Arthur Hickmott May 1907

Socialism and Militarism

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 5 May, 1907, “Socialism and Militarism” pp. 271-275;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

The contribution on “Socialism and Militarism,” etc., which appeared in the April issue of the “Social-Democrat,” calls for an immediate statement of an opposition point of view. To my thinking, comrade Quelch’s attitude on this question is short-sighted and unwise.

I have no objection to “The Armed Nation” under Social-Democracy; but the sort of armed nation which we are likely to obtain under capitalism, if friend Quelch’s views are adopted and acted upon by the Socialists in this country, will be an entirely different thing. It will commence with the carrying out of the insidious programme of the United Service League, and conclude with out-and-out conscription, minus a democratic control of the diplomacy that creates wars.

Comrade Quelch argues that because capitalism creates in its operations “over-production of wealth relatively,” therefore some form of waste is necessary from time to time to remedy this evil, and the most efficient remedy that has been found available is war consequently, war under present economic conditions is a necessity, indispensable, and a blessing to mankind in disguise.

This point of view, containing as it does a large measure of truth, may justify the capitalist in demanding an increase of armaments, but it cannot justify Socialists asking for such an increase, unless Socialism affords no remedy for the economic evil of over-production.

Fortunately, however, for the cause of humanity, Socialism does provide practical palliatives for the practical elimination of the evil complained of, without our having to fall back at all on the brutalities of war.

Here are a few of these palliatives which occur to me as I write:-

(1) The abolition of child labour in farm, factory, and shop.

(2) The establishment of the eight hour working day.

(3) The provision of useful work for the unemployed as a permanent institution.

(4) The securing of such alterations in taxation as will promote a more equitable distribution of wealth among the people.

Now all these suggested changes are superior to anything war can do to balance up the present lopsidedness in wealth distribution, and it seems to me that these are the sort of things Socialists should put forward and not war, as a remedy for trade depression, glutted markets, and the like.

Comrade Quelch contends that, since general disarmament is impossible, we are compelled in self-defence to arm in the same proportion as rival nations do. I admit the force of this reasoning, and, considering our insular position, I say we are armed sufficiently for self-defence already. The danger is not that we are too weak, but that we may become too strong for the sanity of an inflammable profit-seeking press; and that, feeling our power, we may be tempted in our disputes with weaker nations to seek settlement by brute force rather than by resorting to courts of arbitration, where the strong and the weak are placed on an equality. This, it will be remembered, was what actually occurred in the South African affair.

Universal disarmament is apparently far removed from the sphere of practical politics, but the remedy for war lies not so much in this direction as in encouraging the nations to enter into agreements under which, for a stated period, all disputes arising between those in an alliance shall be referred to arbitration. The only limit I can see to this promising movement is when it includes all the nations of the world, and when it is not restricted by time considerations at all.

But we are told that the “cause of conflict will remain” even should disarmament or something akin to it be adopted. Agreed! The causes that made duelling a common means of settling disputes between persons still exist; yet duelling here has been wholly superseded by other means of settling quarrels, and there is no reason why a similar improvement in regard to war should not take place among the nations generally.

Besides, if war can be dogmatically pronounced unavoidable under capitalism, as friend Quelch assumes, what hopes have we that universal soldiering is going to maintain peace?

The fact is, this idea of universal military training is of Continental origin, where the conditions are very different to those that prevail here. Here the sea policed by a strong navy, does for us what conscription is made to do for France or Germany. Socialism made in Germany is all very well, but Continental militarism masquerading as a peace preserver is straining one’s allegiance to the cause we have at heart just a little too much.

That professional armies are a menace to democracies is a statement which is probably true, but in this country, the menace of professionalism is adequately held in check by the presence of volunteer forces, and, in proportion as volunteerism is encouraged, so far will professionalism be deprived of dangerous power.

Again, if universal military service protects the liberties of the democracy, as it is alleged to do, then the inhabitants of that classic land of universal service – Germany, should of all peoples have their freedom well respected by the army. But is this so? And if it is not so, what becomes of the special protective value to the democracy of a nation in arms?

It may be affirmed that I confuse matters by mistaking conscription for the true “armed nation.” Not so; what I clearly see is this, that under capitalism there is no guarantee that we shall get comrade

Quelch’s ideal armed democracy at all, or that its substitute will be in the least degree effective as a protection against war. We all know quite well enough that, owing to a clever distortion and suppression of facts by the press, this nation was quite led astray by a war-fever a few years ago. Those who were not compelled to go and fight, but did go, were amongst the worst of the jingoes. Japan since then has known a similar mania break out amongst her conscripted citizens; and France in 1870 had a similar experience. Now, mark the advantages of the present position of affairs in this country to the lover of peace, as compared with what it would be under any “armed nation” scheme. Under our present system he who deemed the wretched diplomacy that forced war upon the Boers infamous was not compelled, unless he was a professional soldier by choice, to go forth and slay those with whom he had no quarrel. Under compulsory universal service such a man would be the helpless tool of the abominable designs of a Chamberlain or a Milner, and this is what the “armed nation” under capitalism means to the democracy of this country.

It is useless to argue that such would not be the case. The amount of energy the Socialist Party could put forward in favour of the armed civilian ideal friend Quelch has in view would be altogether inadequate to secure his objective, but it might prove just adequate enough to break down that opposition to conscription which, so far, has saved the people of these islands from a cruel and pernicious form of military tyranny. It is one of those obvious cases where we stand to secure a certain maximum of loss with a doubtful minimum of gain.

What we require is not an extension of armaments but a larger measure of control over the diplomacy that leads to war.

For the safeguarding of the consciences and liberties of the common people we require:-

(1) That all diplomacy shall be open, candid, and above board, so that we may know always what is being done by statesmen in our name, and so that the whole civilised world may know how to apportion praise and blame when disputes arise.

(2) We require that the power to declare peace or war should at once be vested in the direct votes of the people.

(3) And that a conscience clause should be inserted in all army regulations, for the relief of the man who honestly and conscientiously objects to slaying his fellows in an unjust and unnecessary quarrel.

In addition to these preliminaries we should press for the extension of Home Rule, as far as is practicable, to all the various peoples under our flag, and, having done this, we should wisely encourage in each dependency a volunteer movement for self-defence only.

It has been artfully suggested to me by a supporter of the National Service League that Socialists should support the League’s programme because an armed democracy would be able to secure economic changes the more easily in its own interest. It may be that some Socialists who read this review have been approached with the same plausible argument. The natural reply to this piece of sophistry is, “Socialism will not come through force, but through education, and through the steady pressure of unpleasant economic facts. You may destroy by armed rebellions and create military dictatorships, but you cannot well up-build. This last is a slower and a more deliberate matter than the first. There is nothing which can be gained by the rifle which cannot be as effectively gained through the medium of the ballot box, if only the democracy knows what it wants and is determined to have it.”

I have lately had considerable discussion in the press and otherwise with advocates of the United Service League programme; and I am certain, as I live, that comrade Quelch is unwittingly aiding the League in its far-reaching designs to capture the British proletariat in the interests of militarism. His “Armed Nation” pamphlet is very freely quoted in the League’s leaflets, and it is obviously only a military training by compulsion that the emissaries of the League care about.

A few words more and I have done. Down to the present time we have been able to adequately maintain the defences of the empire without resorting to any nation-in-arms expedient. By a series of empire extensions, culminating in the South African annexations, we have so enlarged the bounds of empire as to have all our work cut out to police it efficiently. Therefore, expansionism must be given up, or conscription in some form or other must be brought in to support its continuance.

Capitalism must secure new markets or reach a serious crisis in its existence. To advocate the “armed nation” ideal as we think of it under Socialism is to further the ends of anti-Socialist conscriptionists, and to assist in the prolongation of the capitalist order of things. Surely this last is not what we Socialists desire to do; therefore, the less we have to do with advocating compulsory militarism, the better will it be for our cause.

I appeal to comrade Quelch not to assist the enemy to spike our guns.