‘Better Any Kind of Action Than Inert Theory!’ By Mary E. Marcy from International Socialist Review. Vol. 15. No. 8. February, 1915.
WHEN the war in Europe first broke out, some of us believed that it was only some overwhelming elemental instinct that could cause men to leave the security of their homes to face death and disease at the front. We attributed their swift advances to the hunting instinct or to social stampede, or to mob psychology. We could not believe that anything short of primal instinct or “original tendency” could so sweep men off their feet and carry them into the horrors of war.
But, as a matter of fact, we find that the women were not caught in the whirl and borne to the front, and instinct is not a respecter of persons. The girl baby inherits the hunting and fighting tendencies of her father as does the boy. On what basis would we explain the fact that the primitive emotion passes her by and infects the male only?
At the very onset we find that acquired habits played a very important role in the conduct of the people of Europe. The women refrained from going to war because it was their habit or custom to abstain from war.
And when we look closely, we find almost an utter lack of enthusiasm, an amazing lack of emotion among the soldiers. They went toward France like men going to work in a factory; they discharged their guns like “hands” running a machine in a steel mill.
All the movements for improving the condition of the working class, all movements for the emancipation of the proletariat are based on the premise that the human animal seeks pleasure and avoids pain. He HAS sought pleasure and avoided gain, or he would not have lived to reproduce himself.
When we realize how persistently and under what adverse circumstances men cling to life at normal times, one would imagine that only universal and fundamental causes could force them to go to war.
It is doubtless true that few men expect to be killed when they are mobilized. Every soldier believes in the invincibility of the army of which he forms a part. But when hundreds of thousands of soldiers are suffering the hardships of cold, hunger, wounds and death in the trenches, human instinct, or the “original tendencies of man” would lead us to expect them to right-about-face and homeward march.
Perhaps most of the readers of the Review agree with Dr. Jacques Loeb that men are unwilling to sacrifice their lives for an idea, the histories of the lofty (?) claims of the men themselves notwithstanding. It is incomprehensible to us that men should die for patriotism or justice or religion or any other abstract idea.
To us it seems that it has been an acquired characteristic – namely the habit of taking orders, of obedience, imposed by discipline, that has sent 5,000,000 Germans to the battle front, the habit of mental inhibition – inactivity. The same may hold good of Russia and Belgium and of France to a large extent.
In other words, it would seem that habit, engendered by discipline, is cause of the war becoming a fact. Without this habit of mental inertia, of doing what one is told to do, of following a leader, of obeying a command, the desires of the capitalist class for new conquests would have remained fruitless.
If we wish to avoid the German result, we must avoid the German cause. The German Social Democracy was cut from the same piece of cloth as the German military system and the German government. The rank and file were fostered in Party inaction, were taught and compelled to trust to the leaders who have drawn them into the pitfalls of war. Party discipline, obedience to majority rule, mean obedience to political compromisers. It means the crushing out of all healthful activity not in line with the advancement of political office seekers.
Discipline and leadership mean mental and physical inaction on the part of the working class; mean men that lack initiative and may be led astray, that will be led astray.
No labor movement is a healthy movement when it has become wholly harmonious. Absolute freedom of expression and activity are necessary to healthy growth. Better a thousand premature or futile strikes every year than a rank and file that moves only in obedience to the word of command from leaders.
The workers develop initiative in action and initiative renders one and all capable of thinking and acting as real factors in the revolution.
Down with discipline! And away with habits of obedience to both Kaiser and labor leader. Absolutism is as fatal in the labor movement as it Is in the scientific world. All that encourages men to break the routine of their lives, every machine that replaces men and women in the factories, everything that jars them loose from the ruts of existence, that wrenches them away from their accustomed grind is a thought stimulator, a stimulator to action, a blessing in disguise. The economic jolt is the greatest of all teachers! It was not any one idea that made the war a fact.
It will not be any one idea that will free the working class. But rather the common human needs of the workers, made acute by the breaking of old-time habits of life and thought. It is this breaking of old ties and old habits that creates revolutionary initiative. The more flux the revolutionary movement is allowed to become (so long as it retains its distinctly working-class character) the more vital will it become. The oftener every member functions in an organization (we do not here refer to the mere paying of dues) the oftener will he desire to function or take part. Every movement gains momentum through action.
We should encourage rebellious activity on the part of the workers everywhere and at all times. activity always adds to the strength of the movement, brings new workers into the ranks. We do not learn inaction through activity but how best to act in order to win. Action tested in the fires of experience, finds the best tactic.
The war itself may prove an aid to the revolutionary movement by destroying old habits of life and thought. When the factory worker finds his job destroyed, his old associates gone, he will evolve new ideas and a new line of conduct in harmony with the new conditions. Torn from his old moorings, he may develop into a real revolutionist, provided he does not again permit himself to be drawn into the old hard and fast organization that demands unquestioned obedience from its members. Questioning and rebellion in any organization is a sign of life. Unless someone rebelled or disagreed the sons would know even less than their fathers, and progress would mean a word only. Let us greet the rebels, the hotheads with more patience. The hope of the working class lies in those who are eager to do and dare.
Let us remember that discipline and party obedience mean unpreparedness and inaction and that rebellion means initiative to think and to act. And above all we must remember that the revolutionary movement gains strength, experience, equipment and momentum to attack and resist through action alone.
Better any kind of action than inert theory!
The International Socialist Review (ISR) was published monthly in Chicago from 1900 until 1918 by Charles H. Kerr and critically loyal to the Socialist Party of America. It is one of the essential publications in U.S. left history. During the editorship of A.M. Simons it was largely theoretical and moderate. In 1908, Charles H. Kerr took over as editor with strong influence from Mary E Marcy. The magazine became the foremost proponent of the SP’s left wing growing to tens of thousands of subscribers. It remained revolutionary in outlook and anti-militarist during World War One. It liberally used photographs and images, with news, theory, arts and organizing in its pages. It articles, reports and essays are an invaluable record of the U.S. class struggle and the development of Marxism in the decades before the Soviet experience. It was closed down in government repression in 1918.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/isr/v15n08-feb-1915-ISR-riaz-ocr.pdf