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War set out to build empires—but ended with revolutions

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Issue 2410
Indian soldiers serving with the British army on the Western Front
Indian soldiers serving with the British army on the Western Front (Pic: Imperial War Museum)

There’s a right wing attempt to rehabilitate the First World War, as a “necessary” war for democracy. Is this dangerous? 

That’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. There’s a truly myopic view of some British historians who see it as just a war on the Western Front. 

It was a global conflict with the imperial powers rubbing up against each other all over the world. What’s happening in Iraq today is a direct consequence of the imperial carve-up that took place after the war ended. 

War is endemic to capitalism. Imperialism is still with us and the pattern of regional and proxy wars today is not unlike what happened in the run up to the First World War. But I wanted to write about people who opposed the war. We can learn from their struggles today. 

What do you say to the view that the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand caused the war? 

The assassination can’t “explain” the war. But Franz Ferdinand was shot in the Balkans, which were already a tinder box, with the imperial powers fighting over trade routes.

And what about the idea that Britain entered the war to defend “plucky little Belgium” against German imperialism? 

It’s a complete joke. Belgium was one of the great powers. Its genocidal rule in Congo was brutal even by the imperialist standards of the time.

Britain had already been an imperial power for 200 years. Prime minister David Lloyd George explicitly said that Britain’s war aims were to create a fresh empire in the Middle East. Compared to these, Germany was a novice. 

Do you agree with historian Christopher Clark that blame for the war doesn’t lie with Germany?

He is right to show that Germany was not the only imperialist power. For instance, Britain fought the Boer War to increase its own influence in Africa and lessen Germany’s.

But Clark sees the war as an avoidable accident. That let’s the capitalist system off the hook. By the early 20th century competition between firms was replaced by competition between states. 

And as capitals needed to expand globally, there was a move from economic to military conflict. 

Socialists such as Vladimir Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin in Russia understood that the war was caused by competition among the imperialist states.

But is it true that working class people supported the war and volunteered readily? 

Lots of youngsters signed up. But lots quickly changed their minds. That’s why we had the Christmas truce in 1914. 

My own grandfather volunteered, then was wounded in Ypres in 1914 and became a socialist.

In 1916 the government was forced to bring in conscription. There was always opposition to war in the working class.

In the years before the war, there had been the Great Unrest with militant strikes, the Irish Home Rule campaign and the suffragettes. 

But social democratic parties like Labour abandoned internationalism and backed their own governments when war broke out. 

They had become tied into achieving socialism through gradually reforming their own existing states. This disorientated the organised working-class, but opposition by small groups of socialists became a focus. By 1917 it was becoming clear that the war was unending slaughter.

The French army faced a major mutiny in Verdun and there were mutinies in the British army. When the Russian February Revolution happened there were big demonstrations in support in Germany, France and even Britain. But the impact of the October Revolution, which established the first workers’ government, was even bigger.

There were big strikes of metal workers in Vienna and Budapest in Austria-Hungary and strikes in Germany.

Was it the revolutions that finally brought the war to an end?

In 1918 it seemed like Germany might win in a new offensive.

But some two million troops disappeared through mutinies and desertions. As well as the famous naval mutiny in Kiel, German soldiers in Belgium overthrew the military authority and established soviets.

The US entering the war may have pushed Germany to sue for peace, but it was the revolution that ended the war.

The revolutionary wave spread across Europe, to Hungary and Italy. Britain was by no means a high point, but it too was on the brink of revolution in 1919.

The world has changed, but imperialism is still with us. Then weapons of mass destruction were dreadnought battleships, today they’re stealth bombers and nuclear submarines. 

Rosa Luxemburg’s choice of socialism or barbarism is posed ever more sharply.

Empire and Revolution: a socialist history of the First World War by Dave Sherry. Published by Bookmarks £7.99

Dave is set to launch the book at Marxism 2014, 10-14 July in London


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