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.
In this video for NVTV, exhibition curator Professor Mary Davis discusses Socialist Opposition to the First World War with presenter Kellie O'Dowd.
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."
Opposition to WW1 centred in Clydeside. Mclean immediately set about educating the workers about the real nature of war by taking the message directly to the shipyard gates. The Defence of the Realm Act had made strikes illegal and the TUC had made a pledge of industrial peace for the duration of the War and so strikes were unofficial, shop steward led strike, (most of whom were pupils of MacLean), in defiance of the Union. The workers formed rank and file Labour Withholding Committee to conduct the strikes but were forced back to work with no strike pay. However this was to prove the start of real militancy on the Clyde.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 propelled the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) away from feminism in favour of patriotism. It suspended its activities on the suffrage in order to focus attention on the war effort, leaving the East London Federation as almost the only active group in the suffrage campaign. Christabel returned from her self-imposed exile in Paris to campaign against the 'German Peril'. Both she, her mother and their supporters toured the country drumming up support for the recruitment campaign
There were two revolutions in Russia in 1917 - the second which established the first Socialist State had profound repercussions throughout the world, but especially within Europe. The Russian Revolution inspired similar challenges to state power in Hungary, Germany, Italy and the UK. Whether successful or not the mass movement generated by the Bolsheviks led ultimately to the formation of Communist Parties in most countries of the world. There were mass strikes in Glasgow and Belfast and in other industrial cities. State power, however, remained in the hands of the capitalists and as Gallacher said of the huge George Square demonstration of 1919; ‘We were carrying on a strike when we ought to have been making a revolution.’
Both the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente engaged in the negotiation of secret treaties throughout the duration of the war. The majority of these were revealed only after the Russian Revolution when the new Soviet Republic was keen to expose both the duplicity of the Tsarist regime and the nature of the Imperialist Powers. Perhaps the most revealing of the Secret Treaties was the one negotiated between Britain and France, otherwise known as the Sykes Picot agreement. As the map shows this agreement divided the Middle East between the two powers.