The immediate object of “The Great Illusion,” by Sir Norman Angell (a Penguin Special, 6d.), is stated thus: “To question the all but universally accepted axiom that a nation’s military power can be used to promote its economic welfare;” the general aim of the book is in the cause of Perpetual Peace. Any aspiration towards the final extinction of the unspeakable bestiality which attaches to war must command respect. The S.P.G.B. warmly sympathises with the humane outlook and implied determination to make personal sacrifice, if necessary, of members of such bodies as the Peace Pledge Union; at the same time it deeply regrets that talent, sincerity, and enthusiasm should be practically wasted because the factors which make for war are not fully grasped.
“It can be shown quite indubitably,” says Angell, “that capitalism is not the cause of war.” Nowhere does he give an alternative comprehensive source, other than an echo of Bertrand Russell’s feeble bleat about “competition for preponderance of power” (p. 65); it is only too apparent that the individual egomaniac seeks “power” as more or less an end in itself, a fact interesting to the alienist, but political power is obviously directed to a specific end; Angell himself stumbles upon one such end: “In our industrial economy, markets are the main problem” (p. 154). But on p. 166, the astounding assertion is made that “political and military power can in reality do nothing for trade”; “in reality” the Fathers of the American Revolution in 1776 obtained very distinct advantages in trade through the exercise of political and military power; the respectable smugglers of New England, the slave owners of Virginia, through many bloody campaigns, demonstrated to an unkind Motherland that rum and slaves were no longer to be exploited mainly in her interest; “in reality,” yea, verily, Cromwell taught the Dutch, through the cutting edge of Navigation Laws, implemented by a powerful navy, that military power, which had axed a Sacred Majesty, would not brook serious competition for trade on the high seas; “in reality,” modern historical research has revealed, behind the legend of the siege of Troy, not a “fair face which launched a thousand ships against the topmost towers of Ilium,” but a pretty grim struggle for a trade route—this when Capitalism was but a vague stirring in the womb of Time.
On p. 136 we read, “The assumption that military force, if great enough, can be used to transfer wealth, trade, property from the vanquished to the victor, and that the latent power to do so explains the need of each to arm,” is a Great Illusion.
Note carefully “victor” and “vanquished.” Misled by Labour leaders whooping the worker on to war in 1914, few of the working class were under the illusion that any transfer of wealth would meet them in the process of transference, not even to the pitiable extent which rewarded the bluff tar in the good old days of Prize Money. One of Angell’s “Great Illusions,” implicit through¬out his book, is based upon the fusion of the two classes with opposite interests in one blessed Union, confounding, like the naughty Arians of old, two distinct persons and “vainly imagining” the substance (swag) can be equitably divided.
The instrument proposed to establish peace has an ancient and fish-like smell—a Federation of Nations. Kant, in a famous brochure in the eighteenth century, set out proposals based upon the idea; curiously enough, he foreshadowed Wilson’s “open covenants openly arrived at,” too. The mediaeval Catholic Church actually accomplished some mitigation with its “Truce of God ” and looked for peace in the direction of a League of Catholic Nations.
Somewhat irrelevantly, Angell quotes the U.S.A. as an example of peace attained by union; here history lands him a neat uppercut; the union of the thirteen states in 1776 already contained the germs of the clash of rival interests, which bore fruit in the awful struggle between the commercial North and agricultural South; here again, Angell can be quoted against himself; most significantly he writes (p. 185): “The British worker, as distinct from the possessor of capital, is more subject to restriction in entrance to Australia than he is in entrance to Argentina or Mexico.” Again (p. 190): “A year or so since, there was in London a deputation from the British Indians in the Transvaal pointing out that the regulations there deprive them of the ordinary rights of British citizens.” What hope for a “Federation” of united effort by capitalist groups hopelessly remote by tradition, by culture, by language even, and hopelessly divided by COMMERCIAL INTERESTS, when, in the British Empire, Rhodes was prepared in the interests of the British Africander, to “cut the painter,” and a Celtic fringe is prepared even now to drive the hardest of bargains with the harassed Sassenach.
Our author himself senses a Big Snag, which may be summarised in the Latin tag: “Who will arrest the drunken bobby?” In a wonderful League of “Peace-loving” nations, what shall be done about the truculent member of the gang, who, nourishing a convincing type of gun, slithers out of the Hall! of Peace with unpeaceful intent elsewhere?
The “International Police Force,” on a small scale, has proved a broken reed in China; Henry of Navarre, in the sixteenth century, played with the idea; that gay dog found that capitalism, now a lusty infant, kicked over the traces of his dream chariot, leaving him free to chase more congenial, if less worthy, objects.
In the enchanted island of Shakespeare’s imagination, Gonzalo discoursed eloquently of a serenely beautiful Utopia; the coarse bounder Antonio discovered at the tail-end only “whores and knaves. . . . The latter end of his Commonwealth forgets the beginning”; Angell sets out to the tune of Perpetual Peace, alack! Under capitalism the finale is inevitably a hideous jazz of bombs and poison gas. Note well, “We must be as ready to FIGHT for code or rule of the road as hitherto we have been willing to fight for OUR territory”—needless to say, “OUR” not emphasised by the author.
Easily procured, it is plainly the duty of Socialists to make themselves acquainted with the kind of stuff which can be translated, into twenty different languages … to the bemuddlement and bemusing of the working class over a huge range. Verb. sap.