From the February 1930 issue of the Socialist Standard
At the moment of writing the stage is being prepared for the Five-Power Naval Conference, whose object is to solve the problem that could not be solved at the 1927 Geneva Conference.
What is this problem? To those who have not given much thought to it, the problem appears to be the question of the peace of the world, and this view is supported by the frequent references in newspapers, pamphlets and books, to the "spirit of peace," the “spirit of humanity," the “spirit of the Kellogg Pact,” and various other spineless spirits. Now one can hardly attribute any of these forms of “ spiritualism" to governments who are prepared to use the latest forms of warfare against striking workers; and who are prepared, as in England, to allow the bulk of the workers in a dying industry, the coal industry, to starve or depend upon individual charity.
In fact, the problem is not the peace of the world but an attempt to set a limit to the ruinous expenditure upon armaments. A writer in the “Sunday Times” for January 19th put the problem in a nutshell when he wrote : “Good will come out of the Conference if only in the Budgets of the nations.”
The naval armament position is similar to the military and aerial. It is a race between attacking and defensive forces.
A hundred years ago the warship was a wooden vessel propelled by the wind and armed with a quantity of small cannon. The projectiles fired by these cannon could have been carried about by the crew. The cost of such men-of-war was so small that they could be built and fitted out by private people. The increase in cost came with the increase in weight and explosive power of the projectile. This brought with it necessary improvements in the construction of ships to withstand the shock of firing and also improvements in defensive armour to resist the enemy’s fire.
Towards the end of the Crimean War the ironclad warship was devised, driven by steam. At first it was slow and clumsy and the iron plates were only a few inches thick, though this was quite sufficient to resist the projectiles of the times. The wealth and science of each nation was then called upon in the headlong race to produce a navy capable of holding the sea against all others. As wealth and scientific knowledge grew, the expenditure upon naval armaments grew even more tremendous and the giant battleship was still supreme.
By the end of the last century the wealthiest nations had succeeded in building floating castles that cost millions of pounds to construct and keep in fighting condition. Steam drove them, steered them, raised and lowered the boats, and accomplished many other feats formerly done by the unaided hands. Their armour plate was several feet thick; their heavy guns weighed over two hundred tons each, and they hurled projectiles over two thousand pounds in weight to tremendous distances. At the outbreak of the war in 1914 one of these heavy guns could fire at and hit a target' over twenty miles away.
But still the building of heavier armed and more expensive ships goes on, with oil as the motive power. Improvement proceeds at such a rate that a battleship is rendered obsolete almost as soon as it leaves the slips. Each capitalist nation, therefore, sees with agony a huge part of its wealth going into the bottomless pit of battleship building, and is looking in every direction for some means to end the increasing drain on profits.
In the meantime a fresh war horror had come into existence at the end of last century—the submarine. Its early growth was a subject for curiosity and schoolboy tales. Then 1914 finally demonstrated the value of the submarine and small fast war craft, and showed that the battleship was little more than a white elephant, the torpedo found the weak spots in everything.
Towards the end of the war, yet another and more efficient arm was added to the Navy as a defence against the submarine, and that was the aircraft carrying torpedoes and bombs. The submarine was slow, but it was invisible, and herein lay its strength. The aeroplane high up can “spot” a submarine at the lowest depth it can safely sail. On top of this, submarine building has become more costly as the submarines have grown larger and more heavily armed. France has just completed a submarine vessel of 3,000 tons—a small battleship, the cost of which was over a million pounds.
The latest improvement in the aeroplane is direction by wireless. By this means an aeroplane carrying gas bombs and torpedoes can cruise over a wide area dealing death in all directions while its operators remain practically immune from damage. So we may now expect a further development to meet and render useless this latest weapon of horror. Where will it all end? The capitalist can see no end but the continued production of ever more terrible means of causing destruction. He is not concerned with the scrapping of implements of war, but only with decreasing their cost.
So, finally, the high ideals of the Naval Conference are really £ s. d., and have as much concern for real warfare of humanity as the capitalist has for the general welfare of his wage slaves. This was made perfectly clear in one of the resolutions of the League of Nations Economic Conference at Geneva in May, 1927, which affirmed :—
The world as a whole still devotes considerable sums to armaments and to preparations for war, which reduce the savings available for the development of industry, commerce, and agriculture, and are a heavy burden upon the finances of the different States, entailing heavy taxation, which reacts upon their whole economic life and lowers their standard of living.—("The Economist Supplement,” 28/5/1927.)
It will be noticed that in all the official arguments on the question of armament, with the exception of Russia, there has been ho suggestion of the absolute abolition of all armaments—it has only been a question of limitation. And from the English side there has been no hint of limiting its most effective weapon—the bomb and torpedo-carrying aeroplane. This is significant of the ideas behind the talk—although we have a Labour Government!
There are, however, elements of humour in the situation, and one has been provided by the “New Leader” of January 17th. In its editorial columns we read:—
The memorandum signed by 77 Labour Members of Parliament! urging that the delegates of the Government at the Naval Conference should make the abolition! of battleships and warships over 10,000 tons one of the principal aims of their deliberation, has our heartiest approval.
What imbecility! One might as well urge that each ship should have one gun less. The net result of the adoption of this recommendation would simply be the setting of the problem to naval experts of making the 10,000-ton ship as destructive a weapon as the 20 or 25 thousand ton ship, and America has already demonstrated that it can be done. But apart from that side of the problem, what has become of the alleged peaceful aims of the I.L.P.? They approve a Memorandum which says : "One of the principal aims is to be limitation.” Has it not occurred to the I.L.P. that there is such a thing as total abolition?
But then, of course, the I.L.P., by its support of the Labour Party, anticipates the indefinite continuance of capitalists whose interests are at present being so well served by MacDonald, Thomas, Snowden & Co.
Armaments are the fighting power of the State and the State in the hands of those who resist Socialism is the bulwark of Capitalism. It, and its fighting forces will last as long as Capitalism lasts, because Capitalism signifies the existence of a subject class to be held in bondage.