[Book] Ted Grant Writings: Volume One

Index

A reply to the lead article in Youth For Socialism, February issue, 1941

The interpretation of the EC majority

By Sam Levy and Millie Kahn

[WIL, Internal Bulletin, February 28 1941]

The article Arm the workers—the only guarantee against Hitler’s invasion which is put forward as the Majority of the EC’s interpretation of the military policy of the Fourth International, we consider to be incorrect in its emphasis and its glaring omissions, and an interpretation which cannot enhance the development of our group and indeed, serve to damage it.

On close examination of the article it is clear that the theme running through it is a mechanical identification of the French situation during the period of threatened invasion with the situation as exists in Britain today, both politically and militarily. This winter resembles last winter insofar as there have been no major engagements between Germany and Britain; Germany has been making the same thorough preparations for attack as the British have for defence; a year ago Allied strategists sat comfortably behind their Maginot line—today the British generals are sitting comfortably behind their new Maginot line, the sea; last year the repression against working class organisations in France commenced—today in Britain this process has started; in France the result of this method of “fighting Nazism” was that the German army simply walked into the country and took over Paris—in Britain the results will be no different; the French bourgeoisie capitulated to Hitler for fear of the workers—the British rulers have the same fear of the workers, they will do the same; the only guarantee for the defence of France would have been the arming of the workers—the only guarantee for the defence of Britain is the arming of the British workers.

Without going into the superficiality of the above in detail, we have tabled the outline of the article in order to show the mechanical foundation on which it is based. We propose therefore, to deal briefly with the background of the two countries as the necessary prerequisite to an understanding of the present situation in Britain. While France was, at that period, of the same basic political system—decadent bourgeois democracy—due to economic, political and national factors, her tempo of development was at a different stage, which necessitates a clear analysis of the demarcation between the British and French situations.

France

The French capitalist system of bourgeois democracy, with its relatively backward economy, was rapidly on the decline, a decline which was accelerated by the war. The general strikes of 1936 indicated that the French masses had taken the road of social revolution. The country was placed in a revolutionary situation, a situation which, as we know, was checked by the deliberate mis-leadership of the Communist and Socialist parties. The advent of the Popular Front acted as a brake on the further advancement of the French masses and a period of disintegration set in. By 1938 the masses were demoralised. The semi-Bonapartist regime of Daladier assumed power and the whole period following was analogous to the pre-Hitler period in Germany, that is the regimes of Bruning, Schleicher, von Papen. But the “war for democracy” (and the subsequent victory of Hitler) completely destroyed the French fascist organisations, thus leaving the French bourgeoisie in a precarious position insofar as they could not build up a French regime equivalent to Hitler’s.

The attitude of the French masses to the war was apathetic in the defeatist sense due to the unprecedented lowering of the standards of life (the soldiers were receiving 1d[1] per day); they were fully conscious of the rottenness of their own bourgeoisie (they were still smarting under the defeats of 1936-38); the putrefaction of the army leadership was rapidly exposing itself. But there was no revolutionary leadership; the Socialist and Stalinist parties had betrayed them; the voice of the Fourth International, the only one which held the key to the situation, was too weak to have any effect.

One section of the bourgeoisie (Laval and company) went directly over to Hitler in the early period, and even before the outbreak of war. The Reynaud section, conscious of the fact that the masses were not behind them, hoped that they would last out long enough to place the French masses under the heel of American-British imperialism. But the sweeping victories of Hitler upset the applecart. After Reynaud’s declaration that Paris would be defended “street by street”, the French bourgeoisie, faced with the prospect of arming the Parisian proletariat who, together with a section of the army would have constituted a threat to their power and conducted a revolutionary war against Hitler, preferred to capitulate to Hitler. To understand the lesson of Pétain, to explain “Pétainism” we demonstrate this classic example of the defeatist character of the bourgeoisie (including Hitler) if it fears its working class at home.

England

Let us now compare the situation as it existed in France with that of present day England. Though on the decline, Britain is economically far stronger than France due to her mighty empire and the fact that she is predominantly an industrial country, over 66 percent of her population being proletarian. As distinct from the French masses, the British workers are not yet disillusioned with their own bourgeoisie and their labour leaders due to their past privileged economic position. Consequently the British masses are relatively far more backward politically than their French brothers. Of recent years they have not gone through a revolutionary period, or any form of mass strivings comparable to the French 1936-38 character. The “popular front” passed completely over the head of the British working class precisely because of the comparative economic stability of British capitalism.

Although the war has accelerated the political development of the working class by the rising cost of living, lengthening of working hours, wartime racketeering, industrial conscription, and the gradual filching of democratic rights, etc., this will not reach any proportions of mass opposition for some time—certainly not during the invasion period, or some little time following it. At the present moment we can say with regard to the question of war, the British masses, as distinct from the French, are apathetic in the defencist sense, insofar as they [see] no other alternative.

Throughout the article which purports to utilise the French experience there is no analysis of the differences in the situation in Britain today with that which existed in France, politically and economically, and which was the primary cause for the capitulation of the French bourgeoisie. The British bourgeoisie do not fear the working class in the present period. We cannot expect a turning of the masses to the left immediately. The proposition that faces the British bourgeoisie, therefore in the event of a successful German invasion is not—Hitler, i.e. German imperialism or Social revolution—but, Hitler or American imperialism, with more benefits accruing from America since Britain would be permitted to retain at least a large section of her Empire. Britain has already chosen the latter, and accepting the fact that a section of the bourgeoisie will back Hitler, as they are doing even today, in the event of a successful invasion Whitehall will be transferred to the White House. Arrangements have already been made for the transference of the British Navy to the USA. As we have so often repeated in our publications, Britain is rapidly being reduced to the status of “49th state of the USA.” America is sending increasing amounts of war material to this country, even at the expense of her own defence, for she regards the British Isles as her front line. Britain in her turn, is dependent on aid from the USA for her very existence.

“Hitler” has become such a bogey that the role of American imperialism in relation to Britain is completely ignored. This is especially lacking in view of the recent visits of Willkie and Hopkins to evaluate the sincerity of the British bourgeoisie in the continuation of the struggle and the relations of Labour to the war. These emissaries of Wall Street were apparently satisfied that the British workers were not red and that the dominant section of the British bourgeoisie, headed by Churchill, are determined to continue the struggle against Hitler, firstly because they do not fear their own working class at the present stage, and secondly, because Hitler constitutes the immediate threat to their imperialist interests. This is no “fake” struggle, but is a struggle which will only be concluded after the wholesale destruction of millions of workers.

The only guarantee

The political proposition “Arm the workers—the only guarantee against Hitler’s invasion” is incorrectly posed, flowing as it does from a military supposition, namely, that the British military machine is incapable of defeating a German invasion. What will happen to this argument if the British bourgeoisie, with American aid, does succeed in stemming an invasion, which possibility, although not guaranteed, at least cannot be excluded, and which Wall Street now seems to think it has a good chance of doing. Yet this hypothesis is implicit in the whole presentation of the question. For example:

“In France the result of this method [suppression of workers] of ‘fighting Nazism’ was that the German army simply walked into the country and took over Paris within a few days. The capitalists of France showed themselves more ready to fight the workers than to fight Hitler. The Labour and trade union leaders, who had actively supported the moves against the workers, found themselves either in the dungeons of the Gestapo—or those of Pétain.

In Britain the results will be no different. The capitalist class is not fighting Hitler’s fascism. They are only fighting his plans to relieve them of their Empire.” (Our emphasis)

What is meant by “In Britain the results will be no different” if not that the British workers will lead, as it did in France, to the German army simply walking in and taking ever London? Totalitarian methods are being introduced precisely in order the better to face up to the German totalitarian war machine, and the adoption of those methods does not automatically lead to the inevitable defeat of British imperialism.

“The elementary immediate need for self-preservation demands that the workers should not be left helpless and unarmed in face of the coming Nazi onslaught. British ‘democracy’ can be rendered impregnable against the attacks of Hitler or of a British Pétain if the working class is armed.”

The posing of the question in this way presupposes the inevitable defeat, i.e. Hitler or a British Pétain.

We of course support the slogan “Arm the workers” but let us not confuse the working class by categorically stating that without the arming of the workers the British bourgeoisie is incapable of stemming the invasion of Hitler, as the title of the article does. Faced with the threat of invasion, as distinct from the way in which the Youth article reacts, i.e. “Invasion: arm the workers—the only guarantee against Hitler’s invasion”, we pose the question from a class angle, i.e. “Invasion: arm the workers under workers’ control—the only guarantee for the defence of workers’ democratic rights!” In other words, we approach the question from the interests of the working class and not from the angle of Wintringham[2]. The hypothesis of one comrade or another as to the fluctuating military potentialities of this or that imperialist army, while important as a means to present the relative transitional demand, must not be allowed to form the axis of our political slogans as exemplified in “Arm the workers—the only guarantee against Hitler’s invasion”.

While the article is based on the supposition that Britain cannot stem a German invasion, it has artificially grafted on it, the theoretical possibility, not merely of stemming the invasion but of an actual British victory! A possibility which appears somewhat incongruous side by side with the proposition of certain defeat by Hitler unless the workers are armed.

“A victory for British imperialism in the war would be as harmful to the people of Europe and Britain as a Nazi victory itself. But how would this be obtained? Already the workers are being driven to incredible exertions and sacrifices while the big monopolies continue to pile up fabulous profits. The weariness and resentment of the masses when they see this contrast cannot but lead to explosions. In readiness for this, capitalism is making preparations to protect its profits.”

“What they have in store for the continent has been hinted at by the Dean of St. Paul’s. After the collapse of Germany, he has said, millions of British troops will have to hold down all Europe. The workers of Europe will have changed the yoke of Hitler for that of British imperialism.”

To prove that this proposition is not seriously considered we quote from the beginning of the same article:

“Today the British generals are sitting comfortably behind their new Maginot line, the sea, boasting as they did a year ago that their defence is impregnable, and dreaming of their future invasion of the continent. How they are going to accomplish this with their maximum 4 million soldiers against 10 million which the Berlin-Rome Axis has already trained and armed they do not reveal.”

Let us examine another paragraph where the contradiction is glaring:

“The victory of British imperialism would lead to fascism not to its overthrow. There is only one road for the British working class. To fight Hitler we must take power into our own hands. The road of the Labour leaders is leading to destruction. If we do not wish to suffer the fate of our French comrades we must act in time.”

In this paragraph alone is contained the following:

1) The possibility of victory for British imperialism.

2) The impossibility of victory for British imperialism.

3) The confusing of the question of stemming an invasion and the possibility of a British military victory over Germany.

4) Even when posing the question of a British victory which “would lead to fascism”, the conclusion drawn is how to fight Hitler!

“Hitlerism”

Throughout, the article brings Hitler forward as the chief bugbear. The conclusions a reader could draw from it is that Hitler fascism is the main enemy of the British working class due to the threat of imminent invasion. Immediately after the capitulation of France, comrade Trotsky wrote:

“Hitler, the conqueror, has naturally day-dreams of becoming the chief executioner of the proletarian revolution in any part of Europe. But that does not at all mean that Hitler will be strong enough to deal with the proletarian revolution as he has been able to deal with imperialist democracy. It would be a fatal blunder, unworthy of a revolutionary party, to turn Hitler into a fetish, to exaggerate his power, to overlook the objective limits of his success and conquests. Hitler boastfully promises to establish the domination of the German people, at the expense of all Europe and even of the whole world, ‘for one thousand years’. But in all likelihood, this splendour will not endure even for ten years.”

Comrade Trotsky was addressing himself to those comrades who depicted the coming of Hitler as the end of everything and seeing before them just a blank wall with no perspective. We believe that the article reflects this “fetishism” by its whole presentation. In order to justify this “fetishism”, the majority characterise the mood of the masses as “we must at all costs fight and destroy Hitler.” We disagree with this characterisation, but assuming it is correct, how does it fit in with the mood of the German masses which is anti-Churchill since he is the arch-representative of that imperialism which imposed the infamous Versailles treaty on the German people—and as they are fully aware, is preparing an even [more] infamous one in the event of a British victory.

Flowing from the article our traditional international appeal to the European working class is cast aside for an appeal to support the socialist struggle against Hitler. We consider that this slogan should have read: “Appeal to the workers of Europe and Germany for peace on the basis of the united socialist states of Europe.” This would throw the onus for the continuation of the war onto Hitler and reveal to the German masses their enemy at home.

Similarly we take exception to the slogan: “Disarm the capitalists and arm the workers for the struggle against Nazism and the capitalist fifth column at home.” While correctly pointing to the necessity of disarming the capitalists and arming the workers, the slogan, like the title of the article, does not mention under whose control the workers must be armed.

The second part of the slogan: “against Nazism and the capitalist fifth column at home”, in the one hand is confusing since in the accepted sense of the term “fifth columnist” means the agent of the external enemy. On the other hand, if the whole of the British bourgeoisie is implied—are we to understand that the whole of the bourgeoisie is willing to sell out to Hitler? But most disturbing is the posing of the main enemy as the foreign one. This slogan should have read: “Disarm the capitalists and dissolve the Home Guard into workers’ militia under workers’ control. Trade union control of the army for the struggle against totalitarian oppression at home and abroad.”

Defence of workers’ democratic rights

With the coming of the Second World War, the process of decay of bourgeois democracy is accelerated. On the actual outbreak of the war, its death knell is already being sounded. In the present epoch of totalitarian war the luxury of “democracy” must be discarded by the bourgeoisie in order to face the totalitarian war machine of the adversary. Inevitably bourgeois democracy must eliminate its overhead expenses, i.e. the democratic rights of the workers, trade unions, the relatively high standard of living—all these must go. Totalitarianism can only be fought by totalitarianism.

In the forefront of our programme comes the fight for the democratic rights of the working class in the present period. These become revolutionary demands and assume tremendous importance in our transitional slogans. In the last two great remaining “democracies” the rights of the workers are being filched from them.

While these rights are threatened by a Hitler invasion, the immediate threat to the British working class comes directly from within. In the defence of democracy against “Hitlerism”, the British bourgeoisie is rapidly destroying these very rights which we are supposed to be defending. Comrade Trotsky posed the question clearly in his last letters:

“But we categorically refuse to defend civil liberties and democracy in the French manner; the workers and farmers to give their flesh and blood while the capitalists concentrate in their hands the command. The Pétain experiment should now form the centre of our war propaganda. It is important, of course, to explain to the advanced workers that the genuine fight against fascism is the socialist revolution. But it is more urgent, more imperative to explain to the millions of American workers that the defence of their ‘democracy’, cannot be delivered over to an American Marshall Pétain—and there are many candidates to such a role.”

Again, comrade Trotsky under the title Profound importance of French events, wrote:

“We must use the example of France to the very end. We must say, ‘I warn you workers, that they (the bourgeoisie) will betray you! Look at Pétain, who is a friend of Hitler. Shall we have the same thing happening in this country? We must create our own machine, under workers’ control.’ We must be careful not to identify ourselves with the chauvinists, nor with the confused sentiments of self-preservation, but we must understand their feelings and adapt ourselves to these feelings critically, and prepare the masses for a better understanding of the situation, otherwise we will remain a sect, of which the pacifist variety is the most miserable.”

In other words, we must defend our democratic rights, we are willing to give our flesh and blood for that which we find worth defending, but we must be in command. Our existing democracy must be defended and broadened into the army, etc., thus linking it up with full workers’ democracy, i.e. the proletarian dictatorship. Now lot us examine how the article in Youth deals with the question:

“The elementary need for self-preservation demands that the workers should not be left helpless and unarmed in the face of the coming Nazi onslaught. British ‘democracy’ can be rendered impregnable against the attacks of Hitler or of a British Pétain if the working class is armed.”

Is this adapting ourselves to the feelings of the masses critically? Is this preparing the masses for a better understanding of the situation? We say no, just the opposite. What is the meaning of “British ‘democracy’ can be rendered impregnable”? Does it mean decaying British bourgeois democracy—and since when are we prepared to render “British ‘democracy’ ” impregnable against attacks? We presume that the above bases itself on the statements of comrade Trotsky on the defence of workers’ democracy. But Trotsky is advocating that the only means of the working class defending their democratic rights is by taking control, by taking command in their own hands. Merely calling for arms for the workers as the elementary need for their self-preservation is to fall into these very errors against which Trotsky warns.

What the article omits: the military policy

Only the masses can take power and establish a socialist system, and in the present period the masses in the military organisations are destined to play the decisive role. The bourgeoisie are arming the masses—in their own way of course—to defend their imperialist interests. Already over three million are in the armed forces; two million are in the Home Guard; the age limit is being raised to 50 and lowered to 18—limits which in the last war were just being reached at the end of 1918; Bevin had declared that he hoped to call up a further million by raising the age limit in reserved occupations; working women are being mobilised and conscripted into the factories, just as in Germany. In other words, bourgeois democracy is giving way to the universal epoch of militarisation of the masses. The workers are being armed by the bourgeoisie. The military policy of the Fourth International is based on this historic fact—the universal militarisation of the proletariat—and not, as is implied in the article—on the withholding of arms from the workers.

While we naturally support the slogan “arms to the workers” the mechanical reiteration of this slogan in itself is not enough. The whole problem which poses itself before us is one of control.

Under the slogan “arm the workers” must flow a policy for the widening of the Home Guard from its present narrow reactionary basis under the Colonel Binghams, from its present composition of petty bourgeois, backward workers—we must demand its dissolution into workers’ militia to include all sections of workers of both sexes. Where women are being conscripted to replace men in industry and indeed in every sphere of civil life, we must pose before them the necessity of demanding their incorporation in the workers’ militias for the defence of their democratic rights—arms in hands—against whosoever attempted to destroy them.

A political position is determined by what is omitted as well as by what is stated. This article was put forward as the military policy yet so important a propaganda weapon as the Colonel Bingham affair[3], which could have served as a key point in exposing the utter reactionary and anti-working class nature of the existing officer caste and drawing the lesson of the French defeat from this, that is the necessity for workers’ control in the armed forces, was not even mentioned in the article or in the whole issue of Youth for that matter.

The article misses the whole essence of the basis on which the military policy was developed by the American section—that is the present period of universal militarisation. Instead of posing a bold and clear policy for the armed workers it contents itself with moaning about the unwillingness of the British bourgeoisie to arm the workers against Hitler, to leave them helpless; etc. Where is our programme for the 4,000,000 soldiers already under arms, already trained and equipped in the arts of modern warfare? The entire personnel of our group, barring perhaps the women will soon be in the existing capitalist military organisations. Already many of our comrades are in the forces, selling our papers, to workers in arms. What policy does the article pose before them?

Let us give a few quotes to prove our contention that the article bases itself, not on the universal militarisation, but on the premise that the bourgeois are withholding arms from the masses.

“And they are holding back arms and control of arms from the workers in exactly the same way...

“For the arming of the workers would be the arming of the revolution…

“Yet we see the ruling class implacably refusing to arm and organise the working class in factories, streets and villages…

“Yet the ruling class has not armed and organised the workers for defence.

“The arming of the workers would be a guarantee against any treacherous threat from within as wall as from without…

“The first point in that programme must be the arming of the workers against the threat of fascist invasion…

“The elementary immediate need for self preservation demands that the workers should not be left helpless and unarmed in face of the coming onslaught. British ‘democracy’ can be rendered impregnable against the attacks of a British Pétain if the working class is armed…

“The working class is saturated through and through with a hatred of fascism. The arming of the workers would be a guarantee against any treacherous threat from within as well from without. Yet the blind labour leaders allow control to rest in the hands of those who would destroy them. The first need for the struggle against fascism is not even considered by the labour leaders. The acid test for the bleating of the ruling class that they are fighting Hitlerism, the acid test for the labour leaders is this: are they prepared to organise, train and arm those who have always shown their unwavering determination to settle with Hitlerism forever?”

To this we can only reply as Trotskysts and as “those who have always shown their unwavering determination to settle with Hitlerism forever”, “Yes, they are organising, training and arming us in their military organisations.” Revolutionary workers are not excluded from the universal conscription. We are learning this the hard way. Up to now the absence in our publications of any material relating to the armed forces has been most marked. But the adoption of the military policy of the proletariat must change this state of affairs. Linked with our demand for workers’ militia must come the policy for the workers in arms. Serious attention must now be devoted to the structure of the bourgeois army. In close co-operation with the comrades in the armed forces, we must concretise our military policy for this country—a policy which will include the fight for democratic rights; for better conditions; for the right of the soldiers to elect their own officers; for trade union control of all training camps for privates as well as officers; for the abolition of the present brutal drill system; for the abolition of the present medieval system of court martial, punishment and military “justice”; for the control of the armed forces by the trade unions. We must include in our “Labour to power” demands that an armed forces trade union be formed which must be affiliated to the TUC—in this way we carry the class struggle into the army and flowing from this we pose the question of a revolutionary war against Hitler.

We have outlined above our criticism of the article which is the expression of the Majority of the EC’s position on the military policy. We claim this is not an interpretation of the military policy of the Fourth International, but which has completely missed the essence of this policy. We hope that this will open the discussion within the organisation in which all members will participate, and which will therefore lead to a clearer understanding of the problem.

Notes

[1] Prior to decimalisation, the pound was divided into 20 shillings and each shilling into 12 pence, making 240 pence to the pound. The symbol for the shilling was “s”—not from the first letter of the word, but from the Latin solidus. The symbol for the penny was “d”, from the French denier, from the Latin denarius. A mixed sum of shillings and pence such as 3 shillings and 6 pence was written as “3/6” or “3s 6d” and spoken as “three and six”. 5 shillings was written as “5s” or “5/-”.

[2] Thomas Henry Wintringham (1898 – 1949) joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1923. In 1925 he was one of twelve CPGB officers imprisoned for seditious activities in the army. In 1930 he founded the Daily Worker and was regarded as the expert on military matters of the CPGB. He was an important figure in the formation of the Home Guard during the Second World War, broke with the CP in 1938 and was one of the founders of the Common Wealth Party.

[3] On January 15 1941 the Times published a letter from Lieutenant-Colonel R.C. Bingham. In it Bingham lamented that so many middle and lower class applicants were being granted access to officer training; these elements, Bingham argued, lacked the necessary noblesse oblige and the good breeding necessary to take charge of commanding troops. As a result of the protest letters and public outrage Bingham was dismissed from service.

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