WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF WAR
AN ADDRESS BY JOHN STRACHEY
January 24, 193
MR. DANA PORTER, the President of the Club, introduced the Speaker, as follows: I venture to say that at least 99 per cent of those who are attending this meeting are either capitalists or people who aspire to become capitalists in due course. Nevertheless, just as law-abiding and highly respectable people will read murder mystery stories without ever intending or having any desire to commit a murder, so people of the capitalistic class will come out to hear one who is not only a Socialist but from what he informs me, I take it that he might not be insulted if he is called a Communist.
There are other reasons of course that will explain your presence here today. One of them is that we have lately been nursed into the belief that the capitalistic system requires regulation„ so that there might be a slightly more receptive audience far opinions which may appear on the face of them, extreme.
In the second place, Mr. Strachey is known as the most effective and the most eloquent exponent of the doctrines of Socialism, who is writing and speaking at the present day. He is known as being a member of a most eminent literary family whose works and whose publications are familiar to everybody here, and he has carried on the tradition of literary expression which has been the gift of those to whom he is related. It is with great pleasure that I call upon Mr. Strachey.
MR. JOHN STRACHEY addressed the gathering as follows: Mr. Chairman, Gentlemen: I experience here this afternoon to the full those emotions with which Daniel entered the den on a famous occasion; but I may say that I go further than Daniel because so far as I know there is no Scriptural authority for saying that Daniel actually addressed the lions, but I am going to attempt even that feat. Speaking of Daniel, if I am Daniel in the Lion's Den, you have in this country a far more eminent Daniel in the sense of a "Daniel who has come to judgment" (Amusement) in the leader of this country. I read with raised eye brows expressions from the political leader of this country, Mr. Bennett, of harsh criticism of the capitalistic system, such as when I ventured to utter when I was last in the Dominion of Canada in the autumn of 1933 sent shivers I notice through my audience and made them feel that I was laying myself open to heavy pangs and penalties.
However, this change in the view of the capitalistic system„ which those in authority appear to have had does not in my opinion mean that Mr. Bennett will or the rest of his supporters will work for the abolition of this system. He has never of course suggested that. It does not even in my view mean he will be able, at any rate in any important particular, to modify that system. And there I think that we do come to an important point because it bears very directly on the subject which you ask me to speak on this afternoon--"The Cause of Modern War."
Now I am not going to attempt any profound psychological or philosophical study of the causes of all war: I am not qualified to make any such study. I am going to confine my remarks to what appear to be to all of us the causes of modern war, that is to say, what seems to have caused the last war and what I am bound to say seems so very rapidly to be about to cause the next war, or is causing the astonishing preparations for a new armed conflict, which we in Europe feel so very intimately. You are slightly more distant from the scene of maximum tension in the world today, though all the world is in a state of very great tension: you are comparatively near the centre of tension in the Pacific, but we in Europe have our own centre in Central Europe itself in which the preparations for a new war are very far advanced indeed.
During this autumn, twice at any rate--in September after the murder of Chancellor Dolfuss in Austria and then later in the autumn after the assassination of King Alexander and Messieur Barthou in Marseilles, we got very near war. I read a very well informed article in the New York press by a well informed correspondent, Mr. Walter Duranty, in which he was giving us, as it were, a message of encouragement for the New Year, in which he said he did not think any war was coming, and the argument he used was this, that Europe had been on at least two occasions on the very brink of war and no war had taken place, and therefore it might not take place on any future occasion of the same sort. I find that very cold comfort, it is like saying a patient had been twice at death's door and that he had not actually died, and may be he would pull through the next time too. Of course he may, but again he may not; and I don't find any great reassurance in that.
What I want to ask today is, Why? Why can it be that today, so near historically to the cessation of the last great war, the Powers of this world, the great states, are so near once again to the outbreak of a new war? Because whatever view we may take„ we can not doubt that they are all piling up armaments with gigantic speed that the States of Europe, each of them are terribly distressed by the economic crisis, finding their budgets unbalanced, overburdened as they are, yet at the risk and necessity of unbalancing those budgets still more, piling enormous burdens of taxation on their people, still are going ahead with vast 'armament preparation everywhere in Europe today. It is a very extraordinary situation, is it not, and one which proves that in the opinion of those governments they are very near to war once more. How can this be? How can it be that the capitalistic rulers of the world, the classes of persons and the governments which represent them, which control effectively the policy of all capitalistic states today„ that they are preparing for a new war? You would think that it would be the last thing which they would do, for surely if the capitalistic system is in danger it is more in danger from outbreak of war than from anything else! One would imagine that the tremendous damage which a modern war does to the structure of every State, which it does to the vanquished and even to the victors as we saw in the last war, there is the thing above all which might create revolution and the over-throw of existing forms of government. We saw that work in the Russian Revolution itself, sprung from the last war; the German revolution, the Austrian Revolution or the upheavals in Europe, some successful, some unsuccessful, sprung from the last war, so you would have thought that in their own interests of self-preservation the capitalist classes of the world would be loath to go back to war. Yet, for some reason or other, somehow or other, we find them apparently rushing on to their doom.
It is a very extraordinary question, and how can we answer it? We believe that the capitalistic system is of such a nature--and this nature can be illustrated and explained by economic analysis--that it is impossible in modern conditions of very great productivity for all the capitalistic states of the world, to achieve any lasting or permanent degree of recovery (putting it in a grossly over-simplified way, for that is all one can do in the brief limits of an after-luncheon speech) we believe that for comprehensible reasons the market for commodities in the world has become too small, as it were, to go around: that because the system is of such a nature that the vast majority of the population in every capitalistic state has to be kept on a minimum standard of life, every nation as its productivity becomes large, as it becomes industrialized, as it becomes ultra capitalistic, has to turn outwards for new markets.
And this in essence is the process which we observe. In the past this was possible. The number of developed industrial states was not very great. England was the first, and it was only gradually followed by others; and on the other hand there were large areas of the world in an undeveloped condition which would serve as markets. But that is no longer the case today. On the one hand, it is not just one or two but a dozen highly developed industrial producers, of which I think it is true to say that this country--the Dominion of Canada--is one today itself, in its own right I would say a very highly developed industrial state, and it will in the future at any rate find itself more and more thrust into this world-wide struggle for markets, and it is this struggle we believe which is, at the bottom of the whole process, driving the capitalistic states of the world back towards war, because each of them finds it can only achieve salvation for itself at the expense of its rivals. And as this is a life and death matter, as this is something without which the capitalistic system in each particular country cannot continue to exist, this life and death matter can only be settled in life and death struggles.
And it is for this reason, here and now today (whatever the reasons that may be in human nature for war) the actual reason why war is so obviously coming upon us again today is the struggle for markets. It includes of course a struggle for raw materials and other economic advantages, but markets is the essence of it.
Now that leads me back to the question of whether it is possible to modify this capitalist system today in such a way that this difficulty of the competitive search for markets--competitive struggle for markets would be a better word--whether this can be obviated, and at the same time the other difficulties of the system, the crises into which it falls from time to time and from which it is only so painfully and so partially emerging today, bring them before us-is it possible to alter the system so that these very terrible evils of crises and war do not assail us, without abolishing it, because I take it that is the object of the various reform policies which we see in the world today. The original of course was Mr. Roosevelt's "New Deal" in the United States, but Mr. Roosevelt has now found his imitators. In Great Britain we have Mr. Lloyd George announcing a "New Deal," and Mr. Bennett doing the same thing here. If we strip off the somewhat elaborate propaganda which these efforts are necessarily launched with, what do we find in the content of these efforts to reform the system? What do they really try to do and what do they promise to do? What they promise to do when you get down to brass tacks: they promise to redistribute purchasing power, to give the non-capitalist elements of the community a bigger amount of purchasing power so that they can get a bigger supply of commoditites, which is very nice for them obviously, and which also, looking at it economically, would solve the difficulties of the system, because of course if you could build up a market at home by giving more people access to the products of industry, then the struggle for foreign markets need never take place, and in the same way crises need never take place; it need never Come to the point it came to in '29 when the capitalists of the world could not sell their products, if they could give the workers of the world more purchasing power. That, I venture to say, when the "ballyhoo" is stripped off, is the object of the "New Deal."
Now is that possible? Is it possible, without altering the system, by leaving the means of production, as the economists call it, in private hand, and leaving the operation of those instruments to the motive of private profit, is it possible to distribute purchasing power? I am not going to go into any abstruse economic argument on the subject, but I would ask you to watch the progress of New Deals as they develop and the oldest of them, the New Deal from Washington, is nearly two years old and we are in a position where we can study what is happening there. I was very interested in the figures given by Mr. Donald Richberg, the leading official of the N.R.A. now, as to what actually had happened to the purchasing power during the first year of the New Deal. If you will remember, that New Deal was launched with a very definite promise that it would raise wages by putting in wage minima and generally increasing the standard of life of the population, and as I read your Prime Minister's speeches, that also is part of his object, partly achieved by wage minima, partly by the institution of social services. It does not matter how you distribute the purchasing power, as far as this economic system is concerned, whether it is done by wages, insurance and pensions, or what it is: the problem will be solved if you can really give people more buying power.
Well, what has happened in this ambitious attempt to get over this fatal crux of the system? Mr. Richberg, speaking last August, if you will remember--I will just recall the figures to you, you are probably familiar with them--was able to show that wages, the average level of United States wages had been raised under the New Deal-it had been raised 8.5% to be precise, and there apparently was at any rate some step towards the achievement of this objective. But then he went on to discuss further figures, and the next figure he gave was that prices had been raised 9.6%--and those are cost-of-living, prices, prices of necessaries, and therefore by simple arithmetic we were left to the conclusion that purchasing power, far from being raised, had actually been diminished 1.10%. And that is a very significant and serious feature of the opening stages of the New Deal: apparently for some reason it had proved quite impossible even to move an inch towards this objective of the New Deal, of any effort to reform the system in the distributing of purchasing power, and the net result had been a decrease of purchasing power.
The Chairman has informed me that I am addressing an audience of capitalists and would-be-capitalists, and I think therefore they will understand and appreciate clearly the next point which I make. I don't really think it is difficult to understand why the New Deal had to result in that diminution instead of increase of purchasing power, because I put it to every business man here present: what would have happened if, in the America of 1933, all that had been done had been that increase of wages of 8.5%? If simply in the spring of '33, the Government had put minimum wage legislation, arbitrarily raised the level of American wages by 8.5%, and done nothing else? Well of course every one of you will agree with me, American industry, as it was then, would have simply come to a stop: it was running at a loss as it was. Again Mr. Richberg's figures show that American industry was running 6.9% in the red. If you had simply raised wages and done nothing else you would have increased the costs of every industry already making a loss, already in serious difficulties, and you would have simply sunk the whole system; profits already minimum, already a minus, would have become an enormous minus; there would have been an enormous deficit, and you would simply have sunk the system.
And therefore the New Deal, not only raised wages but raised, by a variety of devices, prices as well. It had these various clauses of the New Deal for an increase in prices, by cartelization, agreements of every sort, and of course and above all by the devaluation of the dollar, by monetary means prices were raised; and the net result was a decrease in costs in American industry, because prices were raised more than wages. And that was perfectly sound capitalistic policy, which made possible the degree of revival, perhaps not very great, but the degree of revival which has taken place in the United States; but it entirely prevented any possibility of carrying out the promises of the New Deal, which was an increase in purchasing power to the workers.
Now I submit to you, but of course very crudely and tersely as I put it here, that is the fundamental dilemma which faces any of these attempts to alter the nature of the system. The attempts to reform the capitalistic system are never undertaken when that system is strong and could stand new burdens put upon it. It would have been quite possible in the boom years--in the 1920's I have no doubt it would have been quite possible to raise wages, or to put an increased burden of taxation for social services upon the system. The rate of profit was high enough to put that upon the system. But when capitalism is strong, it never thinks of reform. It is when it is in difficulties--and this is no accusation against the capitalists, it is only human nature--it is when the system is in difficulties that it turns (as Mr. Bennett has turned today) to a programme of reform: it is just when it is in difficulties, when it is impossible for it to stand extra burdens for the reform, it is when the rate of profit is low that the rate of profit must be raised and not lowered, if there is to be any hope of revival, any hope of reform; and I am afraid that the contradiction between revival and reform is the thing which most seriously jeopardizes and renders impossible any real attempt to alter the system.
I am not going to say that it is impossible to patch it 'here or there. That has been carried to a good long way in Great Britain; the system of social services no doubt has kept the system going for some little time. Whether in the very different conditions of the New World a similar system can be built up at all remains to be seen, but even if it can be, I do not think that the elaborate system of social services which has taken 25 years to develop in Great Britain has altered the nature of the system in any way or got it out of its difficulties.
You hear a great deal about a great revival in Great Britain at the present moment. There is a considerable revival in the figures which British industry is able to show, but it is worth while to remember that the level of Unemployment is still well over double what it was in 1929--that in spite of that revival you have double the number of British workers definitely excluded from the productive field. So I don't think the British experience gives us any warrant for believing that the institution of social services makes any fundamental modification in the system.
And therefore I believe that we shall, as these various New Deals in one country after another work themselves out, we shall find that seriously we have to make the choice of putting up with the system as it is, and with all it means by way of prices and war, or of abolishing it altogether and instituting the opposite type of system. I believe that the operation of the new deals, their success or failure, is decisive in this respect. Mr. Maynard Keynes made that point. I do not very often find myself in agreement with Mr. Maynard Keynes' statements, but I was in agreement with that one. He said the New Deal (referring to the American one, and the same might be said of the Canadian) was the definitive attempt to reform the Capitalistic system, and if and when it failed, and showed that the system was left unmodified„ then we were left with the choice of the System as it is and as we have known it and its total abolition and dissolution on the antithetical basis of Public Ownership and Production for Profit. That is the most important meaning I think of these efforts at reform which come out under the pressure of events in one country after another. It is quite inevitable I think that such reforms should be undertaken but I do not believe that their results will be anything but negative.
And therefore, speaking as I am so conscious of doing to a capitalist audience, I do most seriously ask you, not to be convinced-I know that is quite beyond the bounds of possibility-by what I am saying today, but to watch, to bear in mind my hints of today and to watch what happens during the next months and the next few years, and most seriously to consider if what I' say is true, if it does turn out that nothing which can be done to the System seriously alters its nature, whether even your interests are still bound up with preserving this system. I suggest to you that the way Capitalism is working out in the world today, I believe to be utterly intolerable for the working class, but I believe it to be none too jolly for the capitalist class either. There are some persons for whom it is not so bad. I realize that very well. But I suggest to you that is a rapidly diminishing number of persons; that capitalism is not only dispossessing millions and hundreds of millions of workers today, but it is dispossessing thousands or at any rate hundreds of capitalists today: that the whole tendency of this system, along with the drive to war, is also to the concentration of capital, the building up of larger and larger and fewer and fewer masses of capital in fewer and fewer hands, and that therefore the number of persons whose real interests are most bound up with this system becomes slow ly but surely ever smaller. And beyond that purely economic consideration, there is surely this consideration of war. If it does turn out--and there again I am asking you to study the development of events in order to convince yourselves-if it does turn out that this system is bound up with war, then war is not such a jolly thing for anybody, the capitalist class of the world in the broadest sense, not just the few people at the very top, I am not speaking of them, but broadly the rest of us are all hit about equally by war,, and modern war is going to be something, and in a war of the future, something which will make the little affair of 1914-1918 into a kind of border skirmish. There is no doubt that what is coming in the way of war will be something quite beyond anything which we have imagined.
Therefore, it does seem to me that it is worth all our while today to study real carefully the real situation of the world because capitalism is working out in such a way today that it is threatening, not merely the interests but actually the life of every class in the community, not merely of the working class. The conflicts, the social conflicts as well as the international conflicts, which capitalism produces are very great and of course passions are very strongly aroused, and I know very well the tremendous pressure which is put on all of us to join those forces which are determined at all costs to preserve the capitalist system. But before we throw in our lot with that side, I do think we should bear in mind these considerations. Let us at any rate approach the problem with reason rather than with passion.
There is a statement here which I would just like to read to you, from an eminent American citizen which expresses what I feel to be the wrong way to approach these questions, the approach of passion, the approach which is bound to produce the most violent conflicts, both within nations and between nations. It is an appeal to the formation upon the basis of passion of the widest front, of persons who desire to maintain the capitalist system, and as you will see when I say who uttered this statement they are not only capitalists in the ordinary sense of the word. This is what this eminent citizen of the United States said: "Bolshevism is knocking at our gates. We can't afford to let it in. We have got to organize ourselves against it and put our shoulders together and hold fast. We must keep American whole and safe and unspoilt. We must keep the workers away from Red literature. We must see that his mind remains healthy."
Now who said that? It was Signor Al. Capone who said that. (Amusement). (Applause).
I submit to you that it is all too easy in the passion and the pressure of events--and that pressure is going to get greater and not less-to line up with that eminent American citizen upon that road, to feel that any rational, reasonable discussions on his greatest of all issues for or against the capitalistic system is impossible and to fall back on a policy of repression. I must admit that since my last visit to this Dominion you have been going in the other direction to some extent. When I was here last I found the official leaders of the Communist party in jail. I am glad to see that that is no longer the case (Applause), but the statute under which they were put in jail is still on the statute books and it does seem to me that Canada today is to some extent at the turning point. Are you going to keep that Statute--I think its Number is 98, is it not--upon the Statute Book? Are you going to fall back upon the policy of repression, trying to keep under all those forces which are generated, not I assure you by any words of agitators--I have been an agitator myself and I know how very little influence an agitator can have. What generates those forces is the economic situation itself, and it generates them whether they are repressed or not. Are you going to attempt to solve the problem that way? I think you are not going to find a solution, to it along the line of repression. Or are you going to deal with it along the other direction„ the line of reasoning discussion, looking the facts in the face, hearing all sides and study what is really the situation in the world today? It is a difficult enough task, it is a, complex enough situation, and it needs the highest courage to face it, but it does seem to me that if the violence which racks the world today, both within and between nations, is even to be minimized, that is the only possibility, that we should not attempt to repress the opinions which we do not like but should face the real situation, open our minds to discussion and see what is the real line of solution.
MR. DANA PORTER, on behalf of the Empire Club, thanked the speaker.