1920s >> 1929 >> no-296-april-1929

The Socialist Party and National Defence

Do We Want a Navy?
In the Morning Post (February 25th), the late Right Hon. Stephen Walsh, M.P., wrote an article under the title “Labour Party and National Defence." In it he explained the attitude of a Labour Government to questions affecting the organisation and use of the Army, Navy and Air Force. As he was Secretary for War in the Labour Government, he spoke with authority and knowledge, and as he was an enthusiastic supporter of the war in 1914, and of conscription, and an avowed believer in the need to maintain the British Empire, it is not surprising that his views received ungrudging approval from the editor of the Morning Post. It is, of course, true that not all of Mr. Walsh’s Labour colleagues were so boldly jingo during the war, nor so unrepentantly imperialistic now. But on the fundamental problem of national defence, Mr. Walsh could speak for his party, and his views would be endorsed by practically all the influential groups in it, from J. H. Thomas to the I.L.P.

Mr. Walsh’s words are that the Army, Navy and Air Force are required in order that “the British citizen . . may pursue his daily avocation in security.’' This is a statement acceptable by Tories, Liberals, and the Labour Party alike. It is not accepted by the Socialist Party.

Who is the “British citizen” and what is his “daily avocation”?

To come straight to the point, a point obscured by Mr. Walsh’s use of undefined terms like “the nation,” “our country,” etc., British citizens and, in fact the citizens of all the capitalistic world, consist of two main classes. On the one side there are the propertied few, who live on property incomes, without the need to work for their living. On the other side are the great majority who are propertyless and are compelled to sell their working power for wages or salaries, to the propertied class. The one class has property to lose, and a privileged position to lose, wealth and security to lose. The other class count themselves fortunate only in being able to find employment, and life even then is arduous and insecure. The Capitalist class, in short, have something worth defending, and for its defence they maintain, and will maintain, whatever armed forces they think necessary. Non-resistance to an attack by other capitalist governments, or defeat in war, means to them the loss of something material. Thus defeat in the Great War, the subsequent imposition of indemnities, the loss of colonies, meant the extraction of wealth from the pockets of the German capitalists— the only class who could pay—and the loss of opportunities for lucrative colonial investment. The burden of defeat has not, in fact, fallen on the German workers. The employers in defeated Germany can afford to depress the standard of living of their employees below efficiency level, no more, and no less, than can employers in victorious Britain.

The capitalist needs efficiency in his wage-slaves for the production of profit, just as the farmer needs well-fed horses and cattle. And the extent to which the German workers can, by organisation and otherwise, secure standards over and above the level required to make them efficient wealth-producers, is not importantly affected by the defeat or victory of their employers in a war with foreign capitalist states. It is conditioned by the forces of the capitalist system itself, and by the political needs of the ruling class. In times when their position is endangered from abroad, rather than in the piping times of peace, the ruling class are most willing to give concessions to their wage-slaves.

The war left the position of the German working-class and the condition of the British working-class just what it was before 1914. Both countries in 1914 were capitalist countries, governed by and for the capitalist class. The same is true in 1919 and 1929, with this difference, that whereas the British capitalists are wealthier than ever, their German colleagues have had to pay the price of military defeat.

Figures issued by German official sources disclose something of the extent of the loss of Germany’s propertied class. (See “Observer,” March 17th.) In 1914, there were 15,549 persons with fortunes of one million marks or over; now there are only 2,235, and owners of more than £500,000 have decreased from 229 to 33.

Mr. Walsh wrote of carrying on our “daily avocation in security.” We can now give more precise meaning to the phrase. The “daily avocation” of the capitalist class is the extraction of profit from the exploitation of the working-class, by whose labour wealth is produced.

 
German capitalists and British capitalists need armed forces to protect their privileged position, and these armed forces are intended to be used not only in war with foreign states, but also against members of the working-class who rebel against the system, whether individually or collectively. This we see in times of industrial conflict, strikes, lock-outs, etc.
 
Members of the working-class, on the other hand, do not enjoy the possession of battleships and howitzers, poison-gas, and aeroplanes to enable them to pursue their “daily avocation in security,” because the threat to them comes not from foreign capitalists in particular, but from the capitalist class in general. The ruling class in Germany in 1914 did not construct great armaments at enormous cost in order to disturb the normal pre-war army of British unemployed in their “daily avocation” of looking for a job; nor to rob the workers o( their slums, nor to interfere with the activities of those British workers who were fortunate enough to have employment. The object of the capitalist class in general is to exploit the working class. When capitalist states quarrel, the object of the quarrel and the prize for the victor is a re-division of the wealth of which the working-class are, under capitalism, normally robbed. Armaments exist to give the capitalists security. The position of the workers is as secure or insecure in defeat as in victory. The workers have nothing to defend. National Defence is a purely capitalist question. Not national defence, but the overthrow of capitalism is the object of the Socialist Party.
 
Edgar Hardcastle