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Dwight Macdonald

England at War

1. The Record of the British Labor Party

(December 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 34, 2 December 1940, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles on the development of class struggle in wartime England. Later articles will be:

2. Focal Points of Class Conflict: Taxes, Wages, Profits, Civil Liberties, etc.

3. London Under Siege: Social and Political Tendencies.

4. Arming the Peoples; the Home Guard Movement.

5. The British War Economy.

6. Whither England?

Since last May, England’s war effort has been run by a contradictory and explosive combination of Tory and Labor politicians. Symbolic of this peculiar union of ultimately irreconcilable tendencies are the two most powerful war leaders: Bevin, who organized strikes to stop the shipment of munitions for intervention against Bolshevik Russia in 1920 and who led the British general strike of 1926 (and helped betray it): and Churchill, who was the driving force of both the Allied intervention against the Bolsheviks and the smashing of the 1926 general strike. This political union is the expression of the deeply conflicting class forces set in motion by the war. The British masses want the war to be conducted efficiently and democratically, for socialist war aims. Symptoms of this are the fight for civil liberties, the struggle in London over the issue of deep air-raid shelters for the East End masses, the popular pressure for arming the people (in a later article I shall take up a remarkable expression of this – T.H. Wintringham’s New Ways of War, available over here in a 25 cent Penguin edition), and above all, in the “revolutionary” demagogy which leaders like Bevin and Laski find it expedient to use in discussing the question of war aims. On the other hand, the Tory oligarchy conducting the imperialist war, led first by Chamberlain and now by Churchill, has opposed these demands as far as it has dared and has insisted both on keeping the conduct of the war as much as p0ossible in the hands of Conservative politicians and on avoiding any commitments as to general war aims.

This is an explosive situation, full of revolutionary possibilities. So far, these conflicts of interest and policy have been successfully controlled by joint action of the Tories, who have shown all the well-known skill of the British ruling class in making just enough concessions to avoid a showdown, and of the Labor Party bureaucracy, who have shown the equally celebrated willingness of reformist leasers to compromise, “cooperate”, and, at all costs, avoid taking power by a new election. But how long can this situation last? Never before has a great industrial nation been subjected to the kind of total warfare the German air force is now dealing out to England. The British social structure, most rigid and stratified in the modern world, is being shaken by the bombs of the luftwaffe (air war). For the first time since the 1926 Genera! Strike, the British masses are stirring, deeply questioning the policies and competence of the oligarchy and putting increasing pressure on their own reformist leadership.

What can we expect in England in the next few months? In this series I shall try to answer this question by analyzing the background of the first year of the war. Let us begin with the role of the British Labor Party.

Who Is Using Whom?

“The British labor movement.” said Bevin last month, “came to the rescue of this nation and the Commonwealth at the blackest hour of its history.” This is incontrovertibly true. But the question is: who is making use of whom? The German Social Democracy also “came to the rescue of the nation” (that is, of the ruling class) at a black hour, but few would now deny that it was the big bourgeoisie who used the Social Democracy and not vice versa. Today the liberals of the Nation and renegade leftists like Sidney Hook argue that it is Labor which is using the Tories, that the effect of the Labor Party’s participation in Churchill’s war cabinet is to prepare the war for socialism and even – so bold are these gentry in words! – revolution.

In my opinion, however, we already have enough evidence to state quite definitely that, while there are great revolutionary potentialities in the British situation today, they are being strangled and not furthered by the war policies of the Labor Party. The leaders of the Labor Party have been pushed into whatever advances they have made by irresistible pressure from their own rank-and-file; they have taken such actions reluctantly, timidly, hesitantly; they have allowed the Tories to hold the key political positions; and they have not only made no advances since May but have even been pushed back a little. The impossibility of fighting for workingclass aims through a capitalist-imperialist-laborite coalition government has been once more amply documented.

“Chamberlain Must Go!”

Throughout the “quiet period” of the war last year, the British masses showed a steadily increasing dissatisfaction with the incompetent Chamberlain government. At the beginning of the war, the Labor Party had made a “political truce” with the Conservatives, whereby the latter would be allowed to run the government without any effort by the Labor Party to overthrow them. The huge parliamentary majority which the Conservatives had piled up in the last general election four years ago was to be left undisturbed; the Labor Party would make no effort to get a new general election. There was great, popular opposition to this policy: more resolutions by trade unions opposing the “truce” policy were passed in the months immediately before the Labor Party’s May conference at Bournemouth than had ever before been brought forward against any policy of the Labor Party’s executive. The Norwegian fiasco (and not the Labor Party’s executive! sealed the doom of the Chamberlain government. On May 8 the Labor Party finally decided to break the truce and forced a vote of confidence in Parliament. Although Chamberlain won, his majority was cut from 210 to 81, and it was clear he would have to resign.

Churchill’s New Deal

On May 10, as the German Army poured into the low countries, Chamberlain resigned. Churchill took over, and the Labor Party executive, meeting in Bournemouth, unanimously voted to enter the new government. The War Council which Churchill created was made up of three Conservatives (Churchill, Chamberlain, Halifax) and two Laborites (Atlee and Greenwood). Laborites also went into important cabinet posts: A.V. Alexander, Ramsey Macdonald’s First Lord of the Admiralty, took over his old post again; Herbert Morrison, president of the London City Council, became Minister of Supply, in charge of Britain’s industrial mobilization; Ernest Bevin, top leader of the trade unions, became Minister of Labor; Hugh Dalton, Labor’s outstanding economist became Minister of Economic Warfare, in control of foreign trade and the blockade.

Morrison, Bevin and Dalton, generally considered the most energetic and able top leaders of the British labor movement, thus were put in control of the key economic ministries. Atlee and Greenwood seem to be mediocrities, as ineffectual as their Tory colleagues on the War Council.) The hopes of the Labor Party were pinned on these three men. “The Party will lose its nerve completely if they fail,” wrote one liberal journalist.

At one job, at least, the Labor chieftains were determined not to fail: at regimenting the British masses for the war. On May 22 Parliament passed the Emergency Powers Defence Bill, introduced by Atlee, on behalf of the War Council, which provided for nationalizing of all munitions plants, 100% excess profit tax, government control of all industry, and, most sweeping of all, vesting in the Minister of Labor authority “to direct any person to perform any service required” and “to prescribe terms of remuneration, hours of labor, and conditions of work.” Laborite Morrison at once put all war industries on twelve-hour shifts, while Laborite Bevin soon issued an order prohibiting strikes and instituting compulsory arbitration. In a few weeks the historic gains of British Labor won in a century of class struggle, were wiped out. No one could say that the Labor Party was not “cooperating” loyally. What did it get in return?

One thing it did not get was the removal of Chamberlain and the Chamberlain influence from the government. All through the summer the same pattern was repeated as during the preceding winter: increasing popular pressure to get rid of Chamberlain and his crowd, resistance by Tories in control, timidity and evasiveness by the Labor Party leaders. And once more it was not any initiative on the part of the “leaders” of the working class, but simply the brute onslaught of events, which forced a change. After the British Army’s annihilation on the continent and the terrific German air attack on London in September had once more exposed the sabotage and incompetence of the Chamberlain system, Churchill was forced to reshuffle his cabinet.

Two Steps Backward, One Ahead

The Labor leaders scored two successes in the changes made in the government in October: Chamberlain resigned, pleading ill health (he died some weeks later), and Bevin look his place in the War Council. But Churchill more than made up for this concession by adding to the Council Chamberlain’s colleagues, Sir John Anderson and Sir Kingsley Wood. The N.Y. Times described them as “two of the most criticised men in Britain.” Anderson, as

Minister of Home Security, was responsible for the lack of deep shelters. Wood had failed badly both as Air Secretary and as Chancellor of the Exchequer. In the new War Council, the Conservatives had an even greater majority than in the old one. Instead of 3 to 2, it was now 5 Conservatives (Churchill, Beaverbrook, Halifax, Wood, Anderson) to 3 Laborites (Atlee, Greenwood, Bevin). Furthermore, Morrison was removed from the key post of Minister of Supply, apparently on the grounds that he didn’t “get on” with the manufacturers, and the post went to the steel magnate, Sir Andrew Rae Duncan. Thus the Churchill-Laborite government has moved to the right, not to the left. There is a great deal of talk in liberal circles over here about England’s “wartime democracy”. It is true that civil liberties have been preserved to a remarkable extent and that labor has even won certain social gains. But these have been concessions forced, as I shall show next week, from an insecure ruling class by working class action. Nor are they decisive factors. On the main issue, namely the capitalist class character of the government and the imperialist aims of the war the Tories of course have yielded nothing. The very fact that the Conservative Party should still control the government is a denial of democracy, since they hold their power on the basis of a Parliamentary majority which they got in 1935 and which they would almost certainly not get if elections were held today. But no general election will be held in England if the Labor Party leadership can prevent it. For then they might come face to face with the nightmare that haunts all reformist politicians; they might have to take power.

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