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June 25th 2014 print

Mervyn F. Bendle

The Imperialist War That Wasn’t

The Great War prompted an unprecedented crisis in the world socialist movement because it revealed that a foundational principle of its existence—proletarian internationalism—was an illusion. But not to worry, fresh myths were easy enough to fabricate

wwIA century ago socialism was going to save the world. War was a product of capitalism, socialists claimed, and as international tensions ebbed and flowed they insisted that united action by the international proletariat would make any such conflagration impossible. This proved a tragic delusion but it gave rise to a myth about the origins of the Great War that continues to have great influence on the Left and throughout academia and popular culture. Consequently, for nearly a century the Anzac tradition has been undermined by the false assertion that the bloody sacrifices of the war were merely episodes in an imperialist conflict that achieved nothing at the cost of many young lives. In fact this simplistic and nihilist view is a carefully cultivated leftist falsehood whose origins lie in the fierce ideological struggles over the nature and destiny of capitalism, imperialism and socialism that consumed the international Left in the decades leading up to the war, and in the Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy that emerged after the war with the triumph of the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution.

That victory saw the establishment of the Communist International, which operated under the close supervision of V.I. Lenin, the leader of the new Soviet Union, and quickly achieved political, financial and ideological domination over the world’s communist parties. As earlier analyses, and a new study, Secret Cables of the Comintern, 1933–1943, by Fridrikh I. Firsov, Harvey Klehr and John Earl Haynes, demonstrate, the Comintern set out to entrench the idea that the Soviet Union and the international communist movement were champions of peace and opponents of capitalism and imperialism, which were portrayed as the sole sources of conflict and war. This campaign plunged so deeply into mendacity that the German and other communist parties were even instructed to unite with the Nazis “for the struggle against imperialism and war [and] for peace and socialism”, as the Comintern sought to portray Nazi Germany as a positive force for world peace opposing the “imperialist” West at the outbreak of the Second World War.

At the time of the Great War, the principal text was Lenin’s 1917 manifesto, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, “the New Testament of Marxism-Leninism”, as David Shub described it in Lenin: A Biography (1966). Lenin’s book was a highly derivative work that departed in major ways from traditional Marxist analysis but nevertheless provided the doctrinal capstone to the Old Testament canon of Marx and Engels, purporting to reveal the apocalyptic destiny of capitalism, and becoming “one of the most influential opinions in today’s world”, as Adam Ulam recognised in Lenin and the Bolsheviks (1969). It was a radical jeremiad depicting “an aggressive, bloodthirsty, racist, immoral capitalist class [exploiting nationalism and militarism] to annex the world and subdue its major competitors”, as Christopher Read observes in Lenin (2005).

Despite its manifest inadequacies, Lenin’s theory of imperialism has flourished as a foundational conviction of leftist ideology, colouring every area of academic and cultural debate, including history, sociology, politics, legal studies, radical environmentalism, and literature, which its contemporary versions have themselves colonised as “post-colonial theory”.

According to Lenin, the war was an inevitable part of the international class struggle and was to be welcomed as the opening phase in the final crisis of capitalism. As he declared in Imperialism,

the war of 1914–18 was imperialistic (that is, an annexationist, predatory, plunderous war) on the part of both sides; it was a war for the division of the world, for the partition and repartition of colonies, [into] spheres of influence of finance capital.

Millions were sacrificed merely “to decide whether the British or German group of financial marauders is to receive the most booty”. Such simplistic claims were patently wrong and are entertained by no reputable historians: for example, Paul Ham in 1914: The Year the World Ended (2013) states explicitly that “Colonial rivalry between Germany, Britain and France did not lead to war”, while Max Hastings, in Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (2013) makes no mention of imperialism at all.

Lenin’s interpretation became the orthodox opinion on the Left because of the power of the Comintern in the crucial post-war decades, and because the thesis of a predatory, imperialistic West became essential to Marxism-Leninism, the state ideology of the Soviet Union, devised to legitimise its hegemonic role in international communism. It was reasserted vigorously during the Vietnam War period when it was adopted by the New Left in the universities to become a bedrock assumption that is still present throughout the humanities and social sciences.

Before the Bolshevik coup d’état fortuitously made Lenin the first dictator of the Soviet Union, he was a peripatetic Marxist theoretician and cantankerous activist on the far left of the socialist movement. Continually on the run from the Tsarist secret police, and deeply immersed in the conspiratorial world of international socialism, he waged an endless ideological and political campaign against other revolutionary luminaries for the doctrinal soul of communism. This rivalry became all the more intense as the war seemed to herald the final apocalyptic end of bourgeois civilisation and the advent of the communist utopia, in which the last great leadership role in human history was there to be taken by those, like Lenin, who were eager to play the messiah.

Unfortunately for Lenin, his evangel wasn’t getting across. He was certain he had grasped the truth about the inevitable trajectory of history, and took heart from the carnage of the war, convinced it presaged a continental class war and made the communist apocalypse inevitable. Nevertheless, his messianic proclivities, lifelong intellectual arrogance, irascibility, impatience and intolerance of other opinions had left him politically marginalised. As Barbara Tuchman recounts in The Proud Tower (1966), the president of the Second (Socialist) International, Emile Vandervelde, observed how Lenin’s denunciation of his fellow communists and social democrats produced only exasperation, and that no one paid much attention to the “little man with the narrow eyes, rusty beard, and monotone voice, forever explaining with exact and glacial politeness the traditional Marxist formulas”.

Increasingly isolated in Zurich, Lenin became a shrill and desperate figure, driven to accost Herr Nobse, the editor of a socialist newspaper, in the street, grabbing him by the arm to explain “the inevitability of a world revolution”, as his deeply embarrassed wife recalls in Shub’s account. Moved to tears by the episode, she described how Lenin, “with his trembling hand fastened on the button of Nobse’s overcoat, trying to convince the man of the soundness of his position, looked very tragic”, a “great white polar bear from the Russian north”, imprisoned by the ignorance of those who refused to accept his apocalyptic message of Marxist redemption.

Lenin’s messianic ideological struggle had begun years before and it was a conflict fought on several fronts. On the theoretical level he was concerned that traditional Marxism didn’t account for the failure of the Western working class to sink into economic misery and assume its pre-ordained role as the Revolutionary Subject of the final phase of history. Neither did it have much to say about the shift from industrial to finance capital in the advanced societies or about the world-transforming emergence of imperialism. Nor did it identify an unambiguous place in the revolutionary scheme for politically and economically backward nations like Russia. For Lenin, his theory of imperialism provided solutions to these problems.

At the political level, Lenin was consumed with the desire to preserve the revolutionary purity of the communist movement, ensuring that it did not succumb to what he saw as reformist opportunism or the illusions of bourgeois parliamentarianism, promoted especially in Germany. Above all, he insisted most vehemently on the historically crucial role to be played by the revolutionary vanguard operating on the Bolshevik model—that is, a militant elite bound tightly together under a central leadership dominated by himself, and dedicated utterly to pushing through the revolution when the messianic moment arrived.

All of these issues crystallised with the outbreak of the Great War, which created an unprecedented crisis in the world socialist movement because it revealed that a foundational principle of its existence—proletarian internationalism—was an illusion. This assumption about the cross-border solidarity of the working class had been an item of faith since the first Socialist International was formed in 1864 and persisted after it collapsed in 1876. It lived on within the far more powerful Second International, formed in 1889, and played an important political role until 1916 when that organisation also collapsed. Both Internationals refused to credit the power of nationalism and insisted that, when the moment of military crisis came, the workers would always look beyond mere national loyalties to their true class interests and that this would make a major war between industrialised nations impossible.

The sad tale of the Second International and the approach of war can largely be told in terms of its various congresses. There, the inevitable debates on militarism and war ensured that the tensions within the movement would always be highlighted. Throughout its history the International struggled to manage two fundamentally irreconcilable forces. On one hand it retained an absolute commitment at the ideological level to the ideal of proletarian internationalism; while on the other it recognised the need to tread carefully on the issue in the realm of practical politics, where nationalism and patriotism attracted great support across all classes. It was never able intellectually to confront the implications of this contradiction between the ideological idealism that it professed and the political reality that it actually had to deal with.

Lenin’s intransigent extremism always exacerbated this tension: he regarded international proletarian solidarity as a given, but wasn’t interested in preventing an outbreak of war; rather he welcomed it as inevitable in an imperialist era and believed it could be transformed into a continental civil war between classes, overthrowing capitalism and bringing forth the communist utopia. He therefore had nothing but contempt for pacifism and his greatest fear was that the war would finish before it could be transformed into revolution. He promoted his view relentlessly during the many conferences held by the Left, even sending his wife and mistress to those held for socialist women and communist youth that he couldn’t himself attend. There they argued his case while he hovered nearby to direct their tactics, “firing off instructions at every juncture and ensuring that … his trusty delegates split the conference, overriding the largely pacifist sentiments of the women gathered there by propounding Lenin’s highly inflammatory calls for revolution and civil war”, as Helen Rappaport recounts in Conspirator: Lenin in Exile (2010).

International tensions were high when the massive 1907 Congress of the Second International convened in Stuttgart. Attended by 886 delegates from twenty-five nations, it struggled desperately to produce a workable policy on war and militarism, with debate lasting for six days, dominated by the French and German delegations. The French were divided, with one faction supporting the position that every country’s proletariat had the right to defend its national sovereignty in the event of aggression, while the other insisted that it was the duty of the working class to use every means available, including protests, strikes and insurrections, to prevent war. The German delegation dismissed such posturing as delusional and not even discussible in Germany where the Social Democratic Party (SPD) faced the ever-present threat that it could be fined or banned and its leaders imprisoned if it sufficiently irritated Kaiser Wilhelm’s militaristic regime.

The final resolution at Stuttgart was carefully worded to avoid provoking the regime or alienating popular support. War was condemned as the inevitable result of the fierce global competition between capitalist nations supported by “national prejudices systematically cultivated in the interests of the ruling classes”. The replacement of standing armies by democratic militias of “the armed people” was proposed as “an effective means for making aggressive wars impossible”. Should war nevertheless threaten or break out, the working class was entreated to “do all they can [using whatever] means which appear to them most efficacious”, to ensure peace. True to form, Lenin, supported by the ultra-radical Rosa Luxemburg, had a revolutionary rider added to the resolution, stipulating that in the event of war socialists were to exploit the situation “to hasten the breakdown of the predominance of the capitalist class”.

A similar story unfolded at the Copenhagen Congress in 1910, which confirmed the existing policy but added a tentative and ponderous addendum that member parties “shall consider whether a general strike should not be proclaimed if necessary in order to prevent the crime of war”. Even this worried the German delegates, who feared the SPD might have its funds confiscated and that they might be prosecuted for treason.

Four years and various special congresses and conferences later, the issue had still not been resolved although the ideal of proletarian internationalism still prevailed as a fundamental article of faith. And so, as the war was about to explode in 1914, Lenin expected even the reformist SPD to oppose it, “if for no other reason than for fear the working class will rise up against them” if they did otherwise, as Shub relates. As it turned out, the SPD did the opposite, following the other socialist parties and supporting their national governments, voting for military credits in the Reichstag, while the masses embraced the war, exposing the vacuity of “socialist internationalism”. Lenin was so dumbfounded by these events that he insisted that the copy of the paper in which he read the news must have been a forgery concocted by the German General Staff to mislead important revolutionaries like him.

With the war under way, Lenin expounded his own intransigent position in October 1914. According to “The War and Russian Social Democracy”, the conflict was one for which “the governments and the bourgeois parties of all countries [had] been preparing for decades”, and it had been caused by “the growth of armaments, the extreme intensification of the struggle for markets in the latest—the imperialist—stage of capitalist development”. This, in turn, involved the “seizure of territory and subjugation of other nations, the ruining of competing nations, and the plunder of their wealth” in order to bribe and pacify the proletariat, and corrupt or exterminate its leadership. The only hope for peace lay with the revolutionary vanguard exposing the true reasons for the war and leading the workers in “a civil war against the bourgeoisie both of its ‘own’ and ‘foreign’ countries”, as he put it to emphasise the supposed transnational loyalty of the proletariat. According to Lenin, the workers dragooned into the trenches should turn their guns against their officers, unite in a revolutionary uprising, and transform the conflict into a continental class war.

After a year of war, leading left-wing socialists gathered in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, in September 1915, in the first of three conferences convened over the next two years to co-ordinate opposition to the conflict. In a gesture of solidarity the French and German delegations submitted a joint declaration that the war was caused by the imperialist policies of all governments and therefore wasn’t the affair of the workers. Lenin had spent the previous six months on holiday in the Swiss Alps, hiking, bathing nude in the rivers, cycling, and “picking berries and mushrooms in the forest”, as Rappaport recalls. He did very little party work or writing and instead read the novels of Victor Hugo:

The truth was that he was far more preoccupied with abstract theory than with the terrible slaughter going on daily at the front: he never was able to identify with human suffering in all its brutal reality but only with the collective masses in an abstract way.

Nevertheless, he felt compelled to denounce the “bourgeois pacifist shitheads” attending the Zimmerwald conference and proposed a resolution calling for an immediate European-wide class war to be conducted under the direction of a new revolutionary international organisation. This was rejected in favour of a far less inflammatory call for peace without annexations or indemnities, and self-determination for the peoples of Europe, without specifying what this might entail.

Lenin attended the next conference at Kienthal in April 1916 as a leader of what had become known as the “Zimmerwald Left”. This radical faction insisted that the war had been caused by imperialist rivalry, and that all attempts to end it were counter-revolutionary because they perpetuated the illusion that it was possible for capitalism to exist without war. The correct position was to nurture the revolutionary consciousness that would arise out of wartime misery and pursue the internationalist goal of the “unification of socialist peoples” through global class war. The only peace program that revolutionaries should promote was one that called upon the proletariat to turn their guns on their common enemy—the capitalist governments that had brought the war about, and their militaristic minions.

Meanwhile, Lenin’s relentless campaigning had brought him to the attention of German military intelligence, which saw him as an asset in destabilising the Russian war effort, and they were prepared to fund Bolshevik subversion. According to Rappaport:

Russia, they knew, was the weakest link in the Triple Entente. As for Lenin himself, capitulation to Germany was perfectly acceptable … if it precipitated the end of Tsarism in Russia, which he believed was a “hundred times worse than Kaiserism”.

Sustained by German support, Lenin buried himself in the Zurich public library during 1916 to write Imperialism, laying down the thesis that “capitalist states, in their pursuit for new markets and colonies, would always settle their competitive differences by war. Only the destruction of the capitalist system … would bring an end to the epoch of imperialist wars”, as Ulam recounts.

By the time the Stockholm conference took place in September 1917, the Russian Revolution had broken out and Lenin had returned to Russia in a sealed train provided by the Germans, leaving Zurich to cries of support from his followers, and condemnation from those convinced he had sold out and was little more than a German agent. Nevertheless, the stance of the Zimmerwald Left had hardened even more. Their delegates at Stockholm were now instructed to condemn any “capitalist peace” entered into by the governments of the capitalist states, decreeing that “true peace” would only be achieved through the creation of socialist republics and support for the Russian Revolution, which was a harbinger of mass action undertaken on a global scale to achieve “the final liberation of mankind”.

This position became ideological orthodoxy on the Left once Lenin was ensconced as dictator of the new Soviet Union and had established the Comintern as the co-ordinating body of the world’s communist and socialist parties. And at the core of the new orthodoxy was Imperialism. Remarkably, for a work that became central to the Marxist-Leninist canon, Lenin’s book relied heavily on the work of the liberal journalist J.A. Hobson, whose book, Imperialism: A Study (1901), argued that “the economic taproot of imperialism [was] excessive capital in search of investment”. Hobson was not a Marxist but a left-wing anti-imperialist and an extremely prolific writer on economic affairs who popularised the theory of underconsumption, according to which the maldistribution of income in domestic markets meant that capitalism would tend towards economic crises because these markets were unable to consume the goods and services produced by the economy.

Hobson’s most influential idea flowed from this: that imperial rivalry grew out of the desire of Western capitalists to find more profitable places to invest as domestic competition and incremental gains by the working class forced down their profits and depressed the return on capital. Investment in the colonies was therefore undertaken because labour, land and resources were cheap, while capital was scarce and could command super-profits. Hobson also incidentally denounced the consequences of colonialism on the native populations, suggesting complete decolonisation, and coming “perilously close to recommending that the non-European areas be allowed to stew in their own juice”, as Ulam observed.

To give his argument the necessary revolutionary élan, Lenin also appropriated ideas from various Marxist intellectuals, including Rudolf Hilferding, Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin. Hilferding’s Finance Capital (1910) analysed the shift from the competitive “laissez-faire” capitalism that characterised Marx’s time to the monopolistic “finance capital” system of cartels and trusts that had emerged in the decades before the war. This was seen by socialists as an increasingly polarised world, “red in tooth and claw”, where “monopolies were wild beasts stalking the entire globe for profit [and] anything and anyone in their path was doomed”, as Read recalls in Lenin. Like Hobson, Hilferding explained imperialism in terms of the desire of capitalists for investment opportunities but didn’t think this would lead inevitably to international conflict, as the dominant capitalist powers, guided by the magnates of finance capital, could reach agreement to divide up the world among themselves.

Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital (1913) purported to complete Marx’s work by revealing the exact mechanism by which capitalism proceeded towards its inevitable collapse. She argued that capitalists were faced in their domestic markets with a lack of effective demand because the proletariat was excessively exploited and therefore lacked sufficient purchasing power to clear the markets of the commodities produced. This led capitalists to promote imperialism in pre-capitalist regions where they could establish colonies and sell their surplus produce to realise its inherent surplus value, thus sustaining themselves. However, these regions would inevitably be incorporated into the capitalist system, eliminating this option and causing the system to collapse.

Bukharin completed his major work, Imperialism and World Economy, in 1915, when the manuscript was provided to Lenin, who appropriated its key ideas. Bukharin drew on Hobson and Hilferding but also emphasised the growing economic role of the state and the emergence of “a new social form, state capitalism, i.e., an economy centrally planned and regulated on the scale of a nation state”, involving the extension of state control “to ever wider areas of civil society and the intensification of human slavery”, as Leszek Kolakowski recounts in Main Currents of Marxism (1978). This made the system ripe for revolution because government control was already pervasive and the socialists just needed to seize power and take over the state apparatus. Bukharin also argued that the proletariat in the advanced societies had been bought off by higher wages and the illusion of democracy, and that the true revolutionary potential lay on the periphery of the imperialist system, in the colonial regions. He analysed this situation in terms of the “uneven development” of the imperialist system composed of a chain of interdependent economies that could be attacked at the weakest link. This was a pivotal idea that appealed greatly to Lenin as it provided a rationale for theorising that the revolution could break out in the less-developed nations, including Russia.

(Death stalked these theorists: after the war Luxemburg was brutally murdered by the German Freikorps; Hilferding condemned the Bolshevik terror inaugurated under Lenin’s regime and was later killed by the Gestapo; and Bukharin rose to the top of the Soviet regime only to be executed by Stalin under that very terror, asking plaintively of his erstwhile revolutionary comrade, “Why do you need me to die?”)

Despite Lenin’s recourse to these Marxist luminaries, it is a striking characteristic of Imperialism that it departs significantly from the work of Marx, upon which it is purportedly based. As even the communist historian Eric Hobsbawm concedes in How to Change the World (2011), “Imperialism … contains no reference whatsoever to the text of Marx and Engels”. Its most remarkable divergence is its marginalisation of Marx’s core conception of capital accumulation as the driver of historical development. According to Marx, it is the creative power of capital that propels capitalism in the advanced economies to the very threshold of socialist revolution and gives the proletariat in those societies its role as history’s Revolutionary Subject, ushering in the communist utopia. Lenin, however, disregarded this absolutely fundamental conception—the very essence of “scientific socialism” that had made Marxism so attractive to militant socialists and intellectuals for half a century. Instead, he arbitrarily transferred this world-transforming role to the masses in Europe’s colonies and backward nations like Russia. Later, after he became dictator of the Soviet Union, he discovered that its paucity of capital made the transition to any semblance of a communist utopia impossible, ushering in the series of brutal but ineffectual state-directed economic regimes that led ultimately to the deaths of tens of millions of people.

This tragic outcome exemplified the basic problem of all these Marxist analyses: they were wrong, despite their appearance of erudition and theoretical daring. They failed to come to grips with the economic and political reality of the world they purported to understand, and intended to transform through violent revolution. “In no sense was [Imperialism] a true account of the economic development of the colonial territories,” observes Robert Conquest in Lenin (1972). In particular, while there was considerable foreign investment in the late nineteenth century undertaken by British, German and French interests, most of this was directed to other European states (including Russia), the United States, Latin America and Australasia, avoiding the regions of Africa and Asia that had been the site of high-profile imperial expansion in the decades after 1870, and that were meant to serve as the “weak links” in the imperialist system. Moreover, in the case of Britain, foreign investment involved little net outflow of capital, being financed from the re-investment of profits. Super-profits also were rare, with even the Rand mines in South Africa generating an average rate of return of 4.1 per cent or less.

Most importantly, the cost of running an empire imposed a significant burden on the domestic economies. Consequently, the working-class standard of living was comparatively high in countries like Sweden and Denmark, which had no colonies, and low in France and Belgium, which did have. As far as Britain was concerned, Niall Ferguson points out in Empire (2003) that it might have reaped a “decolonisation dividend” equivalent to a 25 per cent tax cut if it had disposed of its empire in the 1840s. In fact it was the mounting costs of empire over the subsequent half-century that prompted Hobson to write his book, putting the case that Britain’s available capital would be better invested domestically.

Moreover, far from wanting war, finance capital established a vast network of commercial relationships that depended on political stability, not conflict. Indeed, the prohibitive costs of pursuing imperialist gains through war were obvious to the financial and business establishment, as the Polish banker and railway financier, Ivan Bloch, made clear in an exhaustive study of modern industrial warfare, Is War Now Impossible? published in six volumes in 1898. In Germany, the larger banks, which Lenin was convinced were promoting imperialist adventures, had in fact made confidential submissions to their government arguing against such expansion, denouncing those companies that were involved as opportunists using the funds of adventurist investors.

Nevertheless, despite their fundamental disconnection from reality, the works of Lenin, Luxemburg, Hilferding, Bukharin and their followers embedded in the collective consciousness one of the central ideas of twentieth-century radical thought: that the Great War was a conflict between two opposing capitalist blocs, one led by England and the other by Germany, driven by destructive economic forces into a desperate fight for global imperialistic domination, and that the millions who had died did so not for any noble ideals but merely to advance the interests of the ruling class of the regime that they served. In fact, on the Allied side they had committed their lives to the defence of liberal democracy against a form of militaristic authoritarianism that developed within two decades into a rampaging, terroristic totalitarian state seeking world domination.

These theorists also promoted a more general idea: that the apparent economic achievements of liberal democratic civilisation are fraudulent and gained at the cost of war and imperialistic rapacity. They depict a zero-sum game played out on a global scale, where the elevated standard of living enjoyed by the citizens of the “core” societies of the capitalist world system are the results of the systematic exploitation of oppressed people on its “periphery”. They refuse to accept that such prosperity was produced by the efficient application of capital, labour, land, resources, technology and intelligence, painstakingly undertaken over generations within the core.

They also sought to “save the appearances” of Marxist prophecy, explaining the absence of revolutionary fervour in the West by insisting that “super-profits” generated by imperialism made it possible for the ruling class in the advanced societies to buy off the industrial proletariat in the core societies and bribe its leaders, creating a reactionary “labour aristocracy” and forestalling the revolution. Overall, in this Social Darwinist fight-to-the-finish, the wealth of the West is portrayed as little more than contraband, and the alleged impoverishment of the rest of humanity trapped on the periphery is portrayed as a crime committed against them and their human rights. (Paradoxically, the latter notion is an intellectual product of the allegedly predatory West, as is the critique of imperialism itself, a fact that “Third World” radicals are reluctant to concede, as Keith Windschuttle points out in “Liberalism and Imperialism” (1999).)

Imperialism and the other works also promulgated another influential thesis, one that appeals greatly to the alienated intelligentsia, especially in the post-war period: the decadence of capitalism. According to Lenin, imperialism was the “highest” (that is, final) form that capitalism takes before it plunges into revolution. This “moribund … parasitic or decaying capitalism” had reached its inevitable dead-end in imperialistic militarism, and the war was a result of it thrashing about in its death throes. Later, after the war, this thesis was modified to assert that fascism was the political form that capitalism assumed in this final degenerate phase, and this allowed Stalin, the Comintern, and communist intellectuals to dismiss all capitalist societies, especially liberal democracies, as inherently fascist and warlike.

These themes of degeneracy, decadence, militarism and fascism came to dominate the political and cultural discourse of the Left in the inter-war period and made it impossible to mobilise a united front to combat the rise of Nazism. Like Lenin’s theory of imperialism, it was a position resurrected by the New Left in the 1960s, when it became very potent ideologically, and it remains influential amongst academics and the Left generally.

Although the arguments of Lenin and the others about the origins of the Great War had no empirical validity they proved to have potent ideological appeal. In Lenin’s time it was the British, French and Belgian empires that provoked the animosity of the Left, while in the 1960s it was alleged American imperialism in Vietnam that generated radical rage. Ideologically, it became not only easy but essential to associate the Great War with imperialism if Marxism-Leninism was to consolidate its status as the radical orthodoxy in the burgeoning universities.

In Australia the Anzac tradition came under concerted attack in the classrooms and the streets, while trestle tables in the student unions groaned under the weight of ultra-cheap editions of Imperialism and the rest of the revolutionary canon, helping embed an idée fixe on the Left that exists to the present day. Meanwhile, the monstrous crimes of Marxist-Leninist totalitarian states like the Soviet Union (which was itself the world’s biggest empire), Communist China, North Vietnam, Cuba and Cambodia were ignored, excused or denied, as radicalised young academics undertook their long march through the institutions, determined to confront capitalism, denounce liberal democracy, and deconstruct all popular expressions of national identity, including, above all, the Anzac tradition.

Mervyn F. Bendle wrote “The Military Historians’ War on the Anzac Legend” in the April issue.