Peace and War in the Balance

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Henry Wood Nevinson
Henry Wood Nevinson (1856 – 1941)
John A Hobson
John A Hobson (1858 – 1940)
Conway Memorial Lecture
Moncure Conway photo by Edward Steichen, 1907. Courtesy of Dickinson College.
Delivered at South Place Institute 17 March 1911 Chaired by John A. Hobson and presented by Henry W. Nevinson.

Nevinson notes Moncure Conway’s opposition to war, but also his proposal for an international police force to coerce rogue states for “civilisation’s self-defence”. Such defence, says Nevinson, would still be an act of war.

He says that the one positive outcome of the Hague Conference of 1907 was the setting up of an international court of arbitration, even though the danger exists of the court’s being manipulated by despotic governments, who have no real desire for peace.

He refers to Norman Angell’s influential book, “The Great Illusion”, which argues that no powerful nation can profit from defeating another in war because of the interdependence of the international financial system. Angell hopes that considerations of national self-interest will prevent future wars, since humanitarian and religious arguments have failed to prevent past ones, and are still ineffective.

However, Angell’s argument does not apply in cases where a great power attacks a small state, because the former’s commercial interests are not threatened. A further problem is war-motives geared to the enrichment not of a whole nation but of the ruling class within that nation: private interests which stand to profit by war.

The self-interestedness of Europe’s ruling classes is a major threat to peace. So, across Europe, the working classes should refuse to fight in wars engineered by the ruling classes, and should co-ordinate internationally to fight the latter.

The majority of men who join the army do so because they are unemployed and fear starvation i.e. because they are victims of the present social system. Further, the present system is strengthened in war conditions, because these increase the power of the state by demanding uncritical obedience. Enlargement of state power is “the chief peril of our time”.

Nevinson hopes that the current era of capitalist war will pass, and that, in future, wars will be fought only in defence of the oppressed and powerless. Apart from prosecuting such wars, the goal should be to maximise the benefits of peace.

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