist power in Africa; Britain was not fighting to defend Belgium at all but the British Empire.
Bringing the war back home doesn’t just mean relating the First World War to Ireland, its also means relating it to the world and Ireland today.
Two points, in particular, need to be made. The first is that the imperialism that gave us the First World War has changed its shape in various ways[21]but as an economic and political system is still very much with us and still producing deadly imperialist wars, notably in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the very real threat, as the conflict in the Ukraine shows, of a revival of the Cold War. This means that anti-war campaigning remains a crucial political task.
The second is that Ireland has been served well by its neutrality – a legacy of its history of struggle against British imperialism – but that neutrality is now under threat in a number of ways. It is already massively compromised by the ongoing use of Shannon airport by the US military for troop movements and rendition flights, as recently highlighted by the Margaretha D’Arcy case. In addition it is clear that under Eamon Gilmore Irish foreign policy is consistently, if quietly, subordinate to that of the US and the EU and that the present government of Ireland, especially its Fine Gael component, contains a number of latter day Redmonds[22] who would like to end Ireland’s neutrality and even join NATO. Fortunately recent opinion poll evidence shows that the large majority of the Irish people want Ireland to remain neutral.[23]
Needless to say everything argued in this article about the imperialist nature of the First World War and the terrible slaughter it engendered reinforces the case for Irish neutrality and opposition to imperialism today.

































[1] Nearly 2,000 soldiers from cities, towns, villages and town lands of Ulster were killed in the first few hours of fighting, an event which seared itself into the folk memory of their community.
[2] See the graphic description in Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Strange Meeting’. The use of poison gas performed by all major belligerents throughout World War I constituted war crimes as its use violated the 1899 Hague Declaration Concerning Asphyxiating Gases and the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, which prohibited the use of "poison or poisoned weapons" in warfare.

[3] Up to August 1914 the German Social Democratic Party (SDP), which was a mass party of a million members, had been strongly anti-war but when the war actually broke out its leaders (along with the leaders of most of Europe’s socialist parties) switched to supporting the war in the name of ‘Defence of the Fatherland’.
[4] All quotes from various Social Democratic newspapers 3-11 August 1914, cited in Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, Merlin Press, London, pp.69-71.
[5] See above p.80.
[6] A.J.P.Taylor, The First World War, p.11, p.62..

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/k/keegan-first.html
[8] Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, Penguin, 1998 p.462.
[9] As above, p.460.
[10] C. Clark, The Sleepwalkers - How Europe went to war in 1914, Penguin, 2013, pp.560-1.
[11] http://www.marxists.org/glossary/events/c/congress-si.htm#1912
[12] http://www.marxists.org/glossary/events/c/congress-si.htm#1912
[13] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm#007
[14] Which is why, to this day, Portuguese is spoken in Brazil but Spanish in most of the rest of the continent.
[15] This is something Christopher Clark’s much praised The Sleepwalkers strikingly fails to do. You can learn in The Sleepwalkers that Edward Grey spent most of his time at Balliol College playing real tennis before graduating with a third in Jurisprudence and what the mayor of Sarajevo was wearing on the morning of the assassination but you will search in vain for analysis of the world or European economy. Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War is only marginally better in this respect.
[16]. ‘In the same period Britain, France, Russia and Germany established wide spheres of influence extending out from colonial enclaves in China; Japan took over Korea and Taiwan; France conquered all of Indochina; the US seized Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain; and Britain and Russia agreed to an informal partitioning of Iran… [In Britain] total investment in foreign stocks rose from £95 million in 1883 to £393 million in 1889. It soon equaled 8 percent of Britain’s gross national product and absorbed 50 percent of savings.’ Chris Harman, ‘Analysing Imperialism’, IS Journal 2.99, 2003. http://www.marxists.org/archive/harman/2003/xx/imperialism.htm.
[17] Max Weber, cited in Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, London 1987, p.56.
[18] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism –the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Peking 1973, p105
[19] As above p.90
[20] Literally ss I write these lines an article has appeared in praise of John Redmond by Eamon Delaney in the Irish Independent claiming him as a heroic figure that Ireland has forgotten http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/redmond-the-man-that-ireland-forgot-30197615.html

[21] For a very comprehensive discussion of how imperialism has developed over the last 100 years see Alex Callinicos, Imperialism and Global Political Economy, London 2009. For a devastating exposure of the record of British imperialism, see John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried :a People’s History of the British Empire, London 2006.
[22] For example, Minister for Injustice, Alan Shatter.
[23] A Red C poll in September 2013, commissioned by the Peace and Neutrality Alliance, showed 78% of the Irish people in favour of maintaining neutrality. http://www.no-to-nato.org/2013/10/21/pana-red-c-opinion-poll-on-irish-neutrality-and-international-situation-september-2013-irish-people-support-a-policy-of-neutrality