Paper given to a conference about World War I organised by the London Socialist Historians Group on 25 January 2014
In one of his late interviews Eric Hobsbawm stated that “the whole function of history is precisely to be a pain in the arse for national myths.” At the risk of being a “pain in the arse” to the Hobsbawm fan club, I want to start by arguing that Hobsbawm in fact seriously misunderstood what happened at the outbreak of World War I and that he gave ground to nationalist myths.
Thus in his Age of Imperialism Hobsbawm argued that: “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.”
Now if Hobsbawm was right, we might as well go home now. If, as many have claimed, national identity necessarily has a stronger influence over working people than class identity or internationalism, then we have to abandon any hope of socialism, or, indeed, of stopping wars.
I want to argue that the reasons for working-class support of the war in 1914 were rather more complex than Hobsbawm suggests. There are four main factors which can be identified:
i. A long-term ideological offensive, through the media, education system, etc. to establish and strengthen a sense of national identity.
ii. A short-term ideological offensive in the early part of the war involving lies and rumours about atrocities, or “little Belgium” (though Belgium looked small on a map of Europe, it was a vicious colonial power whose rule in the Congo was marked by forced labour, torture and massacre etc.).
iii. Intimidation by employers, the state and the far right.
iv. Failure by the main working class organisations to offer a lead to those who wanted to oppose the war.
There is an examination of some of these factors in relation to Britain in Ken Weller’s excellent little book Don’t Be a Soldier.
Most socialist analysis of the war has focussed on the Second International, in which Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg were all active. Attention is often focussed on the allegedly deterministic Marxism of the Second International, as manifested in the work of Kautsky, Plekhanov etc. Alex Callinicos quotes with approval Walter Benjamin who wrote “Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current.” I suspect such arguments often reflect the desire of philosophers to claim that their discipline is more influential than it actually is.
But in fact the collapse at the outbreak of the war affected not only the ostensibly Marxist Second International but also the revolutionary syndicalists, and indeed the anarchists, who had no allegiance to such versions of Marxism. Revolutionary syndicalism had a powerful influence in a number of countries before 1914 – Britain, Ireland, USA, France, Spain and Italy among others – and the French CGT (General Confederation of Labour) had a significant reputation in Europe and North America.
It is important to be clear as to the meaning of syndicalism. In present-day terminology it is often used to mean people who advocate trade-union militancy, but who neglect broader political issues. Recent work by Ralph Darlington (plus article) and Reiner Tosstorff has shown that the question was rather more complex.
The French syndicalists did not make an artificial separation of trade-unionism and politics. On the contrary, as Alfred Rosmer pointed out, the whole point of the CGT’s Amiens Charter of 1906, which laid down the principles on which French syndicalism was based, were a reaction against the Second International tradition of a division of labour between the Socialist Parties and the trade unions, the former occupying themselves with “political” matters and the latter with “economic” ones. As Rosmer put it, this was “the decrepit, thoroughly rotten and mendacious Second International, whose principle was as follows: ‘You shall concern yourself with political matters and we with economic matters; don’t stick your nose in our affairs and we won’t worry about yours’.” The CGT banned party politics in the organisation precisely because it claimed that the union was adequate for both economic and political tasks. As Rosmer later noted: “Its weakness lay precisely in the fact that it was something of a hybrid, both a trade-union organisation and a political party, and a party even more than a trade-union organisation.” This situation implied problems of its own.
What is not in doubt is that the CGT had an impressive record of anti-militarist activity. Opposition to militarism was both a political and a trade-union question, since the army was frequently used to break strikes. And the threat of a European war was very much a reality in the years before 1914. In 1911 a syndicalist conference had resolved: “Workers must immediately respond to any declaration of war by a revolutionary general strike.”
In 1904 the CGT published the New Soldier’s Manual of which 185,000 copies were distributed. It denounced the whole idea of the patrie (homeland) as “one of the words which has caused the greatest loss of human blood”, and argued that “the sons and brothers of workers will become murderers if they do not have the courage to refuse to shoot, to refuse to take part in the massacre.” An even more significant initiative of practical antimilitarism was the sou du soldat (the solder’s halfpenny). The unions collected money and regularly sent small sums, together with antimilitarist propaganda, to trade unionists who had been conscripted in order to encourage them to maintain contact with the trade-union movement.
In its antimilitarism the CGHT was cutting with the grain. In 1910 La Vie ouvrière carried an article by Robert Louzon, who had recently done a month’s military service, as a reservist. He reported that:
Last year I spent 23 days with a Paris regiment. The reservists called up with me were half peasants from Normandy, half Parisian workers. I must say first of all that if the peasants certainly hated war and the officers, they hated urban workers just as much. But as for the Parisian reservists, they were all very clearly antimilitarist, sympathetic to socialism or anarchism….
…. What I’m certain of is that any small thing, a minor incident or a moment of enthusiasm, would have been enough to make the fifteen or so reservists with whom I was to unanimously side with a workers’ insurrection.
It’s very rare for someone coming back from a period with the army not to report some antimilitarist incident. Sometimes it’s acts of collective indiscipline, making it impossible for the officers to impose punishments, sometimes the singing of the Internationale breaks out in the middle of manoeuvres, sometimes antimilitarist publications are distributed widely in the barrack rooms, and those responsible are never discovered, thanks to the complicity of everyone.
In view of this it is necessary to attempt an explanation of why the CGT collapsed so quickly at the outbreak of war.
One major factor was the size of the CGT – it had around 300,000 members, as compared to two-and-a-half million trade unionists in Germany or four million in Britain. Here there were two factors. Firstly the fact that the CGT was a hybrid between a party and a union meant that it was smaller than unions that recruited solely on the basis of uniting all those employed.
Secondly – and even more significant - was the fact that while the CGT did excellent work among the working class, a substantial proportion of the French population were peasants and these were largely untouched by antimilitarism.
The state ideological offensive was in the opposite direction. In the latter half of the nineteenth century the French peasantry were scarcely integrated into the nation state. As Theodore Zeldin records: “In 1864, an inspector of education, touring in the mountains of the Lozère, asked the children at a village school: ‘In what country is the Lozère situated?’ Not a single pupil knew the answer. ‘Are you English or Russian?’ he demanded. They could not say.”
Official figures as late as 1853 showed that nearly a quarter of the French population spoke no French. Eugen Weber, in his book Peasants into Frenchmen, has shown the processes of transformation that took place which ensured that in 1914 France could go to war with a substantially peasant army. In 1900 45% of the French working population were farmers and peasants, and as late as 1930 the figure was still 35%. Peasants were even more crucial for the war effort, since many key industrial workers, from well unionised sectors such as miners, railway workers and engineers, were withdrawn from fighting because they were needed at their original jobs for the war effort.
Crucial to this process was the establishment of compulsory secular primary education in 1882.. It is no coincidence that the minister responsible for universal primary education, Jules Ferry, was also a leading advocate of colonial expansion, notably in Indochina. Before the advent of universal education there had generally been in each village one figure who exercised some sort of ideological influence – the priest. To have a school-teacher in each village provided a rival to the priest who directly represented the French state and was more reliable than the priest who might be swayed by the foreign policy of the Vatican. Hence the whole institution of secular education – laïcité – which the French left often still continues to regard as the embodiment of the republican tradition, was in fact crucial in ensuring a population that was ready for war in 1914.
It is noteworthy than the one time there was a challenge to this was in 1912, when the primary teachers’ union voted to support the sou du soldat. This provoked a considerable degree of outrage in sections of the French ruling class. In fact it was too little, too late. The teachers’ union had only about 5% membership of the profession.
Nonetheless a clear and resolute response from the CGT in August 1914 might have seriously disrupted the French government’s war plans. This didn’t happen. In trying to explain this I am drawing on the account given by Alfred Rosmer in his history of the working-class movement during the war. Rosmer was associated with the Vie ouvrière, a fortnightly journal edited by Pierre Monatte, which represented the most political lucid current of revolutionary syndicalism, and some of whose supporters were the first to oppose the war. Rosmer drew on a pamphlet by Georges Dumoulin, a miner and a leading figure in the CGT, who had been jailed for antimilitarism in 1912, analysing the collapse of the CGT. (Dumoulin’ is largely forgotten, in view of his later record; he collaborated with the Nazis in World War II. Sentenced to death in 1945, he hid till his sentence was quashed and spent his last years as a Catholic. It is hard to condemn him after his appalling experiences in World War I, and his testimony remains valid whatever his subsequent evolution.)
Rosmer traces the dramatic way in which the CGT capitulated, showing the shifts in the CGT’s daily paper, La Bataille Syndicaliste, between 1 August and 4 August. On Saturday 1 August it still had a staunchly anti-war stance; by the following Tuesday it was telling its readers that “…. against German militarism, we must save the democratic and revolutionary tradition of France.”
Any explanation has to begin with the direct intimidation of the left. On 31 July Jean Jaurès, a leading figure in the Socialist Party, and closely associated with the anti-war cause, was assassinated. He had just met a member of the government who had asked him what the Socialist Party would do if the moves towards war continued. When he replied that they would continue to campaign against the war he was told: “You wouldn’t dare do that; you would killed on the next street corner.” Two hours later he was shot dead. The far right began to mobilise on the streets, threatening and attacking socialists and syndicalists.
Linked to this was the existence of the Carnet B. This was a list of people known antimilitarist activities, including CGT leaders, who could be rounded up in case of a national emergency. War minister Adolphe Messimy warned:
Give me the guillotine and I guarantee victory….These people shouldn’t imagine that they will simply be sent to prison. They must know that we shall send them to the front line; and if they won’t go, well, they’ll be shot from in front and behind. Then we shall be rid of them.
As Dumoulin noted, fear was a real consideration for the CGT leadership: “ Fear is neither syndicalist nor socialist … it is human. In the CGT we were afraid of war, afraid of repression, just because we were human beings like everyone else.” So when the government made clear it would not use the Carnet B, it encouraged the CGT leadership to shift to a more accommodating position. “The confederal leaders who were staying away from home at night, like conspirators, could breathe freely and sleep at home.” But in the provinces antimilitarist activists were arrested.
Rosmer describes the mood in Paris at the outbreak of war, where violence and intimidation was not spontaneous but encouraged by the regime:
There was no sign of life, except around the stations and sometimes in the streets, where there were marches by howling mobs, chanting: “To Berlin! To Berlin!” and singing the Marseillaise. In order to feed their patriotic fervour, those leading them here and there launched them against “Hun” shops. The stores of the Maggi company, which press campaigns financed by commercial rivals had presented as being an enemy concern, were the first to be demolished. But nobody examined things too closely. A German-sounding name on a shop was enough to provoke destruction and looting. Henceforth our “brothers” from Alsace were not spared, and it was enough for a bakery to be “Viennese” for it to be pillaged. The government let things take their course – that is, if we assume that it did not actually instigate these patriotic displays.
Added to this intimidation was a climate of rumours and lies.
False rumours of all sorts were in circulation. On Sunday evening, when recruitment into the army was just beginning, I overheard a conversation in a street near the faubourg Saint-Antoine where people were already talking about a great battle which was supposed to have taken place in Alsace and which, of course, had ended in a French victory. It would not have been a good idea to try and explain that such an event was absolutely impossible: no trace of critical spirit remained, and you could retail the most appalling stupidities so long as they were directed against the “Huns”.
But such intimidation and lies could have been resisted by a clear leadership which after all had a daily paper at its disposition. But there were deep problems with the CGT.
Rosmer refers to a “malaise” that was affecting the CGT by 1912, to a tendency to simply defend its existing positions; it was losing its impetus and its ability to attract militant workers. Dumoulin went further, and suggested that the leadership milieu was affected by corruption and drunkenness. He gave a horrifying depiction of the state of the CGT on the eve of war. He could be accused of exaggerating somewhat (as Rosmer argued), but not of failing to look reality in the face:
An ignorant proletariat which cannot read, doesn’t want to read, or reads filth. Militants who play cards endlessly with their comrades in bars. In Paris, a gang of adventurers hanging around the Labour Exchange buying drinks for the full‑time officials. …. Drunks and profligates who correct the faulty grammar of the top officials and talk up their conference speeches. And war is on its way.
With the loss of moral integrity at the top, the union was seen, by members and non-members alike, as merely an economic instrument:
They joined the union because in the short term it might help them get a higher wage. They stopped paying membership fees because, once they had got their wage increase, the union no longer served any purpose.
Dumoulin claimed that anti-German feelings were rife among the CGT leaders, though Rosmer pointed out that such “Germanophobia” was merely an “underlying feeling which became dominant and dangerous only with the collapse of proletarian internationalism”.
And there was considerable confusion as to what CGT members were supposed to do in the event of war. Should individuals desert? Should they use their weapons arms to make an insurrection? Or was the answer the syndicalist general strike? As Dumoulin pointed out, a conference resolution told CGT members that when called up they should go to the labour exchange (effectively the trade-union centre) to take action. As he enquired: “Which workers/ The 300,000 [CGT members]? Or all workers, peasants, civil servants, office workers? How many are able to go to their labour exchange? And how many labour exchanges are there to receive them?”
Above all it became clear that the politics of most of the CGT leaders remained within the orbit of the republican tradition. They traced their ancestry to the French revolution of 1789, and saw the republican tradition which had emerged therefrom as inherently more progressive than the authoritarian monarchy which existed in Germany. The Bataille syndicaliste seemed to anticipate the humanitarian interventionism of our own day: “We face the question as to how the French people will be able to help the German people get rid of its tyrants and its exploiters.”
As Dumoulin pointed out, because of this underlying republicanism, the CGT had not been clear and rigorous enough in its political analysis\:
We allowed the persistence of the erroneous belief that imperialism exists only in countries governed by an emperor. In the minds of those whom we kept in ignorance, a republic is not imperialist, democratic countries are not imperialist. In fact imperialism is the stage of development reached by capitalism in all countries.
And in a state of emergency it was very easy for revolutionary defencism to slide into nationalism and even racism. Thus on 6 August a prominently placed article in the Bataille syndicaliste stated:
In the present conflict the ethnic question has some importance. The Germans have heavier blood and hence a more submissive and resigned temperament, and thus lack our spirit of independence.
In his novel La Maison à l’abri, Marcel Martinet, one of the Vie ouvrière grouping, depicted a character who summed up this evolution from leftism to left patriotism. Monsieur Dumont, an old teacher, was described as “a republican like they used to be thirty years ago, a selfless Jacobin, a supporter of Dreyfus.” In the past he had expressed great sympathy for Germany, but now it has come to embody all that he, as a republican, hates: “That militarised Germany, both imperial and national, where the individual was nothing and whose greatness had been achieved only under the cudgel of authority.”
Certainly a pro-war mood was created in a matter of days, and the CGT and the left in general proved powerless to do anything about it. But as Rosmer showed, the mood was complex and contradictory, rather than fitting the simplistic label of “spontaneous zeal”. Thus:
On Thursday 30 July Paris was gripped by panic. Mainly this took the form of a sort of paralysis. War was on the way; life was coming to an end. There was a rush on the banks and post offices which only paid out fifty francs a fortnight. Currency was in short supply; gold, and even silver had gone into hiding. The Banque de France was issuing notes for five and twenty francs.
On Saturday, towards the end of the afternoon, the paralysis suddenly got much worse; the buses had been requisitioned and had ceased running. In the silent streets the strange new feeling that people were experiencing added to the general anxiety.
In the following days, the city seemed to have been emptied of its population. There was no sign of life, except around the stations and sometimes in the streets, where there were marches by howling mobs, chanting: ‘To Berlin! To Berlin!’ and singing the Marseillaise.
And a couple of days later:
Meanwhile Monatte had gone to the Libertaire [The main anarchist journal]. . There he had met Pierre Martin, who was very solid, but who was convinced that nothing could be done until women from the suburbs took to the streets. This was quite a common feeling. We observed it in the case of several syndicalist militants. They believed nothing could be done. Things must be allowed to take their course. It was a passivity encouraged by the belief – or the hope – that the war would be short. What could be observed in the poor districts also tended to support it. Left to themselves, the workers who remained behind had not been able to swim against the stream. The same ones we had seen in the Pré-Saint-Gervais, in all the anti-war demonstrations, had now been carried away by the crusade against Prussian militarism.
Dumoulin, who was on one of the first trains of soldiers sent to the front, describes his own experience in the troop train leaving on the first evening of war. Everywhere there was singing, shouting and chalking up of crude nationalist slogans. The small minority who did not share the enthusiasm were condemned to remain silent, all the more intimidated because they had no alternative to look to:
In my coach, three of us were silent. The two others, two brothers, had left their mother that morning; they were thinking of her. They were not dressed like workers, they knew nothing of the union and they detested war. The others were on their way to Berlin and were drinking wine.
Dumoulin notes the contradiction that the new conscripts were opposed to German invasion, yet shouting that they were on their way to Berlin, As he notes: “I remain the enemy of all invaders, even those who didn’t succeed in invading.”
And as he noted, for those who survived, the mood changed with the experience of war. “When I met them again at Verdun, they blamed everyone: journalists, members of parliament, socialists, Parisians, police, everyone at the rear. The strongest and clearest impression they had was of brain-washing, lies, exaggeration and untruth.”
In 1914 it seemed as though the CGT’s antimilitarism had been entirely in vain, that it had been crushed by republican defencism. But many thousands of workers had been touched by the anti-militarist propaganda. Many died; many more survived.
In 1917 the French army was shaken by mutinies involving nearly half the infantry divisions on the Western front. How many of those who took part may have remembered antimilitarist propaganda from four or five years earlier?
In 1920 the French Socialist Party, encouraged by many of the anti-war syndicalists, voted to affiliate to the Communist International on the basis of 21 conditions, of which the fourth stated: “The duty of propagating communist ideas includes the special obligation of forceful and systematic propaganda in the army. Where this agitation is interrupted by emergency laws it must be continued illegally. Refusal to carry out such work would be tantamount to a betrayal of revolutionary duty and would be incompatible with membership of the Communist International.”
In 1923, when France invaded the Ruhr, the French Communist Party revived the traditions of pre-war anti-militarism, distributing two million leaflets and placards against the invasion and calling for fraternisation with the German population.
As Victor Serge wrote, nothing is ever lost.
Making History website, interview with Hobsbawm, 17 June 2008. http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/interviews/Hobsbawm_Eric.html
 EJ Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, London, 1987, pp 108-9.
 See for example A Ponsonby, Falsehood in War-Time, London, 1928.
 http://libcom.org/history/dont-be-soldier-radical-anti-war-movement-north-london-1914-1918-ken-weller See also I Birchall, “The Vice-like Hold of Nationalism”, International Socialism 78, 1998 https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/birchall/1998/xx/comment.htm
 W Benjamin, Illuminations, London, 1970, p 260, cited A Callinicos, Social Theory, Cambridge, 2007, p. 204.
 R Darlington, Radical Unionism, Chicago, 2013. See also R Darlington, ‘Re-Evaluating Syndicalist Opposition to the First World War’, Labor History, vol. 53, no. 4, 2012, pp. 517-39.
 R Tosstorff. Profintern: Die Rote Gewerkschaftsinternationale 1920-1937, Paderborn, 2004. This important study of the Red International of Labour Unions has not yet appeared in English. See I Birchall, review article in Historical Materialism, 17 (2009), pp. 164-76.
 A Rosmer “Speech to the Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions in July 1921”, Bibliothek der Roten Gewerkschafts-Internationale, Volume III, Berlin, 1921. (Translated in Revolutionary History 7/4.)
 A Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier pendant la guerre, Paris, 1936, p. 36.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, p. 93.
 For more details see I Birchall, “Le Sou du soldat” at http://grimanddim.org/historical-writings/le-sou-de-soldat/
 R Louzon, “Cavaignac, Thiers, Briand”, La Vie ouvrière, 5 May 1910.
T Zeldin, Intellect and Pride, Oxford, 1980, p 3.
 E Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, London, 1979, p. 67.
 Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, p.8.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, p. 537.
 See Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen, pp 333, 361-2, etc.
 See I Birchall, “Le Sou du soldat”.
 PB Miller, From Revolutionaries to Citizens, Durham & London, 2002, p. 179.
 Rosmer, Mouvement ouvrier.
 G Dumoulin, “Les Syndicalistes français et la guerre” (1918), reproduced in Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp 523-42.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, p 144.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp. 91-2.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp. 116-7.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, p. 109.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp. 529-30, 156-59.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp. 209-10 (translated in Revolutionary History 7/4).
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, p. 24.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp. 527-8.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp. 523, 526.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, p. 120.
 Rosmer Le Mouvement ouvrier, p. 533.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, p. 118.
 M Martinet, La Maison à l’abri, Paris, 1919, pp. 73, 99. There is a useful analysis of the fascinating but largely forgotten novel in G Paizis, Marcel Martinet: Poet of the Revolution, London, 2007, pp. 170-82.
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, pp 209, 212 (translated in Revolutionary History 7/4.)
 Rosmer, Le Mouvement ouvrier, p. 536.
 V Serge, Les Révolutionnaires: Romans, Paris, 1967, p 271.