As 1914 dawned a century ago today, Western Civilization dominated the planet in the form of global empires, the British and the French being the most far-reaching, though their power was being challenged by the American empire, which dominated the entire Western Hemisphere and had recently subjugated the Phillipines, and by the militaristic German Empire, which dominated Central Europe and was building a navy which would challenge the century-long control of the British Royal Navy on the high seas.
The Russian Empire, economically and technologically backward when compared to all of the above, sprawled from Warsaw to Vladivostok. It was already shaky, but the iron hand of Tsarist autocracy still appeared to have total repressive control. The Chinese Empire had collapsed, and was being carved up by the Europeans, Americans, Japanese, and its own warlords into a mish-mash of misery and competing interests, sewing the ground from which Mao would rise.
All of Africa, with the exceptions of Liberia and Ethiopia, was under direct European rule. Most of southern and southeastern Asia was controlled by either the British(what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma, and Sri Lanka), the French(what is now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) or the Dutch(Indonesia.) Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands were either parts of the British, American, or German empires for the most part, but Japan, which had rapidly industrialized in what was really self-defense a few decades earlier, had already begun its march to what it eventually became in World War II by defeating Russia in 1905 and conquering Korea in 1910.
Every single one of these empires extracted wealth from their colonial possessions to line the pockets of their respective ruling classes, and crushed any “native” colonial dissent with ruthless military force. At home, they ranged from outright despotism to representative democracy, but the ruling classes, be they aristocratic or capitalist or a combination of both, kept most of the real power to themselves even while the more Western ones prated about liberty and democracy and freedom. That last should sound very familiar to most readers here, for many of us have seen things swing back that way in our own lifetimes.
And, most importantly, the rulers of all of these empires wanted to extend their power and influence at the expense of the others. They had run out of planet, you see. This should also sound very familiar. In early 1914, though, few people thought that the existing order, no matter how flawed, would be swept away in just four years. The Powers That Be of the time appeared firmly entrenched and insurmountable. I think that also sounds very familiar. Then came the spark that triggered the global catastrophe of World War I, the Russian Revolution just three years later, and the Great Awakening of the colonial, or “Third World,” peoples that continues to this day.
By the end of 1918, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires no longer existed, the British and French ones were at their geographical height but were considerably weakened, while the Americans and Japanese were clearly on the ascendant. Working classes across the world were realizing that they, too, could get some real power if they organized and were willing to strike, fight, and sometimes die for change. In short, the world had changed.
So. Here we are a century later. The naked military imperialism of a century ago is no longer fashionable, in spite of the efforts of American capitalists to bring it back. Even they still pay lip service to “freedom” and “democracy.” Still, there are some remarkable parallels to 1914. First, a few positive things, in my view.