No repeat of 1914

February 15 will see a huge demonstration of popular anger. No one doubts that. Between 500,000 and a million people are expected to take to the streets demanding that Britain does not go ahead with Gulf War II. The organisers are already ecstatic. Here is one of the biggest political demonstrations in the history of Britain. And, say many comrades, this is even before the war has started. We are right to celebrate the February 15 turnout. However, the happy idea that if an invasion of Iraq were to be launched - with or without a second UN resolution - the anti-war movement is somehow destined to grow and grow from a February 15 baseline is dangerous. The stakes will become higher. The government and the ruling class will redouble and redouble again the propaganda offensive. Repressive measures and new laws might be enacted. The popular mood could suddenly swing against the anti-war movement if there are large numbers of casualties. That is why revolutionary politics are not a diversion but are vital. Though there is no direct parallel with the permanent 'war on terrorism' and World War I, there are nonetheless many important lessons for today's anti-war movement. Almost everyone knew a European war was in the offing. In 1871 the Marx-Engels partnership warned of a coming conflagration and 20 million deaths. And to their credit in the decade before World War I most labour leaders in Britain, Germany and France, along with the bulk of those parties affiliated to the Second International, adopted a steadfast policy of internationalism and opposition to war. There were huge peace demonstrations, countless conferences and in 1907 the International unanimously adopted the militant resolution 'Militarism and international conflicts'. It stated that it was the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives to do everything to prevent the outbreak of war. In the event of war the labour movements in the belligerent countries were to intercede to bring it to an end, using all their power to rouse the people to hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule. Put another way - fight war by fighting for revolution. The normally squabbling British affiliates to the International - the Labour Party, the Independent Labour Party, the Fabian Society and later the British Socialist Party - were all united on this one issue: the international working class must prevent the outbreak of war. In 1911 the British affiliates found themselves on the left of the International, proposing an amendment that argued: "The congress considers as particularly effective the general strike of workers, especially in the industries which supply the instruments of war (arms, munitions, transport, etc), as well as popular agitation and action in their most effective forms." Even Ramsey MacDonald, who opposed the use of a general strike for industrial or revolutionary aims, considered it appropriate in the case of "an unpopular war". There were other more conservative voices in the labour movement, but the overall view reflected the popular mood. However, a hint of the misleadership and the treachery to come was apparent at the 1912 Labour Party conference. A proposal from the International, supported by all British affiliates, asked for a report on how successful a partial or general strike in opposition to war might be. Textile workers leader Tom Shaw fiercely opposed it. He argued that such action would provoke a civil war, which was worse than national war. The Labour grandee, Arthur Henderson, agreed, but thought, as it was just a report and was thus non-committal, it might as well be unanimously agreed. Window-dressing. When war did break out, the apparently substantial international working class opposition all but vanished, swept away by a torrent of rabid jingoism. The anti-war movement collapsed to a fraction of its former self. Most labour parliamentarians and trade union leaders eagerly sought to subordinate working class interests to imperialist slaughter. Only the Russians and Serbs adhered to the policy of resistance. The British leaders had talked big for those few days before Britain declared war. On July 30 1914 the Parliamentary Labour Party voted unanimously that "on no account will this country be dragged into the European conflict". It called on "all labour organisations in the country to ... oppose, if need be, in the most effective way any action which may involve us in war". On August 1 the British affiliates of the International appealed to all other sections - in stirring class war language - to hold demonstrations in every industrial centre. But there were no concrete proposals for any "effective" action. Three days after war was declared a conference of all the leading labour movement organisations was convened, supposedly with the aim of setting up a National Labour Emergency Committee against war. Instead they created the War Emergency Workers National Committee, ostensibly with the aim of protecting workers' interests during the conflict. However, three weeks later the trade unions and Labour Party declared an industrial truce for the duration. The Labour Party also agreed an electoral truce and put the whole apparatus at the disposal of the war recruiting campaign. Opposition (in widely varying degrees) was now radically narrowed to three small groupings: the generally constitutional ILP, which was given a new lease of life and benefited from an influx of radical liberals; small pacifist groups; and the Marxist BSP, which became increasingly involved in militant rank and file industrial actions. For the ruling class and the 'patriotic' press all opposition, no matter how qualified or tame, was treason. In these circumstances the working class to begin with showed little opposition to the war, although defending hard won agreements and trade union rights was another matter. It became quickly apparent that a mere industrial truce was insufficient to secure the discipline required to guarantee war production. Until 1914 the ruling class had viewed the trade unions and the Labour Party as 'manageable nuisances' or 'necessary evils'. With the war the ruling class not only needed them, but also increasingly came to depend on them to shackle the workers to the interests of capital. At first from 1914 to 1916 strikes dipped sharply. However, from 1917 there was a substantial increase in rank and file militancy - especially where the BSP was active in the important (to the war effort) engineering and shipbuilding industries. These rank and file, unofficial initiatives were the only real opposition to the war - but only in an indirect sense, through struggles over pay and trade union rights. It was the inspiration of the revolutions in Russia in 1917 that put independent working class politics back on the agenda. Of course the circumstances of World War I are far removed from today and we cannot take the analogy very far, but there are clues to definite historical tendencies, to dangers and to the sort of political approach we need. Alan Stevens