Workers against the slaughter

Issue: 144

Tony Phillips

A W Zurbrugg (ed) Not Our War: Writings against the First World War (Merlin, 2014), £12.95

Not our War is the perfect antidote to renewed attempts by the spokespersons of the ruling class such as Michael Gove and Jeremy Paxman to rehabilitate the First World War as a war for democracy. The book is an anthology of voices, ranging from those of revolutionary Marxists, anarchists and syndicalists to pacifists and feminists raised against the slaughter both before and during the war.

Predictably, the official coverage of the war’s anniversary minimises and distorts where it does not actually write out of history the opposition to the war. A BBC documentary shown earlier this year claimed that the 1916 Easter Rising and the October Revolution were both organised by German military intelligence! The left, while initially isolated and demoralised by the shock of the capitulation of the leaders of socialist parties and trade unions in most belligerent nations in August 1914, grew into a mighty revolutionary tide that eventually ended the war.

The outbreak of the war did not come out of the blue as conventional accounts suggest. This book makes it very clear that there was widespread concern on the left about the rise of militarism and increasing international tensions in the years before 1914. The book includes an extract from the famous resolution of the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International of socialist parties in 1907 that states that it is the duty of socialists to “use the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of the capitalist class”(p45).

However, the resolution also hints at confusion over the roots of the impending conflict, referring to the need for international arbitration and disarmament to avert the war. The French socialist leader Jean Jaurès is quoted arguing that democratisation of the army would prevent aggressive war while arguing that a defensive war is justified.

One of the strengths of the book is that it includes the views of colonial peoples. Many leaders of the Second International had, at best, a patronising and, at worst, a racist view of the inhabitants of the colonies. India and Egypt were pillaged to support the war effort. The people of Cairo were brutalised by occupying Australian troops, which fuelled the independence movement after the war. Colonial troops and, in the case of the US Army, black American soldiers were subject to brutal racism by their officers.

The most inspiring section of the book brings together the voices of those who continued to oppose the war once it started. The leaders of the Second International were not the only leaders of the left to support their own ruling class. The syndicalist leaders of the French CGT union and the “father of anarchism” Peter Kropotkin all swung behind the war effort. The book contains a passionate demolition by US anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman of Kropotkin’s argument that the most important thing was to defeat German militarism.

The collection covers the first strikes and protests against the effects of the war including the Munitions of War Act which militarised industry in Britain and led to the founding of the rank and file Clyde Workers’ Committee. This chapter brings out the growing clarity of the initially beleaguered revolutionaries who kept their heads and their principles. The resolution of the left wing of the anti-war conference held in Zimmerwald in 1915 makes it clear that the war was an imperialist conflict for the redivision of the colonial spoils and that the only way to end it was to struggle for socialism.

The resolution of the follow up conference at Kienthal the following year notes prophetically, “There will be further intensification of the struggle against war and imperialism as a consequence of the ruination and suffering brought on by the calamities of this imperialist age” (p 193). Lenin argues that the key task is to turn the imperialist war into a revolutionary war. There are powerful quotations from the writings and speeches of Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, John Maclean, James Connolly and Dušan Popovic from the Serbian SPD, the only socialist party to vote against the war in its national assembly from the start.

The revolutionary struggles in Russia and Germany that ended the war are reflected in statements from the sailors of Kronstadt and Kiel. You won’t find their names on any monument, but these were among the true heroes of the First World War. The proclamation of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet to the Russian army announcing the overthrow of the Kerensky government by the workers is quoted: “The Petrograd Soviet interprets the programme of the new government as: immediate proposals of a general democratic peace, immediate transfer of the great landed estates to the peasants and the honest convocation of the constituent assembly.”

While the book includes some fiery anti-militarist rhetoric, particularly from French syndicalists, militarism is portrayed as something distinct from contemporary capitalism rather than being inherent in the system in the epoch of imperialism. It is a pity that there are no extracts from Rudolf Hilferding’s Finance Capital, Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital or even the Liberal John Hobson’s Imperialism, all published in this period, which contain material that points towards the link between the rise of militarism and the growing international conflicts over sources of raw materials, markets and investment opportunities.

I noticed a couple of mistakes. Karl Liebknecht is quoted as opposing a general strike against war when in fact it was his father, Wilhelm. Maclean’s close comrade was called Harry not Henry McShane. However, these are minor quibbles in a book that is a great resource for arguments against those who want to justify the war on its 100th anniversary.