#75 - From the Boer war to Iraq - the working class and the fight against imperialist war

June 2006

An issue which is neither abstract nor moral

All too often, the fight against imperialist wars has been reduced to a moralistic stance against all wars, if not all violence, or to a fight for peace, for peace's sake. Not only has this approach proved totally ineffective, as was shown by the present Labour government's arrogant disregard of the February 2003 "one-million march" against the war in Iraq. But, in fact, it is a way of fudging the real issues, by hiding the social causes of wars behind a moralistic "classless" smokescreen.

Probably the best way to dispel this moralistic fudge is to recall the role played by wars in the past history of mankind, before the emergence of what Lenin called "imperialism, the final stage of capitalism", in the last decade of the 19th century.

Every historical stage produced its own wars. These wars were often bloody and ruthless, reflecting the brutality of the class relationships that prevailed in society at the time. But by and large, despite the resulting bloodshed and oppression for the victims of these wars, they were one of the conduits through which culture, knowledge, technical skills, social changes, etc.. - in short what makes the substance of civilisation - expanded across continents, or even from one continent to another. Once the dust of war had settled, the conquered and the conquerors shared the benefits of their respective pasts, while the relationships of domination inherited from the war itself blurred into insignificance due to the absence of a strong permanent military machine to enforce them.

So, for instance, without the Roman expansion - which was by far, in relative terms, the largest colonial, if not imperialist, venture of all times - the architectural explosion of the Middle Ages in Western and Northern Europe would have been impossible. Without the invasion and occupation of Spain by the Arabs, and the colossal looting venture organised later in the Middle East, in the name of Christianity - known as the Crusades - the Western European Renaissance would have lacked one of its most vital components - the Arabs' scientific and technical knowledge. And, conversely, the inhabitants of the Euphrates valley, in today's Iraq, one of the most fertile in the Middle East, would have had to wait a long time for the technical know-how needed to farm the river's rich alluvial banks efficiently. Without the multiple invasions of the British isles from the Continent, the English language would never have acquired its structural efficiency and semantic richness. Without the French Republican and Napoleonic wars, in the late 18th century and early 19th century, the feudal monarchies of Central and Eastern Europe would have survived much longer and their serf populations would have been freed much later.

This is why being "against wars" as a matter of principle, in the name of non-violence, "pacifism", "natural justice" or "international law" makes as little sense as being against history. The history of mankind is one of violence, shaped by the conflicts between the various social classes and associated forms of social organisations produced by mankind over the centuries. To ignore this violence and its role in the making of today's world is to bury one's head in the sand and condemn oneself to impotence. For revolutionaries and for all those who aim to be actors in taking human society forward, such moralism is simply not an option.

Wars in the imperialist era

The impact of wars in human society began to change with the rise of the capitalist mode of production, in its original form - that of merchant capital. Unlike previous modes of production, the operation of merchant capital needed constantly to expand the scale on which it operated. This meant an expansion of the sources of raw material but also a parallel expansion of the markets in which goods were sold.

This process was dominated all along by the increasing rivalries between the rich capitalist classes - rivalries over the control of the slave trade, the cotton trade from America and North Africa, the sugar trade from the West Indies, etc., and above all, over the control of the seas. So that most of the wars which took place during that period were, despite all kinds of spurious political pretexts, trade wars, rather than wars for territories as in the previous periods. In particular, there was no longer any question of developing the economy of the new or existing colonies. These territories were to become overexploited backyards of the great powers' economies, by specialising them in specific activities. As the destruction of the Indian textile industry which occurred during that period shows, entire populations were reduced to utter poverty as a result.

The destructive trail of capitalist warmongering reached a new height with the advent of imperialism. By that time, the entire planet was integrated into the world capitalist market and all available land and markets had been brought into the sphere of influence of one or other of the main capitalist classes. From then onwards, the only purpose of capitalist militarism was to allow the richest capitalist classes to squeeze their rivals out of one part or another of the world market.

Some of the wars of the imperialist era were direct clashes between the rival capitalist classes, like the two World Wars. Others were military ventures designed to tighten the collective grip of imperialist companies over some poor parts of the world, like the Korean and Vietnam wars and, more recently, the war in Iraq. Others still, were indirect consequences of the imperialist system of worldwide oppression, like the many so-called "ethnic" conflicts which have crippled Africa over the past four decades, when they were not wars by proxy, between imperialist rivals, like the Biafra war.

Each one of these imperialist, or imperialist-induced, wars has involved a considerable human and material cost, more often than not stopping or even reversing the social and economic development of entire countries, if not regions. In the case of World War II, this destruction was the only way that capitalism found to overcome, temporarily at least, its permanent state of crisis. In fact, these wars are part of the mechanism through which the decaying and parasitic capitalist system of the imperialist era is preventing the social and economic progress of mankind.

This is why no imperialist protagonist should ever been defended, let alone supported, in any of these wars. Not on any moral grounds, but because they can only pull human society backwards, just as does capitalism in its present decaying stage. This is also why the only way to oppose these wars effectively is to fight their root cause - the capitalist system itself. And since the working class is the only social force which has the capacity to overthrow this rotting system, this confronts the working class movement with particular responsibilities.

The Boer war - a war for gold

The 2½ year long Boer war was Britain's first imperialist venture of the 20th century. It started right on the cusp, in October 1899, as a war provoked by Lord Salisbury's ruling Tory Party and fought openly under the banner of imperialist interests.

Five years before, in 1895, the diamond magnate and then prime minister of the British Cape Colony, Cecil Rhodes, had been the instigator of the so-called "Jameson Raid", an attempt to take control of Johannesburg's gold by taking power in the Transvaal region, then part of the Boer Republic. The attempt failed, but it set the scene for the war itself.

At this time, the centre of the Transvaal gold rush, Johannesburg, had a population of over 100,000. The vast majority were so-called "Uitlanders" meaning outsiders, as the Boer republic designated them, who had flooded into the town to make their fortunes, far outnumbering the 6,000 or so Afrikaaner inhabitants, who were the only citizens with a vote - though of course, the real majority of the region consisted of unenfranchised indigenous black Africans. Afrikaaner president Kruger's government attempted to impose heavy taxes and tariffs on the Uitlanders and stood firm on requiring a voting qualification of at least 7 years residence for all such "foreigners". His refusal to back down on this was the pretext for the war, supposedly to defend "equality" between all whites.

Just under 500,000 British soldiers were sent in total to fight 87,000 Boers and their allies. The Boers' guerilla tactics meant that even after British forces had secured military victory and occupied all the main towns, it took a scorched earth policy and the internment in concentration camps of 232,000 Boer women and children, together with their black servants and farm workers, before Boer guerilla resistance was defeated. A total of around 30,000 died in these camps, mainly of starvation and disease. This can be compared to the 8,000 among the British forces and the 7,000 Boers who died in combat.

In the realm of domestic politics, the Boer war heralded the political demise of the Liberal party. The war split the party into pro- and anti-Boer factions, contributing to a second consecutive win for the Tories in the so-called Khaki Election of 1900. But far more catastrophically, the British war victory was to shape the political and social future of South Africa. Its final resolution laid the basis for the system of white supremacy, the usurpation of the land in the hands of a white minority and the oppression of the black population, which was to be formally institutionalised under the name of "apartheid", 50 years later.

London's aims in this war were never in doubt as far as the majority of Britain's workers' organisations were concerned, and the Boer war was opposed by the TUC, the quasi-Marxist Social Democratic Federation, the pacifist-leaning Independent Labour Party and the Labour Representation Committee, after it came into being in 1900. In the words of the ILP's Keir Hardie: "The war is a capitalist war, begotten by capitalists' money, lied into being by a perjured mercenary capitalist class and fathered by unscrupulous politicians, themselves the merest tools of the capitalists".

However, it should be said that the anti-war propaganda often took a disturbing tone. In a period when Jewishness was often identified with finance capital, antisemitism was still widespread in the working class movement. So, for instance, a TUC resolution passed in September 1900, condemned the war as one "to secure the gold fields of South Africa for cosmopolitan Jews, most of whom had no patriotism and no country". John Burns, former dockers' leader and Labour MP for Battersea used similar rhetoric against Jewish capitalists and bankers, while speaking against the war in parliament.

A number of organisations were set up against the war. A "Stop the War" movement was launched in January 1900 by the journalist, William Thomas Stead, who had already begun publishing a weekly magazine entitled "War Against War". A few Liberal MPs like Lloyd George were founding members and its president and chairman were respectively a Baptist and a Methodist preacher. Predictably, the language of this anti-war movement was impregnated with evangelical rhetoric. For instance, "War Against War" had on each cover a list of demands illustrated by a depiction of Chamberlain as the grim reaper surveying a pile of skulls. It read as follows:

"1. What do you want to do? Stop this war!

2 When? Immediately!

3 Why? Because we are in the wrong.

4. How? By confessing our sins and doing right.

5 What sins? Lying to cover conspiracy. Fraud in making false claims. Bad Faith in going back on our word. Wholesale murder.

6. And to do right? Expose and punish criminals, compensate their victims and make peace."

For the anti-war movement of the time, the main issue, therefore, was that the Boer war was "illegal" in terms of morality and the law of God. Which is not all that remote from the main argument used by many of today's opponents to the war in Iraq arguing that it is "illegal" from the point of view of what they call "international law".

Passive resistance from the working class

It is evident that this moralistic and legalistic opposition cut little ice with the majority of the working class. If workers had previously supported the Liberals it was because of their advocacy of social reform which directly impinged on their lives. As to the anti-war stance of working class organisations such as the TUC or socialist organisations such as the ILP and SDF, it reflected the opposition of the activists, but not necessarily the views of the working class at large.

That said, the often repeated myth of a "jingoistic" working class supporting the war, has been shown in retrospect to be utter nonsense. Indeed, it was only near the end of the war that the number of soldiers recruited from the working class increased - not due to any sense of heightened patriotism, but to rising unemployment.

Sixty years after the war, an historian tried to piece together the evidence provided by the records of the thousands of working men's social clubs which existed throughout Britain. He found that in these clubs, regular and well-attended public meetings about the war had taken place - and that not one of them had been disrupted by jingoistic crowds, unlike those of the various anti-war committees.

To quote this historian: "If the working class failed to emerge as a decisive and powerful force against the war, it was not necessarily because they were not in agreement with what Radicals had to say. It was, in fact because British Radicalism failed to provide either the leadership or the programme that could bring the anti-war sentiment which did exist among working men into focus. ...More significant, however, was the absence of an antiwar programme that would appeal to working men. The Stop the War Committee could only be supported by extreme Evangelicals, its Fundamentalist rhetoric could have no attraction for working men. The South African Conciliation Committee self-consciously resembled a ladies' tea circle; it made no attempt to talk to a mass audience..."

At worst - and this probably reflects the majority attitude - workers were indifferent to patriotic appeals, while being concerned with the fact that the war meant that social improvements for working people were threatened. They took it for granted that the war was being fought for capitalist interests.

But the Socialist press of the day nevertheless followed the Radicals' line and emphasised the war's immorality and criminality. There was no analysis of the war as integral to the whole system of capitalist exploitation. Instead they portrayed it as the work of a few conspiring politicians and capitalists - just as today the Iraq War is blamed on Bush, Blair and a few oil and weapons giants. Indeed Justice, the paper of the SDF and the Labour Leader of the ILP had a recurring conspiracy theory theme, with Chamberlain and Rhodes the devils of the piece, usually calling for Chamberlain to be held responsible for his crimes.

WWI - Pacifists turn into war mongers

The First World War took place in an entirely different context for the working class.

Between 1910 and 1914, hundreds of thousands of British workers fought against declining wages and conditions, in the context of booming capitalist profits, during what was called the "Great Unrest". The fact that the struggles of the Great Unrest took place outside of the control of the union bureaucracy, relying on workshop and strike committees helped to shape the independent and militant character of the subsequent wartime battles.

The World War which was about to break out had been anticipated for a long time. The warring camps had been taking shape over the previous years, with British capital forming an alliance with its former French and Russian enemies, in order to cut the growing economic power of its German rival down to size. Year after year, the Second International, the worldwide socialist organisation of the time, to which the Labour party sent delegates, passed rousing resolutions against the threatening war. At the Stuttgart conference, in 1907, such a resolution stated that it was the affiliated parties' duty "to use every effort to prevent war", and if war did break out "to intervene to bring it promptly to an end and to hasten the fall of capitalist domination". As late as November 1912, the manifesto issued by its Basle conference called "the socialists and workers of all countries, to counterpose this world based on capitalist exploitation and murder, with a world of peaceful coexistence between the populations based on the proletarian masses."

But there were many symptoms which gave away the real game lying behind this rhetoric. The Basle conference itself was an eye-opener in this respect. Rather than a militant gathering designed to mobilise the revolutionary spirit of the proletarian masses, its main event was, almost literally, a great mass held in the town's massive cathedral. And a cart carrying a so-called "queen of the peace", surrounded by dozens of young girls in white skirts, gave a rather strange illustration to the event's main slogan - "war against war".

The truth was that the outlook of the main European parties affiliated to the Second International was really that of a respectable pacifism which, as Trotsky was to write in 1917, had "politically and theoretically ... just the same basis as the doctrine of social harmony between different class interests." These parties may have been drawing their influence from the working class, but the relationship they had with the capitalist class thanks to their positions in the trade union, municipal and, even state bureaucracies, led them to reflect the prejudices of the petty-bourgeoisie, rather than the political interests of the working masses. As Trotsky noted in the same article, "common opinion among the petty-bourgeoisie had been systematically encouraged to look upon an ever growing army as a guarantee of peace, which would gradually bear its fruits in new organisation of popular international law. As to the capitalist governments and big business, they saw nothing to object to in this 'pacifist' interpretation of militarism." In the case of British pacifism, Trotsky added that "it provides an outlet for the petty-bourgeois citizen's fears of world-shaking events ... and puts to sleep his watchfulness with useless notions of disarmament, international law and arbitration tribunals."

The symptoms of the Second International's disease had been visible for a long time and many of its leading activists, from Lenin to Rosa Luxemburg, had warned against the danger. Its bankruptcy was exposed after the war broke out between Austria and Serbia, on 1 August 1914. One after the other, the main European socialist parties sided with their respective capitalist classes, as they joined the war. The only exception in Europe was the Russian Bolshevik party. If other parties also refused to take sides, such as the Italian and Swiss socialist parties, it was only because their respective governments had chosen to remain neutral.

In Britain, following the events of 1 August, Arthur Henderson and Keir Hardie called for "vast demonstrations against the war in every industrial centre", appealing that: "workers stand together for peace! Combine and conquer the militarist enemy and the self-seeking imperialists today, once and for all... Down with class rule!... Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!"

There was a demonstration in Trafalgar square the next day, addressed by Labour MPs Henderson, Hardie, and Lansbury, and union leader Will Thorne among others, who declared "We stand by the efforts of the international working class movement to unite workers of the nations concerned in their efforts to prevent their governments from entering upon war..."

But on 5 August, the day after the British government had decided to join the war, an emergency meeting of Labour organisations confined itself to resolving only to "mitigate the destitution" which the war would bring. A War Emergency Workers' National Committee was set up. The Labour Party told its organisations to concentrate on relief measures.

The ILP, the main political component of the Labour Party, which had previously always taken a pacifist stance, split over whether to support the war wholeheartedly or to take a neutral stance. On 8 August Labour Party leader, Ramsay Mac Donald said that "Whatever our view may be on the origin of the war, we must go through with it". Despite this equivocal position, MacDonald felt compelled to resign as party chairman and Arthur Henderson took over. In fact only two ILP MPs opposed the war. Keir Hardie was not one of them. He wrote in his constituency paper, the Merthyr Pioneer on 14 August: "A nation at war must be united... With the boom of enemy guns within earshot the lads who have gone forth to fight their countries battles cannot be disheartened by any discordant note at home."

The British Socialist Party - formerly the Social Democratic Federation, which had now affiliated to the Labour Party - split into pro and anti-war factions with Hyndman's leadership supporting "the prosecution of the war to a speedy and successful issue."

The annual conference of the TUC was cancelled. By 24 August, despite a general strike which had been scheduled for the autumn of 1914 and prepared by setting up a triple alliance of miners, transport workers and railway workers, the TUC declared an "industrial truce", suspending all strikes and plans for strikes.

By the end of August, the Labour Party executive endorsed the decision of Labour MPs to join an "all party" army recruiting campaign, with Henderson presiding. Henderson himself joined the War Cabinet and the trade union bureaucracy was co-opted into the wartime economic machinery of the state, to police and coerce workers at the will of the employers and their government.

The working class takes over

Abandoned by its leaders and main organisations, the working class had no choice but to accept the war as a fait accompli - as a bad patch, but something that they had to go through with, as Mac Donald had put it.

This did not mean, however, that workers, nor the population in general, showed a wholehearted acceptance of the war. Although this has only started to be documented over the past few years, available National Records show that over 300 British soldiers were shot for desertion during the war. But no matter how many soldiers made the individual choice to leave it to the King and the City to fight their own war, this could not represent a powerful enough lever to get British capital to renounce its share of the final booty of the war by withdrawing the troops from the killing fields of Europe.

There was one thing, however, that British capital failed to impose on the working class - it proved unable to get workers to agree that the City's imperialist interests could ever justify driving their conditions further down. Ultimately, once the pacifist hot air of the previous period had dissipated, all that was left to stand up against the militaristic policy of the ruling class with some chance of success, was the class solidarity and militancy of the exploited, fighting for their social interests.

To be sure, the hundreds of thousands of workers who raised the banner of the class struggle during the war, did not all see themselves as fighting against the war, by very far. But, whether it was conscious or not of this, by fighting the profiteers who were both responsible for and beneficiaries of the war, the working class showed that it was capable of threatening their ability to sustain the war effort. And it proved itself to be the only force capable of this.

Following the desertion of their traditional organisations, workers could only re-group and fight as they had already done during the "Great Unrest", from the shop floor, utilising and building further their existing shop stewards' organisations. And given the concentration of ship-building and heavy engineering on the Clyde river in Glasgow, which were essential to war production, it was the so called "Red" Clyde which became the centre for this independent working class struggle against the war profiteers.

John MacLean, still a member of the Scottish BSP, but a tireless Marxist revolutionary since he had first joined the SDF in 1905, had already been organising rallies and meetings against the war, before it broke out, in the Clydeside and throughout the industrial areas of Scotland. He explained that this war was a war between rival capitalists and, to quote a passage from his very last contribution to the BSP paper, "Justice" he argued that "it is our business as socialists to develop 'class patriotism' refusing to murder one another for a sordid world capitalism". As far as he was concerned, the only war workers should have anything to do with was class war.

A radical shop stewards movement

Immediately after the war declaration, the Clyde workers were hit by a huge price hike in staple food and soaring rents, as landlords took the opportunity of the influx of new labour. Unofficial workshop meetings were held and a Labour Withholding Committee was formed, later to become the Clyde Workers' Committee. It first implemented an overtime ban and then called a 2-week all out strike of all the main works on the Clyde, in December 1914. The Engineering union leaders were sent to break the strike, but in fact the bosses capitulated even though the strike was called off, raising the hourly and piece rate.

By March 1915 the government called the notorious Treasury Conference of trade union leaders to get them to agree that strikes should be illegal for the duration of the war and that all disputes should be submitted for compulsory arbitration. Labour was to be "diluted", meaning the hiring of women and youngsters of both sexes for war production on lower wages. All restrictions on overtime and Sunday working were to go as well, together with many other provisions of the factory acts.

The government then rushed thought the Munitions Act which added severe penalties to any individual or collective action by workers. Freedom for workers to leave their jobs was also abolished, and workers could be sent where they were needed without the right to refuse. The workers dubbed it "the Slavery Act". The first strike to be declared illegal under this Act was that of the South Wales miners, in July 1915, also about wages. But the government was totally impotent at enforcing its new law against 200,000 miners on strike, and they won a wage increase which also resulted in other groups of workers getting higher payments.

Workers on the Clyde continued to organise strikes under the leadership of their radical shop stewards, including over labour dilution, demanding that women should only be brought in under the same wages for the job. And while in March 1916, a number of prominent left-wing stewards were arrested under the Defence of the Realm Act for sedition, they were simply deported out of the district and even allowed to return later. Such was the balance of forces achieved on the Clyde in this period.

When at the beginning of 1916, compulsory military conscription was brought in, the trade union and Labour leaders initially opposed it, before finally endorsing it in March, at a special Labour conference. Agitation on the Clyde against conscription led to the imprisonment of John Maclean, followed by other leading activists.

But by bringing in conscription, the government only succeeded in politicising the resistance to its policy. The imprisonment of the movement's leaders did not stop the strikes and anti-war rallies and demonstrations on the Clyde, nor elsewhere, even if for a while there was a quieter interlude. The biggest strike of the war took place in May 1917, involving 250,000 munitions workers throughout the country. Starting from a walk-out in Rochdale, following the dismissal of skilled workers who had refused to instruct women brought in under the labour "dilution" system, the strike wave spread from factory to factory. Although this strike was not immediately successful, an amendment to the revamped Munitions Act dropped the extension of dilution to non-war work industries, abolished leaving certificates and it became an offence to victimise workers after a strike.

Cheers for the revolution in Russia...

But something else had happened in 1917 which was to reinvigorate the working class movement. And that was the February Russian Revolution which overthrew the czar.

A conference to congratulate "our Russian fellow workers" was called in Leeds, even if its resolution for the setting up of workers and soldiers councils in Britain, was only ever a paper resolution.

The effect on trade union rank and file was reflected in the Labour leadership. Henderson was among the Labour leaders who tried to appear as doves in the hope of getting workers to forget their role throughout the war. Sent by Lloyd George to Russia, Henderson returned saying the best course of action for the government was to sue for peace in conjunction with Russia. As a result he had to resign from the War Cabinet.

Workers were immediately given hope by this revolution, seeing in it their own potential to end the war, at the very least. However as months went by and the Russian Provisional government prevaricated, this enthusiasm waned. It took the Bolshevik revolution in October to galvanise British workers once more. The Clyde Workers Committee which had lapsed somewhat due to state repression, was re-established and, at the beginning of 1918 a strike movement began across sections, from dockers and miners to steel and shipyard workers, all demanding a 40-hour week, because by now in Glasgow, there were 30,000 unemployed. The strike was met with repression and again a number of its leaders were put in jail. But in fact a 47-hour week was granted - although it only came into force the following year.

Harry Pollitt, later to become a communist party leader, formed the River Thames Shop Stewards' Movement. Renewed resistance broke out against a draft Manpower Bill, nicknamed the Manslaughter Bill - which would have allowed the call up to the front of skilled engineers between 18 and 25. Resistance to the proposals was registered at a special national shop stewards' conference which also demanded that the government accept the new Soviet government's peace terms. It was decided to launch a campaign in the factories for strike action to end the war. Later in the year this struggle even spread to the police and armed forces.

In July engineering workers in Coventry and Birmingham struck and won against firms which limited the proportion of skilled workers. Then transport workers struck for equal pay for women. Cotton spinners went on strike as well as did railway workers led by a militant rank and file organisation in South Wales. By the time the armistice was signed the number of strikes in shipbuilding, engineering and mining was at a record high. Whether this hastened the close of the war or not, is an open question, but the working class movement that emerged from the war was stronger, larger and a lot more politically conscious than it had ever been before.

Against the war on Russia

After the armistice between the imperialist rivals, a new theatre of war opened, this time against the Russian Revolution. As a result the British government delayed the demobilisation of troops.

But almost one million British soldiers had died on the bloody battlefields of WW1. There was no way that soldiers would have wanted to stay in uniform one second longer after the war was declared at and end. This was the main motive behind the unprecedented wave of soldiers' strikes and demonstrations which developed in January and February 1919, although in many cases soldiers explicitly refused to have anything to do with a war whose aim was to destroy the fledgling working class revolution in Russia.

By now too, even the official British trade union leaders were demanding an end to intervention against Russia. In the summer of 1919, a national "Hands off Russia" committee was formed to fight against the intervention, involving figures like Tom Mann and Willie Gallacher, one of the Clyde leaders. Then in the Spring of 1920, the British government began to arm the Poles who had invaded the Soviet Republic. On 10 May, just as London was celebrating the Polish capture of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, the dockers refused to load the munitions ship, the Jolly George, and the coal haulers refused to coal it. The dockers' union then banned all loading of munitions to Poland. The Labour Party conference, responding to popular pressure, demanded peace with Russia.

When the British government then threatened outright war on Russia following the Red Army's successful counter-offensive in Poland, the BSP called for a general strike against the intervention, but this was defeated at the Labour conference. That said, "hands off Russia" demonstrations were organised in all major towns and cities and 350 Councils of Action were set up, backed, at least on paper, by the entire trade union movement. When ministers decided to abandon plans of further aid to Russia and end their intervention they said they had never intended a confrontation in the first place. But there is little doubt that the overwhelming support expressed by the organised working class for the Russian soviets, against the backdrop of a high level of militancy among the working class as a whole, played a large part in this change in foreign policy.

Internationalism versus national-reformism

However, it was one thing to support the fait accompli of the Russian revolution, thousands of miles away from Britiain, but quite another to take on British imperialism at home. And for the leaders of the British working class movement, there was never any question of taking even one step in this direction.

By the time the armistice was signed, the revolutionary wave heralded by the October had begun to spread to Finland, Germany, Hungary and even as far afield as Iran. Everywhere, activists who had fought against the imperialist war were emerging from the underground to set up new communist organisations. Imperialism as a whole was on the defensive and even more so after it was forced to give up its military attempt at crushing the new workers' state.

British imperialism itself was in an even weaker position, being under attack from all sides. Internationally, it was confronted with the pressure of the real victor of the war - US imperialism - which was now using its economic superiority and the weakening of the European powers to demand an increased share of the world market. At the same time, nationalist resistance against Britain's oppression was on the increase across the Empire . In today's Iraq, British troops which had been sent to grab the oil resources controlled by the now defunct Ottoman empire, were confronted with an all-out popular uprising.

The policy of British capital was being challenged also from within its own military machine. The troops were rebelling against being held in overseas territories and camps in Britain, demanding to be demobilised and that the promises made to them that they would return to a "land fit for heroes" be fulfilled. "Soldiers' committees" were formed in Egypt, India and elsewhere. By January 1919, 10,000 soldiers had mutinied at Folkestone, 2,000 at Dover and 60,000 at various other camps. Angry mutineers descended in lorry-loads on Whitehall demanding to be released. Riots in camps occurred well into the summer of 1919. Five Canadian soldiers were killed and 21 wounded at Kinmel Park in North Wales, where they raised the Red Flag. Eventually demobilisation was granted. But, clearly, this meant that there was no way the British state could have used the army against a serious domestic threat to the capitalist class at this point in time.

And in fact, such a threat could have been put on the agenda. The postwar years were indeed marked by the on-going militancy of the very same sections of the working class which had been fighting wartime restrictions. This militancy forced the union machineries to go along with the workers' resistance against the bosses' attempts to cut jobs and wages is response to the loss of wartime business. But, predictably, the TUC leaders were not likely to go all the way down that road and, on 15 April 1921, known as "Black Friday", they sabotaged the triple alliance which was about to come out in support of the miners strike against the threat of wage cuts, thereby stabbing the working class' resistance in the back.

As Trotsky pointed out at the time, in a draft resolution he wrote for the 3rd Congress of the Communist International, the situation offered unprecedented opportunities for the working class: "There are millions of workers who have directly passed through the school of war, who have become accustomed to handling weapons and who are now for the most part prepared to turn these weapons against the class enemy - but only provided the indispensable conditions for success obtain, namely, serious preparation and a firm leadership." In the case of Britain, Trotsky denounced "the conservatism, cowardice and treachery of the trade union leaders" responsible for the sabotage of the triple alliance and he went on to say: "Were the machinery of the British trade unions to develop today half the amount of energy in the interests of socialism it has been expending in the interests of capitalism, the English proletariat could conquer power with a minimum of sacrifice and could start a systematic reconstruction of the country's economic system".

The truth was that, whether in wartime or in peacetime, the leaders of the organised working class movement in Britain were only concerned with winning the recognition of British imperialism, but certainly not with building up the capacity of the working class to overthrow its dictatorship, whether at home or abroad.

Ireland - a betrayal of the exploited

Probably the most graphic example of this betrayal of the interests of the exploited by the British working class organisations, was their failure to confront the policy of British imperialism in Ireland. And this betrayal was all the more damning because Ireland was so close to Britain and the Irish working class had such long-standing and intimate links with the British working class.

During the Dublin lock-out of 1913, although rank and file workers - especially the non-skilled - rallied in support of their Irish brothers and sisters, the Co-op sent only one ship of food for the starving strikers and their families. And the TUC, which had only grudgingly given paper support at the beginning of the strike soon withdrew it, thereby endorsing London's scabbing operation against the Dublin workers.

By the time the Easter Rising took place in Dublin, in 1916, the Labour and union leaderships were immersed in the war coalition. They found nothing to object to when James Connolly and 14 other leaders of the uprising were summarily executed. Significantly, in fact, even the most left-wing sections of the British working class movement had nothing to say about it. There were only a few exceptions, like John Maclean and Sylvia Pankhurst, one of the future founders of the British communist movement, who supported the Rising and reported on the events.

Following the absence of reactions in Britain after the Easter Rising, the British government felt confident enough to launch a wave of repression in Ireland, this time to eradicate any hope or expectation that may have remained among the population. However, this policy backfired eventually, by bringing new recruits to the anti-British camp. Moreover, the revolutionary banner raised by the Russian revolution gave the workers and poor farmers of Ireland new reasons to hope and to fight against their oppressors. So by the end of World War I, the British state found itself with a fully-fledged guerilla war on its hands, this time throughout Ireland.

By 1919, London stepped up the repression by resorting to temporary soldiers, called the Black and Tans, who were recruited from among the unemployed, or ex-soldiers bribed by the pay of 10 shillings a day, and ex-convicts whose sentences were remitted for the occasion. They raided thousands of homes and perpetrated terrible atrocities against the population.

After the event, the Labour Party sent a delegation to Ireland to stage an enquiry. Ironically, this delegation was led by Arthur Henderson, a former member of the very same government which had ordered Connolly's execution! Thereafter, the Labour party and the TUC condemned indiscriminately what they described as the "outrages" of Sinn Fein and the British troops, although at least they called for the British occupation to end and the election of a constituent assembly. However they added that such an assembly would have to undertake to prevent Ireland from becoming a military or naval menace to Britain... as if this had ever been an issue!

In fact again the only figure who actually did anything in this period was Sylvia Pankhurst, agitating consistently for the independence of the whole of Ireland and against the British military intervention. It was while calling on soldiers to mutiny against their officers in the context of the coinciding offensives against Russia and Ireland that she was imprisoned for sedition.

While the Black and Tans and British Auxiliaries were rampaging across Ireland, 400 Irish members of the National Union of Railwaymen, who were inspired by the action of the London dockers who had refused to load the Jolly George, decided to stop moving British munitions or troops carrying weapons. The response from the British NUR leadership was to condemn this action and disown it. Nevertheless these rail workers kept up their blacking for 7 months.

The betrayal of the Irish struggle by the British working class and left organisations during that vital period has had long term, catastrophic consequences. It allowed the petty-bourgeois Irish nationalists to hijack the political tradition left by Connolly and his comrades, by devoiding it of its socialist and proletarian content. But it also allowed the British state to engineer the partition of Ireland, in 1921, thereby creating a bloody deadlock which, more than 80 years later, has still to be resolved.

The return of pacifism

We will not go into much detail here over the eventful period between the two World Wars. Rather, we will concentrate on the working class movement's failure to stop the march to another imperialist war which was predictable, and predicted, right from the time the last shell of World War I was fired.

Indeed, the same causes usually result in the same effects. The fact that the world market was too small to satisfy the greed of all imperialist rivals - which had been the main cause of World War I - remained just as valid after it was concluded. In fact, it was aggravated by the irruption of another big player, US imperialism, into the game and by the ruthless way in which Britain and France hijacked the defeated countries' markets and spheres of influence. After the various treaties which concluded World War I, the new political map of the world showed all the elements of another war waiting to happen.

Faced with this situation, the British Labour movement reverted to its pre-war pacifist stance. Ironically, it was again Arthur Henderson, who had represented Labour in the war cabinet up to 1917, who took charge of developing the party's policy for a so-called "just peace". A "Memorandum on War Aims" was drafted, demanding the establishment of a "League of Nations" and a machinery for the mediation of international disputes, disarmament, international trusteeship of African colonies and international action to deal with economic problems arising out of reconstruction, such as the supply of raw materials. The union leaders endorsed this wholeheartedly.

This was a "pick-and-choose" policy, which borrowed a lot from the rhetoric of US diplomacy and made a few token concessions to those who were horrified at the prospect of another war. But how was disarmament to be enforced and why should the imperialist governments, which would dominate this "League of Nations", agree to it? There were no answers to these questions. Nor was there anything in this policy which could threaten the domination of the imperialist powers. Significantly it did not even go so far as to recognise the right of the colonised people to independence. Above all, of course, there was nothing in it that could contain, let alone prevent, the development of imperialist rivalries. Nor did this policy say how international arbitration, which was as old as diplomacy itself, would prevent the wolves from going for each other's throats. To all intents and purposes, it merely endorsed the illusion that the imperialist system of world oppression could eventually reform and police itself, thereby remaining peaceful.

By contrast, the new Communist International warned against the continuing threat of war. But it argued that the only defence against another World War, which would inevitably develop on an even more catastrophic scale, was to aim at imperialism itself. Each section of the Communist International in the imperialist countries was, therefore, invited to consider the fight against its own imperialism, whether at home or abroad, as one of its primary tasks.

Pacifism in Stalinist clothes

Unfortunately, within five years of its launch, the revolutionary leadership of the Communist International was pushed aside, following the hijacking of political power by a new bureaucratic layer in Russia. From then onwards, the policy of the Communist International was made of on-going U-turns, resulting from the political incompetence of this bureaucratic leadership, combined with its fear that another proletarian revolution occurring elsewhere in the world might endanger its dominating position in Russia.

In Britain, the Communist Party had been weak right from its inception. Nevertheless, it had solid roots in the working class and had managed to gain some credit as a militant organisation, especially after the Labour party helped the bosses to make workers foot the bill of the Great Depression, in the early 1930s.

By 1933, however, Hitler took power in Germany. Soon, the Russian leadership of the Communist International, terrorised by the idea of a likely offensive of the new Nazi regime against the USSR, initiated another U-turn in favour of what it called "Popular Fronts". Internationally, this translated, for instance, into a "friendship treaty" between Stalin and France's right-wing government, which amounted to an unconditional recognition of French imperialist ambitions and colonial empire. Meanwhile, in Britain, communist party activists were invited to woo the favours of their arch-enemies in the union and Labour party machineries - and even among aristocratic figures who proved eccentric enough to show some goodwill - in the hope that once back in office, Labour would side with Stalin against Hitler.

The "Popular Front" anti-war programme was simple enough. It did not even bother to use token rhetoric such as the Second International's "War against War" slogan in the run-up to World War I. No, its anti-war programme relied entirely on the goodwill of the imperialist governments. Intellectuals were gathered regularly in congresses to pass resolutions addressed to these governments, while workers were told that nothing should be done to undermine the communist party's policy of alliance with the Labour and union bureaucracies. Something which, it must be said, was rather awkward for the CP's working class members as, especially in the late 1930s, they often found themselves at odds with the union bureaucracies in the day-to-day events of the class struggle.

In any case, this Stalinist version of pacifism did not work any better than its predecessors. It was a con designed to lull the working class into thinking that the imperialist powers could be cajoled into isolating the fascist regimes, resulting eventually in their downfall. Except that the imperialist capitalist classes had nothing against fascism itself. In Britain, in fact, quite a few politicians and business leaders, not to mention members of the royal family, were quite attracted to Hitler's policy of enslavement of the German working class. Ultimately, what shifted the situation towards war was the same mechanism which had led to World War I - inter-imperialist rivalries. And just as in World War I, the working class was, once again, invited by its organisations to join the war effort, this time in the name of "fighting fascism".

The war machine back in operation

When the war finally broke out, in September 1939, the main parties immediately declared an electoral truce. Although the Tories remained in office on their own for another 8 months, until Churchill took over following Britain's naval disaster in Scandinavia, the war effort immediately received the unconditional support of the whole Labour and trade union machineries. Of course, this support was further strengthened when Labour was co-opted to government, with the former T&G leader Ernest Bevin appointed Employment minister.

Initially, there were, in fact, very few voices of dissent against the war. The ILP - which was no longer affiliated to Labour at the time - sounded somewhat lunatic in this context, with its argument in favour of a peace conference between the imperialist protagonists to settle their differences. Otherwise, there were only the tiny voices of a few small Trotskyist and anarchist groups, which stuck to an internationalist line against the stream.

As to the CP, it was formally against the war, but not wholeheartedly. In fact, its leadership had initially taken a stance in favour of the war with, among other things, the publication of a pamphlet entitled "How to win the war". In the meantime, however, the policy of the Communist International had changed, following the non-aggression pact signed between Germany and the USSR. The British CP found itself wrong-footed and had to make an abrupt U-turn, from supporting an alleged "anti-fascist" war to opposing it as imperialist. That is, until Germany's invasion of the USSR in 1941 led to another U-turn, with the war becoming a "people's war" in CP parlance and the party's leading activists turning into champions of the war effort.

While preparations for the war had been under way for years, especially regarding the army and the mobilisation of the skilled workforce in industry, very little had been done to prepare conditions for the civilian population. Air shelters and supplies became big issues as soon as the bombing of the main towns started. And while most considered the war as inevitable and something that they needed to get over with, many were infuriated by this lack of preparation. As a result, among other things, the government had no option but to cave in to demonstrators and keep Underground stations open at night as air raid shelters.

Legislation introduced by Bevin after becoming Employment minister extended the Emergency Powers Act to the point of virtually conscripting workers into any job where they might be needed, according to the government and potentially giving ministers total control over wages and working conditions. In addition Order 1305 all but banned strikes by providing for endless arbitration procedures, while Regulation 58A allowed the government to ban any organisation "subject to foreign influence or control and which may be used for purposes prejudicial to national security" - some members of the CP were imprisoned under this regulation and its paper banned until the Autumn of 1942.

The class struggle goes on

Despite all of this, the main opposition to the war took place, once again, in industry, from the middle of the war onwards. Figures compiled by one historian show, for instance, that there were more strikes in Britain between mid-1943 and July 1944, i.e. just over one year, than during the whole of World War I. While union officials and management spent their days sitting in so-called "joint production committees" in order to find ways of maximising productivity, the bosses' profits were booming and workers' conditions were deteriorating. From the end of 1940, for instance, double shifts became common practice. Of course, the long hours led to reduced safety. Official figures showed that by 1941, the accident rate among young workers and women across all production industries was four times higher than in 1938. Despite the regulations and the opposition of the union machineries, rank-and-file workers saw no reason to make concessions to this exploitative madness, not even for "king and country"!

Up to 1942, there were many strikes, but they were local and scattered. In October 1942, however, thousands of workers came out on strike in the Tyne shipyards, in Newcastle. The issue was a minor change in the wage payment system. What made the strike significant, however, was that it was aimed at the employers but also at the union officials who had agreed the change without consulting the workforce.

Within a few months, the discontent caused by the anti-strike stance of the union machineries was to spread to the Clyde, with the setting up of a new version of the Clyde Workers' Committee, which aimed at providing an alternative leadership to the region's engineering workforce. By the end of 1943, workers at Barrow's giant Vickers-Armstrong shipyard and engineering complex dealt another blow to the national anti-strike consensus. Except that, this time, not only did the strike challenge a ruling against it by the engineering union, but it also raised the issue of wages which was becoming acute for the increasing number of low-paid workers in industry. After holding out for 3 weeks, without the government daring to intervene against an illegal strike which was hugely popular among the membership, the strikers finally got some concessions out of Vickers and the government. The Barrow strike worried the engineering union leaders so much that they felt it necessary to call the union's first special national conference since 1922. It also put on the spot the policy of the CP, which played a major role in the union's machinery and had been campaigning vociferously against the strike.

The next large explosion of discontent took place among apprentices, in 1944. This was in response to Bevin's decision to overcome the shortage of miners by conscripting young men to work in the mines instead of sending them to the army. On 28 March, 7,000 apprentices went on strike on the Tyne, following a call issued by an unofficial Apprentices' Guild. Within two days, a similar number came out in support on the Clyde.

But by that time, 180,000 miners were staging stoppages in Wales and Yorkshire over wages and another 50,000 workers, in munitions and shipyards, were about to strike the next month. The wartime "industrial truce" was clearly over.

Dissent and mutinies in the army

One of Churchill's main problems was the need to hang on to the Empire. To this end, massive numbers of soldiers had to be stationed all over the planet in order to protect British capital's assets abroad, not so much against the "official" imperialist enemy than against the aspiration for independence of the local populations. One of the difficulties this created was the need to keep the troops busy when they did not have much to do.

One of the answers to this was to encourage the development of all kinds of cultural activities under the army's control. Soldiers with a university background were asked to set up libraries and organise classes. Of course, this created a natural framework in which soldiers could express opposition to the war and discontent. But at least the army knew about it and could control it, if and when it went beyond certain limits.

It was within this framework that the famous "soldiers' parliament" was set up in Cairo at the end of the war. This "parliament" has often been described as an expression of the troops' mutinous spirit because it voted in a Labour administration in a mock election. But if there was a spirit of mutiny in the air in Cairo, it was very respectful - as was shown by the fact that there was no protest among British troops when they were sent against the soldiers of the Greek Middle-East regiments who had rebelled against their monarchist officers. In fact, the only support that the imprisoned Greek insurgents got was from Egyptian workers who took to the streets in solidarity.

This being said, there were a lot more mutinies in the British army during WWII than during the previous World War. Like most mutinies however, they were not caused by the troops' conscious opposition to the war as such, but by the conditions imposed on them by the army. For instance, one mutiny, in January 1942, involved 200 air men and soldiers who refused to board a transport ship from Durban to Singapore because of overcrowding and bug-infested sleeping quarters. Most of the soldiers were sentenced to 6 months hard labour. But a sergeant who was part of the group, received 2 years, probably due to his rank. Ironically, though, this sergeant was an ex-ILP member who had resigned from the party in protest against its anti-war stance!

But most of the mutinies, like in the previous war, took place at the end, when the troops started to demand their repatriation. Starting from the end of 1945, strikes began to take place in British air bases in India, Pakistan, Singapore and Malaya. Not all the demands were over repatriation though. Some air pilots were unhappy about being ordered to bomb communist insurgents in Indonesia. Others, like the soldiers of a parachute regiment who had only been recently conscripted, resented the arrogance of the officers and could not understand why they were being forced to live in tents in tropical conditions when there was no enemy in sight. In this last case, 255 soldiers were sentenced to 2 years penal servitude while 8 were given 5 years. However, this time the army had gone one step too far in repressing the troops: there was a scandal in Britain and, as a face-saving compromise, all the sentences had to be quashed on a technicality.

The post war years

Of course, fighting the imperialist policy of British capital in World War II would have required a party with enough influence and the political will to do it. Above all, it would have required a party capable of organising workers both in the workplace and in the army around a perspective which provided an answer to their discontent.

But such a party did not exist. Organisationally and socially, the CP might have had the capacity to play this role, but politically it was paralysed by its subservience to Moscow. As to the Trotskyist groups, they were far too small and inexperienced to achieve very much.

The absence of such a party came at a very high cost. Labour's victory in the 1945 elections is always referred to as heralding the nationalisation of the railways and heavy industries and the setting up of the welfare state. But it should be also remembered that during the year which preceded this election, a government in which Labour was a senior partner sent the British army to annihilate a popular uprising in Greece. When Churchill ordered the RAF to bomb the Red working class suburbs of Athens, there were only 3 voices of dissent in the Commons and the December conference of the TUC found no more to say than to express its "regrets" over this policy. This was all the "protest" heard in Britain over the slaughter by British troops of over 5,000 Greek militia (not to mention civilians) because they refused to hand over power to reactionary generals previously allied to Hitler!

Once in power, Atlee's Labour government waged its own wars in Malaya and Burma against Communist partisans. It gave military support to French imperialism against the Indochinese population and to the Dutch government against Indonesian guerillas. It joined in the Cold War immediately and began to play its part behind the US in Nato.

The 3-year long Korean war was perhaps the first sign of how the "left" sections of the Labour party in parliament, in the constituencies and in the trade unions, were going to act when British governments, one after the other, Labour or Tory, would follow the US onto the battlefield or at the very least give it their support. That is, first go along with government policy and then cry "foul" after the damage was done, protesting that they had been hoodwinked. It was to be the blueprint followed for every one of the post-war imperialist ventures up to and including the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

The US had set up a puppet government in South Korea - after Korea was artificially divided along the 38th parallel in 1945 when the Red Army marched into the north. There was no way that imperialism was going to allow a repeat performance of what had happened in China, where against its aims, the Chinese Red army had taken the opportunity of the post-war vacuum created by the Japanese retreat and kicked out imperialism's chosen ally, Chiang Kai-sheck, thus creating a Chinese regime strong enough to resist imperialist control.

So in June 1950, when the North Korean Army crossed the 38th parallel with 70,000 troops and a few dozen tanks, in order to reunify the country, the US and behind it the rest of the imperialists, decided to teach the populations of the Far East who was boss. Utilising the scarecrow of the so-called "Communist threat", the UN - which, by then, had taken over the role of the discredited League of Nations - was called upon to implement sanctions against North Korea and to sponsor a military intervention under the leadership of US General MacArthur. This was immediately reinforced without a moment's hesitation by Clement Atlee's Labour government which was to send a total 100,000 British troops to Korea, of which 1,078 were killed in action, 2,674 wounded and 1,060 went missing or were taken prisoner.

In fact Atlee's government had prepared the ground for the coming post-war confrontations in the old imperialist empires, by passing the National Services Act in 1948, which meant that every man over 18 years was expected to serve in the armed forces for 18 months and remain on the reserve list for 4 year afterwards. This was the first time peace time conscription was implemented in Britain and it was retained until 1963. As a result of the Korean war, the term of duty was extended from 18 months to two years. So in the period of so-called "decolonisation" of the Empire, a huge expansion of the military forces occurred, ready for intervention anywhere in the world, with units of Territorial army and reserve forces based in every town and full regiments and battalions in many.

Although there were some indications of opposition to the Korean war at the 1950 Labour conference, when two trade unions and 25 constituency Labour parties criticised government foreign policy, it was not until March 1951, that a revived "Victory for Socialism" group of labour lefts voiced opposition to the war. An antiwar meeting was organised attended by around 400 trade union and party delegates and anti-war schools took place as well as demonstrations against the war.

But this had no effect on government policy. By this time the defence budget had been more than trebled from £700m in 1950-1 to £1.8bn the following year and £3.6bn over the next three years. The electrical trades union, (ETU) wrote that "the choice, it seems is now clear. It is between the Welfare State and the Warfare State".

Members of Labour's so-called anti-communist left - known as the "Keep Left" group - like Brockway, Michael Foot and Ian Mikardo, drew up an open letter in which, after criticising the government's policy in Korea, they praised "the invaluable part played by the government in restraining the dangerous tendencies of American policy.... Had the Tories been in power, Britain would have abandoned any attempt to exercise an independent and restraining influence in the UN." Therefore, they wrote they would continue to support the government with their votes in parliament!

Fifty two years later, what has really changed? Indeed, today, Blair's almost exact replication of Atlee's policy on Korea, with respect to Iraq, is condemned as some kind of right-wing and pro-American aberration on the part of "New" Labour, rather than what it really is: a policy designed for the benefit of City of London's financiers, oil merchants and arms dealers.

Anti-Americanism, false debates and real delusions

What of the Communist party's policy through these years? In fact it had not done too badly in the 1945 election - with two MPs elected: Willie Gallacher for West Fife and Phil Piratin for Mile End. Harry Pollitt, the party's leader was narrowly defeated in the Rhondda.

Shortly after the war, Moscow's line for communist parties was that they should "take into their hands the banner of defence of the national independence and sovereignty of their own countries". What this meant apparently, was organising protests against "the American threat to British culture". The British CP's line ran as follows: "relate every question affecting the masses to the issue of national independence. Troops to Korea - it is MacArthur's orders. Two year's military service - it is an American demand. Rearmament - it is American orders. Attack on standards - it is the US which insists." In other words there was no question of putting the blame for the postwar Labour government's policy clearly where it belonged, that is with British capital and indeed with the Labour government itself. On the contrary, the CP proceeded to organise protests against American airbases in Britain and against acceptance of Marshall Aid. It set up a huge number of peace committees and soviet friendship societies, including what became the British Peace Committee. A new breed of anti-American pacifism was put on the agenda.

A similar logic was to be pursued later on, with the launch of the CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, in 1958. It was based around a mixture of scientists and other intellectuals like Bertrand Russell, with the support of the Church. But its real foot soldiers came from the ranks of the Labour left and the CP.

Meanwhile, following the Tories' return in office, the Labour and union bureaucracies had plenty of time to refurbish their own pacifist credentials. But when it came to the crunch in 1952, with London's decision to declare war against the Mau-Mau nationalist uprising in Kenya, only a few Labour voices were raised against this. As it turned out, once again, all this pacifist rhetoric did not amount to much when it came to go against the interests of British capital, even when Labour was in opposition.

When Labour got back into power in 1964, it was Wilson's government which made the decision to aid the Nigerian Federal troops against the attempt by the Biafrans to take over control of their own oil resources out of the hands of Shell/BP. This went against the public face of his policy which was to remain neutral in the conflict. It was also Wilson's government that ensured that Britain would continue to have a supply of uranium from South Africa, even though this meant busting sanctions against the Apartheid regime.

As for the issue of peace and nuclear disarmament, the argument between the left-wing unilateralists and the multilateralists was pushed into becoming the main focus for debate at Labour Party conferences. Trade Union CND branches were set up, but on the whole CND remained a middle class pacifist campaign dominated by the Church on the one hand and old Stalinists on the other.

If the organisations to the left of the Labour party had some idea of trying to take the issue of fighting against wars to the working class, it was only done on the basis of paper resolutions at branch meetings in the presence of a handful of trade union officers. Obviously the idea of blacking arms production or preventing their transport was an unreachable goal in such circumstances.

Thus when Labour sent troops into Northern Ireland the TUC unions backed the policy. After all, they claimed, these troops were only there in a "peace-keeping" role. A Troops out of Ireland Movement was set up mainly by far-left organisations, but it never extended beyond these organisations and those Irish people living in Britain who had the courage to stick their heads above the parapet, despite the climate of anti-Irish hysteria which was provoked every time an IRA bomb went off. Neither did the unions defend their Irish members when they were carted off for questioning or arrest on such occasions, as happened to Longbridge workers whose only "crime" was to be Irish, after the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974. It was the Wilson government again which then rushed in the first Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has formed the basis for Blair's new anti-terrorist laws, in the context of the "war on terror".

Indeed few protests were heard against imprisonment without trial of alleged IRA suspects in Northern Ireland, or the special Diplock courts with no jury set up to sentence such suspects. The slogan in red paint on the old foundry building at Ford Dagenham saying "Smash the H Blocks" was, unfortunately, only the act of isolated individuals. But notwithstanding the terror tactics of the IRA, there was always ample indication that opposition to the war in Ireland was not impossible to build in the ranks of a working class with its fair share of men and women from ex-colonies. Nobody tried in any consistent way.

Obviously during the Tory governments after 1979, with Labour once more in opposition it was again possible for Labour to try to revamp its image as the "peace party" and oppose the Falklands war, for instance. But in fact the Labour Party actually supported military action on the basis that "the rights of the Falklanders to self-determination must be upheld". However they expressed doubts about the sending of 26,000 men in 100 ships, considering that this was going a bit too far. CND on the other hand called on the government to seek a peaceful settlement to this conflict via the United Nations. And in fact this UN get-out clause was the only alternative strategy proposed by the Labour left and behind it, the TUC and the trade union leaderships for all the conflicts which had occurred - and those to come - up to and including the Iraq war in 2003.

What remains from this long history is that the fight against imperialist wars cannot be waged separately from the fight against imperialism itself, that is against capitalism. Pacifism, under whatever form, whether it relies on the goodwill of governmental institutions or on the pressure of public opinion, is doomed to failure because it takes no account of the fact that these wars are part of the "normal" operation of the imperialist system of oppression.

The anti-Vietnam War movement is often quoted by pacifists as proof that their methods can work. But precisely, if this movement proves something, it is the opposite. If US imperialism finally backed out of Vietnam, and even then, not without having made the Vietnamese population pay an exorbitant price for this retreat, it was less due to the anti-war protests in the US and elsewhere, than to the social ferment that had manifested itself independently in the black ghettos and to the economic cost of the war. To be sure there was some overlap between the anti-war and black movements. But the US capitalist class had far more reason to fear the anger of the black working class, both for the stability of US society and for the reliability of its army, than the flowers of peace campaigners.

There lies the problem and responsibility faced by the working class movement in front of the warmongering of the imperialist powers. As long as the working has not built its own organisations capable of representing its class interests and leading its own fights, both within the industrial and military machineries of capital, the capitalist classes will literally get away with murder.