Editorial: Has Conscription Come To Stay?
Ever since honest, open, above-board, avowed, unblushing Conscription took the place of the filthy, taunting, “What will ye lack, Sonny?” “Go or be sacked! ” form of compulsion, the labour leaders whose treachery undermined the position of the workers and made organised resistance to the encroachments of militarism impossible, have been trying to cover up their renegade footsteps, in order that they may escape the accusing finger that sooner or later will mercilessly point out to the outraged working class who the real arch-fraticides of this stupendous shambles really are. One of their devices is to clamour for the immediate removal of that instrument of tyranny “so foreign to the traditions of our country” (to quote their flowery Pekoe), Conscription, when the war is finished.
It is easy to see that these same “leaders” are going to find themselves in a devilish awkward position upon the return of what is euphemistically termed “peace.” They had their hands full of trouble when the war broke out. Time after time they had divided the workers’ forces at the critical moment, and so doing had given victory into the masters’ hands. As a result they were becoming increasingly discredited. No longer could they rely upon the obedience of the rank and file of the organisations which they for so long had bossed; no longer was the orthodox bond of bondage, signed, sealed and given beneath their traitorous hands to the highest bidder (who must always be the masters), assuredly worth the price that was paid for it. Defiance, or even mutiny, was rife, and indeed, a very awkward situation was relieved by the outbreak of the war.
But if they found momentary relief in this world-convulsion, the bloody part they were compelled (as the consequence of the alliance they had long before made with the enemies of their class) to play in it can only result in a compound interest of trouble when “peace” brings their day of judgment and they are called upon to render account of the stewardship they have betrayed.
It is because they know this so well that they are now screaming against Conscription in principle. They know to what uses, other than military, the master class can put the instrument of Conscription which they, the so-called labour leaders, have had such a large share in imposing upon the working class of this country. They know, moreover, that in the terrible times of industrial strife which must follow the war, and at no very distant date, when the masters, writhing under the mountainous taxation that their deeds of butchery will have heaped up on their shoulders, will stretch every nerve to screw more out of their slaves, even to mobilising worker conscripts against themselves, Conscription will be anything but a bed of roses for labour leaders to lie upon. Hence they are anxious to dissociate themselves from the idea before it becomes impossibly unfashionable. For they are well aware that, in spite of the fact that they are the masters’ hirelings’ and henchmen, it is upon the workers they depend in the final analysis—the masters will have no use for them when they present themselves alone and on their own feet; pelf and place are only their reward when they call for them mounted on the backs of mokes, bridled and saddled and blinkered, and warranted thoroughly broken to harness, and quiet to ride or drive.
But unless we are a long way out in our reckoning (a concession, this, to our reluctance to don the prophet’s mantle), Conscription has come to stay. The present war has placed that question beyond the pale of party politics, at least as far as the orthodox political parties are concerned. It is patent to all now that militarism is essential to the support of capitalism. The retreat from Mons, when so little stood between the German army and a decisive victory, vindicated Lord Roberts in all capitalist eyes, and the history of the first eighteen months of the war, when success was never a great way out of the reach of the German generals, will provide the argument that will confound the labour leaders at every turn. Once having subscribed to the necessity for Conscription they can have no logically firm ground on which to base any resistance to compulsory military service as a normal feature of life in Great Britain. All the arguments are against them.
If it was necessary to resort to Conscription in view of the situation which faced our rulers in the year of grace 1916—and the labour leaders in assenting to it confessed that it was— then those who held that view will be finally forced to admit that the necessity is a constant accompaniment of capitalism. So long as the working class are the instruments of enrichment for those who can exploit them, so long will there be wars to decide who shall control their labours and appropriate their surplus. Moreover, since the present conflict has emphasised the fact that the first shock of battle may very well be decisive, the capitalist must more than ever act upon the wise old saying from the Scriptures concerning the advisability of “getting your wack in fust.”
The idea of any general disarmament is already abandoned. In the early stages of the war our statesmen regaled us regularly with the figures of the immense saving they were going , to effect in naval expenditure as the result of smashing the “German menace,” but you never hear it mentioned now. No, Uncle Sam put the tin hat on that delicate dove from the realms of peace when be voted the dollars to make his the second navy in the world, and started his campaign of “preparedness” to fight for the world’s markets — in which, of course, Canada is included. This cute gentleman does not intend to rely upon angels should ever a “ Mons” come within the range of his experiences.
Conscription has come to stay. From the capitalist point of view everything calls for it. As the development of production results on the one hand in the vast increase of surplus products which cannot be consumed at home, and on the other hand in a relative contraction of the markets abroad, which constitute the only outlet for them, the capitalist need to struggle for those markets becomes more urgent, more vital, and more than ever a struggle of military forces. In addition to this, the development of new methods of attack, both submarine and aerial, having rendered a gigantic navy something less of a safeguard against invasion than it used to be, has given Conscription additional importance. The modern tendency of the larger nations to pool their interests and the smaller to follow the stronger, is another among several obvious arguments for compulsory service. But a greater reason than all is provided in the disintegration of the Trade Union position and the employment of women labour. Under the plea of shortage of labour an attempt will probably be made to retain the women in the fields of labour they are now engaged in, and to set the sexes against each other in the endeavour to prevent the workers regaining the labour conditions of pre-war days. In this struggle military control over the workers will help the masters by enabling them to keep male workers off the markets and in other obvious ways.