Today, 11th November, is the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice which ended the First World War. More than ever, the build-up to Remembrance Day has been used to push a pro-militarist agenda, and attack dissenting views. It pushes ‘patriotism’ and ignores class, gender, race, disability and other sources of power and inequality.
We mourn the millions of soldiers on both sides who were deceived or forced into fighting, particularly those who lost their lives or were injured. We mourn the millions of civilians who were injured or killed. We mourn the millions of people on both sides who continued to suffer after the war, often from post traumatic stress, generally without receiving the support they needed. We mourn for all the young working class people who suffered the guilt of being forced to kill others just like them or build armaments to support the ‘war effort’. We condemn the ruling class on both sides that caused this war through their greed and desire for more power and domination.
For us, as internationalists and anti-militarists, we will cherish the memory of all those who stood on principle against the war or who came to resist it. These included:
- Over 16,000 conscientious objectors in Britain, many of whom endured long stretches of hard labour and prison;
- Socialists and anarchists who campaigned against the war and conscription, and faced down jingoistic mobs;
- The left-wing women’s movement, led especially by Agnes Dollan and Helen Crawfurd, whose Women’s Peace Crusades attracted thousands in Glasgow;
- John MacLean, who became the voice of the anti-war movement, and who would never recover from the punishment he received from the state;
- And the soldiers themselves – not just from Britain, but Russia, France and Germany – who came to refuse orders, shirk, desert and ultimately mutiny. It was, after all, the Kiel mutiny of German sailors who brought an end to the war and ushered in the German Revolution.
The Industrial Workers of the World itself has a long history of resisting all capitalists’ wars from American intervention in Mexico in the 1910s to the wars of the present day.
During the First World War, Wobblies carried out anti-war campaigning and were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. In the USA, it is true, there was more debate over the best course to follow. The union was overwhelmingly against the war, but the majority of the leadership wanted to save the organisation from destruction by muting its anti-war stance. As it turned out, the state launched a full-scale attack on the union anyway.
Rank-and-file American Wobblies did actively struggle against the war machine, however, and they were led by organiser Frank Little. He argued that the war had brought a ‘mad chaos of bloodshed and slaughter’, and that it could ‘only serve to further rivet the chains of slavery on our necks, and render still more secure the power of the few to control the destinies of the many’ (Chester 2014: 129). Little was murdered by hired thugs in August 1917.
Here, we reproduce a resolution passed by the American IWW in 1916. It might be over a hundred years old but it’s as relevant as ever.
This history is not dead. Anti-militarism is not a side issue to our organising; it’s a necessary part of organising for a better world.
Anti-war resolution passed by the 1916 convention of the (US) Industrial Workers of the World:
We, the Industrial Workers of the World, in convention assembled, hereby re-affirm our adherence to the principles of industrial unionism, and rededicate ourselves to the unflinching, unfaltering prosecution of the struggle for the abolition of wage slavery and the realization of our ideals in Industrial Democracy.
With the European war for conquest and exploitation raging and destroying our lives, class consciousness and the unity of the workers, and the ever-growing agitation for military preparedness clouding the main issues and delaying the realization of our ultimate aim with patriotic and therefore capitalistic aspirations, we openly declare ourselves the determined opponents of all nationalistic sectionalism, or patriotism, and the militarism preached and supported by our one enemy, the capitalist class.
We condemn all wars, and for the prevention of such, we proclaim the anti-militaristic propaganda in time of peace, thus promoting class solidarity among the workers of the entire world, and, in time of war, the general strike, in all industries.
We extend assurances of both moral and material support to all workers who suffer at the hands of the capitalist class for their adherence to these principles, and call on all workers to unite themselves with us, that the reign of the exploiters may cease, and this earth be made fair through the establishment of industrial democracy.
(This resolution was previously published online at iww.org.)
For a good account of conscientious objection in Scotland and Britain, see Spirit of Revolt’s recent talk on this subject.
The best summary of conscientious objection and resistance to WWI in Scotland is Robert Duncan’s Objectors and Resisters: Opposition to Conscription and War in Scotland 1914-1918 (2015).
Eric Chester’s Wobblies in Their Heyday (2014) has a useful discussion of the American IWW during the First World War.
Two great essays on the British army during the war are Dave Lamb’s Mutinies 1917-1920, and Why Blackadder Goes Forth Could Have Been a Lot Funnier, by the Bristol Radical History Group, which looks at the ways in which soldiers would avoid killing.