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Workers’ International News, February 1940


Labour and Democracy


From Workers’ International News, Vol.3 No.2, February 1940, pp.3-5.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The war develops in a way completely unexpected by all the participants. Even the Marxists who had predicted the inevitable outbreak of hostilities are apparently contradicted by events. Totalitarian war and the internal totalitarian regimes which synchronise with it has not yet appeared in its full force at the present time. On the fronts, apart from the obliteration of Poland, the war proceeds more as an intensification of the bitter economic and diplomatic struggle which went on before open hostilities commenced, than large scale military operations. The formal declaration of war has merely initiated intensive preparations before the belligerents engage in mortal combat.

But already Daladier has promised us “total” war in the spring, a warning emphasised in the reply of Hitler to the speeches of both Churchill and Daladier. There has been a time lag in the development of events. The prologue to the drama has been unduly prolonged, that is all.

In Germany the totalitarian character of the regime has been further intensified by a new series of decree laws. The death penalty for listening in to foreign broadcasts is a typical example. In France dictatorial powers assumed by the Government have inaugurated a semi-totalitarianism whose character is more and more deepened as, the war proceeds.

But in Britain democracy has bloomed forth in its full vigour. We are shown the power of democratic ideals, nurtured by centuries of experience, ingrained in the Anglo-Saxon Character, proof against all tendencies of disintegration and decay. At last so we are assured. It is true that this idyllic picture is somewhat smudged by the emergency legislation passed at the beginning of the War, legislation which if applied would immediately inaugurate conditions similar to those in France and Germany today.

It is also true that in India, and the colonies the emergency legislation introduced as a precaution has been rigorously carried out and not merely left to adorn the statute book. But the colonies are far away. In Ulster too the totalitarian code has not remained a dead letter. People are arrested and imprisoned without trial. A reign of terror has been introduced. But why quibble? The Irish Sea separates Ulster from the mainland even if it is included as part of Great Britain. And we have been told that the turbulent Irish require special handling quite different from that which is necessary for the more sober and responsible English.

But the problem still remains. For the present, in practice if not in law, the democratic rights gained by the working class are still being maintained. Political life in Britain on the surface, proceeds as usual. The Hore-Belisha episode, it is true, revealed the cloven hoof of the power of the military clique and the stranglehold of monopoly capital in the direction of affairs. But this was merely a glimpse, showing rather what was intended in the future than a present reality.

War is the continuation of politics by other means. This quite Marxian aphorism is the key to the question which confronts us. Time and again Government spokesmen have announced that the co-operation and support of organised labour, is “essential for the successful prosecution of the war.” What was impossible in Germany, and possible only to a limited extent in France, has been achieved in Britain. The ruling class has leaned heavily for support, through the labour bureaucracy and worker aristocracy, upon the working class. The tremendous reserves which have been accumulated in the past few years by British imperialist at the expense of its rivals and the long period of industrial peace, without any major national strikes, have paved the way for this policy.

The Stalinist and Labour agitation for “collective security”, a “stand against Hitler,” “for the ending of aggression” further facilitated the possibility of this taking place. In the House of Commons, when the issue seemed in the balance, Greenwood was demanding war on September 1st. He was “relieved” on September 3rd, when the declaration of war was made, that Chamberlain had not “betrayed” Poland.

From the first day of the war the Labour Party stood unreservedly behind the Government. A new “political truce” was declared and Labour was invited to join the Government. They declined, but the very fact of the invitation revealed the closeness of their position to that of the Tories.

But now that the first shock of war has worn off the masses are becoming critical. A mood of distrust is spreading throughout the working class and that is why we begin to hear half “oppositional” speeches from the Labour leaders. There is no political truce protest Attlee and Morrison, only a “Standstill agreement” over by-elections which has been caused by the difficulty of holding elections in war time. This is a plea which has inconveniently been exposed by the announcement of a general election in Canada. “We are not supporting the National Government, only the war against Hitlerism and aggression,” Attlee solemnly attempts to reassure the rank and file. And adds without a smile “there is a difference between the two.” “If Labour gets the confidence of the nation we are willing at any time to take power and apply our programme for the benefit of the nation,” declaim the labour leaders from all the public platforms. “In view of Labour’s faith, it was impossible for them to blackleg in the present contest by refusing to take their stand against Nazism,” says Attlee in a speech at Cardiff on January 29th, but nevertheless

“... the struggle will be a severe one. I am certain that only by the adoption of socialist principles in the organisation of this country can we come through the ordeal of war successfully and meet the difficulties of reconstruction. I am certain that only by the adoption the principles of Labour’s peace aims can we end war and establish peace on firm foundations.”

The war develops in a way completely unexpected by This critical attitude in words of the labour leaders is dictated by the necessity to keep the masses from breaking away and turning towards mass action against the hardships which war imposes on them, and from there it is just a short step towards mass opposition against the war itself.

So long as the Labour and trade union bureaucrats maintain their hold on the masses, so long can the capitalists continue to afford the luxury of a democratic regime in the metropolis while dispensing with it in the colonies.

But the war has hardly begun and already a stirring is apparent among the workers. With the “total” war the mood of disillusionment and revolt will grow. The labour loaders will not be able by metaphysical arguments to unload responsibility for the war and its consequences from their shoulders. They will probably be forced by the pressure of the government and the mass actions of the workers to enter the Government. The capitalists will attempt to use them to break the opposition of the workers. But this instrument will not be enough. Total war abroad means total war at home, and the capitalists will seek better instruments. They have made all the preparations. The days of democracy are numbered. In its last strongholds capitalist democracy will be extinguished.

What is to take place will be decided by the degree to which the Fourth Internationalists have gathered sufficient cadres to place themselves at the head of the insurgent masses and seize power. The choice before our epoch cannot be evaded. Either the proletarian revolution or totalitarian barbarism. There is no middle road. The road of the labour leaders leads straight to the concentration camps.

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