The question as to whether or not conscription will, in the near future, become a necessity, appears to be once again very much “in the air.” Lord Roberts, in the course of a recent speech, during which he implied the failure, and foreshadowed the disintegration, of the Territorial force, advocated more strenuously than ever his pet notion of universal military service. In this advocacy he is, of course, acting quite logically —more logically, indeed, than those “lovers of peace” (chiefly to be found among the Liberals and Labourists) who, while upholding and using all their efforts to maintain the present capitalist social system, at the same time deprecate what is, in reality, quite in accordance, morally and politically, with the development of capitalism.
Professor Edward Jenks, in his “Short History of Politics,” points out that the principle which binds together modern social groups is military allegiance. He continues
“In the States which practice conscription, or universal military service, this is very obvious. The most heinous political offence which a Frenchman or German can commit, is attempting to evade military service; or, possibly worse, taking part in military service against his own country. But even in Great Britain, where conscription is not practised, the tie is really the same. It is unquestionable that the Queen,” (this was written in 1900) “through her Ministers, has the right, in case of necessity, to call upon every one of her male subjects to render personal military service; and any British subject, captured fighting against his country, would be liable to suffer death as a traitor.”
To put the matter clearly, the social group known as capitalist society is bound together by the tie of military allegiance. Capitalist society exists, and is allowed to exist, by the will of the majority of the units of which it is composed. Therefore such units should be prepared to do their share in the maintenance of the tie which binds the system together, seeing that they are in favour of the capitalist system of society.
But to those who happen to loathe capitalism, and all its insane and unhealthy institutions, and whose aim is to hasten its downfall in order to raise in its stead what they consider a rational, sane, and healthy system to the Socialist, in fact — the whole question takes another aspect.
The Socialist will ask himself : “What is conscription to me and my class? Will it benefit me or the class to which I belong ? ”
To a man such as Lord Roberts, who has managed to make a fortune and win a title through professional soldiering, military service will, of course, seem all that is desirable. But what the devil is the poor drudge of capitalism, the wage slave, to get out of it? A fortune and a title? Hardly! At what should be the best portion of his life — his early manhood — he would be taken, numbered like a convict or a beast of burden at a cattle show, herded with his fellow beasts in compounds, trained and drilled and bullied and brow-beaten, taught to walk upright and to handle a rifle, taught to shoot sufficiently straight to kill and maim certain of his fellows (whom he has never seen before and with whom he has no quarrel), coming out of the Army at the end of his term with all the virtues of an efficient, non-thinking, non-questioning wage-slave, with all the initiative and all the self-confidence knocked out of him. Truly a delightful prospect!
Lord Roberts and his co-agitators talk glibly of patriotism, of the duty of defending the Empire, of the glory to be obtained in resisting the encroachments of Germany. Let these people who talk so much about patriotism and duty and glory show, however, how the British working man would be any worse off under the rule of William of Germany than he is under George of England (even admitting the almost unthinkable possibility of a German occupation of Great Britain).
As the average member of the working class has no property to defend, no country to call his own, no prospect of ever being in a better position under capitalism than he is in now, why should he fight to maintain the rights of those who have property, who have a stake in the country, who are in a position of opulence?
It is significant to notice how, not only at the present day, but in all history and through all literature, it is always the man who has something to maintain, something to defend, who talks about duty and patriotism, about the honour of the country and the glories of the Empire. Having nothing, what necessity is there for us to fight in order to defend that nothing?
Still, as aforesaid, if the people of Great Britain are so much in love with capitalism, so desirous of upholding the institutions of modern society, it is their obvious duty to defend their little corner of capitalism with all their strength.
We, as Socialists, for our part, are not particularly concerned with conscription one way or the other, except in its aspect as being a phase of capitalist development. With the downfall of capitalism will fall all the institutions of capitalism — militarism included. Instead of wanting to be trained and drilled so that at the word of command we may slaughter and maim certain of our fellows, against whom we have no cause for animosity and who are all in the same social condition of life as we are, we are training and drilling ourselves to be ready for the time when the workers of the world will unite in establishing a sane, healthy, and joyous system of society the system we know as Socialism. Our object is not to destroy life, but to raise it to a plane where it shall have free play for all its activities. Which is the better ideal, ours or the militarists’ ?
When the question is considered, one feels almost sorry for such men as Lord Roberts, whose only aim in life seems to be the organisation of a universal army of professional murderers. What a glorious ideal of what noble human beings! And what a heaven sent system that breeds such men and such ideals!
F. J. Webb