Across the roar of guns

In Issue 60 (June 2015) Maeve Connaughton reviewed a selection of voices raised against the first world war.

Not Our War: Writings against the First World War. Edited by A W Zurbrugg (Merlin Press)

This is a timely anthology as the imperialist slaughter of a century ago continues to bask in a wave of posthumous glorification, all the better to soften us up for its modern-day equivalents. The voices to be heard here range from fleeting comments, almost captions flashing across a screen, to lengthy extracts—and we could maybe have done without Lenin’s seven-page harangue of anti-war socialists who just weren’t his particular kind of anti-war socialists. But many of them will be new to us, some new to all of us, and the whole sheds valuable light on the breadth of opposition to the slaughter.

Rosa Luxemburg’s characterisation of it all can hardly be bettered:

Violated, dishonoured, wading in blood, dripping filth—there stands bourgeois society. This is it. Not all spick and span and moral, with pretence to culture, philosophy, ethics, order, peace, and the rule of law—but the ravening beast, the witches’ Sabbath of anarchy, a plague to culture and humanity. Thus it reveals itself in its true, its naked form. In the midst of this witches’ Sabbath a catastrophe of world-historical proportions has happened: International Social-democracy has capitulated.

It is impossible to separate the outbreak of the war from the collapse of the socialist movement, because they didn’t just accompany each other but caused each other. Only something as big as the war could have brought the European left of that time to its knees, and without such a surrender the war could hardly have gone ahead, at least on as overwhelming a scale.

Genuine socialists were literally horrified at the prospect, and James Connolly’s reaction conjures up the cruel reality of decades of hope dying a painful death in a mayhem of hypocrisy:

When the socialist pressed into the army of the Austrian Kaiser sticks a long, cruel bayonet-knife into the stomach of the socialist conscript in the army of the Russian Tsar, and gives it a twist so that when pulled out it will pull the entrails out along with it, will the terrible act lose any of its fiendish cruelty by the fact of their common theoretical adherence to an anti-war propaganda in times of peace?

Russian socialist Alexander Shlyapnikov writes of being “stupefied” by it all. Italian socialist Angelica Balabanoff recalls socialist leaders who “looked at me as if they thought I were crazy”.

And yet, as is noted here, 750,000 demonstrated in Germany against the war only a week before it broke out. Such a rapid decline and fall of such strong principles has few precedents. English socialist Fred Bower captures part of the reason as no more or less than going with the flow: “It is not too hard to be a parrot, and repeat what your masters and pastors tell you”.

Zurbrugg points to structural factors behind it: “Organisation had a momentum of its own; it became a way of life.” The socialist parties of Europe with their allied organisations constituted a vast bureaucracy concerned to preserve and protect itself, with the means swallowing the end whole. For many of their officials, “it has been a matter of salary, of the commonest sort of economic determinism”, as German socialist Franz Mehring commented (although his opinions appear as those of his interviewer here). It was more than their job was worth to go against the stream and imperil the party machine they depended on.

Another strong pull factor lay in the exponential growth of the state during wartime. Much of the contemporary left had seen state expansion as a positive phenomenon, something which came as near to socialism as made no difference. The understanding that “Social­ism is not based upon national ownership, but upon the strength, the might of the proletariat”, as Dutch socialist Anton Pannekoek puts it here, had been all but lost. The prospect of playing even a supporting role to a state stretching its tentacles into more and more sectors of economic and social life was one which appealed to the social-democratic mindset.

The betrayal of the leaders comes as less of a surprise than the way thousands of rank-and-file socialists meekly followed their example. But these were, as Pannekoek observes, “accustomed to do only what the party ordered”. With good reason, we remember the left wing of the Second International and their stand for socialism, but their presence and arguments shouldn’t blind us to the fact that such parties were in large part built on a deadeningly passive membership. Initiative from below rarely went much further than choosing which leader from above should be cheered loudest. A left resting on members who don’t think and act for themselves is helpless when the leaders it blindly trusts go off the rails—a lesson as necessary to learn today as it was then.

Pannekoek concludes that these organisations were victims of their times. Growing up in a period when reforms could be conceded by an expanding capitalist system, they had settled into a routine of operating within the confines of that system. Such parties were in no fit state to suddenly shift to a situation where they would work in all-out active opposition to it: “the party’s structure, as it was formed in an earlier period, was not up to the job of taking on new respon­sibilities. It had to be submerged.” In a sense, social democracy going under in the war can be seen as a cruel necessity, a bloody clearing of the decks.

For those socialists who remained true to the cause, working up opposition to the war was hard work. Many reported that their arguments fell flat in the early years, when the hold of jingoism on the popular mind was still strong. Even when workers started to question the war, it was often from a sectional viewpoint, as in an engineers’ song which insisted that their union card should exempt skilled workers from fighting: “Take all the bloody labourers, / But for God’s sake don’t take me!”

“For the first time in my life I was ashamed of my class”, wrote Wilf McCartney (described here as a “British Anarchist”, although he was born in Ireland). American socialist Frank Bohn believed that ten thousand German socialists could have stopped the war if they were prepared to face jail or the firing squad, but then again, that could have been the state’s easiest method of getting rid of them. Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta seems more realistic in outlining the left’s duty “if they are materially powerless to act efficaciously for their own cause, at least to refuse any voluntary help to the cause of the enemy, and stand aside to save at least their principles—which means to save the future”. Merely preserving your political integrity intact was an achievement when so many were lining up to kiss the beast.

A remarkable example of this is the reaction of Serbian socialists in 1914. The threats and ultimate invasion unleashed upon Serbia by Austria-Hungary were a clear enough case of an imperialist power oppressing a weak neighbour, and they could have been forgiven for going along with their own state—as many others did in response to German war crimes in Belgium. “However, for us, the decisive fact was that the war between Austria and Serbia was only a small part of a totality, merely the prologue to universal European war,” wrote Dušan Popovic, “and this latter, we were profoundly convinced, could not fail to have a clearly pronounced imperialist character.” To see beyond their own particular situation and take in the overall context of the war, and act accordingly, took a lot of real inter­nationalist spirit.

The immediate response of Britain’s Independent Labour Party to the war also stands out:

We are told that International Socialism is dead, that all our hopes and ideals are wrecked by the fire and pestilence of European war. It is not true. Out of the darkness and the depth we hail our working-class comrades of every land. Across the roar of guns, we send sympathy and greetings to the German Socialists.

Eventually the reality of the war began to seep through. In between the two revolutions of 1917, a tired and muddy Russian soldier brings the demands of his comrades “from the place where men are digging their graves and calling them trenches!” Similar sentiments begin to appear in all the warring armies sooner or later.

While the British army was no exception, it was one of the slowest to move. Widespread unrest did take hold there, but at the end of the war, and as a protest against delays in letting soldiers go home. A nice story here tells of a Welsh miner’s son who, having taken part in the firing squad that executed Connolly, goes to apologise to his widow, who tells him Connolly would forgive him as “only a working-class boy”. It’s only a shame that this is an obvious myth. The idea of a soldier, a fortnight after the Easter rising, finding out where the family of a notorious rebel leader were staying, and then strolling through the streets of Dublin, then occupied by his army, to pay his respects there is far easier to reconcile with romantic wishful thinking than with the facts as we know them.

Interesting examples of anti-war poetry and song are on display here. The dark humour of an American industrial unionist refusing to enlist—

I love my flag, I do, I do, which floats upon the breeze.
I also love my arms and legs, and neck and nose and knees.

—contrasts with a powerful and disturbing anonymous poem from England, portraying a devastated and devastating panorama:

Paint two vast heaps of mildewed human skulls
In pyramidal shape, with top depressed…
In distant background let fat vultures tear
Dead flesh from bones that seem from earth to spring,
And let your masterpiece this title bear
In letters deadly black — God save the King!

The editor insists on a simple but all-important truth: “Ultimately the war ended when soldiers refused to go on fighting.” It was not military victory or diplomatic negotiation which brought the fighting to a conclusion, but mutinies and rebellions and revolutions which denied the warmongers the cannon fodder without which they are powerless. The story of the opposition which was thus vindicated is an inspiring one, and we would do well to draw upon it as we face up to the wars which curse our own century.