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The New International, May 1944

Michael Drum

Rising Tide of Labor in Britain

A Report on the Class Struggle in Great Britain


From The New International, Vol. X No. 5, May 1944, pp. 142–145.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The massing of Allied military forces in Great Britain for the invasion of the continent obscures for the moment the developing class struggle in the United Kingdom.

While masses of troops and great quantities of war materiel are deployed, the Churchill-Bevin government finds it expedient to issue orders to Scotland Yard to raid the offices of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party. It would be difficult to understand this apprehension on the part of the British government and its Labor Minister, Morrison, in whose name the order was issued, if one were unacquainted with the labor scene in the British Isles.

Why are the capitalists and their labor lieutenants so jittery that they must prepare repressive measures against a relative handful of British militants? Not so long ago it was the same Morrison who signed the order for the release of the fascist, Mosley. Although five million workers signed their names in protest against this act of solicitude in behalf of Britain’s would-be Führer, the deed was done and the lame explanation given that so strong was Britain’s position vis-à-vis Hitler that the latter’s pal was no longer in a position to render him any effective aid.

There is some truth in this explanation. From the point of view of the British imperialists, Mosley no longer represents a “danger” to them. At the same time, with Hitler’s invasion of Britain gone forever, new dangers have come to the fore. The British working class is now presenting its bill with ever-increasing urgency to its ruling class. This is at the core of Churchill’s and Bevin’s concern over agitators and Trotskyists.

It is somewhat nightmarish for these gentlemen to contemplate that with the second front just beginning, Britain has already experienced a series of nation-wide strike waves greater than any since the British general strike of 1926. What is even more disconcerting is that the London bus drivers should walk out right after Morrison issued his order against “outside agitators” who foment strikes and incite industrial unrest.

The Basis of Unrest

Apparently there is a sound basis for the unrest which is stirring both the most advanced and the most backward industrial areas of the British Isles, and this dissatisfaction promises to make the year 1944 a bigger year for strikes than even 1943.

Neither patriotic appeals from the trade union bureaucrats and the Stalinists nor the chorus of threats and slanders of the Tory press have diverted the British workers from what they consider to be their fighting front for the right to a decent life. What is more, public opinion is with them! The strike of the 100,000 South Wales miners received widespread sympathy from the common people throughout the British Isles.

The working man and woman is not, fortunately, possessed with that irreducible logic that one finds in a Stalinist for whom Russia is everything, the second front paramount, and class peace essential. The British workers have had five years’ of war and in that time they have learned that things are not so simple. Much has happened since the air blitz following the fall of France. At that time they thought in elementary terms of survival and were grateful for the miraculous stand of the Royal Air Force, for Hitler’s blunder in attacking Russia, and the subsequent amazing resistance of the Russian armies.

Admiration for Russia yielded the British Communist Party large returns. Their membership grew to 60,000. New adherents flocked to them not only from the petty bourgeoisie but also from the working class. It is they who control the national shop stewards’ movement.

At the same time, Churchill became the man of the hour, the supreme defender of the nation. In those days, when good old Winnie promised retribution for the bombings on London, Liverpool and Coventry, the same thoughts of revenge existed in the minds of people. This mood has changed. A recent poll of the inhabitants of the most severely bombed areas reveals that a majority of them do not want the German people to be bombed any more. Hate and revenge are giving way to understanding and sympathy for the common people in Germany.

No doubt the British people still want to see Hitler beaten, but this single aim of the past has receded before more immediate and more genuine aspirations. Five years of war have taken their toll of sacrifice. During that time every family has had wrenched from it the best of its manhood. Family life has been greatly destroyed. Women have been forced into industry. Five and a half million women are employed and over two million of them are to be counted today in Great Britain’s all-time high of over eight million workers organized in the trade union movement.

What has the working woman’s contribution to the war effort netted her? According to the latest official returns of the Ministry of Labor, the average wage for men is about $26 a week while for women it is about $12.45. Though the nominal wage in Great Britain is higher than the pre-war wage, the real wage has been computed to be no more than the pre-war real wage. This means that the standard of living of the women workers today in the so-called prosperity period of the war boom is only half of that of die pre-war years.

Wage grievances do not by any means exhaust the causes of discontent of the British workers. But while on the subject of wages it is well to observe that 700,000 British miners average about $19 a week. In other words, their earning position is just about midway between women workers and the average wage for men. When that is all experienced miners make, it becomes understandable why Bevin has to conscript youth to work in the mines and why such conscription is regarded as the greater evil to conscription into the armed forces. There is no preference given to the young men who are unlucky enough to draw a ballot assigning them to the mines instead of to the forces. Hundreds have already chosen to go to prison as a lesser evil. The thousands who were drafted to work in the mines were among the first to join the strikes of the miners.

Stalinist Strike-Breaking

The Stalinist misleader of the miners, Arthur Homer, toured the South Wales coal fields to break the strike. The [London] Daily Worker editors worried themselves sick lest there be a lack of coal for the second front and shrieked:

Britain’s war effort is being threatened by dangerous disputes in the coal fields which only the prompt intervention of the government can bring to an end.

We deplore these strikes. They undermine the war effort and do great harm to the cause of the miners. (Daily Worker, March 8, 1944)

The Stalinist appeal for sustaining the second front against the fascist Hitler was understood least of all by those who were conscripted to work in the mines. They had their own ideas as to the location of the real front against forced labor. The fighting reply of young apprentices in the shipbuilding and engineering industries who were subject to conscription into the mines was formulated in an appeal to the miners by the Tyne Apprentice Committee, which concluded with a demand for “nationalization of the mines and their operation under workers’ control.

The capitalist press, assisted by the trade union bureaucrats and the Stalinists, attempted to work up hysteria against the striking British workers, and innumerable cartoons appeared in the bought press around the monotonous theme of the striker stabbing the soldier in the back.

This slimy campaign could get nowhere, as the British soldiers are acutely aware of their class position. Social and class issues are constantly discussed in the armed forces. The British ruling class has found it impossible to prevent widespread and organized discussions of political issues among the soldiers, sailors and airmen. That a similar condition is lacking among American soldiers is difficult for the British soldier to understand. The British Eighth Army is famous not only for its military exploits. The miners and other workers who compose it have made it just as well known for its advanced political and social ideas. Its ideology even penetrated to some degree the seemingly impervious ranks of the American armies which fought with it in the African campaign. Proposals by Tory spokesmen for an Allied occupation array in Europe for years could only promote still more the anti-Tory sentiment in the armed forces. Government resistance to a raise in pay for the armed services and the fake re-employment bill for ex-servicemen which contains such loopholes as: “The employer’s obligation is to reinstate an applicant at the first opportunity, IF ANY, at which it is REASONABLE AND PRACTICAL for him to do so,” explains why, in a mock election to Parliament held by a group of British soldiers in Africa, the outcome was overwhelmingly anti-Tory.

Americans in Britain

Contact with the American soldiers has concretized for the British worker and soldier his bleak expectations of the post-war world. Unenviable as is the lot of the millions of American soldiers who have been shipped thousands of miles away from home, the fact is that their appearance in Britain is taken by the people as being somewhat in the nature of a friendly invasion.

In Australia, American forces arrived just in time to help stave off an impending attack from the Japanese. To the people in the British Isles the arrival of the Americans did not even have this merit. Hitler’s invasion threat evaporated long before the mass arrivals of the Americans. Russian resistance to the German armies was received all the more enthusiastically since there was no danger of the Russians operating from British soil.

The presence of great numbers of Americans in Great Britain revealed to the British workers and particularly to the British soldiers the superior competitive position of their American ally. The British found themselves at a disadvantage when it came to buying the good things of life in which one can include what is known as a good time. Shows, dances, dinners, taxis and gifts have always appealed to girls the world over, and in this sphere the British men have often come off second best.

An inferior standard of living is bad enough. It is worse when one is confronted daily with a better one by those who come from the same class though from a different nation. It does not make matters better when, in addition, the Americans take their superiority for granted and do not take the trouble to hide their contempt for their hosts. American arrogance is best expressed in their unfailing use of the resented word “Limey,” which is only slightly above the connotation given to the word “Nigger.”

For their part, the British people have shown no inclination to appease the racial hatred of the backward American soldiers toward their own Negro comrades. It is a common sight to observe Negro soldiers in the company of British girls. The attempts of Negro-hating American soldiers “to put the Negro in his place” in the British Isles have met with widespread sympathy on the part of the British people for the American Negro soldiers, and American Negro-baiters are often reminded that they are not in the American South but in a much freer community.

The British workers and soldiers are not unaware of the wranglings between their own capitalist class and the American capitalist class over oil in Arabia, post-war air and shipping supremacy, markets, monetary policy and such other items commonly associated with an imperialist war. They have no doubt as to who is calling the tune. Admiration for Churchill fades before the realization that it is Roosevelt who gives the orders which will result in America being the only real victor in the war.

The British worker sees with what means the British ruling class intends to sustain Great Britain, even as a second-rate power. The Tories have no other solution except that of depressing the standard of living of the British working class. That is why Churchill scrapped the mild Beveridge Plan and intervened personally to reverse the passage of the bill giving equal pay to women teachers.

The latter was made into an issue of confidence in the government because it could have become an opening wedge in the struggle to grant women wages equal to those of the men workers. The British ruling class cannot grant the slightest reforms. A slight raise for the men in the armed forces is magnified to the point of a threat of unbridled inflation. The government’s housing scheme remains on paper, for fear of offending the lords of real estate and the speculators in land.

Decline of Churchill

There is no confidence at all in Churchill as a peacetime leader, and even as a war leader his prestige constantly diminishes. Between Churchill’s enthusiasm for the war and the weariness of the masses, there is a great gulf. That is how it was possible for him to make a terrible psychological blunder when not so long ago he referred to the resumption of German bombings on London as the return of the good old days. The British people reacted bitterly to this callous remark. This is far from surprising. Even today in every subway station in London one finds women and children victims of a neurosis which drives them to sleep nightly in the stations even when there are no air raids.

Churchill’s enthusiasm is understandable from the point of view of his class. The stock exchanges record high dividends, and profits soar. Industrial conscription has been applied only to the common man, while conscription of wealth is a myth. The workers have seen production impeded by bad management and private ownership, but improvement is resisted because it interferes with profits.

The Essential Works Order has resulted in the victimization and imprisonment of thousands of workers, but not a single employer has gone to prison as a result of countless violations on his part. The Joint Production Committees which the Stalinists sponsor so vehemently are used only to increase the exploitation of the worker.

The middle classes and the white collar workers have seen their fixed incomes hit by an increase in the cost of living that is up forty-five per cent over pre-war standards, according to the Oxford Institute of Statistics. At the same time, income taxes slice away as much as fifty per cent of the common man’s earnings. It is therefore not difficult to account for the desire of the Postal Workers & Civil Servants Union to affiliate with the Trade Union Center, a step which is strongly opposed by the government. It explains also the success of the Commonwealth Party among the middle classes and the white collar groups.

The Commonwealth Party

The Commonwealth Party registers the leftward mood of the British people. It has intervened in the electoral truce and its successes threaten to sever it. What is significant about this party is that the response to it has been to a program rather than to an organization. In the constituencies in which it has scored victories it participated without a local and established machine. Its electoral apparatus, derisively called Sir Acland’s Circus by the Tories, comes to the constituency almost entirely from the outside and scores its victory after an intensive, whirlwind campaign.

The Commonwealth Party is not a revolutionary party. It has never bothered to work out a strategy for ousting the capitalist class should the latter defy the will of the people. Likewise it has never bothered to build a base for itself in the only class capable of overthrowing capitalism – the working class.

However, since there is no lack of money from prominent, rich backers, wealthy men of good will, the party is able to carry through extremely competent agitation and propaganda campaigns. Its meetings take place in the largest halls. Speech-making by prominent national orators is supplemented by music and movies. They have put out an abundant literature, comprising something like three hundred different pamphlets on every conceivable issue. They headline their activity with the demand for a new social order and their general demands are: vital democracy, common ownership, equality and security, colonial freedom, and world unity.

The Commonwealth program is general, vague and contradictory. It could not stand up under any serious analysis. Suffice it to say that the Commonwealth Party supports the present war, although it is plain enough that the war is the natural product of capitalist decay. Its idea of world unity

is based on the continued existence of capitalist countries led by the United Nations and the belief that they could form a World Council “to pioneer vigorously toward a world government based upon economic and political democracy and the unity of the human race.”

The unreal and illusory character of the Commonwealth program does not invalidate the fact that the British people go for the idea of a new social order and common ownership and the other socialistic planks of the Commonwealth platform, and that they go for it at the drop of a hat.

The mood of the British people is so definitely leftist that it is not strange to find the Commonwealth Party seeking unity with the Labor Party, the Independent Labor Party and the Communist Party for a disruption of the electoral truce and for a common fight against the Tories. Commonwealth has already indicated that it has no desire to compete against the labor parties and plans to put forward one hundred and twenty candidates in the constituencies dominated by the Tories.

The Gallup Poll of June 1943 revealed that the British people were in a majority for the Labor Party. The middle classes are seeking a rapprochement with labor. If the latter should fail to take the lead toward a new social order, then the Commonwealth Party could conceivably become a fascist party, but this is definitely not the case today.

The Labor Party is under terrific pressure to break with the Conservatives and to take the power that lies waiting for it. Already within the Labor Party local labor leaders intend to run as independents where vacancies occur, as a means of circumventing the truce and preventing any embarrassment to the Bevins and the Morrisons.

The opening of the second front may create a temporary lull in the political and economic struggle of the classes, but there is every assurance that the battle will be that much sharper on the morrow. The longer the Labor Party hesitates, or is unwilling to break with the Tories, the more will its support go to the other parties with a leftist program. The Labor Party leaders are in a dilemma which they cannot resolve. The alternative is a break with the Tories or suffer a big split in the party.

Role of Communist Party

The strike-breaking activities of the Communist Party are so cleverly obscured that they could be the chief beneficiaries of the electoral truce if their pro-war line lead them to support it. They are for the truce to the point of supporting the Tory candidates against independents.

The Daily Worker on occasion even records the fact of its scabbing. One of its spokesmen, Jack Owens, writes:

A large number of the convenors of factories are members of the Communist Party, and the rest are in sympathy with the policy. I am sure that the general public do not realize that the smooth working in the factories, the absence of strikes, the drive to increase production, can be traced largely to the efforts of the Communist Party. (Daily Worker, March 8, 1944.)

If the activities of the Communist Party were so nakedly apparent to its followers, it would not exist as a force on the British scene. Unfortunately, largely because of Russia, it still appears to many workers as the revolutionary party. Thus, at the same time as it scabs, the Communist Party can also pose as the champion of the worker in industry. The Stalinists are very clever at exploiting the discontent among the workers. Only a few weeks ago they organized a national conference of shop stewards which was full of sound and fury.

The conference claimed 1,422 delegates, representing 590,438 workers. Even if these figures are inflated, that is no doubt that the Stalinists influence a great many workers. One can see from the resolution adopted by the conference how the Stalinists pretend to be interested in the workers. They are past masters in collecting grievances. The language is familiar:

This dissatisfaction and irritation arose over the open flouting of the Essential Work Order by employers; low rate of pay to women and youths; refusal to recognize trade unions, and a vicious policy of victimization carried on by the more unscrupulous of employers.

The delegates from the shops made fighting speeches and there was a great deal of applause. In the end the resolution showed that it was all to let off steam in order the better to fasten the workers behind the war machine. It urged:

... fullest support to the trade unions in any action they may take to get the government to bring workers into their confidence, by conducting a campaign explaining the need of the war effort so that changes necessary for the coming offensive will be understood.

The Stalinist control of the shop stewards’ movement and the dead hand of the bureaucrats on the official trade union organizations provided a dam against strike action, which was bound to crack against the rising flood of discontent. It was in the concrete strike actions that the Stalinists and the trade union bureaucrats revealed themselves for what they are. As a consequence, militant workers who were formerly under their influence are beginning to take an independent line of action.

Rank and File Movement!

Thus in Barrow, on the Tyne, on the Clyde, in the Midlands, in South Wales and South Yorkshire, in many of the strike areas, fighting committees have arisen outside of the official trade union and shop stewards’ machinery. In Glasgow, traditional center of militancy, workers organized into the “Clyde Workers Committee” and, recognizing the need for a national federation of trade union militants, took the important step of initiating and establishing a national “Militant Workers Federation.”

Within the context of the boiling economic and political scene in Great Britain, this development could become a real threat to the hold of the Bevins, Morrisons and Pollitts on the British workers. Potentially these militant factory committees represent also the soviet form of organization in the factories.

Bevin was not unaware of this. It was the occasion for his first outbursts against agitators and Trotskyism, and his threats of repressive legislation. That was months before raids on the Revolutionary Communist Party. That the Trotskyists were singled out for persecution is to be explained not by numerical strength, which they lack at present, but rather by the political consciousness that they would supply to the forward march of labor.

The Militant Workers Federation, which is “outlawed” by both the Labor Party and the Communist Party, receives the active support of the Trotskyists. The Independent Labor Party, which claims 3,000 members, still concerns itself largely with parliamentary activity while its work on the industrial field is behind that of the smaller Revolutionary Communist Party. By their persecutions, Churchill and Bevin reveal what political tendency they fear.

The British Trotskyists will not be eliminated by persecutions of the ruling class and their labor lieutenants. The repressive attempts can only bring them additional support

from a working class which increasingly demands a socialist solution to present-day problems. Opportunities are multiplying for the growth of Trotskyist influence. To a large extent it will be at the expense of Stalinism.

The strike-breaking of the Communist Party has already lost it many militant supporters. However, thousands of others inside and outside the Communist Party still delude themselves with the unofficial line that to win the war and to help Russia to victory is the way to communism in Great Britain and Europe. They believe this because they assume that Russia is a workers’ state Which is obliged temporarily to play ball with the capitalist nations, but which will promote communism openly as soon as Hitler is defeated.

To these workers, the Communist Party appears as the revolutionary extension of Russia. The Stalinist leaders have been so sensitive to every wind from Russia that the workers rightly identify them as the bona fide representatives of the Russian state and the official defenders of it. It is only natural that workers who believe in the defense of the Soviet Union should also see nothing treacherous about the activities of the Communist Party. When they do lose faith in the Stalinists, they unfailingly doubt Russia itself. After that, defense of the Soviet Union is meaningless to them.

By and large the British Trotskyists have a good program for the British workers, but their insistence on the defense of the Soviet Union is unrealistic, reactionary and a contribution to continued adherence of workers to the Communist Party. The workers who follow the Stalinists because of Russia have to be told that Stalinists are what they are because Russia is no longer a workers’ state. The workers have a much simpler but truer appreciation of the connection between the Communist Parties and Russia. If the Stalinist parties are counter-revolutionary, then Russia must be counter-revolutionary. The sophistries about nationalized property and the “counter-revolutionary workers’ state” are inexplicable.

It is therefore no accident that where the Stalinist parties and the Russian state are closely associated in their counter-revolutionary activities, the Trotskyists are beginning to shed the myth of the Russian workers’ state. This is so in Italy and in Poland. We can expect the same to happen in more of the European countries. The European workers and the British workers will be presented with increasing evidence of counterrevolutionary activity of the Russian state and its bona fide representatives. They will then turn away from both Russia and the Stalinist parties. The British Trotskyists can only lag behind if they do not soon rid themselves of a superfluous and harmful fiction.

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