Revolutionaries in Britain and the struggle against imperialist war, Part 3: the Second World War

Printer-friendly version

What does it mean to defend internationalism? In the first two parts of this series, written by a close sympathiser of the ICC, we saw how revolutionaries in Britain stood up and opposed the First World War. In this part we look at how revolutionaries defended the international interests of the working class in the even more difficult conditions of the Second World War, which demanded an understanding of the balance of forces between the classes after the defeat of the revolutionary wave. It was particularly important for revolutionaries in this country to be clear about the real nature of democracy and the dangers of supporting it against fascism. The different responses of proletarian groups and elements provide both positive and negative lessons for revolutionaries today.

Proletarian political groups in Britain

By the Second World War there were very few proletarian political groups which had managed to survive the counter-revolution without betraying or succumbing to the effects of defeat and demoralisation.

The Communist Party (CP) had long ago betrayed the interests of the working class by adopting Stalin’s policy of ‘socialism in one country’, and had actively joined the bourgeoisie’s preparations for war by calling on the working class to mobilise in a ‘Popular Front’ with the main bourgeois parties and trade unions for a ‘just war’ against fascism (albeit with an abrupt change of line on the signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact).

The original left communist opposition in the CP, around Sylvia Pankhurst and the Workers’ Dreadnought paper, had been expelled early on and disappeared in 1924. Among those groups and elements remaining either on a clearly proletarian terrain or in the more ambiguous swamp between the working class and the bourgeoisie were:

-            the Socialist Party of Great Britain;

-            some elements in the anarchist movement;

-            the anti-parliamentary or council communists around the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation and Guy Aldred’s United Socialist Movement;

-            the Trotskyists in the Revolutionary Socialist League (the official British section of the Fourth International), and the Workers’ International League.

What was the correct stance for revolutionaries to adopt on the war? In the face of a second threatened worldwide massacre the slogan raised by internationalists in 1914 was even more relevant: “Turn the imperialist war into a civil war!” (Lenin, 1914). In the face of the very real brutalities of the fascist regimes, and the massive use of anti-fascist ideology to mobilise workers for war, it was all the more vital for revolutionaries to warn the class against the no less brutal nature of bourgeois democracy and to affirm, in the words of Karl Liebknecht, that: “The enemy is in your own country!”

The example of the Vanguard group around John Maclean in the first world war still provided a model for revolutionaries in Britain: a refusal to support the bourgeoisie’s war effort and calls for the class war against British capitalism, through anti-war propaganda in the working class and intervention in every struggle for immediate demands, to at least try to develop a mass movement agaist the war.

Understanding the course of history

For the Italian Communist Left around the journal Bilan the victory of fascism in Germany marked a break in the revolutionary course which appeared in 1917 and a decisive turn towards the only capitalist outcome of its historic crisis: world war (1). The late 1930s saw a build up of military preparations and an extension of imperialist conflicts: the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, the war in Spain, and the war between China and Japan. In this situation the watchword of Bilan was: “No betrayal!”

Trotsky, on the other hand, while defending the correct position that capitalism was in its death throes, drew the opposite conclusion; that the situation was pre-revolutionary, requiring only the necessary leadership, which the Fourth International – founded on the very eve of the world war – would provide. As we will see, this led his supporters to depart from the principle of internationalism - which Trotsky himself still clung to despite his opportunism - and to participate in the war.

Other proletarian political groups, while clinging to the principle of internationalism at least in words, did not defend it in practice, or found it very difficult to go beyond abstract slogans. The two questions that proved to be a ‘litmus test’ for these groups’ ability to defend internationalism were:

-            whether democracy was in any way to be supported against fascism;

-            whether all states were equally reactionary and therefore to be opposed. 


The Socialist Party of Great Britain

The SPGB had adopted a social pacifist position in the First World War and sided with bourgeois democracy against the soviets in the Russian revolution.

In response to the war in Spain and the rise of fascism one part of the party called for the defence of democracy, basing itself on the SPGB’s own position that the revolution would be won through the democratic process, although the SPGB as an organisation took the position that “Democracy cannot be defended by fighting for it” (2). The SPGB’s 1936 pamphlet War and the Working Class declared war to be an inevitable product of capitalism and opposed any participation by the working class: “War...solves no problem of the working class. Victory and defeat alike leave them in the same position...They have no interest at stake which justifies giving support to war” (3).

In the issue of Socialist Standard following the declaration of war in 1939 the party’s executive committee printed a statement reiterating this position and denouncing both sides in the war. It expressed its concern at the “sufferings of the German workers under Nazi rule”, declared its wholehearted support for “the efforts of workers everywhere to secure democratic rights” but repeated its position on “the futility of war as a means of safeguarding democracy”. It called on workers to refuse to accept the prospect of war and “to recognise that only socialism will end war”, concluding by repeating the expression of “goodwill and socialist fraternity” to all workers that it had made in 1914.

In practice the SPGB made no attempt to oppose the war. From July 1940 onwards its paper carried no openly anti-war propaganda in order to avoid being suppressed by the state, apologising to its readers that “While we deeply regret having to adopt this course, we cannot see any workable alternative to it” (4). As a consequence Socialist Standard continued to appear throughout the war, filled with ‘historical’ and ‘theoretical’ articles, and the party continued to hold public meetings. It was left to the individual member whether to accept conscription or become a conscientious objector.

To summarise, the SPGB defended internationalism in words but not in practice. Its position was close to pacifism while its propaganda about ‘democratic rights’ added a small dose of mystification to the bourgeoisie’s own war propaganda.

The anarchists

In 1914, after a short struggle, the anarchist Freedom group had broken with Kropotkin over his pro-war stance and came out against the war. In the war in Spain the Freedom group and anarchists generally gave uncritical support to the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists of the CNT-FAI and their call for a united anti-fascist struggle, but at least one section took a more critical stance. In 1936 the journal Spain and the World, started by the Italian anarchist Vero Recchioni (Vernon Richards) later joined by Marie Louise Berneri, published criticisms of the CNT-FAI’s collaboration with the bourgeois Popular Front government (5).   

On the outbreak of the second world war this same grouping started the journal War Commentary, which strongly denounced the pretence that the war was an ideological struggle between democracy and fascism, and the hypocrisy of the democratic allies’ denunciations of Nazi atrocities after their tacit support for the fascist regimes and for Stalin’s terror during the 1930s. Highlighting the hidden nature of the war as a power struggle between British, German and American imperialist interests, War Commentary also denounced the use of fascist methods by the ‘liberating’ allies and their totalitarian measures against the working class at home. In 1942, after a sordid deal by Churchill and Roosevelt with the ‘French Quisling’ Admiral Darlan, the paper ruthlessly exposed the democratic illusions of the bourgeois left:

“…it should be obvious to the Tribune that capitalists, politicians, generals and diplomats…have gone to war to defend the British Empire, ‘to hold our own’ as Churchill put it: they have gone to war to defend Christianity, that is to say the principles upheld by Franco and Co; they have gone to war to reinforce their position… If the allies’ victories continue, many more fascist rats will leave the Axis’ sinking ship, and be welcomed by the democratic camp. And that is as it should be. The rats who helped Mussolini to conquer Abyssinia, who helped Franco to crush the Spanish revolution (sic), who armed Japan against China, who bombed the Arabs and the Indians, come together when it suits them… Everywhere workers will understand that it is not through military or diplomatic victories that fascism will be crushed” (6).

But the paper’s perspectives for the working class remained rather abstract. It did call for international working class solidarity and the class struggle “as the only means for the workers to achieve control over their destiny” (7), but despite its clear analyses of international events and sharp exposés of democratic hypocrisy, War Commentary explicitly avoided any ‘slogans, manifestos and programmes’, claiming merely that: “Our policy consists in educating [the working class], in stimulating its class instinct, and teaching methods of struggle” (8). In this, it revealed its anarchist prejudices against centralised political organisation and intervention in the class struggle.

The council communists

During the depths of the counter-revolution some of the communist left’s positions were kept alive by those who called themselves ‘anti-parliamentary’ or ‘council’ communists, mainly regrouped in the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation (APCF) on Clydeside. Influenced by the surviving Dutch and German Left, but also by anarchism, these revolutionaries stubbornly continued to denounce the Labour Party and trade unions and to highlight the counter-revolutionary nature of the Stalinist regime in Russia.

But the APCF welcomed the election of the Spanish Popular Front government in 1936 and threw itself enthusiastically into support for the ‘Spanish struggle’, supporting the legal government against the flouting of ‘international law’ and urging protest strikes to pressure the British government into lifting its arms embargo, effectively taking sides in what was in reality an inter-imperialist struggle. The group also gave uncritical support to the CNT-FAI and co-operated with the Freedom group to publish a bulletin, Fighting Call, which reprinted without comment articles by the CNT-FAI and speeches by anarchist ministers in the bourgeois government. But some militants who went to Spain were more critical of the CNT-FAI leadership, rejecting the idea the ‘democratic’ capitalism was preferable to ‘fascist’ capitalism, and warning that anti-fascism was the “new slogan by which the working class is being betrayed” (9).

Before the war in Spain ended, the anarchists in the group split away and the APCF managed to avoid making the same errors at the outbreak of the Second World War. The APCF denounced the British democratic capitalists who used fascist methods against colonial workers and peasants, and warned against driving the Italian and German workers into the arms of their rulers by supporting British imperialism. Rejecting the slogan of ‘Victory for the Allied nations’ raised by a group of Indian nationalists, the APCF stated:

“We stand for the victory over Hitlerism and Mikadoism - by the German and Japanese workers, and the simultaneous overthrow of all the Allied imperialists by the workers in Britain and America. We also wish to see the reinstitution of the workers’ soviets in Russia and the demolition of the Stalinist bureaucracy. In a word, we fight for the destruction of all imperialism by the proletarian world revolution” (10).

The APCF thus remained faithful to the watchwords of internationalism, although its practical slogans remained abstract, for example calling on workers to demand that their ‘spokesmen’ organise a general strike against conscription on the eve of war (11). It is not clear whether the group engaged in any practical anti-war activity, but Solidarity provided informative coverage of the class struggle against the war abroad, via correspondents like the ex-Spartacist Ernst Schneider (‘Icarus’) who was a regular contributor (12). Later in the war, commenting on the trend for democratic capitalism to use totalitarian methods, the APCF did try to give a more practical perspective to the growing workers’ struggles:

 The only answer to fascism is the workers’ social revolution, by workers’ control, by immediately fighting conscription in all its phases, by building up workers’ committees in opposition to the boss and the trade unions; by building workers’ open forums, where the workers themselves can discuss and decide. By that method we can stem fascism and open up the road to workers’ power” (13).

But the main strength of the group was as a forum for diverse anti-war elements. For example, in the middle of the war Solidarity carried an important debate on the relationship between party and class, with contributions from Pannekoek and Paul Mattick. While remaining a heterogeneous grouping which was unable to decisively break from the influence of anarchism the APCF, unlike Guy Aldred’s grouping (14), was able to make a real contribution to the understanding of the Marxist movement in Britain on a number of important questions, including the change in period from ascendant to decadent capitalism and its implications for the proletariat’s struggle, and the capitalist and imperialist nature of the Russian state. Unlike the Trotskyist movement, which we shall examine in the next article, the council communists’ basic grasp of the principle of proletarian internationalism allowed them to pass the acid test of imperialist war, by refusing to support democratic anti-fascism and calling for class struggle against the capitalist system as a whole.  MH

 (To be continued)

1. See ICC pamphlet The Italian Communist Left 1926-45, p.69

2. Robert Barltrop, The Monument: The story of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, Pluto Press, 1975, p.99.
3. Quoted in War and Capitalism, SPGB, 1996.
4. David Perrin, The Socialist Party of Great Britain, Bridge Books, 2000, p.115.
5. These criticisms were by Camillo Berneri, Marie Louise’s father, who was editor of the Italian revolutionary anarchist paper Guerra di Classe and fought in Spain. In Barcelona, he discussed with delegates of the majority of Bilan - the only one of their contacts to have any positive results - before being murdered by the Stalinists during the May events of 1937 (see The Italian Communist Left, p.98). Vero Recchioni, later Vernon Richards, was a collaborator of Berneri.
6. War Commentary, December 1942, quoted in Neither East Nor West, selected writings by Marie Louise Berneri, Freedom Press, 1952, p.49.
7. War Commentary, August 1941, Ibid., p32.
8. War Commentary, December 1940, Ibid., p.19.
9. Workers’ Free Press, October 1937, quoted in Wildcat, Class War on the Home Front, 1986, p.29. The APCF also reprinted a denunciation of the counter-revolutionary actions of the CNT-FAI from International Council Correspondence, journal of the American council communist group
around Paul Mattick (‘”Tear Down the Barricades”’, Workers’ Free Press, September 1937, reprinted in Revolutionary Perspectives, no.1).
10. Solidarity, October-November l942, Wildcat, Op.Cit., p.51. At the same time this article did express support for the nationalists in their ‘fight for liberation from British imperialism’.
11. Solidarity, May 1939, in Wildcat, Op. Cit., p.40.
12.As a revolutionary sailor in the First World War, Schneider had taken part in the armed uprising in the German Navy, later writing an account of these events (The Wilhelmshaven Revolt by ‘Icarus’, first published by Freedom Press, 1944; Simian Press edition, 1975).
13. Solidarity, May 1944, Wildcat, Op. cit., p.57.
14. Guy Aldred’s United Socialist Movement, which was formed after an obscure split in the APCF in 1933, opposed the Second World War but lapsed into bourgeois pacifism, collaborating with dubious elements like the Duke of Bedford, an apologist for Nazism who advocated a negotiated peace with Hitler.

Historic events: