JT Murphy on the left and the outbreak of the First World War
An excerpt from ‘Preparing For Power: A Critical Study of the History of British Working Class Movement’, 1932.
Initially involved in the militant trade union movement, and industrial unionism before World War 1, Murphy came to prominence in the militant shop stewards’ movement in 1916-18. A leading light of the Sheffield Workers’ Committee, he joined the Socialist Labour Party, one of the small British Marxist groups that had opposed WW1 from its beginning. He was elected to the National Administrative Council of the Workers’ Committees and Shop Stewards’ Movement. After the Russian Revolution, he moved towards a Bolshevik position, and was a prominent force in the merger of elements of the SLP, the British Socialist Party, and other smaller groups into the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920-21. Murphy later became a big wheel in the Red International of Labour Unions and the Comintern, and sided with Stalin against Trotsky and the Left Opposition. However, he himself left the Communist Party in 1932, after disagreements over policy.
Murphy here briefly describes the reactions of the Labour Party, trade unions, and the small Marxist parties when war broke out. We publish it here, short as it is, because we think we need to open a discussion about how the majority of the left, and the trade union movement, capitulated into supporting the war effort, despite noisy resolutions beforehand about how they would oppose it.
Beyond that, a question not addressed by Murphy here, but even more poignant and pressing: how did the militant working class – active, militant and innovative in the immediate pre-war years – as well the majority of the membership of the larger women’s suffrage organizations (who had been at open war with the state for several years up until 1914), in the main collapse into acquiescence?
The contradictions deeply embedded in the socialist and workers movements, in the suffragist movement, need to be examined; how much did a reliance on the structures, like the unions, handicap the ability of people taking autonomous positions and breaking from them in the face of the catastrophe?
We will return to some of these questions in later posts… It is interesting that while Murphy clearly opposed the war from its inception, he (at least in this article) asserts that the Conscientious Objectors should have carried their opposition to war into the trenches, joining up to resist, rather than refusing to fight…? An interesting take, and not entirely unique (for instance anarchist Albert Meltzer later asserted, and himself followed through, the same position in World War 2.) Murphy clearly believes this might have led to mutiny, soldiers’ strikes, etc, earlier on in the conflict than it did appear. Without going into this argument in great detail, the two main problems with Murphy’s view here are that (1) – the COs’ public refusal to be conscripted also serve as open propaganda against the war at home, which would have been much less visible if the had signed up; and (2) – refusing to obey orders, or other forms of resistance, carried out individually, in uniform, could have led to many of these men being shot at the front – as were several thousand deserters, runaways, the shell-shocked and gas-stricken… However, there may be some merit in Murphy’s idea. In practice, only the COs with a class take on the war, rather than a moral or religious individual stance, would likely have seen the logic of this position. I have no idea if there was any debate at al on this ground in groups like the SLP at the time. (More research is needed here).
RL, January 2014
Probably nothing reveals the political infancy of the revolutionary socialists and syndicalists at this time more than their utter helplessness at the outbreak of war. Amalgamation committees, Reform Committees, Labour Colleges, and Plebs Leagues muttered that it was ‘outside their province’ and ‘the membership of each organization would have to take individual responsibility for their actions’. Those who were members of political parties such as the Socialist Labour Party, the British Socialist Party and the Independent Labour Party followed the lead of their respective parties.
The Socialist Labour Party denounced the war as an imperialist war and advised its members to refuse to serve in the army, and to declare that the only war for which they would enlist was the class war. In practice it meant that the members of the SLP became conscientious objectors on the basis of class war theory while a considerable section of the BSP and the ILP were conscientious objectors on pacifist grounds.
It is certainly true that the conscientious objectors’ movement succeeded in focusing a considerable body of opinion against the war. But it is also true that it kept the army and navy free from the anti-war elements, free from the propagandists of the class war, in a more effective way than if the government had designed a plan for the purpose. It left the armed forces totally dependent upon their own reactions to the war and without the guidance of any revolutionary leadership. There is no evidence of the existence at that time of any attempt to permeate the armed forces with revolutionary ideas.
Those who were not involved in the conscientious objectors’ campaign, carried on a great deal of anti-war agitation in the factories, None were more active in this direction than the Socialist Labour Party and the British Socialist Party. The latter had survived a split on the question of supporting the war. Hyndman, its former leader, and a few others who were expelled, formed the National Socialist Party, and which later re-named itself the Social Democratic Federation. The I.L.P was divided. A good proportion of its members were conscientious objectors. Others carried their pacifist propaganda into the workshops. Officially, it conducted a campaign for peace by negotiation. Many of its members served on the social committees set up by the government.
There was little if any organised opposition to the war. A great deal had been said about the coming war by the various parties. Many were looking for the trade unions to call for strike action. There was undoubtedly a strong feeling in the ranks of the workers against any war. All the parties and the trade unions, as part of the Second International, were pledged to the Basle Resolution of 1910. This resolution said:
‘If war threatens to break out, it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives in the counties involved, supported by the co-ordinating activity of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert every effort in order to prevent the outbreak of war by the means they consider most effective which naturally vary according to the sharpening of the class struggle and the sharpening of the general political situation.
‘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…’
But very little happened. A manifesto was issued over the signatures of Henderson and Hardie which was an anti-war manifesto. There were some big demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and some of the large cities. The Labour Party Executive renounced responsibility for the war and promptly proceeded to do its utmost to assist in its prosecution. The working class had once more to pay the penalty for having a leadership which actually functioned as the ‘left-wing’ of the capitalist class.
The General Federation of Trade Unions heartily supported the war. The Trades Union Congress, through its Parliamentary Committee, pledged the trade unions to see the war through. The I.L.P, whose leaders were also the leaders of the Labour Party, issued a manifesto in which it said, ‘up to the last moment to prevent the blaze. The nation must now watch for the first opportunity for effective intervention. AS for the future we must begin to prepare our minds for the difficult and dangerous complication that will arise at the conclusion of the war.’
By the end of August, 1914, the National Labour Party Executive agreed to support the government’s recruiting campaign. Mr. MacDonald, who resigned from the leadership of the Labour Party as a gesture, wrote to his constituency advising the young men to join up. In a short time the Labour party trade union leaders were fully supporting the government. All their pledges to international socialism proved to be worthless. They made not the slightest effort to mobilize the workers against the war.
By August 24th, 1914, the Joint Board of the Trades Union Congress, the General Federation of Trade Unions and the Labour Party passed the following resolution:-
‘That an immediate effort be made to terminate all existing disputes, whether strikes or lock-outs, and wherever new points of difficulty arise during the war a serious attempt should be made by all concerned to reach an amicable settlement before resorting to strikes or lock-outs.’
A sudden hush came over the whole movement after the universal capitulation. From January to July, 1914, the aggregate duration of all disputes totaled 9,105,800 working days. From August to December of the same year the total amounts to only 1,039,000 days.
The immediate effect of the war was to put a damper on industry. Unemployment grew by leaps and bounds. The cost of living increased. The unions, which had been striving to increase wages because of this tendency developing before the outbreak of war, found themselves in an increasingly difficult situation in view of their agreement to maintain ‘industrial peace.’ It soon became evident too, that the employers welcomed the new patriotism and used it as a means to resist wage advances which they would otherwise have approached more tolerantly. The slogan of the new patriotism was ‘work for low wages and higher profits.’
Murphy’s account in Preparing for Power goes on to give an account of the development of the shop stewards; movement, especially in the engineering sector, during the War.
Two earlier articles by JT Murphy, written in 1924, are also worth reading; they also discuss the true nature of the war, and the failure of the left in the face of WW1:
Ten Years Ago and After
They Betrayed Workers with a Lie