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Chaper 2. First World War: The Labour Movement is betrayed

posted 24 Mar 2011, 05:58 by Admin uk

The global historical appeal of the Communist Manifesto

undergoes a fundamental revision and, as amended

by Kautsky, now reads:

proletarians of all countries,

unite in peace-time and cut each other’s throats in war!1

Rosa Luxemburg 1915

The World Wars

During the past decades, it has almost been taken for granted that la­bour leaders such as Tony Blair can be the closest allies to imperialist leaders such as George Bush.

In 1914, at the crucial moment when the First World War broke out, it came as a complete shock to almost everybody when the leadership of the dif­ferent national sections of the Second International sided with their own bourgeoisie, and helped pit worker against worker. Ever since, the anti-war movement has been forced to fight on two fronts at the same time – against war and against its own leaders. However, the betrayal in 1914 was no ac­cident. There were material causes to it.

The background

As tensions between the great powers increased at the beginning of the 20th century, the international Labour Movement re-doubled its effort to present a strategy for peace. At the International’s Stuttgart Congress in 1907, a new peace resolution was adopted unanimously and enthusiasti­cally. It was based on a proposal from the German Social Democrat Bebel, but given a tougher wording by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, a leader of the German Social Democrats. They also inserted an amendment that So­cial Democrats “should utilise the crisis created by the war to hasten the overthrow of the bourgeoisie.”2 And thereby end war once and for all. The resolution was re-adopted at the next congress in 1910.

The Labour Movement was not alone in hoping that the International would secure peace. In 1912, an Extraordinary Congress of the Interna­tional met in Basel, Switzerland. The non-socialist government of the can­ton expressed the hope that the Congress would succeed in creating peace. The Swiss Church placed the great Münster Cathedral at the disposal of the International. Some 545 delegates assembled.

Everyone, both those who spoke at the meeting and those who described their experiences afterwards – Viktor Adler from Austria, Peter Troelstra from Holland, Jean Jaurès from France, Fredrik Borgbjerg from Denmark and many others – talked about how the workers were no longer an un­enlightened mass without a will of their own. They would no longer let themselves be exploited by warmongers. If they were to die, it would be in defence of freedom, in a revolutionary uprising against militarism and capitalism.

Yet – within a matter of a week in 1914 – the whole strategy collapsed like a house of cards.

On June 28 1914, the Crown Prince and Princess of the Austrian empire were murdered by Serbian nationalists. Almost a month later, Austria gave Serbia an ultimatum, citing the shooting in Sarajevo. The Austrian terms were such that Serbia would be unable to consent to them all. War with Serbia meant a war with Russia, as the two countries were allies. This in turn would pull Russia’s traditional enemy and Austria’s ally Germany into the war. And so on, until all the major powers were at war.

Initially, the Social Democratic press in Germany remained faithful to the International’s ideals. They wrote that the ultimatum was obviously a provocation, and that Austria wanted war. The labour press denounced the move and declared that Social Democrats were totally opposed to Germany entering the war.

Then, on July 25, Austria declared war on Serbia, and a few days later Russia began to mobilise. In this atmosphere, the Executive Committee of the In­ternational held a meeting in Brussels on July 27 and 28 to discuss the Social Democratic position. This was when some in the International’s leadership began to waver.

The Austrian Social Democrat Viktor Adler declared that it was pointless for the Labour Movement to take any kind of action. He was worried that “we run the danger of destroying thirty years of work without any political result” if the Austrians organised against the war. And he wondered “is it not dangerous to encourage Serbia from inside our own country?” 3

Tragically, six days later the Serbian socialist MP Dragisa Lapčević, probably unaware of Adler’s speech, argued in Parliament against war credits and ex­pressed his confidence that the Serbian and Austrian Socialists would take a common stand against war.4

The two socialist MPs in the Serbian Parliament were the only Socialist deputies in belligerent countries, apart from Russian, to vote against war credits.

In early August, the German government sought the approval of the Re­ichstag for the issuing of war credits. The Social Democratic parliamentary group held a vote on what position to take. Of the 111 members of the Ger­man Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD), only fifteen were prepared to abide by the strategy of the International and vote against the war credits. A day later, these dissenters bowed to the ma­jority, and a unanimous parliamentary group subsequently voted in favour. After that vote there was no turning back, world war became inevitable.

When Lenin and LeonTrotsky, the other main leader of the Russian Revo­lution, read about this, they thought the newspaper that stated this was a forgery, published to provoke war. The turnaround had come as bolt from the blue to them, as it had to many others.

The Social Democrats in the Reichstag had not been duped into adopting a new stance on the war issue. The power game being played out in Europe was openly described in the White Book (official report) that the govern­ment presented to the Reichstag and to which the Social Democratic parlia­mentary group had full access. It showed that the German government had pushed Austria into presenting Serbia with an ultimatum. And they were fully aware that Austria’s conduct towards Serbia would lead to war. On the day the White Book was published, the German government also informed the Social Democratic parliamentary group that the German army was poised to march into Belgium. A country that obviously had nothing to do with the assassination of the Austrian Crown Prince.

To the general public the German government presented its war of aggres­sion as a case of self-defence. The threat was Russian tyranny. The govern­ment claimed it had to protect German independence. Rosa Luxemburg was not surprised at this. Throughout history, she noted, governments had claimed they were waging war to protect their country. “This legend is as inextricably a part of the game of war as powder and lead. The game is old. Only that the Social Democratic Party could play it is new.” 5

France’s leading socialist and anti-militarist, Jean Jaurès, was murdered in Paris soon after returning home from the EC’s July meeting in Brussels. When the news came that the German Social Democrats had retreated from their position, the French and Belgian Social Democrats also voted to grant their respective government’s war credits. Eventually, almost all of Europe was involved, and the US eventually joined the fighting as well. The outbreak of the First World War spelled the end of the 2nd International.


How could this have happened – so quickly and unexpectedly?

The carving up of the world into colonial empires during the decades leading up to the First World War led to a long period of relatively rapid economic growth in Europe. The Labour Movement was able to take ad­vantage of this. Political and social reforms were achieved through struggle. A layer of the working class raised its living standards, above all the more skilled and educated workers. Previously they had been in the forefront of the class struggle. For them the class struggle lost some of its sharpness, and they reduced their pressure on the leadership.

The organisations and publications of the Labour Movement grew strong during the economic upturn. The very success of the Labour Movement meant that it began to attract individuals from classes other than the work­ing class. Some genuinely wanted to further the emancipation of the work­ing class, but others just saw it as a means to further their own careers. Most party members were skilled workers and craftsmen. Slightly less than 15% of the members were unskilled workers. Almost 10% of the members of the German Social Democratic Party were self-employed.6 This gave the leadership even more leeway to pursue pro-capitalist policies.

However, the most important reason for the change in policies of the leadership was that the movement was soon in a position to offer some of its members employment and official posts. By 1914 the German Labour Movement employed 4010 officials, most of them on salaries considerably above the workers wages.7 In addition, the advent of parliamentarism gave the upper echelons of the Labour Movement access to a lifestyle very dif­ferent from that of an ordinary worker. The unelected officials together with the elected leadership made up the bureaucracy of the Labour Move­ment – a privileged caste that acted more and more independently of those they represented.

This was expressed ideologically in the attempts by Eduard Bernstein, a leading German social democrat, to revise Marxism. He was criticised for this by Karl Kautsky, the ideological leader of the German Social Demo­cratic Party and the Second International. For this Kautsky was internation­ally respected. When Rosa Luxemburg, who worked closely with Kautsky, attempted to point out that he was in fact quite timid when it came to the practical struggle, Lenin thought she was exaggerating. When the First World War broke out, Kautsky used his authority to stop the anti-war movement. While almost all of the leadership of the Second International had continued to pay lip service to Marxism, most of them had reduced Marxism to an empty shell.

When things came to a head, because of the outbreak of war, these lead­ers hesitated barely a moment before siding with the capitalists. These bureaucrats would have been placed in a difficult position if they opposed the war. Under the strategy developed by the International – transforming the anti-war struggle into a struggle against the capitalist system as a whole – they would quite likely have been accused of treason and imprisoned. There had been plenty of evidence of that in previous struggles. The Social Democratic leaders in Germany, Austria, France and many other countries were no longer prepared to expose themselves to such risks. Instead they abandoned the struggle.

In many countries, the Social Democratic leaders declared a party truce (the suspension of all party activities) and collaborated with royalist rulers and bourgeois governments. They pledged to put the class struggle on hold for the duration of the war. They may have been promised – or hoped to gain – reforms and a greater say in political affairs in exchange for siding with the government. However, deprivation and death was all workers got out of the war.

The International was paralysed by its own leaders. There were no con­gresses held where members could pass judgement on the policies of their leaders or remove them. All the resolutions that spelled out what the lead­ership should do where turned on their head by a leadership that had no democratic mandate to do so at all. The only mandate they received was from the bourgeoisie in their own country. The bourgeoisie and the media wasted no time in elevating the bureaucracy of the Labour Movement to heroes of the nation. The leadership lapped it all up. There was no way that the working class could rid of its old leadership and create a new leadership, in the course of the few days which the betrayal took.

Due to the betrayal, patriotism was able to celebrate triumphs when the war broke out in 1914. The normal pattern of life was disrupted and people gathered at mass meetings to demonstrate their support for the nation’s government. Many volunteered for service at the front, and people stood at the side of the road and cheered when the soldiers marched off.

The factory workers and farm labourers who sallied forth were not out to seize colonies, but a war naturally means that if you choose not to defend yourself you run the risk of your country being occupied by a hostile for­eign power. The working class in Germany had secured more extensive democratic rights than the workers of any other country, and had no wish to be exposed to a Tsarist dictatorship. French workers were of similar mind. They had no wish to be hounded by Prussian Junkers (the German landowning nobility). For a time, the forces unleashed at the outbreak of war wiped out internationalism.

Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the war was at most superficial. The ordinary soldiers’ view of the enemy was very different from that taken by the of­ficers. Stuck in trenches that were often no more than 50-100 metres from enemy lines, they soon realised that the soldiers in the opposing trenches were suffering in the same way as they were. A British soldier described the situation: “We hated their guts when they killed any of our friends; then we really did dislike them intensely. But otherwise we joked about them and I think they joked about us. And we thought, well, poor so-and-so’s, they’re in the same kind of muck as we are.”8

Another soldier, Andrew Todd, a telegrapher with the Royal Engineers, described in a letter home how a live-and-let-live attitude had developed at the front: “Perhaps it will surprise you to learn that the soldiers in both lines of trenches have become very ‘pally’ with each other. The trenches are only 60 yards9 apart at one place, and every morning about breakfast time one of the soldiers sticks a board in the air. As soon as this board goes up all firing ceases, and men from either side draw their water and rations. All through the breakfast hour, and so long as this board is up, silence reigns supreme, but whenever the board comes down the first unlucky devil who shows even so much as a hand gets a bullet through it.”10

On Christmas Eve 1914, many German soldiers stuck Christmas trees on top of the trenches. The entire German line was lit by candles placed on trees. At first, many British soldiers suspected it was a trick, but soon the celebrations turned into fraternising. Soldiers shouted Christmas greetings to one another across the divide, and the enemies sang Christmas carols to one another.

After a while, soldiers began leaving their trenches to gather together in no mans land. It was usually the Germans who took the initiative. This was probably because prior to the war the German Labour Movement had had a clearer internationalist ideology than its British counterpart.

An unofficial truce developed, particularly along the southern section of the Ypres Salient in Belgium, but also in other parts of the Western Front.11 In some places, the truce lasted until midnight on Christmas Day, while in others it lasted through to New Year’s Day.

“We shook hands, wished each other a Merry Xmas, and were soon conversing as if we had known each other for years. We were in front of their wire entanglements and surrounded by Germans – Fritz and I in the centre talking, and Fritz occasion­ally translating to his friends what I was saying. We stood inside the circle like street-corner orators. Soon most of our company (‘A’ Company), hearing that I and some others had gone out, fol­lowed us . (…) What a sight – little groups of Germans and Brit­ish extending almost the length of our front! Out in the darkness we could hear laughter and see lighted matches, a German light­ing a Scotchman’s cigarette and vice versa, exchanging cigarettes and souvenirs. Where they couldn’t talk the language they were making themselves understood by signs, and everyone seemed to be getting on nicely. Here we were laughing and chatting to men whom only a few hours before we were trying to kill!”12.

An important reason for the truce was that both sides wanted to collect and bury their dead, whose rotting corpses littered the land between the lines. In a few cases, they even held joint funeral services.

Perhaps the most astonishing instance was a soccer game played in the middle of no man’s land between the Bedfordshire Regiment and German soldiers. The Germans were leading 3-2 when the game had to be called off because the ball had been punctured by a barbed wire entanglement.

Such demonstrations of brotherhood were not at all to the liking of the of­ficers. Strict instructions were issued banning all further socialising with the enemy, and the following Christmas the officers ordered artillery bombard­ments to be stepped up to keep the soldiers in the trenches.13 The Christ­mas truce in 1914 showed that the patriotic hysteria which prevailed at that early stage could have been overcome had the Labour Movement’s leaders come out strongly against the war.

As they did not, four years of totally meaningless suffering and death en­sued. As the warring parties were equally matched in military terms, the Western Front was quickly locked in a war of attrition. The soldiers lay in muddy trenches, shooting at the enemy trenches opposite for month after month and year after year. From time to time, the generals sought to achieve a breakthrough by sending their men ‘over the top’, and they occa­sionally succeeded in shifting the front a few kilometres – at a terrible cost in human life. Two of the best-known battles were those at Verdun and at the Somme in 1916. The latter lasted for four months and the two sides lost a total of one million men.14

To break the deadlock, more and more divisions were brought up. By 1917, four million allies were ranged against two and a half million Germans on the Western Front. New weapons were introduced as well – gas, flame-throwers and tanks. But no decisive breakthrough could be achieved.

In all, an estimated eight and a half million people lost their lives as a direct result of military activity in the First World War. Some 21 million were­ wounded and seven million were reported captured or missing.

Countries Total Died in Injured Imprisoned Total Total

mobilized combat
or missing affected affected as

and other

% of total mobilized





Russia 12 000 000 1 700 000 4 950 000 2 500 000 9 150 000 76.3
France 8 410 000 1 357 800 4 266 000 537 000 6 160 800 76.3
British 8 904 467 908 371 2 090 212 191 652 3 190 235 35.8

Italy 5 615 000 650 000 947 000 600 000 2 197 000 39.1
USA 4 355 000 126 000 234 300 4 500 364 800 8.2
Japan 800 000 300 907 3 1 210 0.2
Romania 750 000 335 706 120 000 80 000 535 706 71.4
Serbia 707 343 45 000 133 148 152 958 331 106 46.8
Belgium 267 000 13 716 44 686 34 659 93 061 34.9
Greece 230 000 5 000 21 000 1 000 17 000 11.7
Portugal 100 000 7 222 13 751 12 318 33 291 33.3
Montenegro 50 000 3 000 10 000 7 000 20 000 40.0
Total 42 188 810 5 152 115 12 831 004 4 121 090 22 104 209 52.3


Germany 11 000 000 1 773 700 4 216 058 1 152 800 7 142 558 64.9
Austria- 7 800 000 1 200 000 3 620 000 2 200 000 7 020 000 90.0

Turkey 2 850 000 325 000 400 000 250 000 975 000 34.2
Bulgaria 1 200 000 87 500 152 390 27 029 266 919 22.2
Total 22 850 000 3 386 200 8 388 448 3 629 829 15 404 477 67.4
All 65 038 810 8 538 315 21 219 452 7 750 919 37 508 686 57.6

Source: www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWdeaths.htm

The treachery of the Social Democratic leaders in 1914 was a turning point for the international Labour Movement, which divides thereafter into two distinct ideological tendencies – reformism and revolutionary Marxism. The present leadership of the Swedish Social Democratic Party claims that the break in the international Labour Movement between revolutionaries and reformists occurred in 1917, because of the “undemocratic” Russian Revo­lution. This assertion does not correspond to the facts. The Second Interna­tional split because many of its leaders supported the butchery of the First World War and others continued to stand for the policies democratically decided upon in congress after congress. The Russian Revolution was simply the fulfilment of plans drawn up by the International and its organisations.


1 Rosa Luxemburg: Rebuilding the International, 1915

2 V. I.Lenin: The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart, 1907

3 Documents: 1907-1916: Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International

4 ibid

5 Rosa Luxemburg: The Crisis of Social Democracy, 1916

6 Gregory Zinoviev: The Social roots of the Split, 1916

7 ibid

8 Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton: Christmas Truce 23, 1984, quoted in Jennifer

Rosenberg: Peace in No Man’s Land, Christmas 1914 (http://history1900s.about.com/library/weekly/aa122100a.htm)

9 Approximately fifty-five metres

10Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton: Christmas Truce 23, 1984, quoted in Jennifer

Rosenberg: Peace in No Man’s Land, Christmas 1914


11 www.firstworldwar.com/features/christmastruce.htm

12 Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton: Christmas Truce 23

13 www.firstworldwar.com/features/christmastruce.htm

14 Bra Böckers lexikon