This year it’s difficult to avoid politicians of various hues reminding us of the 100th anniversary of the first world war. For them it’s an opportunity to retell history, and to hark back to a time when patriotism, nationalism and empire were at the fore of national consciousness. For peace activists it’s important too, marking a century since the birth of some lasting institutions and providing an opportunity to reflect on the experience of our predecessors.
Before 1914, the centre-left political parties were the natural home for advocates of peace. Pacifists in the Independent Labour Party (ILP) – most notably Keir Hardie – had been instrumental in founding the Labour Party in Britain only 14 years before. But the hope that those parties might provide a principled pro-peace position was dashed, when, alongside Woodrow Wilson’s US Democrats, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the French Socialist Party and the British Labour Party all reneged on their previous policy and backed the war.
One result was a growth in anti-war groups. In Germany, Rosa Luxemburg formed the Spartacus League – a reference to the famous leader of the Roman slave rebellions. In the US, the Socialist Party of America grew in popularity, and prominent anarchists Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman established the No Conscription League.
In Britain, Independent Labour Party member Fenner Brockway co-founded the No More War Fellowship, and fellow ILP-er Ramsay MacDonald resigned as chair of the Labour Party to establish the Union of Democratic Control (UDC), which called for parliamentary votes on foreign policy, and advocated that, at the end of the war, negotiations and peace terms should be arranged in such a way so as to decrease likelihood of future hostilities. Perhaps the second world war could have been avoided as well if they’d been listened to.
Some Christians reasoned that killing was incompatible with their spiritual teachings, which held more authority for them than national leaders. Resistance was rooted in faith for two friends across enemy lines – English Quaker Henry Hodgkin and German Lutheran Friedrich Siegmund-Schultze – who pledged to one another on a railway station platform in Cologne, ‘We are one in Christ and can never be at war.’ They went on to establish The Fellowship of Reconciliation, an international pacifist organisation which had spread to the US by 1915.
It was in the interest of states to dissuade war resistance, ensuring not too many people refused to fight, but imprisoning objectors ran the risk of making martyrs of them. Alongside this strategy, governments waged skillful propaganda campaigns to boost nationalist sentiment and marginalise opponents.
This shines through war recruitment posters of the era, some so iconic they remain well-known today. Lord Kitchener points at readers on a poster declaring ‘Your Country Needs You’. Commissioned in Britain at the start of the war, it later appeared in the US with the picture changed to ‘Uncle Sam’. In another ad, a guilty-looking middle-aged man stares into the distance. At his feet his son plays with toy soldiers, and his daughter asks, ‘Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?’Propaganda came alongside physical coercion of dissenters. In the US, 101 members of the anti-war Industrial Workers of the World were tried, found guilty and sentence to prison in 1918. The previous year, 249 Russian-born activists were arrested and deported, including Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman.
The British government pursued a similar approach. The press cast the UDC as extremist, despite its reformist politics and constitutionalist methods. In 1915 the Daily Express printed ‘wanted’ posters of its most prominent members, Ramsay MacDonald and ED Morel. The John Bull magazine went further, demanding that MacDonald should be tried by court-martial and condemned as ‘an aider and abettor of the King’s enemies’. MacDonald lost his seat at the following election. Morel suffered a worse fate. His house was raided by the authorities. When it was discovered that he had technically broken the law by posting a UDC pamphlet to a friend living abroad, he was sentenced to prison for six months, and died shortly after his release.
The government encouraged people to shun anti-war activists – and suggested that women give white feathers (a symbol of cowardice) to men not enlisted. On the streets, anti-war activists faced taunts of ‘coward’, ‘shirker’ and ‘conchie’ for refusing to join the forces.
In an anthology of anti-war voices stored at the Imperial War Museum, Harold Bing, a conscientious objector, recalls how difficult life became: ‘On the whole, apart from a few friends and sympathisers, people’s attitudes towards me were distinctly hostile. This would be the ostracism of neighbours who knew I was going to appeal to be a CO or a critical attitude of my employers who terminated my contract after my tribunal and refused to reinstate me.’ Indeed many peace campaigners lost their jobs, including renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell who was dismissed from his post at Cambridge University.
The war played hard on Keir Hardie. In the early days he made efforts to organise a Europe-wide strike against the hostilities. But the call was not taken up and many within the very party he had helped to found came to regard him as a traitor. He died a short while later. In her memoirs, his partner, the suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, wrote that ‘the great slaughter, the rending of the bonds of international fraternity, on which he had built his hopes, had broken him.’
In most countries the anti-war cause was hampered by the pervasive ideology of nationalism. However in Ireland and Canada (particularly Quebec), nationalist sentiment aided the anti-war cause. Vibrant campaigns against conscription became an important step for the independence movements within both countries. In Australia, at the time still a part of the British Empire, the population voted narrowly against conscription in two referenda, in part due to nationalist sentiment.
In Russia, anti-war campaigning had a very different character. It fused with broader economic concerns and class identification, paving the way for the Russian Revolution, the downfall of the Tsarist regime and a new government negotiating its exit from the first world war.
Those events gave confidence to class-based movements in other countries too, most notably Germany. In October 1918, sailors in Kiel mutinied and formed their own worker-soldier committees. By November the rebellion had spread. A general strike was called in Berlin and armed groups took to the streets.
In Scotland, too, a number of strikes in munitions factories took place alongside mass demonstrations on the streets in what has become known as ‘Red Clydeside’. In the end both German and Scottish initiatives were brutally put down. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were murdered in 1919, following a further uprising by workers. The Scottish protests were suppressed by placing tanks on the streets of Glasgow.
States did more than repress individuals: they exercised control over society’s narratives. Michel Foucault’s idea that elites ‘discipline and punish’ – installing ‘common knowledge’ about right and wrong in the process – can be clearly seen in WWI history. Howard Zinn sums up the dynamic in A People’s History of the United States, writing that the justice system of the era was used to demonstrate how certain elements of resistance ‘could not be tolerated’.
Though they didn’t ultimately stop the war, peace activists who confronted the war ideologies of their time gave birth to the independent peace movement we know today. Many who followed, from historians to activists against later wars, gradually helped to chip away at the nationalist worldview.
Peace institutions founded by WWI resisters have lived on. Six members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation have won the Nobel Peace Prize over the years, as have the Quakers. Bertrand Russell’s Nobel Prize for literature recognised his humanitarianism. In 1985, a statue of Fenner Brockway was erected in London’s Red Lion Square to mark a life that also included the co-founding of the anti-poverty organisation War on Want and campaigns against colonialism. In 1998, Britons whom soldiers had shot as punishment for ‘desertion’ or ‘cowardice’ were honoured at London’s Cenotaph for the first time.
This is not the version of history evoked by today’s elites. Conservative politicians would have us look back with fondness at a time when nationalism and imperialism were even more deeply entrenched. Labour politicians would rather we forget the moment when their party ceased to be a party of peace. But the rest of us can learn that even when our actions seem to ‘fail’ in the short term, they could still change, in the long term, how people perceive and understand the world.
Tim Gee’s book Counterpower: Making Change Happen is available from New Internationalist www.newint.org/counterpower
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Bernie Grant's election to parliament, Ayo Wallace explores the life and legacy of his radical representation of Tottenham's black communities.
Across Britain, hundreds of thousands of people have now taken part in mass rallies for Corbyn's Labour. Eli Regan soaks up the atmosphere in Warrington
The under-30s could be decisive in the general election. Frances Grahl meets young people hit by Tory austerity and looks at what's driving their support for Labour
“To them it’s just another number, someone else being sent back. But when you’ve got three children being left without their dad … it’s quite major,” writes Rebecca Omonira-Okeykanmi.
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe
How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency
Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy
Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network
Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker
In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing
After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry
Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again
Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood
7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.
After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani
If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945
On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.
Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow
The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite
Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences