Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Opposition to the First World War

How it was motivated and sustained: An outline

Because those who took an anti-war position were in a minority, and challenged basic tenets of the dominant ideology, there was a tendency for them to be ignored by or written out of orthodox history for much of the 20th century. More recent mainstream work has partly compensated for earlier neglect. At the same time, their awareness of disapproved, dissident status along with a strong conviction of being in the right, led activists to propagate their opinions by publishing their own versions of events, and in some cases gave their political successors an interest in rescuing them from oblivion.

Socialists and Libertarians

With socialist parties gaining ground in the early years of the century, and employing rhetoric about workers uniting across international boundaries against the common capitalist enemy, governments might well have had misgivings about the likely popular reaction to a declaration of war. Although in the event the initial upsurge of patriotic fervour in each of the belligerent countries rather exceeded expectations – some of the most prominent labour leaders immediately came out in support of the war – there were groups and factions who took a principled stance, holding meetings and distributing leaflets denouncing the aims and actions of their rulers. Notable among those, in Britain, were the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and sections of the Herald League such as that in North London. Ken Weller’s case-study of the latter uses a variety of sources to give a picture of a population far from united in support for the war, and disinclined to suffer its effects passively.

In 1912 an anti-war leaflet, “Murder is murder” was published by well-known anarcho-syndicalist Tom Mann, incurring a prison sentence; he continued to speak out during the conflict, sometimes sharing a platform with Sylvia Pankhurst. Anarchists and libertarians, by definition “agin the government” and hostile to authority, on finding themselves in a situation where the state explicitly arrogated to itself the ultimate power over every citizen, were more or less bound to deny any justification for war. They were therefore, it is probably true to say, more consistent in their adverse response than other sections of the left – although the foremost anarchist theoretician, Kropotkin, was an unfortunate exception.

Writers, Philosophers, Pacifists

The decision not to fight might arise as a private and personal matter, not that it could remain so, especially when conscription made it punishable by trial and imprisonment, or worse. But it was often proclaimed and publicised with evangelical passion. “It was an objection to having one’s life dictated by an outside authority,” stated Edward Marten (a Quaker), while Fenner Brockway explained that he and fellow conscientious objectors (COs) were not merely resisting a Conscription Act but “witnessing for peace... Not only against the war of 1914-18, but... against war altogether.”

Views expressed by writers were, unsurprisingly, varied, complex, often contradictory, and did not remain static. There were those who, like George Bernard Shaw, felt their intelligence outraged by the reasons advanced for going to war. Others fit more closely the romantic-poetic image: starting out with excitement, even enthusiasm, later to be overcome by disillusion and despair. The negative reaction did not inevitably entail refusing to fight any more, but was perceived as subversive enough when articulated openly as in Siegfried Sassoon’s cogent criticism of “the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men were being sacrificed.” (His now celebrated manifesto was first published in the Workers’ Dreadnought).

Outspoken public opposition to the war was also voiced by some of the most intellectually high-powered thinkers of the day, in particular Bertrand Russell, who of course became and continued to be a leading advocate of international peace, still taking on the war-mongering state as a civil-disobedient nonagenarian in the early 1960s.

Some Feminists

From opposing viewpoints, both of gender stereotyping and of a rational assessment of the position of women in society, it might have been concluded that active patriotism was not something for women, and that the idea of their participation in war (anyway supposed to be vicarious or at most supportive) should be rejected. Of course, they did participate in all sorts of ways. The feminist movement had for some time been showing, in struggling for the vote, some of what women were capable of in the way of organisation, forcefulness, courage and endurance. Historians still sometimes allege or imply that “the Suffragettes” supported the war en masse, and were rewarded by the limited franchise bestowed in 1918 by a grateful state. In fact the split, already apparent, between advocates of spectacular, often self-martyring individual “deeds” and those who turned to class struggle, became explicit on the question of the war. It is famously epitomised in the contrast presented by Sylvia Pankhurst, working with women in London’s East End, and her mother and one sister exhorting young men to get out there and be killed.

Industry and the Armed Forces

Actions that subverted the war effort did not necessarily arise from, or lead to, a pacifist outlook. They did at least indicate, however, that a point could be reached – especially, and crucially, within the industrial workforce and among the fighting troops themselves – where marching along, in step with the supposed national consensus, ceased to be of paramount concern. Inadequate pay, unbearable conditions, irrational orders and enforced subjection to harsh discipline repeatedly provoked outbreaks of resistance, even at risk of the heaviest penalty. There were mutinies by British and Commonwealth troops as well as extensively in the French army. Both countries saw significant episodes of industrial militancy: France’s  ”year of unrest”, 1917, and Britain’s “Red Clydeside” with added rent strikes. Reverberations from the Russian Revolution contributed to challenging the complacency of the dominant class.

Changing Attitudes

 Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song (1932, first part of his trilogy A Scots Quair) gives a powerful impression of the impact of the First World War on a rural Scottish community. In it (spoiler alert) the young guy who unthinkingly goes off to join up, after a process of coarsening and de- then re-sensitising, eventually turns his back (literally) on the whole business and is shot as a deserter. Meanwhile the local conscientious objector, having held out against public opinion and official disapproval, finally and fatally decides he is unable to stay uninvolved and is killed in his turn. This kind of fictional scenario parallels the view of some historians that people in society at large, as they became aware of casualty figures and battlefield horrors, came to despise the rhetorical propaganda of patriotism and to see through the rationale for going to war – even if perversely or desperately determined to see it through to the bitter end, in a vicious spiral of yet more sacrifice to make the preceding sacrifice seem “not in vain”.

Retrospect (from 1998)

During the 80th anniversary commemorations of the Armistice, in Britain at least, there were many harrowing depictions of horrors of war, and many statements about its futility, including some from surviving veterans. It has become possible, indeed customary, to acknowledge mistakes and even denounce crimes committed by the authorities, in their conduct of campaigns and in having shell-shock sufferers “shot at dawn”. Conspicuously absent, though, was any allusion to those who consciously, deliberately opposed the war at the time, and were prepared to act individually or collectively to resist it, at whatever risk. Opinion-formers in society are evidently more comfortable with the idea of tragic victims safely entombed in the past than with any realisation that they might have tried to confront and alter their apparently inexorable fate.


Nov. 1998, revised Dec. 2013

The above fairly basic stuff, mostly from 15 years ago, is offered as a contribution to the “remembering-the-real” discussion around the WW1 centenary.

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