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The End of the First World War: There is Nothing to Celebrate

November 11th 2018 is the centenary marking the end of the First World War. The British State plans to hold country-wide celebrations but how can such carnage be celebrated given the extent of the death and destruction throughout five years of conflict. There were 40 million deaths and it cost the capitalist class $32 billion or about 52% of gross national product at the time.

By signing The Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, Germany were made to accept the blame for the First World War and would have to pay reparations for the damage caused, estimated to total about $35 billion in current money. It was only in 2010 that Germany paid off its war debt, with a final payment of 95 million. The Treaty of Versailles, in part, sowed the seeds for the even more destructive Second World War, some 21 year later.

As the monarchy, the Prime Minister, Government Ministers, the loyal Opposition, the media and Church dignitaries celebrate the slaughter little will be said about the way in which socialists were treated during the war when they refused to be conscripted. The First World War not only led to the death of millions of workers in the battlefields across the globe but it also severely disrupted socialist activity. In 11 years socialists and the working class were dealt three blows; the formation of the Labour Party in 1906, the First World War in 1914 and the Bolshevik coup d’état in 1917. Politically by far the worst blow was the Bolshevik coup-d’état, but the loss of working class life in fighting for the economic interests of another class was barbaric and pitiful. There is nothing to celebrate.

Writing in the SOCIALIST STANDARD (September 1954), Gilbert MacClatchie recollected:

The 1914-18 war had a disastrous effect upon the Party. On many Sunday mornings before the war broke out the Executive Committee had been meeting to read through and amend a pamphlet that had been drafted for publication. This had to be abandoned and the pamphlet was not considered again until a few years after the war ended. Another project that had to be abandoned was the appointment of a paid Secretary-Organiser. Money had been subscribed for this purpose, the member selected, the Executive Committee were discussing the date when he should start and the work he should start upon when the war put an end to the idea.

And MacClatchie went on to write:

The war dealt its worst blow to the membership. The Military Service Act, which came into operation in March, 1916, applied immediately to a large body of active young members and, eventually, to nearly all the men in the Party. The Appeal Tribunals that were set up were quite useless, as far as members were concerned, and were treated by them largely as a means to put the Party's case where possible; generally, however, the objections of members only got a few minutes hearing. In order to escape the clutches of the authorities many members "disappeared" and some we never saw again; others went to prison.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain had already taken a sound and principled stand at the outbreak of the First World War based on the interests of the working class. Workers own no natural resources or means of production and distribution. Workers, as Marx remarked in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, have no country to fight and die for. War, caused by capitalism, is of no concern for workers whose only political objective is the establishment of socialism: the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

War was declared by Britain against Germany and its allies on August 4th, 1914. On August 25th, 1914 the Executive Committee published the following MANIFESTO:

Whereas The capitalists of Europe have quarrelled over the question of the control of trade routes and the world’s markets, and are endeavouring to exploit the political ignorance and blind passions of the working class of their respective countries in order to induce the said workers to take up arms in what is solely their master’s quarrel.

Whereas further, the pseudo-Socialists and labour “leaders” of this country, in common with their fellows on the Continent, have again betrayed the working class position, either through their ignorance of it, their cowardice or worse, and are assisting the master class in utilising this thieves’ quarrel to confuse the minds of the workers and turn their attention from the Class Struggle

THE SOCIALIST PARTY of Great Britain seizes the opportunity to re-affirming the Socialist position, which is as follows:

That Society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, whose labour alone wealth is produced. That in Society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a CLASS WAR, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

That the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exist only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers.

These armed forces, therefore, will only be set in motion to further the interests of the class who control them – the master class – and as the workers’ interests are not bound up in the struggle for markets wherein their masters may dispose of the wealth they have stolen from them (the workers), but in the struggle to end the system under which they are robbed, they are not concerned with the present European struggle, which is already known as the "BUSINESS" war, for it is their masters’ interests which are involved and not their own.

THE SOCIALIST PARTY of Great Britain, pledges itself to keep the issue clear by expounding the CLASS STRUGGLE, and whilst placing on record its abhorrence of the latest manifestation of the callous, sordid, and mercenary nature of the international capitalist class, and declaring no interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working class blood, enters its emphatic protest against the brutal and bloody butchery of our brothers of this and other lands who are being used as food for cannon abroad while suffering and starvation are the lot of their fellows at home. Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.

THE WORLD FOR THE WORKERS


And for the duration of the war, under difficult circumstances, the SPGB kept going as best it could while prosecuting the class struggle and denouncing the war as being caused by capitalism to which the working class had no interest in supporting.

The position of the SPGB in its opposition to the First World War should be contrasted with the resolutions of the Second International in condemning colonialism (1907 Stuttgart Congress) and calling for workers to oppose war (1910 Copenhagen Congress) but whose leading members then went on to support the war. In Britain, similar events took place when the anti-working class Labour Party called for “an industrial truce” for the duration of the war and supported an all-party recruitment campaign. Labour Party officials also joined Lloyd George’s war government. The Labour Party has supported subsequent wars, including the Second World War, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq. The Labour Party was never “the party of peace

”. Despite the principled stand taken by the Socialist Party of Great Britain at the beginning of the First World War, the SPGB Britain faced innumerable obstacles; not only hostility from pro-war workers at outdoor meetings but also from the capitalist state itself. In the SOCIALIST STANDARD of January 1915 it was announced that indoor and outdoor meetings had to be stopped due to “Martial Law”, although the SOCIALIST STANDARD continued to be published right up to the end of the war. Conscription was introduced on 2nd March 1916 forcing many members to go on the run from the authorities and in October of that year the War Office informed the SPGB that the SOCIALIST STANDARD was prohibited from being sent outside the United Kingdom on the grounds that some of its content "might be used by the enemy powers for their propaganda."

And in 1917 the Head Office was raided by Special Branch after they had intercepted an article by one of the SPG’s members, Adolph Kohn, but there was nothing incriminating to interest the police; all SPGB records had been dispersed for prudence while the Party’s minute book was held for safe-keeping by Hilda Kohn who was the General Secretary of the Party at the time.

According to Robert Barltrop, it took the Socialist Party of Great Britain a long time to re- build the SPGB from its position in August 1914 where “much of the building of the ten years after 1904 had been shattered...” (THE MONUMENT: THE STORY OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, 1975, pp 58-59). The Party also looked back with contempt at those who had taken the anti-socialist position of supporting the war; men like Georgi Plekhanov, Jack London and Kier Hardie of the ILP. Social Democracy and the Second International betrayed both socialism and let down the working class. The actions of those who supported war credits or persuaded workers to fight for their respective governments would never be forgotten or forgiven.

The end of the war, quite rightly, was not celebrated in the SOCIALIST STANDARD.

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