The Global Challenge of Peace: introducing book 17 in the Studies in Labour History series

Histories of the transition from war to peace at the end of the First World War tend to focus on the role of statesmen and imperial powers. A new book in the Studies in Labour History Series aims to re-examine the year 1919 from below, as its editor, Dr Matt Perry, explains.

The Global Challenge of Peace follows a conference to mark the centenary of the tumultuous year 1919. Conference organisers intended to re-evaluate this moment out of which emerged a new tenuous world order and hoped to challenge the top-heavy view that results from a focus on the Versailles treaty both in the historiography and from a commemorative perspective. In short, conference organisers sought to re-examine 1919 from the standpoint of transnational and global labour history.

With contributions from the entangled perspectives of race, class and gender, the conference considered the subterranean global situation that the statesmen of the imperial powers sought to manage. Rarely in the century was their dominion so keenly contested. If hindsight has smoothed the threshold between war and peace, this volume demonstrates the profundity of the challenge and abiding significance of the social and ideological ferment of that year.

The book is organised into five parts. The first section deals with race, labour and empire. Viewed from below, the white European imperial powers sought to exercise their prerogative at the Paris Peace Conference according to the norms of nineteenth-century diplomacy. Even in Paris, new participants the United States and Japan signalled that the heyday of European ascendancy was over. Outside Paris, the contradictions of the imperialist aims and progressive wartime propaganda, of class lines and colour lines, of women’s mobilisation followed by pressure to return to ‘normal’, of the incompatibility of imperialism and the universal principal of nation burst forth in waves of contestation. The first part of the book illustrates the interplay of these forces with the field of contention at four nodal points: Elaine (Arkansas), Glasgow, Trinidad and the former Russian empire. Highlighting the diversity of experience, the four case studies encompass different forms of contention (or combinations thereof): strikes, mutiny and race riot. In all, race, war veterans, class organisations come together in a potent mix.

The second section turns from events to activists and transnational movements, namely women’s remarkable contributions to the threshold between war and peace, just as their efforts had been indispensable to the war. Sylvia Pankhurst, the Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom as well as a comparison of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and Marie-Louise Puech provide the means to examine how women shaped the transition from war to peace and how this conjuncture transformed the politics and political opportunities of women activists and their organisations.

While world leaders at Versailles sought to shape the peace in their own image, the tumults of 1919, from the former Russian empire to Elaine, Arkansas, challenged this new world order.

The third section explores how contentious politics intensified during 1919 into revolutionary and counter-revolutionary ideas and movements. Here the case studies entail counter-revolutionary loyalism within British (and particularly Ulster) contexts, the Austrian revolution after the collapse of Hapsburg power and the anti-immigrant red scare hysteria in the US focussing on the deportation to the Soviet Union on the Buford (known as the ‘Soviet Ark’) of foreign radicals.

The fourth section of the book emphasises the non-linear, unruly and unpredictable nature of this conjuncture. The contradictory aspirations of Gabriele d’Annunzio’s volunteers at Fiume, the transformation of tertiary education after the war experience in the UK, and the British diplomatic and military missions in the Baltic region demonstrate the peculiar dynamics from below and at the microlevel of political ideas, institutional structures and state formation during 1919.

The final section focuses upon contemporary and subsequent difficulties of making sense of 1919. The apparent ideological compatibility of Lenin and President Wilson for some Italian socialists during 1919 and the multiple meanings of the German Revolution of 1918-19 highlight the representational and interpretative problem that this year posed and continues to pose.

For all the very different subjects and scales of analysis, similar contradictions help to explain all these studies. Most importantly, they shared an intensity that marks each out as exemplars of 1919’s exceptional character. While these episodes should not be taken as fully representative of the year, they illustrate its fault-lines and how these expressed themselves in dramatic complexity. In sum, the case could be made that in terms of patterns of global power, and in matters of race, class and gender, that the unfinished business of 1919 continues to shape our world.

Dr Matt Perry is Reader in Labour History, Newcastle University

The Global Challenge of Peace: 1919 as a Contested Threshold to a New World Order is published by Liverpool University Press. Find out more or buy it now.

See more in the Studies in Labour History book series.