Editorial: The Verdict of History
Millions of words will be published this month about the world’s first Great War. Few of them will be complimentary.
Over the last fifty years the war has come under a detailed scrutiny. The official propaganda has been exposed as a mass of blatant lies. The leaders, worshipped at the time, have been shown up as incompetents. The motive behind the war has been pronounced as a naked economic struggle. The popular verdict seems to be that the war was a ghastly mistake, which would never have come about if the world had been run by cleverer, more humane leaders.
In the manner of historical fashion, this verdict may one day be modified, and men like the late Earl Haig become restored to favour. The millions of killed and wounded may be ennobled into heroes whose lives were not wasted, but who suffered for a worthy cause. Historians may decide for us that we should be grateful the war was fought.
But whatever historians may decide, whatever historical fashion may decree, facts are facts. And the facts of the First World War have not changed.
In the first place, it is true that the war was a stupid and futile business. War always is. But it was not a mistake.
Whatever incidental errors may contribute to its horror, war in the modern world does not happen by accident. If it did, then the massive armed forces which all countries always maintain are mistakes. Weapons—nuclear and otherwise—are mistakes.
In fact, all these things are quite logical, once we have accepted the basic condition of the existence of the capitalist social system. We live today in a world in which a minority own the means of producing and distributing wealth. This minority—the capitalist class—are always in competition among themselves for economic advantage.
They compete for markets and for fields of important raw materials and minerals. They anxiously guard the trade routes which connect them with their markets and material resources abroad.. They are always trying, with their economic conferences, their tariff walls, their international trading clubs, to protect what spheres of influence they have and to expand into others.
Here is the root of war. The minor conflicts which have flared up since 1945 in, say, the Middle and Far East were not caused by a chain of mistakes, or by opposing designs on the ownership of an arid desert or of an impassable jungle. Neither were they caused by a concern in the world’s more sophisticated capitals for the welfare of a few impoverished Arabs or Asian natives.
Those wars were fought for material advantages – for oil, for tin, for rubber, for uranium, for access to key strategic points like the Suez Canal.
It was no different in 1914. At the beginning of this century Germany was struggling to establish itself among the other capitalist powers, who had got in first in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The German ruling class wanted an outlet to the markets in the Far East, they wanted to stake their claim in the Mediterranean. At the same time, France wanted to regain the valuable provinces which she had lost in the war of 1870, and Great Britain had her eye on the German colonies in Africa.
This was the power behind the headlong arms race of the early 20th century. This race provoked the political tensions in Europe, which needed only a fortuitous assassination to release them into the catastrophe of a war the like of which the world had not thought to experience.
That war shattered Europe’s morale. It left the world set in the pattern from which came the battlefronts of the Second World War, which in its turn has bequeathed areas of conflict which have come close to provoking World war Three.
This is a continuous process, inevitable under capitalism. There is nothing accidental about it; it is not the result of miscalculation.
It is easy for the historians to show up the errors of command of 1914/18, just as it may be easy some time in the future to do the same thing about 1939/45. War can only bring untold misery to the people who suffer most under it—yet it solves no problems of theirs. It is, in fact, as foolish and as wasteful as the social system which causes it.
The solution to this is to put an end to the social madness of private property and to replace it with a new system in which the world’s entire population own the things which are used to make and distribute its wealth.
This system is called Socialism. It was the solution faithfully propounded by the Socialist Party of Great Britain against the mob patriotism and official repression of 1914/18. Capitalism never climbs out of its own pit of turpitude, but in those years it was indeed impressive for its depravity.
If we are to look for some relief among this depressing memory, it can be found in the records of the Socialist Party—in the history of our members’ gritty defiance, in the old copies of the SOCIALIST STANDARD.
The word pride does not come easily to a Socialist’s tongue. So we are weighing every word when we say that we are proud to recall that our party stood out, in the bloodthirsty confusion which pulled down the human race fifty years ago, for a world fit for human beings.
When everyone else was dabbling in the slime, we kept our hands clean. While the “practical” men, the “respectable” men, the “courageous” men, were slaughtering each other, we persistently propagated the case for a world of decency, abundance and liberty.
We are proud to be identified with this history, and to carry on so worthy a tradition.