Harry Quelch 1905

Socialism, Patriotism and Militarism

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. IX No. 6, June, 1905, pp. 394-334;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

A question of very considerable moment is agitating the Socialist Party in most European countries at the present time, a question which in view of recent events is one of vital importance to the International Socialist movement. That question is how far Internationalism is compatible with patriotism; and how far is it incumbent upon Socialists to take part in the national defence under the present régime. On these points very considerable differences have manifested themselves among French Socialists. Our veteran comrade Vaillant declares, for instance, that he would adjure his countrymen to refuse to be drawn into a war in the Far East, and would call upon them rather to make an endeavour to begin the Social Revolution by an insurrection against the bourgeoisie at home. Hervé, another member of the United Socialist Party, goes further, and declares that if Germany were to attack France he should exhort the people not to resist the foreign invader, but to direct their efforts against the worse enemies at home. On the other hand Bebel, in the German Reichstag, declares that the Social-Democrats would be as ready to defend every inch of the German Empire as any other party, and, even in France, the Socialists like Gerault-Richard express strong disapproval of the sentiments of Hervé.

The answer to the question at issue must largely depend upon what is understood by patriotism. Do we mean the old patriotism or the new? The old patriotism was a love of one’s own country, one’s “native land;” the new patriotism is a love of other people’s country, and a determination to grab it, if possible. Marx and Engels, in the “Communist Manifesto,” say: “The Communists are reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country. We cannot take from them what they have not got. Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is, so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”

From this standpoint, then, there is no antagonism between patriotism and internationalism. Internationalism presupposes the autonomy of the nation within its sphere, just as it stands for the fullest individuality within the sphere of individualism. It is not internationalism but imperialism which precludes patriotism. We Socialists are opposed to aggression and to the suppression of the national liberties and independence of the smaller peoples. Surely that is to assume the right – and, indeed, the duty – of these smaller peoples to resist aggression and the suppression of their national liberty and independence. In England the Socialists were the only political party which, as a party, opposed the Boer war, not because we were pro-Boers in the vulgar sense, but because we held that the Boers had the right to manage their own affairs in their own way, and because we believe internationalism to mean the free federation of free nationalities and not a heterogeneous amalgamation of peoples under the imperial sway of some divinely appointed race. But precisely the reasons which led us to espouse the cause of the Boers against British imperialist aggression would be a valid ground for the defence of our own national liberty and independence against the aggression of any foreign Power.

The patriotism therein involved, however, is essentially the opposite of imperialism and the same grounds which would justify Socialists in resisting foreign invasion here would be the grounds for their opposing British imperialism elsewhere. Our readiness to assist in the national defence here, therefore, would pre-suppose our willingness to assist the natives of India, say, in asserting their independence. When Bebel said that the German Social-Democrats would be as ready as any other party to defend every inch of German territory, it is to be assumed, therefore, that he would except such parts of that empire as are held by force against the will of the people, just as we should except any part of the British empire which is held in the same way, and that he would be as ready to concede the national rights of the people of Poland as we should be to concede those of the people of India.

Starting from the fundamental basis of Socialism, that the common ownership of the means of production is essential to human liberty, it is right to assume that liberty, national, communal, and individual, is a desirable object. The collectivist basis of Socialism, is, indeed, only a means whereby such liberty can be realised. That being so, it is liberty, economic, political and social, which is to be striven for and defended. The policy of the ‘Socialist Party should be subservient to this end, and in serving this end it is difficult, if not impossible, to lay down any hard and fast line. For instance, agreeing that, as a general principle, it is the right and the duty of a people to defend its national liberty, its national independence, and its national territory, against a foreign invader, it is obvious that the application of that principle must depend upon the character of the foreign invasion. We in England ask to be allowed to work out our own salvation. But the class war is of infinitely greater importance than all other conflicts, and assuming our brothers of the working-class in France, or Germany, or any other country to have gained the upper hand, and to be invading this country in support of the revolutionary movement, it would obviously be our duty to welcome and not resist them.

It might be agreed to as a general rule, then, that it is the duty of Socialists to assist in the national defence if national liberty and independence and popular rights are in danger; but that they should oppose all wars of aggression and should be prepared to welcome an invasion if that invasion were directed against domestic class domination and in support of popular freedom. That is a perfectly simple rule to lay down, and one, it might be supposed, which would find general acceptance among Socialists; but it is by no means so simple in its application nor so easy to follow. It is, for instance, almost invariably impossible to carry on a purely defensive war. A force acting entirely on the defensive and never adopting offensive tactics is almost inevitably foredoomed to failure. Thus a war undertaken in resistance to the most wanton aggression must necessarily become one of aggression in its turn. As cases in point, take the South African war and the present war between Japan and Russia. The Boers took the offensive by invading British territory. By so doing they put themselves technically in the wrong and gave our jingoes the opportunity of declaring that the Boers were the aggressors and that our war against them was one of defence. From a military point of view, however, it is certain the Boers were right in acting as they did, in the interests of the national defence. The only mistake they made in that regard was in not attacking sooner. The same with Japan. All the operations in the present war have been carried on outside of Japanese territory and Japan actually struck the first blow; yet it is indisputable that she has been fighting for her national existence, and that had she not assumed the offensive at the outset, affairs in the Far East would wear a very different complexion from that which they have to-day.

Thus it comes about that in supporting a purely defensive war Socialists may find themselves involved in acts of aggression in parts far removed from the territory and the institutions they are concerned in defending. This, of course, quite apart from any question of imperialism, or of defending the “integrity of the empire.” Even here, however, the duty of Socialists may not be always clear. We should heartily rejoice if the natives of India were to throw off the yoke of bloodsucking British imperialist capitalism, and it would be our duty, as Socialists, to assist them to do so. But it does not follow, therefore, that it would be our duty to declare against offering any resistance to a Russian invasion of India. It is easier to take up the responsibilities and obligations of empire than it is to get rid of them. That we should abandon our domination of subject races and leave them free to work out their own development is a sound principle, but having taken them under our control we surely owe it to them to defend them against some other and maybe worse aggressor. This latter proposition would appear to be irrefutable; yet once admit its justice and the door is opened to all the dangers of imperialism and militarist aggression. There has scarcely ever been a war, at any rate in modern times, which was avowedly one of aggression, or had not the specious pretext of being undertaken on behalf of an oppressed people. Was not our war against the Boers directed to abolishing a corrupt and reactionary oligarchy, and to secure equal rights for all white men in South Africa? Was not the capitalist war waged by the Yankees in Cuba, carried on in order to free the Cubans from the intolerable yoke of Spain? The capitalist can always find some high-sounding moral pretext for waging war when it coincides with his own interests.

It may even be that the reason put forward is not merely a pretext, but a perfectly sound ground for intervention, although the chief motive for the intervention may be selfish class interests. It does sometimes happen that honesty is the best policy. And this brings us to the consideration of another phase of the question. Admitting that Socialists should act on the defensive, or even on the offensive-defensive, in support of popular rights and national liberties, but that they should be prepared to welcome and assist invasion when directed against despotism in any form, it would seem to follow, naturally, that they should be prepared to take part in such an invasion in any other country. It may be suggested that such a question is not likely to arise under the existing order, and until the Social Revolution is in full swing in some country or the other from which such an invasion might be organised. But such a contention assumes that there are no degrees in despotism, that there is no occasional conflict between different sections of the capitalist class, and that the interests of any section of that class can never coincide with the cause of national freedom or popular rights. But to assert that would be to assert that the wars waged under the capitalist system were never wars of aggression, because, if it is admitted that any war is an act of aggression, it is obvious that those who are resisting that war, to whatever class they may belong, are resisting aggression, and vice versâ. The war between ourselves and the Boers, for instance, was frequently described as a war between two sets of capitalists. Yet we Socialists had no difficulty in making up our minds as to which side was in the right. Again, it might square with the capitalist interests of England, in her conflict with Russia, to aid the re-nationalisation of Poland, or to promote the independence of some of the races subject to Turkey in the East of Europe. Surely Socialists would be justified in taking part in an aggressive invasion with such an object, even though we should know quite well that the prime motive for the invasion was not the object we were serving, but capitalist class interests.

These are some of the considerations which show how important is the subject now engaging the attention of our continental comrades, and the difficulty of laying down any hard and fast line in this as in so many other matters. It is frequently assumed that the class antagonism is so clearly defined that there can be never any difficulty in deciding on the position we, as Socialists, should adopt. Unfortunately, that is not so. At best, in most cases, we can only lay down general principles which can only be applied or adhered to as circumstances determine. In this question of patriotism, however, one thing is quite clear, it is idle for Socialists to discuss whether they should or should not fight in given circumstances unless they are capable of fighting, and that involves universal military training. That is the only logical antithesis to the adoption of universal non-resistance. Unless we are prepared to adopt the Tolstoyan doctrine and “resist not evil,” even the evil of capitalism, we should support universal military training in order that we Socialists should be at least as well equipped as those opposed to us. Even if all modern States agreed to the principle of compulsory arbitration in international disputes, it would be still necessary to have the organised power to enforce the decrees of the arbitration courts. Modern society rests upon force; whether it will be overthrown except by force remains to be seen. Abhorring war and desiring peace as we Socialists do, we yet cannot ignore facts, and in weighing all the considerations as to our position in regard to patriotism and to international strife, it would seem that all we can do under present circumstances is to reaffirm the old principle of the abolition of standing armies, and the substitution of the armed nation; the establishment of international courts of arbitration, and all questions of peace or war to be decided by referendum. That would make, not only the burden of war, but the responsibility for it to fall on the people themselves. As to the application of this principle to our military muddle here at home, that will have to be reserved for a further article.

H. Quelch.