Vanguard October 1915

Marxism and the War

Source: J.B. Askew, Vanguard, October 1915, p. 6 & 7;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Among the shallowest remarks in a time which has been particularly productive in superficial trivialities was the sneer passed in the American “New Review” on those who contend that the capitalist system, and not the individual statesmen, kings, etc., are responsible for this war. The writer asked whether the capitalist system was independent of the men who carried it on. To that the answer is yes and no. The system is no doubt dependent on the men who carry it on, but, on the other hand, these are dependent on the system, or they would cease to be capitalists. So long as they remain capitalists and wish to realise profits, or even are not prepared to face ruin as such, they will find themselves involved in the conflicts which are the inevitable results of capitalism. If capitalism, as our Free Trade friends profess, was merely a question of the exchange of commodities, for their value, there could be no question of international conflict. Norman Angel makes that clear enough. But where it is a question of appropriating some thing for nothing, of appropriating surplus value in one form or other, of being the owner or monopoliser of this or that valuable commodity, so that other people have got to give goods to you in return for that which costs you no labour, either present or past, the matter is different. Only one man, or group of men, can be the possessor of a particular monopoly or privilege. No doubt compromise is possible, but as a compromise involves a certain sacrifice on both sides, it is only likely as a method of avoiding worse evils.

It is generally assumed that to call a war – a capitalist war – to say that all capitalists in the country desired it, and as Hyndman has proved to the satisfaction of a certain number of ex-Socialists, and pacifists that the City was in a deadly funk on the eve of the war, it is deemed by these worthies to be proved that capitalism as such was innocent of all share in bringing the war about; that, indeed, if the capitalists could have prevented the war, they would have done so. What steps, indeed, the capitalists took to prevent the war – we are not told. Supposing even they had done so at the last moment, that would not relieve them of responsibility for the conflagration any more than the fact of putting on the brake at the last moment can relieve the driver of a motor car of the responsibility of driving at a reckless speed. As far as the Government concerned, Sir Edward Grey maintains he did all that could to prevent the war. Possibly, but that does not acquit of having followed a policy which could only end in war. Of that an example is afforded by the negotiations between Lord Haldane and the German Government They were from beginning utterly unreal, because the representatives on both sides were tied by the fact that they belonged to, more or less, antagonistic groups. The negotiations could only be carried on by either England or Germany making themselves independent of that grouping, or negotiations must be carried on between the groups as such. So soon as war should break out between the groups it was, and must be, evident that there could be no question of individual members of those groups coming to a separate peace with one or other of the hostile groups Without dissolving the bans of grouping. In other words, not so much what the Government or the City did in the last moment is of importance, but what had been their policy all along in the period preceding the war.

The City, whatever they may have felt at the last moment, are certainly not to be acquitted of all blame. In all the questions which have brought this country into conflict with Germany – that of sea power, the policy in Morocco, the Bagdad Railway, and so on – the City has always been on the side of that policy made for war. Not perhaps that, they wished for war – but they were unwilling to make the sacrifice which would have prevented it, and I have yet to learn that they took any effective steps at any time, to make their power felt in opposition to a war policy. The “Economist,” for instance, has often written very well on these questions, but I very much doubt if up to now they had any influence on City men as such, or on those who decide toe policy of the City.

To take the question of British Naval supremacy. We are used to hearing that Great Britain has always been the guardian of the liberty of the world. That despite the fact that the victory of Great Britain and her Allies in 1815 over France, under Napoleon, was followed by the blackest reaction in Europe. That was the period when the British Navy was really supreme, and certainly British industry had a monopoly in the world. Whatever England did afterwards in the matter of affording refuge to political refugees and so on, the fact remains that it was British help which put those despotic powers on the Continent of Europe on their legs. Apart from that, however, assuming that England had always used her sea power in the angelic manner in certain writers are wont to describe it – can we wonder if other powers object to the possession of one country of that power, which should be vested in all. English people cannot understand why Germany should have wished to build a fleet to equal theirs if possible. But surely this war has afforded the best explanation for that. Since the war broke out no German merchantman or passenger ship has been able to leave harbour, except for the limited trade with Scandinavia. Gradually the whole of the huge commerce, which German industry had built up, has been paralysed. Can we imagine what we should have felt, had the situation been reversed. And not only in Germany but in the neutral countries, I understand, there is a very strong feeling on the subject of the way in which the Government has used their sea power, which may show itself in a very startling manner at the end of the war. Now, if we are to arrive at an international understanding, at least as Socialists, it is necessary that British Socialists should abandon the narrow view propagated by the Bourgeois Press in England. But to return to the City, it is notorious that whenever the question has been raised of the strength of the British Navy, the City has striven as one man to demand the pouring out of money on Dreadnoughts and goodness knows what else. That is way in which the City has shown their love of peace, and I am not aware that they have raised any objection to any policy of imperial expansion, either in Morocco, Persia, or anywhere else.

There is certainly no need to take a pro-German view, or to adopt all, that has been said by the advocates on that side, because we cannot swallow the whole British case. It is very disappointing indeed, to say the least of it, to find German Socialist organs, like the “Hamburger Echo,” for instance, which were characterised by a certain sound common sense in all political and economic questions, now adopting a line which they would have been the first to cover with ridicule – in other words, speaking from the capitalist point of view instead of that of the worker. But one thing must be said for the pro-war Socialists in Germany – they are not guilty of the same cant as their opponents in the British and French Parties. The Germans recognise expressly that the brother parties in the other, countries cannot be blamed for their support of the Governments in their respective countries, Whereas the pro-war section in England and France are every day engaged in abusing German Socialists for acting precisely in a similar manner to themselves. The British Labour men and Socialists who have done that did so, because they, unfortunately, not content to say, “Our country is in danger, from whatever cause we have no need investigate, we only recognise the fact that it is, and feel bound on that account to do all that we can to defend it.” Had they done so, they would have kept on the lines recognised by the International Congresses – but they did not, they accepted the British government blindly and under the guise of recruiting meetings undertook the defence of British Capitalist Imperialism against their German rivals. Instead of the war being for them a necessary evil, it became now a holy war for the liberation of Europe from German military domination. Democracy, as represented, among others, by Holy Russia, being pitted against Germany. And instead of confining themselves to the defence of their own country, trade union leaders and Socialists talk of smashing Germany of just pulls punishment and goodness knows what else.

Now, for the British capitalists these phrases are necessary. They cannot get up a war against another country unless they are able to persuade their fellow countrymen that they are fighting in defence of all that is good. They must get the latter to hate the enemy, or the odds are that they won t persuade them to kill them. But that Socialists should adopt the same standpoint, or at least own the same arguments, is indeed sad.

Perhaps, however, the most revolting piece of hypocrisy is the plea that because Germany was better prepared than the other powers, that it therefore shows the aggressive nature of her designs; that, despite the fact that for years every power has been openly and avowedly preparing for war. The English people, among others, trusted their Government – quite wrongly as it appears – to take the necessary measures to prepare for war. Of course, it must be clear to everyone that in any case one government would prepare better and with more intelligence than the other. Which has done that do not presume to say – but it is obviously absurd for the government which finds that its preparations were inadequate, then to come forward and plead that it did not think of war. For what then were any preparations made at all? But besides that it seems that one great reason why the British Government was not better prepared is that to have taken the necessary steps would have involved showing their hand and avowing the existence of treaties the existence of which they had denied.

There is, to my mind, a great need for a clearing of the issues. I think it is a mistake to in any way oppose recruiting – unless we are prepared to say, which I do not feel we need do, that the defence of the country is a matter of no importance to the worker. Offhand, I at least am not prepared myself to give a categoric answer to a question on the subject. There are even yet good reasons for the historic Socialist attitude on the point, and we certainly do not want to take any steps which would drive the workers into the arms of the nationalist parties in any country, nor do we want to have the struggle of the workers in any country disturbed by the fight for the emancipation of the country from foreign domination as has been the case in Poland and other countries. That that need not necessarily hinder the growth of a powerful Socialist Party, Finland has shown conclusively – but that foreign domination does present a grave disadvantage to a labour movement there can be little doubt.

Few of us, I imagine, will be able to grow very warm in defence of a so called voluntary enlistment for the army, since we must recognise its manifest humbug – but still less will we do anything to help a movement that is full of danger for the working class movement. The most serious objection in my mind to compulsory service is that it enables the authorities to paralyse the labour movement by forcing any one who is not content with the conditions of labour to go to the front. That, I imagine, is the grave objection felt by British Trade Unionists to any form of compulsory service, and it is to my mind a great objection to any advocacy of the Citizen Army at the present moment, that such advocacy would be used to help the cause of conscription. Those who have lived in Switzerland know only too, well how easy it is to use such a force – despite democratic forms – for capitalist forms, so long as capitalism itself rules the State. Our chief aim must be to warn the workers against allowing themselves to be misled by the lies of the bourgeois press and the mutual recriminations of capitalist groups, and to remember that the worker in enemy countries is just as much a victim of capitalist oppression as they are —that even though they are compelled by circumstance to fight against each other, that it will not be long before they are again compelled to help each other against the common foe – Capitalism – whose machinations have brought them into this impasse.