JOHN ELLISON draws on the parallels between 1937 and 2017. Privatisation, high rents, job insecurity and attacks on the poor. Many of our struggles remain the same
MANY people in Britain today understandably feel gloom and distrust about the future.
They include some who think prospects would be better if the European Union referendum result had gone the other way and if Hillary Clinton, instead of Donald Trump, had been elected US president. Such an assessment, however, forgets the Clinton hunger for more war in the Middle East and adopts the illusion that the EU is a great force for democracy.
Less controversial are the great blots around us blighting so many lives: the corruptions of privatisation; horrific rent levels; job and housing insecurity; low pay and the oppression of benefit claimants; the savaging of our health service and so on.
Among those voicing protest are many keenly aware of the organic connection between all these escalated evils and freed-up capitalism, operating to the detriment of those who have to work for a living, exploiting workers at home and across the world, and possessing an inexhaustible drive for markets and for war to gain and retain them.
Drop back 80 years to January 1937 to consider how the world looked then. It was not pretty. Britain’s empire covered a quarter of the world and its rulers were committed to its retention, while schoolchildren were trained to be proud of it.
The Indian independence movement was in a relatively quiescent phase, while in British mandatoty Palestine soldiers were engaged in crushing an Arab uprising.
The 1917-born Soviet Union covered another sixth of the world, and was regarded as a pariah state by leading capitalist governments, which had tried but failed to suppress it in its first years and regarded it with cold hostility ever after.
Given international hatred and fear of socialism as a force for the future, it is not surprising that the Soviet leadership was suspicious of more attempts to destroy it.
Early on, desperate situations had been permitted to justify ruthless tactics at the expense of respect for human rights and under the Stalin leadership, paranoia about internal non-conformity had become a plague.
In this context the sham show trials of Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev and others took place in the summer of 1936. Much worse was to follow during 1937, as the threat of invasion of the Soviet Union by nazi Germany became ever more palpable.
While in Britain the impact of the great slump had eased, unemployment was still at the level of 1.5 million and the “distressed areas” were still devastated.
The means testing of welfare benefit entitlement ensured extreme poverty for the workless. With September 1931 came Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, greeted by acquiescent smiles and the supply of arms from Britain’s Ramsay MacDonald-led “national government.”
In Liverpool, following the commencement of the invasion, communist activist and writer JT Murphy told a great public meeting in Liverpool that he regarded the event as signifying the beginning of the second world war.
Among many reactions by socialists in Britain to the Hitler coup in Germany at the end of February 1933 was the launch of a one-man paper of left commentary by ex-Times journalist Claud Cockburn.
The very first issue of The Week proclaimed: “Fascism Means War.” It cited a strong recent hint by Hitler that the dismemberment of Soviet Russia would be a solution of rivalries between European powers.
An English translation of Ernst Henri’s Hitler Over Europe appeared in the spring of 1934. “The whole of Germany today,” wrote Henri, “is one vast aircraft factory.”
He publicised the plan of nazi inner circle member Alfred Rosenberg to expand Germany into a vast central European empire, a venture from which the Netherlands, Belgium and France would all be at risk.
He wrote, with prescience, that German columns of armoured cars could on the first day force their way over the “neutral” Belgian-Dutch frontier and thereafter over the “allied” Franco-Belgian frontier.
At that time and in the immediately following years, British ruling circles mostly calculated that fascism in Europe and militarism in Japan could operate to Britain’s advantage by facilitating the elimination of Soviet communism.
Thus Britain’s government showed no sympathy for the recently established democratic republic of Spain, when in July 1936, the generals’ rebellion — promptly aided by massive military support from fascist Italy and nazi Spain and aided too by fascism-friendly “non-intervention” on the part of Britain and France — kick-started a devastating war.
It has been alleged that British people, after the experience of the 1914-18 war, were now pacifist to the extent that the hands of governments were tied in the face of international aggressors.
But the lie is given to this by the result of the Peace Ballot, announced in June 1935.
Organised by the League of Nations Union, its results reflected the answers of over 11.5 million householders. One key question was this: “Do you consider that, if a nation insists on attacking another, the other nations should combine to compel it to stop by economic and non-military measures? If necessary, military measures?” An overwhelming majority declared Yes to non-military measures.
In December 1936 came the bullying of Britain’s king of less than a year Edward VIII into resignation, amid vast publicity.
The justification was his intended marriage to an US divorcee and, less overtly, his otherwise loose-cannon behaviour. So in January 1937, Edward’s more compliant brother George (“I’m only a Naval Officer, it’s the only thing I know about”) prepared his head for the crown.
Britain’s one communist MP, Willie Gallacher, had this to say in the Commons on December 11 about the abdication crisis: “The crisis itself is superficial, but beneath the superficial crisis there is something that demands, and must get, attention [...] The ruling class knows no loyalty. As long as the King served their interests, they would keep the King.
When the King failed to serve their interests, out the King would go [...] underneath this crisis, this superficial crisis, is the crisis of unemployment, the means test and the derelict areas.”
On the left, many were active in supporting republican Spain. By mid August 1936, Spanish Medical Aid had been organised in England and its first ambulance and field hospital unit was sent out before the end of the month.
At a meeting on January 13 1937, Communist Party general secretary Harry Pollitt said: “We are proud tonight to declare that 750 young men from this country now form a British battalion of the International Brigade and we pledge ourselves that within the next two or three days the 750 will become a thousand […] This national government [which] has allowed itself to be a doormat on which Mussolini and Hitler could walk any time they liked, has never from July 18 to the present time been neutral for a minute in the Spanish struggle.”
Some British volunteers had already given their lives. Britain’s “national government” prime minister was at this time Stanley Baldwin, who had in November 1934 derided the idea of a collective response to European fascism from Britain, France and the Soviet Union.
A collective peace system, he declared, was “perfectly impracticable” and “hardly worth considering” and when he handed the keys to 10 Downing Street to Neville Chamberlain in June 1937, no change of policy could be expected, though a minority challenge led by Winston Churchill was to become increasingly vocal.
Left-wing socialist MP Aneurin Bevan observed vividly: “In the funeral service of capitalism, the honeyed and soothing platitudes of the clergyman are finished and the cortege is now under the sombre and impressive guidance of the undertaker.”
Undertaker and refuser of collective security at enormous cost, Chamberlain was to be succeeded in May 1940 by anti-fascist imperialist Churchill. Today, in the latest funeral service of capitalism, unstoppable mouthiness from an upstart Eton schoolboy has been succeeded by castor oilproduction from the House matron; while the struggle for peace, for countering the destructiveness of Tory policies and for a better life for the majority go on. As it must.
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