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Labour Review, December 1958

William Hunter

Marxists in the Second World War

From Labour Review, Volume 3, No. 5, December 1958, pages 139-146.
Transcribed & marked up by Ted Crawford & D. Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2009.

When, in 1914, Lenin first heard that the German Social Democratic Party leaders had supported the Kaiser in his declaration of war he denounced the news as a forgery. Only two years before, the Basle manifesto had been adopted unanimously by a meeting of the Second International representing socialist parties all over the world.

The manifesto stated unequivocally that the interests of no nation could justify the war that capitalist rivalry was then preparing. It declared that if war broke out socialists must take advantage of the ‘economic and political crisis’ created by it to ‘hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule’.

However, when the war foreseen in the Basle manifesto began, the socialist leaders in every major country involved—with the honourable exception of the Russian Bolsheviks—hastened to support their own capitalist class in glaring violation of their expressed convictions.

In 1939 the leaders of the organized working class in France and Britain again supported their rulers in war. They were no more loyal to socialist principles than those whom Lenin called ‘social-chauvinists’ in 1914. This time, however, there was no sharp break as in 1914 with their policy statements of previous years. Their support for the declaration of war was in line with earlier policies which were based on the premise that ‘democratic’ capitalism and the working class could have joint interests in the fight against fascism.

It was left to the Marxists—the Trotskyists—to carry on revolutionary opposition to the last war based on the same principles which Lenin upheld in the first-world war. Lenin had hammered home the lesson that the attitude of a Marxist to a particular war must be based upon the aims of the governments fighting the war as demonstrated by their previous policies and as determined by the class nature of the systems they represented.


From the outbreak of the second world war, the Marxists upheld the Leninist tradition. ‘The immediate cause of the present war is the rivalry between the old wealthy colonial systems, Great Britain and France, and the belated imperialist plunderers, Germany and Italy.’ declared War and the World Revolution , a manifesto of the Fourth International issued in May 1940. The manifesto dismissed with contempt the avowed aims of the fascist powers for ‘living room’ and ‘national unification’. ‘Hitler’s official slogans do not warrant examination,’ it said, and to the propaganda of the Allies it replied: ‘The slogan of a war for democracy against fascism is a lie.’ It was not a war of freedom versus dictatorships but a war of capitalist nations that had won their possessions through bloody conquest against latecomers which sought to force a new division of the world. The war is not our war, declared the Marxists. We build our future, not on the military fortunes of the participants, but on the need to transform the war into a war of the workers against the capitalists. That British and French capitalism was at war with a fascist capitalism expressing all that was most foul in capitalist decay was used to deceive the working class as to the nature of the war. Aggressive, fascist German imperialism, asserted some, was a greater menace to the British working class than its ‘own’ capitalist class. A victory for the fascist powers, they claimed, would worsen the oppression of the working class and result in the loss of the democratic liberties which Labour had won over previous years of struggle.[1] Therefore the working class should fight together with ‘its’ ruling class to secure the defeat of Hitler.

Certainly, fascism exterminated the working-class organizations. It defended capitalism by organized and systematic terror. It embraced and perfected all the methods of police repression used by other imperialisms. But there was no difference in essence between ‘democratic’ capitalist society and that in which the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie was an open one. Fascism was a measure of the degree of decay of the capitalist society which had spawned it and which it was protecting.

Moreover, by organized terror British and French capitalists were holding down millions of colonial slaves. Under the slogan of defending democracy the French government had already, at the outbreak of the war, imposed harsh restrictions on the French working-class movement, banned the Communist Party and arrested its MPs, while French fascists were still at liberty.

Fascism suppressed the democratic liberties which had been won by the working class. But could these liberties be defended by the workers of the bourgeois-democratic countries allying themselves with their ‘own’ rulers against the more aggressive and more brutal bandits? Should a ‘less reactionary’ ruling class be supported against a ‘more reactionary’ one?

In essence these questions were the same as those discussed in the first world war when the leaders of the German social democrats asserted that it was necessary for them to defend the Fatherland. They said they must protect what were the greatest and most powerful organizations in the world against foreign imperialisms—and, in particular, against tsarist Russia, which was looked on as a centre of black reaction by all socialists. Similarly, on the other side of the trenches, French and British socialist leaders defended their ‘freedoms’ against German militarism. Lenin flayed this theory of the ‘lesser evil’. He attacked the socialist leaders as opportunists and defined opportunism as placing the temporary, short-term interests of a section of the proletariat above the permanent, long-term interests of the proletariat as a whole—seeking agreement, for example, with one’s ‘own’ bourgeoisie.

After the revolution of February 1917 when the workers won democratic rights and there were in Russia, as he put it, ‘organizations [i.e., soviets] the like of which exist in no other country’, Lenin continued his opposition to the war. The Provisional Government represented Russian capitalism and the war, therefore, continued to be a war on its part for capitalist and oppressive purposes. The opportunist wing of the Russian Labour movement called for ‘revolutionary national defence’, declaring that German imperialism would smash all the gains of the February revolution. On the contrary, said Lenin, there could be no defence of working-class gains by supporting the aims of capitalism, which was what support for the war meant.

This adherence to principles in the analysis of war lost none of its validity in the 1939-45 war, even though the majority of the Labour movement saw the defence against fascism of their own organizations as involved in the military struggle. The nature of the war was not determined by the wishes of the mass of the participants. In truth, the workers fought for democracy, but the rulers directed the war in their own interests. As Leon Trotsky put it: ‘The workers and farmers give their blood, while the capitalists concentrate in their hands the command.’[2] For the workers to enter into an alliance with their own rulers to defend democracy meant they must be prepared to accept capitalist exploitation and to defend the British Empire. In an alliance with the bourgeoisie the socialist movement is not an equal partner. The policies of such an alliance are determined by the dominant class, which has political power and the State at its command. In capitalist society the working class expresses its will in conflict with the bourgeoisie. To make that will dominant on major questions of war and fascism the working class must become the master class—by taking power from the bourgeoisie. And as the Trotskyists said during the war when Left Labour MPs were criticizing the government: ‘If the workers are not conscious enough to take things into their own hands it is disastrous deceiving the advanced workers that Churchill or any other ruling class politicians can, in the mean time, defend their interests.’[3]

Support for the war on the basis that the first task was the military defeat of Hitler meant opposing all struggle which weakened the ‘war effort’ of the capitalist governments that were fighting German imperialism. It meant opposition to all struggles of the colonial peoples, to strikes and any independent political activity by the working class, which must result from the burdens which a class society places upon the exploited in wartime.


What did the invasion of the Soviet Union mean for revolutionary policy? Did it alter the whole character of the war? For the leadership of the Communist Party these questions were, of course, resolved by the Kremlin and its international relationships.

How did the Trotskyists treat the entry of Russia into the war? They were for the defence of the Soviet Union. Indeed, they fought against a point of view which wished to drop this from their programme after the Russian invasion of Finland in 1939.[4] But if the war on the part of the Soviet Union was a progressive and defensive war, that did not change the nature of the other combatants or the purpose for which they were fighting the war. As Andrew Scott put it, the war had not become ‘just by contagion’.[5] He was replying directly to R. Palme Dutt who, ignoring his writings of six years before, tried to deduce the whole nature of the war from the Anglo-Soviet Alliance, which, he alleged, had ‘transformed the world situation’. Dutt wrote:

The second phase of the war, the reactionary war of the western imperialist powers for the redivision of the world, has passed into the third phase of the war, the just war for the liberation of the peoples against German fascism … In this way the participation of the Soviet Union has transformed the character of the war.[6]

‘What has caused the change then?’ Scott asked Dutt.

A change in the politics which were ‘pursued for a long period before the war’?[7] But the same class is still in control … The war of the Russian masses is just … but it does not affect in the smallest degree the unjust, oppressive war for the domination of the world which is being fought by Germany on one side and Britain and America on the other.[8]

Britain’s war would be transformed into a genuine, revolutionary, just war only if the workers took military and State power into their own hands. And until this was done, what was the Soviet Union to do? Refuse aid from the imperialist governments? ‘Of course not,’ answered Scott. ‘Nobody but a fool would suggest this. But the signing of such a pact must not mean that the working class of the country with which it is signed should give up or moderate their struggle against their ruling class.’

By sad necessity the Soviet Union was forced to make a military pact with capitalist powers fighting against Germany. But to advocate that this must mean an alliance of the working class internationally with the allies of the Soviet Union was, once again, opportunism. In Russia a workers’ State was already established. Its agreements with the capitalists were between two State powers. In the capitalist countries the working class had yet to take political power.

If it was impossible to protect the democratic liberties of the working class by subordinating the class struggle to agreements with a section of the ruling class, so also was it impossible to protect the workers’ State by policies of class collaboration. Before the war, with such policies the Stalinist leadership of the Communist International had been responsible for the defeat of revolutionary movements and thus helped to make possible the attack on the Soviet Union. Only for the time being did the fundamental antagonism between the Soviet Union and Allied imperialism become secondary to the defeat of Germany. And even then, it still existed, and was an important factor in the pattern of imperialist strategy.

In discussing the Marxist attitude to a war involving the Soviet Union, one can do no better than quote from a pamphlet by R.F. Andrews, published by the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1934.[9] ‘Supposing fascist Germany attacks the USSR, are you in favour of the workers supporting the British or French governments in an attack on fascist Germany?’ asked Andrews. He answered his rhetorical question very definitely:

Under no circumstances! …

Such action would help the German capitalists to represent the war as one of self defence. It would strengthen British capitalists and weaken British workers. It would put British imperialism in the event of victory in a favourable position for attacking the USSR, it would mean suppressing the inevitable revolt in India and the Empire.

On the contrary, by supporting the workers in their struggle against exploitation, profiteering and oppression in war-time—a struggle which is inevitable in any case—and developing it into a struggle against the war itself, the British workers would undermine Hitler’s own front, which would be the most effective assistance British revolutionaries could give to the USSR in such circumstances.[10]

In the traditions of Marxism, the Trotskyists affirmed that the working class could aid a non-imperialist ally of its ruling class only through its own methods. A manifesto in the Socialist Appeal (July 1941) proclaimed: ‘The Soviet Union must not be defeated.’ But Churchill and the ruling class of Britain could not be entrusted with the task of defending the workers’ State or with the leadership of an armed struggle against Hitler: ‘If the war remains a predatory one under the control of Churchill and the capitalist class then the Soviet masses can, at best, only look forward, even in the event of a victory over Hitler, to facing the imperialist armies of the British and American war-lords.’ How true that prophecy rings today! The manifesto put the alternative: ‘But if the British workers take power and take control of the struggle against Hitler, then the whole situation will be transformed.’ It concluded by declaring that the rank and file of the Labour Party must demand that the Labour leaders break with big business, which helped place Hitler in power, and wage a struggle for power armed with this programme: immediate aid to the Soviet Union; expropriation of land, mines, banks, factories and heavy industry and their operation under workers’ control; freedom for India, Ireland and the colonies. Finally, it called for a socialist appeal to the German and European workers for the socialist struggle against Hitlerism and for the Socialist United States of Europe.


‘Independently of the course of the war,’ declared the Fourth International manifesto of May.1940, ‘we fulfil our basic task: we explain to the workers the irreconcilability between their interests and the interests of bloodthirsty capitalism … We carry on constant, persistent, tireless preparation of the revolution—in the factories, in the mills, in the villages, in the barracks, at the front and in the fleet.’

Seeking to assemble and organize fighters for Marxist principles, the Trotskyists sought to develop independent working-class action and put forward working-class demands at each stage of the war. They denounced the political and industrial truce which the Labour and trade union leadership sought to maintain. The leaders of the Labour Party called on the workers to sacrifice in the fight against Hitlerism, which ‘denied the validity of all the spiritual values on which civilization is built up’ [11] The Labour, leaders hurried into a coalition government to aid capitalism in its critical period after Dunkirk. They were concerned, they said, about the ‘suppression of liberty anywhere’.[12] And so they allied with the class which oppressed the colonial peoples, which declared the people of India and Burma at war without their consent and despite the protest of their leaders.[13] The Labour leaders sat in a government which expressly excluded India from the Atlantic Charter. It was a government which answered the August 1942 ‘Quit India’ resolution of the Indian Congress with a hail of bullets, bombed villages from the air, flogged demonstrators for demanding freedom, seized Congress funds and sentenced nationalist leaders to long terms of imprisonment. While denouncing the atrocities inflicted upon the peoples of Europe by an imperialism at war with their own rulers, the Labour leaders helped an imperialism whose misrule led to the 1943 famine in which five million people died and men and women who rioted for bread were shot down. So abject was their collaboration that the Labour leaders failed even to get from the Tories a pledge that the Trade Disputes and Trade Unions Act (1927) would be repealed after the war. To secure the support of Labour’s rank and file they spoke of the Emergency Powers Acts which the coalition government introduced in 1940 as meaning the end of class privileges, the beginning of ‘war-time socialism’. But as Kirkwood said to Attlee in the House of Commons on May 22, 1940: ‘The working class, as I understand the Lord Privy Seal, is to be tied hand and foot and private property is not.’ Working men and women were bound to their jobs or compelled to move from one area of industry to another. Miners who had escaped from poverty and decay in the coalfields and found jobs elsewhere were searched out and brought back to dig coal—and often to see coalowners using labour on less productive seams, leaving the more productive for peace-time, when profits would be harder to come by.[14] Workers were fined and imprisoned for striking, for being late or absent from work and for refusing a direction to work.[15]

The control of industry under ‘war-time socialism’ turned out to be in the hands of Controllers who had previously been high in the management of the very industries they were now set to supervise. ‘The Labour leaders are criminally co-operating in all the measures for the defence of imperialism, while blindfolding the masses to their real meaning,’ said Youth for Socialism [16] June 1940, a few weeks after these leaders had entered the coalition. ‘If Labour realty wishes to defend its liberties and defeat fascism then the Labour leaders must cease co-operation with Churchill.’

The situation at home was one of ‘unlimited profits’ coinciding with ‘unlimited chaos’. Among the working class there was general mistrust in the political leadership of the ruling class. ‘Meanwhile the Emergency Powers are enforced to prosecute shop stewards and worker militants who are fighting in the interests of the working class, and to introduce a regimentation aimed at stifling any working-class opposition to the existing régime.’ [17]

Socialist Appeal appeared just as the Communist Party was making its second somersault of the war.[18] The Communist Party rapidly became the most jingoistic supporter of British capitalism, an organized strikebreaking force,[19] and a manufactory of lies and slanders against revolutionary opponents of the war. It became the most ardent defender of the political truce, supporting Tory candidates with unprincipled accusations against their socialist opponents.[20] The former cry of ‘Down with the industrial truce’ was heard no more. Now the slogan was ‘Everything for production’.

The National Council of Shop Stewards called a conference in the Stoll Theatre, London, on October 19, 1941, which was attended by 1,400 delegates. The purpose of the conference, said the opening speaker, a leading Communist Party engineer, was not to discuss the direction and control of production, but to consider concrete instances of ‘how our co-operation with the management has increased production’.[21] A Trotskyist girl shop steward, delegate from the west London shop stewards’ area committee, pointed out there were only two methods of increasing production:

The one alternative is that of Nazi Germany, where production is organized through the complete destruction of all working-class rights. The other alternative is the establishment of workers’ control, which would not only increase production but also safeguard and extend the rights we have won through years of struggle. If this conference gives a lead, and I hope that it will, for a movement in the trade unions and factories for the control of production through factory committees, it would be the first serious blow struck against fascism and in defence of the Soviet Union.[22]


The Communist Party lined up with the most reactionary forces in attacking those who remained faithful to socialist principles. In November 1941 Rothermere’s Sunday Dispatch denounced the Trotskyists and called on the government to take action against them. Its second article[23] on ‘a group that needs watching’ reported that the Communist Party had prepared a manifesto attacking Socialist Appeal . It quoted with approval from this manifesto, which was being circulated as an internal document within the Communist Party. In its issue of December 1941 Socialist Appeal commented: ‘Is it not worthy of note that the Sunday Dispatch obtained access to this document? And does it not suggest that this was provided by the CP leadership, which has not hesitated at using the gutter Press to attack genuine Leninists?’[24]

The internal document was later issued as a leaflet by the Communist Party under the heading: ‘Warning to all anti-Nazis’ ‘Don’t be deceived by traitors who call themselves “socialists” to cover up their activities,’ it declared. ‘These despicable traitors should be driven out of the Labour movement.’ In bold type the leaflet concluded: ‘Treat a Trotskyist as you would a Nazi.’

In Labour Monthly for December 1941 J.R. Campbell, now straightened out on the line he had adopted at the beginning of the war, called the Trotskyists the ‘agents of the Gestapo in the Labour movement’. The Communist Party, which only five months before had been fiercely defending itself against jingoistic attacks,[25] now incited its members to violence against socialists who opposed the war. ‘We are too tolerant with these people,’ declared a document circulated to Young Communist League branches in December 1941. ‘They are allowed to sell their paper Socialist Appeal outside meetings.’ But Socialist Appeal sellers defended themselves vigorously against the paper-snatching and thuggery which local Stalinist officials up and down the country attempted to organize outside meetings.

In August 1942 the Communist Party published Clear Out Hitler’s Agents , by William Wainwright—fifteen pages of downright lies and forged quotations calculated to work up a pogrom against the Trotskyists. ‘These people,’ Wainwright wrote, ‘have not the slightest right to be regarded as workers with an honest point of view.’ He, too, added: ‘They should be treated as you would treat a Nazi.’

Socialist Appeal counter-attacked with a leaflet entitled, ‘Clear out the Bosses’ Agents’, exposing the strike breaking and anti-working-class policy of the Communist Party. In its issue of September 1942 the paper offered £10 reward to ‘any member of the CP who can show any page of this pamphlet [Clear Out Hitler’s Agents ] which does not contain a minimum of five lies. Needless to say, the reward remains unclaimed to this day.

The slanders of the Communist Party leaders made little headway. The rank and file of the Labour movement were in general disgusted by their way of dealing with Trotskyism, and a great number of their own members were uneasy about their leaders’ attitude. Although by no means winning wide support for its denunciation of the war as an imperialist one, Socialist Appeal was received with wide sympathy among workers in struggle. Its circulation grew as discontent with the way the war was being conducted, and with conditions in industry, mounted.[26]

Working days lost by strikes, which fell to 940,000 in 1940, rose to 1,530,000 in 1942, 1,810,000 in 1943 and 3,710,000 in 1944. By the beginning of 1944 the government was faced with the prospect of a general strike throughout the coalfields. In the last months of 1943 there had been a wave of strikes, most of them in defence of young workers who had been conscripted for underground work. At the end of January 1944 a strike against a wages award—the Porter award --which meant no increase for large sections of the miners, spread rapidly through Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire and South Wales. Sporadic strikes continued in the following weeks, flaring up to a strike of 100,000 Welsh miners in March.[27]

Next month the Press launched a vilification campaign against the Trotskyists. At the same time there were police raids on the headquarters of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which had been formed in March by the fusion of two formerly separate organizations, the Revolutionary Socialist League and the Workers’ International League. These attacks were part of the government’s plans for dealing with the greatest strike wave for many years, a movement which had broken through the official trade union machine. In the Press scare campaign ‘hidden-hand agitators’ and ‘subversive elements’ were blamed for the strikes. Four Trotskyists—Heaton Lee, Ann Keene, Roy Tearse and J. Haston—were arrested. The Press campaign continued amid protests from Labour MPs.[28] The government’s purpose was clear. An atmosphere was being created for the introduction of more severe legislation to stem the industrial struggle and to restore the crumbling authority of the trade union leadership. The ruling class intensified its attack on the Marxists not only because they were winning support, but primarily as a means whereby it could bulldoze through Regulation Iaa introduced by Ernest Bevin.

The effect of this Regulation was to make any expression of sympathy for workers on strike punishable by five years’ imprisonment or a £500 fine. Anyone who took or advocated any action which could be construed as leading to a strike in any industry, at any meeting or discussion which was not an officially convened union meeting, was also liable to five years’ imprisonment. The Trades Union Congress was consulted before the Regulation was introduced. Trade union officialdom had to enlist the help of the State and its police to control its own members.[29]

The four Trotskyists were charged under the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act of 1927 with conspiring in furtherance of an illegal strike.[30] They were the first victims of an Act which the Labour movement had fiercely condemned ever since its introduction after the General Strike, an Act which the leaders of the Labour Party were pledged to repeal. However, Bevin and Morrison, Minister of Labour and Home Secretary respectively, helped to institute the prosecution. The arrests aroused a great protest in the Labour Party and in the trade unions. A committee to defend the victims of the anti-Labour laws was formed, with W.G. Cove, MP, as treasurer and James Maxton, MP, as chairman. Representatives from the Independent Labour Party, Freedom Press and the Revolutionary Communist Party, together with eight Labour MPs including Aneurin Bevan, sat on the committee. But the National Council for Civil Liberties refused to help. The Communist Party supported the arrests.[31

At their trial in Newcastle in June Roy Tearse and Heaton Lee were sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment, Haston to six months and Ann Keene to thirteen days. Two months later the sentences were quashed at the Court of Criminal Appeal, Regulation Iaa had been pushed through. The strike wave was receding, only partly because of the Regulation but mainly because the Second Front had been opened and the Allied armies were advancing into Europe. Workers began to feel the end of the war was in sight. The tide against the political truce finally broke up the coalition government. A ‘caretaker government’ prepared for a general election. In May 1945 the accumulated experiences of pre-war depression, war-time suffering, profiteering, muddle and corruption resulted in the great wave of working-class and middle-class opinion which swept Labour into power.


The workers are for the destruction of Hitlerism and any other form of fascism, but this cannot be accomplished under the control and leadership of the capitalist class and its politicians. Even if Churchill and British imperialism were to defeat the Nazis it would not mean the destruction of fascism.

So declared a Trotskyist leaflet issued to the Labour Party conference in June 1941. (Let those who at that time believed the military defeat of Hitler would resolve the question of fascism ponder on the recent events in France, where de Gaulle—whose reputation as ‘hero of the Resistance’ the Communist Party leaders helped to build up—opens the door to fascism.) The victory of the Allies removed none of the basic problems which faced the working class in 1939. Indeed the failures of the communist parties and reformist leaders since 1945 have raised these problems more urgently than ever. ‘Socialism or barbarism’ before the war meant the choice between collective ownership, or fascism and war with ‘conventional’ weapons. ‘Barbarism’ today means not only the collapse of democratic institutions but, above all, the poisoning and malformation of a major part of the human race amid radio-active ruins.

It is true that as a result of the war imperialism and capitalism have been driven out of large areas in the Far East and in eastern Europe. But if support for the last war can be justified because of the revolutionary changes the war engendered, then the German social democrats were correct in supporting the first world war—for the victories of German imperialism helped create the Russian Revolution. India and Burma now have political independence, not as a result of the victory of ‘democratic’ capitalism over fascist capitalism, but because ‘democratic’ capitalism was weakened by war, and because the uprisings in these countries during the war and the threatened revolutions at its end forced imperialism to grant what it could not suppress. In fact the rout of British imperialism in 1942 by the Japanese armies played a major part in developing the revolutionary temper and confidence among the oppressed eastern peoples.

‘If Hitler is defeated the Nazi regime will crack up and the resulting revolution will come rapidly under socialist leadership,’ wrote a Labour supporter of the war in answer to the revolutionary opposition.[32] But the invasion of Europe, which the Marxists declared was for the purpose of maintaining capitalist relations and the domination of Anglo-American imperialism, led to precisely that.[33]

To delude the British working class that while imperialism controlled their lives and expended their blood for its own purposes the war could be fought against fascism and for social revolution in Germany that was the way to help undermine the very proletarian internationalism needed to aid the workers oppressed by Hitler and Mussolini. It was true that the main stimulus for revolt in the fascist countries was most likely to come from abroad. But this made all the more urgent the task of rousing the working class of the ‘democratic’ countries to the responsibility of waging a successful struggle against their own capitalists. For the stimulus and aid to socialist revolt in Germany could come only from the working class elsewhere. The imperialist policy of unconditional surrender was directed against the real anti-fascist forces in Italy and Germany. Allied planes murderously bombed Milan and Turin in 1943 while Italian workers in those cities were heroically on strike against Italian fascism and the Gestapo. When the armies of ‘democratic’ capitalism occupied Italy the Allied Military Government used the entire existing governmental apparatus, including generals, administrators and the notorious carabinieri , all of whom had served Mussolini. The Allies reduced Germany to a state of famine and to conditions in which working men and women fought for an existence on the lowest level, unable to reassemble their forces and activities in an organized way as a class until the economy began functioning again. And the policies of western imperialism, helped by the chauvinistic propaganda of the Stalinists and Right-wing reformists, guaranteed that the monopolies which backed Hitler dominated the resurgent economy.[34]

The Trotskyists held aloft the banner of socialist internationalism. That alone would reflect honour on the Marxist movement. But more than that: this movement, mainly of young men and women, fought an all-round battle for great principles. There was much that was immature and unpolished in its propaganda. Looking back on these war years one sees that the central political demand, ‘Labour to power’, was used, in the main, as a propaganda slogan and not as a general strategic line directed at establishing links with wide layers of the working class. But this is secondary to the courageous battle that was fought for socialist principles.

Unlike the leaders of the Communist Party the Trotskyists do not need to fear a survey of the past. They do not have to rewrite history over and over again, leaving big gaps, omitting the names of various people, falsifying, lying and distorting. The experiences and struggle of the Trotskyists in war-time are part of the heritage of the Marxist movement. Those who participated, and who are seeking now to extend the power of Marxism in the British Labour movement, can be justly proud of their stand for internationalism and for socialist principles.


[1] In Marxist language, Harold Laski attempted to justify support for the war in a pamphlet published by the Labour Party soon after war was declared and entitled: Is This an Imperialist War? ‘The effect on Hitlerite Germany of a victorious war,’ he wrote, ‘would, clearly, be to consolidate the power of a new and vigorous imperialism at the beginning of its expansion, and using methods far more oppressive than that of contemporary Britain.’ Laski found a further ingenious argument for British Labour supporting the war. If it did not, then the British ruling class would be forced to take away its liberties! ‘If they [the socialists] become indifferent to its [Hitler’s government’s] efforts to defeat this country, it is probable that a regime of coercion would replace the present parliamentary system.’

[2] Letter to American Socialists, August 13, 1940, Fourth International (theoretical journal of the U.S. Socialist Workers’ Party), October 1940.

[3] Socialist Appeal, November 1941: The article went on: ‘All the greater the reason to devote ourselves to a “patient” explanation as to the real situation that exists by showing the aims and aspirations of British imperialism and convince them [the workers] of the only road for the liberation of the working class.’

[4] See In Defence of Marxism, by L. Trotsky (New York, 1942). Shachtman and Burnham, the main opponents of defence of the Soviet Union, finally split from the U.S. Socialist Workers’ Party. They quickly developed their ideas to the point where they described Russia as a new class society—a ‘bureaucratic collectivist society’. Burnham later wrote The Managerial Revolution --a widely-known if not widely-read book—and continued his course away from socialism until he became a propagandist for the American ruling class.

[5] Does Russia’s Entry Alter Britain’s War? (Workers’ International League, 1941).

[6] Labour Monthly, August 1941.

[7] This phrase in quotation marks is from Lenin.

[8] Does Russia’s Entry Alter Britain’s War?

[9] The Labour Party and the Menace of War.

[10] See also Labour Monthly, January 1935. There, discussing the entry of the Soviet Union into the League of Nations, Palme Dutt warned the working class ‘never [his emphasis] to become entangled in the lines of imperialist policies’ ‘The participation of the Soviet Union in the League of Nations no more transforms the character of the League of Nations than participation of a communist in parliament transforms the character of parliament,’ he wrote, and continued: ‘The false comparison of the position of a working class which has conquered power and now has to manoeuvre in a capitalist world … is the favourite fallacy of reformism to confuse the issue and to conceal its own capitalist policies.’

[11] Labour’s Peace Aims (Labour Party, Dec. 1939).

[12] The Labour Party ‘is a party that stands for democracy and freedom, and therefore recognizes that the suppression of liberty anywhere in the world is a blow to freedom everywhere’ (ibid.).

[13] In 1940 the Burmese House of Representatives protested that Britain had included Burma in a war without the consent of the Burmese people. After the defeats in Burma in 1942 General Alexander estimated that 10 per cent. of the population had been pro-Japanese, 10 per cent. were pro-British and 80 per cent. were indifferent. In Burma the Japanese government tried to rule after its victories through a section of the native ruling class. On the argument of the ‘lesser evil’ the Burmese people should have allied with the Japanese against the British. Indeed, this was precisely the trap some Burmese—and Indian—nationalist leaders fell into. The “independence” of Burma, shadowy though it may be in western eyes, is none the less a real advance on her former status in the estimation of many of her people, and failure to reckon with this fact would be a grave mistake’ (The Times, December 13, 1944).

[14] A conference of the Lancashire and Cheshire Regional Council of Labour was told by a miners’ leader in 1942: ‘The miners are fed up with the chaos and inefficiency that masquerades as production. Coal production was being deliberately hindered by the employers to maintain profits and keep pits sound for after the war’ (Socialist Appeal, April 1942).

[15] The February 1945 issue of Socialist Appeal reported: ‘Since the outbreak of the war, 23,517 workers have been prosecuted under anti-Labour legislation. But not one boss has gone to prison under these same laws. The few who were found guilty received only nominal fines; while 1,807 workers have gone to prison … In June 1942, Ernest Bevin boasted in the House of Commons that in the previous six months “I have transferred at great loss of wages to themselves, over 36,000 men from munitions factories to the mines”. These workers lost from £1 to £2 10s. a week in their wages, and their conditions of work [were] made very much harder. Bevin could do this to the workers but not to his capitalist masters. For this is the only reason why he and the other Labour leaders are kept in the Cabinet at the present time.’

[16] Youth for Socialism was the predecessor of Socialist Appeal, which began publication in June 1941, first as a monthly, from March 1942 as a fortnightly.

[17] Socialist Appeal, June 1941.

[18] The Communist Party supported the war for twenty-seven days after it began. ‘Nazis plunge world into war,’ said a Daily Worker headline on September 2, 1939. Pollitt wrote a pamphlet entitled How to Win the War. However, on September 29, the Russian and German governments, having occupied Poland in accordance with secret agreements in the Nazi-Soviet Pact, issued a joint call for peace by negotiation. ‘To talk of war to the end, which means the wholesale slaughter of the youth of Europe, would be madness,’ the Daily Worker editorial board announced the following day.

[19] One example of its general policies was its furious activity during October 1942 when 40,000 Tyneside engineers struck over a change in the method of payment of wages. Before the strike, at a special meeting of party members on Tyneside, Pollitt instructed all communists to oppose it. Len Powell, then Secretary of the National Council of Shop Stewards—a body which originated as a militant movement but which, under Communist Party control, was concentrating all its activities on the development of production committees—issued a leaflet denouncing the strike. The strike committee condemned the Communist Party and the Daily Worker . A bulletin issued by the party declared: ‘At every yard meeting our comrades should take part and forcefully put the case for a return to work, announce their own intention of going in and appeal to the workers to follow them.’ The Daily Worker complained on October 15, two days after the strike had ended, that shop stewards who had remained at work were being removed from their positions. Although it was the workers who had elected them who were now voting them out, the Daily Worker indignantly announced they were being ‘victimized’ and demanded that the union district committees refuse to allow their removal (Socialist Appeal November 1942). At a national conference of the Communist Party in May 1942 Pollitt honoured blacklegging. ‘I salute our comrade, a docker from Hull,’ he said. ‘When the rest of the dockers struck work, he fought against it … What courage, what a sacred spirit of real class consciousness to walk on the ship’s gangway and resume his job.’

[20] E.g.; the Cardiff by-election of 1942, in which Fenner Brockway stood as Independent Labour Party candidate. The Communist Party’s slogan was: ‘A vote for Brockway is a vote for Hitler.’ It called Brockway the ‘ILP candidate who embodies all the snivelling anti-Sovietism of that organization … the people of Cardiff have no time for those who are playing Hitler’s game by abusing Russia’ (See Commentary on Current Political Events — published during the ban on the Daily Worker —April 8, 1942).

[21] Socialist Appeal, November 1941.

[22] Ibid. The speech was greeted with loud applause, to the discomfiture of the platform.

[23] November 29, 1941.

[24] Fourteen years later it appeared that certain leading circles of the Communist Party still had a strange affinity for the Sunday Dispatch . During the dock strike for recognition of the ‘Blue Union’ in 1955, leaders of the docks organization of the Communist Party called a number of Pressmen together on the evening of June 18. The following day, the Sunday Dispatch vilified a ‘group of men’ with ‘diabolical cunning’ who were allegedly terrorizing the dockers. ‘Even veteran communists call them sinister men,’ it told its readers, and asked them to be sorry for the ‘25,000 scared men’ on London’s docks. ‘The ghost of Trotsky walks the docks today in the form of men who speak only English,’ announced this excursion into melodrama piloted by Communist Party leaders.

[25] In April 1941 Palme Dutt had indignantly condemned ‘the unscrupulous methods of fanning the flames of jingo prejudice against socialists in war-time who remain faithful to the class struggle’. ‘Such methods,’ he wrote, are familiar from the gutter sheets of Tory jingoism; the bottom pit of shame is reached when they are used by those who dare to call themselves “socialists”’ (Labour Monthly, April 1941).

[26] Uneasiness at the agreements which the British government concluded with Darlan, Giraud, Peyrouton and other reactionary French leaders. Uneasiness at the conflicts between Anglo-American imperialism and the Soviet Union over strategy; at the defeats in the Far East owing to the hatred which British rule had engendered among the peoples there; and at profiteering, muddle and glaring inequality of sacrifice at home. Politically these feelings showed themselves in a movement against the political truce—the election of and large votes for independent candidates and a demand inside the Labour Party that Labour break with the coalition government. A resolution supporting the continuation of the truce was carried by a majority of only 66,000 on a card vote at the Labour Party conference in May 1942.

[27] A significant pointer to the feeling of workers in uniform was a debate by Eighth Army men on the question: ‘Should strikes be allowed in war-time?’, which took place immediately after the Welsh coal strike. Under the headlines: ‘Eighth Army men say to workers: “Right to strike is part of the freedom we fight for” ’, the Eighth Army News reported that ‘Sgt J. Lawson failed to gain sufficient 8th Army Signals support to carry his proposal that strikes in war-time should be declared illegal’. A photograph of this issue of Eighth Army News appeared in Socialist Appeal, mid-May 1944. In the same issue there was a petition to the Home Secretary, signed by eighty-two soldiers in the Royal Engineers, protesting at the arrests of four Trotskyists.

[28] ‘These poor people had none of the benefits of any democratic code … Before they had been tried, the newspapers were permitted … without any action being taken against them at all, to commit contempt of court to an extent never before seen in Great Britain. They piled up public hatred … they slandered and abused these people at the very moment when they were committed for trial. No action was taken by this venal government to protect them in any way’ (Aneurin Bevan, House of Commons, April 28, 1944).

[29] ‘It is trade union officials who are invoking the law against their own members. Do not anyone on this side of the House think that he is defending the trade unions. He is defending the trade union official, who has artorioscierocis, and who cannot readjust himself to his membership. He is defending the official who has become so unpopular with his own membership that the only way he can keep them in order is to threaten them with five years in jail’ (ibid.).

[30] The strike referred to was the Tyneside apprentices’ strike on March 28, 1944. The strike was against the ‘Bevin ballot’ scheme by which young apprentices were chosen by lot to work in the mines. The Tyneside Apprentices’ Guild, which led the strike, opposed the conscription of young workers into the pits and put forward a demand for the nationalization of the mines and workers’ control as the way to attract labour.

[31] ‘The Communist Party has repeatedly demanded that measures under existing legislation should be taken against Trotskyist propaganda in this country in the same way as against fascist propaganda. The licence given to Trotskyist propaganda has enabled it to exploit the difficulties of the present situation in a way that has at last roused public opinion’ (Resolution of an enlarged meeting of the executive committee of the Communist Party, April 16, 1944, World News and Views, April 22, 1944).

[31] W. N. Warbey, Left, November 1939.

[33] ‘Who really believes the scare stories of the coming domination of the rest of Europe by Anglo-American imperialism?’ asked Harry Pollitt in September 1944, in How to Win the Peace. ‘This People’s War will be followed by a People’s Peace,’ he prophesied.

[34] When in 1944 the Trades Union Congress passed an ‘all Germans are guilty’ resolution Goebbels used it in propaganda on the German radio meant to exploit German fears of a peace harsher than Versailles. The hypocrisy of the trade union leaders was epitomized by Sir Walter Citrine, who declared to this Congress: ‘There is far too much mushy sentimentality about this question … Nobody has wanted to see signs of revolt in Germany more than I have. The TUC has appealed to the German Labour movement.’ This same trade union leader, eleven years before, had justified the betrayal of his German counterparts when they allowed Hitler to take power without any organized opposition. At the 1933 TUC he excused them by saying: ‘A general strike after the atmosphere created by the Reichstag fire and with 6,500,000 unemployed was an act fraught with the gravest consequences, which might be described as nothing less than civil war.’

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