Listen to this article:
In a remarkable trilogy of ground-breaking, critical, well researched and readable books, historian Jacques Pauwels challenges the core self-declared virtues of Western civilisation – rooted in and disseminated across the world by its power elites and ruling classes – that it stands for civilisation, peace, freedom, and democracy.
Pauwels pierces through the smoke and mirrors of this widely accepted construction to reveal the darker forces that lie at the heart of modern Western elite history, mentalities, institutions and practices – a complex network of corporate, feudal, reactionary clerical, political, bureaucratic, militaristic, and mass media forces – that drive states to wage relentless class warfare as well as two World Wars, the subsequent killing fields of the Cold War, and devastating Wars of Terror after 9/11.
Anyone who wants to open their minds, be challenged and re-think the history of the past century and more could hardly do better than study Pauwels’s work. Many readers (and reviewers) will regret that they missed out on these works as they were published one by one over the past 20 years – and wonder why they have not heard of Jacques Pauwels before now. The mass media megaphone is somehow almost mute when it comes to studies that radically challenge the status quo.
In short, Pauwels’ work explodes the myths that shroud in darkness the class and colonial drivers and character of World War I, the active backing of Hitler’s Nazis by German, American, British and other Western industrial and financial interests, and explodes the American mythology behind the idea that World War II was somehow a ‘good war’. In so doing, Pauwels provides readers with a detailed, complex and politically-useful guide to understanding our own time, and how the world came to be where it is today – still suffering from the after-effects of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008, hyper-globalisation and its neoliberal philosophy, imperial wars without end, inequality and deprivation amid increasing concentration of corporate wealth, and a politics gravely disconnected from the interests of ordinary people.
The mother lode of Pauwels’s trilogy is The Great Class War 1914-1918 – it describes and explains the deeper historical developments that shaped the class system, impacting intellectual developments such as Social and National Darwinism, managing and incorporating rising trade union and socialist political parties’ labour aristocracies, justifying colonialism and imperialism as liberal beneficent civilising missions, sharpening the tools of modern class and interstate warfare. It laid the foundations of a system of oligarchical power that would rather back fascism and Nazism than democracy and socialism, and would therefore need to construct mythologies of a ‘good war’ while dropping atomic bombs, intervening militarily in defence of colonial powers in an era of ‘decolonisation’ and a liberal rules-based international order, and wreaking havoc and misery amidst plenty in the era of neo-liberal hyper- and corporate-globalisation.
From the French Revolution of 1789, Pauwels identifies class and race-based elitist ideologies and modes of class war and traces their development and mentalities to explain how despite their strategies of destruction of life, especially working class and colonial subjects’ lives, elites ultimately generate the basis of mass resistance and subsequent cycles of elite reaction, workers’ revolution and mass rebellion.
Pauwels offers an alternative scenario to that of endless elite rule and power advanced by the proto-fascist Robert Michels, and to orthodox Marxism and Leninism, although it is clear that he favours the latter theories, despite wearing them ever so lightly. In his practical interpretation, he seems to agree more with American sociologist Alvin Gouldner’s assertion that while there may be an iron law of oligarchy (a la Michels), there is also another iron law – an iron law of democracy and mass resistance. There is no ‘end of history’, however, that is apparent in Pauwels’s work, a departure from Marx and Lenin. But that does not in any way detract from the force of this remarkable historian’s work – which follows in the finest traditions of the works of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky
The mother lode
World War I, the Great War, was much more than a war between rival states and alliances, was not a war of democracy against autocracy, nor a war to end all wars, or for civilisation against barbarism. According to Pauwels, the essence of the War lies in its decisively class character, including its related imperial and racial-colonial drivers. Pauwels provides a richly detailed, indeed masterful and accessible synthetic account that challenges common Western mythologies of the War.
While many, maybe most, accounts rely on the superficialities of poor diplomacy, useless or out of touch military leadership, political incompetence, or just tales of heroic or homicidal military battles, Pauwels persuasively shows via a large secondary and primary literature, that the War was actively wanted by elites and ultimately rooted in the kinds of social and political forces released or rejected across Europe by the French Revolution of 1789, in the class wars from above and below that revolution made visible. The forces of democracy, equality and liberty, of the downtrodden, unleashed terror in the minds, lives, and vested interests of the church, nobility, feudal military leaders, and emerging industrial capitalists. The history of the period to 1914-18, Pauwels argues, is really a history of class war – a Great Class War.
To be sure, Pauwels’ analysis is an adaptation and application of a loosely Marxist theory of class – yet, he adapts and extends it so meticulously, creatively applies it to the roots and conduct of warfare in such persuasive detail, sustains the argument with relentless force, while writing with clinical effectiveness, that his labours yield a fascinating study that puts flesh on the bones of Marxist and Leninist analyses. That makes this study a must-read book for two main reasons: first, as a counter-history that challenges the deafening status quo about WWI, an important achievement and resource in its own right.
But secondly, it speaks loudly and clearly to the century or more that has passed since 1918. At a time when class inequality is rampant, despite the predominance of narrowly-construed identity politics, and elite authority is challenged from below and societies and politics appear increasingly polarised and the political-ideological centre is in crisis, a class analysis is sorely needed. Wars, Pauwels argues, are the ruling classes’ way of rolling back the victories of struggles for democracy, and social and political equality, by working people who overwhelmingly bear the brunt of military violence, economic and financial hardships, and the repressive and ideological forces of the modern capitalist state. War as a tonic, relief for elites from domestic crises, diversion from popular struggles for economic rights, for independence from colonial rule, votes for women, for socialism. An escape from the terrors of the collapse of elite legitimacy, and the rise of radical forces and leaders. Wars pass their costs onto the poor – who are killed in droves – while enriching ruling elites via war contracts and lower wages, higher living costs, and skyrocketing corporate profits.
Indeed, it was precisely that latter argument that makes the book so important for our own rather perilous time, perils of which Pauwels is only too aware. So much so, he devotes two chapters to the 1918-1945 period, when established elites unleashed fascism and Nazism against the forces of radical and revolutionary change, and to the so-called liberals’ ‘Long Peace’/Cold War from 1945 to the recent wars of terror. The elites’ dogs of war are alive and well, embedded in military-industrial complexes lubricated with trillion-dollar annual budgets, despite popular demands for peace and social investment, an end to ‘forever wars’.
Yet, ironically, despite successfully initiating wars on a regular and terrible basis, the wars themselves prove only temporary reprieves from what appears to be inevitable – resistance and uprisings from below once the initial propaganda value of wars wears off, soldiers’ bodies pile up, military conscription kicks in, and civilian hardships multiply amid massive corporate profit-making. The very solution to a class war from below and the political and economic gains won through revolutions and radical rebellions, through trade union action and socialist electoral popularity, merely exacerbates the perilous position of the church, aristocrats, feudal military castes and their newly-emergent bourgeois allies.
But the ruling classes and their political and other leaders are tenacious, Pauwels shows, determined to cling on to their powers and privileges, waging counter-offensives when they see working class forces retreating back to ordinary life, their socialist and trade union leaders – the labour aristocracy – become complacent and comfortable in their integration into the lower tiers of the establishment. And so the cycle continues without end, it would seem.
Wheels within wheels, conflicts within conflicts
At over 600 pages, Pauwels’s study of World War I really does justice to the significance of the topic and his analysis. It is remarkable how he manages to show that though there was a national/imperial rivalry component of the War, he also complexifies matters by showing that it was also and more importantly a class war. In this class war, the ruling classes of the belligerents largely shared their anti-socialist and anti-worker ideology and politics, and their sense of social superiority over their ‘own’ lower orders in the society, polity and in the trenches. So while there were vertical conflicts between the British and German workers and power elites etc, there were also class enmities between British rulers and middle and working-class people. And working-class soldiers of various nationalities frequently had greater sympathy with their ‘enemy’ counterparts than with their own upper-class officers because the latter saw their ‘men’ as dispensable, to be sacrificed in great numbers on the battlefields in a modern war fought with weapons of mass destruction.
This attitude extended to the European colonialists’ attitudes to the dispensability of colonial troops and ‘coolies’ – considered even less human than their white lower orders, and sacrificed on the altar of expansion for territory, colonies, raw materials, markets, and cheap labour. As the hardships of trench warfare – flooded trenches, rats and other vermin, disease, and humiliation by upper-class officers – intensified, and the ‘home by Christmas 1914’ rallying call faded into a long drawn out years’ long stalemate – so soldiers and their families were radicalised. Their initial nationalist fervour, which was actually much exaggerated by the political and media barons, converted into class conflict against their officers, strikes in domestic industries, and questions about who the war benefitted became reflected in song, poetry, everyday conversation, refusals to obey orders, shooting of officers, and outright mutinies.
Of course, the position among Russian forces was dire by 1917 and soldiers set up councils – soviets – to discuss the war, to resist their officers and, ultimately the War itself. As Antonio Gramsci said, trench warfare radicalised soldiers and forged the alliance between industrial workers and peasants that was the heart of the Bolshevik revolution. Trench warfare turned out to be a proletarianising process for peasants. The vertical war between nations transformed everywhere, at varying levels, into a series of horizontal wars between the classes. The Great War, planned for and wanted by all the belligerent nations’ elites as an antidote to rising democracy and workers’ power, and for colonial and territorial gain, led to a bloodbath that actually increased the veracity and validity of radicalism and revolution, in the metropolitan countries as well as the colonies.
The revolutionary and counter-revolutionary effects of the French Revolution
That the Church and nobility lost out in the French Revolution and henceforth became even more counter-revolutionary, is clear. But while the industrial bourgeoisie and workers were among the winners, the former soon came to fear the ‘dangerous classes’ as a threat to their positions and powers. Step by step as the revolutions of 1830, 1848 and 1871 bloodied 19th century France, the bourgeoisie increasingly clung to the church, aristocracy and military, seeking to turn back the clock and the rising tide of workers’ power, especially as socialist ideas and Marxism took hold across France, Germany, Britain and Russia. Elitism and social Darwinism became the watchwords of elites against the rising masses, the great unwashed, who would dare to claim their collective right to a decent life, a greater share of the fruits of their labour.
Reactionary nationalism, romanticism, elitism, imperialism – backwards-looking, nostalgic, a mythical golden age before 1789 and all that – flourished. Friedrich Nietzsche stood among the champions of elites against the mass, extolling the manly virtues of the Ubermensch, heroic figures of a more chivalrous age, before socialism. Imperialism was increasingly seen as a solution to working-class poverty and discontent – to ship to faraway colonies the surplus populations of the teeming cities of Europe, to extend European global domination and white supremacy. As the arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes argued in 1895 after attending a workers’ protest meeting:
“In order to save the forty million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, our colonial statesmen must acquire new lands for settling the surplus population of this country, to provide new markets.”
It was a safety valve for growing class discontent, racist divide and rule. In that calculus, war and empire were safety valves for elite power – workers fighting, dying and killing other poor people on the frontlines of imperial wars for territory was considered by elites to be preferable to their waging class for social progress war at home.
It is one of the greatest strengths of Pauwels’s research and analysis that he provides evidence from across the major belligerents’ societies, polities and class systems, their historical development, the ideologies of their ruling elites, working-class and other movements for change. Further, he connects the vertical histories of nations to the horizontal histories of class relations, showing how a class system operated across Europe, in varying ways and levels of intensity, alongside ethnic, racial and colonial conflicts within and between the Great Powers.
Class struggle on a global basis
And, class struggles and divisions are seen on a global plane too – with colonial peoples seen as the oppressed workers and metropolitan elites their tormentors. This is reminiscent of Gramsci’s prescient analysis of colonial powers’ exploitations that were so inhuman that “indigenous peoples of the colonies were not even left their eyes for weeping…[causing them to rise up and defy]…aeroplanes, machine-guns and tanks to win independence…This is the class struggle of the coloured peoples against their white exploiters…” (Antonio Gramsci, ‘The war in the colonies’, L’Ordine Nuovo, June 7, 1919).
White ruling class fears were heightened in 1920 when the Bolsheviks convened in Baku an unprecedented conference of socialists, communists, and anti-colonialists from across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia – sealing the link between the struggles of the oppressed everywhere. What the intellectually and morally bankrupt Second International had ignored – the colonial question – was now moving to the centre of the global interests of the Third International. The Great War – which was supposed to extirpate the voices of the workers and oppressed – ended up creating the very conditions that paved the way to revolutions and uprisings, including a workers’ state.
Western ruling elites reinterpreted and misrepresented anti-colonialism and class politics as a race war, an instrument for racist divide and rule, a numbers game in which the white minority might be overwhelmed. It was the ‘1905 moment’ – in which Asian Japan defeated European great power Russia – in extremis. Blocking, preventing and weakening the unity of colonial peoples and their working-class European allies became a key aim of metropolitan elites. Anti-colonialism and anti-racism, then, became represented as ‘reverse racism’ – with whites as victims. It was to continue to be one of the powerful tendencies of elite colonial and class politics for the rest of the 20th century, including the Cold War and post-9/11 wars of terror across the Global South.
Herein is forged, then, in the colonial masters’ minds the link between socialism, communism and anti-colonialism – radical movements for change that, after the Bolshevik revolution, embraced anti-colonialism and anti-racism. “Lenin and his companions openly proclaimed their determination to work for the emancipation of all oppressed people, not only the lower classes in Europe itself, but also the colonial peoples of Africa, India… the millions of black, yellow…from their white masters…” (p.467). Europe’s elites, such as Winston Churchill, racialised Bolshevism as a Jewish virus (‘Judeo-Bolshevism’) against superior white Aryans in their ‘Herrenvolk’ (“master race”) societies.
‘Millions stand behind me’
We know what Hitler and the Nazis did with that racist philosophy – but its roots lie in the entire colonial-imperial system led by European and American establishments, including, for some, the trenches of World War. Recall that the American industrialist and anti-Semite, Henry Ford, authored the racist The International Jew, and used his newspaper The Dearborn Independent to peddle the myth of Jewish world domination. That linkage, as well as the far more substantial evidence of German capitalists’ disgust at the democratic nature of the Weimar Republic, at anything approaching coalition government with the powerful Communist Party, is ably detailed in Pauwels’s Big Business and Hitler.
Millions did indeed stand behind Hitler and Nazis – millions of Deutsch Marks from big business and banks. The ‘socialist’ myth of the Nazis is also exposed as such in devastating terms – the destruction of socialists and communists, the enrichment of the big industrialists via military contracts, and the privatisation programmes that furthered the impoverishment of the majority at the hands of the German elites – their 1%. The idea that Nazism stood for the mass of people is thoroughly exposed, although it is noted that fascism’s ability to attract some mass support, but never a majority, gave it greater credibility among established elites. They and the Nazis could hide behind the myth of mass support the fact that their money, Nazi policies and their power base in the SS served established elite interests.
Finally, a world power, among other great imperial powers, like the US that admired and even invested in Nazi Germany, needed mass mobilisation of mythology to redefine the nature of the Second World War. Pauwels demonstrates this in great detail in The Myth of the Good War. He systematically debunks the good war myth by showing detailed evidence that US policies were driven by its power elites and that extirpating fascism was not the principal driver of US strategy.
Rather, it was to defeat a rival great imperial power that threatened US interests in Europe and, ultimately, had Nazism succeeded, would threaten the US itself and its ambitions for global domination. Indeed, early war years planning by elite think tanks like the New York Council on Foreign Relations had considered acceptable a possible accommodation with the Nazis. This helps explain why so many fascists and Nazis were reintegrated into mainstream post-1945 German life, why the industrialists and financiers of Nazism were never brought to book and why many of those corporations continue to operate in Germany today.
The class character of America’s Cold War, then, is explained – the aim of labelling opponents ‘un-American’ – was to silence the voices of those who would fight for radical change or alternatives to the racial-capitalist order, who favoured socialism, equality, or even social democracy. This followed logically from Truman’s unnecessary use of the atomic bombs in Japan, and to Churchill ordering the firebombing of Dresden – to demonstrate to the Soviet workers’ state the awesome powers of the capitalist West, as pro-Soviet world opinion soared in response to their overwhelming sacrifices and struggles in defeating the Nazis.
What liberal international order?
In that context, what is to be made of the ‘liberal international order’ (United Nations, IMF, World Bank, and the whole Bretton Woods system), that the Western imperial powers constructed in 1945 – and which remains the ideological and institutional basis of their global influence? Not very liberal, hardly international beyond the West, and not very orderly. And claims that liberal rules-based order maintained the ‘Long Peace’ from 1945? Indians and Pakistanis need only to recall the traumas of the bloodbath at partition in 1947. We just have to count the black, yellow and brown bodies in the Cold War’s killing fields of Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, the death squads of Latin America, interventions and crimes against peace in Africa, Iraq and Libya, among others. Long peace for whom? What is to be concluded from Western elites’ responses to Russia’s illegal war on Ukraine, and to Ukrainian refugees, in contrast to the West’s illegal wars around the world, and black and brown refugees?
The sheer level, depth and breadth of Pauwels’s knowledge and scholarship brought to bear on the history of class struggles, wars, colonialism and racism, is outstanding. Pauwels has provided a set of studies that debunk myth after myth about world history, and especially the class and racial forces, elitist ideologies and material interests that drive state power and are the locomotives of imperial wars and also massive popular and working class resistance, rebellions and revolutions.
The trilogy is historical – but the books’ perspective, analysis and conclusions are applicable today, urgently necessary, and useful in practice. Jacques Pauwels has made a powerful contribution to bringing class ‘back in’ to comprehending world history, and also taking into greater account than most Marxists the powerful and related role of race and racism in world politics.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences. He is a columnist at The Wire. His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.