England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

Socialists and the struggle against war: then and today

By Tom Costello, Socialist Alternative National Committee

The world appears to be teetering more and more towards something resembling a third World War. The escalating geopolitical conflicts between world powers means that war is now a crucial part of this era of capitalist disorder. For socialists and the whole working-class movement, opposing the fresh drive to war and militarism is a key task of our age.

As the saying goes, those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This is why it is crucial that we look back at past conflicts, and how socialists resisted them to draw the necessary lessons for today.

WWI: A war for power and profit

World War I (1914-18) saw the brutal slaughter of 16 million people, overwhelmingly working class, who were sent to kill their fellow workers from other nations. The governments of Europe tried, hypocritically, to justify war in the name of ‘defence’ and ‘democracy’.

The underlying causes of the war were in fact the competition between the European colonial powers, whose drive for profit brought them into conflict and competition. It was a war fought by ordinary people, for the benefit of the British, French and Russian capitalists on one side, and the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman (Turkish) ruling classes on the other.


The only force that could have prevented this drive to imperialist war at the time was the working class. Workers at this time had significant unions, and were organised into powerful socialist and labour parties. The most powerful of these was in Germany, with one million members, which made it a genuine mass party.

Scandalously, the leaders of these organisations overwhelmingly betrayed their members, and lined up to support the war. Motions which had been passed in 1907 and 1912, committing socialists internationally to resist war with a general strike and refusal of military services, were tossed overboard in a matter of days.

Very quickly the labour leaders became some of the biggest cheerleaders for militarism. The British Labour Party leader Arthur Henderson in particular spent these years mobilising working people into the British army to kill and be killed for “king and country”.


This was a dark period for socialists. What eventually turned the tide of history however was the presence of leaders who took the ideas of Marxism seriously, taking a stance against the war, for which they suffered greatly.

Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the revolutionary Spartacus League in Germany, were repeatedly jailed during the war due to the threat they posed. The nationalist witch-hunts across Europe were so intense that for a period, Lenin, leader of the Russian Bolshevik Party, jokingly remarked that all the world’s internationalists would be able to fit into two stagecoaches.

Nonetheless, they began patient work rebuilding. Luxemburg from her prison cell wrote articles and speeches calling on German workers to refuse military orders. Bolshevik militants carried out revolutionary propaganda in the trenches.

Karl Liebknecht, at this time a socialist deputy in the German Reichstag, famously said:

“Proletarians of all countries, ally yourselves to the international class struggle against the conspiracies of secret diplomacy, against imperialism, against war, for peace within the socialist spirit. The main enemy is at home!”

Lenin, and a small circle of others, drew the conclusion from this disaster that the old socialist international organisation was dead, and a new one had to be reborn. This work of preparation, of ‘swimming against the stream’ in time of war, not only prepared the forces of Marxism for the revolutions which came later, but also carries crucial lessons for socialists today in how to oppose it.

Three brief lessons: A Marxist approach to war and imperialism

1. The working class must play an independent role.

We cannot have any illusions in bodies like the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. Although sometimes used to call for ceasefires and ‘restraint’, they are dominated by the same capitalist governments responsible for war in the first place.

We can only rely on our own independent power to stop war. This means building powerful, fighting, democratic trade unions and working-class parties with strong links between workers and youth in all countries. The class struggle will also have to continue even in times of war.

2. This fight has to be international, or it is nothing.

Socialists completely reject the idea of ‘national unity’ with our bosses. We expose the lie that militarisation and expansion of military blocs like NATO are about ‘defending democracy’ and ‘freedom’. The only force which can end the oppressive regimes of Russia, Iran and China are the working classes of those countries, and socialists need to build international solidarity with them. Socialists reject the drive to hike up military spending. We demand money for jobs, education and public services, not for arms!

3. We can only end war by ending capitalism.

We will never be able to achieve genuine peace under this system, which is based on competition, profit and the need for ever expanding markets. We need to expropriate the arms industry as part of the struggle for a socialist world, where the immense resources and skills in society are used to improve the lives of the majority. 


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