J. T. Murphy

Labour’s “Peace” Policy

Source: The Aldelphi, August 1934, Vol. 8, No. 5
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

ON 9th June the Daily Herald published a document from the Executive Committee of the Labour Party and the General Council of the Trades Union Congress, entitled “Labour’s Peace Policy.” This document is to be submitted to the forthcoming Trades Union Congress and the Conference of the Labour Party. It is the most important and serious declaration that has been put before the Labour Movement since the end of the last war. Upon the attitude of the members of the Labour movement depends its fate and that of the millions of the younger generation of this country. Already a movement of revolt is rising against it. I hope that by the time of the T.U.C. and the Labour Party Conference the volume of protest will be so great as to compel it to be withdrawn.

The Hastings Conference (1933) of the Labour Party passed the following resolution unanimously:—

“This conference views with the most grave disquiet the steady drift of the international situation towards war; the continued failure of Governments assembled at Geneva to check developments in this direction; and the manifest determination of governments individually to retain and to strengthen their armaments, a policy which, if not checked, by itself makes war a certainty; places on records its conviction that the working class of any country has no quarrel with the working class of another country and extends to our fellow workers abroad the expression of our good will and fraternity and, believing that as the British Labour Party is now by far the largest and most powerful working-class party, both nationally and internationally, it should take the lead in formulating proposals for securing the fullest co-operation between all sections of the Labour Movement, instructs the National Executive Committee, in conjunction with the Trades Union Congress and the Co-operative Movement:

(a) To launch vigorous propaganda to counter in advance those tendencies in the present social system which pre-dispose large sections of the population to respond readily to a war appeal, and stressing

   (1) the growing acuteness of the war danger;

   (2) the appalling nature of the modern methods of warfare and their results;

   (3) The economic crisis and the deepening of imperialist and capitalist rivalries as a direct cause of war;

   (4) The growth of Fascism and its relation to war.

(b) To work within the Labour and Socialist International for an uncompromising attitude against war preparations.

(c) To pledge itself to take no part in war and to resist it with the whole force of the Labour Movement and to seek consultation forthwith with the Trade Union and Co-operative Movements with a view to deciding and announcing to the country what steps, including a general strike, are to be taken to organise the opposition of the organised working-class movement in the event of war or threat of war, and urges the National joint bodies to make immediate approaches to endeavour to secure international action by the workers on the same lines.

Immediately after the passing of this resolution Mr. Arthur Henderson made a speech the line of which was in flat contradiction to that of the resolution. It was cheered to the echo. It was not discussed.

In what consisted the contradiction? The resolution, despite its pacifist defects, was based upon mass resistance to capitalist war. Mr. Henderson’s thesis consisted of the application of the “gradualist” theory to international affairs and the building of collective agreements with the League of Nations as the pivot of peace and disarmament.

The new document rejects the line of the Hastings Conference resolution and is built on the thesis of Mr. Henderson. It has nothing to do with socialism. It is a mixture of Utopian pacifism and slavish attachment and loyalty to capitalism which in practice binds the Labour movement to its war machinery. An analysis of the document will make this abundantly clear.

The Daily Herald headlines on the day of the publication of the document announced “General Strike suggestion dropped.” Note the argument:—

“It was recognised that the lack of an independent T.U. movement in such countries as Germany, Italy, Austria, and others, made the calling of a general strike against their Governments an impossibility; and in other countries such as Japan, the weakness of the Trade Union organisation made it unable to restrain its Government. Recognising that aggressive action might come from some of those countries, the statement declared that the general strike in such circumstances could not be effective by the Trade Unions in these countries; the responsibility for stopping war, moreover, ought not to be placed on the Trade Union movement.

“Every citizen who wanted peace, and every other section of the Labour movement, must share the responsibility of organised action against war.”

Could any arguments be more specious, more hypocritical, more ghastly than these? First, they hide behind the weaknesses of the Labour movement in other countries. Then, after it suddenly dawns on them that we have some responsibility for what our own Government is doing, they hide behind the general mass of “citizens”. Who is to give the lead to the mass of “citizens” if not the Labour movement?

Here’s bankruptcy in politics with a vengeance. The Labour Party leaders speak as if the General Strike against war was a matter for the trade unions alone. And the trade unions reply “Ah, but you can’t put the brunt of the fight against war on us.” The old shuttlecock game of pre-1914 is repeating itself. The Trade Union International shelved responsibility for strike action against war by saying the war question was a political question. When the Socialist International had the same resolution under discussion it declared that strike action was a matter for the trade unions.

In 1934 action against war is a matter for “citizens” and not the unions. But we are told that the terms of the standing orders of the T.U.C. require a special congress to be called when there is danger of war breaking out. Let us read this standing order:—

“In order that the Trade Union movement may do everything which lies in its power to prevent future wars, the General Council shall, in the event of there being a danger of an outbreak of war, call a special congress to decide on industrial action, such congress to be called, if possible, before war is declared.”

It is quite clear from this that the Trades Unions have already accepted the responsibility of strike action against war, and that the new attitude is aimed at preventing mass action and shirks the responsibility of preparing for such action. It may be said that the standing order does not say: Make a general strike against war. This, of course, is playing with words. No Congress could meet, intent on opposing war, and say that only the transport workers, or the engineers, or miners should strike. Any action which did not aim at bringing the largest possible forces into action against the Government of the day would be fatal. But why juggle with the question? 1920 gave the real answer to the question of what should be done. Then there was no debate about the trade unions not being held responsible, etc. There was a joint conference of the Labour Party and the T.U.C., the setting up of Councils of Action, the creation of the centres round which workers and “citizens” opposed to war could gather and act together. There lay the real way of preparation for mass action against war. It remains the real means of preparation for mass action against war to-day.

The Joint Council, however, seeks to direct attention from this course because of its revolutionary implications. In its stead it seeks to canalise pacifist feeling into the League of Nations and finally lands on the platform of the chauvinists of all countries—support for the Government waging a defensive war. Shades of Woodrow Wilson! We hope arrangements will be made for Mr. Lloyd George to introduce the resolution so that the masses can see its real character. There’s no earthly reason from the standpoint of the document why he should not.

Who is to decide that the coming war is a defensive war? The League of Nations!

The entrance of the Soviet Union into the League of Nations does not signify a change in the fundamental character of the League. It marks rather the complete change in the relation of the powers and the internal position within the capitalist countries. So long as the Russian Revolution was regarded as unstable and the position in a number of European countries appeared near to a revolutionary situation, the Soviet Union was anathema to the capitalist powers. The triumph of Hitlerism with its imperialist ambitions and the recognition of the Soviet Union as a mighty military power has changed the relation of forces. The League has become the centre of the new grouping of powers—the new enlarged entente cordiale. The interests of the Soviet Union and France coincide in opposition to Hitler's ambitious programme. All talk of French and German combination against the Soviet Union to-day is nonsense. The French know full well that a German conquest of the Ukraine would give such vast power to Germany that France could be swallowed overnight, Locarno notwithstanding. Nor can the smaller states forming the corridor between Germany and the Soviet Union regard with equanimity the prospect of being swallowed by Hitler Germany. Hence the series of non-aggressive pacts and the proposed Eastern Locarno which Germany cannot accept without surrendering all her expansionist ambitions. The only real ally of Germany to-day is Japanese Imperialism, which also desires to crush the Soviet Union.

All talk of the League of Nations becoming in the face of these realities an instrument of universal peace is just so much misleading twaddle. War is being prepared. The powers are lining up for battle. The Labour Manifesto does not discuss these realities. Its League of Nations is a hypothetical League and not the real League. Building on this hypothesis it projects this body as the adjudicator of the “aggressive war.” If the League of Nations, therefore, says war, the Labour Movement of this country will acquiesce.

But here we shall be referred to the collective peace system, which is to be built up by the next Labour Government. A peace Act of Parliament is proposed.

“The Peace Act would bind the Government to submit disputes with other States to some form of pacific procedure and never resort to force as an instrument of national policy. It would refer at once to the League and comply with the League’s injunction on the basis of reciprocity in the event of having to use force in self defence.”

It must be obvious that such a Peace Act would be so much wastepaper, unless a complete transformation of the League of Nations into a world socialist instrument preceded it. In so far as the scheme relates to a hypothetical League of Nations it is Utopian chit-chat. In so far as it refers to the existing situation it is an instrument for binding the workers to the support of a capitalist government in war. The Labour Party is asked to support a defensive war. When did any government fight anything other than a “defensive” war? It is asked to support a war in which the League of Nations defines the “aggressor.” We are told that “Loyalty to the conception of world peace comprises three duties of citizenship which rank first.” Namely:—

“(a) The duty of insisting that our Government settle all its disputes by peaceful means and eschews force;

“(b) The duty of supporting our Government unflinchingly in all the risks and consequences attendant on its actions in taking part in collective measures against a peace-breaker.

“(c) The refusal to accept our Government’s unsupported claim to the test of international judgment, or of willingness to arbitrate; and carrying with it the refusal to serve or support the Government if it were either condemned as an aggressor by the League, or designated itself an aggressor by becoming involved in war after arbitration.”

The problem is here wrongly stated. The answers mean the self-surrender of the Labour movement to the Government of the day. The problem should not be posed as a question for “citizens.” The Labour movement is committed to Socialism. It came into existence to lead the workers to Socialism. Its leaders are declared Socialists and the custodians of Socialism for the Labour movement. The problem therefore must be stated not in terms of “citizenship,” but in terms of loyalty to, and the struggle for, the historic purpose of the movement, namely, Socialism. No war conducted by a British Imperialist Government can be a war of liberation, whether endorsed by its allies—the League of Nations—or not. Socialism can only come through the continuous struggle against such a Government and its defeat by the forces of Socialism.

The directions laid down for citizens are contradictory and self-exclusive. If the duty of citizens is to insist that “Our Government settle all its disputes by peaceful means,” then there can be no question of taking part in collective measures against a peace-breaker—unless we admit that some disputes cannot be settled by peaceful means. Once that contingency is granted, then the Labour Party is committed to support the armament plans of a National Government.

The contingency of opposition outlined in injunction (c) raises the whole question of preparing for opposition. If the Labour Party refuses to assist the Government, what is to be the form of its opposition and to what extent will it obstruct the prosecution of the war? Opposition that does not strive to bring the Government down is not opposition. A movement which contemplates a struggle to bring down the Government which is making war has either to prepare extra-parliamentary mass action or cease talking about opposition. For no Government will submit to a Parliamentary election during a war.

Extra-parliamentary action means obstruction in Parliament and mass action outside Parliament. Mass action outside Parliament, unless it is strike action, can only be propaganda. Strike action against war must lead to the general strike and possibly to insurrectionary action. This is the logic of opposition to war when war has arrived. Those who refuse to face these facts should not talk of opposition to war. The tendency of the document under review, however, does not point in the direction of organised mass opposition to war. Its “opposition” is verbal, parliamentary and full of loop-holes for actual support of the “National” Government’s war preparations.

The continuous struggle for Socialism in “peace” and war on the basis of the class struggle is the key to Socialist policy. The achievement of power by Socialists cannot be the moment for disarmament so long as there is an outside world of capitalism menacing its existence. The key to the international policy of a Socialist Government in this country is an alliance with whatever Socialist Government or governments have preceded it and support for the international working class and colonial movements struggling against capitalism.

That such a policy is an easy one, no one will suggest. That it will have to deal with complicated situations is certain. But I am convinced that any other policy leads to a disastrous entanglement of the working-class movement in the war machine of capitalism and to the surrender of Socialism to Imperialism.