46. World War I was rooted in the very structure of world capitalism. As Trotsky wrote in 1915: “The present war is at bottom a revolt of the forces of production against the political form of nation and state. It means the collapse of the national state as an independent economic unit. … The War of 1914 is the most colossal breakdown in history of an economic system destroyed by its own inherent contradictions.” It marked the opening of the epoch of imperialism; the epoch of wars and revolutions.
47. The eruption of the war exploded the myth that Australia could somehow be insulated from global tensions and conflicts. In the federal election campaign of 1914, which was taking place as the war began, both major parties committed themselves to defend the British Empire, with Labor leader Andrew Fisher pledging “the last man and the last shilling.”
48. Australian workers, like their counterparts in Europe, were initially caught up in a wave of patriotism. The euphoria was short-lived. By 1916, the reality of the slaughter at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, as well as deepening attacks on social conditions at home, were having their impact. Out of an Australian population of fewer than 5 million, the war would claim the lives of almost 62,000 and see 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken prisoner. Opposition began to grow, both to the war and to the Labor government, now led by Billy Hughes. Concerned over falling levels of recruitment, Hughes demanded conscription for overseas service, but so great was opposition in the labour movement that he could not secure Labor Party support for the policy. Hughes and his chief supporter, NSW premier Holman, were both expelled from the party, whereupon Hughes formed a National Party government. Two conscription referenda in October 1916 and December 1917 were defeated—the second by a bigger majority than the first.
49. Opposition to the war and the onslaught against social conditions was expressed in a series of militant trade union struggles. The most important erupted in August 1917 over government attempts to impose a speed-up in the NSW rail and tramway workshops. The February Revolution in Russia, which brought down the tsar, had an immediate political impact, with resolutions carried at both NSW and Victorian Labor Party conferences congratulating the Russian workers for overthrowing the autocracy and calling for an immediate international conference to negotiate peace. The NSW resolution laid the blame for the war on the “existing capitalistic system of production of profit which compels every nation constantly to seek new markets to exploit, invariably leading to a periodic clash of rival interests” and insisted that peace could only be accomplished by the “united efforts of the workers of all the countries involved.”
50. Hostility to the Labor leadership and the trade union bureaucracy was expressed in growing support for the IWW, which suffered brutal repression at the hands of the Hughes and Holman governments because of its vociferous opposition to the war. While the IWW attracted support from the most militant and class-conscious workers, it could not provide them with a perspective to fight Laborism. The IWW opposed the construction of an independent revolutionary party of the working class, maintaining that capitalism could be defeated by “one big union” and a general strike. While the IWW proved to be short-lived, the conception that the Labor Party’s betrayals could be countered simply through militant syndicalism was to emerge repeatedly in the course of the 20th century.
51. The Russian Revolution of October 1917, led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party, opened a new chapter in the struggles of the international working class. The revolution validated in all essentials Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, which he first advanced in 1905, and which anticipated the actual course of events. It was this theory that enabled Lenin to re-orient the Bolshevik Party in April 1917 towards the struggle for political power against the bourgeois Provisional Government, led by Kerensky and supported by the Mensheviks. The revolution underscored the historical significance of the protracted struggle that Lenin had waged against all forms of opportunism, a struggle that had led the Bolsheviks to break with the Mensheviks in 1903. What had begun as a conflict over the nature of the party turned out to have the most far-reaching implications. In 1917 the Mensheviks, who sided with the bourgeois Provisional Government as it supported the continuation of the war and opposed the distribution of land to the peasantry, opposed the taking of power by the working class.
52. The Russian Revolution was carried out on the program of proletarian internationalism. Conceived as the opening shot of the world socialist revolution, it sparked a wave of revolutionary struggles in Europe and provoked a radicalisation of the working class and oppressed masses throughout the world as the war came to an end. But nowhere else had parties of the Bolshevik type been constructed in advance. As Trotsky was later to write: “After the war, the proletariat was in such a mood that one could have led it into decisive battle. But there was nobody to lead and nobody to organise this battle—there was no party. … Insofar as there was no party, victory was impossible. And, on the other hand, one could not maintain the revolutionary fervor of the proletariat while a party was being created. The communist party began to be built. In the interim, the working class, not finding a militant leadership at the proper time, was forced to accommodate itself to the situation which formed after the war. Hence the old opportunistic parties received a chance once again, to a greater or lesser extent, to strengthen themselves.”
Leon Trotsky, War and the International, Young Socialist Publication, Colombo, 1971, pp. vii-viii.
Speaking for Australia: parliamentary speeches that shaped our nation, Rod Kemp and Marion Stanton (eds), Allen & Unwin, April 2005, p. 48.
Graham Freudenberg, Cause for power: the official history of the New South Wales Branch of the Australian Labor Party, Pluto Press, Leichhardt, 1991, p. 117.
Leon Trotsky, ‘Towards the Question of the “Stabilisation” of the World Economy’, The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, Hillel Ticktin and Michael Cox (eds), Porcupine Press, London, 1995, p. 349.