Austin Lewis

War and Public Opinion

(July 1917)


Source: From The Class Struggle, Vol. 1 No. 2, July–August 1917, pp. 9–16.
Transcription: Matthew Siegfried.
HTML mark-up: Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists Internet Archive (2022).
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2022). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.


The recent demand for a referendum prior to a declaration of war is apparently based upon the notion that public opinion is averse to war. This has lately received some support from the vote of Australia against conscription. This fact is, however, offset by the equally important one that Australia has furnished her quota to the war by voluntary enlistment. It seems to be fairly certain that all the governments are supported by the public opinion of the respective countries and this is true even if we allow for the censorship and the restrictions on public meetings.

Of course, there is no question that some wars have been unpopular, but their unpopularity has not hindered their prosecution. There have also been intensely popular wars. As far as the British possessions are involved it may be truthfully said that this war is one of them. The zeal of the public has appeared not only in the enlistments and monetary contributions but even more in the violence of the social disapproval which has marked any unwillingness to serve.

Where the means of subsistence are threatened even indirectly the group is a unit in the struggle to maintain them. Even where the “maintenance mores,” the system of customs at the foundation of the group prosperity appear to be in danger, the same vehemence of public opinion in their defense is manifested. The raids of barbarian tribes upon their neighbors for the purpose of stealing cattle, and thus increasing the food supply or forays with the idea of annexation and thus broadening the opportunities for making a living have always met with the approval of the public. For under such conditions the appeal to the emotions of the crowd meets with a ready response and public opinion is easily developed.

At the beginning of the war the German government was wonderfully well placed for an appeal to public opinion. The statement that the country was threatened by a Russian invasion was sufficient, as the most obvious instinct of self-preservation was thereby called into play, but there were also other self-regarding sentiments which aided the war appeal. As Liebknecht charged in the May Day speech for which he is now suffering imprisonment, there is little doubt that the German working class considered that it would profit economically by the war. The government, it was argued, would have more funds at its disposal and) this would be an advantage to the entire community. In particular, state aid measures for the benefit of the working class would be greatly enlarged.

In Great Britain, however, the same fundamental appeal was not possible, and public opinion was not so rapidly developed. But when the Zeppelin raids and the coast bombardments brought to the people an actual realization of danger, public opinion in favor of the war arose forthwith and! the partial indifference which had marked the initial stages disappeared. The British colonies, also, which had grown up in economic reliance upon the mother country, though, almost independent political units, regarded themselves as threatened by a common attack. To them also the war appeared to threaten the means of subsistence.

The case is very clear in the matter of the invaded countries but in that of Russia it is more difficult. Perhaps the explanation is that public opinion does not exist in Russia. There have been and still are numerous and embarrassing differences of opinion in the Russian dominant groups with respect to the war, the Liberals favoring the war in the hope of gaining political advantages from the very beginning.

Professor A.C. Coolidge in a lecture delivered October 14, 1914, (quoted by Professor Keller in Societal Evolution – MacMillan) said “International relations are based ultimately upon conditions involving self-maintenance interests.” For example, a noted student of such relations has stated that it is normal for a great war, such as the one now in progress in Europe to start suddenly. If there is time for deliberation the commercial and financial interests have an opportunity to assert themselves and to endeavor to secure some form of peaceful adaptation. They will assert themselves later on in any case and the final settlement must include the satisfaction of the basic interests of the dominant groups.

Revenge for defeat also acts as a stimulus to public opinion. In recent history a war to avenge the defeat of the British by the Boers at Majuba Hill would have been exceedingly popular, as was shown by the undeniable popularity of the last Boer war, at least in its initial stages, before its duration and the consequent losses caused a revulsion in popular sentiment. Since the Franco-Prussian war also French politics have been largely determined by the popular desire for revenge. McDougall mentions both of these cases in his Social Psychology. He regards revenge as a “collective emotion” within “the system of that most widely extended form of the self-regarding sentiment which we call the patriotic sentiment.”

But spontaneous as public opinion may appear to be in certain circumstances the development of its expression is a matter of deep concern and requires much art. The dominant class has the influencing of public opinion in its own hands, for that class alone has the control of the instruments by which public opinion is moved. It has been pointed out that the dominant class can even make a change in established mores by enforcing a rational selection. Its organs of expression can gradually deflect the course of opinion so as to cause it to take a line other than the usual, and by means of the power which they possess for a time at least produce the public opinion which they want. Hence governments devote to the formation of public opinion the same care and ability as they expend upon the assembling of armies and the provision for their maintenance in the field. As circumstances arise, the government is desirous that stress should be laid upon certain facts or that certain catchwords should become popular. Highly specialized skill and energy are directed to that end and experts who are adepts in mob psychology are engaged upon the task. Under such conditions, what is called public opinion is in reality the product of the advertising efforts of the governmental agencies and the mind of the public is thus made up without any conscious effort on its own part.

The censorship kills off all facts and counter-catchwords capable of producing a psychological effect antagonistic to that desired by the government. Even in its extreme use this does not necessarily imply that all criticisms of the government are forbidden, as we can see in the notable case of Maximilian Harden, nor that a peace-propaganda is obviously penalized. On the other hand, criticism may be encouraged if it is so made as to appeal to a small select intellectual class and provided that it is not of a nature to affect the mind of the masses. The possessing hand of the government on public opinion therefore brings it about that the only live existent opinion is governmental opinion, for the masses have no power of expression and they are deprived by the exigencies of war of all opportunities for debate and are thus shut off from that liberty whence alone can arise public opinion in any real sense.

Catchwords with which the history of the group has made the masses familiar and which form part of the “prosperity mores” of the group are the favorites. The governmental advertisers play on them continually as they have already channeled themselves into the consciousness of the masses and their use provokes an almost automatic response. Thus, around the phrase “rights of small nations” a whole mass of sentiment clusters, and the Greece of Byron, Bulgaria, Poland, and the American Colonies arise at once in the minds of Britons as soon as the expression is employed. On the other hand, Ireland, the Transvaal and Egypt do not occur so readily. For in the former cases the “rights of small nations” were associated with the interest of the governing class, the dominant economic group, while in the latter case they were not so associated.

So that catchwords vary with the passing of time and the consequent changes in the structure of the dominant group. A semi-feudal class like the German Junker cannot use the same catchwords as a dominant bourgeoisie. The fact that the British government was in Liberal hands at the outbreak of the war gave it a great advantage, for there is a notion that the Liberals are closer to the people than the Conservatives and so can use popular shibboleths more effectively. The term “freedom of the individual” so frequently employed to show the superiority of the British as compared with the German system is a product of the long struggle between the English Agrarians and the Industrialists. The people in the industrial towns having grown used to the phrase by long usage applaud it automatically and its very employment by the apologists for the government is itself a justification. The unqualified term “freedom” is used indiscriminately by the publicists of all governments, as a negative catchword. It implies that the country is in danger and produces in the mind of the average man the conviction that his means of livelihood are threatened. It therefore makes a universal appeal. “I died for freedom for they told me so” is the explanation made by the dead of each of the conflicting countries. No other catchword is so powerful, for no other is so general in its appeal or makes response so certain, and no other has been so universally advertised.

The “country” is associated immediately with the means of livelihood, particularly in the minds of the dominant class. During the great railroad strike of 1893, a rumor spread in California that the soldiers in Chicago had refused to fire upon the strikers. On hearing this a well-known official of the Southern Pacific Railroad is said to have exclaimed, “We have no country.” To him “country” meant the opportunity to conduct his business backed by all the resources of the government. By virtue of the shaping of public opinion by the dominant class the word has come to mean the same thing even to those who have nothing and who could not conceivably be worse off even in the event of defeat.

By the use of the word “Kultur” the German possessing and dominant classes give a name to the system under which their prosperity has grown up. The greatness, the dignity and the prosperity of the Germans are all bound up in the term. It is the catchword which embraces the “prosperity mores” of the country and hence has all the power of a religious affirmation. It is a mere secularization of “Gott mit uns” which expresses gratitude for an existing society and a determination to fight for its maintenance.

These catchwords are all advertised and kept before the public by the instruments of publicity, all of which are in the hands of the government group. These have heretofore been the press, the pulpit and the speeches of statesmen and politicians. To them the British government at least has added during the course of the war, a systematic campaign by means of cinemas, newspaper advertising, and billboards, calling to its aid all the devices of commercial advertising and placing at the head of the advertising department a recognized expert in such matters. All of these instruments are bound up with the dominant mores and they all repeat formulae familiar to the popular mind by constant repetition, they are in fact the formulae upon which the dominant class psychologically depends and constitute the prosperity basis of that class. So that in any controversy the government group has a practically insuperable advantage. It can undertake its campaign of developing public opinion with full control of those instruments which are the approved and most effective manipulators and educators of public opinion.

If, in addition to the sentimental use of the Catchwords, it can be made to appear that as a matter of fact the means of livelihood of the masses is at stake the response is natural, immediate and almost automatic. Thus, the reiterated statement that defeat would necessitate the adoption of the German system of a strong centralized control over labor does not fail of a profound influence upon British organized labor which is accustomed to greater freedom of action and to gaining ground by its own exertions. Since the war itself necessitates regulation by the government, which is resented by organized labor, the government declares that such regulation is due solely to the war and will cease at the victorious termination of hostilities. The masses of organized labor see in the war therefore an interference with their “maintenance mores.” They are thus all the more eager to terminate the conflict .and are ready to assist the dominant class to that end. The very losses and suffering of the working class thus tend to the strengthening of public opinion in favor of the continuance of the war to the victory point, even though such victory should in its essence make only for the advantage of the governing class.

The failure of the Australians to endorse conscription is perhaps due to the fact that the Australian working people could not discover any real gain to them in the measure. There is no doubt that essentially the Australian people is in favor of the prosecution of the war and is a unit with the mother land in desiring victory for the British arms. Hence in response to a sentimental appeal the Australians have been ready enough to enlist voluntarily but they do not appear to 'have been sufficiently impressed with the urgency of the situation to abandon a system which allowed them to boast that they were “no damned conscripts.”

As militarism is promoted by catchwords and the manipulation of public opinion, its prevention must be sought ultimately in the development of a public opinion opposed to war and not in the placing of mere artificial legal obstacles in the path of war. No legal fence can be made to stand between a dominant class and its aim to extend its wealth and power. Such a fence will either be climbed or broken down. A tribe disadvantageously placed will take any risk to extend its hunting grounds or pasturage. Modern transportation abolishes the restrictions of tribal life but the dominant class in a national group may, as we have seen in the recent case of Germany, consider its opportunities to be restricted. By virtue of its control of the instruments for moving public opinion, it will persuade the masses that their opportunities are likewise restricted and that war is therefore necessary.

The mere fact of the suffering entailed upon such large masses by the present war may in itself tend to produce a reaction against the old catchwords, and even their abuse in recent months may destroy their validity. A desire for internationalism may take the place of the present restricted patriotism which lends itself so readily to exploitation by the governmental group. But this tendency toward internationalism and this groping for a wider and deeper human association must rise among the masses themselves for it will never spring from those who control and manipulate politics. But against it all the manipulations of public opinion and skillful advertising of catchwords would be vain.

Such ideas cannot be formulated by the dominant classes, for they are not in accordance with their interests. The new catchwords must of necessity be democratic. Among them the word “solidarity,” whose significance was only beginning to be learned when the war broke out, may be conspicuously effective.

War will never be ended by the devices of diplomats. The firm will of the people to peace is the only effective barrier against war, the only shield against the effects of the war propaganda upon public opinion.

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Last updated on 11 June 2022