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Oh! What a Lovely Centenary

Last October David Cameron delivered a speech at the Imperial War Museum detailing the government’s plans to commemorate the centenary of the First World War.

Also known as the Great War this was to have been ‘the war to end all wars’. There will be commemorative events to mark the outbreak of the war in August 1914, various battles such as the naval battle of Jutland, the disastrous Churchill-inspired Gallipoli campaign, the 'bloody' first day of the Somme, the Third Battle of Ypres popularly known as Passchendaele, and the Armistice of 11 November 1918. This is quite a number of events that will be commemorated between 2014 and 2018. It could be like the Royal Wedding, Diamond Jubilee, Olympics, Princess Diana's funeral and the première of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse for four long years as the capitalist class endeavours to bolster British nationalism and militarism.

It is interesting to note that in 1964 for the fiftieth anniversary there were no commemorative events apart from the 26 episodes BBC documentary series The Great War, and in the same year film director Joseph Losey made King and Country set in the Great war with a marked anti-war sentiment.

Nationalist propaganda

Cameron's speech was a great example of capitalist class propaganda to induce that false solidarity of ‘we're all in it together’, to make ‘us’, the working class, identify ‘our’ interest not with our own class but with that of the interests of the ruling capitalist class through identification with the ‘we’ of the nation state. Words like ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘our’ are used all the way through Cameron's speech.

Celebrations such as the Royal Wedding, Olympics, and Diamond Jubilee are all part of making the working class identify with the nation state, and the normality and routine nature of donations to Help For Heroes or the Poppy Day Appeal all combine to create a powerful consensus in the nation state with its strong links to the military. It helps soften up the working class to accept the need for military action, as recently in Iraq or Afghanistan or Iran.

Cameron said in his speech ‘the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, says something about who we are as a people’. Actually, what it says is that we, the working class are subjects to a relic from feudalism, and that if we can be made to accept the inherited privilege of the Royal Family we can almost certainly accept the inequalities and exploitation of capitalism.

Cameron described a visit he made to Gallipoli in the following way: ‘the beaches we were meant to land at, the beaches we did land at’. It is as if you and I, the working class are private soldiers landing with subaltern Cameron in the Dardanelles.

Millions of pounds will be spent on events and educating school children in the capitalist history of the Great War, another generation will grow up not questioning capitalism or war and the links between them. Cameron emphasised that the Coalition Government would continue to maintain free access to museums despite Gradgrind and austere economic policies which shows how important the capitalists view the centenary of the Great War.

Cameron mentioned Rudyard Kipling, the Poet of Empire (‘send forth the best ye breed’) in the context of the War Graves Commission which is apt as he shares responsibility for the slaughter of the European working class in the Great War.

The Great War was a major disaster that befell ‘us‘, the working class in Britain and Europe. Millions were slaughtered or ‘sacrificed’ in the trenches. Cameron used the word ‘sacrifice’ seven times during his speech to refer to all this slaughter. They ‘gave their lives for us’, that is we, the working class did. Cameron talks about ‘us’, the working class of 1914 in the following terms;

‘for many going off to war was a rite of passage. Many of them were excited; they would eat better than they had when they were down the mines or in the textile mills. They would have access to better medical care’. Here Cameron distanced himself and by extension ‘us’ from the Great War with the use of ‘they’, the working class young men from the South Yorkshire coalfields or the Lancashire cotton towns. There is an acceptance from Cameron that in 1914, ‘they’, the working class, had it very hard, but with the implication that it's different today. But it isn't. Capitalism and the exploitation of the working class for their surplus value continues.

There are no veterans left alive today. Which is just as well for Cameron. Harry Patch, ‘the last fighting Tommy’ died in 2009 aged 111 years. He fought and was wounded at Passchendaele and is on record as saying things like: ‘War is a licence to go out and murder for the British government’ and ‘War isn't worth one life. It is the calculated and condoned slaughter of human beings’.

The working class were ‘sacrificed’ for the interests of the capitalist class in the Great War.

Economic causes

The Socialist Standard of November 1914 pointed out that theSunday Chronicle of 30August 1914 let the cat out of the bag when they wrote the following; ‘the men in the trenches are fighting on behalf of the manufacturer, the mill owner, and the shopkeeper’.

Cameron does not question why there was war in 1914. The capitalist media and historians would have us believe that the Great War was caused by a combination of things like Prussian militarism, the 'German character' (whatever that is), blood feuds in the Balkans, diplomatic alliances that got out of control, and even idiosyncrasies in the Kaiser's personality.

Economic causes are the fundamental reason for the outbreak of the Great War. Even Keynes in 1936 identified ‘the competitive struggle for markets’ as the predominant factor in ‘the economic causes of war’. Fundamentally, the causes of the Great War lie with ‘bacon and steam trains’, or the Serbian Pork war with Austria where an Austrian trade embargo on Serbian livestock fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism, and the German building of the Berlin to Baghdad railway whose ultimate aim was Basra on the Persian Gulf which so terrified British commercial interests in the Middle East and threatened the route to India.

Cameron believes that the Great War is important for the ‘origins of a number of very significant advances’, which is all very calculating. Firstly, he cites the execution of Edith Cavell as important in ‘advancing the emancipation of women’ which ignores the war work women engaged in, the ‘middle class’ women of the Suffragette Movement, and the working class women who always had to work and their involvement in trade unionism. Secondly, he sees the death of the first black army officer, as the ‘beginnings of ethnic minorities getting recognition, respect and equality’ which is quite baffling. It would be more apt to point to Arthur Wharton, the first black professional football player who played for Preston North End in the 1880s. Thirdly, advances in medicine, and finally ‘advances in technology transformed the nature of war’ which Cameron will be glad about as he travels as the capitalist sales rep for arms manufacturers. He visited the Middle East and North Africa trying to sell the latest military hardware in February 2011 at the height of the ‘Arab Spring’, and he was in the Gulf in November trying to sell the same stuff to autocratic regimes like Saudi Arabia.

Cameron proposed ‘friendly football matches to mark the famous 1914 Christmas Day truce’ which is rather ironic considering national rivalries in football are just displacement activities for war, witness the rivalries between England and Germany (two world wars), England and Argentina (Falklands War), and the most bitter of all that between Holland and Germany.

Cameron feels that ‘to us, today, it seems so inexplicable that countries which had many things binding them together could indulge in such a never-ending slaughter, but they did’. He adds that in Europe ‘we sort out our differences through dialogue and meetings around conference tables’. This is all rather disingenuous considering that war takes place outside Europe because that is where the resources are located. We have wars In North Africa and the Middle East, in Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. And is Iran next?

In August 1919 the Socialist Standard wrote ‘while competition between capitalist groups for routes, markets, and control of raw materials exists, the cause of war remains’.

As socialists ‘we’ recognise the truth of what Marx wrote in 1848 that we, that is, the working class, ‘have no fatherland’. It is about our identity. We should use terms like ‘we’ and ‘our’ in relation to our class not the nation state and the capitalist class.