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Joseph Carter

The British I.L.P. Proves Itself
A Very Confused Opposition

(December 1920)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 36, 16 December 1940, p. 4.
transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Last Thursday, December 5, the British Independent Labor Party introduced a motion into the House of Commons calling upon the Churchill government to state its war aims, and convene an immediate peace conference with the German government to end the war.

The motion was supported by six members of parliament: the three ILPers, John McGovern, James Maxton and Campbell Stephen; two Labor Party members, David Kirkwood and Dr. Alfred Salter; and the lone Communist Party representative, William Gallacher. The motion was defeated by a vote of 341 to 4, since two ILPers acting as tellers were not able to vote.

While the press reports of the motion and the debate are far from satisfactory, by combining the various dispatches the essential facts appear to be available.

Propose Terms

John McGovern told the House: “Do not let us be misled by statements about fighting for freedom, fighting for democracy ...” He recalled that “We (the ILP) backed a policy of appeasement because we believed that anything was better than what would happen in war.”

The House cheered when he praised the late Neville Chamberlain and declared that the latter “will have a bigger place in history than he has at the moment.”

Another ILPer, Campbell Stephen, endorsed McGovern’s speech and added that “if peace is to be based on justice and equity the time for a conference is now because the military situation is one in which the parties are fairly evenly balanced.” He proposed a two fold basis for the peace conference:

“Acceptance by the contending parties of the restoration of freedom in all countries.

“Both parties to put all their material resources which they are willing to devote to war into a common pool to bring about a new civilization in the world.”

But can either of the warring reactionary, imperialist governments accept and carry out such a peace program? McGovern declared that if Hitler refused suitable peace terms this would evoke “response over the heads of the politicians from the people of Germany.” In practical politics this means that if the Churchill government accepted the ILP proposal the latter would be just another instrument in the war of British imperialism against German imperialism. Or can the Churchill government offer a genuine democratic peace? If the ILPers reply in the affirmative, then (hey are declaring lhat Churchill can wage a democratic, progressive war against Germany.

To state the matter positively: a government waging a reactionary war cannot establish a democratic peace.

Clement R. Attlee, Labor Party Deputy Leader and Churchill’s Lord Privy Seal, speaking for the Government was able to ask the ILPers:

“If it comes to a conference and if Hitler prefers to listen to what is called the voice of reason and says he prefers his scheme and rejects the honorable member’s idea of liberty and social justice will the honorable member fight or give way!”

As to the Government’s war aims Attlee was compelled to declare: “I am not in a position to say when a statement of our aims can be made.” Of course, he added the customary and empty promise of all belligerent powers: “Our aim is to try to establish a peace of free people.” He forgot to add that an example of this aim is the British imperialist oppression of its own colonials, notably the Indian people who demand national independence now.

While the ILPers are against the war, against the imperialist war aims of the Churchill government, their opposition is of a confused, pacifist character; that is, they support, advocate and therefore take responsibility for what in practise can be nothing but a reactionary, imperialist peace.

When Churchill’s predecessor, Neville, Chamberlain, in September 1938 signed the Munich Pact giving Czechoslovakia to Hitler, the ILP members of Parliament supported this act of “appeasement” because they could see no alternatives but support of “reactionary peace or reactionary war.” However, the Munich “peace” meant the oppression of the Czechs and Slovaks by German imperialism. The ILPers in supporting Chamberlain’s “peace” unwittingly assumed responsibility for the deal made at the expense of these peoples.

So today, the Maxtons, McGoverns and Campbells, pacifists first and socialists as a secondary vocation, see no “practical,” “immediate,” alternative to the present imperialist war except the advocacy of a Churchill-Hitler peace, which can be only a reactionary peace.

Are We For Peace?

But are not revolutionary socialists for peace? Of course! However, we struggle for a peace based on national freedom for all the peoples, a genuinely democratic peace which Churchill and Hitler can not establish. Such a peace cannot be attained by appeals to the imperialists to establish a “new civilization” based on “justice and equity.”

Nor can it be obtained by limiting working class or socialist action to a choice between support of imperialist appeasement or imperialist war. As an opposition party, revolutionary socialists oppose both courses of their government, and do not take any responsibility for the actions of their ruling class. The general socialist tasks are patiently to explain to the workers the reactionary nature of their government’s policies and actions; to defend the interests of the masses against government and employers’ attacks on their living standards and civil liberties; to lead them towards working class power. (We are not considering here the specific demands and slogans in an anti-war program in Britain, but rather its general character.)

For example, instead of calling for e Churchill-Hitler peace conference, which if successful would mean “appeasement”, revolutionary socialists would have utilized the tribunal of the House of commons to show why the imperialists cannot establish a democratic peace. It the question were then raised how can a democratic peace be achieved with Hitler, the answer would be that if the British workers take state power into their own hands, liberate the oppressed colonials and themselves destroy British imperialism, they could then wage a genuine democratic war against Hitler: a war in which they could arouse the German workers against Fascism, without arousing among these workers the fear of a new and more oppressive Versailles Treaty in case of a Churchill victory.

Do we then oppose the presentation of specific proposals in the House of Commons? Of course not. But these must be in harmony with socialist opposition to the war and imperialism, and have as their aim the winning of the masses away from support of the government, and towards socialist revolutionary action.

This is not the case with the ILP motion for a Churchill-Hitler peace conference. On the contrary, ILP pacifism strengthens the Churchill government’s support among the workers because the masses fear ruling class appeasement of Hitler which this policy supports.

Whither the ILP?

Whether or not the action of the ILP parliamentary group was taken in agreement with the National Council of the party, or the support of the majority of its members is not known. The Party itself, though small, is actually a bloc of conflicting tendencies; from supporters of the war, to pacifist opponents as represented by the parliamentary fraction, to revolutionary socialists. When the parliamentary group supported Chamberlain’s Munich policy, the majority of the leadership and members of the ILP disagreed, but no action was taken against the group. The party, issues of which have reached New Leader, official organ of the this country, has generally put forward a socialist position against the war. However, there appears to be a growing tendency in the ILP for support of the war.

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