E. Belfort Bax

The Decline of Militarism

(1 May 1897)

Decline of Militarism, Justice, (May Day Special) 1st May 1897, p.5, 6, 7.
Reprinted in E. Belfort Bax, Essays In Socialism, New & Old, 1907, pp.85-89.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

At first sight it may seem to some a paradox to speak of the decline of militarism, in face of the much-discussed bloated armaments of the present day. But if we do but examine the matter a little, the paradox will disclose itself as an undeniable fact, and that from more than one point of view. The “bloated armaments” are in themselves no proof of the ascendancy of the military spirit, of the popularity of the military life, or of the enduring nature of militarism as a social and political force in modern civilisation, but the contrary. The very unwieldy character of the armaments are themselves a sign of the fatty degeneration of militarism, and not of its virility. The oppression of the armed peace of present-day Europe, the weight of which increases in the necessary course of its development, is fast becoming more than the economic conditions of modern civilisation can bear. This is a common observation, so common, indeed, that to many it may seem trite. Be this as it may, its true inwardness means that the end of militarism is not far off. For if the only conditions under which war can continue to exist as an institution for settling international disputes are incompatible with the economic foundation of modern society, then it is perfectly clear that war, and hence militarism, is by that very fact doomed. It is plain that it is involved in the process of working out its own contradiction from the material side at least. As soon as the armaments become too “bloated” for their continued maintenance to be possible, and that point, according to experts, is not far off, so soon the crisis will have come, and a change of some sort will be imminent. The outbreak of a European war might easily precipitate matters; or might postpone the downfall of militarism by a few years, according as its course and event turned out. But one result of the recent developments of the machinery of militarism is the dread of all responsible parties to resort to the arbitrament of these new developments in the war-industry (one can no longer term it the ‘art of war’). The uncertainty of the issue is too great. There is a dread of the unknown. It is felt that the existence, political and social, of every nationality concerned is at stake, and to engage would be to hazard all on the stroke of a die. For this reason every year that passes renders the outbreak of the much-talked-of European war less probable.

Meanwhile, whatever may be the issue of the immediate future, it is interesting and instructive to note the change which has come over the war-industry and the consequent change in the character of the life of the soldier, as well as, of the way in which the military career its regarded.

Precisely the same development has taken place in war as in every industrial art. At earlier periods of the world’s history fighting was a matter of skill, strength, and prowess in the individual. Just as the handicraftsman worked with his own tools, so the soldier furnished his own equipment as he pleased, rode to battle on his own horse, followed his leader of his own free will, but was under no compulsion to slavishly obey him, was his own drillmaster, if one may so say, when drilling in the modern sense was unknown – in short, was in every respect an independent craftsman who followed a particular craft, that of fighting, then regarded as the king of all crafts, and who, with his brethren-in-arms, were members of the great guild of knights or of heroes. The chief, the head of the guild, was, indeed primus inter pares, but had no authority independent of his comrades-in-arms. Agamemnon, king of men, had to submit to the decisions of his warriors in council. Nay, he was powerless to prevent or punish the desertion of Achilles and his myrmidons. The same with the Germanic leader, the Herzog, who, with his comrades, went forth to conquer the Roman world. He was simply the “eldest among many brethren,” each of whom was his equal, who voluntarily followed his suggestions. William of Normandy, when, with his followers, he came to conquer Saxon England, had no independent power over them beyond the moral influence which the then but recently perfected feudal relation afforded him. Even long afterwards, at the close of the Middle Ages anal later, the new order of mercenary soldiers – the Lanzknechte or Landsknechte (the derivation is uncertain) as they were called – were subject to no discipline in the modern sense. They formed a guild of their own, usually furnished their own equipments, wore no uniform, beyond the colours of the lord or prince under whom they were serving, and whom, if he did not pay them regularly or proved otherwise not satisfactory, they unceremoniously deserted. As yet, the distinction between the common soldier and the field officer was uncertain and of comparatively little moment. Then was the time when the individual warrior could, by his personal prowess, put an enemy to flight and save a battle. Then was the time when every individual fighter had, as such, a distinct and independent value of his own.

Even as late as Charles II service in this country under the King’s colours was perfectly voluntary, and the law gave the officer no power over the person of the common soldier. But this same period (the second half of the seventeenth century) was the important turning-point. It was the age when Louvois, the Minister of Louis XIV, put the French army into uniform. This was the beginning of the uniform system, and a great step towards the modern machine-army – the army which consists in an elaborately integrated bureaucratic despotism over a mass of will-less slaves, moulded to act collectively as a piece of mechanism. This is the ideal of the modern army, and the nearer to this mechanical perfection it approaches the more effectively the army fulfils its function, the better fighting machine it is. The most perfect of these war-engines of the present day is generally admitted to be the German army. But the principle is the same in all modern armies. As a consequence of this principle, the life of the modern soldier is mainly taken up with a round of purely mechanical processes – the polishing to the highest possible brilliancy of uniform buttons and metallic accoutrements generally, the keeping of the uniform in a condition in which the strongest magnifying power would fail to disclose a speck of dust. The aim of his drill is to ensure absolute uniformity of bodily position end simultaneity of movement, and even gesture. The line of the squad’s or detachment’s toes on parade must be mathematically perfect. As each man is, as regards dress and equipment, the exact mechanical duplicate of his neighbour, so that the whole detachment shall represent a single object, moving or stationary, so the whole congeries of boots must seem like one continuity of bootness.

The reduction of the whole army to a machine, and each separate division and sub division to parts of a machine, is the one aim of modern military organisation. In other words, its first and necessary end is the extinction of the individuality of the soldier. How far this extends may be judged from the fact that the very outward expressions of élan and enthusiasm have to be practiced (!) that they may be worked off with the due precision and regularity. The spontaneous war-shout of the tribesman rushing on with his people to victory or death for the glory of his kindred must be kept up as a piece of “trade finish” in modern capitalistic warfare, and correctly performed on the word of command. Only the other day a member of the German army was describing to me how, at “manoeuvres,” when fagged after a hard day’s march, and with parched throats, his battalion were ordered by the commanding officer to charge with hurrah. The first hurrah was not full and unvociferous enough; so the poor wretches were ordered to fall back and repeat the process; this was done till the requisite precision was attained. Fancy the Catti, the Marcomanni, the Suevi, the Goths, or the companions of Clovis having stage rehearsals of their onrush and their shout! With what contempt the free yeomen and feudal retainers of the Middle Ages would have regarded the modern soldier-slave, neither whose soul nor whose body are his own, and who is soldered into the modern army machine by “discipline” and ferocious military codes!

The fate of a conquered people in the past and present is significant of the radical change in militarism between then and now. Formerly the man of the conquered race was forbidden the freeman’s privilege of bearing arms. Now he is thrust into the uniform of his conquerors and has the subject’s duty forced upon him of serving as raw material to be forged into his conqueror’s army – alias patent war machine.

War, then; like every other craft, has become a mechanical process in which individual talent, skill, and character, play little or no part. The difference between the modern soldier and his predecessor of mediaeval times is even greater, if that were possible, than the difference between the modern proletarian and the medieval craftsmen. Hence the absurdity of those who, like that venerable humbug, the late Charles Kingsley, speak of the effects of devotion and enthusiasm on the character, effects which may conceivably, under certain circumstances, have accompanied the military conditions of an earlier age, as though they could possibly apply to the mechanical slavery of the soldier in the army of to-day. The foregoing explains the difference between the way in which the military life is regarded now, and in former times. Time was when the military career was the most popular. It was the freest of all careers. In none was a man so much his own master as when he became a soldier. As late as the Thirty Years War this is specially noticeable. The one thing that was required of him was courage and dash. The Lanzknecht was a boon companion who defied the world, and who, if his leader did not satisfy him, would go and serve another. Now, in this age of “scientific warfare” hardly another career is so unpopular as the military, for in no other career is a man so absolute a slave to the will of his immediate superior, and to a galling, grinding round of trivial operations, precision in the performance of which is exacted with an unyielding, rigour. The fatigues the modern soldier has to bear are not so much the old fatigues incidental to the life of the fighting man general]y, long marches under the weight of arms and armour, desperate attacks and defences, but they are the seemingly objectless fatigues exacted by the “discipline” of the modern machine army. Standing for hours rigid, without moving a muscle, covered by a tight-fitting thick cloth uniform in a broiling sun for the purposes of a “review,” practice of evolutions, marching up to the top of a hill and marching down again, all to the individual concerned aimless operations, in which he is a mere mechanical unit, and the intention of which is to perfect him in this capacity. Unfortunately for him, he is, in addition, a personality with will and consciousness.

Add to this, that when war actually occurs, it is probably a war in which he has no conceivable interest, material or ideal. What enthusiasm, for example would the German Social-Democrats have in defending Alsace Lorraine against the French. What interest has the working man generally, to-day, in defending a capitalistic monarchy, empire, or even republic from destruction. If the modern man has often no ideal interest in the causes of modern warfare, still less has he any material or personal interest in its course. Time was, and not so long ago, when he could hope to gain a fortune in the sack of a single wealthy town, (not to speak of the wives and daughters of the burghers who were at his disposal if he were licentiously inclined). Limitless fortunes lay within the possibilities of the soldier. Now we have changed all that. Modern warfare is as dull and as “moral” as it is ruthless and mechanical. Of course, we shall be told that this is a triumph of civilisation, and we would not deny it. But the fact remains that the change has sapped one of the roots of the war-spirit. War has no longer aught to offer, either materially or, ideally, either in the shape of low rewards or high ideals. It has reduced the individual soldier to a cog in the wheel of the great modern war-engine; in other words, to a position which means the most abject form of slavery. Hence the life of a soldier is shunned and regarded with aversion by the enormous majority of men (even young men for whom in bygone times it was the ideal of free adventure). Charm it no longer possesses for anyone.

Militarism, all things considered, would seem, therefore, in spite of bloated armaments, in spite of the general anticipation of a European war, to be rapidly approaching its end, even within the limits of present capitalistic society. Among the first measures that would characterise the change from Capitalism to Social-Democracy, not the least conspicuous would be, of course, the definitive abolition of international warfare inaugurated by complete disarmament. And it is only by the furtherance of Social-Democracy that the certain end of militarism can be promoted. But as above said there are signs that it is possible that militarism may die out even before capitalism finally collapses, inasmuch as it is rapidly becoming a serious hindrance to the high-pressure industrial and commercial progress necessitated by the competitive conditions of Modern Capitalism. This was shown recently by the manner in which the projected Arbitration Treaty between Great Britain and the United States was hailed by the European Press. The capitalist classes would be very willing to get rid of militarism if they only knew how to do so without endangering their own position. They might conceivably come to an international understanding with each other after some little difficulty, and thus a sort of gigantic international capitalist ring, or trust might be formed, instead of, as now, cut-throat competition ruling supreme among capitalists of different nationalities. But they want an army as a reserve force against the proletariat. And never has there been a more effective weapon for crushing popular risings than is furnished by the mechanical militarism of to-day.

With militarism, moreover, are involved certain interests of the governing and feudal families of Europe, to come into conflict with which might jeopardise the whole fabric inasmuch as these feudal survivals have been accepted by European Capitalism as an integral part of its political and social system, and hence have to be reckoned with in any change which may be made. These and other minor considerations make it difficult for any decisive step to be taken towards the abolition of war as an institution, such, for example, as a universal system of arbitration-treaties involving a standing court of final appeal, and followed by general disarmament. Yet none the less, for many reasons, not so much of humanity as of self-interest, the bourgeois would like well enough to bring about such a state of things, as, except in a few industries, he has everything to lose and nothing to gain by militarism and war. He is undoubtedly beginning to see that to keep up perpetually, expensive military establishments on the chance of his being able to steal a march on his neighbour, does not pay, and that so far as international capitalistic rivalry) is concerned, it would answer better to “pool the swag” in some way than to continue a cut-throat competition involving such costly machinery for its maintenance. To perform his burglarious operations on savage races in Africa and elsewhere, all that is wanted is a small number of trained men, plenty of maxims, with, in case of need, the reserve of volunteers, the supply of which is always greater than the demand when the heroic sport of “nigger-shooting” is afoot. This would amply suffice for his “colonial” exploits in search of markets. But then, as already said, there remains the proletarian at home to be overawed! Yet, if the prospects of immediate disarmament nay not be brilliant, the handwriting on the wall is none the less clear that militarism as an institution has outlived itself and is already a “survival.”


Belfort Bax


Last updated on 14.1.2006