Zelda Kahan

Peace and Its Perils

Source: The Social-Democrat, Vol. XV No. 12, December, 1911, pp. 529-537, (2,895 words);
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Having read comrade Quelch’s second article on this subject, I am even more puzzled as to his purpose in writing it than I was when I had read the first one. Seeing that he takes comrade Watts so severely to task for affirming his strong belief in peace, Quelch could not possibly have written it merely for the sake of showing that “the overthrow of capitalism is of vastly more importance than the maintenance of peace between capitalist Powers”; the more so does such a purpose become improbable when he states that he expected the Pacifists (I presume he means Socialist, not bourgeois, Pacifists) would disagree with him. Has Quelch ever yet met or heard of a Socialist, however pacifically inclined, who did not regard the overthrow of capitalism as of infinitely greater importance than the maintenance of peace? It strikes me that the only real conclusion, on the other hand, that one can draw from Quelch’s article is that not only is Socialism more important than peace—on that we are all agreed—but that the Peace movement is a real danger to Socialism, and that its success would spell the death-knell of Socialism. It is true Quelch says: “We Social-Democrats rightly strive for peace,” but why exactly we do so he scarcely tells us. Indeed, it almost seems as though he had in his own mind really discarded this worn-out shibboleth, but has not yet quite summoned up courage to say so. And yet it seems to me that that is the most important point. It is useless to argue the question from the point of view whether war is likely to precipitate a revolution or hold it back, simply because we cannot consider the question from the abstract point of view. Under certain conditions war will precipitate a revolution, as happened in the case of Russia during the Russo-Japanese war, and as would happen, in all probability, in any great European war; in other cases, particularly in the case of Colonial wars, it will encourage reaction, as in some of the cases mentioned by Quelch. But in any case, even when a war (of course external) will quite clearly aid revolution, even then the revolutionary class must oppose it, not only because war is such a terrible price to pay for revolution, and because the revolution which breaks out as a result of war is likely to be immature, but, above all, because, when war has broken out in spite of all that the revolutionary forces have done to prevent it, then, when the masses have learnt by bitter experience all the disastrous consequences of the war which many of them supported, the prestige and the moral and practical influence of the class or parties which have opposed war will increase, and the revolution or revolutionary party will consequently gain in strength.

But there is yet another and very important reason why our influence should always be on the side of peace and against increases in expenditure on armaments, and that is its educative effect on the working class. Just as we advocate and help the worker to gain good reforms, even the very best of which is not comparable to the establishment of Socialism, not merely because of their actual benefit, but also because in organising for this purpose the worker learns the value of self-reliance and collective effort, so we advocate peace and a reduction in armaments, not only because of the wastefulness of the latter, but perhaps chiefly because in so doing we infuse in the minds of the workers the spirit of international solidarity; we can thus combat jingoism and can show the worker that his enemy is not a foreign nation, but the capitalists of his own country; in resisting expenditure on armaments we can show up the tremendous wastefulness of the capitalist system and so forth. In short, Quelch should have distinguished between the Socialist Pacifist and the bourgeois Pacifist. The former works for peace and a reduction of armaments on entirely different grounds and from a different point of view from the latter. Nor is it true to say, as Quelch does, that the Pacifist—the Socialist Pacifist, that is—because of his ardent desire for peace, cries “peace” where there is no peace and entirely shuts his eyes to the possibilities of war. On the contrary, unlike the bourgeois Pacifist, the Socialist knows that no amount of moralising will avert war, if it is in the interest and in the power of the governing class to make it. He will consequently point out the dangers of a possible war at the earliest moment, only taking care to do so in such way as will not inflame the passions of the masses against the would-be enemy but against the capitalist class at home, who for their own profit are ready to provoke all the horrors of war.

As for the wastefulness of expenditure on armaments, I think Quelch argues the matter on too hard and fast lines. If it were a fact that the ratio of the surplus value wrung from the workers by the governing classes to the portion of this world’s goods received by the worker in the form of wages and social benefits was a fixed, unalterable quantity, then it would be quite right for him to say that it makes no earthly difference to the working class whether this surplus value is spent on armaments or on any other luxury of the governing class. In any case, of course, armaments is about the most dangerous and worst luxury we can indulge our governing class in; but apart from this we know perfectly well that this ratio is not a fixed quantity. We know that whilst the share of the working class in the national wealth always tends to a minimum, yet this minimum varies with a number of factors, and particularly with the strength of the economic and political organisation of the working class as compared with that of the capitalist classes. Why do we struggle for certain social reforms and against indirect taxation of the food and petty luxuries of the workers? Because the latter decreases the workers’ share of the national wealth, whilst the former, besides the reasons already given, increase that share, providing, of course, they are strong enough to defend what they have won. Now, is it not a fact that the best excuse for the staving off of social reforms is, the money which has to be spent on defending the country against the common enemy? And if the worker is persuaded that this money is justly and rightly spent on building Dreadnoughts, then he is much less likely to be insistent in his demands for reform, such as State maintenance for children or adequate old age pensions, and so forth. Of course, the national wealth rightly applied might furnish both Dreadnoughts and good reforms, but the money for both under present conditions has to come either by taxing the food and luxury of the worker still more, as was done in Germany, and as has been done in the case of the Insurance Bill and partly in the Budget of last year. In this case, then, the workers’ share of wealth is directly diminished with no return when the money is spent on Dreadnoughts, with some slight return in the other case, the value depending on the particular value and extent of the reform. Or it must come out of direct taxation of the incomes of the wealthy. In the latter case we may rest assured that if the upper classes have had to submit to additional taxation to provide money for Dreadnoughts, they will fight all the more strenuously against a further deduction of their wealth for the purpose of benefiting the workers. Is it not likely, moreover, that if the workers were really strong enough to force the Government to decrease their expenditure on armaments, they would then be strong enough to force them to use that money, not merely for a remission of the income tax or death duties, but, at least in part, for some important social and political measure?

So that I think the burden of armaments is a very real burden, which has to be borne by the workers to a far greater extent than the wasteful individual luxuries of the wealthy classes, and should be opposed as such by working-class and Socialist organisations.

Now for the next point. I quite agree with comrade Quelch when he says that war, particularly a European war, being such a costly and dangerous affair for both combatants, it is quite possible that the distinguished pacifists Nicholas, Wilhelm and George may well prefer to make a compact whereby they will share the spoil instead of fighting for it. Well, what of that? Is that to be an argument against peace?

It seems to me that if we cannot prevent the plunder, then it is better that the booty be shared peacefully between the mailed fists than they should come to blows over it. After all, is it not better that France should get command of Morocco and Germany of a portion of Africa by means of a treaty than that the German and French working class should shed one another’s blood to decide whether the German or French capitalist class shall have undivided control of one or both pieces of territory? But, it may be asked, where do the natives of Morocco and of the particular portion of Africa come in? Well, they do not come in at all so far as the capitalist Governments are concerned. For if it is profitable for the latter to have the territories they will have them peacefully or by fighting for them. This is rather where we Socialist Pacifists, with our entirely different outlook, come in, if we are strong enough. We should use all our energies to prevent our own Government from entering into the game of spoliation whether by peaceful or other means. We may not be successful in this; but by our efforts we shall at least have educated the working class to some extent in the perfidy, cruelty and selfishness of our capitalist Government. But whilst war may thus well be averted for their own ends by our pacifist monarchs acting on behalf, or at the commands of the capitalists concerned, the same scarcely applies to armaments. Here there are powerful interests which must either be squared or crushed before the expenditure on armaments can be abolished or even reduced.

But this squaring or crushing of these interests is by no means an easy matter, the more so as a whole army of officials in the Army and Navy would stand to lose materially by any such process. Whilst, therefore, owing to the great risks, war may as far as possible be avoided, yet there will never be a dearth of war-panics or of scaremongers to inflame the masses, and so to create an excuse and even a demand for greater and greater expenditure on armaments. And when we reflect further what a splendid method these panics are of keeping the people from thinking too much of home affairs; how profitable it is for the governing class to keep the people in fear and trembling of the wicked foreigner, thus keeping them from inspecting too closely the enemy under their noses—we can see what little chance there is of the governing class voluntarily scrapping their army and navy, or even diminishing expenditure on them. No, if any diminution in the expense on armaments is to take place at all, it will only be as a result of the united effective demand of the democracy. It is true that capitalism is becoming more and more international, and that, therefore, the capitalists of various countries tend to have common interests, but not only is this process far from complete, but even in so far as the capitalists become conscious of this identity of interests they would probably—as, in fact, now often happens—still keep up the pretence of rivalry, in the same way as the capitalist class in any nation keeps up a show of rivalry (partly conscious, partly unconscious) in the form of Liberal and Conservative Parties.

If, however, what Quelch dreads so much were to happen and the various great countries of the world were to scrap all their navies, “beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning-hooks, and convert their rifles and machine guns into the component parts of motor cars and bicycles,” I cannot for the life of me see why we should dread the result. The small nationalities in Europe and the natives of Asia, Africa and other parts of the world would surely have reason to congratulate themselves. Would little Abor expeditions, South African wars, Tripoli adventures, Russifications of Finland and Poland, coercions in Ireland, bleedings to death of India, Egyptian, Morocco, Tunis, or Korean occupations, Congo horrors, stiflings of Persian and Turkish progressive movements, etc., etc., be possible, or even conceivable, were it not for the armies and navies of the great European nations? By no means. A new era, a new future in which they could work out their own salvation, would indeed open before these backward races were Europe and America and other capitalistically-civilised portions of the world to disarm. Unfortunately nothing of the, sort is at all likely to happen whilst capitalism lasts, or at least whilst there are still portions of the world which capitalists can exploit.

But when Quelch comes to the result of disarmament on the home affairs of the European nations, then he enters the realm of pure romance.

By considering what capitalism would come to, if it developed entirely unchecked by the counter forces which it itself brings into being, Wells, in “When the Sleeper Awakes,” has written a very powerful and vivid description of the horrors of life for the masses under these conditions. Now, in a romance or utopia this process is quite allowable and justifiable, but not so in an article which sets out to discuss what may really happen. If capitalism could develop without at the same time developing an industrial proletariat, whose minds are broadened, whose collective instinct and self-reliance is strengthened by their conditions of life and work, then, indeed, we might reach that state of absolute slavery so vividly depicted by Wells and so feared by Quelch. Much, of course, might be said on this subject, but space will not permit.

It is perhaps just possible, or, at least, imaginable, that when capitalism has become completely international the governing class may voluntarily decide to grant more tolerable conditions of life to the workers in order to stave off or prevent a social revolution; but, in all probability, before that day arrives the glaring contrasts between luxury and abject poverty, the increased exploitation of the workers by the capitalists of various countries, owing to the increased industrial output of the now more backward nations, as well as many other factors, will have produced such a revolutionary working class as will not so readily be satisfied by the few extra crumbs thrown to them by the capitalist class.

But even if such a state of affairs were to be arrived at, it would be entirely independent of disarmament and universal peace. Good Heavens! One might imagine, from the way Quelch talks about revolution being nipped in the bud when the nations are disarmed, that the only reason that the Russian Government, say, does not hang more revolutionaries than it does is that the English navy and the German army protects these revolutionaries. Or, perhaps, England has not stifled Indian and Egyptian national aspirations to a greater extent even than she has done because the German, Russian, or French armies have prevented her? When, I should like to know, has the army or navy of any country been used on behalf of the revolutionaries of any other country? The right of asylum, the right of free speech, and all the liberties we do possess in this or any other country depend entirely on the force of public opinion and on the degree of political education and alertness of the masses, not on the forces at the disposal of the Government. On the contrary, we are all well aware of the fact that whether a capitalist Government’s force consists of an army, navy or police, that force will be used as far as they dare use it for the suppression of liberties, both at home and abroad. So that why the substitution of the armies and navies of Europe by police force should mean a greater suppression of liberties than is at present the case is quite beyond my comprehension

I, too, like Quelch, have not exhausted the subject, but perhaps I have said enough for the present to indicate that the Socialist pacifist strives for peace not merely because of his ardent desires in that direction; that voluntary disarmament by the capitalist nations is not likely; and that peace and a diminution in expenditure on armaments, even under capitalism, would be a real gain to the working class, and no danger to Socialism or the coming Social Revolution.