Whether Through Revolution, or Imperialist Rivalry, the Fate of the British Empire Is Sealed

Greatest Empire in History Is Collapsing

(26 April 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 17, 26 April 1943, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

After the fall of Singapore and Burma, and the Indian response to the Japanese threat, it began to penetrate into the minds of many people that the British Empire was doomed. The victories of Rommel in Egypt and the possibility of a German-Japanese junction in the Middle East made the end of the empire appear contingent on a few days or weeks of military conflict.

With the defeat of Rommel; however, and the general improvement in the Anglo-American military prospects, the empire seemed saved. Churchill crowed: “We shall hold our own,” and Cripps, who, during the first stage of the Indian crisis, seemed second in British importance only to Churchill, was thrown out of the War Cabinet. Finally, the British have suppressed the first insurrection in India and, after many years, summoned up enough courage to challenge and defeat the dietetic politics of Gandhi. Yet the empire is as fated to disintegrate as was the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War. Nothing can save it. This becomes more visible every day.

Anglo-American Rivalry

France collapsed on the battlefield in 1940. But France’s ruin was prepared by the incapacity of metropolitan France to hold the positions won in earlier centuries. This now applies with ten times as much cogency to Britain. Even if the Axis is defeated, Britain must hold her position in an air-dominated Europe; she must guard her long line of communications to the Far East; she must hold India against the Indians and against the United States; she must safeguard her position in China and Southeastern Asia against the United States; she must fight the United States in Latin America and the West Indies; she must fight the United States in Canada and Australia; she must safeguard her African colonies.

All these are, for Britain, losing battles.

To save the empire from the Axis, Britain had to pawn it and herself to Roosevelt. And the pawnbrokers in Washington are already gathering in the spoils, for one reason because the spoils are begging and praying and beseeching to be gathered in.

This did not begin yesterday. USA capital has Canada in its grip, and Canada is fighting Roosevelt’s war, not Churchill’s. An American general commands in Australia, and it is to America that Australia sends emissaries begging for help. The pro-American orientation of Australia is now decisive. It appears on the surface to be merely a question of defense. In reality, nothing would be more superficial than any such analysis. Capital concentrates by its own inherent laws, though this may take the form of open violence, as by Germany in Europe today, or military and naval necessity, as in Australia. The smaller capital gravitates naturally toward the orbit of the larger capital.

It is obvious to any child that if Britain has survived so far it is because of the support of the USA. As in war, so in the peace to come. Britain can offer nothing that the USA cannot double or treble at the stroke of a pen. The Indian bourgeoisie and the Chinese bourgeoisie know that they must find shelter and loans somewhere. And Britain’s name stinks so in the Far East, that to denounce Britain and to hold up America as the true friend of democracy everywhere, is a useful weapon for any Oriental demagogue anxious to prove that he can combine 100 per cent political independence and 100 per cent subservience to American capital. That is the role of Chiang Kai-shek, that is the stock-in-trade of Manuel Quezon, the Philippine faker, and that is the role Nehru is thirsting to play. But, in all this, whoever is in, Britain is out.

Smuts, the Jolly Good Fellow

The natural trend of capital away from Britain toward America can be seen with singular clarity, above all places, in the Union of South Africa. The tendency is most strikingly manifested there, precisely because Britain owns some three-quarters of all the capital invested in Africa, and apparently holds every strategic position.

It is commonly known that pro-British Smuts could only with great difficulty defeat the anti-British party led by Hertzog on the question of entry into the war. The Hertzog group contains rabidly pro-German elements, such as the former Minister of the Interior, Firow. That conflict between British financial and mining capital and the local farmers is insoluble. However, for many years all South Africa has hankered after the creation of a great African empire, including South Africa, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Tanganyika and Kenya. For them this would mean a solution of many problems. For Smuts, it will mean national unity of the whites, of vital necessity in any part of Africa.

Just before the final attack was launched on Rommel, Smuts was chosen to address the empire and the unified houses of Commons and Lords. The unified legislators sang For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, duly relayed to what Churchill fondly hoped would thereby be a unified South Africa. It takes more than a male chorus to stop the concentration of capital. Even Smuts was not unified with the empire by this remarkable demonstration of British blarney.

Just at this time the British Empire was under serious fire from Wendell Willkie. And Life magazine, seeing in Smuts, the man of the moment, asked him to write an article stating-the case for the empire. This jolly good fellow thereupon expressed himself as follows: In the first place, the mother countries should remain responsible for the administration of their colonies, there should be no interference, etc. But, and here the ungrateful South African must be quoted literally: “Wherever possible, isolated colonies belonging to a mother country should be grouped into large units both for more efficient and economical administration, and for larger-scale development policies common to all. Thus British colonies ... on the African continent could be grouped with larger powers assigned to the group, and corresponding decrease of power in London.” He had probably lunched with Churchill the day he wrote this!

But Smuts, to rule, must satisfy the white colonists in South and East Africa who have been fighting with Britain over this for years. Smuts is not only putting his claim before the world. He is inviting the “Arsenal of Democracy” to come in and share in the profits of democracy in Africa. “Thus the United States of America, although no colonial power, could be on the regional control council of the West Indies or of Africa or elsewhere.” This is a particularly mean blow at Britain, which is now fighting a losing battle with the United States in the West Indies.

Smuts concludes on a note which is a direct challenge to Britain and a bid for United States support in his future attempt to dominate a large part of the African continent. “It appears to me essential that the United States should in the future have a direct say with the mother countries in the settlement of general colonial policies ...” He ends in true British fashion: “I have no doubt that such a partnership of the USA in overhead colonial controls would be cordially welcomed so far as the British Commonwealth of Nations is concerned.” Cordially welcomed, my eye! No sooner was Rommel driven out of Egypt than Colonel Oliver Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies, told the Oxford Conservative Association that he was “much more interested in what Britain thought of the empire than in what the U.S. thought of it, and rejected any scheme for international administration of the British colonies after the war.”

These are brave words, but only words. The case of South .Africa shows that, as far as the dominions are concerned, the tendencies to disintegration are coming from inside, even without pressure from the United States. The First World War brought the Westminster Charter of 1926, which granted to the dominions the right of secession. The end of the present war will see the beginning of the exercise of that right. To think that such a Britain will be able to hold India is an absurdity, unworthy of argument.

Churchill’s Last Card

It is under these circumstances that Churchill throws himself into the arms of Stalin. By this means he hopes to counteract the influence in Europe of Roosevelt and his invading armies. In addition, Churchill is going to fight for his position in Southern China and the Java Sea. Stalin aims at slicing off a large part of Northern China. In these compensatory plans for plunder it seems to Churchill that he and Stalin can give each other mutual aid and comfort. Thus Britain will be able to put up a fight in Europe and Asia and have the potential strength to bargain elsewhere.

All such dreams are vain. The Russian dictator is listening to Churchill today. He will listen to Roosevelt tomorrow, and Roosevelt has already stated his willingness to go to Soviet territory to meet Stalin – a sure sign that he has something to sell. Above all, however, Stalin listens to the dictates of his own interests. Stalin is as interested as all the other groups in the scramble for the pieces of the empire. All he can get in the Middle East, for instance, he will swallow.

It is true that the balance of power demands that you do not entirely destroy your ally. But Italy was junior partner to the Allies in World War I and to Hitler in World War II. Look at Italy today as well as yesterday. But there is an even more painful example, the example of Britain itself, junior partner to America in World War II, and now compelled to seek refuge from that loving embrace in the arms, of all people, of Stalin!

A weak country like Japan, with all its interests concentrated in one area, can play a powerful role; a powerful economy like Germany’s, even after it sustains a ruinous defeat, occupies such a strategic position on the European continent that it can exercize a strong, if subordinate, influence as the tool of United States imperialism. But Britain, an island off the coast of Europe, with its interests scattered in every corner of the globe, is falling to pieces before our very eyes.

Revolution – Britain’s Great Fear

But the danger to the empire lies concretely jn the subject colonial populations. Hard enough to hold down in any case, they will be infinitely less submissive to a disintegrating “mother” country.

In 1914–18 they fought for Britain and then revolted; in the West Indies, Negro populations in West, South and East Africa; in Malta, in Egypt, in Ireland and in India. This time they have refused to fight. Ireland and Egypt have remained sullenly neutral. India has begun her revolt already.

A great fear hangs over India today. Gandhi’s fast and its failure mark the end of a period. Every correspondent remarks on the uncertainty which now exists. For if Gandhi loses influence in India, then, as is known far and wide, the greatest obstacle to violent action against the British will be removed.

Let us take the best possible variant for Britain, defeat of Germany, defeat of Japan. Once that danger is removed, such a revolution will burst out in India as Could never he put down by the British. Even in 1921 the British administration was paralyzed by the civil disobedience movement. It was Gandhi who, at the critical moment, stopped it with his doctrine of non-violence. We can judge of the future of India by the Chinese revolution, which began in 1911 and has had that country in turmoil for thirty years.

The Indian proletariat may achieve the socialist revolution in a reasonably short space of time. If it fails to do this, then India will split into warring groups, revolution and civil war will tear the country to pieces for years. America may intervene to restore some sort of order, i.e., suppress the proletariat, as America is intervening in Europe to suppress the revolution. But this much is certain. Britain will not, at the war’s end, proceed to lecture Indians about “Hindus and Moslems” and the ethics of fasting as a political weapon. That is over.

And as India goes, so will go Burma, the Malay States and the British East Indies. If the revolts in Egypt and the Arab world are merely as powerful as they were after World War I, Britain will not be able to resist them today. All the signs point to this fact that they will be ten times as fierce. Britain’s only hope is to seek shelter behind America, which means walking into the jaws of its enemy. Such is the colonial and anti-imperialist struggle of British capital. In addition, it faces the British proletariat at home, the most cohesive, powerfully organized, and most politically confident proletariat in the world.

It is now that we can appreciate the policy of appeasement so stubbornly pursued by Chamberlain and practically the whole British ruling class. They followed it until they could follow it no further. For Neville Chamberlain believed and said that, come what might, another war meant the end of the British Empire. He knew that it could not hold. He was correct. War or peace, defeat or victory, it is done. The only question now is whether it will fall to American imperialism or to the colonial peoples themselves. That, the struggle will decide.

But whatever the outcome, we see day by day the crumbling of the greatest organ of tyranny and oppression the world has ever seen. The tendencies we have shown will not all run in a straight line. Great historical tendencies never do. But their cumulative direction is inexorable. The Britain that will emerge from even a victorious war will be a Britain where the class struggle will be fought to a finish, until either a fascist Britain attaches itself as a Mussolinian satellite to some great imperialist power; or a socialist Britain which gives “Merrie England” to the masses of the British people and makes it possible for them to add their great contributions to human civilization.

Last updated on 24 May 2015