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Ian Birchall

The Vice-like Hold of Nationalism?

A comment on Megan Trudell’s Prelude to revolution

(March 1998)

From International Socialism 2:78, March 1998.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Megan Trudell has written an excellent account of working class opposition to the First World War. [1] Quite rightly, she focuses on the events in the latter part of the war which produced the revolutionary upsurge throughout Europe in the wake of the Russian Revolution. Yet in doing so she perhaps makes too many concessions to the conventional account of the early years of the war, referring to ‘patriotic frenzy’ and the ‘seeming vice-like hold of nationalism’, and observing that the ‘outbreak of the war broke the back of the revolts’ in the period immediately preceding August 1914.

In fact the picture was considerably more complex. Of course it would be naïve to deny that jingoism of the worst sort affected considerable sections of the working class – just as it would be absurd to deny that sections of the working class today are racist. But just as it would be dangerously false to write off the entire working class as racist, so too it would be quite wrong to suggest that jingoism penetrated the entire class.

In September 1914 The Economist, then as now the voice of the more thoughtful layer of the ruling class, reflected on the situation. While in support of the war, The Economist was not concerned to prove its patriotic credentials, but rather to analyse the real difficulties posed by the prosecution of the war:

Few attempts have been made to enlighten us as to the attitudes of the working classes; but it has been freely stated that in the north of England there is still a good deal of apathy. The Yorkshire newspapers, for example, are full of letters complaining bitterly that cricket and football are being continued, and that you may see ‘hundreds of young fellows parading with their girls, whose ages range from 18 to 35, apparently unconcerned about those who are sacrificing everything to go to the front and fight for the honour and safety of our nation’. [2]

The article continued by quoting a letter published earlier that week in the Yorkshire Post:

A few days ago, in passing through one of our larger villages, I stopped to see a dozen or so young men who had joined the colours being drilled in a field. Six times as many were lying up against the fence passively looking on. I enquired of one of them, a well set-up, athletic young fellow, why he was a spectator, and not a participant. He looked at me squarely, and said: ‘Because it isn’t worth while; we could be no use for six months, and by that time there will be no enemy. Germany will be off the map.’

I spoke to another, who said: ‘It’s no business of ours, this foreign war. Austria and Servia [Serbia] should be let fight it out. Germany didn’t want to come in until compelled by Russia, and we should have kept out of it; anyhow, we’re all right; our fleet will keep us safe.’ On the same day I saw 2,000 miners watching a great bowling match on a common. Three out of five were between the ages of 20 and 35. With difficulty I diverted the attention of a few of them from the match to the war. They spoke of it in quite a detached manner. One said we should lick the Germans, but whoever won could not do without the workers, and they would have their job anyhow. Another remarked that Kitchener had got all the men he wanted, and our fleet would starve the Germans like rats in a hole. A third said he was against the war, but now it had started let them fight it out, it made no difference to him, and so on ... [3]

Such apathy was not confined to Yorkshire. In a seaside town a patriotic young woman set out to challenge all the able-bodied men she could find on the streets as to why they were not in the armed forces; she was profoundly distressed by the inadequate responses she received. She reported in a letter:

On leaving the tram-car, I asked the able-bodied young conductor if he intended to serve his country. His reply was, ‘I have three brothers in the army; that’s enough for me.’ A little later, seeing a remarkably fine young man pushing a small laundry-cart, I asked him the same question. He replied insolently, ‘I don’t want to be shot!’

... I encountered a number of young men of all social grades. As I accosted them severally some replied indifferently, ‘The Germans won’t come here, no fear!’ Others, again, replied, ‘What about the Japanese? They will help us.’ And others answered, ‘There are the Russians!’

... The answer of several of the young working men was, ‘The gents should enlist first’. [4]

Those of us who are sometimes distressed by the fact that football seems to mobilise so much more energy than politics may be consoled by the thought that it cuts both ways, as is shown by this observation from the diary of a Times journalist visiting Chelsea football ground for the game against Arsenal in December 1914:

In these days the posters carried by a line of sandwich-men, walking up and down before the gates of the Chelsea football ground, ask the crowd such questions as: ‘Are you forgetting that there’s a war on?’, ‘Your Country Needs You’, ‘Be Ready to Defend your Home and Women from the German Huns’. So far as I could notice, little attention was given to these skeletons at the feast. [5]

Such varied expressions of a sullen and blinkered apathy are a long way removed from proletarian internationalism, but they do show quite clearly that ‘patriotic frenzy’ had not penetrated the working class as deeply as is often believed. If any section of the left had offered a clear internationalist lead, then it would have stood a good chance of winning some of this section of the population to its demands. Indeed, the weakness and confusion of most of the left was a major reason why the ruling class were able, temporarily, to win the battle of ideas. Harry McShane, writing of the situation in Glasgow, notes that the left had not made enough effort to explain the nature of war; recruits did not know what they were letting themselves in for and were lulled by the claims that the war would offer an easy victory and would last only a few weeks. [6]

In addition, despite widespread enthusiasm for the war, anti-war activists were able to agitate in public, as shown by Ken Weller in his excellent book Don’t be a Soldier. The North London Herald League held its first anti-war meeting on 5 August 1914, the day after the declaration of war, at Salisbury Corner, Harringay, and continued to hold regular meetings. [7] Although the NLHL had only around 50 members at the outbreak of war, it was able to grow quite rapidly within the first six months of hostilities. One of its leading participants, R.M. Fox, described the activity:

This anti-war activity in the early days of the war was not without its dangers, for an atmosphere of terrorisation was created. But though we got violent opposition, we had enthusiastic support too. Our membership mounted; from under 50 we reached a total of five or six hundred. From all over London, from the East End, from south and west, came supporters who rallied to the anti-war standard which was raised openly in Finsbury Park. [8]

Megan is quite right to point out that nationalism did not arise spontaneously, but had to be created by indoctrination on the part of the ruling class. But although nationalism had been developed over the preceding decades, the ruling class was still forced to take drastic measures during the first months of the war to create a mood of jingoistic fervour. As Megan notes, the ruling classes were not confident in advance that they could carry workers with them at the outbreak of war. In the period before 1914 there were a number of international crises – Fashoda, Morocco, Trieste – which brought Europe to the brink of war. In each case war was averted, and in each case strong anti-war feelings were manifested by the working class movement. It is true that there were forces built into the capitalist system that were pushing irresistibly towards war; in that sense war was inevitable, but there was no inevitability that war should break out in just the way it did at precisely the time it did. A strong enough response by the working class in August 1914 and war could have been postponed yet again. (Of course capitalist Europe could not achieve a state of perpetual peace, as some reformists in the Second International imagined. Sooner or later there was only one alternative to war and that was revolution.)

Those who argue that jingoism penetrated the great mass of workers have as their most fundamental argument the fact that a million workers did volunteer before the supply was exhausted and conscription was introduced in 1916. Yet the situation is not as clear cut as it might appear. The British ruling class got their volunteers, but they had to work for it. Public sensibility was inflamed by numerous unsubstantiated atrocity stories. In September 1914 the Dumfries Standard carried a story, soon prominently taken up by such London papers as the Globe, The Star and The Evening Standard, of a British nurse in Belgium who was said to have had both breasts cut off by Germans. In fact the nurse in question had never been in Belgium and the whole story had been invented by her 17 year old sister. [9] (There is nothing new under The Sun.) Belgium was presented as being an unfortunate victim of German imperialism, [10] largely on the basis of the fact that it looked a small country on the map. Belgium was in fact a vicious colonial power in 1914. [11]

Intense ideological struggle was conducted at every level. On 2 September a government sponsored meeting of well-known British writers was held, attended by Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Conan Doyle and many others, to produce a manifesto about Britain’s ‘destiny and duty’ in the war. [12] As a result a considerable amount of patriotic prose and verse was turned out over the next four years. Above all the role of the labour leaders was crucial. In all the main combatant countries labour leaders were incorporated into the machine of the state. Their lifelong enemies in the ruling classes would not have made such offers unless they knew that the labour leaders had an indispensable role to play in mobilising their supporters.

The massive numbers of workers who volunteered in the first two years of the war must also be examined with some suspicion. Doubtless many volunteered from sincere patriotism; others from a desire for adventure or the expectation that the war would last only a few months. But many more volunteers were the victims of intimidation which went far beyond ‘peer pressure’ and young ladies with white feathers. Thus when 7,000 London tram workers struck for 19 days in May 1915,

The reaction of the London County Council (LCC), which owned the tramways, was to sack all men of military age, telling them to volunteer for the armed forces, and it issued a statement which read:

Notice is hereby given that since the majority of men above military age have returned to work, men who are eligible for the services will not be taken back.

  1. Those who enlist will receive favourable consideration for re-employment, as far as may be possible, after the war.
  2. Any man of military age unable to enlist may appeal to the Chief Officer and state his reasons, and he will consider whether any circumstances allow any exception in his case ... [13]

In November 1915 the press reported that:

The prime minister’s declaration that all unmarried men must serve their country has had a stimulating effect in the City. Employers who hitherto took no steps to influence the younger members of the staffs have taken action, and in many of the large City offices and warehouses a census is being taken of the eligibles, who are being asked to give to their employers reasons for not enlisting. [14]

At the outbreak of war the Prince of Wales Fund was launched, ostensibly to relieve distress arising from the hostilities. In reality it became another means of exerting pressure to ‘volunteer’. The fund:

… was frequently administered by charity-mongers who ... were sometimes not above instituting, in relation to able bodied men of military age, their own local system of compulsory military service sanctioned by the threat of starvation. [15]

The picture in other countries was similar: substantial support for the war among some workers, but apathy and open resistance among others. In Russia the Bolsheviks, who had grown enormously in strength in the couple of years prior to the war, were able to take open and public action against the war despite the stepping up of repression and the pro-war hysteria which became rampant among the middle classes:

On the day that the army was mobilised the workers of about 20 factories struck in St Petersburg in protest against the war. In some places the workers met the reservists with shouts of, ‘Down with the war’, and with revolutionary songs. But the demonstrations now took place under conditions different from those of a few weeks before. The onlookers, particularly in the centre of the city, were incited by patriotic sentiment and no longer maintained a friendly neutrality, but took an active part in hunting down the demonstrators and helping the police to make arrests.

One such ‘patriotic’ outburst occurred in the Nevsky Prospect on the first day of mobilisation, while a workers’ demonstration was marching past the town Duma. The people in the street, mostly bourgeois loafers, who usually hid themselves or made off through side streets when workers’ demonstrations appeared, now became very active and, with shouts of ‘Traitors’, assisted the police to beat up the demonstrators. The police were able to arrest the workers and take them off to the police station. [16]

For many soldiers ‘patriotic frenzy’ did not survive long when confronted with the reality of the trenches. Certainly the British army authorities felt they could not rely on the innate enthusiasm of their volunteers; it was necessary to use a mixture of indoctrination and terror to make them fight. Executions for desertion were employed from the very beginning of hostilities and were given maximum publicity as a matter of policy. In September 1914 Sir Douglas Haig wrote recommending the death sentence for a soldier who had vanished for six days when suffering shock from a shell explosion:

I am of the opinion that it is necessary to make an example to prevent cowardice in the face of the enemy as far as possible. [17]

Those soldiers who had volunteered were not necessarily fired with a patriotic desire to kill. On the contrary, the army training programmes had to give systematic ideological indoctrination to recruits. British Brigadier-General Crozier wrote of training in 1915:

I, for my part, do what I can to alter completely the outlook, bearing and mentality of over 1,000 men ... blood lust is taught for purposes of war in bayonet fighting itself and by doping the minds of all with propagandic poison. The German atrocities (many of which I doubt in secret), the employment of gas in action, the violation of French women and the ‘official murder’ of Nurse Cavell all help to bring out the brute-like bestiality which is so necessary for victory. The process of ‘seeing red’, which has to be carefully cultured if the effect is to be lasting, is elaborately grafted into the makeup of even the meek and mild... The Christian churches are the finest blood lust creators which we have and of them we make free use ... The British soldier is a kindly fellow ... It is necessary to corrode his mentality ... [18]

The Christmas truce which Megan mentions represented quite a serious threat to military discipline and the continued effective conduct of the war. In some areas the truce lasted well into January and in one section of the front it actually endured until the middle of March 1915, despite the best efforts of the army command to get the slaughter going again. [19] One letter from an army officer makes it clear that the officers on both sides shared a common interest in forcing their reluctant men to fight:

A party of unarmed Saxons continued to wander about between the lines after the prescribed time was up. They were duly warned by our men but took no notice whereupon one of our officers ordered some men to fire over them. This had no effect so a German officer sang out, ‘Fire at them. I can’t get the beggars in.’ The English officer would not do this as they were unarmed but he rang up a battery to put a few shells over the German trench which they did, but the Saxons quite unperturbed sat down just outside our wire line and watched their pals getting shelled. [20]

In all the armed forces engaged in the war the patriotic frenzy seems to have worn off quite quickly. Thus in the German navy, seaman Richard Stumpf wrote in his diary in March 1915:

… a deep gulf has arisen between the officers and the men. The men are filled with undying hatred for the officers and the war. Everyone hopes for the return of peace. We don’t even want to fight any more. We have had enough. Where is that wonderful enthusiasm of the August days? [21]

As for the working class itself, was it in the last resort nationalist or internationalist? The only answer can be: neither. Its consciousness was necessarily contradictory. As H.N. Brailsford noted:

Let a group of labour leaders, English and German, address a mass meeting of British working men. It can be roused to a real sense of the solidarity between the two proletariats; it can be induced to vote a contribution from its own trade union funds to assist German miners on strike; it will leave the meeting with a real desire for peace and fraternity between the two nations ... The same crowd, prepared by the press and artfully stimulated by skilful orators, could also be induced to applaud the speeches of naval scaremongers, and to go away shouting for more dreadnoughts, and looking for German airships in the sky. [22]

Brailsford seems to see the working class in rather too passive terms, but basically he is right. Both alternatives were potentially present; political struggle would decide which came out on top. In 1914 the reformists betrayed and the internationalists were defeated. But, as Brecht once pointed out, the only lesson of defeat is that we should do better next time.

I think, therefore, that Megan has tended to overestimate the grip of nationalism in the first six or nine months of the war. This is not simply a question of historical pedantry. The implications of the argument about the early phase of the war have vital relevance. As Megan shows, it was at the end of the war that the working class was strong enough to build the mass parties of the Comintern. But if world war ever recurs we shall not have the opportunity to wait till the end. In a nuclear world, revolution must precede and not follow war.

The year 1914 was a catastrophic defeat for the left. The capitulation of the reformists had deep roots in their previous history. Even the best of the revolutionary left, the Bolsheviks, despite their political clarity and organisational roots, could not prevent their rulers from plunging into war.

Whether things could have turned out differently can only be a matter of speculation. What is certain is that the working class did not unanimously embrace war with enthusiasm, even in the opening months before the realities of trench warfare became apparent. From the first days there were counter-currents which enabled genuine internationalists to start a fightback. Nationalism is a powerful and poisonous force, but it is not invincible.


1. M. Trudell, Prelude to Revolution: Class Consciousness and the First World War, International Socialism 76, pp. 67–107.

2. The Economist, 5 September 1914.

3. Yorkshire Post, 2 September 1914.

4. A.M.B. Meakin, Enlistment or Conscription (London 1915), pp. 10–11, cited in D. Hayes, Conscription Conflict (London 1949), pp. 165–166.

5. M. MacDonagh, In London during the Great War (London 1935), p. 44.

6. H. McShane, No Mean Fighter (London 1978), pp. 61–63.

7. K. Weller, Don’t be a Soldier: the Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914–1918 (London 1985), p. 37.

8. R.M. Fox, Smoky Crusade (London 1937), cited in K. Weller, op. cit., p. 38.

9. A. Ponsonby, Falsehood in War-Time (London 1928), pp. 67–70.

10. Of course there were genuine atrocities – committed by all sides. Thus the Germans were accused, with some justice, of executing Belgian civilians. The Germans in turn claimed that the ‘civilians’ were in fact guerrilla troops.

11. The Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo) was the personal property of King Leopold II until 1908, when he made it over to Belgium. Colonial rule was marked by forced labour, torture and massacre.

12. D.G. Wright, The Great War, Government Propaganda and English “Men of Letters” 1914–16, Literature and History, no. 7 (1978), pp. 70–100.

13. K. Weller, op. cit., p. 29.

14. Enfield Gazette and Observer, 19 November 1915.

15. R. Harrison, The War Emergency Workers’ National Committee 1914–1920, in A. Briggs and J. Saville (eds.), Essays in Labour History 1886–1923 (London 1971), p. 235.

16. A.Y. Badeyev, Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma (London 1987), p. 199.

17. A. Babington, For the Sake of Example (London 1983), pp. 7, 29.

18. F.P. Crozier, A Brass Hat in No-Man’s-Land (London 1930), p. 42; cited by T.H. Wintringham, Mutiny (London 1936), pp. 308–309.

19. M. Brown and S. Seaton, Christmas Truce (London 1994), pp. 182–185.

20. Ibid., p. 168.

21. D. Horn (ed.), War, Mutiny and Revolution in the German Navy: The World War I Diary of Richard Stumpf (New Brunswick, NJ 1967), p. 75. Stumpf, a Catholic, nationalist, conservative who served as an ordinary seaman throughout the First World War, kept a diary which is a remarkable document of the ebbs and flows of class consciousness. In June 1917 he wrote: ‘As a good German and as a Catholic, I hope that we might emerge from this war with a total victory... From the opposite point of view everything is different. Then I am not a German but a proletarian, and as such, I hope for a great, but not an annihilating defeat. Why should I feel this way? Past experience tells me that the lower classes stand to benefit from a defeat while the rich stand to lose. I cannot conceive of the achievements of the Young Turk Revolution without the background of the battles of Plevna and Shipka Pass.’ There could be no better proof than the testimony of the good conservative Stumpf that Lenin’s strategy of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ could reach the consciousness of the masses.

22. Cited in H.B. Davis, Nationalism and Socialism (New York 1973), pp. 112–113.

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