War Propaganda, Past and Present

At a time when “bigger and better” reasons are being found every day for waging a third world war, this time against Russia, it is instructive to remember some of the main reasons given by ruling classes in the past for their wars. The truth, of course, is excluded from the start: for no capitalist will admit that wars are fought in order to protect his profits. So other reasons have to be invented.

Nationalism has always been one of the mainstays of war propaganda. In the sixteenth century, the great enemy of this country was Spain; the merchants of Spain had a monopoly of the trade of the great Spanish American Empire, and the British merchants naturally wanted this trade for themselves. So it was soon discovered that the rascally Spaniards were the unalterable enemies of the English people. Sentiments were spread abroad in Devon—from which county came a large number of the sailors who were expected to risk their lives fighting Spanish seamen—that one West-country man could fight three Easterners, and that one East Anglian could take on five Spaniards. This line of talk was a great success, and thousands of stout Devonian seadogs left our shores eager to win great glory for themselves, and even greater profits for their masters.

In the next century, the position changed. Spain, in decline, was no longer a powerful enemy, and the chief danger to English profits came from Holland. The Dutch had built up a large fleet, and while the energies of their English competitors were being diverted to civil wars, they captured a large part of the trade with the East and with the American colonies. But the natural resources of the Netherlands were not sufficient to support a long struggle with England on the sea, and the Dutch challenge was repulsed.
In the eighteenth century the place of enemy No. 1 was taken by France. In India, in the East and West Indies, in Canada, and in what is now the United States of America, the French were trying to build an empire for themselves at the same time as British merchants and manufacturers were also expanding their overseas trade. Collisions were inevitable. In the long series of wars between 1688 and 1815, Britain and France were always on opposite sides. It did not take our propertied classes long to find out that the French were ineradicably the enemies of all true Englishmen, and from this time dates the picture of honest beef-eating John Bull on one side of the Channel, and the sly frog-eating Frenchman on the other. Nelson was not going much further than thousands of his countrymen when he developed his inveterate hatred of the whole French people.

There were no prolonged wars for many years after Waterloo, largely because Britain had undergone its Industrial Revolution well in advance of the rest of the world; which gave it an economy much more productive than those of other nations, and made it economically almost unassailable. True, there were always fears about Russia’s designs on India, and Russophobia was a fashionable disease. But the Russian economy was, in comparison with the British, almost completely undeveloped, and the only open struggle between the two countries—the Crimean War—ended in a victory for the British capitalists; Again, there were a few colonial wars, and trading wars on the outskirts of the Empire; but these were mostly local affairs, and a little propaganda about the inherent superiority of white men over those with skins of a different colour was sufficient to keep up the necessary martial spirit.

But with the end of the nineteenth century came the end of Britain’s economic supremacy. Other European countries had been undergoing industrial revolutions, notably Germany. During the opening decade of the twentieth century it became obvious that the British capitalists would shortly have to defend their profits against the rising German capitalist class. Once again nationalism was summoned to the aid of the propertied classes of both sides. In Germany—especially between the two wars—it was proclaimed that Rhinelanders, Bavarians, people from Prussia and people from the Sudetenland, were (as H. G. Wells puts it) one pure and perfect “Nordic” race, all blue-eyed and blond. Correspondingly, in Britain, the discovery was made that the entire German race was unchangeably evil and aggressive. With incredible ease the old stories about the wickedness of our former enemies were dropped in favour of stories about the wickedness of the Germans. The lines in the song—”Frenchmen and Dutchmen, and Spaniards and such men, as foemen they fear them, the yeoman of England,” were changed to “Austro-Hungarians, and suchlike barbarians, as foemen they fear them,” and so on. There are Vansittarts in every generation, ready to preach about the essential evil of some race or other: and the Vansittarts of the last two generations have given their energies almost exclusively to attacking the German nation. To do this it was necessary to forget that the English people are in origin only an offshoot of this hated German people; but this was not too hard, since capitalist apologists have a lot of practice in forgetting inconvenient facts.

The leaders of the U.S.S.R. realise as well as the leaders of any other capitalist country the usefulness of racial propaganda in wartime. Russian writers during the last war—notably Alexei Tolstoy and Ilya Ehrenburg—wrote about the immutable enmity of the Teuton and Slav races with as much fervour as any pre-Revolutionary Russian. And this is the country which claims to subscribe to international Socialism!

Religion has been used almost as much as nationalism in creating warlike feelings. It was found especially effective in wars against countries professing a different brand of Christianity to our own. Wars with France and Spain were turned into crusades for the defence of the Protestant religion against the Papists, and the Pope was freely called the “anti-Christ.” Both contestants always assumed that God was on their side, and the more foreigners were slaughtered, the higher rose the hymns of thanksgiving. “Ten thousand Frenchmen sent below, praise God from whom all blessings flow ” sums up the attitude of many Christians to war.

After the Industrial Revolution, the machinery of production become more complicated, and a system of elementary education for the working-class had to be introduced. But this had its drawbacks, since the more education the workers received, the more questions they asked. Still better reasons had therefore to be thought up to explain away the periodic wars which the capitalist system inevitably breeds. Attention was drawn to the vile systems of government under which the unfortunate foreigners suffered, and it was clearly demonstrated that our own hard-won democracy, and indeed all the inalienable rights and liberties of freeborn Englishmen were in grave danger of being overthrown. The usefulness of this argument was little, if at all, impaired by the fact that in both the 1914 and 1939 wars just as many countries with non-parliamentary systems of government (e.g., the British colonies and Russia) fought on the Allied side as fought against it. Another line of thought, which was put out after the actual fighting had begun, went something like this: granted that wars are bad, and that we must put a stop to them as soon as possible, let us finish off this war we have on our hands now, and then we can get down to the job of building a “lasting peace.” This idea was not as prominent as it might have been in 1939, owing to its having been rather overdone in the 1914 holocaust, which was, par excellence (as you may remember) the war to end all wars.

British capitalism has now been on the down-grade for half a century, and the main world conflict at present is between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R., each striving to build an economic empire for itself. When these two countries, and their allies, resort to open war, what will be the ostensible reasons for it? So far, little has been done in the racial field. It still remains for the Russians to prove the inextinguishable villainy, and natural aggressive passions, of the “Anglo-Saxons,” and for the British and Americans to prove the same things about the “Slav race.” But on the religious front the first shots have already been fired. Listen to Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork and Orrery speaking from the pulpit at Steeple Ashton, Wiltshire, some months ago (Jersey Evening Post, 11/7/49): “The next war will be a religious war, fought with material weapons, but for a spiritual object.” The Russians are not behindhand. They realised in the last war how useful a Church can be to prop up the State, and now, their patriarchs and archbishops follow the Stalinist line as faithfully as the Anglo-American bishops follow the Anglo-American line. The propaganda about “fighting for peace” seems to be surpassing in volume even the 1914 agitation on that theme. It must be noticed that the Russians stole a march on the Americans by the speed with which they took advantage of the world-wide pacifist feelings which naturally follow every great war, and organized peace-conferences. But the Americans can be relied on to make it quite clear, either before or immediately after the outbreak of hostilities, that they too are engaging in war merely to preserve the peace. As for the attitude of the contestants to democracy, that goes without saying. Everyone is in favour of democracy, since now it means simply the kind of government of which you approve. The term Socialism is nowadays applied almost equally freely. Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, Attlee and Chiffley, Franco and Peron all claim that their systems are “Socialism” although they usually add a qualifying adjective, whether Soviet, or National, or Democratic. Even in one of the few countries in the world which will still admit being capitalist—the U.S.A.—Republican Senators regularly warn the electorate that Truman is steadily leading America to “Socialism.” So at least some of the countries on both sides in the third world war will be fighting for what they call Socialism. In fact, they will both, in their propaganda, take the same line about every point at issue. The Russians and their allies will be killing the Americans, and the Americans and their allies will be killing the Russians, with all the weapons at their disposal: and they will both claim to be doing it in defence of (1) peace, (2) God, (3) democracy, (4) “Socialism,” and (5) the mother-country, against the aggressive foreigner.

The only way the workers can put an end to this criminal farce, and prevent a third world war being fought, is to understand that society as at present constituted cannot avoid war, and that peace can only be permanently established by the overthrow of Capitalism and the setting up of a Socialist system of society.


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