SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 182 October 2014

The resistance

Not Our War: writings against the first world war

Edited by AW Zurbrugg

Published by Merlin Press, 2014, £12.95

Reviewed by Manny Thain

This is a curious book, a collection of interesting quotes and snippets of information about resistance to the first world war, grouped into themed sections, yet with no direction or coherent conclusion. It includes excerpts from writings by Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, James Connolly, and the Red Clydesiders, alongside a wide range of social-democrats, anarchists, syndicalists, radicals and pacifists.

Zurbrugg traces the development of movements before the war to those at its end. The 1868 Brussels congress of the First International recommended "to all its sections, to the members of working men’s societies in particular and to the working classes in general, to cease work if war is declared in their country". The Second International’s congress in Stuttgart, 18-24 August 1907, agreed "to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war".

In October 1911, a week after 60,000 demonstrated in Paris, an extraordinary conference of the French trade union confederation, the CGT, passed a resolution that "workers should respond without delay with a revolutionary general strike to a declaration of war". The Second International’s conference in Basel, 24-25 November 1912, attended by over 500 delegates to debate the Balkans conflict, again resolved to act against the threat of war.

Demos were held in France against the extension of military service, with 150,000 protesting near Paris in May 1913. In May and June, mutinies broke out in several army units, soldiers singing the ‘Internationale’. Many were imprisoned, the ringleaders sent to punishment battalions. The police raided union offices and the left press. In July, 20 CGT activists were charged with possession of anti-militarist material, provoking calls for a general strike. CGT leaders, however, backed down.

In June 1914, a day of action in Ancona, Italy, called for the release of soldiers who had opposed the war against Libya. Three protesters were killed, sparking a week of strikes, occupations and riots. On 29 July, coinciding with a congress of the Second International’s executive, 750,000 took part in anti-war protests across Germany. Yet the International weakened its position on war. The following day, Jean Jaurès, French socialist leader, was assassinated by a French nationalist. Léon Jouhaux, CGT general secretary, used the memorial meeting on 4 August, to sell-out publicly, calling the impending imperialist slaughter ‘a just war’.

On the same day, the Social-Democratic Party of Germany voted for war credits in parliament, sending shockwaves through the socialist movement internationally. Alexander Shyliapnikov, a leading Bolshevik (executed by Stalin in 1937), wrote: "We were stupefied by what we learnt. Telegrams, press articles said that the leaders of German Social-democracy were justifying the war, were voting war-credits. Our first thought was that this was false news… Workers assailed us with questions. We were asked what was the meaning of the behaviour of these German socialists whom we had been used to considering as models; where then was international solidarity?"

Lenin concluded: "The betrayal of socialism by most leaders of the Second International signifies the ideological and political bankruptcy of the International…" From 5-8 September 1915, anti-war socialists and anarchists met in Zimmerwald, Switzerland, where Lenin and the Bolsheviks were among a minority pushing a clear anti-imperialist, socialist programme.

In Britain and Ireland, the Defence of the Realm Acts (1914) were used to censor the reporting of military information and labour disputes. Papers deemed subversive were banned, others had editions seized by the police. Three thousand men were imprisoned for refusing to fight in the war. At least 80 died in prison.

In July 1915, the Munitions of War Act attacked union rights and organisation, and was used against a strike by South Wales miners. The revolutionary socialist, James Connolly, wrote that this "…means that this most awful of all wars has been used by a heartless gang of bloodsuckers to enable them to plunder with impunity… but as soon as the poor commenced to call a halt to the plunder, the same government ordered out its soldiers, and denounced as ‘treason’ the attempts of the workers to protect their interests". (17 July 1915)

Connolly was executed by British forces after the 1916 Easter rising in Dublin. In a moving account, Zurbrugg describes how, several days later, a young soldier from Wales visited Connolly’s widow, Lilly. He had been in the firing squad, and wrote: "I am a miner. My father was a miner, and my grandfather was a miner – they were both very busy in the trade union. How can I go back home? They would know about James Connolly even if I didn’t… I’d let something slip, and they’d know I’d killed James Connolly". Lilly told him that, as a working-class boy forced into the army, he was forgiven.

As the war dragged on, desertion and mutinies increased. After December 1915, leave was unobtainable for Italian frontline soldiers because so many refused to return. In January and February 1915, Indian army soldiers mutinied in Singapore. They issued a statement: "Why should we fight for England and be killed in Europe when we are paid half a coolie’s wage and our wives and children are left to starve on two or three rupees a month?" Forty-seven were executed.

A quote from the East Rand Express, South Africa, in 1915, summed up the dangers to imperialism from the war – and exposed the racism underpinning the British empire: "If the Indians are used against the Germans it means that they will return to India disabused of the respect they should bear for the white race. The Empire must uphold the principle that a coloured man must not raise his hand against a white man if there is to be any law or order in either India, Africa, or any part of the Empire where the white man rules over a large concourse of coloured people".

Following the mass slaughter in the summer of 1917, between 60,000 and 90,000 French troops mutinied, with 20,000 condemned for desertion. The revolution of February 1917 provoked a series of mutinies by Russian troops. On 5 November 1918, mutinies erupted in Kiel, spreading to other German ports – battleships hoisted red flags. According to official figures, 330 British/colonial troops were executed for desertion – with 600 in the French army, 48 in the German, and 750 Italians. A far greater, though indeterminate, number of summary executions took place.

In the summer of 1918, US, British, French and other armies were mobilised against the Russian revolution. The British government ordered the seizure of newspapers which opposed this intervention. At the beginning of January 1919, 2,000 soldiers in Folkestone set up pickets on the harbour, demanding demobilisation. Fusiliers refused to confront them. A mass meeting agreed to form a soldiers’ union. The Daily Herald reported (3 January): "Everywhere the feeling is the same, the war is over, we won’t have to fight in Russia, and we mean to go home". A conference of 350 delegates launched a Hands Off Russia campaign. Dockers refused to load ships with weapons destined for counter-revolutionaries.

In his concluding remarks, Zurbrugg makes the point that the betrayal by the workers’ leaders resulted in unofficial organisations emerging in Britain, Germany, Italy, Russia and elsewhere. His language is vague, however, speaking of "other vectors of oppression", "beyond the class divide". In this final section, the Russian revolution gets a mere two lines: "The revolution in Russia was greeted with enthusiasm – a common enthusiasm spurred by the overthrow of despotism".

Yet it was so much more than that. It was the first time ever that the working class had taken power and set up a workers’ state – due to Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership of the Bolshevik party. It held out the promise of a new international, socialist system which would end war, exploitation and poverty. It was a beacon around the world. Nonetheless, in spite of Zurbrugg’s vagueness – and whatever his intentions – his motley collection is, ultimately, very revealing. It shows that, among all those who opposed the war, the clearest analysis and action was put forward by the Marxist revolutionaries.

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