Saturday, May 31, 2008

Gladstonian Ghosts - "Militarism and Aggression"

We are continually being told by Socialists of the hazier sort that Labour has no concern with the question of national defence. We have had recently a considerable ebulition of this particular form of imbecility provoked by the efforts of one who has always seemed to me quite the sanest and most far- sighted of English Socialists, Mr. Robert Blatchford, to draw general attention to the importance of the subject. Mr. Blatchford is in controversy very well able to take care of himself, and in this instance he has overwhelmed his critics with such a cannonade of satire, eloquence, indisputable logic and inspired common-sense that it would be quite impertinent of me to offer him my support. But the episode is so very typical of the ineffable silliness of "advanced" persons that I cannot pass it by without comment.

As to the contention so much favoured by those who have been assailing Mr. Blatchford's "militarism" that England is not worth defending and that a foreign invasion would be no evil to the bulk of the people, the position has been so thoroughly dismantled by "Nunquam's" heavy artillery that I need hardly trouble about it here. As Mr. Blatchford says, a few weeks of Prussian or Muscovite rule would probably be the best cure for reformers of this type. But the whole argument is on the face of it absurd. That your country is badly governed is an excellent reason for changing your present rulers. But it is no reason at all for welcoming (patriotism being for the moment set on one side) a cataclysm which would destroy good and bad alike the good more completely than the bad and would inevitably throw back all hope of reform for at least a century. As well might a man say that, since London was admittedly in many ways an ugly and horrible place, he proposed to vote for the abolition of the fire-brigade.

So also with the very popular platitude which asserts that a peaceful and unaggressive people need not fear attack, and that, if we refrain from injuring our neighbours they will refrain from injuring us, (unless presumably we happen to be North Sea fishermen). The obvious controversial retort is that the people who maintain this doctrine are for the most part the very same who a little while ago were never tired of maintaining that the Boers were peaceful and unaggressive and lamenting that in spite of this their country was attacked conquered and annexed by a powerful neighbour. Of course I do not accept this account of the Boers, whom indeed I respect far too much to accuse of Tolstoian proclivities. But the point is plainly unanswerable for those who do accept it. In any case the whole of the above lofty generalization is flatly contradicted by history and experience. Indeed, if the strong will not wantonly attack the weak, then is our preaching vain! Why are we Socialists? What is the good of Trade Unionism? The humane capitalists will not attack us if we remain "peaceful and unaggressive" Perhaps not. As Mr. Hyndman (I think) once said: One does not muzzle sheep! But, if there is anything which the whole history of human institutions proves, it is this, that the people that does not know how to defend its liberties will lose them, and that it is not the strong and aggressive nation but the weak and defenceless nation that has cause to dread aggression from its neighbours.

In a word the doctrine of non-resistance and its consequence, the abolition of armaments, is good Anarchism and may therefore in a sense be called good Liberalism. But Socialism it is not and cannot be.

There is however, a position sometimes maintained by controversialists rather saner than those dealt with above. It is suggested that, while it may be admitted that an army of some sort is necessary, there are plenty of people already concerned with the promotion of its efficiency, and that Socialists, having other and more important work to do, had much better leave the question alone, intervening only to restrain the militarists when their demands become excessive.

Now to this contention there are as it seems to me three complete answers. By far the most important objection to such a policy is that it would make it permanently impossible for us to gain the confidence of the electorate. The people of Great Britain (especially the working classes) will always demand as the first condition of supporting any government that it shall be able and willing to defend the country against foreign aggression. No party which was not thought to fulfill this condition would find it possible to achieve or retain administrative power. And those of us whose desire is not to sit in arm chairs and read Tolstoi and congratulate ourselves on the non-conformity of our consciences, but to get some sort of socialism put into bricks and mortar, must feel the urgent necessity of convincing the voters that we are trust- worthy in this respect.

Moreover if you leave the discussion of army reform to the representatives of the landed and capitalist classes, such reforms as we get will be carried out exclusively in the interests of those classes. At present our military and naval forces are officered and controlled by one class; they are an appendage of that class and will always, so long as this is so, be employed successfully to protect its interests. So long as the English people are asked to choose between such class army and the risk of a German invasion, they will choose the former, but it by no means follows that they would do so were a practicable alternative placed before them.

And this brings me to my third point. It so happens that for the purpose of formulating an alternative. Socialists are in an exceptionally favoured position. Our army has by common consent broken down. It is not even effective for the purposes for which the capitalist classes want it. It is not only, as foolish people suppose, the War Office that is decadent and inefficient; the army is decadent and inefficient. Our soldiers are perhaps the best raw material in the world, but the whole machinery of war and defence is eaten up by a corruption which is all the worse for being largely careless and unconscious The two worst enemies of the British Army are the power of money and the power of caste. These are our enemies also. We Socialists alone are in a position to see what is really wrong. Would it not be worth our while to bring our best brains to bear upon the subject and see whether our Socialism cannot provide us with a remedy.

In spite of the unfortunate prevalence of the sort of sentimentalism referred to above, there have always been in the socialist movement witnesses to the common-sense view of militarism. Here and there throughout this volume I have been obliged to criticize the attitude of the Social Democratic Federation; I therefore admit the more gladly that on this question that body has indubitably led the way. Its views are obtainable in the form of a remarkably able pamphlet* from the pen of Mr. Quelch, wherein the old Liberal Quakerism is thrown completely overboard and the institution of universal citizen service on something like the Swiss model put forward as the socialist solution of the problem of national defence. The Fabians followed in "Fabianism and the Empire," adopting a suggestion of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb's that the half-time age in factories and workshops should be raised to 21 and the time thus gained devoted to training in the use of modern weapons. Finally there is Mr. Robert Blatchford, whose plan is too elaborate to be detailed here I refer my readers to his articles in the Clarion during July, August and September last year and to his forth- coming book on the subject but whose cardinal demand is for an immense increase in the numbers and efficiency of the volunteers, who are to form a citizen force of almost national dimensions. Of course the Fabian programme and, I gather, Mr. Blatchford's also imply the existence of at any rate a small professional army in addition.

Now it seems to me that the one defect of the S.D.F. plan is that, if I understand Mr. Quelch's pamphlet rightly, it professes only to provide a militia for the defence of these islands. That is to say it does not provide for the defence of our possessions in different parts of the world nor for any aggressive movement against the territory of the power with which we chance to be at war; while even for purely defensive purposes it is open to the grave military objections which can always be urged against relying solely on irregular troops.

I have already discussed the question of Imperialism and I need not go into it again. But I suppose that all but the most fanatical Little-Englanders, whatever their views on expansion, would admit that it is both our right and our duty to assist in the protection of our fellow-citizens in other parts of the world against unprovoked attack. If, for example, Germany were to make a wanton attack on Australia, or Russia on India, or the United States on Canada, I suppose that every sensible Englishman would admit that we ought to come to the assistance of our fellow-countrymen. But in that case we shall want an army for foreign service as well as for home defence.

The other point needs rather more explanation because it is constantly misunderstood by people who will not try to comprehend the nature of war. Such persons are always confusing aggresssion in the political sense as the cause of war with aggression in the strategic sense as a method of conducting it. A war may be waged solely for defensive purposes, yet it may be the right course from a military point of view to take the offensive. France found this in the wars of the revolution; and Japan fighting (as I believe) for no other purpose than the protection of her own independence against the lies of Russian diplomacy and the brutalities of Russian power, has yet been obliged to conquer Korea, invade Manchuria, and lay siege to Port Arthur. Similarly we might easily find ourselves engaged in a purely defensive war with France or Germany, in which it might be still the only safe policy to raid the territory and seize the over-sea possessions and especially the coaling-stations of our enemies.

As a matter of fact the distinction so often made between offensive and defensive war is more theoretic than practical. It is seldom possible to say in the case of a modern war that either side is unmistakably attacking or defending. Which side was the aggressor in the Crimean or Franco-German wars? Are the Japs aggressors because it was they who actually declared war or are they only defending their country? The real question to be asked is not which side is the aggressor, but which nation is so situated that its triumph will be beneficial to mankind as a whole.

Lastly there are the serious disadvantages from a military standpoint of trusting to a citizen force alone. Experience seems to prove that such a force is suitable only to a certain kind of warfare. The example of the Boers to which Mr. Quelch appeals so confidently tells directly against him. The Boers doubtless did wonders in the way of guerrilla fighting and in the defence of strong positions, but they never followed up their successes effectively, and they had to waste a great deal of time, when time was of the utmost value to them, in sitting down before Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking when a professional army of the same size would have taken all three by assault.

It seems to me that we can get an excellent military policy for Socialists by a judicious combination of the three suggestions to which I have referred. Taking Mr. Webb's plan first, let us by all means by a modification of the Factory Acts (much needed for its own sake) train the whole youthful population in the use of modern weapons and not in the use of modern weapons alone but in the best physical exercises available and above all in discipline, endurance and the military virtues. Then, following Mr. Quelch and the S.D.F. we might keep them in training by periodic mobilizations on the Swiss pattern without subjecting them to long periods of barrack life. From the large citizen force so formed we ought to be able to pick by voluntary enlistment a professional army which need not be very large, but which should be well-paid, efficiently organised and prepared for any emergency. Another and larger professional army would be needed for the defence of distant dependencies such as India.

These forces must, of course, be constituted on a basis of equality of opportunity, efficiency and reliability and capacity to command being the only passports to promotion and no bar being placed between the most capable soldier, whatever his origin and the highest posts in the army. From the purely military point of view this would be an enormous improvement on the present system, It is worth noting that the two armies which, organised in an incredibly short space of time out of the rawest of materials, broke in pieces every force which could be put into the field against them, the army of Cromwell and the army of the First Republic, were alike based on the principle of the "career open to talent." So the policy which I suggest would, I sincerely believe, convert our impossible army into one of the best fighting machines in the world. Not only would the officers under such a system be more capable than some of the fashionable commanders, whose glorious defeats and magnificent surrenders we were all eulogising five years ago, but better chances and a higher rate of pay would attract to the ranks of the professional army the very best type of man for the purpose, which the present system can hardly be said to do.

Beyond this we want an effective General Staff and an Intelligence Department not only alert but strong enough to enforce its demands on the government, as well as a complete overhauling of our war-machine both on its civil and military side. But there is no space for details here ; Socialists could hardly do better than leave them to Mr. Blatchford to work out*

* There is one of Mr. Blatchford's proposals to which I feel the strongest possible objection; that is the suggestion that those who do not volunteer for his citizen force should pay extra taxation. This sounds fair enough, no doubt, but its effect would clearly be that the rich could escape service and the poor could not which is hardly a Socialist ideal. Surely 'it is sounder policy to make such citizen training as you give compulsory for all able-bodied citizens.

No one who thinks seriously of the consequences of such a policy can doubt that, if it could be carried out, it would effect a greater transference of real power to the democracy than any Reform Bill. The objection which most reformers instinctively feel to any proposal to increase military establishments rests, I fancy, at bottom on their sense that such establishments are organized by a class to protect its narrow class interests. So it is that British troops are found useful to British governments not only in Egypt and South Africa but also at Featherstone and Bethesda. With such a military organisation as I have suggested this menace would disappear. Nay, the weights would be transferred to the other scale. Nothing, I conceive, is so likely to put a little of the fear of God into the hearts of our Liberal and Conservative rulers as the knowledge that they have to deal with a democratic army and a democracy trained in arms. This, I know, will sound shockingly heterodox to idealistic persons who are fond of repeating (in defiance of universal human experience) the foolish maxim of John Bright, the Quaker apologist for plutocratic Anarchism, that "force is no remedy," and the equally unhistorical statement that "violence always injures the cause of those who use it." But practical men pay little attention to such talk, knowing that nothing helps a strike so much as a little timely rioting and that the most important reforms of the late century were only carried when it was known that the mob of the great towns was "up." As a matter of fact, force is the only remedy. If Socialism comes about, as I think it probably will in this country, in the constitutional Fabian way, this will only mean that the Socialists will themselves have captured the control of the army and the police and will then use them against the possessing classes, forcing them to disgorge at the bayonet's point. And, if it does not superficially wear this aspect, that will merely be because the latter, seeing how invincible is the physical force arrayed against them, may very likely surrender position after position at discretion until they find that they have no longer anything to defend.*

*Since these pages were sent to the press a striking confirmation of my view has been furnished by recent occurrences in Russia. There, it will be remembered, the populace (acting on strictly Tolstoian principles) marched unarmed to lay their grievances before their Sovereign. We all know what happened. They were shot down and cut to pieces by Cossacks. One hopes that the survivors will be less faithful to Count Tolstoi's gospel in the future, and will perhaps realise that "moral force" is an exceedingly poor protection against bullets and bayonets.

It may be remarked incidentally that social reform would receive a considerable impetus from such a policy.

Not only would periodic mobilizations take the workers for a time out of the foetid atmosphere of their slums and factories and perhaps make them less contented to return, but the heads of the army would themselves be compelled to become social reformers and insist on some decent minimum of housing and factory conditions in order to keep up the physical efficiency of the material of which they would have to make soldiers. Herr Molkenbuhr the German Social- Democrat pointed out to the Socialist Congress at Amsterdam this year that this had happened in Germany even under an undemocratic and often really oppressive form of conscription. An immense impetus given to housing and factory legislation would be among the by-products of Army Reform, if carried out on the right lines.

I have left myself no space here to deal adequately with the Navy. I will therefore pass it by here with the remark that an invincible navy is absolutely essential to the welfare of the workers of this country, whose food comes almost entirely from overseas, and that the navy has never been like the Army a menace to popular liberties. It is generally thought that our navy is in a much more efficient state than our army is known to be in ; but a thorough overhauling would do it no harm and might expose weaknesses which we do not suspect. At any rate any attempt to weaken our naval predominance should be resolutely opposed by all Socialists as by all sensible men.

Of course an effective army and navy will cost money. But the Socialist will be by no means so frightened of high estimates as the old Radical who regarded all taxation as being of the nature of a compromise with Satan. The Socialist knows that at least 600,000,000 a year goes at present into the pockets of landlords and capitalists and shareholders generally, and, until this is absorbed, the cry of "ruinous expenditure" cannot be expected to appall him.

Works Cited by Chesterton:

Social Democracy and the Armed Nation
Twentieth Century Press, 373 Clerkenwell Green,
E.C. id.

Fabianism and the Empire,
edited by Bernard Shaw, the Fabian Society, 3, Clements Inn, W.C. 3d.

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