January 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard
Lessons of the German Naval Revolt.
Those who have learned by experience and observation that the big political parties, Liberal, Labour and Conservative alike, offer no hope of improved conditions for the workers, often conclude that the failure of these Parliamentary parties is evidence of the uselessness of Parliament and the danger of Parliamentary methods. This is a wrong conclusion. It is not Parliament as a piece of political machinery which has failed; it is the three political parties which have failed. They have failed even to attempt to use Parliament for the purpose of establishing Socialism. No single M.P. of any party in this country has ever been elected to Parliament as a Socialist, for the simple reason that there is no single constituency in which a majority of the workers want Socialism. We say that when the workers are Socialists and are organised in the Socialist Party, they will use their votes to obtain control of Parliament because this will give control of all the machinery of administration and control of the armed forces. While the Capitalist class have control of Parliament and the Army, Navy, Air Force, etc., their position is secure and we are helpless.
Some of our critics question this view. They say that it is unnecessary and useless to obtain control of Parliament. Unnecessary because the workers can themselves gain military dominance by force of arms and by winning over the existing armed forces; and useless because control of Parliament does not give power over the armed forces. The possibility of the working class organising their own military force has often and recently been dealt with in these columns. It is an illusion and a dangerous illusion.
Our attitude on the second question, the power of Parliament, is worth some elaboration. In the modern Capitalist democracies the State has come to control a vast, intricate and continually growing machinery of administration. Not only does it control legislation—the making of laws—but also their administration by hundreds of thousands of civil servants and local government officials, and their enforcement by the courts, the police and, in the last resort, by the armed forces. Every phase of modern life, the ownership and transfer of property, the production of wealth, transport, building, commercial and financial operations, education, hospitals, sanitation, public health, all these activities are carried on under regulations prescribed by the Government and, in the final analysis, under conditions which they determine. The life of modern Capitalist society is organised round Parliament as its centre of power. Parliamentary control carries with it the power, more or less directly and speedily, to promote or suspend activity in any and every branch of social life. By organisation and by use, the electorate—now the vast majority of the adult population—look to Parliament as the depository of the organised power of society, and by law, by organisation and use, the employees, civil and military, of the central and local authorities derive their authority from the Government which, in turn, is dependent on a Parliamentary majority.
Each individual in this great civil and military machine goes on doing his particular job under the authority of the official or officer above him in the scale. Legally, neither a civil servant nor a soldier can plead in defence of an illegal action that he was obeying the orders of his superior, but within the framework of the law each man realises that his position and security are guaranteed so long, and only so long, as he acts with such superior authority. Should occasions arise when instant obedience is required to an order the legality of which is in doubt, the man concerned can only use his own judgment as to whether or not the final authority, the Government, will back him up in the course he chooses. This is simple when the general attitude and intentions of the Government are well known. Each individual is a part of the machine and everything is done to cultivate immediate response to decisions of the central authority. This is why the soldier will normally face almost certain death rather than the penalty, possibly less severe but absolutely certain, which will follow if he takes the very difficult step of acting on his own initiative in defiance of orders.
By its very nature, however, this elaborate machine weakens and fails if there is an obvious weakening or disunity at the centre of things. If a Government fails to act decisively in an emergency, or, having taken a decision, reverses it, or allows subordinate military or civil authorities, or even some of its own members, to act on their own responsibility in defiance of its decisions, if any of these things happen the individuals who make up the Army, and less urgently the civil servants, are put in a state of confusion or are faced with the difficult problem of having to choose between rival authorities, with the possibility of backing the weaker of the two. In the case of a subordinate civil or military official defying the supreme authority, the decision of the soldier or civil servant is not in doubt. He backs the .supreme authority. Where it is the Government itself which is divided or paralysed, his natural course is to take no decision at all if it can be avoided. Hence the failure of authority and decision at the top immediately affects the morale and effectiveness of the whole machine.
It is to obtain this enormous advantage given by possession of the central directing machinery, and the authority resulting from control of Parliament, that Socialists seek to gain a Parliamentary majority.
A useful illustration of the importance of such control is given by the revolt in Germany in 1918, which resulted in a regrouping of the Capitalist governing circles, and the dropping of the Kaiser and. the Monarchy, figureheads which had outgrown their usefulness.
In 1918 it had for a year been increasingly obvious to more and more persons influential in German political and industrial life, that the Allies must win the war. There was as much, and probably much more, war-weariness among the civilian and the fighting population than in the chief Allied countries, but in Germany, as here, the practice of keeping the Government and Parliament in touch with public opinion by means of elections and more or less free speech and a free press, had ceased to operate in the ordinary peace-time fashion. Capitalist opinion on the War was more divided than at any time since 1914, and those who favoured peace at almost any price were able to bring their views to bear directly on the Government. Acute differences of opinion among prominent politicians were openly expressed and debated. The new Government, under the Chancellorship of Prince Max of Baden, had for some time in the autumn of 1918 been negotiating for an armistice.
More than a year earlier, in the summer of 1917, there had been determined efforts to stir up the German sailors to mutiny, and there were, in fact, outbreaks on various ships. At that time, however, the German Government was still fairly representative of the mass of the population, and still united on the determined prosecution of the War. In consequence, the revolt failed to spread and was easily stamped out.
By October, 1918, the situation had vastly changed. Prince Max personally had favoured the opening of negotiations a year before, and his appointment as Chancellor signified the growing influence of the Capitalist interests whose views on the question of peace had the backing of a majority of the population. (At the ‘elections shortly afterwards the German Labour Party alone secured nearly 50 per cent, of votes. and there were other parties as well which had dropped their earlier enthusiasm for the War.) Thus Germany had a Government still carrying on the War, but with members some of whom were known to be lukewarm in their enthusiasm for it. In these circumstances the German admirals, including Von Scheer, the “Victor ’’ of Jutland, who was now Chief of the Admiralty Staff at Berlin, drew up plans for a great naval action by the whole German Fleet. (See obituary notices and articles on Von Scheer in “Manchester Guardian,’’ “Daily News’’ and “Daily Express,’’ November 27th, 1928; “Manchester Guardian,’’ October 30th, 1928; and for a general account see “Die Tragodie der altem deutschen marine,’’ by E. Alboldt, Berlin.) The officers were willing and eager, but many of the crew, as in 1917, were dissatisfied and tired of the War. The order was given on October 29th for the Fleet to put to sea on the following day, and in spite of the desperate nature of this last attempt to smash the Allied naval supremacy, the order would have been obeyed, like innumerable other desperate war-time orders, if the decision had had behind it the unimpaired weight of the supreme authority, the German Government. It became known, however, that the German naval authorities, both the admirals afloat and the naval staff, had acted without the .knowledge and consent of Prince Max and the Government. The minority of active revolutionary and anti-war propagandists among the crew thus had, and seized, a decisive argument which they had lacked in 1917. The thousands of sailors who would passively go to almost certain death on the order of the Government because it was in accordance with political habit and training to do so, would not raise a finger on the unauthorised command of their superior officers or the supreme naval staff. The order was withdrawn on October 31st, but the authority of the whole naval disciplinary system was broken. The news spread, and opposition to the War and to the Kaiser and politicians who still favoured war was openly expressed among the soldiers and the civilian population. Within a fortnight the Armistice had been arranged. The Kaiser abdicated, and new elections in due course gave full power to a Coalition Government including the German Labour Party united and possessing authority which Prince Max's Government lacked. The new Coalition was strong enough to take in hand the crushing of the small minority of Socialists and to reform the German Constitution on the lines desired by the Capitalist interests which had risen to the top in place of those which had been dominant in 1914.