This article was originally written for socialistworld.net, the website of the Committee for a Workers’ International.
The horrific slaughter of the First World War has haunted generations. By the time it ended, it had put into question the ‘right’ of the ruling classes to rule, something that helped provoke revolutions and mass struggles around the world. Just the huge military casualties, officially nearly 10 million, maybe more, soldiers killed and many millions wounded, led to a revulsion against a war which many saw as a contest between rival empires and powers, often with no real fundamental differences in character between them.
For many people, the current commemorations will be for those who died and were injured in that slaughter, not the governments and empires which fought each other. None of the main combatant countries were even formally fully democratic as no women and not all men were allowed to vote. Russia, one of Britain’s main allies, was a dictatorial empire autocratically ruled by an anti-Semitic royal family.
In British propaganda at the war’s start much was made of the German invasion of Belgium. But Belgium, while small, was ruled by a ruling class just as imperialistic as its rivals, something witnessed in its brutal rule over the Congo. In an accidental coincidence, almost simultaneously as the British ruling class was arguing that the new European war was against “German militarism” the British army was in action seeking to bring the Egba people in western Nigeria fully under British imperial rule, a campaign which saw, after a protest, the shooting of 36 unarmed civilians and widespread destruction in the city of Abeokuta.
Faced, especially after the 1917 Russian revolution, with the widespread revulsion questioning the war and, by implication, the entire system, the British ruling class itself underwent a mixture of cosmetic changes while also granting some reforms. One of the first changes was the British monarchy ditching its ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ family name in favour of Windsor as it sought to downplay its extremely close family ties with both the German and Russian imperial families. To this day, the German Field Marshal’s uniform once worn by King George V, the Queen’s grandfather and British King during the First World War, is kept hidden from view in Windsor Castle (see related article here).
This meant that military celebrations of ‘victory’ were more kept in the background and increasingly official emphasis was put on the real horrors that the soldiers faced, their huge personal sacrifices and the war’s impact on civilians. Naturally this reflected the widespread popular sympathy, not for the war, but for those who suffered in it.
This was seen now in nearly all of the public ceremonies to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War’s formal end. However significantly, while August this year saw some mention in Britain of the 1918 Battle of Amiens as a turning point, hardly anything is being said as to why the war ended when it did, with the German army still in Belgium and France and, while in retreat, not decisively defeated.
The reason is simple, both the ruling class and its defenders do not want to explain part played by revolution, and the ruling classes’ fear of revolution, in finally ending the First World War.
Certainly by autumn 1918 the German military command had drawn the conclusion that they could no longer win the war. The failure of that year’s Hindenburg offensives combined with the increasing arrival of US troops in Europe was swinging the balance against them. At the end of September 1918 Ludendorff and Hindenburg, the de facto military rulers of Germany from 1916 onwards, told the German Emperor that they must have an immediate armistice. In early October, they handed over the reins of government to civilians, led by Prince Max of Baden, a cousin of the German Emperor, charged with agreeing an armistice with US president Woodrow Wilson. The generals hoped this move would also mean that they would not carry the odium of defeat. Quickly the new government wrote to Wilson and, after internal disagreements, on November 5 the western Allies agreed to begin negotiations for a truce and reparations.
However events in Germany were also accelerating the formal end to the war. To growing numbers it was becoming was increasingly clear that the war was in its last stages. By now the horrors of the war, the mass privation at home and the example of the 1917 Russian revolution had deepened opposition to the war both in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Significant anti-war protests and strikes had taken place, particularly at the start of 1918, and these started to increase as it appeared the war was coming to an end. At the end of September Bulgaria, one of Germany’s allies, decided to sue for peace. This was followed in mid-October by the Austro-Hungarian leaders, Germany’s main ally, deciding to ask for a separate peace deal as their multi-national empire began to rapidly break up amidst mass protests and upheavals.
In Germany, the spark that set off the revolution was the refusal, on November 3, of German sailors in Kiel refused to set off on what they called a “Death Cruise”, a suicidal last battle against the British navy. After brief fighting with pro-government forces the sailors, on November 4, joined with local workers in forming a ‘workers and soldiers’ council’ to run the city. It was not at all accidental that this name was chosen. They were looking to the example of the Russian revolution where, almost exactly a year earlier, similarly named popular organisations had taken power in the October revolution and formed a workers’ government. Over the next five days, a revolutionary wave spread across Germany, with workers’ councils being formed in city after city, local rulers being overthrown, republics declared in the constituent parts of the German empire and, on November 9, the Empire itself collapsing and an all-German republic declared.
That very same evening, November 9, the British cabinet met to discuss the situation. Already fearing revolution, the events in Germany and elsewhere gave a new urgency to the government’s discussions about agreeing to an armistice. The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, the British Empire’s senior military leader, present at that meeting, later wrote in his diary that the French leader Clemenceau had written saying that he was “afraid that Germany may collapse and Bolshevism gain control. (Prime Minister) Lloyd George asked me if I wanted that to happen or if I did not prefer an armistice. Without hesitation I replied “Armistice”. The whole cabinet agreed with me.”
Two days later the deal was done, an Armistice treaty signed at 5.12am on November 11 for the fighting to stop at 11am, Paris time, that same day. Simultaneously, the eyes of the ruling classes were turning to a growing new enemy – the threat of socialist revolution, summed up in the word “Bolshevism”, and they were prepared to jointly fight this threat to their power and rule. Thus, while the German army was ordered to rapidly withdraw from Belgium, France and elsewhere, a blind eye was to shown to German army units remaining in the east to aid counter-revolutions. Indeed, the day before the war ended, at another British cabinet meeting, Churchill commented that “We might have to build up the German Army, as it is important to get Germany on her legs again for fear of the spread of Bolshevism.”
But while the World War ended, fighting did not. Instead there were years of civil wars, and local or regional wars as empires broke up, new countries were established or, like the British in Iraq, newcomers attempted to establish their own colonial rule. But what really characterised the immediate post First World War period were the revolutions and counter-revolutions that swept over country after country.
The First World War was not unexpected. Europe had seen different war scares before 1914. Socialists had long debated how to oppose a war between the rival imperialist powers breaking out and what to do if it did. At the 1907 Congress of the Second International, the body which linked together socialist parties, a resolution on “War and Militarism” was agreed which ended by arguing that for socialists “in case war should break out anyway, it is their duty to intervene for its speedy termination and to strive with all their power to utilise the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”
This expectation that war would produce radicalisation and revolutions was completely borne out. The first experience was the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin followed the next year by the Russian revolution, an event which immediately had an international impact. The Tsarist autocracy’s overthrow thrust the questions of democratic rights and war aims into the spotlight. The second, October 1917, revolution gave the first example of the working class overthrowing capitalism, beginning to run society and appealing to workers internationally to follow suit.
The October revolution’s appeal had a growing impact throughout 1918 and when revolutions started to break out throughout Europe in late 1918 it was seen as the example to follow. The revulsion at the slaughter which had taken place and bitterness towards the ruling classes which had been responsible strengthened a deep opposition towards capitalism and, inspired by the Russian example, a willingness to fight for socialist change. Hence the ruling classes growing fear of “Bolshevism” and their willingness to fight back.
In Europe, revolutions swept through Germany, Italy and many parts of the former Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires. Ireland saw intensifying opposition to British rule and fighting, especially in the south, for independence which, in Limerick, saw a general strike and the formation of a “Soviet” in April 1919. General or mass strikes were a feature of these movements internationally alongside the formation of committees to organise the struggle, often inspired by the example of the Soviets in the Russian revolution and sometimes actually using the same name.
The combination of the effect of the world war and the Russian revolution’s impact was felt far and wide. As part of a radicalisation in the working class, and a rejection of those Social Democrat leaders who supported their “own” capitalist classes, the Communist International became the largest organised worldwide revolutionary movement seen so far. In the colonial world the imperialist character of the war was shown very clearly as the 1919 Versailles Treaty divided up German colonial possessions amongst the winning imperialist states.
Thus, the former German territories in China were handed over to Japan, rather than back to the China, a decision which produced the May 4 Movement that began the revolution which gripped China throughout the 1920s. Likewise, the 1919 Amritsar Massacre, when British led troops killed 379 protesters and wounded over 1,200, gave a significant boost to the anti-colonial struggle in India, while movements in Egypt increased against the so-called British ‘protectorate’, a thinly disguised form of colonial rule.
The revolutionary wave saw mighty strikes in the US, including a completely solid 5 day general strike in Seattle for higher wages, and also a wave of repression against the left which included imprisonment of socialists and deportation of foreign born migrants who were activists.
Britain in 1919 was not immune from these movements, although they did not reach the revolutionary pitch of Germany. In Glasgow, January saw a local general strike demanding a 40-hour week being met by the deployment of troops and tanks onto the city’s streets. The government feared that this strike, coming after a series of battles over wages and rents, could develop into something more serious. A similar situation developed in Belfast around the same time. The British government’s deployment of armed troops against strikers and other protestors was not unusual at the beginning of the 20th century, but after the First World War the forces of the state were themselves sometimes in revolt. In Britain, new unions among the armed forces (SSAU) and the police and prison officers (NUPPO) developed. There were munities amongst servicemen demanding demobilisation, with 20,000 taking part in the largest in Calais, while on one occasion 1,500 troops came from their West London barracks to protest in Whitehall.
Fearing revolution, the British ruling class made many concessions, like giving all adult men, and some women, the vote. But wartime British prime minister Lloyd George’s promised “Land fit for heroes” never materialised and by the early 1920s the government and employers launched a counter-offensive which was the background to the 1926 General Strike. These events radicalised the Labour Party, and in 1918 it adopted a socialist objective. However, its pro-capitalist wing worked to ensure that the party would not challenge capitalism and began, in the early 1920s, their first efforts to drive Marxists out of the Party and make it “safe” for the ruling class.
Now, 100 years on from these great events, they have great lessons for today’s socialists. While the pre-First World War socialist movement predicted the war and what would flow from it, the revolutionary movements that followed from it did not manage to end capitalism. A key reason for this was that the majority of the pre-war “socialist” leaders came to accept the continuation of capitalism and, on that basis, supported their “own” ruling classes in the war. From there, for some, it was a short step to actively bloodily suppressing the revolution as the German Social Democratic leadership did. At the same time the young, relatively inexperienced revolutionaries in the newly formed communist parties were not able to immediately develop the strength or consistently apply the policies and programme necessary to win mass support and complete the revolutions.
While the last 100 years have seen many movements and revolutions, capitalism has been able to continue. The question of ending with capitalism and the horrors that it can bring – wars, poverty, environmental crisis, booms and slumps – lays not only in struggles but also in building a movement with a clear programme of how and willingness to achieve that aim.