Examining the revolution’s
- Impact in Britain, with a focus on the labour movement
- Cultural legacy, in particular the visual arts
- Global reach, from Europe to Latin America
Historians: Mary Davis; David Lane; Sarah Badcock
Art Historian: Christine Lindey
International perspectives from: Slava Tetekin; Aleida Guevara; Teresita Vicente de Sotolongo; Vijay Prashad; Johanna Scheringer-Wright
The preview of the Socialist Opposition to the First World War exhibition was held at Marx House as part of London Open House on 20th September 2015.
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. By May 1915, there were three Labour MP's in the Coalition Government, one of them, Arthur Henderson, in the cabinet. The two Treasury Agreements signed by government and trade union representatives confirmed labour's promise to abandon strike action for the duration of the war. It also drew the unions (including the Amalgamated Society, whose members were principally affected) into agreeing to suspend 'restrictive practices' in skilled trades by agreeing to the use of unskilled or semi-skilled labour (particularly that of women) in the war industries. (This was known as 'dilution'.)
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.
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 strikes were ultimately defeated. However, on Clydeside, the Central Labour Witholding Committee was replaced by a permanent organisation - the Clyde Workers' Committee (CWC), whose chairman, William Gallacher was a member of the British Socialist Party.
The CWC provided the model for similar organisations in other urban industrial centres. Its language was syndicalist, but its practice was not - in the sense that it sought to link the industrial struggle (based on the shop stewards) with wider community based campaigns.
'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.
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.
In 1914, the Women's Social and Political Union abandoned the suffrage campaign itself and ardently supported the war effort and urged all women to do the same. Sylvia Pankhurst's organisation was one of the very few to maintain the fight for the vote until its first instalment (to women over 30) was granted in 1918. The National Council for Adult Suffrage also kept up the pressure for the vote in the war years. This organisation was established in 1916 and held its first meeting at the Daily Herald offices. It was a broad based activist adult suffrage campaigning group linking the left wing of the women's movement with the left wing of the labour movement.
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Hans Modrow was born in the Weimar Republic, grew up in Nazi Germany, served in the Wehrmacht and was a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union until 1949. Joining the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (which united the Social Democratic and Communist parties) he became an energetic and effective political leader and rose to become party secretary in Dresden.
He became prime minister of the German Democratic republic at the point at which the Soviet guarantee of the GDR’s sovereignty was jettisoned.
These reminiscences describe how – as an exemplar of the hard working, disciplined cadres who who staffed the GDR state and party – he formed close relationships with his opposite numbers in the Soviet Union and other socialist countries and developed a sharp critique of the top leadership of the GDR.
The great strength of the book is Modrow’s frank and revealing account of the inner life of the GDR apparat; the practical and political problems that accompanied the construction of a socialist economy and the shaping of a socialist consciousness; the accumulation of contradictions in these processes and the protracted crisis that gripped and then paralysed the socialist bloc.
Most interesting is his detailed account of the political and diplomatic processes in which working class political power and socialist relations of production were dissolved in what proved to be a largely peaceful transition from socialism to capitalism.
Modrow is most centred on the travails of the GDR but from his exceptionally privileged viewpoint he reveals much about the dismantling of the Soviet Union. Gorbachov emerges as a political failure and a much diminished man.
In Modrow’s account the demise of the Soviet Union derived from a failure to create new types of socialist relations of production with over-centralisation in planning and management, bureaucracy, lack of responsibility and a reduction to only two forms of property: state owned and co-operative.
His sense of the Soviet political system runs on conventional lines. He asserts that was ‘deformed’ with ‘the roots of the phenomenon of Stalinism’ only described but not ripped out.
‘Attempts at reform had no complexity and ended without consequences’ he argues.
He quotes approving the Hungarian leader Kadar’s view that the communists had had to pass two tests – living through terror and persecution perpetrated by the reactionary forces, which in his view the majority had passed, but the other, was the test of power, and this one most communists had failed.
Modrow emerges as an honest and principled communist with the great virtues of his generation and the priceless fund of knowledge and experience in building socialism and exercising working class power.. His insights command respect and attention. However, as sometimes it seems with communists whose political experience is gained within socialism there seems a certain underestimation of the intensity of imperialism’s inescapable imperatives.
Hans Modrow was an active participant in the events that ended in the dissolution of working class political power in the GDR. Unlike some others, he worked hard to defend the gains of socialist construction in circumstances where an armed defence of political power would have had disastrous consequences and, it seems, little chance of success.
His account raises questions that have so far escaped a comprehensive theoretical answer – how is it that working class political power can be surrendered in the absence of serious armed conflict but bourgeois political power, it seems, cannot be surrendered without it?
This book was written in 2009. Events have confirmed the accuracy of his analysis that: “The Soviet Union as a former winner of the Second World War – this is a bitter truth – belatedly lost the war. It was demolished and Russia’s influence ended henceforth far behind the former borders of the USSR; the Warsaw Pact collapsed and NATO expanded eastward. I would not go so far as to say that the 28 million Soviet citizens gave their lives in vain in the Great Patriotic War, but the ‘reward’ for having freed half of Europe from the scourge of fascism seems, considering the present situation, unreasonably low.”
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