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H. Allen

Which Way for Britain?

(July 1942)

From The New International, Vol. VIII No. 6, July 1942, pp. 167–170.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The course of the war so far should make it clear even to the wishful thinkers that dependence on the bourgeois democracies for a genuine struggle against the fascist order is illusory, in fact fantastic. That is, it is not possible for democratic capitalism, even under the pressure of the working class and exploited masses to transform this war from its present imperialist character into a bona fide political and military struggle against the fascist form of capitalism. This is evident from the example of Great Britain, which has now been at war with Germany for more than two and a half years.

Great Britain is one of the imperialist democracies whose end as a dominant imperialism is surely determined should German nazism be victorious and may be determined even if the United Nations are victorious. Note Britain’s steadily lessening hold on its empire during the course of the war, with America steadily achieving dominance in Canada, the West Indies and Australia. Note also that the recent report of the Phelps-Stokes Foundation on African Affairs (New York Times, June 23) suggests that the American government shall have a special administrative department on African affairs – a clear indication that American imperialism is taking over supervision of sections of Africa, as well as of the rest of the world. In this connection, it is interesting to note also the virtual admission by the Federation of British Industries (New York Times, May 30) that British imperialism in the post-war period depends solely or mainly upon American charity. The report reads in part:

We must bear in mind that at the end of the war the United States will be the most important economic unit of the world. The success of reconstruction will depend largely on the part America is prepared to play in it. It is essential that the United Kingdom and the United States should have an agreed policy with which the empire can associate.

This amounts virtually to begging American imperialism for some inkling as to the latter’s post-war plans with which British imperialism can be associated.

Britain’s hopes, from a strictly capitalist point of view, lay in retaining its hold on the British masses in support of the war, and in winning the backing of its colonial possessions (no easy task any longer! Vide India!) in the struggle against German fascist imperialism. The achievement of these objectives, so desperately needed by British capitalism, dictated a course of serious concessions to the colonial countries and to the British proletariat. But has this been the case? Certainly not!

Britain Has Conceded Nothing to Colonial Peoples

In respect to Britain’s outstanding colony, it is all too clear that the British imperialists have resisted every inch of the way any challenge to their political, economic and military hold on India. Stern necessity, after more than two years of German and Japanese victories, today compels Great Britain, with extreme reluctance, to make “concessions” (promises of dominion status to India after the war!) in the hope that the Indian masses will bring their support to Britain in the latter’s struggle against Germany and Japan.

That the British bourgeoisie endeavored to utilize a so-called left labor man, Sir Stafford Cripps, to make its proposals more palatable is in line with the historic method of using “labor” fronts to put over either unsatisfactory propositions or outright treachery. The ordinary coin of the British bourgeoisie is seen by all to be too patently counterfeit to pass any longer. That, so far, the British proposals have been rejected on various grounds, attests to the fundamental changes in prospects and perspectives created for the Indian masses as a result of the war. It is a fact that the Indian masses do not need these “concessions” from their historic oppressors. They have but to take them now, and even more. Should they decide unqualifiedly to pursue their future course without dictation from British imperialism, they can proceed by their own strength to establish their political independence and economic and social emancipation.

As far as Britain’s “democratic” objectives in the rest of her colonies are concerned, it it necessary to cite a few facts, not as familiar as those concerning India. A London dispatch published in the Amsterdam Star-News (New York Negro newspaper), April 4 reports that the British government has just sponsored a measure “in support of forced labor in Kenya Colony, Africa.” The African labor conscripts are to be brought to “work on private European farms.” The report concludes by saying that “the century-old plan of the exploitation of African labor ... is still the foundation of the economic and political policies of the British government and ruling class.”

From another direction, there is to be observed the growing demand by the British possessions in the Caribbean countries (West Indies) for immediate independence. In recent weeks the spotlight has been thrown on the British (and American) exploitation of native labor in the Bahamas at the rate of 81 cents a day! In the Nassau “riots” which grew out of this exploitation, British garrison troops shot into the demonstrators, killing two and wounding more than 30 others.

Wherever the setting sun of the British Empire shines, the story is the same. The British bourgeoisie is attempting by extreme brutality to retain its exploiting privileges as disillusionment with British imperialism increases. This disillusionment will be followed by the struggle for full independence and freedom.

The British Bourgeoisie and Fascism

The masses generally, not only in Great Britain, but throughout the world, have no illusions on the historic rôle and practices of “perfidious Albion.” Yet by persistent propaganda it has been possible to delude a good many people that Great Britain today is making important concessions to the British workers; maybe it is even on the road to socialism without the need for the British workers to remove their exploiters. Hence, it is said, (e.g., British Labor Party Report, May, 1942) the British workers should take advantage of this situation, first by full support for the military defeat of Germany, and then by making their demands on victorious British capitalism. Again, for the most part, this is standing matters on their heads.

The plain and stark fact is that Great Britain is fighting a war for its imperialist existence. Britain is not fighting fascism as a social order, but as a rival imperialism. The fight against fascism is only a by-product of the imperialist struggle and would be abandoned quickly by British capitalism if it could be assured of retaining its empire. Is more needed to show this than the policy of ex-Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin and the British Parliament toward Hitler in the years before the outbreak of war? This was a policy of good will and conciliation with Hitler’s fascism. Chamberlain continued that course. The present Premier, Winston Churchill, is a friend of fascism, both Italian and Germany, by his own frequent declarations. On January 21, 1937, Churchill said:

If I had been an Italian I should have been wholeheartedly with you [the fascists] from start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism ... I will say a word on an international aspect of fascism. Externally your movement has rendered a service to the whole world. Italy has provided the necessary antidote to the Russian poison. Hereafter no great nation will be unprovided with an ultimate means of protection against cancerous growths.

On November 11, 1938, Churchill is still saying:

I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among nations.

All these men have followed a steady course of not just appeasement and conciliation but understanding of Hitler’s anti-labor rôle. It was only Hitler’s hope or belief that he could gain everything by a smashing military victory and conquest that compelled the British to retaliate by war in defense of its vested imperialist interests. To conceive of the British bourgeoisie turning its imperialist war into a “democratic” war, much less a struggle against fascism in its political aspects, is to fly in the face of not just proven Marxist theory, but the facts of life, the course of the war.

The British Bourgeoisie and the British Masses

There are false illusions and notions that the British ruling class has made important concessions to the workers during this war. But this is not the case. The British workers have had to make persistent demands, engage in protests and also in strikes in order to enforce and try to maintain the economic and political rights they have achieved through decades of great struggles against their masters. British work-day losses through strikes still amount to 2,122 every day. In 1940 there took places 850 strikes involving 284,000 persons. In 1941, in the second year of the war, the number of strikes increased to 1,162 and the number of persons involved to 334,800 (New York Times, April 20).

The British rulers have, of course, used the exigencies of the war to justify their restrictions on the British people. But look at the struggle of the British workers to obtain decent and bombproof shelters in protection from German air raids. They are still not secured. Look at the continued great distinctions in the standards of living. Those that have wealth continue to live luxuriously. The Black Market exists for the bourgeois extractors of surplus value. Will the British government smash its Black Market which it could do so simply by wholesale arrest and imprisonment of these entrepreneurs of disaster and hunger? No! Yet the experience of Soviet Russia during the days of Lenin and Trotsky shows that a workers’ government is capable of largely destroying the effectiveness of these cruder vultures of society, by real efforts to smash the clandestine merchant marts.

The war has not, moreover, stopped the colossal profits of the British bourgeoisie despite the great taxations for war needs. For instance, in the New York Times of April 11 it is reported that dividends of 55¼ per cent (!) will be paid stockholders of a large Malayan tin company. The scorched earth policy in the Far East will not impoverish British stockholders, who will be “reimbursed” because demolition was carried out on government orders.

Furthermore, the much-vaunted high excess profits taxes in Great Britain provide guarantees that not all the accumulated capital of the British bourgeoisie will be lost after the war. (Indeed, the Conference Board on American Industry recently asked the American government to imitate the British system, according to the New York Times of June 8.) The British tax system “takes care” of “wartime profit incentive” by providing for post-war losses and “errors in wartime accounting” to be deducted from present excess profits taxes. Obviously the British bourgeoisie is making very sure that it will not lose anything after the war from any excess profits taxes which they may have to pay now as a sop to the British masses.

What about the democratic rights of the British people? Since 1935, when Stanley Baldwin, Conservative, was Prime Minister of Britain, there have been no general nation-wide elections for Parliament. Only a few by-elections have been held, and where some sort of opposition to the British government policy in the war manifested itself in such by-elections there has been something of a dither and insinuations by Churchill of treason.

Note the concern because Fenner Brockway, national secretary of the Independent Labor Party, an organization which has been considerably outspoken on several significant aspects of the character of the war, as well as on its conduct, contested a recent by-election. Obviously, the fear is that such by-elections, with their discussion of war issues and war conduct, might result in more freedom of expression on the war than the ruling class likes, even if only in a single constituency. (Brockway polled 25 per cent of the total votes in Cardiff East or 3,311 votes against 10,030 for the War Secretary, Sir James Grigg. This is a not insignificant achievement, showing that the British masses are thinking more and more along socialist lines to resolve the issue of the imperialist war, including the common people’s real desire for the complete freedom of India.)

Class Legislation in Britain

Far more significant is the fact that the British Trade Union Act remains in force to this very day. This act was decreed by Parliament after the great strike of the Triple Alliance Unions (the alliance of the railroad workers, transport workers and miners) in 1926 had brought British capitalism literally to its knees. The British Trade Union Act can be used at any time by the British government to crack down on any militant action, demonstration or strike struggles by the British workers. When the act will be used in any significant sense remains to be seen. That will depend on the attitude, militancy and aims of the British workers. What is important is that the Trade Union Act remains as the law of the land in relations with the British labor movement and can be invoked at any time. This act is as reactionary a piece of anti-labor legislation as a labor-hating bourgeoisie ever designed. It is comparable to the British “DORA” – Defense of the Realm Act – which was used so often to clamp down on dissidents, political and others, in the First World War. If there were any real semblance to democratic and socialist trends in Britain, British labor would have surely demanded, and British capital would have had to yield, the immediate repeal of the British Trade Union Act, a real chain around the neck of the British workers.

Rather than in a socialist direction, the course of the economy of Great Britain is toward totalitarianism or fascism.

The recent “nationalization” of the coal mines by the British government is a striking example of this trend in the economy. Nationalization of the mines has been a long-standing demand of the miners. In May of this year, 10,000 miners were on strike in Britain for wage increases. Within the last six months, 36,000 workers have been transferred to the mines at a wage loss.

The national board set up to manage the “nationalized” mines is “merely consultative.” “Management will be left in the hands of the present pit managers, who will continue to serve the owners though they are now subject to removal by the government. There will be no fundamental alteration of the financial structure of the mining industry” (New York Times, June 4). The “nationalization” plan has been described by A. Sloan, Scottish laborite, as “a shabby substitution foisted on the country.” Clement Davies, independent, asserted that the scheme was “quite irresponsible class legislation” (New York Times, June 11). In a single sentence of the New York Times of June 4, the class nature of the “nationalization” is proved. The sentence reads: “The Conservatives are pleased.”

The economic bases of the corporate state or fascist economy are thus being laid by the British capitalists. That a fascist political movement in Britain today has no significant base or influence is of course no guarantee against its drastic outbreak when the need of the capitalist-imperialists is dire. Through the vigilance and militancy of the British working class, certain democratic and trade union rights have been maintained. But at the same time there is not only the above-mentioned restrictions on general parliamentary elections but also the recent threatened ban on the Fourth Internationalist left wing (Trotskyist) paper as well as the ban on the Daily Worker (Stalinist organ) still standing from the days of the Stalin-Hitler pact.

Only if the proletariat intervenes and consciously aims for political power in its own right, with the object of establishing a socialist society can this trend be circumvented. Only under such conditions could the war against Germany take on a progressive character. But that requires the end of subordination of the British workers to the military and political requirements of British capitalism. In the development of their labor unions and political organizations in this direction, the British workers will find that their capitalist class will stop at nothing to prevent their economic and political exproporiation by the working class. [1] They will endeavor to set up their own fascist regime before they will bow before such a consummation of the workers’ struggle.

The British bourgeoisie will have recourse to any domestic or foreign measure to prevent an upsurge or overturn by the workers, and thereby a loss of the bourgeois power to exploit and oppress. Better less than none at all will be the British imperialist cry where vested interests and privileges are concerned.

A Labor Party Government or a Workers’ Government

But suppose a Labor Party government were to take over in Great Britain. Could the workers then give full or critical support to the military struggle against Germany? That would depend on its policy and program. A government of Bevins would not encroach on British imperial rights; it would not make fundamental encroachments on the British bourgeoisie as a ruling class; it would not confiscate capitalist properties; it would not abolish or enormously restrict the political rights of the British ruling class; it would not institute immediate measures for the complete release o£ British colonies and possessions from political and economic subordination to England. Such a Labor Party government could only be regarded as the executive committee of the British bourgeoisie.

This is the whole history of labor partyism and social democracy through the years. The German social democracy in 1918–19 saved the German Republic for the German bourgeoisie. Ramsay Macdonald, of the British Labor Party, bolstered English capitalism in the post-war crisis of 1920–21 by forming a “Labor” government. Today, in England, Bevin himself virtually admits that he acts only as the labor lieutenant of the British bourgeoisie. Defending himself against labor critics in Parliament on May 21, Bevin said:

I don’t care whether I lose my seat in the government or my seat in the House. I came into the government to help win the war. When that is done, let others go on to build the peace if they want.

In times of social crisis, the trade union bureaucrats (e.g., Hillman and Bevin) perform the task of dissipating the discontent of the working masses for the bourgeoisie. When the job is done they are ready to step aside, or are put aside by the bourgeoisie, as no longer needed. Without a revolutionary socialist program for workers’ power and workers’ construction of a socialist society, these labor lieutenants have no alternative but to hand back the government to the bourgeoisie when the job of suppressing and allaying the militancy of the workers has been accomplished.

The Socialist Appeal to the Masses

It is elementary that the British workers who are daily faced with the bombs of German fascism, give consideration to the military struggle. Their dead and wounded cry out aloud for vengeance against nazism. But their hope is not in support of a Churchill government or in a fake “Labor” government, but in a movement for a workers’ government having a clear socialist program. Such a movement would aim to establish now – in the midst of the war – the replacement of the Churchill government by a revolutionary socialist, government. Then, through the medium of a powerful socialist propaganda, a socialist government would appeal over the heads of the fascist Hitler government to the German masses – soldiers and working people – to overthrow Hitler and establish their own socialist government as the way to stop the war and achieve a lasting peace and a new, socialist order of society. That is the road for the British workers to take.

Many important and effective ways are open to a revolutionary government to reach the ears of the working people in other countries over the heads of the imperialist rulers, in time of war as in peace. The Bolsheviks in the early years of the October Revolution under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, demonstrated what could be done. Outstanding are the peace negotiations conducted between Soviet Russia and imperialist Germany at Brest-Litovsk. Trotsky, the head of the Russian delegation, insisted upon open negotiations and thus made known to the entire world throughout the parley the nefarious demands of imperial Germany on workers Russia.

Various other means, adopted by Lenin and Trotsky, could be employed by a British workers’ government to reach the German working class at home and in the trenches. British military units would be ordered to fraternize with and to conclude immediate temporary armistices with opposing military units. German war prisoners would be given a short but intensive course in socialism and then sent back to the German lines to educate and win the German soldiers to the cause of the British workers’ government and to turn against their own rulers and oppressors. Planes would drop leaflets with socialist propaganda behind German lines, etc.

Equally, or above all, by its domestic program, a socialist policy on industry, the land, labor rights, political rights and so on, a workers’ government would be the inspiration for the German workers’ revolutionary insurgence against Hitler-ism. Such appeals over the heads of the Hitler regime cannot be defeated or crushed by the Gestapo or by military ruthlessness, as so many liberals claim.

Contrast these measures of a revolutionary socialist government with the recent “appeals to revolt” of the democratic capitalist (Roosevelt) and laborites (the British Bevin and the American Walter Reuther of the Auto Workers Union) to the German masses. These “appeals to revolt” are, first of all, implicit or explicit accusations directed against the masses of Germany and of the Nazi-occupied countries for “acquiescence in and support of” Nazi rule. They offer no socialist program for the revolt of the masses in the enemy countries against their rulers; and no proof that American or British democracy will be progressive (i.e., socialist and non-imperialist) either in relation to the workers at home or in relation to a conquered country. And finally, their sole “appeal” lies in their setting up as an example – democracy à la America or Britain.

Workers’ Fatherland and International Labor Solidarity

A British workers’ state can be a reality in the course of the war, depending on the swift unfoldment of events. Such a state, unlike the present regime or social order, would be worth defending with one’s life. The conditions making entirely possible the formation of a British workers’ or socialist government are not within the scope of this article, however. [2]

The historic example of Soviet Russia alone shoud give real hope and confidence that a British workers’ government could prevail against all odds despite opposition from rival imperialisms – (German or American). An appeal by a genuine socialist government to the German soldiers and working people would not fall upon deaf ears – or history is meaningless, especially German revolutionary history.

International solidarity on scores of significant occasions has proved very real in material and political wealth and strength, and has not just been a slogan or a manifesto. The workers of the world – American, German, British, et al. – rallied in many decisive ways to the support of the Russian Revolution, especially during the days of Lenin and Trotsky, in the struggle to maintain the Russian Workers Republic against the military and economic onslaughts of the world’s imperialist rulers. They would rally again, militantly, to the workers of any nation that took over power in their own name.

Let the Indian masses push ahead with their struggle for national independence and economic and social freedom, and it can be said unconditionally that the workers of the world will give real support, material and political, to the Indian cause. Let the British or German masses establish a revolutionary socialist government and the workers of the world will demonstrate their class solidarity.

From the depths of this devastating carnage of imperialist war will emerge the renewed and revitalized international solidarity of all the exploited, a resurgence and growth of the revolutionary movement and the sharp enhancement of the prospects for the establishment of world socialism. All the more reason, therefore, for the working class in every country – in the United States, Great Britain, etc. – to learn the lessons of the imperialist war. They must come to understand the origins of the Second World Imperialist War and the course and trend of the democratic imperialists in order to prepare themselves for their day on the morrow.


1. After the First World War the British ruling class regarded the Triple Alliance of the powerful British labor unions as a greater menace to its existence and privileges than the European Triple Alliance, because the former represented a. real threat to its complete existence as a social class.

2. For a review of England’s political crisis, see an article by Henry Judd in the June 1942 issue of The New International.

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