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How does revolt end war?

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Imperialism and international competition lies behind wars the world over. But if capitalism causes war, what ends it? Dave Sewell looks at the revolts that stopped the slaughter
Issue 2479
A mutiny by sailors in Germany ended the war and led to revolution. The placard reads, “All power to the soviets”
A mutiny by sailors in Germany ended the war and led to revolution (top). The placard reads, “All power to the soviets”

Britain’s rulers always claim they go to war for the sake of preserving peace.

During the First World War, the whole establishment took up centre left author HG Wells’ slogan that it would be “The war that will end war”.

An alliance of the largest empires—Britain, France and Russia—was supposedly needed to protect the world from expansionist “German militarism”.

We hear similar lies today to justify bombing Syria, defend the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan or make the case for renewing Trident nuclear missiles.

They are all underpinned by a perverse and contradictory view of the world.

On the one hand modern capitalist states are supposedly democratic and peaceful.

At the same time those states are so constantly under threat they need to be heavily armed and ready to fight.

In reality the system itself generates wars. And it is revolt—not more war—that stops them.

The nightmare of war can also fuel those revolts, as the institutions and ideas that hold capitalist society together start to break down.

The First World War is the clearest example.

As the politicians never tire of reminding us, there was initially enthusiasm for the war among many workers.

Almost half a million Britons volunteered for military service in the first two months.

It didn’t help that across Europe mass socialist parties betrayed their promises to oppose war.

They had all previously pointed out that workers had nothing to gain from slaughtering each other.


But when hostilities broke out in 1914 they signed up to that slaughter, each going along with their own government’s call to defend their country.

Those socialists who still opposed war were isolated.

The war itself changed that.The trenches became mass graves.

Neither military victories nor diplomatic breakthroughs seemed to offer any hope of ending it.

At the front, it took only months for officers to begin worrying about the fraternisation between opposing troops.

They suffered the same horrors, and it grew harder to see each other as the enemy.

There were countless informal truces. This fed into recruitment problems at home.

In November 1916 10,000 workers in Sheffield even struck to defend an engineer—previously exempt from conscription—from being called up.

Rebellions began to look like the alternative. A single soldier or worker refusing to fight could be executed by the authorities.

But together they could challenge the authorities’ power.

Mutinous soldiers and sailors and striking munitions workers led the Russian Revolution of February 1917 which overthrew the despotic Tsar.

It raised hopes all over Europe. There were solidarity demonstrations in Germany, Britain, and France.

By April, mutinies paralysed the French army. Soldiers refused to launch another mass suicide mission.

When Russia’s new provisional government continued the Tsar’s war, it was overthrown in turn by a deepening revolution.

The new workers’ government took Russia out of the war immediately in November 1917.

Its leaders saw hope not in slaughtering German workers and soldiers, but in winning them over.

Germany and its allies had already been rocked by strikes. Two million German soldiers had deserted. And in October 1918 German sailors mutinied in the port of Kiel.

The action spread across the country. They joined up with workers in the cities. The Kaiser abdicated.

The armistice was signed two days later. Revolution had ended the war.

Decades later the colonial war in Vietnam by the US new superpower ended up

putting US society under immense strain.

The heroic resistance of the Vietnamese had an echo in the US, with a mass protest movement eventually involving some hundreds of thousands of people.

The struggle for civil rights pitted black people in the US against its racist rulers.

Yet they were being asked to die and to kill for those same rulers.

Boxer Muhammad Ali spoke for many saying the Vietnamese had “never called me nigger”.

US first lady Bird Johnson spoke for much of the establishment when she described in her diary “a ripple of grim excitement in the air, almost a feeling of being under siege”.

Army discipline broke down. There were individual acts of passive disobedience, anti-war

soldiers’ papers and “fragging”—soldiers killing officers with fragmentation grenades.

After the Vietnamese resistance’s bold Tet Offensive in 1968, the US ruling class was forced to start looking for exit strategies.

Today conscript armies are becoming rarer.

High-tech, professional armies can seem more stable, less prone to mutiny.


But even these armies recruit the poor, drafting economic conscripts out of poverty and alienation.

Wars can remind these soldiers how little a stake they have in the system they are asked to die for.

British soldier Joe Glenton faced court martial rather than fight in Afghanistan.

Thousands of US soldiers deserted during the Iraq war.

Artillery gunner Michael Hoffman said US troops in Baghdad did “things almost like something they heard about in Vietnam”.

“You’ve got guys who are sent on patrol, and instead of a real patrol they jump in a Humvee and drive through town as fast as possible to avoid any kind of confrontation,” he said.

The invasion of Iraq provoked Britain’s biggest ever demonstrations in 2003.

Fear of that movement stopped the Tories winning support for bombing Syria ten years later.

Crucially, every army relies on technology and logistics. As Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote in his celebrated poem General, Your Tank is a Powerful Vehicle, this means “it has one defect: It needs a mechanic”.

The Defence Support Group workers who struck repeatedly last year maintained British tanks used in Afghanistan, some even flew out to bases there.

In 2003 two train drivers in Motherwell refused to move a freight train carrying munitions for the Iraq war.

A threatened firefighters’ strike, called off at the last minute, would have diverted army resources away from war.

Everything capitalists do is dependent on workers’ labour—even their wars.

Only exploiting this defect in the war machine can bring peace.


And building on these revolts can wreck the warmongers’ system and usher in a world without war.

That means workers must fight their real enemy—the ruling class at home.

During the First World War, British politicians pointed to the Kaiser’s repression and militarism.

This was real, and it made him the enemy of workers.

German politicians pointed to the equally real brutality of the British Empire.But for workers in Britain, fighting Germany meant reinforcing their own rulers.

It also made it harder for German workers to break with theirs. The reverse was equally true.

The country where workers won most from the end of the war was the first major power that lost—Russia.

In 1905 Russia’s defeat by Japan had helped trigger an earlier revolution that laid the foundations for 1917.

A Russian military victory would have been used to repress the opposition.

Yet the betrayal of workers in 1914 has been the model for Labour-type parties ever since.

The attacks on Jeremy Corbyn have been a reminder of how much Labour places the idea of a “national interest” before workers’ interests.

The right inside Labour criticise Corbyn’s support of the Stop the War Coalition. They say that bombing Syria will help to stop Isis and end the brutal civil war there. Others are for renewing the Trident system as a “nuclear deterrent”.

But it’s clear that more bombs and nukes do nothing to prevent or end wars. Only fighting against the system that creates war in the first place can do that.

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