Harry Quelch November 1911

Peace and Its Perils

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XV, No. 11, November, 1911, pp. 481-487, (2,186 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.

I am indebted to our friend and comrade A.A. Watts for his friendly criticism of my recent article, and for the opportunity he has afforded me of enlarging upon the thesis I then formulated, and of, so to speak, dotting its “i’s” and crossing its “ts.” I had hoped that some others of those who disagree with my conclusions as to the possibilities and perils of peace would have entered the lists on the other side. I can scarcely suppose they found my arguments unanswerable, and so can only conclude that they thought them beneath their notice. I have all the more reason to be grateful to friend Watts.

Even Watts, however, has either failed to clearly appreciate my contentions, or thought them unworthy his attention. He says that what I should have done, in his opinion, “was to have pointed out the dangers and horrors of war, and the dangers and horrors of peace, and then to have definitely chosen one side or the other, and put in a powerful plea for that side.”

That, of course, is all very well; but it is quite beside the questions with which I was concerned. I did not set out to depict the horrors of war; that has already been done over and over again by far abler pens than mine. Neither did I set out to describe the horrors of peace; that also has been done ably and frequently. Had I wished to show either the horrors of peace or those of war in their most appalling aspect, I could have done so without writing a line; without taxing my own poor powers of description, by drawing upon the vivid description of talented and accepted authorities. But that was neither my object nor my business. Still less was it my business to “have definitely chosen one side or the other and put in a powerful plea for that side.” So far as I did this, naturally and necessarily I declared myself on the side of peace. But that is a very small matter. As a Social-Democrat I could do no other. But there is no merit in that. As a Liberal or a Tory I could scarcely have done any other either. I know of no party which is definitely and avowedly in favour of war. Quite the contrary. All parties profess the most fervent desire for peace. The only difference between them is as to how the object is to be attained. The jingo says, “We don’t want to fight, but, by jingo, if we do,” we’ll be prepared for it; because to be prepared for war is the best way to assure peace. The pacifist says that the possession of warlike means is in itself a provocative of war, and that the best way to ensure peace is for everybody to disarm.

I was not, in my article, and am not here, concerned with these rival arguments, beyond saying that, like everybody else, I am for peace and against war, but that my opinion, my likes or dislikes, in this connection have as little to do with the case in question as the flowers that bloom in the Spring. I assumed the horrors of war, and also pointed out its utter wastefulness and folly; but then I went on to consider the possibilities of peace, and the perils which might be found to lurk in the success of the present peace movement. I endeavoured in my article to state the facts of the moment and to suggest what might be their outcome. It was open to any critic to endeavour to show that my diagnosis of the present situation was wrong, and that my forecast of the possibilities of the future was unwarranted; but it was beside the point to complain that I had not definitely chosen one side or the other. If, on leaving home in the morning, I venture to suggest that it is going to be a wet day, I might be assured that I was mistaken and that there were all the signs of a fine one. I should think it rather silly, however, if my observation was met with the objection that, instead of expressing my opinion of what the weather was likely to be, I ought to have “definitely chosen” a fine day or a wet one.

This, although a strange method of reasoning, appears nevertheless to be a very common one. It betokens a childlike capacity for believing what one wishes to believe, and is the usual line of argument adopted by Pacifists. Let any man dare to hint that all the portents threaten war, or that a certain policy is bound to lead to war and should be altered if peace is to be maintained, and he is at once accused of being a scaremonger, of desiring war and of fomenting strife. Thus I am suspect because I did not “definitely choose” peace, and my friend Watts leaves no uncertainty as to the side on which he stands, but assures us that he is not as other men are, “nor even as this publican.” “For myself,” he says, “understanding the horrors and the reaction of war, knowing something of the horrors and lethargy of peace, I still unhesitatingly choose the latter.” Excellent! My own difficulty was that I did not suppose the choice to be left to us, but devoted myself to discussing what appears to be probable rather than what I should wish to be.

We find the same reasoning all through comrade Watts’s short article. Thus he says: “I oppose war and all actions likely to lead to war; I emphatically object to armies and navies; to the expenditure on them and the waste of them, even while agreeing that the expenditure might not be spent on social amelioration, and that the waste gives employment.” I am sure we are all delighted to have this emphatic assurance of his pacific sentiments from our comrade Watts. But really it was scarcely necessary; and I am egotist enough to suggest that he would have used time and space to better advantage in dealing with my arguments, poor and contemptible as he may have deemed them, than in treating us to this vehement declaration of his own aversion to war.

To my argument, however, Watts devotes just twenty lines, and even in these he makes no attempt to refute my contention as to the possible perils of international capitalist peace.

That being so, I can only conclude that I did not make my point clear. Briefly it is this: That a compact and treaty of peace is possible between all the great World-Powers; that with such a compact and treaty all standing armies might be abolished and all the mighty navies be scrapped; but that then the condition of the great masses of the people might possibly be infinitely worse than it is to-day, and any revolt on their part more hopeless. In other words, I challenged the orthodox Socialist assumption that wars are inevitable under capitalism. It seems to me possible that the great Powers may in the near future realise the stupendous folly of quarrelling and fighting among themselves; just as great capitalist interests have recognised the folly of competition and have combined into great worldwide trusts. But I ventured to suggest that, however desirable peace would be, such a peace might, quite conceivably, be even more harmful to the subject people than war. Time was when we used to speak of competition, with all its waste and anarchy, as the worst evil of capitalism; but no one will pretend that the proletariat has in any way benefitted by the elimination of competition through the combination and trustification of capital which has taken place. The great capitalist combines and trusts are almost a guarantee of industrial peace, simply because a revolt, which would have been successful against a comparatively small employer, is hopelessly crushed when directed against a trust. In the same way, I can see the combination of the great Powers eliminating all possibility of war, disbanding armies, scrapping fleets, abolishing armaments, and establishing a world-peace which would be the most terrible tyranny that has ever existed on this planet.

Watts says that to suggest the possibility of such a condition of things is only “begging the question.” To him it is absurd to argue that armies might be abolished and yet the international police be omnipotent. That is simply because his zeal for peace has outrun his power of discrimination. When we talk about abolishing war and armaments and disbanding armies, I take it we mean what we say. We have in mind the forces maintained to carry on war between nations; we have not at all in mind the forces maintained to preserve order. No pacifist would pretend that the abolition of armies meant also the abolition of the police force. He would, on the contrary, admit that the latter should be sufficiently strong and efficient to keep the peace, repress any disturbance, and maintain the law, in accordance with the established order. Whether the pacifist did or did not agree with that, it is certainly the policy which would be pursued by the various authorities in the capitalist world-State I conceive to be possible. Watts suggests that I contemplate “an enormously increased police force.” I do not. I only assume that the authorities will take care to have such a police force as circumstances call for.

Watts says that “the police, as we know it, and almost as we can imagine it, cannot hold down a revolt on anything like a general scale.” I am bound to say that I cannot conceive of “a revolt on anything like a general scale” in our capitalist world-State. No revolt would ever be allowed to assume anything like general proportions. It would be nipped in the bud. The rebels, the agitators, would be reprobated and contemned; the masses, “dumb, driven cattle”—“fairly well housed; fairly well clothed; fairly well fed; fairly well cared for when sick”—comparatively content, would look on in stolid wonder at the unreasonableness of their champions and would join in the execration and condemnation of the discontented disturbers of the peace.

Watts says that we “must risk” “whatever may occur” on the abolition of war. I object to that. “Forewarned is forearmed,” and I think we should take steps to guard against any such risk. Watts says that the “net result” of my article is “What’s the good of anything?—Nothing.” I do not think that is so. I simply set out to show the possibilities of peace and the perils which lurk in those possibilities. If those perils are foreseen they may be guarded against and avoided. I do not say that certain conditions will arise. I only say that they are possible; that we are increasing the possibility by ignoring them, and that it is our duty to do all in our power to avert them.

There appears to me to be too much attention being paid to peace—industrial and international—and not enough to the emancipation of the proletariat from wage-slavery. The consolidation of industrial peace under existing conditions means the perpetuation of wage-slavery. I can see the consolidation of international peace being made to subserve the same end. Nationally we are progressing at railroad speed towards the “servile State.” The supineness with which the masses of the people are allowing themselves to be shackled by a soul-destroying, blood-sucking bureaucracy, and the fatuous complacency with which the process is hailed by some of our friends as “Constructive Socialism,” are almost enough to make one despair. No Social-Democrat can contemplate the growth and development of this noxious “Social Reform” without apprehension. But the tendency to a world-wide expression of the “servile State” is not less marked. The Anglo- Franco- Russian alliance has practically killed the Russian revolution at the same time that it has aided French filibustering in Morocco, British despotism in India and Egypt, and the Russo-British spoliation of Persia. The shameful and unprovoked invasion of Tripoli by Italy, again, affords a striking and tragic illustration of the perils of a peace compact between the great Powers. That piece of cynical brigandage could never have been entered upon without the consent of the “Triple Entente” and of Italy’s two partners in the Triple Alliance.

I have by no means exhausted the subject; but I hope I have said sufficient to call attention to what I regard as a very real danger. War is horrible, but war is not the worst evil that can befall mankind. Nor is death. We must all die. I can conceive of a capitalist peace far worse than war; of a life of slavery for the race, far worse than death. Wolves hunt in packs, and the greater the harmony between them the worse for their prey. Social-Democrats rightly strive for peace, but the overthrow of capitalism is of vastly more importance than the maintenance of peace between capitalist Powers.