1960s >> 1962 >> no-699-november-1962

Past and Present: Remembrance Day poppycock

Did you buy a poppy? You probably did. And you probably stood still when the salutes were sounded at eleven o’clock in the morning on the eleventh, and remembered the millions who died in the two World Wars. Perhaps you knew somebody—a relative or a friend—who died among them; perhaps you were one who remembered with a deep personal grief. And perhaps, because you had remembered and you had bought your poppy—you and millions like you—you felt a bit better about it.

It is impossible not to feel sympathy.

But it is even more difficult not to speak out against your illusions.

You probably think you were right to pop your money into the collecting box. The figures of the men who were crippled and blinded in the wars, and who cannot support themselves, are real enough. Obvious, too, is their plight. We sometimes get a look at them; there is, for example, a home for disabled ex-servicemen in West London which organises its own flag day in the summer, when it wheels some of its worst cases and plants them outside the local railway stations with a box propped upon their laps—or upon their chests. These men are pitifully shattered and have no hope of getting their living in the usual labour market. You think that if we all contribute something it would help them to solve that problem. Perhaps you think that only a niggard could resist the appeals to buy a flag or a poppy.

Yet we do not have to be misers to wonder how the whole thing started. And it is not for the sake of saving our coin in the box that we would like to stop it happening again. Why are these men forced to beg on the streets? To many people the answer to that question—The war, of course—closes the discussion, as if war is something which just happens, something to do with the Old Adam in us, or something to be blamed onto That Man in Berlin or Moscow or somewhere else. Anyway, nobody should stop to think about the whys and the wherefores; we should all get into uniform as soon as a war starts. If we’re unlucky we’ll get our name on one of the memorials or end up in a bath chair rattling a collection box.

This is exactly the attitude our masters like us to adopt. For those who unquestioningly accept a war are the easiest of victims for the propaganda which prepares them for the next bout of bloodletting. They easily forget the promises which are offered to excuse one war and which are broken as the next draws near. Such people in this country forgot the promises which were made in 1914-18, that that was the war to end wars and the assurances they were given in 1945 that Europe—and especially Germany— would be so organised that international disputes would be impossible in the future. Such people in Germany forgot that their country was one of the guarantors of the Belgian frontiers which they coldly violated in 1914 and that in 1919 they signed a pact which bound them never to rearm. Pacts and promises are freely broken, the power blocs in the world regroup and rearm, the war propaganda switches effortlessly from one line to another. And you, as you drop your coin through the slot and take your poppy, accept and condone it all. The war, you murmur, it’s the war. There’s nothing anyone can do about that, is there?

We do not have to be misers to see that there is something we can do about it.

If you examine your poppy, you will see that it acknowledges a donation to the Haig Fund. You probably know that poppies are sold because they were the flowers which were thick in the cornfields of Flanders at the beginning of World War I, although by the time the fighting had rolled backwards and forwards over the countryside and had settled into the trenches where the guns and the gas could do their work there were very few poppies left. And you probably know who Haig was.

He was the man they gave £100,000 and an Earldom to, making him the first Earl Haig of Bemersyde in the County of Berwick, Viscount Dawick and Twentieth Laird of Bemersyde, for organising the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. Haig was a sombre, withdrawn man who had notions that he was divinely appointed to lead his men to victory. Even for his time, his ideas were out of date. To the end, he dreamed of using his beloved cavalry on thrilling, lightning thrusts—although at the same time his infantry were finding it impossible to walk over the liquid battlefields he sent them across. His name is firmly linked with his own pet Big Push at Passchendaele, a bloody fiasco in which tens of thousands were lost to capture a few square miles of land and a heap of rubble which was anyway very soon recaptured by the Germans. It is easy now to be wise about Passchendaele, to remember the deep mud, to recall the official War Office publication which warns of the marshy nature of the Flanders countryside, and to ask, horrified, why the attack was ever allowed to happen. But perhaps the grimmest fact about it is that at the time, to the people who supported the war, Passchendaele seemed a very good idea. Haig had planned the offensive for a long time, confident that the attacks organised by the other Allied commanders would come to nothing and that he would be called upon to finish the war. The other attacks did come to nothing. So did Haig’s, if by nothing we mean the massed dead, the fear and the pain and the shattered lives and in the end the Earldom—and the poppies.

The poppies, in fact, are one of the unkindest cuts of all. There was, to be blunt, a cynical political reason for them. So great was the slaughter of that first war, so shocked was the world at what it had seen, that capitalism’s masters realised that there were prospects of working class reaction. If these wars were to be a regular thing, something must appear to be done for the bits of men who came out of them. Possible resentment must be diverted from the disillusionment which was staring people in the face and fobbed off by unctuous gratitude for the penny in the box. How many of us can remember how this was done, in the years between the wars? The children drawn up in rows in the chill, depressing halls of working class schools with the dank November morning outside, being hectored by sour teachers and told that the penny they had wrung from an unemployed father—who had himself survived the trenches—was a vital part of the great virtue of charity. (In those days, the capitalist class in England were more generous in their gratitude for the dead. They always had the Two Minute Silence on November 11th, no matter on what day of the week it fell. Now they make sure that Remembrance Day is fixed for a Sunday so that production is not interrupted and nobody gets two minutes off.)

We said that we would be blunt. This is the reason for the charity sop which capitalism so carefully fosters. Charity stifles protest at the inhumanities of capitalism and it goes some of the way to conceal the true causes of our problems.

Charity solves nothing. The unemployed man in the ’thirties did not solve his problems by buying a poppy—and neither did be solve the problems of the men be thought he was helping. This is still true, even though post-war inflation means that it may be sixpence which goes into the collecting box more often than a penny. The very best that charity can do is to spread—ever so thinly, at that—a little working class poverty from one group of workers to another. Charity to the war disabled stifles the protests at their conditions and diverts the question which asks why they are broken and needy as they are.

Wars are as much a part of capitalist society as buying and selling. In fact, they are conceived and executed and fought so that buying and selling can go on. So that one power can buy its oil, or uranium, or rubber, or something else, in the most convenient and cheapest market. So that it can sell its cars or steel or chemicals in the places where it can get a good price for them. So that its ships and aircraft can carry its commodities to any place where the price is right. So that, in a nutshell, the profit motive of capitalism can be satisfied.

An essential part of this profit making is that enough people can turn out the wealth and make it possible to sell it profitably. But there would be no sense in the employers paying these people the same as the value of what they had made. There would be no profit in that. So the workers are in general paid only enough to keep them; enough to give them what they need to get up steam again for another bout of wealth production and profit making. This means that most people have to go out to work for their living and that in return they get a wage which is about enough for them to live a distinctly restricted, unambitious life and to turn out more workers who will live and work in exactly the same way.

This applies for as long as the worker is able to work. But if for some reason he loses his ability then his livelihood is lost with it and his only hope is the charity of other people. This is what has happened to the war disabled men, the men you bought your poppy for.

As long as there are people to buy the poppies without question, there will be the social system which makes war and as long as there is war there will be the wounded who will need charity and who will make the poppies for people to buy without question. . . This grisly circle could go on forever, in a descending spiral of madness and destruction.

Anybody who cares about human welfare should look for another way of dealing with this situation. It is worse than futile to be charitable to the men who come out of capitalism’s wars, the men who are some of the worst victims of the poverty which capitalism forces upon all its workers, and at the same time support the continuance of capitalism.

It is better—and this is no miser’s talk—to get down to some reasoning about the causes of the poverty and the unhappiness which so deeply scars the world today. It is even better to come up with right answer. Socialism is the most plentiful and happy world we can have. And because of that it is a world away from the futile charity with which so many people excuse their toleration of capitalism today.