Monday 4 August 2014

Why the Great War Was Not Stopped

A century on and the establishment are still soft-soaping it. So no Dave, no. Britain didn't declare war against Germany for the sake of poor little Belgium, the rights of small nations or for the defence of neutrality. Those then groaning under the weight of our empire might have had a thing or two to say about these matters after all. These were the good reasons. The real reasons, which did not make war an inevitability, was acting to prevent French and Belgian channel ports from becoming German naval bases, and putting the Wilhelmine upstart back into its box. Cold, hard interests carried the day in the lead up to the declaration. Humanitarian concern was so much flim-flammery.

The question is why was this senseless and utterly unnecessary slaughter allowed to happen? Recall the extraordinary Basel Congress of the Second International in 1912. It passed a manifesto declaring the following:
If a war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved supported by the coordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective, which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.

In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.
Fine words. Stirring words. This was not the rhetoric of some cranky sect gathered in Switzerland's version of Conway Hall either. The Second International was a mass movement. Its sections ranged from important working class parties to organisations numbering millions of members, affiliates and supporters. The German Social Democrats were the jewel in the crown, and its formal commitment to Marxism provided the International its shared intellectual reference point. Yet with the outbreak of war, Lenin reportedly fell off his chair and condemned his copy of Vorwärts (the SPD's paper) a forgery for reporting that the party's deputies had unanimously voted for war credits in the Reichstag. How did the mighty movement committed to turning imperialist war into class war fall apart? Why did sections of the Second International, with a few exceptions - most notably the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks), rally to their national colours?

The contemporary revolutionary opposition lay responsibility for international socialism's betrayal at the feet of its leaders, and the argument has changed little in the intervening century. Rather than doing the right, revolutionary thing, the official Marxists of Germany, Austria and France, and the Labourists of Britain took the opportunist road, of treading the path of least resistance. Yet this was not a failure of nerve. Long before 1914 Rosa Luxemburg was regularly polemicising against the revisionism and opportunism of the SPD line. Her argument was that for a clique within international Social Democracy, their position as party and union bureaucrats invested them in the small gain here, the compromise there. They had become mediators of the relation between capital and labour. When push came to shove they jumped into the nationalist camp of war to maintain their privileged position, and were happy to deliver the factory and battlefield fodder to imperial interests. Lenin had made a not too dissimilar analysis of trade unionism and the class struggle in his maligned and misunderstood What is to be Done?. When he returned to his senses he took Luxemburg's basic position and argued the collapse of the International was thanks to a 'labour aristocracy' encompassing party and union bureaucracies, but taking in all kinds of layers of relatively privileged workers. While also dependent on selling their labour power for a wage, their higher living standards were brought by the "super profits" extracted from the colonies. As beneficiaries from colonialism, they had an immediate interest in maintaining empires and therefore acted as bourgeois contaminants in the workers' movement. As they had extended their sway through those movements, so social democratic and labour parties succumbed to reformism and, latterly, chauvinism and war fever.

This tale, with little modification, still passes for an explanation in Trotskyist and Stalinist circles. It is, however, obviously false. Not only was no evidence forthcoming proving the transfer of "super profits", but it also neglected to mention that Germany's "empire" was economically negligible, and Austro-Hungary had no colonies at all. Their wealth stemmed not from imperial plunder but international markets in economic competition with the other great powers. The second problem is an implied elitism, of assuming that where the leaders go the masses shall meekly follow. Had your Eberts, your Scheidemanns, your Hendersons, et al rallied workers to the class war banner then the July crisis would have grown over into a crisis of capitalism.

While the argument is a non-starter, it does avoid having to ask awkward questions about the political capacity of Europe's working class at that time. In Britain, the first six months of 1914, there were over 40 million strike days - only the strikes of 1921 and 1926 saw greater numbers taking industrial action. That July, St Petersburg was paralysed by 135,000 workers taking strike action and calling for the monarchy's abolition. Workers were conscious of their interests and were quite prepared to stand up for them in the workplace and against the authorities. How to explain the about face, of militancy evaporating and millions flocking to sign up? To answer the question is to put a huge question mark over the viability of revolutionary socialist politics. While Luxemburg and Lenin were right that the upper echelons of the labour movement had become integrated into their respective national capitalisms, so had the majority of workers themselves. Far from plain sailing, nevertheless Britain was a representative democracy of sorts and had improved the lot of working people through piecemeal grind here, strike action there. Ditto for imperial Germany and republican France. The parties and organisations of workers had wrested significant concessions from bosses and governments. Allied to rising living standards, pragmatism appeared to work. This was the early phase of the attempted institutionalisation of class conflict, and it seemed to be working. The majority of workers had a stake in the bourgeois state, in their nation. Conversely, despite double-digit growth, Tsarism in Russia and its struggle to maintain the autocracy actively stymied the rise of its growing working class. By denying it a stake in their system, Russian proletarians were more combative, more open to revolutionary ideas, more likely to resist the call to war - and even then they were not totally immune.

As organised labour movements found their feet and successfully prosecuted their interests it's small wonder the increasing sense of advance, of security, of solidarity contributed to nationalism's mass appeal. Hence when declarations of war were met with outbreaks of class peace, it was the case the leaders were following the workers, not the other way round. The Socialist International was not able to prevent the war because the working class enthusiastically went along with it. It wasn't just the lamps that went out across Europe one hundred years ago. The hope European capitalism could be brought down by revolutionary socialism was snuffed out too.

Image: Crowds celebrate in Trafalgar Square after Britain declares war on Germany.


Robert said...

Why do wars happen? Greed. And fear. And both these emotions are concerned with power and money. That's all. And they work away, until some accident - or contrivance, although people are seldom clever enough to contrive exactly - set them off into war. Then the justifications - liberty, patriotism, compassion, indignation, religion, even - come into play. But they aren't reasons. Money and power, they're what count.

Of course liberty, patriotism etc. matter - nothing matters more. But money and power are what count.

Boffy said...


A good summary. It should also be noted that even the Bolshevik Deputies in the Duma voted alongside the Mensheviks for a defencist position, and that position was adopted by Stalin, Zinoviev, and Kamenev, prior to Lenin's return for exile.

The Trotskyist account of leadership betrayal does not fly. The reality is that the leaders of the Socialist Parties were basically led into a defencist position by the masses. They could and should have held to a principled position, but they would have then been marginalised for the duration, and the likelihood is that the huge SPD, with all of its widespread social provision would have been dismantled.

In actual fact, the position adopted by the German SPD was not that different from the position advocated by Engels earlier. Engels wrote that the socialist gains in Germany had to be defended, and said that if Germany was attacked "We should hit them with everything we have."

I'm not sure I agree about Russia. The February Revolution was driven largely by despair, but as Trotsky points out, for the first two years of the revolution, it was a Peasant War. In large part it was driven by the same forces that sought to bring about a bourgeois revolution that had swept Europe in the previous century.

The reason workers were swept along by war fever is essentially two-fold. Firstly, nationalism as an ideology has deeper roots than many on the left have been prepared to admit. Secondly, the main basis on which workers have been organised, i.e. for tarde union struggle, is, as Lenin points out itself divisive.

Trade Union struggles, as he points out are not "class" struggles, but sectional struggles, and as such breed a sectional rather than class consciousness. Its why workers can so easily be diverted into solution that demand close their factor not ours, "British Jobs for British Workers", Import Controls, Immigration Controls, and a "British Road to Socialism".

You are quite right about the Colonial profits too. The argument put by Lenin, and accepted since then, that WWI was a war to divide up the world between imperialist powers, is basically false. The same is true of WWII. Trotsky is closer to the mark when he spoke about if the kaiser had unified Europe, not demanding it be broken up.

WWI, was about creating a single European state. Britain got involved to prevent it, just as they had opposed Napoleon's attempts to bring it about earlier. Britain's euroseptics are still fulfilling the same reactionary, obstructive role today.

Speedy said...

Well put. Indeed if you go further back to pre capitalist UK - there was not the same identification of ordinary folk with the military, etc, which was regarded with suspicion and occasionally contempt.

The developed capitalist state of 1914 rode in to war on a wave of Victorian propaganda. In a sense it also provided the great mass of males the chance to escape their dreary lives and "live the dream" of that propaganda, and their wives to be shot of them - there were many reports of female drunkenness once their men had gone off to war.

I'm not convinced policy makers experienced the same enthusiasm, but i agree the prospect of a German-dominated Europe was motive enough to intervene.

Chris Brooke said...

Well worth reading Marc Mulholland's new essay, if you haven't already.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you re right when you say the British government acted "to prevent French and Belgian channel ports from becoming German naval bases". I'm not sure why tou regard that as senseless from the point of the British government, or even of the average British worker.

Anonymous said...

"but i agree the prospect of a German-dominated Europe was motive enough to intervene."

Perish the thought!

"The Trotskyist account of leadership betrayal does not fly."

Trotsky spent his life spreading lies about the Bolshevik regime, though I sympathise very much more with Trotsky's position you can understand why Stalin couldn't omit the word scum from every sentence he wrote about the Tortskyists!

Speedy said...

Agreeing it was motive should not imply agreeing with the motive anon. See Phil's most recent post.

Gary Elsby said...

Maybe the Great War was not stopped simply because no-one wanted it stopping.
The German's wanted an Empire to match Great Britain and in turn, Great Britain was having no rival on it's doorstep.
The key decision to go to war was certainly the German capture of Channel Ports (The German Ocean).
We were having none of that.
I am of the belief that the death of an Arch Duke was a smoking gun with very little concern for us over here.
The German navy was modelled on the British one and matching it day by day.
The Japanese Navy, of which we built on our design went on to challenge the US for Pacific supremacy of which they were having none either and thus starving Japan of oil and raw materials, hence their decision to invade China.

Anonymous said...

"Agreeing it was motive should not imply agreeing with the motive anon."

But you have just implied that this is what I was implying, when it wasn't!

Please see Wittgenstein!

Gary Elsby said...

Yes, 'perish the thought', but a German dominated Europe based solely on German ideals is not the same as a German led(?) EU based on collective agreements and majorities.
Any future fiscal ideals coming out of a EU will be only agreed upon and to build on agreed monetary principles (of which an Independent Scotland cannot challenge(!).
Pre war Germany was a modelled on the military resulting in a military Dictatorship. It was the withdrawn (not beaten) German army which formed the right wing Frieekorps which sought out and murdered Rosenberb to order.
They were later swallowed up into Rhoem's SA, which was then swallowed up into Hitler's regular army or SS.