Sunday 11 November 2018

Why the Great War Was Not Stopped

One hundred years since the guns fell silent on the Western front. The horrors and death that were visited upon the trenches were, at that point, unprecedented in human history. "Never again!" the establishment said, while Britain backed the whites in the vicious Russian civil war and bloodily repressed revolt in its misbegotten colonies. And just a couple of decades later the Great War was surpassed by an even more ferocious and destructive conflict. To mark 100 years since the Armistice, I'm reposting this from the occasion of the centenary of the Great War's outbreak.

A century on and the establishment are still soft-soaping it. 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. The peoples then groaning under the weight of our empire might have had a thing or two to say about those 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 favour 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) as 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, the Labourists of Britain, and working class parties in the smaller combatants took the opportunist road, of treading the path of least resistance. Yet this was not a failure of nerve, a failing that can be reduced to a crisis of leadership. Long before 1914 Rosa Luxemburg was regularly polemicising against the revisionism and opportunism of the SPD's politics. Her argument was that the position of elites in the international as party and union bureaucrats invested them in the politics of the small gain here, the compromise there. They had become mediators of the relation between capital and labour and, therefore, because they owed their prominence to such a position they possessed an interest in its maintenance. When push came to shove they jumped into the nationalist camp of war to maintain their niche, 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?. Lenin's view was substantially the same as Luxemburg's basic position and via his analysis of imperialism argued that 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" into the wage packets of privileged workers, it also neglected to mention that Germany's "empire" was economically negligible, Austro-Hungary had no colonies at all, and the "labour aristocracy" in countries like Serbia, Italy, Bulgaria, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey were thin to non-existant. Where combatants were leading imperial powers their wealth stemmed not from plunder but developed 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, which is an obviously false prospectus.

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 in 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. 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, classically understood. 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 economic 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.


Unknown said...

It is a wonder as to why so many millions of workers would make that ultimate sacrifice. At that time though, for those seeking the ideal of the socialist community, which would unite the peoples under a common cause, the collectivist spirit of nationalism calling for the people to unite and stand together may have appealed to their mindset.
For many, the belief that their state operated for the people by serving its needs left the individual to emotionally identify with the interests of the state and believing the state's interests to be their own. This belief in the "greater good" was powerful enough for people to set aside their political differences and unite behind the call to arms against the enemy of the state, and therefore, the enemy of the individual. After all, L'Etat, c'est nous

Boffy said...

The underlying cause of the European War of 1914-18, has not gone away, any more than that underlying cause, which manifested itself during the 19th century, in the Napoleonic Wars, Crimean War, Franco-Prussian War had gone away by 1914. Indeed, it had only become more acute by 1914. and more acute still, when it erupted once more in 1939.

That underlying cause,as was manifested in a more primitive form in the creation of nation states, in Britain in the 18th century, France, Germany and Italy etc. in the 19th century, perhaps most classically demonstrated by Prussia's role in creating the German state, is the need for capital to operate within the context of a level playing field in a sufficiently large, unified market. In the 20th century, European nation states found themselves trying to compete again a US state that had already fought a Civil War in the mid 19th century to achieve that situation, and today they, also face the huge Chinese state.

Leninists wrongly believed that the driving force was to carve up the world for colonies, but that driver applied to feudalism/Mercantilism, not imperialism. Trotsky, for example, had argued that Britain would forget about Europe if Hitler agreed to leave India and the Empire alone. The opposite was true. Hitler did make that offer, and Britain turned it down, because they recognised that if Germany created a huge single European state, it would quickly crush British economic power, and be able to swallow up Britain's colonies anyway. There were many colonial powers, like the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain that had long established Empires, on a significant scale that simply continued to decline in their economic power, because the age of colonialism, and profit from unequal exchange was long past. The basis of economic strength under imperialism is industrial capital on a large scale, exploiting mor and more productive labour, and making it ever more productive by the use of more effective fixed capital. That is why a large unified economy is required.

That is why those European powers created the EU after WWII, to achieve that goal. Its what Britain is cutting itself off from with Brexit, and why the rest of the EU will not let that distract them from their bigger goal, and why Britain itself will quickly decline outside the EU, and be swamped by it.