War and revolution: the legacy of the First World War

german revolution 1918

In a recent article for the Daily Mail website the Tory Education Secretary Michael Gove, on account of the approaching 100th anniversary of the First World War, has taken the opportunity to denounce what he has claimed are attempts to write out the glory and heroism of WW1 in the education system. Gove writes:

Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect an, at best, ambiguous attitude to this country and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage.

He goes on to say “The conflict has, for many, been seen…as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite. Even to this day there are Left-wing academics all too happy to feed those myths”.[1]

Gove has previously made a point of criticising the curriculum for being too left-wing and has accused teachers who have protested the creation of academies of being ‘Trots’.[2] (If only it were true!) Gove’s actions can be placed in the context of the Tories’ (on behalf of the capitalist class as a whole) general drive towards privatising education: converting comprehensive schools into academies, demonisation of teachers unions, tripling of university fees, privatisation of student debt, etc. This is of course part of an even larger drive to sell off huge portions of the public sector in an effort to appease an international capitalist system that finds itself in abject crisis.

Gove argues that the men and women of WWI “fought for, and believed in, Britain’s special tradition of liberty”. Yet the war had nothing to do with British liberty. What “liberty” is supposed to mean here is entirely unclear. Let us remind Gove that in 1914 when the war had started, no women and only around 60% of the men of Britain had the right even to vote.[3] The proletariat were not fighting for and certainly did not believe in any such “tradition of liberty”. This can be seen in the basic fact that conscription was required half-way through the war, which a very large number of conscripts appealed against. Even then one need only to look at the sheer number of desertions and mutinies by rank-and-file soldiers to understand that in the consciousness of the ordinary working-class lads on the front any supposed patriotism, if they had it in the first place, melted away the moment they were thrown into the heat of war. They quickly realised it was not a war for their class interests at all and that they had more in common with the foreign soldiers they were gunning down than their own rulers.

If Britain’s involvement was not a matter of “liberty” then what was it? Lenin pointed out in 1916 that in the epoch preceding the war,

certain relations between capitalist associations [grew] up, based on the economic division of the world; while parallel to and in connection with it, certain relations [grew] up between political alliances, between states, on the basis of the territorial division of the world, of the struggle for colonies, of the “struggle for spheres of influence”.

By the early 20th century the world was almost entirely owned by a handful of European Great Powers, almost all peoples and territories were occupied by one or another of these imperialist nations. The only way the capitalists of each respective power could increase their share of profits globally was to redraw the existing divisions. Lenin wrote: “For the first time the world is completely divided up, so that in the future only redivision is possible, i.e territories can only pass from one ‘owner’ to another, instead of passing as ownerless territory to an ‘owner’.”[4]

What purpose did the ownership of colonies serve to the Great Powers? Let us quote the British minister, capitalist and committed proponent of British imperialism in Africa, Cecil Rhodes. In 1895 he remarked:

My cherished idea is a solution for the social problem, i.e., in order to save the 40,000,000 inhabitants of the United Kingdom from bloody civil war [read: revolution], we colonial statesmen must acquire lands to settle the surplus population, to provide new markets for the goods produced by them in the factories and mines. The Empire is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists. [5]

Among the German ruling class it was no different. Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz remarked a year later that

In my view, Germany will in the coming century quickly sink back from its position as a great power if we do not push on how energetically, without losing time, and systematically with those general maritime interests [of ours], to no small degree also because of the great national task and the economic gains that will come with it constitute a strong palliative against educated and uneducated Social Democrats. [6]

To return to the present. Though Gove’s comments were undoubtedly reactionary, the blathering and anaemic liberal responses to it are almost as terrible. One such response has been from Tristram Hunt, right wing Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education who responded in an article published by the Guardian website on January 4th. In this article he attempts to salvage the reputation of the early 20th century Left, i.e by making their actions more palpable to reactionary bourgeois opinion.

He attempts to tar the British Left with a patriotic, anti-German, chauvinist brush (going as far as to anachronistically use the term ‘fascism’) and presents this chauvinism as a good thing, writing:

The British left responded to such fascism by largely supporting the war effort. Appeals by trade union leaders to oppose German aggression, particularly against Belgium, led more than 250,000 of their members to enlist by Christmas 1914, with 25% of miners volunteering before conscription. Typical was John Ward, one of my predecessors as MP for Stoke-on-Trent and the leader of the Navvies’ Union. To “fight Prussianism”, he raised three pioneer battalions from his members and, commissioned as a colonel by Lord Kitchener, led them to battle in France, Italy and Russia.[7]

Hunt is correct that trade union leaders and Labour MPs, cowardly class traitors in the same position he is now, did indeed support Britain’s involvement in the imperialist war but he is being entirely disingenuous when he ascribes these motives to ordinary workers misled by their treacherous leaders and the rest of the British Left. The British labour leadership were inextricable from the Empire, it was the largesse stolen from Britain’s colonies that allowed the British capitalist class to completely buy off the top layer of their workers thus creating a labour aristocracy.

These were Hunt’s early 20th century counterparts, those who called themselves socialists but in reality were what Lenin correctly described as “social-chauvinists”. By social-chauvinism Lenin meant those who harboured an “acceptance of the idea of the defence of the fatherland in the present imperialist war” and provided  “justification of an alliance between socialists and the bourgeoisie and the governments of their ‘own’ countries in this war”.[8] In other words they were ‘socialists’ who abandoned the principles of proletarian unity and sided with their own bourgeoisie the minute war was declared and are therefore responsible for the millions of lives that the war devoured.

In fact not all British socialists were in favour of war. The renowned labour leader Keir Hardie for his part denounced the war, in his last article before his death he wrote that he hoped socialist democracy would “break the rule of those to whom imperialism and militarism mean wealth and power, and install all the people of all lands in authority, and thus bring plenty, peace and concord to a long-suffering race”.[9] The Irish socialist and republican James Connolly was equally critical of the war writing with scorn in January 1916:

The war for civilization is waged by a nation like Britain which holds in thrall a sixth of the human race, and holds as a cardinal doctrine of its faith that none of its subject races may, under penalty of imprisonment and death, dream of ruling their own territories.[10]

Hunt’s suggestions that ordinary working class people were stridently pro-war are inaccurate as well. The historian Hochschild notes that working class people generally “showed less zeal than the better-off, volunteering for the army at a noticeably lower rate than professionals and white-collar workers”.[11]

Hunt writes that “the government is using what should be a moment for national reflection and respectful debate to rewrite the historical record and sow political division.” But history is entirely about political division. If Hunt refuses to pick a side when it comes to history, he has gravely misunderstood what history is. What Hunt wants is historical consensus or what Trotsky once referred to as a “treacherous impartiality” which offers the reader of history “a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom”. Trotsky rightly said that one cannot be neutral when one writes histories of wars or revolutions because they are precisely about a division, “how can you take as a whole a thing whose essence consists in a split?”, if Hunt wants to stand on the wall and give an ‘objective’ account of both sides of the conflict he must be reminded that in a time of war or revolution “standing on the wall involves a great danger.”[12]

The historian Richard Evans’ response is a stronger polemic, however it also has its weaknesses. Evans punches holes in Gove’s narrative using empirical facts. To counter Gove’s argument that Britain was “committed to defending the western liberal order” Evans points out that Britain was allied during the war with Tsarist Russia, the most reactionary state in Europe. However Evans handily skips over the detail that it was a revolution that overthrew Tsarist Russia and made Russia withdraw from the war, simply writing that “Russia left the war early in 1918”[13] which neatly erases the political agency of the Russian workers and peasants and the historical legacy of their revolution.

In a similar vein he dismissed the revolutionary foment in Germany in the middle of the war, and the revolution that ended the war and Imperial Germany by stating casually that

the largest political party, the Social Democrats, was opposed to annexations and had long been critical of the militarism of the elites. By the middle of the war, the Social Democrats had forged the alliance with other democratic parties that was to come to power at the war’s end.

Firstly it is true that ordinary German workers who were aligned with the Social Democrats were not keen on war. However it must be pointed out to Evans that since the beginning of the war the Social Democrat leadership shamelessly gave the war their blessing. To quote Broué;

the falseness of their declarations about attachment to principles, the international solidarity of the workers, peace and socialism, assurances about the defensive character of the War, and the indignant denials that there would be any annexations…were exposed as paltry rhetorical cover for a reality that consisted of shrapnel, bombs, machine guns, poison gas and imperialist aims. The Social-Democratic leaders soon became as ‘annexationist’ as the military and political chiefs.[14]

In a similar note when Evans writes about ‘forging alliances’ it is in fact a generous way of saying that the Social Democrats betrayed the German working class movement and aligned with the bourgeoisie when the Imperial regime was overthrown and capitalism was threatened following the conclusion of the war.

These were likely unconscious erasures, but they are extremely telling about the lens through which history is viewed. For left-liberal petit-bourgeois academics such as Evans war is no doubt a tragedy, a mistake, utter foolishness and unnecessarily causes the deaths of millions of people. But this is a history of victims, not active groups and mass movements struggling to change the world, to end all wars and the system that demands them. As Trotsky said, “it is impossible not to agree with the moralists that history chooses grievous pathways. But what type of conclusion for practical activity can be drawn from this?”.[15]

The image of WWI that TV shows such as Blackadder present is that of the British war effort being lions led by donkeys; brave British soldiers who would have not suffered such immense casualties and defeats had it not been for the fact that they were led by incompetent and aristocratic generals. Gove has argued that such an interpretation is one propounded by the left-wing. However if he had done his research he would know that the phrase itself when used in reference to WWI was popularised in the 1960s with the publication of a book by a Tory politician Alan Clarke, The Donkeys. Similarly one of the most prominent exponents of this analysis following the end of the war was the military historian and imperial strategist Lidell Hart. The ‘lions led by donkeys’ account is therefore not a left-wing critique of the war at all but more like a call to re-organise and innovate imperialist military strategy.

Gove is being cynical when he complains about the ‘lions led by donkeys’ analysis being the most prominent one in academia.  He himself remarks that “it important to recognise that many of the new analyses emerging challenge existing Left-wing versions of the past designed to belittle Britain and its leaders.” Yet this right-wing revisionism has been academic orthodoxy in this field for the last 30 years. These historians looked again at the historical record and argued instead that many of the ruling-class generals were in fact militarily competent and did have tactical and strategic cunning. They have also bemoaned the fact that the previous orthodoxy about aristocratic incompetency among generals was allowed to be maintained for so long.

Of course this right-wing revisionism is not infallible and the competence of specific generals in the war could be debated forever, this however misses the point. One should really be asking why the war unfolded in the first place, why millions of young working class men had to charge into waves of bullets and bombs so that the engrossed, parasitic European capitalists could maintain their choke-hold on to colonies of semi-slaves across the world. This question should be the main one regardless of how strategically minded or down-to-earth the man on the horse ordering them to charge into hails of bullets was.

The Left does not deny that WWI had heroes. The history of the First World War is indeed one of exceptional courage and sacrifice, but not of the sort Gove is whining about. The young working class men at the front and the working women thrown into war industries are the true heroes of WWI. It was the workers and soldiers across Europe and Asia who by running from the fronts and walking out of the arms factories in opposition to the war, and the system that demanded it, sparked a chain of revolutions across the world. On a world scale, all the bourgeoisie could offer was war; the proletariat promised world revolution.

In 1917, a year before the official end of the war, the workers, soldiers and peasants of Russia rejected the bullets, barbed-wire and corpses of war and set off instead on the path of revolution. They overthrew, in the course of a year, the Tsar that had led them into the foolish imperialist bloodbath to begin with and then the bourgeois Provisional Government that maintained the war. This most significant of historical events immediately shut down the Eastern Front and led to the creation of the greatest workers state in history.

In Germany in 1918 a similar set of circumstances resulted in soldiers and sailors deserting en masse and joining up with workers and trade unionists, in the process ending Germany’s involvement in the war and forming workers councils across the country. Soon whole regions of Germany were run by, and in the interests of, workers. However, betrayal at the hands of the SPD leadership resulted in the German Revolution being open to repeated counter-revolutionary setbacks. Had the German Revolution succeeded it would have been the bridge between the Russian Revolution and the rest of the world. The Stalinist degeneration in Russia could have been avoided and the potential for world socialism may have been realised.

The British Empire itself was not immune to the revolutionary upsurge as several mutinies took take place at the tail-end of the war. One of the most significant was a mutiny in British garrisons in the French town of Étaples where in 1917 “men poured out of the vast, dreadful encampment, attacked the military police, displaced the officers, and flooded through the town” until they were eventually suppressed. However from then until the end of the war the mutiny was followed by “a multiplicity of riots, strikes and other conflagrations”.[16] Insurrections exploded in Britain’s colonies as well. In 1915 the Indian 5th Light Infantry stationed in Singapore mutinied en masse in tandem with civilian uprisings, the main grievance of the soldiers being “a desire to avoid the horrors of the war in Europe”.[17] Following the end of the war an Irish regiment stationed in India, The Connaught Rangers, led by a Private James Daly heroically refused to soldier “until the atrocities ceased and Ireland was granted her freedom”.[18] Before the mutiny was suppressed and the regiment disbanded it rattled British military rule in India.

Amidst the backwards, king-and-country pap that is Gove’s article he does accidentally let slip one truth, however distorted. A number of processes were under-way in the world of 1914,

great power rivalry, migrant populations on the move, rapid social upheaval, growing global economic interdependence, massive technological change and fragile confidence in political elites…Indeed, these particular forces were especially powerful one hundred years ago – on the eve of the First World War.

The possibility of another world war is very unlikely in the current international situation considering the balances of forces on a world scale, the relative weakness of imperialism, too much at stake, etc. However the contradictions that would have led to world war 100 years are today not resolved but merely displaced; they must explode somewhere else. In place of war between nations, we will see war between classes. We must remind Gove that WWI was also only the bloody foreword to a world-wide revolutionary upheaval.

by Ajmal Waqif, London Marxists



[1] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2532923/Michael-Gove-blasts-Blackadder-myths-First-World-War-spread-television-sit-coms-left-wing-academics.html

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16809400

[3] H. Fraser, Representation of the People Act, 1918 with Explanatory Notes, Sweet & Maxwell (London, 1918) p.xxiv

[4] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline, Progress (Moscow, 1970) p.73,74

[5] V.R. Berghahn, Europe in the Era of Two World Wars: From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society, 1900-1950, Princeton University Press (Princeton, 2006) p.14

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jan/04/first-world-war-michael-gove-left-bashing-history

[8] V.I. Lenin, “The Collapse of the Second International” in Collected Works, Vol.21, Progress, (Moscow, 1964) p.242

[9] Quoted from B. Holman, Keir Hardie: Labour’s Greatest Hero?, Lion Hudson (Oxford, 2010) pp.176, 178

[10] J. Connolly, “A War for Civilization” in Selected Writings, Pluto Press (London, 1997) p.215

[11] A. Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (New York, 2011) p.177

[12] Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Haymarket, (Chicago, 2008) p.xviii

[13] http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/06/richard-evans-michael-gove-history-education

[14] P. Broué, The German Revolution, 1917-1923, Haymarket (Chicago, 2006) p.47

[15] L. Trotsky, ‘Their Morals and Ours’, The New International, Vol.4, No.6 (June, 1938) p.170

[16] D. Gill, G. Dallas, ‘Mutiny at Etaples Base’, Past & Present, No.69 (November, 1975) p.88

[17] G. Singh, The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between the Self and the Sepoy,  Bloomsbury (London, 2014) p.135

[18]  S. Pollock, Mutiny for the Cause: The story of the Revolt of Ireland’s ‘Devil’s Own’ in British India, Leo Cooper (Barnsley, 1969) p.56