Harry Quelch September 1910

The European War Cloud

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XIV, No. 9, September 15, 1910, pp.385-394;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

As has been the case in successive international Socialist Congresses, the question which attracted most interest in the Copenhagen Congress was that of war and armaments, and the policy of the International Social-Democracy in relation thereto. Here, again, as on every former occasion, the Congress declared unitedly and emphatically in favour of peace: inter­national arbitration, the progressive reduction of armaments, and of the organisation and application, by the working class of all countries, of every effort and every means to prevent war, to hinder armaments, and to "seek peace and ensue it."

On this subject the resolution of the Congress was clear, definite, unambiguous and all-embracing. It is true that a definite expression of opinion in favour of a general strike in the event of war was rejected; but the resolution does not preclude the resort to that means wherever or whenever it may be found possible. The resolution re-affirms that of Stuttgart, to the effect that:‑

"In case of war being imminent, the working classes and their Parliamentary representatives in the countries concerned shall be bound, with the assistance of the International Socialist Bureau, to do all they can to prevent the outbreak of war, using for this purpose the means which appear to them the most efficacious, and which must naturally vary according to the acuteness of the class struggle, and to the general political con­ditions.

"In case, notwithstanding their efforts, war should break out, they shall be bound to intervene to bring it to a speedy end, and to employ all their forces for utilising the economical and political crisis created by the war in order to rouse the masses of the people, and to hasten the overthrow of the domination of the capitalist class."

That, certainly, does not preclude a resort to a general strike, or to any other means which "may be efficacious" in the various circumstances in different countries.

In other respects the resolution is not less com­plete and satisfactory in its statement of general princi­ples and in laying down the line of action which it is the duty of the Socialist Party, and the organised working-class generally, to take. It is, however, in the application of those general principles, and in the particular measures (which may admittedly vary with circumstances) to be adopted in a given time and place, which constitute the difficulty and occasion differences of opinion.

That is true in many other respects. All Socialists are agreed as to the general principles of Socialism and the end in view. Everyone who believes in the socialisation of the means of production is a Socialist. Those who do not so believe are not Socialists, what­ever their profession. But it is in the application of Socialist principles in present environment; in the selection of the means and the course to adopt to attain most speedily the end in view; the policy to be pursued in relation to existing actualities, and to the pressing economic and political questions of the moment - these are the considerations which constitute our difficulties and occasion differences of opinion in a Party which is not merely a propagandist society, but seeks, and indeed is forced, to take an active part in the economic and political life and struggle of to-day.

The same considerations apply with equal force to the question of the means to be adopted against war. All means, says the International Congress, practically, are justifiable in order to promote peace and prevent war. Precisely. "Peace at any price!" said the great peace-protagonist, Mr. P.A. Taylor. "Yes, I am for peace at any price; even at the price of war." And we agree. We agree, moreover, with the declaration of our comrade Vaillant - "Better insurrection than war." But who believes that insurrection - "war against war" in the most literal sense - would be possible in England or Germany - or, indeed, in any country, except, perhaps, Spain or Italy - in the event of the outbreak of hostilities?

The whole question of the maintenance of peace, therefore, resolves itself into one of the means to be adopted in any given set of circumstances. In this connection there has been considerable controversy in our own ranks, and some of us have come in for con­siderable censure because we have ventured to suggest that in existing circumstances the maintenance of a strong British Navy is necessary, not only for the pro­tection of our national autonomy, and even our national existence, but also for the maintenance of peace in Europe. It is contended that, in making and main­taining that suggestion, we are running counter to all Socialist principles and to the expressed declarations in its Congresses of the International Social-Democracy. Nevertheless, I venture to support the contention, and maintain that it is not opposed to the resolution of the Congress, but is, on the contrary, quite in keeping with that resolution, which enjoins the use of any means for the prevention of war that may, in the circum­stances, be practicable.

That is not to say, of course, that we should be willing to support every demand of the British Govern­ment for increased supplies for armaments - either naval or military. Quite the contrary. Had I been in the House of Commons, I should have followed the example of our comrade Thorne and voted against the increased Navy Estimates, just as I have written and spoken against them outside. But I should not have contented myself with a silent vote. I should have insisted, as I have over and over again insisted, that it was the duty of the Government to show cause, to demonstrate the necessity of this enormous increase in naval expenditure, and to shape its foreign policy so as to avoid or remove that necessity. Contending, as I do, that it is the duty of the British Government to maintain an efficient national defence, I nevertheless assert that it is the duty of Socialists and of the representatives of the working class to refuse to vote a single penny for armaments while these are used to support, and the national defence itself is imperilled by, an aggressive imperialist foreign policy. I think we could reasonably say to our rulers: Not a single man nor a single penny for Army or Navy until you "mend your manners"; until you carry out your bond; until you evacuate Egypt; cease to bleed India; abandon your truckling to the Czar and other despots, remove the stigma from this country which now attaches to her as "perfidious Albion," the chief faith-breaker among the nations, and restore to her the character she has always professed as the champion of small and oppressed nationalities.

That, it appears to me, is a perfectly clear, definite and reasonable course of action for Socialists and the organised working class to take. But that is quite apart from the general proposition that the maintenance of an efficient British Navy is essential to the national defence and to the world's peace; that it is the duty of the Government to maintain that efficiency, and of Socialists to support the Government in that duty. It also leaves open the question as to how far the present defence is adequate.

On this last point Socialists may reasonably differ. As to the first, I have no doubt whatever. To my mind, all the facts go to show that Germany, or rather Prussia, threatens the peace, the democratic progress and the national liberties of Western Europe. In her aggressive policy she has only two powerful obstacles to reckon with - the British Navy and the French Army. The Prussian objective is not the subjection of France or the annexation of England. The invasion of France or of England may or may not form part of the plan of campaign, but Prussia's objective is the annexation of Holland and Denmark, with all that that involves. The chief obstacle to the attainment of that object is, obviously, the British Fleet. Prussia's first move, therefore, must be to destroy the British naval power, and that the German naval programme is directed to that end appears to me to admit of no doubt whatever. That is the situation as it presents itself to me, and as all the evidences go to prove.

Now, either that is the position or it is not, I simply submit that it is the position, and that there is overwhelming evidence in support of that view. I contend, moreover, that this opinion is very widely held in Holland and Denmark, although in both countries there is a growing hope that the rising tide of Social-Democracy in Germany will thwart these aggressive designs.

But if that is the position, it is no answer to our contention as to the duty of the British Government in maintaining an efficient Navy to say that between the people of England and the people of Germany there is no cause of quarrel. That is a self-evident truth. There was no cause of quarrel between the peoples of Russia and Japan, and none between the people of this country and the Boers. But that eternal fact did not prevent war. In the latter case Britain was the aggressor, and we did not hesitate to say so, and to condemn and oppose the war by every means in our power. But that did not prevent the masses of the people enthusiastically supporting the war.

Still less is it an argument against this view to say that in this connection both Germany and Britain are equally to blame, and that it is the duty of Socialists in both countries to oppose their own Government and keep their own wild beast under control. If that were the case, the whole situation would be simplified. If it were merely a contest between two great Powers for territory or a market - as is sometimes contended - we should have no other duty than to put every obstacle in the way of our own filibusters. But that is not the case. In most cases the "balance of criminality," as Mr. Balfour would put it, lies on one side or the other; and in the present instance it is Germany and not Britain which threatens the peace of Europe. In saying this, I do not claim - nor does anyone else claim - any excess of virtue for this nation or its Govern­ment. We have never hesitated to denounce the British Empire as the most piratical Power in the world. It is not because Britain is any better than Germany, but simply because the interests of the ruling class so determine, that in the present circum­stances it is Germany which threatens and Britain which defends the peace in Western Europe just now. It is no answer to my contention, moreover, to say that the autonomy of Holland or Denmark is no con­cern of ours, and that the people would be just as well off under German rule as they are now. That is certainly not the opinion of the Danes or the Dutch themselves, nor is it the experience of those Danes, or the Poles, who have come under Prussian rule. Neither is it any answer to say that we have no country to defend; that it is the landlords' and capitalists' country, and that we have no concern except to curb the ruling class here, let the ruling class of other countries do what it may against us or them. In the first place we, as Socialists, are con­cerned with the maintenance of peace; and in the second place to the defence of the autonomy and integrity of independent nationalities. Therefore, a menace to both the one and the other is pre-eminently our concern.

We find that menace now to come from a certain quarter. While, therefore, I admit that we should strenuously oppose any policy of our Government which is likely to provoke, justify, or even excuse that menace, it does seem to me unreasonable, in the circumstances, to suggest that it is our duty to also oppose without discrimination any measure of national defence. Yet that, it seems, is what some of our pacifist friends would have us do. It is as though my neighbour was compelled by his landlord to keep in his back-yard a ferocious dog, which he tried unavail­ingly to control, and yet at the same time adjured me to leave my front door open and to abandon all means of defending myself against the dog, on the ground that the dog was not his and the house I live in is not mine!

The people of this country do not own this country. That is perfectly true. But they have to live here. In the event of a war, or even the threat of a war, it is the poor who would have to suffer all the privations. The rich could get away. The poor could not. They would hunger and starve, hemmed in like rats in a sewer, while their masters looked on from afar, amused spectators, and even, maybe, reaping a rich harvest from the horror and devastation of which the poor were the victims. I do not own the house in which I live; so far as the house itself is concerned, it is a matter of no moment to me if it were destroyed to-morrow, and I have no doubt my landlord is insured. But these considerations would not lead me to look on with indifference if I saw another landlord prepar­ing to set fire to the house, nor induce me to frustrate any efforts my landlord might make to protect his property. Quite the contrary. Although the house is not mine, my belongings are in it, and my present and essential interests lie in not being burnt out. Landlord against landlord, the man from whom I rent my house is of no more concern for me than any other. He is probably no better than any other, and I have certainly no interest in defending him or his property. But I have an interest in protecting my own belongings which are sheltered in his property.

So it is with the international situation. As between two great piratical Powers, Britain and Germany, the proletariat have no interest on one side or the other. But when one of them is contemplating an act of aggression, the interests of the proletariat are on the other side. That is the view we English Social-Democrats have maintained when the aggressor was Britain or Russia. We did not hesitate to vigorously express that view in the Boer War, when Britain was the aggressor, and when many of our present-day pacifists were justifying that act of brigandage. We did not hesitate to express it against Spain in Morocco, America in the Phillipines, or when Russia was the aggressor in Manchuria and Finland, or to strenuously oppose any treaty or dealings with the Czarist despot­ism. I do not, therefore, see any reason why we should suddenly adopt another standpoint now that, not Russia nor Britain, but Germany, threatens the world's peace and the liberty of smaller nationalities. We did not complain, but rejoiced, when every nation in Europe joined us in a chorus of condemnation of British imperialist aggression in South Africa; and if Britain threatened Denmark or Belgium, or Holland, or France or Germany with attack, we should be the first to protest, to vigorously oppose, and to appeal to our Continental comrades for their co-operation in such opposition. I do not see why the same rule should not hold good in the present instance. Im­perialism is imperialism, and aggression is aggression, whether it be British or Russian, American or German. I, as a Social-Democrat, am opposed to all forms of imperialism, and I think we English Social-Democrats have as good a right to condemn German imperialism and aggression as our Continental comrades have to condemn the same curses when they happen to be British.

It seems to me, therefore, that, while we are bound to oppose British imperial expansion, we are bound to support British naval supremacy in Western Europe; that in so doing we are conforming to the terms of the resolution of the International Socialist Congress, because, in existing circumstances, that supremacy is necessary, not only for the national defence, but for the maintenance of the peace of Europe. That supremacy, in my opinion, does not involve the continuance of the present insane competition of arma­ments. It does, however, as I think, involve the retention of all those powers of defence - including the "right of capture" - at present held by this country. I am aware that the "right of capture" has been condemned by the International Congress, and in view of that condemnation I could not advocate its retention. That does not, however, alter my opinion that its surrender would be a serious, if not fatal, blow to the defence of these islands; nor is it true, as Keir Hardie said at Copenhagen, that it was the refusal to surrender this which provoked German naval expansion. Ger­man naval expansion began long before that refusal was made, and the excuse that the German naval pro­gramme was dictated by the need of protecting her mercantile marine is mere subterfuge. The convoying of merchantmen by men-of-war would be utterly out of the question in modern naval warfare.

Why, then, it may be asked, not surrender the right of capture, and so ensure the immunity of trading vessels in time of war?

For a number of reasons. Among others, private property - all treaties or Hague agreements notwith­standing - cannot be immune in war time, but is liable to capture or destruction, merely as an act of strategy. No military commander could afford to hesitate to destroy railways, bridges, trees, or buildings, which could be used against him by the enemy; and no British naval commander, I imagine, would allow an enemy's merchantman to steam up the Thames, or would hesitate to capture her, in time of war - not as an act of piracy, but simply as one of defence.

Moreover, Socialists have no interest in "pro­fessionalising" war, or in preserving the property of the master class from attack or injury. It is capitalism, says the Copenhagen resolution, which causes war; therefore let the capitalist class understand that war will injure them in their most sensitive part - the breeches pocket. That it will not be a mere gladia­torial contest, in which warships alone will be battered and sunk and sailors and soldiers be killed, while they, like vultures, gorge themselves with impunity on the corpses; but that their dearly beloved property also will be at stake. That fact is more likely to give them pause than any peace resolutions.

In the meantime, so far as the present crisis is con­cerned - for let there be no mistake about it, there is a crisis - our course is clear; the course we have always advocated, that of coming to an agreement with our German comrades as to joint action in both countries. The task of bringing this about is imposed upon the International Bureau by the concluding paragraph of the resolution:‑

"For the proper execution of these measures the Congress directs the Bureau, in the event of the menace of war, to take immediate steps to bring about an agreement among the working-class parties of the countries affected for united action to prevent the threatened war."