No cause to celebrate
Friday 3rd January 2013
Despite what Cameron and the Tories say, WWI was not a ‘glorious war,’ writes JOHN ELLISON
The Establishment expects that we remember the Great War of 1914-18 with great patriotic pride.
Although there are already longstanding monuments across Britain, David Cameron advises us that those who died did so “for us,” that their sacrifice was for the common good, and so a different kind of memorial is wanted.
However, while remembering the soldiers and civilians of all countries whose lives were lost or blighted, we must also remember the raw fact that the war was a monstrous crime against humanity, and that among the criminals were Britain’s Liberal government and its Tory accomplices of the day.
World War I was a conflict between rival imperialisms, the British version no more praiseworthy than the others, so Cameron’s false picture needs to be energetically exposed.
And there is a continuum between the naked imperialism of 100 years ago and that of today’s world.
Imperialism has changed its structures and operational arrangements – today, for example, it discreetly relies on the International Monetary Fund and disguised wars for the control of natural resources. Yet it remains as unacceptable as its earlier incarnation.
Many people now living in Britain are descendants of men who volunteered or were conscripted to fight in the first world war.
But whether we have a direct genealogical connection with the war or none, the horrific statistics are inescapable. Among the dead were more than three quarters of a million British servicemen and 200,000 colonial soldiers – a third of these from India, on whose behalf Britain declared war without consulting its people.
From the combatant countries – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Turkey and more – military fatalities passed 10 million, to which civilian deaths through hunger and disease should be added. Then there are the figures for those wounded.
But why the war and for whom the sacrifice? The shortest answer is that the purpose of the war for the British ruling class was to safeguard Britain’s status as the world’s top dog capitalist and imperialist state.
The tragic truth is that those who died did so not for their country but for the benefit of those who owned it.
War certainly came abruptly but not unpredictably, however unanticipated the specific triggers.
Basil Liddell Hart wrote many years ago in his standard military history: “Fifty years were spent in the process of making Europe explosive. Five days were enough to detonate it.”
During the 19th century Britain and France had been extending their respective colonial empires, while latecomer Germany, having rapidly developed industrial strength, was pressing insistently for an imperial role when there was little uncolonised territory left for an outsider capitalist nation. The result was impasse and a naval arms race.
By the early 1900s the scene was set for slaughter on an unprecedented scale.
“Imperialism,” concluded the radical Liberal JA Hobson in his 1905 classic study of the subject, “implies militarism now and ruinous wars in the near future.”
The Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy was formed in 1882. The Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia followed in 1904.
During the final decade before hostilities there were diplomatic crises between European powers in 1905, 1908 and 1911 – ugly auguries of war.
Much alive to the threat from ever more heavily armed capitalist states, socialist leaders of the Second Socialist International at the 1907 Stuttgart Congress affirmed their commitment to do their utmost to prevent war and, if it occurred, to intervene promptly to bring it to an end.
This commitment was confirmed at further congresses in 1910 and 1912.
It was to prove, when war arrived, an unachievable promise.
After many years of war scares that had not led to conflict, in the minds of most politicians actual war seemed difficult to imagine, as if it could be indefinitely deferred. In early 1914 no precipitants were visibly present.
The Labour Party – as yet lacking a defined programme of aims – was then represented in the House of Commons by fewer than 40 Labour MPs, some not easily distinguishable from Liberals.
Labour’s leader James Keir Hardie, then in his late fifties, had strong anti-war credentials and had pursued an international working-class response to war if it threatened.
The leading British labour movement newspaper, launched in 1912, was the Daily Herald, whose editor and driving force was the much respected Christian socialist and pacifist George Lansbury. His memoir was to define the war as “the most wicked, useless, uncalled for war of all history.”
The Herald had a readership of many thousand trade unionists and Labour voters.
The working-class movement in Britain in those months was not quiescent.
It was engaged mightily with issues of wages – there were innumerable strikes – unemployment, Ireland’s future and votes for women.
In January 1914 militant trade union leader Tom Mann declared that no man should be earning less than £2 weekly, and the Herald spoke of Labour’s domestic industrial war ahead.
There was no organised anti-empire or anti-war movement. Nevertheless, the fact that a war with Germany was a dangerous possibility was very much in the minds of socialists and progressive Liberals.
So it was that in early 1914 anger was uncontained in the socialist press about the sums spent by Britain on armaments, about the profits made by armaments manufacturers and about War Office recruiting advertisements. Anger too was generated by the accidental sinking, in early January, of a British submarine off the Cornish coast.
This tragedy, entombing two officers and 14 men, was connected by the Herald to “capitalism, aggression and spoliation.”
Anti-war feeling was also expressed in the biting front-page Herald cartoons of Will Dyson.
The much smaller circulation organs, The Socialist and Justice, like the Herald, were more preoccupied with domestic issues than with the danger of a European war.
The Socialist was the monthly voice of the Socialist Labour Party, with headquarters in Glasgow and a sprinkling of English branches.
Justice was the weekly paper of the larger, roughly 6,000-strong British Socialist Party.
While some of this party’s membership had unquestionably socialist credentials, it was headed by the top-hatted Alfred Hyndman, whose oddball “Marxism” – which encouraged a “big navy” for Britain – turned into out-and-out jingoism after war was declared.
Amid the welter of major issues occupying the socialist press, at the end of January there came from the columns of journal the Labour Leader a powerful and prescient warning of possible early war.
This weekly newspaper was read by the 50,000-strong membership of the Independent Labour Party, which did have socialist objectives in its programme.
Its editor Fenner Brockway, then in his mid-twenties – and destined to be a life-long socialist and anti-imperialist – wrote: “The strained relations in Europe revolve around the antagonism of the German and British governments. Austria and Italy are allied with Germany in the Triple Alliance; France and Russia with Great Britain in the Triple Entente.
“The nations of each group are building navies and marshalling armies against the other, Europe is divided into two military camps and any morning the bugle may be sounded for battle.”
Brockway referred back to what had happened during the Agadir crisis of July-August 1911.
Britain had given France a free hand to extend its interest in Morocco, while Germany wanted a share for itself.
A German gunboat, the Panther, had been sent to the Moroccan port of Agadir.
Germany, an underdog in imperial terms, was pressing for admission to the top table.
Dispatch of the gunboat caused the French government and its British ally to bristle and to warn Germany off Morocco, a warning which Germany heeded in return for the receipt of a piece of central African territory that was not France’s to give but to which France relinquished its claim.
Brockway commented: “I need not pause to suggest the ghastly horrors which would have been committed had the thin thread upon which the peace of Europe depended been snapped.
“Inevitably the whole of Europe would have been involved and millions of people would have been stricken down either on the battlefield or by starvation and disease.
“And for whom did the Liberal government threaten the peace of Europe? For a few financiers in London and Paris. There was no quarrel between the people of Great Britain and Germany.”
He was speaking, of course, on behalf of plenty of others who shared this nightmare insight.
Another leading socialist who had campaigned for years to raise popular awareness of the imperialist drive to war was Scotland’s John Maclean.
Both were to be imprisoned during the war – Brockway for refusing conscription, Maclean for anti-conscription agitation.
Many years later their perspective was endorsed by the formidable historian Eric Hobsbawm, who summarised his elaborate analysis in his 1987 book The Age Of Empire: “The blocs, reinforced by inflexible plans for strategy and mobilisation, grew more rigid, the continent drifted uncontrollably towards battle, through a series of international crises which, after 1905, were increasingly settled by ‘brinkmanship’, ie, by the threat of war.”
It was in this overall context that the British government secretly committed itself – while denying such commitment publicly when asked about it – to military support for France in the event of a German attack. The bow was bent and drawn.
“What was for Germany,” wrote Hobsbawm, “a symbol of her international status and of undefined global ambitions, was a matter of life and death for the British empire.”
So was the German government of Kaiser Wilhelm to blame for the war?
The question of whose fault it was, wrote Hobsbawm, “is as trivial as the question whether William the Conqueror had a legal case for invading England is for the study of why warriors from Scandinavia found themselves conquering numerous areas of Europe in the 10th and 11th centuries.”
That was not how it appeared to most British people when in August 1914 war was declared.
Without close contact with an alternative anti-imperialist analysis, they were overwhelmed by distorted capitalist press treatment of Germany’s invasion of Belgium and the ringing of bells of patriotism.
The systematic mutual destruction of vast armies was unleashed and anti-war voices were drowned out.
Still, those anti-war voices were to get louder amid the carnage and suffering.
As the Ode of Remembrance puts it, “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,” we must remember them too. They were voices of reason in a dark time, defending humanity’s corner.
If they could, they would join with us today in condemning Cameron’s centenary commemoration gimmickry as nationalist cover-up nonsense, served up among other objectives to recapture lost support for British participation in today’s smaller, yet equally criminal, imperial military adventures. Down with the 1914-18 war!