Although French philosopher Raymond Aron’s political history Century of Total War was published sixty years ago, it is deficient only by accident of chronology. Other than the fact that Aron did not live to see the end of the Cold War, his combination of theoretical and empirical analysis is superb. In particular, Century of Total War views Soviet Russia as the triumphant totalitarian order arising from the crisis of mass war and mass politics that began with the French Revolution.
Aron tackles Lenin’s famous argument that capitalism begets imperialism which, in turn, begets war. The Western powers, according to the founder of the Bolshevik Party, sought out new territories as new markets to avoid the “inevitable” crisis of capitalism. The ensuing colonial rivalry provoked global war which would eventually pave the way for proletarian revolution. Like many Communist myths it has proved remarkably enduring and evinces an air of superficial plausibility. Aron, however, shows that in every instance the chief motive force behind colonialism was government policy – often quite unprofitable – and not some capitalistic cabal controlling the politicians.
Financial institutions were frankly wary of far-flung enterprises just as they were of conflicts between the major powers. This is not to say that many businessmen would not seek out profits where they could, even in wartime, but Lenin’s pseudo-analysis fails on every point including the fact that in the lead-up to World War I the great powers consistently backed down over colonial disputes. The real casus belli was the clash over territory and prestige in Europe and thus entirely anti-capitalistic in its rationale. As for the economic basis of Bolshevism:
It is often imagined that the Revolution of 1917 transformed primitive Russia into a modern state… This impression fails to take account of the continuity between Soviet industrialization and the work accomplished in the course of the last years of the Tsarist regime… [Communism’s] unique contribution to the economic history of the twentieth century has been to construct a vast industrial plant without having raised the living standard of the masses.
This stands in obvious contrast to the high standard of living in free market economies. It is a further irony that it was Communism, rather than capitalism, which relied on imperialism to stay in power. As Aron explains, Bolshevism consolidated and spread due to “external” (rather than “internal”) factors like war with Germany and the ensuing political colonization of Eastern Europe undertaken by small but determined terrorist factions backed by Russian tanks and guns.
Communism has never actually succeeded through the evolutionary materialistic dialectic propounded by Marx. Had it not been for the Bolshevik coup of 1917, which established a functioning “utopia,” Marxism as an ideology would have gone the way of most non-violent “social democratic” parties that invariably compromised with the status quo in the West. Under Leninism-Stalinism, says Aron, Marxism’s real success is not as a socio-political theory but as an ideal (and completely ruthless) method for “the seizure of power.”