Harry Quelch 1909

Anglo-German Relations and the Duty of Social Democrats


Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XIII No. 6 June, 1909, pp. 241-249;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


We are assured in several quarters that the German war scare has now died down, that having served its purpose in forcing the Government to incur greater naval expenditure and to lay down more Dreadnoughts it is now discarded, as the empty cry it was. This is excellent hearing; it affords us the opportunity of calmly and dispassionately reviewing the situation and of considering the grounds upon which some of us, at least, based our apprehensions and uttered our warnings, and of doing this without being suspected or accused of joining with the jingoes in stirring up a war fever, or of being animated by unreasoning hatred of the German people.

It is on that ground alone that we rejoice at these assurances of the disappearance of the scare, because we believe that the ground for apprehension still exists, just as we have all along believed in the reality of the danger.

We believe that there is danger of war; because there is always danger of war under capitalism; since the capitalist system is based upon a whole category of antagonisms which involve perennial war and conflict, latent or active; and we believe the danger of war between Germany and England to have become acute during the past few years, for a number of reasons.

Upon whose shoulders the responsibility for the existence of that danger – if danger there be – rests, is a question that is worth inquiring into. The first question, however, is, Does that danger really exist? We have no hesitation in saying that the evidences of its existence are obvious and overwhelming. Yet we are assured by our pacifist friends that there is no ground for such a conclusion, except in our own imagination. If they were right it should be easy for them to show that the German naval programme is a figment of our fevered brains, that Germany is not building warships, which are useless for their alleged purpose of protecting trading vessels and can have no other object than an attack on Great Britain.

Instead of thus finally disposing of the “scare,” they, immediately they are confronted with the facts, finding these too strong for them, abandon their first line of defence and content themselves with asserting, with constant reiteration, that England has provoked this warlike naval policy of Germany; that the latter is entitled to that “place in the sun” the attainment of which the Kaiser has declared to be the object of her ambition, and that this object can only be realised at the expense of Great Britain. The responsibility for this state of things, however, they maintain, rests with Great Britain – which is much more to blame than Germany; is much more aggressive in her policy, has proclaimed herself mistress of the sea, and churlishly bars the way of Germany to colonial expansion and development. All this may be perfectly true; but is quite beside the immediate question at issue; and our friends forget that, in making these admissions, they are also admitting the actuality of the danger to which we first called attention and the existence of which they at first denied.

We are not concerned at all with defending the position of England as a world Power at the present time, any more than, we are concerned with defending her policy in the past. We are quite willing to concede that she has been the most piratical Power of modern times; that her Empire is ill-gotten booty the possession of which could not be defended for a moment on ethical grounds; and, that it might be to the advantage of humanity if she were forced to disgorge some of this booty. But all this, once more, is beside the point. The question is not one, primarily, of ethics. The point is that, rightly or wrongly, England is in possession of this booty; that, in consequence, she is regarded as an object of envy by Germany; and that, therefore, she has much more reason, in the nature of things, to fear attack from the latter than Germany has to anticipate attack from her; and that, as a matter of fact, Germany is actually preparing, as rapidly, persistently, strenuously, and scientifically as possible, to make that attack. That we believe to be the actual situation.

As “Vorwarts” observed, when Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman suggested a reduction of armaments, Great Britain could quite reasonably and honestly make such a proposal. Like a gamester who had won all that he could possibly hope to win at the gaming tables, and therefore had no wish to continue playing, but only desired to depart peaceably with his winnings, Great Britain, having gained all she could possibly hope to gain, had no desire to continue the war game, no wish to carry any further the competition in armaments; she had no desire to make war on any of her neighbours, and none of them therefore needed to arm in defence against her, while she had every reason to fear being attacked. Great Britain, therefore, might well wish to call a halt, to limit armaments and to content herself with acting purely on the defensive.

That we believe to be the actual situation; and for that reason we believe that the source of the danger of war lies in Germany and not in England, and we view with grave apprehension the rapid development of Germany’s naval power.

As our comrade Hyndman has more than once observed, a strong navy is a necessity for Great Britain, it is a luxury for Germany. Germany is in no danger of attack from Great Britain. That would be as impossible as for a whale to attack an elephant. On the other hand, it is urged that the German navy is intended for the protection of German merchant vessels, and that the raison d’Ítre of that navy would be removed if the Powers, and England above all, would agree to surrender the right of capture of merchant vessels in time of war.

There is a very great deal, no doubt, to be said in favour of this last proposition; but there is also very much to be said against it. In the first place, her oversea commerce is the only point at which Germany is vulnerable to the attack of Great Britain in the event of war between the two countries; and, secondly, it is questionable wisdom to do more in the direction of professionalising war, so to speak, of making it the affair simply of professional sections of the nations engaged, than has been done already. The knowledge that war is a national affair in which all will suffer, and not merely the professional fighter, is much more likely to give nations pause before engaging in war than would be the assurance that only the paid professional fighters would be affected, and the rest of the nation would be immune from any of the penalties of war beyond that of finding the pay for the mercenaries. On the other hand, it is generally admitted that the effective protection of her mercantile marine would be out of the question, even if Germany had an infinitely stronger navy than she contemplates or could ever hope to build, and therefore this pretext for her ambitious naval programme remains merely a pretext, and has no foundation in reality.

The whole of the facts of the situation, therefore, point to the conclusion that Germany is preparing a fleet for aggressive purposes; that the object of that aggression. can only be Great Britain, and that, consequently, there is a danger, in the immediate future, of war between the two countries – war in which Germany would, necessarily, be the aggressor.

In the light of these facts the question arises, What is our duty as Social-Democrats? And to that question there are many and various answers.

There are those who contend that, assuming the situation to be as stated, it is no concern of ours. The governing classes of all countries are our common enemy in all countries. Consequently, it is urged, the wars and conflicts which result from the squabbles and quarrels between the national sections of the dominant class are matters of absolute indifference to Social-Democrats, and to the working-class generally, and do not concern them in the remotest degree; that if the rulers of two countries fall out it does not greatly concern us, but that we should look on and say with Iago, “Now whether he kill Cassio, or Cassio him, or each do kill the other, whichever way fall out will work my gain.”

We could sincerely wish that this were the case, but unfortunately it is not so. The workers are only too intimately concerned with the squabbles between the ruling classes and the wars they make. Patriotism is undoubtedly very ridiculous, especially for propertyless proletarians; but, unfortunately for themselves, the lives of the latter are irrevocably bound up with the nation in which they find themselves. The very propertylessness which divorces them from the land of their birth, and renders them a plastic and mobile instrument in the hands of the capitalists, deprives them of all mobility on their own volition. In the event of war – a war which would condemn them by tens of thousands to privation and sheer starvation – the workers would be unable to get away; they would be condemned to stay here and starve, caught like rats in a sewer. The loud-mouthed propertied patriots, on the other hand, with their great possessions and their foreign investments, could scuttle with comparative ease, and live well, in peace and comfort, in some other land until the storm they had helped to brew had blown over. Oh, no, it is idle to pretend that war is a matter of sheer indifference to the workers, or that the danger of the invasion of this country is one which we could contemplate with unconcern.

What, then, is to be done? We are sometimes told that it would not greatly matter, whether the people of this country were ruled from Berlin or retained their own Government in London; that as there is nothing for the proletarian to choose between the British and the German capitalist, and he has to work for a subsistence wage in any case, the question of national liberty, of political rights, Of free political institutions, is of no moment whatever. The answer to that is that Social-Democrats have always held, on the contrary, that these matters are of the first importance, and that the conquest of political power is essential to the conquest of economic emancipation.

In this country the people have a considerable modicum of political power. If they do not use it, or use it improperly, that is no reason for surrendering it, without a struggle, as useless. To admit that would be to emphatically condemn the heroic struggles of our Russian and Polish comrades for such political liberty, and would be to express the strongest approbation of imperialism that could possibly be uttered.

Social-Democracy is anti-imperialist. It stands for internationalism, not anti-nationalism. Social-Democracy does not stand for making a mish-mash, world-wide Empire, any more than it stands for the crushing out of individuality. It stands for the autonomy of the nation in things national, just as it stands for the fullest individual liberty in things individual. It is for every nation to work out its own economic salvation, and foreign domination would have, as it has always had, the effect of encouraging, developing and consolidating a nationalist movement to the exclusion or obscuring of the class movement.

No one could doubt, we should imagine, that the supremacy of Prussia in Europe would mean a set-back for the whole revolutionary movement and would be a great misfortune for European democracy. The supremacy of any great power would be bad, but none save Russian supremacy could be so bad as that of Prussia.

Apart from all these considerations, however, it will be generally admitted that even if we have no interest in opposing German aggression, we have some interest in preserving the peace. The question therefore arises, What can we do in this direction; what is the immediate duty of Social-Democrats in the interests of peace? Surely our first duty is to get a full knowledge of the facts of the case; to clearly ascertain what are the forces and influences making for war; and then to use all the means at our disposal to eliminate these.

We are pledged to the resolution of the International Congresses against war and militarism, and in favour of the limitation of armaments, According to that resolution it is the duty of the Socialist Parliamentary Party in every country to vote against any military or naval expenditure. But the resolution also recognises the right of national defence, and the need for the organisation of a national citizen force in every country for this purpose. Now, it is contended that this latter has no significance for this country, because Britain is a sea power and therefore does not need a strong efficient land force. That being so, it must be admitted that the British Navy stands by itself, as a necessary means of defence; is essential for our national existence, and for the maintenance of our national liberty and free institutions. That is not a reason for supporting any proposals that may be made for the increase of the navy; it is, however, a reason for giving careful consideration to any such proposals before opposing them, and for conceding the necessity of keeping the navy in a state of efficiency. There is, also, this always to be borne in mind, that the navy, unlike the army, is not and cannot be, an instrument of domestic despotism.

Admitting the need for the maintenance of an efficient navy, however, it is our duty to oppose any such enlargement of the navy as would constitute it an instrument of aggression. In the first place, therefore, we should have a full knowledge of the needs of the situation. Then we should actively oppose any extension of British imperialism; and, further, we should vigorously and strenuously oppose, as indeed we have always done, any kind of provocative policy, or any policy of treaties and alliances which may be construed as a provocative one.

In that connection, we cannot but regard the alliance with Russia as entirely harmful and mischievous. Already it has been productive of much mischief. It has not only strengthened the feeling in Germany that Great Britain is a party to a policy of isolation against that country, but it has reimposed the yoke of despotism upon the necks of the Russian people, it has reconstituted the power of Russia as an evil influence in the East of Europe, and it has practically committed us to backing up the despotism and reaction in Persia.

And, above all, it has been so futile! Russia as a power is stronger, but England is weaker, for the alliance, and democracy has been the loser by it. The Russian despotism is the natural enemy of free peoples and of free institutions. Her natural allies are the great military powers of Europe, and, at the very moment when by this alliance our diplomats and statesmen fondly imagined that they had scored a point against Germany, we see the Czar making friends with the Kaiser, with a view, doubtless, to throwing this country over at the first favourable opportunity, and strengthening the powers of reaction and despotism the world over.

All such alliances and the secret diplomacy in which they are hatched should be strenuously opposed by Social-Democrats. On the other hand we should favour an undertaking against any further extension of armaments – if only such an undertaking would be observed!

To recapitulate; the essential question is a simple one and admits of a plain answer: – Is Germany preparing for an attack upon this country? Admitting this to be the case, there are the proverbial three courses open to the British Government – (1) to continue the present mad war of armaments; allowing Germany to dictate our naval programme, while we do the like for her; (2) To firmly intimate that any further increase of naval armaments would be regarded as an unfriendly act; which would precipitate a conflict, or (3) To enter upon immediate negotiations with a view to the limitation of armaments and the amicable settlement of points of difference. Any one of these is open to the Government, but the last is the one we should support.

Above all, the circumstances of the present time surely offer the occasion for calling together the International Bureau for the consideration of definite steps to be taken in all countries for the prevention of war. General formal resolutions have served their turn. What is needed now is a definite plan for an active campaign against war. Verbal peaceful protests have had their day. The active preparations which are now being carried on by the powers for waging war should be the occasion for active organisation for the Social Revolution.

H. Quelch.