“The Only War Worth Fighting is the Class War”

This year’s commemorations of the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War are very different from 50 years ago. In 1964 we lived under the shadow of a bipolar nuclear world. Two years earlier the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought humanity to the edge of annihilation. War and nationalist gestures were largely regarded as obscene. It was the era of the “protest song”, of CND, and the most famous take on the First World War then was “Oh What a Lovely War”, a musical satire taking the piss out of the ruling class.

Nation against Class

Fifty years on the scenario is different. The post war economic boom of the fifties and sixties is over. We live under a system in serious economic and social crisis. And as the crisis has deepened nationalism and nationalist propaganda have increased. In the UK the Falkland War was a major turning point. Suddenly union flags appeared not only on public buildings but in gardens, businesses and houses all over the place. In 1983 the Sun led the rise in jingoism. When railworkers went on strike on a day when Falklands troops returned it threatened “Call off the rail strike or we’ll call an airstrike”.

At least the Sun got one thing right. The enemy of the working class is nationalism. And the enemy of nationalism is a working class fighting for its own interests – which are the interests of the bulk of humanity. The perfect ideology for the capitalists to divide workers everywhere is an appeal to the nation. In the leading capitalist states nationalist propaganda has been refined over time. In 1914 Kitchener just had to put on a poster “For King and Country” and that was enough. Millions volunteered to fight without knowing why. This is why the First World War is often condemned today as pointless, “a bad war” whilst the Second World War is seen as a “People’s War” against fascism and therefore “good”. Not so. Both were imperialist wars. The only difference was that by the Second the capitalist class had got more sophisticated at disguising the real purpose of war. The Second World War was only a “People’s War” (for “people” read “nation”) because the working class all over the world had already been defeated both physically and, more importantly, ideologically by the mid 1920s.

Workers Against Imperialist War

It should not be forgotten too that it was the working class which brought the First World War to an end. Despite the fact that millions had gone off enthusiastically to fight in 1914 (expecting to be “home by Christmas”) by 1916 the war had revealed its true nature. Not just the millions killed on the fronts but the “collateral damage” of civilian massacres (e.g. Armenian Christians), economic hardship and disease all took their toll. In 1914 only a few “mad” revolutionaries called for the working class to turn the imperialist war into class war.

Foremost amongst these were the Bolsheviks in Russia. Eventually this call had an echo. When the bread ration was cut to 2oz a day in Petrograd in February 1917 women workers from the factories went on strike. In their demonstrations they did not just demand bread but also “Down with the War”. This launched a revolutionary wave which not only brought about the October Revolution but led to strike waves and risings across Europe. The October Revolution had been a big blow to Russia’s Entente allies in Britain and France, but it was to the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire that the revolutionary wave moved next. The German General Staff had told the Kaiser the war was lost in August 1918. Strikes against the war had already broken out across the Austro-Hungarian territories in October, ending the Habsburg Empire. The war finally ended in November when German sailors in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven mutinied, fraternised with the local population and set up workers’ and soldiers’ councils on the Russian model.

Antifascism and Imperialism

Europe (and beyond) was in turmoil for the next few years but thanks to the influence of the pro-imperialist Social Democratic parties within the working class, the capitalists recovered control everywhere, except the former Russian Empire. There the isolated working class succumbed to counter-revolution in a different and more damaging way. The eventual victory of Stalinism led to the imprisonment and death of hundreds of thousands of class conscious workers. Equally bad was the fact that the USSR was now passed off as a “workers’ state”. The defeat of the working class revolutionary wave was devastating. In the defeated or disgruntled countries the capitalists turned to the imperialist ideology of fascism to keep in control of their wealth. And once the post-war boom (The “Roaring Twenties”) collapsed in 1929 into a new Depression, the way was once again open to war.

In the defeated powers nationalism (in Fascist garb) still worked. In the victorious powers nationalism had largely been discredited by the First World War. Here the trick for the capitalist class was to find an ideology to mobilise the proletariat. They found it in anti-fascism. None of the powers that formed the Allies were particularly anti-fascist. All did, or tried to do, deals with the Fascist regimes (including the USA). Britain and France tried to incite Hitler to attack the USSR first. The USSR came up with the Popular Front government idea to try to form anti-fascist alliances in the West. It worked and conned workers into fighting in wars that were not their own. One of the biggest victims of this was the Spanish working class. Their anarchist leaders decided in 1936 to suspend social revolution in favour of “anti-fascism” and defence of the capitalist Spanish Republic. The result was the massacre of hundreds of thousands of revolutionary workers, first by Stalinists, and then by Franco.

No-one was more cynical as an “antifascist” than Stalin. In 1939, to the consternation of Stalinists everywhere, he suddenly abandoned anti-fascism in order to sign the Nazi-Soviet Pact.(1) This agreed to dismember Poland and the Baltic States. It restored to the USSR much of what had been lost of the old Tsarist Empire. Stalin’s war would never be an “anti-fascist” one. Its rallying cry was “defend the Great Russian Motherland”.

What eventually brought the Allies together was a common fight for their separate imperialist interests. The Nazi search for lebensraum eventually threatened them all. This was not a war for democracy (in Stalin’s USSR?!) but the slogan was enough to mobilise millions to die for imperialist interests.

Imperialist War Today

And today in Ukraine the justification for the (unannounced) Russian invasion is once again to oppose “fascism”. Although fascist elements are involved with Kiev the dominant idea is for Ukrainian capitalists to get into the EU zone of influence. In reality Russian nationalists are no better than the “fascists” they condemn. The terror and misery that both sides have launched upon the citizens of Eastern Ukraine makes such labels meaningless. What we are seeing are two regimes trying to divide the workers of the Ukraine through nationalism (Russian or Ukrainian). There are signs that they are not always successful but it is sad to see so-called socialists, anarchists and other self-proclaimed revolutionaries there acting as recruiting sergeants for anti-working class agendas. It seems they have learned nothing from the experience of 1914 or 1939. We have to stand for the autonomy of the working class. Marx wrote “Workers have no country”. The capitalists own the means of production in every country and every country goes to war to protect its own property. Workers have no stake in this but they are the victims of wars as we can see just by looking across the planet.

In Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Sudan, Congo, Central Africa, and Nigeria just to mention the most obvious, war is devastating the lives of the populations. In an imperialist world these wars do not arise spontaneously or by accident (although “the law of unintended consequences” means that some surrogates (like the Taliban or IS) get out of control of the imperialist sponsoring power). Imperialist wars are the product of a struggle for control of the wealth of the planet and it is no accident that the number of wars is increasing.

Capitalism is in a deep crisis. The post-war settlement of Bretton Woods collapsed years ago and the bursting of the speculative bubble in 2007 means our capitalist masters are floundering for a solution. We are at the end of a cycle of accumulation and only a massive devaluation of capital can restart it. At the moment devaluing working class wages (variable capital) is their main strategy but even this will not be enough to kickstart the economy and they know it. In the twentieth century the ultimate devaluation came via war as in 1914-18 and 1939-45. The First World War did not do such a great job at devaluation so the Roaring Twenties did not last long, but the 1945 situation was different. After 6 years of massive destruction we had the longest secular boom in capitalist history. It is now a distant memory.

War or Revolution

Increasing international tensions from the EU borders to the South China Sea via the mayhem of the Middle East prove that imperialist imperatives never go away. After a century of domination the relative decline of the US is a recipe for more tension. At the end of the Second World War a victorious US government laid down the marker for the “American century”. This was that US GDP should equal some 45% of global purchasing power. That figure has now fallen to 19.2%. And when a rising power like China feels it is being thwarted by the former great powers the scope for negotiation narrows. Already the US has responded to the more aggressive policy of Beijing in the South China Sea with its “Asian pivot” which seeks to reinforce its Asian allies (especially Japan and the Philippines). The consequence of this has been to spark off an arms race in the region. The lesson of history from the period leading up to the First World War was that arms races only end in war and those wars are often started by big powers supporting their little power allies when the stakes are high enough. We are not there yet but the preparations have already begun.

The only alternative to capitalism’s “final solution” is working class revolution. This seems at first sight to be even further off. After decades of restructuring and the fragmentation of the old working class organisations of every description in the traditional capitalist states, a great deal of our historic memory as a class has been lost. However today there are 3.2 billion workers around the world. We can see from China to South Africa that they are not a mere sociological category. They are fighting against the drive to exploit them more and more. This is at the heart of capitalist treatment of its wage slaves. It is also the reason that the class struggle never goes away. We need to step up our fight for a society without nations, borders, states, wars, and exploitation. Our war is the class war!

The title, “The Only War Worth Fighting is the Class War”, is taken from the grafitti of one of the 16 gaoled at Richmond Castle in 1916. He wrote this on his prison cell wall.

(1) For more on this see leftcom.org. This article is only an rough outline of our views which can be found in many more articles on our website.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


It is modestly claimed that "this article is only a rough outline of our views" but nevertheless it is clearly stated and easy to read and easy to understand too. It presents a brief history of how we got from where we were, 100 years and then 50 years ago, to the mess we're in now, and suggests the only option open to society in looking for the way out. A working class revolution.

Sometimes "a rough outline" is all that's needed. So thank you leftcom.

Thanks Charlie

For those who prefer listening the London meeting in the anarchist bookfair can be heard here


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.