Harry Quelch 1912

Peace and its Perils

Source: The British Socialist, Vol. 1., No. 1. January, 1912. pp. 1-10;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I am grateful to comrade Zelda Kahan for her article on this subject in the December number of the “Social-Democrat.” She has been good enough to make a serious contribution to what I regard as a subject of very great importance. Nevertheless she leaves me unconvinced by the conclusion to which she arrives: “that voluntary disarmament by the capitalist nations is not likely; and that peace and a diminution in expenditure on armaments, even under capitalism, would be a real gain to the working class, and no danger to Socialism or the coming Social Revolution.”

In arriving at this conclusion, Miss Kahan attaches too little weight to the considerations which I advanced in my first article as calculated to impress rulers and the ruling classes generally with the folly of war. Mr. Norman Angell has been at some pains to convince people that war does not “pay” even the victorious nation; and it is popularly believed that it was to the urgent representations of the Berlin bankers that the maintenance of peace was due last summer. Miss Kahan, indeed, almost entirely ignores the circumstances to which, in my first article, I called attention, as tending to a. world-wide “league of peace” between the great capitalist Powers, which might conceivably be far more inimical to democratic interests, and a far more formidable obstacle to Socialism and the Social Revolution than the rivalries, quarrels, and armaments of those Powers are ever likely to be. As I there pointed out, we have already in Europe the “Triple Alliance” and the “Triple Entente,” and if Germany, Austria and Italy can combine in the one, and France, England and Russia in the other, I cannot see any reason why the “Triplice” and “Entente” should not combine, and all six Powers be united in a common alliance. Would Miss Kahan or any other Socialist contend that such a combination would be to the advantage of democracy, of Socialism, or of the Social Revolution? Will any Socialist attempt to show that the “Alliance” between Germany, Austria, and Italy, or the “Entente” between France, England and Russia, has benefited any subject people – native, colonial, or foreign – or has been, in any degree, of advantage to humanity?

Would it not rather be admitted that in both cases the combination has been simply one to enable the respective Powers to prey with greater strength, ease and security upon the peoples marked down for prey? We have only to look at Morocco, Egypt, Tripoli, Finland, Poland, Persia, and the Balkan States for an answer to that question. If by a union of the Triplice and the Entente we could bring about the close federation of all European nations, under existing circumstances, into the United States of Europe, it is quite certain that the position of these victims of the Great Powers would be, if anything, worse than it is now.

Miss Kahan says that she is puzzled as to my purpose in writing as I have done on this subject. I am sorry if my object was not made perfectly clear. I simply wished to set before my fellow-Socialists what appeared to me an unconsidered aspect of the Peace Movement: the possibilities of its success through the recognition by the ruling classes of the folly and waste of war and the dangers which were to be feared from the consummation of a world peace under a capitalist regime. I did not wish the conclusion to be drawn “that the Peace movement is a real danger to Socialism, and that its success would spell the death-knell of Socialism.” I do not know of anything which would “spell the death-knell of Socialism,” but there does appear to be very considerable danger of retarding the progress of Socialism, indefinitely deferring its advent, and prolonging the human suffering, want and misery which must in the meantime be endured, by devoting our energies to movements which, while promising fair, may possibly hinder and injure instead of advancing our own cause.

Such a movement is, unquestionably and admittedly, the “social reform” movement of the bourgeois parties; and such a movement may conceivably – as I think – be the movement for international peace and arbitration. I do not wish to dogmatise on the matter; but I do think it is worthy of consideration and discussion.

I suspect the gifts of the Greeks. Some of our friends have been hopelessly misled, and the Socialist movement has been sadly weakened, by the bourgeois social reform of Mr. Lloyd George. It would be well to take care that at least not more harm is done to our cause by too ardent devotion to the bourgeois pacifism of Andrew Carnegie. I believe that Lloyd George is perfectly sincere in his desire for “social reform,” knowing full well that his social reform will serve the interests of his capitalist patrons, and hinder Socialism. I believe also that Andrew Carnegie sincerely desires peace, because he sees the possibilities of peace for the conservation and development of capitalist interests, and the suppression of any revolutionary tendencies on the part of the working class. I, too, am for peace; but, as Miss Kahan infers, there is a difference between the Socialist pacifist and the bourgeois pacifist. The difficulty for the former, however, is to avoid playing the game of the latter.

Miss Kahan states that I say that “We Social-Democrats rightly strive for peace,” but do not say exactly why we do so. Nevertheless I thought that my statement on this point, in my first article, was explicit. I said: “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.”

With regard to the economic burden of armaments, Miss Kahan suggests that I “argue the matter on too hard and fast lines,” and goes on to contend that “armaments are about the most dangerous and worst luxury we can indulge our governing class in.” But with all that I have nothing to do. The need for armaments as an outlet for the dissipation of surplus value might reasonably form the subject of another article; I only referred to it in the present connection in reply to Kautsky’s suggestion that the Revolution might emerge from the revolt of the people against “the intolerable burden of armaments.” My point is that in the first place armaments are no more an “intolerable burden” upon the proletariat than is any other luxury of the master class; and, secondly, if it were, and were therefore calculated to lead to revolution, that would be an argument in favour of Socialists supporting armaments rather than opposing them.

But that is not my opinion. Admitting armaments to be “about the most dangerous and worst luxury we can indulge our governing class in,” I still do not admit that they are a more “intolerable” burden than any other form of luxury in which the master class may choose to indulge, nor so intolerable as to provoke a revolt of the working class against them. (In London just now, by the way, the revolt of the working class appears to be rather in favour of armaments than against them!) On the contrary, I regard expenditure on armaments, as on any other form of luxury – its harmless or dangerous character having no immediate bearing on this point – as a sort of safety-valve for the present system – a means whereby superfluous wealth can be wasted and otherwise superfluous labour be kept employed. Miss Kahan suggests that “if the workers were strong enough to force the Government to decrease their expenditure on armaments, they would then be strong enough to force them to use that money, not merely for the remission of the income-tax or death duties, but, at least in part, for some important social and political measures.” But the whole point here is that the “burden of armaments” falls much more heavily upon the bourgeoisie than upon the proletariat; and any reduction of that burden – for which the middle classes, as a whole, are, naturally, much more keen than are the workers – would most assuredly be directed to relieving the burden of middle-class taxation.

That, indeed, is the whole point of what I have written on this subject, and I can only regret having failed to make that clear – that our rulers and the master class generally are much more interested in the establishment of international peace, and stand to gain more by it, than do the working class. There are, indubitably, powerful and wealthy interests on the side of war, but the great bulk of bourgeois interests would suffer by war and are therefore favourable to peace.

The proletariat, the masses of working people, would certainly suffer from war, too – suffer terribly, worse than any other class; they, in any case, are the victims. I know that. No one appreciates that fact more clearly or completely than I do; and no one can possibly have a greater abhorrence or detestation of war than I have. But that is not all of the question. The proletariat, my class, are the victims in either peace or war. War, undoubtedly, is “hell” for them; but is peace – the peace to be insured by a truce, an understanding and an alliance, between the great brigand Powers – going to be so much better? It seems to me in any event very much a case of “heads, we win; tails, you lose;” as between the working class and their masters.

In this connection International Peace and Industrial Peace appear to me to have much in common. I know what industrial war means; I have gone through the bitter experience of a long-drawn-out strike, and I know that in such a conflict the victims are all of my class; that it is the workers who have to suffer all the hardship and privation of a strike. But am I, on that account, in favour of what is known as Industrial Peace, in which the workers will be shackled and bound with no right nor power to strike or to revolt? Not at all. I know, on the contrary, that the Industrial Peace of the capitalists, once assured, would make any revolt of the workers impossible for many a year.

So, too, with International Peace. Miss Kahan says that it might be imagined from the way I talk “about revolution being nipped in the bud when the nations are disarmed, that the only reason that the Russian Government, say, does not hang more revolutionaries than it does is that the English navy and the German army protects these revolutionaries” – and so on, in the same strain. I certainly did not hint at or suggest anything of the kind; but I do say that a combination among European Powers – which would alone make disarmament possible – would enormously extend the area of Russia’s little pleasantries of that character. As I pointed out in a previous article, “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.” Perhaps Miss Kahan will deny all this; perhaps she would maintain, for instance, that, without the aid which England and France have given her, Russia could have crushed the revolution within her own borders, trampled on Finnish liberty, and proceeded to the annexation of Northern Persia. But I do not think she will do anything of the kind. She must know – and that is the whole point of this discussion – that all combinations between the great world-Powers – just as all combinations between capitalist industrial concerns – are, generally speaking, anti-democratic, anti-revolutionary, and inimical to the interests of the working class. That is not a reason why Social-Democrats should not be in favour of peace and disarmament; it is a reason, however, why they should not regard peace and arbitration treaties between the great Powers as the be-all and end-all of popular agitation, and should not allow their zeal for the revolution to be absorbed by blind enthusiasm for a capitalist peace.

Miss Kahan says that in dealing with the possible “result of disarmament on the home affairs of the European nations,” I “enter the realm of pure romance.” She credits me with a power of imagination which, I regret to say, I do not possess. I might say in passing, however, that the results I apprehend are not those of “disarmament” in itself, but of that agreement and combination between the great piratical Powers without which disarmament is impossible. Disarmament may or may not follow; the great thing is the alliance and combination for peace. Now, if I were a romancer I should discover the results of such combination to be universal peace, prosperity and happiness. No more war, no more armaments; the wealth, the invention, the genius, the labour now devoted to the production of the engines of destruction serving instead the arts of peace and ministering to man’s material and spiritual needs; the flower of our youth no longer drilled and armed for mutual destruction, but trained to mutual assistance and to useful and fruitful industry, in a land – the whole continent of Europe – flowing with milk and honey, a perfect earthly Paradise.

That would be the picture and the anticipation of the romancer, of the Pacifist, of what Europe would be when Wilhelm and George and Nicholas should have composed all their little differences and decided to make war no more, but to live henceforth in brotherly peace and unity.

But I am not a romancer, and. I look for no such glorious results from the Pax Mundi of capitalism. International capitalism and its instruments, the monarchs and statesmen of to-day, will, and must, act according to their nature; and a combination of capitalist Powers must necessarily be in the interests of the ruling class and against those of the proletariat. “When thieves fall out,” we are told, “honest men may come by their own.” It is certainly not to the interest of honest men to help to strengthen a combination among thieves.

Miss Kahan asks when the army or the navy of any country has been used on behalf of the revolutionaries of any other country. That is not the question at all. The point is that the army or navy of one country has frequently served to prevent the forces of another being used against the revolutionaries in a third. No one can doubt that the smaller nationalities of Europe owe their independence to the mutual rivalries and jealousies of the great Powers. Once those rivalries and jealousies are eliminated by a general European combination, these smaller nationalities would be completely swallowed up. In the meantime, of course, those rivalries and jealousies involve the maintenance of an armed force by the respective Powers. Once those rivalries and jealousies are removed there is no longer any need for any of the Powers to maintain an armed force for protection against its neighbours. But these United States would need to maintain a strong and well-armed police force – not to make war, but to keep the peace; for the suppression of rebels or revolutionaries or any other disturbers of the Peace of Capitalism. Miss Kahan says that “why the substitution of the armies and navies of Europe by police force should mean a greater suppression of liberties than is at present the case is quite beyond my comprehension.” Yet it seems to me perfectly simple. I take it that Miss Kahan has shared the indignation of all Socialists at Russian aggression in Finland and Persia, to say nothing of Poland. Now, assuming Finland to be an independent State – as Persia is supposed to be – while she remains independent both she and Russia maintain each an army for protection against each other. When the independence of Finland is suppressed she no longer needs an army; and Russia can reduce her army by the number of men required to protect her frontier against Finland. Is it beyond Miss Kahan’s comprehension that with this “reduction of armaments,” and this “substitution of armies” by a police force, there should be greater suppression of liberties than was the case when Finland was independent?

A United States of Europe under present conditions would mean nothing more nor less for the whole Continent than is meant for Finland or Persia by its annexation by Russia. There would be no Russian, German, Austrian, French, Belgian, Dutch or British Army or Navy; any more than New York State, or Kentucky, or California, or Ohio in the United States of America has an Army or Navy. But Europe would be united on the basis of capitalism; and just as the slowest ship in a fleet determines the pace, so the least democratic State in such a combination would determine the political level of the whole. We should thus have ensured peace and abolished war between European States, but we should have Russianised and Prussianised, not only Poland, Finland and Persia, but the whole of Europe.

Miss Kahan says that “The right of asylum, the right of free speech, and all the liberties we do possess,” “depend on the force of public opinion and alertness of the masses.” Even admitting that; what right of asylum or of free speech could exist in such a “United States” as I have suggested? Or where would be the opportunity for public opinion or the “alertness of the masses” to express itself? At present an English subject in Russian Poland may be imprisoned for life, or tortured to death without trial, investigation or accusation. But with the regime inaugurated by the United States of Europe in existing conditions, that might happen to anyone, anywhere.

Miss Kahan says that “even if such a state of affairs were to be arrived at, it would be entirely independent of disarmament and universal peace.” That I do not deny. My only concern was to point out that the establishment of peace under capitalism is, in my opinion, by no means the impossibility that we had been accustomed to regard it; that such peace, however, was by no means the unmixed blessing which people were led to suppose, but involved possibilities and perils before which the horrors of war pale into insignificance. I yield to none in my abhorrence of war. I hold it to be the duty of Social-Democrats, for every reason, to “seek peace and ensue it,” but I think we should go warily, recognising that capitalist peace is likely to be, like capitalist social reform, but Dead Sea fruit; and worse, in its consequences, than even capitalist State rivalries.