March 20, 1915

by Richard van Pelt, WWI Correspondent

An editorial in the Oregon Statesman discussed war as promoting socialism. Prior to the war’s outbreak governments looked at labor as subversive to the status quo. Labor organizations looked for solidarity with fellow laborers, unconstrained by national boundaries. Workers saw themselves aligned with fellow workers – a steel worker was a steelworker, wherever they lived.

The refusal of governments to recognize worker rights led the worker movement to seek to act collectively across national boundaries. The labor movement recognized that the value they placed on their own work was inconsistent with the value placed on it by the producer. Labor was just another raw material. Socialism arose in response to the excesses of inequality and poverty arising from 19th century industrialism. Socialism was an umbrella term encompassing workers who were denied a fair return for their labor.

As the belligerents went to war, many in the labor movement thought that worker solidarity would supersede national loyalty and that war could thus be prevented. That did not occur and this is how the paper addressed the issue:

The world’s socialists, rallying from the confusion into which they were thrown by the war, are getting considerable satisfaction out the the progress of events. They take pleasure in pointing out that, while socialists failed to prevent war, the war is prompting socialism.

In every belligerent nation, and in many of the neutrals, there has been a tremendous advance in the past few months in the direction of “state socialism” – the control of the nation’s resources by the government, for the public.

This tendency has been conspicuous in Great Britain. Shortly after the declaration of war the government, which already owned the telegraphs and telephones, took control of the railroads. It postponed the payment of debts and guaranteed bank loans. It regulated the price of food and provisions. It cornered the sugar supply. In behalf of the sovereign public, it invaded almost every department of industry and commerce. And now comes the crowning stroke.

The British parliament has unanimously given the government authority to take over the “entire engineering trade of the country,” including all manufacturing establishments capable of producing war supplies and munitions. Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the conservatives, characterizes the measure as “probably the most drastic ever laid before parliament.”

In German the socializing process has been carried still farther. There the government has taken almost absolute control of industry, banking, transportation, commerce and food.

Of course all this is natural enough. A self-governing nation in arms is by that very fact socialistic – it comes near realizing the socialist ideal of a co-optative commonwealth.

After the war the principles of socialism may not have their old power to strike dismay to the hearts of conservatives. Production and distribution will once more lapse largely into the hands of private enterprise, but the public will hardly forget its experience with public control. The people may feel a new sense of power. They may rise to inquire why, if the nation as a whole can handle its wealth and regulate its work effectively in war time, it cannot do likewise in time of peace.

When hostilities cease, there may be a wave of radicalism sweeping through England and most other European countries that will make previous radical propagandas look very mild. And we Americans, grown in the past half-century to be the most conservative of great peoples, will be looked upon by our European cousins as more hide-bound than ever.

One prominent socialist, charged with treachery, and who did oppose the war was Karl Liebknecht. Liebknecht was a founder of the German Social Democratic Party (SDP). Active in the Second International, as a member of the Reichstag he opposed Germany’s entry into the war. Liebknecht’s opposition to the war placed him in opposition to his own party. An article in the Statesman, “Liebknecht Is Taken To Task” reports that the SPD, one of the largest parties in the Reichstag, had to “align itself on the side of the fatherland:”

As indicative of dissension in the ranks of the Social Democratic party, Karl Liebknecht and his supporters are severely criticized by Wolfgang Heine, one of the party leaders in the reichstag, in a pamphlet entitled: “Against the Intriguers.”

Heine charges that [Liebknecht] has been guilty of deception and of causing “disruption of the inner unity of the party, and the promotion on the other hand of the interests of those who in the time of the country’s need condemn the position of the party.”

“The Social Democracy,” he says, “could act no differently than it has done: it had to align itself on the side of the fatherland in this war. He refutes indignantly the claim of the “intriguers” that the Social Democrats are “hurrah patriots,” chauvinists and jingoes, and denies that the war from Germany’s standpoint is an imperialistic undertaking.

“As long,” he continues, “as the enemies cannot contemplate any peace that does not presuppose dictating to prostrate Germany, just so long is it worse than madness, a betrayal of the interests of our people in fact, to talk peace to them.

“To stick it out to the end! that above all things is our duty to ourselves. Our longing and our hopes, our sympathy and our concern, must not be allowed to overpower us, at least not until everything is dark ahead. Even the most pardonable desire and the most comprehensible excess of feeling can do us the utmost harm if given way to an unsuitable moment.

In a tone that each belligerent, and eventually including the United States, would promote, the writer argues that “Now, in the middle of the war, while dangers increase and the ability of every man is needed, the party must not vacillate, thereby causing confusion in the ranks of Germany’s defenders. this might cause the most serious consequences for the whole German people, including the working classes.”


About whclarc

We are devoted to providing information fresh from the Archives, Library and Collections of the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, Oregon. We specialize in the history of Marion County and the greater Salem area.
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