1960s >> 1967 >> no-759-november-1967

1917 Question and Answer

The question is, did the Bolsheviks know what they were caught up in? Did they realise that the upheaval in Russia would cause fifty years of argument, theorising and confusion about the working class? About working class courage, social consciousness, ambitions?


The Russian Revolution was not the only event of November 1917; about a thousand miles south-west of the crowds in Petrograd something was happening which supplied all the answers necessary to straighten out the theories and clear up the confusion which followed the Bolsheviks taking power.


On the 20th of that grim month Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, commander in chief of the British army in France, decided to close down what has become known as the Battle of Passchendaele. It had, he said, served its purpose. The battle had opened at the end of July; in the four months of fighting the British had advanced a few miles, had captured a small number of piles of rubble which had once been villages where human beings lived and worked, had landed themselves in what some soldiers thought was a more exposed position than when they had started — and had lost about three hundred thousand men.


Afterwards, Passchendaele was justified by the British commanders as a successful exposition of the art of attrition. This art is based on a grisly theory, which gives an insight into what is approvingly called the military mind. Attrition meant a battle carried on to destroy an opposing army, at no matter what cost. At Passchendaele it meant sending men out into an impassable swamp which was swept by concentrated machine gun fire and protected by blankets of barbed wire, in the hope that, while tens of thousands of them were being killed, they would kill more of the other side


This, bad as it was, was not the original intention behind Passchendaele. The battle was planned to capture the Channel ports, break the U-Boat threat, smash through the German lines in Flanders and open the way for the cavalry to speed into the heart of Germany and finish the war. Prime Minister Lloyd George — who mistrusted the plan from the start — recalled bitterly Haig’s promises for the offensive — the hands sweeping irresistibly over the map, as if with his fingers Haig could roll back the German armies, his nail resting on the frontier so far behind the lines.


The reality was very different. The Flanders countryside, its drainage system destroyed by the artillery, became a swamp under the late summer rains. Men waded waist-deep through the sticky yellow mud; sometimes they drowned in the stuff. If they were wounded they often simply disappeared into the slime. One survivor — Siegfried Sassoon —wrote savagely:


Two bleeding years I fought in France, for Squire:
I suffered anguish that he’s never guessed.
Once I came home on leave: and then went west . . .
What greater glory could a man desire?
(Memorial Tablet)


and another — Alasdair Alpin MacGregor — contributed this to a recent discussion in the letter columns of the Daily Telegraph:


That autumn’s mud-and-blood baths were occupied mostly by young petrified, under-trained, lice-ridden, wounded, dying, drowned, parched, famishing, conscripts, cowering in the shell-holes, if not already hanging on the barbed wire.



Inevitably, the failure of Passchendaele released a torrent of criticism which, fifty years after, still flows strongly. Soon after the end of the battle, Lloyd George unburdened himself to C. P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian:


If people really knew, the war would be stopped tomorrow . . . The thing is horrible, and beyond human nature to bear, and I feel I can’t go on any longer with the bloody business. [1] 

Which would have sounded more convincing were it not that the same man had earlier said of the very people some of whom did know, did want to stop the war — the conscientious objectors —


I shall only consider the best means of making the path of that class a very hard one. [2]


But wherever the the horrors of the war, and however powerful the criticisms of it, the peoples of Europe continued to fight it with a stupid courage. Passchendaele was not the first blood bath on the Western Front; it had been preceded by such as Loos, Verdun, the Somme, Aisne and it was to be followed by the last German offensive of March 1918 and the Allied counter-attack which finished the war.


Through all this, the working class remained solidly behind the war. The French soldiers showed the strain after Verdun and again after Nivelle had murdered tens of thousands of them in his attack in 1917. But they held. So did the Germans. And the British, in the words of Lloyd George, could be “. . . absolutely relied on for any enterprise.” [3]


This support for the war was incited and encouraged by the politicians when it suited them; for example, it allowed an official blind eye to be turned to much of the inhuman treatment dished out to the conscientious objectors. But it was a weapon with two edges. Lloyd George, who could always rouse a mob, would dearly have loved to sack Haig but, apart from the political background to his appointment, the Field Marshall was the mob’s hero. To dismiss him would have been to admit the failure of all those spectacular offensives which, the newspapers were busily saying, were about to finish the war. If that happened, if “the people really knew”, the war might even be stopped — even tomorrow . . .


The Prime Minister held his hand, and kept his job, and the war went on. Later, his son Richard wrote that this was his final test “. . . and he shirked it.” [4]


But perhaps Lloyd George was not shirking a test so much as facing it. In all the belligerent countries, the working class had been roused to the pitch of patriotism which brought them cheering onto the streets in August 1914. In London, the crowds singing the National Anthem outside Buckingham Palace merged with the mob who were smashing the windows of the German Embassy.


These were the people who most fervently supported the politicians. In particular, they were the people who backed Lloyd George as the man to prosecute the war in the most ruthless way. They were the people who attacked aliens and pacifists, who broke up Socialist meetings. They wanted victory above everything; they welcomed each great battle, gorged themselves on the bloodthirsty lies of the war correspondents.


Not everyone, of course, was a fiery patriot. There were also the apathetic, the bewildered and the docile, who assumed they should join up because Kitchener had said so, and because everyone else seemed to be doing it. Perhaps, if they thought about it, they justified their presence in the trenches by remembering the promises which were being made, like Lloyd George at the 1917 Eisteddfod:


Our footprints may be stained with blood, but we will reach the heights. And beyond them, we shall see the green valleys and the rich plains of the new world, which we have sacrificed so much to win. [5]


All of these people were cruelly deceived. They were deceived over 1914/18 and they were deceived over the Russian Revolution. Sadder yet, the deception goes on. Capitalism spawns the working class as a distinct social group, separate from its capitalist antagonists. But the ideological climate of capitalism — its morals, its priorities, its fables — convinces the workers that they are united with their masters.


A working class which accepts this, which believes that both classes have common interests, that class exploitation is eternal, that wars are periodically necessary, will not only fail to establish Socialism; It will perform massive feats of achievement and endurance for capitalism. It will, as it did fifty years ago, fight out a Passchendaele with hardly a word of complaint.


It is this fact — that working class awareness is vital to the achievement of Socialism and to the struggle under capitalism — which is persistently ignored by many of the political theorists who have confused matters so seriously since the Russian Revolution. The Bolsheviks in 1917 were presiding over the birth of a social system new to Russia — capitalism — and of its two opposing classes.


Since then, the Russian working class have conformed to the pattern. The evidence builds up, to support our opinion of 1917 that Socialism in Russia was impossible. The Russian working class, whatever the theorists may say, have done all that capitalism has required of them. They have even had their own Passchendaele, when tens of thousands of them died in hell but called—Stalingrad.




[1] Frank Owen — Tempestuous Journey.
[2] David Boulton — Objection Overruled.
[3] John Terraine — The Western Front.
[4] Richard Lloyd George — Lloyd George.
[5] Frank Owen — Tempestuous Journey.