1914 ‘commemoration’: Right and left justify imperialist war

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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 an article in the Daily Mail (where else?), education secretary Michael Gove gave it to us straight. Denouncing “left wing academics”, TV shows like Blackadder and The Monocled Mutineer and the musical Oh What a Lovely War! for belittling Britain and denigrating patriotism, Gove insists that for all its attendant horrors, the Great War was “plainly a just war”[1]. Picking up the torch from a weighty tome by Max Hastings published last year[2], Gove insists that the real cause of the war was aggressive Prussian militarism and that it was right to resist it. Or as Hastings put it in an article in the Mail last summer, the purpose of the 1914 commemorations should be “to explain to a new generation that World War One was critical to the freedom of Western Europe”.

Gove’s article was criticised both in the lead and in an editorial in the Observer of 5 January, while in the same edition space was given to the shadow education spokesman Tristram Hunt, a cultured historian who has written a rather sympathetic biography of Engels. Hunt’s article was entitled ‘Using history for politicking is tawdry, Mr Gove’[3], and its central theme is that while Gove is sowing political divisions by attacking the Left, the commemorations should be a time for national reflection that will lead to an “understanding of the meaning and memory of the First World War”. Hunt insists that “contrary to the assertions of Michael Gove and the Daily Mail, the left needs no lessons on ‘the virtues of patriotism, honour and courage’”. He lays particular emphasis on the role of ordinary working class people in the conduct of the war:

Appeals by trade union leaders to oppose German aggression, particularly against Belgium, led more than 250,000 of their members to enlist by Christmas 1914, with 25% of miners volunteering before conscription. Typical was John Ward, one of my predecessors as MP for Stoke-on-Trent and the leader of the Navvies’ Union. To ‘fight Prussianism’, he raised three pioneer battalions from his members and, commissioned as a colonel by Lord Kitchener, led them to battle in France, Italy and Russia”.

Hunt also reminds us of the important changes brought about by the war – the vote was extended to all working class men and to women over 30 in 1918, “culture and technology at all levels were transformed by the war and colonial frontiers redrawn, with Irish independence signposting the future decline of empire”.

Hunt doesn’t agree with Gove’s one-sided view that the war was all the fault of the Kaiser and “Prussianism”, citing other historians who have shown the rather sordid role played by Russia and Serbia in the outbreak of the conflict. Rather significantly, British imperialism’s equally sordid role is not analysed.  But Hunt does argue that it’s futile to play the “First World War blame game”. His main concern is not to look into the origins of the war but to contribute to a national commemoration that will “reflect and embrace the multiple histories that the war evinces – from the Royal British Legion to the National Union of Railwaymen to the Indian, Ethiopian and Australian servicemen fighting for the empire”.  No doubt there will be room in Hunt’s multicultural war effort for the pacifists and conscientious objectors too.

In sum, while the right sows divisions, what Hunt calls the Left stands for national unity. The working class has its role to play, but only as part of this patriotic union.

The working class against imperialist war

In an attempt to show that he’s not at all soft on Prussian aggression, Hunt provides us with a rather interesting quote from Kaiser Wilhelm, a word of advice to Chancellor von Bulow in 1905: “First cow the socialists, behead them and make them harmless, with a bloodbath if necessary, and then make war abroad. But not before and not both together”.

Hunt uses this quote to back up his argument about the patriotism of the left: “The British left responded to such fascism by largely supporting the war effort”. Leaving aside the sloppy characterisation of the Kaiser’s policy as “fascism”, what this quote reveals above all is the class consciousness of the bourgeoisie – its understanding that it could only go to war if the working class movement had first been “cowed” or “beheaded”. This applied to every national section of the ruling class, not only the German. But the Kaiser’s proposed bloodbath proved unnecessary precisely because the ancestors of today’s ‘left’ – the dominant right wing of the socialist parties of the day – were the product of a long period of internal degeneration in the workers’ movement, and when the call came in 1914 they proved to be no less patriotic than the official representatives of empire. And Hunt is quite right to highlight the crucial role played by the trade unions – again, in every country – in the mobilisation for war.

This insidious process of degeneration and ultimate betrayal by its own organisations left the working class totally disoriented at the outbreak of war and prey to the nationalist hysteria that made the mobilisation for war possible. The bloodbath of the trenches quickly followed. But the defeat was not total. A minority of the workers’ movement - such as the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Spartacists in Germany - kept the flag of internationalism flying against the national flags of the ruling class. And eventually the heightened exploitation in the factories, the spread of hunger and the pointless massacre on the battlefields gave rise to growing discontent, expressing itself from 1916 on in strikes, mutinies, the formation of workers’ and soldiers’ councils and revolution in Russia and Germany, which forced the ruling classes to bring the war to a hasty conclusion so that they could unite against the revolutionary menace.  

When the working class forgot its international interests and succumbed to the myth of national unity, it was led off to the slaughter. When it remembered that it has no country, that its enemy is capitalist exploitation in all countries, the war machine was paralysed and a window was opened on a new world where nations, states, and imperialist wars are a relic of the prehistoric past. That is the “understanding”, the fundamental lesson, that we should draw from 1914.  Amos 5/1/14


After this article was written the Guardian published further articles about this controversy, both of them taking up positions well to the left of Tristram Hunt. In a spirited defence of the truth contained in the humour of Blackadder Goes Forth[4], Stuart Jeffries takes Hunt to task for being a bit of a wimp and having his eye on the next election, lamenting that he wasn’t enough of a “lion” to stick up for Blackadder’s view of the conduct of the war as a “toff-hobbled martial shambles” and for the arguments of various left wing historians who have shown the causes of the war in the imperial ambitions of all the Great Powers of the day, not just Germany. He also takes issue with Hunt’s assertion that the British left in the main supported the war, citing the case of Bertrand Russell who was a conscientious objector. But once again there’s not a word about the working class resistance to the war – the strikes on the Clyde, the internationalist stance adopted by revolutionaries like Sylvia Pankhurst or John Mclean. And in the end Jeffries’ alternative to Gove’s uncritical patriotism is a more conscious, considered patriotism: “What Gove doesn’t argue is the more interesting point that the very basis for British patriotism relies, not on accepting the historical narratives he believes in, but in part on the hard satirical work involved in undermining those myths. Let others take themselves seriously. Uncritical patriotism? Unreflective pride in the military? Unquestioning conviction that we’re a force for good? Flags on the front lawn? What are we now, American?”

Seamus Milne then weighed into the debate with a much more intransigent title: ‘First World War an imperial bloodbath that’s a warning, not a noble cause’[5]. The article is quite explicit about the nature of the 1914-18 war and in rejecting Gove’s apologetics about the war as a defence of western democracy:

This is all preposterous nonsense. Unlike the second world war, the bloodbath of 1914-18 was not a just war. It was a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources.

Germany was the rising industrial power and colonial Johnny-come-lately of the time, seeking its place in the sun from the British and French empires. The war erupted directly from the fight for imperial dominance in the Balkans, as Austria-Hungary and Russia scrapped for the pickings from the crumbling Ottoman empire. All the ruling elites of Europe, tied together in a deathly quadrille of unstable alliances, shared the blame for the murderous barbarism they oversaw. The idea that Britain and its allies were defending liberal democracy, let alone international law or the rights of small nations, is simply absurd.

Any genuine marxist could endorse this view. Except for the brief phrase slipped into the first paragraph: “unlike the second world war, the bloodbath of 1914-18 was not a just war”. But in this phrase is the fundamental dividing line between the mouthpieces of the left wing of the bourgeoisie and revolutionary internationalists, for whom, just like the first world war, the second world war was also “a savage industrial slaughter perpetrated by a gang of predatory imperial powers, locked in a deadly struggle to capture and carve up territories, markets and resources”. Indeed, it was fought by the same powers who confronted each other in the first bloodbath, and this indicates that the war was in essence a resumption of the first, which had been ‘interrupted’ by the revolutions of 1917 and 1918. Once the ‘Bolshevik danger’ had been eliminated, once the world working class had been defeated by the combined forces of social democracy, Stalinism and fascism, the way was opened for the unfinished business of 1918 to be concluded, by even more horrible forms of barbarism than during the first, where the majority of victims were not soldiers but civilians, subjected to the multiple holocausts of Auschwitz, Stalingrad, Dresden and Hiroshima.

The idea that the Second World War was a just war unlike the first is a key element of ruling class ideology. The argument that the need to oppose Hitler meant that this was no longer an imperialist war, or that it had suddenly become permissible to fight for some of the contending imperialist powers against others, was above all the speciality of the left – the Labourites, Stalinists and Trotskyists – who played the same role of recruiting sergeants in 1939-45 as the right wing socialists in 1914-18.   Amos 11/1/14


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World War I