The previous, penultimate part of this series (WR 236) began an examination of the response of the workers’ movement in Britain to the First World War with an account of the betrayal of the working class by the Labour Party and the unions. These organisations, in calling on workers to die for capitalism, crossed the class line into the camp of the bourgeoisie and became the enemies of the working class.
The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 was a decisive moment in history. Not only did it mark the entry of capitalism into its period of decadence but it was also the point at which large parts of the workers’ movement betrayed the working class and went over to the camp of the bourgeoisie. In country after country the social democratic parties and the trade unions, built up with so much struggle and sacrifice over the preceding decades, rallied to the national flag and called on the proletariat to sacrifice itself on the altar of capitalism.
In the previous part of this series, in WR 232, we began our examination of the impact of the wave of industrial unrest that swept across Britain in the years before the First World War by analysing the development of syndicalism and industrial unionism, showing how its militancy challenged the dominant reformism of the workers’ movement in Britain. In this part we continue this work by looking at the response of the main political organisations of the working class.
The recent ruling on abortion in the USA is above all a new attack on the living conditions of working class women, but such attacks can only be resisted on the basis of class, not “gender”.
The wave of class struggle that broke out between 1908 and the start of the First World War had a profound impact on the workers’ movement in Britain. Through the scale and militancy of the struggle the working class confronted not only the state but also the dominant trade union and political organisations of the workers’ movement. Their reformism, opportunism and class collaboration had fettered the class struggle for many years.
From 1908 to 1914 the working class in Britain threw itself into an intense struggle against its exploiters, part of an international wave of struggles across Europe, which included the mass strike in Russia in 1905. The days lost through strike action reached a level never seen before and only surpassed by the General Strike in 1926. Even more significantly, these struggles saw the workers begin to wrest control from the union leaderships and move into open confrontation with the state.
The barbaric war in Ukraine continues, as does the deafening propaganda offensive justifying the massacre on both sides. The ICC is holding another round of public meetings in various languages this summer, where we will aim to carry forward the marxist analysis of the impact and significance of the war, and in particular the questions it poses to the international working class and its revolutionary organisations.
The struggle that took place within the international workers’ movement in the first years of the twentieth century can only be understood in its historical context. While the foundation of this struggle lay in the clash between the reformist and revolutionary wings of the movement, the latter, in seeking to defend marxism, the necessity for revolution and the revolutionary potential of the working class, was also forced to confront a number of new questions that were being posed as capitalism moved into its period of decadence.
The previous part of this series, in WR 225, examined the understanding of internationalism by the working class movement in Britain, concluding that its response to the Boer War showed some serious weaknesses. We continue this work here by considering the role played by the British working class movement in the Second International in the years leading up to the admission of the Labour Party in 1908.
The struggle against anarchism and for a marxist international
At the beginning of 2020, the global Covid crisis represented the product, but above all constituted a powerful accelerant, of the decomposition of the capitalist system on different levels: important economic destabilisation, loss of credibility in the apparatus of the state, accentuation of imperialist tensions.
Today the war in Ukraine represents a further step in this intensification through a major characteristic of capitalism’s descent into its period of decadence and, in particular, into its phase of decomposition: the exacerbation of militarism.
This part of the article deals with the period from 1891 to the outbreak of the First World War and the betrayal of the opportunist wing of the Party.
Following the publication of the Joint Declaration by groups of the Communist Left (International Communist Current, Internationalist Voice, and Istituto Onorato Damen) two public online meetings were held by these groups, one in Italian and one in English, to discuss and clarify the need for the Joint Declaration and the tasks of revolutionaries in the face of imperialist war and new world conditions.
Throughout this series we have sought to show that the working class movement in Britain has always been part of the international movement, confronted by the same fundamental issues and struggling towards the same goals. We have also shown the specific difficulties that set back its efforts to create a strong class party. In the next two parts we examine its understanding of internationalism and its relationship to the Second International.
The importance of internationalism
The foundation of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) in 1900 was a victory for the right wing of the workers’ movement in Britain and for the forces of opportunism generally. It was consolidated in the years leading up to the 1906 election when 29 LRC candidates were successful and the LRC was transformed into the Labour Party. While both the LRC and the Labour Party remained part of the workers’ movement throughout this period and beyond, it is possible to see the dynamic of class collaboration that ultimately led to Labour’s betrayal of the working class in 1914.
The establishment of the Independent Labour Party in 1893 laid the foundation for the creation of a mass workers’ party in Britain. However, as we showed in the previous article (Part 5, from World Revolution 215), the possibility of realising this potential was severely weakened by the absence of an organised marxist fraction that could provide a clear political analysis and orientation.
During the 1890s, the mass workers' parties succeeded in gaining many reforms that improved the living conditions of the working class. While the struggle for such reforms was an important aspect of the class struggle in this period, the winning of reforms brought the danger of nurturing illusions in the possibility of capitalism peacefully evolving into socialism.
This series of articles began by outlining the resurgence of the working class movement in Britain at the end of the 1880s. It went on to deal with the particular roles of the Social Democratic Federation and the Socialist League, concluding that both failed to respond to the needs of the proletariat (see WR 198, 205 & 208). In this fourth part, we return to a more detailed consideration of the revival of struggle in the 1880s and 1890s, to show why and how it developed and to draw out both what it shared with the international workers' movement and what distinguished it.
Throughout the history of the Social Democratic Federation (see the second part of this series in World Revolution 205) opposition regularly developed to the policies and practices of the dominant Hyndman clique. At times this just resulted in the resignation of individual members - throughout its history many thousands passed through the SDF and it is clear that many of these were simply lost to the workers' cause. At other times organised left-wing factions emerged and were either expelled or left to found new organisations.
In the first part of this occasional series (World Revolution 198) we examined the gradual revival of the workers movement in Britain in the early 1880s. We sought to place this in both the general context of the development of the international proletarian movement and the specific conditions prevailing in Britain.
The development of the organisation of the working class