downloadby Don Franks

16,697 New Zealanders were killed and 41,317 were wounded during World War I.  Around another thousand men died within five years of the war’s end, as a result of injuries sustained. The lives of countless other men and women were blighted by the conflict.

The little Wellington street that I live in once housed numerous shell-shocked returned servicemen; poverty, unemployment, and alcoholism was all the reward of their sacrifice.

One hundred years on, New Zealand’s rulers glorify war.

New face of militarism

They glorify war in a style to suit these times.

Today there are no sabre-rattling calls to extend the empire and fight for God, King and Country.

Today, New Zealand troops are called ‘peacekeepers’; they identify targets for radio-controlled weapons more often than charging with bayonets, but they still kill people and are decorated for doing that.

According to a 2014 poll, the most trusted person in New Zealand is Willie Apiata. Lance-corporal Apiata won the Victoria Cross while fighting in Afghanistan, where he saved a wounded soldier under heavy fire.

Then, “having delivered his wounded companion to relative shelter with the remainder of the patrol, Lance Corporal Apiata re-armed himself and rejoined the fight in counter-attack.”

Yes, the guy was brave, far braver than I would expect to be, but his brief from the New Zealand state was to kill citizens of a country with no designs on New Zealand.

Echoes of Willie Apiata ring out every time a TV show or newspaper portrays an overseas-bound soldier embracing family members.

Where the troopers are going matters little, what they’ll do there is kept vague. What’s always highlighted is their devotion to duty; in other words, their unquestioning obedience.

Past prime minister Helen Clark’s 2004 speech on the Unknown Warrior praised the “. . . ordinary New Zealanders who did not have the right to decide the course of events, but who did their duty according to the imperatives of their time.”

Since 1914, New Zealand troops have been dispatched to fight in many lands. Each time, ordinary New Zealanders have had no more right to decide the course of events than our grandparents had.

We stand in the same relation to war as our grandparents did.

Capitalism and war

This is to be expected, because we’re still under the same social system as World War I soldiers.

Capitalism is a system locked into relentless production for profit, and this system dominates the globe. Capitalist competition develops unevenly — some capitalist states grow more quickly than others, and push for a re-division of the world to favour them. This competition between capitalist nations leads to armed invasion of countries to grab resources or to safeguard trade routes and markets and establish spheres of influence and alliances. As in 1914, capitalist competition is the source of modern war.

Might capitalism ever come to operate peacefully?

As WWI began, leading socialist Karl Kautsky thought so, arguing that only some capitalists benefited from war, such as arms manufacturers, who relied on war and the threat of war for their profits.

Kautsky wrote: “There is no economic necessity for the continuation of the great competition in the production of armaments after the close of the present war. At best such a continuation would serve the interests of only a few capitalist groups. On the contrary capitalist industry is threatened by the conflicts between the various governments. Every far-sighted capitalist must call out to his associates: Capitalists of all lands unite!”

Despite Kautsky’s plea, the capitalists continued making war and have done ever since. Even more ruthlessly, with new weapons like napalm, drones and atomic bombs.

How to fight against capitalist war

To end modern war, the capitalist system must be uprooted and destroyed. Therefore, meaningful anti-war activity must be uncompromisingly anti-capitalist activity.

Some say an explicit anti-capitalist message will put people off joining the anti-war movement.

Radical ideas always have to be fought for. The idea of votes for women once “put people off”. A dedicated minority persisted with the struggle, built a movement and women won the vote.

In recent times it’s been fashionable in some sections of the left to campaign for what is already acceptable. This is called “starting from where people are at”.

If activists had taken that tack at the outset of the anti-Vietnam War movement or the anti-apartheid movement they would have built nothing. Both those movements began with a tiny number of individuals taking unpopular arguments out against indifference and hostility. When I came to join those movements they’d already been going for years and won considerable ground, but were still minorities of the population.

I believe we must first find the truth, then seek numbers to support it.

The truth is that the capitalist drive for profits causes war, the truth is that every party in parliament supports capitalism.


It is therefore a waste of time appealing to politicians’ better natures; they are not to be reasoned with. When in government, every party in the house has been only too willing to wage war.

For their own purposes, the authorities happily encourage a range of official ‘peace’ activities.

For example, Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown commended the Peace Heritage Walk, noting: There is a lot of potential to refresh awareness of the walk as another wonderful attraction for Wellington.”

In other words, the thing is not only harmless, it might bring a bit more business into town.

Symbolic ceremonial peace activities do nothing to prevent war. At best, they’re a waste of time, frequently they’re positively harmful to building war resistance. When capitalist politicians parade and pontificate as men and women of peace, people are deceived and demobilised.

What is a better use of our time and energy?

Understanding imperialism

I believe we need to increase our understanding of imperialism, particularly New Zealand imperialism.

That will help us develop clear, convincing anti-capitalist arguments on which to build a strong anti-war movement.

An increased understanding of New Zealand imperialism will also develop our internationalism. Internationalism is crucial.

The only path to peace is unity in action with workers of other lands.

Our enemy is not in Iraq. Our enemy is here, local New Zealand capitalists and their state forces.

A popular activist slogan says: “No war but the class war”.

History challenges us to translate this slogan from an abstract phrase into habitual political activity.

A hundred years ago, as the guns blazed in a world gone mad, Rosa Luxemberg wrote us this legacy:

In this war imperialism has won. Its bloody sword of genocide has brutally tilted the scale toward the abyss of misery.”

The only compensation for all the misery and all the shame would be if we learn from the war how the proletariat can seize mastery of its own destiny and escape the role of the lackey to the ruling classes.

Further reading: Redline articles on Anzac Day and World War I

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