Harry Quelch 1907

Socialism and Soldiering

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 10 October, 1907, pp. 584-591;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The growth of Hervéism in France, the development of anti-militarism in all Continental countries, the activities of the National Service League in this country, with the recent visit of Labour members of Parliament and others to investigate the Swiss militia system, as well as the passing of Mr. Haldane’s Territorial Forces Act, combine to make it important to consider the Social-Democratic position on the question of military organisation.

Briefly, the Socialist proposal, as formulated and re-affirmed from time to time at its International Congresses, is the abolition of all standing armies, all professional soldiery, and the military organisation of all the citizens on the basis of the Swiss militia system, with, of course, such modifications in a democratic sense as may be necessary. This means that military training should be obligatory on all citizens capable of bearing arms. That there should be no term of military service and no military law; that there should be no special punishment or course of procedure for military offences; that is to say, that the military training should not abrogate the civil law or deprive a man of his civil rights, and that the officers should not be drawn from any special social class, but should, subject to necessary qualification, be appointed by the men themselves. These, we maintain, are the only conditions of military organisation compatible with popular liberty and democracy.

To the adoption and advocacy of this system, however, a number of objections are brought forward. There are those who hold that we Socialists should have nothing whatever to do with military organisation in any shape or form. We should ignore militarism altogether and let our enemies work their own sweet will with it. That, of course, is not possible. We can no more let militarism alone than we can let capitalism alone, by which militarism is engendered and of which it is the active instrument. We are living in the capitalist system, and have to conform to, while working to transform, its conditions. We cannot get outside the capitalist system, with all its results and influences; we have to deal with things as they are, not as we would like them to be; and, however much we may desire to let militarism alone, it will not let us alone. There are the worthy people who advocate universal peace and brotherly love. A desirable ideal, and one to which we Social-Democrats look forward with hope in its speedy realisation, but one absolutely unattainable in the midst of the innumerable antagonisms of the capitalist system. In the capitalist system some form of military organisation is inevitable; to destroy militarism we must destroy capitalism; but in order to destroy capitalism we have to act now, in and with the actual existing circumstances and means of to-day, and we have to consider how best those existing means and circumstances can be turned to our purpose. Admitting this, therefore, and the inevitability of militarism, and some form of military organisation under capitalism, we have to consider what form of military organisation is most serviceable to capitalism – to the dominant class, and what form would be least innocuous to the working-class, and most likely to serve the interests of the democracy. Obviously that form of military organisation, represented by a standing army of professional soldiers, decivilised, an exclusive caste, subject to exceptional laws and special privileges, cut off from all relations with civil life, and having interests and ambitions apart from, and hostile to, the general body of the people, officered by the dominant class, and looking to that class for its rewards and punishments; clearly such a military organisation as that is the most effective instrument in the hands of the dominant class, the greatest menace to democracy and popular liberty, and the most effective barrier to revolutionary change that could possibly be devised. And surely, too, the antithesis to that is the Armed Nation – every citizen a soldier and every soldier a citizen.

There are, of course, the Tolstoyans, who object to the use of force under any circumstances, who adopt non-resistance as their principle of action – or inaction – and take the precept “Resist not evil” as their motto. But Social-Democrats are not Tolstoyans; they believe in resisting evil. When admonished that war is a curse and force an evil thing, they agree; but like the Frenchman who objected to the abolition of capital punishment, they say, “que messieurs les assassins commencent.” Wesley, when remonstrated with for using popular secular airs for his hymns, said that he didn’t see why the devil should have all the best tunes. In the same way we Social-Democrats admit that rifles, bayonets, and machine guns are nasty, disagreeable things, and that it is vile to use them at all. But, nasty as they may be, vile as may be their use, they are good enough for our masters to use against us; and if they – our good, superior, refined and highly moral masters – are not above using these things in their interest, we surely ought not to be above learning to use them in our own. For the rest, the capitalist class would be perfectly delighted that all the rest of the people outside themselves and their mercenaries should be peaceful, unarmed, non-resisters. Nothing could suit them better.

But, it is objected, admitting all this, the Swiss system, or any modification of it, is not applicable to this country for various reasons. It might be pointed out, by the way, that, this objection notwithstanding, the Swiss system was originally borrowed from this country. That notwithstanding, we are assured by a leading Liberal organ that “The Swiss analogy, in short, is the last which can have any application whatever to our conditions. The Swiss have to face the danger of an invasion in mass, against which their mountains and their militia would be their only defence. We have the sea, and to meet the bare possibility of an isolated raid or a temporarily successful landing we now have Mr. Haldane’s territorial army organised on an intelligent basis to meet this special risk.”

We indeed have Mr. Haldane’s territorial army – on paper; and a more reactionary, militarist (in the worst sense) and anti-democratic system than that to which the present War Minister has had the effrontery to apply our term of the “armed nation,” could scarcely be devised.

It is objected that with the sea as our chief defence we do not need the large number of men that the Swiss system would provide us with. That difficulty would easily be met by a more rapid transference to the Reserve. It would not be found that the numbers of young men eligible each year would be too numerous. On the other hand the cost of the Swiss system is infinitesimal compared with our own; and in the interests of democracy and popular liberty it is essential that all should be as well-trained in this respect as in others. We are told sometimes that soldiers for the national defence are necessary only in the same way as police are necessary for the maintenance of order, and that there is no more reason for all to be soldiers than for all to be policemen. But surely no Social-Democrat regards the present police system as a satisfactory one, or a professional police as other than a dubious expedient. Moreover, a militarised police, under the control of the central government, like the Royal Irish Constabulary, is universally regarded as one of the worst instruments of despotism. The argument from the police is certainly not a happy one for the opponents of a citizen soldiery.

Then we are told that Great Britain needs no army at all here; all she requires is men for over-sea service. The Liberal organ already quoted says: “To a Continental Socialist the militia is an alternative to a standing army, which is burdensome, costly, and potentially oppressive. To us it could not be an alternative; it would be an addition. For it is our Imperial ambitions and our possessions over seas which compel us to maintain a professional army. Neither a militia or even conscription would enable us to dispense with our professional army. We could not send conscripts or militiamen to India.” Certainly we could not send conscripts or militiamen to India – unless they volunteered for service there. We Social-Democrats are not keen on sending soldiers to India at all; we want to see India self-governing and self-protected. Unfortunately, however, even with the Armed Nation, under capitalism there is scarcely likely to be much trouble in getting volunteers for India or elsewhere. But it is not true that for that purpose it would be necessary to keep a standing army here, or that the citizen soldiery would be an addition, not an alternative. It would be an alternative to the standing army at home, and would be no more of an addition than that is to the army in India at the present time.

It is, further, objected that a citizen soldiery could be just as readily used in strikes as a professional soldiery, and is so used at the present time in Switzerland. As we have already pointed out, our proposal is that no citizen should be deprived of his civil rights by reason of receiving a military training; he would not be placed under military law, he could not be used, as a soldier, against strikers, and would be under no greater obligation than falls upon any citizen at the present time to assist the police. That is the position of the Volunteers now, they are not under military law and cannot be called out as soldiers to shoot down workmen at the bidding of the capitalists. That would be the position of the citizen soldier according to our proposal. Mr. Haldane’s scheme, however, destroys the civilian character of the Volunteers and converts them into professional soldiers.

Of course, in a society divided into a ruling class and a subject class the former will always be in a position to bribe a number of the latter to be used against their fellow-workers. They would be far less able to do this effectively, however, in an armed nation; whereas a professional soldiery relieves them of the necessity to bribe anybody, it is there to their hand, ready and waiting to be used. We have been told of the readiness with which the Swiss Militia have donned their uniforms and seized their rifles when called upon to act against strikers. For this there are several reasons and it proves absolutely nothing against the military organisation in itself. The majority of the Swiss are peasants, many of them small proprietors, and between them and the industrial population there is no love lost, the more so as many of the latter are “aliens.” This is a class antagonism embittered by race hostility, and forms no argument against a citizen soldiery, unless those who advance it are prepared to suggest that a professional army, composed entirely of peasants, would be less likely to be used against strikers than are the citizen soldiers.

Then it is said that a system of universal military training would tend to promote militarism by cultivating a spirit of jingoism. Those who talk in this way do not really understand what jingoism means. Jingoism is an inverted patriotism manifesting itself in a desire to grab other people’s territory, in those who are not likely themselves to be called upon to do the dirty work of grabbing. The soldier is seldom a jingo. When he is, it is simply the result of professional ambition, and the only soldier who is fired with this kind of jingoism is the professional soldier. When our comrade Thorne, at the Trades Union Congress, suggested that the man who had to do the fighting was seldom a jingo, Mr. John Ward jeered at the idea. He did not seem to understand that while a professional soldier, with no civil ties, no citizenship, and no interests outside of soldiering might sigh for active service, as a relief from the piping times of peace, it is entirely different with the ordinary citizen whom active service would drag from home and friends and kindred, and from all the interests, rights and duties of civil life. Universal military training, with the liability to be called upon to serve in the event of hostilities, coupled with popular control of the issues of peace or war, would be the greatest guarantee of peace we could possibly have under existing circumstances. Monarchs and statesmen have made wars in the past and they will continue to do so while they have a professional soldiery lying idle to their hand. It would be a different matter if they could not act without the co-operation of peaceful citizens to whom war would mean nothing but personal risk and discomfort as well as material loss.

We are sometimes told that from a revolutionary point of view the idea of the Armed Nation is a mistaken one. Revolutions, it is said, can no longer be accomplished by force, but only by peaceful means – the vote, Parliamentary action, and legislation. It may be so, but it will be unprecedented if the present ruling class surrender without a struggle. And if they had the armed force of the nation at their command they would struggle successfully no matter what the legislature may have done. The ruling class will not be made to submit to law and order which is not their law and order, except by overwhelmingly superior force. Nobody supposes that in such a contest the people could win against the ruling class unless they had been able first to win over the army. With a professional “voluntary” army, well paid and well-affected to its paymasters, such winning over would be practically impossible. But with the Armed Nation there would be no winning over required. An armed nation – whatever it may do or submit to – is essentially a free nation, and whatever such a nation determines upon, that it can do and have, in spite of any ruling class.