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The British Link in the Imperialist Chain

Lenin often used the metaphor of a chain that binds the world to describe imperialism. The October Revolution of 1917 broke a first link in that chain and hoped to pull the whole thing loose. The metaphor was adopted in those years by all the Bolshevik leaders and the leaders of the newly formed Third International. Within a decade, Stalin's well-known formula of socialism in one country signified the overturning of that strategic cornerstone and the defeat of the revolution in Russia, in Europe, and in the world.

Dates that have come to symbolise historical change act as the synthesis of previously accumulated contradictions, and, while such a sudden change does not exhaust the possibility of future contradictions, the concentration of events in 1926 nonetheless marked a watershed that revealed the true extent that the counter-revolution had reached. The great general strike in the United Kingdom that year, which was betrayed and failed — and which we will discuss when we conclude this study — is perhaps the clearest example of this.

This newspaper has already reconstructed the events of the early post-war period and examined the history of the communist parties in Germany and France, as well as going further back to the history of the workers' movement in those countries. Let us now deal with the British case.

In 1914 Britain was still the most powerful imperialist power in the world, a financial and industrial centre, and possessed the largest colonial empire, guaranteed by the Royal Navy. British supremacy reached its peak in the last decades of the 18th century. Afterwards, there was a slow decline.

In addition to its old French and Russian rivals, Germany — against which Britain would fight two wars — arose overwhelmingly, along with a new imperialist power, the United States of America, which would eventually take Britain's place.

The World War and Leninist strategy

The Leninist strategy aimed primarily for a revolution in Germany, which would weld the political power won in Russia with the combative German proletariat and its modem industry. The UK was not, at the time, a link in the chain to be smashed because of the strength of its bourgeoisie, Lenin instead intended to strike at Britain's backyard by spreading national revolution into the British colonial empire.

The years immediately preceding the start of the conflict in 1914 were marked by an intense series of strikes — also known as the great unrest — which often spiralled out of the control of union leaders. Profits had grown at the expense of workers' living conditions, but the demands had gained a new momentum when unemployment was down to 3%.

A.L. Morton and G. Tate describe the atmosphere of the time in their book The British Labour Movement (1770-1920) [Lawrence & Wishart, 1956; published in Italy by Editori Riuniti in 1974]: Wait until autumn was the phrase that was on everyone's lips in the summer of 1914 when, to use the words of the Webbs, the British trade union movement was working for an almost revolutionary outbreak of the gigantic trade union conflict. With the outbreak of war, however, the wave of strikes was exhausted.

The World War and the movement for demands

The rapidity with which the political and trade union leaders of the British labour movement changed their position on the war — as was the case in other countries, despite different traditions and histories — is a clear confirmation of Marxist analysis.

The underlying economic and political interests which pushed the ruling classes of the various countries towards the choice of armed confrontation highlighted the ideological bankruptcy of all political currents opposing the war. This was the case for traditional British liberalism, which wanted to keep the country out of European wars in order to safeguard free trade; the same went for the pacifism put forward by various strains of British reformism.

We can follow the account of those days by a sociologist and exponent of the Labour left, Ralph Miliband [Parliamentary Socialism: A Study in the Politics of Labour, 1961], without any additional comments. The greatest illusion of 1914 was that the leaders of the major European workers' parties would refuse to support their Governments in case of war, as laid down in the 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Second International. However, those leaders behaved, in the days before Britain actually entered the war, […] as though they attached meaning to the International's commitments.

The collapse of Labour reformism

On August 1st, the Labour leaders appealed in vehement language to the organisations affiliated to the British section of the International to hold demonstratons against war in every industrial centre. In a large demonstration in Trafalgar Square on the 2nd of August, they asserted that the Government of Great Britain should rigidly decline to engage in war. There was, however, no attempt to give concrete meaning to Labor's proclaimed intention, Miliband comments.

Indeed, it was only after war had been declared, on the 4th of August, that the Labour Party discovered that freedom and democracy were what the conflict was about. Until war was upon it, it had never thought of international slaughter in those terms. The real reason for the support which most Labour leaders gave to the war was that the Government of the day decided to bring Britain into it.

On August 4th, a conference called to form a National Labour Emergency Committee against war instead resolved to establish the War Emergency Workers' National Committee to watch over the interests of the working classes in the new circumstances of war. On August 24th, the same leaders proposed an Industrial Truce for the duration of the war, which everyone at the time thought would be short.

The equivocation of centrism

The definition of centrist refers to a set of political currents present in various countries, which were characterised by advocating positions contrary to the patriotic forays of the social-democratic right. The more radical groups among those currents had also supported important workers' struggles during the war, despite repressive laws. These currents, however, never delivered a concrete vision of the transformation of war into revolution, nor did they arrive at revolutionary defeatism, but fought for a democratic peace, without annexations

In the fiery post-war period, even though they sided with the Russia of the Soviets, the centrists differed from the revolutionary solution implemented by the Bolsheviks there, even more so when it was presented as a path that Western countries might also follow. They worked, instead, for the renewal of the Second International that had collapsed in August 1914, or for a fusion between it and the new Third International.

The centrists, the militants rather than the leaders, were committed participants in the struggles of the time. They sincerely wanted socialism, but felt that their own history was more advanced and mature than that of a backwards Russia, and considered the Bolshevik dictatorship of the proletariat, perhaps necessary for that vast country, unsuitable for Western parliamentary democracies.

Their arguments were rooted in the psychology and experience of the masses, but at the historical junction of the revolution in action, they became an obstacle that had to be demolished in order to break the other chains of imperialism. In Britain the highest expression of centrism was the Independent Labour Party (ILP). Along with other socialist groups, the ILP took part in the workers' struggles during the war and sided with the Russian October revolution, though remaining prisoner of the aforementioned ambiguities. We will return to these events, but it is necessary to go back through the long history of the British workers' movement in order to better frame them.

Lotta Comunista, October 2021