Part Three

Making Our Mark

[Section 3]

The turn of the tide

The German army was defeated by the Soviet Union. This is proof of the colossal potential and superiority of a nationalised planned economy. When Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941 the British military strategists thought the Soviet Union would be defeated within weeks. This was a serious miscalculation. After the initial defeats, the Red Army fought back like tigers. The Soviet workers rallied to the defence of the gains of the October revolution - the nationalised planned economy. Even the peasantry, once they saw the reality of Nazi barbarism, fought heroically. At Stalingrad the German army lost 100,000 men in one week of ferocious fighting. Following this defeat, the Red Army began the biggest advance in military history. The front moved 200 miles in less than three months.

The most decisive battle of the war was fought in Kursk in July 1943. On the vast flat expanse of cornfields south of Moscow, the greatest tank battle of all times unfolded. Hitler threw everything into this titanic conflict. The Russians captured a copy of his orders: "This…[is] an offensive of such an importance that the whole future of the war may depend on its outcome. More than anything else, your victory will show the whole world that resistance to the German army is hopeless." In fact, the Wehrmacht suffered a shattering defeat at the hands of the Red Army.

Up to this point the British and Americans had been mere onlookers of the war in Europe. Apart from the bombing of German cities they played no role. The British were fighting to defend their interests in North Africa. The USA was fighting Japanese imperialism for control of Asia and the Pacific. The real war against Hitler was being fought on Russian soil.

To show the real attitude of the British imperialists, we can cite one little-known incident. While the battle of Stalingrad was raging, there was a sizable British army stationed in Persia (now called Iran). The purpose of this was to protect British oil interests. Stalin asked Churchill why he did not send these troops to fight the Germans in Stalingrad. With typical cynicism, Churchill counter-proposed that Stalin should withdraw his troops from the Persian border and send them to fight in Stalingrad, while the British army looked after the frontier with the USSR! Naturally, the "generous" proposal was refused and right throughout the war British and Soviet troops were facing each other on the Persian frontier. The real reason for Churchill's attitude was that he thought the Red Army might be defeated in Stalingrad, and he would then be able to send the British army into Soviet Azerbaijan to seize the oilfields in Baku.

In July 1943 Mussolini was overthrown by a coup in the fascist grand council, involving the king and marshal Badoglio. Churchill hastily expressed his support for Badoglio. But the overthrow of Mussolini opened the door to revolution. The workers came out onto the streets all over north Italy. Whereupon the RAF bombed hell out of the northern Italian cities of Milan, Turin, Bologna, etc., in January, February and March. Nevertheless, the power was really in the hands of the Italian CP and the partisans who set up revolutionary committees hostile to Badoglio.

The British and American landings in Sicily were hastily organised as a reaction to this. Churchill wanted to give backing to the king and Badoglio and stressed that "all surviving forces of Italian life should be rallied round their lawful government". In August the Allies again bombed Milan and other northern Italian cities, ostensibly to speed the armistice negations with the Badoglio government. But on 9 September, the king and Badoglio left Rome for Brindisi, allowing the Germans to take over.

The reactionary character of British imperialism - and also Stalinism - was shown in Greece in December 1944. At the Yalta conference, Churchill and Stalin had arrived at a cynical agreement to carve up Eastern Europe into spheres of influence. According to this deal, Greece was to be part of Britain's sphere of interest. Churchill wanted to have control of Greece because of its strategic position in the Eastern Mediterranean. The central question was control of Egypt and the Suez canal, which linked Britain to India, which was still under British rule.

The cynicism of both Stalin and Churchill was revealed with astonishing frankness by the latter in his book Triumph and Tragedy: "So far as Britain and Russia are concerned," he said to Stalin, "how would it do for you to have ninety per cent predominance in Rumania, for us to have ninety per cent predominance of the say in Greece, and go fifty-fifty in Yugoslavia?" A paper with these percentages was passed to Stalin, who wrote a tick on it and passed it back to Churchill. "It was all arranged," says Churchill, "in no more time than it takes to set down." But Churchill was concerned that this might be seen as "rather cynical" and wanted to burn the piece of paper. "No," said Stalin. "You keep it."

The Greek partisans, having fought bravely against the German invaders, were effectively in control in Athens. The most powerful group was EAM-ELAS, which was made up of left and centre forces but effectively led by the Communists. As in Italy, Churchill wanted to support the counter-revolutionary forces and particularly the monarchy. Because of the leading role of ELAS in the struggle against the Nazis, the king was compelled to make concessions to them, while plotting a coup.

Having reached his secret deal with Stalin, Churchill decided that it was time to act. On returning from Moscow in October 1944, he commented that the moment was "apt for business" to "settle our affairs in the Balkans".[7] British troops were landed in Greece in October 1944 and were greeted by the people as liberators.

On 7 November, some three weeks after the arrival of the British force, Churchill sent a message to Anthony Eden: "In my opinion, having paid the price we have to Russia [sic!] for freedom of action in Greece, we should not hesitate to use British troops to support the Royal Hellenic Government under M. Papandreou….I hope the Greek Brigade will soon arrive, and will not hesitate to shoot when necessary…. I fully expect a clash with EAM and we must not shrink from it, provided the ground is well chosen."[8]

The last phrase shows that Churchill was preparing a provocation. The British forces acted as a cover for right wing royalist troops under the fascist Colonel Grivas. Churchill sent instructions to General Scobie: "Do not hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress…We have to hold and dominate Athens. It would be a great thing for you to succeed in this without bloodshed if possible, but also with bloodshed if necessary."

On 1 December, the EAM representatives left the government and called a general strike and a mass demonstration, which led to the massacre on Constitution Square. On the same day, the provocation was staged when the police opened fire on antigovernment demonstrators in Constitution Square, Athens. Eleven demonstrators were killed and sixty-six wounded. The Times correspondent wrote: "Seeds of civil war were well and truly sown by the Athens police this morning when they fired on a demonstration of children and youths."

When Churchill reported the events to the British parliament he stated that the demonstrators had "collided with the police". This was a lie. The police, backed by the government and the British army, had deliberately fired on unarmed demonstrators and kept firing when they were on the ground. The aim was clearly to provoke civil war in which British troops would be used against the partisans. Between them, Stalin and Churchill plotted the downfall of the Greek revolution.

Ever since 1941, Stalin had insistently demanded that his British and American "allies" should open up a second front against Hitler. This was ignored - until events in Italy forced their hand. However, the Italian campaign was in fact a sideshow aimed at preventing the Italian workers from taking power. Only when it became clear that the Red Army was advancing into Europe with breakneck speed did the British and Americans decide to launch the invasion of France in 1944. Had they not done so, they would have met the Red Army on the English Channel instead of in Germany.

The 1945 Labour government

At this time we had a perspective, in common with the entire International, and based upon the prognosis of Trotsky, that the world war would create a revolutionary wave in Europe. This in turn would expose the counter-revolutionary role of the old organisations and lead to the creation of mass parties of the Fourth International. This perspective was based on the assumption that developments after the Second World War would be similar to the situation that arose after the First World War, when a revolutionary situation developed in Britain as in many other European countries. The short slump of 1920 prepared the way for an enormous radicalisation on the part of the working class. It was a period of tremendous upheavals and class struggles that lasted, with ebbs and flows, right up to 1939.

We believed that similar conditions would occur after 1945, and that the post-war period would be very favourable for the building of a revolutionary tendency. We also had the perspective of a Labour Government as the next stage, and we knew the masses would need to go through this experience before they would begin to draw revolutionary conclusions. We envisaged that this government would be a government of crisis as in 1929-31. Under conditions of deep capitalist crisis, there would be the crystallisation of a left wing, or a centrist current within the ranks of the Labour Party. We also understood that under those conditions, the RCP would have to enter the Labour Party and, on the basis of its ideas, win over a sizeable section of the radicalised workers. This would prepare the way for the creation of a mass Trotskyist tendency in Britain, and prepare the ground for winning the majority of the working class to the programme of socialist revolution. Unfortunately, this perspective was falsified by events, and the new situation, rather than being very favourable for our growth, produced a whole series of difficulties and problems for the revolutionary tendency.

By 1944 the mood had become more radicalised, and the coalition government was losing support among the workers and soldiers. This was reflected in the 1944 Labour Party conference, which passed very radical resolutions, including the nationalisation of the land, large-scale building, heavy industry, fuel and power and all forms of banking. The Labour leaders were mostly in favour of continuing the wartime coalition, and the CP was enthusiastically in favour of this. But the rank and file of the Party was resolutely opposed to any such proposal. The slogan of the RCP - Labour break the coalition, and carry out a socialist programme - accurately reflected the mood of the workers at that time. The mood of radicalisation, which we had detected in the armed forces, was now clear to all.

Shortly after Victory in Europe Day, the Labour Party broke with the wartime Coalition and a General Election was called for July 15. At this point, the CP was still calling for the continuation of a government of National Unity, which should include themselves! In the run up to the General Election, they had to drop that idea like a hot potato. Of course, we supported the election of a Labour Government - but based on a Socialist programme - and threw ourselves into the campaign. It is interesting to see the reaction of workers at that time. Winston Churchill, the "great" war leader put himself forward as the great statesman, the man who had won the war and could lead Britain in peace time. This was the ultimate card that was being played by the Tories and the capitalist press. They paraded Churchill all around the country as "the man of the people".

Despite the fact that Churchill had been built up as a "great war leader", his posters were everywhere and he was given four times more time on the radio than Attlee the Labour candidate, he was overwhelmingly rejected. Sure, there were tens of thousands of people who turned out, mainly out of curiously, to see the "Great War Hero". The problem was, these tens of thousands had turned out not to support Churchill but to oppose him! In London, huge crowds of hostile workers were meeting Churchill, who went round in a jeep. As expected, we participated in these protests, selling papers and so forth. Angrily, he lashed out against these "Friends of Hitler" as he put it. But that didn't save him. The Labour Party won a landslide victory, reflecting the desire for revolutionary change.

On 26 July the results of the election were announced. Labour had won 393 seats (or 397 if we add those of the ILP and Common Wealth) out of a total of 640. It had a total of 11,992,292 votes against 9,960,809 cast for the Conservative-Liberal National Alliance. True, the Party won an even higher vote number of votes in the 1951 election, but in percentage terms, the Labour Party got over 48 per cent of the vote. The Conservatives had lost 200 seats and Labour had gained as many. It was an absolute landslide.

The Labour leaders were almost as astonished as the Conservatives at this result. The stain of the defeat of 1931 was now completely wiped away. For the first time the Labour Party had a parliamentary majority. The same result was repeated a few months later in the local elections in November. The masses desired a fundamental change and expressed this by voting Labour. Had the Labour leaders wanted it, they could have carried through the socialist transformation of society through parliament. Nothing could have stopped them. But, of course, they had no intention of doing anything of the sort.

Ironically, the Labour Party organisation prior to the election was an absolute shambles. The Tory Party organisation existed simply on the basis of their paid agents. But the Labour Party, during the Coalition period was extremely weak in most areas of the country. Labour Party wards didn't meet. The Constituency Parties weren't meeting, or if they were, it was only in a skeleton form. In reality, there was hardly a Labour organisation at all. The Tory Party thought that if they could precipitate an election before the Labour Party was back on its feet, they would gain a quick victory. But they completely miscalculated. The mood of the masses was such that despite the lack of Labour organisation, the mass of workers turned out enthusiastically to vote for the Labour Party, which reflected a colossal radicalisation of the working class.

The soldiers returned home in the same militant frame of mind that we had already observed in the Eighth Army - 90 per cent of the soldiers voted Labour. This was indicative of the revolutionary mood that existed in the armed forces. The ruling class was alarmed. Churchill made demagogic speeches urgently demanding that the soldiers be demobilised as quickly as possible. When this was done, he then made speeches accusing the Labour government of leaving the country defenceless.

In August 1945 the RCP held its second Conference with over 200 delegates and visitors present. We recognised that the election of the Labour Government marked "the first wave of the radicalisation of the masses," and noted that "for the first time in any of the important capitalist countries of the West, the reformists have been returned to power with an overwhelming majority." A full-page report appeared in the Socialist Appeal about our conference, which concluded by saying that "the Second National Conference marked a great step forward in the history of the British Trotskyist movement, as of the working class. Despite our small forces in relation to the mass organisations of the Labour and Communist Parties, the growth of the Party and of the Trotskyist tendency in the course of the war, during which period our Party established itself as the revolutionary wing of the working class, was a heartening sight of the change which was taking place in the advanced sections of the working class… Our comrades went back to their districts with renewed determination and vigour to participate in the daily struggles of the workers and to apply the principles of our International programme which alone is the guide post for the emancipation of our class." (Socialist Appeal, mid-August 1945).

In September, our building worker comrades organised an unofficial mass demonstration through the Building Workers' Shop Stewards Committee over pay and conditions, which attracted 100,000 workers in Hyde Park. Jock Milligan, an outstanding worker comrade, instigated this. The Stalinists in the union succeeded in taking away his shop stewards credentials for "acting against the union", but he was reinstated within a matter of days after workers in Lewisham threatened an all-out strike over the issue. Jock had a tremendous history. He was despatched to Archangel to put down the Bolshevik Government and picked up a leaflet containing an appeal to British troops signed by Lenin and Trotsky, and drafted by the famous English author, Arthur Ransome. On his return, Jock became a founding member of the British Communist Party. Becoming disillusioned with Stalinism, he joined the Trotskyist movement. Later he joined the WIL and then the RCP. He played a key role in the union, and remained with our tendency until his death in the late 1950s.

As I have explained, we had the perspective that with the coming to power of a Labour Government, on the basis of a deep economic crisis, the situation would develop on the same lines as outlined by Trotsky before the war. Namely, once the reformists were in power, given their incapacity to deliver real reforms, they would begin to expose themselves in the eyes of the masses. However, before dealing with that perspective, I would like first to deal with the differences that had developed from 1944 in relation to the International leadership.

[To be continued]

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[7] Quoted by Michael Foot, op. cit. p. 417.

[8] Ibid., p. 418.