The real lessons of the First World War

THE FIRST World War was a tragedy that cost the lives of millions and devastated large parts of Europe and the rest of the world. Though most of the casualties were military civilians were also swept into the carnage, including over a million Armenians massacred in pogroms carried out by Germany’s Turkish allies.

British and Empire losses alone came to nearly one million dead and over two million wounded and altogether over nine million died and a further 21 million wounded. Throughout Europe the centenary of the war that began in August 1914 is being marked by solemn ceremonies to honour those who fell in what was foolishly called the “war to end all wars”. But in this country the Conservative-led government has decided to revive reactionary myths to mask the culpability of the British ruling class in prolonging the senseless sacrifice during the four years of conflict.

Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, who died when his ship was sunk by a German U-boat in 1916, now adorns our two pound coins and Education Secretary Michael Gove has launched an attack on what he calls “left-wing academics” for peddling unpatriotic “myths” about the role of British soldiers and generals in the conflict. Gove claims the “pitiless” and “aggressive expansionism” of the German leaders should not be forgotten as it “more than justified” the British military response.

But it is pointless to attribute the blame for the outbreak of hostilities to any one country. Nor should the misery and horror of the trenches be laid entirely on the door of the generals who ordered the offensives that sent so many to their graves. The generals made the plans but it was the bourgeois politicians on both sides who gave the orders

The First World War was an imperialist war. The German Empire and its allies wanted to re-divide the world in its favour at the expense of Britain and France, whose empires spanned the globe. Millions upon millions of working people paid for it with their lives, betrayed by social democratic leaders who backed the slaughter.

The socialist parties in Europe had opposed war and militarism for many years. In 1910 they all said that if war came their MPs would vote against war credits. In 1912 they declared that workers of all countries considered it a crime to shoot one another for the sake of increasing the profits of the capitalists. That’s what they proclaimed in their resolutions.

Lenin constantly warned against the opportunism of the Second International and the wavering attitude of its leaders. They had already abandoned the revolutionary road in favour of the never-never-land of the parliamentary road to socialism. He knew that these people could talk bravely about opposing war when there was peace and speedily desert to the side of their rulers when war broke out.

And when it came in 1914, the Labour Party’s opposition was overturned in days and the German social-democrats, the French, Belgian and Austrian socialists and the Russian Mensheviks all made common cause with the ruling class in their own countries exactly as Lenin had foreseen.

There were exceptions. Some Labour leaders, mainly for pacifist reasons, continued to argue for peace. The Irish and Serbian socialists took the principled stand and the French socialist leader Jean Jaures was murdered for trying to mobilise the class against the war.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks remained true to the principles of proletarian internationalism. Lenin, then in Switzerland, was the first socialist leader to call it an imperialist war and he denounced the social democratic leaders as traitors who deceived working people by concealing from them who was really responsible for the war.

The Bolsheviks called for a revolutionary struggle for peace which could lead to the overthrow of those who started the war. They held that the surest way to end the war and secure a just peace without annexations and reparations was to overthrow the bourgeoisie in the imperialist countries. They called on the millions of armed workers and peasants to turn the guns on their own oppressors to end the war and achieve peace.

This they did in 1917 and the torch lit by the October Revolution spread across wartime Europe, firing mutinies on the Western Front, plunging the capitalist world into the crisis that ended the war the following year. That indeed is something to remember.