By Adam Hochschild. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2011
There’s an old cliché that some wars are just and some are just wars. The First World War was neither. It was a monstrous war without point or purpose. At the end, the boundaries between the belligerents were where they were at the beginning. In between, corpses and more corpses, mountains of amputated limbs, mass slaughter on both sides in a war both had imagined would be short and sweet. Called, ironically, the war to end all wars before it actually started, its violence set up the deadly dominos: the Bolshevik Revolution, World War II, the Cold War, and, almost, World War III.
Enough wars to fuel pacifism but clearly not enough to end wars. As Hochschild shows in his excellent book on British pacifists before and during World War I, that war exposed the terrible limitations of pacifism in a world of aggressive nation states with the ability to mobilize mass nationalist sentiment.
Before the war, the great hope had been that worker solidarity across borders ruled out war. The kings and the capitalists could call their wars but the workers would refuse to fight one another. That was a core belief of the great Marx and of the international workers’ movement. World War I dashed those hopes. They have yet to be realized.
In a book with an impressive cast of pacifists including Bertrand Russell, Kier Hardie above all exemplifies this failed hope. Of Scottish working class origins, he went to work at age seven and into the mines at eleven. He became a union man and a socialist, and was the first laboring man to be elected to Parliament. He was a founder of the Independent Labour Party in 1893, which morphed into today’s Labour Party.
Hardie believed that socialism and pacifism were one and the same, that the socialist movement was a counterweight to war, that workers solidarity across borders was an expression of the universal desire for peace. He spoke out strongly against the Boer War and preached that, in the event of war amongst the European powers, workers in all countries should call a general strike, refusing to go to war and refusing to work. Hochschild writes: “Hardie’s passion for justice knew no national boundaries.”
The First World War was a terrible betrayal of all that Hardie stood for. As he spoke in the House of Commons from the front benches against the war, his backbenchers were softly singing the national anthem.
When war came, Hardie could not bear the thought of socialists murdering each other. Old friends abandoned him. His spirit was broken. He suffered a stroke, recovered briefly, and died aged 59 in 1915, one year after the war began.
Hardie was hardly alone in paying a price for his pacifism. The state came down hard on those who would not fight. Just after the war began, some fifty resisters were forcibly inducted and transported, some in handcuffs, to the war front in France. They were threatened with death if they disobeyed orders to fight. Hochschild sings their praise: “In an act of great collective courage that echoes down the years, not a single man wavered.” They were saved at the last moment by a directive from the prime minister in London after a lobby led by Bertrand Russell. They “won no place in the standard history books, but their strength of conviction remains one of the glories of a dark time.”
There is more, much more than this, in this loving book, particularly on the role of women working simultaneously for their right to vote and for pacifism and socialism. (There was such a marvelous serendipity between all the good causes but the rottenness of the system led to war and wastage. It is enough to break one’s heart, yet all these struggles continued, and continue.)
Hochschild gives the last words in his book to the dedicated activist Alice Wheeldon, who helped men flee the draft and was imprisoned for ten years on what were almost certainly trumped up charges of conspiring to assassinate the prime minister. From her prison cell she insisted: “The world is my country.” We await the day when that shall indeed be true.
Reviewed by Mel Watkins, an emeritus professor of economics and political science, University of Toronto.