Revolutionaries in Britain and the struggle against imperialist war

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In World Revolution 365 we republished an article that showed how, when the imperialist war of 1914 broke out, the Labour party and the trade unions offered their services to the ruling class by mobilising the workers for war. But there were numerous voices within the workers’ movement in Britain who, like their counterparts in other countries (like the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Spartacists in Germany) remained loyal to their internationalist principles and raised their voices against the ideological orgy of patriotism and the hideous carnage in the trenches. This article, written by a close sympathiser of the ICC, was originally published in two parts (in World Revolution 267 and 268 in September and October of 2003) which we have now consolidated into one article.

An additional article, on the minority in the UK who maintained internationalist positions in the face of the Second World War, was published in WR 270 and is available here.

I. The revolutionary minority in 1914

The first duty of revolutionaries in the face of capitalist war is to defend the interests of the whole working class, as expressed in the historic slogan of the workers’ movement: “Workers of the world unite!”

The defence of internationalism for revolutionaries has never been an abstract principle; it is an intensely practical struggle, involving a fight for clarity inside the political organisations of the working class, and more widely through intervention in its defensive struggles, often in difficult conditions of state repression and patriotic frenzy.

This article examines the struggle of the revolutionary left in Britain against the first world war, looking firstly at the development of clarity at the theoretical level about the entry of capitalism into its imperialist phase, and then at the organisational struggle for an active anti-war position inside the main ostensibly Marxist organisation, the British Socialist Party.

This struggle for internationalism demanded not only a ruthless fight against the jingoism and nationalism of the enemy class, but also against all signs of opportunism and centrism within the working class. (The history of the different socialist organisations in Britain and their responses to the First World War are dealt with in more detail in the series on the struggle for the class party in Britain - see WR 237, September 2000).

Understanding the new imperialist epoch

The understanding that capitalism had entered into its imperialist phase was the product of a pre-war political struggle waged by the left - in particular the Bolsheviks, the left-wing in the German Socialist Party and the Dutch Tribunists - against the revisionist theories of Bernstein and others on the right-wing of the Second International, who began to argue that capitalism was in fact capable of overcoming its own inner contradictions and that the struggle for gradual reforms alone could result in a peaceful transformation into socialism.

The left in Britain not only participated in this political struggle as an integral part of European social democracy, but also made its own contribution to the Marxist understanding of the changing conditions for the class struggle in the most advanced capitalist countries; as early as the 1880s William Morris identified the rise of imperialism as a response to capitalism’s increasingly desperate need for new markets:

“...the one thing for which our thrice accursed civilisation craves, as the stifling man for fresh air, is new markets; fresh countries must be conquered by it which are not manufacturing and are producers of raw material, so that ‘civilised’ manufactures can be forced on them. All wars now waged, under whatever pretences, are really wars for the great prizes in the world market.[1]

The British left fought vigorously against local variants of revisionism, making an explicit link between the tendencies towards state capitalism at home and imperialism abroad: “ in its essence nothing but the application outside the British Isles of that socio-political principle which, when applied at home, leads to ‘state socialism’. That principle is the organisation and the consolidation by the power of the state of...the interests of the capitalist classes.” [2]

The Socialist Labour Party in particular developed quite a sophisticated analysis of state capitalism, arguing that even the Liberal government’s welfare measures - despite offering some minimal improvements in the conditions of the working class - were fundamentally “a preliminary measure towards the bureaucratic enslavement of the people.”[3] For the SLP, the final outbreak of the imperialist world war and the insatiable demands of the war economy greatly intensified this tendency and confirmed the reactionary consequences of any further support for nationalisation or state control:

“Nationalisation or ‘state socialism’ so far from being a method of working class progress to socialism, has become the very life blood and method of the most militant and aggressive imperialism... State control means the highest form of capitalism, and will create the industrial warfare of whole empires and groups of empires... Thus, along the road of nationalisation or state ownership, instead of meeting socialism, freedom and peace, we find competition intensified, wage slavery, militarism, and, in the distance, the bloodstained fields of future battlefields.”[4]

Three years of bloodstained battlefields enabled the clearest elements the SLP to conclude that capitalism, like the social systems which preceded it, had now definitely entered into its period of decadence.[5] Although this conclusion was coloured by a mechanistic vision of the system’s ‘inevitable’ dissolution, it was still based on the solid Marxist position that the war was essentially the product of capitalism’s historic crisis of overproduction. Echoing Rosa Luxemburg, William Paul of the SLP argued that in order to avert this crisis the capitalist class had been forced to divert the productive forces into waste production - in particular of armaments - and finally to go to war in order to re-divide a saturated world market[6]

There was also an understanding amongst the clearest revolutionaries that the war could not solve this crisis and that unless the working class was able to destroy capitalism the perspective would be one of further imperialist bloodbaths. On the revolutionary left wing of the BSP, John Maclean was probably the clearest in drawing the lessons of the economic struggle between capitalist states in the new period to ominously predict a second, even more destructive round of butchery, which threw into question the whole basis of any future struggle for reforms:

“The increased output of commodities…will necessitate larger markets abroad, and hence a larger empire. The same will apply to other capitalist countries. This must develop a more intense economic war than led up to the present war, and so precipitate the world into a bloodier business than we are steeped in just now. The temporary advantage the workers may get in shorter hours and higher wages with higher purchasing power will then be swept away in the destruction of millions of good lives and fabulous masses of wealth.”[7]

These were vital insights by small minorities of the British working class into the roots of the First World War and its profound significance for the struggle for socialism, which gave strength to the left’s organisational struggle for internationalism. 

The organisational struggle for internationalism

In Britain, the earliest and most consistent defender of a revolutionary position against the war was the group around John Maclean and the Glasgow District Council of the British Socialist Party. The BSP led by Hyndman, a notorious pro-imperialist, had declared its wholehearted support for Britain’s entry into the war and called for an allied victory; a position endorsed by representatives of the left and centre in the party.

But even as the BSP was proclaiming its support for King and Country, Maclean and his supporters were carrying out anti-war propaganda at factory gates on Clydeside, where mass meetings of workers passed resolutions calling for an end to the war and sent fraternal greetings to workers of all nations[8]. In September 1914, Maclean argued that: “Our first business is to hate the British capitalist system that, with ‘business as usual’, means the continued robbery of the workers... It is our business as socialists to develop ‘class patriotism’, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism.”[9] In the first issue of his own paper the Vanguard - started as a riposte to Hyndman’s pro-war Justice – Maclean set out his belief that the only alternative to war now was revolution: “Nothing but world socialism will do. This monstrous war shows that the day of social pottering or reform is past... We do not think national wars are of benefit to the workers so we shall oppose all national wars as we oppose this one. The only war that is worth fighting is the class war...”[10] Unless this war ended in revolution, further world imperialist wars were inevitable.

Maclean’s clear internationalist tendency, however, co-existed in a party still controlled by a rabidly chauvinist leadership. A determined struggle for the organisation was necessary, in order to exclude those who had betrayed internationalism and to win over the whole party to a revolutionary position against the war.

In the decade before the war, the left wing of the BSP had waged a bitter internal struggle against the growing chauvinism of the party leadership. In particular, the left fought to disassociate the party from Hyndman’s public advocacy of a big navy and to obtain its adherence to the official position of the Second International against war. The left was strongest in East London, and in Scotland where Maclean and the Glasgow branches carried out anti-militarist propaganda. In both areas, émigré Marxists with invaluable experience of the organisational struggles in Russian and East European social democracy played a leading role. The left was successful in gaining representation on the party’s executive, and in late 1912 narrowly won endorsement for its own clear rejection of militarism and imperialism.[11] But, in the face of a counter-attack by the right, the opposition revealed a fatal tendency to vacillate; two of its representatives failed to attend the next executive meeting in February 1913, giving the leadership a majority of one in voting to suspend the resolution and to allow the party to decide on the question of maintaining a British Navy. At the 1913 party conference, the centre in the party did all it could to prevent a split on such a ‘non-essential point’, proposing that members should be “free to hold any opinion they like on subjects apart from socialism”! As one delegate bluntly put it: “first and foremost they must have socialist unity.” In the end, the left’s anti-militarist resolution was never voted on and Hyndman, while still airing his ‘strong conviction’ that a very powerful navy was ‘indispensable’ to Britain, agreed to keep quiet for the sake of the party. In a display of phoney unity, a resolution was then adopted, pledging the BSP to oppose the growth of militarism as an integral part of the Second International. For the left this proved a Pyrrhic victory. The right, in danger of losing its grip on the party, had been rescued by centrist conciliation.[12]  The working class paid heavily for this failure; at the outbreak of the first imperialist world war one of the very few Marxist organisations in Britain - so painfully built up during the preceding period of capitalist prosperity - remained in the hands of a right-wing chauvinist clique which proceeded to offer its enthusiastic support to the slaughter, dragging the whole notion of proletarian internationalism down into the mud with it.

II. The organisational struggle for an internationalist position - the dangers of centrism

The BSP leadership’s first tentative efforts to mobilise the party behind the bourgeoisie’s war effort provoked a swift reaction from the internationalists in the party, who found growing support among the membership. The right was forced to prevent this opposition unifying by avoiding a national conference in 1915; at the six regional conferences held instead, the mass of the party rejected both social chauvinist and revolutionary positions, narrowly adopting an ‘india rubber’ resolution which in fact justified the British war effort.[13] Again the leadership survived by allowing the ‘expression of opinion’, but there was a running battle over the party’s press which continued to present the views of the chauvinists, and in 1916 the arch-jingoist Hyndman and his supporters set up a ‘Socialist National Defence Committee’ which effectively operated as an arm of the government in the party; the organisational struggle turned violent and anti-war militants found themselves being set up for state repression by their own leadership.

A split was clearly inevitable, but the opposition - which included both the left and the centre of the party - still hesitated to take the initiative despite gaining a majority on the executive. Within the opposition, there appeared a more clearly defined centrist current, which resolutely avoided any call for action against the war and restricted itself to calls for peace. The Vanguard group around John Maclean called on the party to choose its camp: either the revolutionary left, or Hyndman and the old International. However, with Maclean’s imprisonment and the closure of the Vanguardin 1916 political leadership of the opposition passed by default to the centrist current, which urged peace and called on the Second International to ‘act’. At the 1916 conference, the Hyndmanites were finally isolated and walked out, but even now they were not excluded, and the debates at the conference clearly revealed the centrist confusions of the majority. Essentially the new BSP leadership deeply feared a British military defeat and did all it could to avoid any action that might jeopardise an allied victory.

Zimmerwald: a first step in the regroupment of the internationalists

After the initial shock of the war and the betrayal of social democracy, the question for revolutionaries was whether the old International could be rebuilt or if a new one was now necessary. In practice, with the old International’s leaders now fully backing their respective imperialisms, its central organ, the ‘International Socialist Bureau’ (ISB), was completely impotent. It was eventually on the initiative of the Italian Socialist Party that a first, unofficial international socialist conference was held at Zimmerwald in September 1915. This brought together some of the most important currents of the revolutionary left, including the Bolsheviks, along with representatives of the pacifist centre. The left’s own draft resolutions and anti-war manifesto, which called for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, were rejected by the majority which restricted itself to a call for peace, but the conference acted as an important moment in the regroupment of revolutionaries against the war, enabling the left to establish itself as an organised fraction which later, following a second conference at Kienthal in April 1916, became the nucleus of the Third International.

The BSP executive platonically greeted Zimmerwald but remained opposed to any move to form a new international organisation in opposition to the ISB, while the centre of the party was hesitant in its support, repeating its demand that the ISB ‘act’.[14] In contrast, John Maclean enthusiastically welcomed the Zimmerwald manifesto as a call for “the class war for social democracy” and denounced the ISB’s efforts to keep the sides apart. His émigré collaborator Peter Petroff, with closer links to the movement abroad, was better placed to analyse the political character of the conference, giving it his support while pointing out that its manifesto stopped short of calling for revolutionary action against the war.[15]

The Socialist Labour Party had also been kept informed of the anti-war movement abroad through émigré contacts and supported Zimmerwald as laying the foundations for a new International, denouncing the pro-war socialists with whom all common action was now impossible: “We are at the parting of the ways. Every day the cleavage between the socialists remaining true to the International and the pro-war socialists is becoming more and more marked...”[16]

Sylvia Pankhurst also gave support to Zimmerwald in her paper the Women’s Dreadnought, which was in the process of evolving towards a revolutionary position on the war; its transition to class politics would be marked by the newspaper changing its name to the Workers’ Dreadnought in 1917.

So from their initial isolation, by late 1915 at least some of the scattered revolutionary forces in Britain had taken their first steps towards regroupment at an international level based on a clear political break with the social chauvinists, but also by differentiating themselves - more or less explicitly - from the pacifist centre.

The need for a clear internationalist perspective for the workers’ struggles

The collapse of the Second International and the definitive betrayal of its opportunist right wing, while disarming the working class and temporarily putting a brake on its struggles, did not constitute a decisive blow, and the genuine euphoria with which thousands of workers greeted the war quickly began to evaporate as the bourgeoisie demanded ever greater sacrifices in the name of the war effort.

As early as February 1915, workers’ struggles re-emerged, when engineering workers on the Clyde struck for higher wages against the advice of their union executive and formed their own unofficial strike committee. Rent strikes also began. In July, 200,000 South Wales miners struck in defiance of the Munitions Act and forced concessions from the government, while in November 1915 transport workers in Dublin paralysed the docks. Unofficial shop stewards’ committees grew up all over country. The introduction of conscription in 1916 provoked further strikes by Clydeside engineering workers, which were only cut short by the wholesale arrest and imprisonment of the strike leaders (including John Maclean). The centre of resistance now moved to England with a strike by engineering workers in Sheffield in November 1916, and in the following March further repressive government measures led to renewed unrest which spread throughout England, eventually involving over 200,000 workers; the largest strike movement of the war.

In the midst of the slaughter, these struggles - which were echoed abroad - began to open up revolutionary opportunities, and despite their initial isolation, those few revolutionaries who had remained faithful to the cause of the proletariat in 1914 now found opportunities to win a hearing in the workers’ struggles. The group around John Maclean was particularly active in the unofficial strike movements on Clydeside; against the prevalent disdain of British socialists for the class’s immediate struggles, Maclean saw every determined struggle of the workers as a preparation for socialism, and the Vanguard group put its efforts into connecting all the different struggles on immediate issues - wages, rent rises, the ‘dilution’ of skilled labour - into a class-wide offensive to end the war, calling on the Clyde workers to adopt the tactic of the political strike along the lines of the pre-war European mass strikes:

“We rest assured that our comrades in the various works will incessantly urge this aspect on their shopmates, and so prepare the ground for the next great counter-move of our class in the raging class warfare - raging more than even during the Great Unrest period of three or four years ago...the only way to fight the class war is by accepting every challenge of the master class and throwing down more challenges ourselves. Every determined fight binds the workers together more and more, and so prepares for the final conflict. Every battle lifts the curtain more and more, and clears the heads of our class to their robbed and enslaved conditions, and so prepares them for the acceptance of our full gospel of socialism, and the full development of the class struggle to the end of establishing socialism.”[17]

The Vanguard group also intervened in Clyde Workers’ Committee - the body set up by the militant shop stewards to co-ordinate their struggle against the Munitions Act - to urge it to organise mass action against the threat of conscription, but was expelled from its meetings after attacking the leadership’s refusal to deal with the issue of the war, which led Maclean to question its ability to respond to the needs of the class struggle, calling on the workers if necessary to ‘take the initiative into their own hands’.[18] Only the revolutionary left around Maclean consistently intervened in the workers’ struggles to call for a class struggle against the war. 

The Socialist Labour Party also had a strong presence on Clydeside, where some of its militants played a leading role in the Clyde Workers’ Committee, but it failed to raise the question of the war or to attempt to give the struggles a revolutionary perspective, pandering instead to the syndicalist ideas of the majority and restricting its intervention to a call for nationalisation and workers’ self-management of the munitions industry. From its initial focus on the fight for women’s suffrage, the small group in the East End of London around Sylvia Pankhurst also moved closer to the workers’ struggles to defend their conditions, actively denouncing the imperialist war at mass demonstrations and leading protests to the government against repression and the hunger and misery imposed on the working class.

In this way, despite all their confusions, through active intervention in the growing struggles against the war revolutionaries gained a small but significant hearing for internationalist positions within the working class, and constituted part of an international movement against the war. The outbreak of revolution in Russia in February 1917 - only three years after capitalism had plunged the world into the massacre - spectacularly confirmed the revolutionary perspective of this movement, and when in November 1918 the bourgeoisie was forced to hurriedly declare an armistice in order to be able to deal with the proletarian threat, the SLP rightly observed that: “For the first time in history a great world war had been ended by the action of the workers.” The imperialist war was turned into a civil war.[19]


War and revolution are vital tests for revolutionaries. By supporting national defence in the imperialist war, the right wing of the workers’ movement - including in Britain the Labour Party and the trade union leadership - passed over to the camp of the bourgeoisie. The centre and the left proved by their continued defence of the basic internationalist interests of the working class that they remained within the proletarian camp, but only the left defended the need for a real struggle against the war.

By breaking with the social chauvinists and identifying with the Zimmerwald movement the left had taken the first necessary steps towards the regroupment of revolutionaries at an international level. However, a political struggle against the centre and the influence of centrism within the ranks of the workers’ movement was still an essential condition for the creation of a new party and a new International.

An equally important condition for this was the presence of revolutionaries within the working class, to intervene in the workers’ struggles and give them a revolutionary direction. It was the workers’ own efforts to defend themselves against the attacks on their conditions that laid the ground for a revolutionary struggle against the war and strengthened the left in its struggle against both chauvinism and social pacifism.

 MH (contributed by a sympathiser of the ICC)




[1] Commonweal, 19 February 1887.

[2] Theodore Rothstein, Social Democrat, 15 December 1901, p.360.

[3] Socialist, October 1913

[4] Socialist, October 1916.

[5] William Paul, The State: Its Origin and Function, SLP Press, 1917.

[6]  See, for example, Socialist, May 1917.

[7] John Maclean, The war after the war, Scottish Labour College pamphlet, 1917, reprinted in Nan Milton (Ed.), Op. Cit., p.135.

[8] Letter from ‘JM’, Justice, 17 August 1914

[9] Justice, 17 September 1914

[10] Vanguard, October 1915.

[11] See ‘Resolution at a meeting of the Executive Committee on 14 December 1912’,BSP Report of the Second Annual Conference, 1913, p.37.

[12]  BSP Report of the Second Annual Conference, 1913, pp.16-18. 

[13] See Justice, 4 March 1915.

[14] The Call, 24 February 1916.  

[15] Vanguard, October 1915.

[16] Socialist, February 1916. 

[17] Vanguard, December 1915.

[18] Ibid.  

[19] See Socialist, November 1918.




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