Harry Quelch August 1911

The Folly of War
and the Possibilities and Perils of Peace

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XV, No. 8, August, 1911, pp. 337-345, (2,797 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). 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 International Social-Democracy stands for peace; it is the great peace party of the world. It has for motto, “Workers of all Countries, Unite,” and for mission, to “Seek Peace and ensue it.” The rivalries’ of nationalities, of states and statesmen, of kings and kaisers, and of the various interests, do not appeal to Social-Democrats. Any open act of hostility or aggression on the part of any Power does not inspire us with the spirit of Chauvinism, but simply calls forth from the organised workers of the countries involved mutual assurances of amity, fraternity and concord. The latest demonstration of this kind has been evoked by recent developments in Morocco. We have had the Socialists of France and the Socialists of Germany denouncing the aggressive acts of their respective Governments and declaring that between the peoples of the two countries there is no cause of quarrel. On August 13, too, we are to have a big demonstration in London, in favour of international peace, organised by the Socialists, Trade Unionists, and Labourists of Great Britain, in co-operation with the French Socialists, Trade Unionists and Co-operators who are visiting the co-operative institutions of this country.

All this is quite as it should be, and in entire accordance with the fitness of things. The interests of the working class are bound up with the maintenance of peace; and it is the working people who suffer most severely from the devastations and horrors of war. When a country is invaded by a hostile army the rich may suffer loss; but they can generally escape the worst horrors of starvation and misery which the poor are compelled to endure. The rich can get away. The poor have to stay and “stew in their own juice,” as Bismarck elegantly expressed it. Anybody, therefore, claiming to speak on behalf of the working class must necessarily be in favour of peace.

While it is true, however, that the interests of the working class are bound up with the maintenance of peace, it is not equally true that, in existing circumstances, the workers have any interest in abolishing or even limiting armaments. It is often said, and with perfect truth, that the wealth wasted on armaments cannot be devoted to the useful work of social amelioration; that the labour and material used up in the manufacture of big guns and battleships cannot be also applied to constructing merchant ships, or roads, or bridges, or to the building of schools, hospitals, and dwelling houses. But no attempt is ever made to show, nor is there any evidence, that the wealth now wasted on armaments would be devoted to useful social work if armaments were abolished; or that there is any lack of labour or material for the building of merchant ships, schools, hospitals, or dwellings, because that material and labour are being used up in the construction of guns and battleships. On the contrary, we find that there is plenty of available material and plenty of unemployed labour for all these works of peace; and our experience teaches us that a reduction in expenditure on armaments does not improve but worsens the economic position of the working class. Some time ago Mr. Lloyd George pointed out that the expenditure of this country on armaments was equal to four shillings per working-class family per week. But he did not show, and he could not, that if that expenditure were to cease altogether the family wage of the working class would be augmented, either in cash or purchasing power, by four shillings weekly. He could, on the contrary, have easily shown that with the abolition of all expenditure on armaments there would probably be a considerable reduction in wages, due to the increased competition in the labour market from the labour thus set free and unemployed.

In his article on “War and Peace,” in the May Day number of “Justice,” Karl Kautsky speaks of a possible revolt “against the intolerable burdens which have been imposed on the peoples by armaments.” With all due deference to so eminent an authority, I venture to suggest that it would be quite as reasonable to speak of the intolerable burden of motor cars, or any other luxury of the rich. In this country, at any rate, armaments impose no intolerable burden on the people. So far from that being the case, the waste on armaments, as any other form of waste, provides a kind of safety-valve to relieve the pressure of production. Malthus was greatly concerned about the pressure of population against the limits of the means of subsistence. The problem of modern society is the pressure of ever-increasing, ever-accelerated production against the limits of consumption. Modern society is in constant danger of being choked with a plethora of wealth. It is only the waste—of armaments and luxury of all kinds—which reduces that plethora and relieves the pressure.

Kautsky, in the article referred to, says that the Revolution “may spring from two separate causes: one being the revolt, the intolerable burden” of armaments; “the second would be war itself.”

That would seem to afford an argument for Social-Democrats, not to oppose war and armaments, but to support them. It appears to me, however, that war and armaments, instead of provoking the Revolution are much more likely to stave it off. It seems to me that the Boer war, by the employment it afforded, and the stimulus it gave to all industries in this country, put back the Revolution in this country. The same may be said to have been the result of the Cuban war, the Philippine adventure, and the San Francisco disaster, in the United States of America. But for the waste and consequent relief of economic pressure afforded by these events, it is difficult to see how a working-class revolt, culminating possibly in a Social Revolution, could have been averted in the United States.

From this, therefore, it would appear that it is in every way our interest as Social-Democrats to “work for peace”; not only because the workers of the different countries have no quarrel, and yet suffer the worst from the horrors of war; but also because the pressure of the economic development which proceeds apace in time of peace is much more likely to engender revolution than is either the burden of armaments or the outbreak of war.

On the other hand, in our advocacy of peace we find ourselves in very distinguished company. That exalted and estimable personage, the Czar of Russia, the Little Father of the Russian people, who so manifests his love for his children by his manifold chastenings, is an ardent champion of peace, and actually inaugurated the Hague Conference. Kaiser Wilhelm, of the Mailed Fist, is also a protagonist of peace, and claims that he and his have used their power by sea and land for the maintenance of the peace of Europe for the past forty years; and was not our own Edward known as the Peacemaker? Then we have President Taft, Andrew Carnegie, and Sir Edward Grey all chanting the praises of International Peace, and directing their energies to formulating and cementing arbitration treaties and “ententes” between all the great rival Powers.

And they have reason. It should not need any superhuman intelligence or perspicacity on the part of these high and mighty personages to enable them to see the advantages of peace to themselves and their order, and the folly of war. “War is a game,” we are told, “which, were their subjects wise, kings would not play at.” But even kings may be supposed to have sufficient intelligence to know on which side their bread is buttered, and to understand that for them to quarrel and fight is, in present circumstances, sheer folly. Neither they, nor the class of which they are the figureheads, the commercial, huckstering capitalist class, have anything to gain but much to lose by war. It is that class, the class which rules the world to-day, which really has to bear the “intolerable burden of armaments.” Armaments are paid for and maintained out of the surplus-value screwed out of the unpaid labour of the proletariat, and that surplus-value would certainly not be less, and might, quite conceivably, be very much greater, if there were no armaments, and if that portion of the proletariat now enrolled in armies or engaged in the manufacture of the munitions of war were free to be exploited in more profitable directions. The wealth which is wasted on war and armaments is bourgeois wealth—wealth which the bourgeoisie has extracted from the proletariat by the arts of peace. It would not be wonderful if the bourgeoisie should be at last beginning to realise the folly of wasting that wealth, and at the same time reducing their power of exploitation, by fruitless quarrelling and fighting among themselves.

It has come to be regarded as a commonplace among Socialists that war is inevitable under capitalism; that the fundamental class antagonism through which capitalist exploitation is carried on engenders a whole series of antagonisms, including that competition for markets for the surplus product, which is the ever fruitful and inevitable cause of rivalry and war under the capitalist regime. That has been true; but is it still the case? In the industrial and commercial world we are seeing combination superseding competition, and the world-wide trust and combine taking the place of warring rival concerns. Is not that combination for mutual interests, which has already been largely accomplished between previously rival commercial and industrial concerns, now in process of realisation among rival States? The present trouble in Morocco is said to be due to German opposition to French aggression there, and to the determination of Germany to protect German interests, and to take care that when it comes to sharing the spoils Germany should not be left out in the cold. Were those interests examined into, however, it would be found, I think, that the rivalry is not clearly one between French on the one side and German on the other, but between concerns each of which has, so to speak, a foot in each national camp. These capitalist interests are not national and patriotic, but international. Were it otherwise, however, there is no reason why the different States should not agree about the division of the spoil instead of quarrelling over it. It would be much more thrifty and economical, and thrift is above all things dear to the heart of the bourgeoisie. We have an understanding between England and Russia as to their respective “spheres of influence” in Persia; a new treaty has just been concluded with Japan by which she is to be maintained in her continued exploitation of Korea; France, it is understood, is not to have her operations in Morocco interfered with by England on condition that England continues to have a free hand in Egypt, and so on. In Europe we have the Triple Alliance, and the Triple Entente, two combinations of Powers in rivalry with each other. But why should this rivalry continue? If a Triple Alliance, why not a Quadruple, a Quintuplet or a Sextuple Alliance? Why not “Let them all come?” The rivalry between Germany and England does not appear to be any more intrinsic or essential than was that between France and England, France and Germany, or Russia and Germany. Why should they not all compose their differences and combine to form the United States of Europe—or, indeed, the United States of the World?

We have President Taft’s epoch-making suggestion of an all-embracing arbitration treaty with this country by which the possibility of war between the two States is to be for ever abrogated. It is now proposed to extend that treaty to include Japan and France and Germany. Well, why not? I see no insuperable obstacle. On the contrary, all the conditions are assuredly propitious. The thrones of three of the greatest Powers in the world are now occupied by first cousins—Wilhelm, Nicholas, and George. Behold, how sweet and pleasant it is to see brethren dwelling together in peace and unity! If unity between the peoples of Russia and Germany and England is possible, how much easier should it be to have unity between the three pacific and distinguished heads of these nations. Let Wilhelm and Nicholas and George agree that under no circumstances will they quarrel and fight, and the peace of Europe, and with it of the whole world, would be assured. Not the Pax Romana, the Pax Germanica, or the Pax Britannica, but the Pax Mundi, the dream of poets and philosophers, “the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World,” would be achieved!

So much for the possibilities of Peace. But what of its perils? With such a consummation, with the combination of, all the Powers in a world’s League of Peace, we might then surely scrap all the navies, beat our swords into ploughshares, our spears into pruning hooks, and convert our rifles and machine guns into the component parts of bicycles and motor cars. Why, certainly! And then? What of democracy? What of the Revolution? What of the working-class? What of the subject peoples of this great consolidated, trustified world-State? What, in a word, of Socialism and all that Socialism connotes?

Peace hath her victories, no less renowned than war; and the Pax Mundi of capitalism might conceivably present for the great masses of the people such an abject, hopeless, horrible state of existence that the worst horrors resulting from existing rivalries would appear blissful by comparison. No popular democratic movement, no revolt, would be possible. All would be held down under the iron hand of one universal authority. We should have attained the Servile State, so eloquently denounced by Hilaire Belloc, and so vividly pictured by H.G. Wells in his “When the Sleeper Wakes.” One often hears trade unionists profess gratification at the combinations of employers. One feels them to be either very foolish or very insincere. If the combinations of capitalists meant that there were fewer to expropriate, that would be well; but so long as it means simply the consolidation of the power of the capitalists to retain possession and mastery, all combinations between them are obviously and notoriously inimical to the interests of the workers. Trade unions may make some headway against disunited capitalists and benefit by their mutual rivalries; but the great trusts are able to crush out all fighting combinations among the workers, and to reduce them to a state of abject slavery. Indeed, one of the chief objects of capitalist combinations is to put a stop to “labour troubles,” and to ensure “industrial peace.” They may ensure a certain standard of material wellbeing for the working class; organise industry so as to ensure that every man shall be employed; fairly well housed; fairly well clothed; fairly well fed ; fairly well cared for when sick; and fairly well buried when dead; but in such circumstances the workers would be wage-slaves all their life, notwithstanding.

So, too, with a world-wide combination of capitalist States. We see, to-day, that the chief concern with the heads of the different States is to arrive at a common understanding for the mutual repression of any revolutionary movement. We know the activities of the international police; the difficulty of safeguarding the right of asylum, and of the frequent clandestine surrender of political refugees; But with a world-league of the Powers, there would be no such thing as the right of asylum, and the political refugee could not exist. The international police would be omnipotent, and any movement of revolt would be ruthlessly stamped out at its inception. The massacres of Moscow, of Petersburg, of Kischineff, and of Blagovestchensk would on occasion be repeated in every State and city in the civilised world; Siberia would not only be at the disposal of Russia but at that of the World-State, as would also be the horrors of the “Bull-pen.” There would be no free State to make any protest, and no place of refuge to which any recalcitrant wage-slave could escape. We should not have made a solitude and called it peace; but we should have constituted a world-wide Servile State, in which peace, indeed, would reign, but a peace to which even the horrors of war would be preferable.

It is for us, therefore, while we endeavour to “seek peace and ensue it,” to strive for that greater object even than peace—Social-Democracy; so that when peace is assured it shall be a peace based upon universal freedom, co-operation and fraternity, and not a peace upheld by the blighting power of consolidated capitalism.