The Great War 1914 - 2014  


Friedrich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” What does “regression into barbarism” mean to our lofty European civilization? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery.

Rosa Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet

100 years of capitalist decadence

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.

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1914: how the bloodletting began

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 2014 became a year, not of commemoration but of forgetting.

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Jean Jaurès: a giant of the workers' movement

The ruling class has all but transformed him into a national monument, and yet today Jean Jaurès is almost unknown outside France. His assassination on 31st July 1914 remains mysterious to this day: it removed one of the biggest barriers to France's entry into World War I


1914: How the 2nd International failed

Over and over, the 2nd International and its member parties had warned the workers of the coming war and threatened the ruling classes with their own overthrow should they dare launch Armageddon. And yet in August 1914, the International disintegrated, blown away like insubstantial dust, as one after the other its leaders and parliamentary deputies betrayed their most solemn promises, voted war credits and called the workers to the slaughter.

How could such a disaster happen?

How the 2nd International failed the workers in 1914

In all the noisy commemorations about the First World War, some things are more or less left in silence. In particular, that a crucial responsibility for the war lay with the ‘Labour’ and ‘Socialist’ parties who in 1914 voted for war credits and set about mobilising the workers for the war effort.

This recording, of the presentation to the first session of the ICC day of discussion on World War I held in September 2014, looks at how the majority of the parties of the Second International came to betray the fundamental principles of internationalism and integrate themselves into the bourgeois state. This treason did not come about overnight, but was the product of a long process of degeneration which still contains many lessons for today. It focuses in particular on the German Social Democratic Party, the great jewel of the workers' movement prior to the war, whose capitulation in 1914 was a decisive factor in the 2nd International's collapse.

The presentation is based on two articles to be found in our special page on World War I.


1914: The Socialists Betray Socialism

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.


1914: how German socialism came to betray the workers

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.


1914: Labour and the unions mobilise the workers for 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.

The birth of totalitarian democracy

"The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country"


The film "Merry Christmas" and the real story of the 1914 Christmas Truce

The press is turning the 1914 Christmas Truce into a harmless display of "humanity in the midst of barbarity", to the point where Sainsbury's can turn it into an advert for chocolate. But behind the Christmas Truce lay a real revolutionary potential...


Zimmerwald and the centrist currents in the political organisations of the proletariat

An internal text originally published during debates within the organisation in 1984, which gives an extended account of the different tendencies present in the Zimmerwald Conference against the World War, held in September 1915.


How the working class brought an end to World War I

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.

This documentary tells that story.


1914 ‘commemoration’: Right and left justify imperialist war

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.

1914-2014 : Humanity still faces the same dilemma

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