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SPGB Socialist Opposition To War - Not Forgotten: The Socialists Who Refused to Fight

The 11th November 2008 was the 90th anniversary of the end of the First World War and the media has been full of stories of “lost youth” who gave their lives “for King and Country”. The programmes and articles were predictable; not one analysed the conflict from a Socialist point of view.

There was one documentary on the First World War which looked promising. This was Ian Hislop’s documentary about conscientious objectors, NOT FORGOTTEN - THE MEN WHO WOULDN'T FIGHT.

The idea of “consciousness objection” was enshrined in the 1916 Military Services Act, and more than 16,000 men argued a case in front of tribunals to be exempt from fighting either on the grounds of religion or morality.

The programme dealt with the “alternatives” who would not fight but help in the war effort and the “absolutists” who would have nothing to do with the war at all.

Those who were forgotten in the programme were socialists - socialists from the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The SPGB had opposed the war on grounds of class as soon as the war broke out in 1914 and a Manifesto was published on the front page of the 1914 September SOCIALIST STANDARD under the heading “The War and The Socialist Position”.

The SPGB was absolutist in its opposition to the war; not on religious or moral grounds but because the war was not fought in the interests of the working class. Workers owned only their ability to work. Workers had more in common with workers elsewhere in the world than they did with the capitalist class who owned the means of production. It was a capitalist war fought over trade routes, spheres of influence and raw materials.

The outbreak of war in 1914 highlighted the weakness of the Social Democratic parties who sacrificed the class struggle for Socialism to discussions to whether the war was offensive or defensive. All over the world alleged Socialists sided with their respective governments. Only The Socialist Party of Great Britain remained opposed to the war on the ground that the workers had nothing to gain or lose in victory or defeat.

Immediately the war broke out its (the SPGB’s) Executive Committee passed a resolution declaring that anyone who supported the war was unfit for membership of a Socialist Party...” (THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, Centenary Edition of the SPGB published 1948 and republished by the reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain in 2007)

Most of the SPGB membership who were conscripted applied to the tribunals set up to consider applicants for exemption, but mostly without success:

The tribunals were composed usually of local notabilities and councillors, with a labour specialist and a military representative. In towns where the SPGB had been active the notabilities often were people who had smarted for years under the members’ taunts, and the tribunal hearings were simply displays of defiance against the inevitable judgement. Their application dismissed, the members would shout “long live Socialism!” and, if there were enough of them in court, sing a chorus of The Red Flag before the constables removed them…” THE MONUMENT: THE STORY OF THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN, R. Baltrop, page 56

Socialists were imprisoned for taking a Socialist line against the War. One member, Hardy (son of a founder member and an active Socialist through many decades) retained the lifelong habit he had formed in jail, of pacing to and fro to a set number of steps determined by the size of his prison cell. Post-war, such men found it hard to get jobs, and were denied the vote.

These Socialists are not forgotten. They and their other comrades took a courageous and principled stand against world capitalism with its wars, poverty and class exploitation.

As we wrote at the time:

Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our good will and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism
August 25th 1914, The Executive Committee

You have nothing to lose but your chains, you have a world to win! – Marx.

(September SOCIALIST STANDARD 1914 and republished in the pamphlet WAR AND CAPITALISM by the reconstituted Socialist party of Great Britain February 2005 3rd ed.).

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