100 years to the week after the First World War began, its consequences are still so manifestly inescapable and so shudderingly awful that it’s still almost impossible to comprehend the war and its effects – and virtually impossible to write about while doing justice to the horror.
It was not the first industrial war, but the greatest immediate tragedy of the war was the industrial-scale loss of life. The millions slaughtered on the battlefield for neither strategic nor tactical gain; the millions who died immediately afterwards of the influenza epidemic exacerbated by the war; and the hundreds of millions who have died and suffered since because of the death, not just of those millions, but of what the world had begun to glimpse in the century before: a culture in which peace and prosperity and reason and freedom had become the new normal.
This is what we lost. This, not the horror, is what I want to talk about: “what the war relegated to the dustbin of history.”
The world we lost was one in which there were no passports and no income taxes, and globalisation (measured in reach of international trade) was greater than it has ever been before or since. A world in which the great scientific achievements which form the basis of our world were discovered. A world in which the great new artistic achievements were not pissoirs, pickled sharks or a woman dropping eggs out of her vagina, but Wagner’s Ring, Hugo’s Les Miserable and Rodin’s Le Penseur, .
As a child, says Ayn Rand,
I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War I world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history… So powerful a fire does not die at once: even under the Soviet regime, [which I endured] in my college years, such works as Hugo's Ruy Blas and Schiller's Don Carlos were included in theatrical repertories, not as historical revivals, but as part of the contemporary aesthetic scene… Its art projected an overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, of depth, i.e., concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible originality, of unlimited possibilities, and, above all, of profound respect for man. The existential atmosphere (which was then being destroyed by Europe's philosophical trends and political systems) still held a (today) incredible benevolence, i.e., a smiling, confident good will of man to man, and of man to life.1
This was the culture not seen on earth since the days of Classical Greece, but this time with the full political and economic manifestation of the values of that classical world. The peaceful motto of its worldwide division of labour could be taken from the popular slogan of victorious free traders: where goods don’t cross borders, armies will. A slogan recognising warriors and traders to be history’s ultimate antagonists – that this will kill that, and vice versa.
Trade does not flourish on battlefields, factories do not produce under bombardments, profits do not grow on rubble. Capitalism is a society of traders—for which it has been denounced by every would-be gunman who regards trade as "selfish" and conquest as "noble."
Let those who are actually concerned with peace observe that capitalism gave mankind the longest period of peace in history—a period during which there were no wars involving the entire civilised world—from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
It must be remembered that the political systems of the nineteenth century were not pure capitalism, but mixed economies. The element of freedom, however, was dominant; it was as close to a century of capitalism as mankind has come. But the element of statism kept growing throughout the nineteenth century, and by the time it blasted the world in 1914, the governments involved were dominated by statist policies.
Just as, in domestic affairs, all the evils caused by statism and government controls were blamed on capitalism and the free market—so, in foreign affairs, all the evils of statist policies were blamed on and ascribed to capitalism. Such myths as "capitalistic imperialism," "war-profiteering," or the notion that capitalism has to win "markets" by military conquest are examples of the superficiality or the unscrupulousness of statist commentators and historians.
The essence of capitalism's foreign policy is free trade—i.e., the abolition of trade barriers, of protective tariffs, of special privileges—the opening of the world's trade routes to free international exchange and competition among the private' citizens of all countries dealing directly with one another. During the nineteenth century, it was free trade that liberated the world, undercutting and wrecking the remnants of feudalism and the statist tyranny of absolute monarchies.2
Free trade and the culture of reason and individual freedom that produced it rested on bourgeois values slaughtered in the war with those millions.
Killed, like they all were, by the rise of nationalism and the (re)growth of the absolute state that made the war necessary, and that the war itself made possible.
We have lived in that world ever since.
1. Ayn Rand: ‘Introduction’ to The Romantic Manifesto: A Philosophy of Literature
2. Ayn Rand, ‘The Roots of War,’ appearing in Capitalism: The UNkown Ideal