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  • Published in Theory
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In the second part of 'Socialism and War' John Rees looks at the record of the Labour Party and imperialism

The facts are indisputable: the British Labour Party has supported nearly every war, great and small, since it was founded in 1906. Labour backed the First World War by joining Lloyd George's government. The Labour Party's national agent and half his staff left to join the recruiting campaign which sent tens of thousands to a grisly death in the trenches.

Lloyd George was relieved, admitting, "Had Labour been hostile, the war could not have been carried on effectively." Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Party leader deposed for his pacifism during the First World War, admitted, "When this war broke out organised labour lost the initiative. It became a mere echo of the old governing classes' opinion”.

Between the wars Labour, in government and out, continued to support the repression of the colonies, ensuring that not one of them gained independence. In fact J H Thomas, the 1924 Labour government's colonial secretary, boasted the party was "jealous and proud of, and prepared to maintain, the empire”.

The declaration of the Second World War was greeted by the party's deputy leader, Arthur Greenwood, with this vow of loyalty to the Tories: "We have given proof...that we shall give wholehearted support to the measures necessary to equip this state with the powers that are desired...we shall make our full contribution to the national cause”.

Labour justified its position by claiming the war was for democracy and against Nazi imperialism. But at every turn Labour backed the anti-democratic and pro-imperialist actions of the Tory led coalition government of which it was a part. When strikes were banned, Labour agreed. When Jewish refugees who had fled from Hitler were interned, Labour agreed. When the miners of Betteshanger in Kent struck, Labour rounded on them. When India demanded independence, Labour refused. When revolution threatened in Greece at the end of the war, Labour supported the troops in brutally crushing it.

Again the right wing was grateful. As Brigadier-General Sir Henry Croft told the Commons, "I believe I am speaking on behalf of all those old Tories in the country that from the bottom of our hearts we welcome the speeches and the spirit of the opposition in this House and in the country. We feel that today we are all one brotherhood...and we pray that great unity will persist”.

After the war Labour went on supporting British imperialism in every grubby little war it fought--in Aden, in Malaya and at first over Suez, though party leaders belatedly called for a ceasefire once the United States signalled its disapproval. And, of course, the Labour government under Harold Wilson stood right behind the United States throughout the height of the Vietnam War even though it did not commit British troops.

Self-proclaimed "inveterate peacemonger" Michael Foot, then Labour leader, managed the improbable task of out-jingoing the Tories at the start of the Falklands War. He demanded the government "prove by deeds" that it had not "betrayed" the Falkland Islanders.

Once more the Tories threw a scrap of praise to a loyal dog. In the Commons Tory MPs told Foot he had "spoken for Britain". Those who came back mutilated had less for which to thank the Labour leader - as they were first shunned and then forgotten.

At the start of the Gulf War the whole sickening charade was rehearsed again. Neil Kinnock echoed George Bush Senior’s most bloodcurdling statement of war aims and, in the Commons debate just before war broke out, rescued an incompetent, bumbling John Major by giving the US justifications for war with far greater passion than the Tory leader. Kinnock repeated the performance in his televised broadcasts.

The Tories followed the tradition of previous generations by congratulating Kinnock on his statesmanship and patriotism. They had already been told by Tory foreign secretary Douglas Hurd that "the country cannot go to war divided."

But the most sickening and dangerous advocacy of war in modern times has been that of New Labour’s Tony Blair in the wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In what even many members of the establishment regard as a foreign policy disaster Blair stood alongside George W Bush as perhaps the most overtly pro-imperialist politician since Victoria was on the throne, Margaret Thatcher notwithstanding.

Of course, the Labour Party has rarely been unanimously in favour of war. From Keir Hardie's reservations about the First World War to Tony Benn's and Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to recent Middle East wars there have always been a some leading figures on the left of the party who refused to go along with the jingoism. That is enormously to their credit. But they have never been able to convince the Labour leadership, or even a majority of MPs, to oppose even the most barbaric or obviously unjust war.

Later, after specific wars are over, many MPs and other leading party figures often exaggerate the extent of their opposition to war. Today, for instance, you would be hard put to find a Labour spokesperson who will claim their party sent teenage boys to die on the Somme and at Ypres. Few are keen to recall Labour's wholehearted support for US policy in Vietnam. And as the obvious and sustained level of public opposition to the recent conflicts has made itself felt even in the House of Commons there are many more leading Labour figures who are critical of the Iraq war than there ever were in 2003. Certainly, few like to recall that it was the actions of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, both regarded as left wingers at the time, or Tony Blair which made that absurd waste of life possible at all.

Nor is this sad record limited to the British Labour Party. From the First World War to the Gulf War, labour parties throughout the world have been earnestly in favour of peace until it comes to a war. Then they bow to no one in their support for "our boys".

The most infamous capitulation to jingoism was the first. The years before the First World War had seen an unprecedented growth of labour parties throughout Europe. The biggest and most influential was the German party, the SPD. Millions of workers followed the party, voted for it in elections and were members of affiliated trade unions, sports and leisure organisations. Marxism had always enjoyed strong influence in the SPD. The German party was joined to other labour parties in the Second International.

The International predicted the coming of the First World War and, from the turn of the century, reaffirmed at conference after conference its opposition to the war. Its 1907 Stuttgart conference, for instance, passed a resolution of which any socialist could be proud. It said, "Wars between capitalist states are as a rule the result of their rivalry for world markets... Further these wars arise out of the never ending armament race of militarism, which is one of the chief implements of bourgeois class rule and of the economic and political enslavement of the working class.

"Wars...divert the mass of the working class from the tasks of its own class, as well as from the duty of international class solidarity. Wars are therefore inherent in the nature of capitalism. They will only cease when the capitalist economy is abolished.

"In the case of a threat of an outbreak of war it is the duty of the working classes and their parliamentary representatives...to do everything to prevent the outbreak of war by whatever means seems to them most effective. Should war break out in spite of this it is their duty to intervene for its speedy end, and to strive to make use of the violent economic and political crisis brought about by the war to rouse the people, and thereby hasten the abolition of capitalist class rule”.

It was a strong, uncompromising statement of the socialist position. But it was a dead letter as soon as war broke out in August 1914. The SPD, the French Socialist Party and most Russian socialists (apart from Lenin's Bolsheviks) joined the British Labour Party in backing their own governments' war plans.

For each of them the justification was that the enemy abroad was worse than the class enemy at home. The German SPD claimed they were fighting autocratic Russian Tsarism. The Russian socialists claimed they were fighting despotic Prussian militarism~as did the Labour Party in Britain and the French Socialist Party, despite the fact that this allied them with autocratic Russian Tsarism. In fact, it was an imperialist war fought for colonies and profit by all its participants.

Yet the labour leaders could hardly claim no one would support an anti- war stance. In the last weeks before the war huge anti-war rallies and demonstrations organised by the SPD so frightened the Kaiser that he declared, "Those socialists are staging militant antimilitarist agitation in the streets; this must not be tolerated, definitely not now. If that continues I shall proclaim martial law and have the leaders, the whole damned lot of them, locked up in jail".

In France mass rallies for peace were held at the end of July and in Britain on 2 August Keir Hardie and George Lansbury took part in a huge 'Stop the War' demonstration in Trafalgar Square, part of a mounting political and economic struggle that had been rising against the government since 1909. In Russia a strike movement that began in 1912 with the shooting of miners in the Lena goldfields was cut short by the war.

It was not the lack of a movement which resulted in cowardice on the part of the labour leaders, rather it was the cowardice of the labour leaders which demobilised the movement just as it faced its greatest test. Of course, there was a swelling pro-war mood at the point that war broke out, just as there was when the troops were sent to the Falklands and on the day the Gulf War started. But, as the existence of the anti- war movement before the war showed, and the mounting opposition as it went on, the basis for resistance always existed. If the leaders of the European labour parties had stuck to their principles, they could have shortened, possibly prevented, the bloody war in which young workers from the Thames and the Seine slaughtered and were slaughtered by those from the Rhine.

So it wasn't lack of support which prevented the Labour leaders from fighting to stop the war (though, if it had been, what sort of socialist trades millions of lives for a few percentage points in the opinion polls?). It has been the same ever since. Labour Party support for the war in Vietnam never wavered, even when a majority of its supporters were against the war. Kinnock backed the first war in the Gulf, yet in the very week opinion polls showed the country split 43 percent against and 47 percent for the war. Blair supported the Afghan and Iraq war in the face of majority public opinion.

The same paradox exists on other issues. Labour accepted that cruise missiles would stay in Britain in the 1980s despite opinion polls which showed 60 percent of the population in favour of their removal.

Of course Labour has electoralism as its guiding light. And that desperate search for votes explains a great deal. But, as the above examples show, Labour does not simply follow public opinion especially when public opinion is to its left on the most important issues of the day. There must be another reason for the Labour Party's craven capitulation.

That reason lies in Labour's belief that capitalist society is here for ever and that, although it may be open to partial reform, it is never open to total transformation. Even these partial changes cannot be forced on an unwilling capitalist class by strikes and demonstrations. They can only come by due process of law, as decided by parliament. The state machine is Labour's chosen implement for social change and any threat to that state, from within or without, must necessarily be resisted.

Such a perspective sees any threat to property or the state as illegitimate. It accepts the terms of competition between nations, just as it accepts the competition between firms and multinationals. When clashes arise with other national blocks of capital, then Labour inevitably backs "our" property and "our" state. Equally inevitably, nation comes before class.

Fabian socialist George Bemard Shaw typified this sentiment just before the First World War: "War between country and country is a bad thing, but in the case of such a war any attempt of a general strike to prevent the people defending their country would result in a civil war which was ten times worse than war between nation and nation". A general strike would certainly not have caused ten times the deaths that the First World War caused. Nevertheless the leader of the Labour Party at the time, Arthur Henderson, said he was "largely in agreement with Mr Shaw".

The thought that the rich and powerful might be fighting a war in which workers can only lose, or that "our" country might be fighting a war to oppress another people has never really carried any weight with the leaders of the Labour Party. Yet there are many examples where masses of workers have come to precisely this conclusion despite the influence of Labour leaders.

Most famously, Russian workers realised their participation in the First World War meant not only annihilation at the front but an excuse for their masters at home to deny peasants the land and deepen the oppression and exploitation of an already half-starved workforce. The October revolution of 1917 was the most successful anti-war movement in history. Fought under the Bolshevik slogan of "Peace, Land and Bread", it pulled Russia out of the war. This, plus rising anti-war and revolutionary movements in other countries~notably Germany~ensured an early end to the whole war.

Likewise, the US war in Vietnam was halted by a combination of the tenacity of the Vietnamese national liberation struggle and by the effect of a growing and increasingly militant anti-war movement at home. In particular what frightened the US ruling class were the links being made between the anti-war movement and other struggles, like that for black liberation. As Muhammad Ali, then heavyweight champion of the world, put it, "No Vietnamese ever called me nigger."

The Iraq and Afghan war faced opposition resulted in a majority anti-war opinion that continues to this day and contributed significantly to the inability of the Tory-Liberal coalition to launch an attack on Syria in August 2013.

Yet all such struggles have occurred in the teeth of opposition from establishment politicians of every hue. These struggles have often begun spontaneously or under the influence of very small groups of anti-war activists, often including rank and file Labour Party members. But when those struggling have looked for ideas to guide them they have relied not on the Labour Party tradition but on a completely different tradition-the revolutionary tradition and its analysis of the relationship between socialism and war.

Tagged under: Socialism
John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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