A Call out for a radical historical opposition
to the plans for a commemoration of the start of World War 1

Although we have a powerful interest in history, there’s a strong current at past tense that feels that ‘Anniversaries are Bollocks’. By which we mean, that we treat as deeply suspect the idea that you should only really talk about an event, person, movement, (etc) on the day/in some convoluted decimal twist, on when it/they briefly made a mark on the what thenational curriculum would recognize as ‘history’. Either it’s important or relevant enough to be worth discussing or celebrating ALL the time – or maybe you’re just remembering for the sake of remembering…

Having said that –
Sometimes you hang your hat on the hook that arbitrary systems of temporal accounting throw up… And sometimes the shit they come up with demands an answer.
So: David Cameron last year announced plans to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. We can no doubt expect a splurge of the usual nostalgic nonsense, spiced with patriotic flagwaving and rose-tinted spectaculars, and the occasional poignant music accompanying shots of fields of poppies.

Mass murder. for profit, dressed up in democratic rags

We know, without having to raise eyebrows much, what the official idea of commemorating World War One is likely to consist of. A celebration of sacrifice, idealizing of the armed forces, romanticisation or the alleged harmony of class relation and social co-existence pre-1914; a hymn to the national unity forged in struggle (a myth better illustrated in World War 2, but, hey, one step at a time!)
At its fringes there’ll be lots of money for artists willing to engage in collaborative projects with schoolkids; less than that available as subsidies for private defence companies to sell missiles to Saudi Arabia so it can threaten Bahrain; but more than the aid budget for victims of landmines.

But WW1 is hugely significant for those of us who reject this musty classless blinkered toryscope of history. In total opposition to THEIR plans for a “we’re all in it together” evocation of a harmonious past – that never existed – and a glorious national unity – that was broken by class, and many other, antagonisms from the start – we call for a program of events to challenge the orthodox view of World War 1, (and by the way, of the past generally, the present, and the future… We’re not all in it together NOW – or ever have been… How a conjuring up of the glorious past could contribute to the urgent need for sacrifice and ‘national unity’, to clothe the current onslaught on our living conditions, Jubilee-style…)

the dead cannot contradict; sometimes
the living cannot

This is not just an academic exercise: those associated with past tense have been involved in resistance to wars fought in our own lifetime, and the present: from Vietnam, through Ireland, the Falklands, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan… to name but a few… If war is the ultimate expression ofimperialist competition (was it dodgy old Lenin said that?), understanding of the historical background and effect of wars is a crucial part of our daily rejection of war today…

Just some of the aspects of WW1 we suggest it might be worth commemorating:
• Why the mass socialist movements that had noisily opposed capitalist and imperialist war in the years before 1914 capitulated almost completely to jingoism when war came.
• Shop stewards movements and strikes during WW1; also how they relate to the embryonic syndicalist movement before the war, and the post-war strike wave and the unemployed movement;
• Anti-war activism, anti-conscription movements, not just the
conscientious objectors but those who opposed the war on class grounds;
(including the struggles within prisons and military detention of some of these);
• the networks of resistance, sheltering deserters, objectors and those avoiding conscription;
• The struggles against the austerity that the war forced; the daily resistance to war that transcended ideologies.
• Desertion, mutiny, fraternization between ‘enemies’, and other forms of individual and collective subversion within the armies of all sides;
• The fractions of the women’s suffrage movement that refused to give uptheir struggle for emancipation and fall in with the war effort – Sylvia Pankhurst, the East London Federation of Suffragettes and others, and the political directions that this resistance led them…
• Also: the political ideology that led the majority of the suffrage movement, and socialist groups and trade unions, to its identification with patriotism and capitalist war: how did it arise? What were the social relations that sustained it? The contradictions in both the socialist and suffragist movements that allowed the vast majority of both to fall into line are worth examining.
• Racism, jingoism, xenophobia during the war, how they were expressed,and points, places, moments, where these trends were opposed or bucked, and why;
• The social consequences of WW1: how the war contributed to the post-war breakdown of established social relations and how much changed in class hierarchies, gender politics, economics… including Women working within traditional male industries and its social consequences, the decline of the aristocracy, And more…
• Revolution! Let’s not forget that World War 1 ended in revolution, general strikes, mutiny… And the post-war years offered the most tangible opportunity yet, or since, for the overthrow of class society and the creation of a radically different way of living… The multiple reasons why this opportunity arose, and why it was to end in tragedy, are always worth exploring…
• Cultural themes: how World War 1 was created and maintained as an idea, a unifying ideology that was used to build social solidarity, defeating class struggle, subversion, rebellion… at least for a while…
That’s just a few suggestions for starters… all you out there have as many if not more ideas; this is just a beginning or suggestion

Past tense proposes:

A series of events. Not, like, unfortunate events, we hope.
We mean – a co-ordinated program – meetings, discussions, gigs, re-enactments, spoof re-enactments, demos, film showings, riots, plays, publications, re-enacted mutinies… whatever sparks our collective imagination. We don’t all have to necessarily agree on a clear political line… we can all link a dialogue about the first world war to contemporary resistance to capitalist mass murder, and the extension of exploitation by force in our own time. Events could concide with the anniversary of the beginning of the War, continue throughout what will presumably by four years of ‘official history’. Maybe we could intervene in their events… without permission, new mutinies against their

This is an initial proposal… past tense are happy to act as a co-ordinating point for discussions that may arise… We have a year to get our shit together. I know we’re all busy, the current austerity drive is pushing backs to the wall. But we know that any counter-attack has to have an understanding of history as a cornerstone…

War?! HUH! What is it good for?!

Further to this…

There have been some interesting replies and responses to past tense’s above proposal/callout.

It seems like many people were already thinking along similar lines.
Some plans are already afoot (see below). Past Tense are in the process of setting up an open discussion e-mail list which anyone interested can join, to help co-ordinate/spread the word/discuss plans to events, publications, actions, ideas… When that is active I will let everyone know. We are also slowly beginning to gather texts, articles, books etc celebrating resistance to and people’s daily experience of the War, to create an online archive of materials people can use. If people have/know of/can suggest or send us useful items for this archive, we’d be grateful.

Some other ideas already suggested:
Derby People’s History are going to celebrate anti-war activist Alice Wheeldon (who was jailed with other relatives and friends for an attempt to poison the Prime Minister Lloyd George!) in Derby THIS year, ON 1st May and 14th September.
Check out:

Bristol Radical History Group
are organizing a meeting at the Bristol @ Bookfair Radical History space:
Saturday 20th April
12.00 -1.00,
at Hydra Books,
34 Old Market,

0117 3297401

This meeting is aimed at giving a brief intro to some of the ‘interesting’ WW1 history and then a discussion/brainstorming about what could be done.
They are also proposing a ‘planning’ meeting for radical history groups and others interested in a counter-history of WW1 – which could be held at the London Anarchist bookfair in October.
Bristol RHG have also been working on collating (from secondary sources) all the incidents of strikes and mutinies of the British armed forces from Nov 1918-Feb 1919. They were hoping to coordinate a research effort by radical history groups and individuals around the country as follows:
1. Take the list and isolate incidents of British Armed Forces strikes local to your area
2. Do the local primary source research (local newspapers, oral history sources etc.)
3. Log both existing and new incidents that are discovered and ‘snowball’ the research
3. Add info to the central list
4. Produce pamphlet or leaflet using local events as a case study to inform the wider history
5. Do public meetings/recreations/events etc.
The emphasis is on the ‘local’ in order to make it interesting and accessible to each particular area/city/region.
By using our group research ‘brain’ (The Borg?) we can expand the knowledge about the extent and intensity of the main period of first world war rebellion in Britain, which is difficult task for individual researchers.

York Alternative History have made a start by preparing for a ‘day school’ to be held in October 2014 to highlight the ‘uncomfortable’ issues about WW1.

The Freethought History Research Group suggested a commemoration of the big peace demo in Trafalgar Square, two days before the outbreak of the First Word War; Kier Hardie spoke among others.

Another correspondent is working on an article about the dadaists; treating them not as artists but as soldiers & deserters. It may be finished in time for the Cabaret Voltaire’s centenary (5th February 2016).
They also wondered if anyone has any international contacts: are similar things are being mooted elsewhere round the world? Aside from a vague recollection of celebrations of the Irish revolt of 1916, they haven’t yet heard of anything.

Another proposal was to research the location of any of those “feeding camps” which were used to feed up working class lads so they’d be fit to be cannon fodder. Apparently they came home on their first leave (before going off to be mostly killed) an average of 1 stone heavier than they’d been before, thanks to proper food for the first time in their lives. If one of those sites was occupyable, we could do summat eloquent there, maybe.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain announced that they were planning a resolution at their Conference:
“That in order to counteract the nationalist and militarist propaganda campaign that the government is planning on the occasion of the centenary in 2014 of the outbreak of the First World War, the Party reprint as a pamphlet the series of front page manifestos that appeared in the
Socialist Standard from September 1914 to April 1915.”

Supporting statement: The government is planning to celebrate this event along the lines of the queen’s diamond jubilee. We need to counter this as well as explaining what the War was really about, which these manifestos explain eloquently. They can be found on the internet at
They may well organize other things as well (eg meetings, an exhibition).

A couple of objections to past tense’s original proposal were flagged up: firstly that is inaccurate to counterpose conscientious objectors to those opposing the war on class grounds. Many CO’s, (including the responder’s great grandfather!), DID base their objection on class grounds. COs embraced a wide range of opposition
to the war and far from them being regarded as ‘not just COs’ their role should be made central to debunking the was commemoration.
Secondly that there is nothing wrong with anniversary commemorations as such. It gives us a chance to raise the profile of historical events and grab media and popular interest – as was done recently with the commemoration of the Luddites.
Thirdly: it was suggested that even the ‘official’ commemorations might not be as simplisticly celebratory as that – usually WWl is criticised for being a horrible massacre even by much of mainstream ideology, so it’s worth anticipating how that critique will be presented in fundamentally ideological terms – remember, Ramsey MacDonald, well remembered for his “sell-out” in the late 20s/early 30s, was an anti-war pacifist in 1914, though Arthur Henderson of the Labour Party joined Lloyd George’s war government (first ever Labour minister).
Past tense accept these responses in the spirit offered – the post written in haste and anger, and some sweeping generalizations escaped our usual rigorous editorial policy (there’s a POLICY? news to me – Ed.)

Finally, one friend feared that with 16 months to go, and capitalism in such dubious shape, there might well be a current war to oppose…
Perhaps Lenin’s dictum could be slightly adjusted : “Turn the celebrations of the imperialist war into celebrations of a civil war”… (That’s the first – and last – quote from Lenin you’re likely to find on our site…!)

Further suggestions, ideas, proposals are of course welcome. We realize that there’s shedloads of misery and daily attacks coming our way on the present, we’re all busy surviving, and creating opposition to that… but resistance to historical ideological brainwashing, is part and parcel with making a freer future…

Rejoice! Rejoice!




What David Cameron says

quotes redI want a commemoration that captures our national spirit … that, like the Diamond Jubilee celebrated this year, says something about who we are as a people.quotes red close

What we say

quotes redIn a time of international tension we call on writers, actors, musicians, teachers and campaigners to join with us to ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.quotes red close


The Open Letter

Add your name to this open letter by prominent writers, artists, musicians, teachers, campaigners and members of parliament.

quotes red2014 marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the First World War. Far from being a “war to end all wars” or a “victory for democracy”, this was a military disaster and a human catastrophe.

We are disturbed, therefore, to hear that David Cameron plans to spend £55,000,000 on “truly national commemorations” to mark this anniversary. Mr. Cameron has quite inappropriately compared these to the “Diamond Jubilee celebrations” and stated that their aim will be to stress our “national spirit”.

That they will be run at least in part by former generals and ex-defence secretaries reveals just how misconceived these plans are.

Instead we believe it is important to remember that this was a war that was driven by big powers’ competition for influence around the globe, and caused a degree of suffering all too clear in the statistical record of 16 million people dead and 20 million wounded.

In 2014, we and others across the world will be organising cultural, political and educational activities to mark the courage of many involved in the war but also to remember the almost unimaginable devastation caused.

In a time of international tension we call on writers, actors, musicians, teachers and campaigners to join with us to ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.quotes red close

Add your name to the open letter

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