The curse of national prestige

The dawn of peace appears in the Far East

Slav and Mongol have faced each other on many a battlefield on land and sea, and victory has been uniformly with the new world power of Japan. This war was essentially a commercial war, as all wars are to-day carried on in the interests of commerce. All international relations, diplomatic and military, are becoming more and more commercial in their nature.

Some years ago the late Lord Salisbury declared that all wars in the future would be railway wars, and later he avowed that they would be tariff wars. He saw clearly as we Socialists see that war is but a manifestation of the antagonism of interests existing in the several national spheres of industry. We have only to look at recent wars in which European powers have been engaged to see that they have all been economic.

Norway and Sweden may be seen in a state of extreme tension because the ruling class of Norway believe that Sweden has been securing preferential commercial treatment through the appointment of a Consulate whose sympathies and interests were purely Swedish. Because of this commercial friction the Norwegian Storthting has passed a resolution deposing King Oscar and placing their country under the control of a provisional government.

Greece made war upon Turkey because she lusted after the rich olive groves of Crete. France and Germany were at war because France had ambitious thoughts of extending her boundaries to the Rhine while Germany was desirous of possessing the broad, smiling plains of Alsace and Lorraine. America fought with Spain for the possession of the plantations of Cuba and the Philippines. Britain crushed out the national independence of the Transvaal and Orange River Republics.

During the latter of those wars what was the fear of the ruling class as expressed in their Press? Not of the loss of life of the soldiers on the veldt, not of the thousands of children done to death by official incompetence, or something worse, in the concentration camps; not of the burning of homesteads and farmhouses in the Vaal; no, it was none of those things. The real fear was shown in the thrill of horror which was felt by the monied class in Park Lane or on ’Change when the rumour was current that Botha had blown up the Rand.

Nor is it a new thing for war to be fundamentally economic. In one stage of civilisation the food question causes tribe to fight against tribe, the fate of the defeated tribe being to serve as food for the victors. In another phase of civilisation the captured in battle are sent as helots to toil for the benefit of those who have vanquished them.

As Britain deliberately crushed out the trade and manufacture of Ireland and of India in the interests of her own manufacturers, so have countries sought for colonies and for extended territory in order to secure trade monopolies. In other directions the cloven hoof of commerce has displayed itself. Thus the union of the Parliaments of England and Scotland has ever been defended on the plea that it gave to the latter all the commercial privileges that the former had won for herself.

Although our contention that war has always been fundamentally economic can be justified from every historical epoch, yet it would be going too far to say that this has always been obvious. Many wars have appeared on superficial examination to be primarily religious, while others have been excused on the ground of maintaining national prestige. When recently the Baltic Fleet shot down innocent fishermen on the Dogger, when France ignored Germany in her arrangement with Britain, Spain and Italy as to her position in Morocco, in the thousand and one other occasions on which war has been in the air it has been the maintenance of national prestige which has been the excuse and the justification put forward.

In the worship of this fetich Britain replied to Russia’s seizure of Port Arthur by the seizure of Wei-hai-wei, and Germany by the fortification of Kiau-Chau. Britain having a sphere of interest, another phrase for a sphere of exploitation, Germany must have a sphere of interest in the province of Shantung, while France and Japan seek for similar enforced “concessions”.

The above remarks have been called forth by our witnessing dissension in the recently unified French Socialist party on the question as to whether the party should take part in wars carried on by the ruling powers of France. Among Socialists there appears some uncertainty as to the proper position to adopt with regard to this question, and a few remarks on the subject may not be out of place.

Beaconsfield, in his novel Sybil, declared that England was divided into two nations. These two nations are the nation of propertied and the nation of propertyless. The nation of the haves who do not work, and the nation of the have-nots who do. The question we have to determine for ourselves is, “Is the country of the propertied worth fighting for by the nation of the propertyless?”

I do not think it will be questioned by any Socialist that it is his duty to oppose the wars of the ruling class of one nation with the ruling class of another, and to refuse to participate in them. When Germany seeks to force war upon France so as to secure for herself special trade advantages with Morocco, it is for the millions of German and French socialists to declare in no uncertain voice that they will have no part or lot in the war. If they do this then there will be little fear of war. The military power of Russia has failed in the Russo-Japanese war largely because of the unrest among the Russian people, and the military power of Germany would be equally powerless against a revolt against war amongst the most intelligent of the political parties in the Fatherland.

With defensive wars the question becomes somewhat complicated. Is the Britain of the ruling class worth defending by the workers? Has the worker to-day – a wage-slave earning but a bare subsistence wage – anything to fight for? As it is the country is being conquered by the operations of the international capitalist. The British worker is to-day the employee of a limited liability company or of a trust whose shareholders are international, and it is the capitalist class who rule the political machine.

Were Germany to conquer France or France to conquer Britain, he would be ruled by no more alien class than rules him to-day. As the result of bring a citizen of a country which is nationally independent his condition is such that he has no guarantee from week to week of his power of earning his livelihood. Thirteen millions of him are living in a state of semi-starvation, and the individuals composing those thirteen millions are always changing. In the slum districts the conditions are such that crime is at a premium, and virtuous living at a discount, so much so indeed that it is a constant surprise that the results of these conditions are so good.

The worker to-day has nothing to fight for. The interests of his masters are not his interests. National prestige is not his prestige, but is used to force from other nations commercial treaties and conditions which in the end prove adverse to him.

What the Socialist has to realise clearly is that the interests of his fellow workers in other lands are nearer to his than are those of his master in his own country. The bonds which bind worker with worker, irrespective of nationality, are those of class solidarity. The meeting of Japanese and Russian on the platform at the International socialist Congress at Amsterdam in August last was but symbolic of this solidarity. From the capitalist-class of every country the worker is divided by a gulf of class antagonism which can be bridged only by the absorption of the capitalist-class in the working class, the result of the coming Social Revolution.

When the capitalist-class fully realises that they can no longer depend upon the working-class, when they find that the worker has at last come to understand his class position, and that he has no reason for fighting in his master’s interests against those with whom he has no personal quarrel, he, the capitalist, will see that it is impossible to appeal to national prestige, to patriotism, to the spirit of “our imperial race” and all the rest of the phrases used of old, and then it will be impossible to make war in so light a spirit, or to raise questions likely to create a tension between the ruling class of different nations.

It is for the worker to see that his position demands that he should fight only for his class emancipation, and that nothing, internal reform or national strife, should draw him away from his determination to fight for the realisation of the Socialist regime.


(Socialist Standard, August 1905)

Leave a Reply