How should socialists respond when faced with two major imperialist powers standing at the brink of war? It’s a question raised sharply by the current stand-off over Ukraine between the US—and its Nato and European Union partners—and the Russian Federation.
The right and the media are clear that we must always support “our” country against any other, especially when it comes to war. They are joined by Keir Starmer’s Labour, which says the Russian state is uniquely aggressive and corrupt. They point to president Vladimir Putin’s terrible human rights record and say, surely we must all stand together against this bully.
In doing so, Labour ignores the way Britain has bombed, tortured and exploited its way around the world. Genuine socialists acknowledge the reactionary nature of the Russian state.
We do not seek to cover up Putin’s crimes in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Chechnya and beyond. Nor do we ignore the racism and homophobia of his regime. But our starting point is to say we want an end to the system that produces war—and therefore our primary enemy is the government at home.
We will not back a slaughter of working class people in eastern Europe at the behest of Boris Johnson and Joe Biden. And we hope by raising a flag of internationalism we can show workers in Russia that we do not consider them our enemy. Instead, we want to encourage them to mount their own resistance to Putin.
Inspiration comes from the revolutionary resistance to the First World War—which saw at least 15 million people dead. When the war began in 1914, liberals and reformist socialists jumped to support the governments in their own countries. They decried the “atrocities” and “imperialism” of the other side.
French socialists denounced German expansionism while German social democrats attacked the tyranny of the Russian Tsar. And Russian liberals pleaded the case of Serbs oppressed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Even much of the left decided its own ruling class was more progressive than other nations. But a tiny minority of revolutionaries stood against this fakery and insisted the crimes of their own ruling class were their primary concern. By focusing on the battle at home, they said they could help bring down the system that stood behind war, and the oppression of smaller nations.
Karl Liebknecht, a left MP for the German social democrats, was the first to vote against the war. Denied a chance to speak in parliament, he issued a leaflet explaining his position.
The “Main enemy is at home” it read. “Every people’s main enemy is in their own country. The main enemy of the German people is in Germany—German imperialism, the German war party, and German secret diplomacy,” it continued. “Here in our own land is the enemy that the German people must combat. We must wage this political struggle alongside the proletariat of other countries, as they struggle against their own imperialists.”
For Liebknecht that didn’t mean excusing oppression carried out by his rulers’ enemies. While opposing his own ruling class, he did not forget about British oppression of Ireland, India and much of Africa. Instead, he insisted socialists must acknowledge the leaders of the “other side” are murderers and oppressors but declare, your ruling class is just as bad, or worse.
In this principled stand, Liebknecht was isolated, both within his party and in parliament. But his position was shared by the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. “A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war,” Lenin wrote in 1915. “Socialists must explain to the masses that they have no other road of salvation except the revolutionary overthrow of ‘their’ governments, and that advantage must be taken of these governments’ embarrassments in the present war precisely for this purpose.”
Despite being shunned by his party comrades, Liebknecht’s position began to win support among ordinary people. In 1916 opposition to the war was growing among battle weary soldiers and starving civilians. On 1 May Liebknecht’s group called an illegal demonstration in Berlin that 10,000 people attended.
One account has Liebknecht shouting from the middle of the crowd, “Down with the war. Down with the government.” He was arrested for this and ultimately jailed. During the second day of his trial, 55,000 workers in Berlin struck in his support. As he was sentenced, the revolutionary shouted to the court, “No general ever wore a uniform with as much honour as I will wear a prison uniform.”
Liebknecht would pay a heavy price for his resistance after release from prison. He was murdered by paramilitary police while “trying to escape” arrest in January 1919. But the fusion of the fight against imperialist war with the class war outlived his murder—in the form of an explosion of working class anger. In all wars, poor people are expected to pay a heavy price.
In the most extreme examples, the fighting becomes so widespread and horrific, it is too much for a professional army alone. Workers and sections of the middle class then face conscription into the military.
That happened in the First and Second World Wars, but also in the US during both the war in Korea from 1951 and again in Vietnam from 1964. Not only are the young sent to fight and die abroad, but at home governments axe civil liberties, raise taxes are cut welfare.
To stop war, anti-war movements must reach out to people struggling over these and other issues. During the First World War the mass strike and defiant protests became the most crucial tactic—a way of uniting the resistance. Every illegal demonstration undermined governments’ claims to speak for “the people”. Strikes, particularly in munitions factories, made it increasingly difficult to conduct the war. Mutinies in the trenches spread fear among the generals.
The revolts by people under colonial oppression threatened to crack apart the empires for which the war was being fought. To participate in illegal struggle in these circumstances was not only to put your life on the line. It also involved backing the position of Liebknecht and Lenin that the primary enemy was your own ruling class.
And what followed was to vindicate Lenin’s slogan, “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. On the Western Front in France in April 1917, half the French army refused to return to the front after an offensive cost 250,000 lives. Some units raised the red flag and sang the revolutionary anthem, “The Internationale”.
This was followed by a revolt of 50,000 soldiers in Italy, and rebellion by soldiers at a British base in northern France. In Russia, February’s International Women’s Day protests eventually brought 400,000 workers to the streets demanding “Down with the autocracy” and “Down with the war”.
These were the first steps towards the two 1917 revolutions. In Hungary, workers—led by a former Russian prisoner of war—took power in 1918. A Communist and social democrat government took power in Czechoslovakia. As mass strikes spread across the continent British prime minister Lloyd George wrote, “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution.
“The whole existing order is being questioned by the mass of the population from one end of Europe to the other”. The war which began by solidifying the existing order and making dissent almost impossible ended in the gravest crisis the capitalist ruling class had yet experienced. The “spirit of revolution” opened the possibility of organising society in a completely different way, and forever banishing imperialism and war.
And, more than anything, it was brought about by people prepared to declare that their enemy would not be workers from another country. Instead they turned their revolutionary rage on their own ruling classes who directed the carnage on the battlefields and at home.
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