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Irish Republicans and revolutionary Socialists have traditionally been opposed to the commemoration of the dead in the “Great War”, WWI. Recently Michelle O’Neill, top Minister in the British colonial political regime in Ireland with the Lord Mayor of Belfast, both members of the Sinn Féin party, laid a wreath at the WWI memorial in Belfast, to the bewilderment of some and the disgust of others. But actually those emotions are misplaced, since the leadership of the Sinn Féin party were never Socialist and are no longer Republican.
The long-held position of Irish Republicans and Socialists that WWI should not be commemorated is however illogical and runs against history. The conflict was a hugely-important event in such areas as military, social conditions and mores, medicine, politics and economics.
The toll of WWI is around 40 million military and civilian casualties of which 20 million died. Of those, around 10 million were civilian dead. How can an event of such historical magnitude not deserve commemoration?
We should certainly commemorate the fact that a small group of monopoly capitalists, aristocracies and monarchies, in the course of an argument about how to divide up the world among themselves, sent millions of ordinary people, mostly workers, to kill one another to settle the argument. People who had no quarrel with one another and nothing to gain from killing one another; people whose real verifiable enemies were those very people who were mobilising and arming them before sending them forth to kill or be killed.
The conditions of the working classes at the time they were thrown into the killing arena should be commemorated. The lies that the war was fought for democracy and freedom of small nations should be exposed. The disciplinary court-martials and executions within the armies should be revealed, along with the treatment of conscientious objectors. The propaganda used for recruitment and to keep the home populations happy should be deconstructed and exposed. The fact that capitalism ends up as imperialism, which in turn causes war, should be made clear to all.
That wars are not alone fought for profits but that huge profits are made in the course of war is a grotesque fact that should become widely known.
All of this was true of WWI and is true (to one extent or another) of the wars caused by imperialism today, whether in Somalia, Western Sahara, Palestine or Ukraine. But now, in addition to the huge death toll of WWI, we have the possibility of the destruction of human cities around the world — and even of ecological disaster — in yet another war.
We should expose the fact that far from encouraging us away from war, WWI commemorations are for the most part about concealing those salient facts and encouraging us to be proud of how our forebears were conned into killing one another. By whipping up reactionary nationalism1, their commemorations make us vulnerable to being conned into fighting further wars, to agree to be sent to other countries to kill or maim people like us in other countries – or to be maimed or killed by them.
Commemorating the truth about imperialist wars past and present mean rejecting the wearing of the Poppy symbol. The Poppy is not about commemorating the dead in wars, as it is sold. This promotional emblem of the British Legion only commemorates the British soldiers who have been killed in wars – it does not commemorate all the soldiers of the colonies (for example Ireland) or the Commonwealth who died in the wars, not to mention all the civilian auxiliaries helping cook, clean, carry, dig, build etc for the British armed forces. The Poppy does not commemorate the dead soldiers of Britain’s allies, for example France, USA or Russia in the case of WWI. It does not commemorate the soldiers or auxiliaries of the hostile states who were killed, which might seem natural, until we ask ourselves why not, if the idea really is just to commemorate the dead soldiers in war. Most tellingly, the Poppy does not commemorate the millions of civilians who have been killed in wars – actually more than the total number of soldiers and a percentage of war deaths that is growing with every war.
The real role of the Poppy is to build social support for the imperialist British armed forces, including helping recruitment — so in other words, the emblem and its publicity is actually helping to build support for future armed conflicts.
Not addressing the nature of imperialist war and just boycotting any idea of commemoration leads to missed opportunities. A few years ago a sculpture of a WW1 British soldier constructed out of scrap metal was installed in Stephen’s Green, a recreational park in Dublin’s city centre. Some Irish Republicans staged a protest around it in which they castigated it being located there in what had been a 1916 Rising battleground. They were correct in the historical reference but was that all that could be said about that war? Would most of the tourists passing by relate to that 1916 reference or would the whole international horror of imperialist war not have engaged them more?
We should indeed commemorate WWI but we should do it in the framework laid out, of exposing what the wars are about, who they benefit, what class contains the main victims – and not just the dead but also the injured, many of them crippled for life.
That is not how the ruling elites commemorate war and it is not how Michelle O’Neill and Tina Black did it. Michelle O’Neill said that she did this symbolic act in order to demonstrate that she is going to be “a First Minister for everyone” – clearly meaning Nationalist and Unionist. Liberals may laud O’Neill for that but one cannot represent national liberation simultaneously with colonialism, republicanism at the same time as loyalism, democracy at the same time as reactionary sectarianism. Making a war wreath green does not change its nature. Sinn Féin will often seem to try to present themselves as all things to different groups of people but essentially they are serving Irish Gombeenism2 in the 26 Counties and English colonialism in the Six.
In addition, workers and lower middle-class people from the Protestant or Unionist community were also killed and maimed in imperialist war. How does concealing the reality of war help those people?
1I use the term in the sense that not all nationalism is reactionary.
2Native Irish foreign-dependent capitalism