Sunday, November 9, 2008

Socialists and the First World War (2008)

From the November 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

This month marks the 90th anniversary of the end of WWI. We recall the socialist opposition to it.

The historian George Haupt has written that in July 1914 the workers movement did not consider war a possibility. Speaking six years later the German Social Democrat Karl Kautsky admitted that:
“It is surprising that none of those present at the meeting thought of raising the question of what to do if war broke out...or which attitude the socialist parties should adopt in this war” (cited in Georges Haupt: Socialism and the Great War: the Collapse of the Second International. Oxford, 1972. p. 220.])
Haupt comments that it is impossible to say whether the leaders of the International were “captives of their own myths or whether their reaction was the classical manifestation of that characteristic trait of the Second International: Reformist practice screened behind verbal radicalism.” (ibid. p. 221.)

The parties of the Social Democrat Second International shared our view that capitalism causes war and, like us, called for the international solidarity of the working class but when war broke out in August 1914 this proved to be mere talk.

To their disgust, but not to their surprise, the members of the Socialist Party saw workers and their leaders line up behind their respective governments ready to take part in the slaughter. Labour leaders such as Keir Hardie, Ramsay Macdonald and George Lansbury assured the government that “the head office of the Party, its entire machinery, are to be placed at the disposal of the Government in their recruiting campaign.” (Labour Leader 3 September 1914)

The British Socialist Party (successor to the Social Democratic Federation) war manifesto declared that it recognised:
“…that the national freedom and independence of this country are threatened by Prussian militarism and that the Party naturally desires to see the prosecution of the war to a speedy and successful issue.” (Justice 17 September 1914 cited in H. W. Lee and E. Archbold Social-Democracy in Britain: Fifty Years of the Socialist Movement. London, 1935. p.225.)
The Socialist Party on the other hand denounced the war as none of the workers business. It was a war of capitalist interests,
“ ...the workers’ interests are not bound up in the struggle for markets wherein their masters may dispose of the wealth they have stolen from them (the workers), but in the struggle to end the system under which they are robbed....The Socialist Party of Great Britain...declaring that no interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working class blood, enters its emphatic protest against the brutal and bloody butchery of our brothers in this and other lands...
Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our good will and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.”(‘The war and the Socialist position.’ Socialist Standard , September 1914)
In common with most political parties the Socialist Party carried on a vigorous programme of in-door and out-door meetings. From street corners and open spaces Party speakers on platforms propounded the socialist case against war. In his memoirs R. M. Fox (an early member of the Party) recalls the almost mesmeric effect of one Socialist Party member, a man called Anderson, who could project his voice above the noise of a brass band hired by local shopkeepers to drown him out. (R. M. Fox: Smoky Crusade. London. 1938.)

But even the most redoubtable speaker could not withstand the onslaught of a crowd whipped into fever pitch by jingoistic propaganda. There survives in the Party archive a bound minute book recording outdoor meetings held in North London. It records in a neat italic hand each meeting held by the branch giving details of date, time and speaker and chairman. Also recorded are the size of audience and occasional comments as to the kind of questions asked and the temper of the audience. Audience size seems to have fluctuated between 100 and 250. The meetings in August 1914 increased in size and the entry “Many questions mainly about the war. Good meeting” occurs a number of times. On Sunday August 30th a member named Wray addressed an audience this time of around 800:
“Many questions mainly about the war...Hostility shown by the audience so soon as the speaker began to reply to the opposition and the police closed the meeting leaving Party members to get away with the platform amongst the hostile audience that had closed around it and damaged it one side of the steps torn away and lost thus rendering the platform useless for further propaganda meetings.”
A later entry for September 20th records:
“Opposition by Grainger of Daily Herald League [sympathetic to the Labour Party] supported by several members of B.S.P. [British Socialist Party] in the audience with design of raising prejudice against the SPGB and so of breaking up the meeting.”
On a Sunday in mid September one Hyde Park meeting was the subject of a concerted attack. The organiser of the meeting reported
“...There was a determined attack made to smash up the meeting. Just as Elliot was closing the meeting the police intervened and told him to close down. As he did not close down as quick as they wished they arrested him.
Elliott was however, charged with insulting the British armies and fined 30/-. The crowd numbered over a thousand and the organised opposition attempted at the conclusion of the meeting to smash [the] platform but only succeeded in doing a little damage to it.”
At a meeting held on 11 October the speaker replied to questions about the war but “On the speaker replying to the opposition the audience started the National Anthem and the raising of cheers” and the meeting had to be abandoned. It says a great deal for the character, optimism, and bravery of these early members that they could face hostile audiences week after week. Undeterred the branch repaired the platform and were by the end of the week again holding meetings.

Some branches reacted to the threat of physical attack by banding together to continue open air meetings sometimes at new venues. In West Ham three branches got together to hold a meeting in Stratford Grove, an area not previously covered by the Party and its limited resources. It was possibly chosen to avoid marauding gangs of jingoists who were well aware of all the regular meeting places where anti-war sentiments might find expression.

Other branches had better luck. The secretary of East London branch reported that they had abandoned a meeting at Victoria Park after an obviously sympathetic Park Keeper had informed him that there were eight plain clothes men present for the purpose of arresting the Speaker and the Chairman as soon as the meeting started. It would appear that some anti war meetings were having some effect and it is likely that the Party’s informant had listened to the speakers over a period of time, and was at least unwilling to see our views suppressed.

But speakers did not have to oppose the war from the platform to get into trouble. A member named Baggett reported that he had been arrested and bound over in the surety of £50 to keep off the platform for six months. The reason being that he had read out an British Army circular issued by Lord Roberts regarding the supply of prostitutes to the British Army in India.

In view of increasing hostility, and the fact that a number of branches had ceased to hold meetings on account of the difficult situation, the Executive Committee had to consider the suspension of outdoor political activity. Every effort had been made to maintain outdoor meetings but had to recognise the
“...brutality of crowds made drunk with patriotism. The prohibitions by the authorities, and the series of police prosecutions of our speakers, compelled the rank and file of the Socialist Party to put an end to the fruitless sacrifices of their spokesmen by stopping outdoor propaganda.” (‘A Year of War.’ Socialist Standard, August 1915.)
A further consideration was the issue by the Government of stringent Defence of the Realm Regulations outlawing the uttering of statements likely to cause disaffection. The decision appears to have been a difficult one as the minutes record that it was taken after a discussion lasting about two hours. The Party at a special meeting held to discuss the situation ratified the decision. There was clearly a small number within the Party opposed to this course of action and willing to “tough it out” but a motion approving of the Executive Committee decision was carried by a substantial majority.

Explaining that “...our object was not to bid defiance to a world gone mad, but to place the fact that in this country the Socialist position was faithfully maintained by the Socialists.” (Socialist Standard, January 1915.) The Party continued as best it could, male members, under tremendous social and economic pressures, took what measures they could to avoid being called up. Those not so lucky ended up in Dartmoor prison.
Gwynn Thomas


  • The War and You (September 1914 Socialist Standard)
  • The War and the Socialist Position (September 1914 Socialist Standard
  • The call of the patriot (November 1914 Socialist Standard)

  • The Keir Hardie Myth (1961 Socialist Standard)