Part 15: Proletarian opposition to the First World War

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The previous, penultimate part of this series (WR 236) began an examination of the response of the workers’ movement in Britain to the First World War with an account of the betrayal of the working class by the Labour Party and the unions. These organisations, in calling on workers to die for capitalism, crossed the class line into the camp of the bourgeoisie and became the enemies of the working class. This next, and final, part of the series considers the response of the other political organisations of the working class to the outbreak of war.

Lenin’s analysis of the workers’ movement

In 1917 Lenin published the pamphlet The tasks of the proletariat in our revolution which included an analysis of the response of the international working class movement to the war. He identified three distinct trends within the movement:

  • Firstly, the ‘social chauvinists’ who supported the war in the name of ‘defence of the fatherland’. These comprised “the majority of the official leaders of the official Social-Democratic Parties in all countries” (Lenin on Britain, p282). Lenin was unequivocal in his judgement: “These people are our class enemies. They have gone over to the bourgeoisie” (ibid).
  • Secondly, the ‘Centre’, which “consists of people who vacillate between the social-chauvinists and the true internationalists” (ibid).
  • Thirdly, the ‘true internationalists’ whose “distinctive feature is its complete break with both social-chauvinism and ‘Centrism’, and its gallant revolutionary struggle against its own imperialist government and its own imperialist bourgeoisie. Its principle is ‘Our chief enemy is at home’” (p284).

Above all, Lenin insisted that this analysis was dynamic, that it was based on the actions not the words of individuals or organisations: “It is not a question of shades of opinion, which certainly exist even amongst the lefts. It is a question of trend. The thing is that it is not easy to be an internationalist in deed during a terrible imperialist war […] Those who confine themselves to ‘demanding’ that bourgeois governments should conclude peace or ‘ascertain the will of the people for peace’, etc, are actually slipping into reforms. For, objectively, the problem of war can only be solved in a revolutionary way” (p286). It is this method that underpins the analysis that follows.

British Socialist Party

The social-chauvinist and internationalist trends were sharply opposed in the British Socialist Party (BSP), leading eventually to a split. In this the war only brought to a head tensions that had existed in the BSP from its creation and which had already done much to destroy its potential to act as the pole of regroupment for the revolutionary forces of the working class in Britain (see part 13 of this series in WR 233).

One constant source of tension was Hyndman’s nationalism and jingoism, which had led him to call for Britain to increase its navy in order to counter the ‘German menace’. He was not alone in such views, being joined not only by his clique in the leadership of the BSP (and prior to that the Social Democratic Federation) but also by Robert Blatchford, editor of The Clarion newspaper and author of several books on ‘socialism’. Opposition came to a head at the 1911 conference of the SDF and again at the first conference of the BSP in 1912. At the 1912 conference Hyndman lost control of the Executive and in December that year the Executive passed a resolution denouncing German and British imperialism and rejecting any calls for increased military spending. However, the internationalists failed to push home their advantage, the resolution was suspended at the following executive meeting and a compromise voted at the conference of May 1913, which also saw the Hyndman clique regain control of the Executive. This did not bring the struggles in the BSP to an end; instead they began to focus again on the issue of control of the party with Petroff and Maclean leading attempts to overturn Hyndman’s domination.

However, the outbreak of war revealed the extent of the internationalists’ failure. On 12 August Justice published a manifesto, War, the Workers and Social Democracy that supported the war and merely called on the government to ease the lot of the working class. In September, the Executive declared that “the party naturally desires to see the prosecution of the war to a successful issue” (Justice, 17/09/14, quoted in Kendall The revolutionary movement in Britain 1900-21, p88) and called on party members to participate in the recruitment campaign. This statement was adopted by the whole Executive, including FC Fairchaild who had previously been part of the internationalist opposition and Albert Inkpin who had close links to it. The hesitations of the internationalist opposition allowed Hyndman to take the initiative and win over, for the time being, the centrist tendency represented by Fairchild and Inkpin.

However, a true internationalist position was taken by some elements within the BSP. Many branches demanded the statement in favour of recruiting be withdrawn. The lead was taken by the Glasgow branch, of which John Maclean was the most prominent member. Its response to the declaration of war was to take the offensive, not only in holding public meetings in the city, but also sending one of its militants to speak to workers in the munitions factories. Maclean replied to the Executive’s manifesto with a letter to Justice in which he declared “Our first business is to hate the British capitalist system that, with ‘business as usual’, means the continued robbery of the workers” (quoted in Milton, John Maclean, p81). He went on to argue that a war between Britain and Germany was an inevitable consequence of the development of capitalism and had been prepared for by the ruling class of both countries.

The Glasgow branch intervened at many levels. It maintained an active and uncompromising propaganda against the war, not only continuing its main weekly public meetings, where it drew together anti-war elements from other organisation, such as the ILP, but also producing its own paper, the Vanguard, to counter the jingoism of Justice. It also continued to run a series of classes in marxism and related matters to educate new militants. It participated in the immediate struggles of the working class, such as the campaign to ensure the maintenance of dependants of soldiers. More significantly, it was actively involved, alongside militants of the Socialist Labour Party and the ILP, in the first expressions of industrial unrest that were eventually to escalate throughout the Clyde. Within the BSP, it participated in the struggle against the domination of Hyndman, working with elements in London where other opposition elements were regrouped around Fairchild and Joseph Fineberg, although these elements still maintained a centrist position on the war itself.

The Independent Labour Party

At the start of the war the ILP produced a manifesto in which it disassociated itself from the war without actually opposing it: “out of the darkness and depth we hail our working class comrades in every land. Across the roar of the guns, we send sympathy and greetings to the German Socialists…They are no enemies of ours, but faithful friends…In tears and blood and bitterness, the greater Democracy will be born. With steadfast faith we greet the future” (quoted in Dowse Left in the Centre, p20). Within the party a number of different positions were taken but, unlike the BSP, these did not come into open conflict. This lack of conflict within the ILP was not an expression of strength but of weakness, of its attempts to mediate between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in the name of unity. This was exemplified by the likes of MacDonald and Keir Hardie who, as we showed in the previous part of this series, mouthed pacifist phrases whilst supporting recruitment and calling for victory. MacDonald actually became a leading figure of the opposition and toured the country making speeches calling for a negotiated peace. He repeatedly had his meetings broken up and was subject to a campaign of abuse in the press.

Dowse, in his history of the ILP, argues that as well as a minority openly in favour of the war, there were four different opposition strands, ranging from Christian pacifist to socialist. The latter recognised that the war was capitalist but failed to draw the conclusions that the only way to oppose it was through revolutionary struggle. A tendency common to all of the strands within was to attach themselves to other organisations. MacDonald and his faction worked closely with various bourgeois liberal organisations, such as the Union of Democratic Control, which campaigned for a negotiated peace and greater democratic control over foreign policy, and the National Council for Civil Liberties. Participation in the UDC was very widespread in the ILP with the two organisations, especially at the higher levels, increasingly having common membership. Other elements in the party, including those like Clifford Allen and Fenner Brockway who recognised the war as capitalist, were drawn towards pacifism, participating in the formation of the No-Conscription Fellowship in November 1914 which supported conscientious objectors and worked closely with the Quaker movement. Of 1,191 people tried for conscientious objection, 805 were members of the ILP. The War Emergency Workers National Committee also drew many elements into an inter-classist body whose aim was to ameliorate the situation of the working class without actually opposing the war.

The organisations described above pulled the ILP towards the right and the bourgeoisie. In other areas, notably Scotland where the tradition of the ILP was already more radical, working class militancy and the example of organisations like the SLP and BSP, pulled it towards the left. ILP anti-war militants took part in public meetings organised by the BSP in Glasgow. Its militants were also active within the rent strikes and the campaign against the dilution of labour in the shipyards of the Clyde, although some leading elements, like John Wheatley and David Kirkwood, seem to have played a questionable role in brokering compromises between the sides.

The Socialist Labour Party

The Socialist Labour Party (SLP) became one of the most determined and active opponents of the war. In September 1914 it declared in its paper The Socialist: “Our attitude is neither pro-German not pro-British, but anti-capitalist and all that it stands for in every nation of the world. The capitalist class of all nations are our real enemies, and it is against them that we direct all our attacks” (quoted in Challinor The Origins of British Bolshevism, p125).

However, the outbreak of the war seems to have caused some divisions and serious confusion in the party. Tom Bell, a militant of the SLP, describes three different positions: “The first line led by MacManus and myself, was definite, open hostility to the war; the second led by…John W Muir, was that in the event of invasion we should be prepared for National Defence; the third line was to look upon war with an academic interest, as an event of world importance that would hasten the inevitable collapse of capitalism!” (Bell, Pioneering Days, p102). Bell goes on to argue that the impact of events rapidly united the party around the first position of open hostility. By January 1915 The Socialist was arguing that “As revolutionary socialists, we are bound to make the most of whatever opportunities present themselves for carrying our revolutionary principles into effect, and this war, involving as it does the working class of the leading countries in Europe in common disaster, may prove a blessing in disguise by providing them with the opportunity of throwing off the yoke of their common oppressor” (quoted Challinor, op.cit. p126). They argued that the army contained many revolutionaries forged by the struggles of the previous years and called on the working class to enlist in order to receive training and arms to use against their exploiters in the class war. In practice its militants stayed out of the army, avoiding conscription when it came in so that they could defend their organisation and participate in the struggle at home. The SLP maintained its propaganda work, despite attacks on its militants selling papers and attempts to disrupt its meetings. Its militants also played an important part in the industrial unrest than began to build in the Clydeside from early 1915 on. When conscription was introduced many went on the run, joining those from other organisations in the ‘flying corps’, in order to continue the struggle.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain

The SPGB is unique in that the start of the war produced no divisions in its ranks. From the first it was unequivocal in its denunciation of the war which it described as “this latest manifestation of the callous, sordid and mercenary nature of the international capitalist class”. It declared that “no interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working class blood” and concluded “Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of socialism” (quoted in Perrin, The Socialist Party of Great Britain, p43-4). Subsequent issues of their paper, the Socialist Standard, reiterated and developed this position. They denounced the campaign about atrocities committed by the Germans, pointing out that Britain and its allies were every bit as brutal in their treatment of native peoples and the working class. They showed that the war arose from the economic rivalries of the great capitalist powers and that victory for Britain would not mean more jobs for the working class. They denounced all the religious cant from the Ministers and Priests and exposed the pressure being put on working class men to enlist. Against the recruitment campaign they called on the working class to “Enlist in the army of the Social Revolution. Your OWN class needs you…” (Socialist Standard, October 1914).

However, the force of the SPGB’s words was not matched by its actions. Its opposition to the war remained at the general level, the articles appearing every month made no attempt to analyse the development of the situation, either at the front or at home. Its advice to the working class was not to defend itself or struggle directly against the war, but “stay at home and think” (ibid). In keeping with this, alongside articles on the war, they maintained general educational articles, such as the series on ‘The purpose and method of colonisation’. Their press and their public meetings were their principle activities. The Socialist Standard was allowed to publish throughout the war but their public meetings, like those of other socialist organisations, were regularly attacked. As early as November 1914 they announced a reduction in the number of meetings and in January 1915 their complete suspension. They rejected the idea of struggling to maintain them, arguing that “We have been told that we should have gone on in defiance of the powers that be till we went down in a blaze of fireworks. Our view however was one dictated by our avowed principles. We have always held that supreme power is in the hands of those who control the political machine. The most we could hope for by going on was to prove our contentions by acting in opposition to them” (quoted in Perrin, op.cit. p50). Little effort seems to have been made to compensate for this by increasing sales of literature; no pamphlets were published during the war and there is reference to only one leaflet being produced in the books on the party. The SPGB, while opposing its members enlisting, placed responsibility on the individual. A number registered as conscientious objectors while others went on the run. When conscription was introduced some members were allowed to go because of their financial situation.

This quiescent attitude at a time when revolutionaries had a duty to struggle in every way possible prevented the SPGB from participating in the internationalist trend in the First World War, a failing which it continued in World War Two.

Entering a new period

The outbreak of war in August 1914 ruthlessly exposed the real state of the workers’ movement in Britain. The immediate acquiescence of the majority of the working class to the war and the demands of the state, showed not just the weight of bourgeois ideology on it but also the failure of the revolutionary movement to effectively combat that ideology. This failure fundamentally expressed the influence of bourgeois ideology within the workers’ movement itself but also the legacy of past failures to create a revolutionary party and the consequent sectarianism and dispersal of revolutionary forces. The betrayal of the working class by the mass organisations, the Labour Party and the Unions, and by elements in most other organisations was the practical result.

This did not mean that revolutionary voices were completely extinguished but those that were raised were not only extremely weak and isolated but also deeply confused and threatened by the weight of the prevailing ideology. There was a tendency still to make concessions to the bourgeoisie by compromising what was said or done.

The struggle for the class party was not ended by the war, but when it was renewed it was in a new historical period framed by capitalism’s entry into its decadence and driven by the development of the revolutionary wave.


First published in World Revolution 237 (September 2000)


The struggle for the class party in Britain 1848-1914