The war in Ukraine has raised a sometimes heated discussion on one of socialism’s most potent slogans: No War But The Class War. The general political idea (deserters and mutineers having always existed), is that the working class should not fight and die for the schemes of the rich and the frothing delusions of nationalism. It appears in World War I, II, in the Falklands, in Iraq. It is shouted at rallies and printed on placards. It’s graffiti’d, leafletted and posted online.
NWBTCW, as it’s enticingly acronymed, had perhaps its finest moment in the early 20th century. Employed as a rebuttal to the ludicrousness of imperial conflict early iterations of the idea, albeit somewhat crude, can be found through Freedom essays on the Boer War. These castigated British workers for leaping onto the bandwagon of patriotism, for failing to down tools to protect fellow average Joes and Janes against naked ruling class aggression as British troops reached in and scorched the ground, established concentration camps and annexed gold-rich lands.
So unpopular was this opinion at the time that anarchists were attacked in the streets by self-styled patriotic citizens, but it was correct in identifying the British elite as a rapacious oppressor, and workers as fools for not focusing on their true enemy at home.
It is raised again at the outset of the First World War, albeit with an unfortunate dissenting voice in Peter Kropotkin’s insistence that his beloved France must be protected from the Germans. The vast majority of anarchists however recognised two things. First, that once again, the ruling classes were starting a war that working people would die in. And second, that after decades of propaganda, amid dramatic social change, the working classes were capable of saying no.
Campaigns against the war were raised in every nation. Cynically, the ruling classes sent rabble rousers to the front to die – but in both Russia and Germany this was to no avail.
In the former, mass revolt led to the overthrow of the monsters of the Winter Palace. In the latter, the January strike and mutinies in 1918 led to the collapse of the German Army, and the end of the conflict as Wilhelm II’s ambitions dissolved into nothingness.
In Britain such campaigns came to a less spectacular end, but the Freedom Group again threw itself into a struggle against capitalists’ wars. It argued loudly against British workers being sent to France and the spirit of jingoism that had overwritten the promise of the Great Unrest – an escalating series of working class refusals which despite the war’s intervention, never truly disappeared and would find their zenith in the 1926 general strike. Anarchists were prominent alongside the Quakers in taking a pacifist tack, refusing conscription despite the consequences.
The Second World War era was an altogether muddier affair. Following on from the destruction of much of Western Europe’s organised anarchist and socialist movements by facism in the 1920s, the anarchists were initially faced by Spain’s civil war, in which foreign interventions were pushing General Franco to victory.
Many anarchists went to fight for that uncomfortable political compromise represented by the Republic in what was seen as an existential conflict, and prominent figures such as Camillo Berneri actively called for interventions by the populations of other Great Powers to aid the Republic’s struggle. An example of such writing by Berneri, reproduced here, has parallels to articles on Ukraine today.
During World War II itself however the British anarchists were far less sanguine about such an approach, and again reverted to the one which had served so well in decades past. This is broadly summarised by a Manifesto printed in the December 1943 issue of War Commentary, where the Anarchist Federation writes of the movement that in:
“… adhering unswervingly to the path of working class struggle, it has supported none of the belligerent imperialisms. German and Italian fascism have had their apologists; British and French imperialism have had their apologists; Russian totalitarianism has its apologists. All these are manifestations of class rule. Their policies are the policies of their ruling class, fighting as always for the maintenance of their privilege and power over the workers. The anarchists have refused to take the side of any of them.”
The problem, of course, was that as we know now, and was at least partially known then, the attitudes at play were not equal. The racist instrumentalism which led Winston Churchill to create the Bengal famine for the sake of war was brutal, but it was not an ideologically-driven Holocaust. As the Anarchist Federation’s words were loaded onto the press, Jews were being exterminated with horrific focus and determination. The eventual heroes of World War II were thus not those who called for class war in a situation where little class power existed, but those who acted to liberate Paris from the Nazis, the Spanish anarchist fighters known as La Nueve.
In our modern conflicts, as Berneri often noted in his writings on everything from electoral abstentionism to our engagement with those of religious inclinations, there is a debate to be had on principle, and the practical struggle to save life. It is not an easy conversation, but somewhere, between the twin poles of rebuilding lost class power and survival, a path must be found.
- The State or Revolution: Selected Writings of Camillo Berneri will be published later this year by Freedom Press.
Madrid: the sublime
From Guerra di Classe, 2 December 1936
Pilate is just as infamous as Judas. Who is Pilate today? He is not even the assembly of Geneva foxes, he is not even the ostriches of social-democrat Ministerialism. Pilate is you, the European proletariat!
Can you, oh tender proletarian mother tuck your little child into its bed without seeing mangled children lying abandoned on the roads like carrion. Can you play lovingly with your child, oh proletarian, without thinking of the children lying in pain in hospitals, suffering the tortures of their wounded flesh and the anguishes of fear.
And yet you read left-wing papers and you know that there exists a great city running with blood, torn apart and reduced to ashes by explosions of shells; they tell that the children have been surprised by death when they were shouting to the heavens the songs of their unconcern, that their mothers roam about searching for the fruit of their wombs and carry their blood-stained bodies in search of unlikely or belated help. The stench of death rises from dispatches and correspondence from Madrid. The sky over Madrid is red with fires which should set the world aflame. And yet, everything collapses, everything burns, a whole population is dying – without the masses being affected.
In the agony of Madrid there is all the horror of a rape in the marketplace on market day.
Death can continue to strike, sudden as hail in summer and unavoidable as lightning. The Horsemen of the Apocalypse had for themselves, with the safety of high altitudes, the moral void of the era. Let them shake it, let them rend it apart, let them burn it slowly, this martyred city; millions of proletarians don’t care at all about it. Is Madrid resisting? Many wonder how long it can hold out. It is a European bullfight. It is a disgrace of peoples and not merely of governments and classes. It is the blockade of anti-fascist indifference that adds itself to the criminal fascist siege. Meetings will not stop the aircraft from flying through the sky over Madrid and scattering death and ruin. The cold sweat that weighs on the brows of mothers, the eyes of children enlarged by fear, the bodies pounded and shaken by the convulsions, are no more than a future vision of what you will suffer, you who are entrenched in non-intervention! Today, the war is in the sky over Madrid, tomorrow it will be in the sky over Barcelona, the day after tomorrow in the sky over Paris. The European war has started again. It exists, even if it has not been declared. These are the aircraft and pilots of Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany which are massacring and ruining Madrid.
The horror of it no longer touches people’s consciences? Well then, the bombs will waken them. And that will be historic justice.
Madrid, the joyous Vienna of the Iberian Peninsular is reviving the deeds of Saguntum. It has passed from the waltz to the “Eroica” [Symphony]. Epic witness of the acts of heroism of the masses and the militias, beside which those of the Commune of Paris pale in comparison; it disappoints the bestial hopes of the generals, thwarts their meticulous calculations, refutes their boasting. It is resisting and will resist. If the compassion of the masses is deaf, if Europe is incapable of anger, well then, the whole world will be branded by the energy of this city. Madrid will not be taken. It can be completely destroyed, but it will not be taken alive. Death, exodus and flames will make it a Pompeii.
If it is not the wings of victory, it will be those of Nemesis that are unfolded above it. The reputation of the fascist generals is assured, but it will be the reputation of Genghis Khan. It will be another Commune. but it will not be a final glimmer; it will be the blazing up of a fire that will bring all the “spectators” out of their lairs, at least as long as it does not burn them there in their Blumist beds.
Madrid, where here thousands of men are fighting with an ardour nourished and sustained by that of thousands of women and children, is in the process of nailing its torturers to the pillory and the blind and deaf masses are lighting for everyone a light that still allows you to hope in man.
Madrid, the martyr city, already merits the title of sublime.
~ Camillo Berneri
This article first appeared in the Summer-Autumn edition of Freedom journal, available at our online shop for the cost of postage.
Pic: The Boer War of 1899-1902 saw Dutch colonists in South Africa fighting against a brutal assault which aimed to increase the British Empire’s holdings. The Boers, whose acts of self-defence Freedom described as a “heroic struggle” were no saints, and Freedom’s analysis of the situation was in many ways poor (racism abounds). There are striking similarities to today in aspects of the debate however, with Freedom arguing that ultimately it was the working class of the aggressor nation that would have to unilaterally put down their arms to end the killing.