England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

How revolution ended World War I

By Jack Yarlett, Socialist Alternative National Committee

The outbreak of World War I was a hammer blow to the working class. At first the war was met with a wave of patriotic fervor, fanned by ruling-class propaganda. However, this would change as the carnage of the war fell heavily on the working class. It would breed a wave of revolutions which brought an end to the slaughter.

Russia ‘the weakest link’

The first capitalist country to crack was Russia. On paper, Russia’s immense size made it a major military power. In reality, Russia was the least economically and socially developed out of all the big European capitalist states. The Russian army was slow to mobilise, suffered from shortages of vital equipment, and was mostly commanded by members of the aristocracy and the royal family who owed their positions to privilege rather than ability.

As soldiers were slaughtered on the front, workers back home suffered from hunger and rationing, as well as worsening working conditions. Matters came to a head in February 1917. Women workers coming out in protest against soaring bread prices set in motion a rolling snowball of strikes and mutinies that brought down the Tsar and established dual power. A liberal provisional government was formed alongside the worker, soldier and peasant councils, known as soviets, which held effective control.

The provisional government in Russia ignored one of the key demands of the revolution that had brought it to power – bringing an end to the war. In October the Bolsheviks led the overthrow of the provisional government and established the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. One of the first acts of the new soviet government was to sign a peace treaty with Germany.

Mutiny

The Russian Revolution had a direct impact on the armies of the Western powers. In summer 1917, the French army mutinied in the wake of the bloody defeat at the Second Battle of the Aisne. At one point more than half the French army was in a state of mutiny. The mutineers were inspired by the events unfolding in Russia, socialists within the army defied censorship by distributing socialist newspapers and pamphlets.

British and Commonwealth forces also mutinied in September 1917 at Étaples, and again in 1919 around Calais. As with the French mutinies these were directly inspired by the Russian Revolution, with the soldiers electing delegates to strike-organising committees inspired by soviets. In October 1918 a mutiny broke out in the German navy. This spread rapidly and within weeks the Kaiser’s government had been brought down and an armistice signed with the allies. Soviet Republics were declared in Munich, Bremen and Wurzburg. Although this revolution secured peace, it failed to overthrow capitalism, thanks to the shameful collaboration of the Social Democrats with the capitalists.

However, the lessons remain. Now, as then, only revolutionary movements based on socialist demands can save us from capitalism’s bloody and destructive wars. 

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