E. Belfort Bax

At Bay

(April 1885)

At Bay, Commonweal, April 1885, pp.17 & 18.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

The two monsters at last confront each other at the gates of India. It may be in a few weeks’ time that the representative embodiments of the great reactionary forces of the age – military autocracy and commercial plutocracy – are involved in a life and death struggle. To Socialists the spectacle of Russian military despotism and British commercial greed mutually strangling one another cannot be unwelcome, provided the issue be the permanent disablement of one or both of them. A mere useless effusion of blood would of course be deprecated on all hands and any campaign resulting in a patched-up peace must be viewed in this light by Socialists. Better that present probabilities should be realised – that the menaces of the bear should have the effect once more of driving the lion slinking off with his tail between his legs – than that a few months carnage should result in the status quo ante, or little more. But we repeat that should a rupture in Afghanistan mean the beginning of the end of the high contending powers implicated, then the wish of every revolutionist should be, “Let it come!”

And that it should mean this, it must be remembered, is quite within the range of possibility. That neither power will bear a heavy strain on its resources is generally admitted. It can scarcely be doubted but that the Czar’s forces once engaged with England, and unable to repress internal risings, the revolutionary party in Russia will have a word, and may be a weighty one, to say on the situation. The revolutionary movement at home will be aided by the disaffected populations of Turkestan, who have not forgotten Geok Tepé, and who may, likely enough, light the flame of rebellion throughout Central Asia. As regards the disintegration of the “Empire upon which the sun never sets,” the elements are many and rife. The whole military strength of England locked up on the Indian frontier would offer unparalleled opportunities for all “nations and kindreds and tongues and people,” now the prey of British office-mongers, stock-jobbers, and cheap goods dealers, who have sufficient independence left in them to desire freedom, to emancipate themselves from the British yoke. Firstly, the establishment of “the orderly government at Khartoum,” otherwise called British supremacy in Eastern Africa, must of necessity be indefinitely postponed. The policy of “butcher and bolt” would have to be pursued – less the “butcher”. For there would be no time to give Mahdi the chance of inflicting that chastisement on the invader he so richly deserves. But the Soudanese would be at least relieved from the immediate danger of having the blessings of civilisation conferred upon them. It would be well to remember in this connexion also, that the native movement in Egypt proper is not dead but sleeping.

Next, those wicked Irish might possibly not be inclined to cease from troubling and to leave the weary Castle at rest just at this precise juncture. Even the presence of “their prince” might not supply that of a military force in keeping down such discontent – such is human perversity. If the “handful of agitators” of which we are sometimes told “disloyal Ireland” consists, chose to take advantage of the political “situation”, stirring times might be expected across St. George’s Channel.

In the rear of the British armies themselves would be the vast Indian populations which some who know them say are ready for revolt, others that their “loyalty” to their Empress has never been firmer. War in Afghanistan would afford an excellent opportunity of deciding this interesting question. It is unnecessary to do more than allude to the possible action of Irish Americans in Canada, or the possible prospect of “movements” in South Africa. All things considered, we think we are not far wrong in venturing the prognostication that in the event of a Russian war the British Empire speaking generally, is likely to have a warm quarter of an hour.

As regards the immediate aspect of the dispute, it is clear that the Czar and his myrmidons have scored a diplomatic victory. After being peremptorily ordered to evacuate the Zilfilkar Pass by the British Government, the Cossack troops are now permitted by the same Government to remain where they are – for a time at least. Russia’s claim, from being dismissed with disdain, has at least reached the stage of argument. Whether it will attain that of acceptance remains to be seen. It is likely enough that by alternate wheedling and blustering the Cabinet at St. Petersburg may win over British Ministers to its opinions.

After all, it is not nice going to war with one’s equal or possible superior in strength – so different from those delightful “military operations” which consist in “potting”, savages with an amount of danger just sufficient to give a zest to the sport, and no more – and then “nobbling” their territory. If the Sultan of Socatoo or the King of Abyssinia insisted on holding positions when ordered to evacuate them, he would have been thrashed of course. But then the special line the skill of our ablest and most valiant generals takes is that of “thrashing a cannibal” (pace Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan). Thrashing a Cossack is a different sort of thing.

The strong point of England is her cheap goods. Cheap “glory” is the latest industrial development of the British capitalistic system. The Englishman has discovered an improved method of manufacturing it very cheap, by the application of the latest inventions in war machinery on the raw materiel of naked savages who can’t handle a rifle. Since it is only on these terms that “glory” pays, it is hardly likely that any British Government would care to embark in the perilous speculation of producing it on the old method of personal prowess and equal fighting. This would be retrograde. Much as we hate war, we must confess to a species of eager, expectant curiosity, akin to that one feels at the revival of some defunct art, at the prospect of contemplating the figure cut by the “bold Briton” before the foeman when the odds are something less than a thousand to one in his favour. Would we doubt the valour of Britain’s sons? Never! But as yet we live by faith, and not by sight. That is all.



Last updated on 15.7.2006