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Ian Birchall

From world war to class war

(January 1987)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 94, January 1987, p. 30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

War, Peace and Revolution: International Socialism at the Crossroads 1914 1918
David Kirby
Gower (no price given)

1914 REMAINS an enigma for socialists. The failure of the European labour movement to prevent the war, the apparent complicity of the working class in its own butchery, are still powerful arguments for those who claim that internationalism is a doomed Utopia, that the force of nationalism will always be stronger than the power of solidarity.

David Kirby’s book does not solve the problem, but it is a serious and scholarly contribution to the argument. It traces the strengths and weaknesses of European socialism during the four years of carnage. What is clear is that the capitulation was not inevitable. In the days before hostilities broke out there were mass demonstrations of workers against the war throughout Europe. Workers did not volunteer to fight out of inborn patriotic enthusiasm, but were the victims of a massive ideological offensive and direct intimidation by employers.

Above all, the war could not have been fought without the active assistance of the right wing socialists who mobilised their members behind the national flag. Kirby quotes German Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg as saying in 1917:

“The trade unions complain that they no longer control their people, who are incited by the radicals who say that the Imperial social democrats have done nothing for them. It is absolutely essential that the right wing of the social democrats are strengthened once more. For what is to be done if the government can no longer count on the help of the trade unions in combating the strike movement?”

Kirby traces in meticulous detail the various attempts to hold international conferences during the war. But he quotes Trotsky as saying in December 1917 that the Bolsheviks were not really interested in conferences. For them the key issue was mass struggle by workers in the various nations at war.

1917 saw a massive wave of strikes and mutinies. In Germany workers struck against food shortages, in France against falling wages. Mutinies swept through the French and Italian armies and there were hunger riots even in neutral Sweden.

Kirby attributes this activity to “deteriorating material conditions.” Certainly workers were initially driven to action by economic conditions, but the movement had the potential to be mobilised against the whole social structure that had produced the war. The real tragedy, which Kirby in his preoccupation with conferences neglects, was the failure of the left to take a lead in these struggles. In Britain many of the best militants were conscientious objectors or deserters; in France even the supporters of Zimmerwald took a conscious decision not to try to organise among serving soldiers. So when revolt erupted there was no leadership to guide it towards revolutionary action.

Yet the real problem lay even further back. Alfred Rosmer began his great history of the labour movement in World War by noting that “when war begins, the working class has already been defeated.” The various peace campaigns and manoeuvres that Kirby chronicles were all too late. What really mattered was the failure of the left to organise to stop war before August 1914. Even the strident anti-militarism of the French revolutionary syndicalists had failed to grip the rank and file. As Pierre Monatte noted in 1913, the mass of workers were “tired and fed up with the futility of insurrectionism.”

After four years of war millions of workers were ready to rally to the banner of the Russian Revolution – but millions more did not live to see that day. In the past revolution has come after war – we shall not have that possibility. The nuclear holocaust permits no mutinies, no food riots. All the more reason to study the lessons of what went wrong before 1914.

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