World War I

ww1On 28 June 1914, two pistol shots shattered the peace of a sunny afternoon in Sarajevo. Those shots reverberated around Europe. Within a few years, 17 million corpses littered battlefields around the world, ancient dynasties lay in ruins, and revolution was sweeping Europe.

It is commonly said that the First World War was caused by the assassination of an Austrian Crown Prince. However, this act was a historical accident: something that might or might not have occurred. The real causes of the war are to be found in the solid ground of historical necessity.

In reality, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was not the cause, but only the catalyst for the Great Slaughter. It was the spark that ignited a powder keg that had been prepared for decades before 1914 by the antagonised interests of the main imperialist powers and their proxies.

The assassination exposed the faultlines in European capitalism that had been deepening over a long period. The resulting war also exposed the chauvinism that had infected the Second International, which with a few notable exceptions voted in favour of sending millions of workers to the trenches.

The results of World War I and the subsequent, predatory Treaty of Versailles, were death on an unprecedented scale, the transformation of the European continent forever, and the rise of both revolution and fascist barbarism in the subsequent decades.

We republish here a very interesting letter written in 1915 by Serbian socialist Dušan Popović to Christian Rakovsky, the great Balkan internationalist. The letter was published by Nashe Slovo (Our Word), a daily Russian language socialist newspaper published in France during the First World War and edited by Leon Trotsky. We think it contains crucial lessons for the attitude of Marxists towards imperialist war, and the way in which imperialist powers use the rights of nations as a pretext for their real aims.

On 28 June 1914, two pistol shots shattered the peace of a sunny afternoon in Sarajevo. Those shots reverberated around Europe and shattered the peace of the whole world. This was the beginning of the Great Slaughter. Could it have been avoided? Alan Woods uses the method of Marxism to answer this question. He explains that, actually, whilst individuals play an important role in history, to explain events such as wars, one must look at deeper causes.

Alan Woods, editor of In Defence of Marxism (, speaking on the clash between the imperialist powers that led to the outbreak of the First World War.

Lenin decided to write the pamphlet Socialism and War (The Attitude of the R.S.D.L.P. Towards the War) in connection with the preparations for the First International Socialist Conference. G. Y. Zinoviev helped write the pamphlet, though most of it was drawn up by Lenin, who, moreover, edited the entire text. The pamphlet was published in German in September 1915 and distributed among the delegates to the Zimmerwald Socialist Conference. 

Rosa Luxemburg was the most eloquent voice of the left wing of German Social Democracy and a constant advocate of radical action. She spent much of the war in jail, where she wrote and then smuggled out this pamphlet. Published under the name “Junius”, a pseudonym used by an influential English pamphleteer in the 18th century, the pamphlet became the guiding statement for the International Group, which became the Spartacus League and ultimately the Communist Party of Germany. Luxemburg was instrumental in these developments and, along with Karl Liebknecht, led the Spartacists until their assasination by the German government on January 15, 1919.

This pamphlet was written in 1914 during Trotsky’s two month stay in Zurich. He had arrived there rather hurriedly from Vienna which he left on the evening of August 3rd, the day Germany declared war against France. ”Written in extreme haste,” Trotsky says in his preface, “under conditions far from favourable to systematic work... the entire book, from the first page to the last, was written with the idea of the New International constantly in mind – the New International which must rise out of the present world cataclysm, the International of the last conflict and the final victory.”