“The supreme tragedy of human history is upon us,” begins Disarmament and World Peace: Proposed Manifesto and Program of the Socialist Party of America, published today in the Chicago-based American Socialist newspaper. “European civilization is engulfed. The world’s peace is shattered. The future of the human race is imperilled.” Rejecting the various diplomatic and leadership failures which led to the Great War as “superficial” causes, the document clearly blames capitalism itself for the conflict.
Each capitalistic nation enters the list to fight for foreign markets. Hence arise the commercial rivalries of nations, the policies of imperialism, the conflicts for commercial supremacy, ever growing more intense and fierce as the nations expand and the world’s field of conquest narrows. Hence arise the policies of armaments, every year more immense and monstrous. Hence arise the strategy, the intrigue of secret diplomacy, till all the world is involved in a deadly struggle for the capture and control of the world market.
Thus capitalism, functioning through the modern nationalistic state with its vast armaments, secret diplomacies, and undemocratic governments, inevitably leads to war.
There are fair points to the critique of nationalism and opaque government, but the premise is flawed. American Socialist is published by the Socialist Party of America (SPA), whose perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs has never even come close to winning. Like any good international socialist, Debs considers both Democratic and Republican politicians to be tools of these same capitalists whom he holds responsible for the Great War. (No one is more surprised by this accusation than the capitalists, for whom the war has so far been a disaster: Wall Street only recently reopened for trading after what remains its longest trading blackout in history, for no one in the great banking houses was hedged against the Austrian ultimatum.)
Despite their denunciations of militarism, the National Executive Committee of the SPA sees no moral difference between the combatants. All of them are equally guilty of waging an illegal war for the benefit of sinister arms merchants, whose industries (they say) should be seized immediately and banned from exportation to the combatant countries. “Nationalism” is named a culprit without mentioning either of Austria’s rival empires, Serbia or Italy, or the ethnic and religious tensions of the Ottoman Empire’s ongoing collapse. More dissonant than dissident, the Committee demands the abolition of capitalism itself upon the conclusion of the conflict as a means to prevent it ever happening again.
A doctrinaire example of the Marxian dialectic, the manifesto is a love letter to the Second International. The American socialist movement is at a crossroads in 1914, which is already a season of broken loyalties and political polarization. Right now, the Italian Socialist Party is being fractured by rightward forces advocating war against the reactionary regimes of the Central Powers, and the socialist party leaders of Serbia and Russia who endorse the war are as guilty in Lenin’s eyes as the Kaisers and junkers are.
Riven by internal forces and the increasing public anger with Germany, reduced by its irrelevance to a nation of bourgeois main street shopkeepers, and unable to overcome racial boundaries in its organizing, the Socialist Party will have a poor showing in the election of 1916. War, official state oppression, the Bolshevik revolution and the Third International will all further fracture and divide the socialist movement in America.
Perhaps trying to steal back some thunder from Woodrow Wilson, who has instituted an income tax and a Federal reserve bank to drain away their progressive support, the Committee’s message is ambitious, plugging women’s suffrage, a just peace without reparations, and confiscatory taxation. But it is not a program for ending the war; it is a prescription for what seeds to plant in the ashes of civilization.
(W)e make our appeal believing that out of the ashes of this mighty conflagration will yet arise the deeper internationalism and the great democracy and peace.
President Wilson will again disempower the Socialists by echoing their call in today’s epistle for an international organization to provide transparent governance according to international law — a global democracy. Socialists are hardly the first to conceive the notion; Prime Minister Henry Asquith, whose government and Chancellor will preside over the permanent transfer of global capitalist leadership to New York from London, has already anticipated the idea in a speech; the toothless peace center at the Hague, often invoked by advocates for further development of global governance, is the autocratic Tsar’s brainchild.
The postwar League of Nations will prove unpopular in the United States, an abandoned weakling offspring that cannot survive the age of rising fascism and imperial ambitions. Despite the best of intentions, peace does not break out. Instead, the world experiences two massive and bloody wars separated by a twenty-year international crisis of closed markets and economic distrust, for the League is nothing like the police-armed international body envisioned by the Socialists in their third program point:
1. National disarmament shall be effected immediately upon the adoption of the peace program by a sufficient number of nations, or by nations of sufficient power so that the international police force developed by the terms of the program shall be adequate to insure the protection of the disarmed.
2. No increase in existing armaments under any circumstances.
3. Pending complete disarmament the abolition of the manufacture of armaments and munitions of war for private profit.
4. International ownership and control of strategic waterways, such as the Dardanelles, Straits of Gibralter, and the Suez, Panama, and Kiel Canals.
5. Neutralization of the seas.
Today’s American right wing paranoid style is reactionary to these ideas, and negatively associates all international agreements, police actions, or neutralization commitments with socialism. There are complimentary populist styles of American politics which absurdly blame the income tax and the Federal Reserve for the outbreak of a war they actually preceded, and were hardly intended to wage. Yet another paranoid style involves gold, which is a hedge against crisis, by recalling the gold crisis of 1914 and the wartime disestablishment of the gold standard with apocalyptic dread.
Nevertheless, radicals of the left who want to disestablish the American empire in our time often find common ground at this fringe. They see the dawn of total war — when the means of production became themselves weapons against the enemy, and states were forced to either meet the challenge of Materialschlacht or dissolve in defeat and revolution — as the cause of the war rather than its effect. A century later, there are still reactionaries organizing on the American political right who seemingly blame the ‘war effort’ for the war itself when they speak of a path to peace through diminution, or even dissolution, of the federal government. Both of these affinities were on proud display during the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 and can be found blabbering today at antiwar websites.
It is also Boxing Day today on the Western Front, the traditional British holiday for visiting friends, acts of charity, and delivering gifts. When we speak of the ‘Christmas truces,’ we forget that France and Belgium do not celebrate the holiday, and the British section of the line is less than thirty miles long. Today’s events in no man’s land are thus an extension of yesterday’s German-instigated local truces, and in fact today is the height of the Christmas truce activity along the British line. Local commanders are taking advantage of the impromptu ceasefire to bury the dead and improve their defenses, especially their trench drainage. Many points of the British line are too low to the water table, where men cannot help but fight hunched over in cold and deadly misery. These points must be sandbagged, an activity that is much easier for men who are not under fire.
The British Army is growing from a steady flow of volunteers. In fact, Field Marshall Sir John French is attending to the formal division of his command into two armies today, with his personal rival General Smith-Dorrien taking command of the Second Army. Some subordinate senior officers understandably take advantage of the absence of attention to the front, turning the local arrangements to perceived tactical advantage. French will raise hell later when he finds out, holding leaders accountable and instituting policy changes to prevent a repeat. Whatever the apparent advantages of ‘live and let live’ arrangements might be, the resulting insecure habits are deemed too dangerous to justify them.
What the syndicalists of the radical fringe imagine to be peace breaking out today is nothing of the sort: it is the chain of command adapting to the realities of trench warfare, just like everyone else in the world is right now. The first year of the Great War has seen the birth of the modern world in blood and fire — and controversy.