How the working class brought an end to World War I

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Public meeting in Budapest on World War I

The Budapest bookshop Gondolkodó Autonom Antikvárium invited the ICC to hold in September 2014 a public discussion in the city, as we have already done in previous years1. The ICC suggested for this year showing the film on our website “How the working class brought an end to World War I”. 100 years ago, the working class – betrayed by its organisations, the unions and the socialist parties – was unable to prevent the outbreak of the most terrible war in history until then. Today, the commemorations of World War I are a further occasion for nationalist propaganda in its liberal-democratic or more populist-patriotic versions. What is left out in most of the expositions, documentaries and articles on World War I is the reality about the end of the war, and the causes of the armistice. As the film illustrates, the first revolutionary wave of the world proletariat is an example of a 'secret in plain sight'.  The material for the film is from widely available sources on the internet; many of the photos come from Wikipedia and original film footage from youtube. The fact that there were strikes, mutinies and uprisings at the end of World War I is hardly a secret. The revolutionary turmoil that led to the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the withdrawal of Germany from the war has been extensively covered by bourgeois historians. The connection between these events and the Russian Revolution is also widely known. But despite all this, the simple fact that there was a worldwide wave of workers' struggles, as the film says, “from Canada to Argentina, from Finland to Australia, from Spain to Japan”, and that these struggles were in one way or another, consciously or unconsciously, inspired by the example of the seizure of political power by the Russian workers in October 1917 - this is, in effect, still a secret, a fact that the world bourgeoisie is still very keen to keep hidden. Why? Because, again as the film says, for a few brief years these struggles shook the capitalist world to its very foundations, and the bourgeoisie today, despite all the difficulties of the proletariat, the apparent lack of struggles, the advance of the crisis and of decomposition, is still afraid of the example that the first revolutionary wave sets.

After showing the film we suggested a discussion not only on the historic events but also about the wars in the current phase of capitalist world order and about the role of the working class today. The proposed topics for the following debate were: nationalism vs. internationalism; is a further world war on the agenda of history? Do we face a future with less war? What kinds of wars are being waged today? What were the weaknesses of the first revolutionary wave of 1917-23? What are the difficulties for the working class and its revolutionary militants today?

The debate was, as always in Budapest, very lively and animated by the seriousness of the audience. There’s nothing self-evident about attending a public discussion about the perspectives of a classless society in a country whose inhabitants suffered 40 years of so-called Socialism (1949-89) and whose present government has and for a long time been openly based on Hungarian chauvinism. Taking an interest in such a meeting under these general political circumstances requires an attitude of being “against the current”. The economic situation in Hungary is worse than in most of the former “socialist” countries in Eastern Europe (Poland, Baltic EU members, Czech Republic, Slovakia) and the militancy of the working class is not more visible than in other countries. So the audience was rather politicised, politically and culturally “educated”, informed about the history of the workers’ movement and committed to clarification in open debate – from a proletarian point of view.

Questions about the revolutionary wave

The questions raised in the discussion at the beginning were about historical facts and the political assessment of events: about the Shanghai uprising in 1927, the Limerick workers’ council in Ireland 1920, the Slovak Republic of Councils in May/June 1919:

- The film says: “In 1927 more than half a million workers in Shanghai launch an armed insurrection and take control of the city. Again the uprising is brutally crushed by the nationalists in an orgy of bloodshed”. A participant wanted to know more about these events. The answer given by the ICC underlined the authentic working class character of the isolated but heroic Shanghai insurrection of March 1927.2 These struggles, which were still an expression of the ebbing wave, a “last gasp of world revolution” as we say in an article, took place in the huge expanse of China whose working class went through a phase of revolutionary ferment. The policy of the dominant Stalin faction in Russia towards the Chinese Communist Party consisted of establishing an anti-imperialist united front with the bourgeois Kuomintang to struggle for the ‘national liberation’ of China. Under Stalinist pressure the CCP ordered the workers to hand over their weapons to the Kuomintang who subsequently slaughtered the workers with these same weapons. So the Kuomintang brutally put an end to the Shanghai workers’ uprising, after the CCP had said to the workers to trust in the national army of Kuomintang leader Chang Kai Chek. What then followed and what the Maoists call the preparation of the “revolution” in 1949 was in fact only a long war between different bourgeois armies, leading to the seizure of power by Mao and the CCP in military uniforms.

- A comrade in the audience asked the question why there is nothing in the film about the Limerick soviet in summer 1920. In fact a 23 minutes film about the whole international dimension of the revolutionary wave cannot be complete, there are necessarily many struggles that can’t be mentioned, and many vital issues that can’t be covered – a film is not an article or a book. But it would certainly be worth drawing the lessons of this Irish example of a self-organised workers’ struggle – and about the role of nationalism (IRA, Sinn Fein) in the crushing of this movement.3

- The same could be said about the support given to the Slovak Republic of Councils in June 1919 by the Hungarian Red Army. These events are well registered in the memories of the politicised people in Eastern Central Europe, but not profoundly treated in the film. The ICC delegation could not refer to the concrete events in Slovakia in 1919 because of a lack of profound knowledge about the historical facts, but for the military aspect of the question it insisted on the principle that military means cannot replace the consciousness and self-activity of the working class, as the failure in 1920 of the (Russian) Red Army offensive in Poland showed.

Social democracy before 1914

A longer discussion evolved about the nature of social democracy before 1914 and during World War I. A comrade summed up a criticism of several participants of the ICC statement (also present in the film) about the “betrayal of social democracy”. The ICC defends the position that most of the member parties of the 2nd International betrayed the working class because these workers’ parties of the 19th century declared in different occasions before 1914 their attachment to the principle of internationalism (to defend the class, and not the nation state). However most of the leaders of the majority of these parties betrayed this principle by openly supporting their national bourgeoisie in the first days of August 1914 when war credits were voted in parliaments and the disaster began. Against this view of things the comrade speaking for a divergent position stated that the notion of betrayal does not make sense because “social democracy was never in favour of revolution”. According to this reasoning the parties of the 2nd International were workers’ parties, but not revolutionary ones since the working class in this pre-war period was not revolutionary; the social democratic parties were an expression of the weaknesses of the class in those days, and the latter was not only a victim of betrayal but part of it. Another comrade referred in the same discussion to the enthusiasm for war at the beginning of WWI and to the fact that the SPD (in Germany) was already tied to the capitalist state by its important parliamentary fraction.

There are different aspects to this discussion. The ICC defends the general framework of the ascendance and decadence of capitalism with different tasks for revolutionaries in the different periods. The social democratic parties of the ascendant period, ending with WWI, struggled for reforms within capitalism AND for revolution, as Rosa Luxemburg stated in 1899 in her polemic “Social reform or revolution ?” against party comrade Eduard Bernstein. Consequently the workers’ parties of this period hosted different currents, from openly reformist and statist ones to revolutionary currents like those around Luxemburg, Lenin, Pannekoek, Bordiga etc. In 1914 the leaders of most of the social democratic parties were effectively on the side of the national bourgeoisie – and then betrayed in theory and practice the internationalist principles of the Stuttgart and Basle Congresses of the 2nd International. During the war the revolutionary fractions prepared the formation of the 3rd International because the 2nd collapsed with the outbreak of the world war and because of the betrayal of most of its member parties.

Another aspect in this discussion is the question: to what extent do we consider ourselves to be part of the revolutionary tradition of previous periods? To what extent do we share a common heritage of principles and method, common concepts?

The comrades in the audience who did not share the historical framework of ascendance and decadence of capitalism insisted on the lack of a “communist programme” in social democracy, saying even without the betrayal of the leaders it would have been attached to reformism and the bourgeois/capitalist state. But despite this different historical framework there was a general concern in the discussion to see the working class and its revolutionary vanguard in their mutual relationship: the weaknesses of the class with respect to its self-organisation, but also the theoretical weaknesses of the communists and internationalist anarchists of the period. The role of unions and a lot of questions concerning the relationship between the class and its vanguard still needed to be clarified.

A young participant, referring to the situation of 1919 in Hungary, said that the seizure of power in the name of the working class was carried out by the social democratic and communist party leaders, and not by the spontaneous activity of the self-organized proletariat. Another particpant at the meeting underlined the fact that the Communist Party created in Hungary in autumn 1918 was formed by very different currents (Marxists, syndicalists, former prisoners of war returning from revolutionary Russia, and others) and was eclectic in its programme.

Today’s wars and class movements

In the last part of the discussion questions were raised about current issues. Most of the participants at the debate seemed to agree on the assessment about the increasing danger of war today. The expanding spiral of bloodshed in Syria, Iraq and Ukraine is all too obvious. One participant said that violence and war are stretching their grip from the periphery to the centres of capitalist power. If there was a divergence in this part of the discussion it was probably about the question of an economic rationality of these conflicts. Whereas the ICC comrades stressed the growing irrationality of today’s wars of decomposition, e.g. in the areas claimed by the Islamic State (IS), other participants replied that even these wars are profitable for some capitalists and even for capitalism as a whole. But here we are talking about two different kinds of rationality: on the one side the rationality of profits for some particular capitalists, on the other side the rationality of a species that needs to become fully human.

The last question raised in the discussion was: why didn’t the workers join the Occupy movement? Our reply was that even if numerous people gathering around this banner in 2011/13 belonged to the working class the movement as a whole did not think of extending their struggle towards the working class, except for some limited cases in Spain and in California. And most of the Occupy demonstrators did not conceive themselves as proletarian, although they often were. The difficulty of the class to develop a specific class identity was already a topic in the Budapest discussion in 2010. It is part of the consciousness within the class that must ripen. Without this self-consciousness of the revolutionary subject the jump to a new and really human society will not be possible.

It is – by the way – interesting that in the Budapest discussions one question that we hear often in Western Europe, i.e. the question of the existence of the working class, is never posed. Here the need for a class response is not questioned. It seems that there is a common concept of what the working class is, of its characteristics and responsibilities.

We want to thank again the bookshop Gondolkodó Autonom Antikvárium for the invitation to hold a public discussion and the audience for the debate which can only strengthen mutually our forces and capacities.

ICC, September 2014


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Public meeting in Budapest