Poppy Day: ‘What did our Boys Fight and Die for’?
We are hearing and reading a lot just now about a war for civilization. In some vague, ill-designed manner we are led to believe that the great empires of Europe have suddenly been seized with chivalrous desire to right the wrongs of mankind, and have sallied forth to war, giving their noblest blood and greatest measures to the task of furthering the cause of civilization.
James Connolly, A War for Civilization, 1915
‘The Great War’ saw millions of people join the trenches and be slaughtered, up until that time, in the bloodiest carnage in human history? Poppy Day in Britain is a remembrance day that World War I ended in 11 November 1918. Initially, the war was expected to be short and by Christmas of 1914 it would be over and things return to ‘business as usual’. At the beginning there was a big patriotic enthusiasm of the masses in the streets of Paris, London and Berlin. The patriotic speeches and vilification of the enemy helped make the war popular, for a while. Then the mood became unclear as some called for peace and others vacillated. The stance taken by most of the socialists and socialist groups was to be fatal in determining the course of a historical development.
What was the First World War about? Was it a war for civilisation against barbarity (the philosopher Henri Bergson) or was it a ‘war to end all wars’ and ‘to make the world safe for democracy’ (H.G. Wells)? Was WWI an opportunity for businessmen they had never seen before, as the British Daily Telegraph noted? Or, was the War an inevitable outcome of a combination of internal difficulties and ‘a general situation created by world imperialism’ as the British historian A.L. Morton put it? Last, but not least, did the outcome of WWI lead to WWII?
Germany claimed she was fighting to avoid encirclement and to secure a free hand to become a world power, France claimed she was fighting to expel an invader, Britain claimed she was fighting to rid the world of bullies, Russia claimed she was fighting for the Slavic people. Everybody claimed that the war aim was self-defence.
“War,” wrote Peter Kropotkin, “is the natural condition of Europe.” The First World War was to overshadow all previous wars in its horror and destruction. It is a mistake, however, to think that the root of the war was the assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary. “The First World War,” explains the military historian and lecturer John Keegan, “inaugurated the manufacture of mass death that the Second brought to a pitiless consummation is inexplicable except in terms of the rancour and instabilities left by the earlier conflict.” (My emphasis, N.M.)
Explosions and changes in life always have a cumulative background and a mere accident would be enough to trigger an explosion. An economic collapse or a boom, an earthquake, a cultural renaissance, an uprising or a revolution, a death of a man, a divorce… all need to pass by a process of quantitative accumulation before it transforms to something new, positive or negative.
A War to End all Wars?
In 1860 the colonial possessions of Britain covered about 2,500,000 square miles with 145,000,000 inhabitants. In 1899 the area covered 11, 600,000 square miles with 345,000,000 inhabitants. This expansion was due to the development of British capitalism from an economy based on industrial monopoly (the workshop of the world) to a colonial monopoly in which state power ruled over vast regions of the earth and through which means of production and capital were generated and exported. By 1900 the total amount of British investments abroad was about £2,000,000,000.
Britain at that time held in thrall a sixth of the human race … under penalty of imprisonment and death, wrote James Connolly, and believed that all races are subject to purchase. At home, the pre-war era Britain experienced a series of cyclical crises occurred in 1902-4, 1908-9 and in 1914 before the outbreak of the war. Before the war the level on unemployment was rarely under a million.
Another feature that characterized the British economy of the time was its parasitic form. Unlike Germany and the USA, British industry was experiencing a slow progress. This was due to the accumulation of industrial capital in the hands of a minority of bankers and shareholders, who were happy to sit back and drew dividends.
Germany at that time had neither colonies nor hinterland. Her economy was based on an extreme organisation and control of the home industry and monopoly production. The USA, on its part, had already established an internal monopoly and became a colonial power and also exporter of capital after the Spanish-American War. Once leader in developing the productive forces, British industry became old-fashioned and faced a serious competition from Germany, the USA and France, which developed new technological methods and efficiency.
In terms of colonial expansion, France was Britain’s main rival up until 1900. Now Germany was the main rival. Britain and France had secured rich and large swathes of regions for resources and markets. Germany and Italy, however, could acquire only small portions of the colonial spoils. This uneven division of the world would inevitably create tensions and conflicts between the capitalist imperialist countries.
Thus begun the age of imperialism. Lenin asserted that the worldwide system of imperialism was responsible for the war. “The large banking interests in the various capitalist-imperialist powers had pulled the strings in the various governments and led them into war,” he wrote in 1917. "Imperialism is capitalism in that stage of development in which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital has established itself; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed."(Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism)
A.L. Morton gives significant figures underlying the roots of the building up of conflict between Britain and Germany due to Britain loosing trade share to Germany in the Balkans and South America. “Even within the British Empire,” writes Morton, “Germany was gaining ground at the expense of Britain.” (A People’s History of England, 1999, p. 429)
Conflicts over colonies created alliances as well as enemies. Earlier conflicts between the big powers of the time left too much hostility and instability. Because of the unfavourable outcome of the Franco-Prussian war tensions between France and Germany remained high. The Boer war increased the move of each state to seek alliances. A new conflict developed over the control of Morocco since 1904 to end, after Britain had given France a free hand in the country, with France seizing Fez and then the port of Agadir in 1911. Germany, however, was to gain only a small slice of the Congo. Therefore, in parallel and in connection with the economic division of the world, “certain relations grow up between political alliances, between states, on the basis of the territorial division of the world, of the struggle for colonies, of the struggle for spheres of influence.” (Lenin, ibid)
Similarly, after the 1909 Revolution in Persia, Britain and Russia rushed in to partition the country and keep Germany out of the colonial and semi-colonial areas. Germany now was left with a possibility to look at the decaying Ottoman Empire and the Balkans, but she had to confront the ambitions of Russia in the region. The Balkans war of 1912 had to be added to the crises that characterized the pre-war period. After all, it was an event in Serbia that would lead to the direct conflict between the imperialist powers. Here too, the crisis in the Balkans had its roots in previous conflicts that remained unresolved. Remarkably, the murder of the pro-Austrian king Alexander in Serbia a few years earlier did not trigger a world war as the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand would, but only an economic war between Austria and Serbia in 1905. Why? So far, all the ingredients to set off a wider, full-scale war involving the imperialist powers had not amassed yet.
The race to acquire new colonies for raw materials and markets was paralleled by an arms and naval race. Britain made sure that her naval power be stronger than any other major rival, especially Germany. The launch of HMS Dreadnought, for instance, made all existing battleships look like scrap iron. While Britain’s fleet was concentrated in the Red Sea, France’s was concentrated in the Mediterranean. With the growing alliance and collaboration between the two powers, it made it impossible for Britain not to interfere in the event of a conflict between France and Germany.
France and Russia, on the other hand, were increasing their armies as well as the period of military service. This required huge increase in expenditure, which made all countries involved face the risk of bankruptcy.
Thus The First World War had its roots in a pre-war situation that characterized the world economy, and international relations and without examining those roots, one would see the war, and any war for that matter, as a mere accident rather than an combination of both necessity and accident.
“In Britain, in spite of intense war campaign in the jingo press, the great mass of working class and liberal opinion was in favour of peace,” writes Morton. “The government, however, had already made its choice.” (People’s History of England, p. 449) One would argue that any similarities between this behaviour prior 1914 and the war in Iraq and the behaviour of the Blair government, is just a mere coincidence. We tend to differ. With some differences, it is the same capitalist ruling class that wages war against the will of the masses in the pursuit for its own interests. As the American Historian Howard Zinn finely put it “Class interest has always been obscured behind an all-encompassing veil called ‘the national interest’.” (Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Great Britain, 2003, p.684) Obviously, other reasons had to be produced for the public. With the German invasion of Belgium, the British government portrayed which was in fact an imperialist war as a war for the defence of small sovereign nations. As the historian A.J.P Taylor brilliantly stated, “No matter what political reasons are given for war, the underlying reason is always economic.”
Importantly was the labour and the suffragettes movements and the uprising in Ireland and their relation to the then Liberal Government of Lloyd George. The Prime Minister summarized the situation as the Labour “insurrection” intertwining with the Irish “insurrection”; a situation that “will be the gravest with which any government has had to deal for centuries.” The crisis of British capitalism was accompanied by a revolutionary ferment characterized in particular by the strike movement of the miners in South Wales and the Cambrian Combine and then the national coal strike in 1912, of the dockers and seamen, in particular the great London dock strike, of miners, railwaymen and transport workers in 1914, and of the shop stewards among the engineers.
However, the movement was be interrupted by the outbreak of the war “before it had time to reach its height,” wrote Morton, “but there are indications at least that it was developing towards a conscious struggle for power. It is probable that only the war,” continuous Morton, “prevented a general strike which would have raised directly the question of revolution.” (Ibid, p. 439) One of the results of the struggles was the increase of unions memberships by more than 1.5 million between 1910 and 1914.
Another remarkable movement, which was met by repression, was women’s struggle for franchise. Brutal methods such as breaking demonstrations, arrests, forcible feeding of hunger strikers, torture were used against the suffragettes. This movement too was interrupted by the war.
In Ireland, events were moving towards a heroic uprising. Owing to the cowardice of the bourgeoisie, wrote Lenin, “a number of pre-bourgeois, medieval, landlord institutions and privileges have been preserved. In order to suppress the rebellion of the aristocratic officers, the Liberal Government ought to have appealed to the people, to the masses, to the proletariat, but this is exactly what the ‘enlightened’ Liberal bourgeoisie were more afraid of than anything else in the world.” (quoted by Morton, ibid, p. 443) In Dublin a revolutionary movement was developing under the leadership of James Connolly and Jim Larkin. A strike by the militant Irish Transport Workers’ Union was organised with the support of English trade unionists. The defeat of the strike would lead to the creation of the Citizen Army by the Irish Marxist Connolly.
The worst scenario for the English ruling class of the time would be the possibility of a fusion of two struggles against capital and national oppression: the movement for the liberation of Ireland and a general strike in England. The rise of the national movements in India and Egypt was also adding more trouble for the imperial government. In Germany the Social Democrats were growing fast and gaining more support.
Thus the world war was a result of the crisis of the imperialist system, but it was also a released valve for the ruling classes, especially in England, Germany and Russia, to abort revolution at home, or just delay any upheaval that could shake their power.
The War and Revolution
“Historically, this war was ordained to thrust forward the cause of the proletariat … It was ordained to drive the German proletariat to the pinnacle of the nation and thereby to organise the international and universal conflict between capital and labour for political power within the state,” wrote Rosa Luxembourg that martyr for the working class cause in The Junius Pamphlet (available on www.marxists.org), written while she was in prison and later illegally distributed in Germany in 1916.
War and revolution are often intrinsically linked. Before the First World War revolutionary situations already existed in countries like Germany, Russia, England and Ireland, and then continued during the war to culminate with two revolutions in Russia alone. However, because of the betrayal of Social Democrats the Revolution in Germany was defeated and saw its leaders – Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht – murdered by the German ruling class. This would have grave consequences on the fate of the Russian revolution in particular and the prospect of the world revolution in general.
Rosa Luxemburg considered the voting of war credits in August 1914 as “a shattering moment in the life of individual socialists and of the socialist movement in Europe.” In the midst of the catastrophe, International Social Democracy capitulated. Initially, the leaders of the Socialist International opposed the war and considered that a world war between the imperialist states had reactionary objective: the re-division of the world. With the outbreak of the war, however, those same leaders rushed to support the ruling classes in ‘their’ countries. The betrayal was a shock to the Bolsheviks. The veteran Marxist Plekhanov, the Russia Anarchist Kropotkin, Karl Kaustky, and others, all backed their rulers.
In Britain though labour leaders like Kier Hardie opposed the war they could do nothing to carry on their opposition after the war machine started rolling. On the contrary, Hardie argued for ‘national unity’ to confront the war. ‘An industrial peace’ and class collaboration policy was adopted by workers’ organisations. Yet, this policy was unable not prevent the labour movement to organise itself independently (through shop stewards committees, for example) and took industrial actions. In the United States the Socialist Party opposed the US taking part in the war and called it ‘a crime against the American people’. With the advent of the war, hundreds of American socialists were imprisoned for opposing the slaughter.
The Easter Uprising of 1916, however, was the first real serious attempt to spread revolution all over Europe and hence bring the war to an end and establish a new society. Unfortunately, the British government drowned the uprising in blood and Connolly himself was executed. It was left to the Russia and German revolutions to put an end to the imperialist barbaric war.
The course of the war itself was neither quick nor smooth, as the imperialists had thought it would be. It lasted for four years. It broke the myth of the unawareness of the soldiers. There were numerous mutinies, scores of divisions refused to return to the front, and as early as Christmas of 1914 British and German soldiers fraternised with each other.
“The outbreak of the Russian Revolution,” wrote Rosa Luxemburg about the February Revolution in Russia, “has broken the stalemate in the historical situation created by the continuation of the world war and the simultaneous failure of the proletarian class struggle.” (The Old Mole, May 1917, www.marxists.org) The German Marxist was aware that only a world working class revolution could guarantee an irreversible victory, but that has to start with a revolution in an advanced capitalist country. “There is only one serious guarantee against these concerns for the future of the Russia Revolution: the awakening of the German proletariat, the attainment of a position of power by the German ‘workers and soldiers’ in their own country, a revolutionary struggle for peace by the German people.” (The Old Mole)
The October Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky aimed at a socialist transformation of society, not only in Russia but in the world. To achieve that the leaders of the revolution appealed to the workers of the countries involved in the war to end the slaughter and carry out a revolutionary struggle against their own ruling classes. The impact of what happened in Russia was tremendous on the British labour movement. It saw the Labour Party adopting a socialist constitution. Notably, Ramsay MacDonald from the Independent Labour Party called for the establishment of Soviets in Britain!
Contrary to the British historian Erik Hobsbawm’s assessment of the events that broke out in Germany in November 1918, the German Revolution was not a minor event, but a revolutionary process that extended till 1923. Only after a week of its eruption did the German Revolution put an end to the war. Workers and soldiers’ councils were set up and assistance to the Russian revolution now became possible. Unfortunately, the right wing within the German Social Democrats did their best to halt the revolution. The Russian revolution remained isolated and besieged by the imperialist states.
But the revolutionary tide in Europe did not slow down. In 1919 a revolution in Hungary broke out. But the Hungarian Communist-Social Democrat government relied on some section of the army and did not carry out a revolutionary programme and failed to make an alliance with peasants. Consequently, the counter-revolution made a comeback and installed a military dictatorship. In Austria, like their counterparts in Germany, the Austrian Social Democrats did not challenge capitalism but they ensured its survival and even allowed the workers councils to be crushed.
In Spain labourers occupied lands in the south, riots took place in Madrid, textile workers went on strike in Barcelona, in Valencia streets were re-named ‘Lenin’, ‘Soviets’, October Revolution’, etc, a workers movement in Catalonia was defeated. In Italy 1919 a three-day general strike was organised in solidarity with the Russia Revolution, later many factories were occupied, but the Socialist Party stood aside and did not lead the workers to seize power.
The end of the First World War was not the end of wars. Rosa Luxemburg’s prophetic words, “Order prevail in Berlin! You foolish lackeys! Your ‘order’ is built on sand,” was a proof that imperialist ‘order’ meant other wars, but on a bigger scale. “Not Lloyd Gorge and Poincare, not Sonnino, Wilson and Ersberger or Scheidemann, must be allowed to make peace. Peace must be concluded under the waving banner of the Socialist World Revolution,” warned Rosa shortly before her death in A Call to the Workers of the World in November 1918.
The imperialist peace and order was indeed built on sand; with the defeat of the labour movement and revolutions the ground was left for the rise of fascism and proved that the First World War appeared to be a mere rehearsal of a more gigantic slaughter, the Second World War, not to speak of the millions who died during the wars of liberation and the US imperialist interventions all over the world. What was particular with the First World War, observed Leon Trotsky, was that it represented first of all “the collapse of the nation-sate as a self-sufficient economic arena. Nationalism,” continued Trotsky, “can continue as a cultural, ideological, psychological factor – the economic basis has been cut from under its feet.”
Remembering those who died in the First World War should not hide the fact that they died for the interest of the bourgeoisies of the countries involved. As in the case of all imperialist wars, ‘our’ boys, and daughters, were used as a cannon fodder “to fight and die for the delights, riches, and superfluities of others.” Today, whether it is in Iraq or Palestine, in the Congo or the Sudan, in Colombia or Afghanistan working class people are sent by the ruling classes to fight their fellow working class fellows and poor peasants, who are, if you unveil the nationalist face, have everything in common to fight their real common enemy, the international capitalist and imperialist class and end all wars.
“Humanity has not always risen along an ascending curve. No, there have existed prolonged periods of stagnation and relapses into barbarism. Societies raise themselves, attain a certain level and cannot maintain. Humanity cannot sustain its position, its equilibrium is unstable; a society which cannot advance falls back, and if there is no class to lead it higher, it ends up by breaking down, opening the way to barbarism.” (Leon Trotsky, from a speech given in Moscow, July 1921, reported in Pravda, 12 July 1921, quoted in Pierre Broué, Trotsky, Paris, 1988, p.349)
London, 11 November 2006