Great Speeches of the War/Snowden


[Speech in which the Socialist attitude regarding the war is fairly stated. The speech was delivered at Blackburn, February 14, 1915.]

No man in a public position can speak upon the topic which is now absorbing all our thoughts without a deep sense of the grave responsibility attaching to his words. I think that, from some points of view, the present is not a favourable moment for the critical discussion of the causes—complex and difficult to understand—which in combination with each other have brought about this terrible catastrophe, which for the time being has submerged democracy, religion and civilization itself. There was a time, I believe, in the few fateful days when the peace of Europe was trembling in the balance, when the united voices of the European democracies and the joint efforts of all the Christian Churches of Europe might have averted the outbreak of war. But the thing came upon the world so suddenly, that the people were dazed and stupefied, and before the democratic, religious and pacifist forces could be mobilized the intrigues of monarchs, diplomatists, and militarists let loose the dogs of war. Although I do not agree with, I can well understand those who, when war was declared, took the view that the situation was then completely changed, and that national patriotism, national security, and the higher interests of liberty and democratic freedom impelled them to abandon the peace principles and internationalism for which they had previously stood, and to concentrate their minds and efforts on the successful prosecution of the war. But, to safeguard the great principles of liberty, and to carry on this war to such an issue as will bring some eternal good out of this appalling evil, it is not necessary for democrats, and socialists especially, to tacitly admit that all the principles of peace and internationalism, and their criticisms of capitalism and foreign policies have been unsound and erroneous. On the contrary, this war, when its inwardness shall be clearly understood, is a complete justification of the attacks upon militarism in all its forms and in all countries, and upon the economic interests which have fomented international jealousies, and upon the undemocratic and antidemocratic character of the foreign diplomacy of all the nations. I stand where I did on all these questions. In a far truer sense than those people mean or understand who now tell us that this war was inevitable I have always believed and declared that there was no other issue than this possible if the nations of Europe, with the passive assent of the working classes of all the countries and to the silence of the Christian Churches, pursued the foreign policies they have followed for the last fifteen years, and if they continued to provoke the jealousies of each other by the mad policy of military and naval armaments. We had made Europe into a huge powder magazine, and the spark which would explode the magazine was certain one day to be deliberately or carelessly ignited. I have no desire now to be captious or critical as to the causes of the war, and I refer to the matter now for two reasons only, namely to give me an opportunity of making my own position clear, because in all my public life I have unceasingly fought against militarism in all its forms, and have worked for a better understanding between the workers of all nations, which is the only way in which international jealousies can be removed, and militarism and despotism in all countries be swept away. I refer to the causes of the war for one other reason. If this war is going to achieve the purpose for which we at least declare we have entered upon it, namely to put an end to war, to destroy militarism, to secure the independence and freedom of small nationalities, we must understand the causes of the war in order to remove them and to prevent a repetition of this terrible calamity.

On the whole the temper and spirit of the British people in this awful affair has been admirable. To contrast the national temper now with the minds and passions of the people at the time of the Boer War, is to discover a change of a remarkable character, and one which fills us with hope for the future. I have found the spirit which now animates the people here at home possessing the people of our own race in every part of the British Empire, and, apart from the large population of German descent, in the United States also. It has filled me with unspeakable satisfaction. Nowhere have I found any glorification of war, no vain boastfulness, no lust for blood or territory, but everywhere a sadness, a horror, a shame that in these days such a war should be possible between nations professedly civilized and religious, and an earnest hope that this war may be the means of bringing near the day of universal peace. There have been, as there must be at a time when people's feelings and sympathies are excited, efforts in some quarters to inflame hate and passion. Above all else this is a danger we ought to avoid, for we must remember that, if the settlement of this war is going to be on lines which at present all sensible people desire, namely a permanent peace based upon satisfaction and goodwill, we must try to keep down the passions of hatred and malice. I was very glad to see the Times newspaper, in a remarkable leading article some time ago, urged the great importance of this point, and that the late Lord Roberts, just before his death, made a similar appeal to the British people.

I venture to urge this counsel also because I do so earnestly desire that when the time comes for the consideration of the terms of peace, as I hope it may speedily come, all parties may meet in a spirit and temper suitable for a successful settlement of the serious work they will have to do.

There are certain features of this question of the causes of the war which I do not think it is either desirable or profitable to discuss at this moment. When a war is in progress the people's minds are not in a fit state to calmly and dispassionately consider and discuss the question of who is to blame. There never was a war when the popular opinion as to its causes was the same which history, looking at the questions through an atmosphere unclouded by the smoke of battle, afterwards endorsed. It was so in recent times in the two last great wars in which Britain fought—the Crimean War and the Boer War. No good can come now from any attempt to attach blame to this individual or to that. But we can and must endeavour to discover and to discuss in a tolerant spirit the general causes and policies responsible for the war, because, as I said just now, that is necessary in order to come to a conclusion as to what must be done to avoid such a catastrophe in the future.

To set down the war as being due to one simple cause, as for instance the teaching of a German University professor who died twenty years ago, may be easy and convenient, but it is unconvincing and foolish. Not one of the many causes which have been put forward would of itself be sufficient to explain the war, not one of these suggested causes would of itself have brought about the war, but a number of causes jointly operating have had the cumulative effect of bringing about this awful disaster. I do not think that the democracies of Europe can escape their responsibility for this war. It may be due to the military spirit of Prussia—to the desire of Germany for world domination; it may be due to the imperial aggrandizement of Russia putting forward another effort to extend the Slav domination which now rules the half of Europe and the half of Asia; it may be due to a desire on the part of France to avenge her defeat forty years ago; but, if it be any one of these causes or any other cause, the responsibility rests primarily with the democracies of the respective countries, who have taken little or no interest in international affairs, and who have left European foreign politics to be managed by Kaisers, Tsars, militarists, and diplomatists, who were altogether out of sympathy with democracy, and had economic and other interests opposed to those of the workers of the world. I would set this down as the first cause of the war; and unless the outcome of this war be the full recognition of that fact by the democracies of Europe, and the establishment of some system of democratic control of national and international affairs, then the war will have been fought in vain, and the awful sacrifices will have been to no useful end. The workers of the European countries are responsible for the war, in the sense that they have been negligent in preventing it, but they are not responsible in the sense that they desired the war.

Only a democrat or a socialist would agree with what I have just said about the responsibility of the working classes of the different countries for the war. A student of European history, or an intelligent and experienced diplomatist, would assign other reasons, and he would be right in his description of the influences which have been operating in foreign policy and diplomatic embassies. In the narrower, but very important, sense this is not a war between Germany and Great Britain, nor between France and Germany. Both France and Great Britain are in the war because of alliances and treaty obligations. It is primarily a war between Russia and Germany; it is the old quarrel for supremacy between the Teuton and the Slav. On the part of Russia it arose from their desire to protect the people of their own race in the Near East. On the part of Germany it was a war prompted by the fear of Russian aggression. The Germans may have been wrong I can express no opinion on the point, but no one who has travelled in Germany or who has associated with German socialists can be ignorant of the genuine fear of Russian aggression which was entertained by them. It may be that the motive of the war, so far as the Prussian Junkers are concerned, was aggressive, but that certainly was not the motive of the German working classes. The German socialists in the main, and the whole German nation, at home and abroad, have been united in support of this war, because they believe that it is a war against Russian aggression. The alliance of Russia and France for offensive as well as defensive purposes enabled the military bureaucracy of Prussia to put forward patent and plausible reasons in support of the alleged Russian danger.

A third contributory cause of the war is the reversal in recent years of the old foreign policy of Great Britain. Lord Salisbury, probably the greatest Foreign Minister this country has ever had, was the last British Minister to hold to the traditional Liberal policy of Great Britain to keep us free from all Continental alliances, to avoid all entanglements which might appear to be hostile to any other European country, and to reject the balance-of-power policy. In short, the traditional policy of England was to avoid becoming a Continental power.

But fifteen years ago we began to depart from that policy, Mr, Chamberlain was the first statesman to suggest a Continental alliance. He did that in his famous speech at Leicester in 1899, when he proposed an alliance with our next of kin—Germany. It was an unfortunate time to make the proposal. We were in the thick of the Boer War, and feeling against us upon the continent of Europe was very strong. Finding Germany unwilling to look with favour upon the proposal of an alliance our statesmen turned to France. A number of reasons no doubt influenced our ministers in coming to an understanding with France—our desire for a free hand in Egypt, for instance. But there might have been one other reason, to which I have seen no reference in this controversy. Germany was beginning to build her fleet. France was already a strong naval power, with bases within striking distance of our shores, and disputing with us the control of the narrow seas around our coast. As we know now, but as we did not know, and as the majority of our Cabinet did not know until the crisis of last August occurred, our relations with France became closer and closer, through secret understandings, until there existed between the two nations what practically amounted to a moral obligation on our part of assisting France in case of attack.

We permitted France to withdraw her fleet from the English Channel, and to concentrate it in the Mediterranean. It is true that we were under no Treaty obligation to assist France, but two or three members of the Cabinet had been pursuing a policy towards France for some years, unknown to the rest of their colleagues, which had encouraged France to believe that she could count upon our support in case of war. The definite alliance between France and Russia involved our commitment to the support of Russia through our commitment to France. The question of the invasion of Belgium was not the reason why we went to war. It provided a popular justification for our intervention, and turned popular criticism away from the action of the Government in secretly committing the country to France. Mr. Winston Churchill at Liverpool frankly stated that he gave his support to the war because he desired to assist France. The invasion of Belgium had above all other things influenced—and I think in a way rightly influenced—public opinion. In violating the neutrality of Belgium Germany had committed not only a great crime, but a great blunder.

Among other causes of the war was the character of our diplomatic service. We have for a century been trying to democratize our internal politics, but we have allowed the diplomatic service and the conduct of our foreign affairs to remain the same as in the days when the right of the people to political influence was not admitted by Parliament. The diplomatic service was as far removed from contact with the life of the people and from democratic institutions and influence as it was possible to be. It might be difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, but it was still more difficult for a poor man to enter the diplomatic service. Of the twenty last appointments to the diplomatic service, ten were the sons of peers, and the other ten belonged to the same social class. Ninety per cent, of those who had entered the Diplomatic Service in the last ten years were educated at Eton. There was a condition that no person could receive a nomination from the Secretary of State unless his parents or guardians could guarantee that he had a private allowance of not less than £400 a year. He must also serve two years abroad without salary. The main qualification for a candidate for the diplomatic service was that he must be able to deport himself agreeably in foreign high society. What sort of foreign policy are we likely to get so long as we leave its conduct to men like these, without any Parliamentary control whatever? There is the closest connection between the diplomatic service and the military classes in this country. The men in each belong to the same class, they have the same traditions, the same training, the same outlook. There was one further influence which had been making for war to which some reference must be made. Twelve months ago the Parliamentary Labour Party appeared to attach some importance to this influence, but in the stress of other work during recent months they appear to have forgotten it. I refer to the armament ring. The only reference I have seen to this matter lately was by the erratic genius, Mr. H. G, Wells, who said this war must mean the destruction of Kruppism. But why should Mr. Wells describe the traffic in armaments as "Kruppism"? I can give no reason except that it is fashionable now to regard every evil—capitalism, militarism, imperialism—as being exclusively confined to Germany. As a matter of fact we have in this country larger financial interests in the manufacture of armaments than the financial interests of the great Krupp concern, and our armament firms have their ramifications the wide world over. These firms had their agents going from Berlin to Paris to inflame the French nation through the press against Germany, and going back to Berlin to tell the Germans how France was preparing for war, and then as we know they came to London to tell the Government stories about what Krupps were doing. These financial interests have undoubtedly had a bad influence in international relations, and this question will have to be seriously considered when the time for the settlement of the war arrives.

It is necessary to take a wide and comprehensive view of all the questions involved in this war if a permanent peace is to come out of it. If the people of this country labour under the idea that the evil spirit they have to destroy is confined to one country they will fail to accomplish any real settlement. Some people talk as if there was no such thing as militarism in this country. Do you remember what was the absorbing national topic immediately before the war broke out? It was whether Parliament or militarism was to rule. We had the Army defying King, Parliament, and the People, and asserting its authority over all. Some sapient socialists have said that this is not a capitalist war. It is impossible to distinguish between militarism and capitalism. Militarism was necessary to capitalism. Militarism is the force by which capitalism preserves and maintains its position.

If the war is settled on the lines of the declaration made by the Premier at Dublin, all democrats will welcome and support such a settlement. Mr. Asquith's speech was a condemnation of the whole foreign policy of the other European countries during the last fifteen years, for he repudiated the policy of alliances, compacts, understandings, and balances. If they could have such a change in foreign policy they might hope for a considerable reduction of armaments, for armaments were determined by policy. We shall not be ready for disarmament when the war is over, but if the democracies of Europe will rise to the occasion there may be such an understanding as will reduce armies and navies to the requirements of defensive purposes only.

It is yet too early for us to see what great changes this war will bring about. But of this we may now be certain—that when it is over and our minds are free to look around, we shall find that all things have assumed a new form, as though some great earthquake had changed the face of the land. We shall have new estimates of the real value of things. Many of the things we have treasured will appear as dross, and the stones which we have rejected will become the corner stones of the new temple we shall build. This is a time when principles whose foundations rest on sand cannot endure, but those which are built upon the eternal rock of justice and liberty stand, though the earth shake and hurricanes of blood and fire beat upon them. It is the faith that somehow good will be the final goal of ill which sustains us in these days when the powers of Darkness seem to be triumphant. The strange incident on Christmas morn, when the soldiers left their trenches and fraternized together, was the promise of the Universal Brotherhood which will yet be realized. In that incident was symbolized the rebirth of the Prince of Peace, and the great facts that love is stronger than hate, that the peoples of the nations have no quarrels, that it is to the prophets and seers who have foretold the coming of the reign of peace, and not to the powerful and mighty of the earth, that the true vision of the future has been disclosed. I shall not live to see the day when all wars shall cease and ancient strife shall end, but in this dark hour I am sustained by the unshaken conviction that peace will ultimately reign from pole to pole, and I pray that you and I may work to hasten that day—for Peace is the only sure foundation upon which we can secure the liberty and the happiness of humanity, and upon which the lasting glory and greatness of a nation can be built.