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Why the Great War was not stopped

Crowds celebrate in Trafalgar Square after Britain declares war on GermanyA century on and the establishment are still soft-soaping it. So no Dave, no. Britain didn’t declare war against Germany for the sake of poor little Belgium, the rights of small nations or for the defence of neutrality. Those then groaning under the weight of our empire might have had a thing or two to say about these matters after all. These were the good reasons. The real reasons, which did not make war an inevitability, was acting to prevent French and Belgian channel ports from becoming German naval bases, and putting the Wilhelmine upstart back into its box. Cold, hard interests carried the day in the lead up to the declaration. Humanitarian concern was so much flim-flammery.

The question is why was this senseless and utterly unnecessary slaughter allowed to happen? Recall the extraordinary Basel Congress of the Second International in 1912. Itpassed a manifesto declaring the following:

If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.

Fine words. Stirring words. This was not the rhetoric of some cranky sect gathered in Switzerland’s version of Conway Hall either. The Second International was a mass movement. Its sections ranged from important working class parties to organisations numbering millions of members, affiliates and supporters. The German Social Democrats were the jewel in the crown, and its formal commitment to Marxism provided the International its shared intellectual reference point.

Yet with the outbreak of war, Lenin reportedly fell off his chair and condemned his copy of Vorwärts (the SPD’s paper) a forgery for reporting that the party’s deputies had unanimously voted for war credits in the Reichstag. How did the mighty movement committed to turning imperialist war into class war fall apart? Why did sections of the Second International, with a few exceptions – most notably the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks), rally to their national colours?

The contemporary revolutionary opposition lay responsibility for international socialism’s betrayal at the feet of its leaders, and the argument has changed little in the intervening century. Rather than doing the right, revolutionary thing, the official Marxists of Germany, Austria and France, and the Labourists of Britain took the opportunist road, of treading the path of least resistance.

Yet this was not a failure of nerve. Long before 1914 Rosa Luxemburg was regularly polemicising against the revisionism and opportunism of the SPD line. Her argument was that for a clique within international Social Democracy, their position as party and union bureaucrats invested them in the small gain here, the compromise there. They had become mediators of the relation between capital and labour. When push came to shove they jumped into the nationalist camp of war to maintain their privileged position, and were happy to deliver the factory and battlefield fodder to imperial interests.

Lenin had made a not too dissimilar analysis of trade unionism and the class struggle in his maligned and misunderstood What is to be Done?. When he returned to his senses he took Luxemburg’s basic position and argued the collapse of the International was thanks to a ‘labour aristocracy’ encompassing party and union bureaucracies, but taking in all kinds of layers of relatively privileged workers. While also dependent on selling their labour power for a wage, their higher living standards were brought by the “super profits” extracted from the colonies. As beneficiaries from colonialism, they had an immediate interest in maintaining empires and therefore acted as bourgeois contaminants in the workers’ movement. As they had extended their sway through those movements, so social democratic and labour parties succumbed to reformism and, latterly, chauvinism and war fever.

This tale, with little modification, still passes for an explanation in Trotskyist and Stalinist circles. It is, however, obviously false. Not only was no evidence forthcoming proving the transfer of “super profits”, but it also neglected to mention that Germany’s “empire” was economically negligible, and Austro-Hungary had no colonies at all. Their wealth stemmed not from imperial plunder but international markets in economic competition with the other great powers. The second problem is an implied elitism, of assuming that where the leaders go the masses shall meekly follow. Had your Eberts, your Scheidemanns, your Hendersons, et al rallied workers to the class war banner then the July crisis would have grown over into a crisis of capitalism.

While the argument is a non-starter, it does avoid having to ask awkward questions about the political capacity of Europe’s working class at that time. In Britain, the first six months of 1914, there were over 40 million strike days – only the strikes of 1921 and 1926 saw greater numbers taking industrial action. That July, St Petersburg was paralysed by 135,000 workers taking strike action and calling for the monarchy’s abolition. Workers were conscious of their interests and were quite prepared to stand up for them in the workplace and against the authorities.

How to explain the about face, of militancy evaporating and millions flocking to sign up? To answer the question is to put a huge question mark over the viability of revolutionary socialist politics. While Luxemburg and Lenin were right that the upper echelons of the labour movement had become integrated into their respective national capitalisms, so had the majority of workers themselves.

Far from plain sailing, nevertheless Britain was a representative democracy of sorts and had improved the lot of working people through piecemeal grind here, strike action there. Ditto for imperial Germany and republican France. The parties and organisations of workers had wrested significant concessions from bosses and governments. Allied to rising living standards, pragmatism appeared to work. This was the early phase of the attempted institutionalisation of class conflict, and it seemed to be working.

The majority of workers had a stake in the bourgeois state, in their nation. Conversely, despite double-digit growth, Tsarism in Russia and its struggle to maintain the autocracy actively stymied the rise of its growing working class. By denying it a stake in their system, Russian proletarians were more combative, more open to revolutionary ideas, more likely to resist the call to war – and even then they were not totally immune.

As organised labour movements found their feet and successfully prosecuted its interests it’s small wonder the increasing sense of advance, of security, of solidarity contributed to nationalism’s mass appeal. Hence when declarations of war were met with outbreaks of class peace, it was the case the leaders were following the workers, not the other way round. The Socialist International was not able to prevent the war because the working class enthusiastically went along with it. It wasn’t just the lamps that went out across Europe one hundred years ago. The hope European capitalism could be brought down by revolutionary socialism was snuffed out too.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

Image: Crowds celebrate in Trafalgar Square after Britain declares war on Germany


  1. Graham Wildridge says:

    The author of this piece asks a puzzling question: How did the Socialist International fail to stop the War of 1914-18 ? However, his proposed resolution of the mystery that the European workers had a stake in the bourgeois state within whose borders they happened to live doesn’t stand up to the contemporary documents.

    The has reproduced the 6 August 1914 front-page appeal from its weekly journal, Labour Leader, imploring the “workers of Great Britain” to unite with those across Europe and resist the call to arms. The appeal appeared following a massive anti-war demonstration the preceding Sunday that was held in Trafalgar Square and addressed by Keir Hardie, Will Thorne, George Lansbury and Arthur Henderson. And as records the Joint Board of the Labour Party, the Trade Union Congress and the General Federation of Trade Unions had summoned a representative Conference for 5th August to agitate against British involvement.

    Left Futures itself has linked approvingly to Paul Mason’s Blog – How did the first world war actually end ? which provides evidence that the workers’ movement survived the madness and was able to decisively intervene to bring it to an end.

    I am much more interested in debating contemporary positions with this author. But I can’t allow him to fabricate his evidence for the discussion of the present day.

  2. M says:

    A thought-provoking piece. But there is another way of looking at the same disastrous history based on Marx’s insight that war is a fraud, a ‘humbug, intended to defer the struggle of the classes’.

    For an article on these lines see:

    ‘World War I and 100 years of counterrevolution’

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