Harry Quelch 1912

Socialism and Foreign Affairs

Source: Revolutionary History;
First Published: 1912 Socialism and Foreign Affairs, The British Socialist, Vol.1., No.12, December 15, 1912, pp.530-538. Published just after the Balkan States main victories before the defeat of the Bulgarians at the lines of Chatalja outside Constantinople;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The Balkan war; the imbroglio in Eastern Europe preceding and consequent upon that war; and the efforts which have been and are being made by the Socialist International to prevent a spread of the conflict, all serve once more to emphasise the importance to Socialist Party of some clear knowledge, theory and policy in regard to foreign affairs.

We are told, however, that the Socialist Party “is not called upon to formulate any foreign policy, because no national section of the proletariat is foreign to any other.” In a sense that is perfectly true. To us Socialists, the German, French, Swiss, Italian, Bulgarian or any other Socialists are not foreigners, but just comrades and brothers in arms in one universal international fraternity. But, unfortunately, not all Germans, or Frenchmen, or Swiss or Italians, &c., are Socialists – not even all those of the working class. A every dear old friend of mine seems to have the idea that they are; and that every man he meets in France, Germany, or Belgium, or any other continental country, is a brother Socialist. The result when he, in consequence, shouts “Vive 1’Internationale!” to all and sundry, and seeks to fraternise, say, with the waiter, who has no ideas beyond his “pour boire” or “Trinkgeld,” is frequently comical, not to say embarrassing. For it is possible, even in Germany or France, to meet many working people who are not enrolled among the “Reds,” or are, indeed, hostile to them; and, in any case, no country in the world is yet under the control of the Socialists. However little we may be inclined to regard national interests or divisions, it is not we, but our masters, who are in control, and national divisions and conflicting interests are facts – ugly facts, it may be – but nevertheless facts which cannot be gainsaid and with which we have to reckon. That the proletarian has no fatherland, and that between the proletarians of one country and those of another there is no quarrel, is perfectly true; but the reiteration of such truisms does not help us in any way to get rid of the fact that in every European country to-day whole masses of proletarians – more numerous than ever before – are organised, drilled, armed and ready to fly at each other’s throats at the bidding of their masters. These masses of men are there, thus armed, organised, drilled and ready, in order to give effect to the foreign policy of our masters; and no amount of protest, nor any number of pious resolutions or Basel Congresses, will in any way dispose of that fact, or make it any less a reality. Our rulers are ­- our rulers! By the will of the people. They – our rulers – have a foreign policy, if we have none. We are in a minority; the victims of their policy – domestic and foreign. We may be able to do little or nothing to affect that policy-one way or the other; but it boots nothing to ignore it, and, indeed, it is fatuous folly so to do.

Nor has the Socialist International been guilty of such folly. The Basel Congress in its manifesto clearly recognises the reality of bourgeois foreign policy. Among other things it declares that “the most important task in international action rests with the workers of Germany, France, and England.” And what is that task? To “ persistently call upon their Governments to refuse to lend any countenance to Austro-Hungarian or Russian schemes of aggrandisement.” Thus, according to the considered declaration of the Socialist International, all that the Socialist Party – in Germany, France, or England – can do is to endeavour to influence the foreign policy of their respective national bourgeois Governments.

I believe the International to be right, so far as national action is concerned. I do not think there is anything else we can do – nationally. Whether it is the only international policy is a matter for consideration. So far as our national action is concerned, it is restricted to endeavours to bring pressure to bear on each Government to modify its foreign policy. That is at once an admission of a foreign policy in each country, differing from, it may be, and in conflict with the foreign policy of the others, a foreign policy which we as Socialists – in spite of our professed international solidarity – cannot ignore, but which concerns us vitally.

That being so, it is our duty to make ourselves acquainted, as far as possible, with that foreign policy in all its ramifications – its origin, its causes and consequences. It is only by so doing that we can arrive at anything like a clear understanding of the present European situation, and a clear perception of a possible international Socialist policy in regard thereto, as distinct from the purely national policy indicated by the Basel Congress. This is the more incumbent upon us, because it is enjoined upon us by that Congress that “the workers must not permit secret diplomacy to entangle them in the Balkan conflict.” It is the diplomacy of the European States which has brought about the present situation. The same situation would have resulted from the same diplomacy, whether the diplomacy were secret or open. The only advantage of its being open, and not secret, is that then the people of the different countries would have known what was being done in their name, and to what international arrangements, understandings, treaties, or entanglements they were committed by their respective Governments; and they might, also, in consequence of such knowledge, have been able to exercise some influence upon that policy.

We cannot reverse the situation created by secret diplomacy of the past, nor undo its mischievous consequences, but by a determined and persistent agitation against secret diplomacy we may be able to counteract its influence in the future and enjoy greater public control over foreign policy. Our injunction to do this, however, is thus, in itself instruction to make ourselves acquainted with foreign policy of our respective Governments; to watch it closely, and to spare no effort to influence it in a democratic and pacific direction. If we are not to do this, but simply to declare loftily that we, as it internationalists, know nothing of foreign policy, it is to protest against secret diplomacy. No diplomacy, secret or open, is, in that case, any concern of ours.

Convinced internationalists as we are; recognising that, theoretically, there is no cause of quarrel between the workers of the world; that the proletarian has no country to fight for, and therefore no occasion to fight we must recognise that as a matter of fact humanity is at present divided into different nationalities with conflicting interests. To us, with our deep conviction that the only thing that matters is the class war and our eagerness to fight that war to a finish, these divisions and conflicting interests may appear alien and puerile. They are certainly irritating; but nevertheless they are there as facts to be reckoned with. However true, theoretically, it may be to say that the proletarian has no part nor lot in these national concerns, he finds that in spite of himself, he is bound up with them; and, frequently, more closely bound up with them than are his masters. It is true that they have property in the State – a “stake in the country” – while he has none. But that very fact ties him to a particular country, and gives him a keener interest in the conditions of existence there – economic, political and social – than is felt by his masters, who, by the possession of property, are able to make their home where they please and to remove themselves from any country or district which, for any reason, may not be to their liking. He, poor devil, has frequently no choice.

In the same way, we say that the interests of the capitalist class and those of the working class are diametrically opposed to each other. That is perfectly true, and yet how often it happens that the interests, the vital interests, the very existence, of a number of workpeople may be entirely bound up with the interests of a single employer. This fact, indeed, is one of the very worst features of the capitalist system, of any other system of slavery in which the well­being or otherwise of the great mass of the people does not depend upon their own industry or idleness, their own capacity or lack of it, but upon the honesty, ability, enterprise, judgment, or caprice of others.

In present circumstances, therefore, however objectionable it may be to us, the fact is that proletarian interests in the different countries are, in many nations, bound up with the national interests. The proletarian of every country has not less but more interest than the plutocrat in the maintenance and development of democratic institutions, in the maintenance of personal liberty, of national autonomy, of civic rights, and of a high minimum standard of comfort. These are of small moment to the master class, because they are the master class; to the proletariat they are of vital moment, because it is only by these means that they can peaceably achieve their emancipation. Without carrying further, at present, the academic controversy between Bax and myself as to what constitutes a nation, I submit here that, in the main, we have, for practical purposes, to take the present grouping of peoples in Europe as a working basis, and recognise that, willy nilly, there is, as a rule, in each national group, in spite of all differences, certain principles which bind together as a nation those within that group, and that, with certain exceptions, all those in each group, notwithstanding personal, class and other antagonisms, are bound together by a common interest to defend the national autonomy and the right of each nationality to be free to work out its own salvation.

These facts, it appears to me, are self-evident. Assuming that to be the case, and reasoning from these facts, we come to this: that each national group must have a foreign policy; that is, a policy by which its relations with other groups are guided and determined. In this foreign policy all classes in a given nation are interested; but it depends upon the extent to which that policy is influenced by one class or another whether capitalist or proletarian interests have the greater weight and influence in that policy. So far the former, of course, in all European countries, have been paramount. That fact has had mischievous consequences, but that result only proves, once more, that we, as Socialists, and on behalf of the working class, are, after all, vitally concerned with the question of foreign policy.

Applying this reasoning to the present situation in Europe it is easy to see that while there is now no occasion for intervention in the Balkans, except as mediator, on the part of England, France, or Germany, that occasion or excuse may very conceivably arise. That is to say, that as between Turkey and the Balkan League the quarrel is no concern of England, France, or Germany; although it must be admitted that all three, and especially England, have treated both sides – and especially Turkey – scurvily enough. We, however, either as Socialists or Englishmen, are not at all concerned with supporting Turkey against the Balkan League, and certainly not – as our Liberal Pacifists would have had us do – with supporting the Balkan League against Turkey. We are, however, both as Socialists and a nation, interested in the support of any people “rightly struggling to be free,” either from a foreign yoke or a native oppressor, or of a people striving to gain or maintain its national independence. From every point of view, therefore, however slightly we may be directly affected by it, we could not possibly regard with indifference the dispute between Austria and Servia, which has arisen out of the Balkan war and which has threatened to be the cause of the extension of the conflict.

Even here, of course, it may be justifiable to say that Servia’s pretences are quite unwarrantable, that; we could not, as a nation, support them, that Austria and Servia may fight the matter out themselves, and that we, as a nation, are not willing to risk the life of a single British infantryman in the quarrel. All that we may say and believe, and maintain – if it were left, by others, to Austria and Servia alone.

But if Austria and Servia came to blows nobody supposes that it would be left to them alone. That Russia would support the claims of Servia is inevitable; indeed, it is credibly maintained that it is entirely due to Russia that Servia has pressed those claims so presumptuously. But if Russia entered the lists in support of Servia, and there is certainly no democratic influence in Russia strong enough to prevent her doing so, it is a practically foregone conclusion that Austria would be supported by Germany and Italy. In that case, loyalty to her alliance with Russia, to say nothing of more selfish reasons, would almost inevitably involve France, and we should then see how far our “entente” with France, to say nothing of our “agreement” with Russia, would involve our joining in the fray. So far as the obligations imposed by those understandings and agreements are known, it would be practically impossible for us as a nation to hold aloof once France and Russia were involved. This fact, apart from any other consideration, shows how mischievous has been the foreign policy and secret diplomacy which have led us into the present situation, in which, having been implicated by that policy and diplomacy, it is impossible now to escape the consequences. No British Radical or Democrat, to say nothing of a Socialist could be in favour of ranging England alongside of Russia in an international conflict. And yet that is precisely the position into which we may be forced, through the obligations to which our rulers have committed us, and without our having any voice in the matter; because it is quite clear that, little as may be the influence we could exercise on the action of our own Government, we could exert none at all on Russia, nor is there any popular movement in that country that could possibly do so. It may be said that any doubt which Russia may have of England’s readiness to support her by force of arms would cause her to hesitate before entering into a quarrel. That, of course, may very well be so, and that is an additional reason why we should have been kept free from any entangling alliances. On the other hand, the assurance that under no circumstances would England fight would be just as likely to embolden Austria and so precipitate a conflict as to make for the maintenance of peace. One thing is quite certain, and that is that all through the present crisis the influence of Germany has been steadily and persistently on the side of peace. That is a universally admitted fact. To what extent this fact has been due to the preparedness of France for war can only be conjectured. That Germany, while prepared to support Austria in the event of a conflict, was most anxious to preserve the peace is quite certain.

That, at any rate, is the present situation. I propose in a future article to trace the lines of policy and the circumstances out of which that situation has developed Meanwhile, I do not pretend to say that the present situation is one in which we, either as Socialists or Englishmen, are called upon to take sides; but I do say that in somewhat similar circumstances it would be our duty to do so, and that in that fact lies a possible international policy for the Socialist International, as distinct from the national policy, laid down at Basel. It is not sufficient, that is to say, for the International to declare itself on the side of peace. That goes without saying. It is futile to put it upon the national sections of the party to try and hold the hands of their respective Governments, to assert that all wars are wrong, and that both parties to a war are equally culpable. That is simply not true. As a general rule, two rival nations, or two rival Governments, may be equally innocent and equally culpable, and even in a war there may be nothing to choose between them. On the other hand, in a war between two such Powers whose general characteristics entitle neither to our sympathy, one may be so clearly the aggressor that the war, for the other, may be the clearest and most meritorious duty. In such a case the more culpable the one the more blameless is the other. In such an event the duty and the policy of the Socialist International appear to me to be quite clear. It would no longer be its duty to call upon the Socialists in both countries to try – however ineffectually – to hold back their respective Governments; it would be its duty to throw its whole weight as an international force on the side of the State which, for the time being, was struggling for the right. That was practically what happened in regard to the South African war. England was then distinctly and emphatically in the wrong, and Socialists all over the world, as well as in England, did not hesitate to say so. The Government of Kruger was not immaculate, nor was the Boer Government, as a Government, so very superior to the British, but in that war the Boers were in the right. England was fighting on behalf of an international gang of plunderers, and if for any reason whatever any great European Power like Germany or France had attacked England, that attack would have been perfectly justified, and would have been entitled to the support of the whole Socialist International.

It is only by some such policy, by weighing the circumstances and throwing its whole force into one scale or the other as the rights and wrongs of the case demand, that the International can be a force in international affairs under existing circumstances. To decree a general strike is impossible, to simply advise the different national sections to try and keep their respective Governments out of the fight is futile, ineffective, a confession of impotence and a withdrawal from the actualities of life. The policy I have suggested, on the other hand, and which has been adopted on more than one occasion, is analogous to the policy which I have always advocated in domestic affairs. Liberals and Tories are exactly alike so far as we of the working-class are concerned. “As against these Socialists,” said the late saintly Jabez Balfour, “we are all Conservative.” In the strife between the two, however, the interests of the workers can best be served by opposing now one and now the other. It is only thus that a working-class party can maintain its independence and make itself an effective force. By attaching itself to one side or the other it becomes a part of that side and loses its independence, while by withdrawing from the field altogether it cancels itself as a force to be reckoned with and becomes an entirely negligible quantity.


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