The First World War
First draft of a chapter from a never-completed book on proletarian internationalism.
[Edited 4/3/15 to remove a claim about Glasgow Trades Council which I could not substantiate. Thanks to Edward Crawford for pointing this out.]
The socialist parties which accepted the war often did so without enthusiasm, and chiefly because they feared to be abandoned by their followers, who flocked to the colours with spontaneous zeal. In Britain, which had no conscription, 2 millions were to volunteer for military service between August 1914 and June 1915, melancholy proof of the success of the politics of integrating democracy. Only where the effort to make the poor citizen identify with nation and state had hardly begun to be seriously pursued, as in Italy, or where it could hardly succeed, as among the Czechs, did the masses in 1914 remain indifferent or hostile to the war. The mass anti-war movement did not seriously begin until much later. (EJ Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, London, 1987, pp 108-9)
Thus Eric Hobsbawm on the outbreak of World War I. Hobsbawm seems to be projecting back his overestimation of nationalism into his account of historical events; as we shall see, the spontaneous zeal for war of the working class was neither so general nor quite so spontaneous as Hobsbawm supposes. Nonetheless there is no evading the problem. In 1914 the international socialist movement appeared to be in a healthy state; its influence was more extensive than ever before, and among its rank and file there was clear evidence of a determination to prevent war from occurring. By the end of the year the International had collapsed ignominiously; there was no doubt that many workers had enlisted in a state of considerable patriotic enthusiasm, and many more had seen no alternative to following their example. For those who want to claim that identification with nation will always run deeper than identification with class, the events of 1914 are a powerful argument which require an answer.
The internationalist left, after being briefly disoriented by the collapse of the International, attempted to provide such an answer. Lenin’s analysis of the role of the aristocracy is well-known; he used this to explain how political opportunism had grown up within the labour movement. Applying the analysis to the specifics of the English situation he attempted to explain the rush of volunteers in 1914:
The absence of conscription makes the people more free in their attitude towards the war, in that everybody is free to refuse to join the army. The government (which in England is nothing but a committee to manage the affairs of the bourgeoisie) is therefore compelled to strain every nerve to increase ‘popular enthusiasm for the war.’ This would be absolutely impossible to attain without radically altering the law, were not the proletarian mass entirely disorganised and demoralised by the shifting of a minority of the best-situated, skilled, and unionised workers to liberal, ie, bourgeois politics. The English trade unions already comprise about one-fifth of the wage workers. The leaders of those trade unions are mostly liberals whom Marx long ago called agents of the bourgeoisie. (‘English Pacifism and English Dislike of Theory’, 1915)
The argument about the labour aristocracy is contestable (exactly what layer of the working class did it include?) but the general focus of Lenin’s argument is none the less valuable; it focusses attention on the political currents in the working-class movement, on the absence of coherent leadership, and on the material base of those currents.
Trotsky’s account gave more attention to the psychology of the working class support for the war (perhaps ideology would be a better word than psychology); he observed that for workers enslaved to the boredom and oppression of factory life, the chance to travel and seek excitement in the army appeared to offer a welcome relief. Trotsky also identified the corruption of the International, but in the eyes of Lenin and Zinoviev, did so in too fatalistic a manner. They alleged that he saw the collapse of the International as inevitable and thereby lifted the responsibility from the shoulders of the leaders of the International.
Such an argument can easily degenerate into a false polarisation; clearly sociological explanation and denunciation of betrayal both have a place in a political strategy.
Other points were made in the explanations developed in a variety of quarters. Alfred Rosmer noted that although there was strong opposition up to the eve of the war, it collapsed immediately war broke out; once war was decided, then all the strategies for preventing it became obsolete and the class found itself disoriented. Moreover, he noted, the strain of worrying about whether war would break out or not was such that many workers were relieved to have a decision, one way or the other. The French syndicalist G Dumoulin, in a pamphlet published in 1918 called Les syndicalistes français et la guerre, stressed that the syndicalists had concealed their own weaknesses. The movement had been riddled with drunkenness and corruption; more importantly, the syndicalists had overestimated their own strength; the unionised workers were a small minority in the class, and their anti-militarist propaganda had reached only a limited audience; moreover, they had failed to recognise the depth and significance of divisions within the working class. Harry McShane, writing of the situation in Glasgow, notes that the left had not made enough effort to explain the nature of war; recruits did not know what they were letting themselves in for and were lulled by the claims that the war would offer an easy victory and would last only a few weeks.
But despite these various pressures which weakened the will of the working class to resist the drive to war the collapse of the movement was neither complete nor total. Up to the very day of the outbreak of war there were massive demonstrations on the streets in most parts of Europe demanding that there should be no war. In Paris the demonstrations in the week preceding the war were massive and despite government attempts to ban them they were so large that they were entirely out of police control and held total sway over the boulevards in the central area of the city. Some of the more militant unions would have been willing to take strike action at this point if a clear lead had been given, and the dynamic of the movement could have developed in quite the opposite direction to that in which it in fact went.
In Italy Angelica Balabanova, a member of the Executive of the Second International was on her way to Brussels for the meeting of the Executive which was to consider ways of preventing war. By mistake she found herself on a train going in the wrong direction. When she explained this to one of the workers on the train, it was arranged that the train should make an unscheduled stop and Balabanova was rapidly transferred to the right train by railway workers. The reflected not only a desire for peace but the very high level of militancy which existed in Italy immediately prior to the war, notably the so-called ‘red week’ in Ancona.
In Britain there were a number of cases of sections of the labour movement attempting to take industrial action against the war. In Bristol Ernest Bevin of the Dockers’ Union raised the demand for a general strike against the war.
In Russia the Bolsheviks, who had grown enormously in strength in the couple of years prior to the war, were able to take open and public action against the war despite the stepping up off repression and the war hysteria which became rampant among the middle classes:
On the day that the army was mobilised the workers of about twenty factories struck in St Petersburg in protest against the war. In some places the workers met the reservists with shouts of ‘Down with the war’ and with revolutionary songs. But the demonstrations now took place under conditions different from those of a few weeks before. The onlookers, particularly in the centre of the city, were incited by patriotic sentiment and no longer maintained a ‘friendly neutrality, but took an active part in hunting down the demonstrators and helping the police to make arrests.
One such ‘patriotic’ outburst occurred in the Nevsky Prospect on the first day of mobilisation, while a workers’ demonstration was marching past the town Duma. The people in the street, mostly bourgeois loafers, who usually hid themselves or made off through side streets when workers’ demonstrations appeared, now became very active and, with shouts of ‘traitors’, assisted the police to beat up the demonstrators. The police were able to arrest the workers and take them off to the police station. (AY Badeyev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma, London, 1987, p 199)
Even when the war was clearly under way there are many contemporary accounts which suggest that the ‘spontaneous zeal’ of which Hobsbawm writes so glibly did not penetrate into all sections of the working class. There appears, for example, to have been considerable apathy among miners in the North of England, to judge from a letter which appeared in the Yorkshire Post on 2 September 1914 from Mr Doyle of the Manor House, Birtley, Co Durham:
A few days ago, in passing through one of our larger villages, I stopped to see a dozen or so young men who had joined the colours being drilled in a field. Six times as many were lying up against the fence passively looking on. I enquired of one of them, a well set-up, athletic young fellow, why he was a spectator, and not a participant. He looked at me squarely, and said: ‘Because it isn’t worth while; we could be no use for six months, and by that time there will be no enemy. Germany will be off the map.’
I spoke to another, who said: ‘It’s no business of ours this foreign war. Austria and Servia should be let fight it out. Germany didn’t want to come in until compelled by Russia, and we should have kept out of it; anyhow, we’re all right; our fleet will keep us safe.’ On the same day I saw 2,000 miners watching a great bowling match on a common. Three out of five were between the ages of 20 and 35. With difficulty I diverted the attention of a few of them from the match to the war. They spoke of it in quite a detached manner. One said we should lick the Germans, but whoever won could not do without the workers, and they would have their job anyhow. Another remarked that Kitchener had got all the men he wanted, and our fleet would starve the Germans like rats in a hole. A third said he was against the war, but now it had started let them fight it out, it made no difference to him, and so on…
In a seaside town a patriotic young woman set out to challenge all the able-bodied men she could find on the streets as to why they were not in the armed forces; she was profoundly distressed by the inadequate responses she received. She reported in a letter:
Near the M- I encountered a number of young men of all social grades. As I accosted them severally some replied indifferently, ‘The Germans won’t come here, no fear!’ Others, again, replied, ‘What about the Japanese? They will help us.’ And others answered, ‘There are the Russians!’
…The answer of several of the young working men was, ‘The gents should enlist first.’ (Cited AMB Meakin, Enlistment or Conscription, London, 1915, pp 165-66)
Such varied expressions of a sullen and blinkered apathy are a long way removed from proletarian internationalism, but they do show quite clearly that nationalism had not penetrated the working class as deeply as is often believed. If any section of the left had offered a clear internationalist lead, then it would have stood a good chance of winning some of this section of the population to its demands.
Certainly the various ruling classes realised they could not leave things to the mercies of the ‘spontaneous zeal’ of the population. On the contrary, from the outset of war, in all the belligerent countries, a major ideological effort was launched to ensure that the population was won the the ideas of patriotism and national defence. At the top end of the market the intelligentsia were mobilised to campaign. Early in the war the British government called a meeting of all the major figures of English literature, from Thomas Hardy to Conan Doyle (the only honourable absentees were Shaw, Lawrence and Bertrand Russell). As a result a considerable amount of patriotic prose and poetry was turned out over the next two or three years; Sherlock Holmes emerged from retirement as a British intelligence agent.
Lower down the market public sensibility was inflamed by numerous unsubstantiated atrocity stories. Pictures were published of a baby whose hands German soldiers had cut off, and in one version, eaten. French schools were invited to subscribe to a series of cards entitled ‘German crimes’. In September 1914 a Dumfries newspaper carried a story, soon prominently taken up in the London press, of a British nurse in Belgium who was said to have had both breasts cut off by Germans. In fact the nurse in question had never been in Belgium and the whole story had been invented by her seventeen-year-old sister. (There is nothing new under The Sun.)
Those soldiers who did volunteer were not necessarily fired with a patriotic desire to kill. On the contrary, the army training programmes had to give systematic ideological indoctrination to recruits. British Brigadier-General Crozier wrote of training in 1915:
I, for my part, do what I can to alter completely the outlook, bearing and mentality of over a thousand men…blood lust is taught for purposes of war in bayonet fighting itself and by doping the minds of all with propagandic poison. The German atrocities (many of which I doubt in secret), the employment of gas in action, the violation of French women and the ‘official murder’ of Nurse Cavell all help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is so necessary for victory. The process of ‘seeing red’, which has to be carefully cultured if the effect is to be lasting, is elaborately grafted into the makeup of even the meek and mild…The Christian churches are the finest blood lust creators which we have and of them we make free use…The British soldier is a kindly fellow…It is necessary to corrode his mentality…(FP Crozier, A Brass Hat in No-Man’s-Land, London, 1930, p 42)
Clearly Crozier had little faith in ‘spontaneous zeal’.
The high level of volunteers in Britain (conscription did not become necessary until 1916) is often claimed to be evidence of a high degree of enthusiasm for the war effort. But it is questionable how many of the number were ‘volunteers’ in the strict sense. Young men were put under enormous moral pressure from families, friends and patriotic women with white feathers. But beyond this, there was enormous pressure from employers who often threatened to dismiss employees who would not ‘volunteer’ for the armed forces. A notable example of the role of employers came in May 1915, when 7000 tram workers in London stopped work in support of the demand for a war bonus:
The dispute was very violent. On one day alone (May 30th) eight trams were smashed up outside Archway depot, and a number of blacklegs were assaulted. There were many arrests and several strikers were sentenced to six weeks’ hard labour. The reaction of the London County Council (LCC), which owned the tramways, was to sack all men of military age, telling them to volunteer for the armed forces, and it issued a statement which read:
Notice is hereby given that since the majority of men above military age have returned to work, men who are eligible for the services will not be taken back.
a) those who enlist will receive favourable consideration for re-employment, as far as may be possible, after the War.
b) any man of military age unable to enlist may appeal to the Chief Officer and state his reasons, and he will consider whether any circumstances allow any exception in his case… (cited K Weller, ‘Don’t be a Soldier!’, London, 1985, p 29)
The picture was rather different in France and Germany, where there was compulsory military service and a conscript army. It should, however, be noted that in most continental countries the armies were substantially peasant armies. The peasantry still formed a substantial proportion of the population, and skilled industrial workers were often exempted from conscription because their skills were needed in munitions factories. So the fact that, for example, in France the desertion rate was lower than the authorities had expected is not necessarily an indication of working class endorsement of the war.
Another very clear indication that the various ruling classes did not consider that the working class would show ‘spontaneous zeal’ in support of the war is the fact that great efforts were made to draw labour leaders into support for the war. The need to win the political support of the political organisations of the working class was recognised, for example, in a letter from Bethmann Hollweg to the German Emperor on 26 July 1914:
Germany’s attitude must be ‘calm’, for only if attacked could Germany count on British neutrality and carry public opinion at home with her, the chief need being to get the Social Democrats’ support for war.
In Britain Arthur Henderson, the descendant in the Labour Movement of the non-conformist pacifism of John Bright, was brought into the war cabinet. In France Jules Guesde, who had opposed Jaurès in the SFIO as a representative of the intransigent Marxist wing of the party, came over to full support of the war, as did Gustave Hervé, an old-time anti-militarist campaigner who had coined the famous phrase about planting the tricolore on the dung-hill. Socialist Albert Thomas became Minister of Labour, and was highly commended for his energetic and efficient work. In Italy Benito Mussolini, who only a few years earlier had been tearing up railway lines to impede the passage of troop trains, played a key role in ensuring Italy’s entry into the war and the Socialist Party’s support for it. In Germany no Socialists were actually taken into the government, but many SPD members and trade union functionaries were given positions in the lower echelons of the administration. In Russia old-time revolutionaries like Plekhanov and Kropotkin came out in favour of the Tsarist war effort. On the leading committee of the French CGT pro-war feelings were so strong that when the anti-war campaigner Merrheim, who was a member of the committee, attended meetings, he took two large dogs with him.
The ruling classes of the various belligerent countries made great efforts to secure the support of the top layer of the labour leadership, knowing that the intermediary layers would follow suit. It would be wrong to suggest that these labour leaders were bribed; the actual salaries they received were probably small compensation for the hostility and responsibility they had to bear. And indeed they were often quite sincere in their support for their own nation, since they had always operated within the framework of their own nation state, as is the practice of all reformist politicians. But their overriding concern was for their own position as mediators, and for the apparatuses they had painstakingly built up so that they could play a mediating role in society.
Henri de Man, who attended the meeting of the International Socialist Bureau in Brussels in July 1914 as an interpreter, recalls:
It was curious to learn from hearing them talk that the main reason for their nervousness was their apprehension regarding the threat to their organisation. As experienced socialists and as men of considerable intelligence they no doubt also remembered the other physical and moral disasters that might result from the war; but they spoke above all about the organisation being threatened by dissolution, the party offices being closed, the press being muzzled, and the delivery vans of the party paper being requisitioned by the army. (Cited G Haupt, Socialism and the Great War, Oxford, 1972, p 241)
The role of the labour leaders was vital in several respects. Firstly, they would have been the only people with the credibility and the organisation to mobilise direct action to prevent the war starting or spreading. It was vital to neutralise them. Secondly, because of their credibility as a result of previous struggles they had led, over economic questions or in pursuit of peace, they were able to win support from workers. And thirdly, their specialist knowledge of industry, trade union practices etc, made them especially suitable to contribute to the organisation of war production.
Once it was clear that the war would not be stopped before it could start, the whole situation of the left was changed. It was now necessary to decide how to relate to the war. There were various options:
a) for some on the left there seemed no way of stopping the war short of victory, so there was nothing to do but campaign for the most rapid victory possible for their own side. What would come after was simply ignored;
b) others, like Kautsky, took a slightly different position. The war was unfortunate, but not much could be done about it. (As a determinist Kautsky didn’t think much could be done about anything.) He argued that the International should simply be suspended until the end of hostilities, and then its activities should resume as if nothing had happened.
c) a third tendency believed that the labour movement should attempt to put a stop to the war, but that they should do it strictly within the framework of the existing social order, that is, that they should press for negotiations between the belligerent forces.
d) the fourth current, initially very much a minority, considered that the war was the product of the social system as such and therefore no solution could be found within the existing order; they therefore believed that the only alternative was to transform the war into a revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of capitalism.
The numbers of those who were in total opposition to the war and saw no alternative but to wish the defeat of their own country as a prelude to the revolutionary overthrow of the social order was undoubtedly, in any country, very small. None the less, because such revolutionaries had a clear perspective, their chances of exerting influence was disproportionately large. In attempting to exercise such influence they faced two dangers.
One was to liquidate into the broadest possible movement at the cost of political principle and political clarity. This in effect meant tailing behind bourgeois pacifism. For as far as the bourgeoisie was concerned, the war had been a miscalculation. If it had undoubtedly been the product of economic forces, the costs of the war were soon to outweigh the profits (except perhaps for armaments manufacturers). Hence there were repeated efforts by sections of the ruling class to put an end to the diabolical vicious circle that they themselves had initiated. Secret negotiations took place repeatedly during the course of the war, representing the desire of a significant section of various bourgeoisies to find a compromise solution.
Some sections of the bourgeoisie were even prepared to put some investment into encouraging peace movements. This was particularly true of the United States capitalist class, which could see advantages for the US in the restoration of peace on a basis of greater American involvement. Henry Ford actually financed a women’s peace campaign for a short period before dropping it (a little later he was to be one of the first financial backers of Adolf Hitler). Obviously such ‘peace’ movements offered nothing to the working class other than to put them back to the situation at the start of the war, with the whole deadly round likely to start up again at any time. Revolutionaries had to dissociate themselves quite sharply from any kind of compromise with bourgeois pacifism. Thus when Lenin attended the peace conference at Zimmerwald in 1915 at which the entire forces of the International ‘could fit into four stage coaches’ (in Trotsky’s words) his concern was not to achieve unity of this tiny band, but rather to force a split in order to ensure clarity as to the basis of the future struggle.
But at the same time the left faced the danger of sectarianism. For the left merely to stress their differences with the rest of the world was to disregard the fact that discontent with the war would necessarily emerge in a confused and uneven fashion, with workers often holding extremely contradictory ideas. As Lenin also put it:
The sentiments of the masses in favour of peace often express incipient protest, anger and consciousness of the reactionary character of the war. It is the duty of all socialists to utilise these sentiments. They will take a most ardent part in every movement and in every demonstration on this ground; but they will not deceive the people by conceding the idea that peace without annexations, without the oppression of nations, without plunder, without the germs of new wars among the present governments and ruling classes is possible in the absence of a revolutionary movement. (Socialism and War)
In the long run, of course, only mass struggles and mass opposition could begin to change the situation. But that did not mean that actions by individuals and minorities could not have a serious effect on changing consciousness in the meantime. Indeed, a rhetoric that argued that nothing short of ‘mass’ action would do could often mask an unwillingness to take the initiative in starting a fight. Again as Lenin put it:
‘We would have been arrested,’ one of the Social-Democratic deputies who voted for the war credits on August 4 is alleged to have declared at a workers’ meeting in Berlin. The workers shouted in reply: ‘Well, what would have been bad about that?’
If there was no other signal that would instil in the German and the French working masses revolutionary sentiments and the need to prepare for revolutionary action, the arrest of a member of parliament for a courageous speech would have been useful as a call for unity of the proletarians of the various countries in their revolutionary work. It is not easy to bring about such unity; all the more was it the duty of members of parliament, whose high office made their purview of the entire political scene so extensive, to take the initiative. (Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International 1907-1916, ed J Riddell, New York, 1984, p 206)
An example of what such an individual ‘signal’ could mean was shown by Karl Liebknecht in Berlin on May Day 1916. A contemporary description tells us:
At precisely 8 pm a crowd of workers, including a great many women and young people, gathered in the Potsdamer Platz to demonstrate. They were so numerous that the usual skirmishes with the police began right away. The cops and their officers in particular quickly became very nervous and began to drive the crowd back and forth with blows.
Suddenly, at the head of the crowd, right in the middle of the Potsdamer Platz, the loud sonorous voice of Karl Liebknecht rang out: ‘Down with the war! Down with the government!’
He was immediately overpowered by a knot of policemen who separated him from the crowds and led him away to the police headquarters at the Potsdam railway station. The cry, ‘Hurrah for Liebknecht!’ rang out after the arrested leader, whereupon the police plunged into the crowd and made still more arrests.
After Liebknecht had been taken away, the police, inflamed by their officers, who behaved with the greatest brutality, began to push the throng off on to the side streets. In this way three large contingents of demonstrators were formed in Köthener Strasse, Link Strasse, and in Königgrätzer Strasse. Slowly they surged forward amid continual clashes with the police. Cries of ‘Down with the war!’, ‘Long live peace!’, ‘Long live the International!’ rang out one after the other and were repeated by many thousands of voices. But loudest of all was the cry, ‘Hurrah for Liebknecht!’ which was taken up by the masses again and again. (Lenin’s Struggle…, pp 452-3)
On June 28 Liebknecht was sentenced to two-and-a half years in jail. But his ‘martyrdom’ was not simply a question of individual conscience; the day after he was jailed 55,000 metalworkers in Berlin launched the first strike against the war. Liebknecht’s gesture undoubtedly helped to build the anti-war movement – and not merely in Germany. Barbusse recalls that Liebknecht was an admired figure among French troops in the trenches.
Not everyone was a Liebknecht, and the possibilities for anti-war action were many and varied. Some socialists believed that the most appropriate way to resist the war was by refusing to enlist, by resorting to ‘conscientious objection’. Conscientious objection is generally repudiated by socialists in the Leninist tradition, so it is important not to overstate the case. Objection was not simply a case of keeping one’s individual conscience clean. In Britain, COs were put into the custody of sections of the army and came into contact with significant numbers of troops. There are numerous accounts which tell of how COs were able to overcome the initial distrust and engage soldiers in political argument, and even circulate leaflets to them. Fenner Brockway, an ILP CO, relates what happened when, in army custody, he refused to obey orders from an army officer:
I did not anticipate the scene which followed. The soldiers gathered round me laughing. ‘Never seen anything like it!’ ‘Told the Colonel off, proper.’ ‘E’s not a coward, any’ow.’ In a moment I had become a hero.
When the sergeant next opened the door to tell me to ‘pack up’ because my escort had come to conduct me to camp, I was standing in the middle of the group of soldiers explaining why I was a conchie and they were listening eagerly. Some of them were hearing the socialist case against war for the first time.
Later on, in 1918, Brockway recalls the way in which a CO was able to act as a spur to militancy outside:
A rumour had spread outside that I had become a victim of tuberculosis…Catherine [Marshall] had got the Bishop of Lincoln to lead a deputation to the Governor of the prison to enquire about me and, more astonishingly, the central Shop Stewards’ Committee in the Lincoln engineering works, on which ILP influence was strong, had stopped work whilst they visited the prison to make sure that my life was not in danger. (F Brockway, Inside the Left, London, 1942, pp 81, 115)
The ability of COs to win support and influence sections of the armed forces is important evidence that there was a real audience for anti-war ideas and that nationalism was very far from all-pervasive. But this fact also provides the ultimate argument against the COs. There was, as we shall see, real discontent in the armed forces, which took on many and varied and often inchoate manifestations. Socialist militants could play a real part in helping to channel such discontent into the most politically effective forms. Socialist literature was circulating widely at the front. If the COs had gone into the army, they could have played a crucial role of leadership in the mutinies which came towards the end of the war.
In the absence of a clear revolutionary alternative (and only in Russia where the Bolsheviks had substantial following was this present) the opposition to the war fell on the shoulders of various pacifist and centrist elements, who often combined a degree of socialist rhetoric with a naïve faith in the power of negotiations. In Britain such forces were represented by the ILP and the Union for Democratic Control. The ILP was an amorphous organisation, without a clear line; some of its members were COs, others went into the army; some of its leaders, like MacDonald, were openly opportunist, while others were clearly people of principle. The UDC was not prepared to go further than the call for a negotiated peace.
However, such movements should not be written off. Firstly, even if revolutionaries could find major criticisms of their strategy, they none the less succeeded in causing some alarm to the established authorities. Thus Ramsay MacDonald seemed to consistent revolutionaries to be an utter opportunist, but as one of his left critics in the ILP pointed out, this was not how he seemed to the ruling class. Writing of the Aberdeen by-election (**1917**) he notes:
By this time, MacDonald was probably the most hated man in Britain…No epithet was too vile to hurl at him; the most incredible stories were drifting around about the shocking wickedness of his private life; whisperers had positive information that he was being handsomely paid by the Kaiser; they even tried to hurt him by defiling the reputation of his dead mother. (J Paton, Proletarian Pilgrimage, London, 1935, p 270)
If the ruling class were so incensed by MacDonald it was because they recognised that even his mealy-mouthed and half-hearted pacifism represented a breach in the wall of nationalist ideology.
Moreover, it was futile for revolutionaries to discuss the finer points of the ‘correct’ slogans unless they had some evidence that those slogans might gain some currency outside their own narrow ranks. And the only evidence we have as to whether a revolutionary opposition to the war could have found some resonance is through the activities of the various pacifist organisations, however inadequate their demands.
Thus in April 1916 the Stop the War and Peace Council of the Merthyr Borough in South Wales held a public meeting. (The body was sponsored by the ILP, UDC and various TU organisations; its unwieldy name undoubtedly reflected a compromise about its exact objectives.) This was attended by some 2,000 people, and a resolution calling on the British and Allied governments to declare the terms on which they would negotiate was carried with only two dissenting voices. (The Pioneer, 22 April, 1916) We can, of course, only speculate as to what would have been the fate of a more radical resolution; doubtless the majority would not have been so large. But the size of the meeting is an indication that there was a significant audience for anti-war propaganda. Many other examples could be adduced. Thus in May 1918:
The Bradford Trades Council informed Mr Bland through its secretary, Coun. Barber, during the Keighley Election, that it had been taking a ballot of its affiliated societies directly on the question of peace by negotiation, each society being asked to vote for or against this question. Up to present I have received 36 replies, and basing the replies on the membership of the societies, the result is as follows:-
29,092 for Peace by Negotiation
27,176 majority for peace by negotiation. (Bradford Pioneer, 17 May, 1918)
But the most important index of civilian opposition to the war was not so much the existence of movements openly declaring for peace in some form or another as the fact that significant sections of workers were prepared to go into struggle on a class base despite the massive ideological offensive to persuade them that there was a shared national interest and that the pursuit of the war should have absolute priority. In all the major combatant countries there were substantial struggles over wages and living conditions, especially as, with the continuing economic pressures of the war, working people found themselves bearing the burden of the war.
Of course, there were many problems with such struggles. Often they were marked by sectionalism; some of the struggles against conscription in Britain – for example the famous Hargreaves case – were based on the principle that skilled workers should be exempted from military service; a principle not calculated to endear skilled workers to the unskilled who were being sent to the trenches; as the satirical song put it:
Don’t send me to the army, George,
Don’t you know I’m an engineer.
Secondly, the peace movements often failed to relate to the struggles of workers based on purely economic demands. While the conjunction of economic struggle and anti-war campaigning could have been a powerful mixture in which political consciousness would have developed apace, the old divisions between the political and the economic which we observed in the nineteenth century were not dead, and still proved an obstacle to the development of the movement.
Thirdly, there was the problem of unity between the soldiers and the workers at home. Troops in the trenches often felt initial hostility when they heard of strikes behind the lines, feeling that civilians were having a much easier time of it than they were. So even when, as in France in the summer of 1917, strikes in the munitions factories coincided with mutinies in the trenches, it was not possible to bring the two together in a way which could have posed a real revolutionary challenge to the regime.
One reason for this was the relatively high wages which workers in the munitions industry were able to earn. The fact of rising wages in wartime is a reflection of the labour shortage, and of the fact that workers continued to exploit the market by selling their labour power as a commodity, despite the grip of nationalist ideology.
None the less, the struggles were many and varied; a catalogue of all the strikes and related struggles during the four years of war would occupy a lot of space and, more importantly, would rapidly refute the myth that patriotism held undisputed sway during the years of the war.
In Britain there were the major struggles around rent increases in Glasgow, and a wave of strikes throughout the latter part of the war, especially in the engineering industry. In France, strikes began to develop on a substantial scale from 1916 onwards; a significant factor was the introduction of large numbers of women into industrial production and the central role they played in strikes in the latter part of the war. In Germany there were many large strikes around the questions of workers living standards with the left of the SPD playing a significant role in fermenting discontent. In Russia there were many large strikes building up to the revolutionary explosion of February 1917. In Italy too there were massive strikes, building up to the near-insurrectionary struggles in Turin in 1917:
Perhaps the most spectacular outburst of urban protest outside Russia in the summer of 1917 was the insurrection which erupted in Turin. In common with Petrograd, Turin had experienced a dramatic upsurge of the industrial workforce during the war: firms such as Fiat quadrupled their labour force, and something like 150,000 workers were employed in the city’s factories. High wages were earned in the factories geared to war production, a circumstance which occasioned much adverse comment in the non-socialist press. Long hours and harsh factory discipline caused much resentment, however, though the uprising was caused primarily by a breakdown in the distribution of food supplies, which had been a major headache for the authorities since the end of 1916. Many bakers had had to close in January and again in March 1917. On 21 March, the prefect warned the ministry of the interior of the gravity of the situation, which was seen as affording an opportunity for the antiwar propagandists of the PSI, who were strongly entrenched in the city. Fears of disorder mounted during the summer. In August, flour supplies virtually dried up. By 22 August, there was practically no bread to be had in the city. Workers at two of the city’s largest factories walked out in protest that afternoon. By the evening most of the factories in the city were shut, and there were large crowds on the streets. Although bread supplies were rushed in, unrest continued. On the afternoon of 23 August, troops were deployed. Trams were torn off their tracks and made into barricades by the crowd, and some shops were looted. A church and monastery were sacked and burnt, largely because the monks had aroused bad feeling in the locality. The workers were cut off from the city centre, which was occupied by troops. On the morning of 24 August, these units took the offensive against the working class districts to the north and west. The workers’ attempts to break through the cordon, or to persuade the troops to mutiny, failed; by the evening, the insurrection was virtually over. In all, some 50 workers and 3 soldiers were killed, with 200 workers wounded. (D Kirby, War, Peace and Revolution, Aldershot, 1986, pp 145-6)
A striking indication of the enormous potential of working-class militancy – and of the tragic cost of the failure to secure unity between soldiers and civilian workers.
The consciousness of the troops in the trenches is equally an interesting matter for study. The ‘spontaneous zeal’ with which many enlisted did not last long; if it survived the crude and ignorant bullying of the officers during training, then it certainly evaporated at the first contact with shell-fire. There are innumerable autobiographical and semi-fictional testimonies from combatants from all countries that soldiers in the trenches rapidly lost any sense of patriotism and felt little antagonism to those they were supposed to be fighting. Thus Richard Aldington:
He found that the real soldiers, the front-line troops, had no more delusions about the War than he had. They hadn’t his feeling of protest and agony over it all, they hadn’t tried to think it out. They went on with the business, hating it, because they had been told it had to be done and believed what they had been told. They wanted the War to end, they wanted to get away from it, and they had no feeling of hatred for their enemies on the other side of No Man’s Land. In fact, they were almost sympathetic to them. (R Aldington, Death of a Hero, London, 1965, p 255)
On the other side, similar sentiments are expressed by the character Kat in Remarque’s best-seller All Quiet on the Western Front:
‘…but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchmen as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.’ (EM Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, London, 1929, p 224)
But although socialist literature circulated widely in the trenches and many conversations of a highly subversive nature took place, there was no political alternative available. Men continued to fight out of habit and self-preservation, rather than from any sense of patriotism.
In a factory, when the organisational base for trade union militancy is missing, workers often resort to sabotage and various forms of skiving in order to get their own back from their employers, Likewise, trench fighters developed various means of subverting the intentions of their officers. In an interesting study called Trench Warfare, Tony Ashworth has shown how large sections of the front developed what he calls the ‘live and let live’ system of temporary and unofficial truces:
Live and let live was a truce where enemies stopped fighting by agreement for a period of time: the British let the Germans live provided the Germans let them live in return. Essentially, the term live and let live denoted a process of reciprocal exchange among antagonists, where each diminished the other’s risk of death, discomfort and injury by a deliberate restriction of aggressive activity, but only on condition that the other requited the restraint. The ‘profound difference’ between the quiet sector and the active sector was, therefore, the exchange of peace, according to the rules of live and let live on the former, and the exchange of aggression according to the rules of kill or be killed – the high command policy for normal trench war – upon the latter. The quietness of a sector did not signify either a social void or vacuum between enemies but the replacement of one form of exchange with the enemy by another, which trench fighters found more consistent with their needs.
Truces were usually tacit, but always unofficial and illicit. The agreement between antagonists was unspoken and expressed in certain actions – or non-actions – which were meaningful to front fighters but not always to others. Truces were illegal at all times for they were neither created not legitimated by authority but explicitly forbidden. The unofficial policy of live and let live was the antithesis of the official kill or be killed. (T Ashworth, Trench warfare, London, 1980, p 19)
That live and let live had a real base in the army is attested by numerous orders from the army command designed to force soldiers into combat situations. But, as Ashworth shows, soldiers rapidly developed many ruses to deal with such commands. If ordered to fire their guns, then they would fire into the air. One company, finding a roll of German barbed wire, kept it and each night snipped a length from it which they claimed had been brought back by a scout sent over No Man’s Land.
In addition there was desertion on a massive scale. There was a whole colony of deserters from the British army in Calais, living rough and hanging around their former comrades.
Towards the end of the war the discontent spilled over into mutinies. In the French army in the summer of 1917 – initially in regiments of black soldiers and possibly under the influence of news of the February Revolution in Russia – mutinies broke out in protest at the incompetence of the army leadership and the poor conditions for soldiers. There was an enormous sense of exhilaration among troops who realised that ‘they were too many to be punished’. An attempt was made to stage a march to Paris , but in a situation where there was no recognised leadership, the revolts collapsed. The fact that Pétain responded to the mutinies with both vicious repression and certain concessions shows how deeply the mutinies had bitten.
In the British army the number of mutinies was much smaller. But there was a major mutiny at Calais in 1917, sparked of by the vicious discipline at the so-called ‘Bull Ring’ training area – said to be so bad that soldiers were glad to get back into the firing line – and resentment at other officer privileges, such as the special brothels reserved for officers.
But the main thrust of the mutinies in the British army did not come till after the war, when the threat to send troops to Russia and the slowness of demobilisation led to widespread army and navy mutinies.
In Russia, where the Bolsheviks had done systematic work in the army and navy throughout the war and before, and where the whole economic and administrative structure of the Tsarist regime was brought to the point of collapse by the pressures of the war, the army simply crumbled in 1917. Between February and October 1917 there were some two million desertions – by the end of the year one deserter for every three men in the field. After February desertions plus a general breakdown of discipline led to complete chaos in the whole Russian communication network. In a despatch of 10 August General Alfred Knox reported:
Guchkov’s concession of leave to 5 per cent of the soldiers up to 40 years of age, and to 15 per cent of those over that age means that the trains are constantly stormed by crowds of undisciplined soldiery. The crowd [sits] on the roofs, and their special delight is to ease themselves through the ventilators if there are ‘bourgeois’ in the compartment below. They make short work of any railway official who ventures to interfere. (NN Golovine, The Russian Army in the World War, New Haven, 1931, pp 260, 125, 197)
In Germany too the defeat led to massive mutinies in the army and navy. In the navy, in particular, where the large ships often approximated to the conditions of a factory, and where a continuity of experience existed to a greater extent than in the trenches, there was a striking radicalisation. Often this was sparked off by minor issues like food, soap supplies and officers’ privileges, but there was clearly a political input from the USPD as well. In 1917 the German Navy created ‘Food Complaints Committees’ on the ships, but on many ships the officers refused to recognise them; as a result the committees often became clandestine and served as a focus for political discussion, eventually becoming the nuclei of the Workers’ and Sailors’ Councils.
We have a remarkable document of consciousness in the German Navy in the shape of the diary of Richard Stumpf. Stumpf, a tinsmith, served as an ordinary seaman in the German Navy from 1912 to 1918. Throughout this period he kept a highly articulate diary, noting his own attitudes to events and those of his fellow seamen. Stumpf was a conservative, a Catholic and a nationalist, but he was also deeply indignant at the privileges of the officers. His diary is a testimony to the way in which normally conservative working men could be radicalised in the context of the war. Thus in June 1917 Stumpf acutely analysed his own inner duality:
As a good German and as a Catholic, I hope that we might emerge from this war with a total victory…From the opposite point of view everything is different. Then I am not a German but a proletarian, and as such, I hope for a great, but not an annihilating defeat. Why should I feel this way? Past experience tells me that the lower classes stand to benefit from a defeat while the rich stand to lose. I cannot conceive of the achievements of the Young Turk Revolution without the background of the battles of Plevna and Shipka Pass. (R Stumpf, War, Mutiny and Revolution in the German Navy, ed. D Horn, New Brunswick NJ, 1967, p 332)
There could be no better proof than the testimony of the good conservative Stumpf that Lenin’s strategy of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ could reach the consciousness of the masses. We are indeed a long way from ‘spontaneous zeal’.