1920s >> 1923 >> no-229-september-1923

War — the Socialist Position

A Conservative M.P., writing to the Daily Herald a few weeks ago, remarked that while his Party had always been friendly to France, the Liberals and the Socialists have always been pro-German. Both statements are inaccurate. The Conservatives, if they have been consistently anything, have been friendly to the French capitalist class. They have certainly never helped the French workers to throw off capitalist rule. On the other hand, the Liberals and the present wearers of the mantle of dead Liberalism—the Labour Party—in line with the interests they represented, have tended rather to favour other sections of the ruling class.

We Socialists, however, have always and everywhere been pro-working class and nothing else.

We are internationalists, and our slogan is “The World for the Workers”; not for the British or for the white races, but simply for the workers.

This is because we see that the problems which worry us are the problems which worry all of the workers whatever differences of nationality or colour there may be between those in one continent and those in another. Although our rulers may quarrel among themselves and wish to drag us into their wars, there is something which binds them together against us and us against them. They are the owners and controllers of our means of life. Whether we plough wheat-lands in Norfolk or the Argentine, sow rice in India, load ships or stoke them, work in steel mills or cotton factories, drive trains or motors, or work in offices in the new world or the old, we are all subject to one uniform circumstance. We may not use this vast machinery for producing wealth without the permission, and on the terms of the owners. You may not like, the word, but you cannot escape the fact that we are slaves to the people who at present own these things. We have to yield up to them as rent, interest, or profit a large part of the wealth we have produced. We yield it, not because they work, or direct, or do any useful service, but merely because they own.

The working class does not own the natural resources of wealth, yet within its ranks are all those who perform the essential services which turn that natural wealth to good account. Our fight, then, is against the owning, but no longer useful, class; and it is a fight which crosses national boundaries. We are not sentimentalists, and we do not waste ourselves in pious enthusiasm about the brotherhood of the human race; but the Paris Commune and the Bolshevik upheaval teach us, if teaching is needed, that the capitalist class will act as one wherever the need arises to crush any sectional revolt. The emotional warmth of Biblical pacifism may have been a useful inspiration to the Free Traders of the nineteenth century who were looking for markets for the products of English industry, but it is as rotten a basis for international working-class action as is hating blindly the members of the ruling class, which passes for Socialism in certain circles.

Our internationalism rests on a firmer foundation—the sure knowledge that national sections of the working class stand or fall together. The development of capitalist trade has made the world one huge market of which no part can now stand isolated. Purchasers buy in the cheapest market, not only goods, but also labour-power. Producers must produce for one market also. Russian peasants, Canadian prairie farmers, and English corn growers all must produce an article which is offered for sale on the same market. Workers have tried, and may still try, to stand in with their own rulers in raising barriers against the rest of the world. Facts will, however, be too strong for them. The Australian and Canadian Labour Parties may urge the exclusion of coloured workers in order to protect the white standard of living, and they may succeed in keeping them out while the capitalists for political reasons favour this. But the Australian standard of living falls just the same. Cheap labour in China is just as effective in undermining the white standard as it would be in Australia itself. South African white workers who chose to fight their employers and the coloured workers as well, instead of organising the latter, suffered a disastrous defeat. Our own Labour Party may demand that no Chinese sailors shall be employed on British ships west of Suez, but even should this become law, it will not protect English sailors against the cheaper transport of foreign shipowners, and British shipowners might then elect to register under foreign flags.


The American Government has put increasing restrictions year by year on immigration from low-paid European countries, but the American standard of living has fallen, in spite of this, by 25 per cent. in the last 21 years. The powerful owners of the steel industry have fought hard against these restrictions because they had need of thousands of unskilled labourers and they knew that it is easier to keep men disorganised who do not speak each other’s language; but other capitalist forces, backed by misguided English-speaking workers, proved stronger still. Bankers and financial corporations with capital to invest were not tied to American soil. They can, and do, engage in the exploitation of this cheaper labour in its home country. The American worker has succeeded in barring foreign members of his own class, but he has suffered in just the same way as he would have suffered from the direct competition for jobs in U.S.A. itself.
This is sufficient illustration of the necessity for the workers to organise and act on class lines in the task of maintaining their present standards, but there is the further problem presented by war between nations. Let us consider how war arises.


We can first reject as irrelevant the foolish Jingo notion that human nature is essentially warlike, and the equally foolish pacifist notion that it is peacefully inclined. Man’s nature is just what conditions make it, and there are no naturally militarist races. In times when, and places where, geographical, climatic, or historical conditions put a nation in the position of having to fight for its existence, that nation will inevitably attempt to cultivate the required fighting qualities. If it fails it will become a subject race, and may or may not continue the struggle for independence. If it wins so overwhelmingly that all danger is removed and there exists no further incentive to warfare, then the lesson of history is that the military prowess will decline. As succeeding waves of Barbarians swept westwards over the outlying parts of the Roman Empire, and finally over the Empire itself, invariably each body of warrior tribes settled under the influence of the defeated civilisation and became themselves the helpless victims of new onslaughts. What better illustration could be given than that of England’s own history ?


Modern wars have their cause ultimately in economic rivalries, and are the unavoidable accompaniment of decaying capitalist civilisation. It is not suggested that tradition, religious beliefs, and racial hostility do not play their part, but these tend more and more to become mere auxiliaries to the main forces—means to the ends of our politicians, and excuses rather than causes.


While individual competition gives way rapidly to trusts and combines, the competition of national groups grows ever fiercer and more vital to the existence of capitalist States. Sources of raw materials, coal and iron, cotton and oil; means of transport and communication; and markets for finished products—these are the things about which wars are waged to-day. Great Britain did not want a square inch of territory, but she came out of the war with 1,500,000 square miles rich in minerals and of great strategic value. France wanted security and the return of her beloved children in Alsace-Lorraine (whom, by the way, she gave to Germany in 187l in return for assistance in murdering some 20,000 of her other beloved children in rebellious Paris), but she is much more interested in the coal and iron industries of the Saar and Ruhr valleys. Germany and Poland are splitting hairs about the nationality of the Silesians, but everyone knows it is coal, and not people, that they wish to stamp as German or Polish.


We must concede, too, that there is always the possibility of crises in which the solution of these economic problems by the capitalists will be by the appeal to arms. The capitalist world is a world of buying and selling, dedicated to Lord Trade Almighty, and only those who have access to cheap raw materials and security for disposing of their products can hope to survive.


War therefore may come at any time unless the workers abolish capitalism, but if it comes, what should they do?


The Labour Party has given an answer—one which is in keeping with its disgraceful record of persistent treachery to the working class. Before 1914 it helped its Liberal allies to prepare the army and navy for war. In 1914 it lent its aid and the name of Socialism to the task of persuading and dragooning you into the army of the capitalist State to defend their class interests. Since the war it has barely finished advocating “making Germany pay” and “making Russia pay,” when it now takes up the new capitalist cry of making France pay, and gives its endorsement in your name to Baldwin’s foreign policy. It defended its 1914 treachery by denouncing its German pseudo-Socialist counterparts for voting war credits, yet never before, during, or since the war has the Labour Party made the stand of voting directly against naval, military, or air force estimates in the House of Commons. At its Annual Conference, 1923, it turned down by 2,924,000 votes to 808,000 (Daily Herald, June 30th), a motion instructing its members to do so. It would, as Mr. Brownlie said, “embarrass candidates at future elections,” and it would put his members out of work who were engaged in battleship building. (He forgot to mention that the next war, being largely on the civilian population, would be good for undertakers.) Mr. Henderson settled the matter by saying it was “absurd,” and that we must have means of defence against France. The S.D.F., more candid in its willingness to help our masters out of their difficulties, decided at their Conference to revive their old demand for a conscript citizen army for “defence only” (Daily Herald, August 7th, 1923).


That last is at the kernel of the whole matter. Defending what, or defending whom? What have you got that needs defending against France? Will the French capitalists take away the million or so houses that the capitalist system cannot build for you, or the hutches in which most of you live? Will they take away the 25s. a week that Norfolk labourers are starving on, or the dole from the unemployed?


No. As workers you have nothing to defend except you’ lives, and war merely means the exchange of the half-life of capitalist industrialism for nearly certain death. The French or the Germans or the Japs can only take away one brand of slavery and give you another in exchange, as like it as makes no odds. Do you think they care a damn about you or your few sticks of furniture? It is your labour-power they are interested in, and they will employ you or leave you unemployed just as your present masters do. If it pays them to do so, they will give you a few illusory plums like old age pensions or nationalisation, and if it does not pay them, they will not do so. Does the British or any other Government ever act on a different plane from this?


If you had anything in the country you call yours, what makes you emigrate by the hundred thousand? You are workers, and you live when and where you can get a job. Whether the employer is a Jew or a Gentile, white or black, French or British, the Postmaster-General or a Labour Government, does not matter one jot. They will employ you as they think fit, and they will, if you kick or lay hands on capitalist property, use their armed forces to shoot you down.


Those armed forces are used in peace or war to protect something which you as workers do not possess—that is, property. To protect it against you! The French capitalist class may, at no distant date, decide to go to war with their dearly beloved late allies, in order to filch some of their possessions. If they do, let them. As workers you have before you one remedy only; sometime, sooner or later, you will be compelled by the pressure of economic forces to set yourselves to this remedy. You will have to decide to seize from the capitalist class the means of producing wealth in the use of which they no longer take part, and use it as common property for the satisfaction of the needs of society. Until you do that, all your struggles will be in vain. If in the meantime one section of the capitalist class, the section which is primarily interested in exploiting you, asks you to defend its wealth against another section, act in accordance with the interests of your class, and let them fight their own battles.


Join us in our struggle for Socialism against them and their apologists and defenders.


Edgar Hardcastle