On the important questions of war and peace
A sovereignty based on empire building
They mince the flesh of murdered men,
While swinish merchants, snout in trough,
Drink all the bloody profits off!
– In Wartime, Stephan G. Stephansson, 1916
July 28 marks the centenary of the start of the First World War. One hundred years ago, on this day, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia followed in declaring war on Austria-Hungary, and within six days, Britain, France and Germany were officially at war. Canada as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire was automatically at war when Britain declared it.
World War One was a slaughter of unprecedented proportions which took place from 1914 to 1918. As Lenin pointed out, it was fought between two coalitions of the imperialist bourgeoisie for the partition of the world, for the division of the booty, and for the strangulation of small and weak nations. He called it an enormous crime by an imperialist, violent, predatory, reactionary bourgeoisie. Such a war, for the partition of the colonies and the division of the spoils of the capitalists, “would involve a complete rupture with the latest achievements of civilization and culture,” he said. He pointed out that “it might, and inevitably would, undermine the very foundations of human society because, for the first time in history, the most powerful achievements of technology were applied on such a scale, so destructively and with such energy, for the extirpation of millions of human lives. When all productive forces are being thus devoted to the service of war, we see that the most gloomy prophecies are being fulfilled and that more and more countries are falling prey to retrogression, starvation and a complete decline of productive forces.” The war, he said, would result in the domination of the working class or in the creation of the conditions which would render its domination indispensable. He himself led the Russian masses, starving and oppressed, to overthrow the Czar and his empire and establish the world’s first socialist state. This worker’s state put an end to all imperialist arrangements and interrelations in which Russia was embroiled and took Russia out of the war.
Despite this character of World War One, official Canadian historiography cites it, and the Battle of Vimy Ridge in particular, as the defining moment when Canada “came of age.” By this it is meant that as a result of its sacrifice, Canada gained the right to become an independent state. Bourgeois historians point to the Statute of Westminster that in 1931 granted Canada sovereignty over external affairs, such that when the Second World War broke out, it was by decision of the Canadian Parliament that Canada declared war on the Axis powers and sent troops overseas.
Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is on a mission to distort Canada’s history. His rendering covers up that World War One was not a war for freedom, democracy or rights and that Canadians do not want Canada to be a militarist nation. Harper also presents the sacrifice of Canada’s soldiers as made for causes which they did not in fact espouse.
When the last known Canadian First World War veteran, John Babcock, died in 2010, Harper took the opportunity to promote this version of history, stating that the First World War “marked our coming of age as a nation” and that veterans “paid dearly for the freedom that we and our children enjoy every day.”
“Canada mourns the passing of the generation that asserted our independence on the world stage and established our international reputation as an unwavering champion of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law,” he stated.
On Canada Day this year Harper praised the Canadian military for representing Canadian values, which he describes as “working hard, doing what’s right, and determination to be our best.” He added: “The members of our military have always been willing to give their lives to protect our freedom, promote our values and pursue peace.” He also mentioned three “milestones” occurring this year: the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, and the end of Canada’s “military mission” in Afghanistan. Depriving them of all context, he seeks to create a link among these three events – Canada’s defence of the British Empire, the fight against fascism in the Second World War, and Canada’s participation in the U.S-led war of aggression in Afghanistan.
These comments lay bare for all to see the imperialist outlook in which the ruling circles are hopelessly mired to this day. For them, nationhood is not an inherent quality based on a common language, shared territory, history and psychology but a privilege to be bestowed as the imperial power sees fit on those it deems worthy. Sovereignty, similarly, is not the inherent right to self-determination, but instead a privilege which is earned.
In this sense, they have not settled scores with the thinking of their predecessors from the time of the Boer War through to the First World War, who thought that Canada, as well as the “civilized” dominions of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, should become junior partners with Britain in administering the Empire and paying for its defence.
In no sense can the First World War be seen as a battle for democracy, freedom, human rights and the rule of law. The inhabitants of Britain’s vast empire were for the most part subjects of the Crown sent to war to slaughter their fellow workers from the “other wise.” In Canada at that time, even the right to vote did not extend to the majority of the population. Although women would be successful in affirming their right to vote soon after the war, people of indigenous origin could only achieve citizenship if they agreed to renounce their inherent and treaty rights – a policy which was not reversed for another almost fifty years.
At the time of World War One, the people of Ireland were waging a determined fight for an independent republic. India, the jewel in the Empire’s crown, would see massacre after massacre as the people fought for the right to determine their own future.
The War was a terrible slaughter of the working peoples of the combatant countries which wrought asunder the Czarist Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and, in Canada, ended the euphoria of belonging to the British Empire as well.
The end of the war saw Canadian forces along with troops from ten other countries, instigated by Britain and France, invade Soviet Russia in a vain attempt to maintain the privileges of the Czarist establishment negated by the establishment of the world’s first anti-war government. Moreover, the war was used as a pretext in Canada to suppress organized labour and revolutionary politics. The War Measures Act remained in effect for over a year after the end of the war and was used against organizers of the Winnipeg General Strike.
Canada’s young men were sent to their slaughter in the service of the British Empire while the Canadian ruling circles clamoured for recognition so they too could share in the spoils of war. So too today, Harper, on behalf of the monopoly capitalists who have established an imperialist United States of North American monopolies, seeks to position Canada within the new arrangements to benefit from the spoils of war. This is compounded by Harper’s own anti-communist Christian Zionist fundamentalist religious beliefs, leading to not only unprincipled but also extremist support for Israel and zealous service to U.S. interests in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Libya and all over the world, from Europe, to Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.
The vision of sovereignty espoused by Harper and company comes out of a thoroughly morbid world view in which it is through blood sacrifice in the service of an imperial power that Canada proves its worthiness as a nation which is both capable and trustworthy when it comes to exercising what it calls sovereignty. What kind of sovereignty is it? The nation is sovereign so long as it accepts the imperial mission and its 19th century “white man’s burden,” expanding the empire, sending scores of young men to die in the trenches, subjugating “less civilized” nations striving for their independence, and using violence at home to maintain the privilege of capital over the working class and to deny First Nations their rights!
Today’s neo-liberal ruling class is bent on annexing Canada to U.S. imperialism’s war machine as it tramples on the sovereignty of nations and peoples around the world. It has established a war government to achieve these ends and puts all the resources of Canada at the disposal of this war aim. Canada needs an anti-war government which renounces the use of force to settle conflicts, upholds the international rule of law and the sacred cause of peaceful coexistence and equality amongst nations big and small. It is urgent that on the occasion of the commemorations of World War One Canadians speak up against the falsifiers of history and all disinformation which portrays the murderous cause of the U.S, imperialists and Israeli Zionists in peaceful garb so as to embroil Canada’s soldiers in committing crimes against humanity. Those who do such things in the name of peace, democracy and human rights are scum of the earth which deserve our utter contempt.