It was the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.* World War I ended following the signing of an armistice (truce) between the Allies (France, Great Britain, Italy, United States) and Germany. Also known as the “Great War” or the “war to end all wars” on account of its death toll and overall destruction, WWI killed 10 million military personnel, almost seven million civilians and six million disappeared and never surfaced. What came out of the Armistice is the Treaty Versailles or the Peace Treaty drafted by the leaders of the Allies. To say that the Peace Treaty was punitive of Germany is to underestimate its role in the division of world into imperialist powers through multi-lateral institutions and territories under their control. The world as we know it now is largely shaped by this event one hundred years ago. Yet we are seldom encouraged to see the world through its continuing past.
Remember to break free
In the following, I offer a commemoration of the centennial of the Armistice. But not as a mode of learning from the past in order for us not to repeat its horrors. Learning from history is also about outmanueuvering the tendencies of powerful structures. I argue that the ideological constellation that came out of Armistice is the same ideological constellation that limits the way we think of the present and past, and imagine the future. In short, we are still the contemporaries of the people of the Armistice. Hence, this commemoration is less a freeing of some suppressed knowledge but an occasion to think of how to break free from this one hundred years freeze frame.
Mainstream accounts of WWI focus on the ideological struggle between democracy and autocracy. They are all about the tendencies of states and leaders as special figures or personalities. The same accounts almost always end with an argument that an allied victory led to the maintenance and even extension of liberal democracy in Europe and North America. But don’t we also know that these countries identified as “sharing a democratic heritage” such as Great Britain, France and the United States were large colonial empires that implemented the worst forms of violence among colonized peoples while maintaining some semblance of democracy in the homefront? This and other questions can be explained partially by what also took place around the same time—a break in Russian history, the Bolshevik Revolution that turned 100 years in 2017.
Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin sharply identified the First and Second World Wars as imperialist wars. While I think that Lenin’s theory of imperialism remains indispensable in analyzing the dynamics, contradictions and possible points of solidarity between the Global South and the dominant North, it is important to emphasize the significant contribution of this theory in our understanding of racial capitalism. For Lenin, imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism resolving its crisis of overproduction, and one of the most profitable ways to resolve this crisis is by going to war. “Imperialism means war.”
What does it mean to understand world wars as imperialist wars and to see the world from an anti-imperialist lens? In the following account, Losurdo carefully notes how Lenin
“refuse[s] to attribute the outbreak of the First World War exclusively to an imaginary German people, massively and consistently militaristic and bellicose throughout its history. One fact is especially significant. Although the Bolshevik leader regarded the Brest-Litovsk peace as rapacious, he compared Soviet Russia’s struggle against German imperialism to the struggle against Napoleon’s invasion and the occupation waged by Prussia, albeit that it was led by the Hohenzollerns, while Napoleon was in turn defined as ‘another plunderer like the Hohenzollerns’ The line of demarcation between progress and reaction, and between forces of peace and forces of war, is not definable once and for all; at all events, it never coincides with an ethnic boundary. What is required is concrete analysis of a concrete situation.”
“Whatever our political and moral judgement of Stalin,” Losurdo adds, “it remains the case that, with Lenin’s lesson in mind, he stressed that the genesis and modality of war ‘cannot be explained by the personal characteristics of the Japanese and the Germans.” It is worth noting that Bolshevik leaders were themselves ethnic/national minorities.
The Bolshevik Revolution’s break from Russian Tsarism through a socialist revolution allowed them to imagine and to a considerable extent realize a society that is not essentially defined by national boundaries, race, and ethnicity, and a system other than capitalism. From the Soviet communists, we learn that patriotism is about winning the struggle for national liberation against imperialism; and anti-imperialism means embracing proletarian internationalism and socialist revolution.
One hundred years after the Armistice, we are confronted by militarized villages where farmers toil on land monopolized by landlord-politicians, homeless people in decaying urban streets, unemployed, semi-proletariats, exploited workers in slums and/or urban poor enclaves. Migrants seeking refuge and currently marching shoulder-to-shoulder because of the dispossessive and violent logic of capital.
The Armistice paved the way for the creation of the League of Nations (League) that controlled the “mandates” or the assignment of the colonies of the defeated powers of Austria, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire to the Allies. During “peacetime,” the League took a look at Palestine and decided it was not ready for independence. That it became a mandate of Great Britain was good news for the Zionists. Great Britain’s Balfour Declaration of November 1917 fully supported the formation of a Jewish State in Palestine, which is now the Apartheid State of Israel.
The agreements and borders imposed by the Treaty of Versailles which partitioned the Middle East as colonies of the Allied forces had set the stage for a turbulent century for the Arab people. The war in Syria, the genocide in Yemen, even the war on drugs and extra-judicial killings in our very own country are evidences of how the crisis of global capitalism cannot maintain a semblance of liberal democracy. The atrocities of our time are not mere symptoms of liberal democracy’s dysfunctions but rather the logical result of a system that survives through exploitation and war.
Yet the current ideological constellation is still faithful to the conditions during the end of the Great War: liberal democracy or authoritarianism? Two sides of the same capitalist coin. Historically, and when capitalism afforded it, it made the vote of the people from the dominant North count but not for the working people of color. And never ever in the case of countries in the Global South where liberal democracy has never been more than a colonial imposition whose perfection is supposed to be every colonized native’s dream.
We are still suffering from a crisis-ridden capitalist system for which the First World War was fought and resolved and for which the superpowers imposed a division of the world that continues to emplace our lives and labors. We are still living and dying for the same system for which great wars were fought and ended so that proxy wars and multi-lateral formations like the United Nations (League of Nations resurrected), International Monetary Fund, World Bank, NATO, ASEAN, APEC, and the like will continue to consolidate, retool and recast, whenever necessary, the profits and liberties won by imperialist powers one hundred years ago.
Sarah Raymundo teaches at the University of the Philippine Diliman-Center for International Studies. She is the Chairperson of the Philippines-Venezuela Bolivarian Friendship Association. She also chairs the International Committee of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT). She is also the External Vice Chair of the Philippine Anti-Imperialist Studies (PAIS) and a member of the Editorial Board of Interface: A Journal for Social Movements.
*My grandparents and parents must have thought it was important to align the birthdate of their first-born (grand)daughter to the founding of the world based on a promise of peace and its very own betrayal. I am grateful to Dr. Reynaldo Raymundo for performing the C-section on Imelda Sarmiento Raymundo with such precision that made it possible for me to be born on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1976. I will always be grateful to my Mama, my Papa, Carlos J. Raymundo Jr., and my Lola, Remedios Jopson Raymundo for the successful implementation of plot behind my birth. Needless to say, they made everything about my life so far possible.
** I owe this compelling question to Prof. Wystan dela Pena who spearheaded University of the Philippines-Diliman’s commemoration of the centennial of the Armistice.
Losurdo, D. 2015. War and Revolution: Rethinking the 20th Century. NY: Verso