Next year’s date probably doesn’t remind most on-line readers of anything in particular, whether we’re talking about the millennial generation or the baby-boomers. But for someone who was a child during World War II, 2014 inevitably calls up 1914, when the presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off World War I. Today, we associate that city in the former Yugoslavia with the mass killing of Muslim men and boys by Serbs, as the country invented after that war fell apart.
A hundred years ago the killing of one person started a war so savage that it ended with a shared vow: “Never again!” And yet, that senseless butchery of thousands of young men in trenches by the newly invented machine gun merely paved the way for the use of other new technologies to assassinate Jews, Gays and Communists by the millions in Hitler’s crematoria. This was followed by the dropping of two atom bombs in Japan, the Khmer Rouge killing by starvation or assassination between one and two million people, and on and on.
As the American media focuses tirelessly on the mid-term elections that will determine whether the needle on the political spectrum moves slightly left or right, it continues to turn its back on the struggle for equity marked indelibly by the milestone that followed 1914, 1917, the date of the Russian Revolution.
In the hundred years since 1917, notwithstanding two world wars and countless “minor” wars resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, humanity has failed to solve the problem of equity. Coming at the height of robber baron capitalism, the Russian Revolution gave rise to capitalism’s most extreme incarnation, fascism, the alliance of state and oligarchy to squelch popular demands for economic justice. Although Russian peasants were still living under a form of feudalism, the workers and peasants in Eastern Europe were scarcely better off, and the October Revolution spread briefly to Hungary and to heavily indebted post-war Germany, allowing Hitler’s rise.
In response, resigned to the fact that World War I had not been ‘the war to end all wars’, the liberal democracies banded together to protect their interests against those of a resurgent Germany. They sided temporarily with the Soviet Union in order to achieve this (nor could they have succeeded otherwise). However, the two sides in the alliance had different aims: the capitalist world didn’t want its pursuit of wealth subservient to Germany’s, while the communist regime didn’t want Hitler to turn back the clock to the time when oligarchs ruled. Given that dichotomy, the postwar world could only lead to a full fledged standoff between two systems that competed for the allegiance of third world client states.
Several important things happened over the next fifty years: the number of client states increased as Third World countries achieved independence from their colonial masters, Eastern Europe came out from under the Soviet grip, and the Soviet Union itself broke apart, leaving Moscow to complete Peter the Great’s Westernization and achieve a major power status that went beyond ICBM’s. Almost simultaneously China reached a level of development that put it too in the running for major power status, and the two former communist allies which had for a time been enemies, realized they again shared a common goal: the defeat of financial capitalism in favor of worldwide development that would not throw the socialist baby out with the Communist bathwater.