Chapter 17: The Twentieth Century Age of Extremes C. Chase-Dunn and B. Lerro

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Chapter 17: The Twentieth Century Age of Extremes

C. Chase-Dunn and B. Lerro Social Change: Globalization From the Stone Age to the Present.

HMS Audacious, 1912. Wikipedia Commons

The world history of the Twentieth Century includes three more world revolutions, two linked world wars, two more waves of globalization that were separated by a period of deglobalization. All this was intertwined with the rise and decline of the hegemony of the United States. The human population of the Earth increased from 1.65 billion in 1900 to over six billion people in 2000. More people were killed in twentieth century interstate wars (about 32 million) than the total population of the Earth had been in 1500 BCE.1 The first half of the Twentieth Century was the “Age of Extremes” and the second half was a relatively peaceful and prosperous round of globalization and the emergence of a world civilization based on continued contention over the values of the European Enlightenment. These stories are told in Chapters 18 and 19.

The nineteenth century saw the emergence of geometrical growth in the number of people and the sizes of settlements. These trends continued in the twentieth century. The demographic transition also continued apace – the transition from large to small families spread from the core to the non-core. In core countries natural population increase (not due to immigration) ceased as the birth rate came into balance with the declined mortality rate. People lived longer and older people became a large proportion of the total population. But the total number of people in the world continued to increase rapidly because the non-core countries combine an industrial death rate, due mainly to the spread of public health practices, with an agricultural birth rate that declined only slowly. Where women gained political rights, increasing autonomy and more education, the fertility rate came down, but these trends have been slow in much of the non-core. The education and increasing autonomy of women gave them important work outside the family and the movement of the majority of households from rural to urban settings also decreased the labor utility of having large numbers of children. By the end of the twentieth century over half of the world’s population lived in very large cities.

The chaotic first half of the 20th century has been aptly characterized as “the Age of Extremes” by the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm (1994). The British hegemony was in decline. The world of high finance remained centered on the City of London, but England had lost its comparative advantage in most of the generative sectors of the economy to Germany and the United States. The great 19th century wave of global economic integration bottomed out in 1900 and was then followed by a weak upturn which was followed in turn by a massive deglobalization after 1929. World War I was a classic global struggle for hegemony, but after the war the United States, already an economic hegemon, refused to take up the mantle of political hegemony, and so the world remained without a stable leadership structure until after World War II.

The Belle Epoque

The Edwardian2 “Indian summer” in the years after the end of the Boer War (1901) was like those days at the end of fall when the weather is still pleasant. Trade globalization had begun an upturn around 1900 after its decline since 1880 (see Figure 16.2 in Chapter 16). British foreign investment was flooding out from the City of London, and those able to get in on the returning profits were living well. The technological miracles of steam ships, the Suez Canal, transoceanic telegraph communications and railroads had brought the people of the world closer together (Hugill 1999). The network of international trade was becoming denser, but also less hierarchical, as England’s centrality in world trade and industrial production had been in decline since the 1870s (Hobsbawm 1969). The British-centered world economy was being replaced by a system of contending centers of industry and trade. But the financial district in the City of London managed to stay on as the center of world banking, currency trading, stock trading and insurance, and there was plenty of tea and jam for most of the residents of the British Isles so that they could feel that they too were sharing in the glories of the Empire (Mintz 1985). Nationalism and the “new imperialism” evolved as a politics of reform and inclusion within core states that was coupled with expansion of colonial and neo-colonial adventures abroad – so-called “social imperialism.”

Nazli Choucri and Robert North’s (1975) careful and elaborate study of the great powers in the run-up to World War I is organized around the idea of “lateral pressure” – increasing competition for natural resources and markets as industrialization spread from Britain to other countries, especially the United States and Germany. This notion is related to the more general concepts of circumscription and population pressure that we have employed in our iteration model of world-systems evolution (see Chapter 2). Circumscription refers to a situation in which an expanding system comes up against geographical and social limits to growth because all the adjacent low hanging fruit has already been picked. The problems that had been solved by expansion had to increasingly find other solutions.

The rise of European hegemony was running up against global spatial limits. The U.S. had expanded to the Pacific Coast of North America and had integrated the natural resources of the West into the American development project. The European powers had conquered the Americas, the East Indies, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and had finally colonized Africa. Only China remained uncolonized, but it was surrounded and subjected to the competitive incursions of the European core powers, the United States and Japan. The incorporation of the East Asian PMN into the Europe-centered PMN meant that the whole globe was now integrated into a single closely wound system of states and colonies with a single interconnected set of core and semiperipheral states. No longer was there a Eurasian-wide PGN containing geographically separated and geopolitically independent PMNs in the West and the East. The now-global interstate system (with colonies) and the older global prestige goods network had completely merged. Of course, the European powers had long been competing with one another over choice parts of the periphery, but now colonial imperialism was becoming an increasingly zero sum game. This meant that one core power could only expand at the expense of another. This was global circumscription and lateral pressure.3

The core of the Europe-centered system was also expanding with the rise of Germany and the United States. This also increased the overall demand for natural raw materials and for opportunities to sell goods and to make profits, thus increasing the general level of competition in the system.

Imperial Over-reach

By the end of the nineteenth century Britain had lost its supremacy in trade and industrial production, but it still held first place in military power, financial centrality and telecommunications. The British Empire was being challenged by nationalism in some of its colonies, and the labor movement was challenging elite rule at home. Economic nationalism among the contending core states had restored protective tariffs in the international economy, though Britain held out as the last bastion of free trade. British naval supremacy came into question during the Crimean War (1854-56) as it became obvious that decrepit ships and corruption had taken their toll on a Royal Navy that had seen little serious action since dispatching Napoleon. A significant investment in new naval technology was made to remedy this situation (Briggs 1964).

The British elite had long been divided between the staunch conservatives who sought to perpetuate the role of the landed aristocracies and the crowned heads of Europe (e.g. Queen Victoria), and a group of enlightened conservatives who realized that flexibility and creative reorganization were often more productive policies for dealing with the huge social changes that industrial capitalism and globalization had brought about. The enlightened conservatives had decided that a new emphasis on imperial expansion could be used to mollify challenges from an increasingly organized and vocal labor movement at home. This policy has been called “social imperialism” because it combines an awareness of the need for social reform and welfare at home with an expansive policy toward control and access to resources abroad, especially from the periphery. One of its main political protagonists at the end of the nineteenth century was Joseph Chamberlain, a Manchester industrialist who was appointed to the position of Colonial Secretary and later became the British Prime Minister The British had long championed free trade in the world economy and they held to this position after most of the other core countries had gone back to tariff protectionism. Chamberlain favored a tariff reform that would give preference to products from British colonies or to members of the emerging British Commonwealth of English-speaking countries.

A group of British elite politicians, intellectuals and journalists came together to form a set of intersecting networks of intermarried families and old school ties--mainly from Balliol and All Souls colleges at Oxford (Quigley 1981). These men were originally inspired by Professor John Ruskin, a poet and historian of architecture who developed a philosophy of Christian Socialism that was sympathetic to the labor movement and the poor without posing a challenge to the rule of capital. Ruskin and other Oxford dons also favored the notion that the British way of life and the English language were the highest attainment of human civilization and that these features were the best possible bearers of true freedom for the rest of humanity. This high moral ground, rather than simply the desire for wealth and power, was used by certain members of the British upper class as a justification for a new wave of imperialism, especially directed toward Africa, which was to bring the gifts of civilization to the less developed world. Some of these visionaries also favored the establishment of a strong federation of English-speaking countries that was to include the United States and British Empire. This federation of English-speaking states was especially the vision of Cecil Rhodes, the organizer of the Royal African Company and of Alfred Milner, a journalist who took up the leadership of this cause after Rhodes died. Rhodes was linked with a group of intermarried nobles that included Lord Salisbury that Quigley calls the Cecil bloc. The confidants and agents of Alfred Milner included many important journalists. These groups were linked by a secret society organized by Rhodes and this evolving network eventually became know as the “Round Table.” This group pursued its goals by controlling newspapers, including the Times of London, engaging in what it itself termed “propaganda” and by speaking into the ears of the powerful, especially Queen Victoria and King Edward. They planned the Jameson raid, brought about the war against the Boers, and eventually were central players in the formation of the Union of South Africa and the League of Nations after World War I.

Rhodes and Milner envisioned a reorganization of the British Empire that was designed to sustain Britain’s global preeminence and to help resolve class issues at home in favor of a national harmony that would preserve the rule of the propertied elites. The British Commonwealth was to be a strong federation of English-speaking countries that could jointly supply leadership to the world.4 This federation was to be mainly composed of former British colonies in which English-speaking settlers were a majority – e.g. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. The Round Table group also desired that British control might hold sway over nearly the entire continent of Africa, and the key to this notion was control of South Africa.

The English had wrested control of the Cape Colony from the Dutch in 1806 and had taken over Natal by 1843. But the Dutch farmers (Boers) of the Cape had migrated to the interior to escape British authority. This was not a big issue until gold and diamonds were discovered in the Transvaal. British mining investors sunk their money into the Transvaal and English-speaking miners migrated to the interior. Cecil Rhodes was the Minister of the Cape Colony and head of the Royal Africa Company that had large investments in railroads and mines in the Transvaal. The British mining and rail investors increasingly came to resent the taxes and restrictions placed upon them by the Boer Republics and sought to bring them down. The increasingly wealthy Boer Republics were also seen as a potential threat to British control of the Cape.

The Boer governments were accused of discriminating against the English-speaking “uitlander” miners by not extending them the franchise. Rhodes, with initial support from Joseph Chamberlain, organized the “Jameson raid,” a failed effort to bring about a coup d’etat in the Transvaal. After this debacle the Boers were convinced that a war with Britain was inevitable and they began to purchase the best modern armaments that the world market could supply (Evans 1999). In 1899 the Boers attacked and besieged some towns in Natal, initially defeating some of the small British forces that were present. The British mobilized a huge force to defeat the Boers in a war that went on and on because the Boers made effective use of guerilla tactics against the British army. The war was brutal on both sides, inviting comparison with more recent First World/Third World guerilla struggles. 5

The eventual defeat of the Boers was sealed because none of the other powerful core states were willing to challenge Britain by supporting the Boers, despite that there was great public sympathy for the Boer cause in most of the countries of Europe and in the United States. In the Netherlands and in Germany the old Boer leader, “Uncle” Paul Kruger was very popular, and there was much sympathy for the pioneer farmers of the Boer Republics. But the German and Dutch governments prudently avoided a confrontation with the powerful British Empire over the issue of Boer independence. The German Kaiser Wilhelm was quite sympathetic to the Boers and considered supporting them militarily, but he was convinced to abandon the Boers by Count Bernhard Von Bulow, the German foreign secretary, who had made a secret pact with Britain to divide up the Portuguese colonies in Africa (Mommsen 2001:4). The German government used the popular sympathy for the Boers to mobilize support for the expansion of the German Navy and a prominent officer in the German Army wrote about the inevitability of future wars among industrial states (explicitly Britain and Germany) over control of global resources (Yasamee 2001). The Russian Czar also had great sympathy for the Boers, but was dissuaded from actively opposing the British campaign by the Russian finance minister, Sergei Witte (Spring 2001).

The Boers were well armed with the best rifles and light artillery. They had been able to use the gold and diamond mines of the Transvaal to purchase large stocks of the latest armaments and munitions on the international market. So the war was a true test of both British resolve and of the military capabilities of the British Army. The “plight of the uitlanders” and the early Boer successes against the British Army were successfully used by the Round Table politicians and journalists to garner significant public support in England for the war against the Boers. Many still know the campaign song, “Marching to Pretoria,” the capital of the Boer Transvaal.

Playing the military card was successful in bringing about the conquest of South Africa, and British armed force proved that it could prevail over a serious challenge. But this unilateral policy of might-makes-right has been characterized as “imperial over-reach” by Paul Kennedy (1988) and as the “imperial detour” by George Modelski (2005). These scholars of hegemony and geopolitics see a repeated pattern in which a formerly powerful hegemon that has lost its economic preeminence tries to substitute unilaterally exercised military supremacy in place of its former ability to gain compliance based on economic comparative advantage and political legitimacy. The result is to mobilize significant resistance and counter-hegemony on the part of those who feel that power is being exercised illegitimately. The Round Table group failed to attain most of its most cherished goals. It did not create “so great a power as to hereafter render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity,” though it did eventually play a key role in emergence of the League of Nations, and its remnants were involved in the organization of the United Nations. It did not prevent the decline of British hegemony nor the dismemberment of the British Empire. The Commonwealth of Nations did not become the strong federal government that Rhodes and Milner envisioned. Rather it became a trading block and a group of largely sovereign nations joined together by common ideals, culture and language.

The so-called “Great War” (World War I)

The Berlin Conference on Africa (1884) was a negotiation in which those European powers that were interested in obtaining colonies in Africa came to an agreement on the boundaries by which that continent would be partitioned. Britain had made an effort to incorporate Germany into the club of industrial core powers by agreeing to hold the conference in Berlin, and by seeing that Germany got some of the pieces. But this did not do the trick. The Germans felt that Britain was going to continue to obstruct them, especially after the Boer War. And the British, for their part, had lost patience with the Germans, who were perceived as ungrateful and pushy challengers. The power vacuum created by the collapsing Ottoman Empire drew the powers in as it had in the Crimean War, but this time the Germans and their allies thought that they might win a quick victory while Britain’s naval power was stretched across the globe.

During the Boer War there were public scares in both France and England that a Franco-British war might erupt at any moment over disagreements regarding control of Egypt and other issues. The fault line that was to develop into a chasm of conflict in the coming Great War (World War I) was as yet undefined. Britain still saw France and Russia as its main challengers. The contours of the world trade network in the decades before the war did not reveal the coming chasm that would emerge in the great conflict (Table 18.1). Germany and Austria-Hungary were deeply involved in commerce with Britain and the United States. There were old and strong dynastic ties between the royal elites of Germany and Britain, i.e. the House of Hanover. And the waves of migration in the 19th century had resulted in a large presence of Germans in the United States. German, English, Belgian, U.S. and French trade unionists and socialists had joined together in the Second International and had pledged not to go to war against one another (Haupt 1972)

Entente Allies

Central Powers





























United Kingdom









Table 18.1: Factions in the “Great War”

Despite all the theories that have predicted that trade amongst nations and other friendly ties should reduce the chances of conflict, and despite all the integration amongst elites and pacts of international solidarity among trade unions and socialist parties, the core split asunder and an estimated 8.5 million people were killed by the awesome power of industrialized warfare in World War I (Singer and Small 1972; Barbieri 2002).

The great mystery about World War I is why the Germans chose to fight on two fronts despite a long tradition of Germen statesmen who cautioned against such a risky move. Attacking both to the east and to the west, and making war against the British, and eventually the Americans, while at the same time fighting Russia in the east seems in retrospect to have been suicidal. Peter Hugill (1999) has argued that there were really two Germanies – the aspiring industrialists centered in Hamburg, and the military aristocrats of Prussia – the so-called coalition of Iron and Rye. The war was a compromise between these two groups, which explains the attack on two fronts. The western front was an effort to gain the upper hand in the world economy, while the eastern front was an effort to gain agricultural land by annexing adjacent territory. These are the two different strategies that have contended with one another within and between states for millennia. The Germans resolved an internal struggle by displacing it to foreign policy, and this is what led them to bite off far more than they could chew. The German leaders who led the charge also mistakenly adduced from their quick victory in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 that they might be able to consolidate control before the conquered states and navies could mobilize their whole potential forces. The long stale-mate in the trenches in France melted this fantasy.

The Anglo-American Alliance

A strong and important Anglo-American alliance emerged at the end of the nineteenth century. This development had to overcome large obstacles. The British had long felt that the Americans were colonial upstarts and hill-billies. On the U.S. side, a strong Anglophobia and anger had been produced by the struggle for sovereignty from colonialism. The British had burned the new capitol building in Washington DC to the ground during the War of 1812. Overcoming these bad memories required new conditions and concerted action by those who sought to promote the new alliance.

The main structural changes in the relationship between Britain and the United States were:

  1. the United States had risen from being a peripheralized region at the time of the American Revolution to a core power by the 1880s; and

  2. Britain had lost its industrial hegemony and needed a strong ally to help it maintain its power and wealth in a world in which these were being challenged by other emergent national societies.

Strong and symmetrical financial ties had emerged between London and New York. Recall from Chapter 16 that Junius Spencer Morgan of Boston got his start in high finance working in George Peabody’s financial office in London. The house of Morgan became one the world’s largest banking concerns during the belle époque. By the end of the century British aristocrats whose fortunes had dwindled were increasingly marrying the daughters of rich Americans. Another factor was the intention of the British Round Table group to form a strong federation of English-speaking countries to help shore up and sustain the Pax Britannica.6 The key move here was British support for the U.S. in its war with Spain in 1898. This welcome support was a key factor in convincing American politicians to ignore broad popular sympathy in the U.S. for the Boer farmers.

Developmental States and Also-Rans

The pattern of semiperipheral development that we have seen in earlier eras continued in the 20th century. The United States, Germany and Japan emerged from the semiperiphery to the core in the late nineteenth century. In the 20th century China and Russia were semiperipheral challengers to the hegemony of capitalism and the United States. The evolution of the world order continued to be a spiral of challenge and response

Japan’s developmental state success was strongly signaled to the rest of the world by its victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. Russia’s defeat by Japan also trumpeted the failure of the Russian modernization effort and triggered an abortive but auspicious radical rebellion within Russia (1905) that was a prelude to the October Revolution of 1917. Japan had begun its modern colonial expansion in 1879 with the occupation of the Ryuku Islands (formerly ruled by China), and it took Formosa (Taiwan) from China in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5. With the Russo-Japanese war (1905) Japan formalized its rule over Korea and added Kwantung Leased Territory on Southern Sakhalin Island to its empire (Henige 1970:203-6)

The Chinese modernization effort had also failed. Several major factors conspired against the Chinese efforts to adapt Western technology to Asian conditions. China was a huge country with internal regions that had somewhat contradictory needs and interests vis a vis the larger world economy. The massive peasant rebellions of the 19th century discussed in Chapter 16 took a huge toll on the energies of the Qing (Manchu) regime, which was also compromised by the fact that many of the Han Chinese continued to see Manchu rule as the illegitimate fruit of conquest by barbarians. To these factors was added the embarrassment of “treaty port” incursions by Western powers. All these factors, and the conviction held by many Chinese that China was still the center of the universe and that all the foreigners were barbarians, undermined the efforts of some farsighted individuals to try to effectively respond to the external challenges posed by industrial technology and the aggressive actions of Europeans and the Japanese.

The Qing Empress Dowager was so frustrated by European meddling that she vacillated when a new peasant and landless movement, the Boxer Rebellion, emerged in North China. The Boxers believed that martial arts could overcome the weapons of the Westerners and they sought to expel the “foreign devils.” This rebellion was strongest in those regions that had been penetrated by foreign-built railroads. The rail lines provided cheap transportation for the export of food grains, and this had the effect of creating local shortages and high prices. This is one of the cases analyzed by Mike Davis (2003) in his careful comparative study of famines. Davis contends that globalization, in the sense of international market integration, exacerbated famines and related disease epidemics, producing “late Victorian holocausts.” The Qing Empress shared the Boxer’s anger, if not their hunger. But this did little to help organize the kind of effective response to modernity of the kind that had emerged in Japan.

Globalization Without A Hegemon

Karl Polanyi’s (1944) analysis of waves of globalization as the “great transformation” points to the emergence of markets and high finance that become disembedded from politics and the moral order, which then produces a reactive “double movement” in which people resist commodification and try to reestablish communities and protect morality from commercialization. Some have interpreted the long-term world historical interaction between expanding capitalism and socialist movements in these terms (e.g. Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000), but the double movement also includes traditionalist, nationalist and fundamentalist movements that are not considered to be progressive by the activists of the Left.

The Age of Extremes carried on in the post-war Roaring Twenties, when the spasmodic wave of globalization resumed and hot money flowed freely. But, though it was widely recognized that Britain was no longer hegemonic after the Great War, despite winning, the United States, now the economic hegemon, refused to take up the political role of global leadership. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and the Round Table network strongly supported the formation of a global confederation that was eventually to include all the countries of the world – the League of Nations. But the senators from the American mid-western heartland were still heeding George Washington’s warning about entangling alliances, and so the U.S. Senate declined to ratify the membership of the United States in the League of Nations. Thus the world had no hegemon but money in the decades after World War I. Economic globalization rebounded, but without effective political globalization.

The Age of Extremes was composed of another world revolution, two linked world wars and a nearly worldwide economic depression. People who had been left out, displaced by, or immiserated by the great wave of capitalist globalization rebelled against authorities in all the zones of the now fully global world-system. The first Great Depression that began in 1873 had ended in 1896 and trade globalization (the ratio of international trade to the size of the whole world economy) bottomed out in 1900 (See Figure 16.2 in Chapter 16). Another short, shallow and spasmodic wave of trade globalization started up in 1900, peaked in 1929, and then collapsed into a trough of deglobalization.

The World Revolution of 1917

The Chinese, Mexican and Russian revolutions and World War I were linked and conjoint events in world history. Peasants and workers made revolution and the great powers attacked one another in a violent spasm of industrial warfare. The strong economic ties that had been created by the nineteenth century and early twentieth century waves of globalization did not prevent World War I. The British hegemonic decline was produced by the success of the spreading industrial revolution. Britain had managed to stay ahead of the curve through several phase changes by shifting its comparative advantage from mass produced consumer goods to capital goods and then to financial services. But the spread of industrial success to Germany, the United States, Japan and other European core powers increased competition for raw materials and for access to markets, driving profit rates down and creating conditions in which the use of military power by the German challenger appeared to a be an attractive strategy.

Recall that world revolutions are based on popular movements that contest the existing institutions of governance. World revolutions have been assigned symbolic years. Thus we speak of the world revolutions of 1789, 1848, 1917, 1968 and 1989 as representational years in which especially dramatic events took place, but the world revolutions that clustered around these symbolic years often went on for several decades (Arrighi et al 1989, Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000). Transnational social movements are those in which individuals and groups come together across national boundaries for political purposes, but are not organized solely as representing their nations, whereas international organizations are mainly composed of nationally organized groups.

In 1864 Karl Marx and activists from labor unions and socialist, anarchist and communist groups from all over Europe and the United States organized the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International). Samir Amin’s recent discussion of the possibility of a “Fifth International” points out that the First International was very diverse in terms of the groups that participated, but that it nevertheless managed to achieve a high degree of democratic representation (Amin 2006). This said, the First International eventually fell apart because of the intense disagreements between the Marxists and the anarchists over both the goals and tactics of radical progressivism.

The Second International, formed in 1889, was an alliance of labor unions and socialist parties. It was explicitly an international federation of national parties representing unions and socialist parties, mainly from core states. The anarchists were left out and the participants were representing nationally organized units of the labor movement. The Second International declared that the workers of the world should not go to war against one another at the behest of capitalists. That sworn alliance fell apart, and most of the workers of Germany, France, England and the United States chose nationalism over international class solidarity by fighting each other in World War I. A large part of this failure was due to the rise of “social imperialism” in which politicians in core states symbolically incorporated workers and the labor movement into nationalist imperial ventures in the Third World. Despite the famous slogan “Workers of the world unite!,” core unions and socialist parties did not see that they had common interests with workers in the non-core countries. In practice, labor internationalism in the Second International meant solidarity among workers from different European countries or settler colonies with majorities of European descent. White racism played an important role in undermining the potential for global north/south worker solidarity and worked in favor of nationalism in both the core and the periphery.7

A massive revolt by Russian workers, soldiers and peasants made the Bolshevik Revolution after the Czar’s army had suffered large defeats in World War I. The revolutionary situation in Russia had been building for a long time. We have already mentioned the revolution of 1905 that occurred after the defeat in the Russo-Japanese war. The Czarist government lost respect abroad and legitimacy at home when it was defeated by those developmental states (Germany and Japan) that had succeeded at the game of catch-up with Britain, a game that the Czarist regime had failed at despite valiant efforts. But Russian industrialization had created only a small industrial working class, mainly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. The vast majority of people in Russia were peasants. The Bolshevik Party held that the industrial working class was the protagonist of history – the agent of the transformation from capitalism to socialism. The Bolsheviks acted out Marx’s tendency to identify peasants as a reactionary class, and so a party who saw a majority of the Russian people as reactionaries led the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks fully expected that there would be a Communist-led revolutionary victory in Germany, the most advanced country with a strong labor movement. The Russian Communists saw Russia as a backward and underdeveloped country, and they were greatly dismayed when their successful conquest of state power left them standing alone in a larger world in which the other powerful states were still under the control of capital.

But the Russian Revolution nevertheless gave heart to workers on every continent who believed that the labor movement could overthrow capitalism and create a more humane form of human society. The American journalist John Reed (1919) told the story of the heady days of October 1917 in his famous book, Ten Days That Shook the World.8

As mentioned above, the Mexican and Chinese revolutions were part of the world revolution of 1917. The Chinese situation has already been described above. The nationalist revolution of 1911, the collapse of the Qing regime and regional differences led to a long period of strife in China from 1912 to 1949. The Chinese Communist Party was founded during a secret night meeting in a mattress factory in Shanghai in 1921. Marx’s analysis of modern social change was based mainly on observations about the development of capitalism in Great Britain and the other industrializing countries in the middle of the 19th century. Marx saw the urban industrial proletariat as the leading group that would transform capitalism into a more humane socialist form of society. Like the Bolsheviks in Russia, the Chinese Communist Party was Marxist and held to the notion of the urban industrial proletariat as the revolutionary class. But, as in Russia, the urban proletariat in China was a minority of the population.

In 1934 the Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, was forced to undertake the “long march” to rural Yenan Province because the Communists were driven out of the cities by the nationalist (Kuomintang) army. Thus was Mao thrown into the arms of the peasantry, and the subsequent policies of the Chinese Communist Party were far less injurious to the agrarian sector of society than the policies of the Bolshevik Party had been in the Soviet Union. When the United States defeated Japan in World War II Japan had to give up its colonies in Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. After further battles with the Kuomintang the Communist Peoples Army forced the nationalists to retreat to Taiwan and the Communists formed a new state on the mainland in 1949.

Nineteenth century Mexico gained independence from Spain, had a war with the United States (1848) in which California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas were lost, and endured a failed military campaign by France (during the U.S. civil war) to make Mexico part of the French Empire under the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian. U.S. support in driving out the French helped to mend the badly broken fences left by the Mexican-American war of 1848, and explains why the Cinco de Mayo holiday celebrating a Mexican victory in 1862 is celebrated on both sides of the border. These momentous developments were followed by the regime of President Porfirio Diaz – the “Porfiriata.” The Diaz government tried to modernize Mexico by privatizing and commodifying communal land titles and by inviting foreign investment in railroads, mining and other natural resources. The radical ideas of the world revolution of 1848 and the emerging world revolution of 1917 encouraged popular resistance to appropriations of communally held land, especially in southern Mexico where indigenous cultures and communities had not been completely erased by Spanish colonialism. The revolution of 1910 was led by Emiliano Zapata9 in the south and by Pancho Villa in the north. When they met in the Zocalo, the great square in Mexico City, they rode their horses into the cathedral that the Spaniards had built over the ruins of the Aztec pyramid of Tenochtitlan. The Catholic Church was seen as implicated in the exploitation and domination that had occurred under Spanish colonialism and during the Porfiriata and so the Mexican Revolution invoked the values of secular humanism against the powers and properties of the church and restored a dose of respect for the prehispanic indigenous heritage of Mexico.

The Communist International: A World Party in the 1920s

Counter-hegemonic world party formation reached an apogee in the world revolution of 1917. The Communist International (Comintern or the Third International) was a vast and complex network of red labor unions, peasant associations, womens’ associations, youth organizations, organizations of the unemployed, and etc. that was constructed on an intercontinental scale. Called a “world party” and a “red network” by both its supporters and by those who opposed it, the Comintern demonstrated that a popular alliance of workers, peasants and other relatively powerless groups could exercise important political influence in core, peripheral and semiperipheral countries, and could have a serious and sustained impact on world politics. The Comintern networks competed not only with capitalist elites and hegemonic contenders, but also with anarcho-syndicalists who also successfully organized large numbers of peasants and workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Comintern was organized explicitly to confront the issues of social imperialism and racism that were made evident by the failures of the Second International (Amin 2006). But rather than recognizing and trying to embrace diversity as the First International had tried to do, the Comintern tried to construct a single global workers’ culture and political line, and this effort came increasingly to be dominated by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The Comintern adopted V.I. Lenin’s critique of the Second International and then tried to overcome the problems that Lenin had highlighted. Lenin thought that social democracy and the electoral road to socialist state power (reformism) was not a sufficiently strong challenge to capitalism. He blamed the success of this reformist tendency in the core labor movement on the emergence of a “labor aristocracy” in the core countries that was willing to form cooperative alliances with capital. This resulted in social imperialism based on capital-labor nationalist alliances and contributed to the interimperial rivalry that led to World War I. Though Lenin was critical of nationalism, he saw it as problematic mainly for the working class movement in the core. Third World nationalism could be a progressive force. And so the Comintern was formed as a network of national organizations of reds with attention to strong representation from the non-core countries.

The Comintern is often characterized as having been a puppet of the Soviet Union and as having had a hierarchical form of organization based on the principles and directions set forth in Lenin’s book on revolutionary organization, What Is to Be Done (1973).10 But the Communist International was a very complicated creature and it changed in important ways over its period of existence from March 1919 to June 1943 (Sworakowski 1965; McDermott and Agnew 1997).

The Comintern adopted its own statutes at its second congress in 1920. It was led by an Executive Committee and a Presidium. These statutes mandated that congresses with representatives from all over the world were to meet “not less than once a year.” The Comintern also organized and sponsored a number of other “front organizations” – the Red International of Labor Unions, the Communist Youth International, International Red Aid, the International Peasants’ Council, the Workers’ International Relief and the Communist Women’s Organization (Sworakowski 1965).

The Comintern was founded in the Soviet Union, the so-called “fatherland of the proletariat,” and so it is often depicted as having been mainly a tool of Soviet foreign policy. There is little doubt that this became true after the rise of Stalin. In perhaps the most blatant example, Stalin tried to use the Comintern to get Communist Parties all over the world to support the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. But during Lenin’s time the Comintern held large multinational congresses at which over forty languages were spoken. The largest of these congresses had as many as 1600 delegates attending. Sworakowski (1965:9) says,

After some attempts at restrictions in the beginning, delegates were permitted to use at the meetings any language they chose. Their speeches were translated into Russian, German, French and English, or digests in these languages were read to the congresses immediately following the speech in another language. Whether a speech was translated verbatim or digested to longer or shorter versions depended upon the importance of the speaker. Only by realizing these time-consuming translation and digesting procedures does it become understandable why some congresses last as long as forty-five days.

The Comintern was abolished in 1943, though the Soviet Union continued to pose as the protagonist of the world working class until its demise in 1989. In 1938 Trotskyists organized the Fourth International to replace the Comintern, which they saw as having been captured by Stalinism. The Fourth International suffered from a series of sectarian splits and the huge communist-led rebellions that emerged during and after World War II were led by either pro-Soviet or Maoist organizations that held the Fourth International to be illegitimate.

Wobblies and Reds in the United States

By the time of the Age of Extremes the labor movement in the United States had already had a long and militant history. The great nineteenth century waves of migration from Europe brought workers who had had experience in the anarchist and Marxist revolutionary traditions in the old world to the U.S. But most of the labor leadership in the U.S. continued to represent the skilled craft workers in the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) who had been able to improve their wages and working conditions in local struggles with employers. The new waves of immigrants, the growth of railroads and large-scale industrial production in cities, produced a situation in which less skilled workers could also be organized. In the U.S the World Revolution of 1848 had mainly taken the form of the creation of new Christian sects and community revitalization movements (see Chapter 16). But later in the nineteenth century the Socialist Party had mounted strong electoral challenges. The Granger movement had mobilized farmers to challenge the economic monopolies of the Eastern banks and railroads. And the anarcho-syndicalists, who believed that industrial workers could dispense with capitalists and could themselves operate large-scale industries, emerged to challenge the rule of capital, especially in the West.

The railroad and the telegraph were used by capital to expand and reorganize production and trade, and by politicians and military leaders to exercise power across the North American continent, but these new transportation and communications technologies also served as useful tools in the hands of those who challenged the rule of capital. Organizers could travel cheaply and communicate inexpensively across great distances. The strongest anarcho-syndicalist organization in the U.S. was the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W), also known as the wobblies. Their slogan was “One big union of all the workers.” The wobblies sent organizers armed with pamphlets, songs and dynamite into the mining camps and lumber towns of the West.11 If the pot was ready to boil, two wobs could do the job, one at a late-night meeting with the workers, the other beneath the closest rail-bridge to town. The I.W.W. songbook contained popular ballads with lyrics that had been written by Joseph Hilstrom, a Swedish immigrant wordsmith, whose movement name was Joe Hill. In 1915 Joe Hill was executed in Salt Lake City for allegedly killing a grocery store owner in a robbery.

Figure 18.2: The Seattle General Strike: Front Page of the Seattle Union Record

February 8, 1919

The Seattle general strike in February of 1919 was part of the world revolution of 1917. A wage dispute that began with the dockworkers became a general strike of 65,000 workers when it appeared that the federal government was siding with the employers (See Figure 18.2). For several days workers took control of the city of Seattle, organizing their own police force and an emergency food distribution system. Pamphlets were circulated that approved of the Russian Revolution with its organization of workers’ councils (Soviets). Later, Seattle longshoremen refused to load arms destined to resupply the anti-Bolshevik White Army in Russia. The Seattle longshoremen attacked strikebreakers who were brought in to load the munitions. The AF of L union leadership helped bring the general strike to an early end, and 39 members of the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) were arrested despite that they had not played a very central role in the general strike. This “first Soviet on American soil” was an important stimulus to the “Big Red Scare” and the crack-down on radicals and immigrants that emerged later in 1919.

The Big Red Scare was not the only reaction to the radical labor movement in the U.S. The U.S. ruling class was particularly incensed at the challenges that radicals posed to their control of big private property in the means of production (Mann 1993). When they felt that state and federal police agencies were not doing a good enough job they hired private Pinkerton armed guards to attack strikers and defend property. It was in this period that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was created. And there was a major crackdown and expulsion of immigrants who were believed to be radical “outside agitators.” The famous anarchist Emma Goldman was deported and the U.S. began an effort to regulate immigration. In Southern California the Los Angeles Diocese of the Catholic Church sent money to support the Cristeros, a conservative peasant movement in Mexico that opposed the anti-clericalism of the Mexican Revolution (Davis 1990). Some labor leaders also promulgrated racist and zenophobic attitudes toward non-white workers.

The U.S. had been a crucial ally of Britain in the Great War, and was victorious in that effort despite the huge human costs of the war. The economy boomed again in the roaring twenties, and the radicals were both repressed and ignored, though the American Communists got their act together for the next round of counter-hegemonic struggles in the 1930s.

Germany and the other countries that had been defeated in World War II were made to pay indemnities. Germany colonies in Africa were taken over by Britain and France after the war. Resentment and the failure of a new legitimate form of global governance to emerge, as well as strong challenges by labor, socialist and communist parties, created fertile ground for the emergence of a new and virulent form of reactive super-nationalism called fascism. Fascism glorified the state as the agent of the national community and it stressed the duties of individuals to serve the national state. This was clearly a reaction to the radically individualized form of capitalism that had emerged in Europe, and to the disruptions that had been produced by marketization and international flows of volatile capital. Fascist movements took state power or were important in influencing politics in Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Portugal, China, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Slovakia and Ukraine, and to a lesser extent in Brazil and Argentina as well (Goldfrank 1978).

It was in the context of the “Age of Extremes” that a transnational network of Communist intellectuals claimed to lead the global proletariat in a world revolution that was intended to transform capitalism into socialism and then communism by abolishing large-scale private property in the means of production. Their actions were stimulated by, and contributed to, the chaotic nature of social change during the Age of Extremes. And the institutions that they created had large subsequent effects on the nature of the new U.S.-led hegemony when it emerged after World War II. Procapitalist politicians, the new incarnation of the enlightened conservatives, needed to come up with a development project that had many of the same egalitarian goals as those espoused by the Soviet Union, while at the same time preserving private property in the means of production and the significant influence of privately-owned capital within national states. This was a struggle over the definition of a good world order in which the Left and the Right versions of the European Enlightenment were contending with one another in a multicivilizational global context and thereby producing a new global culture.

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