We can hardly get away this year from a whole variety of historical experts telling us how the First World War actually got started and what it was really about. But very few of them – not least the left wing ideologues who are full of criticism about the sordid ambitions of the contending royal dynasties and ruling classes of the day –tell us that the war could not be unleashed until the ruling classes were confident that plunging Europe into a bloodbath would not in turn unleash the revolution. The rulers could only go to war when it was clear that the ‘representative’ of the working class, the Socialist parties grouped in the Second International, and the trade unions, far from opposing war, would become its most crucial recruiting sergeants. This article begins the task of reminding us how this monstrous betrayal could take place.
In 1914, the German Social-Democratic Party was the most powerful party of the Second International. With more than one million members, it was the largest single political party in Europe and the largest party in any European parliament. Socialists throughout the world, faced with the threat of war in the last days before that fateful 4th August, waited for the SPD to live up to its solemn commitments made at the International's congresses at Stuttgart and Basel, and oppose the war. Yet on 4th August, the SPD parliamentary fraction voted for the Imperial government's war credits, and the way to war was open.
How the German Party degenerated in the years leading up to 1914 to the point where it betrayed its most fundamental principles, and the struggle of the left in the party against this degeneration, is the subject of the article that follows.
Betrayed by its organisations, the unions and the socialist parties, the working class was unable to prevent the outbreak of the most terrible war in history. Today, the celebration of Armistice Day - the end of the war - is the occasion for patriotic celebration.
But what was it that really brought the war to an end? Only a few years after the disaster of 1914, the world working class launched the greatest ever attempt by the exploited masses to overthrow the domination of the exploiters and to build, on the ruins of war, a new society free of nations, and warfare. In doing so, the workers forced the ruling classes to put an end to the war.
A whole year of ‘commemorations’ of World War One, with opinion divided among them about whether this was a Good War or a Bad War. The right wing tends to argue that this was a Good War. The Kaiser was Bad, and had to be stopped. And Britain’s empire was, on the whole, a Good Thing, which had to be defended. The left wing can then pose as very radical, and say, this was a Bad, Imperialist War.
The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 was a decisive moment in history. Not only did it mark the entry of capitalism into its period of decadence but it was also the point at which large parts of the workers’ movement betrayed the working class and went over to the camp of the ruling class.
100 years ago, humanity stood on the brink of the abyss, about to plunge into the most terrible bloodletting ever seen in history. For generations after the Great War, 1914-18 was synonymous with senseless murder, a ghastly waste of life in the horror of the trenches, for which the suffering populations rendered the governments and the ruling classes largely responsible.
To commemorate the war, one hundred years on, is thus something of an embarassment for those same ruling classes, and so they are preparing to drown us in a sea of trivia and hymns to national unity faced with the suffering of war. They will at all costs avoid, on the contrary, any mention of the real causes behind the war: the inexorable imperialist expansion of capitalism across the globe. They will avoid to, any suggestion of the real responsibilities behind the war.
Above all, they will avoid any idea that the one force which might have stopped the war in its tracks, was - then as now - the working class.
2014 then will be a year, not of commemoration but of forgetting.
The ruling class is preparing its commemoration of the Great War, the terrible bloodletting that began in 1914. This short video - which is intended as an introduction to a series to be published during the year - traces the real history of the 100 years that followed 1914: 100 years in which the dilemma "socialism or barbarism" remains to be resolved
In the 200,000 years of its existence, the human species has made astonishing strides in its productive capacity, its technique, its mastery of the laws of nature, and its culture. In the 10,000 years between the Neolithic Revolution and the present day, the pace of its progress has quickened. Yet humanity's progress has never been a smooth and peacful process; on the contrary, each step forward has been achieved through the clash of opposing classes, opposing class interests. Opening up a new perspective has never been possible without the revolutionary overthrow of the old order and the old classes which block the path the the future.
The old order reaches a point where its continued existence is no longer compatible with human progress. At this point, the violence inherent in all exploiting societies turns inward against itself; it no longer plays any progressive role but on the contrary becomes purely destructive. Society enters a period of decadence and violence which can only be brought to an end by the revolutionary overthrow of the old order and the creation of a new.
This revolutionary overthrow is not inevitably victorious. At such moments humanity finds itself at a crossroads: either the creation of a new society on the ruins of the old, or the common ruin of the contending social classes.
For a century now, humanity has stood at just such a crossroads in its history.
The year of ‘commemorating’ the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War began with a controversy between Right and Left which illustrates rather well how both wings of the ruling class intend us to understand the significance of the 1914-18 war.
In the two previous articles we showed that from the 1890s a proletarian opposition developed within the German unions. At the beginning it was against reducing the workers’ struggle to purely economic questions as the general confederations of the unions were doing. It then went on to oppose illusions in parliament and the SPD’s increasing confidence in the state.
The deaths, within a few days of each other, of the last
surviving First World War veterans in Britain, Henry Allingham and Harry
Patch, have generated the most enthusiastic tributes from the high and mighty:
the Queen, Prince Charles, Gordon Brown, and all the rest of them. In addition
to massive media coverage, we will soon be treated to a spectacular service at
Westminster Abbey to remember the ‘sacrifice of a generation', who, we are
told, laid down their lives in the cause of freedom...
In this series of articles, we will try to understand why, at each major imperialist moment - such as the two world wars - the majority of the anarchist milieu, on the one hand, was unable to defend the interests of our class and allowed itself to be gripped by bourgeois nationalism, whereas, on the other hand, a small minority succeeded in defending proletarian internationalism.
In 1915, as the hideous
reality of the European war became ever more apparent, Rosa Luxemburg wrote
"The crisis of social democracy", a text better known as the "Junius pamphlet"
from the pseudonym under which Luxemburg published it. The pamphlet was written
in prison and was distributed illegally by the Internationale group which had
been formed immediately after the outbreak of the war...
80 years ago, in March 1919, the Communist International held its founding Congress in Moscow. The following article, originally published in WR 122, shows why this event was of immense importance for the international working class: faced with the outbreak of a massive, revolutionary challenge to capitalism all over the world, the CI was at to capitalism all over the world, the CI was at that moment the most advanced expression of the class movement, the crucible for synthesising the political programme needed to lead the movement to victory. Today, faced with the bourgeoisie's pernicious campaigns aimed at identifying communism with Stalinism and "proving" that marxist theory has been refuted by history, revolutionaries have the duty to affirm not only that they are the heirs of the CI, but also that its most central positions remain valid for the revolution of the future. The fact that the CI subsequently degenerated and succumbed to the Stalinist counter-revolution does not alter what it had been during the most heroic phase of the revolutionary wave that made the whole ruling class shake in its shoes.
In World Revolution 365 we republished an article that showed how, when the imperialist war of 1914 broke out, the Labour party and the trade unions offered their services to the ruling class by mobilising the workers for war. But there were numerous voices within the workers’ movement in Britain who, like their counterparts in other countries (like the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Spartacists in Germany) remained loyal to their internationalist principles and raised their voices against the ideological orgy of patriotism and the hideous carnage in the trenches. This article, written by a close sympathiser of the ICC, was originally published in two parts (in World Revolution 267 and 268 in September and October of 2003) which we have now consolidated into one article.
An additional article, on the minority in the UK who maintained internationalist positions in the face of the Second World War, was published in WR 270 and is available here.