The world of the Russian Revolution: imperialist rivalries and the First World War

Written by Dominic Alexander, at Russia 1917: One Hundred Years On.

Mon 9 Jan, 2017

It is difficult to harbour ambivalent feelings about the Russian Revolution. It is usually either celebrated or bitterly regretted. One common lament is that the revolution would not have occurred if the First World War had not put a such a strain upon the rickety Tsarist state, such that it fell apart under the pressure of industrialised warfare. If not for this cataclysm, it is implied, the Russian state might have allowed some sort of liberal capitalism to evolve.

This would have been a deeply unlikely scenario in any case, but the real problem with the notion is that it ignores material reality: imperialist conflicts were inherent to the international system of the time. To treat the First World War as being a contingent event, unconnected with the problems of Russian state and society, is to ignore the clear historical relationship between imperialist war and the dynamics of capitalism. It is precisely that connection which is regularly denied. Not only does conventional thinking maintain a separation between economics and the political decisions which led to war, but it is often maintained that capitalism, left to its own devices, would naturally prevent war. In this view, war, and specifically the First World War, was the accidental product of political failings and not at all the product of systemic conflict.

Capitalist expansion had by 1900 had reached unprecedented heights, and the era might legitimately be described as an age of globalisation. Great cartels had arisen within the new industrial powers, such as Germany and the United States, and the cheerleaders of capitalism hailed its beneficent impact on humanity, much as they have in our more recent phase of globalisation. One English liberal, Norman Angell, argued that it would be against all capitalist interests, particularly of financiers, to go to war. For him, capitalism promoted cosmopolitan and peaceful trade.

Angell’s ideas in the War of Illusions are not a little reminiscent of the view propagated almost a century later, beginning in the 1990s, that international capitalism is a supremely progressive phenomenon. At its most vapid, there was Thomas Friedman’s extrapolations from the assertion that no two countries with a MacDonald’s outlet had ever gone to war with each other. The wider view assumes that international trade breaks down the backward nationalisms which alone lead to war. A right-wing-liberal notion now, in one form it actually appeared among German social-democrats before the First World War. Karl Kautsky notoriously suggested that capitalism was reaching a phase of ‘ultra-imperialism’, where interests were so interconnected that war would be impossible.

The First World War should have ended all such talk of the progressive nature of ‘globalisation’, but it is a tribute to the persistence of ideological thinking that it hasn’t. Indeed, the systematic denial of the economic causes of the war was noted as early as 1966 by a decidedly non-Marxist historian, who nonetheless argued that trade competition between Britain and Germany lay at the root of war:

‘It has, I know, been fashionable for more than a generation to deny this interpretation. In the reaction against Marxist slogans of ‘imperialist war’ and ‘the last stage of capitalism’, scholars have leaned over backwards to expunge the slightest taint of economic determinism from their lucubrations. Yet doctrine was never a valid guide to knowledge, at either end of the ideological spectrum, and this effort to rule out material considerations as causes of the World War betrays naïveté, or ignorance about the nature of power and the significance of power relations for the definition of national interests.’

It is also sometimes claimed that capitalist rivalry cannot have been the cause of the world war, because it began as a conflict in the underdeveloped east of Europe, between two of the least industrialised powers, Austria and Russia, over a largely agricultural state, Serbia. This argument should carry little conviction, firstly because the occasion of a conflict breaking out over a quarrel in one corner of the world hardly accounts for that issue leading to a world war. The reality of Anglo-German imperialist rivalry, as just one other dimension, cannot be swept away that easily. Secondly, backward as Austria and Russia might have been in comparison with Britain, France and Germany, the dynamics of their imperial rivalry were just as capitalist as those of the Western powers.

Russia had been a major player in European international conflict since the eighteenth century, of course, but after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the reality of advanced, capitalist imperialism had increasingly borne down upon the standing and prestige of the Tsarist state. Russia was humiliated by the Anglo-French invasion of the Crimea, despite the famous debacles on the other side. If Tsarism was to continue to be a real power on the international stage, and expand at the expense of its traditional enemy, the Ottoman Empire, something had to change.

The result was a kind of revolution from above, imposed by a faction of reform minded nobility around Tsar Alexander II, in which the single most important measure was the abolition of serfdom. The peasants gained their legal freedom, but little of the land, and they were burdened with the long-term debt of ‘redemption payments’. These measures were precisely designed to keep the peasantry poor and dependent on the landowners, therefore providing the economy with a cheap labour force to fuel industrialisation. Thus, from this decisive step in Russia’s transition towards capitalist social relations, the international context of imperialism was a driving force. To suppose that the actions of Russian imperialism in 1914 were somehow separate from the wider world of capitalist imperialism is indeed to remain resolutely blind to ‘the nature of power and the significance of power relations for the definition of national interests’. Not for the first time, and not for the last time in Russian history, it was the ruling class’ need to compete with other powers that significantly determined the path of internal economic development.

Russia thus began along the road of serious industrial development, particularly from the 1880s onwards, alongside an accelerated internal expansion into its eastern Siberian territories. A trans-Siberian railway connecting European Russia with the Pacific enabled the Tsarist state to harbour designs upon a sphere of influence in China. China was of course seen as a great prize, and every power wanted influence there and at least a share of its potential markets. For Russia, this drive to the east ended with another great humiliation in its catastrophic defeat during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 over Manchuria. This marked the rise of Japan as the first Asian great power of the modern period, but also re-focused Tsarist ambitions westwards.

Another area of significant tension all through the nineteenth century was the whole region of central Asia, where both Russia and Britain were suspicious of each other’s presence and intentions. The British saw all Russian advances between the Caspian Sea and China as a potential threat to India, the real centrepiece of its empire. The long history of mistrust, and indeed proxy wars with the nineteenth-century British invasions of Afghanistan, ended with the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, which defined their differing spheres of influence. Persia (Iran), and its oil, was neatly divided into northern and southern halves, so that the economic interests of the two imperialisms could accommodate each other without too much friction. Such an amicable subjection of a formally independent state was perhaps only possible because of all the other international tensions and rivalries both Russia and Britain were concerned to contain.


To read more of this article, and for more pieces on the legacy of the Russian Revolution during this 100th  anniversary year, be sure to check out Russia 1917: One Hundred Years On.