An assassination that announced World War I

July 31 — One hundred years ago today a brutal assassination announced the outbreak of World War I.

No, it was not the killing in Sarajevo of Archduke Ferdinand, representative of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The June 28, 1914, shooting of this inconsequential political figure, who was scorned by his own royal family and despised by the militarists in Vienna, was the pretext the empire used to declare war on Serbia and begin the great slaughter.

The French socialist and anti-militarist Jean Jaurès was the significant political figure killed on July 31, 1914, shot in the Croissant café in Paris by an ultra-right fanatic. Jaurès’ death opened the door wide to war. The capitalist governments of all the European powers then leapt through that door to join the battle that Austria had begun against Serbia on July 28.

Jaurès was a principled opponent of the imperialist war, though not a representative of the far left of the socialist Second International — as were Vladimir Lenin in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany.

Of all the socialist leaders in France, perhaps in all the continent, he was the most effective and moving orator. He had proved his valor earlier by standing up alongside the great writer Émile Zola against right-wing public opinion in the infamous Alfred Dreyfus Affair. He fought for nonreligious schools and workers’ rights and against the military draft.

Despite his reluctance to go beyond parliamentary activity in his struggle against capitalism, Jaurès’ speeches were effective in mobilizing the masses. His reputation among the workers was impeccable.

At the last meetings of the Second International before the war, Jaurès agitated for organizing an international general strike to prevent the war’s outbreak or stop it once it started.

Since he was cut down so early in the war, the world will never know if Jaurès would have hewed to these principles. Aside from the minority left group around Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, most of the leaders from the imperialist countries in the Second International surrendered to national chauvinism and supported the war.

But there is no doubt that Jaurès’ assassination wiped out the most effective voice opposing the war in France.

Capitalism means war

Jaurès did have a way with words, and one sentence he boomed out at meetings in July 100 years ago rings as true now as it did then: “Capitalism carries within itself war the way clouds carry a thunderstorm.”

Here it is, 2014, and war clouds again threaten the world — a world that is all too capitalist, with an economy much more globalized than it was in 1914. The world is trapped in a prolonged capitalist crisis that shows no sign of relenting. The bosses, billionaires and bankers, frustrated in their search for profits, have only this strategy: Continually squeeze the working class more each day and use the economic and military power of their national states to grab resources, markets and labor power by subjugating peoples.

Right now U.S. imperialism is leading the pack of predator states — including the big European powers, Japan, Canada, Australia and the Israeli state. That group wages local wars aimed at grabbing plunder, and these small wars can easily turn into regional if not continental battles.

Since 1999, U.S. aggression and subversion have ripped apart Yugoslavia, destroyed Iraq and Afghanistan, wrecked Libya, destabilized much of North and West Africa, and caused horrible damage and deaths to Syria. Now, in Ukraine, U.S./NATO intervention has placed pro-fascist elements in the Kiev regime and opened a conflict with Russia that carries the threat of a global conflagration.

In the Pacific, U.S.-led war exercises have brought together 25,000 troops from the imperialist states and some of its clients that threaten north Korea, Russia and China, which Washington more and more treats as a mortal enemy.

In Palestine, with the full backing of Washington and the European powers, the Israeli militarized outpost of imperialism is waging a one-sided war against a heroic people in Gaza who refuse to submit.

Jaurès hit the bull’s eye with his comment. Today’s thunderheads have already brought storms to the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe. As the capitalist crisis deepens, they threaten to spread even beyond the control of those who launched those wars.

The European leaders 100 years ago, who willingly led millions into war, all expected victory — and a quick one. They wound up with four years of slaughter and 20 million to 40 million deaths.

Those who want to fight against these wars, to stop the killing already underway, to keep the killing and destruction from spreading must also realize that the only way to stop them for good is to fight them at their roots. The struggle must be massive, in the factories and offices and in the streets, directed against the capitalist system that “carries within itself war the way clouds carry a thunderstorm.”