Foreshadows of a Great War


This morning I came across this fragment by Engels this morning, penned in 1887 as the introduction to a pamphlet by Sigismund Ludwig Borkheim (a veteran of the revolutions of 1848 and member of the International Workingmen’s Association) titled “In Memory of the German Arch-Patriots of 1806-1807″. Engels in this period was flirting with the theories of capitalist breakdown that flourished in the years of depression following the Panic of 1873 (at least this is what I argued in a recent post, check it out), which often posed a ‘catastrophist’ account of the transition beyond capitalism. By some accounts this was a political catastrophe (the revolution accelerated by the pressure of capitalist crisis), and in others this was an economic catastrophe (the final collapse of capitalism taking on a precedence over that of political organization). What’s interesting is that in Engels’ piece is a version of catastrophism that isn’t immediately economic, or at least the usual sense—it’s a world war. And indeed, when we look at the tendencies, both economic and cultural, it isn’t really the mild recovery from the Long Depression in the early 1900s that closes this period; it’s World War I itself. 

Anyways, here’s Engels:

And, finally, the only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover of an extent the violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts. The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of’ trade, industry and credit, ending in universal bankruptcy collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle. Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.

That is the prospect for the moment when the development of mutual one-upmanship in armaments reaches us, climax and finally brings forth its inevitable fruits. This is the pass, my worthy princes and statesmen, to which you in your wisdom have brought our ancient Europe. And when no alternative is left to you but to strike up the last dance of war – that will be no skin off our noses. The war may push us into the background for a while, it may wrest many a conquered base from our hands. But once you have unleashed the forces you will be unable to restrain, things can take their course: by the end of the tragedy you will be ruined and the victory of the proletariat will either been achieved or else inevitable.

In 1918, Lenin looked back on these words and described them as a “scientific prophecy which has come true”.

5 thoughts on “Foreshadows of a Great War

    1. If only! Though I guess one has to confront the question of what sort of society the Soviet Union was, and if it was a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (I lean more to ‘state capitalism’ personally).

      Interestingly, there is a remarkable growth in the rate of profit around World War I, and it was the immense destruction of the war that finally made Europe truly modern. Similarly, the rigorous formulations of logistics developed in the crucible of the war rapidly accelerated the processes of industrialization and opened up the possibility for higher degrees of spatial reorganization.

      Capitalism progressively develops a technocratic layer stratum around itself. In my tentative reading this layer was greatly consolidated in the interwar years, and truly ‘took off’ just before, during, and especially after World War 2.


      1. Honestly Engels and Marx were both much too optimistic in seeing various struggles and conflicts as a possibility of triumph for the working class. This fragment though is remarkably prophetic and whatever the Soviet Union devolved into (and I agree with the thesis of „state capitalism” or of an „alternative regime of surplus value accumulation”) its beggining does present the only point in history (to that scale) where the working class sent to war turned on those who ordered them and took over the state. This and also, as you say, in a way the world war became the last dying breath of aristocratic regimes, paving the way for not only de jure but actual de facto burgeois rule in some countries while in others it was the condition for that to happen in WW II.

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