Max Shachtman

In This Corner

(2 May 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 29, 2 May 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The conscription law proposed to the House of Commons by the Chamberlain crew is extremely enlightening, from at least two angles.

The first is the obvious contradiction between a law to conscript the young men of the nation into the army, and the loudly disseminated myth that the war which this army is to fight is overwhelmingly popular among he people. Anxious to maintain its carefully-acquired reputation for lying, the capitalist press, both here and in England, prominently displays reports that the youth of Britain is voluntarily flocking into the army. But if this is really the case, why is it necessary to resort to conscription? If there are so many volunteers, why must force be invoked to make them join the army?

The Labour Party’s Opposition

But as said, this aspect of the Chamberlain proposal is all too obvious. Less so is the alleged opposition to the conscription act on the part of the Labour Party spokesmen. Alleged – because it is not real, not consistent, not durable.

How easy it is for the Chamberlain group to dispose of such opposition by a contemptuous gesture or a cynical remark. In effect, this is all that the supporters of the Prime Minister have to, and do, say to their Labour Party critics:

“The Honorable Gentlemen of His Majesty’s Ever So Loyal Opposition seem to us to be lacking in patriotism, love for democracy, or even respect for their own avowed position. In fact, objectively, they are aiding and abetting that very policy of appeasement to which, not so long ago, they took such vehement objection.

“When the Prime Minister, in his ardent attempts to preserve the peace, returned from Munich, he was assailed for not taking a firm stand against the German Chancellor and the totalitarian powers. The Honorable Gentlemen refused to take into consideration the fact that the Empire was not then in a position to implement by means of warfare the firmer stand which it might have been necessary to take at Munich. They showed their inconsistency then by insisting that a position should have been taken last September which could not but have meant war, and at the same time they recognized England’s disadvantageous situation in the criticisms they made at the same time of our lack of military and aerial preparations. We were then the ones who best defended the interests of the British Empire and, consequently, of world democracy.

“Now, however, when the situation is ripe for a really firm stand by England, a stand which we must be ready to back up by armed strength, we again confront the inconsistency of the Opposition. Do they perhaps intend to fight Hitler’s army with printed copies of their eloquent speeches? Or are they really so innocent as to imagine that we can wait until the Royal Army is built up to war strength by volunteers who are, alas, not forthcoming in sufficient numbers?

“It was the Opposition that insisted upon an aggressive policy towards the totalitarian regimes. Now that such a policy is being practiced, the Opposition refuse to make possible its implementation. We are prepared to challenge them to bring the issue to a head, for we are certain that they will not pick up the gage of electoral battle.”

Whoever Says A, Must Say B

In their own way, the Tories would be entirely correct. The Labour Party patriots have a position which makes it impossible to oppose such measures as conscription. Whoever says A, according to the German proverb, must say B. Whoever demands so violently, as the Labour Party leaders have demanded for months past, that the country take steps in the conflict with Hitler which inevitably bring the war closer, cannot, at the last minute, pretend to balk at what, in the light of all that has happened, is a comparatively minor step in preparing for that war.

After all, the Labour Party politicians are just engaged in a game of pretense and petty factional warfare. A number of them have written in the quite recent past in favor of reconsidering the traditional English hostility towards conscription. The present official “opposition” to the law has nothing whatever in common with a principled stand. It is opportunistic from beginning to end. Tomorrow will prove to the hilt, when the Labour Party leaders come out openly, as they did in the last world war, as the most zealous and effective recruiting agents for the government.

But before they take on that role, they want a little more recognition than the Chamberlain government has condescended so far to give them. Not that Messrs. Attlee and Co. are ambitious or overbearing in their demands. Far from it. They would, in all likelihood, be satisfied with even less than Lloyd George gave them in his cabinet during the last world war. In other words, they would probably go along without so much as a murmur if the Chamberlain cabinet were reorganized to include a couple of such stainless democrats as Winston Churchill, notorious friend of the Soviets, and Anthony Eden, notorious enemy of the Tories – and possibly to exclude Chamberlain himself.

Naturally, if a “genuine” National Government were established, one that would include in the cabinet a few regular Labour party wheelhorses, that would be so much the better. In that case, they would make the Chamberlain-Cliveden gang look like so many chicken-hearted pacifists by comparison with their own unrestrained military ardor.

If the whole record of the Labour Party leadership is anything to go by, it is a safe prediction that as the weeks go by their opposition to Chamberlain’s present conscription law will not only be abandoned but that they will be in the forefront of the House of Commons mob howling for conscription for all able-bodied cannon-fodder up to the age of 35, with exceptions made only for those sterling patriots, the shilling-a-year men who must perforce stay behind the lines in order to keep industry going at top speed and war profit rolling in accordingly.

And it is just as safe to add the prediction that the American equivalent of the Labour party leadership – the bureaucracy of the trade unions in this country – will, at the right moment, give its English brothers cards and spades and still beat them at the game.

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Max Shachtman
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