From Workers’ International News, Vol.5 No.8, mid February-mid March 1943, pp.1-5.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
We make no apology for returning to the question of the revolutionary change that is taking place during the war in Britain’ s world position. For this change is so charged with portent for not only the British but also for the world workers, that its importance cannot be overestimated. Apart from anything else, it is not every day that a world-wide empire crumbles about the ears of its builders. But when to this is added the fact that the very collapse of the empire opens the way to and the necessity for, a direct struggle for power on the part of a working class whose specific weight in the country is the highest on earth, then the outstanding, importance of the question cannot be doubted. And this is without adding the farther vital fact that this working class is still organised in unions and parties, has sustained no major defeat such as those of the German workers in 1933 or the Italian workers in 1922, and is growing in consciousness as to its position in relation to the capitalist class. In other words, the British workers stand in a highly favourable position for the coming clash with the forces of capitalism. Favourable except in so far as they are without a leadership capable of rising to the heights demanded by the straggle. But it is from that very angle – the angle of building such a leadership – that we approach the question of Britain’ s changing position. Hence the vital importance of getting a clear understanding of the direction of events.
In the first article the growing domination of the United States was dealt with, together with the catastrophic change in Britain’ s trading, financial and production position. It is proposed here to deal mainly with the plans of the capitalists to try to overcome their difficulties, and the directions in which they will be pushed by the irresistible pressure of world economic and social forces.
And it can be said immediately that even within the course of a month they have taken not a few steps forward in revealing how different their real perspectives are from those that were held out while the war was doing against them. Now that Russian resistance has altered the whole balance of the war and brought its end within measurable distance the British capitalists are becoming more outspoken about the, future, Even a month ago we could say that their realistic discussions about the future were being conducted in private. But already they are venturing more boldly into the open. Their promises are becoming less rosy. Their warnings more solemn. The special two day Debate in Parliament on Economic Policy was notable for, the sombre tone of most of the speakers: And. the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself, speaking for the Government uttered the following warning:
“The economic position of this country will indeed be far from easy; and it could become dangerous. No new economic theory or financial manipulations, however ingenious, can displace or alter this hard but inescapable fact. We should be living in a fool’ s paradise if wishful thinking led is to believe that a great and cruel war brings in itself better and happier days ... In many respects these days after the war will be very much like those of the war itself and in some cases even more difficult.”
The other Conservative speakers advanced the same sort of idea. Sir Granville Gibson said that “the post-war world will be a very hard world.”
In the course of the Debate one example after another was given of the swift change that is taking place in Britain’ s economic position. At the risk of repetition we quote some of these, for the deep going and catastrophic nature of that change cannot be over emphasised.
Earl Winterton pointed out right at the beginning that
“... as a result of events in China long before this war, the British investor lost something like £400,000,00 of investments in that country.”
Following him came Mr. Lewis Jones with the statement that
“Canada which in the early days of the war produced 3,500,000 tons of steel per annum, is now producing 6,000,000 tons.”
Mr. Jones added that
“Lend-Lease measures have practically driven us from certain export markets.”
For instance, the American Government forbade British manufacturers to use lend-lease steel for the making of tinplate for export.
“The result was,” said Mr. Jones, “that the whole of the export industry of the tinplate trade dried up, and the Americans said, ‘ We will look after your export trade’ .”
According to the same speaker, the American Government “are encouraging their traders, even during the period of the war, to expand their trade interests in South America, and they are encouraged to prepare for the post-war period.”
Sir Granville Gibson revealed that he had
“... heard it said by a civil servant who is secretary of the Post-War Trade Export Committee that after the war it will be necessary for us to increase our exports by £150,000,000 to £200,000,000 a year above the 1938 figure to meet the loss of dividends on investments abroad. It will be a very difficult task, for at the end of this war the financial position of this country will not be by any means as sound as it was before the war. I think that we can say without hesitation that we shall become a debtor instead of a creditor country, and if we fail to increase our exports our standard of living and the level of wages will be adversely affected.”
Later, Sir Granville Gibson indicated the dangers of the industrialisation of the colonies. The Minister of Industry in South Africa had told him that
“... during this war they had in South Africa set up certain factories mainly for the production of manufacturing chemicals, and he said that it was only reasonable that after the war they would desire to continue to manufacture those goods.”
And of India the same speaker said:
“Again, from India, the 1½d. and 2d. an hour country for skilled workers, they are exporting to this country goods of the industry with which I am connected (leather), I am not complaining that during the war they are increasing their exports, because we want these goods at this time. I can, however, foresee by the way in which their exports are going up by leaps and bounds to the extent of millions of pounds that there will be a terrible amount of competition with India after the war, particularly as their goods come in free and our goods going into India have to bear a 25 per cent duty.”
And, to give a last example, here is what Sir George Schuster said a prophet in 1913 would have had to foresee to indicate the state of Britain twenty years later:
“The National Debt rising from £700,000,000 to £8,000,000,000, and the service on that debt increasing from £24,500,000 to a peak of £378,000,000; our expenditure on social services going up from about £62,000,000 to something like £500,000,000; our export trade being reduced in total from about one-third of the net industrial output to something not much more than one-seventh; our cotton piece-goods exports reduced front over 7,000, 000,000 yards to 3,000,000,000 yards; our coal exports from 73,000,000 tons to 39,000,000 tons, and so on.”
Both the facts and figures given in this Debate as well as the sombre tone in which it was carried on, gave an indication of the decline in Britain’ s world position which will be made manifest after the war. But the bankruptcy of the Government, of the Labour Party and of imperialism itself was made particularly clear in the attempts at finding a solution of the problem.
Some speakers tentatively suggested emigration to the Dominions and Colonies as a solution. Dr. Russell Thomas, for instance, said that
“... another thing we must think of in order to meet our difficulties is a policy of emigration. Our people probably will not want to emigrate, but we shall have to encourage them by co-operative schemes with our Dominions, in order to fill the wide open spaces.”
Sir Granville Gibson agreed with the need for emigration but pointed out that
“... when I have been in New Zealand, Australia or Canada I have noticed a definite disinclination to take immigrants from this country, except those possessed of reasonably substantial means.”
And truly the hon. Members were wise to skip lightly over this solution, for they know that the Dominions are faced with trade struggles and unemployment no less than is Britain. The frontiers of capitalism have ceased to expand.
Another proposal was that Britain should use its influence to reverse or prevent the process whereby the agricultural and raw material countries are becoming industrialised. This thoroughly reactionary suggestion was not pressed strongly, for the chaining of the major part of humanity to a sub-human standard of living is not the sort of thing that is freely discussed in Parliament. But it is clearly taken seriously by, a section of British capitalism. Dr. Russell Thomas introduced the matter by indicating its difficulties:
“If you are to dictate to a country how much primary production it should go in for, you are seriously interfering with national sovereignty, and that is not an easy matter to get over. But, nevertheless, now is the time to consider schemes in that regard.”
And in the matter of exactly how pressure should be used, he pointed out that:
“... primary producing countries will be compelled to sell their primary products and therefore this fact should be used to our advantage as it might well control the degree of industrialisation they indulge in. That is where we should always be ready to get in and we must prepare the ground now.”
In other words, the doctor has the fantastic idea of perpetuating, for all time a position that existed last century, but has now gone – the position of Britain being the workshop of the world. It was Britain’ s very position as the workshop of the world that played a major role in starting the rest of the world on the road of industrialisation. The doctor will find in the coming period that the dialectics of Britain’ s position are by no means simple.
Shinwell, supposedly a left Labourite but in reality a staunch supporter of imperialism, chipped in with a suggestion to use strong-arm methods to prevent Canada getting too powerfully industrialised.
“It is true that in Canada they are developing secondary industries. The question they have to consider is whether they can afford to develop secondary industries, which means not taking manufactured goods from us, if we say, ‘We are sorry; but we cannot take your butter and your cheese.’ They have to make up their minds equally with us.”
It is clear that one of the outstanding features of a capitalist post-war world would be the attempt to halt the process of industrialisation. And when the old methods of currency manipulation, tariffs, etc. proved unavailing, then recourse would have to be made to methods not dissimilar from those which were planned by Hitler and Co. for operation in the New Order. Attempts would be made not only to prevent industrialisation but also to thrust already advanced countries back into the position of suppliers of agricultural produce. For the moment we merely note this “solution” as one factor of the world peace and pass on.
Perhaps the dizziest heights to which this Parliamentary Debate aspired were in the suggestions that salvation lay in developing as exports those specialised products which they could make better than any other country. Cutlery and Pottery were mentioned as examples. But for how long will other countries lag behind Britain in the production of these things? There is a classic story of how the Japanese succeeded in copying the highly “individual” Harris tweed. The Scottish manufacturers fell back on their last defence that you could tell the original article by its distinctive smell. But Japanese chemistry came up to scratch. Within a few months they had also manufactured the smell. Even if Britain ultimately fell back on exporting astronomical quantities of its most distinctive and individualistic production – Scotch whisky – where is the guarantee that the task of manufacturing an exact copy of the water of Highland mountain streams that gives the whisky its flavour will remain for long beyond the reach of American chemists?
The bankruptcy of these proposals is clear. They are the merest clutching at straws. And they are confined to the solution of purely economic problems. But Britain’ s problems will by no means be only economic. Political problems of the most grandiose sort will arise at the end of the war, and perhaps before it. And the economic problems themselves will raise great political issues. The approach of Parliament to these questions is the approach of last century. It is the sort of approach that might have got by when British imperialism was expanding. But the outstanding feature of the present period is that expansion has ended, and contraction has set in. Future actions, future politics, future standards of living, future participation in world affairs will be based not on a growing empire and increasing power but on a shrivelling empire and declining power. The empire that expanded from 2,500,000 square miles in 1860 to 13,270,793 square miles in 1936 has reached a standstill, and is even shrinking. And the economic might of that empire is shrinking a hundred times foster than its physical boundaries. Economic and political contraction became universal after the last war. America which in 16 years had admitted thirteen and a half million immigrants closed its gates in 1923. The clanging of those gates marked the end of an entire historical epoch. Expansion had ended; contraction had begun. And with expansion there ended at the same time the politics of expansion. Italy and Germany were unable to find a place in world economy which could permit the full flowering of capitalist democracy. Spain found itself in the same position. With the lack of a real workers’ leadership Fascism came in these countries. The period of the contraction of world economy expressed itself in fascism. Only able to offer low standards, low wages, little work, capitalism in these countries could not achieve the sort of stability achieved by Britain in the period of expansion; that is, the stability of bourgeois democracy. Instead, in order to safeguard its position, it had to achieve stability another way – by smashing the workers’ organisations – and then preparing in its own way to get a position in world economy. That way could only be by war. Internally, the period of contraction meant a retreat from the capitalist democracy that had flourished during expansion. Internationally it meant a retreat from the “self-determination of nations” and an advance toward the open exercise of force by the most powerful nations over the less powerful.
Unless Britain’ s position is studied within the frame-work of world economic (and political) contraction it is meaningless. And unless the coining political perspective is related to the coming economic retrogression it has no reality. During last century world economic expansion permitted Britain the luxury of laissez faire in business and Parliamentary democracy in politics. The possibilities of great internal expansion permitted America also to achieve a great measure of bourgeois democracy. What, then, will be Britain’ s politics in the period of shrinking world trade, ever-falling financial power and declining imperialist domination? Whoever thinks that they will be the politics of democracy and of Parliamentary oppositions is living in another world. The choice will be squarely placed before the masses of Britain – either Socialism or Fascism.
As yet the leading section of the capitalists has not accepted the necessity of Fascism. They are unwilling to face up to that while any other possibility remains, for it is a high overhead expense. But at the same time they are under no illusions that a return to the old system as it existed before the war will be possible. Deliberately they are seeking around for a middle road. They discuss the ‘need to continue with controls after the war’ ; the advisability of a ‘ Third Party’ which will rise above the ‘vested interests’ of both the Tory and Labour Parties; the continuation of ‘national unity’ in peace as well as in war. Professor Carr, leading theorist of British capitalism puts it that
“the new faith ... will proclaim its independence of these organisations – of big business, of trade unions and of the great political parties – and aim at the emancipation of society from the vested interests which they have cone to represent.”
But not for long will matters be left in balance and allow the capitalists the luxury of indecisiveness. For so many forces, and such powerful forces, are working to transform the situation in Britain that crisis will come upon crisis like great waves beating on the shore. With even more speed and intensity than in Italy, Germany or Spain will all the inessential be swept away and the direct choice be posed – capitalists or workers, Fascism or Socialism. In the ease of Italy and Spain these were backward countries with a large peasantry, striving to achieve a modern economy and a civilised standard of living. In Germany’ s case a modern economy and industry had been achieved but it could not find a place on the contracting world market. In all three eases a slow process forward from dull, grinding poverty was halted. But in Britain’ s case it will be a matter of a sudden and catastrophic descent from comparative affluence to one of penury, starvation, and mass unemployment. The political consciousness and the political needs of both workers and capitalists will accordingly express themselves more sharply, more powerfully and more rapidly.
For what will Britain’ s position be after the war? A tiny island off the west coast of Europe. A population which expanded almost magically from 9 million in 1800 to 47,000,000 today. This population could only find jobs and a reasonable standard of living, on the basis of Britain being the leading World Power. But with the reduction to a third rate power under the domination of America this country will be grossly over-populated. It has only four ratio materials in any quantity – coal, salt, fish and the sea. And the most abundant of these, the sea, it does not even attempt to use. While America has already built a “sea-factory” which in 1942 extracted 72 million pounds of magnesium from the Atlantic, Britain has not even conducted a measurable amount of research into the question. With the loss of the greater part of her markets complete sections of British industry will be redundant. After the last war there were coal and textile areas where unemployment assumed the proportions of a terrible, wasting disease, where over a quarter of the working population was out of work. After the present war it is not a quarter but half or three-quarters of the workers in these and other industries that will find themselves unemployed. For instance, in regard to shipping, Maxton has pointed out in Parliament that
“... one years’ labour and material on the present scale can reproduce the whole of the merchant fleet of the world. A ship once in the water can reasonably be given a 25 years’ life: what are the shipyard workers on the Clyde and the steel men who stand behind them going to do for the other 24 years?”
Lancashire’ s textile industry will be in a similar plight. All the world now makes textiles. With engineering, the same. Even backward India is building up an engineering industry during the war. And, in general, what will not be lost through the industrialisation of the backward countries will be lost to American competition. Parallel with unemployment will go drastic decreases in imports, and particularly of the foodstuffs on which this great population depends. Of Britain’ s total import in 1938, valued £850,000,000, about £418,000,000 consisted of food.
And let it never be forgotten that the very features that made the phenomenal growth in Britain’ s population possible also conditioned the social make-up of that population. Whereas Spain’ s working class never rose above 10 per cent of the population, Italy’ s 30 per cent, and even Germany’ s 50 per cent, Britain’ s, on the other hand constituted 65 per cent of the population before the war and has increased during the course of it to about 80 per cent, with only 7 per cent gaining their livelihood from the soil.
This does not mean that the smaller proportion of workers the less advanced countries makes the task of the revolution more difficult. On the contrary, the opportunity presented to the workers of providing a lead to the peasants assures them (provided they have a correct policy) of the support of overwhelming millions. The success of the Russian Revolution with a working class amounting to only about 15 per cent of the population indicates this clearly enough. But it does mean that there is only the tiniest petty bourgeoisie in Britain, completely inadequate to provide any sort of stable social basis for a British Fascism.
On the other hand the workers, that is the vast and overwhelming majority of the people, will be revolutionised at an unprecedented rate by the sudden changes in their position. And the war itself is emphasising what will occur when it is ended. For, in spite of everything, there has been the certainty of work during the war for millions who never experienced that certainty before. Far from being able to provide that same certainty during peace the capitalists will only be able to offer the certainty of unemployment. So much the greater therefore will be the shock of post-war disillusionment.
Were this the full tale of the influences that will affect the British workers in the coming period we could claim with certainty that they would become the most revolutionary section of the entire world working class. But, in addition, there has to be taken into consideration the fact that there will be the terrific impact of revolutions in other countries. The bankruptcy of world capitalism will inevitably express itself in revolutions on every Continent. And these will have an influence which will overshadow even the, great influence of the Russian Revolution.
To be sure British and American imperialism will exert every effort to quell these revolutions by force. But by that very fact they will add oil to the fires of revolution at home. The soldiers will be affected by the same forces as the workers. And they will not allow themselves to be used for counter-revolution. The attempts to smash the Russian Revolution had to be called off for this very reason. But even supposing, owing to slow reactions on the part of the soldiers, the imperialists succeeded in smashing a revolution in one place or another, that does not represent victory for them, or even the beginnings of victory. For they would have to transfer their forces to another place, and another, to quell further revolutions. And all the time they would have the workers and soldiers of the home Country being more profoundly affected by events. Truly, the programme of Anglo-American imperialism is fantastic. It amounts to nothing less than the attempt to hold down, not by persuasion but by force, the peoples of the entire world. Equally truly the opportunities for the workers of Britain are in the highest degree favourable. The conditions at home against which they will have to struggle, and the influences abroad which will encourage them in the direction of a struggle for power will work together, to convert the British working class into the most dynamic and revolutionary force in the world.
The Capitalists are aware that the coming revolutions will not be confined to countries across the seas, and occasionally they reveal the fact that they are preparing to deal with A Conservative MP, for instance, writing to the Sunday Times stated:
“Britain must maintain a strong Army, a strong Navy and a strong Air Force. Only a strong Britain and a strong America can maintain the peace of the world and keep down not only the danger of aggression but the smouldering fires of revolution which may yet set Europe aflame, and from which perhaps even our own country may not remain immune.”
And recently Lieut.-Gen. Sir Arthur Smith, GCO London district Home Guard has indicated the hope of the capitalists that the Home Guard can be used as a counter-revolutionary force:
“Quite apart from the responsibilities of the Home Guard during the war, I would remind you of the great task members will have afterwards; for when the Armistice is signed, human nature being what it is, there may well be an inclination for the discipline of the country not to be as steady as it should.”
But this sort of programme is completely without foundation. The British capitalists will not be faced with a tribal revolt against which the proverbial “whiff of grapeshot", or even a squadron or two of bombing planes would suffice. On the contrary, millions of people will be involved, and what affects the workers will also affect the soldiers. The moods and actions of one will be the moods and actions of the other.
It can be unhesitatingly asserted the coming period , in Britain will be favourable in the extreme for the working class. One of the most important political laws of our period was laid down by Trotsky – that Fascism is only successful after the workers have been first of all faced with the opportunity of power and have failed to take it. Not until the proletarian wave has receded can reaction place the Fascist guardsman in charge of its security. And in Germany, let it be remembered, it was not until several favourable proletarian waves had been smashed back that Hitler could come to power. How much more so, then, in Britain where the workers are fresh, have such an overwhelming superiority in numbers, will be moved by such gigantic forces and have such a tradition of organisation and militancy? Not once but many times would the British workers have to be defeated before the chains of Fascism could be fastened to them. And even then, so little stability can capitalism achieve that such a regime could not hope to last as long as Italian Fascism, or even as long as the German variety.
Even a temporary victory of Fascism is, however, unlikely. The first wave of revolution may catch the proletariat unready, and without it thoroughly prepared party to stand at its head. But the very experiences of an initial defeat will contain the most valuable lessons for the next favourable wave, and it will come quickly. The defeat of 1905 prepared the way for the triumph of 1917. Similarly in Britain, but with as many months between the two as there were years in Russia.
It is necessary to understand first of all the profound change that is taking place in Britain’ s world position. It is necessary to grasp the nature of the changes that this will bring about in mass consciousness and political expression. It is necessary above all to prepare now a conscious leadership which will assure that the mighty mass movement which is inevitable in Britain will not fritter itself away without result, but will be guided confidently into the channels of workers’ power and Socialism.
Last updated on 11.9.2005