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Dwight Macdonald

England at War

4: Is Wartime England Totalitarian?

(February 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 5, 3 February, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

England has been at war a year and a half. Since the blitzkrieg of last May, the British Government has had, in form at least, totalitarian controls over the economy and the masses. But to what extent have these forms materialized in practice? In my last article I showed that England’s war economy is not yet totalitarian by a long shot. This time I propose to look into the matters of strikes and civil liberties.

This week’s papers report the suppression of the Daily Worker and Bevin’s plans to finally put into effect the powers to conscript labor which he has had since May 20. It looks as though the Labor-Churchill government is going to try to restrict the liberties still held by the masses. Next week I shall discuss this turn. This week let us see what measure of liberty the British masses have so far retained in 17 months of war. The British wartime social system, like the British war economy, is a ramshackle structure, a matter of compromise and confusion. The British bourgeoisie is so weak and decadent, British capitalism is so obsolete from historical viewpoint and teh British working class movement is relatively so strong that, even with the willing help of the labor bureaucracy, the ruling class is unable to go beyond a certain point in regimenting and rationing the masses for the war effort. Churchill and Beaverbrook, Bevin and Citrine – these gentlemen advance in one sector, retreat in another, reach a stalemate in a third. This makes a very complicated and contradictory general picture: strikes are outlawed – and take place; a sales tax is imposed – and also a 100% excess profits tax; the masses are rationed while the rich can gorge in unrationed restaurants – yet there has been a general rise in social benefits. Looking at one set of factors, the liberals conclude England is more democratic and progressive than ever. Looking at another, many on the left conclude that England is already a quasi-fascist state. The actuality seems to be more complex than either of these views. Let us see.

Civil Liberties

The most striking evidence of the as yet non-totalitarian nature of British wartime society is the remarkable way that civil liberties have been preserved. There seems to be little more political censorship of the press in England today than there is over here. The suppression last week of the Daily Worker is the first instance, to my knowledge, of suppression of a left-wing paper. The left Labor Party organ. The Tribune, the Independent Labor Party’s New Leader, the Anarchist’s War Commentary, all of these and many other leftwing papers, continue to appear regularly. There is likewise great freedom of assembly: Communist speakers still are not barred in Hyde Park: on January 12 last the Stalinists organized a “people’s Convention of 2,200 in London, calling for freedom to India, a “people’s government” and a “people’s peace”, at which, according to the N.Y. Times, “there was not a single policeman in sight and no disturbance of any kind”. Debate in Parliament is also unrestricted: Labor and I.L.P. members have been able to force the government to withdraw such steps as Minister of Information Duff Cooper’s plan for extending the censorship of the press to political matters and Home Minister Anderson’s proposal to set up in “war zones” special one-man courts with death powers and no right of appeal. Finally, the treatment of conscientious objectors – of whom there have been tens of thousands – seems to have been, on the whole, remarkably humane and intelligent.

There are good reasons for all this, of course, which have nothing to do with Mr. Churchill’s burning love for democracy (a love discovered only since Hitler opened war on the British Empire). One is that none of the left-wing parties in England today – including the Stalinists under that head for simplicity’s sake – are strong enough to be dangerous. Another is the pressure exerted by the rank and file of the working class, a pressure which cannot be disregarded by the Labor members of the Government. And finally there is the historical tradition of civil liberty in England, which is far more developed than in any other leading nation, including this country.

Social Security

Since the Labor Party entered the Government, there have been increases in various social benefits. The unemployment dole has been increased from 26 to 30 shillings a week for married couples; the scope of unemployment insurance has been extended to take in tin. additional 500,000 workers; the scale of compensation for civilians killed or wounded by “enemy action” has been increased; old age pensions have been raised from ten shillings to one pound weekly; there has been an increase in weekly allowances of wives and families of men in the armed forces.

Three things must be said about this list:

  1. the original levels of most of these social benefits were very low; and the additions are quite small;
  2. hese gains are of minor importance compared to the general decline in living standards forced on the workers by the war effort (of this, more in my next article);
  3. these gains are an index not to the democratic idealism of the Tories (or the Labor Party leaders!) but to the weakness of the ruling class on the one hand, and the strength of. the working class on the other.

This leads us to the matter of –


Among the “emergency powers” granted by parliament to the Tory-Labor government last May was the right to forbid strikes and lockouts. As Minister of Labor, Bevin clearly has this power in form. In practice, however, being an experienced and shrewd trade unionist, he has wisely followed a policy of talking tough – and doing very little to back up his threats. Thus on June 7, the N.Y. Times reported: “Mr. Bevin outlawed strikes and lockouts by making acceptance of arbitration decrees mandatory in all labor disputes.” This would seem conclusive enough: no more strikes! Yet on July 13 we find the N.Y. Post printing a dispatch headed: “BRITISH BAN STRIKES – Decree authorizes Bevin to Act”. This story merely repeats the June 7 Times story about compulsory arbitration; the only difference is that this time the government has issued a special “order-in-council” on the matter.

The British working class is notoriously law-abiding and orderly. Since last May there have been no strikes in England. But there have been a great many “work holidays” – and it would take a very clever lawyer, with lots of time on his hands, to distinguish a “work holiday” from a “strike”. A few of these strikes have been reported in small news items in the American Press. For news of most of them you must go to the files of British left-wing papers like the London New Leader (a really excellent job, by the way). Many if not most of the strike have been led by “shop stewards”, elected by the rank-and-file workers in a plant to carry on the struggle against the employers which the regular trade union officials, tied to a policy of “industrial peace” during the war, have abandoned. (In a later article, I shall go more fully into this shop steward movement, at present the most significant expression of the class struggle in England.) Let me set down a few notes on recent strikes, to give an idea of their scope and nature:

Thus the anti-strike decrees have remained as much of a dead letter as the rest of the “totalitarian” powers granted the government last May. This is not because of any shrinking on Bevin’s part from outlawing strikes, of course, but simply because it is politically impossible for him with the best will in the world, to enforce such measures in the face of serious opposition from the British workers. (Hillman over here is in much the same position.) This is not to say that Bevin, by a combination of force and persuasion, has not in many instances succeeded in stifling incipient strikes. He has – just as Hillman and the top CIO-AFL bureaucracy have over here. But the process is much more difficult and complicated, the results not nearly so certain as in a real totalitarian regime such as Germany has.

When, as was the case recently in a Dundee engineering works, a strike can take place over the issue of the right to smoke on the job, one can hardly speak of totalitarianism! The British working class still has the immediate possibility of large-scale class action. The present regime maintains itself through its own strength than because of the tragic lack of revolutionary leadership in England today.

The Road Ahead

The liberals and the social-patriots, of course, point to the phenomena discussed in this article as evidence that Marxists have been mistaken as to the necessity of capitalism going totalitarian to fight a modern war. Let us admit frankly that many of us of the revolutionary life have exaggerated the tempo at which totalitarianism would develop in the warring “democracies”. The forms of democracy have survived a great deal better in England than many of us expected. But we were entirely right in predicting that an advanced industrial nation like England (or America) can fight an imperialist war effectively only by instituting totalitarian controls. And we were right in predicting that the British (or American) bourgeoisie would go ahead on the road to fascism in wartime as fast and as far as they dared What has happened in England is that the working class has so far been able, by militant action, to preserve n considerable degree of freedom – despite the earnest efforts of Messrs. Churchill, Bevin. Morrison & Co.

But indications have multiplied in the last two month’s that the necessities of war are forcing the British ruling class really to put the screws on both the liberties and the living standards of the masses. There is no space here to go into this matter, which must wait until the next article in the series – which will describe the recent cuts in food rations, the putting into effect last October of a heavy sales tax on consumers goods, the installation a few weeks ago of Bevin as director-in-chief of production, and the remarkable confidential memorandum of Ex-Ambassador Kennedy to President Roosevelt. The direction in which the Tory-Labor government is pushing British society is clear enough. The next few weeks will probably see a great intensification pf the pressure towards totalitarianism, under the generalship of that idol of the liberal weeklies, “Ernie” Bevin. For this is an imperialist war and the existence of such liberties as still obtain in England, far from being an indication of the non-imperialist nature of the war, as the social-patriots maintain, is in sharp conflict with the necessities of the war. I venture to predict that it will not be many moons before the liberal weeklies begin to wring their hands over the (to them) incomprehensible actions of Bevin, the Paladin of democracy.

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