Socialist Alternative

How Workers’ Revolt Ended World War One

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As the fighting intensifies in Ukraine, millions around the world are searching for how to help end the suffering and bloodshed. Socialists are absolutely against Putin’s brutal invasion and occupation. At the same time, we see wars as an outgrowth of the predatory nature of capitalism. The fight against war is also a fight against the system that creates them: capitalism.

Unfortunately, the world has been through similar scenes of slaughter in the past. Despite the U.S. and NATO claiming that delivering more weapons to Ukraine will be the solution, history tells us this will not benefit the working people of Ukraine or Russia. The imperial interests of NATO and Russia in the region of Eastern Europe are what is driving this war.

War does not fall from the sky. It is a tool in the arsenal of ruling classes. Under capitalism, where the drive to open up new markets in competition with your rivals dominates, war is the ultimate foreign policy weapon.

An often-unspoken companion of war is revolution. Revulsion by the working class at the slaughter inflicted on them by the ruling classes has often been a decisive factor in ending wars. For example, anger at Nixon, the revolt of the U.S. Army in Vietnam, and radicalization at home was necessary to force the U.S. to retreat from the Vietnam War with its tail between its legs.

War forces millions to confront the crucial issue of class. Who is dying and paying for the war and who is profiting? Ultimately, in whose interest is the war being fought?

The First World War

It was in World War I that these issues were posed most sharply. Two imperialist alliances had been established to fight for markets and territorial control. This was the first real imperialist war, where developed capitalist nations fought for control over markets on a global level. The older colonial nations of Britain, France, and Russia had the most control of colonies and smaller nations. The rising power of Germany sought to break these markets.

Unlike today, the working class had built powerful working-class parties. These parties had previously set out a policy of international working-class solidarity, including calling a general strike if their ruling class declared war on another nation. However, under the pressure of war, the leadership of these parties had become conservative and bent to nationalist pressures. When war actually began, they capitulated to war propaganda and voted for arms spending.

The ruling classes in each nation whipped up a festival of ‘national unity’ against the enemy aggressor. The working class of these nations was sent to the frontlines as fodder in what became a bloody period of seemingly unending trench warfare.

As 1914 turned into 1915, 1916, and 1917, and soldiers on leave told of the reality of trench warfare, and loved ones returned in a coffin or mutilated, the mood changed at home. The promise of glorious victory propagated by the ruling classes turned into its opposite.

A strong mood of anger and rebellion emerged against the ruling classes that had sent so many young men to die in a bloody, pointless war. Class divisions were exposed and erupted.

The Russian Revolution

The situation broke first in Russia in 1917. Massive casualties had exposed Russia’s antiquated army. Russia’s aristocracy was exposed as living in luxury, and their only solution to the war failure was to send more Russian youth to die on the frontlines. Rebellions began to break out among soldiers. In February 1917, women textile workers went on strike in St. Petersburg. They lit the fuse of revolution.

The five following days saw Russian troops deployed by the monarchy to kill protesting workers, then the toppling of the Czar, and the throwing up of a provisional government. Workers’ committees of struggle, called soviets, were created by the working class in the cities and the army – they had the real power in the streets.

The new provisional government, made up of liberal politicians, ignored the demands of workers and soldiers for an end to the slaughter. Instead, they followed the interests of the Russian ruling class, and sent more troops to launch a failed offensive.

This sparked a second Russian revolution. New rebellions erupted in the army with whole battalions deserting the frontlines en masse. General strikes spread in all major cities and peasants began a mass rebellion against the aristocracy. The working class increasingly looked to the Bolshevik party to provide leadership, and joined the party in growing numbers.

By October 1917, with a new socialist majority elected to the leadership of the worker, soldier, and peasant soviets, the Bolsheviks organized the working class to take power in a bloodless revolution.

Effects of October

The Bolsheviks, under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, immediately began implementing their program of dismantling the aristocracy and capitalism, ending the war, implementing workers’ control of the workplace, and providing the right to self-determination for all nations.

A federated republic, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which included the right to self-determination including secession, was established. The leaders of this new workers’ state then called on all workers in Europe to follow their example of overthrowing their ruling classes, ending the war, and establishing a new socialist world.

This sent shockwaves around the world, rousing workers to follow their example. The effects were almost immediate. Workers across Europe began to demand an end to the slaughter and the removal of the ruling classes who had waged such a war.

German Revolution Ends the War

At the start of 1918, anti-war demonstrations and strikes began in Germany and escalated as the war continued to drag on. Finally, on November 3, 1918, German sailors in Kiel mutinied, refusing to take their battleships out to sea against the superior British navy. After clashes with pro-government forces, the sailors linked up with local workers to form a workers’ and soldiers’ council to take over running the city.

This sparked the German revolution. Workers’ councils were formed across the country as local governments were overthrown. Five days later, on November 9, the German imperial government collapsed and a Republic was declared. Two days later, on November 11, the ruling class in Europe rushed to cobble up a deal to end the four years of bloody war.

French leader Clemenceau voiced the concerns of ruling classes across Europe when he said he was “afraid that Germany may collapse and Bolshevism may gain control.”

It was the threat of revolution that forced the ruling classes of Europe to abandon their predatory aims. It is an important lessons that has been deliberately omitted from official history books.

In the following months, the ruling classes attempted to redirect the radicalized and exhausted troops to crush the Bolshevik revolution in the USSR. Despite 21 imperialist armies invading, the refusal of workers to wage that war was decisive in its failure to crush the revolution in the USSR.

The following years saw a sweep of revolutionary outbreaks across Europe, as well as the general strike in Seattle in 1919. Unfortunately, in no country outside the USSR were workers able to take power to join the Bolsheviks. Isolated in a poverty-ravaged country, the revolution degenerated in the Soviet Union.

This process of workers’ rebellion was repeated at the end of World War II on a different scale. Paris was liberated by the French resistance from Nazi control, dictator Mussolini was overthrown by Italian workers, and the British government was forced to parachute in troops to keep control from worker militias.

Each was has its own unique factors and timetables. Socialists need to take this history to heart as the U.S ruling class, Biden, and NATO proclaim democratic principles while they continue to throw ever more destructive weapons into Ukraine. It is necessary to build an anti-war movement and working-class resistance to this war. In particular, socialists need to support Russian workers as they start to revolt against Putin’s brutal invasion.

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