There were well over a hundred people at the 15 November meeting organised by Workers' Liberty's London student branch, on “Our remembrance: a working-class history of war”.
The big turn out was partly because of the controversy generated by Workers' Liberty member Daniel Cooper, who in his position as University of London Union Vice President refused to take part in a university Remembrance ceremony (see his statements here). The majority were left-wing students who had come to support Daniel and find out more about our ideas; there were also about 30 Tory/nationalist types there together for a pre-planned intervention.
Ed Maltby introduced the discussion, making the case for a working-class socialist criticism of war and militarism, including of the official Remembrance campaign. Rather than summarising his speech in any detail, we publish the full text below.
It seemed that the nationalist interveners had planned to dominate the meeting: their spokesperson Jonny Prince got up as soon as Ed finished speaking to read out some kind of statement. The chair told him he would have to put up his hand and wait his turn. Plenty of right-wingers spoke, but they couldn't dominate the meeting or turn it purely into a discussion about ULU.
What was striking was how weak their arguments were: in fact, most of them didn't even try to make political arguments about war and “remembrance”, or even about Dan Cooper. Instead they relied on pedantry (not all soldiers were working class; in Britain only a minority, still 2.3 million, were literally conscripted) or on sweeping assumptions that pretty much all University of London students support them (“A hundred thousand ULU members are angry with you”) or simply on outrage without arguments.
In the course of the discussion, in the meeting and afterwards, some of the real politics came out: there were repeated sexist comments (all but one of the nationalists were men - our favourite comment was "Daniel Cooper should apologise - to apologise you have to be a man"!) and, eventually, at least two defences of the British empire, one of them from Jonny Prince (“It wasn't all bad – it's a complicated issue”). There was also an ugly comment when AWL member Daisy Forest pointed out that soldiers fleeing from death in the trenches were shot: “Well they shouldn't have fucking retreated then”.
Workers' Liberty members and other socialists spoke from the floor with thoughtful, reasoned arguments. We also pointed out that the pro-war right does not have a monopoly on moral outrage: we are outraged by capitalist wars, what they do to working class people on the frontline and back at home - and therefore also at events which glorify and justify them, commemorating not the dead as such but "our side".
Daniel Cooper and newly elected ULU President Michael Chessum spoke in defence of Daniel's position and his right to take it. They argued that being open, honest and proud about your political stances is much better on every level that keeping your “principles” private.
Despite the setpiece, confrontational nature of the debate, some decent discussion also featured, looking at how socialists understand questions of war, violence, the state and class struggle.
There was some interesting contributions about the effect of war on soldiers, particularly working-class soldiers, its ability to cow and terrify, but also embolden and radicalise, sometimes in a left-wing direction. Several people spoke about the role of demobilised soldiers in socialist and working-class movements during and after both World Wars. We refused to accept that all soldiers at all times think they have interests in common with the people who sent them to fight.
It is often said, not entirely unfairly, that the left is disproportionately “middle-class” (better off, more formally educated working class and lower middle class). The left-wingers who attended and those who spoke at the meeting were a mix of students (from a variety of backgrounds – some, this being University of London, quite “middle class”) and workers. The nationalists were, from what you could tell, from very privileged backgrounds or at least trying to sound like they were. This was representatives of the future ruling class in action – truly, as cleaner activist Alberto Durango put it afterwards, a “question of class”. What was interesting was how out of their depth they seemed to be debating with working-class and socialist activists.
Ed concluded by linking Daniel's stance to that of socialists like the Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in Germany, Eugene Debs in the US, and the Bolsheviks in Russia, who refused to buckle under ruling-class and establishment pressure, defied the First World War and prepared the way for the mass working-class movement which ended it.
If you want to be a socialist who can resist the pressure to abandon your principles, stand firm and prepare for the future – get in touch with us to discuss our ideas, work with us and consider joining. Please also feel free to get in touch if you would like to organise a meeting or debate about these issues on your campus or in your workplace or union branch.
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This week Britain remembers. The normal round of 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 and warring leaders of different institutions put aside their quarrels and rally round to show their respect.
Officially, they are showing their respect to the dead. But the symbols at the centre of the ceremony aren’t simply symbols of the dead, or of human suffering, or grief. This is a pageant of nationalism, monarchism, militarism and of selective memory. The Union Jack predominates and military dress uniforms evoke an imperial past, weapons are flashed around. The inscription on the central monument, the Cenotaph, does not read, “the murdered dead”, which is what they are: it says, “the Glorious Dead”.
Officiating this year were Tony Blair, architect of a war in which one million Iraqis have died, and Cameron, recently returned from selling arms to Bahrain for use on protesters. 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 of the Somme and Passchendaele.
The monarchy and the military – the institutions which organised the Great War – are venerated in the official Remembrance ceremonies. It is hard to imagine a more perverse way of mourning the dead. The only way of defending 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 – and intimidation such as the arrest of a teenager in Kent for burning a poppy. In reality these 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.
At this point I want to make something clear: socialists 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 rose in rebellion against the Spanish Republic. 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. workers’ movement organised its own battalions, to prosecute the war itself.
Socialists around the world supported the Republican side in this war – and the workers within the Republican camp fighting through their factory committees and political parties to make a Workers’ Republic in Spain. More than that, 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 were clear sighted as to what Franco represented – a bulwark 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 by which socialists 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. So the question to ask is: “what is the politics of which this war is a continuation?”
In the case of the First World War the answer should be clear enough – 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, avoided upheavals in the year 1848 and had been able to colonise India and dominate the world markets through aggressively promoting free trade, against the old colonial powers like Spain.
By 1870, Britain’s world domination was being challenged. In 1871 Germany unified itself under Prussian leadership, and began a series of industrial leaps forward.
Following the slaughter of 30,000 workers in the crushing of the Paris Commune, a period of revolutionary upheaval was temporarily ended in France, and French ruling class began to seriously
Following the victory of the North in the American Civil War, the USA embarked on a period of vast expansion.
Japan, Italy and Russia likewise began to modernise and develop with increasing speed from the second half of the 20th Century.
As competition between Britain and these emerging powers intensified, as Britain was no longer able to 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.
As late as the 1870s only small ports and coaling-stations in Africa were colonised here and there. 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. Other European nations followed suit: each power raced to seize sufficient territory to bolster its own native industry and prestige.
From 1876 to 1914, six great powers grabbed 25 million sq. kilometres, that is, an area two and a half times that of Europe. Half a billion people became the subjects of European empires, to be used as chattel and fodder for the metropolises back in Europe.
Look for the source of the tensions that exploded in 1914 and you’ll see a worldwide race to enslave.
There is no fixed and inevitable reason why the First World War broke out as it did, between Germany and her allies against Britain, France and Russia. In 1898, Britain and France had come to the brink of war over a clash in the village of Fashoda, in Eastern Sudan. Britain’s strategic goal in Africa was to conquer a line running south from Cairo to Cape Town. France’s aim was to take a line running East from Senegal to the Red Sea. The lines crossed in Fashoda and global war nearly resulted.
As it was, Britain and France fought their war “for freedom” in alliance with the worst despotism Europe then knew – Russia.
Against those who tried to justify Britain’s war on the basis of German aggression against Belgium, John Maclean, a socialist in Glasgow who would later be jailed for opposing the war, said in 1914:
“Even supposing Germany is to blame, the motive force is not the ambitions of the Kaiser, but the profit of the plundering class in Germany. Every interested person knows that Germany’s easiest road of entry into France was by Belgium. Sir Edward Grey had only to wait till Belgian neutrality had been broken to seize a “moral” excuse for Britain taking up arms. The real reason was, and is, that his class knew that war between British and German capitalism had to come sooner or later… It is our business as socialists to develop a “class patriotism”, refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism… The only real enemy to Kaiserism and German militarism, I assert against the world, was and is German Social Democracy”.
Whichever way you look at it 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 created something more than the drive to enslave. It created, drew together, something which carried with it the hope of a higher form of human society, of the future of civilization – the working class.
From 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 demoralized, to make anything of itself.
In the 1890s, this movement took great steps forward across Europe. In Russia, a wave of strikes began which would culminate in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In Britain, in East London, migrant and British workers struck together on the docks, and a great strike movement was sparked by the actions of the teenage girls who worked in the Bryant and May factory in Bow, where they were poisoned by the phosphorous they worked with.
Across Europe, the demands and aspirations of these movements were the same – the 8 hour day, free time, wages to live on, safety and dignity at work, democracy at work and in politics, suffrage, freedom of assembly, speech and conscience.
This continent-wide movement of awakening and self-assertion expressed in words and deeds the mission of the workers’ movement, its nature, its vocation, which is the foundation of the socialist project: an unquenchable desire for human liberty and dignity, for the human potential of even the poorest to be developed to the full. Striking textile workers in Massachusetts expressed the idea in 1912 when they raised the demand for “bread and roses” – the necessities of life, but also the ability to learn, develop and enjoy life, which is surely the measure of civilization.
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.
This movement did not only express its politics in strikes and demonstrations, but in that most crucial and liberating thing – organisation. The workers of Europe in the period from the 1890s created the organisations which form the basis of the modern labour movement – organisations through which they could express their desires and demands, debate tactics and the shape of the new world they wanted to create, to defend what gains they won, to educate themselves to rule and challenge for power.
This many-millioned movement for human liberation provoked horror and disgust in the ruling classes of Europe. They resolved to crush it.
This disgust and hatred 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 was founded by Haig and Lord Derby as part of this nationalist drive – to displace and undermine the grassroots organisations such as the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors, linked to the labour movement, which campaigned under the slogan “justice not charity”.
The second method used in the war against the labour movement was direct repression – in all belligerent countries, entry into the war was used as a pretext to outlaw any 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 a miners’ strike in Wales in 1911, injuring hundreds.
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. It was under this act that 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 destructon. 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 this 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 to remember the dead in a way which does not distort this fact.
Here is a report by nationalist organiser Jonny Prince. We are publishing it in the interests of openness and debate, but it should be said that it is not so much fiction as science fiction. We'll post comments on it shortly.
Many have asked for a short debrief on how yesterday's lecture/protest went, so here goes:
Roughly 20 of us gathered opposite ULU before heading in to the lecture, with many more joining us as the lecture began and in the minutes shortly after. There were roughly 60-70 left wing supporters, most being part of the AWL organisation, and many clearly not students (at least 20 clearly being over the age of 40, all members of AWL, supposedly a student organisation). As we entered, all sorts of ignorant comments were being thrown around as people took their seats, including a particularly well-informed aspertion that officers didn't fight in WW1 and only sat eating fine food while commanding the working classes to walk to their deaths...
As the room filled out, and it was packed, there looked to be 140+ people, with a roughly 60:40 split, AWL/Left vs Oppostion.
As Edward Maltby started his lecture on the working class history of war, which consisted mainly of communist buzzwords and poorly researched/incorrect historical musings, it became clear that there was to be very little reasoned debate. Maltby even accused the opposition of being a Tory witch-hunt, taking no account of the fact that people from all sides of the political spectrum were angered by this issue.
When the talk finished and the floor opened to questions/debate, very little time was given to those who were clearly in opposition, and many were not allowed to make any point at all, as the chair was adamant that the debate was becoming too sexist, making no account for the fact that the audience was >90% male.
I brought with me a printed list of the 10,000 men of the university that fought in WW1, and presented it to the room while I spoke, telling Cooper that "these were the men we feel you have failed to represent adequately". Stars next to names denote KIA. Roughly 2000 students and staff of the UofL were killed.
It's worth a look:
At all points, when people from the left were speaking, those in opposition mostly listened silently and patiently, which could not be said for us. Heckling was an almost constant problem from the left and at one point the debate looked as though it might just descend into mayhem and name calling.
Thankfully it calmed down, and some excellent points were made by several people in opposition. It must also be said that there were several well-thought-out arguments from the left, but this was by no means the rule.
Sadly, Edward Maltby's closing speech was even more radicalised than his first. He proceeded to insult all those in opposition, ridiculed their views and effectively threw the previous hour's reasonable, if heavily one-sided, debate out of the window. Many of the opposition left the lecture theatre feeling that Maltby took a particularly low road by waiting until no one could defend their viewpoint to pathetically attack and demean those that had so patiently and politely waited for him to speak. It was frankly, pathetic and typical of the Far Left's bully-boy behaviour. We went hoping for a reasonable debate and all we got was BS propaganda from the last century, with very little opportunity to defend our views.
Now - The issue of Daniel Cooper. Daniel spoke twice, defending his views expressed in his letter. He explained that ULU is not officially meant to attend the university remembrance service and that ULU leaders are asked if they wish to attend. He explained that someone else from the ULU staff had indeed attended the service in his stead. Despite several people in the audience asking if he might apologise, he made no mention of any intention to do so and again defended his actions, taking no account of any upset caused.
I spoke with Daniel 1 to 1 afterwards, and I will say this, he allowed us to come to the lecture and argue his points, which I commend him for. I also found him to be fairly reasonable and willing to discuss the issue. I suggested to him that if he had made it clear in his initial refusal letter that ULU was in no way obliged to attend and that he had made arrangements for someone else to attend the service on his behalf, much of the outrage could have been avoided, points he seemed to take on board. I also told him that I thought it would be wise to apologise for the upset he caused, even when it was unintentional and in his mind, unjustified. He made no committal response on the matter but he did not firmly reject the idea immediately either.
I'll say this, he's not a bad guy. I believe very much that he's entitled to his opinions, although I disagree with him on a number of issues. I respect him for allowing us to attend, but I would respect him far more if he was able to put differences aside and apologise for the (unintentional) upset he did cause to many.
So there you have it. In many ways their responses were wholly predictable; it would be naive to hope that the radical left would ever present any fair opportunity for anyone to dispute their views or disrupt their brainless propaganda.
Over the last 24 hours I have seen all sorts of utter rubbish from Maltby and his fanatical supporters saying that they wiped the floor with us. Only the deluded left wing would ever believe that shouting revolutionary adjectives over people and heckling them while speaking equates to 'wiping the floor with them'.
Although Cooper didn't apologise for the feelings he hurt, we did succeed in making the moderate views of many students heard. I hope those that couldn't make the event feel that we did them proud in standing up to the AWL and it's members in power at ULU.
I'll leave you with a final thought: What if ULU spent less time protesting foreign wars and organising violent student rallies, and more time doing things to aid the students it represents, like helping to solve the enormous problem of graduate unemployment???
Make sure you get out and vote next election, to make sure people like these radical Marxists don't embarrass and insult you again!
It's been a real pleasure to organise this counter-group. Thank you all so much for your help and support.
I've been asked by the AWL London Colleges branch to write a reply to the factual inaccuracies in Jonny Prince's statement because I am known for carefully counting how many people are at meetings and so on. Someone else will reply to the politics of what he says later.
1. The AWL is not "supposedly a student organisation". We have a student section, including the London Colleges branch that organised the meeting, but we are primarily a workers' organisation. I guess Jonny finds this a hard concept to grasp.
2. I'm in the unusual situation of insisting that there were fewer people in the meeting than my opponent claims. I counted 99 people about half way through, after a few had left and before some more turned up, so it was about 110. This can be checked, but Room 3c at ULU could no way hold 140 - it was packed as it was.
3. "At least 20 [were] clearly over the age of 40"? In fact there were six people in the room who were over 40, five of whom were left-wingers I knew, one of whom was a right-winger who spoke. Note Jonny's unwarranted and typically privileged assumption that none of them were students (ie that all students are in their late teens or early 20s). In any case, workers are very welcome at our student meetings (there were also a few younger workers there, who Jonny of course assumed were students!)
4. "The audience was >90% male"? In fact it was about one third women. I didn't count this but thinking back I can identify (I know or I remember individuals in the audience) 18 women and 38 men. The reason the meeting was two thirds men was
i) Left meetings are often somewhat male-dominated anyway;
ii) It so happens that this meeting was organised by our London Colleges branch, which is mostly men, and attended by our NE London branch, which is also mostly men. Our other London branches, which are much more mixed, including our biggest one, South London, which is majority women, did not send many people as they had their own events on that night or the night before;
iii) Crucially: the 30 or so right-wingers who came as a bloc were almost entirely men.
5. But, of course, Jonny's concern is not that the meeting was male-dominated - quite the opposite. He seems concerned that too many women were taken to speak. The reason the chair made an effort to take women speakers is that the AWL is concerned about the tendency which exists everywhere in society, but including on the left, for meetings to be male-dominated. The fact that the first five or six speakers were all men shows that this is a valid concern - however alien Jonny and his friends find it, as their copious sexism made clear. In the event six women spoke - four left-wingers (two AWL members, one sympathiser, one non-affiliated activist), one right-winger, one person without a clear view who raised a point about procedure.
6. "Very little time was given to those who were clearly in opposition, and many were not allowed to make any point at all"? Again, this is a total invention. A large number of right-wingers were called to speak. I can remember 18 contributions, of which six were right-wingers, one about procedure, and 11 left-wingers. According to Jonny's own analysis, this is not far from representative. At least as many left-wingers as right-wingers with their hands up were not taken to speak. I am an AWL organiser and when I put my hand up to speak for a second time the chair told me he wouldn't take me as the list was full.
As I said, someone else will deal with the political issues Jonny raises (or doesn't raise, really), but I think his lack of concern for the facts speaks volumes about his approach.
The striking point about the political points Jonny makes is that they all perfectly trivial, a-political and beside the point.
What I find personally very striking about this whole affair is that for all that the nationalist opposition had and have a lot of schtick about how educated, objective, serious, rigorous and important they are - almost everything they say is beside the point, evasive, or focussed on secondary facts.
It does not matter how many people were in the room, whether or not they were students, how old they are, or what sort of socks they were wearing.
What matters is the politics of what was being said. Virtually all the rightwingers' substantial political points (that it was right to shoot deserters, that the Empire was not all that bad) were made semi-privately - not defended in front of the meeting.
Virtually everything the Tories said was defensive, pedantic, obfuscatory and feeble. They mainly relied on huffing and puffing about how their feelings were hurt, or unsupported assertions about how terrible Marxists are. They even expend a lot of energy denying (in typically outraged tones) that they are Tories, rightwing, nationalists, etc. etc.
Given that the most privileged students at one of the world's most exclusive institutions are by and large the people one would expect to form the organising cadres of the ruling class of the future, I am quite astounded at how pathetic and childish they all are.