The History of Socialist Movements in Europe, Russia, and America During World War 1
It was not very long for the world powers to declare war on each other in 1914 after an archduke was killed by a terrorist. Britain threw itself into war, to defend the honor of this "archduke" -- a rank that doesn't exist within the British monarchy. France lunged at its enemy, Germany, to get retribution for their miserable losses during the Franco-Prussian War several decades earlier. Russia, the self-defined "protector of Eastern Europe," attacked Germany for becoming involved in areas too long under the influence of only the Tsar.
Entire countries were thrown into war. In Britain, those associated with anti-Imperialism and Peace were among the Labour Party and its traditional unions. Even when forced labor was introduced for poor workers was established, including a poor man named George Orwell -- even then, the Labour Party provided no complaints. [*1] "Constitutional Monarchy" was their rallying call against the unrestrained Hapsburgs Monarchy. Democracy was going to be delivered coupled with explosives.
In France, the Socialists consented similarly to such atrocities against the working class. They signed a truce titled, "Union sacrée," where they pledged against strikes and anti-war activities. After the entire French Socialist movement was slaughtered in mass killings at Paris, 1871, they consented to the authority of French, Capitalist government. The battle cry for France was, like Britain, against the authoritarianism of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the miserables of "unrestricted monarchy."
In Russia, the Socialists banded with the government, most notably Alexander Kerensky. In 1917, he established a Dictatorship of the Liberal Party, abolishing the vote among Russian people in a single swipe. At least during the Tsar, the people were legally allowed to vote. The Russian Liberal Kadets were the first to abolish this right with the disposal of the tsar. [*2] "The war must go on! Russia must defeat the Germans!" he declared. But there was a problem: Russia was an unlimited Monarchy, so what could they have to declare against another unlimited Monarchy? Only that they felt "Russian Socialism" to be supreme compared to "German Socialism."
And, in Germany, what was the attitude? The German Socialists there didn't mind so much the Authoritarianism of their own government, like the British or German Socialists. Instead, they pointed to the legislation that the Socialist Party had been able to achieve: compensation for injured workers, a universal healthcare plan, and pensions for the aged. [*3] The Russian Socialists are too "backward" for the "forward-thinking" German Socialists, because while both have authoritarian governments, at least the German Socialists got some legislation passed. [*4]
This was the thinking of German Socialists who established Burgfrieden, or "Party Truce," where they refused to support any strike action if it would hurt the war effort. The French Socialists adopted the equivalent, called Union sacrée, or "Sacred Union." In the first session of the government, all of the Socialists voted in favor of the war and increasing war credits, though one lone Socialist refused. In the second session, Karl Liebknecht was the only representative to vote against the war, declaring, "This war is Imperialistic and Capitalistic!" [*5] It was his own party, the Marxists in the Social Democratic Party, that shouted him down, not even letting him finish his remarks.
In the United States, the American Federation of Labour, the most significant representation of the working class, sided with the United States government in this Imperialist war. They vowed to fight against strikes; in fact, the government continued to prosecute those who violated the "No-Strike" laws, long after the conclusion of the war. This happened in 1919, during a notable, American steel strike involving hundreds of thousands of workers. [*6]
There was that lone, bold independent voice, though, like Liebknecht. Eugene V. Debs opposed the war, openly stated so, and was immediately imprisoned for it; while in prison, he received nearly 6% of the popular vote for the US presidential election. [*7] It was convenient for Roosevelt and other power magnates in the United States to depose their political enemies under the guise of "treason." The same exact methods were used by Mao Tsetung, except not as extensively. [*8]
And yet, Italy didn't lunge into the war directly. The British and American trade unionists thirsted for blood, the German and Russian Socialists defended their governments camps, and the French workers considered their government to be their trade-union. The Italian Socialists were looking at all of this wretched madness, the crushing of individual voices of resistance by the Socialist Parties themselves. "You have all gone mad!" the Italian Socialists screamed together, "You are killing each other, not Capitalism!" [*9] The suppression of the Italian Socialists required the brutality of a powerful Fascist Party, which is how Italy was transformed into a country that would enter World War 2.
What was so different about the Italian Socialist movement at this point? Why did the Socialists of Europe's boot know so much more than the Socialists of Middle Europe, or the Socialists of the Far East? If we look to the development and choice of tactics of these different Socialist groups, we may better understand why Italian Socialists were the only ones during World War 1 that behaved like Socialists. Of course, this is excepting those few notable individuals who rose up, in every country, to oppose the mass slaughter. No mass of people is so ignorant that it can prevent the thinking of every one of its members.
There is one distinguishing feature that we can see between the Italian Socialist movement and its brethren across the Alps. In Italy, the Socialists expressed themselves as a largely, diverse organization: workers were rallying each other into unions and strikes, just as much as they were organizing worker-owned cooperatives and farms. When the Italian Socialist Party receives millions and millions of votes, it was more of a representation of public opinion than an attempt to create Socialism. Idealism was practiced in reality, it was reflected in the ballot. It was truly the cooperatives, the unions, the societies of mutual aid and neighborhood associations that made Italian Socialism unique.
It was the reverse in Germany, where Socialists achieved significant goals as early as 1880, with the passing of social legislation many decades ahead of its time. The Social Democrats were a political party with more members than any of the major unions, most of which were themselves organized and influenced by the party. Instead of getting higher wages by striking, they got higher wages by voting. They made an investment of their activity, their effort, and their strength -- and they placed it into the hands of the government.
In Russia, where Socialists believed heavily in their government, this was similarly the case. The ideals of Marxist Social Democracy had been imported with German machinery from the middle to late 1800's, as well as developing natively on its own. [*10] In 1905, the largest wave of strikes yet in the history of Russia shook the pillars of the Tsarist monarchy and the Aristocratic economy. This led to the establishment of the State Duma of the Russian Empire, where the Monarchy was now restricted by the right to vote by the people.
However, the right to vote only existed on paper. Without a single sense of irony, most US school text-books report that the Duma had not one single Socialist in it, and that it was full of Liberals and Conservatives. That's because they weren't elected -- they were hand-picked by the tsar. The original election, which the tsar intended to be free, produced an overwhelming majority of Socialists. They were permanently dismissed from the government, all representatives to be chosen by the Russian king. [*11]
The Liberals made a deal with the tsar: make the Liberal party a dictatorship, and the Liberals will do everything they can to break the strikes of the Socialists and the working class. Russian historians don't like to mention that the formation of the first Liberal Party in Russia was a plot by the Tsar himself to have a ready supply of scabs. Some admit it, though, in much softer language. [*12]
It was this power over society that the Liberals possessed that the Socialists sought so much. By 1917, the absolute great vast majority of workers in Russia were agricultural laborers. [*13] Like Germany, more people belonged to the Socialist Party than belonged to a union. The 1905 revolution that produced the first constitution in Russia was organized by these Socialists; they had obtained unparalleled results in the land of the Tsar in a short time, and they continued to invest in the political strategy. [*14] They resorted to voting, lobbying, electioneering, and all of the devices of public campaigning.
The French Socialists similarly made investments in legislation acts, achieving freedom of speech and association by the late 1890's. [*15] In Britain, the trend was not exactly the same. For a long time, the British workers were more likely to be in unions than in Socialist or Labour parties -- as opposed to their German and Socialist brethren. It is probably accurate that some of this had to do with the industrial revolution taking place first in the United Kingdom. Unions were a natural and obvious choice of action, whereas the more complicated ideas of Socialism slowly developed through thinkers like Karl Marx, Charles Fourier, and Louis Blanc.
The gap wasn't so wide, though, as the organized labour of Britain had been working on the issue of a Labour Party since around the year 1900. It was in 1924 when it had finally gained a foothold in parliament. [*16] In the United States, too, the American Federation of Labour very closely aligned itself with getting presidents elected, as early as 1912. [*17]
Everywhere, the Socialists had made investments in their governments. If the Germans lost, then that means that every piece of Socialist legislation of Germany accomplished by the Social Democrats was lost -- which did in fact happen. [*18] If the Russians lost, then that means the legislation accomplished by Russian Social Democrats, including their prized constitution, would be lost. Worse than that, when they lost the war, the entire Socialist movement was wiped out in a series of massacres that made the Paris Commune slaughter look humane. [*19] If the French lost, so, too, with their legislation. The organized workers of Britain would know that their Labour Party, which voted for war, would be banned by the German Imperialists.
The Italian Socialists did not make this mistake. Their attitude was, "Our Socialism is in the blood in our bodies, and in the dirt on our land! Your Socialism is as dead as the paper you legislate it on!" What would it matter to the Italian worker, if either the Germans or the British were granted more rights to enslave the underdeveloped world? How would that improve the situation of the Italian laborer? What does it matter if the Italian government awards a thousand declarations of valor to its sons and daughters? Why should I even care that the government is still alive and capable of supporting itself? My Socialism -- is within me.
Even among the Anarchists, the split was the same. Peter Kropotkin was that great Russian Anarchist who had adopted France as a secondary homeland in the back of his mind, like many of the Russian revolutionaries in the late 1800's. In World War 1, he demanded "the crushing of Germany," to protect the two governments it was at war with, the French and the Russian. Errico Malatesta, the Italian Anarchist, opposed the war and even wrote against Kropotkin, his long-time friend...
The German, Russian, British, American, and French Socialists each invested with their own governments. Their organizers and leaders, with every ounce of their strength and their dreams, pushed toward a brighter world for everyone. To have withdraw from the authoritarian government and oppose it would have meant the death of all of their accomplishments -- it would mean taking the energy and strength they spent in achieving Socialism, and finally admitting that it was all for nothing. The voices that finally stated this, like Liebknecht and Debs, were bright minds slowly seeing the truth.
But the Italian Socialists invested in themselves, in their own organizations, in their societies for cooperation and mutual aid. There was little or no investment in government. When world war came knocking on the door of Italian, the Socialists slammed it shut, seeing it as a threat to everything they had accomplished. The other Socialists, though dreamed extending the dominion of their legislation, with the faint fear that if they opposed their governments, they would lose everything.
Cooperative Socialism is naturally threatened by war, the ultimate expression of force, whereas State Socialism is too invested in that expression of force to oppose war. It was with criticism of Capitalism that Chuck Palahniuk said, "...the things you used to own, now they own you." [*21] This equally applies to Socialist parties who establish themselves through laws, and then must defend the viciousness of the government to defend those laws.
With the close of World War 1, there is the close of one of the saddest chapters in Socialist history. Italian Socialists, dependent on themselves and not government, were able to escape this taint -- an evil so awful that it made Socialists defenders of War and Imperialism."During the present war we have seen Republicans placing themselves at the service of kings, Socialists making common the cause with the ruling class, Labourists serving the interests of capitalists; but in reality all these people are, in varying degrees, Conservatives--believers in the mission of the State, and their hesitation can be understood when the only remedy lay in the destruction of every Governmental chain and the unloosing of the Social Revolution. But such hesitation is incomprehensible in the case of Anarchists." --Errico Malatesta, 1916 "Pro-Government Anarchists"
*1. "The Spike," by George Orwell. In this short story, Orwell recounts his experiences in a British forced-labor camp, where his job -- as a starving worker -- was to destroy fresh food, in order to keep up prices. To quote, "When the meal was over the cook set me to do the washing-up, and told me to throw away the food that remained. The wastage was astonishing; great dishes of beef, and bucketfuls of broad and vegetables, were pitched away like rubbish, and then defiled with tea-leaves. I filled five dustbins to overflowing with good food. And while I did so my follow tramps were sitting two hundred yards away in the spike, their bellies half filled with the spike dinner of the everlasting bread and tea, and perhaps two cold boiled potatoes each in honour of Sunday. It appeared that the food was thrown away from deliberate policy, rather than that it should be given to the tramps."
*13. "To the Working People," by Leo Tolstoy, Yasnaya Polyana, 1902, From The Complete Works of Count Tolstoy Vol XXIV (Latest Works/Life/General Index Biography) - Dana Estes & Co. - 1905 (pp. 131-169). Quote: "Thus it is in the case of the labourers who have left the land. But for labourers, like the majority of the Russian labourers, ninety-eight per cent. of whom still live on the land, the question consists only in this, how they may be able to improve their condition, without abandoning their land and surrendering themselves to the temptations of a factory life."