The puzzle of labor’s support for The Great War (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 9)

After spending most of the first third of the course knee-deep in the diplomacy and military strategy that would touch off the war, we switched course—a bit—and looked into another puzzle: the apparent willingness of socialist, workers’, and labor parties (adamantly opposed in principle to war) to support the war, whether by voting to fund it or accepting positions in national unity governments. Were they sellouts, as some of their more extreme ideological brethren claimed? Or were they simply nationalists first, when all the chips were down?

As you might guess, we developed a rather different answer. In doing so, we introduced the notion of sequential rationality into our game-theoretic toolkit, allowing the class to think about the problem from the perspective of state-society bargaining. Where we’d boiled things down to normal-form games in the past, now our goal is to think harder about sequential moves, the credibility of threats and promises, and how the anticipation of threats alters behavior in the present.* The games likely won’t need to get more complicated, and we’ll still rely on the normal form for quite a bit to retain some consistency, but the extensive form game (and stealth applications of subgame perfect equilibrium) will pop up from time to time.

As to today’s content, we noted that, typically, the more the government needs from society, the more it must yield in terms of rights, privileges, and power, because society can threaten to withhold what the government needs. In 1914, appearance of a true “people’s war” that would mobilize virtually all of society—the soldiers on the battlefield and the industrial laborers that would supply them—required a level of concession to labor that had heretofore been unnecessary, but also one that some labor leaders were more eager to accept than we might expect. Specifically, moderate socialists appeared to see an opportunity to win some long-term policy influence, because the genie of modern industrial war, with its voracious need for manpower both at and behind the front, wasn’t likely to disappear any time soon. Get them in the government, with their ability to bring along the industrial masses, and they were likely to remain a force to be reckoned with—and, arguably, that came to pass.

So, in the end, were the socialists that supported the war sellouts? Were they nationalists? Some of them, maybe (and it’s probably possible to be all three). But the rationale for accepting political concessions from a government that needs your constituents and will likely continue to need them for the future is a savvier, more strategically-minded move than either of the more common stories suggests.

* It also involved an example wherein I would demand a cup of coffee on pain of detonating a grenade. Not sure, exactly, how incredible the students found that.


One thought on “The puzzle of labor’s support for The Great War (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 9)

  1. Pingback: Fighting “unwinnable” wars (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 10) | The Wolf Den

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