The Alliance and the War: The Co-operative Press

The Alliance and the War - The Co-operative Press

by Henry J. May

Six months ago when we were suddenly overwhelmed by the outbreak of war,
the Executive of the Alliance were confronted with the task of determining
the lines on which the work of the ICA should proceed during the
continuance of the European upheaval.

George Jacob Holyoake had once declared that the British Co-operative
Movement would hardly withstand the shock of a great war, and in the first
excitement of that reversion to the barbaric arbitrament of the sword, it
was felt by some that the Alliance of Co-operators in the various countries
must be shattered by such an unspeakable conflict.

They remembered, with a sharp pang at thought of the change which twelve
short months had wrought, the happy and successful gathering with our
comrades from many lands which had taken place in Glasgow at the
International Congress of 1913.

They thought of the resolution on International Peace, of the eloquent
speeches with which it was supported by our colleagues from Holland,
Germany, France, Norway, and Great Britain; of the wonderful demonstration
with which the delegates received the announcement of the President that it
had been carried without dissentient voice or vote. And as they thought of
these things there flashed through their minds an instant of doubt. Could
it be that that great demonstration at Glasgow was only a 'pious expression
of opinion' after all, and not a consummation devoutly to be wished?

Doubtless our Continental colleagues have had similar moments of scepticism
in view of the destruction of our cherished hopes. But with them, as with
the Executive, to realise the doubt was to dismiss it with scorn, and to
acknowledge that the noble declaration of the Glasgow Congress remained a
true reflex of the ideals of our movement and the earnest desire of the
workers of all the countries in the Alliance. They realised also that our
democratic organisations, both national and international, had failed to
avert the greatest and most calamitous war in history, not because of any
defects in their aims or principles, but because they had been overtaken by
the influences and power of the old order of capitalistic imperialism
before the new system of society which it is the main business of
Co-operation to establish, had been sufficiently developed to make the will
of the people prevail.

The thought of that failure was the one consideration necessary to resolve
their doubts as to the future. The Alliance must go on even as the
co-operative movement must go on in all the countries. That it had failed
today was only the proof of the need of more energetic and wholehearted
effort on the morrow of the war.

In the meantime, two duties stared them in the face: the first, to use
every endeavour to keep in touch with all the members of our International
family, belligerents and neutrals alike, as far as the laws of the land and
the circumstances permitted, and to continue our interchange of ideas and
information on our own special work; the second, to prepare our
organisation to render all possible aid to any of the members of the
Alliance that may need it, as a result of the war, to reestablish
themselves or even to maintain their existence during the hostilities of
the nations.

That task the Alliance has endeavoured so far to fulfil, and on another
occasion we shall venture to give a brief resume of its efforts and their
general results.

For the moment we are concerned more particularly with the Co-operative
Press. Naturally, if the policy decided upon by the Executive - with the
full approval of all the members of the Central Committee who could be
reached, was to be effective, it must be carried out with impartiality
towards all the members of the Alliance.

It was not simply that the financial resources of the Alliance are derived
from all the countries, and that therefore all had a legal right to
consideration, but that only so could its work be made effective, its
existence justified, and the universal ideals of the co-operative movement

There was, therefore, imposed upon the Bulletin a stricter obligation than
usual to avoid all subjects of controversy outside the limits of
co-operative enterprise. To publish only facts of co-operative interest,
and when the circumstances sometimes trenched upon the operations of the
war, as it was inevitable they should do, our duty appeared clear to state
the facts without attributing motives or stigma of any kind to the one
party or the other.

In the early period of the war, before we had so remarkably settled down to
it as a business and learned to receive the news of the destruction and
maiming of our fellow creatures as an everyday occurrence - before that
time there was some natural excitement in our co-operative press.

After all, every co-operator though entertaining international ideals is
himself, first of all, a patriotic citizen of his own country. With time,
however, that excitement has shown signs of settling down, and gradually we
may hope that the co-operative press will confine itself more and more to
its own business, leaving the discussion of war to the capitalistic press.

For ourselves, we have refrained from publishing anything but news of the
co-operative world, and have sacrificed the pleasure of dilating upon many
interesting, not to say burning, topics which have arisen since the war
began. In some quarters that restraint has been mistaken for weakness and
lack of hope in the future, but it is just because we look forward to a
great advance in all democratic institutions when the war is past that we
have bowed our heads to the passing storm.

The co-operative movement, like many another, is suffering the severest
test in its history. Thus far it is not only standing the strain with
remarkable fortitude, but is establishing itself as a permanent phase of
national life. It will emerge from the war strengthened in its usefulness,
purged of its weakness and with new impulses towards its ideals.

It therefore behoves us to watch closely against any acts or words which
may impair our usefulness as a national or international force for social
reform and peace.

The co-operative journals of all countries have a heavy responsibility
placed upon them in this matter, but they have also a high destiny to
fulfil. They can, by their moderation in questions of present controversy
and hostility, do much to preserve friendly relations between all sections
of our great movement. This is essential to a prompt resumption of our work
when the diplomatists, statesmen and generals have concluded the peace.

The co-operative press is now a considerable force and can use its
'platform' for definite propaganda, not only in economic relations, but in
strengthening the democratic foundation of a permanent peace. The only
peace which is likely to have any continuity must be based upon the
goodwill and acknowledged brotherhood of the peoples. If any evidence of
this were wanting, it could be found in the anxiety which all the
belligerent leaders exhibited as to the attitude of the proletariat towards
the conflict, when the war became imminent.

Many of us are profoundly convinced that if our working class institutions
had been a little more developed, they would have been able to defeat both
militarism and secret diplomacy and have prevented war. The future,
however, is left to us, and we have to build anew with greater strength and
determination to cement the ties which bind us, in spite of differences of
language, race and creed.

We have to strengthen the relationships which existed before the war, which
still exist, and which have received their most striking and pathetic
confirmation on the battlefield itself.

The co-operative press has a noble part to play in this work. Let it preach
principles, not of war, but of peace; not of reprisals or even of legal
rights, but of fraternity and mutual work for the benefit of mankind.

Let us discuss the means by which we can soonest repair the desolation
which has penetrated, in some places, even into the co-operative field. Our
organisations should be prepared, like the Red Cross Brigades, to enter the
field immediately hostilities have ceased to care for the wounded and
distressed with impartial humanity.

The task of the co-operative press is so much the more easy because the
capitalistic press of all the countries relieves it of any necessity to
enter the field of the war correspondents. Our business is always with the
new ideals - 'the new system of society', preached so optimistically by
Robert Owen, which has only yet a partial realisation; it is, nevertheless,
no illusion, but an ideal which the great upheaval will bring within
measurable distance of realisation.
H. J. M.