The enormous coverage given to the centenary of the First World War does occasionally recognise the tragedy of the conflict and the horrendous loss of life it engendered. Recent imperialist wars have been so disastrous that treating the First World War with unashamed jingoism would not be convincing.
Welcome though this may be, the media is very careful to avoid suggesting that anything could have been done to avoid war. The deaths of millions between 1914 and 1918 is portrayed akin to bad weather — unpleasant but natural. To accept this would be a mistake because it would not only be a distortion of what happened, but disarm us in the face of future conflagrations. The killing could have been stopped, and we know this because it was stopped by the greatest peace movement in history — workers’ revolution.
The Bolshevik uprising in October 1917 pulled Russia, the country with the largest army (16-million strong) and highest death toll (some 2.8 million), out of the war. A year later, after Austria-Hungary and Germany jointly suffered the loss of around 3.6 million lives, further revolutions brought the armistice. In the case of Germany it took a week — from the outbreak of the Kiel naval mutiny to the overthrow of the Kaiser in Berlin.
Yet four years before, at the outbreak of war in August 1914, this outcome looked unlikely. What happened that year seemed to prove the impotence of the workers’ movement in the face of imperialism. How can we square these two realities?
The starting point is an understanding of imperialism, a system in which the competitive drive of capitalism was embodied in the actions of states through armed conflict. The huge productive power of modern industry was harnessed into an immense force for destruction. To counter this menace a mass of people with the social power to stop imperialism, and an interest to do so, had to be mobilised. That power appeared to be assembled in the Second International, a world-wide organisation of socialist parties and associated trade unionists. The 1910 Congress of the Second International in Copenhagen voted for an immediate international general strike to end any imperialist war should it break out. Two years later the Basel Congress reiterated that when war threatened it was “the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives… to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war…” Leaving nothing to chance, it added, “In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” Mass organisation
The most impressive organisation of the Second International parties was German Social Democracy (SPD). In 1914 it had more than a million members and has been described as “the first true political mass organisation in history”. Britain’s Labour Party had more than 2 million affiliated to it. French socialism attracted a million and a half votes in 1914 and over 100 deputies were elected. In the days before war was declared demonstrations and protests were held and bold statements declared in line with the anti-militarist decisions of successive Second International Congresses.
Yet on 4 August 1914 Germany’s 110 socialist deputies backed their leader in overturning their anti-imperialist policy. They voted for a war loan promising that “in the hour of danger we do not leave the fatherland in the lurch.” German revolutionary deputy Karl Liebknecht was alone in abstaining, and four months later his was the only vote against further war loans. French socialism also failed the test. The French party joined the “sacred union” government, while the leader of the main union federation declared himself “a commissioner of the nation”. In Britain on 31 July Keir Hardie and Arthur Henderson had issued a statement calling on people to “hold vast demonstrations against war, in London and in every industrial centre… There is no time to lose.” But when war began Henderson ousted Hardie from the leadership of the Labour Party he had founded in order to enter a wartime coalition. With notable exceptions, such as Russia and Bulgaria, virtually all the parties of the Second International collapsed into chauvinism and backed their own rulers.
The scale of the about-turn was such that at first some people thought reports in the various socialist newspapers were faked. When Lenin read in Vorwärts, the German SPD newspaper, about the party’s backing for the war drive he exclaimed, “It cannot be; it must be a forged number.” Romania’s socialists believed stories of German socialist capitulation were a “monstrous lie” and that the Austrian government had taken over the socialist presses in that country. It was not long before the shocking truth sank in. In Germany Rosa Luxemburg, Liebknecht’s collaborator, recognised the cause of the war: “Violated, dishonoured, wading in blood, dripping filth — there stands bourgeois society.” Equally she saw the problem posed by the failure of the Second International to withstand the pressure. Each party had had to choose whether it believed “workers in uniform” should kill other workers just because they came from another country, or whether workers shared a common interest in uniting against their exploiters: “The fall of the socialist proletariat in the present world war is unprecedented. It is a misfortune for humanity. But socialism will be lost only if the international proletariat fails to measure the depth of this fall, if it refuses to learn from it.”
The conclusion that Luxemburg drew, along with others such as Lenin and Trotsky in Russia and John Maclean in Britain, was that the seeds of collapse lay in reformist politics. The Second International called itself socialist and professed to stand in the interests of ordinary people. However, its constituent parties believed that a different society could be achieved by winning a parliamentary majority and thus capturing the national state. If capturing the state is the first priority, then when that state is attacked these parties end up defending it, even if this means worker killing worker.
Opposing the murderous slaughter of the First World War meant opposing your own state and the capitalist system that shaped it. To consistently reject the war was to perform a revolutionary act. The numbers who took this step in 1914 were small. However, by taking a principled stand revolutionaries who were vilified at the start of the war came to lead mass anti-war movements a few years later.
The most effective of these was the Bolshevik Party whose foundation stretched back to 1903. That organisational head-start proved vital. Although revolutions sprang up in many places to stop the war, only in Russia were revolutionaries like Lenin able to take that one step further and destroy the economic system that engenders war itself. Despite the important political work they performed, Maclean was imprisoned, while Luxemburg and Liebknecht were assassinated in 1919.
If there are positive lessons to be learned, the first is that, in the words of Joe Hill — another left-wing martyr of the First World War — “Don’t mourn, organise!” That was what the masses which toppled the Tsar, Kaiser and Austrian Emperor achieved, and in so doing they stopped the bloodiest war the world had seen. However, that alone was not sufficient. The Second International parties were extremely well organised but their reformist politics meant they failed a key test. So the second lesson is that such organisation must be based on revolutionary politics
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