Oh! What A Lovely War

November 11, 2012 at 1:27 am (capitalist crisis, class, Europe, hell, history, Jim D, war, workers, youth)

The “War to End War” 28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918

Above: the final scene from Oh! What A Lovely War (1969, dir Richard Attenborough)

“But perhaps in addition to the illusion that the war would be a short one, the illusion which received the most bitter blow, even though it was to be revived hopefully by President Wilson in 1918, was the belief that international relations could be conducted on a rational basis in which the intersts of the various nations could be made to harmonise with each other without the need of armed conflict. It was this illusion that had governed Grey’s diplomacy and his attempt to mediate between the continental powers in the last days of July 1914; and it was a similar belief that inspired the leaders of the Second International when they came to Brussels in the hope of finding a way to demonstrate that the international solidarity of the European working class was stronger than the division between their capitalist rulers. The ideological assumptions on which European liberalism had rested were already breaking down before 1914. The war was going to hasten this process in the field of practical politics and everyday social and economic life. The war destroyed the political, economic, social and territorial structure of the old Europe and neither conservatism nor liberalism nor even socialism were ever going to be the same again. From the standpoint of sixty years later [in the 1970’s – JD] there is all too much truth in the prophesy made by Jean Jaurès in 1905: ‘From a European war a revolution may spring up and the ruling classes would do well to think of this. But it may also result, over a long period, in crises of counter-revolution, of furious reaction, of exasperated nationalism, of stifling dictatorships, of monstrous militarism, a long chain of retrograde violence.'”

-From Europe Since 1870 by James Joll


  1. dave said,

    I saw again a very excellent documentary Channel 4 did on the fisrs day of the somme. Drama Documentary has been given a bad name but this is a supreme example and proof of how powerful TV can be. I welled up when watching it.

    Intrestingly as well much of it is based on the diary of Richard H Tawney who was a Sergeant in the Manchester Regiment and the letters Cyril Jose a very young Private in the Devonshire Regiment. It mentions at the end that Jose became a communist and and RH Tawney became one of the leading intellectual of the Labour party in the 30s and 40s and one of the founders of the Welfare State.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      The problem was that the various defencists – who included virtually all of the leading Marxists and even anarchists of Europe – did have a point.

      The German SPD whose Reichstag delegation voted almost unanimously for war credits saw it as a war of defence against an evil alliance of autocratic Russia, imperialist Britain and bourgeois France and I would suggest that if Marx and Engels had both lived until 1914 (when Marx would have been 96 and Engels 94) they would have probably have taken much the same position as Engels’ anointed heir Kautsky did and at best argue for abstention.

      (Kautsky himself soon regretted this and was with his revisionist arch-enemy Bernstein and the far left Liebknecht and Luxemberg a founder member of the anti-war USPD).

      French socialists and anarchists could and did quite rightly see it as the defence of bourgeois democracy against German reaction.

      Only in Britain and Russia was the left genuinely divided – although in Britain it tended to be the despised reformists like Hardie and Macdonald who were least enthusiastic about the war while Hyndman and the SDF became fervent warmongers.

      And in Italy a similar inversion took place with Mussolini and much of the PSI and syndicalist left vociferously supporting war on the grounds that there were Italians suffering under Austrian despotism while the revisionists and reformists were much more likely to oppose it.

      But the Leninist myth established at Zimmerwald is that the true left were all revolutionary defeatists from day 1 while the reformists abandonment of Marxism led them inevitably to social-chauvinism.

      Reality is as always far more complicated.

  2. dave said,

    Sure I can accept things were more complicated then the most simplistic narratives. However its more complicated then you suggest. In Britain all the socialists groups split on the war to dome degree. The BSP (as the SDF were called by then) mainly opposed the war and Hyndman and his paper Justice left.
    What is also true is that in general the revolutionaries tended to stay internationlist and the reformists were more likely to be pro war except in countries like Britain with a strong pacifist tradition linked to non conformism.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      However Jaures the arch-reformist was not a non-conformist pacifist, neither was the revisionist Bernstein – and yet both came out against the war immediately while most of the orthodox Marxists in both countries were pro-war.

      And there was no more revolutionary figure in 1914 social democracy than Mussolini (who had made his name by opposing Italy’s imperialist war against Turkey in 1911) who became the most militant of the PSI’s warmongers.

      As regards the BSP the point is that it was split and that its best known leaders (Hyndman and the party’s by then ex-MP Victor Grayson) were not just pro-war but positively jingoistic – the reformist ILP however took a far more principled line.

      My point was not that reformists and revisionists were on the whole sounder on WW1 than the orthodox Marxists but that from country to country and from party to party the dividing lines were drawn very differently – and changed over time.

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