WHENEVER the rulers of a country go to war they demand national unity from their population. They insist that all internal divisions must be set aside.
They say workers must stop demanding better pay and conditions, campaigns should call off agitation to change government policy, and the media must bottle criticism. When a war starts the feelings of unity usually run high.
As the First World War began in 1914 a patriotic fervour swept Britain. It was not just Tories, Liberals and right wing trade unionists who trumpeted the jingoistic mood. Many ordinary workers and left wingers also marched in step.
In 1900 Keir Hardie had been elected MP in Merthyr Tydfil as a Labour Representation Committee candidate. It was a great demonstration of class feeling among the South Wales workers to break from the ruling class parties. By 1914 Hardie was the revered elder statesman of the party. Yet when the conflict began and he raised doubts about supporting the war he faced violent opposition from his constituents.
Workers who had carried him though the streets when he was elected now marched to denounce his lack of patriotism. The mob was led by Charles Stanton. Stanton was one of the most left wing leaders of the bitter miners’ strikes in the area just a few years before.
Hardie died a year later. Stanton was elected in his place as a bullying pro-war candidate. Will Thorne, one of the great fighting leaders of the trade union movement among the unskilled at the end of the 1880s, was reborn as Lieutenant Colonel Will Thorne of the West Ham Volunteer Force.
Ben Tillett, the great leader of the 1889 and 1912 dockers’ strikes, met a small group of anti-war protesters and ‘goaded them, slashed and lashed them with flaying scorn’. ‘Workers who respected you, who you never thought could be swept off their feet by jingoism, could appear so transformed that they did not appear to be the same people,’ said Harry Pollitt, later to be a leader of the British Communist Party, of his fellow boilermakers.
The same process was going on in Germany, France and Russia, as rulers fooled workers into slaughtering people who were really their class brothers and sisters in other countries.
But the mood was temporary. In a very short period the class struggle was back. By July 1915 South Wales miners were on illegal strike. The strikers were pilloried for helping the enemy. But they stuck out and won. Prime minister Lloyd George was forced to travel to Cardiff and make humiliating concessions.
At around the same time engineers struck and formed a workers’ committee which spread its influence to other industrial centres. In November 1916 10,000 Sheffield engineers struck against the conscription of engineers who were supposed to be exempt from the call-up. These were not explicitly anti-war strikes. But workers were refusing to accept that ‘everyone is in it together’ and that class struggle should be suspended. In part the change at home reflected the change of mood at the front. Illusions about a short and glorious war had met the bloody reality of shattered bodies and wrecked minds.
But another important factor was the gap between the wage freezes and cuts expected of workers and the soaring profits grasped by the capitalists on the back of mass slaughter.
Prices for food and clothing rose 70 percent in Britain and 600 percent in Germany. The hardship for ordinary people was increased by huge rent rises. Meanwhile at the other end of society profits soared. Industries such as oil, metals, chemicals and textiles-and of course arms-saw profits double in a year, treble a few months later, and then roar higher.
The factors that saw struggles in Britain went much further in Russia and Germany. There the same people who had cheered war made revolutions in 1917 and 1919. The First World War is a stark example, but there are similar trends in every war. At some point the pressure breaks into struggle
Today we do not face anything like the jingoistic fervour of 1914. MP George Galloway and journalist John Pilger are not pursued by baying mobs. At work, people who argue against the war find a third or half of people at least partly agreeing with them.
As the allies murder innocent people then the voices of dissent will grow. As workers see redundancies spiral up, privatisation continue and bosses keep pocketing a fortune, the notion of ‘national unity’ frays. The task of socialists is to argue hard against the war and also against any suspension of the class struggle at home.
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