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Socialist Opposition to World War 1

HERITAGE LOTTERY FUND

MML has been supported by a generous grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund that, thanks to National Lottery players, has enabled us to mount our unique project on the Socialist Opposition to the First World War. This included an exhibition and a special extension to our main site containing much detailed resources material in PDF format, along with digitised and searchable copies from 1916-18 of the Call, the British Socialist Party's newspaper.  Our thanks also to Professor Mary Davis for leading the bid and co-ordinating the project and to Luke Evans for spending time with us in developing this work.

The First World War accentuated the divisions between the left and right in the labour movement. The militancy of labour's rank and file continued unabated, whilst the exigencies of war gave labour's leaders the chance to become fully enmeshed within the State itself. The gulf between the two widened to such an extent that it was difficult for both to co-exist within the same organisations. The 'unofficial' opposition, reflecting the chasm between leaders and led, generated its own structures in the form of the Shop Stewards Movement and Workers' Committees. The shop stewards of today can trace their origins to this wartime period, during which rank and file workers kept effective trade unionism alive in the face of their leaders' preoccupation with the war effort.

The preview of the Socialist Opposition to the First World War exhibition was held at Marx House as part of London Open House on 20th September 2015.

More details.....

In this video for NVTV, exhibition curator Professor Mary Davis discusses Socialist Opposition to the First World War with presenter Kellie O'Dowd.

Reclaim the Agenda : Episode 16 - Socialist Opposition to WW1 from Northern Visions NvTv on Vimeo.

Women's trade union membership increased by about 160% during the war, but apart from the National Federation of Women Workers, the Workers' Union (WU) was the only union to make a serious commitment to organising women. By 1918 the WU employed twenty women full time officials and had a female membership of over 80,000. This was more than any other general union and represented a quarter of the WU's own membership. In 1918 the Equal Pay strike was led and ultimately won by women tramway workers - starting in London and spreading to other towns.

'Red Clyde' was in the vanguard of the wartime workers' movement, but mass protests led by revolutionary socialists developed with as much force in other parts of the country. The election of shop stewards and the formation of shop stewards committees was commonplace in most large factories which had been turned over to war time production. In Sheffield a Workers' Committee under the leadership of J.T.Murphy was formed on the model of the CWC. Other industrial centres like Manchester, London and later Birmingham also had Workers' Committees, but they were less long lived than their Sheffield and Clyde counterparts.

Whether consciously anti-war or not, it was clear from 1915 that industrial workers were not going to be cowed by the legal strictures against strike action. An early example of this mood of defiance came from the strike by engineering workers in munitions factories on the Clyde in 1915. The strike was, of course, unsupported by the ASE leadership. Aided by the hastily formed Central Labour Witholding Committee, the strike spread rapidly throughout the Clyde. Signs of mass defiance were not limited to Scotland.

The British Socialist Party (BSP) opposed the war from the outset. The Independent Labour Party also maintained an anti-war policy from the start, even though some of its leading parliamentary members did not.

In addition, there was a considerable body of political opposition to the war which generated a host of anti-war organisations like the Union of Democratic Control and the No Conscription Fellowship. As the war progressed the lack of war aims coupled with the blundering of the military commanders, made it clear that the price of victory was to be paid through mass slaughter. Conscription was introduced in 1916.

The resolutions of the Second International, in condemning colonialism (1907 Stuttgart Congress) and calling for workers to oppose war (1910 Copenhagen Congress), were promptly forgotten in the rush to arms and the International itself collapsed.

British labour leaders maintained an anti-war stance up until the point, on August 4th 1914, that the government finally declared war on Germany. By the end of August, the Labour Party and the TUC declared an 'industrial truce' for the duration of the war and lent their support to an all-party recruitment campaign.

Andrew Rothstein was born in London in 1898 to Jewish parents, both of whom were political exiles from Tsarist Russia. Andrew won a London County Council scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford to study history. However, in 1917 he was drafted into the army as a corporal. His regiment was not permitted to be demobbed at the end of the war. Instead they were ordered to go to Archangel in order to engage in hostilities against the new Soviet republic.

The First World War accentuated the divisions between the left and right in the labour movement.

The militancy of labour's rank and file continued unabated, whilst the exigencies of war gave labour's leaders the chance to become fully enmeshed within the State itself.

The Clyde Workers' Committee aims were:


"to obtain an ever increasing control over workshop conditions, to regulate the terms upon which workers shall be employed, and to organise the workers on a class basis and to maintain the class struggle until the overthrow of the wages system, the freedom of the workers and the establishment of industrial democracy have been attained."

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