Their First World War Commemorations and Ours

100 years ago this month the First World War broke out. It began with the assassination of an Austrian archduke in Sarajevo on June 28 but it took a month for the Habsburg Empire to invade Serbia. Within days all the powers of Europe (except Italy) were at war. The assassination at Sarajevo may have provided the spark but it did not cause the war.

We have had hundreds of capitalist commentaries on the start of the war already. When they are not, like Paxman, blaming Germany for attacking “democratic Britain” (where the vast majority of the working class did not have a vote) they are saying that the causes of war are “too complex to understand”. That is because they look only at the individual actors and not the real forces driving their actions. They cannot see the wood for the trees. And “the wood” was the imperialist rivalries that drove them all to make the decisions that led to war. Britain, for example, wanted to destroy a German navy that threatened the Empire “on which the sun never set”. The invasion of Belgium was the excuse they needed to declare war on August 4. And an excuse it was. “Brave little Belgium” was no innocent victim here. It was an imperialist power in its own right. The torturing and maiming by amputation of the people of the Congo delivered up cheap rubber for British manufacturing.

We can though agree with ruling class commentators on one thing. The war that broke out in 1914 defined a new era for capitalism. The era of global economy was now announced. It set in train a process towards greater integration of the world economy. It was the start of the era of imperialism. It changed the world forever and ended any notion that capitalism was the best of all possible systems. “Progressive wars” were things of the past. Now capitalism needed war in order to maintain its process of accumulation.

And one reason the war broke out in 1914, and not sooner or later, was the ruling class fear of the working class. The same crisis which impelled capitalism to imperialist war also produced a working class response. Since the beginning of the century there had been workers’ resistance to the driving down of wages and increasing poverty which many experienced. Anarcho-syndicalism, syndicalism and social democracy were on the rise in many countries where mass strikes were breaking out and threatening to overturn the social order. It nearly achieved it in Russia in 1905.

Certainly in Britain and Russia sections of the ruling class (Lloyd George for one) were reckoning that a war would put an end to this threat, They could mobilise the working class behind the national flag to fight for “King and Country”. Revolutionary socialists were confident though that they would not dare. After all in 1907 and 1912 the Second International had twice voted to oppose war albeit in vague terms which did not satisfy the likes of Luxemburg and Lenin. In Germany the largest party in the world, the Social Democratic Party had signed up to this. But with the war crisis beckoning the leaders of German Social Democracy informed the German Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg that they would “not leave the Fatherland in the lurch” in the event of war. This was one month before the war broke out. When it did the German Social Democrats voted war credits to the Kaiser. It remains the greatest betrayal in working class history. It still today separates real revolutionaries from Social Democrats of all types. But German social democracy was not alone in going over to the class enemy. In France the anarcho-syndicalist CGT decided to support the war (despite also a history of decalring it woudl oppose the war) and the venerable anarchist, Kropotkin came to the side of the Tsar in order to save “French civilisation” from the Hun. In the orgy of patriotism the working class blithely went off to slaughter one another. It was class war by another name and the capitalists won this round.

But there was opposition to the war. From the beginning the Serbian, Bulgarian and above all Russian Bolshevik Party refused to go with the flow. For them pacifist opposition to imperialist war was no longer enough. Lenin recognised this first. The slogan of “turn the imperialist war into civil war” earned him ridicule in 1914 but it laid the basis for a revolutionary movement once the glamour of the idea of war was confronted by its grim reality. It is no accident that “Down with the war” was on the banners of the first strikers in Petrograd in 1917. And in the end it was working class revolution which brought about the end to the imperialist war. It started in Russia in 1917 but was in evidence almost everywhere from Red Clydeside to the factories of Turin and even to the Western Front where soldiers of different nations began to mutiny.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in November 1917 they published the secret treaties of the Entente showing what predatory aims. They also issued a Decree on Peace. This was not entirely symbolic. It was a challenge to the imperialist powers and an appeal to workers everywhere. The US President Woodrow Wilson met this challenge by issuing his Fourteen Points in January 1918 which promised “a just and lasting” settlement. But the imperialist warmongers fought on still.

It was only in November 1918 when the sailors of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven mutinied and joined with townsfolk to set up workers’ councils that the game was up for the German Empire. On November 9 the Kaiser abdicated and two days later an armistice was signed. It did not end the war. It simply meant the full force of international imperialism could now be turned on Soviet Russia. And Soviet Russia, as everyone knew could only be saved by the German Revolution. Unfortunately the Spartakist Revolt broke out prematurely in January 1919 when (as Rosa Luxemburg so clearly knew) not enough had been done to prepare the working class for it. Once again the German Social Democratic Party came to the rescue of “the country”. The famous telephone call by Ebert the SDP leader gave the green light for the formation of the Freikorps (largely made up of returning German officers who came home with their fully armed men after the Armistice). The latter, a forerunner of the Nazis, were unleashed on the Communists. Their defeat, and with it the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, was the end of the prospect of an early German revolution. It ultimately paved the wave for the capitalist class internationally to survive the whole revolutionary wave that lasted for years after the war. They have never faced such a serious challenge from the working class since.

But capitalist contradictions do not go away. The constant need to exploit the working class means that social peace may last for long periods but inevitably the working class is driven to respond to the attacks the system makes upon it. The ruling class everywhere is faced with a global crisis. Their response everywhere is to play the nationalist card. Where they cannot use sporting events like the Olympics or the World Cup they are using the anniversaries of events like the First World War to create their own nationalist narrative. The lies they are telling (such as the one about a war for democracy) are part of the same class war as in 1914. Nation versus class, the terms of the fight have not changed. And with the system in crisis we are once again seeing the build up of imperialist tensions. From the East of Europe across the Middle East and Central Asia to the South China Sea confrontations are on the increase. Wars that broke out decades ago are still being fought across the planet. Behind it all lies the drive to corner resources in an increasingly desperate capitalist world.

In Britain the younger generation will not remember how the notions of flag flying and nationalism were derided before 1982. With the Falklands War we have seen an increase in jingoism, racism and the promotion of militarism. Charities are being founded like Help for Heroes (otherwise known as trained mercenary killers) and the Poppy Day has gone from being a minor charity to a national promotion which you oppose at your peril. Ironically the “commemoration” of the start of the First World War in the UK will take place in Glasgow at the end of the Commonwealth Games on August 4. It was in Glasgow, heart of Red Clydeside that John Maclean in August 1914 was the first man to make a speech calling for resistance to the war and in September 1915 he was also the first to be gaoled under DORA (Defence of the Realm Act) for his speeches against the war. Now that is what revolutionaries will be commemorating …

Note: The above version is slightly amended from the version in Aurora to take account of precisions sent to us by members and sympathisers.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Comments

We may never know to what extent the ruling class's fear of the working class was a factor in the causes of WW1, but it was significant.

As Marx said, in 1871, governments use war as a fraud, a ‘humbug, intended to defer the struggle of the classes’.

This article attempts to grapple with this issue: libcom.org

The article above which I very much like says:

The constant need to exploit the working class means that social peace may last for long periods but inevitably the working class is driven to respond to the attacks the system makes upon it.

I question the use of "inevitably" in this sentence. That class struggle, and indeed the revolution itself, is inevitable is a nice idea, but is it true? Or do we just want to believe its true? I also don't understand how long lasting "social peace" may be seen as a product of "the constant need to exploit"? If this were true then the bourgeoisie has little to fear as they never cease their exploitation.

With regard to the article referred to by T5 as being on libcom.org. As T5 says and he is right "attempts to grapple" is the correct way of describing it. It tries to cover too much ground, is a bit shaky on some matters, but is "a valiant effort overall", and the writer will probably "do better" with his next assignment. But it is easy to read and well written, and that's a compliment.

Charlie We are rather surprised at your quibble over the word "inevitable" since it only implies that the class struggle never goes away but re-asserts itself due to the contradictions of the system. It is not arguing that this class war will inevitably bring us victory or anything like that. It is just expressing a fact of the system. In some ways the Kosman piece highlighted by T5 gets this but because it is not underlain by a material analysis of capitalist contradictions it lapses into moralism in places (the bit about "being manly" in sticking up for another imperilaist power, Belgium, for example).

Thanks Cleishbottom. It isn't just a quibble. I suppose it depends what you mean by "class struggle". Yes the working class is always being exploited and I guess always resents this and is continually "struggling" in its chains. But if what we mean by class struggle is strikes and struggles for better wages, better living conditions, against the erosion of health and education services and, ultimately, against the state rule of the bourgeoisie....well we haven't seen much of that in Europe (to name just one geographic area ) since the 80's have we? At the moment the working class seems hardly to exist in Europe except as groups of resentful citizens at the mercy of a merciless bourgeoisie bent on asserting "austerity" and yearning for war, and causing minor wars all over the world.

Perhaps the class struggle never goes away and was still around in the 'thirties even though the class, as a revolutionary force had been and remained defeated - though still struggling - and was thus able to be served up for butchery in the 2nd. World War.

I suppose I dont like the kind of "mechanical" implication contained in "inevitable". The contradictions of the system will "inevitably" cause the class struggle to return. That's comforting. But I don't think its inevitably true. There's nothing inevitable about the development of class consciousness, or the fact of significant class struggle developing, or the emergence of the communist party (without which the revolutionary struggle would doubtless be doomed anyway) or anything else to do with the next evolutionary development of humanity - that is communism - which is what we're talking about isn't it? None of these wonderful and longed for possibilities are in any way "inevitable" which is what makes them so appealing, so attractive as ideas and so worth fighting for. The only inevitable thing about human life is death itself. Everything else is up for grabs.

In some ways the Kosman piece highlighted by T5 gets this but because it is not underlain by a material analysis of capitalist contradictions it lapses into moralism in places (the bit about "being manly" in sticking up for another imperilaist power, Belgium, for example).

Though it raises interesting point about the role of women in launching of the revolutionary wave in final years of war.

Charlie

As we say in Scotland you are "havering". As a historian by trade I don't use the word "inevitable" lightly and only when it expresses processes that are fundamental. The word was used only to refer to the class struggle. It may die down for long periods (longer than any time scale you are considering - we have never had short term perspectives) but it never goes away. It is nothing to do with the acquisition of consciousness or any other issue you arre trying to throw in. We are not teleological. History offers us no guarantees but the outcome of the clas struggle remains eitehr the victory of the exploited or "the common ruin of the contending classes". And the outcome is not inevitable.

Aurora (en)

Aurora is the broadsheet of the ICT for the interventions amongst the working class. It is published and distributed in several countries and languages. So far it has been distributed in UK, France, Italy, Canada, USA, Colombia.