I’ve been prepping to teach a course on international relations this term. In the course of doing so, I decided, on a lark, to re-read Ayn Rand’s essay “The Roots of War,” which I hadn’t read in awhile. On re-reading it, I was startled at how crazy it seemed since the last time that I’d read it–baffling, misleading, exasperating, and confusing.
Here is one of the baffling claims she makes, about the origins of World War I:
Observe that the major wars of history were started by the more controlled economies of the time against the freer ones. For instance, World War I was started by monarchist Germany and Czarist Russia, who dragged in their freer allies (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, p. 33 in the Centennial Edition).
The first sentence is debatable, but the second sentence strikes me as bizarre. Can anyone think of a plausible interpretation of the origins of World War I that holds Germany and Russia jointly responsible for starting it? I’m not questioning the abstract possibility that two antagonists can separately and simultaneously initiate force against one another. That’s odd, but can in principle happen (and does happen). What I find puzzling is why Rand thinks Russia can be saddled with having started this particular war.
She doesn’t say, but my speculation is that she must think one or both of the following:
1. Russia started the war because Russia supported Serbian nationalism. Serbian nationalists assassinated the Austro-Hungarian archduke and his wife, the force-initiation that started the war; Russia’s support for Serbian terrorism entails culpability for Serbian terrorism, hence for the act that started the war.
2. Russia started the war because Russian mobilization was simultaneous with Austro-Hungarian-German mobilization,* and mobilization is (or at the time was, or was understood to be) tantamount to an act of initiated aggression, particularly in the context of claim (1) above. (The historian Michael Howard likens mobilization, within the context of then-contemporary military assumptions, to a person’s drawing a weapon and aiming it at someone.) Germany (and/or Serbia) was responsible for Austro-Hungarian mobilization, and Russia was responsible for its own mobilization. Hence Germany and Russia were jointly responsible for starting the war.
Both claims are problematic, but they’re the best that I can come up with. I wonder if anyone reading this can come up with anything better?
Rand’s claim strikes me as so implausible that I’m led to suspect, uncharitably, that she’s really just engaged in a kind of crude a priori/coherentist argumentation: since Germany and Russia were (on her view) the most controlled economies in 1914, it “follows” that they had to have started World War I.
Interestingly, in his 2010 book, Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History, the late Objectivist historian John Lewis dispenses with Rand’s reference to Russia and saddles Germany with having started the war (p. 190). Though Lewis quotes approvingly from Rand’s essay, he makes no reference to Rand’s interpretation of the outset of World War I. I guess in war historiography as in warfare itself, it pays to choose one’s allies with care.
*Strictly speaking, the Austro-Hungarian Empire mobilized (and attacked) either just before the Russians mobilized, or as they mobilized, on July 28, 1914; both actions took place before the Germans mobilized. But since the Austro-Hungarian mobilization was instigated by the Germans, and was part of a German war plan that long preceded the mobilization of any non-German party (and since interpretive charity to Rand requires a reference to Germans), I’ve taken some liberties with chronology and precision in describing the argument (that I’ve charitably ascribed to her). My point, after all, is that Rand’s claims are both underargued and problematic.