Our Action Against Conscription

S. J. Rutgers

Published: International Socialist Review, vol. 17, no. 12. June 1917. Pages 721-722.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2021.

The St. Louis convention of the Socialist Party declared in favor of "unyielding opposition to all proposed legislation for military or industrial conscription" and for the support of "all mass movements in opposition to conscription."

If we do not wish to stop at mere words, we must organize action in accordance with this resolution.

First of all, we must encourage and support all strikes during war, particularly in important industries, such as transportation and mining. This will not only help to keep the workers from starvation and enslavement, but it will at the same time be the most efficient weapon against the reaction of conscription. The capitalist government seeks to make each struggle on the economic field a political issue. In fact, we have had in New York a strike of truckmen [trackmen?], who asked that a new arrangement made by their masters, and to their disadvantage, should be repealed. This was merely an economic conflict and the bosses were the aggressors, but still the workers were told to drop the strike on account of its "interference" with war interests. If labor submits to that, it gives up its influence, its power of resistance, and is reduced to serfdom. If it does not, it comes into serious conflict with the organization of the Capitalist State and an intensified class struggle will be the result. Gompers, as a faithful servant of Capitalism and a traitor to his class, grasped the situation exactly when he declared his willingness to prevent any and all strikes during war, because he knows that any serious strike under the circumstances may develop into a political strike, into a general conflict between the two classes.

Our task lies not so much in an effort to start or to proclaim a general strike, as some of our opponents seem to believe; our task is to support any tendency towards strikes, which under present conditions and when waged uncompromisingly, may develop into more general movements.

The English miners, as well as the rail-road workers and the metal workers, did strike during the war against the orders of their capitalist government, and they gained results.

The government actually had to implore the workers to stop their fight, on the presumption that the future of the country was at stake. Labor "leaders" had to be rushed to the danger zones, and once more succeeded in fooling the workers into submission. But it shows the power of the workers and their opportunities.

The Russian revolution started with partial strikes, combined with street demonstrations, gradually growing into more general mass actions, and the American workers should take to heart the lessons of recent history.

The St. Louis resolution demands support of mass actions against conscription. But this cannot mean that we have to wait until some mysterious general action against conscription falls from heaven. A general action has to develop out of smaller local actions, as soon as conditions become favorable. Our first duty is to organize meetings and demonstrations against conscription in all districts all over the country. Get a meeting together, even if it is a small one, try to arrange for a demonstration in combination with that meeting, and you will do more towards the support of mass action than in declaring your willingness to support "mass action" if "others" (who the devil are those others if not we!) will be kind enough to start something. Our opposition to conscription voiced at these meetings, small or large, should be uncompromising, should be a part of our fight against militarism, and against Imperialism.

It is true that the police have already prevented some of the Socialist meetings, but this should not discourage you. Other districts have held meetings since; we should try every district, every hall, every street corner; we can change our subject, if only not our spirit, and if we are driven by force out of every corner, we will have accomplished at least something. This would help greatly to show the workers the kind of "democracy" and "freedom" they are supposed to go to war for, and they will ask why this is a fight against "foreign" autocracy.

And even when driven from the last hall even when denied the right to hold street corner meetings, we need not give up the fight. We can print and distribute leaflets, and we can come together in streets and squares for propaganda and protest until dispersed by the police. If the hundred thousand Socialists, together with their six hundred thousand "voters" and that part of organized labor that did not surrender to its exploiters, organize this form of protest all over the country in a changing and growing number of groups to "discuss" current events, it will mean some problem for the ruling class.

No doubt, one of the topics at such informal gatherings would be the refusal to be conscripted. We may be assured that many will refuse, as was done in England, where several thousand conscientious objectors are still in jail. But it would be more effective if those prepared to refuse would get in touch with each other, could organize in a certain way to carry their action and their sacrifices in one and the same direction.

This concerted action should start with the taking of the military census, with the registration for the prospective conscription. Among the questions as issued by Governor Whitman of New York, there are two which enable us at least to make some form of protest; and no doubt other registration forms will contain similar questions. Question 50 asks: "Do you claim exemption from military service?" Everybody should answer "Yes." The Socialist Propaganda League of Brooklyn adopted a motion, subsequently adopted at the Borough meeting of Local Kings County of the Socialist Party to answer question 51, asking why you claim exemption, with: "Because I am a conscientious objector." No matter what other reasons you may have for exemption, first of all state that you are a "conscientious objector." This may give us an opportunity to get a public hearing on our objections as in England, and to make propaganda and muster our forces. And because the census most likely will include all the inhabitants of the United States up to 45 years of age, the grown up people will have an opportunity to join their protest with that of the younger generation. There is no use stating on the registration form what these conscientious objections are, because this will not be given publicity and may cause your exemption to be rejected without any further hearing.

We may expect different kinds of conscientious objectors; religious humanitarian, non-resistance advocates and class-conscious workers. Each group will have its own arguments, but. there can be no objection to co-operating in the effort to get a public hearing and an efficient action. — The International.