August 2014        

Shared slaughter in an ignoble cause

We are surrounded on all sides by a cacophony of noise about events, media features and academic feastings to celebrate the beginning of the war of 1914–18. “Co-ordinated” is the adjective that occurs to sceptical minds. The London government has decreed that there is to be no objectivity or neutrality in the celebrations, and the Irish establishment has followed this line cringingly.
     The spectacle of the British army contingent in Glasnevin cemetery, with certain inferiority complex-ridden “dignitaries” kowtowing to a tinpot prince—a relative of the Tsar, the Kaiser, and the “Emperor of India,” shows how low our rulers have gone.
     At least one event in the last month deviated from the celebration. A well-attended public meeting organised by the CPI discussed the events of 1914 under the title “The Inter-Imperialist War, 1914–18: Not a Noble Cause.”
     Eddie Glackin (National Executive Committee, CPI) examined the economic and political background to the conflagration, noting the growth of imperialism in the late nineteenth century, and remarked that Lenin’s description of that process had stood the test of time. All the imperial powers had dramatically increased their production of manufactured goods and their exploitation of natural resources in the half-century leading up to 1914 and were competing bitterly for markets.
     Another aspect of the background to the war was the colonial carve-up of Africa, which found itself within one generation almost completely occupied by European powers competing for territory, natural resources, and minimal-cost labour. The war had nothing to do with “the freedom of small nations” or any of the other shibboleths of the time.
     Glackin pointed out the hypocrisy of the wailing over the infringement of Belgian neutrality when the British army was doing the same thing in China. (Indeed in the early weeks of the war Churchill was planning an incursion through the neutral Netherlands, regardless of what the Dutch thought.)
     The historian Brian Hanley described the reaction in Ireland to the outbreak of war. On the one hand there were those who imitated the worst of English jingoism and attacked shops in Dublin belonging to merchants of German origin, while others were wholly opposed to the war and especially to conscription. The Irish Neutrality League united many diverse elements, including among its founders James Connolly, Arthur Griffith, Constance Markievicz, and Seán T. Ó Ceallaigh.
     Redmond’s original position was to propose that British troops be sent to the front while the Volunteers would be mobilised to “defend” the country. His call at Woodenbridge for the Volunteers to join the British army “wherever the fighting line extends” came as a surprise even to his own followers, many of whom ignored his plea.
     Redmond envisaged an “Irish army” within the imperial forces, on the lines of the Canadian or ANZAC forces. The warlords made sure this didn’t happen and saw to it that “nationalist” units had no particular identity and were officered at the top by English warriors. Hanley also pointed out that even before 1916 there was much disillusionment with the war, partly because of the appalling casualties and also because of lack of food and work in the cities and towns.
     The discussion that followed emphasised that what began in 1914 was a catastrophic war between the main imperialist powers of the day. Armies on both sides slaughtered each other to further empower and enrich their ruling classes. There was nothing to be proud of in the resulting carnage. There was no just cause and, certainly, no noble cause. Redmond and his crew sent tens of thousands to their deaths and many more to permanent injury and disfigurement so that bourgeois Ireland could share the fruits of empire.
     European socialism collapsed into modern social democracy, which has ever since been a prop of imperialism. Lenin and Connolly were among the minority who knew what had to be done: turn the imperial war into an assault on the empires.

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