When the smoke has cleared in the exchange between Michael Gove, the education secretary, and Tristram Hunt, his Labour shadow, over how to assess the First World war as we approach its 100th anniversary, we are back almost exactly to where the major parties were in August 1914.
On August 5, the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith informed parliament that Britain was now at war with Germany. The Tory opposition backed his statement as did the Labour Party. A vote on an emergency war budget was carried unanimously in the House of Commons the next day.
A little over four years later, 15 million soldiers would lay dead on the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East, sacrificied in a war fought for the division and redivision of the world and its resources by the major imperialist powers.
Of course, Hunt doesn’t see it that way. Why would he? Historian Hunt is concerned only to defend the right to view the conduct of the war critically against charges from Gove this is unpatriotic. Otherwise Hunt is an enthusiast, noting with pride in the Observer that “appeals by trade union leaders to oppose German aggression, particularly against Belgium, led more than 250,000 of their members to enlist by Christmas 1914, with 25% of miners volunteering before conscription”.
Yet, less than two years before, as war loomed, the socialist Second International, of which Labour was a member, unanimously adopted a manifesto at a Congress in Basel, which declared unambiguously:
“It would be insanity for the governments not to realise that the very idea of the monstrosity of a world war would inevitably call forth the indignation and the revolt of the working class. The proletarians consider it a crime to fire at each other for the profits of the capitalists, the ambitions of dynasties, or the greater glory of secret diplomatic treaties.”
The manifesto insisted that if war threatens to break out, it is the “duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the countries” to exert “every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective”. Further, the manifesto urged:
“In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favour of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”
These fine sentiments were swiftly abandoned, swept aside by a wave of crude nationalism and patriotism that Labour and the trade union bureaucrats joyfully went along with. Ramsay Macdonald, a pacifist opposed to the war, was quickly replaced by Arthur Henderson as Labour leader.
A similar course was adopted by the powerful German Social Democratic Party. Workers were despatched to fight for the Kaiser and the Fatherland while their counterparts in Britain were told that there was nothing more glorious than sacrificing their lives for King and Country.
Needless to say, the Second International collapsed as a result of these great betrayals.
By the end of August, the Labour Party and the TUC had declared an “industrial truce” for the duration of the war and lent their support to an all-party recruitment campaign. By May 1915, there were three Labour MPs in the Coalition government, with Henderson in the cabinet.
Soon, however, strikes broke out in munitions factories and the shop stewards’ movement was founded. As the slaughter in Europe reached new heights, enthusiasm for the war drained away and the government introduced conscription 1916. The punitive terms imposed by France, Britain and the allies at the end of the war contributed to the causes of the Second World War 20 years later.
So Mr Hunt, spare us your phoney war of words with Gove. When all is said and done, you and your party leaders down the ages share a major political responsibility for the horrors of the 20th century (as well as the devastation of Iraq in the 21st). History could have been different if ordinary working people had been led by lions and not tame political donkeys.