Plastrik (Judd/Stanley) Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Henry Judd

War Policy in England

(July 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 6 (Whole No. 55), July 1941, pp. 154–6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IN OCTOBER OF 1940 the Socialist Workers Party (Cannon group) formally adopted what has since been termed a “military policy for the Second World War.” This policy – proclaimed as a new weapon in the storehouse of revolutionary Marxism advanced to meet the problems of our militaristic epoch – advocated military conscription and training of the workers under trade union auspices and control. The original impulsion for this policy came from Leon Trotsky,

although he was unable to elaborate or defend his new conception. In the words of Cannon – its chief exponent and sole elaborator to date – it is based upon the strategy of a “simultaneous” or “telescoped” war on two fronts – against fascist-Hitler imperialism and against the bourgeoisie in one’s homeland. In the nine months that have passed since adoption of this policy by the Cannon group it is perfectly clear to all but those who delight in self-deception that insofar as the workers’ movement in general and the revolutionary movement in particular are concerned, it has produced no positive effect and has met only with the most severe criticism. As a result, the “new policy” has remained an abstraction, stillborn, incapable of sinking a single root into the soil of class struggle politics. At the moment of writing it graces the pages of Socialist Workers Party propaganda only as a forlorn and pathetic remnant of something which – fortunately – died a-borning.

In The New International and Labor Action the Workers Party has stated and explained its categorical opposition to the proposed policy. It has elaborated its own “military policy” – the traditional policy of Leninism, modernized in accordance with the needs and experiences of the Second World War.

The Situation in England

From the standpoint of revolutionists, the most significant development that has occurred in England since the outbreak of the war is not, as stupid American correspondents and journalists put it, the ability of the English masses “to take it.” What an insult this is to the English proletarians – to compare them with some insensate shock absorber, brutally bombed, but ready to “take it some more”! Much more important and significant to us has been the awakening of the masses of the trade union front: the revival of the famous British shop stewards movement. This act signifies for us the instinctive desire on the part of Britain’s workers to act independently of their own ruling class in the war. Fourth Internationalists in England in concerned – and rightly so – to enhance the development of this movement so that it reaches a nation-wide, all-England level and, at the same time, to raise it to the level of independent political action. This is the main concern and task of revolutionary socialists in England today.

Based on absolutely authentic information, we must report a significant change in Fourth Internationalist fortunes in England. Whereas before there were three or four competing, mutually disunited groups, it now appears that one – and only one – Trotskyist group is of any importance. This group-known as the Workers International League (WIL) and publishing a paper known as Workers International News – has resulted from the merger of two of the former groups and has experienced considerable growth in recent times. It represents at the moment the most serious revolutionary organization on the English scene and the gathering center for Revolutionary Marxists. Its active and militant youth section publishes Youth for Socialism.

The WIL has formally endorsed the orthodox viewpoint held by Trotsky and the Cannon group on the so-called Russian question. It is in political agreement and sympathy with the Cannon group (SWP) and opposed to Workers Party policies. This agreement has included with it, in our opinion, a rigidly mechanical transplantation to the shores of England of the Cannonite “military policy.” It is this that we are most concerned about.

The Policy of the W.I.L.

As explained in the paper of its youth group, Youth for Socialism (February 1941), this policy has the following basis and application.

  1. The British ruling class, precisely as was the French ruling class, is defeatist in the war. “The British bourgeoisie is sitting behind its Maginot Line” (the English Channel). It “is not fighting Hitler’s fascism.” Drawing still further its analogy with the French rulers, Youth for Socialism states that the British rulers are even now preparing a “betrayal” to Hitlerism rather than see the advance of socialism in England.
  2. In view of the above the workers of England must prepare to take over the struggle against Nazism. The “feeble pacifism of the Stalinists and the British ILP” are worse than useless. Workers in England must demand officers’ training camps (they already have universal military training) controlled by the trade unions and “financed by the government.” There must be a universal arming of the workers so that an invasion attempt can be resisted by the people.
  3. In order to put the above into practice, aside from political education of and agitational work among the masses, it is necessary that “control of the army must be taken out of the hands of the reactionary officers’ class and put into those of the workers.” Once this is accomplished then a genuine war against Hitlerism can be waged.

We must state candidly that it is our opinion that the above analysis and practical programmatic conclusions are marked by inept and false descriptions, plus major political blundering. These mistakes can be grouped under the following headings: (a) False political analysis of the general situation; (b) False analysis of the role of opposition workers’ parties; (c) false characterization of the nature of Britain’s war and (d) A false program for revolutionary work among Britain’s armed forces.

We said before that this policy and program can have disastrous consequences for the English Revolution. This is underscored by the fact that the WIL is the only English organization at present capable of revealing a revolutionary road to the proletarians of their country. The hopelessly pacifist and confusionist British ILP has no future before it. But what if – as we shall attempt to prove – the WIL policy leads only toward social-patriotism, toward a sharp diversion from the path of revolutionary anti-war opposition? But first it is necessary to examine what is wrong.

The French Experience

(a) The French bourgeoisie was defeatist, that is, it capitulated to Hitler rather than face the threat of social revolution in France. Generally speaking, true enough. But how absurd and nonsensical to say the same of the British bourgeoisie! If faced with a clear-cut alternative: a Hitler peace or English bolshevism, there is little doubt what the English bourgeoisie would do. But is that the situation today? This superficial analogy ignores (1) the bitter war waged between Britain and Germany for almost two years now and (2) the existence of Roosevelt and American imperialism which, having gained already a mighty grasp on British capital, would not and could not permit a capitulation to Hitler. The quick quelling of “appeasement” tendencies that arose with the Hess affair is surely sufficient evidence of British imperialism’s intention to fight on for its world empire (or at least as much of it as Roosevelt will permit it to retain). The world-wide resistance of Britain’s imperialists, their desperate efforts to reorganize their economy for totalitarian war purposes, their willingness (symbolized in the person of Churchill) to make sacrifices of capital – and even of profits – in the struggle against rival German imperialism, all these facts demonstrate how false it is to call the English rulers “defeatist.” From such a shallow analysis comes nothing but false strategy, for when the bourgeoisie is “defeatist” it is time for the proletariat to consider becoming “defensist.” [1] At the moment, British and German imperialism are locked in death battle with no serious signs of a compromise imperialist peace. Britain’s ruling class remains in firm control of every phase and aspect of the war it conducts.

(b) The WIL’s analysis of the opposition working class parties refers to the “feeble pacifism” of the Communist Party. We find it singularly inept and misleading to speak of Stalinist “pacifism.” What is meant by this? Does it mean that the Stalinists – as agents of the Moscow regime, which is, in turn, the ally of German imperialism – attempt to forward their military defeatist propaganda by means of demagogic and deceitful pacifist slogans? If so, then we share this analysis, but we must express our belief that it is far more vital in exposing Stalinism and its actions in the present war to explain before workers the demagogic and military defeatist character of its slogans. Surely the WIL does not mean that the British Communist Party – agency of what they still consider to be a “workers’ state” – is a bourgeois or petty-bourgeois pacifist organization! Stalinism cannot be effectively met by taking its program at face value any more than one can take the “pacifist” expressions of the Nazi Bund and its “Fifth Column” organizations at their face value.

(c) The WIL gives a confused and contradictory characterization of the war conducted by Britain – quite similar to that given by the pacifist British ILP. On the one hand, it calls it an “imperialist war,” then it speaks of “a genuine war against Hitler,” of the need for an “effective” war against fascism, etc. We believe this confusion results from two factors: (a) a mixing up of what the war is today with what it may become tomorrow under revolutionary leadership; (b) a failure to develop a practical program to bridge the gap between today’s imperialist war and the potential revolutionary war of tomorrow. Most significant of all is the fact that the WIL appears as a left-wing critic of the war – not disputing its fundamental premises, but criticizing its conduct! This, of course, is quite consistent with the Cannonite military policy which presupposes the possibility of critical support to an imperialist war (”simultaneous” war on two fronts). But it is a far cry from Leninist revolutionary opposition to the war.

What Should Be Done

(d) With respect to revolutionary work among the armed forces we have two criticisms to offer of the WIL program. This program demands (1) military training of officers under trade union control at government expense, and (2) removal of the officers’ reactionary caste and its replacement. Like their co-thinkers in America from whom they took point (1), the WIL has nowhere explained precisely what it means by this. Is it the same thing as workers’ and union defense guards? If not, what is its difference? Most important, what is its objective, how does it advance Britain’s revolutionary development? As for (2), here we must remind the WIL that they have adopted precisely the same slogan put forward by the Stalinists in Popular Front days, and developed most clearly by the French Communist Party – “Democratize and reform the army by removing its reactionary officers.” Trotsky, at that time, denounced the reformist conception behind this slogan and point out that the revolutionary objective in the bourgeois, imperialist army is not to “reform” it, but to disintegrate, break up and dissolve it, while creating the workers’ or people’s army in its place. This is no idle quibble over formulations, but is based upon a fundamental conception of the army as a military weapon of the imperialist state.

We cannot permit our revolutionary anti-war tactics and strategy to be diverted by the poisoned premises of the bourgeoisie. We cannot allow our practical program to revolve around any – or any share of – the fundamental “defensist” concepts of the bourgeoisie. Sections of Britain’s ruling class differ among themselves solely as to the best methods of preserving their empire. The WIL has allowed itself – in a small but dangerous measure – to be drawn into the quarrels of the English ruling class as how best to conduct the war. But revolutionists cannot argue on that level.

It will be objected that our criticism is negative in nature, that we propose no alternatives. It would, however, be presumptuous on our part to offer any detailed revolutionary anti-war program for British Marxists. Certain generalized concepts and tactics are, we believe, worth being considered.

In the first place, it is necessary for the WIL to reaffirm in blunt terms its understanding of the nature of this war. That this is an inter-imperialist war in each and every dominant respect; that under no circumstances can revolutionists support (no matter how “critically” in the manner of Harold Laski and the Tribune group) this war; that the main enemy of Britain’s workers is at home – the financial ruling oligarchy of The City symbolized by arch-Tory-imperialist Churchill; that – as revolutionary Fourth Internationalists – the broad strategy is Lenin’s, i.e., the establishment of workers’ power in England.

If the present British regime should begin to crumble and collapse, then we shall consider a strategic change in the above fundamentals. But – as the experience of France has shown – a collapse resulting from the internal corruption and division of the bourgeoisie, and not accompanied by independent revolutionary action can only end in the victorious intervention of Hitler as ruler and arbiter. But this independent revolutionary action can arise only under revolutionary leadership, the prerequisite for which is complete independence from one’s own ruling class. This is the first principle in wartime one well worth reaffirmation.

And what of work among the armed forces? We believe that the program of the American Workers Party, changed to meet specific English circumstances, answers this question. This program, using democratic demands of the soldiers as the transitional lever, aims primarily at the formation of soldiers’ collective bargaining agencies or councils. These democratically elected soldiers’ councils, thrown into opposition against the officers’ corps, will form the embryo for the people’s or workers’ army. As for the British labor movement in general, the answer has already been given by the revival of the shop steward movement – a movement that almost immediately clashes with the ruling class and its Labor Party and Trade Union Congress bureaucracy.

Finally, what does all this add up to? To repeat the sound words of Youth for Socialism, “in order to wage a genuine revolutionary war for the liberation of the peoples of Europe and for the defense of the rights of the British working class it is necessary that power should be in the hands of the workers.” Precisely the point. The WIL has allowed itself to be led off on a false tack. A serious and immediate re-study and re-evaluation of its course during the war is needed. This is what we urge and propose.


1. We have an excellent illustration of this In the entirely correct policy of our French movement during the present war. When French resistance collapsed and the defeatist French bourgeoisie fled, along with its corrupt regime, our French comrades executed a strategic about-face and – dropping their revolutionary anti-war slogans – became revolutionary defensists, propagandizing among workers for independent resistance to the Nazis, re-creation of the Paris Commune, creation of a French workers’ power to replace the defeatist regime of Daladier & Co., etc. They based this reorientation on the fact that the character of the war – insofar as France was concerned – had changed. That is, ceasing to be an inter-imperialist war between Germany and the French Empire, it had become a war of Nazi imperialist conquest and subjugation of France. But the situation is entirely otherwise with respect to England today.

Plastrik (Judd/Stanley) Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 25 October 2014