E. Belfort Bax August 1915

Compulsion!


Source: New Age, 19 August 1915, p. 376;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


In reading the Northcliffe journalism and certain other kindred organs of the Press one acquires the impression that though victory in this war is an undoubtedly desirable thing yet that this is after all in a sense subsidiary to what ought to be the supreme goal of national endeavour, namely, compulsion – i.e., compulsion of persons alike in military and industrial matters. If, as Lord Kitchener is reported to have given as his mature opinion, a conscript army and a voluntary army will not work together, it must be quite clear, one would think, to the advocates of compulsion that there is at least a chance that the resort to the latter system at this stage of the war might result in our defeat, or at best, in a hazardous prolongation of the war. If they will not admit that much they may as well say at once that Lord Kitchener is a fool whose mature opinion is worth nothing at all. Hence, I think, we are fully justified in the above statement, that the pro-conscriptionists place schemes of compulsion, at least in so far as military compulsion is concerned, as a goal to be striven for at all costs, even that of defeat, complete or partial.

Now let us take the other side. It is alleged by the conscriptionists, in effect, that compulsory military service is as good as necessary if defeat is to be avoided. We need scarcely say that for ourselves we traverse this conclusion entirely. But let us grant it for the sake of the argument. The problem then presents itself as follows:- Would a defeat with a voluntary system be so very much worse than a victory at the cost of the sacrifice of that principle of personal liberty (within the limits, of course, of the economic liberty permitted by capitalism) which it has been the historical function of the Anglo-Saxon race to exemplify for humanity? This is a serious question which it is impossible fully to discuss in a general article like the present. We do not hesitate, however, to say that in our opinion a material victory in arms gained by this country would be more than outweighed by the moral defeat of the great principle (for after all, it is a great principle) which constitutes one of England’s most important contributions to human culture. Here is a question not merely of our own immediate safety as a nation, but of buying an immediate advantage by being false to a principle with which historic destiny has entrusted us in the service of humanity. The question may be put in this way:- Would you purchase material victory over the Prussian armies at the price of becoming morally like Prussia? We leave this question to be answered by our fervid patriots who so extol the British spirit versus that of the central Empires.

We are aware, of course, of the retort to the allegation that compulsory service means the Prussianising of the British character. Military conscription at least, it is urged, is not an exclusively Prussian institution. You have it in France, you have it in Italy, you have it in a sense even in Switzerland, though in its least objectionable form in the Swiss militia system. Let us consider this point for a moment. In the first place, it cannot be denied that the ideal perfection of organised national military service is that over which the Prussian Junker rules. The logical conclusion of the system euphemistically termed “national service” is Prussian militarism. The present war alone has shown this. Again, the tendency at least of all conscript countries is to develop the domination of a military caste. For instance, the temptation to cut the Gordian knot of Labour discontent by military methods has proved irresistible alike in France and Italy, in spite of their democratic political institutions. Will our conscriptionist friends guarantee us against the domination of a military oligarchy itself in this country? The difference between a voluntary and a conscript army is shown at once in the treatment of the soldier, with the aid of military discipline. A conscript army is favoured by the capitalist classes for the fact that it is cheaper than a voluntary army. Why is it cheaper? Because the conscript is not a free man whereas the voluntary recruit is. Hence, under the aegis of military discipline, you can crush down all complaints in a conscript army, and, in a word, “do” your men on the cheap. This fact, as just said, explains much of the patriotic zeal of journals catering for the well-to-do classes in their campaign in favour of conscription. Furthermore, with all respect for our Allies be it said, their democracies have undoubtedly suffered pro tanto from the principle of conscription with which they are burdened. The numerous anti-military agitations in France within the present generation, and, not least, the formidable protest against the Three Years’ Service which was only cut short by the war, are sufficient evidence of this. And have, after all, the military achievements of the conscriptionist democracies been so superior to those effected by the voluntary system of this country? Prusso-Germany, by reason of its logically complete military system, has, up to the time of writing, scored a greater measure, it can hardly be denied, of purely military success even if only temporarily, than all the other Powers put together. But of those other armies who shall say that the voluntary British forces have shown up less favourably than those of the other democratic countries with the doubtful blessing of conscription

It is made a charge against Socialists that they inconsistently abject to compulsion as such under circumstances in which it is dedicated by what is called the logic of events, while themselves postulating a system of compulsion for society in general. The answer to this supposed crushing poser is very simple. It consists in the discrimination between the compulsion of persons and the compulsion of things. Socialism is necessarily opposed to the former and essentially accepts the latter. The Socialist organisation of industry pre-supposes, obviously, a systematic ordering of industrial processes to which the individual worker must subordinate himself in his own interests no less than in those of society as a whole. On the other hand, the Socialist does not propose that a man should be laid hold of by the scruff of the neck and dragged into a factory if he is able and prefers to maintain himself in primitive fashion by eating grass and drinking rain-water. No Socialist would have any right as a Socialist to wish to hinder him earning his living in this way. But a person of that type may as safely be left out of account in dealing with Socialism as the miser who hoards money in his stocking can be left out of account in dealing with Capitalism. (The coercion of criminals, of course, is another matter and has special justifications not applicable to that of the ordinary citizen.)

We would point out here that moral suasion, like economic pressure, inducing the individual to a certain course of action, whether in any particular instance good or bad, right or wrong, is toto clo separated from the direct physical coercion ordained by law and backed by its sanctions. For example, there may be any amount of moral or social pressure put upon a man or woman to marry; but this is poles asunder from a law or edict enforcing compulsory marriage. Similarly, the recruiting pressure exercised at the present time upon men to join the Army may be justifiable or not, desirable or not, in particular instances; but it is equally poles apart from the come-and-fetch-me compulsion which our conscriptionists would impose. It cannot be too strongly or too often urged in view of current misconceptions on this subject that Socialism as a doctrine and a principle not only does not involve the direct personal coercion of any individual, but is in its essence radically opposed to any such coercion. The coercion involved in Socialism and advocated by its adherents is, as pointed out, the indirect coercion of things, it may be of the property of the individual, but never the direct coercion of the individual himself.

E. BELFORT BAX.