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The failure of socialism during the first world war

Sunday 1 March 2009, by Robert Paris

James Connolly

Revolutionary Unionism and War


From International Socialist Review, March 1915.

Transcribed by The Workers’ Web ASCII Pamphlet Project in 1997.

Proofread by Chris Clayton, August 2007.

Since the war broke out in Europe, and since the socialist forces in the various countries failed so signally to prevent or even delay the outbreak, I have been reading everything in American socialist papers or magazines that came to hand; to see if that failure and the reasons therefor, were properly understood, among my old comrades in the United States.

But either I have not seen the proper publications, or else the dramatic side of the military campaigns has taken too firm a hold upon the imagination of socialist writers to allow them to estimate properly the inner meaning of that debacle of political socialism witnessed in Europe when the bugles of war rang out upon our ears.

I am going then to try, in all calmness, to relate the matter as it appears to us who believe that the signal of war ought also to have been the signal for rebellion, that when the bugles sounded the first note for actual war, their notes should have been taken as the tocsin for social revolution. And I am going to try to explain why such results did not follow such actions. My explanation may not be palatable to some; I hope it will be at least interesting to all.

In the first place let me be perfectly frank with my readers as to my own position, now that that possibility has receded out of sight. As the reader will have gathered from my opening remarks, I believe that the socialist proletariat of Europe in all the belligerent countries ought to have refused to march against their brothers across the frontiers, and that such refusal would have prevented the war and all its horrors even though it might have led to civil war. Such a civil war would not, could not possibly have resulted in such a loss of socialist life as this international war has entailed, and each socialist who fell in such a civil war would have fallen knowing that he was battling for the cause he had worked for in days of peace, and that there was no possibility of the bullet or shell that laid him low having been sent on its murderous way by one to whom he had pledged the ‘lifelong love of comrades’ in the international army of labour.

But seeing that the socialist movement did not so put the faith of its adherents to the test, seeing that the nations are now locked in this death grapple, and the issue is knit, I do not wish to disguise from anyone my belief that there is no hope of peaceful development for the industrial nations of continental Europe whilst Britain holds the dominance of the sea. The British fleet is a knife held permanently at the throat of Europe; should any nation evince an ability to emerge from the position of a mere customer for British products, and to become a successful competitor of Britain in the markets of the world, that knife is set in operation to cut that throat.

By days and by nights the British Government watches and works to isolate its competitor from the comity of nations, to ring it around with hostile foes. When the time is propitious, the blow is struck, the allies of Britain encompass its rival by land and the fleet of Britain swoops upon its commerce by sea. In one short month the commerce-raiding fleet of Great Britain destroys a trade built up in forty years of slow peaceful industry, as it has just done in the case of Germany.

Examining the history of the foreign relations of Great Britain since the rise of the capitalist class to power in that country, the continuity of this policy becomes obvious and as marvellous as it is obvious.

Neither religion nor race affinity nor diversity of political or social institutions availed to save a competitor of England. The list of commercial rivals or would-be rivals is fairly large, and gives the economic key to the reasons for the great wars of Britain. In that list we find Spain, Holland, France, Denmark and now Germany. Britain must rule the waves, and when the continental nations wished to make at the Hague a law forbidding the capture of merchant vessels during war, Britain refused her assent. Naturally! It is her power to capture merchant ships during war that enables Britain to cut the throat of a commercial rival at her own sweet will.

If she had not that power she would need to depend upon her superiority in technical equipment and efficiency; and the uprise in other countries of industrial enterprises able to challenge and defeat her in this world market has amply demonstrated that she has not that superiority any longer.

The United States and Germany lead in crowding Britain industrially; the former cannot be made a target for the guns of militarist continental Europe, therefore escapes for the time being as Britain never fights a white power single-handed. But Germany is caught within the net and has to suffer for her industrial achievements.

The right to capture merchant ships for which Britain stood out against the public opinion of all Europe is thus seen to be the trump card of Britain against the industrial development of the world outside her shores – against that complete freedom of the seas by which alone the nations of the world can develop that industrial status which socialists maintain to be an indispensible condition for socialist triumph.

I have been thus frank with my readers in order that they may perfectly understand my position and the reason therefor, and thus anticipate some of the insinuations that are sure to be levelled against me as one who sympathises neither with the anti-German hysteria of such comrades as Professor George D. Herron nor with the suddenly developed belief in the good faith of Czars shown by Prince Peter Kropotkin.

I believe the war could have been prevented by the socialists; as it was not prevented and as the issues are knit, I want to see England beaten so thoroughly that the commerce of the seas will henceforth be free to all nations – to the smallest equally with the greatest.

But how could this war have been prevented, which is another way of saying how and why did the socialist movement fail to prevent it?

The full answer to that question can only be grasped by those who are familiar with the propaganda that from 1905 onwards has been known as ‘industrialist’ in the United States and, though not so accurately, has been called ‘syndicalist’ in Europe.

The essence of that propaganda lay in two principles. To take them in the order of their immediate effectiveness these were: First, that labour could only enforce its wishes by organising its strength at the point of production, i.e., the farms, factories, workshops, railways, docks, ships – where the work of the world is carried on, the effectiveness of the political vote depending primarily upon the economic power of the workers organised behind it. Secondly, that the process of organising that economic power would also build the industrial fabric of the socialist republic, build the new society within the old.

It is upon the first of these two principles I wish my readers to concentrate their attention in order to find the answer to the question we are asking.

In all the belligerent countries of western and central Europe the socialist vote was very large; in none of these belligerent countries was there an organised revolutionary industrial organisation directing the socialist vote nor a socialist political party directing a revolutionary industrial organisation.

The socialist voters having cast their ballots were helpless, as voters, until the next election; as workers, they were indeed in control of the forces of production and distribution, and by exercising that control over the transport service could have made the war impossible. But the idea of thus co-ordinating their two spheres of activity had not gained sufficient lodgment to be effective in the emergency.

No socialist party in Europe could say that rather than go to war it would call out the entire transport service of the country and thus prevent mobilisation. No socialist party could say so, because no socialist party could have the slightest reasonable prospect of having such a call obeyed.

The executive committee of the socialist movement was not in control of the labour-force of the men who voted for the socialist representatives in the legislative chambers of Europe, nor were the men in control of the supply of labour-force in control of the socialist representatives. In either case there would have been an organised power immediately available against war. Lacking either, the socialist parties of Europe when they had protested against war, had also fired their last shot against militarism and were left like ‘children crying in the night.’

Had the socialist party of France been able to declare that rather than be dragged into war to save the Russian Czar from the revolutionary consequences which would have followed his certain defeat by Germany, they would declare a railway strike, there would have been no war between France and Germany, as the latter country saved from the dread of an attack in the west whilst defending itself in the east could not have coerced its socialist population into consenting to take the offensive against France.

But the French government knows, the German government knows, all cool observers in Europe know, that the socialist and syndicalist organisation of France could not have carried out such a threat even had they made it. Both politically and industrially the revolutionary organisations of France are mere skeleton frameworks, not solid bodies.

Politically large numbers roll together at elections around the faithful few who keep the machinery of the party together; industrially, more or less, large numbers roll together during strikes or lock-outs. But the numbers of either are shifting, uncertain and of shadowy allegiance. From such no revolutionary action of value in face of modern conditions of warfare and state organisation could be expected. And none came.

Hence the pathetic failure of French socialism – the socialist battalion occupying the position of the most tactical importance on the European battlefield. For neither Russia nor Britain could have fought had France held aloof; Russia because of the fear of internal convulsions; Britain, because Britain never fights unless the odds against her foe are overwhelming. And Britain needed the aid of the French fleet.

To sum up then, the failure of European socialism to avert the war is primarily due to the divorce between the industrial and political movements of labour. The socialist voter, as such, is helpless between elections. He requires to organise power to enforce the mandate of the elections and the only power he can so organise is economic power – the power to stop the wheels of commerce, to control the heart that sends the life blood pulsating through the social organism.

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