1914: Labour and the unions mobilise the workers for war

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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 bourgeoisie. In country after country the social democratic parties and the trade unions, built up with so much struggle and sacrifice of the preceding decades, rallied to the national flag and called on the proletariat to sacrifice itself on the altar of capitalism.

The article that follows was originally published in World Revolution 236 in July 2000. It was the penultimate article in a 14-part series on ‘The struggle for the class party in Britain’, which we aim to republish online. We are publishing this particular article here as part of our response to the growing media and political campaign about the ‘commemoration’ of the First World War

The weakness of the workers’ movement in the face of war

The question of war has always been an important one for the working class, not least because the proletariat has been slaughtered time and again in the interests of its exploiters. Marx and Engels closely followed and analysed the military rivalries and wars of the ruling class. The First International actively followed both the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. The Second International, faced with the rising tide of militarism that marked the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, repeatedly discussed the response of the working class to war at its international congresses (see parts 8 and 9 of this series in WR 225 and 226). The Stuttgart congress of 1907 adopted a resolution that called on the working class “to use every effort to prevent war by all the means which seem to them most appropriate” and, if war were to break out “to intervene to bring it promptly to an end, and with all their energies to use the political and economic crisis created by the war to rouse the populace from its slumbers and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination”. A minority within the International, led by Jean Jaures and Keir Hardie, argued for a general strike to prevent war. The majority, including figures like Bebel, Guesde and Plekhanov, opposed this position as unrealistic. Trotsky, writing in 1914, argued that in war, “the social democrats come face to face with the concentrated power of the government, backed by a powerful military machine” (quoted in Braunthal, History of the International 1914-1943, p4).

The main organisations of the British workers’ movement had a long involvement with the International but showed themselves to be confused and divided over the question of war. One part, under the leadership of Keir Hardie, supported the idea of general strikes as we saw above. Another part, led by H.M. Hyndman, the leader of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and subsequently the British Socialist Party (BSP), and Robert Blatchford, editor of The Clarion, were ardent patriots who had long warned of the ‘threat’ posed by Germany. The smaller socialist organisations, the Socialist Labour Party (SLP) and the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB) were hostile to working with most other organisations, the International included, so played no part in the discussion. In fact, participation in the International often hid the reality that the international situation was not considered that important by the main workers’ organisations, the Labour Party and the trade unions. Thus, Hardie’s support for the use of the general strike to prevent mobilisation had no consequences for his actual practice of reformism and opportunism. The experience of the Boer war had already shown that the main workers’ organisations in Britain had no understanding of internationalism other than at the level of rhetoric, and thus no ability to fight the tendency towards war by the only means possible: intensifying the class struggle. As we said in WR 225 these lessons were not lost on the British ruling class. The outbreak of the war was to show that the weaknesses evident at the start of the century had not just persisted but were actually deeper.

The Labour Party and the unions cross the class line

In the period leading up to the war both the socialist movement and the radical wing of the ruling class were loud in their opposition to war and to the foreign policy of the government. The 1912 Labour Party conference had denounced the policy of the Government as anti-German and, despite the official denials, it was widely suspected that a secret deal guaranteeing British support for France had tied Britain into the Franco-Russian alliance. In late July 1914, as the crisis was reaching its climax, the British section of the International issued a manifesto under the names of Hardie and Glasier denouncing the threat of war and calling for mass demonstrations. These were held on the 1st August in many of the major cities of Britain, with resolutions adopted calling on the government to make every effort for peace. This reflected the lack of any objective analysis behind the grand rhetoric. Very rapidly after the declaration of war the Labour Party and the unions gave it their open support. The class war was put on hold in order to give the imperialist war free rein.

Ramsay MacDonald, then leader of the Labour Party, after opposing the declaration of war in the House of Commons, resigned the leadership of the party to make way for the openly pro-war Henderson. However, in practice MacDonald, like the other ‘pacifist’ leaders of the Independent Labour Party, kept his principles pure by putting them aside for the duration: “… we cannot go back now, nor can we turn to the right or the left. We must go straight through. History will in due time apportion the praise and the blame, but the young men of the country must, for the moment, settle the immediate issue of victory” (quoted in Tiltman, James Ramsay MacDonald, p96). Kier Hardie was even more explicit: “A nation at war must be united… With the boom of the enemy’s guns within earshot the lads who have gone forth to fight their country’s battles must not be disheartened by any discordant note at home” (quoted in Cole and Postgate, The Common People, p507). MacDonald joined the recruiting campaign, as did the party’s only national organiser.

The trade unions did not respond immediately at the start of the war. In late August the Parliamentary Committee of the TUC called for an end to strikes currently underway and for its constituent unions to ensure that any subsequent disputes should be settled by agreement. In fact disputes were already sharply declining, from 100 at the start of August to about 20 at the end of the month. On September 2nd the Parliamentary Committee published a manifesto supporting the war and welcoming the decision of Labour to support the recruitment campaign. The manifesto also indicated a willingness to accept conscription. While their declarations of support for the war showed that these organisations had gone over to the ruling class, the full significance of this can only be understood by tracing subsequent developments that led to their integration into the state. This had been the aim of the most intelligent parts of the bourgeoisie for many years. We have already shown how the leadership of the Liberal Party sought to draw the Labour Party towards the state by agreeing a secret deal to share out some seats (see part 7 in WR 222). Significant parts of the Fabian Society, in particular Sydney Webb, had worked assiduously towards this aim. The culmination of their efforts came after the war with the adoption of a new ‘socialist’ platform (containing the famous Clause IV) drafted by Webb, and Labour’s transformation into the second party after the Tories as large numbers of Liberals changed allegiance.

The integration of the Labour Party into the state

The major role given to the Labour Party was not direct recruitment for the army but the containment of the working class by acting as its champion. One of the main vehicles for this in the first years of the war was the War Emergency National Workers’ Committee (WENWC) which was formed in the first few days of the war (arising in fact from a meeting originally called to organise opposition to the war). It included trade union leaders, members of the Labour Party, the ILP, the BSP and the Fabians. One of its features was that it included both ‘super-patriots’ like Hyndman and ‘opponents’ of the war as well as ‘sane patriots’ like Webb. This unity was its great strength; but it wasn’t a unity that protected the interests of the working class, as it pretended in its public pronouncements, but a unity that protected the interests of the ruling class by containing working class concerns and anger. Its activities appear prosaic and even benign, being concerned with things like food and rent controls, rates of poor relief as well as individual cases of hardship. However, its first statement made it clear that it stood for a strengthening of the state: “The Nation is at the beginning of a crisis which demands thorough and drastic action by the state and the municipalities” (quoted in Harrison, ‘The War Emergency Workers National Committee’, in Briggs and Saville, Essays in Labour History, p225). An attempt was made to hide this with a radical smokescreen calling for the ‘conscription of riches’.

As the war progressed and the state began to organise production and the workforce more effectively, the WENWC became less significant. In 1915 Henderson joined the coalition government as a Cabinet Minister. When Lloyd George came to power more Labour MPs joined the government, one union leader being made Minister of Labour and another MP Food Controller. Lloyd George was very clear about the importance of the ‘Labour Movement’ as a whole to the war: “Had Labour been hostile, the war could not have been carried on effectively. Had Labour been lukewarm, victory would have been secured with increased and increasing difficulty” (quoted in Williams, Fifty Years March, p230).

The integration of the unions

The trade unions strongly supported the war throughout its duration. At the 1915 TUC Conference a resolution in support of the war was passed with only seven votes against. In 1916 it opposed the call for an International Labour Conference because it included socialists from ‘enemy’ countries. More significantly still, it actively supported measures to control the working class and increase the level of exploitation.

From 1915 on the unions worked with the Committee on Production appointed by the government. The Committee made recommendations to relax trade practices and was also given powers to arbitrate in disputes in order to prevent industrial action. This led to the Treasury Agreement of March 1915 when the unions agreed to suspend industrial action for the duration of the war and to take measures to increase output. The unions and government were cautious in their implementation of the Agreement in order not to anger the workers. The decision by the government some months later to make the terms compulsory through the introduction of the Munitions of War Act allowed the unions to maintain the notion that they were independent representatives of the interests of their members. The government prepared the ground with a campaign attacking workers for impeding production. In reality the National Labour Advisory Council, which had been set up to mediate between government and unions, and included trade unionists among its members, was asked by the government to draft the Bill. The Act prohibited strikes and lockouts unless 21 days’ notice had been given. It also established ‘controlled’ workplaces, where workers could only leave if granted a certificate allowing them to go.

As the war progressed and opposition and working class militancy grew, the unions joined in the campaigns promising a bright future. The TUC participated in the work of the Committee on Reconstruction, giving its support to the Whitley Report which proposed measures to increase state control, such as the establishment of Joint Industrial Councils and the regulation of wages in certain industries.

A victory for the ruling class

1914 marked the point at which the Labour Party and the trade unions joined the bourgeoisie. However, the dynamic had existed before 1914 and continued afterwards. The bourgeoisie had long worked to corrupt individual union and Labour leaders but now it was the organisations themselves that they captured. These developments were not the result of the betrayals of the leaders but expressed the conscious transformation of instruments created by the working class into weapons to oppress them. Ultimately, they were a consequence of the change in historic period. The ascendency of the Labour Party after 1918 and its ‘conversion’ to socialism were a consequence of its change in class character. Similarly, the extension of the vote that followed the war was not a step forward for the working class but a reflection of the new reality that bourgeois democracy could no longer be of any use to the working class, but was a great deal of use to the bourgeoisie. Working class interests could now only be defended outside of and against both the unions and the Labour Party.

The outbreak of war did not, nonetheless, mark the death of the working class movement in Britain. Revolutionary voices were still raised, both from within organisations which were part of the Labour Party (it was not possible to join the Labour Party as an individual member at this point) and from those opposed to it. This political struggle will be examined in the final part of this series.

North, July 2000

Historic events: 



World War I