The Clarion 1900

Militarism: A Reply to Nunquam

Written: by A. E. Fletcher;
First published
: in The Clarion, 14 April 1900, pp. 113-14;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford, for 2008.

Alfred Ewen Fletcher was born in 1841, at Long Sutton, Lincolnshire, was educated at Owens College, Manchester, where he took honours, and at the University of Edinburgh, where he graduated in the Department of Classical Literature. His fellow-students at the latter place included Robert Louis Stevenson, the distinguished novelist. He was offered the editorship of the “Barrow-in-Furness Vulcan “,in 1872, next became sub-editor and leader writer of the Educational Times,” then sub-editor of the Pictorial World, and leader-writer of the Weekly Despatch,” which was edited by Dr. Hunter, M.P. In 1878 he joined the staff of the “Daily Chronicle,” and he had been chief-assistant for some years to the first editor, the late Mr. R.W. Boyle, upon whose death, he was after a six months probation period appointed to the chief command.

“If the Emperor of Russia wants peace,” said the Duke of Wellington, “why doesn’t he make it?” If Nunquam hates war, as he says he does – and nobody doubts his honesty – why doesn’t he try to put a stop to it? He seems, however, to be doing his best, quite unconsciously, to keep the war drum throbbing, and thereby to be working against the cause for which he has done such noble service. For what can be a greater hindrance to the realisation of the Socialist ideal than the upholding of the Imperial and military systems, the two great bulwarks of capitalism? The Socialist movement all the world over, if I understand it at all, is a movement against Imperialism and its methods or violence. Yet Nunquam apologises for these chief obstructives to social progress on grounds which I think, no good Socialist or Radical can consistently defend. His reply to Liebknecht I regard as quite unworthy of his logical power. He admits that Liebknecht’s article is “quite sound,” but being written by a German it requires amendment, he says, before it is adapted to English conditions. “What is Militarism? When friend Liebknecht uses the word he uses it to denote universal compulsory military service. Militarism in that sense exists upon the Continent.” Liebknecht, I am sure, is as much against Militarism on the British as on the German system, and it seems to me, in common, I believe, with most Socialists, that if Militarism is defencible at all compulsory service is preferable to voluntary. There would be less danger to liberty from a citizen army than from an army of “mercenaries.” Liebknecht himself once pointed out to me that the German army, being raised on the conscript system necessarily includes a very large number of Socialists. “Two of my own sons” he said, “are now in the army.” I think even Kaiser William would hesitate before using such an army against his own people. If the troops employed in shooting down miners at Featherstone had been mainly composed of Socialists I doubt whether any damage would have been done. It struck me as a very curious thing that when the troops were ordered to fire on the people during the recent troubles in Brussels there was scarcely any butcher’s bill to pay. The inference is that the soldiers, being either Socialists, or at any rate in sympathy with the ‘Socialist movement, fired over the heads of the people and not at them.

Nunquam, however, defends our British military system on other grounds. As a matter of fact” he says, “nearly all Britons are agreed that the Empire must be defended, and the United Kingdom made safe against invasion. On this latter point there can be no doubt. The resolution of the British people to defend all British possessions is a fact. We Socialists, even if we differed from the general decision, would be quite powerless to interfere with it.”

Here, friend Nunquam, you are quite wrong. We Socialists are not quite powerless to interfere with it. We mean to interfere with it. Just as the abolition of slavery was the great work of the reformers at the beginning of the nineteenth century, so the abolition of Militarism will be the great work which reformers whether Socialist or Radical, will attempt at the beginning of the twentieth. In view of the great work in this direction which is already being done, chiefly by Socialists in Germany and France, in Italy and in Austria, in Belgium and in Denmark, to say nothing of the United Kingdom and the United States, we Socialists understand that our outlook for the Success of an anti-military crusade is far brighter than was the outlook of the Abolitionists a hundred years ago. We have the same forces to contend with that they had, viz time-honoured tradition, capitalism and landlordism in and out of Parliament, and paganism in the pulpit.

I deny that nearly all Britons are agreed that the Empire must be maintained on present lines. I have faith enough in my fellow-countrymen to believe that there will very soon be a reaction against the Jingoism of which they are at present the victims; and that, just as after the Crimean War, the watchword which won elections were” Peace, Retrenchment, and Reform,” so after the present trouble in South Africa is over, Democracy will rally to a peaceful battle-cry, equally in accordance with the prophetic utterance, “Not by might nor by power, but by thy spirit, saith the Lord.” From the experience I have had in addressing meetings up and down the country, I am convinced that Nunquam greatly under-estimates the anti-Jingo forces. The rowdy meetings are reported; the meetings where there is no row are seldom noticed. Undoubtedly most of us are in favour of defending the Empire and of safeguarding our shores against invasion, but we maintain that we can do this better by strengthening our moral position than by wasting our treasure in increase of armaments. Such increase does not relatively alter our means of defence, because every movement we make in the direction of increased armaments is followed by a similar movement on the part of our rivals. I believe that, if Great Britain were to begin to retrench, other Powers would be glad to follow her example.

Our imperial ideal as Socialists is that nations, like individuals, should learn not to be envied and feared, but to be trusted and loved. All our wars in the past have been blunders or crimes with one exception – the war which resulted in the destruction of the Spanish Armada. The army and navy have been responsible as much for the contraction of the Empire as for its expansion. Though we boast of our military achievements in the past, as a matter of fact no nation has suffered greater military disasters than we have. We lost our possessions in France in spite of Crecy, Poictiers and Agincourt. We lost a far more splendid Empire across the Atlantic through the madness of the sovereign and statesmen of the last century, and if we do not take care we shall lose another in India, where instead of teaching the Indian people to govern themselves, we are burdening them with the cost of our military system which has already brought India to the verge of bankruptcy.

As for South Africa, I believe that we cannot continue to hold our Empire there on present methods. Even if we crush the Boers, we shall still have the ever-increasing black population to deal with, and it is quite within the bounds of possibility that a great Basuto or Zulu leader may arise who will make the white man’s position in South Africa, whether Dutch or English, untenable. The present South African War is the fifteenth we have waged during the Queen’s reign. I say the Empire is not worth having at the cost which this almost constant state of warfare involves. Our methods both in Africa and India make not for the building up, but for the disintegration of the Empire.

Mr. Hubert Bland hints at a hereafter Elysium of “British liberty and British in South Africa, when mayhap this imperial metropolis, London itself, shall be counted as but one of the minor cities of the Empire.” He evidently thinks that the forceful evidence which the late Mr. Pearson (an Australian Chief Justice) collected to show that the black man and the yellow man are going to hold their own against the white man in the future is not worth considering. Our experience in India for a hundred years does not make me hopeful for the success of the British Empire in South Africa. We have adopted the methods of the Russian Government in India, and to me it seems a queer way of promoting freedom in South Africa by crushing the independent Republics whose people, by their heroic defence of their liberties against fearful odds, have proved them worthy of independence, if Nunquam is right in his view that Militarism is a necessity to civilisation. I am surprised that as clever a man as Hubert Bland should have made such a poor case for the suppression of the Boer Republics. I am astounded that be should repeat slanders against the Boers which have been knocked into a cocked hat over and over again. Even Lord Salisbury, in his reply to President Kruger’s overtures for peace never charged him with having “formally annexed by proclamation large portions of Her Majesty s dominion.” Mr. Bland’s chief argument for annexation seems to be the decision of the Australasian premiers to petition the British Government for the suppression of the South African Republics.” Surely Mr. Bland ought to know that the Australasian premiers are the humble servants of British capitalists and that all our Australasian Colonies are heavily, and some hopelessly, in debt to the said capitalists. Mr. Bland also ought to know that there is a very strong feeling amongst the colonials themselves against the Jingo policy of their premiers, one of whom, the premier for South Australia, has been beaten on this very question. The decision of the Australian premier which Hubert Bland, Socialist, so greatly admires only emphasizes the fact that the war is a capitalistic business all through.

Even those, like our dear old friend Morrison Davidson, who preach the doctrine of non-resistance do not imagine that we can realise that ideal of Christ and democracy all at once; but we can work in the direction of its realisation. That is not the opinion of a visionary. It was the opinion strongly held by Mr. Gladstone at the close of his career. It is well known that one of the reasons why he resigned the premiership was that he differed from the Jingoes in his cabinet both with regard to the Rhodesian policy and the proposal to spend an extra twenty millions on the navy.

I quite sympathise with Nunquam in his love for Tommy Atkins, who, poor fellow is driven into the Army frequently under the pressure of cruel economic conditions. (Some thousands of young miners enlisted during the late coal strike in South Wales.) Comradeship, however, should not blind Nunquam to the evils of the military system. Let him remember that some of the greatest inspirers of the peace movement have had experience of those evils: Socrates was a soldier, Tolstoy was a soldier, Tchertkoff was a soldier, the famous Aberdonian hero who is the subject of Quaker Whittler’s noblest ballad was a soldier. Nature meant Nunquam to be a man of letters, not a professional slaughterer and he is slowly recognising that fact in spite of his confounded relapse into Jingoism. As a man of letters why doesn’t he break with the old literary conventions about the dramatic interet of Militarism, conventions which, as he shows, even William Morris could not altogether abandon? Why cannot Nunquam follow the example of Browning whom he loves and

Take for a worthier stage the soul itself

Its shifting fancies and celestial lights?

Or why cannot he like Browning also, as in “Clive” show how much greater a man can be even as a counting-house clerk than as a “builder of empire"? There are better subjects, it seems to me, for dramatic treatment in the men of peace than in the men of war. We must all be fighters of course if we do our duty, for life is a struggle. “We come into the world with our fists clenched” as somebody has well said, and it is not until the fight ends in death that our hands are opened wide. But the best fighters have been those who have refused to fight according to the barbarous rules of Militarism. Take for instance, the following account from Prof. Masson’s “Life of John Milton” of the followers of George Fox, the real hero of England’s heroic age: “You may break in upon them, hoot at them, roar at them, drag them about; the meeting, if it is of any size, essentially still goes on till all the component individuals are murdered. Throw them out at the door in twos and threes, and they but reenter at the window, and quietly resume their places. Pull their meeting-house down, and they reassemble next day most punctually amid the broken walls and rafters. Shovel earth or earth down upon them, and there they still sit, a sight to see, musing immovably among the rubbish. This is no description from fancy. It was the actual practice of the Quakers all over the country. They held their meetings regularly, perseveringly, and without the least concealment, keeping the doors of their meeting houses purposely open, so that all might enter, informers, constables or soldiers, and do whatever they chose. In fact, the Quakers behaved magnificently.” How different this from the conduct of the fighting Puritans who, according to Dr. Hodgkin, when they wanted to evade the Five Mile Act would, when they came to their meetings, “have candles and tobacco pipes, flagons of drink, cold meat and bread and cheese upon the table, and so when the officers of justice entered the room it would be no religious conventicle, but a social party of jovial Englishmen.” Militarism depends as much upon deceit as upon personal courage. It is effeminate rather than manly (and same of the greatest military leaders have been women) and hence dresses itself up in smart clothes. As General Sherman said, “War is hell.” It reverses all the ten commandments. Why therefore should Nunquam defend it unless he wishes us all to go to the devil?