As the centennial of Guns of August approaches, I should imagine we'll be reading quite a bit about World War I and its implications, as we should. It was an absurd catastrophe, and it marked the death of the spirit of Enlightenment Modernity in Western and Central Europe. By the spirit of modernity I mean the collective, culture-wide optimistic consensus among the culture's progressive elite that utopia could be engineered by human rationality. A disaster like World War I destroyed any possibility for continued belief in such a possibility, except in Russia, where its Revolution gave it hope for such an engineered future, and in the U.S., whose elites thought such a future was largely already realized. But by 1969 in the U.S.--after the deaths of MLK and RFK and the Nixon presidential victory--and 1989 in the Russian sphere, such optimism was all but dead. The habits of modernity linger, but much like the chicken running around without its head.
So to begin my thoughts about WWI, I thought I'd quote from this post at TAC by the very conservative William Lind (is he a quasi-monarchist?) entitled "The Lessons of 1814". His larger argument is that had the spirit of 1814 reigned in 1914 and the Christian monarchs maintained the Holy Alliance they formed after the defeat of Napoleon, World War I could have been avoided and Christian civilization preserved:
The greatest and most worrying parallel is that today as in 1914 key policy-making elites are thinking and acting within an outdated paradigm. Then, the obsolete paradigm was dynastic competition, especially that between the Houses of Hapsburg and Romanov; the new paradigm was set by the mortal threat posed to all Christian, conservative monarchies by the notion of popular sovereignty and Jacobinical definitions of human rights. By fighting each other instead of uniting against the left, three dynasties doomed themselves and possibly us as well. Western culture’s last chance of survival may have been a victory by the Central Powers in World War I.
I love reading TAC because I always come across somebody saying something there that in my world I hadn't heard before. In this case the idea that the victory in the World War I by the central European Christian monarchies would have preserved Western culture. Now I don't think this for a minute, and I'm amazed, quite frankly, that anybody could think it, but it's interesting because it has made me think a little more about WWI counterfactuals. What would have happened if the massive conflagration that we came to know as the Great War could have been short and limited or have been avoided altogether?
I wonder if Lind believes that the Romanovs, Hohenzollerns, and Hapsburgs would have become, had they survived as sovreigns, anything other than symbolic monarchies like the royal families of Britain, Denmark, Belgium, or Sweden. Can he really think that the monarchies of the continental great powers could have had a significant impact on preserving their nations' cultures from the secularizing and economic forces that were already making the existence of monarchy, except for reactionaries and nostalgists, irrelevant? Until reading this article it never occurred to me that anyone, especially any American, could look at WWI as a disaster, even in part, because it destroyed the houses of Hohenzollern and Habsburg. It would seem to me that would be one of its few benefits.
The more interesting counterfactual question for me is what would have happened in Russia, Germany, and the U.S. if there hadn't been WWI. Had WWI not occurred, it's less likely that there would have been a successful Bolshevik Revolution and more likely that Russia, without "party discipline", would have developed along lines similar to Brazil or Mexico. If there hadn't been WWI, there would have been no Versailles, no stabs in the back, no hyperinflation, no German resentment for Nazis to exploit. No Nazis or Bolsheviks, no Hitler, no WWII, no Stalin, no holocaust, no famine in the Ukraine--and no Cold War. Maybe even no nuclear bomb.
Germany would have continued as an economic superpower, and it's likely that its commercial class would gradually supplant in influence its military class. So Europe arrives pretty much where it is today, maybe a few decades sooner, and without as much bloodshed.
How would these counterfactuals have had an impact on the U.S.? It's interesting to me that progressives were split on whether or not to support U.S. entry into WWI. One faction, led by John Dewey, favored entry into WWI because he saw it as an opportunity for greater centralization of the state in Washington, which he thought necessary to deal more effectively with social problems that were intractable so long as solutions for them were left to actors on the local level. Dewey was opposed by other progressives like Randolph Bourne who understood that 'war is the health of the state' and feared that US involvement in WWI would accelerate the destruction of the old republican localism and the new rule of technocrats.
But had the U.S. not entered WWI, the process that Bourne feared would have been slowed but not stopped. There was too much already in the works in the private sector that was leading to the destruction of the republican ideal. Industrial proletariatization, massive immigration, Taylorism, Fordism, the influence of social control freaks like E.A. Ross, and the manufactured consent of Walter Lippmann didn't need WWI for them to transform the U.S. into something the founders never dreamed of. And the Great Depression and the war with Japan was going to happen no matter what, and both required aggressive interventions from a strong centralized state. Centralization and secularization were inevitable in the U.S.
Because Japan's aggression would likely have continued according to its own internal drivers, conflict with the U.S., its main competitor for hegemony in the western Pacific, would have been inevitable. The U.S., the sleeping commercial giant once aroused, would have had an easier job defeating the Japanese fighting it only on the one front. The U.S. focus would likely have shifted more toward Asia and away from Europe, and if there had been no successful Russian Revolution, it's likely that Mao would be just another warlord rather than a Marxist ideologue, and without the ideological impediment would welcome a partnership the conqueror of his Japanese enemy. No Great Famine, no Gang of Four, no Cultural Revolution. China goes the way of Deng a couple of decades earlier and develops a relationship to the U.S. and the West much like the one Japan developed.
My argument with conservatives like Lind is that they give to much attention to developments in the political sphere and tend to see it as central in effecting changes in the social or cultural sphere. It just doesn't work that way. The Christian monarchs could not have "saved" Western culture because they could not have been at all effective in pushing back against the economic and cultural forces promoting secularism. The monarchs might have delayed things by partnering with a military autocrat as the Bourbons did in Spain, but it was only a matter of time before any such attempt to hold back the tide would collapse, as it did in Spain in the 1970s.
So bottom line, had WWI been avoided, the twentieth century would have been a lot less bloody, but we would have wound up pretty much where we are now. But I'm open to be persuaded otherwise.