1940s >> 1941 >> no-441-may-1941
What the Soldier Wants and How to Get it
War brings a shortage of many things but not of would-be leaders of the workers, who profess to be able to shepherd us into the promised land after the war. But leaders must have followers and as the mood of the soldiers and civilians changes with the progress of the war the outlines of the promised post-war world as sketched by our J. B. Priestleys and A. P. Herberts, our J. M. Keynes and Harry Pollitts, will change too. When war breaks out it is easy for many people to take a rosy, romantic view both of the conflict and its aftermath. The lines seem clear and simple. First the brave fight against the forces of evil, then the brave new world to come after. First the comradeship of the trenches and the air-raid shelter, then the peace and the universal goodwill capable of surmounting all obstacles and solving all problems. This is the phase in which a man like the late H. H. Munro (“Saki”) could say (as he did when war was declared in 1914), “I have always looked forward to the romance of European war,” it is the phase in which British statesmen could say that the war was not against the German workers but. only against those who mislead and oppress them. Then there comes another phase, after the destruction, hardship, and bitterness of war have wrought their changes. This is the phase summed up by the late C. E. Montague in. the word “disenchantment.” It is the phase in which Munro’s friends said of him, “He was thin and his face was haggard.” “It was evident that the strain of military life was telling on him.” Though determined to go through with it at whatever cost (he was subsequently killed), it is likely that Munro must by then have realised that war is not romantic and that the apparently simple lines of visionary future have become blurred and unrecognisable. Then, soldiers and civilians alike forget the early glimpses of promised lands after the war and ask only for more moderate things. Like Sassoon’s “Dreamers,”
“When the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.”
They feel that the most desirable of all pleasures are the humdrum things they did before the war—“ bank-holidays and picture shows,” and “going to the office in the train.”
The soldier fighting in desert heat or freezing in mountain snows, and the munition worker toiling day and night, feels that he will be satisfied if after the war life returns to the “good old days,” but with certain concrete improvements. Subject to obtaining these improvements, his desires are confined to the wish for no more crash of bombs and guns, no more drone of planes and wail of sirens. No more rationing, no more regulations, filling up of forms, no more restrictions, orders, warnings, advice and lecturing. No more pep-talks and parsons exhorting us to lift up our hearts. No more sudden death and destruction, no more ruined homes, evacuated families. No more broken windows, no more black-out, no more interrupted sleep.
But with it goes a determination, mixed up with bitterness, to have a world in which poverty, unemployment, “profiteering,” slums and overwork, have been diminished if not abolished entirely.
The Socialist having a clear purpose in view and knowing the difficulties in the way of social change, does not share either mood. He knows that brave new worlds are not to be had for the asking and consequently he realises that the second mood in which the workers want concrete improvements of working and living conditions, is likely to be rather more useful and practical. Yet it, too, has its definite limits and dangers. It is not enough to want the pre-war world with improvements unless along with determination there is knowledge of the obstacles that will have to be removed and of the only way in which it can be done.
For after the war the world will still be a world run on capitalist lines and the capitalist too will have his expectation of reverting to 1939, and both capitalists and workers will be faced with tremendous problems arising out of capitalism, many of them even more acute than before. Peace will not only mean cessation of war strain and war restrictions, but also the release of forces now suppressed. The class struggle will still be on. The non-Socialist will say of this how stupid, how wicked, how unnecessary, but the Socialist sees that it is unavoidable unless a fundamental change in the basis of society is carried out. The world’s resources will still be privately owned nnd utilised for the purpose of profit-making. There will still be two classes with antagonistic interests, one class living by rent, interest and profit, the other living by selling its labour-power for wages or salary. True, this is “wicked” in the sense that it is unnecessary, but it can only be removed by abolishing its cause, the private ownership of the means of wealth-production and distribution. While there is private ownership (including so-called “public” ownership or State capitalism) it is impossible to have harmony and identity of interest between the classes. The only way to abolish class struggle is to abolish the classes.
Now is the time, not for day-dreaming or for getting out plans for reforming capitalism, but for hard, laborious thought about the nature of the capitalist system and of its opposite, Socialism.
The post-war world will not just happen. It will correspond to the development of the ideas of the majority. Effort now devoted to thinking out the basic causes of the pre-war problems of riches and poverty, unemployment and strikes, will be more valuable than years of scheming to soften the rigours of the capitalist system.