Even less subtle is Paxman's interview in the second episode with two contemporary Clydeside unionists. When these men express their admiration for the Glasgow shipbuilders who struck against their profiteering owners during the war, Paxman responds by jovially dismissing the workers as 'difficult buggers'. In a similar vein, Paxman asks the relative of a conscientious objector who refused conscription whether such men were not 'just being awkward'. This is psychologism as historiography. Just as Paxman, in a recent interview, regarded Russell Brand's rejection of bourgeois electoral politics as an expression of apathy ('you can't even be arsed to vote'), he regards those who objected to war on principle as having an attitude problem. Clearly, these men needed to buck up their ideas. Indeed, the list of those too dense or perverse to get behind the war effort includes such irredeemable dunderheads as Bertrand Russell, Eugene Debs, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, all of whom were jailed for their opposition; what a bunch of losers!
It is in summing up his own attitude towards the 'conchies' that Paxman makes explicit his opinion about the war in a direct address to camera. Describing 'absolutist' objectors as 'cranks', he emphasizes that the war 'had to be fought' to save Europe from becoming a gigantic German colony. Yet the moral force of this argument would be easier to accept if Britain in 1914 had not presided over the most extensive empire in the world - a feat achieved by an unparalleled dedication to deadly force. But Paxo does not register Britain's history of colonial violence; he even opines that military conscription was a tough sell in Britain, since it contradicted the country's 'respect for individual freedoms'; these were, presumably, the freedoms that Britain was safeguarding through its pre-war terrorisation - including rape, torture and murder - of India, China and South Africa.
If the working-class perspective on the war is absent from Paxman's own commentary, it a structuring absence: Paxman often seems to be arguing against the anti-war position he knows many of his viewers will share. What else could people do, he asks exasperatedly, except join the 'war effort'? This is a rhetorical question, no doubt, but it is one to which Lenin had a fairly convincing answer: the working class had to turn the imperialist war into a class war by overthrowing the butchers who had led their friends and family members to the slaughter. And this is precisely what workers attempted to do, with tragically limited success, in Russia and Germany at the end of the conflict.
One might wonder whether there is any real reason to worry about how the First World War is being spun in the media. James Heartfield writes in a recent article on the subject:
"Those arguing over the First World War will find out soon enough that there is neither the opportunity nor the danger that there will be an upsurge of nationalistic identification with the British war effort. The depleting forces of popular militarism are clear for all to see."
I'm not sure about this. Certainly, a third world war is not immediately on the horizon - and even if it were, it would likely be fought with nuclear weapons, conveniently dispensing with the need for a mass mobilisation of brainwashed, jingoistic conscripts, even if these could be created. Nevertheless, programmes like Paxman's - together with popular 'militainment' documentaries and dramas on television and campaigns such as Help for Heroes - have the general effect of instilling a sense of nationalism and rationalising the horrors of war in ways that serve to justify current imperialist adventures. For this reason, they must be clearly exposed for what they are: nationalist and militarist state propaganda.