The subjective factor

1. Labour

In Britain the working population grew from just under ten million in 1851 to 18.6 million in 1911, of which one third was in manufacturing throughout (Mann, 1993: 607). In Russia, the factory workforce grew from 1.5 million in 1905 to 2 million in 1917 (Trotsky, 1985: 55). By 1911, there were 2,311,529 industrial workers in Italy (Zamagna, 1993: 87). The British working class had been formed over generations, establishing relations both of conflict and compliance with the ruling class. Other working classes, like the Russian, were newly recruited from the farms. Only in northwestern Europe did industrial workers predominate. Elsewhere, the peasantry was still the majority of the workforce, as in Greece, where industrial workers were only 20 000 at the turn of the century (Tsoucalas, 1969: 23) The subjective factor in the production process, the working class had the fruits of its labour taken from it, and turned against it as an objective power, capital. Labour's attempts to advance its own interests were forced into the constraints of a hostile environment. Its first organisations were attempts to combine to negotiate a better share in the social product. Trade Union membership in Britain grew from 300 000 in 1870 to more than eight million in 1920 (Cole, 1961: 597). German trade unions grew even more rapidly, from 300 000 in 1892 to 2 500 000 in 1912 (Abendroth, 1972: 43).

2. Labour's challenge

From the outset, political power was a monopoly of the landed and industrial elites, from which labour was excluded by virtue of its exploitation, as well as by more formal restrictions on the franchise and political activity. But at the same time, the intolerable conditions of labour were a forcing house for political opposition. In the 1840s artisan labour had challenged the ruling classes of Europe - with the Chartist movement in England, the plebeian element in the German revolution of 1848 as well as in France - only to be overwhelmed by superior force. The International Working Men's Association was formed in 1864 to absorb the lessons. In 1870 the Parisian working class rose up to defend the city against German invasion, only to be crushed by a combination of Prussian Troops and the French elite. In the 1880s, new, industrially based unions replaced the older craft unions. Industrial unrest intensified. And on the basis of the new unions, new political opposition was built.

Socialist parties in continental Europe took advantage of the repeal of anti-labour legislation to grow rapidly into mass movements. In Britain trade union leaders (supported by non-conformist Establishment radicals) formed the Labour Party. And though it happened the other way around on the continent, union leaders nevertheless became the organisational ballast to the Socialist parties. Social reform tied these Socialists to the fortunes of the nation state, through innumerable links, from local government representation to seats on social insurance schemes. Though 'working men have no country' (Marx and Engels, 1998: 58), the socialist parties geared their policies to national parliaments, just as the unions geared their claims to specific industries or workplaces. National and sectional divisions were sown in the working class, and a spirit of moderation dominated the more that working people were encouraged to identify with their nation, and their industry. Though a revolutionary left existed in all the socialist parties, only in Russia, where the ruling class was too weak to make any concessions, did the revolutionaries win out over the reformists.

3. Labour in the First World War

The outbreak of war in 1914 demonstrated the limitations of the national road to socialism. Socialist deputies and MPs in the national assemblies voted for war, effectively sending their own supporters to kill one another in defence of their respective nations. Both Britain and France introduced conscription.

WAR MOBILISATION AND DEAD 1914-19 (Kennedy, 1988: 354; Morris, 1990:174)


B)War dead

British Empire

a)9 500 000

b)947 000

French Empire

a)8 200 000

b)1 400 000


a)13 250 000

b)1 800 000


a)9 000 000

b)1 200 000


a)13 000 000

b)1 700 000


a)2 600 000

b)116 000


a)5 600 000

b)650 000

Other Allies*

a)40 700 000


b)48 000

* Serbia, Greece, Belgium. Portugal, Bulgaria

War production consumed 76 per cent of all industrial labour in Russia and 64 per cent in Italy. German agricultural output fell by 50-70 per cent, Russian by 50 per cent, French by 40-50 per cent. Germany was the first to introduce rationing. In England food prices rose by 70 per cent, while wages rose only 18 per cent; in France food prices rose 74 per cent, wages by 30 per cent; in Italy food prices rose 84 per cent, wages 38 per cent.

4. Labour's resistance in the First World War

The number of strikes fell at the outset of war, when patriotic expectations (and military discipline in the workplace) were high. But as things dragged on, strikes rose again.

Strikes 1913 1914 1915 1916 1917 1918

Britain 1459 972 672 532 730 1165

Germany 2127 1115 137 240 561 531

France 1073 690 98 314 697 499

Russia 2404 3534 928 1410 1938 --

(Source: Morris, 1985: 172)

The front line suffered a number of mutinies: German and British infantrymen held an unofficial Christmas Truce in 1914; Fifty-four French army divisions mutinied in 1917; in the same year, Percy Toplis led a mutiny at the 'Bull Ring' training camp in Étaples. In 1916, Irish rebels, led by Socialist James Connolly and nationalist Patrick Pearce, started an uprising in Dublin that engulfed the city in fighting for weeks until it was finally suppressed.

5. Russian Revolution

In February 1917 the Russian autocracy collapsed and in November the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party ('Bolsheviks') led a revolution against the war, under the slogan 'Bread, Peace and Land'. The constituent assembly formed in 1914 had squandered its good will with an increasingly brutalising and impoverishing war drive. 'Imperialism', said Lenin, 'broke at its weakest link', anticipating that it would ignite revolutions across Europe.

6. European revolution

In Germany the failure of Count Ludendorff's 'Friedensturm' peace offensive in the spring of 1918 broke German morale. The fleet mutinied at Kiel and Wilhemlshaven, Soldiers and Workers' Councils sat in Berlin and Cologne, and in Munich, a Bavarian republic was declared. The unrest continued until the Spartacist uprising of January 1919. In Ireland, Sinn Fein won the election in November 1918, forming Dail Eireann the following January. In April the Fiat workers' dispute in Turin had grown into a city-wide general strike. British troops barracked at Folkestone, Dover, Salisbury Plain and Isleworth mutinied in 1919, and engineering and shipyard workers in Glasgow paralysed the city with strikes (Morton and Tate, 1979: 279-80). In Hungary, a Soviet Republic was established on 21 March 1919 after two years of protests and strikes against the war.

The European-wide wave of protest and rebellion in 1919-21 indicated that a substantial minority of the working class had emerged from the war rejecting the leadership of the ruling classes and of the Social Democrats. Their intellectual leap was given organisational form in a new International of Communist Parties that saw Soviet Russia as their example. The Communists gathered the militant minority from the Socialist movement.

7. The German compromise

On 4 October 1918 a new liberal government with Socialist ministers sued for peace and the Kaiser abdicated. The Weimar constitution of 1919 seemed to give greater allowances to the left, but actually entrenched the executive power of the President. The left's oscillation between insurrection and caution showed up the weakness of the militant minority.

Posted By

Jun 19 2011 12:27


Attached files