4th August – Centenary of the start of the First World War

The Western Front

The Western Front

It’s a sign of the redundancy of capitalism when nations consider they need to commemorate the centenary of the BEGINNING of such a war as that which devastated Europe between 1914 and 1918. It’s even more of a condemnation of that social system when that celebration is spread over the whole year. Such is the situation surrounding the 4th August – centenary of the First World War.

At the same time we shouldn’t be surprised that politicians of all hues try to jump on the band wagon of sympathy that the population holds for those who had to face the horrors of the trenches – and for a war that the British ‘won’. However it’s sad that working people aren’t able to see through the cynical manipulation of their emotions by such politicians who are always looking for ways to advance their own agenda.

And to re-write history.

The coverage on the events for the three weeks leading up to the date of the declaration of war have attempted to give the impression that Europe was at peace for years prior to 1914 and it was the random act of a Serbian nationalist in killing a member of the Hapsburg imperial family that moved things on which got out of hand.

In Britain the huge number of programmes on the radio and television, the slew of books that have been published as different authors also seek to feed at the trough have, in the main, ignored the fact that Europe had been moving inexorably towards a major conflict as the only way to resolve the issue of which country was going to hold sway on the continent. In that struggle it would be decided whether the old empires, the Hapsburg, the Russian Tsarist or the Ottoman, or the more aggressive industrial capitalist nations, Britain, Germany or France, would come out on top.

If the contending capitalist/imperialist powers themselves didn’t know that a war was developing in those first years of the 20th century and historians and programme makers a hundred years later aren’t sure, even with the benefit of hindsight, at least organised labour, in the form of the Second International were very clear of where the world was going unless socialists and trade unionists took matters into their own hands to stop it.

At two important international congresses, at Stuttgart in August 1907 and at Basle in November 1912, organised labour declared unanimously that it would do all in its power to prevent a war from breaking out and would work for its earliest termination if such a war was to start. Now it’s possible to say that the members of the Second International over-estimated their influence in their respective countries, that they didn’t have the power they thought they had in the major industrial countries and were therefore not strong enough to prevent the four years of carnage.

The matter that definitely does have a bearing on the start of the war was the fact that when it came to actually putting into practice the fine words and sentiments of the two congresses:

‘ … the working class, which provides most of the soldiers and makes most of the material sacrifices, is a natural opponent of war, for war contradicts its aim – the creation of an economic order on a socialist basis for the purpose of bringing about the solidarity of all people.’

‘If war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working class and of its parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, …. to exert every effort to prevent the outbreak of war by means they consider most effective….

Should war break out nonetheless, it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and to do all in their power to utilise the economic and political crisis caused by the war to rouse the peoples and thereby to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule.’

From the Resolution of the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart, August 18-24, 1907

‘The Balkan crisis, which has already caused such horrors, would become the most terrible danger to civilisation and the proletariat if it should spread further. At the same time it would be the greatest outrage in all history because of the crying disparity between the magnitude of the catastrophe and the triviality of the interests involved.’

It goes on to say:

‘It is with satisfaction, therefore, the Congress notes that there is complete unanimity among the socialist parties and the trade unions of all countries in the war against war.’

‘The fear of the ruling classes that a world war might be followed by a proletarian revolution has proved to be an essential guarantee of peace.’

‘But the most important task in the International’s activities devolves upon the working class of Germany, France and England.’

‘The proletarians consider it a crime to fire at each other for the benefit of the capitalist profits, the ambitions of dynasties, or the greater glory of secret diplomatic treaties.’

From the Manifesto of the Extraordinary International Socialist Congress, Basel, November 24-25, 1912

The organised labour and socialist movement, dominated by reformists, social democrats and opportunists, proved itself incapable of facing up to the challenge history had placed before them. The overwhelming majority of the reformist ‘leaders’ of the various European socialist parties sided with capitalism and where they had elected representatives in some Parliaments actually voted in favour of finance for the war.

There were a few memorable exceptions to the long list of traitors who find words easy but actions way beyond their abilities.

Of the French Socialists Jean Jaures called for a general strike just two weeks before hostilities broke out. He was rewarded by being assassinated on the 31st July 1914.

Rosa Luxemburg continued her opposition to the war throughout the period of fighting, being imprisoned a number of times for her ‘unpatriotic’ activities. She failed to really understand the meaning of revolution and what it entailed against a ruling class that would stop at no means to prevent their loss of power. For that she paid with her life, being murdered by the nascent German fascists of the Friekorps on the orders of her erstwhile student and ‘comrade’ from the German Social Democratic Party, Frederick Ebert. This close working connection between social democracy and fascism/militarism is something that has continued throughout the last century.

Although not present at either of the International meetings James Connolly, the most significant and clear minded Irish revolutionary to date, was also clear about the true meaning of the war. Commenting on the betrayal of the leaders of the Socialist International, he wrote in Forward (15th August, 1914):

‘What then becomes of all our resolutions; all our protests of fraternisation; all our threats of general strikes; all our carefully built machinery of internationalism; all our hopes for the future?’

In response to pacifism he wrote:

‘A great continental uprising of the working class would stop the war; a universal protest at public meetings would not save a single life from being wantonly slaughtered.’

Unfortunately he was dragged into the badly organised and adventurous petty-bourgeois putsch of the Easter Rising of 1916, the defeat of which allowed British imperialism to kill him with impunity. Ireland lost their greatest leader at a time when someone of his stature was needed to stand up against the narrow-minded nationalists. When the Irish Republicans ‘celebrate’ the centenary of the rising in 2016 the country will be no closer to unity and independence than it was a hundred years before.

The most significant Marxist to consistently oppose the sending of workers to kill workers was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the leader of the Russian Bolsheviks. His words, written a few days after the shooting started, gave a clear analysis of what was happening in Europe:

‘The European and world war has the clearly defined character of a bourgeois, imperialist and dynastic war. A struggle for markets and for freedom to loot foreign countries, a striving to suppress the revolutionary movement of the proletariat and democracy in the individual countries, a desire to deceive, disunite, and slaughter the proletarians of all countries by setting the wage slaves of one nation against those of another so as to benefit the bourgeoisie – these are the only real content and significance of the war.’

Lenin Collected Works Vol 21, pp15-16

His leadership and the clarity of the Party allowed them to lead the Russian Revolution of November 1917 and to start the struggle to establish the first workers and peasants state in the Soviet Union.

That revolution was one of the few positive outcomes of the conflict of 1914-18 and the threat that event posed to capital can be seen by the speed at which former enemies came together in the desire to crush the world’s first socialist experiment on a countrywide basis. They weren’t successful in the 1920s but if workers and peasants sometimes relax or give up the fight capitalism never tires and has used and will use everything in its armoury to gain anything it has lost, whatever the cost in terms of lives or resources.

During all the statements that will be made today, the day that Britain declared war on Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, only passing, superficial mention will be made of the fact that what we now known as the First World War was also considered by many to be the ‘war to end all wars’.

Not for the bankers and industrialists who were set to make fortunes out of the suffering of millions; not for the politicians who soon realised the ludicrous nature of the statement soon after it became popular (and which was later paraphrased by such Richard Nixon in reference to the war against the Vietnamese); not for the military hierarchy who would never accept the disappearance of their reason for existence; not for the church (of whatever denomination) as there’s nothing better than the futility of war to try to sell ‘the pie in the sky when you die); but for the ordinary soldier.

Conscripted from the farms, mines and factories of Britain they were thrown into the horror of trench warfare of the western front or the slaughter on the beaches of Gallipoli. They wouldn’t be the same after seeing ‘Paree’ on their return home (if they weren’t destined to remain at places like Tyne Cot outside Passchendaele) and would have been a force to reckon with if they had proper leadership.

Lied to by the ruling class and betrayed by the social democrats the majority of the British population supported the war to the end believing that its successful conclusion (that is, a British victory) would see a new and better society for all. With another lie Lloyd George, in November 1918, churned out another famous phrase of the time: ‘To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in.’

But what did those ‘heroes’ face.

A country where the Treasury, before 1914 bursting with the plunder of centuries from the ‘Empire’, was now looking for more savings. If not even the crumbs of Empire would fall from the table before the war there was no chance of increases in public spending after. Times of austerity had arrived – anything sound familiar here?

Thousands of men traumatised from their experiences at the front wandered the country in a daze and many gave up altogether. Unemployment increased and wages, hours and conditions of workers worsened. The defeat of the 1926 General Strike encouraged the employers to do as they wished. Then came the Crash of 1929 and its consequences, austerity layered on austerity. Unemployed Marches and the Means Test followed.

‘Salvation’ was another war, even more destructive in terms of human lives and resources. The ‘achievements’ of the conflict of 1939-45 in Britain, the Welfare State, introduced to stave off revolution, were under attack from the start and now there’s no Communist country in the world to pose an alternative the capitalist wolves are out to take back anything (and more) that was taken from them.

The present day social democrats, the Labour Party, vie with the other political parties to see who can be the best servant of capital. Before 1914 their words were brave even though their actions were pusillanimous. Now they are the most ardent and strident war-mongers of the lot.

The hypocrisy of the annual November 11th Remembrance Day parades and speeches has been surpassed today. If we want to truly pay homage to those who went so keenly off to war a hundred years ago we should be declaring an end to all wars and not preparing for the next one, whether it be the never-ending ‘War Against Terror’ or a return to the Cold War.

Today we are in the ludicrous and pitiful situation of commemorating the start of a war, surely that must be a first. We should make sure that in 25 years and one month, the centenary of the start of the Second World War, we have learnt the lessons of the past and realise that unless society is changed fundamentally we will be facing such anniversaries forever.

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