H.W. Lee 1907

Conscription and the Armed Nation

Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 6 June, 1907, pp. 327-330;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It is impossible to explain the misconceptions betrayed by our comrade A. Hickmott in his article on “Socialism and Militarism” in the last issue of the “Social-Democrat,” except by believing that he has unconsciously allowed his natural prejudice against everything in the shape of armed force temporarily to cloud his judgment. Take his reference to the waste of wealth under capitalist society. Has H. Quelch, or any other responsible Socialist, ever advocated war as a remedy for trade depression and glutted markets? Yet that is what A. Hickmott deliberately infers. “It seems to me that these are the sort of things (palliatives) Socialists should put forward and not war, as a remedy for trade depression, glutted markets, and the like.” There was absolutely nothing in the article by H. Quelch, in the “Social-Democrat” for April that could legitimately bear such an interpretation. “Waste means gain, and is not only inevitable, but necessary. And war, in such circumstances, is indispensable.” Quite so, but that is not advocating war as a remedy for the evils referred to. No one can dispute that the Russo-Japanese war, and in like manner the earthquakes at San Francisco and Valparaiso, relieved temporarily the pressure of the increasing glut of commodities on the markets of the world, and that, without these deplorable incidents, the present trade boom would not have continued. A recognition of these facts, which show up so completely the criminal absurdities of production under capitalism cannot reasonably be distorted into a charge of advocating as remedies those things which are recognised merely as facts.

It is also difficult to understand how it is that comrade Hickmott does not observe the marked difference between military service and military training. Throughout his article he uses these opposite terms as if they meant the same thing. Universal military service means the domination of militarism: universal military training of citizens sounds the death-knell of militarism. Universal military service means that the people will be brought under military law: universal military training means the abolition of military law. No one has argued that “universal service protects the liberties of the democracy,” so the reference to Germany in that connection is somewhat beside the mark.

Comrade Hickmott cannot see that the “Armed Nation” would be in the least degree effective as protection against war. He says, in regard to the South African War, that those who were not compelled to go and fight, but did go, were amongst the worst of the jingoes. Then how can he argue that the encouragement of “volunteerism” will deprive professionalism of its dangerous power? But though he is right, if comparing those who volunteered for service in South Africa with the soldiers and reservists who were compelled to go, there were yet worse jingoes during the Boer War than those who volunteered for active service, and they were the mad “maffickers,” who had no intention of fighting whatever, but whose excessive “patriotism” led them to hound on other people to do the fighting for them. In fact, under our “voluntary” system of professional military service, where the soldiers are a class by themselves, divorced from the rest of the nation, jingoism is distinctly more rampant during periods of national excitement than it is in conscript countries. Those who realise the horrors of modern warfare, and have had personal experience of the use of arms, may be quite ready to fight if they think occasion requires it; but it is your unarmed, untrained mass who are ever ready to despatch others to risk life and limb in the unholy work of imperialistic piracy. We are told that the advantage of our present military system is that it is not compulsory, that people are free to join the service or not as they please. The freedom of the average recruit to join the army is about on a par with the freedom of an unemployed workman to refuse to work for lower than the recognised rate of wages, or the freedom of the prostitute to decline to follow her only means of livelihood.

Comrade Hickmott assumes, apparently, that there is no danger of conscription save in our demand for the “armed nation.” That is precisely where I think he is wrong. The danger of conscription in this country is a very real one. Mr. Haldane’s proposals, when carried out, will bring the auxiliary forces under military law, and will therefore increase militarism in the army. But his schemes are foredoomed to failure. That is the universal opinion of those with a knowledge of military matters, who are, nevertheless, opposed to the establishment of a national citizen force. The failure of the War Minister’s “reform” schemes will bring conscription along very speedily. The only alternative to the introduction of conscription, which will most certainly follow the breakdown of the voluntary system, is that of universal military training – in short, the complete democratisation of the military forces. The “Armed Nation,” so far from leading to conscription, is the only proposal by the adoption of which the evils of universal military service under class officers and military law can be avoided. This is, it seems to me, the important point in the whole controversy which A. Hickmott has overlooked. The attacks now being made upon the S.D.F. by military organs furnish evidence that a National Citizen Force is not regarded favourably by those who call for conscription, and among the latest to take us to task is the National Service League, the League which, as Hickmott says, has freely quoted from Quelch’s “Armed Nation.” But a Christian does not consider the Bible an unsafe guide, because the devil can quote Scripture!

Though “Socialism will not come through force,” organised force may possibly be a very necessary and effective auxiliary. The ballot box is no doubt a safer weapon than the rifle, but even when there will be a sufficient number of people in these islands convinced of the necessity and possibility of the Cooperative Commonwealth to bring about the change in society, the end will not yet be certain. There are the classes in possession to be considered. Are they going to allow themselves to be voted out? Will they respect a franchise and ballot box which vote that they shall get off the backs of the workers? Franchise “ Reform “ Bills – and it is astonishing to what use “reform” can now be put – can be rushed through Parliament, like Crimes Acts, in twenty-four hours, and there is the “voluntary” professional army, under military law, to overawe the recalcitrants who may resent the suffrage and the ballot-box being jerrymandered against the popular interest. But none are so likely to be overawed by threatened displays of armed force – whether voluntary or conscript – as those who have a difficulty in distinguishing the butt end of a rifle from its muzzle.

Comrade Hickmott says in conclusion “the less we have to do with advocating compulsory militarism, the better it will be for our cause.” When he recognises, as I hope he will recognise, that universal military training is not military service, and that with the abolition of military law, upon which we have always laid the greatest possible stress, militarism falls to the ground, I don’t think he will again accuse us, even by inference, of things of which we have not been guilty

H. W. LEE,