1930s >> 1936 >> no-384-august-1936
Letter: Socialists and War
To the Editor, Socialist Standard.
Although I have read many Socialist Standards, I am still not at all clear regarding your view of war and armaments. Every sane person must be opposed to war. But as to arming. Speaking from where we stand, British Soil, do you advocate complete disarmament and therefore open for any other power to control this land; or while countries all over the world are piling up arms— for defence of course—do you favour some measure of arming by Britain, and if so, to what extent? In a nutshell, I do not care whether it is called arming for defence or offence, do you advocate Britain disarming as things are now on the Continent, or not? Hoping you can help.
Our correspondent’s letter, in its first paragraph, contains the statement “every sane person must be opposed to war.” This contains only enough of the truth to be very misleading. If we clear up the error in it we shall have gone far to explain the Socialist attitude towards war. The statement, “Every sane person must be opposed to war,” contains as much truth as the statement, “Every sane person must be opposed to slums, undernourishment, and excessive work under conditions dangerous to health.” Every sane person is opposed to war-horrors and to exploitation as regards himself; but when it comes to protecting the interest of one class by imposing these things on other people then both statements are transparently false. If the capitalist class have to choose between giving up their wealth and privilege and freeing the working class from poverty, inhuman exploitation and degrading conditions of life, the capitalist class, as a whole, plump solidly for retaining the misery of the working class. Threatened by a challenge to their position, they will without hesitation set in motion all the machinery of law and force, prisons, policemen’s batons, concentration camps, bullet, bayonet and aerial bomb against the men and women of their own nation. They will calmly starve a million miners and their families into submission as in 1926. There is almost nothing they will not do.
Transfer that from the home to the battlefield—to the arena of international conflict. Threatened by the greed of rival exploiters in foreign countries the capitalist class will drown the world in four years of blood and slaughter. They will destroy human lives by the million, rather than give up their property, their right to exploit the workers, to the capitalists of a rival power.
In short, as far as the capitalists are concerned, they have something to lose which is of the utmost value. They will go to the utmost limit to keep what they have.
What of the workers? They have almost nothing to lose, except their lives and their health, and these they lose in war: not in the outcome of war, but in war itself, whatever the outcome. The working class have no interest at stake which warrants their supporting war. Whatever strength they have to influence the issue of war and peace should be thrown against war, no matter what the circumstances of the particular conflict may be. The question put by war-makers, “Are you in favour of peace at any price?” has no meaning to a worker who understands his class position. The price of losing a war or of surrendering without waging war is not paid by the working class, but by the capitalist class. What difference does it make to the working class whether the British or the German or the American ruling class own the colonial lands and dominate the world’s trade and shipping? Will they be poor, or suffer from unemployment? Indeed they will, for they do already everywhere.
The workers then should throw their weight against war. What does this mean in practice? As the working class have not yet placed themselves in control of the machinery of government, but continue at each election to place the capitalists in control, the latter are in a position to decide when, where and why the armed forces shall be set in motion, and also the amount and nature of the armed forces. The question the capitalists have to consider when deciding whether or not to wage war over any particular international conflict is the probable consequences to themselves. These include the military probabilities, personal danger (from air-raids, etc.), and also the effect war will have on the workers. If the working class, or any large body of them, are hostile to the war the capitalists have to consider how to overcome that hostility and what will be the result if they should fail to do so. To the extent that the workers in any country are alive to their interests and opposed to war the capitalists will be inclined to make some concession to the enemy Government, rather than face war. A majority of workers will, however, never be in favour of peace against capitalist wishes while they (the workers) are prepared to support capitalist government, because they will always be ready to accept capitalist reasons for waging a particular war.
The answer to the specific questions put by our correspondent are therefore as follows: —
The S.P.G.B., having no control over the formation or use of the armed forces now controlled by the capitalist class, cannot affect and has no concern with the purely capitalist question whether the British capitalists should have more armaments to protect their property against the British workers and the foreign capitalist powers.
The S.P.G.B., in line with working-class interests, is not concerned with the outcome of any war between capitalist groups over the right to appropriate the proceeds of the exploitation of the working class.
The S.P.G.B. knows that war means death, maiming and disease to the working class and, knowing that wars between capitalist groups do not involve any working-class interest does not support such wars in any circumstances whatever.
The S.P.G.B. has one object—Socialism—and to attain that object knows that the organised working class must gain control of the machinery of government, including the armed forces. When such control has been achieved the working class will know how to use the armed forces for so long as it may be necessary to defend Socialism against an insurrectionary minority or an undefeated foreign group of capitalists.