Skip to Content

The Socialist Party and War

 

The threat of war casts a shadow over all who witnessed the last great conflict—civilians as well as combatants. Death and mutilation, the loss of health, the breaking up of homes and the frustration of hopes and plans; years of anguish while the war dragged on, and when it was over a heritage of sorrow which will last for the lives of millions of the present generation. Nearly nine million men killed, with refinements of cruelty unknown in pre-civilised times; 21 million wounded and hundreds of thousands of men and women suffering from permanently impaired health brought about by the aggravated want which war and blockade inflicted upon the working-class. To this appalling list must be added the lies, the hatreds, and the bestiality that are inseparable from modern warfare. In face of the cost there can be few who want war for its own sake. As Mr. Duff Cooper, now Conservative M.P. for the St. George’s Division, has aptly said, “was anyone going to argue that an Englishman or any other human being liked sitting in a waterlogged trench with the prospect of being blown up by a gun fired miles away, and thinking that his home and family might be destroyed by bombs dropped from the sky? Bring him an Englishman who liked that, and he would endeavour to have him certified as insane and placed in a lunatic asylum.”


But if, as is true, men and women of all parties hate war and are sincerely anxious to prevent it, why cannot we all get together for that purpose? What need can there be for a distinctly socialist attitude towards war? The answer is simple and final. The sincere desire for peace shown by the capitalist parties is nullified by their over-riding will to maintain the capitalist system of society. Did they not with equal sincerity talk peace and want peace before 1914? Did they not seek to justify that war by the most hollow of all claims—that it was a war to end war? And do they not now, with protestations of peace on their lips continue to build up still vaster and more destructive forces on land and sea and in. the air? Mr. Hoover, President of the U.S.A., in his speech on Armistice Day, 1929, said :—

    “The men under arms, including active reserves . . .  are almost 30,000,000 in number, or nearly 10,000,000 more than before the Great War.”

Mr. Lloyd George quoted and endorsed President Hoover’s words in a speech in the House of Commons on December 4th, 1929 (see Parliamentary Report of that date), and then said :—

    "The weapons of destruction . . .  in number and in power, are five times more shattering than those which the whole of the armies had when they went into battle on 4th August, 1914."

The Socialist Party of Great Britain has nothing in common with the parties that preach peace but continue to prepare for war.

Our opponents defend their actions with talk of the need for security. We must, they say, guard the integrity and independence of the nation. They differ among themselves only as to the amount and kind of armaments necessary, for security. They argue the respective merits and costs of the battleship, the submarine, aircraft and poison gas. There are some who urge that the nations should agree to gradual and mutual disarmament, and there are even pacifists who claim that the best of all guarantees of security is for this country to disarm completely without waiting for the rest of the world.

 

The Socialist Party does not agree with any of these points of view.

 

For us it is not a question of deciding which is the. best method of achieving security, but a question of deciding whether the security referred to is of any real concern to the working class. We recognise that the capitalists have a real interest at stake. It is in the nature of the capitalist system to perpetuate conflict between the classes and between the nations.

 

Commercial rivalries set capitalist states and empires one against the other. The class which has property and privilege must maintain armed forces to protect their property and to make secure the social system which affords them their privileges. They need armed forces at home for use when occasion arises against striking workers; they need armed forces abroad to seize and to hold territories rich in raw materials, to protect merchant ships on distant trade routes, to guard vital links like the Suez and Panama canals, and to defend India, where they have £1,000 millions invested, and similar sources of profit. It is for this that armed forces are maintained and set in motion. In 1914 the German capitalist class sought to improve their commercial position by gaining control of ports on the Channel and by extending their colonial empire. The British capitalists saw that their interests were threatened and were prepared to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of thousands of men in order that the danger to British capitalism might be averted. The capitalists and their politicians do not consciously seek war as a means of snatching wealth and power from their rivals but they are driven by the forces at work in the capitalist system to follow policies which bring them into conflict with each other. The employing class in each country strives desperately to sell abroad the superabundant wealth that is surplus to the demands of the home market. The governments are called in to further the interests of the national groups of capitalists. First it is the influence of the trade departments exercised in the form of polite representations to foreign governments. But, ultimately, when commercial rivalry has provoked fierce hostility, there will be charges and counter-charges of “dumping," of unfair discrimination under the cover of taxes or laws, of infringements of “spheres of influence,” and various other resented practices that veil the economic war. Then, when the secret threats of the diplomatists fail to be of use, recourse is had to the armed forces, and war is declared. Under the cloak of patriotism and national defence, with the blessing of the church, the press, the labour leaders and the politicians, millions of workers are thrown against each other in battle. They do not know that they are fighting to defend or to extend the interests of the class that lives by robbing them of the fruits of their labour.

 

The answer that the Socialist Party gave in 1914 is the answer we shall give to all capitalist wars. What we said in our Manifesto in 1914 represents our views to-day. It is a document of historical interest and is reproduced below:—

The War, and the Socialist Position. 

  Whereas the capitalists of Europe have quarrelled over the question of the control of .trade routes, and the world’s markets, and are endeavouring to exploit the political ignorance and blind passions of the working class of their respective countries in order to induce the said workers to take up arms in what is solely their masters’ quarrel, and
    Whereas further, the pseudo-Socialists and labour “leaders” of this country, in common with their fellows on the Continent, have again betrayed the working-class position, either through their ignorance of it, their cowardice, or worse, and are assisting the master class in utilising this thieves' quarrel to confuse the minds of the workers and turn their attention from the Class Struggle.
    The Socialist Party of Great Britain seizes the opportunity of re-affirming the Socialist position, which is as follows:     That Society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.
    That in Society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a CLASS WAR, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.
    That the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exist only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers.
    These armed forces, therefore, will only be set in motion to further the interests of the class who control them—the master class—and as the workers' interests are not bound up in the struggle for markets wherein their masters may dispose of the wealth they have stolen from them (the workers), but in the struggle to end the system under which they are robbed, they are not concerned with the present European struggle, which is already known as the “BUSINESS” war, for it is their masters' interests which are involved, and not their own.
    The Socialist Party of Great Britain, pledges itself to keep the issue clear by expounding the CLASS STRUGGLE, and whilst placing on record its abhorrence of this latest manifestation of the callous, sordid, and mercenary nature of the international capitalist class, and declaring that no interests are at stake justifying the shedding of a single drop of working-class blood, enters its emphatic protest against the brutal and bloody butchery of our brothers of this and other lands who are being used as food for cannon abroad while suffering and starvation are the lot of their fellows at home.       Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow-workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism.

The World For The Workers!

The Executive Committee.

August 25th, 1914. 

Wage Workers of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains, you have a world to win!—Marx,

The consequences of the war have fully justified our attitude of opposition to it. The nations which waged war in 1914 were all of them capitalist nations. The Allied group used their victory to further the interests of their capitalists by seizing colonial and other profitable territories that had belonged to the ruling class in the defeated countries, and by imposing heavy financial burdens under the name of reparations. What difference has this made to the working class? Capitalism remains as secure in 1931 as it was in 1914. The working class are still a subject class. Their economic position in the victorious countries is no better than before, and in the defeated countries no worse. In England and in Germany the workers' standard of living is practically at the same level as in 1914. Prices are higher, but wages have increased roughly in the same proportion. It is the German capitalists who have had to pay the reparations out of their profits. The average rate of profit in Germany is now appreciably less than in Great Britain. Germany’s millionaire class almost disappeared as a result of the war. Victory meant victory for the, British, French and American propertied class. Defeat meant defeat for the German propertied class.

 

For the working class in all countries every death, every wound and every hour of suffering was in vain. The war solved no working class problems, and from a working class point of view, was a crime.

 

Let us now compare the attitude of the Socialist Party with the attitude and actions of other parties whose claim it is that they are concerned particularly with the welfare of the workers. Little need be said of the Liberal and Tory parties. They are admittedly prepared to go to war and admittedly uphold capitalism which is the cause of war in the modern world.

 

But what of the Labour Party?

 

In the opening month of the war we were told that:

  "The Head Office of the Party, its entire machinery are to be placed at the disposal of the Government in their recruiting campaign." ("Labour Leader," September 3rd, 1914.)

Three years later the position remained unchanged. Mr. W. F. Purdy, Chairman of the Labour Party Executive, in an interview with a correspondent of the “Manchester Guardian" (7th June, 1917), said:

    “As Chairman of the E.C. of the Labour Party I am not going to meet or sit in conference with the representatives of the enemy countries while we are at war. I mean to carry out the policy of British Labour as laid down by our representative gathering. That policy is to pursue the war to a successful termination, which means to a complete victory over the enemy.”

One prominent member of the Labour Party, Mr. Arthur Henderson, M.P., took an active part in recruiting and was given a post in the cabinet when the Labour Party joined in the war-time coalition government. It was Mr. Henderson who in 1916 urged that the strike leaders be deported from the Clyde area.

 

The Independent Labour Party in 1914 allowed its members to support the war and engage in recruiting. Mr. J. R. MacDonald and the late J. Keir Hardie both took part in the recruiting campaign, although at the same time criticising the past conduct and policy of the Liberal government which was responsible for the entry of this country into the war. I.L.P. members in Parliament were permitted to vote war credits, and throughout the war the I.L.P. remained a constituent part of the Labour Party. 

 

It is important to remember that these organisations have not abandoned the beliefs which in 1914 led them to support the war. At the 1925 Labour Party Conference Mr. Arthur Henderson, on behalf of the Executive Committee, opposed a resolution pressing for disarmament. He said :

    "If France continued in the frame of mind she was now in, had they to overlook the possibilities of defence? They could not afford to ignore this question of defence.”—(Report of Proceedings. Page 232.) .

In 1924 and again in 1930 and 1931, the Labour Government continued to maintain and even in some cases to increase the strength of the armaments of this country.

 

The Labour Government is still prepared in certain eventualities to wage war in defence of British capitalism; if not against the German enemy of 1914, then against Mr. Henderson’s French enemies of 1925, or some other enemies of the future.

 

It must not be forgotten that in each of the two Labour Governments a considerable number of Ministers as well as a clear majority of the Labour Party M.P.’s were members of the I.L.P. so that the latter body cannot escape responsibility for all that has been done in respect of the maintenance of armaments.

 

We would place on record the words of Mr. Arthur Henderson, uttered in reply to the charge that he supported the war. Mr. Henderson said (“Daily Herald,” 10th January, 1929) that “he was not in the least ashamed of his war record.”

 

The Socialist Party of Great Britain is also not ashamed of its war record. But we can add, as Mr. Henderson cannot, that our attitude then and now is in line with the interests of the working class.