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International Socialism, September 1997


Megan Trudell

Prelude to Revolution:
Class Consciousness and the First World War


From International Socialism 2:76, September 1997.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Over 80 years after it began the First World War continues to haunt our imaginations. The images of the trenches, the mud, the suffering, are ingrained onto our consciousness, whatever age we are. A drive through Northern France today means roads lined with cemeteries and monuments to the dead. Farmers still turn up tin hats and shells from the ground with every year’s plough. The experience of war produced some of the 20th century’s most provoking art in the work of Chagall, Otto Dix, Käthe Kollwitz and the German Expressionists, among others, and some of the most moving prose and poetry in the work of Graves, Owen, Sassoon, D.H. Lawrence, Blunden, Remarque and others. And the war continues to fascinate: some of the best selling books over the last few years – like Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Pat Barker’s powerful Regeneration trilogy – have focused on the war, those who fought it, and those they left behind.

The reason the First World War intrigues is in part because it is not as easily explained as the Second World War. Whatever the truth of it, the Second World War is widely perceived as having a purpose: as a war against fascism. The First World War has no such justification. The puzzle remains – how to explain such a meaningless waste of human life.

And in part it remains the most shocking of wars, despite all the bloodshed humanity has seen since, because it was the first war fought with 20th century technology – a modern industrial war. One of the most horrific aspects of the war is the contradiction between generals intent on using 19th century methods like cavalry and bayonets in a situation of entrenched warfare and machine guns. It staggers the imagination that such idiocy held sway for so long, losing millions of lives, barely gaining any territory.

The war also had an enormous impact on the shape of the world. As one book puts it, ‘The 1914–1918 conflict created the fundamental elements of 20th century history’. [1] When war broke out in August 1914 central Europe, Turkey and Russia were dominated by three powerful empires – the Tsars in Russia, the Austro-Hungarian, and the Ottoman. When it ended four years later, all three were in ruins, broken into a myriad nation states. The redistribution of power by the victorious Allies at Versailles established faultlines that still destabilise the late 20th century world. War in the Balkans and continual tension and conflict in the Middle East can be seen as the ‘chickens of Versailles coming home to roost’. [2] Other aspects of 20th century history that we take for granted – the rise of the United States as the powerful world economy, the decline of Britain as a world power, the fight for the survival of the first workers’ state in Russia and its subsequent destruction – are all consequences of the First World War and its aftermath. So too is the Second World War, just 22 years later, a result of the continuing arms race and growing militarism. The ‘war to end all wars’ did the very opposite.

But what is the most crucial element about the First World War for socialists is after a period of seeming despair for working class unity it raised the curtain on a revolutionary era that brought the world working class closer to emancipation than any other. It gave birth to an enormous revolutionary wave across the defeated nations, triggered by the Russian Revolution of 1917. Among the victors, Britain, France and Italy all saw social upheavals of varying intensity. As a prelude to world revolution the war and its effects are central.

The war

The war encompassed much of the world. It was fought on the Allied side by the British, French, Russians, and, from 1915, the Italians – plus Belgians, Serbians, Portuguese, Greeks, Romanians, Montenegrans, Japanese, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and, from the end of 1917, the United States. The Central Powers were Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey. Most of the fighting took place on the Western Front, a line about 475 miles long stretching from Belgium to Switzerland. After the opening phase of the war – four months of rapid movement which saw the German army sweep through Belgium, down through France and halt within 25 miles of Paris – the Allies pushed the Central Powers back at the Battle of the Marne to a line which stayed more or less static for the next four years. But the war was also fought out on the Eastern Front in Poland and Russia; in Italy, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia (now Iraq), Persia (Iran), Turkey, Greece, Romania, and North Africa.

The total financial cost of the war has been estimated as equal to the combined 1914 wealth of Britain, Australia and New Zealand. [3] Marc Ferro has calculated the economic loss to France: 700,000 houses and 20,000 factories destroyed; 50,000 kilometres of roads and railways rendered unusable; 3 million hectares of land ruined; cereal production down by 40 percent; industrial production by 50 percent. [4]

The human cost was enormous. Those who fought on every side paid a heavy price. About 10 million people were killed or died as a result of the war. Germany lost 1.8 million, Russia 1.7 million, France 1.38 million, Austria-Hungary 1.29 million, Britain 743,000 and Italy 615,000. ‘On average [there] was more than 5,600 soldiers killed on each day of the war’. [5] The French lost almost 20 percent of their men of fighting age, the Germans, 13 percent. ‘The British lost a generation – half a million men under the age of 30’. [6]

The First World War involved the most extensive use of trench warfare: the hideous spectacle of men digging themselves into the ground – often their own graves – separated from the enemy by ‘no man’s land’, a ‘chaos of waterlogged shell-craters, ruined tree stumps, mud and abandoned corpses’ [7] maybe 100 yards wide. Periodically they were launched at the enemy in what were effectively suicide missions. The big battles on the Western Front – the Marne, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele – saw an unprecedented butchery. France lost over 140,000 men in five days in August 1914 – a product of ‘the theory of the offensive’ which meant the French generals threw men at German artillery without ‘thought to surprise or concealment’, their officers ‘carrying swords held by hands sporting white gloves’. [8]

At Verdun, the war’s longest battle, in five months an average of 100 shells a minute were fired – 23 million in total. Two million men fought at Verdun, by the end of the battle half of them had been slaughtered. Out of 330 infantry battalions in the French army, 259 went through Verdun at some point – not to be relieved until part of their number were destroyed. ‘Yet at the end of the encounter, the battle lines were about where they had been at the beginning’. [9] On the Somme, in the four months from 1 July 1916 over 1 million men died. The British dead stood at 95,675 – 20,000 of whom fell on the first day of the battle. The French lost 50,729, the Germans, 164,055. Over 60 percent of the Australian troops who fought in it were killed. German machine gunners watched in amazement as the British walked towards them, their officers in the front – a tactic the British ruling class moved away from as a quarter of Oxbridge graduates under 25 in the army in 1914 were killed – and were mown down. [10] When the battle ended in November, ‘the British line had moved forward six miles, but was still three miles short of Bapaume, the first day’s objective’. [11]

Passchendaele, the third battle of Ypres, symbolises the futility of trench warfare. Fought between July and November 1917, the wettest summer and autumn in memory turned the battlefield into a swamp. Men, animals and equipment were swallowed into the mud. The dead became stepping stones for the living. The continuation of the battle was simple slaughter. Away from the Western Front, the disastrous campaign at Gallipoli cost thousands of lives – most of them from the Commonwealth; the Eastern Front killed a higher proportion of those who fought than the Western Front, though not as murderous in total. Two million Russians, 10 percent of those mobilised, died, ‘churned into gruel until casualties in the firing line should make rifles available’. [12]

In addition to the death toll of those who fought can be added the 62,000 US soldiers who died of flu, the 82,000 civilians in Serbia (compared to 45,000 soldiers) killed, the 1.5 million Armenians massacred between 1914 and 1919 – a genocide flowing from the bloody fight to forge a nation out of the old Ottoman empire among Turkish and Kurdish speakers – and the estimated 750,000 German civilians who died as a result of the Allied blockade. From 1914 to 1922 between 4 and 5 million people became refugees. [13]

The First World War was the worst devastation the world had seen up to that point. It was the first major war involving all of Europe since 1815. It involved the mass of the populations of those countries which fought it:

In most combatant countries, roughly 50 percent of the male population between the ages of 18 and 49 were in uniform ... [in France and Germany] about 80 percent of men of military age were conscripted. Austria-Hungary mobilised 75 percent of its adult male population; Britain, Serbia and Turkey called up between 50 and 60 percent. In Russia about 16 million men ... served during the war. [14]

Hundreds of thousands of others worked in munitions, in mines, in rail – all economic life bent before the war. Such a massive upheaval arose not, as we are taught, from the petty incident that was used as its justification – the shooting of the Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo – or because of some personality flaws among the protagonists. It is quite possible that the Kaiser was bitter because of his shrivelled arm, but the notion that war was somehow a result of his ‘volatility of mood and mind’ [15] will not do as an explanation for mass butchery. The motivating force behind the eventual clash between the world’s key nations was the increasing need of sections of capital to expand production beyond domestic borders and acquire new markets for goods. The enormous industrial growth of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had led to the increasing internationalisation of capitalism. Britain’s star was fading, new powerful economies were jostling for room to expand. Germany and the United States began eating into Britain’s domestic market. ‘A number of competing national industrial economies now confronted each other. Under these circumstances economic competition became inextricably woven into the political, even the military, actions of states’. [16] That competition led to ‘national rivalry for world markets and material resources’, competition for control of oil rich areas, and to the potential for unlimited expansion for big companies. [17]

The war was the result of the antagonism between states locked in competition for the world’s resources. Each state had its own specific motivation for war – whether it was the expansion of its resources, or protection of the empire it already held:

British and French capitalism, though weaker economically [than Germany], had much more powerful global presencesv... Sections of German capital wanted to expand outwards beyond their national boundaries in a similar way. The British and French ruling classes sought to protect their holdings by an alliance with Tsarist Russia against Germany and its allies, Austria-Hungary and the decaying Turkish empire. Rival imperialisms pushed against each other’s influence in Morocco, in East and Southern Africa, above all in South East Europe. [18]

The fact that the war was fought between nations that were growing in economic strength and industrial capabilities, coupled with the unlimited spoils which would fall to the victors meant that it was massively bloody – a mass produced war. Since ‘the main participants were powerful industrial societies, each had to mobilise its full potential. The war became one of attrition in which victory could not be gained until one’s enemy had been bled dry’. [19] And the war itself fed into the increasing industrial might of nations. Arms production accelerated economic growth – the French munitions industry maintained an output of 200,000 shells a day, Tsarist Russia produced 150,000. ‘Mass war required mass production’. [20]


Such a cataclysm was bound to create social shock waves that would rock the world’s ruling classes. But it certainly did not appear at the start that revolutions would be a result of the conflict. The strength of nationalist feeling in the first year of the war is an aspect of the war that perplexes many – why was the patriotic frenzy so great and why did so many workers volunteer to fight so enthusiastically? The notion that nationalism is all powerful is often used to bolster the argument that all the ruling class has to do is wave the flag and workers will flock behind it. It is an argument not restricted to the First World War but one encountered during every subsequent war – right up to the modern examples of the Falklands, the Gulf and Bosnia. The question of whether or not nationalism is a more powerful impulse than class identification is therefore utterly bound up with any account of the war.

The growth of nationalist sentiment was an inevitable corollary of the push to imperialism on the part of the great powers. The acquisition of territory and markets were justified as being in the ‘national interest’. In the second half of the 19th century,

the dynastic empires which had previously been the most bitter opponents of national movements began to redefine themselves in nationalist terms. The Prussian monarchy took over the German nationalist ideology. The Habsburg monarchy split its domains into two halves, in one of which Hungarian replaced Latin as the official language, in the other, German. The ‘Tsar of all the Russias’ ... for the first time began to encourage a Great Russian nationalism.

The same period also saw the growth of the national idea in the more established capitalist states, where, for example, a ‘new celebration of British nationalism, with the establishment, for the first time, of a state run educational system that indoctrinated children in the glories of “national” history, the writing of nationalist popular novels, plays, poetry and songs by literary admirers of the empire and the conscious invention of traditions aimed at encouraging popular identification with the monarchy’. [21]

In addition, the development of nationalism by the ruling classes meant the assertion of a dominant nationalism and thus the oppression of other national groups. But in this respect the stress on the national idea was double edged. As the imperialist war loomed many national minorities began to find their voices. This was especially true in Russia, where 57 percent of the population were national minorities, and in the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was built on the denial of national rights to many of its national groups. As a result national movements grew, especially among the Southern Slavs, threatening the dynasty’s very existence. [22]

To trace the mass acceptance of nationalism during the beginning of the war, it is necessary to look at the state of the class struggle immediately before the war. What is frequently overlooked is the fact that the war was preceded not only by a rise in nationalist feeling but also by a wave of revolutionary upheaval and strikes – there had been revolutions in 1905 in Russia, following the end of the Russo-Japanese War, in Turkey in 1907 and in Mexico in 1912. These ‘added new combustible material to a world already preparing to go up in flames’. [23]

In Russia before the war there was a serious heightening of class tensions – just days before the war broke out there were barricades erected in St Petersburg and a strike of 200,000 in protest at police brutality against a demonstration by workers from the Putilov factory held in solidarity with striking oil workers. In Britain, the Great Unrest of 1910–1914 saw a huge upsurge of militant unofficial strikes that swept mining, transport and engineering. The British ruling class was deeply shaken by the biggest workers’ movement since the Chartists. Trotsky wrote, ‘The vague shadow of revolution hovered over Britain in those days’. [24] Germany saw a wave of strikes in favour of widening the franchise between 1910–1912, often involving clashes with the police. The years 1911–1914 were also years of crisis in Italian society: there was a general strike called in response to the conquest of Libya, and in the years just before the war there were big struggles, particularly in Turin and Milan.

The outbreak of the war broke the back of the revolts. Patriotism swept every country involved. It seemed to some to be ‘an outbreak of unreason, madness, or a mass delusion’. [25] The popular conception of the declaration of war, with cheering crowds waving off trainloads of excited soldiers is not unfounded – many workers in France and Britain, Germany, Austro-Hungary and Russia volunteered enthusiastically to fight. In France, the expected level of desertion was 5–13 percent, in reality only 1.5 percent refused to fight. [26] In Britain ‘750,000 volunteered in the first 8 weeks, a further million in the next 8 months’. [27] In Russia 1 million deserters were expected. All but a few thousand, out of 15 million, failed to go. From a near revolutionary situation to enthusiasm for war – ‘Russia seemed to have been completely transformed’, wrote the British ambassador of the time. [28]

In part this enthusiasm was a response to ruling class propaganda about the nature of the war. Every ruling class involved argued the war was one of national defence. Germany was defending itself from Russian aggression, France from German militarism. Britain was defending ‘poor little Belgium’. Each ruling class pushed the idea that there was an outside threat to the democratic rights enjoyed by the nation’s citizens, and in part the response of each country’s working class was an identification with one’s nation and a desire to protect one’s way of life.

But it wasn’t a straightforward calculation on the part of the ruling classes involved. Such had been the scale of domestic crisis in most of the countries involved that it was not at all obvious that workers would respond to the call to arms. In Britain, against a background of social upheaval and a potentially explosive situation in Ireland where the pressure for Home Rule was mounting, the Liberal minister John Morley considered that ‘the atmosphere of war cannot be friendly to order in a democratic system that is verging on the humour of [18]48’. [29] Ruling classes across the globe were in fact astonished by the scale of patriotic zeal. This should not be surprising: nationalism is not simply imposed from above, but has to in some way correspond to existing national sentiments among a section at least of the population – often the middle class – and grips the minds of the masses when other social change seems remote.

It is not simply the case that workers who had fought so hard for social change in the pre-war years suddenly turned their backs on their own struggles and were brainwashed by their respective governments. Much of their motivation can be traced precisely to the holding back, or even defeat, of such social struggles. The vision of war came to seem as if it were an alternative way of dramatically transforming society. Magnus Hirschfeld described the response to the declaration of war as ‘a discharge of tensions that had built up for years’. [30] Ferro argues that the ‘worker of 1914, going off to war, had found a substitute for revolutionary hopes.’ Many workers went to fight with ‘an image of war as the antithesis of the boredom, materiality and mechanisation of every day life’. [31] Trotsky, living in Vienna when war broke out, described the jubilation in the streets and pointed to the fact that, for millions, the war represented a moment of profound change:

The people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness are many; they are the mainstay of modern society. The alarm of mobilisation breaks into their lives like a promise; the familiar and long-hated is overthrown, and the new and unusual reigns in its place. Changes still more incredible are in store for them in the future. For better or worse? For the better, of course – what can seem worse ... than ‘normal’ conditions? [32]

It is important to grasp how dramatic a period people felt they were entering. There was a real sense that the whole shape of the world was about to change and that society was embarking on an adventure. Gertrude Bäumer, writing in Germany, has summed this feeling up:

The plunge from out of the existing world into a completely different one cannot be described ... There are no expressions suitable to the reality of this pause between two world orders – the fading of everything that was important yesterday and the summoning up of novel historical forces. In those clear sleepless nights of high summer we became a ‘battleground of two epochs’. [33]

In the beginning, that feeling for change connected with the patriotism and the celebration of the national idea pushed from the ruling class and echoed by labour leaders. But nationalist enthusiasm, though by far the most powerful impulse at the start of the war, was by no means the only response to the hostilities. There were huge demonstrations against the war and mass rallies for peace in France, in Britain and in Germany just days before the war broke out – a movement that was, days later, reined in by socialist party and trade union leaders.

Nationalism and revolutionary ideas are, logically, mutually exclusive – but the gap between workers’ interests and their perception of those interests means that they often hold conflicting ideas, like defending their nation and wanting social justice at the same time. Which outweighs the other depends on social circumstances, individual experience, the level of class struggle and so on. Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-German revolutionary, described at the start of the war the potential for change in people’s ideas:

The psyche of the masses like the eternal sea always carries all the latent possibilities: the deathly calm and the roaring storm, the lowest cowardice and the wildest heroism. The mass is always that which it must be according to the circumstances of the time, and the mass is always at the point of becoming something entirely different than what it appears to be. [34]

Future Communist Party leader Harry Pollitt, working during the war as a boilermaker in Britain, looked concretely at the same process: ‘It was my experience time and time again that the workers you mixed with every day, who respected you, who listened to your arguments and suggestions, who you never thought could be swept off their feet by jingoism ... could by one incident or another be so transformed, though perhaps only temporarily, that they did not appear to be the same people’. [35]

The First World War, rather than simply demonstrating the strength of nationalism over social or class consciousness, actually provides a stark example of how the balance between the two (and many other ideas) constantly shifts.

The war changed people, especially those who fought in it. A ‘deep and profound alteration of identity’ took place. [36] Many previously held ideas were thrown into chaos and abandoned, reworked or subsumed by other, new ways of looking at the world. Class conflicts did not disappear, despite the hopes of some, mainly middle class officers, that the war would present some sort of ‘natural community’. Every army was vulnerable to the ‘realities of a war that expressed, even amplified the class hatreds endemic to bourgeois society’. [37] And the more the idea of the war as a classless enterprise was insisted on by the elite, the bitterer the disappointments when soldiers faced the reality of army hierarchy, bullying by often savage officers, and all the humiliations of being oppressed and exploited.

One officer in the German army wrote of the differences between volunteer soldiers and conscripts that ‘they felt towards us a kind of class hostility, or at least a class barrier’. [38] Karl Jannack, the son of a railway worker and an SPD member in Bremen before the war described the differences:

There were two different groups of reserve people: replacements for men and officer candidates. Of the first there is little to say ... they disappeared into the trenches like ourselves. The others were almost all volunteers, mostly graduates of secondary school and sons of wealthy tradesmen, high officials, or senators. With them came their fathers with their automobiles, their cars were always packed full with parcels. [39]

Franz Schauwecker, the son of a customs official in Hamburg, was one of those idealistic young officers who went to the front imagining a community of honour and discovered that he was the target of class hatred: ‘Inside my company my own comrades – for the most part dock workers from Stettin – played tricks on me with genuine rapture whenever possible, even after the first big battle, because they, the men of action, saw in me the ... foolish war volunteer ... and because they, the socialist workers, saw in me the pampered, well-to-do, privileged man of education’. [40] As E.J. Leed says, ‘The organic dependence of a male community, the cessation of individuality, the submergence of class differences – all of his expectations – cast no shadow in the glare of realities’. [41]

In the 1920s and 1930s, Schauwecker evidently swept the memory of this class conflict from his mind, becoming an ardent nationalist who romanticised the war as a ‘national experience’. He wrote: ‘In 1914 the German people marched forth, in November 1918 the German nation returned. In between lay the breakthrough of nationalism into the political reality as being and fact’. [42] It is no accident that, in those who looked to the national ideal after the war, the middle class officer was well represented. The nation state was often an aspiration most fervently held by the middle class, and their imaginings of what the war would be like fitted with the ideal of a national whole. The fact of war itself only served to reinforce this sentiment in some: ‘It has been hammered into us with blood and dirt and sweat for four years; we are not for ourselves alone. We are a complete, closed body, a nation’. [43] Leed argues that although the war was a deeply disillusioning experience, especially for the sons of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless, those with the highest expectations of the glories of war were among the later popularisers of nationalist doctrine. But it was not a nationalism born during war, if anything the experience of war weakened nationalism. It was an ideal resurrected after the fact.

The strong sense of the national idea was initially overwhelming for millions of workers as well. They did pick up weapons against workers from other countries and fight each other for four years. Yet, even at first, there were small signs that it would prove a weaker bond than it was for the middle and upper classes. The experiences of truces between enemy soldiers that occurred throughout the war, the hatred for officers amongst men, were contradictory sentiments which pulled in the opposite direction to the notion of fighting together, all classes, for one nation against another. An often repeated example of the slender hold of nationalism in the face of shared experience and army hierarchies – even in the middle of war – are the events of Christmas 1914. On Christmas Eve along some parts of the German line on the Western Front the soldiers put Christmas trees on the trench parapets. The ‘enemy’ troops sang hymns and applauded each others’ efforts. Rifleman Graham Williams remembered:

First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up O Come All Ye Faithful the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this was really a most extraordinary thing – two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war. [44]

And Christmas 1914 is simply one of the better known examples of fraternisation that became commonplace. Even at the front under strict discipline officers could not prevent unofficial, totally illegal truces between men. One soldier described how it worked:

In a quiet position everything is done to maintain, if at all possible, the calm. If one knocks out the opponents’ bunkers ... the other does the same, and both lay exposed under the open sky and no one has won anything ... for this reason orders for patrols to take prisoners find little approval and few volunteers. [45]

Resentment against the high command was often ‘translated into subtle, collective action, which thwarted the high command trench war strategy’. [46] British or French soldiers out on patrol would pass by a German patrol without a shot being fired, it was common to fly a white flag at a certain point on the trench parapet beyond which was the toilet, and the ‘enemy’ would not fire on that area. Men were only prevented from exchanging cigarettes or postcards across no man’s land by official crackdowns. In other words, social inclinations often cut across and intersected with feelings of national identification and, the longer the stalemate on the Western Front continued, the more soldiers’ resentment was aimed at their own commanders.

Less than a year after the war started, class consciousness began to reassert itself. The economic side effects of war were a key contributory factor to this resistance. The strikes that broke out in most countries after the first year of war were motivated largely by the huge disparity between the wage cuts, freezes and sacrifices expected from workers on the one hand and the enormous profits bosses were making off the back of mass slaughter. Prices for food and clothing rose massively across the board – by 80 percent in Italy, 70 percent in Britain, 600 percent in Germany. Industries like oil, chemicals, metals and leathers, which had been declining or making a loss before 1914, boomed. In Germany declared profits rose by 10 million marks in six months in 1917. In Britain and America, the profits of new industries like Anglo-Persian oil rose from a deficit of £26,700 in 1914 to profits of £85,000 in 1916, £344,100 in 1917 and more than £1 million in 1918. Profits of rubber companies rose 40 times in the four years of war. In the US, Washington Iron and Steel saw profits more than double from £184 million to £485 million and Anaconda Copper’s profits went up from £9 million to £51 million between 1916 and 1917 alone.

But the gap between the profits of the rich and the privations of the masses meant that strikes in Russia, Germany, Britain and France increased dramatically between 1915 and 1917. In Italy, although the number of strikes was lower, the number of workers on strike rose. [47] September 1915 in Russia was pictured in one report like this:

The workers, and the population as a whole, are gripped by some sort of madness and are like gunpowder ... I must also note the presence, in Moscow, of about 30,000 convalescent soldiers. This is a wild band, not recognising discipline, making scandals, clashing with the police (recently one of the latter was killed by soldiers), freeing prisoners and so on. Undoubtedly, if there are disorders, this whole horde will be on the side of the crowd. [48]

In November of the same year: ‘Sailors ... began to clamour for better food, more humane treatment,’ as well as the ‘dismissal of all officers bearing German names’. [49]

In Germany, class collaboration was taken to its highest extreme with the vast majority of the representatives of the working class supporting actively imperialist policies. Unions ‘became agents of the state, denouncing “agitators” hostile to the agreements concluded with ruling classes and governments’. [50] Yet there were growing demonstrations for peace from 1915 on. These began numbering only hundreds in Berlin, but escalated as hunger drove people into the streets. When Karl Liebnecht, the revolutionary and the first Reichstag deputy to vote against war credits, was arrested on a May Day demonstration in 1916, 55,000 workers struck in solidarity during his trial. [51] Feeling against the war grew: by December 1915 there were 20 Reichstag deputies voting against war credits. The food situation in Germany deteriorated. In 1916 the bread ration dropped and the potato crop failed, leading to the terrible ‘turnip winter’ of 1916–1917. As real wages fell rapidly, the demand for peace became widespread among the masses in German society, while the Allied blockade pushed the German military establishment to continue the war – thus polarising German society.

In Britain workers in 15 percent of industry struck on 8 August 1914, just after the Defence of the Realm Act was passed. By 1915 there was increasing resistance to bosses holding down wages and putting up prices. In the south Wales coalfields and on the Clyde, government intransigence and repression led to strikes which spilled over into conflict with the state. The formation of the Clyde Workers Committee promoted shop stewards’ committees in each workshop. Its chief militants were deported from Clydeside, but they spread the practice to other cities, notably Sheffield. In November 1916, after the casualties of the Somme had devastated so many British families, the call up of an exempted engineer from Sheffield provoked a 10,000 strong strike. Flying pickets were sent to other workplaces to spread the strike. The War Office backed down and the dispute led to permanent shop stewards’ committees in Sheffield. Back on the Clyde there were attempts to link the economic strikes with a fight against the war. John Maclean courageously spoke out against the war and stood out as an internationalist in a sea of opportunism but he faced an uphill struggle: ‘Maclean’s ideas were not backed up by any solid organisation so had only minimal influence on the rank and file ... [he] had no mechanism (such as a party rooted in the factories) to fight for internationalism’. [52] Having to work within the shop stewards’ committee put obvious constraints on Maclean’s ability to build widespread opposition to the war among the masses – the committee was not a revolutionary party and could not be won to putting anti-war politics at the centre of its platform.

In Italy the war led to repressive measures against those attempting to leave a job and those advocating pacifism. The Socialist Party (PSI) was against the war but did little to organise real resistance to imperialism. The war was squeezing the economy hard, railways were only running to 50 percent capacity, textile factories’ production was half the pre-war figure, agricultural production was hit – leading to bread shortages. Strikes broke out over wages and on May Day 1917 there were large anti-war demonstrations. These demonstrations grew in size, reaching their peak in the summer in Turin where ‘the strikes ... were reminiscent in many ways of those in Petrograd in February. Women and youth had a vital part in them, trying to fraternise with the carabinieri and shouting, “Don’t fire at your brothers”’. [53]

Though strike figures for France were lower than those in Britain or Italy, they nonetheless increased, despite the bombing of Paris and the continued presence on French soil of Central Powers troops. According to Ferro they were ‘not purely economic in motive, but were stimulated by a climate of political agitation and militancy’. [54]

In part all this was due also to the changing composition of the working classes in warring countries: the sheer numbers of men who left to fight meant an influx of women and younger men into the factories – in France nearly a quarter of those employed in the defence industries were women; in Germany the number of women workers rose from 1.4 million to 2.1 million during the war. In the US the number of women workers increased by two and a half times. In Germany the number of miners under the age of 16 rose by seven times and the number of similarly aged metal workers rose by four times. The same pattern was evident in Britain and Russia. [55] The newer workers, without the experiences of struggles that had been defused in the pre-war years, were often more militant.

The reality therefore was very far from the national community: ‘The actuality of war raised with new intensity and concreteness the problems that had been “solved” with its declaration: the relationship between social classes, the relationship of men to the means of production that in war became the means of destruction, the relationship between owners, “managers”, and workers of war’. [56] Trotsky described the process:

Like revolution, war forces life, from top to bottom, away from the beaten track. But revolution directs its blows against the established power. War, on the contrary, at first strengthens the state power which, in the chaos engendered by war, appears to be the only firm support – and then undermines it. [57]

Historian Eric Hobsbawm, in his book Nations and Nationalism, cites a study which looks at a large number of letters from soldiers writing home to Austria-Hungary. The war and the impact of the Russian Revolution filtered through to every level of society, raising new political ideas:

Among the activists of some of the oppressed nationalities such as the Poles and Ukrainians, the event raised hopes of reform – perhaps even of independence. However, the dominant mood was a desire for peace and social transformation ... Even where we find the strongest national tone – as among the Czech, Serbian and Italian letters – we also find an overwhelming wish for social transformation. [58]

Nationalism and class consciousness existed together and conflicted in workers’ heads. As Hobsbawm puts it:

Men and women did not choose collective identification as they chose shoes, knowing that one could only put on one pair at a time. They had, and still have, several attachments and loyalties simultaneously, including nationality, and are simultaneously concerned with various aspects of life, any of which may at any one time be foremost in their minds, as occasion suggests. For long periods of time these different attachments would not make incompatible demands on a was only when one of these loyalties conflicted directly with another or others that a problem of choosing between them arose ... supporting their own government in war seemed to ordinary workers quite compatible with demonstrating class consciousness and hostility to employers. The south Wales miners who shocked their revolutionary syndicalist, and internationalist, leaders by rushing to the colours equally readily brought the coalfield out on general strike less than a year later, deaf to the accusation that they were unpatriotic. [59]

Understanding the strength of the national idea this way cuts through the notion that war proves that nationalism will always triumph over working class unity. A massive shift took place in the heads of millions of workers and soldiers between 1914 and 1917. Once people are swung by patriotism, or won over by nationalism, it does not follow that they are wholly captured by chauvinism or that they cannot swing away from it. The contrast between the patriotic fervour of the first year of the war and the revolutions, in part against the war, that ultimately ended it ought to be proof that national feeling does not preclude dawning class consciousness or desire for wider change. As Hobsbawm says:

Progress of national consciousness ... is neither linear nor necessarily at the expense of other elements of social consciousness. Seen from the perspective of August 1914, one might have concluded that nation and nation-state had triumphed over all rival social and political loyalties. Could one have said so in the perspective of 1917? [60]

By 1918, ‘Patriotic sentiment no longer absorbed, as in 1914, the social struggle. The war had come as a revelation, a detonator that blew up one element of the old system of authority’. [61]

But if the war polarised society, it did not simply engender revolution. Ex-soldiers were not uniformly revolutionary – the Croix de Feu, a far right veterans’ organisation, fought the workers’ movement in France in 1936. Hitler was a young soldier in the war. People who lost faith in the war, or became weary with the sheer numbers of dead, experienced conflicting emotions: confusion and fear as well as anger. It is not a surprise that some retreated into suspicion of the foreign, and blind clinging to jingoism. In some cases – Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy – nationalism ‘re-emerged not as a milder substitute for social revolution, but as the mobilisation of ex-officers, lower middle and middle class civilians for counter-revolution. It emerged as the matrix of fascism’. [62]

Otto Braun, a German junior officer killed in 1918, understood that the shift in many soldiers’ consciousness was not a clear cut thing, not necessarily fully thought through, at least at first:

Any leaning the soldier may have towards socialism is ... mainly negative. He is furious with the whole rotten bourgeois society, furious with the stay-at-homes, in fact furious with everything at home ... [When the soldiers return] ... there will be a great amount of knowledge and a consciousness of power in back of them. In order to guide these masses into the paths of productive activity, one will have to know and be able to direct their gigantic mass of uncontrolled energy. [63]

It is doubtful that the productive activity Braun had in mind was the revolution, but his words applied to those who would win soldiers to socialism.

Acceptance by workers of society’s ruling ideas can and does change. In the sort of social turmoil that the war brought to all the major powers new ideas of peace and social change conflicted with old allegiances and heightened nationalist sentiment. For a while, perhaps a long while, depending on the outside circumstances, workers can carry ideas that do not seem compatible with each other. In the long term, one or the other will come to the fore, but which depends on individual experience, the level of social conflict, and the poles of attraction and options available.


The role of reformists was key to securing working class support for the war. The support of the leaders of the Second International – the collective voice of the world’s socialist parties representing 3 million workers in 27 different parties – for their own governments in the war led many millions of workers into the slaughter of the trenches. But it didn’t start that way. On 25 July 1914 the executive of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) issued an appeal to its membership to demonstrate against the impending war:

In the name of humanity and of civilisation the class conscious proletariat of Germany protests fervently against these criminal machinations of the warmongers ... Not a drop of German soldiers’ blood must be sacrificed to the lust for power of the Austrian rulers, and in the interests of imperialist profits ... Our cry must ring in the ears of the rulers everywhere: We want no war! Down with the war! Long live the international brotherhood of the peoples! [64]

On 4 August, however, every SPD deputy obeyed the majority decision to vote for the war credits the government wanted. At one stroke the most powerful socialist party in the world at the time capitulated to its own ruling class and to nationalism. Its tortuous justification was that the war was a defensive war:

We are carrying out what we have pledged ourselves to do: we do not desert the fatherland in its hour of peril. In this respect we are in complete accord with the International which has always recognised the right of every nation to independence and self-defence ... We trust that the hard experience of war will awaken in millions of people a horror of war, and will win them over for the ideals of socialism and of peace on earth. Guided by these principles we shall vote for the requisite credits. [65]

The betrayal, shocking though it was, was the result of contradictions that had long plagued the International. The 1890s, formative years for the SPD, had seen increasing prosperity and stability in Germany. Trade unions became legalised and grew and the SPD became less oriented on struggle and more committed to gaining parliamentary influence. This material stability was given ideological expression by Edward Bernstein who argued in 1898 for a revision of Marxism. The need for revolution had passed, and the SPD should present itself as it really was – a reformist social democratic party. Although initially resisted by both the centrist current in the SPD and the left led by Rosa Luxemburg, the aftermath of the 1905 Russian revolution led to a break between the centre and the left. The centrist position, outlined by Karl Kautsky, now became one which saw the class struggle as a ‘strategy of attrition’, rather than one of insurrection. Increasingly revisionism was tolerated by the centre and, in the elections of 1912, the SPD’s emergence as the largest party in Germany seemed to confirm the wisdom of the electoral strategy. Steady integration into the German establishment meant that the national identity of the SPD clashed with its slogans of internationalism. These cracks, papered over in the years before the war, were revealed as deep chasms on 4 August 1914.

Taking their cue from the SPD, trade union leaders suspended strikes and established a policy of class collaboration, known as the Burgfrieden in Germany and the union sacrée in France. The party and trade union leaders bent themselves to ‘the identification of the working class with the destiny of the nation’ [66], unwilling to lose support from the working class, or from the government, they did not argue against the war. The pressure to support the ruling class for the SPD, and the extent to which its leading members had already travelled down the reformist road, was well illustrated by a member from the left of the party, Konrad Haenisch:

The conflict of two souls in one breast was probably easy for none of us...[On the one hand] this driving, burning desire to throw oneself into the powerful current of the general national tide, and, on the other, the terrible spiritual fear of following that desire fully, of surrendering oneself to the mood which roared about one and which, if one looked deep into one’s heart, had long since taken possession of the soul. This fear: will you not also betray yourself and your cause? ... [Thus it was] until suddenly ... the terrible tension was resolved ... until – despite all principles and wooden theories – one could, for the first time in almost a quarter century, join with a full heart, a clean conscience and without a sense of treason in the sweeping, stormy song: Deutschland, Deutschland, Über Alles. [67]

In the name of socialism and world peace, the leaders of the socialist movement in Germany sent millions of young men to their deaths. They threw away the potential to oppose the war at the outset. The SPD’s capitulation was the most stunning to the socialist movement but it was by no means a response isolated to Germany. During August, Belgium’s Emile Vandervelde, the executive secretary of the Second International’s leading bureau, entered his country’s war cabinet. The editorial in the Belgian socialist daily, Le Peuple, stressed the need in the ‘hour of final victory ... without superfluous compassion ... to cast out the teutonic race from the family of humanity’. [68] In France, the Socialist Party and its union, the CGT, organised mass rallies and protests up to the outbreak of war. On 25 July the CGT paper, La Bataille Syndicaliste, urged a ‘revolutionary general strike’ in the event of war breaking out. On 1 August, general mobilisation in France was proclaimed with the declaration of war on Russia by Germany. The response of La Bataille Syndicaliste was to tell workers, ‘If you should be killed in action, all those of your comrades who as yet remain behind ... swear solemnly, while bidding you farewell: vanguard soldiers of the revolution, you will not have died in vain’. [69]

The CGT general secretary, Jouhaux, at the funeral of Jean Jaurès – the Socialist Party leader assassinated by a right winger – declared that ‘it is not hatred of the German people, but of German imperialism which drives us onto the battlefield’. He claimed to speak ‘in the name of the workers who have gone to war, who will go, of whom I am one’ – although he did no such thing. The French Socialists also voted for war credits and, on 26 August, Guesde and Sembat, leading Socialists, entered the government. Guesde later, in January 1918 justified their actions, saying, ‘Class collaboration in politics and government in peacetime is the worst kind of trickery, on the social level, because it preserves capitalist society, the destruction of which is essential for the freedom of labour and humanity as a whole; but in wartime, on the national level, it becomes just as much a duty for socialists, because it defends the nation, against aggressive war, and thus maintains the indispensable framework for socialist activity today and the first condition for internationalism tomorrow’. [70]

Marc Ferro sees the capitulation of the socialist leaders as inevitable in the face of all encompassing patriotism: ‘For Frenchman and German alike, patriotism had defeated the International ... men passionately welcomed the war and socialists seemed to be living in a world apart’. [71] And it is true that workers in every country were bombarded by a ruling class ideological offensive in support of the war. Many activists were thrown sideways by the national fervour and feared isolation from the masses. But, as we have seen, there was plenty of reason for the ruling class to be nervous of the response from its populations. The role of social democrat leaders in encouraging their members to defend their respective governments, in convincing those who looked to them that fighting an imperialist war was the ‘duty of socialists’, was crucial to the governments’ ability to win over their workers. The fact that the leaders tried to justify their capitulation on the pragmatic grounds of not losing support in a war they initially believed would be short lived in no way lessened the disastrous impact of their actions on those they were meant to represent.

Trotsky wrote of Britain in the period just before the war, ‘The leaders exerted all their strength in order to paralyse the movement ... strengthening the bourgeoisie and thus preparing the way for the imperialist slaughter’. [72] By braking the struggle labour leaders ensured that the only way to prevent the war – through workers’ resistance and the refusal to fight or build weapons of destruction – was blocked. Had the leaders of the Second International refused to back the war, and continued to encourage workers to respond to the call to slaughter with strike action against the employers, the possibility existed that significantly fewer of the 10 million people who lost their lives need have done so. The Second International was not beaten by patriotism – it never fought it. And in accepting the priorities of defence of the nation above internationalism it committed suicide. In the words of one French writer, ‘The International died on 4 August, 1914, killed not by the war, but by the renunciation of the socialists themselves’. [73]

Did there need to be a war?

The leaders of the main social democratic parties justified their attitude to the war with an analysis of capitalism that sees it as a basically sound system in which the occasional diplomatic mistake leads to war. War is seen as an aberration, rather than an in-built consequence of the competition that is central to the system. Karl Kautsky, for instance, wrote that the growth of cartels meant agreement between different sections of capital and this was mirrored by co-operation between nations in developing new markets. He argued that this would, at least, postpone war for some time. War is, according to Kautsky, not the result of the competitive anarchy of capitalism, but an illogical move that ruling classes can avoid. This is a view held by many academics and historians today. A related argument is that there would have been no revolutionary upheaval without the war. On this view revolution is an aberration resting on another aberration, war. Thus revolution is twice removed from its origins in the essential nature of capitalism. Norman Stone, for example, in his book on the Eastern Front, sees the Russian Revolution as a direct result of the war: ‘The First World War provoked a crisis of economic modernisation, and Bolshevik Revolution was the outcome’. [74]

That the war itself fed into and was a powerful motivating force in the revolutions that swept Europe between 1917 and 1923 is not in question. But the common view that without the First World War there would have been no such revolt is one with which Marxists should take issue – revolutions occur when society breaks down, it is true, but it was not necessary for 10 million people to die first.

The first point to remember is that the war broke the rising tide of struggle in the years after 1910. War does not emerge from stability, but from a system in crisis and flux – but the same is true of large scale social revolt. The period before the war was one of growing hostilities between great powers, born of increasing need for expansion of capital and the acquisition of territory and, therefore, markets. It was also one in which the upheaval in the system was producing opposition to imperialism, both from the socialist movement and in the beginnings of the ferment among oppressed nations. The world working class was growing, was more concentrated than ever before, and was increasingly militant in many countries. The fact that the jostling for influence among imperialist nations led to war and that crisis fed into revolution is not the same thing as a simple equation that war equals revolution. The Gulf War did not lead to revolution, nor have the numerous wars in Africa – it is not an inevitable outcome. There have also been revolutions without wars: Mexico before the First World War and the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989 are two examples. Wars and revolutions can come from the same basic source and pull people in very different directions. At the root of such upheaval is a fundamentally unstable system – with a vast number of ‘aberrations’ to its name as the 20th century draws to a close.

Subsequent events have proved Kautsky wrong, and shown that the crisis in society can either be resolved in favour of the system which perpetuates war or in favour of workers’ revolutions which hold within them the seed of a society free from war. The period of the First World War and the first successful workers’ revolution posed that choice starkly, and those who chose to defend the existing system turned their backs on the possibility of ending war for good.

February 1917

The rising level of protests and strikes against the war that were a feature of 1915 and 1916 exploded into decisive battle in Russia in February 1917. War weariness had provoked massive anger. A police report in early 1917 stated that the working class was,

on the edge of despair ... the slightest explosion, however trivial its pretext, will lead to uncontrollable riots ... The inability to buy goods, the frustrations of queuing, the rising death rate owing to poor living conditions, and the cold and damp produced by lack of coal ... have all created a situation where most of the workers are ready to embark on the savage excesses of a food riot. [75]

February also saw the introduction of rationing. Soldiers refused their officers’ orders to fire on the rioters, instead marching with them to the Duma – the Tsarist parliament – shouting, ‘Bread!’, ‘Down with the Tsar!’, and ‘Stop the war!’ The Tsar was deposed, replaced by a Provisional government headed by a representative of the monarchy, Prince L’vov, and including the Socialist Revolutionary Kerensky. By 17 March workers in 49 towns had set up their own soviets, by 22 March another 28 had joined them. The soldiers also established their own revolutionary committees. A situation of dual power prevailed between the workers’ and soldiers’ democratic councils on the one hand and the official government on the other.

The war had initially cloaked the crisis in Russian society, numbing the revolts against the Tsar. The reality of war now fed into the crisis and exacerbated it. Conditions that arose as a direct result of the war provoked widespread bitterness and resistance. Almost more importantly, the political consequences of a revolt against a government in time of war was huge. It may take longer for workers to take the state on, clouded by nationalism and identification with their own ruling class, but when it becomes clear that the oppressed classes are bearing the burden of war alone it sharpens class conflict immeasurably. In addition, governments and the state are forced to tie themselves much more closely to capital – to defend and protect the ability to compete and profit – and that relationship is never clearer than at a time of great crisis like war. The connection in workers’ heads, once made, creates politically combustible material. The bosses are no longer separate from government. The division between economic protests and political ones breaks down and the possibility of organising to attain both food and peace is placed on the agenda.

Even after the February Revolution, however, the war was not universally condemned. Some workers – in chemicals, artillery, engineering and rail especially – had been given wage rises as a result of increased profits. Although more than eaten up by price rises, these workers relied on the war for a living and were disproportionately affected by patriotism. For them, the new government meant democracy; Russia was now in line with the other Allied states, and the war could be prosecuted more successfully, not necessarily ended.

In the army, however, the threat to the continued prosecution of the war stemmed from the changes in discipline that the soldiers, flush with new found power, imposed on their officers. One general reported that, ‘Each time I gave an order, the soldiers said, “No, you can’t do that”’. [76] The contradictions inside the heads of Russia’s soldiers are clear from the claims set out by the 15th rifle regiment: along with pay increases and improvement in medical conditions was a request that soldiers’ families would be looked after so they could continue to fight the war without worrying about their loved ones. But, balanced against those feelings, yet to come into outright conflict with them, were calls for the election of certain officers and for political matters to be discussed by the army. The nature of the war became the question, with soldiers concerned that the generals would use a defensive war to try to resurrect the Tsar’s regime.

It is not surprising that soldiers and workers in Russia held contradictory ideas. Their revolution as yet still hadn’t overcome the contradictions of capitalism, and ideas are rooted in reality. The vast majority were not initially anti-war. The idea of fighting a war for democracy and liberty fitted well with the sentiments behind overthrowing the Tsar. But the act of ridding Russia of its monarchy gave people a sense of how society can be changed, and when the Provisional government refused to stop the war that was creating hardship it failed to stop the momentum for revolutionary change.


The duration and horror of the war, the ineptitude of the generals, the plummeting living standards, all fed into a crisis of nationalism. But it was the example of the Russian Revolution that opened up new possibilities for change. The revolutionary transformation of society now became a viable option in workers’ and soldiers’ minds.

The February Revolution transformed the resistance to the war. It became less piecemeal and more widespread and unified. The notion that the workers, peasants and soldiers of Russia had wrought such momentous change against their rulers, and therefore had potentially endangered their war effort, had an enormous impact. The strike figures in Britain, France and Italy jumped significantly in 1917. The first major illustration of the impact of revolution on soldiers followed the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917. Mutinies escalated as war weariness increased. And it was the French army that provided the ‘greatest of all crises that Europe saw in the war before the October Revolution’. [77]

Unsurprisingly, given the level of slaughter at Verdun, the area between Paris and Verdun was the most affected by mutiny. In the two weeks immediately preceding the mutiny, more than 250,000 French soldiers had died to gain 500 yards of ground in the Chemin de Dames. In April 1917 entire units refused to go back up the line, protesting against bad conditions and against the offensive. The mutinies mushroomed. Between April and September, an estimated 500,000 soldiers were affected, 68 divisions – over half the divisions in the French army – in 151 recorded incidents. [78] Desertions from the front went up from an average of 1,437 to 2,625 in 1917 and from the rear they increased from an average of 15,745 to 27,579. [79]

Many wanted to march on Paris, chanted ‘Down with the war’ and sang the Internationale. In some units, the idea of creating soviets was discussed. In May, mutineers from the 36th and 129th regiments met and composed a resolution: ‘We want peace ... we’ve had enough of the war and we want the deputies to know it ... When we go into the trenches, we will plant a white flag on the parapet. The Germans will do the same, and we will not fight until the peace is signed’. [80] Mutinous soldiers made connections with civilian workers: ‘I am ready to go into the trenches, but we are doing like the clothing workers. We are going out on strike,’ wrote one soldier. [81] In June, two Russian brigades were moved to a camp at La Courtine, 200 miles south of Paris. They quickly established a soviet, involving French soldiers,

by the end of July the 10,000 men at La Courtine were heading for open revolt ... ‘Down with the war!’ said a notice over the door of the delegates’ hut. Passing round the units was a proclamation from Russia, Declaration of the Soldiers’ Rights, which advocated extreme liberty of speech and revolution. [82]

The same month, the Commission d’Armée met in Paris, to be told by Deputy Abel Ferry that ‘demoralisation is gripping the French army. It is with a heavy heart that I have to tell you that a regiment has revolted...that in several others military policemen have been attacked and hanged, and in the leave-trains soldiers are openly singing the Internationale!’ [83]

After the revolts were put down, military tribunals found 3,427 soldiers guilty of mutiny – 554 were sentenced to death, and 49 actually shot. For such an immense movement, the punishment was limited. The mutinies terrified the French generals and the ruling class. The French general Nivelle (widely held responsible for the bloodbath at Chemin de Dames) was replaced by Pétain as a sop to the soldiers. The overthrow of the regime in Russia was no doubt uppermost in the minds of the French establishment. The argument that, as a victor in the war, France experienced little of the revolutionary feeling seen in Russia discounts the potential revealed in these revolts. One writer, not especially sympathetic to mutiny or revolution, argues that ‘France had narrowly avoided a revolution’. [84] ‘The summer of 1917 severely shook the confidence of ruling classes, with mutinies and strikes reviving and the Russian Revolution taking effect’. [85] In February 1917 in France Nivelle had complained of ‘the Army’s being infested with pamphlets, it is a veritable epidemic’. [86] The generals blamed the mutinies of April not on the disastrous Chemin de Dames campaign but on agents provocateurs and socialists.

Mutinies were not confined to the French army, however. In September 1917 there were five days of disorder among British troops at Etaples base camp. Etaples was notorious for its brutal regime and bullying officers. An article in the Workers Dreadnought of 30 September carried a report from a participant in the mutiny: ‘About four weeks ago about 10,000 men had a big racket at Etaples and cleared the place from one end to the other, and when the General asked what was wrong, they said they wanted the war stopped’. [87]

In 1917 there were 48,282 mutineers in the Italian army, and 56,268 deserters. The numbers kept rising; between May and October there were 24,000 new mutineers or deserters. [88] Mutinies were met with increasing repression – 359 soldiers were executed in 1917, compared to 66 in 1915. ‘In September 1917 there was no counting the number of times soldiers refused to march’. [89]

In October 1917 the Italian army were humiliated at Caporetto: although the Central Powers did not significantly outnumber the Italian troops, it turned into a rout. The Central Powers took 293,000 prisoners and occupied the area around Venice losing no more than a handful of men. But Caporetto was not simply a military disaster. There was an element of anti-war consciousness involved: 200,000 men surrendered, refusing to fight. Captain Rommel, leading the central forces, wrote of the Italian soldiers’ response to his invitation to surrender:

Suddenly the mass began to move and, in the ensuing panic, swept its resisting officers along downhill. Most of the soldiers threw their weapons away and hundreds hurried to me ... An Italian officer who hesitated to surrender was shot down by his own troops. For the Italians on Mrzli peak the war was over. They shouted with joy. [90]

In Germany the collapse of Tsarism removed the right wing Social Democrats’ ‘excuse’ that the war was directed against Russian tyranny. It became increasingly obvious to the German people that the aims of industrialists were expansionist: they wanted to push into Belgium and France and exercise ‘hegemony’ over Eastern and Central Europe. [91] In April 1917 a strike of 200,000 metal workers was led by militants opposed to the war: ‘Spontaneous unrest over food shortages was beginning to merge with political opposition to the war’. [92] Between June 1917 and January 1918 there was a series of mutinies at Kiel among the fleet.

Revolutionary forces unleashed

After the February Revolution in Russia, the Provisional government that had replaced the Tsar continued to prosecute the war ‘more efficiently’, while telling the workers and peasants that significant change could not come until the war was over, therefore stoking the anti-war feeling of the masses. The government wanted a war that would divide and exhaust the revolution. But those fighting the war had had enough. War weariness was endemic. Soldiers revolted; deserting, lynching officers they didn’t like. Discipline slipped away. After February, the Petrograd Soviet issued Order No. 1, which effectively created dual power within the armed services: committees of elected soldiers were set up and the orders of the government were to be obeyed only if they did not conflict with those of the Soviet. All hierarchical titles were scrapped. Soldiers and officers were to share the same rights once they returned to civilian life.

Despite several attempts by Kerensky’s government to modify this, the reality of dual power simply fed the crisis in the armed forces. The disintegration of the Russian army accelerated. ‘By October 1917 some 2 million solders had deserted – mostly between February and October’. [93] Kerensky bowed to the generals’ demand to restore the death penalty for desertion at the front, although, as one remarked: ‘Is it really possible to execute entire divisions?’ Soldiers were, due to their hatred of the war, moving towards the Bolsheviks’ position on the war. The figures regarding the influence of the Bolsheviks in the armed forces speak volumes about the ideological shifts taking place in the army:

The total number of Bolsheviks in the army at the time of the February Revolution was a couple of thousand. By the time of the April Conference it had risen to 6,000, and on 16 June it was 26,000. After that soldiers in practically all corps, divisions, batteries and other units began to join the party. On 5 October, on the north western front alone, there were 48,994 party members and 7,452 candidates. On 15 October, on the northern front there were 13,000 party members. [94]

Bolshevik influence spread beyond the army: the peasants were drawn into the revolution, the nationalities’ movement was growing and the Provisional government was increasingly paralysed by events. The Bolsheviks gained the majority in the Petrograd Soviet and, on 25 October, the Bolsheviks led an insurrection to seize power. Immediately after the October insurrection, the Bolsheviks published the secret treaties that had provoked the war and renounced the imperial possessions of Russia. They proposed peace to all nations involved in the war, peace not as a way of doing a deal with the capitalist nations, but as a weapon. ‘If the unlikely happens,’ Lenin argued, ‘then none of the states will accept an armistice, and we shall be able to call this war just, and defensive. Russia will become the ally of the world’s proletariat, of all the oppressed of the globe’. [95]

To this end, the party began to organise among German soldiers at the Eastern Front, publishing a newspaper to circulate among the troops, calling on them to make the German revolution and end the war on both fronts. The Allies, rather than accept peace, threw themselves into aiding the enemies of the revolution. Counter-revolutionary Russian generals were backed by Britain and Romania. The Allied war council agreed in June 1918 that each country was to send 4,000–5,000 troops to ‘support the Whites’. [96] The Central Powers supported anti-Bolshevik movements in Georgia, the Ukraine and Finland.

The Bolshevik Revolution united the ruling classes who, until then, had been at each other’s throats. The possibility of the spread of revolution was an immediate threat to their entire system, and a greater danger than the predatory ambitions of rival states. A German newspaper described it this way: ‘The struggle against Bolshevism must force the three Allied powers and their enemies together. A strong Germany will resist Bolshevism, whereas, if she succumbed to it, the worst kind of revolution would annihilate Europe’. [97] Churchill agreed: ‘We might have to build up the German army, as it was important to get Germany on her legs again for fear of the spread of Bolshevism’. [98] The French leader Clemenceau said, ‘This new and monstrous form of imperialism will threaten Europe all the more ... as it comes precisely at the end of the war, which will inevitably provoke, in all countries, a serious economic and social crisis ... The Allies must therefore cause the soviets to collapse’. [99] The war was now as much a crusade against the Russian Revolution as it was an expansionist conflict.

Yet it was not straightforward to get Allied troops to fight in Russia. There was widespread disaffection with the slowness of demobilisation after the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918. Soldiers who had fought in France and expected to return home to a heroes’ welcome found themselves being sent to fight a former ally with precious little explanation. It was not a popular or successful operation; even the Daily Express printed an editorial declaring that ‘the frozen plains of Eastern Europe are not worth the bones of a single British grenadier’. [100]

Allied soldiers landed at Murmansk in Northern Russia in February 1918, and more followed in April and May. The intention was to provide support and training for the White armies fighting the Bolsheviks. The occupying forces went so far as to set up an anti-Soviet government at Archangel. But British soldiers didn’t need a lot of convincing that fighting the Bolsheviks was not the reason they had signed up. Bolshevik leaflets that argued the Allied invasion meant that British soldiers were fighting against the revolution and therefore against the work of their own working class touched a chord. The socialist paper The Call, which was circulated behind British and US lines, made it clear that the Bolsheviks had proposed peace.

During 1918 and 1919 there were mutinies of British soldiers at Archangel, Kem, Kandalaksha, Murmansk, Onega and Seletskoi near the front line. In February 1919 a private stationed at Seletskoi reported in a letter, ‘All have gone on strike – held meetings last night and passed resolutions that they must be withdrawn from Russia immediately’. [101] The White generals were enlisted to support the British officers in keeping control of the troops. One of them, V.V. Maruchevsky, described the situation afterwards: ‘[the Yorkshires] organised a mutiny, and it seems, this developed into a strong wish to stop fighting. The English have concealed all this very thoroughly, but I came to know of this episode through a despatch from Colonel Micheva, who, at the request of the local British command, positioned machine guns on the road in case of open riot by the British’. [102]

In March 1919 Lieutenant-Colonel Radcliffe, Assistant Director of Military Operations, reported to the Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff concerning the ‘unreliable state of the troops [in Archangel and Murmansk].’ They were ‘tired, dispirited, homesick and inclined to be mutinous’, as well as being receptive to ‘very active and insidious Bolshevik propaganda’. [103] There were two mutinies in six weeks in November and December 1918 at Archangel among those Russian soldiers supposed to form the North Russian [White] National Army. Between April and June 1919 there were a number of mutinies among the North Russian Rifles.

At Onega on 20 July, in an extraordinary example of how tenuous was the loyalty the White generals could command, men from the 5th North Russian Rifles and the Archangel regiment murdered their officers. About 100 declined to join the Red Army, some deserted, but the bulk – over 600 men – stayed and fought alongside the Red Army in a nine hour battle against Allied-supported White forces. Even more demoralising for the Whites and the Allies, there was a mutiny among the over 4,000 men who made up the elite Slavo-British Legion. The unit had been seen as the most trustworthy, containing those soldiers most loyal to the counter-revolution. As Lawrence James writes, ‘The British could create and train crack units like the Slavo-British Legion, but its officers could not give the men who served in them a cause to fight for’. [104] The Bolsheviks could, and many of the 4,000 joined the Red forces.

The July mutinies were the final nail in the coffin of British participation in the Allied invasion of North Russia. Churchill, secretary for war, was dismayed by the events and, by October, the 18,000 British troops were evacuated. As early as January, Churchill had written to Lloyd George pushing to continue the intervention, yet saying, ‘unfortunately we have not the power – our orders would not be obeyed, I regret to say’. [105] Lenin wrote in January, ‘Attempts to conquer Russia, which require a long term occupation army of a million men, are the most certain road to the most rapid extension of proletarian revolution to the Entente countries’. [106] This was a point not lost on the Entente ruling classes.

The Bolsheviks’ intervention at the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations with the Germans in December 1917 had a real impact on the struggle. Though the ‘German military establishment saw the Russian offer of peace as a chance to expand the German empire still further ... The Russian negotiators were appealing as much to the German workers as the high Command.’ Trotsky and Karl Radek, a revolutionary who had been active in Germany before the war, arrived at Brest-Litovsk and ‘Radek, before the eyes of the diplomats and officials assembled on the platform to greet them, began to distribute pamphlets among the German soldiers’. [107] In January 1918 strikes shook Austria-Hungary. In Vienna workers’ councils were established. In Germany, at the Spartakists’ call, 400,000 struck in Berlin on 28 January. The movement was smashed, with many sent to the front, but the strikes, like the Kiel protests, were a beginning.

In the summer of 1918 the German army launched a massive attack on the Western Front. With the withdrawal of Russia, there was no need to defend the Eastern Front, so they could concentrate all their resources in France. Against the odds, the Allies began to roll the Germans back at the Marne, and – completely unexpectedly – the Central Powers looked to be heading to defeat. Military disaster coincided with a food crisis at home. While the poor starved, the rich were provided for via the black market, further stoking class tensions.

On 8 August at Amiens, thousands of Germans surrendered almost without a fight – and Ludendorff, who headed the military regime, resigned. In quick succession, the centre collapsed. The Austrians caved in on 26 September: the army in pieces, the king abdicated. Bulgaria surrendered on 18 September. The Habsburg empire was disintegrating. The Czech Republic was proclaimed on 29 October, Hungary declared independence and Yugoslavia was formed. On 30 October armed workers and soldiers seized government buildings in Budapest, declaring Hungary’s withdrawal from the war.

Returning soldiers were ‘highly organised, disciplined...ready to fight.’ They were also armed. One study in Germany ‘noted with alarm that 1,895,052 rifles, 8,452 machine guns and 4,000 trench mortars had been “lost” by the army on retreat’. [108]

On 3 November revolution broke out in Vienna, and the German Revolution began with a mutiny at Kiel – the sailors refused to fight an obviously suicidal battle ‘for honour’s sake’. The sailors involved were arrested, provoking a demonstration by thousands more sailors through the town. In a matter of days, revolution swept Germany. Workers’ councils sprang up all over the country. On 9 November Prince Max resigned and handed power to the right wing social democrat Ebert. Together the SPD member and the monarchist announced the abdication of the Kaiser, who fled to Holland. Soldiers could not be relied on to put down the revolution. ‘The Kaiser Alexander regiment has gone over to the revolution; the soldiers had rushed out of the barracks gates and fraternised with the shouting crowd outside; men shook their hands with emotion and girls stuck flowers in their uniforms and embraced them … officers are being stripped of their cockades and gold lace’. [109] The German empire was in tatters. The war was over.

It was not simply weariness or anger at the slaughter that had revolutionised so many soldiers. In addition to the experience shared in the trenches, ordinary soldiers shared a common disillusionment with the civilian life they returned to ‘often shattered under the impact of demobilisation, unemployment, poverty and the sheer strangeness of what was once familiar’. [110]

War changes people, but so does revolution. An interesting feature of the German Revolution was the impact that it had on the psychology of individuals. Many men had returned from the war suffering a variety of war neuroses: anxiety, ‘shell shock’, mental disturbances. Kurt Singer, a director of the neuropsychiatric ward of a Berlin hospital, witnessed a mass recovery in November. ‘With the beginning of the revolution, 20 patients abandoned the ward without leave, six asked for immediate release and the remaining ten stayed, Singer suspected, only because they were waiting for warmer weather’. [111] Singer described the shift in consciousness from war weariness and despair to revolutionary fervour and hope:

The revolution itself terminated the need for the neurotic complex as a protest of the inferior, the suppressed, the subordinated, precisely for that class of men who made up the main contingent of neurotics – the uniformed working proletariat. These compensations for the feelings of inferiority ... were, suddenly, no longer necessary once the existing power relations were so radically transformed. [112]

Even in countries where revolution did not break through, there were huge struggles. France, Italy and Czechoslovakia saw the growth of mass Communist parties as the Russian Revolution inspired workers around the world. Britain and Italy were in a pre-revolutionary situation.

For the last year of the war, Italian industrialisation took off on a massive scale. The working class grew enormously. Trade unions grew to 3 million members. The end of the war brought no increased territory for Italy. The bitterness felt in the aftermath of war coupled with the explosion of working class growth polarised politics in Italy. The fascists under Mussolini emerged on the one hand, but on the other workers’ revolutionary militancy exploded in the two red years, the biennio rosso. In 1919 and 1920 huge strikes built into factory occupations. ‘In Turin the factory occupations took on elements of “dual power”, as working class power organised through factory councils opposed that of the official government. Armed workers defended the factories and the elected factory councils took on the nature of soviets in the city’. [113] Agricultural workers also struck for land reform and organised themselves into red leagues. To prevent the very real danger of revolution sweeping away their privileges and profits, the industrialists and landowners looked to the armed fascists – the army could not be relied on. The factory occupations ended in late September 1920. As soon as it was clear that the struggle was ebbing, the Blackshirts ‘conducted a systematic campaign of terror against the socialists and their local institutions’. [114]

In Britain there were serious strikes and mutinies of soldiers angry at the slow speed of demobilisation after the Armistice. As already described, there was resistance to fighting in Russia. Soldiers wanted to get back to their lives and the promised ‘homes fit for heroes’. One soldier, Sergeant Buckeridge, wrote in November 1918: ‘It seemed as though the whole army had become imbued with a spirit of revolt against the system which had held the individual so firmly for so long’. [115]

In January 1919, 10,000 soldiers demonstrated at Folkestone against being sent back to France. They set up a soldiers’ union and refused to sail. At Dover, 2,000 soldiers struck. Protests spread across Britain during January. Some 20,000 British soldiers mutinied at Calais – electing strike committees and a soldiers’ council. Churchill wrote that ‘under the present pressure the army is liquefying fast’. [116] He cabled Lloyd George, the prime minister, that, if demobilisation were not speeded up, there would be nothing left of the army but a ‘demoralised and angry mob’. [117] Haig complained that if things went on in the same vein he would have no army left in France by February.

The ruling class were faced with a double problem: not only could they not get soldiers to fight, neither could they confidently use troops against strikers. And they needed to. Britain came close to revolution between January and March 1919. The experience of revolution in Russia and central Europe fed into disillusionment with life after the war when the privations of wartime continued: ‘shortages of food, housing ... now aggravated by rapid price rises, unemployment, snail’s pace demobilisation of men from the forces and, to add insult to injury, the conspicuous luxury enjoyed by the war profiteers’. [118] Demanding a 40 hour week, 100,000 workers struck in Glasgow. Miners struck, rail workers struck, sailors mutinied and even the police went on strike. The British ruling class were on the defensive – Bonar Law told Lloyd George that even ‘The King is in a funk about the labour situation and is talking about the...danger of revolution’. [119]

In the absence of a party like the Bolsheviks the struggles were contained, but it was yet another symbol of the fire the Russian Revolution had lit all over Europe. Victor Serge described yet more convulsions,

Riots in Paris, riots in Lyon, revolution in Belgium, revolution in Constantinople, victory of the soviets in Bulgaria, rioting in Copenhagen. In fact the whole of Europe is in movement, clandestine or open soviets are appearing everywhere, even in the Allied armies; everything is possible, everything. [120]

Lenin declared that the ‘world revolution is beginning’, and was echoed by Lloyd George, who said ‘the whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution.’

Revolutionary defeatism

In 1914 such dramatic events seemed a lifetime away. For revolutionary internationalists the outbreak of war brought a double blow. The despair at millions of workers marching off to be slaughtered and the seeming vice-like hold of nationalism was matched by horror at the betrayal of the forces of international socialism. The French writer Romain Rolland spoke for all those who had placed their faith in the International by describing its collapse as ‘the greatest catastrophe in history ... the ruin of our most sacred hopes for human fraternity’. [121]

The left began to re-emerge despite the havoc wreaked on socialist organisations by mobilisation and the intense pressure from national ruling classes for socialists to support the war. As protest grew, socialists in Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Spain and Germany began to raise their voices against the barbarity. Yet their numbers and influence was small. The Bolshevik party was one of a tiny number of organisations that managed a consistent record of resistance to the war. As early as July 1914, Lenin had drafted an article called War and Revolution, in which he argued the ‘best war against war is revolution’. [122] He moved to Switzerland in September and presented his Theses on the War to the handful of fellow Bolsheviks. Lenin’s key points were that the war was an imperialist conflict; that the betrayal of the main socialist parties signalled the ‘ideological collapse of the International’; that the key task for the Bolsheviks was to continue the struggle against Tsarism whether in wartime or not; and that therefore socialists should break from the defunct Second International and agitate among their respective working classes to end the war through revolution. This would entail rejecting the Burgfrieden, encouraging soldiers’ fraternisation and protests, and urging workers to fight their own governments whatever the military consequences. Lenin’s position meant taking an unpopular stand against the war with initially little likelihood of winning much support. Nonetheless, Lenin was clear that a principled position was crucial if revolutionaries were to resist the opportunism of the Second International and be able to lead revolutionary struggles that would, almost surely, emerge from the war. It was a long term perspective, summarised thus: ‘In all advanced countries the war has placed on the order of the day the slogan of socialist revolution ... the conversion of the present imperialist war into a civil war is the only correct proletarian slogan.’

For Lenin, breaking the ideological hold the ruling class maintained meant breaking the idea of national defence and adopting an internationalist working class perspective:

Present day socialism will remain true to itself only if it joins neither one nor the other imperialist bourgeoisie, only if it says that the two sides are ‘both worse’, and if it wishes the defeat of the imperialist bourgeoisie in every country. Any other decision will, in reality, be national-liberal and have nothing in common with genuine internationalism.

A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, and cannot fail to see that the latter’s military reverses must facilitate its overthrow...the socialists of all the belligerent countries should express their wish that all their ‘own’ governments should be defeated. [123]

Lenin’s Theses on the War provide a clarity unmatched by any other contribution to anti-war writing but it contained arguments that were deeply controversial within the internationalist left. In Russia, many Bolsheviks rejected Lenin’s argument that ‘from the point of view of the labouring class and the toiling masses of all the Russian people, the lesser evil would be a defeat for the Tsarist monarchy’. [124] But in the context it sliced through the abstractions and vagaries of many other socialists who were desperate not to alienate the masses. Against an insurrectionary solution to war, other socialist parties posed slogans which failed to address the class contradictions at the heart of the war; the Menshevik Martov called for ‘peace’, while the Socialist Revolutionary Victor Chernov adopted the deeply ambiguous slogan ‘neither victory nor defeat’. Let everything return to the pre-war status quo – despite the fact that the pre-war crisis led to the holocaust in the first place! Lenin was uncompromising. ‘The slogan of peace is in my mind incorrect, our slogan must be civil war,’ he wrote:

All arguments to the effect that this slogan is unworkable, etc., etc., are pure sophism. We cannot ‘make’ it, but we propagate for it and work in this direction. In every country one must struggle first of all against one’s own proper chauvinism, awaken hatred for one’s own regime, call (repeatedly, persistently, ever again, tirelessly) for solidarity among the workers of the warring nations. No one is proposing to guarantee when and to what degree this work will prove practicable or justified: This is not what is at issue. At issue is the line of work. Only such work is socialist and not chauvinist. And it alone will bear socialist fruit, revolutionary fruit. [125]

As the left began to raise its head, it was clear that the opposition movement must move beyond small factions and fight for its position within the mass working class parties, especially the SPD. In December, Karl Liebnecht voted against war credits, and by extension, against the false unity in the SPD. His actions made him the bitter enemy of the right wing social democrats but, according to a begrudging Kautsky, also made him ‘the most popular man in the trenches’. [126] Increasingly, popular disaffection with the war grew and the Bolsheviks led the international revolutionary opposition to it.

Lenin was key to forcing this momentum forward. He linked his analysis of the war and the response revolutionaries should take to it with the argument that the war should be the midwife of a new International, cleansed of opportunism. As he wrote to the Bolshevik Shliapnikov, ‘Our task is now an absolute and open struggle with international opportunism ... This is an international task. It rests upon us, for there is no one else. We cannot put it aside’. [127]

In September 1915, 38 internationalist delegates from 11 different countries and with different positions regarding the war met at Zimmerwald in Switzerland. The conference was called by moderate socialists to restore the idea that the International was a force for peace. Lenin and Radek uncompromisingly advocated a break with the leadership of the Second International. They argued that any continued connection to the Second International leaders like Ebert, Scheidemann and Guesde could only disorient and disarm the workers.

The majority of delegates were reluctant to make such a stand. Neither would they support Lenin’s theory of the necessity of turning the imperialist war into a civil war between classes by encouraging strikes and revolts within each country against their respective ruling classes. The manifesto that came out of the first Zimmerwald conference merely stated that the war was an imperialist one, fought for profit and greed, that the declarations of the capitalist class that the war was being fought for democracy and the liberty of oppressed nations was a lie, and that instead ‘new chains, new burdens are being brought into existence, and the workers of all countries, of the victorious as well as the of the vanquished, will have to bear them.’ It criticised the role of the socialist parties’ leaders who ‘have invited the workers to suspend the working class struggle, the only possible and effective means of working class emancipation’. However, there was no mention of directing that struggle concretely against the warmongers. Instead, the task was ‘to take up this fight for peace – for a peace without annexations or war indemnities’. [128]

These formulations were abstract – and by accepting the idea of peace without annexations the manifesto’s signatories accepted that capitalist institutions could bring a just peace. The Bolsheviks signed the Zimmerwald declaration, because Lenin saw it as ‘a step towards an ideological and practical break with opportunism and social-chauvinism’ [129], despite arguing bitterly with its conclusions.

Lenin could now look to groups in Germany, France, Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden, Bulgaria and Italy who agreed on the need to break from the Second International. Lenin concluded that ‘to rally together these Marxist elements, no matter how small they might be at is the task at hand’. [130] Trotsky later described Lenin’s intervention as ‘laying the cornerstone of the revolutionary International’. [131] Zimmerwald did indeed have a resonance among socialists in warring countries. It sent up a flare that illuminated a way out of political isolation for those who opposed the war in every belligerent nation.

The second Zimmerwald conference took place against the background of the continuing mayhem at Verdun and increasing economic strain on the belligerent nations. Held at Kienthal in Switzerland in April 1916, seven nations were represented by 43 delegates. Many more had been refused visas to travel to the conference. Again the Zimmerwald left put forward the necessity of breaking with the opportunists of the Second International and advocated the slogan of revolutionary defeatism against the utopian search for a democratic peace under capitalism. ‘The mirage of a “democratic” peace’ would ‘represent nothing more than an agreement between imperialist bandits ... and increase the menace of new wars ... to summon the proletariat to struggle and organise it for a resolute attack upon capitalism – this is the only peace programme of social democracy’. [132]

Kienthal was another step on the road to pulling sections of the left towards Lenin’s position and in the months between the conference and the outbreak of the February Revolution in Russia the Zimmerwald left gained ground. There were huge May Day demonstrations in 1916. In Berlin 10,000 gathered to protest at the war and Liebnecht was arrested. As the third year of the war wore on, a rising tide of unrest across Europe confirmed for Lenin that there were increasingly ‘two Internationals’ competing for the hearts and minds of workers. Either the Zimmerwald movement would split from the Second International or it would be left behind.

In Germany, the SPD was in decline. Its membership fell by 63 percent between August 1914 and 1916; the left were exerting more pressure on the right wing of the party and its national conference in 1916 was rocked by dissent over its position on the war. The great schism was only months away – the Independent Social Democrats (USPD), a left and centre grouping which included the Spartakus League, split from the party in January 1917. The SPD monolith was cracking down the middle. In France, despite considerable abuse, three deputies voted against war credits in June. In Italy, Austria and in Sweden debates over the direction of the main socialist parties reflected the changing political climate. The common picture was of defencist majorities clinging precariously to control of the party machines, but everywhere centrist and revolutionary oppositions gained ground. ‘In every significant national movement a left radical faction aligned with Lenin’s position had come into being ... The Zimmerwald left tendency was well on the way to becoming a movement ... due to the process of division set into motion by the policy of 4 August’. [133]

In the months before February 1917, Lenin continued to develop his theory of revolutionary defeatism. As the political situation developed, it was clear that revolutionary defeatism was the cornerstone for forging a real revolutionary activity. A thousand threads ran from it; arguments on the national question, on the nature of the war, social democracy and the possibility of revolutionary change. In his debates with the Swiss moderates in the Zimmerwald movement Lenin made the nature of revolutionary change yet more concrete. While the moderates would not rule out support for militarism if Switzerland were to enter the war, justifying their stand by dismissing the possibility of revolution, Lenin was arguing against pacifism, stressing the necessity for force in ending the violence of capitalism. Throughout, Lenin’s aim was to forge a revolutionary current distinguished by political clarity and strength of purpose.

The antagonism between the moderates and the left within Zimmerwald was rendering it hopelessly divided. Lenin wrote to Inessa Armand that, ‘There it is, my fate. One fighting campaign after another ... against political stupidity, opportunism, philistinism, etc.’ So weary with the bickering and rivalry was he that at times he seemed despairing at the size of the task. Famously, at a conference of Swiss socialist youth in January 1917, he remarked, ‘We elders, perhaps, may not live to see the decisive battles ... of the approaching proletarian revolution’. [134] He was wrong. The February Revolution erupted and decisively altered the course of history. R. Craig Nation, a historian of the Zimmerwald movement, describes how, ‘In the pale light of the northern winter the masses, so often invoked as an abstraction by the Marxist left, stepped forward as a living, revolutionary force. The army mutinied, the people armed, the Tsar deposed, the proletariat in the vanguard – it was a vindication of the line that Lenin defended almost alone during the first days of the war’. [135]

Revolutionary defeatism was more relevant than ever after February. When Lenin returned to Russia, he saw clearly that the revolution was partial and needed to go beyond the limits of parliamentary democracy if it was to end the war and bring real liberation. Breaking the ideas of revolutionary defencism – the idea that the revolution changed the nature of the war, and that defence of Russia was a defence of the aims of the revolution – was a central task for revolutionary socialists if the revolution was to progress to an overthrow of capitalism itself. The role of the Bolsheviks in explaining the true nature of the war was key to this process:

The bourgeoisie deceives the people by working on their noble pride in the revolution and by pretending that the social and political character of the war, as far as Russia was concerned, underwent a change because of this stage of the revolution ... What is required of us is the ability to explain to the masses that the social and political character of the war is determined not by the ‘good will’ of individuals or groups, or even of nations, but by the position of the class which conducts the war, by the class policy of which the war is a continuation, by the ties of capital, which is the dominant economic force in modern society, by the imperialist character of international capital ... and so on. [136]

Actually stopping the war would require a further transformation of society, partially made possible by the shifts in consciousness on the part of the workers and soldiers. The establishment of soviets, which concretely bridged the gap between politics and economics, meant the mechanism existed for workers to begin ruling themselves. Lenin argued: ‘The Russian Revolution of February-March 1917 was the beginning of the transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war. This revolution took the first step towards ending the war; but it requires a second step, namely, the transfer of state power to the proletariat, to make the end of the war a certainty.’ [137]

The success of the October Revolution unequivocally demonstrated that the Bolsheviks, trained through nearly four years of war to wage arguments against the war and for revolution in sometimes very hostile circumstances, were the only force organised, disciplined and politically clear enough to have won respect and influence in the working class and so lead it to victory. The theory of revolutionary defeatism, fought for and won within the party and the class was a crucial weapon in the party’s political arsenal. [138]


Rather than remember the First World War as our rulers do – with pious hypocrisy and poppies every November – socialists can look back, learn and be inspired. The period from 1914 to 1919 was a tremendous turning point in human history. The barbarity of capitalism was unleashed in a way previously undreamt of; millions of lives were lost, millions more wrecked forever. The First World War was the terrible infant of capitalism. The nature of imperialism and of war was revealed in all its naked horror. But those few years also brought the clearest example to date of the alternative to such bloodshed. The Russian Revolution raised a beacon that millions looked to around the world. It sparked revolution in Germany, in Austria, in Hungary, and ignited powerful clashes with the state in Italy and Britain. It was a testing time for revolutionary socialists in all those countries – the point at which the old socialist parties proved themselves to be counter-revolutionary and true internationalists had to fight for ideological clarity under the most difficult circumstances. In forging that clarity, Lenin and his supporters were fighting for a vision of the future that went beyond socialism in one country. As Nation argues:

That vision, still inchoate prior to 1914, had grown in the course of the war into an integrated theory, embodied by the Zimmerwald left and its challenge to the Second International. On the eve of the February Revolution the challenge was fully matured. Though the explosion in Russia gave Lenin’s cause a huge push forward, the elements that would combine to create an autonomous communist left between 1917 and 1921 were already in place prior to the Tsar’s abdication. International communism did not spring from the ‘accident’ of revolution, nor was it ever a simple extension of the Bolsheviks’ fight to seize and maintain state power. Its roots lay in the left opposition’s reaction to the socialist collapse of 1914 and the international movement of protest against the world war that followed. [139]

The youth and inexperience of many of the new Communist parties was a key factor in the ability of capitalism to douse of the flames of revolution. Revolutionary organisations rooted in the working classes of Britain and Italy, and especially in Germany, could have been decisive. Yet, despite this lack and the impact on the world working class of the failure of that revolutionary wave, the First World War years remain a crucial time in which attitudes to nationalism, to imperialism, to reformism, and to revolution were hammered out in the heat of class battle. They were years in which significant numbers of workers moved from patriotism to revolution and began the process of taking control of society and their own lives.


1. J. Winter and B. Blaggett, 1914–18 (BBC Books 1996), p. 10.

2. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes (London 1994), p. 31.

3. M. Ferro, The Great War 1914–1918 (London 1973), p. 130.

4. Ibid., p. 227.

5. M. Gilbert, First World War (London 1995), p. 541.

6. E.J. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 26.

7. Ibid., p. 25.

8. J. Winter and B. Blaggett, op. cit., p. 69.

9. Ibid., p. 157.

10. E.J. Hobsbawm, op. cit., p. 26.

11. M. Gilbert, op. cit., p. 299.

12. General Sir Alfred Knox, quoted in J. Rees, In Defence of October, International Socialism 52, p. 11.

13. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, op. cit., p. 51.

14. J. Winter and B. Blaggett, op. cit., p. 362.

15. Ibid., p. 31.

16. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire (London 1987), p. 317.

17. See Lenin’s description of this process, quoted in T. Cliff, Lenin, vol. 2 (London 1985), p. 3.

18. C. Harman, The Lost Revolution (London 1997), p. 21.

19. J. Ellis, The Social History of the Machine Gun (Pimlico 1993), p. 113.

20. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, op. cit., p. 45.

21. C. Harman, The Return of the National Question, International Socialism 56, p. 15.

22. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, op. cit., p. 323.

23. Ibid., p. 321.

24. B. Pearce and M. Woodhouse, A History of Communism in Britain (London 1995), p. 117.

25. E.J. Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War One (Cambridge 1979), p. 40.

26. Cited in E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, op. cit., p. 325, and in M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 8.

27. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, op. cit., p. 326.

28. T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 26.

29. E.J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire, op. cit., p. 325.

30. E.J. Leed, op. cit., p. 40.

31. E.J. Leed, op. cit., p. 66.

32. L. Trotsky, My Life (Penguin 1975), p. 240.

33. Quoted in E.J. Leed, op. cit., p. 40.

34. J. Winter and B. Blaggett, op. cit., p. 248.

35. A. Rothstein, The Soldiers’ Strikes 1919 (London 1980), p. 10.

36. E.J. Leed, op. cit., p. 1.

37. Ibid., p. 76.

38. Ibid., p. 84.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid., p. 86.

41. Ibid., p. 88.

42. Ibid., p. 89.

43. Ibid.

44. J. Winter and B. Blaggett, op. cit., p. 97.

45. E.J. Leed, op. cit., p. 89.

46. T. Ashworth, Trench Warfare 1914–1918, the Live and Let Live System (Macmillan, 1980), p. 13.

47. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 178.

48. Quoted in T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 30.

49. Ibid.

50. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 173.

51. C. Harman, The Lost Revolution, op. cit., p. 28.

52. D. Gluckstein, The Western Soviets (London 1985), p. 70.

53. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 201.

54. Ibid., p. 200.

55. Ibid., p. 170.

56. E.J. Leed, op. cit., p. 95.

57. L. Trotsky, op. cit., p. 241.

58. E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism (Cambridge, 1990), p. 127.

59. Ibid., p. 124.

60. Ibid., p. 130.

61. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 213.

62. E.J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism, op. cit., p. 130.

63. E.J. Leed, op. cit., p. 198.

64. S.F. Kissin, War and the Marxists (London, 1988), p. 158.

65. Ibid., p. 170.

66. C. Schorske, German Social Democracy 1905–1917 (Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983), p. 289.

67. Ibid., p. 290.

68. Quoted in R.C. Nation, War on War (Duke University Press 1989), p. 24.

69. S.F. Kissin, op. cit., p. 162.

70. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 160.

71. Ibid., p. 158.

72. Quoted in B. Pearce and M. Woodhouse, op. cit., p. 117.

73. Quoted in R.C. Nation, op. cit., p. 25.

74. N. Stone, The Eastern Front 1914–17 (Purnell Book Club 1975), p. 285.

75. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 178.

76. Ibid., p. 187.

77. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 181.

78. T. Ashworth, op. cit., p. 224.

79. J. Williams, Mutiny 1917 (Heinemann 1962), p. 241.

80. J. Winter and B. Blaggett, op. cit., p. 241.

81. Ibid., p. 233.

82. J. Williams, op. cit., p. 222.

83. Ibid., p. 127.

84. L. James, Mutiny (Buchan and Enright 1987), p. 78.

85. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 198.

86. Ibid..

87. L. James, op. cit., p. 93.

88. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 202.

89. Ibid., p. 202.

90. J. Winter and B. Blaggett, op. cit., p. 278.

91. C. Harman, The Lost Revolution, op. cit., p. 28.

92. Ibid., p. 29.

93. T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 194.

94. Ibid., p. 202.

95. Quoted in M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 208.

96. Ibid., p. 211.

97. Ibid., p. 212.

98. Quoted in A. Rothstein, op. cit., p. 23.

99. M. Ferro, op. cit., p. 212.

100. A. Rothstein, op. cit., p. 35.

101. L. James, op. cit., p. 133.

102. Ibid., p. 134.

103. A. Rothstein, op. cit., p. 78.

104. L. James, op. cit., p. 153.

105. A. Rothstein, op. cit., p. 95.

106. Ibid., p. 100.

107. C. Harman, The Lost Revolution, op. cit., p. 30.

108. E.J. Leed, op. cit., p. 198.

109. C. Harman, The Lost Revolution, op. cit., p. 44.

110. E.J. Leed, op. cit., p. 189.

111. Ibid., p. 186.

112. Ibid.

113. C. Bambery, Euro Fascism; the Lessons of the Past and Current Tasks, International Socialism 60, p. 9.

114. Ibid., p. 11.

115. A. Rothstein, op. cit., p. 68.

116. Ibid., p. 94.

117. Ibid.

118. C. Rosenberg, 1919 (London 1987), p. 7.

119. Ibid., p. 31.

120. Quoted in J. Rees, op. cit., p. 9.

121. Quoted in R.C. Nation, op. cit., p. 5.

122. Quoted ibid., p. 35.

123. Quoted in T. Cliff, op. cit., p. 4.

124. Quoted in R.C. Nation, op. cit., p. 36.

125. Quoted ibid., p. 37.

126. Quoted ibid., p. 55.

127. Quoted ibid., p. 45.

128. L. Trotsky, War and the International (Wesley Press 1971), p. 88.

129. Ibid., p. 218.

130. Quoted in R.C. Nation, op. cit., p. 83.

131. Ibid., p. 216.

132. Quoted ibid., p. 138.

133. Ibid., p. 155.

134. Quoted ibid., p. 164.

135. Ibid.

136. V.I. Lenin, The April Theses (Moscow 1985), p. 34.

137. Ibid.

138. Lenin’s theory comes under frequent attack, however, from academics as well as from left wingers of various stripes – for example, S.F. Kissin, in his book War and the Marxists, argues that revolutionary defeatism cannot apply outside the very specific circumstances of Russia in the First World War. He sees Lenin’s theory as ‘ambiguous’ – how can socialists wish for the defeat of their own country without wishing for the victory of others?

Kissin argues that only defeated nations experience revolutions after war. This is used as a justification for his support for defencism – since there cannot be a successful revolution in a victorious nation, and since there must be a victor, therefore international revolution is not possible and one may as well support ones own ruling class, especially against the territorial advances of another. He sees revolutionary defeatism as a political slogan that was limited in time and space, a ‘purely Russian phenomenon’. In the case of Germany, he sees the long term results of defeat in war as leading to a ‘colossal reverse of socialism’ in the rise of the Nazis, refuting the ‘Leninist expectation that defeat would produce proletarian revolution and socialism.’ This is misleading: the defeat of Germany in the war did contribute to the German Revolution, but Lenin never argued that socialism was inevitable. It was the defeat of the German Revolution that holds the key in the subsequent history of Germany and the world. The theory of revolutionary defeatism cannot be held responsible for such a calamity.

Kissin has trouble with Lenin’s theory not because it is not a clear revolutionary position, but because his own beliefs about the Second World War as a just war, in which Russia should be defended, forces him to reject it. It is not Lenin who was inconsistent, but those who subsequently wish to justify Stalinism and accept capitalism on its own terms.

139. Quoted in R.C. Nation, op. cit., p. 167.

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