1910s >> 1915 >> no-135-november-1915

Editorial: Conscripts or Volunteers?

Freedom, we are told, is the birthright of an Englishman; but of what Englishman other than the English capitalist? Capitalism, as we know, was inaugurated in the sacred name of freedom. Free competition, free speech, freedom of the Press and freedom of contract wore once holy objects of its worship. And where those have been deposed it has only been to promote a higher freedom—the freedom of the ruling class to do what it likes with those it rules.

The capitalist class has been accused of falling away from the cult of the goddess of Liberty, but a moment’s thought will show this to be more apparent than real. For whose benefit were the graven images of Freedom ever raised up by the burgher class to be worshipped? Never for the advantage of the workers. These have always been excluded as far as possible. The supreme god of which the fair-faced goddess is merely the symbol, and which alone is worshipped with a whole-souled devotion by the capitalist class, is their own recognised material interests, their own narrow class liberty. This, their real deity, is only occasionally identical with the goddess of freedom as recognised by common humanity today. Yet, when it is clearly to their profit to do so, the ruling class never hesitate to do homage. They are, indeed, ever full of a lip service to ideas of liberty which they identify with their interests. What, in fact, is more characteristic of them, or more to their advantage, than the dissemination among the toilers of the idea that capitalism is the embodiment of freedom? Do not they even assert that the worker benefits by the glorious right of freedom of contract? The worker, they say, is under no compulsion to labour for a master. If the terms offered by employers are not good, he need not accept. These are not the days of chattel slavery. Should he honestly prefer to be starved to death with bis family rather than accept bad terms, he is quite free to do so—or rather, we should say, he was free until recently. But even if Orders in Council and Munition Courts now deny this freedom to the worker, it is only being done in the cause of freedom itself. Are we not officially informed that the great war that is the pretext for these restrictions is a War for Freedom? And since the rulers of both Britain and Germany proclaim this from the heights of their wireless stations, it is doubly vouched for by the world-renowned reliability of both German and British official news.

But where British capitalism scores heavily over that of the continent of Europe is in the vital matter of the freedom of military service. Whereas other countries fill the ranks of their fighting forces by the crudest methods of compulsion, Great Britain raises a huge army upon the glorious principles of freedom. Under the voluntary system, an official poster informs us, Britons fight for freedom with the strength of free men. The freedom of contract overcomes all obstacles. Men whose very least desire was to abandon the arts of peace, find themselves, by the judicious operation of liberty, drawn willy- nilly into the maelstrom of military service. Official committees issue appeals, in the name of freedom, to employers urging them to “release for service” men of military age. The free men thus “released,’’ on applying for another job, find themselves confronted with the notice, “Men of military age need not apply.” The result is a great triumph for the voluntary system. Thus is the birthright of an Englishman saved the contamination of compulsion.

But this is not the only factor called in aid of the freedom to enlist. The freedom of speech and the freedom of the Press are carefully manipulated in order to influence eligible men for the good of the ruling class. Awkward facts are made to disappear. Encouraging facts are spread in the sun or manufactured to order. The generosity of the pensions or lack of them provided by a grateful country for its disabled warriors, is not commented on. The prospect of many war-broken “saviours of their country” hiring to sell matches or bananas for a livelihood after the war, is a subject that is taboo. We are even told by Arnold Bennett, in the London “Daily News,” that the Government have instructed newspapers not to publish cases of hardship among discharged soldiers. And it is, of course, obvious that the open discussion of such matters would be a serious interference with the freedom of enlistment.

And what a tribute it is to national courage to find well-to-do men over military age, and even weak women innocent of the hardships of either work or war, among the bitterest denouncers of the Germans and the firmest in their demands for the ruthless prosecution of the war to the very last fit man! Even old men and idle women nurtured in the lap of luxury do not flinch from informing young men what they would do in their place; indeed, their courageous endeavours to force other people to sacrifice themselves are beyond all praise.

The part played by strident women has been of immense service to the cause of militarism. A great and influential meeting of women at Queen’s Hall (boomed by the “Daily Mail”) lifted up its voice as one woman in its demand for immediate conscription for men. The Suffragettes also are doing their bit. None were, before the war, more bitter against man-made government. They showed conclusively that women really ruled the world both in ancient days, and from the cradle upwards in our own times; the only drawback was that tyrannical man would not let her. They burnt churches, slapped burly policemen, harried nervous statesmen. spoilt letters and championed the right of women to blackleg male labour; and in short conducted a bitter sex warfare against mere man. To day, however, their tactics have altered. The sex warfare has taken a new form. The government they once hated is now supported through thick and thin. The country they once endeavoured to destroy is now the object in the preservation of which they deem the utmost male sacrifice to be needful. Despite their change in tactics, however, it does not appear that their attitude toward man has changed. The active males, egged on by challenge to their courage which they have not the pluck to withstand, are being decimated. The dearth of men is opening innumerable avenues of employment to women who, in nearly every case, accept worse conditions and depreciate the proletarian standard of living; all endeavours to maintain this standard being characterised by Suffragettes as attacks on the rights of women. None, indeed, are more unselfishly active than these Suffragettes in urging their competitors, the males, to go away and get shot and leave the women to manage the country.

Private firms, public corporations and authorities all over the country are particularly keen, for economical purposes and to aid voluntary enlistment, in replacing males by cheaper female labour. Even the London County Council is still endeavouring to “release” its few remaining tramwaymen by the employment of women. Its education department is also withholding scholarships and appointments from pupil teachers and others of 18 years and over, until after the war in order to “enable” them to enlist. The railways also are not behind in this despite the semi military nature of their work. In the “Daily Chronicle” of Nov. 2nd the following paragraph appeared:

  The Midland Company has also decided that “all clerks of military age must be spared.” Steps are being taken to ascertain the number of men who come within the category, with a view to their positions being filled by females and men above the requisite age.

The sudden stoppage of much Government work co-incident with the commencement of Lord Derby’s scheme is by no means a negligible factor in the great recruiting boom. The Post Office is bringing increased pressure to bear on enlistable employees, who are, indeed, marked men: and a growing and almost irresistible pressure is being felt by eligible members of the employed class up and down the country. Certainly the difference in the attitude toward the army, of a man in a normal job, and the same man faced with the alternative of enlisting or starving, is directly conducive to the success of voluntary service.
So great is the pressure brought to bear upon the working class in order to make them join the army of their own free will, that some working men are saying that conscription would involve fewer hardships and be more equitable. However this may be, it is certain that the voluntary system is admirably calculated to promote the traditional freedom of members of the capitalist class. The present pressure to enlist falls almost exclusively upon the workers. Only an employed person can be discharged and faced with the alternative of either starving or voluntarily enlisting. The scions of the ruling class completely escape. The workers are compelled to join in overwhelming numbers.
Is it then strange that the master class hesitates to abandon voluntary recruiting in favour of conscription? Voluntaryism guarantees complete liberty to the employing class to enlist or not, as they please; it only acts as compulsion upon the workers. Conscription itself could only with difficulty get more men from the working class, though it might get them more quickly; but the numerous exemptions that it would be necessary to make in each a scheme in order to secure the traditional freedom of the propertied class, might create greater difficulties, or open the eyes and arouse the hostility of the workers. It is, therefore, hardly likely that conscription will be readily resorted to by the powers that be, in view of the manifest advantages to them of the present system. The chief danger to the voluntary system would seem to be the failure of employers, in a desire to avoid sacrificing immediate profits, to discharge all fit men. As has already been seen however, such conduct has been condemned as unpatriotic, and every effort is being made to compel the working class to ensure the success of the voluntary system. As a prominent statesman has said: no sacrifice can be too great when freedom is at stake. And the workers will doubtless be called upon to make ever greater sacrifices in order to preserve the sacred birthright of freedom which is the prerogative of all members of the propertied class. A birthright of freedom, indeed, which exists only by virtue of our birthright of wage-slavery, and which is deliberately built upon, and buttressed by, the hardships and lack of freedom of those who labour.