William Rust

Labour and Armaments

Source: The Unity Library, No. 2, 1937
Publisher: The Communist Party of Great Britain
Transcription/Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). 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.

Twenty-four hours after he had paid a solemn tribute to the dead on the occasion of the eighteenth commemoration of Armistice Day, Mr. Baldwin blandly informed a startled House of Commons that for a long period he had deliberately concealed his rearmament policy and renunciation of collective security in order to make sure of winning the last General Election.

With what he himself described as “appalling frankness,” he told the House that being aware of the peace sentiment of the people and the impossibility of openly putting over competitive rearmament, he had been reluctantly compelled to deceive them for their own good! By promising undying allegiance to the League of Nations and by covering up his new colossal arms plan (described by Chamberlain as a proposal to “fill up the gaps in our defences”), Baldwin won the votes of those millions of peace lovers who took him at his word. With a comfortable majority behind him, and with the 300,000,000 arms programme well launched, the trickster now takes the victims into his confidence.

We are not concerned here to argue the morality of Mr. Baldwin’s action or the psychological explanation of a reputation for honesty and straight dealing so largely based on a frank admission of deceit. But it is worth while to observe that the Prime Minister’s open contempt for Democracy is grist to the mill of fascism and that the intelligent elector must be already wondering what new deception (to be revealed only in 1937 or 1938) is being put over at this particular moment.

Our chief concern is to deal with the practical results of the Great Deception and to find if, even at this late hour, the frustrated desires of the people for a policy of peace can be realised.

Baldwin would have us believe that he resorted to the policy of international competitive armaments because the policy of peace, collective security and armament reduction had failed. In reality it was the other way round. It was the National Government’s deliberate abandonment of collective security that plunged the world into the new armaments race. Let the facts speak for themselves.

Abandonment of Collective Security

From the unsealed lips of Baldwin himself we have learned that he stealthily began to abandon collective security as long ago as 1933, about the time that Mr. Wilmot won the Fulham bye-election by a huge majority on the peace issue and long before Europe had plunged into its present nightmare; the armed peace had not yet given way to actual war.

Mussolini had not waged war against Abyssinia.

Hitler had not introduced conscription and had not violated the Rhineland demilitarised zone.

Franco had not begun his barbarous fascist war against the people of Spain.

The Disarmament Conference at Geneva was still in session.

The Soviet Union had recently joined the League of Nations, whose prestige was again rising despite the failure to keep Japan out of Manchuria.

The peace hopes of the people were running high and in Britain the ten million Peace Ballot votes gave in 1934 an overwhelming majority in favour of the League of Nations. Even as late as November, 1935, a great wave of sympathy with Abyssinia swept Sir Samuel Hoare from office and condemned the infamous Hoare-Laval Pact.

Why then did Baldwin begin to abandon collective security and fall back on the policy of competitive re-armament? Whatever his reasons may have been he did not dare to justify them before the people and Parliament. In words he stood for peace, but in practice he abandoned it, a fact which although not apparent to the majority of the British electorate was speedily obvious to the Fascist Dictators in Europe, who acted accordingly.

It is surely not an historical accident that the Fascist war offensive in Europe dates from those days that Baldwin has proclaimed as marking his abandonment of a constructive peace policy.

The rapid deterioration of the situation in Europe, the turning of the entire continent into an armed camp, of Abyssinia into a poison gas grave yard and of Spain into a desolate battlefield can be traced back to that period.

German and Italian Fascism understood the policy of the National Government much better than the electorate and peace balloters of Britain. Possibly Baldwin revealed to foreign statesmen those thoughts that were so well concealed from the people of this country. In any case history demonstrates that from 1933 Hitler and Mussolini have acted on the presumption that Britain would not raise a finger against their deliberate drive for war. By 1936 the two Dictators had the further assurance from Baldwin that even the open waging of war in Europe itself and the fascist invasion of a peaceful democratic state would meet with no opposition from Britain. Under the sinister inspiration of Baldwin the Spanish “neutrality agreement” has become nothing but a pretext for denying arms to the legal Government of Spain and a cover for the uninterrupted shipment of munitions and troops to the rebels from Germany and Italy.

Such are the results of Baldwin’s handiwork. But what would the situation have been to-day if the Great Deception had not come off, if a majority of the electorate had seen through the trick and had swept the Tory National Government from office? Such sad and terrible pages in the history of Europe would never have been written if we had had in office a Labour Government opposing the war mongers by a peaceful policy of peaceful co-operation with Socialist Russia, the Government of France supported by the People’s Front, and the small states of Europe.

Labour, however, was again routed at the polls in 1935. And Baldwin won because he not only succeeded in deceiving millions of electors, but also the Labour leaders themselves.

“The Labour Movement last year,” says Mr. Attlee, “declared its readiness to support the action taken by the League of Nations in opposing Italian aggression. That was the opportunity of rallying the whole country to the support of the Government. The Government used our declaration in order to win the General Election. Then they betrayed us.” (Daily Herald, October 8.)

But although it now sees through the betrayal of 1935, the Labour Party is once again walking into a Baldwin trap and the very leaders who so pathetically admit their mistakes of a year ago are blindly treading the same path. Once again they accept Baldwin at his word and try to commit the working class movement to re-armament on the grounds that the arms will be used against Fascism.

The Edinburgh Conference Decisions

Let us now turn to the decisions of the Edinburgh Conference of the Labour Party where this policy was put over. The resolution on armaments is a most shapeless and unclear thing which purposely avoids calling a spade a spade.

It declares that the “armed strength of the countries loyal to the League of Nations must be conditioned by the armed strength of the potential aggressors.” But the resolution does not tell us what countries are loyal to the League or by what standards armed strength is to be judged. For example, is Britain under the National Government loyal to the League?

The resolution refers to the “deplorable record” of the National Government, and states that the Labour Party declines to accept responsibility for a purely competitive armament policy. It also “reserves full liberty to criticise the rearmament programme of the present Government,” but it does not express opposition to this programme.

Thus the resolution is chiefly remarkable not for what it says, but for what it leaves out. At the conference the members of the Executive Committee haggled over its exact meaning, and there was even a sharp exchange of words between Morrison and Bevin because the former had declared that the resolution did not oblige the Parliamentary Labour Party to vote for the Government’s arms estimates.

But from all this welter of confusion there emerges the plain fact that the Labour Party has changed its policy on armaments. And even Morrison’s seemingly radical interpretation of the resolution goes no further than saying that the Parliamentary Party will not vote for the arms estimates, he does not state that it will continue its previous practice of voting against. No wonder that the Labour rank and file are confused and angry, no wonder that the Tory broadcast sheet, the Popular Illustrated, lets out the following joyous whoop:—

“The opposition Labour Party has at last admitted the need for putting our defences in order. Where it saw only the red flag, it now sees the red light. It admits that Britain must rearm. With hesitation and with confusion among its leaders, it confesses, in erect, that the Government has been right in its defence measures.”

Up to the end of last year, Baldwin did not dare mention rearmament for fear of inflaming popular anger. To-day, encouraged by the Edinburgh decisions and assured of the Labour leaders’ support, he even parades his prowess at deceiving the people and shepherding the Labour Party into the rearmament fold. Yet as recently as March the leaders of the Party had moved an amendment in Parliament in condemnation of the White Paper on armaments. This official amendment is important to recall, because it is a concise statement of Labour’s peace policy in sharp contrast to the Edinburgh resolutions.

“That as the safety of this country and the peace of the world cannot be secured by reliance on armaments, but only by the resolute pursuit of a policy of international understanding, adherence to the Covenant of the League of Nations, general disarmament, the progressive improvement of international labour standards, and economic co-operation so as to remove the causes of war, this House cannot agree to a policy which in fact seeks security in national armaments alone and intensifies the ruinous arms race between the nations, inevitably leading to war; views with alarm proposals for the reorganisation of industry on a war basis which will enormously extend the vested interests in arms manufacture and create a serious menace to organised labour and to trade union standards, and has no confidence in His Majesty’s Ministers whose unworthy and ambiguous foreign policy has largely contributed to the present state of world unrest.” (My emphasis.)

Why was this peace policy abandoned at Edinburgh and by what black magic has Baldwin succeeded in politically somersaulting the Labour Party in the short space of seven months? The official answer given by the leaders of the Labour Party is that Hitler Germany stands for war and is rearming rapidly, therefore we must also rearm rapidly in order to stop Germany making war and to defend ourselves against Fascism.

The fact that Hitler is the chief menace to peace and that we must resolutely oppose international Fascism is patent to all sections of the Labour Movement.

But can we look to the National Government to conduct the fight, and can we give it arms for this purpose? This is the question that was not faced at Edinburgh. It has got to be faced now.

There is an overwhelming mass of evidence to prove that far from opposing German Fascism, the National Government has been actively encouraging it. At the Edinburgh conference, not one of the Executive spokesmen dared suggest that Baldwin was the head of an anti-fascist Government. On the contrary, Dalton, in moving the resolution, had to make a direct denunciation of its policy.

Our case against rearmament is that you cannot fight Hitler by giving arms to the friends of Hitler, and that when Baldwin asks for arms against Germany he is actually putting over his second Great Deception. Just as he talked of collective security, whilst preparing for competitive rearmament, so to-day he is asking for armaments against Fascism, whilst in practice fully co-operating with it.

For What Policy?

We Communists do not stand for a weak and defenceless Britain, we are for the preservation of peace at all costs, and if there were any proof that rearmament would guarantee peace, we would unhesitatingly support it. But armaments is not a technical, but a political question. What is the policy behind the arms?

If the extra arms remain under the control of a reactionary pro-Fascist government, the additional battleships, aeroplanes, etc., will be used solely for the purpose of strengthening that reactionary policy. More arms can be given only to a government of the people, a Labour Government, carrying out a policy of peace and collective security.

The issue to-day is not for or against rearmament, but for or against peace, for or against the policy of the National Government.

The people of this country are to-day menaced by the Fascist war-makers, because the National Government, in pursuit of a reckless imperialistic policy, and consumed with an undying hatred of the Soviet Union, has deliberately encouraged international Fascism in its drive to war. But the way out of this dreadful situation is not the giving of more arms to the Government, which to this very day continues to support Hitler. The way out is not by waiting for the inevitable war in the hope that we will be strong enough to prevent defeat.

The only way out is to defeat the treacherous National Government and to replace it by a Labour Government pledged to peace and democracy, a Government that will oppose the Fascist warmongers by international co-operation, a system of collective security led by the democratic Powers.

If the National Government is not defeated, then the piling up of armaments will not ensure the prevention of the threatening war, but will only signify that when the war comes the carnage and massacre will assume the most frightful proportions.

There are some Labour leaders who are naive enough to believe that in return for supporting the arms programme they will get the Government to pursue a progressive policy. At Edinburgh, Bevin justified his policy with the declaration: “I want to drive the Government to defend democracy against its will.” Surely caving in to the Government is a curious way of driving it!

If the Opposition had said “we will never agree to vote for your arms estimates until we receive definite pledges that Britain will co-operate with France and Russia against Fascism,” that would have been a way of driving the Government. But there is nothing more calculated to encourage the pro-Fascist policy of the Government than the Opposition’s unconditional surrender on the arms question.

Baldwin Moving Closer to Hitler

Since Edinburgh there have been two open declarations by the Government, that far from being driven towards democracy it is moving closer and closer to Fascism. The first was contained in. the King’s speech to Parliament, commented upon by, the Daily Herald as follows:—

“In foreign policy one searches with despair for any proposal likely to have the force necessary to reverse the drift to war.” (November 4th, 1936.)

The Daily Herald, it should be noted, is in favour of giving extra arms for a foreign policy which is responsible for “the drift to war.”

The second was the exposition of British foreign policy contained in a speech by Anthony Eden at Leamington on November 20th, a speech that was so hopelessly indifferent to the real problems of peace and democracy that the Manchester Guardian summed it up with the words:

“It looks very much as if with Mr. Eden’s speech last night the Government has finally abandoned all its hopes (and all its promises) of that collective security once so dear to it.” (November 21st, 1936.)

But one advantage of Eden’s speech is that it enables us to see why the Government wants more arms.

Those Labour leaders who so naively believe that they are voting for arms against Hitler, should note that the central point of Eden’s speech was that the Government had no intention whatsoever to take any steps in opposition to the war menace represented by Hitler Germany. On the contrary, Eden expressly declared in favour of negotiating a new Western Pact, inclusive of Germany, and added: “we do not want to divide the world into democracy and dictatorships.”

Eden spoke thus against the idea of opposing Fascism by a front of the democratic Powers and uttered not a word in condemnation of the German Fascist intention to use this new Western Pact in furtherance of its war aims.

As is well known, the essence of the Hitler war strategy is to prevent the establishment of a joint peace plan embracing Eastern and Western Europe, in order to get a free hand for striking which way he chooses. That is why Hitler foams at the mouth against the Franco-Soviet Pact of Mutual Assistance, according to which both countries will take joint action if either is attacked by an aggressor. Hitler dare not wage war while this pact remains operative.

The National Government agrees with Hitler. It refuses to link the East with the West, it seeks the replacement of the Franco-Soviet Pact by a Western Pact, which will give Hitler a free hand in the East, a free hand to swallow up Czechoslovakia, Austria and Lithuania in preparation for the major war stroke. Against whom? Against the Soviet Union, the British ruling class hopes. But he may strike in the West against France and against Britain, which has helped to reestablish the armed might of German militarism.

The National Government armed German Fascism and financed its armament industries, it permitted the creation of a new conscript army, it signed a treaty resurrecting the German Navy, and finally it gave consent to the armed Hitler invasion of democratic Spain.

Now it proposes to form a definite block with Hitler in the form of a Western Pact.

And this is the Government which wants arms against Fascism!

A Peace Policy for Labour

The policy of the National Government leads to war, but is there an alternative policy, a practical policy, which would lead to peace?

We answer with an emphatic affirmative. Humanity can avoid the most colossal armaments race in history, the common people can act for themselves, and by their united efforts prevent the threatening catastrophe.

A year or two ago this alternative policy was so strongly in the minds of the people that Baldwin had to twist and squirm:

“Supposing I had gone to the country and had said Germany is rearming, we must rearm. Does anyone think this pacific democracy of ours would have rallied to the cry? Not at that moment. I cannot think of any change which would have made the loss of the election, from my point of view, more certain.” (House of Commons. November 12th, 1936.)

Baldwin has succeeded once in tricking this “pacific democracy of ours,” but there is no reason why he should do it again. The tables can be turned on Baldwin and the people rallied for peace if the meaning of the alternative policies are put before them with the utmost clarity.


A headlong plunge into rearmament, desertion of the League of Nations, helpless retreat before advancing Fascism, and the certainty of another world war.


A policy of international co-operation between the Powers desiring peace, a system of collective security, strengthening of the League of Nations and progressive measures for the reduction of armaments.

This is a practical policy, above all, because the mass sentiment for peace to which Baldwin gave his unwilling testimony is not limited to the shores of this island. It is the feeling of the common people the world over. Last August, thousands of delegates attended the famous International Peace Congress in Brussels and adopted the following Peace Charter:—

1. Restoration of Treaty obligations;

2. Reduction and limitation of armaments by international agreement and the suppression of profits from the manufacture and trade in arms;

3. Strengthening of the League of Nations and the prevention and stopping of war by the more effective organisation of collective security and mutual assistance;

4. Establishment within the framework of the League of Nations of effective machinery for the remedying by peaceful means of international conditions that might lead to war.

These four points are in accord with the basic policy of the great Labour Movement, and if applied with the courage and backed by the force of the united working class can stem the tide of Fascism. These four points are practical because the combined armed forces of the democratic Powers are still overwhelmingly stronger than the forces of Fascism. These four points are realisable because the common people want peace.

The Soviet Union, now a great prosperous Socialist nation, stands unreservedly for peace and international co-operation.

France, after the victory of the People’s Front, now upholds the League of Nations and the Franco-Soviet Pact of Mutual Assistance.

Czecho-Slovakia adheres to a Pact of Mutual Assistance with the Soviet Union. The other small European nations stand in dread of Fascism and are vitally interested in peace. Belgium wavers to-day only because the guarantees of collective security have been undermined by British policy.

Spain, although fighting for her very life to-day, will after the defeat of Fascism become a united democratic republic bitterly opposed to imperialist war.

Against the forces of the democratic Powers, Germany, Italy and Japan would be hopelessly ineffective but for the backing from Britain. Up to now, Britain, the strongest Power in Europe, has used its great influence not on the side of collective security, but more and more in support of Fascism and armed isolation. A change of government in Britain would mean the removal of the main prop of reaction in Europe and bar the road to Fascism.

British Labour’s Responsibility.

A great responsibility rest on the British working class, a great duty to the international Labour Movement. It lies within our power to crush Fascism if we act correctly. The Edinburgh decision can and must be wiped out. All the confusion and uncertainty can be ended by the Parliamentary Labour Party taking a decision that it will continue to oppose the foreign policy and vote against the arms estimates of the Government. Let resolutions to that effect pour in from the local Labour organisations.

Bevin, Citrine, Dalton and the rest may protest that they are only supporting the extra arms, but not for the purpose for which the Government will use its increased strength. It is a distinction without a difference. Hair-splitting theorists may be able to discern the difference, but everyone else knows that a vote for the arms estimates would be a vote for the foreign policy of the National Government.

And if after the vote for the arms the Government then comes and says it wants the men to carry the arms, what will the Labour Party say? And remember this is no idle threat. The ground is being systematically prepared for conscription. Lord Stanhope, First Commissioner of Works, recently complained that recruits were not coming in fast enough, and that

“He was bound to admit that under the present conditions of service the voluntary system was obviously in grave danger. Voluntary service was undoubtedly a luxury and like all luxuries it was bound to be expensive.” (Manchester Guardian, November 17th, 1936.)

But before military conscription there may come a form of industrial conscription. In fact, the Tory politicians have worked night and day to obtain the Parliamentary vote upon which the Government is not dependent but, above all, to compel the trade unions to submit to the all-round breaking down of workshop conditions, to dilution, to unlimited overtime, abolition of the right to strike, dismissal of shop stewards.

The British ruling class is preparing for war, and it is going to militarise the “home front.” The report of the Commission on the Private Manufacture of Arms openly threatens that industrial conscription “will have to be faced and should be faced without delay.” These are ugly warnings that cannot be ignored by the working-class movement.

In every country the driving force for peace comes from the working class. That is why politicians of the Baldwin type spend so much time concocting arguments to deceive the workers. But the greatest tragedy is when working-class leaders repeat these arguments instead of unmasking the trickery of the reactionaries.

Baldwin says that collective security cannot be upheld unless Britain has bigger armaments and that a strong League of Nations needs a strong armed force behind it. But the facts will show that collective security was betrayed by Britain not because of lack of arms but lack of desire.

The appalling horrors inflicted on Spain by international Fascism could have been prevented if Britain had fulfilled its obligations under international law to the Spanish Government and supplied the required arms and material. Instead, the National Goverment imposed sanctions not against the aggressor, but against the victim; it permitted, under the guise of “neutrality,” the uninterrupted supply of aeroplanes and munitions to Franco from Germany and Italy. Now the ghastly truth is becoming plain for all to see. The invasion and subjugation of Spain is part of the German and Italian plans for a fascist war of aggression in Europe. Was it lack of arms or lack of desire that prevented the National Government from standing by democracy in Spain?

When Mussolini pillaged Abyssinia, the National Government prevented the League of Nations from taking effective action in the form of sanctions on coal and oil. Lack of arms? Mussolini could not possibly stand up against Britain, France and the Soviet Union combined. The preparations for the Abyssinian war took nearly a year to complete, and they could have been scotched at the outset if Britain had set the League of Nations machinery in motion against Mussolini.

And the Government that whines about lack of arms actually helped to rearm Hitler Germany, supplied aeroplane engines and tanks, and issued loans for the armament industries.

The collective power of the democratic countries is strong enough to maintain peace and the principles of the League of Nations without the addition of a single rifle if there were a government in Britain pledged to international co-operation.

But Mr. Dalton says that the next Labour Government may need arms in order to deal with Fascism and that, therefore, the programme must be started now. A strange argument this. Because of the needs of the future Labour Government we must strengthen the present pro-Fascist Government which is doing its utmost to prevent Labour from ever coming to power!

Certainly, if a Labour Government pursuing a policy of collective security found itself in need of more armaments in order to resist the menace of Fascism, it would have to take this step unhesitatingly. But is it not more than likely that a British Labour Government would be able to rally such a democratic front against Fascism that on the basis of collective security agreed measures for armament reduction (for, example, abolition of tanks, bombing planes, offensive weapons, reduction of effectives, etc.) could be enforced?

The Labour Movement in Britain ought not to commit itself to the despairing view that nothing lies before the people except a never-ending increase in armaments. Voroshilov, the Marshal of the Soviet Union, recently declared that the Soviet Government would gladly send the Red Army back to the factories and fields if international disarmament could be secured. The peace policy of a Labour Government in Britain, allied with the Socialist Government of Russia and the Government of France, supported by the People’s Front, could change the face of Europe.

Dalton’s argument is false from beginning to end. There is no danger of a future Labour Government inheriting a poorly armed Britain from the National Government. Quite the contrary. Whatever Labour does the British imperialists are determined to push through their colossal new armaments and will succeed in doing it unless the National Government is overthrown. The real danger is that all possibility of a Labour Government recedes into the background if the Opposition supports the Tory National Government on the most important questions of the day, and that if in spite of Dalton and those who think like him a Labour Government should be returned, it will find itself actually overloaded with armaments and in the thick of a terrible international armaments race.

The leaders of the Labour Party seem to have lost all confidence in the power of the working class and the constructive policy of a Labour Government. They seem to have given up all hope of winning a General Election and returning a majority Labour Government. Strong tendencies in favour of co-operation with Toryism or sections of it are growing up within the Labour leadership.

Working-Class Unity

But it is not too late to save the situation. The policy of working-class unity as against unity with the capitalists is winning increasing support and can be speedily realised if the resistance of the group of entrenched Right-wing leaders is finally broken.

The fact, that, in spite of the campaign against the Communist Party carried on by the leaders of the Labour Party, one-quarter of the Edinburgh Conference votes were cast for affiliation, and that on the issue of armaments rather more than one-quarter of the total votes were cast against the policy of the leaders, shows the strength of the tendency that is developing within the Labour Movement.

This tendency is gathering further strength, because the active members of the Labour Party are more and more realising that the Communist Party’s policy on armaments, on Spain, on unity—in fact, on every immediate issue—is the correct policy for the Labour Movement as a whole. They know that the opposition to the Communist Party comes from those leaders of the Labour Party who do not want a clear, fighting policy for the Labour Party.

With its comparatively small—though rapidly growing—membership, the Communist Party has nevertheless been able to win increasing support for unity of the working-class movement, in order to fight the Baldwin Government not only on armaments, but on its whole international policy, especially Spain, and in fact all along the line. A united working-class movement, with a bold policy on the issues of peace, democracy and social advance, would draw in behind it all the progressive forces in the country. In this way the United Front would be extended to a People’s Front, which could sweep the Baldwin Government from office, and put in a Labour Government with an overwhelming and determined movement behind it.

But only the strengthening of the Communist Party can really ensure this. With a doubled and trebled membership, the work already done by the Communist Party for the whole movement can be carried to far greater numbers than at present, and the whole movement can be won for unity and the policy which will give new life to the Labour Party and bring a Labour Government.

Therefore, let every reader of this pamphlet consider seriously whether joining the Communist Party will not be the best means of helping forward the policy which alone can not only solve the problem of armaments but save the Labour Movement.