An Irish view of the First World War

It’s about more than losing that “Bonny Bunch of Roses”

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by TMK writing in Socialist Voice, the paper of the Communist Party of Ireland

Late last year the BBC announced a plan to mark the centenary of the First World War with the biggest and most ambitious pan-BBC season ever undertaken. The corporation’s director-general, Tony Hall, purred as he told the country that “on television, on radio and on digital, we’ll be exploring how this conflict, above all others, shaped our families, our communities, our world—and continues to influence us today.”

The BBC was astutely matching British government wishes, not only to commemorate the war but to dictate a particular interpretation of the causes and conduct of an incredibly brutal and destructive conflict.

In the light of the horrors encountered by its soldiers (Britain lost 700,000) and the bitter experience of widespread post-war poverty, many working-class British people have long held mixed views on the “Great War.” To counter this understandable scepticism among the population, the secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, has led a campaign to create a new narrative about the event, claiming that the war was fought to preserve freedom and democracy.

Nor is the minister alone in his efforts to spin this story. The prime minister, David Cameron, has backed his Conservative Party colleague, telling one newspaper that “we should be clear that World War I was fought in a just cause, and that our ancestors thought it would be bad to have a Prussian-dominated Europe.” Not to be outdone by his old Bullingdon Club buddy, the egregious mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has said unequivocally that the war was “overwhelmingly the result of German expansionism and aggression.”

A more nuanced (or disingenuous) argument advanced in an attempt to justify Britain’s involvement in the war was its adherence to the Westphalian system of international relations. This concept centres on universal recognition of states’ sovereignty, coupled with the right to political self-determination and hence, ostensibly, the rush to intervene in order to protect “defenceless little Belgium’s independence.”

Belgium did indeed play a large part in British calculations, but not for the reason often stated. Britain viewed an independent Belgium as a guarantor against any European power having overall control of Continental Europe, especially the seaboard facing Britain. Having been the dominant world empire since defeating Napoleonic France in 1815, Britain’s ruling class was conscious that the growing industrial capacity of the recently reunited Germany posed a challenge to their hegemony over the world and its wealth.

For so long as the Royal Navy was able to protect the empire and thus guarantee monopoly access to its vast markets, German influence could be contained. However, had Germany succeeded in defeating France, having occupied Belgium in the process, the balance of power would have altered irretrievably.

Britain’s rulers went to war, therefore, not to protect little Catholic Belgium, or so that small nations might be free, but in the selfish interests of a class that profited from privileges gained by governing an empire on which the sun was not supposed to set. In the process this class was entirely indifferent to the mass slaughter that inevitably ensued.

Not that this should in any way obscure the motivation behind the other protagonists in the conflict. The German ruling class and its allies were anxious to displace the British-led alliance of imperial exploiters with, arguably, an even more rapacious regime of appropriation and human enslavement.

While the imperialist ruling class on both sides was clear in outlook and objective, the same cannot be said for many of those who fought, and especially for those who misguidedly opted to support country instead of class. There was a calamitous inability, or perhaps refusal, on the part of social democracy to understand the nature of imperialism at the time and the inextricable connection it had with the prevailing form of capitalism; as a result, with a few notable exceptions it collapsed into xenophobia throughout Europe. Only an exceptional minority (including James Connolly), headed by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, remained committed to an internationalist position on the imperial conflict.

The historical reasons for division within the international socialist and organised labour movement that occurred at the outbreak of the war are not merely a matter for academic reflection. How we view the First World War today is of enormous importance to our understanding of contemporary imperialism and its beneficiaries and, by extension, how imperialism wishes us to view its behaviour today.

If the British ruling class and its overseas allies succeed in convincing the public at home and abroad that the First World War was—the bloodbath notwithstanding—a magnificent patriotic endeavour on behalf of freedom and democracy, they will have set parameters for current discussion and debate. If they can maintain the myth that war-supporting social democrats were right to get behind Tommy Atkins, then they will extrapolate that working people should, indeed must, give unconditional support to “our boys in the field” today.

As the imperialist and capitalist ruling class is, by necessity, a tiny minority of the population, it is vital for them to have an acquiescent working class. Keeping the leadership of right-wing social democracy on board has never proved difficult. People like Tony Blair and François Hollande are enthusiastic imperialist warmongers, but their strategy depends on bamboozling a majority of working-class people into supporting their machinations. Glorifying war, in this case the Great War, without examining its real causes or ultimate beneficiaries is a useful, albeit dishonest, stratagem in pursuing this process of bamboozlement.

Nor should we think for one moment that resetting the narrative in relation to the First World War is a uniquely British phenomenon. A subtle but relentless campaign is under way in the Republic to rehabilitate the army of the British Empire. This initiative is portrayed as one of generosity and maturity, whereby we should set aside nasty old anti-British prejudices in favour of an acceptance that our fellow-countrymen gave their lives in one of the world’s great historical events—the implication being that any criticism of the war is curmudgeonly, narrow, nationalistic begrudgery.

To scorn the suffering and death of those who died in Flanders would indeed be churlish nonsense; but that is not what making an honest critique of the war is about. Nor is it chauvinistic to identify and condemn the underhand agenda lying behind this effort to polish the profile of Britain’s twentieth-century war machine. We must continue to reject the clamour to rebrand an imperialist war as something other than what it was and thus prepare the way for further embedding Ireland in the neo-liberal, imperialist new world order.

In 1914 Ireland’s socialist and republican leaders had a clear, honourable and accurate critique of the First World War, and we have to insist that this be heard as loudly today as it was at the time.

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