The Clarion 1900

On Militarism

Written: by Wilhelm Liebknecht;
First published: in The Clarion, 21 April 1900, pp. 121-122;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford, for 2008.

The letter which I wrote to the Clarion on Imperialism and Militarism has, of course, not been to the liking of Imperialists and Militarists, of course, they tried to weaken or nullify its effect. As it would have been impossible to refute what I said about Imperialism and Militarism on the Continent – especially in Germany and Italy – the chief argument against me was: What I said did not apply to England. Nobody thought of introducing continental Militarism in England.

“When friend Liebknecht,” says Nunquam, “uses the word Militarism, he uses it to denote universal compulsory military service. Militarism in that sense exists on the Continent. It exists in Germany, in France, in Russia, in Italy. It is a bad thing, and a thing fraught with evil to the people of any country; it breeds hectoring spirit and a loud contempt for unwarlike citizens, and it enables a monarch or government to resist the popular will and to coerce the people by means of their own arms .... Conscription means ruin and slavery .... Against conscription in any form, and against a military establishment of a continental pattern, all who love freedom, all Democrats, and all reformers should declare war – war to the knife.”

Very well!!

But, rightly or wrongly” Nunquam continues – we have a vast Empire. Rightly or wrongly we are determined to hold that Empire .... We must therefore, even we Socialists, consent to the popular demand for an army” (a large army is meant), “and so we find that, whether we like the thing or not, we shall soon be obliged to adopt Militarism in one form or another.”

No! I protest. You shall not if you will not. Militarism, in any form, is an evil which must on no condition be accepted or tolerated by a free people. A people that does, falls under the warning of the Roman poet:

Propter vitam vivendi perdere, causam!” What gives a commonwealth its right of existence? The guarantee of welfare, freedom and security is destroyed by Militarism. And what is a commonwealth worth without these guarantees? Rather no commonwealth than one with the pest of Militarism. And for commonwealth let us say Empire.

I will not argue about the necessity of holding that Empire. I might say that your Empire is not a Unity, that there is a very great difference between your Colonial Empire, which is an organic part of England, flesh from your flesh, and between your conquered Empire, India and other states or provinces taken by arms and kept by arms. I might say that the very same event which has now raised the question of Imperialism and Militarism, which has brought upon you the danger of Imperialism and Militarism, has nothing whatever to do with the necessity of holding your Empire. Or is there any sane man in England who would affirm that the English Empire could not exist, or at least could not exist in full strength, without the annexation of two South. African dwarf Republics of Dutch Boers – the two together with a smaller population than the smallest of London suburbs? Might I not say that this unfortunate South African War – I only say unfortunate because I wish in this most serious matter to avoid every offensive expression – has done your Empire more harm than can ever be made good by the most successful end of the war? You cannot kill all the Boers – men, women, and children – you will after all be forced by the common interest, by the life interest of your Empire, to establish an amiable modus vivendi, which you, doubtlessly, could have established without war, and far better to boot.

However, I will not talk now of the South African war. I will only mark out once more the fact that without this war there would be no question of Imperialism and Militarism in England and I add: If through this war you will be blessed with Militarism, then you are the cruelly punished victims of the war, and the Boers may laugh at you; they have their cruel revanche and revenge.

Some form or another of Militarism is to be adopted,” means Nunqnam. He knows the dangers and evils of Militarism. He is cautious; the form of Militarism he is willing to accede to must be innocuous. By no means the conscription, by no means the military system of continental Europe. That reminds me of the persons who, knowing the poisonous nature of opium, want a sleeping draught – or powder that is not called opium. They get some other form of the poison, and are poisoned quite as well as those who take undisguised opium.

The army is to be increased without conscription by voluntary enlistment to such an extent that it is sufficient for service abroad and for the service at home, by a million of volunteers.

Very well. But if the amount of soldiers required abroad is so great that voluntary enlistment does not yield the amount required of recruits, what then?

To South Africa you have had to send quarter of a million of soldiers – that is, about one British soldier for every man, woman and child in the two Republics. It was difficult for you to scrape together this quarter of a million. And now think. Your Government begins a second little war (for you cannot call this war against half a suburb of London a “great” war!) somewhere else, where by chance new gold or diamond fields are discovered, what then? I doubt whether it would be easy for you to get the second quarter of a million. And that is only a small matter. The big matter is artfully ignored now – left out of the calculation. What if the great reckoning begins with Russia? If the Russian Bear, who at this moment looks on quite gently because he sees you entangled and drained in South Africa, thinks the time has come to attack you in East Asia, in India, in Europe, in Africa – what then?

All military authorities, without one single exception, in England, and everywhere else, will tell you that without conscription you will never be able to get the number of soldiers required. And, if the present current of Imperialistic feeling continues, there is not the slightest doubt that the military authorities will impose upon you the conscription. And the conscription, as my opponent rightly says, draws after it all the evils of Militarism. There is no escape from this iron logic of facts.

Imperialism is the father of Militarism. I mean Imperialism in the only sense of the word I know – that is, in the sense of violent extension of power, of subjecting other countries and nations to the Empire – the Imperium. Mind, defending your country and civilisation against the barbaric Imperialism of Russia is not Imperialism; that is simply a duty like every other war in defence, and has nothing to do with Militarism. Nobody will speak of Militarism amongst the Boers, though every Boer is a fighter now. As soon as the war is over every warrior will be a citizen – a burgher – again.

Militarism does not lie in the fighting. It lies in the political system and aim. Its danger is in Imperialism. If you do not succeed in stemming the tide of Imperialism you will have Militarism, and you may bury freedom. There is the danger and here is the remedy. The English people have to choose between Imperialism and Imperium and Freedom. Either the one or the other. The two do not go together.

It is an illusion and fallacy to think Militarism was an exotic plant that could not take root in English soil. As sure as Imperialism triumphs in England you will have Militarism. Shall England, then, be disarmed? No! No! And I have already pointed to the answer when I mentioned the Boers.

There are two military systems – and only these two – consistent with civil liberty: either the system of voluntary service as, in the main, it has existed until now in England and the United States of America, or the militia system as it exists in Switzerland, not perfectly developed yet, it is true, but better than in any other country; the system according to which every citizen capable of bearing arms is taught: to use the arms, and has as long as he is able to wear arms to serve as a warrior (“wehrman,” the word soldier, is hateful to the free Swiss) whatever his country calls him. A people with this militia system is indeed a people in arms, which by our defenders of Militarism is said lyingly to the German people.

No, we Germans are not people in arms. We have two peoples in Germany, one in arms and the other without arms. And the people without arms are kept in slavery by the people in arms. The talk of a universal military service in Germany is hypocritical nonsense. If “military service was universal, as it is in Switzerland, the German Empire would not be what it really is – a half-feudal military despotism on the same level as the autocratic despotism of semi-barbarian Russia. A country in which every citizen, whether rich or poor, is a warrior, such a country is a free country and can never lose its liberty, because there is no power to oppress the people. All citizens are equal – everyone has arms, and Government has no means to enforce its will upon the people.

Another time I shall perhaps have an opportunity of entering deeper into this matter. You know the militia system forms part of our Social Democratic programme, and we make, indeed, war to the knife to our ruling military system! About the political advantages of the militia system there cannot be any doubt. And with regard to its efficiency on the battle-field, the last doubts have been dispersed by the Boers. Although they have not had the regular military education which the Swiss militia system gives to every citizen, they have shown the fighting superiority of men who from their youth learned marching and shooting over drilled soldiers, nine-tenths of whose military drill is worthless, if not positively detrimental. Whatever you may think of the South African war, one great service it has rendered to humanity is this: it has proved the small military value of Militarism; it has demonstrated to evidence that the free men, who defends his country and his freedom is a better fighter than the professional soldier, who from a man has been changed into a machine. And whatever our German military critics may say our soldiers or French soldiers would not have been more successful in South Africa than yours. We want fighting men not fighting machines. And if your present military system fails and you are forced to a dopt another one, by all means beware of conscription – beware of the baneful German system which now ruins the continent of Europe. Adopt the militia system.

Nunquam will reply to W. Liebknecht and A.E. Fletcher in next week’s “Clarion.”