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The New International, April 1943

Alfred Freeman

Appeasement in Theory and Practice

Reviewing Some Lessons of Spain


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 4, April 1943, pp. 119–121.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Spain is the most adequate symbol of the contemporary tragedy. No other country has been nearer to socialist salvation in the past decade; and none has had that hope more cruelly snatched from it. Few other countries suffer so terribly from the deprivations of fascist rule; and not many have a population so bitterly hateful toward its rulers. Yet it stands today, this Franco-ruled country, as the creature of world capitalism, the grotesque barrier set up to stem the socialist tide.

The liberals – whose sum of historical wisdom consists in the endless repetition, like the Surprised Virgin who had been seduced only twelve times before, that they were “betrayed” by the appeasing leaders of the democracies – like to refer to Spain as the first battle of this world war. There is a reed of truth to this label, but there is a forest of untruth, too. The Spanish Civil War was not essentially the prelude to the imperialist world war which now rages; it was rather the epilogue, the tragic finale, to that international civil war which began the very hour when Lenin proclaimed the Russian Soviet Republic and which ended – for the time, at least – in the defeat of the Spanish proletariat at the hands of international capitalism and its partner, Stalinism. Spain marked the defensive triumph of capitalist reaction for the decade between the two world wars. It was only after the international civil war between worker and capitalist had ended in the decisive victory for the latter that the capitalist world could turn to the next point on its agenda: its internecine war for the division and redivision of the world’s wealth.

This is the fundamental fact about the Spanish Civil War. It is his failure to grasp it even remotely which leads Thomas J. Hamilton [1] to put forward the “appeasement theory” as his main theme in the book under review and which vitiates an otherwise excellent piece of work.

A New Devil Theory

The theory which views all of our social evils, especially the rise of fascism and the outbreak of war, as the result of the “appeasement” policy of the democratic politicians persists among the liberal publicists and also among sections of the working class. In the case of the publicists at least there is little wonder; this theory is the last peg upon which they can hang their continued support of bourgeois regimes and their war policies which they know to be politically rotten. Once analyzed, however, this theory is indefensible. One might as readily pin the blame on Satan or Beelzebub, since a theory which places the responsibility for great historical developments on the stupidity or maliciousness of an individual is no more scientific, no more susceptible to logical or historical proof, than a theory which places the world’s ills at the doorsteps of some supernatural evil. Why do Satan and Beelzebub spread evil? Because they are devils. Why did Chamberlain and Daladier “appease” Hitler? Because they were devils ... rather, they were shortsighted, stupid, evil ... that is, they were devils.

This kind of circumlocution gets us nowhere. Especially so when we return to the social matrix in which the “appeasement” policy was developed. Why did Chamberlain and Daladier “appease” Hitler? Because they desired the defeat of their own imperialisms? Because they desired the victory of German imperialism? Because they really believed that Munich would bring, as Chamberlain said, the age of peace? Merely to state these possibilities is to indicate their absurdity. Chamberlain and Daladier were vitally interested in the destruction of German imperialism and they had no illusions about any age of peace – as witness Chamberlain’s frantic rearmament program before and after Munich. They were acting in what they felt was the best interests of their respective imperialist powers and there is increasing evidence that they were correct, from their class point of view.

Did they betray the liberals? No, the liberals betrayed themselves. Chamberlain never promised anything to the liberals, and if Daladier had promised something, the increasingly totalitarian character of his regime should have convinced even the most shortsighted of them that he was motivated by solid class interest and not by windy rhetoric. Why then was the appeasement policy followed by Britain and France, with the intermittent support of America?

Retrospective examination indicates that it was only the high bourgeois circles and the Stalinists, on the one hand, and the revolutionary socialists, on the other, who realized how close Europe had come to socialism in the two decades between wars. For the bourgeoisie and its newly-won ally in reaction, the Stalinists, this was a constant source of anxiety and worry. The European proletariat had displayed remarkable resilience. Despite a harrowing series of betrayals at the hands of the Social Democracy and the Stalinists, it came back periodically with renewed energy and the will to struggle. In Germany alone there had been several near-revolutions between the collapse of the Hohenzollerns and the seizure of power by Hitler. Britain had witnessed the cataclysmic general strike. Spain had been wracked by continual revolts. The smaller countries too had not known a moment of that “peace and order” which the bourgeoisie so reveres. Even in the late Thirties, when the betrayal of Stalinism was complete, when the turn to reaction was definitive and prolonged; even then the perspicacious bourgeoisie continued to tremble at the thought of proletarian revolution. Only the day before, the French workers had risen in the gigantic series of strikes of 1936; how near they had been to power, how shattered the ruling apparatus had been, how close an escape (due mainly to the treachery of the Popular Front) the capitalist state had had in France, only its trembling defenders could know. It was enough to give one a severe headache ... And, to top it off, the shouts of revolt from the streets of Paris had hardly died down when the Spanish proletariat – that most selfless and heroic of classes! – began to rumble forward, stung by the revolt of the generals. “Franco and Mola dare attempt a return to the past? We shall answer them by marching ahead to the future.”

The Specter of Communism

It is against this background, so fraught with danger for the status quo and still containing hope, despite the series of previous defeats, for the revolutionists – it is only against this background that the appeasement policy can be understood. The specter of which Marx and Engels had spoken decades ago, the specter of communist revolution, still hovered over the heads of the rulers of Europe. Could they risk a war with Hitler, that wily upstart who was taking advantage of their predicament to increase his own power, when their class rear was so dangerously exposed?

Chamberlain and Daladier, as well as those who stood behind them, were no fools. They understood only too well the meaning of 1936 in France. And they understood that the fundamental choice in Spain was bluntly: fascism or socialism. They understood that any provisional liberal government of the Loyalist camp would, if it triumphed, be a puny Kerrnskiad; that it would be unable to resist the very social movements which its triumph would unleash. And Daladier knew that a proletarian victory in Spain would stimulate once again those revolutionary forces which he had had such trouble in holding back in France. And Chamberlain, he knew that the English Channel wasn’t very wide.

This is the basic social situation which must be appreciated in order to understand the appeasement policy. It was a class policy from beginning to end. It was a class policy based on the bourgeois need of suppressing socialist revolutions wherever they might start, and it was based on the realistic assumption that for the English and French bourgeoisies it was better to strengthen Hitler’s hand rather than to allow the workers to gain power anywhere. That is why the Allies played the double game of trying to strengthen the bourgeois elements within the Loyalist camp at the expense of the proletarian elements while at the same time extending de facto aid to Franco by means of the tragicomic Non-intervention Committee. Some would-be economic analysts have tried to make it appear as if the main reason for Britain’s friendliness to Franco was its fear of what would happen to its economic investments in Spain, notably the iron mines in the North, if the Loyalists won. This concrete dollar-and-cents motivation undoubtedly played its rô1e, but it was really small potatoes; Chamberlain wasn’t as worried about the relatively small investments of some English capitalists as about the preservation of the capitalist status quo on the continent as a whole. That is the explanation of Munich. And that is also the explanation of why the Franco regime is not the product of the appeasement policy of a few blind men. It is rather the product of a conscious, carefully worked out conspiracy on the part of world capitalism (including the New Deal administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) to put even the fascist Franco in power in order to keep the workers out of power. (Some day, perhaps, when the archives of capitalist diplomacy are made available to scholars by triumphant socialist regimes, it may be seen that some such thoughts with regard to Spain were even explicitly discussed at the Munich conference. But regardless of that possible evidence, the general social course is clear enough.)

Once this basic class cause of the appeasement policy is understood, the subsidiary causes, some of them mere offshoots and by-paths of the main one, become clear as well. If Chamberlain was forced to come to an agreement with Hitler to postpone the imperialist war in order in the meantime to wipe out the proletarian revolution, he had no illusions whatever about the durability of that postponement. Both before and after Munich, Britain was rearming at a great rate. And it was the inadequacy of this rearmament as compared with that of Hitler which was still another cause of the appeasement policy. It was necessary for England to build the RAF. Despite their public histrionics to the contrary, Chamberlain and Churchill were playing one game; the one was the necessary prelude to the other; and it was primarily for mass consumption that it was necessary for them to wage, for a time, a public war of words.

The situation was even more aggravated in France. There, social instability and chaos had reached a dangerous point. The claim of certain reactionaries that the Popular Front hindered the war effort of France has a certain element of perverted truth: this bastard government could stir enthusiasm or organize efficiently for neither an imperialist war nor a war of socialist liberation. The French capitalist class was suffering from an advanced case of hardening of the arteries, and the Popular Front patent medicines were of little help. Here, even more than in England, the state of social disintegration made impossible an aggressive foreign policy, and appeasement was the result. Which is but another proof that halfway houses provide precious little shelter in these times of storm ... It was only after French capitalism could gather itself up sufficiently to find its strong man (Daladier, in comparison to whom even Napoleon III appears a figure of dignity and stature) that it could turn its attention away from its defeated but by no means quiescent working class and face its German imperialist rival on the battlefield.

The Rôle of the Catholic Church

Still another factor to be considered in estimating the causes of the appeasement policies was the rôle of the Catholic Church. This delicate topic has not yet been fully explored by any writer, but the general outlines are clear. In Spain the Catholic Church found one of its most profitable (in both senses of the word!) fields; it was one of the few important countries in which it still played a considerable rôle in the educational apparatus and in political developments. It was also one of the largest land-owning institutions in Spain, profiting from the exploitation of the poor peasants. The victory of the workers, it realized well enough, would mean its elimination from all secular activities, which have a peculiar attraction for the other-worldly clergy. It would mean an end to its economic power as a landlord. Resultantly, the church wielded its international influence to win aid for the fascists. Especially was this true of the American Catholics. They, too, wanted to crush the last embers of the proletarian revolution.

Much has been written to show that the Munich policy was the result of anti-Soviet bias on the part of the democracies. In the opinion of this writer, at least, that factor has been greatly exaggerated. When one considers the desperate political and military straits in which Britain and France found themselves at the time, it became apparent that their main intent was defensive, that is, a play for time to prepare for the war with Germany which they knew was coming. But certainly they could not have failed to realize that it would be a policy of class suicide for them to engage in a war with Hitler against Russia. Such a venture could in no way have lessened the imperialist antagonisms between themselves and Hitler, and it would have seen them come off only second best. Did they play with the idea of letting Hitler fight alone against Russia and thereby gain time? Perhaps, but even that idea had many dangers for them: Hitler might become too strong, as he did anyway. There were no doubt influential sectors of French and British capitalism which desired such a course, but it would appear now as if this was not the decision of the ruling sectors.

But didn’t the personal shortcomings of the Allied leaders play any part in the appeasement policy? Of course they did. But in secondary capacities, twisting a development here, protracting or accelerating one there, but not decisively changing the course of Europe’s history. For instance, it might be argued with considerable force that Chamberlain and Daladier, because of their inherent timidity and shortsightedness, played the appeasement game too long, even for the interests of their class. That may well be. But it still does not change our basic analysis.

Is the Franco regime “appeasement’s child”? No, it is the child of world capitalism, set up as a buffer against the socialist revolution – a buffer which is the joint, if not cooperative, product of Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, Daladier and Roosevelt.

And today, despite the fact that a bitter world war has split the parents of the Franco regime, they still unite in supporting it. That is why the Franco regime can afford, in the words of Hamilton, to “deliberately set out to infuriate the conquered.” It realizes that it has no mass support at home and cannot have any; it exists by the grace of world capitalism, which doesn’t give a hoot about what Franco does to the Spanish people.

What he has done to them is described in objective detail in Hamilton’s book. We have used most of our space to argue against the theory of appeasement which he has made the motivating thought of his work. Once the theoretical aspect is disposed of, however, there is much to be gained from this book. It is far more objective and factual than most of the books of the “foreign correspondents.” You will grit your teeth in anger and bitterness when you read of the misery and starvation to which Franco has brought the Spaniards. You will want to remember who it was who brought him to power and props him up at this very moment.


1. Appeasement’s Child: The Franco Regime in Spain, by Thomas J. Hamilton. Alfred A. Knopf, publishers: $8.00

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