In 1871, Karl Marx wrote that governments use war as a fraud, a ‘humbug, intended to defer the struggle of the classes’. In 1914, that fraud was so effective that not only most workers but also most Marxists supported their respective nation’s rush to war. Ever since then, governments have used war to defer class struggle and prevent revolution. But this strategy cannot last forever.
THE GREAT UNREST AND THE GREAT WAR
In all the commemorations for the start of World War One it is unlikely that there will be many references to the huge strike wave that preceded the war. But this strike wave, known as the Great Unrest, created considerable insecurity among Britain’s elites. This was especially the case as these strikes coincided with other disturbing social movements such as the nationalist upsurge in Ireland and the increasingly violent campaign for women’s suffrage.
By the summer of 1914, workers were mobilising for what the left reformist commentators, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, called ‘an almost revolutionary outburst of gigantic industrial disputes.’ The future Prime Minister, Lloyd George, warned that if these industrial disputes coincided with the looming civil war in Ireland then Britain would face ‘the gravest [situation] with which any government has had to deal for centuries.’ Another reformist author, H.G.Wells, claimed that Britain’s wage-earners had ‘definitely decided not to remain wage-earners for very much longer’ and he warned of ‘a series of increasingly destructive outbreaks … culminating in revolution.’
Wells may have overstated what he called the ‘drift towards revolution’. But even Basil Thomson, the head of Britain’s political police, the Special Branch, seems to have shared Wells’ fears when he predicted that ‘unless there was a European war to divert the current [of unrest] we were heading for something very like revolution.’
Whatever the situation in Britain’s Empire, the ‘drift towards revolution’ was certainly real in the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Europe’s politicians and media could divert some popular discontent into nationalism, imperialism and masculinist militarism. But this only encouraged a situation in which, when confronted with inter-imperialist war in 1914, politicians on all sides felt unable to back down, fearing what Lloyd George called ‘national dishonour’ and ‘shame’.
A WAR FOR HONOUR
Britain faced no serious threat of invasion in 1914. Nevertheless, having seen the male youth of France and Germany rush to war, Lloyd George was very concerned that the British male should also act like a ‘real man’ so that Britain would not end up as ‘the only land whose children are not prepared to sacrifice themselves for [their nation’s] honour.’ In a similar vein, the Prime Minister, Asquith, argued that ‘no self-respecting man could possibly have repudiated’ Britain’s obligation to defend Belgium. Meanwhile, in Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm was even more anxious not to be seen as unmanly, insisting that ‘this time I shall not chicken out,’ while his Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, said that for Germany to have backed down in 1914 would have meant ‘self-emasculation’.