Leon Trotsky’s Writings on Britain
Volume III

From World Slump to World War 1929-1940

The Outbreak of War

The Socialist Léon Blum [1] and the Conservative Chamberlain [2], in equal measure friends of “peace”, were for non-intervention in the Spanish affair. [3] Hand in hand with them went Stalin, the ex-Bolshevik, through his ambassador Maisky [4], the ex-Menshevik. Nuances of programmes did not hinder them from friendly collaboration in the name of one and the same high aim.

Now, however, Chamberlain declares that if, after recognition of Franco, Italy and Germany do not withdraw the so-called volunteers from Spain, Britain is prepared to take the most serious measures, not short of war. The Radical Socialist Daladier [5], another well-known supporter of the policy of “non-intervention”, completely supports Chamberlain in this question. From love of peace, these gentlemen refused to defend democracy with arms. But there is a limit to everything, even to the love of peace of these experienced friends of humanity. Chamberlain openly says: the arrival of Italian and German soldiers on the Iberian Peninsula would break the “balance” in the Mediterranean. This cannot be endured! England and France were not at all inclined to support Spanish democracy; but now, when they have helped Franco to stifle it, they are fully prepared to support with arms the “balance” in the Mediterranean, which mysterious technical term is to be understood as meaning the defence by the enslavers of their colonial possessions and the seaways leading to them.

We humbly ask the gentlemen of the Second and Third [6] Internationals exactly what historical, political, and other conditions are required to establish the promised grand alliance in defence of democracy in the whole world? The government of France relied on the Popular Front. [7] The struggle of the Popular Front in Spain was waged in the name of democracy. What other example can be invented in which the duty to defend democracy would appear in a more imperative form? If a “Socialist” government supported by a “National Front” refused to defend a democracy also headed by “Socialists,” then the question arises just where and when will what kind of government occupy itself with the task of defending democracy? Perhaps the augurs of Social Democracy and the Comintern [8] can, nevertheless, manage to explain that?

In fact, the two imperialist democracies, in the person of their ruling classes, were from the very beginning completely on the side of Franco; they merely did not at first believe in the possibility of his victory, and were afraid of compromising themselves by premature disclosure of their sympathies. As Franco’s chances improved, however, the real faces of the possessing classes of the “great democracies” were revealed ever more clearly, ever more openly, ever more shamelessly. Both Great Britain and France know perfectly well that it is considerably easier to control colonies, semi-colonies, and simply weak nations through a military dictatorship than through a democratic or even semi-democratic regime.

Alliance with the Conservative [Chamberlain] government is just as immutable a commandment for the “Socialist” petty-bourgeois Blum as for the most extreme reactionaries of the French Chamber of Deputies. This commandment emanates from the French stock exchange. England’s plan in relation to Spain was fixed from the very start: let them fight; whoever wins will need money to revive the economy of the country. Neither Germany nor Italy will be able to give this money; consequently, the victor will have to turn to London, and partly to Paris. Thus it will be possible to dictate terms.

Blum was initiated into the English plan perfectly well from the beginning. He could have no plan of his own because his semi-socialist government was completely dependent on the French bourgeoisie, and the French bourgeoisie on Great Britain. Blum shouted about the preservation of peace as an even more sacred task than the salvation of democracy. But in fact he was concealing the plan of British capital. After he had carried out this piece of dirty work, he was thrown into the opposition camp by the French bourgeoisie, and again obtained the possibility of shouting about the sacred duty of helping the Spanish republicans. Without a cheap left phrase, he would not have preserved the possibilities of again rendering other just as treacherous services to the French bourgeoisie at a critical moment.

The Moscow diplomats also, of course, speak somewhat through gritted teeth in favour of Spanish democracy, the very thing they have destroyed by their policy. But in Moscow they now express themselves very carefully, because they are groping for a way to Berlin. [9] The Moscow Bonapartists [10] are ready to betray all the democracies in the world, not to speak of the international proletariat, just to prolong their rule for an additional week. It is possible that both Stalin and Hitler have started with bluff; each wants to frighten Chamberlain, Daladier and even Roosevelt. [11] But if the “democratic” imperialists are not frightened, the bluff may go considerably further than was at first supposed in Moscow and Berlin. To cover up their manoeuvres, the Kremlin clique needs the assistance of the leaders of the Second and Third Internationals, the more so as that does not cost too much ...

In the veins of the Spanish people, there still remains unshed blood. Who will dispose of it, Hitler and Mussolini or Chamberlain with his French accomplices, is a question that will be decided by the relations of the imperialist forces in the near future. The struggle for peace, for democracy, for race, for authority, for order, for balance, and for dozens of other high and imponderable things means the struggle for a new division of the world. The Spanish tragedy will go down in history as an episode on the path of preparation of a new world war. The ruling classes of all shades are afraid of it and at the same time are preparing for it with all their might. The charlatanism of Popular Fronts serves one part of the imperialists to conceal their plans from the popular masses, as the other gang uses phrases about blood, honour and race for the same purpose. The petty-bourgeois windbags and phrasemongers only make it easier for the imperialists to prepare war, by preventing the workers from seeing the naked truth.

From Mysteries of Imperialism (dated 4th March 1939),
Byulleten Oppozitsii 75-76, March-April 1939

* * *

Dear Comrade Hughes [12], Thank you sincerely for your letter of April 3rd. Undoubtedly there are thousands upon thousands of British workers and honest and revolutionary intellectuals who think as you do. They are simply stifled, but not so much by the state machine as by the machine of the official workers’ organizations. The war they are preparing will break both these machines.

In the catastrophe of war, the most disoriented, confused and cowardly will be the present magnificent leaders of the workers’ organizations, of the Second and Third Internationals. The masses will look for a new orientation, a new direction, and will find them.

You are right that the first chapter of the war will be a chapter of nationalistic madness. But the more terrible the war and the war hysteria, the more crushing will be the mass reaction. Not to lose one’s head and to look toward the future – the near future – with open eyes, is the highest revolutionary duty.

With fraternal greetings,
Leon Trotsky
Coyoacan, D.F.

Letter to Emrys Hughes (dated 22nd April 1939), first published in Forward, 31st August 1940

* * *

Q – How do you interpret the underlying purposes of the Chamberlain government? A – I believe the underlying factors are panic and headlessness. It is not an individual characteristic of Mr. Chamberlain. I do not believe he has any worse head than any other person, but the situation of Great Britain is very difficult, the same as that of France. England was a leading world power in the past – in the nineteenth century – but no more. But she has the greatest world empire. France, with her stagnating population and more or less backward economic structure. has a second colonial empire. This is the situation. It is very difficult to be inventive as a British Prime Minister in this situation. Only the old formula of “wait and see.” This was good when Great Britain was the strongest power in the world and they had enough power to reach their aims. No more now. The war can only crush and disrupt the British empire and the French empire. They can gain nothing by the war – only lose. That is why Mr. Chamberlain was so friendly to Hitler during the Munich period. [13] He believed that the question was about central Europe and the Danube, but now he understands that it is the question of world domination. Great Britain and France cannot avoid a war, and now they do everything they can in a feverish tempo to avoid the war threatened by the situation created by the rearmament of Germany. That war is inevitable.

From a stenographic record of an interview with Hubert Herring, 23rd July 1939

* * *

Leon Trotsky Cable prepaid
Six hundred word article by return cable giving your reasons for opposing negotiations allies with Russia [14] stop Bernard Shaw article supporting Stalin will appear same page stop Prepared order fifteen pounds if published.

Editor, Daily Herald,
London, October 20


Leon Trotsky Cable prepaid
Would welcome immediate reply if prepared cable article requested last Friday or not stop if agreeable please cable article today at latest.

Editor, Daily Herald,
London, October 23


Editor, Daily Herald
Cable Collect
You did not publish my letter protesting imperialist London policy against Mexico stop You did not publish my statement on coming war granted to your own correspondent Vincent stop Now you want to adapt me to your anti-socialist policy [15] stop that will not succeed.

Leon Trotsky, Coyoacan, October 23

First published in Socialist Appeal, 3rd November 1939

* * *

The immediate cause of the present war is the rivalry between the old wealthy colonial empires, Great Britain and France, and the belated imperialist plunderers, Germany and Italy.

The nineteenth century was the era of the incontestable hegemony of the oldest capitalist power, Great Britain. From 1815 to 1914 – true enough, not without isolated military explosions – ’British peace” reigned. The British fleet, mightiest in the world, played the role of policeman of the seas. This era, however, has receded into the past. As early as the end of the last century, Germany, armed with modern technology, began to move toward first place in Europe. On the other side of the ocean an even more powerful country arose, a former British colony. The most important economic contradiction which led to the war of 1914-1918 was the rivalry between Britain and Germany. As for the United States, its participation in the war was of a preventive character – Germany could not be permitted to subjugate the European continent.

The defeat hurled Germany back into complete impotence. Dismembered, encircled by enemies, bankrupted by indemnities, weakened by the convulsions of civil war, she appeared to be out of the running for a long time to come, if not forever. On the European continent, first violin turned up temporarily in the hands of France. For victorious Britain, the balance sheet of the war left in the last analysis liabilities: increasing independence of the dominions; colonial movements for independence; loss of naval hegemony; lessening of the importance of her navy through the development of aviation.

Through inertia Britain still attempted to play the leading role on the world arena in the first few years after victory. Her conflicts with the United States began to assume an obviously threatening character. It seemed as though the next war would flare up between the two Anglo-Saxon aspirants to world domination. Britain, however, soon had to convince herself that her specific economic weight was inadequate for combat with le colossus across the ocean. Her agreement with the United States on naval equality signified formal renunciation of naval hegemony, already lost in actuality. Her replacement of free trade by tariff walls signified open admission of the defeat of British industry on the world market. Her renunciation of the policy of “splendid isolation” drew in its wake the introduction of compulsory military service. Thus all the sacred traditions were dusted away.

A similar lack of correspondence between her economic weight and her world position is characteristic of France too, but on a smaller scale. Her hegemony in Europe rested on a temporary conjuncture of circumstances created by the annihilation of Germany and the artificial combinations of the Versailles Treaty. [16] The size of her population and the economic foundation supporting this hegemony were far too inadequate. When the hypnosis of victory wore off, the real relationship of forces surged to the surface. France proved to be much weaker than she had appeared not only to her friends but to her enemies. Seeking cover, she became in essence Britain’s latest dominion.

Germany’s regeneration on the basis of her first rate technology and organizational abilities was inevitable. It came sooner than was thought possible, in large measure thanks to Britain’s support of Germany against the USSR, against the excessive pretensions of France and, more remotely, against the United States. Such international combinations proved successful for capitalist Britain more than once in the past so long as she remained the strongest power. In her senility she proved incapable of dealing with those spirits she had herself evoked.

Armed with a technology, more modern, of greater flexibility, and of higher productive capacity, Germany once again began to squeeze Britain out of very important markets, particularly south-eastern Europe and Latin America. In contrast to the nineteenth century. when the competition between capitalist countries developed on an expanding world market, the economic arena of struggle today is narrowing down so that nothing remains open to the imperialists except tearing pieces of the world market away from each other.

The initiative for the new re-division of the world this time as in 1914 belonged naturally to German imperialism. Caught off guard the British government first attempted to buy its way out of war by concessions at the expense of others (Austria, Czecho-Slovakia). But this policy was short-lived. “Friendship” with Britain was only a brief tactical phase for Hitler. London had already conceded Hitler more than he had calculated on getting. The Munich agreement, through which Chamberlain hoped to seal a long time friendship with Germany, led, on the contrary, to a hastening of the break. Hitler could expect nothing more from London – further expansion of Germany would strike at the life lines of Britain herself. Thus the “new era of peace” proclaimed by Chamberlain in October 1938 led within a few months to the most terrible of all wars.

While Great Britain has exerted every effort since the first months of the war to seize blockaded Germany’s vacated positions in the world market, the United States has almost automatically been driving Britain out. Two-thirds of the world’s gold is concentrated in the American vaults. The remaining third is flowing to the same place. Britain’s role as banker for the world is a thing of the past. Nor are matters in other spheres much better. While Britain’s navy and merchant marine are suffering great losses, the American shipyards are building ships on a colossal scale which will secure the predominance of the American fleet over the British and the Japanese. The United States is obviously preparing to adopt the two-power standard (a navy stronger than the combined fleets of the next two strongest powers). The new programme for the air fleet envisages securing the superiority of the United States over all the rest of the world.

However, the industrial, financial and military strength of the United States, the foremost capitalist power in the world, does not at all insure the blossoming of American economic life, but on the contrary, invests the crisis of her social system with an especially malignant and convulsive character. Gold in the billions cannot be made use of nor can the millions of unemployed! In the theses of the Fourth International, War and the Fourth International, published six years ago, it was predicted:

“Capitalism in the United States is running head on into those problems which impelled Germany in 1914 upon the road of war ... For Germany it was a question of ‘organizing’ Europe. For the United States it is a question of ‘organizing’ the world. History is taking mankind directly into the volcanic eruption of American imperialism.”

The “New Deal” and the “Good Neighbour” policy [17] were the final attempts to postpone the climax by ameliorating the social crisis through concessions and agreements. After the bankruptcy of this policy, which swallowed up tens of billions, nothing else remained for American imperialism but to resort to the method of the mailed fist. Under one or another pretext and slogan the United States will intervene in the tremendous clash in order to maintain its world dominion. The order and the time of the struggle between American capitalism and its enemies is not yet known – perhaps even by Washington. War with Japan would be a struggle for “living room” in the Pacific ocean. War in the Atlantic, even if directed immediately against Germany, would be a struggle for the heritage of Britain ...

The weakness of France and Britain was not unexpected. The theses of the Fourth International (1934) state: “The collapse of the League of Nations is indissolubly bound up with the beginning of the collapse of French hegemony on the European continent.” This programmatic document declares further that “Britain’s rulers are increasingly less capable of carrying out their plans,” that the British bourgeoisie is “alarmed by the disintegration of its empire, the revolutionary movement in India, the instability of its positions in China.” The power of the Fourth International lies in this, that its programme is capable of withstanding the test of great events.

The industry of Britain and France, thanks to the assured flow of colonial super-profits, has long lagged both in technology and organization. In addition, the so-called “defence of democracy” by the socialist parties and trade unions created an extremely privileged political situation for the British and French bourgeoisie. Privileges always foster sluggishness and stagnation. If Germany today reveals so colossal a preponderance over France and Britain, then the lion’s share of the responsibility rests with the social-patriotic defenders of democracy who prevented the proletariat from tearing Britain and France out of atrophy through a timely socialist revolution.

From the Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War
and Proletarian Revolution
adopted by the Emergency Conference
of the Fourth International 26th May, 1940

Volume 3, Chapter 1 Index


1. Léon Blum (1872-1950), the leader of the French Socialist Party (SFIO) from 1920 after the split which led to the majority forming the Communist Party. A characteristic reformist politician of the Second International, bitterly opposed by the Stalinists until the became advocates of the Popular Front. Prime Minister in the Popular Front government elected in 1936 as “honest manager” for the bourgeoisie. Attacked by the Stalinists for his part in non-intervention in Spain. Imprisoned by the Germans and put on trial at Riom in 1942. Resumed position in French politics after the war, shifting even further to the right. Bitterly attacked by the Stalinists in this period.

2. Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), British Conservative politician; prime minister 1937-1940; most famous for his notorious remarks about “peace for our time” on his return from the Munich conference with Hitler after the effective annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938.

3. “Non-intervention” meant leaving the field open to Germany and Italy to give Franco every form of aid in crushing the Spanish working class. It was the policy laid down by the Chamberlain government in Britain and Blum’s Popular Front in France.

4. Ivan Maisky (1884-1975), Russian Menshevik and Soviet diplomat; joined the RSDLP in 1903 and supported the Menshevik faction after the split in the party; joined the Russian Communist Party in 1921 and became a Soviet diplomat in 1922; Soviet ambassador to London 1932-1943.

5. Edouard Daladier (1884-1970), leader of the Radical Socialists, the main bourgeois party in the early 1930s. Prime Minister during the fascist riots of February 1934. Denounced by the Socialists and Stalinists as a “murderer”. Much courted by the Stalinist Thorez in the course of forming the Popular Front, and became Minister of War in the Blum government. Prime Minister again April 1939 to March 1940, in which capacity he signed the Munich capitulation with Hitler, banned the Communist Party, and was deported by the Vichy regime.

6. The Communist International, World Party of Socialist Revolution, was formed in 1919 under the leadership of Lenin and the Soviet Communist party to unite all those groups fighting for a consistent revolutionary Marxist policy. It embarked on a struggle to build new communist parties in opposition to the degenerated reformist organization of the working class. From 1924 it became transformed into an apparatus to serve the interests of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. It was would up by Stalin in 1943 as part of his deal with British and US imperialism during the war.

7. After the rise to power of Hitler, the Comintern in 1934-5 enunciated a new policy of support for all those forces on the side of “democracy”, including bourgeois parties, Liberals and Conservatives, against fascism. This policy denied the duty of Marxists to fight for the leading position of the working class, or indeed for its revolutionary role at all. The counter-revolutionary consequences of this policy, the other side of the coin of the previous ultra-leftism, are outlined in Trotsky’s writings of this period.

8. Trotsky began to use this term about the Stalinist bureaucracy in 1935 when he spoke of the Stalinists as having made a decisive break with the revolutionary gains of October, though without yet being able to proceed to the destruction of the workers’ state. (See his article The Workers’ State and the Question of Thermidor and Bonapartism, reprinted in The Class Nature of the Soviet State.)

9. i.e. towards the Nazi-Soviet Pact which was ultimately signed in August 1939

10. Trotsky began to use this term about the Stalinist bureaucracy in 1935 when he spoke of the Stalinists as having made a decisive break with the revolutionary gains of October, though without yet being able to proceed to the destruction of the workers’ state. (See his article The Workers’ State and the Question of Thermidor and Bonapartism, reprinted in The Class Nature of the Soviet State.)

11. i.e. the governments of Britain, France and the United States.

12. Emrys Hughes (1894-1969), Welsh socialist politician; editor of Forward, the ILP paper; Labour MP 1946-69.

13. An agreement was signed at Munich on 30th September, 1938 by Hitler, Chamberlain and Daladier, allowing the Germans to annex parts of Czechoslovakia, and soon to occupy the entire country. Virtually all of the British press supported this agreement and no Conservative MP voted against it. As a method of providing “peace in our time” between British and German imperialism it proved singularly ineffective, witness the outbreak of the Second World War less than a year later.

14. The British Tories and their French equivalents had not been prepared to negotiate an anti-German pact with Stalin, since they would not agree to any of the Western movement of Soviet troops necessary to enforce it. As a result, as Trotsky had always predicted, a Nazi-Soviet pact was agreed on 23rd August. This caused demoralization among many who had followed the popular front policies of the Stalinists in the previous period. The call by the Herald for the resumption of negotiations with Stalin was part of an effort in radical and social-democratic circles to return to that situation.

15. The social-democrats of the Daily Herald were trying to use Trotsky as an ally in opposition to communism itself and the Soviet workers’ state.

16. The agreement between the main combatants that ended the First World War. Concluded at Versailles near Paris in 1919, the treaty imposed crushing military and economic sanctions against Germany.

17. The term “New Deal” was coined by F.D. Roosevelt in his acceptance speech for nomination as Democratic Party candidate for President in 1932. What was intended at first simply as an electoral catch-phrase later came to represent a whole series of capitalist policies for dealing with depression, from the granting of certain rights to trade unions to state intervention in the economy, and ultimately to methods of government deficit financing and other measures proposed by the British economist Keynes. The “Good Neighbour” policy was the name given to Roosevelt’s efforts to impose United States control throughout the Americas less by direct political sanctions and armed intervention and more by the economic penetration of her capitalists.

Volume 3 Index

Trotsky’s Writings on Britain

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Last updated on: 1.7.2007