Editorial: Conscription—1916 Over Again

After repeated pledges not to introduce conscription in peace-time, Mr. Chamberlain has introduced it in peace-time—with the bland excuse that “no one can pretend that this is peace-time in the sense in which the term could be fairly used.” The Labour Party can fairly claim that the man who treats pledges so lightly can hardly throw stones at Hitler, but on every other ground the Labour opposition to conscription is of the flimsiest kind. The Government is treating it accordingly. Particularly during the past six months the Labour Party has done its utmost to persuade the voters and badger the Government into a system of alliances to “stop the aggressors.” Now the Government suddenly falls into line, but says that its actual and potential allies want this country to adopt conscription in order to show that it means business—the nature of the business being the capacity to wage war on a large scale. The Government also points to the fact that France, Russia, Poland and the rest of the countries—except U.S.A.—already have conscription, and M. Blum, leader of the French -Socialist Party (the equivalent of the British Labour Party), throws in his influence on the same side and tells his British colleagues not to be illogical. In these circumstances the Government would be foolish to treat seriously the Labour Party’s wordy opposition to conscription—those who have swallowed the camel of war do not for long strain at the gnat of compulsion. If Mr. Chamberlain had any doubts about the matter he could remove them by observing how the Labour Party behaved in 1916, when war-time conscription was being introduced. In theory they were opposed to conscription, but they were also represented in the Government and were in favour of the War. What then could they say when the Government came to them and said that the voluntary system had failed? Some of them did say, indeed, that the Government had broken its word and was tricking them, but they were answered by Mr. Arthur Henderson, one of the Labour Party representatives in the Government. Speaking at the Labour Party Annual Conference at Bristol, in January, 1916, Mr. Henderson supported conscription, on the ground that—

“Notwithstanding the magnificent success of the voluntary system, even now we had not all the men we needed to meet the enemy in the various theatres of war that we were confronted with.” (Report, page 120.)

In spite of Mr. Henderson’s support for conscription, it was obvious that a majority of delegates were still against it. A resolution was before the Conference which declared opposition to the Military Service Bill and went on to commit the Party to “agitate for its repeal” if it became law. This would have been very awkward for the Labour Party and its members, who were part of the Coalition Government, but Mr. Will Thorne and others proposed dividing the resolution. This was done and everyone was satisfied, because Conference then proceeded to adopt the harmless attitude of opposing conscription and also of opposing the resolution which would have committed them to agitating for its repeal. This can safely be taken as a forecast of what will happen now if the Government continues to put in practice the Labour policy of preparing for war, and if the international situation continues to be tense.

As far as the Trade Union Executives are concerned, that is indeed what happened at the special conference held on May 19th, 1939. They rejected by 3,817,000 votes to 232,000 an amendment which would have meant withdrawing from co-operation with the Government on National Service, and passed by 3,933,000 votes to 550,000 a long resolution which opened by protesting “most strongly against the Government’s action in introducing compulsory military service, in violation of the definite pledges given by the Prime Minister, and of the solemn assurances offered to the T.U.C. General Council when co-operation was sought by the responsible Ministers in the organisation of Voluntary National Service.” (Report in Daily Herald, May 20th.)

They also rejected by 4,172,000 to 425,000 a resolution in favour of a “general strike as a last effort to oppose military and industrial conscription.”

The Labour Party’s votes in Parliament in 1916 were equally illuminating for the light they throw on that Party’s attitude. There were three votes on the Military Service Bill, on January 6th, 12th and 18th, 1916. At the first vote, fourteen Labour M.P.s were absent out of the total of thirty-six. Of those present, thirteen voted “against” conscription and nine “for.” At the Second Reading, nine were absent, eleven voted “against” and sixteen “for.” And at the Third Reading, no fewer than twenty were absent, six voted “against” and eleven “for.” (The number of M.P.s had in the meantime increased to thirty-seven.)

As in 1916, so in 1939
The Labour Party is, in 1939, again making a great show of opposing conscription, because, in its view, the voluntary system “is providing, and can continue to provide, the nation with all the manpower required for effective national defence and for the fulfilment of its obligations for mutual assistance in the collective system of resistance to aggression.” (Statement issued by the National Council of Labour Daily Herald, April 26th.)

Many trade union executives and conferences have endorsed the Labour Party view, but one Union, the Civil Service Clerical Association, a little more far-seeing than the rest, has anticipated the likely future trend of misguided working-class opinion. Instead of playing for immediate popularity by opposing conscription, the General Secretary of the C.S.C.A., Mr. W. J. Brown, and his Executive Committee, moved an emergency resolution at their annual conference supporting conscription “on conditions,” one of which was the “immediate conscription of wealth.” The movers are thus in the safe position of still being able to say that they never supported conscription unconditionally in the form in which it will actually exist. At the same time they save themselves from the ridiculous position of the Labour Party. The C.S.C.A. delegates carried the vote for conscription by 414 votes to six.

The man who was largely responsible for persuading the delegates was Mr. W. J. Brown, former pet of the Communists and the I.L.P., ever a nimble sprinter after the merry-go-round of capitalist reforms and expedients. The day before yesterday he was MacDonald’s friend, then Mosley’s (at the birth of the New Party). Then he was very, very “left-wing” and the enemy of Bevin. Now he is “for conscription” and Bevin is against it. But the present position will, doubtless, be no more stable than the others, and any serious crisis for British capitalism will find them in the same camp again.

The Socialist Position
As against both of the above policies, policies circumscribed by the callous requirements of predatory capitalism, the Socialist Party stands for Socialism, well aware that neither the Browns nor the Bevins, the Chamberlains nor the Stalins, have any practical solution to offer for the evil plight in which the world’s workers find themselves.

The Socialist is opposed to conscription because he is opposed to the capitalist war for which the armed forces, whether volunteer, professional or conscript, are wanted. Though the war would be described on the one side as a war “for democracy” and on the other side as a war “against encirclement,” the driving force behind both sides would be the capitalist lust for markets, raw materials and strategic positions. When Hitler for the German capitalists says that Germany must expand or explode, find markets or perish, he meets his opposite in Mr. Hudson, British Secretary for Overseas Trade, who said in Warsaw on March 21st that “we are not going to give up any markets to anyone. . . Great Britain is strong enough to fight for markets abroad. Britain is now definitely going to take a greater interest in Eastern Europe.” (News Chronicle, March 22nd, 1939.)

Fighting that at present takes the form of words, trade agreements, loans, guarantees against aggression, etc., may, as in 1914, turn into an armed conflict, and that armed conflict will be yet another war produced by capitalist rivalries.

The Socialist Party knows that such wars solve nothing for the workers, and leave capitalism to produce still more wars in endless horror.

The Socialist Party declares its opposition not only to conscription but to capitalist war and to capitalism itself. The Socialist Party can repeat now what was written in its official organ in February, 1916, about the conscription then being introduced : —

“… We are bitterly opposed to conscription. But what are conscription, war, unemploy¬ment, poverty, overwork and starvation wages but the direct results of capitalist class rule? What hope of any permanent amelioration so long as the workers are the underdogs? What hope, indeed, of even a paltry concession in this matter so long as the exploiters are masters of the State and feel their controlling position unmenaced? We, therefore, urge the workers to join the real campaign against conscription; for conscription, on the part of the governing class, is only one item in the war upon the workers.”

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