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Labour and the Great War

Labour Party leader and later Nobel Peace Prize winner, Arthur Henderson

Labour Party leader and later Nobel Peace Prize winner, Arthur Henderson

The First World War was an unmitigated catastrophe, leaving over 9 million dead, countless millions more invalided, orphaned, widowed, displaced or impoverished. It destroyed an estimated £208 bn of capital value, and caused economic devastation much greater than that. It plunged much of Europe into political instability, and the lowered threshold to solving issues through violence contributed to the growing experience of political terror from the black and tans in Ireland through to the Nazis and Stalin’s purges.

Few in 1914 predicted the duration or destructive power of the war, though expert students of military science as diverse and Frederick Engels and the chief of the Imperial German armed forces, Helmuth von Moltke had been ominously prescient. The scale of the war was a result of a number of factors. Firstly, military technical developments were in a transitional phase with enormous destructive capacity not yet counterbalanced by advances in communications or transport.

Secondly, the nineteenth century had seen the birth of a new paradigm of industrial society, and concepts of national community that hugely broadened the social base of war.

In the eighteenth century there had been decades of global war between the European powers, but the fighting had been largely confined to small professional armies, and the political governing elites were unconstrained by democratic interference over concluding peace treaties. These limited cabinet wars were those described so insightfully by Carl Von Clausewitz in his classic work Vom Kriege , who famously described the interplay of war and diplomacy as twin mechanisms of achieving state objectives. It is revealing that the Prussian Conservative Party, the political expression of the military Junker caste, had opposed the mass expansion of the army.

Thirdly, the intervention of the British Empire on the side of the militarist and revanchist French Republic (the power which paradoxically in 1914 also represented the greatest threat to British imperial interests), and their unstable and autocratic Russian ally ensured that the balance of military and economic power would lead to a prolonged and global war.

Britain in 1914 was the most democratic of the European great powers. It is necessary to appreciate the difference between the formal deficiencies, the House of Lords and the limited franchise, with the strengths that Britain was unique (with the later exception of the USA) in there being substantive political debate whether or not to join the war: in the Cabinet, in parliament, in civil society, in the newspapers, in academic circles, and of course in the Labour movement. In contrast, in Germany, despite universal male suffrage, and that following the 1912 election the socialist SPD was the largest party in the Reichstag, the decision to go to war was taken by a close circle of generals, overriding even the reservations of the Kaiser. Indeed the three Caesars in St Petersburg, Vienna and Berlin all vacillated as they looked over the abyss.

When discussing how politics operated in the past it is important to understand the distinction between the different intellectual disciplines of politics and history. The political actors of 1914 did not have the benefit of hindsight. It may seem disingenuous that politicians of the British Empire were squeamish of the actions of Imperial Germany, but that was indeed the case. Indeed Bonar law’s Conservative Party were fully behind the idea of war with Germany, on instrumentalist and unsentimental grounds of imperial self interest (a massive misjudgment given the actual result). However, the tipping issue which put Britain into the war was the German invasion of Belgium, that persuaded wavering Liberals like David Lloyd George and Labour politicians like Arthur Henderson.

Given that we now know that British military planners were also planning to breach Belgian sovereignty to impose a naval blockade even if Germany did not invade, then this seems extraordinary chutzpah. However, this would not have been generally known, even in the cabinet. The contemporary understanding of colonialism in Britain at that time must also be understood, for example, Keir Hardy’s writings exhibit a mixture of paternalism, naivety and optimism, that show even a progressive Labour politician saw the British Empire in broadly benign terms.

The German Empire was not perceived in the same way in Britain, where German colonial rule was seen as both more savage and more amateur. Indeed, it is arguable that the deliberate genocide of the Herero and Nama peoples in German South West Africa in 1905, (which also saw the world’s first extermination camp at Shark Island) had no direct analogue in Britain’s own imperial legacy. The continuity between the Kaiser’s colonial policy, hardly distinguishable from more mainstream European expereince and the later Nazi exterminations had a number of notable aspects: the first civilian governor of Hereroland, Dr Heinrich Goering, was the father of the Germany’s number two fighter ace in the first war, Hermann Goering; surplus brown uniform shirts from the African Schutztruppe were adopted by Hitler’s fledgling group of street fighters; and General Ritter von Epp, an important military figure in the early Nazi party, served in the Herero campaign.

Most importantly, the German invasion of Belgium turned colonial practices tolerated when used against “uncivilized” peoples onto Europeans. Some 5500 Belgian civilians were murdered in the first few weeks after the German invasion; and the declaration that annexation of Belgium into the Reich as a German principality was a war aim, was seen as outrageous in Britain; which overlapped liberal support for the war with more traditional concerns of national defence, as Britain could not afford the Kriegsmarine to use Belgian harbours.

Politicians work with highly imperfect knowledge, and without the benefit of hindsight. It is also a mistake to over-emphasize the significance or novelty of political ideas in their original context because they later had greater influence. The works of Lenin and Bukharin, and even of the more mainstream Hilferding, on imperialism were virtually unknown in Britain. However, a remarkably similar thesis by H.N. Brailsford, the author of the 1914 work War of Steel and Gold was of widespread influence in both the UK and America, influencing the foreigh policy of the Labour Party. Brailsford argued that the driver for war was the growing power of finance capital, and that what he called “vast aggregations of modern capital” were engaged in struggle to partition the world.

Arguably, Brailsford (and Lenin’s) argument was demonstrably refuted by events. The main imperial threats to British trade interests came from France and Russia, not Germany. Siding with the Entente against the central powers was more a continuation of traditional English policy to intervene to avoid any continental power becoming predominant. While the increasing role of finance capital did go hand in hand with the growth of militarism, it did not play a determining role over specific foreign policy, where Labour politicians, and leading trade unionists, were swayed by liberal opinion. Union general secretaries of the era tended to be MPs, and were influenced by that milieu, but the majority of trade union members were also – at least initially – swept up in the war fever.

When war broke out, the Labour Party found itself divided, but did not divide. The parliamentary party and the trade unions broadly supported the war but prominent leaders of the party, like Macdonald and Snowden, opposed the war, along with ethical socialists and Christian pacifists, and Labour Marxists like James Maxton. Macdonald resigned as party leader in protest at the war.

Keir Hardie was a broken man, deeply privately opposed to the war, but equally unwilling to publically oppose it, at the cost of potentially dividing the labour movement, and conscious of the imperative of national unity in the face of external threat.

Largely, the labour movement agreed to disagree, considering that their disagreements as an internal matter for the Labour Party, and within unions; and that any political truce during the war was temporary and contingent. As party chair, G.J. Wardle told the 1917 party conference.

“[Labour] still remains a separate party. Partnerships can be dissolved, arguments can be revived, fighting can be resumed, each in its proper place, each in its proper time”

Arthur Henderson, the party leader since 1914, joined the cabinet in 1915, and the inner war cabinet in 1916. But demonstrating the independence of the party, he resigned from the cabinet in August 1917 when the government refused to allow him to attend the Stockholm conference. The conference had been organized by the Russian leader, Kerensky, to include the socialist parties of all belligerent powers on both sides, seeking to find a path to peace.

This was a bold move by the Russian government, who knew that the Czar had financed the war almost entirely by borrowing, and the state was therefore mortgaged against the imagined spoils of victory. Russian withdrawal from the war could only be achieved by defaulting on those debts, and economic isolation, a cost that the Mensheviks knew would result in social disaster.

In Britain, labour’s achievement was to stay united, and hold together a political force – the Labour Party supported by the trade unions – who were able to replace the Liberals as the main party of opposition, laying the foundations for the future reforming Labour governments who transformed Britain for the better.


  1. swatantra says:

    I knew about Phillip Noel-Baker but not about Henderson’s Nobel Prize.
    Quite a few firsts, first concentration camps, first extermination camps and the first use of chemical gas in the trenches.
    If Kerensky had not been toppled by the Bolsheviks, the World would be a very different place these days.

  2. David Ellis says:

    If Kerensy had not been toppled by the Bolsheviks the word for fascism would have been Russian instead of Italian as has been said.

    The first world war was about the pre-eminent imperialist power already in major relative decline trying to prevent imperialist newcomers from re-dividing the world in their favour and at its expense. The road from capitalism’s early beginnings in 18 Century Britain to US-sponsored globalisation has indeed been an extremely violent one but if we think capitalism was violent in its youth and middle age its retreat from globalisation back to multi-polarity and its degeneration as an economic system will make all that look like child’s play. Events in Syria, Palestine, Ukraine, Africa, etc are but sadistic tasters of what a global regime of barbarism will look like if not stopped by world socialist revolution. It is, as predicted many moons ago, but now more obvious than ever, a straight choice between socialism or barbarism. A human future or a New Dark Ages from which there will be no escape.

  3. David Ellis says:

    Oh, and I should add, that the problem with neo-Stalinists like Andy Newman is that they back the process of the collapse of globalisation as some kind of road to peace. So in the name of anti-imperialism they support the vile Russian imperialists in Syria and Ukraine in the belief that power balancing between five or six major powers above the heads of the 7 billion is somehow sustainable. Their perspective is however driven not by what is good for working people throughout the world but how we can at all costs avoid revolution and they will avoid it all the way to the graveyard of humanity.

  4. Robert says:

    Working people thought the world well of course a large group of people through out the world do not work they scrape by on why they can make steal or get from the land.

    Funny how New and Newer labour love to tell us about5 hard working people while many of them have never tried it.

    It’s the working class.

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