The Worker January 1916
Source: The Worker no. 4, 29 January 1916 p. 3, by J. Paton;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
By the time these lines appear, the Military Service (No. 2) Bill will, in all probability, have received the Royal Assent, and will be “deemed” to have behind it the whole-hearted assent of the people. But it is the feckless habit of the British public studiously to ignore measures passed in its behoof at Westminster, and to reserve its decision until such measures are actually in operation. It is a stupid and a dangerous practice, but there, you know what habits are! It is certainly true with regard to this particular Bill that the mind of the people, if it is made up, has not been heard. They have not spoken yet! Overwhelmed as he is by a sense of the awful nature of the crisis, stunned by the weight of authority behind Kitchener’s stern demand for men, and the proposals made to meet that demand, the mental condition of the average man has not been conducive to the formation of any settled conviction on the subject. But things have now reached a stage when he may be expected to come abruptly to his senses and realise to some extent the nature of the trick that has been played on him and his class. The question is what form will his protest take? Will he be content to nourish his soul on resolutions – words, words, words? We may “resolve till the cows come home,” but conscription will go merrily on. Capitalism thrives on labour resolutions.
After all it is not to be wondered at, indeed it is rather creditable than otherwise, that the man who has concentrated on Association Football should imagine that the goals of the contending parties in the political field are as plain to be seen as they are at Hampden or Ibrox, and the play as straight. The good soul regards the Coalition as a bona-fide combination of bitter foes who have sunk profoundly serious differences and united in the sacred cause of liberty. He has not yet learned that though these men have in the past played under different colours, they have always been, and are now, one and the same team, and playing the same old game. And it is difficult to convince this plain, blunt, unsophisticated type of Briton – especially if he lives next door to an eligible, non-combatant male of twenty-five, every sight of whom makes his patriotic veins to swell with indignation – it is difficult to convince him that while the Military Service Bill appears to be merely an attempt to perform as painlessly as possible a surgical operation essential to the health of the nation, it is, in fact, something quite different. Murder is a surgical operation.
The case for conscription is plausible, easily presented, readily apprehended. The case against conscription is obscure and difficult. Sir John Simon, even, does not thoroughly grasp it, and certain of our Labour M.P.’s cannot see it at all.
It is important to bear in mind that compulsion has been in operation in this country for at least a year. The Military Service Bill is not the thin end of the wedge; it is the thick end, and the Government are about to deliver the final blow that will send the wedge home. Two-thirds of the armleted are pressed men no less than if they had been clubbed by a gang from the old Benbow. Their employers gave them plainly to understand that failure to attest before December 15th would be punished by withdrawal of war bonus or even in some cases by dismissal, and one need only refer to the “Situations Vacant” columns in the Press of the past six months to show that a man so dismissed would have not the ghost of a chance of a job. Thus were they rounded up, these free Britons, every avenue of escape closed!
Now what does this mean? Simply that the employing class now so reluctantly and heavy-heartedly consenting to the Military Service Bill have been for months, and without a qualm of their sensitive consciences, driving men into the army. To put it another way, they have been using economic pressure, economic power.
And what I want specially to impress upon my readers is that there is no intention now to employ any other kind of power. It is true the Government propose to use what are called legal and military powers, but legal power and military power are but an extension, a further expression of economic power. The Law and the Army are the executive of the class which wields economic power. The possessing class is always the ruling class, it imposes its will upon the masses by virtue of economic power which is the most coveted property of material wealth.
To explain just how this comes about would take up all the space of three issues of The Worker, but after five minutes serious thought you should see it quite clearly for yourself.
Men of broad sympathies and high intelligence in every generation have felt to be immoral and wrong this employment of an economic hold for the purpose of imposing upon the people the will of a dominant class. This is the idea that has inspired every revolutionary movement, from John Ball to Keir Hardie. It was at the back of Morris’s head when he said “No man is good enough to be another man’s master.” Suppose we adopt this formula thus: – “No State is good enough to be master.” The State-Socialist would qualify it, adding “except it be a truly democratic State, a community of men and women of equal economic and political status.” And that goes far enough for our present purpose. For not the most ardent and brazen eulogist of British institutions dare maintain that ours is such a community, when the total possessions of the average Briton comprise a cheap suit, an insurance card, and the remains of a week’s pay. Yet in this Bill the Government seek the most absolute and despotic powers with which it is possible to invest any master or group of masters; the power, namely, to tear men from home and kindred, and thrust them into the front of the battle. It is precisely the power exercised by David of Israel over Uriah the Hittite, and they seek that power for an end as obscure and (it is at least a legitimate suspicion) as discreditable. Uriah was not specially wanted at the front, but Royal David had plans of his own at home, and so have the British Government. Some of us have a shrewd suspicion as to the nature of these plans, and they are not for the good of the working class. Nor will any sort of pledge or guarantee that the wit of Mr. Asquith can devise, however exalted and learned and sincere the signatories may be, serve to dispel these suspicions. The only conditions under which we can consent even to discuss conscription are conditions of Real Democracy, and that involves economic changes which, rather than face, Mr. Asquith will devise twenty ways of placating Lord Kitchener.
It may be said we seek to make political capital out of the world-tragedy. Very well; the only capital we have ever sought is justice; with what less must we be content? Moreover, in all that has been proposed or done by our enemies (at home) we have seen nothing to convince us that they have relinquished or put into abeyance their political aims. On the contrary we are strongly of the opinion that they are prosecuting more vigorously than ever their unceasing campaign against us. If they would prove to us their disinterested devotion to their bleeding country, let them sacrifice their economic power, the standing menace to our liberty. To arm them afresh with the deadly powers sought in the Military Service Bill would be criminal folly. It is to spike our guns, and surrender to an enemy advancing under a false flag of truce the forts so dearly won by our fathers; it is to haul down the flag of Democracy.