Pacifism and war

Submitted by Anon on 21 March, 2003 - 1:45

There are many sorts of pacifist: the recent votes in the Commons on war against Iraq have shown that. Many of those who opposed Blair will now "come on side" and support "our troops" like the Daily Mirror.

In this article from early 1917 Leon Trotsky discussed the nature and limits of 'official pacifism' in the run-up to World War One, and counterposed to it socialist class struggle-the only force on earth with the interest and the strength to stop all war.
William Jennings Bryan, mentioned in the article, was a politician connected with the more radical wing of the US Democratic Party. Woodrow Wilson, also a Democrat, won the US presidential election in 1916 on the slogan 'He Kept Us Out of War'Â… and in 1917 took the US into World War One.

Pacifism springs from the same historical roots as democracy. The bourgeoisie made a gigantic effort to rationalise human relations, that is to supplant a blind and stupid tradition by a system of critical reason.

The guild restrictions on industry, class privileges, monarchic autocracy-these were the traditional heritage of the middle ages. Bourgeois democracy demanded legal equality, free competition and parliamentary methods in the conduct of public affairs.

Naturally, its rationalistic criteria were applied also in the field of international relations. Here it hit upon war, which appeared to it as a method of solving questions that was a complete denial of all "reason".

So bourgeois democracy began to point out to the nations-with the tongues of poesy, moral philosophy and certified accounting-that they would profit more by the establishment of a condition of eternal peace.

Such were the logical roots of bourgeois pacifism.

From the time of its birth pacifism was afflicted, however, with a fundamental defect, one which is characteristic of bourgeois democracy; its pointed criticisms addressed themselves to the surface of political phenomena, not daring to penetrate to their economic causes.

At the hands of capitalist reality the idea of eternal peace, on the basis of a "reasonable" agreement, has fared even more badly than the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity. For capitalism, when it rationalised industrial conditions, did not rationalise the social organisation of ownership, and thus prepared instruments of destruction such as even the "barbarous" Middle Ages never dreamed of.

The constant embitterment of international relations and the ceaseless growth of militarism completely undermined the basis of reality under the feet of pacifism. Yet it was from these very things that pacifism took a new lease of life, a life which differed from its earlier phase as the blood and purple sunset differs from the rosy-fingered dawn.

The decades preceding the present war have been well designated as a period of armed peace. During this whole period campaigns were in uninterrupted progress and battles were being fought, but they were in the colonies alone.

Proceeding, as they did, in the territories of backward and powerless peoples, these wars led to a division of Africa, Polynesia and Asia, and prepared the way for the present world war. As, however, there were no wars in Europe after 1871-in spite of a long series of sharp conflicts-the general opinion in petty bourgeois circles began gradually to behold in the growth of armies a guarantee of peace, which was destined ultimately to be established by international law with every institutional sanction.

Capitalist governments and munition kings naturally had no objections to this "pacifist" interpretation of militarism. But the causes of world conflicts were accumulating and the present cataclysm was getting under way.

Theoretically and politically, pacifism stands on the same foundation as does the theory of the harmony of social interests. The antagonisms between capitalist nations have the same economic roots as the antagonisms between the classes. And if we admit the possibility of a progressive blunting of the edge of the class struggle, it requires but a single step further to accept a gradual softening and regulating of internationalrelations.

The source of the ideology of democracy, with all its traditions and illusions, is the petty bourgeoisie. In the second half of the nineteenth century, it suffered a complete internal transformation, but was by no means eliminated from political life. At the very moment that the development of capitalist technology was inexorably undermining its economic function, the general suffrage-right and universal military service were still giving to the petty bourgeoisie, thanks to its numerical strength, an appearance of political importance. Big capital, in so far as it did not wipe out this class, subordinated it to its own ends by means of the applications of the credit system. All that remained for the political representatives of big capital to do was to subjugate the petty bourgeoisie, in the political arena, for their purposes, by opening fictitious credit to the declared theories and prejudices of this class.

It is for this reason that, in the decade preceding the war, we witnessed, side by side with the gigantic efforts of a reactionary-imperialist policy, a deceptive flowering of bourgeois democracy with its accompanying reformism and pacifism.

Capital was making use of the petty bourgeoisie for the prosecution of capital's imperialist purposes by exploiting the ideologic prejudices of the petty bourgeoisie.

Probably there is no other country in which this double process was so unmistakably accomplishing itself as in France. France is the classic land of finance capital, which leans for its support on the petty bourgeoisie of the cities and the towns, the most conservative class of the kind in the world, and numerically very strong. Thanks to foreign loans, to the colonies, to the alliance of France with Russia and England, the financial upper crust of the Third Republic found itself involved in all the interests and conflicts of world politics.

And yet, the French petty bourgeois is an out-and-out provincial. He has always shown an instinctive aversion to geography and all his life has feared war as the very devil-if only for the reason that he has, in most cases, but one son, who is to inherit his business, together with his chattels.

This petty bourgeois sends to Parliament a radical who has promised him to preserve peace-on the one hand, by means of a league of nations and compulsory international arbitration, and on the other, with the cooperation of the Russian Cossacks, who are to hold the German Kaiser in check.

This radical deputy, drawn from the provincial lawyer class, goes to Paris not only with the best intentions, but also without the slightest conception of the location of the Persian Gulf, and of the use, and to whom, of the Baghdad Railway. This radical-"pacifist" bloc of deputies gives birth to a radical ministry, which at once finds itself bound hand and foot by all the diplomatic and military obligations and financial interests of the French bourse in Russia, Africa and Asia.

Never ceasing to pronounce the proper pacifist sentences, the ministry and the parliament automatically continue to carry on a world policy which involves France in war.

English and American pacifism, in spite of the differences in social and ideological forms (or in the absence of such, as in America), is carrying on, at bottom, the same task: it offers to the petty and the middle bourgeoisie an expression for their fears of world cataclysms in which they may lose their last remnants of independence; their pacifism chloroforms their consciences-by means of impotent ideas of disarmament, international law and world courts-only to deliver them up body and soul, at the decisive moment, to imperialism, which now mobilises everything for its own purposes: industry, the church, art, bourgeois pacifism and patriotic 'socialism'.

"We have always been opposed to war: our representatives, our ministry have been opposed to war", says the French citoyen, "therefore the war must have been forced upon us, and in the name of our pacifist ideals we must fight it to the finish". And the leader of the French pacifists, Baron d'Estournelles de Constant, endorses this pacifist philosophy of an imperialist war with a pompous jusqu'au bout ["to the end"].

The English Stock Exchange, in its prosecution of the war, has need first of all of pacifists of the Asquith (Liberal) and Lloyd George (radical demagogue) type. "If these people go in for war," say the English masses, "right must be on our side." Thus a responsible function is allotted to pacifism in the economy of warfare, by the side of suffocating gases and inflated government loans.

More evident still is the subordinate role played by petty bourgeois pacifism with regard to Imperialism in the United States. The actual policy is there more prominently dictated by banks and trusts than anywhere else. Even before the war the United States, owing to the gigantic development of its industry and its foreign commerce, was being systematically driven in the direction of world interests and world policies.

The European war imparted to this imperialistic development a speed that was positively feverish. At a time when many well-meaning persons were hoping that the horrors of the European slaughter might inspire the American bourgeoisie with a hatred of militarism, the actual influence of European events was bearing on American policy not in psychological channels, but in material ones, and was having precisely the opposite effect.

The exports of the United States, which in 1913 amounted to 2,466 million dollars, rose in 1916 to 5,481 millions! Of course, the lion's share of this export fell to the lot of the war industries.

The sudden breaking off of exports to the Allied nations after the declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare meant not only the stoppage of a flow of monstrous profits, but threatened with an unprecedented crisis the whole of American industry, which had been organised on a war footing.

It was impossible for this thing to go on without some resistance from the masses of the people. To overcome their unorganised dissatisfaction and to turn it into channels of patriotic cooperation with the government was therefore the first great task of the internal diplomacy of the United States during the first quarter of the war. And it is the irony of history that official "pacifism", as well as "oppositional pacifism", should be the chief instruments for the accomplishment of this task: the education of the masses to military ideals.

Bryan rashly and noisily expressed the natural aversion of the farmers and of the "small man" generally to all such things as world-policy, military service and higher taxes. Yet, at the same time that he was sending wagonloads of petitions, as well as deputations, to his pacifist colleagues at the head of the government, Bryan did everything in his power to break the revolutionary edge of the whole movement.

"If war should come," Bryan telegraphed on the occasion of an anti-war meeting in Chicago last February, "we will all support the government of course; yet at this moment it is our sacred duty to do all in our power to preserve the nation from the horrors of war."

These few words contain the entire programme of petty bourgeois pacifism: "to do everything in our power against the war" means to afford the voice of popular indignation an outlet in the form of harmless demonstration, after having previously given the government a guarantee that it will meet with no serious opposition, in the case of war, from the pacifist faction.

Official pacifism could have desired nothing better. It could now give satisfactory assurance of imperialist "preparedness", After Bryan's own declaration, only one thing was necessary to dispose of his noisy opposition to war, and that was, simply, to declare war. And Bryan rolled right over into the government camp.

And not only the petty bourgeoisie, but also the broad masses of the workers, said to themselves: "If our government, with such an out-spoken pacifist as Wilson at the head, declares war, and if even Bryan supports the government in the war, it must be an unavoidable and righteous warÂ…" It is now evident why the sanctimonious, Quaker-like pacifism of the bourgeois demagogues is in such high favour in financial and war industry circles.

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