This is the abridged text of a speech given by Workers’ Liberty supporter Edward Maltby to an AWL forum entitled “Our Remembrance: a working-class history of war” at the University of London Union on Thursday 15 November.
The meeting was attended by over 100 people, stirred up by a controversy around Workers’ Liberty member and ULU Vice President Daniel Cooper’s refusal to take part in an official University of London Remembrance ceremony.
This week Britain remembers. Day-to-day politics has been suspended and we are treated to a spectacle which is said to be “apolitical”, above and beyond politics. The leaders of opposing parties put aside their quarrels and rally round to show their respect.
Officially, they are showing respect to the dead. But the symbols at the centre of the Remembrance Day ceremony aren’t simply symbols of the dead, or of human suffering, or grief. This is also a pageant of nationalism, monarchism, militarism. It is based on selective memory of historical events.
The Union Jack predominates and military dress uniforms evoke an imperial past. Weapons are flashed around. The inscription on the Cenotaph does not read, “the murdered dead”, which is what they are. It says, “the Glorious Dead”.
Who officiates at these ceremonies? This year it was Tony Blair, architect of a war in which one million Iraqis have died. And David Cameron, recently returned from selling arms to the Bahrain government for them to use on protesters.
What is this Remembrance institution? The President of the British Legion resigned in October, having been caught using his position to broker arms deals. The Poppy appeal itself was founded by General Haig, who organised the slaughters at the Somme and Passchendaele.
The monarchy and the military — the institutions which organised the First World War — are what is really venerated in the official Remembrance ceremonies.
What a perverse way of mourning the dead! The only way to defend this perversity is to build up great walls of moral hysteria, of mawkish sentimentality which turns to self-righteous aggression when it encounters critical thought, as in the case of the Tory witch-hunt against Daniel Cooper or the arrest of a teenager in Kent for burning a poppy. Such tactics have nothing to do with defending the dignity of the dead and everything to do with defending the sanctity of the institutions, the symbols, and the politics of the war and of the British state.
Revolutionary socialists like the AWL are not pacifists. We do not denounce the First World War because we simply denounce all war.
In 1936 a war broke out in Spain. Fascist and monarchist generals organised an offensive against the Spanish Republic and the mass struggles of the working class. They rolled northward across Spain, crushing democracy and outlawing dissent, free association, free speech and trade unions as they went.
On the Republican side, the labour movement rose to defend itself. The workers’ movement organised its own battalions, to prosecute the war of defence.
Socialists around the world supported the Republican side in this war, and the workers fought, through their factory committees and political parties, to make a Workers’ Republic in Spain. They organised international brigades of volunteers to travel to Spain to fight on the side of the Republic.
2,000 British people went to Spain to fight, mostly organised by the Independent Labour Party and the Communist Party. 500 of them died. 28 British ships were sunk by the fascists. There are no parades, no pious speeches from prime ministers for these dead. Princes and generals do not appear in public to lay wreaths for them.
Capitalist politicians knew what Franco represented — a reaction against the revolutionary-minded workers of Spain. When news reached the House of Commons that ships carrying British volunteers had been sunk, Tory MPs cheered.
So what is the criterion socialists use to decide what to make of a war? The Prussian officer Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war is the continuation of politics by other means. We agree with that. The question we ask is: “what is the politics of which this war is a continuation?”
In the case of the First World War the answer is clear: competition between colonial powers for the plunder of the global south, and a struggle between world powers for dominance.
Since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Britain had been the dominant industrial and world power in Europe. Whereas France was wracked by a series of revolutions, Britain’s ruling class defeated the Chartists. It avoided upheavals in the year 1848. It had been able to colonise India and dominate the world markets through aggressively promoting free trade against other colonial powers.
By 1870, Britain’s world domination was being challenged. In 1871 Germany unified itself under Prussian leadership, and rapidly industrialised.
Following the slaughter of 30,000 workers in the crushing of the Paris Commune, a period of revolutionary upheaval was temporarily ended in France.
Following the victory of the North in the American Civil War, US industry and trade vastly expanded. Japan, Italy and Russia began to modernise with increasing speed from the second half of the 20th century.
As competition between Britain and these emerging powers intensified, Britain could no longer easily dominate the world system of free trade through economic superiority alone; it became necessary to use direct military conquest to wall parts of the world off from the influence of competitor nations and to secure markets and resources.
It was competition with France, and a fear that France would directly seize previous areas of British influence, that led Britain to send troops to seize large parts of Africa, for the first time. Other European nations followed suit; each power rushed to seize sufficient territory to bolster its own industry and prestige.
Half a billion people became the subjects of European empires, to be used as chattels and fodder for the metropolises back in Europe.
The source of the inter-nation tensions that exploded in 1914 was a worldwide race to enslave. The First World War resembled nothing so much as a smaller slaveholder waging war on a larger slaveholder in the name of a more equitable distribution of slaves. To dress this up as a war for freedom in any sense is a piece of grotesque, wheedling hypocrisy.
But the development of capitalism also created something which carried with it the hope of a higher form of human society, of the future of civilization – the working class.
Amidst the squalor of the newly industrialising cities, the working class began to organise and move, where it had previously been considered too dissolute, too downtrodden, to make anything of itself.
In the 1880s and 1890s in Europe, this movement took great steps forward. In Russia, a wave of strikes began which would culminate in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In Britain a great strike and unionising movement of the unorganised and lowest paid workers began.
This continent-wide movement of awakening and self-assertion became the foundation for the socialist project. It expressed an unquenchable desire for human liberty and dignity, for the human potential of even the poorest to be developed to the full.
This movement for the liberation of mankind from crushing poverty, 12-hour days, ignorance and disease was the authentic force for freedom and liberty, against despotism and slavery — not the armies of the British crown, the Tsar or the French capitalist class.
The disgust and hatred of the capitalist class for this movement was reflected and acted on in the conduct of the war, not least in the shooting of deserters and the use by officers of Field Punishment Number One — the act of strapping soldiers to crucifixes for hours at a time, a punishment which frequently resulted in death.
The nationalism and chauvinism generated in the build-up to the war was used as an ideological bulwark against socialism — the idea that we are “all in this together”, a national community united under one ruler and one national destiny, rather than a collection of competing classes.
The British Legion, founded by Haig and Lord Derby as part of a nationalist drive, was set up explicitly to displace and undermine grassroots organisations such as the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors, which were linked to the labour movement, and which campaigned under the slogan “justice not charity”.
In all belligerent countries, entry into the war was used as a pretext to outlaw public criticism of the government, strikes and organising. In the UK, the use of military force to suppress strikes was not new: Winston Churchill had deployed troops and special constables to suppress the Cambrian Combine coal miners’ strike in Wales in 1910.
Under the Defence of the Realm Act, hundreds of activists were jailed and strikes were suppressed. Dozens of labour movement and socialist presses were seized and smashed. The Defence of the Realm Act continued after the war as the Emergency Powers Act. Under this Act, soldiers were deployed against strikes in the north east in 1921 and against the General Strike in 1926. The law was only repealed in 2004.
The greatest blow struck against the workers’ movement in the war was simply physical destruction.Writing from prison in 1915, German socialist Rosa Luxemburg described the significance of the mass death:
“The world war today is demonstrably not only murder on a grand scale; it is also suicide of the working classes of Europe. The soldiers of socialism, the proletarians of England, France, Germany, Russia, and Belgium have for months been killing one another at the behest of capital. They are driving the cold steel of murder into each other’s hearts. Locked in the embrace of death, they tumble into a common grave.
“This is more [significant] than the ruthless destruction of Liege and the Rheims cathedral. This is an assault, not on the bourgeois culture of the past, but on the socialist culture of the future, a lethal blow against that force which carries the future of humanity within itself and which alone can bear the precious treasures of the past into a better society. Here capitalism lays bear its death’s head; here it betrays the fact that its historical rationale is used up; its continued domination is no longer reconcilable to the progress of humanity.”
The “sacrifice” of the dead of the First World War was not the noble sacrifice of nationalist myth. It was the human sacrifice of a barbarian, irrational system butchering people for barbarian ends. Better, and ultimately many times more respectful, to remember the dead in a way which is truthful.