RECORD: S617. Wallace, A. R. 1904. Practical politics. Clarion No. 669: 1.

REVISION HISTORY: Body text helpfully provided by Charles H. Smith from his Alfred Russel Wallace Page

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Practical Politics.

I have for some time been impelled to say a few words on the position taken by our friend, Robert Blatchford, on the question of National Defence, and have only abstained because I have neither time nor inclination for controversy, and in the expectation that some more authoritative and better known Socialist would enter the lists on behalf of what seems to me to be the side of true Socialism—at all events, of what I understand by it. But last week's article contains so many disputable statements, and what seem to me so many erroneous conclusions, that I ask leave to make a few remarks on one or two of them; and though I have no right whatever to speak for Labour or for Socialism, I venture to hope that a considerable number of both these parties will agree with me.

I will first say a few words on the, to me, extraordinary statement that, though fifty years of continuously increasing expenditure on our national defences has resulted in "an inadequate and imperfect" outcome, and what a military writer in the July "Nineteenth Century" called "our pitiable military situation," yet, only give to our rulers unlimited money and conscription, and our defences will instantly become "adequate and efficient." With all respect, this seems to me nothing less than pure delusion. One Government after another has had a free hand to reform our military and naval forces, and all have utterly failed. They have wasted countless millions with no adequate result. And now we are asked to give them more millions to waste, and the very same body of official rulers and organisers and titled officers will suddenly be imbued with wisdom, unselfishness, and economy, and all will be well. Our defences, as by a miracle, will become "adequate and efficient." For what has to be done must be done at once. Germany, we are told, is ready; we are not. Therefore the money and the men must be given to the Government now. To any such proposal I venture to hope that, by an overwhelming majority, the Socialist and Labour Parties will reply in the now historic words: "Never again."

But this is only preliminary. We will now come to the real issue. Robert Blatchford proceeds to ask a number of questions, and to offer a number of alternatives, as if they were exhaustive and there was nothing more to be said or done. Shall we leave the Empire defenceless? Shall we abandon our country and our Colonies to the invasion of any Power that cared to take them? Russia covets India. We must either defend India or surrender it to Russia. If we made India a self-governing nation, the result would be civil war and a Russian conquest. More than one foreign Power envies us our possessions. And so on, and so on; with the one conclusion: We must increase Army, Navy, and Home Defences, and be prepared to fight all the world. Not one word about there being any alternative to all this blood-and-iron bluster and defiance; not one syllable to show that the writer is a great Socialist teacher, a believer in the goodness of human nature and the brotherhood of man. "But," he replies by his heading, "this is very good in theory, and very true, but it is not Practical Politics. The danger is urgent. Tell us, ye Labour leaders, what you propose to do now."

I am not a Labour leader, but I hope I am a true friend of Labour and a true Socialist; and I will now state the case as it appears to me, and suggest what, in my opinion, is the only course of action worthy of Socialism or politic for Labour, and, besides, the only course which has the slightest chance of succeeding in the long run: in one word, the only RIGHT course.

It is a notorious and undeniable fact that we—that is, our Governments—are, with a few exceptions, hated and feared by almost all other Governments, especially those of the Great Powers. Is there no cause for this? Surely we know there is ample cause. We have either annexed or conquered a larger portion of the world than any other Power. We have long claimed the sovereignty of the sea. We hold islands and forts and small territories offensively near the territories of other Powers. We still continue grabbing all we can. In disputes with the powerful we often give way; with the weak and helpless, or those we think so, we are—allowing for advance in civilisation—bloody, bold, and ruthless as any conqueror of the Middle Ages. And with it all we are sanctimonious. We profess religion. We claim to be more moral than other nations, and to conquer and govern and tax and plunder weaker peoples for their good! While robbing them we actually claim to be benefactors! And then we wonder, or profess to wonder, why other Governments hate us! Are they not fully justified in hating us? Is it surprising that they seek every means to annoy us, that they struggle to get navies to compete with us, and look forward to a time when some two or three of them may combine together and thoroughly humble and cripple us? And who can deny that any just Being, looking at all the nations of the earth with impartiality and thorough knowledge, would decide that we deserve to be humbled, and that it might do us good?

Now the course I recommend as the only true one is, openly and honestly, without compulsion and without vain-glory, to do away with many of the offences to other peoples, and to treat all subject peoples and all foreign Powers on exactly the same principles of equity, of morality, and of sympathy, as we treat our friends, acquaintances, and neighbours with whom we wish to live on friendly terms.

And, to begin with, and to show that our intentions are genuine, I would propose to evacuate Gibraltar, dismantle the fortress, and give it over to Spain; Crete and Cyprus should be free to join Greece; Malta, in like manner, would be given the choice of absolute self-government under the protection of Britain, or union with Italy. But the effect of these would be as nothing compared with our giving absolute internal self-government to Ireland, with protection from attack by any foreign Power; and the same to the Transvaal and Orange Free State; and this last we should do "in sackcloth and ashes," with full acknowledgment of our heinous offences against liberty and our plighted word.

Now we come to India, which our friend Blatchford seems to consider the test case. And so it is; for if ever there was an example of a just punishment for evil deeds, it is in the fact that, after a century of absolute power, we are still no nearer peace and plenty and rational self-government in India than we were half-a-century ago, when we took over the government from the "Company" with the promise to introduce home-rule as soon as possible. And now we have a country in which plague and famine are chronic—a country which we rule and plunder for the benefit of our aristocracy and wealthy classes, and which we are, therefore, in continual dread of losing to Russia.

If we had honestly kept our word, if we had ruled India with the one purpose of benefiting its people, had introduced home-rule throughout its numerous provinces, states, and nations, settling disputes between them, and guarding them from all foreign attack, we should by now have won the hearts of its teeming populations, and no foreign Power would have ventured to invade a group of nations so united and so protected. Such a position as we might have now held in India—that of the adviser, the reconciler, and the powerful protector of a federation of self-governing Native States—would be a position of dignity and true glory very far above anything we can claim to-day.

But, it will be replied, all this is foolish talk; it will be a century before the British people will be persuaded to give up its possessions and its power; and, in the meantime, if we do not defend ourselves we shall not have the opportunity of being so generous, hardly shall we keep our own liberties. I have not so low an opinion of my countrymen as to believe that they really wish to keep other peoples subject to them against their will: that they are really determined to go on denying that freedom to others which is so dear a possession to themselves. And if there is not now a majority who would agree to act as once as I suggest, I am pretty confident that there is, even now, a majority who would acknowledge that such action is theoretically just, and that they would be willing to do it by degrees, and as soon as it is safe, etc. To look forward to it, in fact, as an ideal to be realised at some future time, but not just now.

Now, what I wish to urge is, that it is of the most vital importance to us, now, that all who agree with me that there can be no national honour or glory apart from justice and mercy, and that to take away people's liberty and force our rule upon them against their will, is the greatest of all national crimes, should take every opportunity of making their voices heard. If, for instance, every Socialist in our land, and I hope a very large proportion of workers and advanced thinkers who may not be Socialists, would agree to maintain this as one of their fundamental principles, to be continually brought before the people through the Press and on the platform, to be urged on the Government at every opportunity, and to be made a condition of our support of every advanced Parliamentary candidate, we should create a body of ethical opinion and feeling that would not only be of the highest educational value at home, but which would influence the whole world in their estimate of us. It would show them that though our Government is bad—as all Governments are—yet the people at heart are honest and true, and that it will not be very long before the people will force their Governments to be honest also.

This, I submit, would be really "practical politics." At the present day we have got so far as this—that none of the Great Powers wages a war of aggression and conquest against another Power without some quarrel or some colourable pretence of injury. But surely the fact of there being such a party as I have outlined, and especially if it would (as I think it certainly could) compel the next Government to make some of the smaller concessions here indicated and adopt the general principle of respecting the liberties of even the smallest nationalities, would so reduce the amount of envy and hatred with which we are now regarded as to considerably reduce the danger of combined aggression upon us.

I should have liked to say something about Russia, and the fact that we are answerable for the present war in the Far East, by so long upholding Turkey, and preventing Russia from acquiring free egress into the Mediterranean, in exchange for which concession she would (after the Russo-Turkish War) have willingly agreed to the neutralising of Constantinople as a free port under the guarantee of the Powers. We had at that time a preponderance of power in Europe, as shown by what occurred at the Peace Congress; but D'Israeli used that power for a bad purpose, as Lord Salisbury afterwards admitted.

I greatly regret being obliged to differ so radically from a man I admire and respect so much as I do Robert Blatchford; but, as I am known to be a Socialist and a constant reader of the Clarion, it might be thought that my silence would imply some degree of agreement. The present letter is merely for the purpose of making my views clear on this vitally important question, and with the hope that others who agree with me will not longer keep silence.

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