One hundred years on from the start of the First World War, Mark Kosman reflects on the nature of war and the class struggle throughout the last century and asks the question: can governments keep up this destructive, murderous fraud?
The Great Unrest and the Great War
In all the commemorations for the start of World War One it is unlikely that there will be many references to the huge strike wave that preceded the war. But this strike wave, known as the Great Unrest, created considerable insecurity among Britain’s elites. This was especially the case as these strikes coincided with other disturbing social movements such as the nationalist upsurge in Ireland and the increasingly violent campaign for women’s suffrage. By the summer of 1914, workers were mobilising for what the left reformist commentators, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, called ‘an almost revolutionary outburst of gigantic industrial disputes.’ The future Prime Minister, Lloyd George, warned that if these industrial disputes coincided with the looming civil war in Ireland then Britain would face ‘the gravest [situation] with which any government has had to deal for centuries.’ Another reformist author, H.G.Wells, claimed that Britain’s wage-earners had ‘definitely decided not to remain wage-earners for very much longer’ and he warned of ‘a series of increasingly destructive outbreaks … culminating in revolution.’ Wells may have overstated what he called the ‘drift towards revolution’. But even Basil Thomson, the head of Britain’s political police, the Special Branch, seems to have shared Wells’ fears when he predicted that ‘unless there was a European war to divert the current [of unrest] we were heading for something very like revolution.’
Whatever the situation in Britain’s Empire, the ‘drift towards revolution’ was certainly real in the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Europe’s politicians and media could divert some popular discontent into nationalism, imperialism and masculinist militarism. But this only encouraged a situation in which, when confronted with inter-imperialist war in 1914, politicians on all sides felt unable to back down, fearing what Lloyd George called ‘national dishonour’ and ‘shame’.
A War for Honour
Britain faced no serious threat of invasion in 1914. Nevertheless, having seen the male youth of France and Germany rush to war, Lloyd George was very concerned that the British male should also act like a ‘real man’ so that Britain would not end up as ‘the only land whose children are not prepared to sacrifice themselves for [their nation’s] honour.’ In a similar vein, the Prime Minister, Asquith, argued that ‘no self-respecting man could possibly have repudiated’ Britain’s obligation to defend Belgium. Meanwhile, in Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm was even more anxious not to be seen as unmanly, insisting that ‘this time I shall not chicken out,’ while his Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, said that for Germany to have backed down in 1914 would have meant ‘self-emasculation’. For these politicians, this defence of male honour, combined with the defence of their countries’ Great Power status, was crucial for maintaining respect and authority at home as well as abroad. No British politicians were as explicit as the Prussian conservative leader who said that ‘a war would strengthen patriarchal order’ or the German military leader who said that a war was ‘desirable in order to escape from difficulties at home and abroad.’ But, when war in Europe seemed inevitable both Asquith and Churchill immediately saw it as a relief from domestic conflict – a way to ‘escape from Irish troubles’.
Unfortunately, working class men also saw war as a way to both assert male honour and to give them a sense of purpose and community without having to make a revolution. Consequently, politicians like Lloyd George soon began enthusing wildly about the ‘new patriotism’ that was so effectively motivating millions to fight and die for their governments rather than fighting to overthrow them. Of course, this counter-revolutionary strategy could only work as long as governments had a hope of winning the war. Failure to provide this hope, or to provide people with sufficient food, could easily create the conditions for revolution, and, as the war dragged on, many working class women started protests and food riots right across Europe. Such protests were particularly effective in Petrograd where female workers spread the idea of a general strike on International Women’s Day, 1917. On that day, 8 March, hundreds of women dragged their fellow male workers on to the streets and in a few days the Russian Tsar had abdicated and his regime had collapsed.
Fighting to Prevent Revolution
Fearing the spread of what he called a ‘new enemy, more dangerous than the Entente: international revolution’, the Austrian Emperor immediately proposed ending the war. The German Kaiser, however, was determined to keep fighting, fearing that if his government made peace without victory then that would only exacerbate any revolutionary tendencies. Lloyd George was equally concerned about his government making a peace without victory and he even claimed that, if conditions got any worse in Europe, then ‘revolution in France, England, as well as Germany, was about certain.’ When mutinies broke out in the French army, the British government then felt compelled to launch the disastrous Passchaendale offensive in the hope that more refusals to fight could be ‘averted by a great [military] success.’ So it seems that even if the need to hold back revolution was not a major reason for starting the war, it was an important reason for maintaining the slaughter. Indeed, General Haig was quite explicit about the counter-revolutionary purpose of the Passchaendale offensive when he wrote that if the Allies could win the war in 1917, ‘the chief people to suffer would be the socialists.’
By 1918, the Kaiser’s government was still determined to hold back revolution in Germany so General Ludendorff launched his own counter-revolutionary offensive. Fortunately, this offensive failed and refusals to fight became so widespread in the German army that Ludendorff called for an immediate armistice to contain any threat that retreating soldiers might ‘carry the revolution into Germany’. Lloyd George then agreed to uphold this armistice, seeing it as far preferable to any risk ‘that Germany may collapse and Bolshevism gain control.’
From World War Two to the Cold War
Unfortunately, this cynical use of both war and peace to counter any threats of revolution was very effective and the workers’ revolutions in Germany and Russia were soon contained and repressed. However, a decade later, the unemployment and austerity of the Great Depression put European revolution firmly back on the agenda. This situation then compelled the German capitalist class to revive the militarism and national unity of 1914 by letting the Nazis take power. Britain and the US still feared competition from a revived German imperialism. But they were hesitant to push their own reluctant populations into a repeat of the 1914-18 land war with all its mutinies and revolutions. Consequently, they held back from invading France and, instead, prioritised the bombing and blockading of German civilians for much of World War Two.
By 1945, the two world wars had successfully decimated and redisciplined much of the world’s working class. The US and the Soviet Union then maintained this discipline by keeping the world in a constant state of Cold War. However, by the 1960s, once they realised that the Cold War was unlikely to lead to a nuclear war, workers became increasingly free of wartime discipline. American soldiers in Vietnam refused to fight and some even killed their own officers. US failure in the war, combined with widespread strikes, as well as with black and feminist rebellions, then encouraged a growing anti-capitalist consciousness. Western governments now had little choice but to roll back state provision and introduce mass unemployment in order to make workers think twice about going on strike. By relaunching the Cold War in the 1980s, these governments were also able to rediscipline workers while, at the same time, maintaining investment in industry through massive military spending.
This whole counter-revolutionary strategy was, again, very successful. But it could not last. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, capitalist investors then neglected industry in favour of finance. This led inexorably to the crisis of 2008 which, in turn, led to today’s economic policy of seemingly endless austerity. Such a policy has, so far, been very effective at demoralising and demobilising people. But, without a global confrontation on the scale of the Cold War, it has little chance of long-term success. Throughout the 20th Century, no government, whether fascist, Stalinist or Thatcherite, could successfully impose austerity on people without also distracting and uniting them through a constant state of war emergency. The Cold War was ideal for this. But all attempts to revive the Cold War in the 21st century as the War on Terror have resulted in failure.
From the War on Terror to a New Great Unrest
Despite the brutality of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, international opposition did deter the US military from bombing people on the scale of the Korean and Vietnam wars. At the same time, however, the US population’s reluctance to sacrifice its soldiers compelled the US military to use a level of violence to protect its personnel that only increased opposition to the American presence. Unable to bomb people into submission or to win their support, US defeat was inevitable.This defeat later helped to encourage the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East. Unfortunately, counter-revolutionary repression and civil war have, so far, crushed these uprisings. But the US and other Western governments still need to use troops on the ground to stabilise these counter-revolutions and people’s reluctance to sacrifice any more soldiers makes that an extremely risky proposition. Unable to unite their populations around wars in Iraq, Iran or Syria – let alone the Ukraine – Western politicians are, instead, keen to commemorate the national unity and futile sacrifice of past wars in a desperate attempt to pretend that we really are ‘all in this together’.
With no concession to any historical truth, Barack Obama has praised the ‘profound sacrifice’ that Allied soldiers made in 1914-18 ‘to fight and die for the freedom we enjoy’. Meanwhile, David Cameron was so fixated on the idea of the sacrifice that British soldiers ‘made for us’ that he used the word ‘sacrifice’ eight times in one commemoration speech. Fortunately, if Britain, with its strong military traditions, cannot tolerate the sacrifice of 179 soldiers in Iraq, then no Western societies are likely to tolerate the sacrifice of vastly greater numbers in any new global war. Nevertheless, the Western ruling class are still hoping that people will agree to sacrifice their living standards in order to compete with workers in Asia and so, somehow, rejuvenate Western capitalism. Such a sacrifice, such a ‘race to the bottom’, would be less bloody than the inter-imperialist competition of 1914-18, but no less pointless. As in the early years of the Great War, people will go along with government propaganda for a while but – eventually – they will realise that they are sacrificing their lives for nothing. Then it may only be a matter of time before we see social unrest comparable to that of the Great Unrest. And, this time, our rulers will have serious problems containing any such unrest because there is no easy way to divert people’s energies into war as there was in the Cold War – or in the Great War.
The British Government’s desperate attempt to revive what Cameron called the ‘national spirit’ by commemorating the monstrous slaughter of 1914-18 is a good opportunity to expose the real history of capitalism and its counter-revolutionary wars. Despite all the setbacks of the present period, young people’s disrespect for authority, and their desire for both individuality and gender equality, make any return to the militarism of 1914 highly unlikely.
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