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A. Roland

Twilight in the British Empire

(February 1942)

Roosevelt and Churchill wish to have their alliance known as the United Nations. No doubt there are a number of reasons for avoiding the term “Allies” which was used in the first World-War. One good reason is that two of the Allies, Italy and Japan, this time are on the opposite side. Another reason may well be the desire to have forgotten the post-war history in which the Allies fell quickly apart in the scramble of self-interest. It must be a naive person indeed who thinks that in this war the most perfect harmony exists among the new United Nations. Conflicts of interest must be temporarily subordinated, naturally enough. But they do not disappear.

The relations between the United States and the British Empire is the main case in point. The Ottawa agreement was an attempt by Great Britain to protect its trade within the Empire against the encroachments of its powerful American rival. One of the aims of the international restrictive schemes initiated by England, with respect to such commodities as rubber and tin, was to keep control of these materials out of American hands and to have a lever that could be used against this country.

The Lease-Lend Act marked a real turning point in the history of the British Empire. It constituted clear recognition not only that the British have been bankrupted by the new imperialist war, but that it would be unable to pay back any monetary loans after the war. Indeed, how could it be expected to pay back billions of dollars after this war, when it had already shown its inability to pay back the money loaned to it in the last war.

The acceptance of this fact gives the United States a tremendous lever over the British Empire. The British capitalists have no choice but to accept the bitter pill of charitable help extended by a “generous” America. The American capitalists will not fail to use this power of life and death over the British Empire for carrying out some of their own cherished aims.

America Vetoes British Exports

The fact of the matter is that they have already used the lever to extract certain advantages. No sooner had lease-lend become effective, than there was a sudden outcry in the American press against British export trade. Here was the United States big-heartedly sending steel and all kinds of metals and other war materials to England for use in the war—and there was the British ingrate, using this very material for export to South America to compete with United States business.

The English waxed most indignant at the charge and swore the exported materials were pure British. They even offered to permit the FBI to send men over to check carefully on the uses of the lease-lend material. But the pressure of United States exporters transmitted through Washington had its way. Churchill was forced to agree to curtail exports for the duration of the war.

This was hardly taken in Christian resignation by the English exporters. The journals arid magazines of Great Britain carried on quite a spirited debate on this subject. They pointed out to Churchill that only a few months before the English government had established an Export Council whose duty it was to drum up as much export business as possible, since England had to find the means in foreign exchange to pay for many necessary imports of the raw materials of war. Now the Board was to become an ornament whose duty would be to keep touch with the old markets by means of a kind of “token” export, a mere trickle of the old volume of exports.

The British capitalists swallowed hard to keep down their resentment. They dared not make a frontal attack on the United States in view of the situation, which included their own helplessness. Nevertheless they came quite close to doing so, if we read between the lines. Articles in their press were headed by such titles as Must Victory Be Bought at Cost of Economic Subservience? English business did not feel like ruining itself just to win a war!

A.M. Taylor, one of the manufacturers who participated in the discussion, wrote in the magazine Great Britain and the East:

“To the oft-repeated statement that we must win the war first, we must say that defeating Germany is not all that is meant by the phrase ‘winning the war.’ We must also defeat Germany’s object, which is to destroy the British Commonwealth of Nations. We have two enemies to fight—Germany and destitution. After beating German arms, must we face defeat by an equally destructive enemy, accompanied by German derision, namely, economic subservience?”

America’s Influence Within the Gates

English imperialism obviously is chafing under the unaccustomed yoke of American imperialism. This is not the only expression of alarm over what is happening. Naturally the English capitalists fear that they will not easily recover, perhaps not at all recover, the foreign markets now being taken away from them. It took years for them to regain a part of their foreign markets after the last war. This time it will take years to reach the point where they can even think of competing with their colossal American competitor. That competitor meantime establishes a dollar block in all South America by means of loans and trade.

English fear is also concerned over the tremendous influence that the United States already exerts within the Empire itself. Take Canada as the nearest example. The United States pledged its military aid to Canada before all else. Not only that, but at Ogdensburg it set up a joint defense board with the Canadians. That defense board, one may be sure, is unlikely to be controlled primarily by the junior partner. Its task is to help coordinate United States defense of the whole hemisphere. Thus it supervises the building of military roads through British Colombia to link the United States with Alaska, that far-flung arm of US military power.

The conservative English magazine, Round Table, discussing the real meaning of Ogdensburg—which England was powerless to prevent even had it dreamed of doing so—says:

“It is a common observation that Canada is steadily becoming more North American ... Canada’s continuance in the British connection may therefore depend on the capacity of British statesmen to build a new Europe with a reasonable chance of peace ahead of it.”

Parenthetically we may say that England’s chance to build such a Europe will be even less after this war than it was after the last one.

But the conservative organ really clinches the argument when it adds:

“A very long war into which the United States entered and which causes it to put forth every ounce of its strength might well burn out American isolationism entirely, but it would almost certainly replace it with imperialism. Any peace that would follow such a war would be an American peace, with Great Britain influential, but far from dominant. The way would then, as has been hinted above, be open for a new English-speaking synthesis about the Republic.”

That is to say, many of the colonies and dominions of the Empire would move out of the orbit of the British and into that of the United States.

Precisely the kind of war visualized here now faces the world. The war will be longer and more exhausting than was at first thought possible. The United States will strain every ounce of its tremendous strength to snatch the victory from Hitler. The English conservatives face the facts cold-bloodedly. They have no illusions about “Union Now” or about a World Federation of the Republic and the Empire. They know that this means not an equal status but the domination of the world by the American colossus.

American forces will fight on all the continents and in all parts of the world. Before Pearl Harbor answered the question as to exactly where American troops would fight first, there was speculation concerning the likelihood that the first place would be the Near East. There can be no question but that the United States will help England maintain the Mediterranean life-line against Hitler’s southern and eastern moves. Churchill and Roosevelt prepare for the eventuality that Hitler may defeat Soviet Russia. Churchill showed this attitude clearly in a message sent in October to the first meeting of the National Defense Council of India. He spoke of Indian troops being engaged in 1942 “on a very long front from the Caspian Sea to the Nile.” If and when this happens, American troops will be there to help.

Churchill knows that such help will come at a price to the British Empire. He sees how the dominions and colonies turn more and more to this country. Australia and New Zealand have for the first time sent their own ministers to Washington. This is a sign of independence from London not lost on the English. Secretary Hull, in reporting to his allies concerning the conversations that he carried on with the Japanese, met not only with Halifax, but with Casey of Australia. Curtin, premier of that country, made the most open threat to turn away from England and towards America if England ignored the demands for aid made frantically by the dominion; his later “explanation” of his words cannot conceal the fact.

After the last war England tried to protect itself against America by creating through the Ottawa agreement an Empire trade block with preferential treatment for England. This agreement was quite irksome to the United States which also was in bad need of expanded markets. Just before the United States formally entered the war, there appeared an article in the New York Times headed US, Britain Form Post-War Policy. The sub-title stated further: Plan Economic Concessions to Secure Peace—Draft Accord on Lease-Lend Payments. Just what is this accord? The Times tells us, in carefully guarded tones:

“In negotiations now going on, mainly in London, to reach a ‘master agreement’ on the settlement of Britain’s lease-lend obligations, as it is understood, the State Department has asked the British Government to cooperate in a post-war plan to remove restrictions on the free flow of international trade and to give all nations fair access to essential raw materials controlled by Britain. This was interpreted in authoritative quarters today as meaning that the US was asking Britain, as part of the lease-lend agreement, to reconsider her Empire preferential tariff program, as defined by the Ottawa agreement of 1932, in an effort to promote international trade and international peace.”

The United States wishes to share the Empire markets with Britain; that is, it wishes to get the foothold necessary to build up its powerful influence in order later to oust England from her own colonies. Nor is it solely a.matter of a trade agreement. For the Times goes on:

“For example, this country has asked them to accept the principle that the United States may use any British naval base that we consider vital to our security, and have agreed to this suggestion.”

These negotiations involve not only use for the war’s duration, but questions of long-term lease, perhaps even cession of Western Hemisphere bases, as has been suggested, as payment for lease-lend.

The sending of American troops to Dutch Guiana shows that the United States will not hesitate to establish itself wherever it feels the necessity to do so.

The Times finishes its article on the note that the reason for the negotiations was dissatisfaction here over the phrase included in the so-called Atlantic Charter “with due respect for their existing obligations.” This was rightly looked upon as a tricky way for England to squirm out of fulfilling the demands made on her by this country.

The English prolonged the discussions up to the moment of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The actual entry of the United States into the war then gave the British the opportunity to try to shelve further negotiations till after the war was won. Churchill gave the line to his diplomats by brushing aside all queries on post-war settlements and saying that the only important thing now was to win the war. That formula, however, will hardly end the discussion if the United States can help it.

The Atlantic Charter and India

The Atlantic Charter proved embarrassing to England in a different fashion. Its vague reference to the democratic right of self-determination caused representatives of India to inquire politely whether this Charter of Freedom also applied to her. The question was put in parliament by a Labor member to Mr. Amery, Secretary of State for India.

Amery’s evasion did not put matters forthrightly enough for that die-hard Churchill, who thereupon practically repudiated even the perfectly innocuous wording of his own secretary. Amery had said:

“There is a general desire to see India take her place as a free and equal partner in the British Commonwealth. That is a matter of principle in which we have taken the lead (!) before the Atlantic Charter, which introduces no new principle, was ever promulgated ...”

Churchill intervened to say bluntly that the Charter was not intended to apply within the Empire, that India was an affair that concerned solely the British government and India. This statement outraged even the most reactionary elements in India; even those who support England in the present war were forced by the prompt reaction in India to attack Churchill. Thus the Premier of the Punjab, Sikander Hyat Khan, called Churchill’s statement the “biggest rebuff India has ever received.”

How little the Atlantic Charter applies inside the Empire is shown by the figures Amery was forced to cite in answer to other queries. He was asked how many people were in jail for political reasons. Amery said there were 12,129 up to July 1, 1941. Of these 28 were ex-ministers and 290 were former members of provincial legislatures.

What is happening in India’s movement for freedom? At the beginning of the war the native bourgeoisie tried to force concessions from England for the benefit of native manufacturing. England refused all concessions and thereby alienated the Indian bourgeoisie. During the attempt at negotiations, Gandhi was temporarily ousted as leader of the Congress Party. The moment the Party was rebuffed by the viceroy, Gandhi was reinstated to head a new Civil Disobedience movement.

But when England suffered reverses in the war, the government was forced to reverse itself in part. Despite all their desires, the English had to start building up industries for the war in India. This has brought somewhat of a boom for the native capitalists and they have become far more cooperative as a result Gandhi has once more been replaced, this time by Nehru who now gives full support to the British in the war. Gandhi himself now comes out with collaborationist statements:

“We wish no harm to the British, for their defeat would connote the victory of the Nazis, which we do not and must not desire. Whatever others may think, India does not desire her independence out of Britain’s ruin.”

The pro-British position of the leaders of the Congress Party has brought a rift. A differentiation has commenced between these leaders and those who want to continue the fight for India’s freedom.

The cold fact of the matter is that real independence for India, England’s most valuable colony, could not help but mean the ruin of British imperialism. Hence a statement such as Gandhi’s means that he does not really want independence, but only more of a share of the loot of exploitation for the native capitalists. This is also shown by his answer to those asking him whether they should sell their textiles for the use of soldiers. His answer was that in selling goods on the market, one does not inquire the caste of the customer.

British concessions have eased the situation somewhat for the native upper class. But hardly for the masses of India. The British are squeezing India as never before to help pay for the war. Then too, the masses are being recruited for the army, to fight the battles of their masters. In the last war, there were two million from India in the British armies. Now the Indian army already numbers more than a million and far more will be used. The well-known English commentator on Indian affairs, Sir Alfred Watson, laments now that India was not in a better position to contribute her strength to the war effort. He says that India could easily have an army of ten million. He complains too:

“With her vast population accustomed to work and with inherited traditions in the handicrafts, India could easily out-manufacture Japan, but she lags far behind.”

The difference between Japan and India is obvious, of course. The first was never under British domination and was not, therefore, prevented for over a century from employing her resources to industrialize.

The attitude towards labor parties in all the dominions and colonies indicates a significant trend. In Australia a Labor Party government has taken power. This government, under the social-patriot Curtin, is certainly not anti-British. But investigate the real reasons for its coming to power, not the immediate political factors that screen the basic facts. The basic reason was the wave of unrest among the workers, particularly in New South Wales. This unrest showed in the attitude towards increased taxes. The government placed new taxes on the lowest income brackets to cut down buying power of the masses. This was the conservative government’s way of preventing inflation. The government was taking these taxes right out of the pay envelopes. Many workers found that they worked long hours of overtime, only to have the government take away as taxes most of the extra amounts. The result was a movement among the unions to ban all overtime work. This brought the Curtin government. The taxes were lowered.

Significant Trends in the Dominions

The Canadian Commonwealth Federation recently won elections in the Western states. Here, too, a curious contradiction ensued. The workers voted for social patriots who supported the war, but the issue of the campaign was: who was to bear the burden of the war? The CCF demanded that the government place the burden on the rich rather than on the masses. They demanded some sort of planning by the government for carrying on war production at minimum expense.

The significant thing about this, as well as about the position occupied by the Labor Party in the British government, is that the ruling class is forced to recognize that the attitude of the masses in this war is not the same as in the last one. The masses are no longer naive in the old sense. They do not propose to allow the rulers to take away their standards of living without a fight. The patriotic appeal works only after a fashion. It is the same thing as the CIO supporting Roosevelt and at the same time supporting the coal miners’ strike. This attitude was not seen in the last war, and it cannot be ignored.

This is not to be taken as meaning that we see revolution breaking out tomorrow in the British colonies. Churchill is using to full advantage the working-class hatred of fascism. These workers are for the most part of the opinion that the war is being fought to defeat fascism. They do not yet see that their own aim in the defeat of fascism is not at all the same as that of the “democratic” imperialists. Thus they are bound to experience a severe jolt when they discover that Churchill’s aim is merely the defense of the Empire against Germany’s encroachment. That jolt is sure to come as the war unfolds. The war can bring only misery to the masses everywhere. The bankruptcy of the British government has already been announced by lease-lend before the war was well started. All the so-called planning to stave off an economic crisis after the war will not help. That situation contains the seed of deadly conflict between the working class and the “democratic” bourgeoisie.

If the English and the Americans are victorious, as is most likely, they will find it necessary to police not only all of Europe, as they now plan so openly to do, but they will find it necessary to police England and the colonies as well. The British capitalists will not emerge from this struggle the same as they went into it. The position of the British Empire as a first class empire will have degenerated. The British capitalist class will have to accept its subordination to the United States. This will mean the sharing between two masters of the surplus value produced by the workers of all the lands of the Empire. The British capitalists will try to retain their full share by squeezing more out of the masses to pay the piper in Washington. But the masses already show that they will resist any such scheme. The British Empire is threatened with disintegration from within and from without. The United States will inherit not merely fragments of an empire, but also the class struggle that is piling up inside that empire and that will burst forth the moment the post-war crisis makes itself felt, if not sooner.

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