Where will the War lead? To barbarism or to a higher civilisation?


Transcript of a long lost article by my hero Eglantyne Jebb that was buried in the Library of Wales.

You can find the article here -in The Welsh Outlook, December 1914.

I’ve transcribed it below for ease of access.

WHERE WILL THE WAR LEAD TO BARBARISM OR TO A HIGHER CIVILIZATION? MANY of those who ought to be able to judge best, being spectators rather than active participators in the struggles of the present hour, anticipate the former issue. Amongst our friends, for instance, across the Atlantic, there are leading philanthropists and social reformers who already look upon European civilization as a thing of the past, -and a thing too without a future. The world,” we read, can never be what it was beginning to be when the conflict began.” Nobody any longer takes the remotest interest in the improvement of the condition of the poor and in questions of social reform and internal progress; nobody any longer has a thought to spare for the great causes which formerly commanded their allegiance. As the cartoonist has it, the monstrous ape, Militarism, having already made a holocaust of Science, Art, Philosophy, Literature, Architecture and Music, is about to feed the flames with something further-with Christianity!

Yet when we are thus told that everything we hold dear is about to be destroyed, if it is not destroyed already, we cannot help calling to mind that Shakespeare is a name which is still held in some honour in this country, and no-doubt Goethe has not been entirely forgotten in Germany.

Omar the caliph burnt the Library of Alexandria and destroyed the claim to immortality of many mighty works of genius, absurdum of Militarism. We shall have to wage a spiritual war upon it, for this kind Goethe not out by carnage and the nausea which such widespread horror is bound to bring. Just as the gates of Eden were guarded by a flaming sword to bar the return of the sinful pair, so we may be sure the Militarist will try to bar the path of peaceful progress with his dripping blade. We must overcome him with the weapons of the spirit which are mighty through God. By overcoming him we shall only keep open the path of progress for the nations. It will still be “a long, long way” before we reach in our pilgrim age that kingdom which is love and peace and joy for all men that do dwell on the earth if only they be minded to do the will of God and to accept the good things which He has provided for them.

But if Oxford and Cambridge shared the fate of Louvain the contents of many rare editions-at any rate, in the most important cases-would not perish with their pages and covers. It is true, of course, that many a man who might perhaps be adding to our treasures at the present day is lying instead- alive or dead – in the trenches of the Yser and Ypres. Others, however, are writing poetry at the front who -we are not judging solely by the merit of their work–are writing it for the first time, and if the effect of the war is to bring literature into the service of life-its only true freedom-then there will be something to be said for Dixon Scott’s opinion that books will never be As Usual any more. They will never again be as they used to be. They will be better.”

As with Literature, so with Social Reform, Science, and the rest. We, who are very anxious to ascertain what their fate is to be, whether they are going to be scrapped or whether they are going to be redeemed, should not think to discover the answer to this interesting question by taking into account, on one side and on the other, as many circumstances as we can lay our hands on, adding up*the “pros,” adding up the cons,” and balancing them, trusting that if we have done the sum accurately we shall arrive at an accurate mathematical solution. Yet sometimes, even, a still simpler method commends itself to us.

We think that we can find out whether the war will lead us, as far as home conditions are concerned, to heaven or hell, by deciding in which place it originated. But in all these discussions one factor is apt to be left out of account, and it is the only factor of any account at all. This factor is the Will of the People. It suits our laziness at times to shift our responsibilities on to past history and to pose as the puppets of destiny. But the plain prosaic fact is that we all of us have the power of him

“Who, doomed to go in company with Pain, And Fear, and Bloodshed, miserable train Turns his necessity to glorious gain.”

“If we fail to turn our necessity to glorious gain,” there will be one reason for it, and one reason alone, and that is that we have not willed it with sufficient strength of will. What, then, we have to ask is this, How are we confronting the present situation at home? What lessons have we already learnt from it, and in what directions is it calling forth our efforts ? One result of the war already emerges with sufficient distinct- ness. It has already promoted a strong tendency in favour of a greater measure of collective action. Mr Percy Alden, M.P., wrote,

“It is obvious that if the nation is to meet the stress of this emergency in a satisfactory fashion it must be as a collective whole, and not as a series of disconnected units.”

It was popularly said at the beginning of the war that you could get any Act of Parliament you wanted in a quarter of an hour.

“Already war has shown us,” says T.P.’s Weekly, “how railways can be controlled by the State. And there is a general desire that foodstuffs should be bought and sold by the State as controllers of the national storehouse. There is no outcry about the need for private enterprise.”

It became clear to us, too, as the war proceeded, that the excellence of Germany’s internal organization was the biggest of all her big guns. The rapidity and effectiveness which characterised also our own measures of war represented a triumph of organization which brought home to the sternest individualist the extraordinary potency of organized effort, as opposed to more haphazard and opportunist methods, while the need of equally excellent organization where our civil resources are concerned came home to us with equal force.

We need not, however, spend time arguing what no one will dispute, namely, that we are in for a greater measure of collective action. This would be almost as great a waste of time as to continue the argument as to whether the war is to lead to barbarism or to a higher civilization, on the basis of

“Oh let us never, never doubt / What nobody is sure about.”

The real question, and the question which will inevitably affect the wider issue, is,-What form is our increased collective action going to take? Will it mean nothing more than increased State control, government on a paternal pattern, organizing us all from above, or will it be genuine collective action, -genuine because voluntary? We do not for a moment doubt that the principle of State control has really scored a point-let us say, many points. There will be many directions in which new legislation will prove to be necessary, when we come to dealing with the problems of poverty created or complicated or aggravated by the results of the war. Again, we shall be prepared to submit to legislation, which would have provoked a great deal of bitterness and discontent had it been proposed before the war had placarded its necessity at every street corner. But we need not think that because all of us who have any claims to remain out- side a lunatic asylum are prepared to sink our differences and to join hands with those who disagree with us at a time when our greatest common interests are menaced, that therefore we have forgotten all our old opinions and will never trouble to resume them. Some day all our little differences will come trooping back like little children home for the holidays and we shall have as much noise and confusion in the house as ever-the dear little pets will only seem re-invigorated by their long absence in durance vile.

It is clear, indeed, that if collective action is imposed from above, without the acquiescence of large minorities, or even the sincere support of the majority, there are obvious and stringent limits to its utility. It then inevitably means that the new duties taken over by the State not only restrict individual liberty but also undermine the sense of individual responsibility and demoralize individual effort. Shall we all be drilled as to what we are to do and what we are to think ? That ways lies Bernhardi. We are apt to believe that we can copy Germany’s organization without running the risk of placing ourselves under the heel of a kind of Prussian domination, because our Government is democratic in form and Germany’s is anti-democratic in spirit. Never was there a greater mistake. Democratic forms of government are no safeguard to genuine democracy in the hands of a clique they are the most potent engine of tyranny. It is but little comfort to the isolated voter, forced to obey laws he loathes, that he is himself 1/7,984,600th part of the tyrant who has passed them, and when he is corrupted by State doles it is but little comfort to the nation that he has favoured his own corruption.

But the collective action which is without these dangers, and is, indeed, bound to be the most potent instrument for social regeneration that we can command at the present day, is the collective action which is not forced, but voluntary. This indeed is the only genuine collective action. A nation may be drilled into the appearance of momentary unanimity, but such unanimity is devoid of real creative power. It gives no vital impulse to progressive enterprise and to lasting attainment. We would plead with all those who have social progress at heart, with all those who would gladly lay down their lives to bring about for their fellows better social conditions and greater equality of wealth and opportunity, not to allow any hesitation or doubt to deprive them of the greatest opportunity they have ever had for advancing their country’s welfare. We would urge them to seize the present occasion and to turn our tendency to collective action into the direction of that voluntary collective action through which alone a nation can come to realize itself and can develop its best potentialities and highest culture.

This voluntary collective action may, of course, express itself in social legislation, but the most important form of all which it can take at the present day lies in the application of the co-operative principle to commerce and industry. The industrial systems of the future are bound to be co-operative, for it is only thus that these systems can offer adequate conditions for the development of the national life and the fuller realization of the national characteristics. For this reason also co-operative Wales will not give the world over again what Denmark or Ireland have already given it. It will evolve a co-operative system peculiar to itself as the natural vehicle of its self-expression.

Democracy is not the same thing as liberty, but genuine democracy cannot exist apart from it. So long as philanthropists sought to impose benefits from above, bestowing the proverbial soup upon people whose real need was for an opportunity to work out their own salvation, so long were philanthropists governed by a second hallucination-the curious notion that they could do good to humanity in the mass. Only when they realize that each individual must be responsible for his own life do they also realize that it is necessary to begin with the individual and not with the poor.” The social reformer, dealing with the wider conditions of social life, must now realize that he can best advance the welfare of the nation as a whole by beginning with a particular neighbourhood, taking his own industry in his own locality as the unit from which to work,- for not all the laws which Parliament could impose will avail to better the social conditions of his village unless the villagers themselves are inspired with the social sense and are prepared, as a community, to take their own fate into their own hands. This is the ideal which agricultural co-operation places before a rural community.

Co-operation is socialism without constraint, it is syndicalism without violence. It is the first attempt which has ever been made to bring commercial and industrial conditions into line with the economics of the New Testament. It opens to the individual the fullest scope to his powers it secures to him the just fruits of his toil it makes honesty the best policy it eliminates waste. Co- operation helps the co-operator to secure for himself and his family a better and more stable economic condition, but while he gains this he is helping his neighbours to gain it also, and by enriching his own neighbourhood he is enriching his country too.

It is to the honour of the agriculturists of Wales that they have taken an eager interest in the co- operative movement since its earliest inception in Great Britain and, so far as it is possible to judge at this early date, it appears to be the case that the war has had no unfavourable influence upon the work of the 89 co-operative societies of Wales with their membership of over 325,000 agriculturists. The movement was already sufficiently strong to demonstrate what organization and collective action might mean at a time of crisis, and how much more it might also mean in normal periods, if more widely spread and developed. In some neighbourhoods a distinct influence was exercised upon prices during the days of panic prices in the first half of August.

We heard, for instance, of a society in Glamorganshire which at that time sold barley meal at 15s per sack, while private traders in the locality retailed it at £1 Where also an agricultural co-operative society furnishes supplies to an industrial co-operative society, unnecessary middle profits are avoided, and the possibility of speculative fortune-making at a time of national necessity is eliminated. Take as an example the action of the Anglesey Egg Depot at the outbreak of the war. This Depot deals with 40,000 or 50,000 eggs per week at seasons when eggs are plentiful, and supplies them to industrial co- operative societies. It was approached by a private dealer in August with the offer of 30 per cent. more for eggs than was being received from the regular customers. What this 30 per cent. more would have meant to the funds of the Depot a simple calculation will show. I hope my readers will make it. The offer was refused.

Such facts tended to show to the general public the true nature of co-operative effort and its bearing upon the general welfare. A similar lesson will be learnt from our experience during the present war in regard to the problems connected with the furnishing of supplies for the Army and Navy. Every war in the past has had its after-crop of war contract scandals, and every war in the future will have the same after-crop, until the extended organization of our farmers makes it possible for the authorities to reconcile the two aims which they have in view that of dealing with the farmers direct, and that of dealing in large quantities and standardised qualities.

Most important of all, the general public is be- ginning to realize that it is only through co-operation that the food supplies of the nation can be largely in- creased. Unless farmers and small holders can sell what they grow, and can sell it remuneratively, they are under no inducement to grow it. The Glamorganshire County Council has set an example to the country at large. They have initiated a scheme with a view to encouraging the production of fruit, vegetables, bacon, eggs, honey, etc., and, as an integral part of this scheme, have arranged for instruction to be given in co-operative methods to the producers, so that their labour may be undertaken on the most economic basis, and therefore may not be undertaken in vain.

We have been told that the present war is a war waged in the cause of small nationalities. Whether or not this will prove to be the case depends, like everything else, upon what we will it to be. We should realize that a great Empire, won by the sword and kept by the sword, is not a necessary appendage to a nation which wishes to give its best to humanity. When we look back over history we cannot help recognizing that many of those nations which have left the most permanent and living influence upon In the silent woodland Where the slow leaves fall and the light Is grey and weary with the shadow of the night: In the sleeping woodland Where vague dreams moan In a hopeless undertone, our modes of thought and life, were quite small nations. We admire an elephant because it is big, but that is no reason why we should admire a country on account of its size. Indeed we have given up thinking that a king should necessarily be tall, recognizing that it is only too lamentably possible to be like the schoolboy who was tall but deceitful,” according to the report of a schoolmaster who was brief but idiotic. Our barbarous notions of grandeur are slowly but surely giving way to juster standards of value. Who thinks of Switzerland with contempt because it is little? Who does not think of Switzer- land with a thrill of admiration because it is great- great in its traditions of liberty and in the simple democratic customs of its noble peasantry?

This is what humanity demands of the citizen nations-not that they should impose their own characteristics by force of arms upon the world, but that, for the sake of the world, they should develop those characteristics to the fullest possible extent.

And this is what the adoption of co-operative methods will render possible. Those who live in Wales –this nation not a little akin to Switzerland, which has also already made no small contribution to the cause of mankind-those who love its mountains, its hardy sons and daughters, its poetry, its idealism, have now before them a magnificent opportunity of making a still better future worthy of an inspiring past. What they can immediately do is to help to develop its national life through the bold extension of co-operative organization. The foundation, as we have shown, is there to build upon. The impetus and enthusiasm, as we have tried to show, are there also. What is needed is that the patriotic effort, called forth by the war, should be directed into the most truly patriotic directions. If this can be achieved, then, and then alone, the glorious gain,” which we will wrest from our present necessities, will indeed prove to be nothing less than a higher civilization.”

Eglantyne Jebb.

December 1914.



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