The new issue of Socialist Resistance is out next week. This is the editorial.
Imperialist militarism is as much a part of the ideology of the British state as liberal democracy. We see it in the uncritical deference extended to the armed forces and a virtually absolute refusal to question their historical record in colonial wars. With the one hundredth anniversary of World War One falling this year we’ve already had a deluge of patriotic propaganda poorly camouflaged as historical writing and programme making. The history section of the BBC website is almost entirely dedicated to a war that Lenin described as “the great imperialist slaughter”. There you can find all you need to know about songs soldiers sang in the trenches but you have to look very hard to see an explanation of that carnage in terms of an attempt to divide the world into rival spheres of influence. In this issue we look in more detail at how Marxists at the time and today have understood the conflict.
Just as small groups of socialists in the war years rejected the appeals to patriotism and the defence of national interests we too reject these anti-working class explanations of the world. Today they find expression in the relentless torrent of immigrant bashing in the Tory press, the Conservatives’ constant use of the “spectre” of immigration from eastern Europe which Labour feebly echoes. UKIP most forcefully articulates the nationalist prejudices of a section of English society but even some of the most militant sections of the labour movement aren’t immune to them. On No2EU’s website we are told that because “cheap foreign labour replaces the indigenous workforce” we should vote for that organisation’s candidates in the May European elections.
Of course the Tories aren’t going to miss this perfect opportunity to set the ideological agenda. Michael Gove, probably the most despised of all the cabinet, wrote in the Daily Mail (naturally):
“The First World War may have been a uniquely horrific war, but it was also plainly a just war… The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.”
As the person responsible for educating the nation’s children, Gove can reasonably be expected to know that the reason maps of the world in 1914 had large patches of red on them was due to Britain’s aggressive expansionism and pitiless occupation of other people’s countries. Instead the official narrative is the that the Empire rallied to the “mother country’s” cry for help. It’s never quite explained why an African or Indian would want to get themselves killed in a quarrel with Germany. But in matters of ideology facts and honest interpretation are the first casualty. A majority of British families will have some memory of a relative who participated in the conflict. That sentimental attachment will be exploited as a way of blocking a deeper reflection on the meaning of the struggle between British and German imperialism. Two minutes on the BBC’s website will prove that.
Some branches of Left Unity have already organised public events in which socialists can offer the alternative and more honest account of what World War One was really about. The weight of Britain’s bloody imperial history still presses down on the country’s labour movement more heavily than many will admit. We can use the centenary of the great imperialist slaughter to constantly raise the arguments against xenophobia, racism and militarism.