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Mixed Media: ‘Socialist Opposition to the First World War’

THIS IS the title of a display held until last month at the Marx Memorial Library, 37A Clerkenwell Green, London EC1, and organised by them in conjunction with ‘Workers’ School’. It is now moving to other locations inside and outside London until the end of March next year.

More apt is the subtitle ‘An exhibition on working class men and women resisting the war’ as, perhaps advisedly, there is little about the various ‘socialist’ groups of the era. And much of the information that is provided about these groups is faulty, specifically about the British Socialist Party (not to be confused with the Socialist Party of Great Britain—our opposition to the war from day one doesn’t get a mention).

The exhibition is exclusively visual and is presented on twelve glossy, well arranged panels. The images selected are dramatic and well-selected and are particularly good at contrasting the dichotomy between ‘their war’  (senseless suicide of workers on the orders of their ‘betters’) and ‘our war’ (self-organised activity in the factories and in the streets).

The text concentrates on the events of Red Clydeside and related themes (three panels) and on anti-war women activists, including Sylvia Pankhurst (five panels). Although there is a necessity to demonstrate that history is not just ‘his story’, the emphasis placed on the latter might be regarded as rather overegging the pudding.

Given the origin of the display, there are surprisingly few references to the Communist Party and Lenin, which will come as a relief to many. The organisers, Mary Davis and Angus Reid, are to be congratulated on their hard work, which will be of interest both to socialists and to members of the general public interested in the period. Viewers must be warned, however, not to allow the images of mass meetings to cloud their understanding of the era. Working class resistance to the First World War was patchy, possible on a large scale only in areas remote from the centre of state power (Glasgow) and often dealt with effects (such as high rents and low wages) rather than the war itself. Steeped from birth in nationalistic poisons, the British working class were on the whole enthusiastic supporters of the war, which makes class-conscious opposition to the not-so-Great War, and indeed all wars, all the rarer and all the more to be celebrated.

KAZ

For our party’s opposition to the war see our pamphlet Strange Meeting: Socialism and World War One, obtainable (price £4.50) from: The Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High St, London SW4 7UN.