Britain’s entry into the 1914-18 war and the role of individuals: A response to Neil Faulkner by Harry Ratner
From LSHG Newsletter #45 (Summer 2012)
[In the Spring 2009 LSHG Newsletter Neil Faulkner responded critically to my article ‘1914 and the Role of the Individual’ dealing with Britain’s entry into World War I and the role of Lloyd George and the British cabinet. My excuse/ explanation for my tardiness in responding to his critique is that for some reason I must have not received or mislaid and forgotten the newsletter issue containing Neil’s article and only read it a few weeks ago. But better late than never, so here goes!]
Neil completely misconstrues the purpose of my article. He writes Harry’s approach involves, at various points, an uncoupling of things that are dialectically linked, for instance, by distinguishing sharply between approaches which stress the 'determinist’ element in history (‘the unfolding of objective laws’) and those which stress the ’voluntarist’ (‘the importance of the individual’.)
In fact, I argued just the opposite: One of the problems facing socialist historians – particularly Marxist historians – is what weight to give to the two strands in Marxism, the determinist and the voluntarist; and how to reconcile the two.
I drew attention to the paradox that thousands of Marxists who accepted the Marxist view that communism is historically determined by the objective laws of history to become the next stage of society should have given their lives, risked torture and imprisonment for something that would come about anyway, irrespective of their subjective desires because it was determined by objective laws – why not just opt out of the struggle and enjoy life as the revolution would succeed anyway?
If, according to Plekhanov, the presence or absence of even great men like Robespierre and Napoleon (and by implication Lenin and Trotsky) could not fundamentally alter the course of history but only its details why should Harry Ratner or Neil Faulkner bother themselves with trying to understand and influence events? My dropping out of the Trotskyist movement and lapsing into inactivity years ago was prompted by such a ‘determinist’ interpretation of Marxism.
Since then I realised I was wrong and now accept that the actions of even the lowliest individual CAN have an effect – how big or small an effect depends largely on the overall objective conditions and the individual’s place in society. Since then I have tried to fit in this understanding of the role of the individual into an overall view of history — in other words, how the actions of individuals fit in or mesh with the action of large-scale social forces. This was the purpose of my article.
I stated that I believe it is possible to reconcile the determinist and voluntarist strands. I will look at the factors leading to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and, particularly Britain’s entry into the war to argue that a holistic view of history is better than a strictly economic reductionist one or a purely voluntarist one.
There are two ways of describing historical events. One is to concentrate on large scale social forces and entities – capitalism, nationalism, religious and ethnic conflicts etc. and in the process try to work out objective laws that govern developments. The other way is to concentrate on the actions of individuals (the ‘great men’ approach) One can describe these different approaches as the determinist and voluntarist approaches or the bird’s eye view and the worm’s eye view. Both are valid approaches. The problem is how they mesh and this is the problem I have been trying to grapple with.
Both approaches are incomplete on their own. To explain the 1914 war (or any other event) purely in terms of impersonal socio-economic forces is incomplete. The guns didn’t go off by themselves – persons had to fire them and other persons had to order them to fire; armies did not assemble themselves and march off to the fronts unless ordered to do so. And these orders came eventually from governments via a chain of command.
And these governments were made up of conscious, thinking human beings. A film or theatrical producer making a film or putting on a play describing the outbreak of war would need a cast of characters; these would portray actual people, politicians, generals, monarchs, soldiers etc. S/he would not have characters called ‘capitalism’, ‘nationalism’ etc. striding the stage and issuing commands – unless, of course, he was writing an allegorical play. But then everyone would know that this was an incomplete and one-sided explanation.
Let me reassure Neil again; I am not denying that socio-economic factors are major factors in causing wars or determining when and how they break out. But we must never forget that these factors act through human beings. In other words, the actions of individuals and groups of individuals, organised in governments and armies, are necessary links in the network of causes and effects that constitutes history.
It is also necessary to remember that so-called impersonal forces, capitalism, market forces, etc are not physical entities in themselves but ways in which human beings react with each other and the laws that govern their inter-relations. For example take the laws of the market, the laws that determine exchange value. On the one hand it is absolutely correct to argue that the price of a commodity is determined in general and in the long run by its cost of production, whether this is measured according to Marx by the socially necessary labour needed to produce it, or according to bourgeois economists by other factors. On the other hand it is also a fact that in each individual case the price at which a commodity is bought and sold is dependent on the buyer and seller mutually agreeing the price.The transaction depends on the conscious actions of individuals who are also influenced by secondary, non economic factors.
THE ACTIONS OF HUMAN BEINGS ARE NECESSARY LINKS IN THE NETWORKS OF CAUSE AND EFFECT. And because flesh and blood human beings are not purely rational economic units, but have emotions and desires and not always accurate perceptions of their real interests, their actions are influenced by a mix of economic and non-economic factors and often irrational fears. You have merely to look at the erratic fluctuation of share prices, or the price of oil due to often unfounded rumours and then the denial of these rumours. Or for example how shares on the stock exchange plunged one day at the prospect of Tony Blair’s election in 1997 and then recovered the next day when nothing had changed.
It is only in the long run, over large aggregates of units and long periods of time that economic trends can be discerned and objective laws that govern them be discerned. There is always the constant possibility of the working out of these objective laws being distorted by the (often irrational) decisions of key individuals. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the effect of individuals’ actions must be included in the factors determining these objective laws.
Having digressed on to economics let us return to the question of war – and as a case in point the 1914 war – the subject of the article Neil is criticising. Let me repeat what I have argued above. Both the determinist and voluntarist approaches are valid but incomplete in themselves – the problem is to reconcile them in what I called in my article a holistic approach. What I attempted in my article was to do this but it seems from Neil’s critique not clearly enough nor do I claim to have fully answered all the problems such an attempt poses.
For example, on the question of Britain’s entry into World War I there is the problem of relating the decisions and motives of Lloyd George and other cabinet members to the nature of the war. Surely their motives must have helped determine the nature of the war – whether and how far it was a war over markets etc and how far it was driven by purely military, political and geopolitical considerations. Did these cabinet ministers, as they pondered their decisions ask themselves ‘What is in the interests of British capitalism?’
And did the members of the French government, the Kaiser and his advisers, the Tsar and his ministers think in that way? If they had done so then we could have said with certainty that the war was fought for capitalist aims – that it was a capitalist war. But they were not Marxists, and did not think as Marxists, I cannot claim to know what their thought processes were but it is extremely unlikely that they though in Marxist terms.
Their world-view, their perceptions were determined by the ideas imbued in them by their education and upbringing. It is likely that these politicians thought in terms of the ‘national interest’ which, of course included what was good for business but also many other considerations – political and military, questions of prestige etc.
In so far as they were influenced by the desires of British businesses and bankers, the evidence, as I pointed out, did not indicate an overwhelming desire for war on Germany. On the contrary there was a lot of fear of its consequences. Do these subjective thoughts in the minds of the actors not have an effect on how one should explain the nature of the result of their actions?
I may be wrong but it is for Neil to demonstrate that the British cabinet was driven by the desire of the City, the bankers and industrialists for war expressed in clear terms to the government. And that a decision to go to war driven, in part at least by a mixture of motives hasn’t a mixed character reflecting these motives.
If in the case of Britain and France economic motives were mixed up with geopolitical ones in the minds of the decision makers how much more so was it in the case of monarchical Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary? Surely, as I pointed out, the decisions were mainly driven by pre-bourgeois or non-bourgeois conceptions of national, dynastic, balance of power considerations. The interests of the national economy were a factor but not the only factor.
Even if it were true that drives of imperialist expansion resulting in rivalries for colonies, markets, sources of raw material etc on a finite planet made war inevitable, the actual timing of its outbreak and the alignment of nations one with another were not inevitable and depended on the decisions of a few individuals in positions of power.
I repeat - the actions and decisions of individuals are an integral component and determinant of the so-called objective laws of history. The immediate causes of historical events (unless they are acts of nature such floods, volcanoes and earthquakes – and even some of these are influenced by human actions) are the actions of people and these actions are dependent on their conscious decisions.
These in turn are determined by emotions and perceived needs. Objective laws of history are the outcome of the inter-related actions of millions of individual people. It is also true – and here Neil and I are in agreement - that the actions of people are constrained and determined by the material and social conditions in which they have to act, by the objective conditions in which they find themselves and which are the result of previous actions and events. All I was trying to do is argue against an over-determinist and mechanical approach and downgrading of the importance of the individual common among many Marxists.
A possible argument Neil might put is that the subjective views and ideas held by people do express objective class interests but in a hidden way; that the fact that Lloyd George, the Kaiser, the Tsar and their advisers thought in terms of patriotism or dynastic, geopolitical interests did not alter the objectively capitalist and economic nature of the war.
In the same way the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries are seen by Marxists as objectively class struggles between the emerging bourgeoisie and feudalism, the material aims of the bourgeoisie being expressed in religious terms. Even if true does this really mean that the subjective beliefs of the protagonists were not embedded causal factors in the whole network of cause and effect and not part of the story?
Were the protestant and catholic martyrs burnt at the stake motivated only by a subconscious desire to defend class interests – a real motivation transformed by subconscious psychological mechanism into religious belief? Do not the subjective motivations for an action help determine its nature?
When a person moves from Bradford to Manchester in order to start a business or get a better-paid job that makes the move an economic one. But when the same person moves to be able to care for elderly parents it is no longer driven by economic considerations (although it might also have economic consequences).
All this supports my argument against economic reductionism; against either the completely determinist or completely voluntarist approaches but for a holistic one giving due weight to large-scale material and social factors and the subjective ideas and decisions of individuals and seeking a causal relation between the two.
Incidentally, a worthwhile subject for research and discussion is exactly how and through what mechanism is a subconscious desire to pursue material self or class interest transformed into a conscious religious or political motivation. This is a problem for the psychologists as much as for historians.
I agree with several points made by Neil, points on which he thinks we disagree but on which we do actually agree. For example on so-called bourgeois revolutions I agree with Neil that ‘traditional elites and new capitalist elites are rarely divided by irreconcilable class antagonisms’. In other articles I have also described how capitalism evolved in Germany under the rule of Bismarck and a landowning Junker class.
Further on Neil writes: It is not a matter of either/or. Capitalist (i.e. economic) competition and great-power (i.e. geopolitical) competition fused in the crisis of 1914.
Precisely what I was trying to point out – only adding that subjective decisions of key groups of individuals were also among the causal factors.
Further on Neil agrees with me that of course they [the British cabinet] could have decided otherwise, and that had they done so, the effect on 20th century history would have been immense and that individuals can make a huge difference.
Neil, at the end of his critique seems concerned that my approach seems to absolve British capitalism specifically, and world capitalism more generally, of responsibility for the carnage and chaos of 1914-1918.
If this is the main reason for his critique let me reassure him. I still think that the socialists who opposed the 1914 war were absolutely justified, and that nothing I have written contradicts my complete opposition to the latest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the threatened war against Iran.
Edited to add: A recent article by Neil Faulkner on '1914: Descent into Barbarism'