Socialist Opposition to WW1

MML has been supported by a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund that, thanks to National Lottery players, has enabled us to mount our unique project on the Socialist Opposition to the First World War. This included an exhibition and a special extension to our main site containing much detailed resources material in PDF format, along with digitised and searchable copies from 1916-18 of the Call, the British Socialist Party's newspaper. Our thanks also to Professor Mary Davis for leading the bid and co-ordinating the project and to Luke Evans for spending time with us in developing this work.

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The First World War accentuated the divisions between the left and right in the labour movement. The militancy of labour's rank and file continued unabated, whilst the exigencies of war gave labour's leaders the chance to become fully enmeshed within the State itself. The gulf between the two widened to such an extent that it was difficult for both to co-exist within the same organisations. The 'unofficial' opposition, reflecting the chasm between leaders and led, generated its own structures in the form of the Shop Stewards Movement and Workers' Committees. The shop stewards of today can trace their origins to this wartime period, during which rank and file workers kept effective trade unionism alive in the face of their leaders' preoccupation with the war effort.

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The preview of the Socialist Opposition to the First World War exhibition was held at Marx House as part of London Open House on 20th September 2015.

The British Socialist Party (BSP) opposed the war from the outset. The Independent Labour Party also maintained an anti-war policy from the start, even though some of its leading parliamentary members did not.

'Red Clyde' was in the vanguard of the wartime workers' movement, but mass protests led by revolutionary socialists developed with as much force in other parts of the country. The election of shop stewards and the formation of shop stewards committees was commonplace in most large factories which had been turned over to war time production. In Sheffield a Workers' Committee under the leadership of J.T.Murphy was formed on the model of the CWC.

Women's trade union membership increased by about 160% during the war, but apart from the National Federation of Women Workers, the Workers' Union (WU) was the only union to make a serious commitment to organising women. By 1918 the WU employed twenty women full time officials and had a female membership of over 80,000. This was more than any other general union and represented a quarter of the WU's own membership. In 1918 the Equal Pay strike was led and ultimately won by women tramway workers - starting in London and spreading to other towns.

 

The First World War accentuated the divisions between the left and right in the labour movement.

The militancy of labour's rank and file continued unabated, whilst the exigencies of war gave labour's leaders the chance to become fully enmeshed within the State itself.

Andrew Rothstein was born in London in 1898 to Jewish parents, both of whom were political exiles from Tsarist Russia. Andrew won a London County Council scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford to study history. However, in 1917 he was drafted into the army as a corporal. His regiment was not permitted to be demobbed at the end of the war. Instead they were ordered to go to Archangel in order to engage in hostilities against the new Soviet republic.

 

The resolutions of the Second International, in condemning colonialism (1907 Stuttgart Congress) and calling for workers to oppose war (1910 Copenhagen Congress), were promptly forgotten in the rush to arms and the International itself collapsed.

British labour leaders maintained an anti-war stance up until the point, on August 4th 1914, that the government finally declared war on Germany. By the end of August, the Labour Party and the TUC declared an 'industrial truce' for the duration of the war and lent their support to an all-party recruitment campaign.

The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party held its first Congress in 1903 in Brussels and then moved to London. The proceedings were chaired by Plekhanov. It was clear from the start that there was a split between two factions - the Bolsheviks (led by Lenin) and the Mensheviks (led by Martov). By 1912 the split was permanent.

Socialist Support for the War

The resolutions of the Second International, in condemning colonialism (1907 Stuttgart Congress) and calling for workers to oppose war (1910 Copenhagen Congress), were promptly forgotten in the rush to arms and the International itself collapsed.

Opposition to WW1 centred in Clydeside. Maclean immediately set about educating the workers about the real nature of war by taking the message directly to the shipyard gates In February 1915 there was a strike at the munitions factory Weirs of Cathcart. The odds were stacked against them. The Defence of the Realm Act had made strikes illegal and the TUC had made a pledge of industrial peace for the duration of the War and so the Strike was an unofficial, shop steward led strike, (most of whom were pupils of Maclean), in defiance of the Union. The workers formed a rank and file Labour Withholding Committee to conduct the strike but were forced back to work with no strike pay. However this was to prove the start of real militancy on the Clyde.

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a peace treaty signed on March 3, 1918, between the new Bolshevik government of Russia (the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey). It ended Russia's participation in World War I. The chief negotiator was Trotsky. Although Lenin had promised ‘Peace, Bread and Land’, this treaty was unpopular because it gave away too much Russian land especially in the Ukraine. In fact this was one of the chief reasons for the later Civil War between Red & White Russians.

Despite the fact that Mary Macarthur’s father was a conservative, an anti-socialist and an opponent of trade unions, Mary, nonetheless, joined and became active in the Shop Assistants’ Union. In 1905 she, along with others, helped to launch the sweated trades’ exhibition and in 1906 formed the Anti-Sweating League.

Under Mary Macarthur's leadership, the NFWW supported World War 1 and the industrial truce called by the TUC. Sylvia Pankhurst labelled Mary Macarthur’s work in the Central Committee for the Employment of Women (CCEW) as a ‘gross betrayal’ given that the rates paid fell below those set by the first Trade Boards.

Helen Crawfurd had been an enthusiastic member of the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU), but had broken with that organisation in 1914 when its leadership abandoned the fight for the vote and enthusiastically supported the war effort – Helen was shocked at this volte face and hence together with her friend Agnes Dollen formed the Women’s Peace Crusade. This body campaigned throughout Scotland to end war and to oppose conscription when it was introduced in 1916. Crawfurd was also active in opposing the rent increases introduced early in the war especially for munitions workers.

Tom Mann recounts the events surrounding the publication of the Don't Shoot Leaflet in his autobiography Home Again. Extract courtesy of the Marxist Internet Archive.

We're currently developing a wide range of resources associated with the exhibition and project which can be downloaded and used here. If you'd like more information or would like to arrange a visit to your school/college then don't hesitate to get in touch

Whether consciously anti-war or not, it was clear from 1915 that industrial workers were not going to be cowed by the legal strictures against strike action. An early example of this mood of defiance came from the strike by engineering workers in munitions factories on the Clyde in 1915. The strike was, of course, unsupported by the ASE leadership. Aided by the hastily formed Central Labour Witholding Committee, the strike spread rapidly throughout the Clyde. Signs of mass defiance were not limited to Scotland.

In this video for NVTV, exhibition curator Professor Mary Davis discusses Socialist Opposition to the First World War with presenter Kellie O'Dowd.

Reclaim the Agenda : Episode 16 - Socialist Opposition to WW1 from Northern Visions NvTv on Vimeo.