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Dudley Edwards

50 Years of Socialist Struggle

(September 1975)

From Left, Vol. 7 No. 7, September [1975], pp. 3 and 6.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Part Two of an article by Dudley Edwards, a retired member of the AUEW. Part One appeared in last month’s Left and dealt with, among other things, the impact of the 1917 Russian Revolution on the British labour movement, the 1926 General Strike, the Labour Governments of 1924 and 1929, the 1931 Coalition Government and the rise of fascism in Germany.

From 1936 we were becoming increasingly interested in the heroic struggle of the working class of Spain. Hundreds of those who had recently marched in the columns of the Hunger Marchers now found themselves slowly winding down the valley of Jarama in the face of withering machine-gun fire from Franco’s Moorish troops. Many of these men had nothing in their pockets but a ticket to the Spanish frontier. They came from Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, London, Brighton, South Wales and many other places. Many gave their lives because they knew that the Spanish working class was not only making a stand on behalf of the workers of the world against the spreading plague of fascism, but also because the victory of Franco in Spain would lead to the even greater mass slaughter of a Second World War.

Here too in Spain, the workers were misled. Fascism could have been stopped in Spain if the workers’ leaders, of the Socialist, Communist and Anarchist parties had fought for a clear-cut socialist programme instead of trying to appease the allegedly “liberal” capitalists at home and abroad by limiting the struggle to a call for a “democratic capitalist republic”. Only social revolution could have won the war against Franco. On the level of a purely military struggle, the odds were stacked heavily in Franco’s favour. The LYPS has done a service to the whole of the labour movement by raising these lessons of the Spanish Civil War in the bulletins of the Spanish Young Socialists’ Defence Campaign.


It was during those bitter years when European fascism was trampling down the last bastion of democratic resistance in Spain that at home a partial economic recovery was taking place. With some increase in the demand for labour, the organised workers regained a little bargaining power. The first successful strikes began to dispel the memories of the years of industrial defeat. The London busmen led the way with a solid strike gaining some advances. In 1937, as a result of a successful apprentices’ strike which began in the Glasgow engineering and shipbuilding industries, the AEU gained the right to negotiate with the masters on behalf of all young workers in engineering. The Shop Stewards movement became effective, especially in the aircraft industry.

In France and the USA huge sit-in strikes took place, especially in the new motor factories. Once more, the working class began slowly to move forward.

This partial capitalist stabilisation did not last long. By 1938 all the signs pointed to a new economic blizzard on the way. In the winter before the outbreak of war, the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) was again organising large demonstrations. Many of those who came back from Spain helped to organise unemployed “laydowns” in snow-covered Oxford Street. In 1939 a new hunger march was being contemplated. Mosley’s jackbooted blackshirts were again on the prowl hoping to exploit a developing economic downturn.


Capitalism was once again looking for a way out of a new economic crisis. It found this in the outbreak of another mass slaughter – the Second World War. This was the price the working class was forced to pay for the failure to carry through the socialist revolution when it could have been carried through in the 1920’s, especially in Germany.

In 1939, the capitalist establishments of France and Britain saw that Hitler was not, as they had hoped, aiming his Nazi hordes against the USSR, but was threatening their own economic and political schemes of influence. As in the First World War, they found themselves incapable of mobilising for war without gaining the support of the labour and trade union leaders.

The Labour leaders gave this support and both the Labour Party and, after the Nazi attack on the USSR in 1941, the Communist Party, declared a “political truce” with their own ruling class. However, contrary to the claims of the orthodox historians, it is doubtful if the rank and file accepted the implications of this truce. Indeed, the strike statistics during the war period show a different attitude on the part of the industrial workers.

The desperate need of the capitalists for workers in uniform and for intensified production of war materials strengthened the bargaining power of the workers. Soon the membership of the unions began to catch up and surpass the figure it had reached after the First World War.


In 1945, the “flying bombs” stopped and the survivors of the battlefields and the POW camps began to stream home. Many Labour leaders, but in particular the Communist Party, visualised a continuation of the “political truce”. In fact the CP actually advocated the continuation of an allegedly “Democratic” Coalition with Churchill still in command.

The working class, in and out of uniform, drew an entirely opposite conclusion. The workers gave Labour an overwhelmingly landslide victory with a 206-seat majority in 1945. They were joined by a significant section of the middle and lower-middle classes.

The Labour Party now had what its leaders always claimed they needed – an overwhelming majority of the people behind it. This was an historic vote in favour of a fundamental change in society and for socialism.


Once again, the opportunity was missed. The broken down industries which the capitalists did not want to invest in were nationalised. This was done at enormous cost in terms of excessive compensation and enormous capital outlay by the State in order to modernise the mines, railways and power industries, which the bosses had ruined. 80% of the country’s wealth and means of production remained in the hands of the 5% of the very rich. Instead of carrying through the planned socialisation of the economy, the Labour leaders preferred to prop up the old system through American loans.

Their “theorists” then invented the “mixed economy” to describe what was really the same old system of exploiting the workers labour power, but now with state assistance. In this way, the huge wave of radicalisation which swept through the working class in 1945 was channelled into safe waters, enabling the bosses to ride out the post-war storm. On this basis, capitalism was able to stabilise itself for a whole historical period – the period of the post-war upswing, which lasted an entire generation.

Nevertheless, by 1964, the underlying sickness of the “mixed economy” in Britain was openly revealing itself. The long post-war boom had camouflaged the economic decline of the British Empire. Yet all this time Britain’s share of world trade was falling from 25% in 1949 to less than 10% in 1967. As soon as the world economic boom came to an end, towards the very end of the 1960’s, this weakness of British capitalism in the world markets became painfully obvious. This precipitated the devaluations of 1967 and 1971.


Now we live in another era of economic crisis and uncertainty when attacks on the standards of living of working people and mass unemployment are once again the order of the day. So much for the myth of the ‘mixed economy’ and the ‘Affluent Society’!

Even though the period of the economic boom is now over and has given way to a new period of capitalist crisis, it has left an important legacy for the organised labour movement of today. The long upturn after the War enabled the labour movement to heal the wounds inflicted during the pre-war slump. The material standards of our class, not without trade union struggle, did slowly rise. The trade unions became stronger and stronger during the period of relatively “full employment”. Today a new generation, no longer inhibited by the defeats suffered between the wars has gained a new confidence and will fight to retain the gains that have been made. Perhaps the young workers of the 1970’s still suffer from the reformist illusions built up during the period of alleged affluence when Tory Prime Minister Harold MacMillan coined the phrase “You’ve never had it so good”. They will nevertheless fight tooth and nail against any return to the 1930’s, which is all that sick British capitalism can now offer the working class.

So for the fourth time in my lifetime history presents the labour movement with the opportunity to end the crisis-ridden and decadent capitalist system. This is the perspective of the period ahead.

In 1917, the Russian workers broke the chain of imperialism at its weakest link. The European working class did respond but its leaders sidetracked the struggle, and the revolutionary wave failed, leaving the Russian workers’ state isolated, weak and prone to degeneration in backward Russia, despite the huge gains of the nationalised, planned economy.

In 1926, the British workers, though weakened by previous fights against wage cuts, were ready to carry the General Strike through to a victorious conclusion but the right wing leaders preferred to reprieve the capitalist system.

In 1945, the overwhelming majority of the working people in Britain gave the Labour politicians a mandate to bring about a fundamental socialist change in society. And yet again, despite the carrying through of valuable reforms like the setting up of the National Health Service, the Tories were given a chance to return to power when the Labour Government “ran out of steam”, started to “consolidate” and to “hesitate” in pushing ahead with its programme.


What is the prospect for the period ahead? There can be no denying the tremendous opportunities open to the new generation of workers. Their combativity and willingness to fight is beyond question. It seems that the natural response of the workers of today to mass redundancies is factory occupation and the most militant struggles. The trade union movement is stronger today than it has ever been in history – with 11 million workers organised in the TUC. This is a colossal force that has defeated a Tory Government and overturned its cherished Industrial Relations Act. But the key question that still remains is to equip this immensely powerful movement with a clear programme and perspective. A lack of leadership is what has “led” the workers to defeat so many times in the past. This is the burning need of the months and years ahead – the fight for a clear socialist programme in the labour movement. The LPYS can play an enormous role in this struggle if it learns the lessons of history and intensifies the fight for its Marxist policies in the broad labour movement.

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