Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume 1

The Decline of British Imperialism

Anglo-American Rivalry and
the Growth of Militarism

The basic world antagonism occurs along the line of the conflict of interests between the United States and Britain. Why? Because Britain is still the wealthiest and most powerful country, second only to the United States. It is America’s chief rival, the main obstacle on its path. If Britain should be squeezed, or undermined, or, all the more so, battered down, what would then remain? The United States will, of course, dispose easily of Japan. America holds all the trumps: finances and iron and oil, political advantages in relations with China, which is, after all, being “liberated” from Japan. America is always liberating somebody, that’s her profession. [Laughter, applause]

The main antagonism is between the United States and Britain. It is growing and approaching ever closer. The British bourgeoisie has not been feeling so well since the first years of Versailles. They know the value of ringing coin; they have had great experience in this connection. And they cannot have failed to notice that the dollar now outweighs the pound sterling. They know that this preponderance inescapably finds its expression in politics. The British bourgeoisie has completely demonstrated the power of the pound sterling in international politics, and it now senses that the era of the dollar is dawning. It seeks consolation, and tries to console itself with illusions, The most serious British newspapers say: “Yes, the Americans are very rich, but they remain, in the last analysis, provincials. They do not know the paths of world politics. We British have had far more experience. The Yankees need our advice and our leadership. And we British will guide these provincial relatives of ours, who have suddenly grown so rich on the paths of world politics; and naturally we shall retain the corresponding position, while collecting a fee in the bargain.”

There is, of course, a modicum of truth in this. I have already mentioned my doubts about the senatorial knowledge of European geography. I am sincerely uncertain about it. Yet in order to do big things in Europe, it does not hurt to possess a knowledge of European geography. But how difficult is it for a possessing class to learn the sciences? We know that it is not at all difficult for the bourgeoisie, grown quickly rich, to learn the sciences. The sons of the lapti-wearing Morozovs and Mamontovs [1] bear a striking resemblance to hereditary nobles. It is the oppressed class, the proletariat, that finds it difficult to rise, develop and conquer all the elements of culture. But for a possessing class, especially one so fabulously rich as the American bourgeoisie, this is not at all hard. They will find, train or buy specialists in all fields. The American is just beginning to take stock of his world importance, but is not yet fully cognizant of it. His American “consciousness” still lags behind his American and world “being”. The whole question must be approached not from the standpoint of a cross section of the present-day situation but in its proper perspective. And this is a perspective not in terms of many long decades but rather in terms of a few brief years.

This Babylonian tower of American economic might must find its expression in everything, and it is already expressing itself, but not yet fully by far. What capitalist Europe has now at its disposal in world politics is the heritage of its former economic power, its old international influence which no longer corresponds to today’s material conditions. America has not yet learned to realize her power in life. That is true. But she is learning quickly, on the bones and flesh of Europe. America still needs Britain as a guide on the paths of world politics. But not for long.

We know how swiftly a possessing class, in its ascent, alters its character, its appearance and its methods of operation. Let us take, for example, the German bourgeoisie. Was it so long ago that the Germans were considered shy, blue-eyed dreamers, a people of “poets and thinkers”? A few decades of capitalist development transfigured the German bourgeoisie into the most aggressive armour-clad imperialist class. True, the settlement came very quickly. And the character of the German bourgeois again underwent a change. Today on the European arena, they are rapidly assimilating all the customs and usages of beaten curs.

The British bourgeoisie is more serious. Their character has been moulded in the course of centuries. Class self-esteem has entered into their blood and marrow, their nerves and bones. It will be much harder to knock the self-confidence of world rulers out of them. But the American will knock it out just the same, when he gets seriously down to business.

In vain does the British bourgeois console himself that he will serve as guide for the inexperienced American. Yes, there will be a transitional period. But the crux of the matter does not lie in the habits of diplomatic leadership but in actual power, existing capital and industry. And the United States, if we take its economy, from oats to big battleships of the latest type, occupies the first place. They product all the living necessities to the extent of one-half to two-thirds of what is produced by all mankind.

Oil, which now plays such an exceptional military and industrial role, totals in the United States two-thirds of the world output, and in 1923 it had even reached approximately 72 per cent. To be sure, they complain a lot about the threats of the exhaustion of their oil resources. In the initial post-war years, I confess I thought that these plaints were merely a pious cover for coming encroachments on foreign oil. But geologists actually do affirm that American oil at the current rate of consumption will, according to some, last twenty-five years, according to others, forty years. But in twenty-five or forty years, America with her industry and fleet will be able to take away oil from all the others ten times over again. [Laughter] There is hardly any need for us, comrades, to spend sleepless nights over it. [Applause]

The world position of the United States is expressed in figures which are irrefutable. Let me mention a few of the most important ones. The United States produces one-fourth of the world wheat crop; more than one-third of the oats; approximately three-fourths of the world maize crop; one-half of the world coal output; about one-half of the world’s iron ore; about 60 per cent of its pig iron; 60 per cent of the steel; 60 per cent of the copper; 47 per cent of the zinc. American railways constitute 36 per cent of the world railway network; its merchant navy, virtually non existent prior to the war, now comprises more than 25 per cent of the world tonnage; and, finally, the numbers of motor cars operating in the trans-Atlantic republic amounts to 84.4 per cent of the world total! While in the production of gold the United States occupies a relatively modest place (14 percent), thanks to its favourable trade balance, 44.2 per cent of the world’s gold reserve has collected in its vaults. The national income of the United States is two and a half times greater than the combined national incomes of Britain, France, Germany and Japan. These figures decide everything. They will cut a road for themselves on land, on sea and in the air.

What do these figures presage for Great Britain? Nothing good. They signify one thing: Britain will not escape the common lot of capitalist countries. America will place her on rations. Whether Lord Curzon [2] likes it or not, he will have to accept rations. This is our 6ultimatistic’ message to him from here. But we must also add: When Britain’s position becomes such as to compel her openly to accept rations, this will not be performed directly by Lord Curzon – he will not be suitable, he is too unruly. No, this will be entrusted to a MacDonald. [3] [Applause] The self-esteem of the politicians of the British bourgeoisie is not such as to make them amenable to the transference of the greatest empire in the world to the meagre foundations of American rations. Required here will be the benign eloquence of MacDonald, Henderson and the Fabians [4]in order to exert pressure on the British bourgeoisie and to convince the British workers: “Are we, then, actually to engage in war with America? No, we stand for peace, for agreements.” And what does agreement with Uncle Sam, mean? The foregoing figures speak eloquently enough on this score. Accept rations. That’s the only agreement for you, there is no other. If you refuse, get ready for war.

Britain has up to now retreated step by step before America. Before our very eyes, it is still fresh in our memory, President Harding [5] invited Britain, France and Japan to Washington and in the calmest way offered Britain – what? That Britain limit her fleet. No more, no less.

Yet before the war it was Britain’s doctrine that her navy must be more powerful than the combined fleets of the next two strongest naval powers. The United States has put an end to this, once and for all, In Washington, Harding began, as is customary, by invoking the “awakened consciousness of civilization,” and he ended by telling Britain that she must accept rations. You will take five units; I will take (meanwhile) five units; France, three units; Japan, three units. Whence these proportions? Before the war the American fleet was much weaker than Britain’s. In the course of the war, it grew enormously. And therewith, whenever the British write with alarm concerning the American navy, the American naval writers reply by demanding: “What did we build our navy for? Why, it was to defend your British isles from the German submarines.”

That is why, mind you, they built their fleet. But it is useful for other purposes too. But why did the United States resort to this naval limitation programme at Washington? Not because they are unable to build warships fast enough, and the biggest battleships, at that. No, in this respect no one can match them. But it is not possible to create, train and educate the necessary cadres of sailors in a brief period. For this, time is required. Here is the source of the ten-year breathing space projected in Washington. In defending the programme limiting the construction of battleships, the American naval journals wrote: “If you so much as dare to balk at an agreement, we shall turn out warships like so many pancakes.” The reply of the leading British naval periodical was approximately as follows: “We are ourselves in favour of pacifist agreements. Why do you keep threatening us?’

This already expresses the new psychology of ruling Britain. It is growing accustomed to the fact that it is necessary to submit to America, and that the most important thing is to demand ... polite treatment. This is the most that the European bourgeoisie can expect from America on the morrow.

In the competition between Britain and the United States, only retreats are possible for Britain. At the price of these retreats, British capitalism buys the right to participate in the deals of American capitalism. Thus a coalition Anglo-American capitalism seemingly arises. Britain saves face, and does so not unprofitably, for Britain derives substantial profits from it. But it receives them at the price of retreating and clearing the way for America. The United States is strengthening her world positions; Britain’s are growing weaker.

Only the other day, Britain renounced the previously adopted plan of reinforcing Singapore. It is too bad we have no map here. Singapore and Hong Kong mark the most important high-ways of imperialism. Singapore is the key between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. It represents one of the most important bases of British policy in the Far East. But in the Pacific, Britain can conduct her policy either with Japan against America, or with America against Japan. Huge sums were appropriated for the fortification of Singapore. And MacDonald had to decide: with America against Japan or with Japan against America? And so, he renounced the fortification of Singapore.

This is not, of course, the last word of British imperialist policy. The question can come up again for a new decision. But at the given moment it is the beginning of Britain’s renunciation of an independent policy – or an alliance with Japan – in the Pacific. And who ordered Britain (yes, ordered!) to break the alliance with Japan? America. A formal ultimatum was issued: break the alliance with Japan. And Britain broke. Meanwhile, Britain is conceding and retreating.

But does this mean that this is how matters will proceed to the very end, and that war between them is excluded? In no case. On the contrary, at the cost of concessions today Britain is buying only redoubled difficulties on the morrow. Under the cover of collaboration, contradictions of unprecedented explosive power are accumulating. Things not only can but also must come to war, because it will be extremely difficult for Britain to move to a secondary position and to roll up her empire. At a certain point, she will be compelled to mobilize all her forces in order to resist with arms in hand. But in an open struggle, too, so far as it is possible to foresee, all the odds are on America’s side.

Britain is an island and America is likewise an island of a sort, but much larger. Britain is completely dependent in her day-to-day existence on countries beyond the ocean. But the American “insular” continent contains everything that is necessary for existence and for the conduct of war. Britain has colonial possessions on many seas and America will “liberate” them. Having begun the war with Britain, America will summon hundreds of millions of Indians to rise in defence of their inalienable national rights. The same summons will be issued to Egypt and Ireland – there is no lack of those who can be called upon to free themselves from the yoke of British capitalism. just as today America, in order to drain the living juices from Europe, comes to the fore draped in the toga of pacifism, so in the war with Britain she will step out as the great emancipator of the colonial peoples.

Mother history has made things easy for American capitalism: for every act of rapine, there is a liberating slogan ready at hand. With regard to China, it is the “Open Door” policy! Japan seeks to dismember China and to subjugate certain provinces by military force, because there is no iron in Japan, no coal, no oil. These constitute three colossal minuses in Japan’s struggle with the United States. For this reason Japan seeks through seizure to assure herself of the riches of China. But the United States? It says: “Open Door in China.”

With regard to oceans, what does America have to say? “Freedom of the seas!” This rings superbly. But what does it mean in action? It means: Get over to one side, Britain’s navy, make room for me! “Open Door in China” means: Stand aside, Japan, and let me pass! It is essentially a question of economic seizures, of robberies. But because of the specific conditions of US development, this travail appears at one time under the guise of pacifism, and at another, it almost assumes a liberating aspect.

Naturally, Britain, too, possesses great advantages which derive from her entire past history. First and foremost, she disposes of powerful bases of support and the strongest naval bases in the world. America doesn’t have that. But, in the first place, it is possible to create all this, secondly, it is possible to take all this away, piecemeal and by force, and thirdly and lastly, Britain’s bases are bound up with her colonial rule and are vulnerable for just this reason. America will find allies and helpers all over the world – the strongest power always finds them – and together with these allies, America will find the necessary bases.

If, at the present time, the United States binds Canada and Australia to herself through the slogan of defending the white race against the yellow – and in this way justifies her right to naval supremacy – then, on the. next stage, which may come very soon, these virtuous Presbyterians may announce that, in the last analysis, the yellow-skinned peoples are likewise created in God’s image and are consequently entitled to replace the colonial rule of Britain by the economic domination of America. In a war against Britain the United States would be in a highly favourable position, since it could from the very first day issue a summons to the Indians, the Egyptians and other colonial peoples to rise up, and could assist them with arms and supplies.

Britain will have to think ten times before deciding on war. But, in avoiding war, she will be compelled to retreat step by step under the pressure of American capitalism. The conduct of war requires the Lloyd Georges and the Churchills [6]; the MacDonalds are required for the conduct of retreats without a battle.

What has been said about the. interrelations of the United States and Britain also applies, with corresponding changes and, so to speak, in miniature to Japan, and on a truly minute scale to France and other second-rate European powers. What is at stake in Europe? Alsace-Lorraine, the Ruhr, the Saar territory, Silesia, that is, some tiny area of land, some petty strips. In the meantime, America is drafting a plan to place everybody on rations.

In contrast to Britain, America is not preparing to create an American army, and American administration for the colonies including Europe. It will “allow” them to preserve at home a reformist, pacifist, toothless order, with the assistance of the Social Democracy, with the help of the (French) Radicals and other middle-class parties and at the expense of their respective peoples. And it will extort from them blessings (up to a certain time) for not having violated their “independence.” This is the plan of American capitalism and this is the programme on the basis of which the Second International is being resuscitated.

This American “pacifist” programme of putting the whole world under her control is not at all a programme of peace. On the contrary, it is pregnant with wars and the greatest revolutionary paroxysms. Not for nothing does America continue to expand her fleet. She is busily engaged in building light and fast cruisers. And when Britain protests in a whisper, America replies: You must bear in mind that I not only have a five to five relationship with you, but also a five to three relationship with Japan, and the latter possesses an inordinate number of light cruisers which makes it necessary for me to restore a balance.

America chooses the largest multiplicand and then multiplies it by her Washington coefficient. And the others cannot vie with her, because, as the Americans themselves say, they can turn out warships like so many pancakes.

The perspective this offers is one of preparation for the greatest international dogfight, with both the Atlantic and the Pacific as the arena, provided, of course, the bourgeoisie is able to retain its world rule for any considerable length of time. For it is hard to conceive that the bourgeoisie of all countries will docilely withdraw to the background, and become converted into America’s vassals without putting up a fight; no, this is hardly likely. The contradictions are far too great; the appetites are far too insatiable; the urge to perpetuate ancient rule is far too potent; Britain’s habits of world rule are far too ingrained. There will inevitably be military collisions. The era of “pacifist” Americanism that seems to be opening up at this time is only laying the groundwork for new wars on an unprecedented scale and of unimaginable monstrosity.

From a speech to the Society of Friends of the Physics
and Mathematics Faculties, 28th July 1924 (Perspectives of World Development)

* * *

If we were to look for some elements of stability in the present unstable shaky era of historical development then possibly the only stable element is the uninterrupted, automatic growth of militarism. In Europe today we are observing a change of parliamentary regimes. Elections in Britain and forthcoming elections in Germany. MacDonald’s government was the first so-called Labour government in Britain. Who will replace it? Most likely the Conservatives, far less probably MacDonald will return. Let us not make guesses – that is not the object of the report I wish to make today – but one thing we can say without fear of error: whoever returns to power over the British Empire the automatic growth of militarism is assured ...

The United States was a non-militarist country until recently. An abrupt turning point came with the imperialist war. The United States intervened at the end of the war and they achieved what they needed in that war. i.e. they routed Germany at the end, which Britain, the chief obstacle in the USA’s path to world dominion did not desire. Britain needed a weakened but not a routed Germany – against France, but the United States needed a powerful France against Britain ...

Thus let me say there are processes of two kinds: basic and secondary; from the standpoint of policy we cannot avoid taking temporary processes into account too.

MacDonald appeared. It was no accident that he appeared either! We attempted to conclude a treaty with him but did not complete it – complications in MacDonald’s own career impeded that. Curzon has come back and we shall hold talks with Curzon as well. All these are processes of a secondary and tertiary nature but the basic one is the growth of contradictions, the frantic growth of militarism, the desperate situation of the productive forces and the preparation for a world bloodbath.

From a speech to supply units of the Red Army, 25th October 1924
(The Growth of World Militarism and Our Military Tasks)

* * *

They have concluded an international “pact” under which Britain has now become something of a Justice of the Peace for Europe. Britain must see that France does not upset Germany but so as Germany does not upset France. Britain represents a guarantor – again just a word like “pact” – for the inviolability of frontiers. However less cautious diplomats now and again add that though this is a pact for peace it is for a peace only for civilized, democratic, pious states, and that this pact has an edge which is directed against that impious, undemocratic, un-peace-loving state which is called the Soviet Union. When recently our press began with its characteristic impoliteness to denounce them, saying: you, Messrs. diplomats, are all hypocrites, for all your pact is a criminal deal in order in the first place to plunder the colonies, in the second to obtain American capital and in the third to oppose the Soviet Union, leading diplomats replied that it was in no way against the Soviet Union; for if she comes to her senses, takes a proper attitude to us, and is so good as to complain to the League of Nations, we will have a seat ready for her there, and so on.

But these gentlemen cannot add two and two together. For only just recently ministers of the Britain who was appointed to act as Europe’s Justice of the Peace, expressed their opinion about us very sharply. I have with me here some newspaper cuttings to this effect. Joynson-Hicks [7], the British Home Secretary, stated: “I cannot believe that British people (that is British workers) will let themselves be fooled by a foreign power whose only objective is the destruction of Great Britain.” They unite with each other for peace and scream that there is a power whose only objective – just think! – is to destroy Great Britain. “In Moscow they are gunning for Britain”, Joynson-Hicks goes on, “as they have realized there that Britain is defending the freedom of the world”. Britain defending the freedom of the world! Let’s see, if we were to commission our State Publishing House to issue a twelve-page booklet, one copy for every literate person, we would catalogue how Britain over the centuries has defended the freedom of the world, how she ruined Spain and Portugal, how she made war on China, because the Chinese did not want to be poisoned with British opium, how she subdued and strangled India, how for centuries she forced Ireland to shed blood, how she strangled Egypt, how she supported the most reactionary Chinese Marshal, Chang Tso-lin [8] against Chinese democracy, how in China at present she is forming with the aid of sterling a force for the Russian monarchist Nechaev to support Chinese monarchist reaction; how in Turkey she supports the reactionary Old Turks against national Turkish democracy and detaches Mosul where the large oil deposits are situated, and finally how she has been and still is operating in our country. Only a few days ago we read how our GPU uncovered an Anglo-Estonian spy plot led by the ex-Tsarist officer Frank, with the participation of the Russian monarchists and a central organization in Tallin and branches in Leningrad and other places. Ruling-class Britain, defending the freedom of the world! She has attracted and amassed the fierce hatred of the popular masses of both hemispheres. Yet this British bourgeoisie, dyed through and through and reared on the traditions of slave ownership, plunder and strangulation of whole peoples, in the words of one of its most die-hard operators, Hicks the Home Secretary states that a plot is being hatched in Moscow against Britain, the defender of peace!

Another minister whose name we know a little better, Churchill, stated that “world history entered a new period when the gang of inhuman plotters moved into the Kremlin.” That history has entered a new period we agree but as regards the gang of plotters we shall remind Churchill about this at a suitable moment. We have good and firm memories. “In relation to Britain” continues the minister, “these dark forces exhibit a special malevolence”. Let us say without equivocation: ruling-class Britain has organized a pact which by design must represent a gang of imperialist plotters against the freedom of the whole world for this is just what their “pact” is when translated into straight language. They merely heap the blame on the Soviet Union for what the imperialists are guilty of. However Churchill suddenly spoke up with a wild tongue on the second day after the October revolution when both foreign and our own capitalists had not had time to bandage their wounds. We would have thought that eight years was long enough to get used to the fact, gentlemen! But no, their wounds are apparently still smarting today. A gang of plotters! The destruction of Great Britain! The British imperialists scream this not through strength but out of fear and hatred, gnashing their teeth and expressing themselves in virtual obscenities. But fortunately, the devil’s bark is worse ... sorry, I mean Churchill’s, bark is worse than his bite (laughter).

From a speech to the Kislovodsk Soviet, 9th November 1925
(Eight Years: Results and Prospects)

* * *

The unexampled economic superiority of the United States, even independently of a conscious policy on the part of the American bourgeoisie, will no longer permit European capitalism to raise itself. American capitalism, in driving Europe more and more into a blind alley, will automatically drive her onto the road of revolution. In this is the most important key to the world situation.

This is revealed most graphically and incontestably in Britain’s situation. Britain’s trans-oceanic exports are cut into by America, Canada, Japan and by the industrial development of her own colonies. Suffice it to point out that on the textile market of India, a British colony, Japan is squeezing out Britain. And on the European market, every increase of sales of British merchandise cuts into the sales of Germany, France and vice versa. Most often it is vice versa. The exports of Germany and France hit those of Great Britain. The European market is not expanding. Within its narrow limits, shifts occur now to one side, now to another. To hope that the situation will change radically in favour of Europe is to hope for miracles. just as under the conditions of the domestic market, the bigger and more advanced enterprise is assured victory over the small or backward enterprise, so, in the conditions of the world market, the victory of the United States over Europe, that is first and foremost over Britain, is inevitable.

In 1925 Britain’s imports and exports reached respectively 111 percent and 76 percent of their pre-war levels. This implies an adverse trade balance of unprecedented proportions. The reduction in exports signifies an industrial crisis which strikes not at the secondary but at the basic branches of industry: coal, steel, shipbuilding, woollens, etc. Temporary and even considerable improvements are possible and even inevitable, but the basic line of decline is predetermined.

One becomes filled with justifiable contempt for the “statesmen” of Britain who have retained all their old conformities so incompatible with the new conditions and who lack the most elementary understanding of the world situation and the inevitable consequences inherent in it. The reigning British politicians, Baldwin [9] and Churchill, have recently favoured us again with their candour. At the end of last year, Churchill announced that he had twelve reasons (yes, he said that) for being in an optimistic mood. In the first place, a stabilized national currency. The British economist Keynes [10] has called Churchill’s attention to the fact that this stabilization meant a maximum reduction of 10 per cent in the prices of merchandise exported, and consequently a corresponding increase in the adverse trade balance.

The second reason for being optimistic was the excellent price of rubber. Sad to say, Mr. Hoover’s [11] twenty-nine questions have considerably reduced the rubberized optimism of Churchill. Thirdly, there was the decrease in the number of strikes. But let us wait on this score until the end of April when the collective contract of the miners comes up for consideration. Fourth reason for optimism – Locarno. From one hour to the next, there is no improvement. The Anglo-French conflict, far from diminishing, has intensified since Locarno. [12] As touches Locarno let us wait, too; one counts one’s chickens when they are hatched. We refrain from enumerating the remaining reasons for optimism; on Wall Street the price they fetch is still dropping. It is interesting to note that The Times of London published an editorial on this same subject entitled: Two Rays of Hope. The Times is more modest than Churchill; it has not twelve but only two rays of hope, and these too are x-rays, that is, rather problematical rays.

To the professional light-mindedness of Churchill, one can counterpose the more serious opinions of the Americans who make an appraisal of British economy from their own standpoint, and also the opinion of British industrialists themselves. Upon returning from Europe, Klein [13], the director of the US Department of Commerce, made a report to industrialists which, notwithstanding its purely conventional tone of reassurance, lets the truth break through.

“From the economic point of view,” he said, “the only gloomy spot, [abstraction evidently made from the situation of France and Italy as well as the relatively slow restoration of Germany] – the only gloomy spot, I say, is the United Kingdom. It seems to me that Britain is in a doubtful commercial position. I would not want to be too pessimistic because Britain is our best customer but a number of factors are developing in that country, which, it seems to me, must give rise to serious consideration. There exist in Britain formidable taxes, the reason for which, according to certain people, must be found in our thirst for money, not to say more. Still it is not entirely correct ... The stock of tools of the coal industry is the same as a few dozen years ago, with the result that the cost of manual labour per ton is three or four times more than in the United States.”

And so forth and so on in the same vein.

Now, here is another comment. J. Harvey [14], American ex-ambassador in Europe, considered by the British as a “friend and well-wisher,” which is in a sense true for he speaks, as a rule, sentimentally of the need of coming to Britain’s aid – this same J. Harvey recently published an article entitled: The End of England (the title alone is priceless!), in which he comes to the conclusion that “British production has had its day. Hereafter the lot of Britain is to be an intermediate agent,” that is to say, the sales clerk and bank teller of the United States. Such is the conclusion of a friend and well-wisher.

Let us now see what George Hunter [15], a great British shipbuilder, whose note to the government made a stir in the entire British press, has to say: “Has the Government” [and the government, after all, is Churchill with his twelve reasons for optimism], he says, “a clear idea of the disastrous condition of British industry? Does it know that this condition, far from improving, is worsening progressively? The number of our unemployed and of our partially unemployed represents at the minimum 12.5 percent of the employed workers. Our trade balance is unfavourable. Our railroads and a large part of our industrial enterprises pay dividends out of their reserves or pay none at all. If that continues it is bankruptcy and ruin. There is no improvement in prospect.”

The coal industry is the keystone of British capitalism. At present it is completely dependent upon government subsidies. “We can,’ says Hunter, “subsidise the coal industry as much as we like; that will not prevent our industry generally from waning.” But if subsidies stop, British industrialists could not continue to pay the wages they now pay; and that would provoke, beginning with the next May Day, a grandiose economic conflict. [16] It is not hard to imagine what would be implied by a strike embracing not less than a million railwaymen and transport workers. Britain would enter into a period of greatest economic shocks. One must either continue to grant ruinous and hopeless subsidies, or resign oneself to a profound social conflict.

Churchill has twelve reasons for optimism, but the social statistics of Britain testify that the number of employed workers is decreasing, that the number of miners is decreasing, but that there is an increase in the number of restaurant employees, cabaret personnel and elements of the lumpen-proletarian type. At the expense of producers, the number of lackeys increases, and, by the way, these figures do not include the political lackeys and ministers who with servility implore the generosity of Americans.

Let us once again counterpose America and Britain. In America there is a growing aristocracy of labour which aids in the establishment of company unions; while in Britain, fallen from her supremacy of yesterday, there grow layers of lumpen-proletariat below. Revealed best of all in this juxtaposition and counterposition is the displacement of the world economic axis. And this displacement will continue to operate until the class axis of society is itself displaced, that is, until the proletarian revolution.

Mr. Baldwin, of course, demurs to this. Though Mr. Baldwin carries more weight than Churchill, he understands as little. At a gathering of industrialists, he outlined a means of getting out of the predicament – a Conservative prime minister always has patent remedies for all ailments. “It sometimes seems to me,” he said, “that some of us have slept for at least six or seven years.” Much longer! Mr. Baldwin himself has been asleep for at least fifty years, while others stayed up. “We will do well,” continued the prime minister, “to be guided by the progress realized during this period by the progress realized during this period by the United States.” It would indeed take a bit of trying to be guided by the “progress” of the United States. In that country they dispose of a national wealth of 320 billion, 60 billion in the banks, an annual accumulation of 7 billion, while in Britain there is a deficit. Let us be guided a little! Let us try!

“The two parties [capitalists and workers],” continues Baldwin, “can learn much more at the school of the United States than in the study of the situation in Moscow.” Mr. Baldwin should refrain from spitting into the Moscow well. We could teach him a few things. We know how to orient ourselves among facts, analyse world economy, forecast a thing or two, in particular the decline of capitalist Britain. But Mr. Baldwin cannot do it.

Churchill, the finance minister, also referred to Moscow. Without it, you can’t make a good speech nowadays. Churchill, you see, had read that morning a horrible speech by Mr. Tomsky [17], who is not a member of the House of Lords. He happens to be, as Mr. Churchill truthfully asserts, a man who occupies an extremely important post in the Soviet Republic. Mr. Tomsky spent his youth not at Oxford or at Cambridge with Mr. Churchill but in the Butirky Prison, here at Moscow. Nevertheless Mr. Churchill is obliged to speak of Mr. Tomsky. And, it must be admitted, he does not speak very kindly about Mr. Tomsky’s speech at the Trades Unions Congress at Scarborough. Mr. Tomsky did indeed make a speech there, and apparently not a bad one, judging from the impression it made on Mr. Churchill. The latter cited extracts from the speech which he characterized as “ramblings of a barbarian.”

“I estimate,” he said, “that in this country we are capable of managing our own affairs without unwarrantable interference from outside.” Mr. Churchill is a very proud man but he is wrong. His patron Baldwin says that one must learn at the school of the United States.

“We do not want to have a freshly laid crocodile egg for breakfast,” continues Mr. Churchill. It is Tomsky, it seems, who laid a crocodile egg in Britain. Mr. Churchill does not like it; he prefers the politics of the ostrich that hides its head in the sand, and, as you know, both the ostrich and the crocodile propagate themselves in the same tropical colonies of Britain. Then Mr. Churchill gets really cocky: “I am not afraid of the Bolshevik revolution in this country. I do not criticize personalities.” And so forth and so on. That does not prevent him from delivering a wild speech against Tomsky. So he is afraid, after all. He does not criticize the personality of Tomsky. God forbid, he merely calls him a crocodile.

“Great Britain is not Russia.” Very true. “What use is there in introducing to the British workers the dull doctrine of Karl Marx and in making them sing the Internationale out of tune?” It is true that the British workers sometimes sing the Internationale off-key, with music supplied by MacDonald, but they will learn to sing it without any false notes precisely from Moscow. In our opinion, despite all the twelve reasons for optimism, the economic situation of Britain brings nearer that hour when the British working class will sing the Internationale at the top of their voices. Prepare your eardrums, Mr. Churchill! ...

As touches the preparation of the disarmament conference, of exceptional interest is a semi-official article recently published in a British review and eloquently signed “Augur.” Everything points to the fact that this Augur has close ties with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is generally well acquainted with what goes on behind the scenes. Under the banner of preparing the disarmament conference, the British Augur threatens us “with measures which will not be pacific measures.” This amounts to a direct threat of war.

Who is threatening? Britain, who is losing her foreign markets; Britain, where unemployment prevails; Britain, where the lumpenproletariat is growing; Britain, who has only a single optimist left, Winston Churchill – this Britain is threatening us with war in the present situation. Why? Under what pretext? Is it not because she wants to take it out on somebody else because of the affronts dealt her by America?

As for us, we do not want war. But if the British ruling classes wish to accelerate the birth pangs, if history wishes to deprive them of their reason before depriving them of power, it must, precisely now, push them over the steep slope of war. There will be incalculable suffering. But should the criminal madmen let loose a new war on Europe, those who will emerge victorious will not be Baldwin, nor Churchill, nor their American masters, but the revolutionary proletariat of Europe.

A speech delivered on 15th February 1926 and
first published in Ekonomicheskaya Zhizn, 16th February 1926
(Two poles of the workers movement)

Volume 1, Chapter 2 Index


1. Rich Russian merchant families of peasant origin.

2. Curzon, George Nathaniel (Lord Curzon) (1859-1925) – Aristocrat educated at Eton and Oxford. Viceroy of India 1898-1905; strengthened the apparatus of colonial rule, partitioning Bengal and fortifying the North-West Frontier against a threat from Tsarist Russian imperialism. Became an earl in 1911, joined Lloyd George’s War Cabinet in 1916; Foreign Secretary first under Lloyd George in 1919-22 and then under Bonar Law and Baldwin, 1922-24. A leader of the right wing of the Conservative Party in this period, he combined traditional hostility to Tsarist Russia with his class loyalty to act as an arch-enemy of Soviet Russia, against which he carried out endless diplomatic manoeuvres.

3. Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), Scottish Labour politician, member of Independent Labour Party (ILP), adopted pacifist position during World War I, prime minister in the first (1924) and second (1929-1931) Labour governments, defected in 1931 with Philip Snowden and Jimmy Thomas to form National Government with the Conservatives after the Labour government split on the question of cutting unemployment benefits, served as prime minister until 1935.

4. Arthur Henderson (1863-1935), a leader of the British Labour Party, who rallied the party to support World War I and became a government minister. He later served as Home Secretary in the first Labour government (1924) and Foreign Secretary in the second Labour government (1929-1931). – Fabians: members of the reformist Fabian Society set up to pursue an explicitly gradualist transition to socialism as opposed to a revolutionary one. Leading members included, George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

5. Warren Harding (1865-1923), American Republican politician, president of the US (1921-1923); died in office.

6. David Lloyd George (1863-1945), Welsh Liberal politician, responsible as Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister) for the introduction of old age pensions, unemployment benefit and sickness benefits; prime minister from 1916 to 1922. – Winston Churchill (1874-1965), British politician, started as a Conservative, switched to the Liberals in 1904, returning to the Conservatives in 1924, served as minister in various positions in both Liberal and Conservative governbments; served as prime minister 1940-1945 und again 1951-1955.

7. William Joynson-Hicks (1865-1932), right-wing British Conservative politician; Home Secretary 1924-29, during which time he gained a reputation for authoritarianism; one of the “hawks” in the government during the General Strike; responsible for granting vote to women over 21 in 1928.

8. Chang Tso-lin (1873-1928), Chinese warlord; supreme ruler of Manchuria 1916-1928; from here he dominated large areas of northern China; assassinated by a bomb planted by a Japanese agent in 1928.

9. Stanley Baldwin (1867-1947), British Conservative politician; prime minister three times 1923-1924, 1924-1929 and 1935-1937; prime minister during the General Strike.

10. John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), British economist who advocated government intervention in the economy to mitigate the negative aspects of the business cycle (what later became known as Keynesianism); a member of the British delegation to the negotiations leading to the Versailles Treaty, he published a devastating critique called The Economic Consequences of the Peace; best known for his magnum opus The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money.

11. Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), Republican President of the United States, 1929-32. A Quaker, Hoover was identified with the laissez-faire, less protectionist wing of American capitalism which was held in retrospect to have contributed to the Wall Street crash and the development of the slump, and in the election of November 1932 he was defeated by F.D. Roosevelt.

12. The “pact” was signed at the Locarno Conference in October 1925 by France, Belgium and Germany and guaranteed by Britain and Italy. It confirmed Germany’s western frontiers and laid down the complete de-militarization of the Rhineland which had been occupied by Britain and France since the German surrender in 1918.

13. Julius Klein (1901-1961), official in US Department of Commerce 1921-29, Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Hoover administration 1929-33.

14. This seems to be a reference to George Harvey (1864-1928), American journalist and diplomat, who was US Ambassador to Britain 1921-1923.

15. George Hunter (1845-1937), British industrialist in the shipbuilding industry.

16. Trotsky’s prediction was accurate: the General Strike began on 4th May 1926.

17. Mikhail Tomsky (1886-1936) was an old Bolshevik and a trade unionist. Always on the right wing of the Party, he opposed the 1917 insurrection and was closely involved in Stalin’s policies in the mid-20s, particularly on the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Committee. He opposed the left turn in 1928 along with Bukharin and Rykov and committed suicide after the first of the Moscow Trials.

Volume 1 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 2.7.2007