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It is an Imperialist War

A Reply to Laski’s Defence of the War

(Spring 1940)

A penny pamphlet published by Home Front, 60B Fort Road, London SE1.
Home Front was also the name of a left-wing anti-war journal that was published throughout the Second World War.
Spelling errors in the original have been amended.
Scanned, prepared and annotated for the MIA by Paul Flewers.

It is an Imperialist War

WAR, like revolution, leaves little opportunity for equivocation or ambiguity. Spokesmen of Labour, Trade Union and Cooperative organisations have said many times in the past twenty years that they never would support an imperialist war; a war fought, that is, for the interests and advantages of the governing class; a war fought to protect or extend capitalist profits, and imperialist possessions.

Unfortunately, no ruling class ever admits going to war for such sordid objects. Every war has to be a ‘righteous war’; else working men would not surrender their lives and liberties to their exploiters. British statesmen are particularly adept at presenting Britain’s wars as wars for ‘freedom’, for ‘humanity’ and ‘for small nations’.

We cannot, then, define each war according to the declarations of those heading the State. Nor should we make the mistake of identifying the purposes of the war with the social and economic aims of Labour. The chief criticism that can be made of the Labour Party leadership is that they have done both these things: have accepted the declarations of the Government as to its purpose in going to war, and have sought workers’ support for the war by suggesting that it is being fought for aims similar to those of the labour movement.

Professor Laski [1] has long been regarded as a critic of the conservative reformism of the Labour Party leadership; he is thought to be a left-wing socialist, even a Marxist. His statement on the war – published by the Labour Party under the title Is This an Imperialist War? [2] – has therefore an unusual interest and importance.

Much of Laski’s case could be discounted on the simple ground that his argument assumes a militancy of purpose on the part of Labour’s leaders that they do not, in fact, possess; which they disavow in practice every day. Laski must be aware of this: that he conceals it from the reader, allowing his case to be read as a statement of the official Labour Party view of the war makes it all the more vital that it be dealt with.

Nothing is more dangerous than that right-wing inaction, cowardice and political treachery should be allowed to shelter behind the phraseology and sentiments of the left.

On the sharpest test the Labour Movement has yet faced, Laski emerges as a defender of the official policy. He must not complain if he be judged accordingly; or if his brave sounding words are set against the actions of Labour’s leaders, and the contrast used to condemn him as well as those he champions.

The Cause of the War

In making a case for Labour’s support of the war, Laski dismisses as irrelevant all comparisons with the war of 1914-18. We might, with some pleasure and profit, compare the Labour Party case for supporting that war with Laski’s case for supporting this war, and find a startling and disconcerting similarity. But the New Fabians wish to be tried apart from the crimes of the Old Fabians; and as this match is being played on the Professor’s home ground we take his opening argument, which is:

Socialists have always the duty of examining each historic situation as it arises with a view to distinguishing between its progressive and reactionary elements; it is their business to support the one and to attack the other. (p.5)

True enough, but it is not a socialist’s duty to isolate each ‘historic situation’; to examine it apart from what went before, or from the conditions out of which it grew. That is what Laski does, and the main part of his case rests upon this artificial division between ‘the war’ and the conditions that made it.

What is the basic cause of the present war? We can dismiss as childishly inadequate the stale cries of ‘Hitler’s aggression’ which seem to make up nine-tenths of Labour statements these days. The incident provoking the declaration of war is not the cause of the war; we must look deeper than that.

The causes for the war are to be found in the very process of capitalist production, distribution and exchange which creates the growth of monopolies; these great trust-groups seek to establish control over markets, sources of raw materials and areas for exploitation. The concentration of production in larger units – and fewer controlling hands; the increased powers of production; the shrinking home markets and the diminishing of areas open to the trusts force them to seek monopolistic control of raw materials and territories, as markets or as areas for exploitation. This search for expanding areas for trust exploitation and operation comes up against the existing State boundaries which are in fact mainly based upon other and rival monopoly groupings. Those industrial and financial powers first in the field secured the main territorial advantages. The late-comers have been driven to contest the advantageous positions established.

Since the end of the nineteenth century, this struggle for re-division of the world has dominated world politics. The conflict between the growing world productive powers and the national boundaries maintained by capital has driven millions to poverty and despair and brought continual wars and threats of wars. It dominates all politics, internal and external.

This process, unavoidable so long as capital rules, creates ceaseless conflict. The struggle does not begin when a Government – serving one group of trusts – declares war on another State. It goes on all the time, taking many forms; some open, some concealed. Diplomatic negotiation and manoeuvres, agreements and alliances between States, subsidised economic warfare, small wars waged ostensibly between small powers, actually on behalf of great ones, and the greater disciplining and exploitation of the people – all these are manifestations of the same conflict. The formal declaration of war – nowadays more and more dispensed with – is merely the continuation of this same struggle in a sharper, more open form.

Military victory by one group over another cannot end this struggle; the losses of one group are the gains of another; the temporary cessation of one conflict gives rise to the sharpening of other conflicts.

Laski argues that the British workers should line up behind Chamberlain [3] to secure the defeat of Hitler. British imperialism, he says, has ceased expanding; German imperialism is at the beginning of its expansion; therefore the latter is a greater menace to the progress of labour.

Assuming this to be true – it is not out of place here to recall that similar arguments were put forward in 1914, only to be disproved when the ‘non-expanding’ British Imperialism added 1,125,000 square miles to its possessions – the case will not bear a moment’s examination. Victory for British Imperialism does not mean the end of the conflict; nor of the wastage of lives, the poverty and suffering of the masses that the conflict involves. The victory of British Imperialism would lead to the shifting of the conflict to other spheres. British world-domination is contested not only by German Imperialism; it is also contested by American, by Japanese and, to a lesser degree, by Italian Imperialism. (It is useful to remember that the present sequence of world wars is generally regarded as beginning with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.) Putting Germany out of action temporarily would merely lead to intensified struggle with other powers.

We shall see later that the whole basis upon which Laski argues is divorced from reality. It is, however, necessary to deal with the case as put forward by Laski so as to show that if the course he advocates were to be worked out it would still leave the major problem unsolved.

Who is the Enemy of Labour?

To strengthen further his plan that Hitlerism must be destroyed, Laski paints a horrifying picture of the awful consequences of a German victory. To avoid this the organised workers must support Chamberlain’s Government: for they cannot defeat Mr. Chamberlain and the things he represents, save as they give all their energy to the defeat of Hitler.

‘It should’, says Laski, ‘surely be obvious that the danger to democracy from Mr. Chamberlain and M. Daladier [4] is, in the present circumstances, far less than the danger represented by Hitler.’ (p 11)

It is hard to follow the working of the (New) Fabian mind. The French workers have lost all the gains won by the stay-in strikes and the Popular Front Government. Their wages are subject to confiscation by the State; their hours have been lengthened; their trade union rights drastically limited; their political freedom abolished – by M. Daladier! Long before the war began, M. Daladier used conscription to break a general strike of the French Trade Unions.

In Britain itself, the looming offensive against workers’ wages is being led, not by Hitler, but by the present Cabinet. Great suffering has been imposed by the Government on the people; our man-power is being conscripted for the forces, and soon will be for the factories. Once Laski’s argument is accepted – that for fear of a worse evil from an outside enemy we should tolerate the evils imposed by our own ruling classes – Labour is on the defensive. Step by step we shall be driven to surrender everything that has been gained over the last fifty years. Put the war first and the needs of the workers must come second. Accept the capitalist framework of society and inevitably the cost of the war will be fastened on to the shoulders of the workers. For, on Laski’s argument, to fight Chamberlain is to crab the fight against Hitler. An opposition that jibs at carrying its verbal criticism to the stage of open struggle against the Government is an opposition doomed to servile flunkyism.

That German Revolution

Having made the first part of his case by ignoring the relationship between capitalism and the war, Laski seeks to get over the second part by disproving the first; he says:

The war cannot be separated from the capitalist forces which produced it; it is an inherent function of their nature, not something willed apart from them by the deliberate designs of malevolent men. War is the expression of the bankruptcy of a Social Regime, an opportunity to the creditors to reorganise the estate ... (p.13)

If these words mean anything they mean that the task of the workers is to overthrow the capitalist war-making order; that war makes this all the more urgent and possible. They apply to the peoples of all countries – who live and suffer under capitalist exploitation – but Laski addresses them to the German workers exclusively.

Naturally, Laski sees the duty of the German worker more clearly than he sees the duty of the British workers. He is all in favour of a German revolution. He wants the German workers to overthrow their capitalist government, but urges the British workers not to overthrow theirs. If his argument that to fight Chamberlain is to help Hitler be true, then the German workers may also say; first let us beat Chamberlain, representative of Versailles and of British Imperialism, then we will see to Hitler.

Labour and the Government

At this point Laski will say the Labour Movement is not supporting Chamberlain’s Government. His arguments now get about as hard to hold as Jack Warner’s favourite eels. [5] ‘Such support as Labour has given to the Government has been, and is strictly conditioned upon the degree of coincidence of Mr Chamberlain’s aims with those of Labour.’ Or is it the other way round? At no point is it clear where this coincidence comes. Not surely on the home front; and certainly not on war aims. Laski does not reveal the point of agreement. There must be agreement for he urges us to maintain ‘that national unity which is a condition of victory’. He suggests that in waging the war Labour and Chamberlain part company perhaps on the kind of Germany they want after the war. A Socialistic Germany is the Labour – or Laski’s – aim. We might well ask: what kind of Socialist Germany will it be that is established not by the rising of the German workers but by the bombs and bayonets of the allies? Even the Professor shows some uneasiness on this point. He admits the danger that the Allies want a palace revolution in Germany; a change of governors, not of systems. That is more than a danger, it is clearly part of Britain’s war strategy.

But do Labour part company with Chamberlain over this? This is open to great doubt. The Labour Party is largely committed to the restoration of the old prewar Europe. Not a Socialist Europe but the old system of alliances and puppet powers. They are backing Beneš, [6] and the return of the old democratic system to Czechoslovakia. They give official countenance to the work of the reactionary groups now uniting to return to power in Austria. [7] They back the restoration of reactionary Poland. The Labour Party shows no sign of uniting the labour movements of Europe for an independent drive for a Socialist Europe. Without this all the rest is sham. Nowhere is this betrayal more clearly conveyed than in the significant paragraph especially inserted in Labour’s newest declaration on its war aims ; so far unnoticed save by the reactionaries in France and Britain who welcomed it. It is worth quoting in full:

Whatever else may be contained in the Peace Treaty, this will assuredly not be the last war in Europe, unless, when this war ends, we can succeed in reconciling the French claim to Security with the German claim to Equality. If Britain is either inattentive or impatient towards either of these claims, she will already have incurred a share of responsibility for the Next War.

The French people, who have suffered so often and so cruelly, must be assured of protection against violence and menace, and the German people must be given acceptable and peaceful outlets for their energy and ambition.

In reply to the just claim of the French the Labour Party answers: ‘We share your determination that this recurrent German menace, requiring these repeated mobilisations of the whole manhood of France, shall not plague your next generation and ours, if our strength and foresight can prevent it. Henceforth in resistance to any German aggression, our two peoples must not be merely allies for a season but brothers for all time. [8]

The prospect of lasting peace is not a Socialist Europe but the reconciliation of ‘French’ and ‘German’ claims! To speak of the French and Germans as nations is to destroy the whole basis upon which the Socialist case rests. It jettisons even the feeble ‘Peace Aims’ statement to which the Party is committed. The Socialist seeking new Europe would be working for the union of French, German and British workers through Socialist governments, and see in this the destruction of all the old measurements, standards and fears. This statement reveals clearly the fact that Labour’s alleged difference in war aims with Chamberlain is window dressing – no more.

War and Revolution

War forces life away from the beaten track; it throws values and systems into the melting pot. At first it strengthens the ruling-class grip on the people; later it breaks that grip. War is revolutionary in its effects. Laski sees this and makes some play with the fact. But successful revolutions are made possible not only by the impact of war upon the social structure; they also require the existence of men and women with the purpose and courage and knowledge to carry them through.

The organised workers cannot conquer political power by struggle against foreign capitalists but only by struggle against those in their home country who hold to and maintain the existing social structure. The demands of war invade every sphere of industrial and civil life; it is impossible to support the war and the Government waging it and to hope to create revolutionary opinion and leadership which will radically change that social system.

The will of the Government is ... finally determined by the character of the class relations in Society. If these give a different and unequalled interest to different classes in the results of the productive process then the power of the State will always be used to protect the interests of the class which owns the instruments of production. [9]

So wrote Laski some years ago on one of his daring excursions into revolutionary politics. He cannot argue that this difference no longer exists in wartime. That the peace-time capitalist state becomes in war-time an impartial organ standing above class interests and bias. He would not say this, yet he appeals for unity to secure victory; victory for whom and over whom? Let Laski tell us at what point he distinguishes between the war being fought against Hitlerism, and the war against the standards and rights of the British workers?

Laski is uneasily aware of the revolutionary material likely to be brought to the top by the present war. Great explosive forces have accumulated beneath the surface of the present social structure since the end of the 1914-18 war. The efforts of the workers to change the social order have been frustrated. The peoples of the world have therefore suffered two decades of impoverishment and disillusion. The antagonisms fostered by capitalist decline – class conflict, colonial aspirations, and national revolt – have not been removed but intensified by reactionary triumphs. The development of the war will release all these repressed forces. Social systems, armies, nations, and empires will be thrown into the melting pot of war and revolution. This explains the hesitancy of the older and wiser British statesmen to be drawn into war which may shatter the existing social order; why both sides have hesitated to let loose the powerful and destructive engines of modern war upon the world.

This fact demands of organised labour that it cut through the tangle of vested interests and lies and prepares itself for – and helps to make – the great struggles for social change. That is, set out to make political power, for Socialist change, its dominating purpose. The blows of the British workers against their own imperialism will awaken wider reverberations in Germany than all the leaflets and radio appeals made by Labour men serving as the mouthpieces of an imperialist government. If the Daily Herald [10] is to be believed, Labour’s line-up with Chamberlain has weakened, not strengthened, opposition to war and fascism in Germany.

A revolutionary war can only be waged by a revolutionary class

Centre of the scene in Britain today – and throughout the world – is the social question. To live, to eat, to end war, the masses must be set in active movement to secure power.

Laski asks us to support gouty old British Imperialism, and to put the victory of that imperialism – which is by no means the same thing as the defeat of Fascism – before the struggle for socialism. Mr Greenwood [11] proclaims his willingness to sacrifice a million lives now to save such a sacrifice in twenty years time. How easy it is to dispose of human beings! We know – and Laski knows – that such a sacrifice will lead to greater sacrifices in the future as long as capital rules. Chamberlain’s Government fights this war for the advancement of monopoly-capital; at home as much as abroad. The strengthening of monopoly in finance and industry means a similar process in government forms as well; democracy in its present form is doomed – it must give way to the slave state of capital, or the democratic government of the workers. This war is as much a war to defeat the workers’ fight for social change in Britain as it is to maintain imperialist power abroad.

First step to the arousing of the British workers to the fight for power – which is also the arousing of the German and world workers to the same struggle – is to call things by their right names in the Labour Movement. Those who replace the flag of Socialist internationalism by the jingo flag of imperialist war must be denounced. Clarity is an essential preliminary to the creation of new and vigorous leadership from the ranks of the workers, from the workshops, foundries, mines and mills of Britain. The hope for all mankind depends upon the determination and courage of the working men of Europe; let us rise to our task.


1. Harold Joseph Laski (1893-1950) was a prominent British left-wing political theorist and academic. A leading member of the Fabian Society, he joined the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in 1936, and chaired the party during 1945-46. He was appointed Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics in 1926, and was a prolific writer on political topics.

2. Harold Laski, Is This an Imperialist War?, pamphlet published by the Labour Party, February 1940; also included in Labour’s Aims in War and Peace , London, nd [1940], pp 22-33.

3. Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940), a Conservative, became the Prime Minister of Britain in 1937, and headed the government which declared war on Germany in September 1939.

4. Edouard Daladier (1884-1970), a Radical, was Prime Minister of France in 1933, 1934 and 1938-40.

5. Jack Warner (1896-1981) was a popular British music hall and wireless comedian and film actor, Eels; was one of his songs (‘really slippery eels’).

6. Edvard Beneš (1884-1948) was a leader of the Czechoslovak independence movement, Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia during 1918-35, and President during 1935-38 and 1946-48 until the Stalinist takeover.

7. In Austria the workers in the factories are strongly organised in an underground movement. The blessing of the Labour Party of the work of the coalition of all the old Austrian parties implied by their official presence at the opening of the propaganda office is a blow at these workers. [Author’s note]

8. Peace Declaration of the Labour Party, 9 February 1940, in Labour’s Aims in War and Peace, pp.90-91.

9. Harold Laski, The State in Theory and Practice, London 1935, pp.198-99.

10. The Daily Herald was a daily newspaper that reflected the views of the Labour Party leadership.

11. Arthur Greenwood (1880-1954) was Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and subsequently a member of Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition government.

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