Austria-Hungary had annexed mainly Serb-populated Bosnia in 1908. It was now plagued by repeated terrorist incidents at the hands of nationalist Serbs. Serbia, if attacked by Austria, could rely on Russia to come to its aid. But if Russia did so, and was itself threatened, it could call upon France's military support. Austria had Germany's support if threatened by Russia. Britain, meanwhile, was bound to commit its forces in France's support if France was menaced.
Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, was on June 27 1914 the scene of the assassination of the Austrian emperor's nephew Archduke Ferdinand by a group of Serbian nationalists. Before the end of July Austria had declared war on Serbia, whereupon Russian mobilisation followed. On August 1 Germany declared war on Russia and the next day issued an ultimatum requiring free passage through Belgium for German troops. On August 3 Germany declared war on France and crossed into Belgium en route for France. On August 4 Britain declared war on Germany. Austria's declaration of war on Russia followed on the 6th. Britain and France's respective declarations of war on Austria a few days later completed the formalities.
Despite the above time-line, the 1914 war did not start overnight through an assassin's bullets. It was the outcome of years of conflicting capitalist interests. The origins of that war lay in the fact that the nineteenth century industrial, military and naval predominance of British and French capitalism was being challenged by the rapid expansion of Germany. As German industry grew, German production and exports were catching up and the German navy had grown to a size and striking power comparable with the British. Another arena of conflict was in the field of colonies. Britain and France had colonial empires and sought to retain them, while Germany's interest was to expand its little empire, which was much smaller than France's, which was in turn much smaller than Britain's. Britain and France, along with Belgium, had been first in this field, Britain in India and Asia and all of them in Africa. Germany, the late comer, seeking to enter and expand in Africa, more and more threatened the future of those who were there first and had taken most of the more profitable areas. When Germany showed in 1911, by sending a gunboat to Agadir, that she intended to get a foothold in Morocco, . Lloyd George, at the time Chancellor of the Exchequer, at once reacted with a speech threatening war. This incident had the effect of bringing French and British capitalism nearer together in mutual self-protection. One form of the conflict was the German plan for a Berlin to Bagdad railway. The German plan involved pushing Russian influence out of the Balkans, cutting Russia off from the Mediterranean by control of the Dardenelles, and opening up a way for Germany to expand towards the Persian Gulf and India. In this tense international environment the crisis which could produce war on a European scale could spring up anywhere, but the "Austria-Serbia dispute" was the spark that ignited the conflagration.
In August a century will have passed since the beginning of the First World War and we will encounter many articles from the liberal left-wing full of praise for the anti-war activists. One thing we can be sure of is that the position of the Socialist Party of Great Britain will receive little attention despite its principled opposition to the war compared with the vacillations of the other so-called socialist parties.
Because they did not accept that capitalism was the cause of the war the analyses of the Left-wingers readily succumbed to the excuses for the war offered to them by their respective governments. In Britain it was the defence of Belgium and France against the Kaiser and German Militarism, and later, "the war to end war "; or the war for democracy. In Germany it was defence against Russian autocracy and Russian "barbarism." Although all of these parties, in the second International to which they belonged, had long seen the threat coming and had even formally declared their opposition to it at the Basle conference in 1912, most of them put loyalty to "their country " first, when the war actually came. Their lip-service to internationalism had never possessed the solid socialist basis of recognising the mutual interest of all workers against capitalism and its governments everywhere. The Socialist Party of Great Britain has always maintained that capitalism and war are inseparable.
When war broke out in August 1914 the Socialist Standard had no hesitation expressing the position of the Socialist Party of Great Britain at the first opportunity. The September issue carried a front page declaration denouncing the war as a “business war” over “questions of the control of trade routes and the world’s markets” and stating that there were therefore no interests at stake justifying “the shedding of a single drop of working class blood”. During the war years the main concern of socialists, both in Britain and on the Continent, was, apart from renewing international links, simply to stop the slaughter of workers. Thus the Socialist Standard, besides exposing the economic causes of the war and countering pro-war propaganda, repeatedly called for an immediate and unconditional end to the war. This was expressed not only from street corners where SPGB speakers on platforms propounded the socialist case against war but also in declarations sent to various conferences of workers’ organisations and also in reprinting anti-war appeals from such organisations in other countries, including one from Rosa Luxemburg in Germany and another, in 1915, from the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. When the Bolshevik government did try to take Russia unilaterally out of the war and stop the slaughter on the Eastern Front this earned it the praise of the Socialist Standard.
To their disgust the Socialist Party saw many in the supposed workers parties line up behind their respective governments ready to take part in the slaughter. The SPGB, in contrast, passed a resolution stating that any member who voluntarily joined the fighting forces was unfit for membership. This attitude the members loyally adhered to during the course of the war.This internationalist, anti-war position was maintained throughout the war. Socialist Party members refused to go and kill their fellow-workers and were either jailed or went on the run.
Ther Socialist Party held many turbulent meetings. Speakers were arrested for "spreading disaffection amongst His Majesty's subjects." One speaker on the platform was fined him £2 2s for reading out aloud a military circular which dealt in detail with the selection and care of native girls to act as prostitutes for the soldiers in India under official licence. A speaker was arrested at Leicester and followed to the police station by a crowd baying for his blood (he also subsequently lost his job). Eventually, the Party took decision to suspend outdoor propaganda as counter-productive but criticism of the war continued in the journal. By October 1916 the Socialist Standard was prohibited from being sent outside the United Kingdom on the ground that a portion of its contents "might be used by the enemy powers for their propaganda." In 1917 the Head Office was raided by the police.
The Pro-War Left
The Labour Party placed its Head Office, its entire machinery, “at the disposal of the Government in their recruiting campaign” (Labour Leader, 3 September, 1914). The Labour Party entered the wartime coalition Governments and was a consenting party to all the actions of those Governments. Arthur Henderson in November, 1915, ptriotically declared “The British people are more than ever determined to free themselves from the blighting, ruthless spirit of militarism. A clarion call has been sounded, the nation’s imperative and essential need has been proclaimed, and under the leadership of the Sovereign the young manhood of our country is generously responding and volunteering for national service ...”
Even after three years of bloody slaughter in the trenches the attitude of the Labour Party was unchanged. Purdy, in June of 1917,said:- “As Chairman of the E.C. of the Labour Party I am not going to meet or sit in conference with the representatives of the enemy countries while we are at war. I mean to carry out the policy of British Labour as laid down by our representative gathering. That policy is to pursue the war to a successful termination, which means to a complete victory over the enemy.”
The Labour Party never repudiated its war-time attitude, nor did its prominent leaders. Arthur Henderson, replying to the charge in 1929 that he had supported the War, said that he was not in the least ashamed of his War record.
Independent Labour Party
The Independent Labour Party, another party claiming socialist credentials in 1914 allowed its members to support the War and to engage in recruiting. I.L.P. members in Parliament were permitted to vote War credits, and throughout the War the I.L.P. remained a constituent part of the war-mongering Labour Party. The myth about Keir Hardie's anti-war attitude is very persistent but att he outbreak of the war he took the side of the British ruling class.
"A nation at war must be united especially when its existence is at stake. In such filibustering expeditions as our own Boer War or the recent Italian war over Tripoli, where no national danger of any kind was involved there were many occasions for diversity of opinion and this was given voice to by the Socialist Party of Italy and the Stop the War Party in this country. Now the situation is different. With the boom of the enemy's guns within earshot, the lads who have gone forth by sea and land to fight their country's battles must not be disheartened by any discordant note at home." (Pioneer, Merthyr 15th Aug., 1914).
And again he writes
"We must see the war through, but we must also make ourselves so familiar with the facts as to be able to intervene at the earliest possible moment in the interests of peace" (Pioneer 15th Aug., 1914).
Hardie to become convinced that “our interests as a nation” were “directly attacked.” In an article “Pioneer” he says: “I have never said or written anything to dissuade our young men from enlisting. I know too well all there is at stake.” Hardie expressed his pleasure that a recruiting meeting addressed by him had been more successful than those of the Liberals.
“If I can get the recruiting figures for Merthyr week by week, which I find is a very difficult job, I hope by another week to prove (Hardie’s emphasis) that whereas our Rink meeting gave a stimulus to recruiting, those meetings at the Drill Hall at which the Liberal member or Liberal candidate spoke had exactly the opposite effect.” Two weeks later Hardie was able to proclaim that he had obtained the recruiting figures for his constituency and was able to make good his boast. He set out his claim in this manner: "(1) That for the five weeks before the Rink Meeting. recruiting had been steadily going down week by week; (2) that our I.L.P. meeting was held on Sunday, October 25th, and that for the next three weeks the number of recruits secured in Merthyr kept steadily rising. . . If Mr. Jones challenges this statement I shall produce the figures, though not inclined to do so for very obvious patriotic reasons. Unlike my colleague I am more concerned with aiding the army than with trying to take a mean advantage of a political opponent" (Pioneer, 19th Dec., 1914).
Ramsay Macdonald, another leading light of the I.L.P,declared that “the war they were fostering was wrong and would be considered so by posterity” (“Labour Leader,” 6.8.1914). Yet he could
“I want the serious men of the Trade Unions, the brotherhoods, and similar movements, to face their duty. To such it is sufficient to say, “England has need of you, and to say it in the right way.” “Daily Chronicle,” 14.9.1914.
F.W. Jowett, MP, Chairman of the I.L.P said :–
“It has been said that the I.L.P. holds the view that, notwithstanding the circumstances binding Great Britain to France and France to Russia, the Government ought to have declared for neutrality; I do not accept the statement as a correct representation of the position of the I.L.P. for my part, at all events, I agree that the Government was in honour bound by its secret understanding with France, to declare for intervention."
Bruce Glasier summed up the ILP policy that “such matters as enlistment and the urging of recruiting are matters for the individual conscience”:–"They had disassociated the Party from the political recruiting campaign, but they had left it to every member to recruit if he thought it well to do so, and, if he thinks it his duty, to ask his neighbour to recruit.”
I.L.P. delegates voted for the “unanimous declaration” issued by the Conference of “Socialists of Allied Nations,” which stated that the Socialists are “inflexibly resolved to fight until victory is achieved.”
British Socialist Party
The British Socialist Party (successor to the SDF) declared that it recognised: “…that the national freedom and independence of this country are threatened by Prussian militarism and that the Party naturally desires to see the prosecution of the war to a speedy and successful issue.” (Justice 17 September 1914)
Victor Fisher, and other individuals formed a “Socialist National Defence Committee,” which issued a manifesto urging Socialists to carry the British flag in the “war of liberation.” Members of the party complained that Victor Fisher and others procured soldiers to act as stewards at the National Defence Committee demonstration “to attack and intimidate Socialists present at the meeting.” (Report of 5th Annual Conference).
In one incident several members of B.S.P. endeavoured to break up a SPGB meeting.
The B.S.P. was torn between factions led by John Maclean, who headed the B.S.P.'s Scottish Branch, and Henry Hyndman, who headed the party as a whole. Hyndman supported the British government throughout the war, despite the fact that the majority of the party opposed it. In 1915 the B.S.P.'s pro-war wing would leave to form the new National Socialist Party.
Socialist Labour Party
The Socialist Labour Party also failed to produce a clear position when the war commenced. The Editor of the SLP journal wrote in the issue of November 1914, three months after the war broke out:-“I cannot say what the official attitude of the Party is”
In the following issue December 1914 he explains: “The S.L.P. – let us admit it freely, it has been taken by storm, though not so disastrously as other parties. What policy does the S.L.P. follow with respect to this war? We do not know. We are disunited. We are groping for a lead at the present time”.
Johnny Muir, who was the editor tried to argue his case for defending "his own" country, at a special meeting in their hall in Renfrew Street. In the midst of the discussion, and while Johnny was arguing a certain point, Davy Kirkwood jumped up and shouted, "Naw, naw, Johnnie, that'll no dae, the workers have nae country. Ah'm feenished wi' ye."
The socialist case against war is unique but logical, arising from its analysis of capitalism and our opposition to it. Capitalism, based on class ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution, generates a relentless search by the various capitalist powers for markets and sources of raw materials. These are essential ingredients in the ever-growing chase for profits — the life blood of the system. The capitalist class tries to solve this antagonism between powers by diplomatic measures, or the turning of the screw by the more powerful on the weaker. But if this fails then war can be the outcome, and even in this age of nuclear annihilation the threat of war still dominates the foreign policies of in particular the major powers.
Anyone who preaches peace and disarmament will have to show us the proof that peace and disarmament are possible and that the interests of nations and national capitals are all identical. If they cannot prove this, then it will be certain that disarmament and peace are still impossible. Those who aspire to peace, to disarmament and to arms control, and who propagandise for these goals, must prove that these objectives can be realised. And this proof must be undertaken not with vain phrases, with desires and hopes or vague slogans, but with examples and facts. And they cannot prove it for the opposed capitalist interests of the nations impels them towards war. Under capitalism there is no means other than brute force of war for the purpose of growth and globalisation. Those who speak of peace must show how trade and export of capital can expand without violence. Whoever thinks that capitalism can change proves how little they know of capitalism.
It is the nature of capitalism to form surplus value in such a way that it constantly increases. Surplus value which, in a constantly increasing fashion, forms more surplus value again. Therefore: expansion, extension. This is the nature of our society. All that is capitalist must therefore obey this tendency. Capital only exists thanks to private ownership of the means of production. And since they are possessed by only a few, capital bears within itself, necessarily, conflict. Conflict between individuals and between the groups in which individuals are united: nations. Therefore, who obeys the nature of capital, must also obey the principle of private property, and must implement it. The direction of capital's economy and politics is in the hands of magnates of industry and high finance. They are not afraid of war but use it for their own ends: the exploitation of the world and the enslavement of the Earth's inhabitants. War allows them to carry out this exploitation. It is their best and most forceful instrument, which never fails. It puts the Earth and the workers in their power. The financiers and industrialists cartels, govern the world by virtue of their political and economic power, because they fully and perfectly represent the nature of capitalism. Even if the capitalists wanted disarmament, peace and arms control, they would not be able to realise their desire. Capitalism has its own laws which are consequences of its very nature. Its principle laws are competition and conflict. Out of every war, a new war is being born. Big States and small States, all the capitalist States, those which have already become such States and those which want to attain that status, are lying in wait to pounce upon their prey, the powerful against the weak and, ultimately, all against all. The threat of new wars and vast new arsenals hovers over the whole world. All States, will arm themselves to the teeth, whether for offensive or defensive purposes.
Capitalist politicians will pretend to love and to desire peace. And all along, all of them will be arming to the teeth. Once again those who claim to be socialists will seek coalitions and compromises to get votes and power. The reformists must demonstrate that today, in the relations which still hold sway over individuals and nations, the will of the capitalists and of the members of capitalist society in general can freely steer capitalism in a different way than the way which is still currently prescribed by the laws of capitalism. They cannot, however. Peace is the impossible goal of the pacifist movement and a self-deception. The so-called peace-movements prevent the working class from carrying out its mission and attaining the power necessary for the abolition of capitalism and establishing socialism. So the socialist opposition to war is not a pacifist or a moral one but an inescapable conclusion of our general case. The total abolition of war and the threat of war will only be realised with the overthrow of capitalism and the restructuring of society on the basis of common ownership and production solely to meet human needs.
This understanding was what made the Socialist Party of Great Britain different in its opposition to the First World War and its anti-war analysis has remain valid for every war since.