The Social Democrat 1907

Social Democracy, Nationalism and Imperialism

Written: by Harry Quelch;
First published: in The Social Democrat, Vol. XI No. 7 July, 1907, pp. 391-396;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford, for 2008.

In the minds of most Social-Democrats there is a healthy abhorrence of all bourgeois principles, theories, and ideas. This is a perfectly worthy and necessary sentiment. As a general rule, for anything to be bourgeois is prima facie evidence that it merits Socialist condemnation. It is possible, however, for the sentiment to be carried too far. There are exceptions to every rule, and there may be principles and theories which, although bourgeois in character, may well be adopted and championed by Social-Democrats. Such, for instance, is the principle of Free Trade. Without in any way subscribing to the whole body of bourgeois economic doctrine of which Free Trade is an expression, and without elevating Free Trade into a sacrosanct fetish, every Social-Democrat believes in freedom of exchange, and is opposed to Protective tariffs on both political and economic grounds. Another principle which Social-Democrats endorse is that of national rights and national autonomy. In such matters we Social-Democrats may be said to inherit and carry on the best traditions of Liberalism, even after Liberals themselves have abandoned them. We Social-Democrats stand for the right of every nation to manage its own affairs, and to work out its own salvation, just as we stand for the liberty of the individual in all purely self-regarding matters. Social-Democracy does not mean the suppression of the individual and individuality. It means the creation of such social conditions as will ensure the fullest possible liberty and individuality for each. So, too, with nationalities. Social-Democracy is international, not anti-national. We have always championed the rights of nationalities, and it is no sound argument against that championship to object that nationality is a mere bourgeois idea.

The class struggle is the supreme issue for us Social-Democrats, but it is constantly being complicated with other questions; and much as we might desire to do so we cannot reduce every issue to terms of the class war. For instance, we find constant efforts being made, in view of the international movement among the working class of Europe and America, to create a new proletariat out of some of the so-called “subject races,” and thus to reinforce the present class domination by a race antagonism in which white men of all classes will be on the side of the ruling class simply because the ruling class is of their race, against the new proletariat of a subject race. This creation of a new proletariat, which would complicate the class-struggle with race antagonisms, is already being carried out to some extent in South Africa, Australia, and elsewhere, and if successful, there is no reason, except the organised opposition of the working-class, why it should not be extended to all parts of the world.

If for no other reason than this, then, of the menace to the modern working-class movement presented by the introduction of subject races as competitors in the field of production, it would be the duty of Social-Democrats to resist with all their might imperialist expansion and the subjection of other races. Yet there are Socialists who fail to recognise these facts. Here, for instance is a correspondent of the “Montana Herald” writing: —

I see that trouble in India has come to the front. That is part of the play of the Hindoo that visited us here last fall. That also is a foolish move. I have been looking for it to come for ten years now. It is a racial movement, not a proletarian. It is about the same as the Irish home rule business, a change of masters. The Socialist papers are making lots of this India trouble, but they are entirely off. London “Justice” is off on the subject – too prejudiced against the British Empire. Hyndman is very friendly with some of the East Indian scholars, and having been invited to speak in India, is partial to them, and he has always been a crank against English capitalists exploiting India, so much so that he is unbalanced on the subject. It is a bourgeois movement, and interests us not. A change from a white to a black capitalist will not help the Indian workers.

No Social-Democrat would suggest for a single moment that a mere change from a white to a black capitalist would help the Indian workers. But that is by no means all that would be involved by relieving the people of India from the British Raj. The maintenance of British rule in India means that the working people of Great Britain are engaged in helping their masters – the class which robs them – to plunder the unfortunate people of India of over thirty millions sterling every year. That is to say that to the normal evils of capitalism is added the blood-sucking of absenteeism, whereby some two hundred and fifty millions of people – some of the most frugal, sober, industrious, thrifty and capable of the whole human race – are reduced to unspeakable misery and want. And all this is a matter which this correspondent – calling himself a Socialist! – loftily assures us should be regarded with supreme indifference by the people directly responsible! He has evidently not yet grasped the elementary fact that no native capitalist exploitation could produce such impoverishment of the whole country as is brought about by the constant drain of a foreign tribute.

But this is not all. We desire to see the people of India, as of every other country, not only possessed of national independence and political rights, but of social and economic liberty and equality. Nevertheless, if the people of India choose to remain subject to the capitalists of their own race and nation, that, after all, is their affair. That in no way justifies us in forcing the rule of our capitalist class upon them. It will be time enough for us to rebuke the Hindoos for remaining subject to the rule of the capitalist when we ourselves have thrown off his yoke. We have no justification for withholding from them the means for emancipating themselves which we already possess and are too stupid or too cowardly to use.

With some few exceptions, however, it is generally recognised that Social-Democracy stands for national liberty and autonomy in all matters essentially national, and that Social-Democrats are the champions of national rights and liberties, and especially of those of the smaller nationalities. The Social-Democratic Federation, therefore, has not only always championed the rights of the people of India, it has from its foundation stood for the legislative independence of Ireland, and was for many years the only political party in England outside the Irish Party that did so.

This, as I say, has always been understood by the general body of the Socialist movement; and although, here and there, individual Socialists – carried away by the idea that capitalist expansion and capitalist development were the same thing; and that the imperialist absorption of nationalities was identical with internationalism – have supported imperialism and aggression, the Social-Democratic Party, as a party, has everywhere strenuously resisted imperialism with all its brigandage and aggression. Thus the whole international Social-Democracy has been, and is, opposed to colonial expansion and the subjection of primitive races; and thus it came about that the Social-Democrats of Great Britain – without having any illusions as to the Boer Republic – vigorously opposed the Boer war, just as they have opposed, and would oppose, any similar piratical capitalist enterprise.

But this jealous regard for the rights of other nationalities involves, or should involve, equal regard for our own. “Thou shalt not be stolen from” is as sound ethics as “Thou shalt not steal,” and if we resist imperialism and aggression when directed against other peoples we should be equally prepared to resist it when directed against ourselves.

Imperialism is bad in itself. British imperialism is an evil which we have conceived it to be our duty to resist with all our might; but it is not, intrinsical1y, any worse than German, or Russian, or French imperialism. It would be foolish, then, to resist British imperialism if by so doing we were simply helping imperialism of another brand. It is sometimes said of us Social-Democrats, on account of our internationalism, that we are the friends of all countries but our own. It would be much more true to say that we are the friends of all other countries because we are the friends of our own. We assert the right of the Indian people to manage their own affairs, and ardently desire the destruction of British rule there. But our opposition to British domination in India or elsewhere presupposes our strenuous opposition to any foreign domination here at home. But that supposes a willingness to join in the national defence and to be equipped and ready to do so. And that means that every man capable of bearing arms should be a trained and capable unit in the national army. It is only by such means that the national defence can be efficiently organised democratically and in opposition to imperialism. Without universal military training any modern nation is not only at the mercy of the domestic despot, but offers a temptation to the foreign aggressor and is a constant provocation to a breach of the world’s peace. Our watchword should be: Every available man trained and equipped for the national defence, but not a man or a farthing for filibustering expeditions abroad. Thus universal military training is seen to be not only anti-imperialist and the only assurance of domestic freedom; it is also the best guarantee of international peace.

It may be, and indeed often is, said, that, after all, this country is not ours. It is the country of our masters. It belongs to them, and therefore its defence may very well be left to them. All that is perfectly true; and if we had no other interest in the matter, and were content that the country always should be theirs, we might be satisfied to leave its defence entirely in their hands. There is no doubt that, so long as they are prepared to pay for it, the ruling class can equip and maintain a sufficient force, not only to defend their country against any foreign aggressor, but also to hold it against the general body of the people, and also to fit out any aggressive expedition they may think proper. Our determination never to arm or fight would not weaken them at all in that respect. It would only make them all the more powerful. We may have the vote, and may vote our masters out of their possessions; but whoever is master of the armed force of the country will be master of everything else. The armed nation, therefore -every man a soldier and a citizen – with no standing army, no military caste, no professional soldiery – is at once the surest defence against foreign aggression and Imperialist piracy, and the only military organisation compatible with popular liberty and democratic progress.

H. Quelch.