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Workers’ International News, December 1938


Voluntary Conscription


From Workers’ International News, Vol.1 No.12, December 1938, pp.1-3. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The immediate “voluntary” Register of both sexes in preparation for war, announced in the House of Commons by the Lord Privy Seal, and glibly covered over with sugary phrases about the free dedication of national effort to the State, is the first feeler towards the imposition of totalitarianism on the British population.

It is voluntary only because the machinery for a compulsory Register is likely to prove more expensive than the added advantages would warrant. The bill to legalise compulsory service is therefore kept handy on the shelf, ready to rush through a National-Unity parliament on the outbreak of war. In the meantime, the “voluntary” character of the peacetime Register serves as a species of blackmail, offering the chance to avoid being sent to trenches when war breaks out by finding a safer place in the war machine to-day.

This first step in mustering the entire “man power and woman power” of the nation for military service gives a hint of the nature of the corning war – a totalitarian war in which the distinction between “democracy” and fascism will entirely disappear. “One land, one people, one Leader” will be the slogan on both sides in the mutual massacre of the peoples. The word “non-combatant” will cease to have meaning; civilian and soldier, woman and man, infant and adult will merge in one common Register of candidates for slaughter.

In the last world war, Germany hoped for a swift victory won in clashing cavalry charges, in the swooping down of the German divisions on Paris. But this first lively phase of the war ended with the contending forces digging themselves in, and instead of a struggle between armies the war turned into a test of economic endurance. If Germany finally succumbed after years of blockade, it was due to the inner collapse when man-power was drained from the factories and the last desperate expedient to find raw materials had been exhausted. Germany was reduced to an economic skeleton, and famine won the war.

It is famine which will win the coming world war. There will no doubt be another attempt to catch the enemy unprepared, to present the declaration of war in the shape of a rain of bombs from the sky falling at midnight on the densely populated capitals. But after the lesson of the last world war there can be no illusion that surprise will gain any more than isolated victories, such as the German attack in the Second Battle of Ypres when they used poison gas for the first time, or the British successes with the novel tanks on the Somme and at Cambrai. As Clausewitz has pointed out:

“We should consequently be arriving at erroneous conclusions if we were to believe that great results were to be obtained in war simply by means of surprise. We often think we are justified in expecting great results from its use, but the friction of the whole machine always militates against its entire success. In tactics, surprise possesses much greater possibilities than in strategy, for the very natural reason that all calculations of time and space are on a smaller scale. A surprise strategy will, therefore, be more feasible in proportion as the measures lie nearer to the province of tactics and more difficult the nearer they be to the province of statecraft.”

New inventions in the technique of war tend to cancel one another out, and in the last resort the strategy of war remains what it was when Clausewitz propounded its principles. Germany cannot expect to obtain more than episodic initial successes by the repetition of the strategy of 1914, and the war will inevitably dig itself into the ground again and resolve itself into a contest of economic endurance. The war in Spain and China has shown that the bombing of cities from the air cannot in itself subdue the enemy. Not attacks by planes, but the steady march of invading infantry determines the outcome of the war. And the frontier fortifications, the Maginot lines which criss-cross Europe, serve to paralyse invasions and transform them into sieges.

These conditions determine the war of to-morrow, in which the final victory will be decided not so much in the trenches as in the factories, the workshops, the mines and the laboratories. The war will be ultimately a “workers’” war, and the compulsory Register must inevitably follow the voluntary Register, even, if the Tories get their way, before war breaks out. Conscription is on its way in Britain.

In the meantime, voluntary service enables the ruling class not only to prepare for a surprise attack but also to plan surprise attacks upon the enemy and gain temporary advantages while the system swings over to conscription.

Thus before our eves is being prepared the totalitarian war which is about to envelop and transform the personal lives of every man, woman and child. Straining all resources to the utmost, the imperialists will bring about the slow strangulation of entire populations in an artificial famine created by mutual blockade. The masses will be subjected to starvation and protracted misery – and to what end? For another Versailles Treaty? For another League of Nations? Will the crippled and the widows, the gassed and the shelf-shocked victims once again witness a repartition of imperialist plunder, a dividing up of territory and reparations, coal and ships among the victorious bosses in a post-war world of ruin and unemployment for the working masses?

Capitalism, with its sharpening trade war, its developing slump, its preparations for slaughter and famine, offers no way out for the tortured masses. It is necessary to struggle against capitalism, to organise its overthrow by the revolutionary workers, to resist its preparations for war. It is certain that the bourgeoisie will oppose the struggle against its war plans with the utmost brutality, will strike savage retaliatory blows at those who stand in the path of its greed for profits. Many will fall in the struggle, no doubt. But what is the alternative which the bosses offer to those who bow to their desires? That we shall wade waist-deep in the slime and blood of their trenches, and fall defending their profits, so that they can add another million square miles of territory to their empire, bring another race of people to join the oppressed already under their rule, build another cenotaph to commemorate their victories and their gains?

No, we must wage a ruthless and implacable fight against their war preparations. We must refuse to volunteer for their Register or take part in their Air Raid Precautions. “To join the fire-brigade to put out fires caused by incendiary bombs in air raids – can this be described as aiding war preparations?” This is a question which some workers ask; they argue that such work is elementary defence of our own homes and lives and well-being. But we must answer, if we are to assist in air-raid precautions, would it not be logical and consistent to go a step further and man the anti-aircraft units to bring down the planes that drop the incendiary bombs? And to go yet a step further and man the battleships to prevent the bombers from ever reaching our city? Or still a step further and attack the enemy in his own headquarters and prevent his bombers from ever leaving his territory? It will be seen that to support capitalist war preparations even in its mildest “defence” measures must lead us, if we are to be logical and consistent, to support the entire monstrous equipment for the slaughter of fellow-workers, men, women and children, in other lands.

“Defence” cannot be separated from offence. The gas-mask is the counterpart of the poison gas bomb, air-raid shelters are the counterpart of the bombers. To tolerate the one is to tolerate the other, and the revolutionary must implacably reject both.

But again, some will argue: are we to stand and do nothing while the enemy sends workers from his country to attack us or bomb us? To this we must answer that if we are to aid the German workers to throw off the chains of Hitlerism, we can only do so by showing them that we oppose Our “own” bourgeoisie. If on the other hand we rally behind the British bourgeoisie and show the German workers that we are ready to shoot them down at the request of our “own” bosses, then we force the German workers to rally behind Hitler in sheer self-defence.

The greatest treachery of the Stalinist and reformist leaders is precisely in this, that instead of asserting the socialist internationalism of the workers, they set one against the other by advocating the “defence” of our “own” country. In this they repeat the treachery of the leaders of the Second International in the last world war. The social-chauvinists, as Lenin called them, socialist in words and chauvinist in deeds, acted as recruiting sergeants and led the socialist workers into the bloodiest slaughter in world history. To-day, the “Communist” and Labour leaders who emulate their treachery must be fought as ruthlessly as their masters are fought. No support for the National Register, no support for ARP, no support for capitalist “defence” – these must be our slogans. To the patriotic pleas of the workers’ movement, we must oppose the socialist policy: to end war, end capitalism; the overthrow of world imperialism is the only defence of the people!


Transcriber’s Footnote

1. The tone of this article is somewhat pacifist in tone, rather different from the “Military Policy” of the American SWP.

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