The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 20th century

The First World War of 1914 — 18 was a dramatic expression of the general crisis of capitalism. Imperialist rivalries over trade and colonies threatened the supremacy of Britain, and in fact it was this supremacy that was lost in the course of the war. Though still the centre of the largest empire in the world, Britain lost her lead in world trade and ran into a permanent state crisis. The effort of the capitalist class to solve this crisis at the expense of the workers was to bring new and serious political problems.

The victory of the Great October Socialist Revolution (1917) exercised a tremendous influence on the development of the world: capitalism was no longer a universal system and a new antagonism emerged — that between the world of capitalism and the world of socialism represented by the first workers’ state, Soviet Russia. The victory of the Bolshevik revolution contributed to the triumph of the toiling masses all over the world, it gave a powerful fillip to the struggle of the working class for its rights and to the national liberation movement.

In England as elsewhere the first years after the war were years of industrial and political ferment. During the First World War the Liberal leaders formed a coalition government with Tories and representatives of the Labour party. The coalition broke up in 1922 and the Liberal party then declined rapidly as a parliamentary force. Its place was taken by the Labour party which quickly became the official opposition or alternative government.

Under the pressure of rising democratic and socialist feelings stimulated by wide opposition to the war and by the Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia some reforms were introduced by the government. In 1918 the right to vote was extended to all men over 21 and to women over 30. This was a compromise. The work of women during the war in factories and offices, in transport and hospitals, had established their right to social and political equality. The compromise of 1918 was clearly unsatisfactory, and votes for women at 21 were eventually granted in the Equal Franchise Act of 1928. But, to balance the reforms of 1918, a reactionary step was taken with the introduction of the system of making the nomination of a parliamentary candidate conditional upon the payment of a 150 pounds deposit which was only returnable if the candidate polled one-eighth of the total votes cast. This was a severe blow against working-class candidates.

After the end of the Liberal-led coalition in 1922 Britain was ruled by the Conservatives, except for two short intervals of Labour government. In 1924 and 1929 the Labour party was the strongest party in parliament, but had less seats than the Tories and Liberals combined. It was possible for Labour to form a government, therefore, only with the support of Liberal MPs. Labour leaders could then carry through a programme of  moderate reforms, which were aimed to cool down growing working class militancy. “‘

The First World War was followed by a short boom, then an economic crisis in 1920 and a slow recovery from 1922 and then the worst world economic crisis of 1929—33. During the temporary recovery between 1922 and 1929 Britain’s industrial production did not manage to reach its 1913 level. The figure of unemployed remained at over a million, and whole areas were left to rot. During the world economic crisis the drop in industrial production exceeded 25 per cent and unemployment rose rapidly to nearly three million in 1931.

Acute class contradictions made Britain a scene of class struggle that threatened the very existence of capitalism. Already during the war the working class discontent with the policies of the official trade union leadership began to take direct actions against the capitalists. Despite the call of the official leaders of the trade unions for peace in industry during the war trade unionists in many factories and workplaces began to elect their own representatives in each section or workshop; their main function initially was to collect trade union dues and maintain contact between members and trade union officials. They were called shop stewards. When the full-time officials gave up the struggle for their members’ interests it was the shop stewards, the rank-and-file leaders, who took up the fight.

Shop stewards in the Clydeside, the ship-building area around Glasgow, defied their Union Executive Committee in 1915, struck for a wage increase, and obtained twice what the employers had first offered them; the success of the movement was then assured. The Clyde Workers’ Committee, formed in this struggle from the shop stewards in all local factories and shipyards, led an even more important fight when Glasgow women started a rent strike against rent increases in 1916. Several tenants were taken to court to be charged with debt, and the Clyde Workers’ Committee at once called a strike. The government gave way facing mass protest. From then on the best representatives of the industrial workers have been their shop stewards.

The strike movement spread high and wide after World War I and under the immediate influence of the Great October Socialist Revolution it began to assume a distinct political character. The October revolution brought a tremendous response from socialist and militant workers. Meetings of welcome were organized by many bodies, and copies of some of Lenin’s works were eagerly bought when they appeared in England. The growth of revolutionary socialist feeling affected the Labour party conference in January 1918, which adopted a new constitution, in which the word ‘socialism’ was used for the first time. In the course of 1917 over 872,000 workers took part in different strikes. The year 1919 opened with the menace of a general strike, which might have been the precursor of revolution (for the example of the October revolution in Russia was much in people’s minds). There was serious trouble in Glasgow in January and February — the principal factories were closed by the strikers, the red flag was hoisted, and great demonstrations took place in the streets. Despite military action taken by the government labour and political unrest continued. The events emphasized the necessity to create a genuine party of the working class, the Communist party.

In 1919 the Communist International was founded under V. I. Lenin’s leadership. The British Socialist party left the Second International and joined the Comintern. Early in 1920 V. I. Lenin wrote his work ‘Left-Wing’ Communism an Infantile Disorder which played an outstanding role in guiding the international Communist movement to formulate a correct strategy and tactical policy to win the support of the masses.

The success of the October revolution had stimulated the idea that a Marxist party was necessary to unite and lead the fight of the working class. Socialists in different organizations met in 1919 for discussions on the possibility of forming a Communist party. It was not an easy task. Talks went on for many months because of deep differences on two main points: their attitude towards affiliation to the Labour party, and their attitude towards parliamentary action. Discussions and correspondence with Lenin helped to secure agreement.

In the course of the formation of the British Communist party the British working class displayed its class solidarity with the workers and peasants of the first socialist state. TJie__^Hands off Russia’ movement contributed both to the antiinterventionist activities of British working masses and to the eventual foundation of the British Communist party. Harry Pollitt, William Gallacher, outstanding leaders of the British working class, played a most important role in this movement.

Harry Pollitt (1890—1960) was born in Lancashire in a typical working class family. His father was a smith’s hammerman and his mother a cotton weaver. At 12 years of age Harry began work as half-timer helping his mother with her four looms. In 1905 Pollitt became employed as a plater in a boiler shop at the Gorton Works where the locomotives of the central railway were made and repaired. Quite soon did Harry Pollitt win the reputation as a good craftsman, a staunch trade unionist and a Marxist socialist who actively defended the cause of his fellow workers. He read much Marxist literature: for his twenty-first birthday Harry’s mother gave him the first volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. In 1912 Pollitt entered the British Socialist party, he became a leading member of the shop stewards’ movement. The impact of the October revolution upon Pollitt was profound, it decided the future course of his life. As his biographer John Mahon notes, he immediately, without hesitation, doubt or reservation took his stand in support of the Soviet Republic. It was a passionate personal commitment impelling him to devote his whole being to the service of the working class and the cause of socialism. He became a founding member of the British Communist party in 1920 and since then his whole noble life was part and parcel of the activities of the British Communist party and of the international communist and working class movement: from 1929 to 1956 he was general secretary of the British Communist party and from 1956 chairman of its executive committee. In 1924—43 Harry Pollitt was member of the executive committee of the Communist International.

Marx and Lenin opened for Pollitt the grand perspective of working-class advance to political power, socialist construction and the classless society. Asked ‘Why are you a communist?’ Pollitt replied, ‘Because I want a society where there is no exploitation of man by man, where all forms of imperialism are abolished and war is outlawed’.

William Gallacher (1881 — 1965) was born in Scotland in a working class family. He began to work at 10 and was a metal-worker by profession. From early youth he participated in the socialist movement: in 1911 he joined the British Socialist party. He was an active trade-unionist and led the mass shop stewards’ movement during World War I. The authorities arrested and jailed him several times for his revolutionary activities. In 1920 William Gallacher participated in the work of the Comintern in Moscow. He was deeply influenced by Lenin’s ideas which affected his activities all throughout his life. In 1921 he joined the British Communist party and became a leading member of its central committee and politbureau. From 1935 to 1950 he staunchly defended the working class cause as a member of the British Parliament. William Gallacher is highly held by the working class movement as a devoted communist, a man of great political and personal integrity, always in the forefront of struggle for the basic rights of the workers.

Following the October revolution of 1917 a united front of capitalist powers was formed. Intervention against the new Soviet state was organized by fourteen countries. Lloyd George as Prime Minister and Winston Churchill as Secretary of State for War masterminded the plan. However, British participation was hampered by the actions of the British working class both in and out of uniform. Troops sent to Soviet Russia mutinied and had to be brought home. The British socialist organizations together with the workers’ committees proclaimed the slogan ‘Hands off Russia’ and threatened to hold a general strike. A special ‘Hands off Russia’ committee was formed to head the movement which was joined by men in uniform. Moreover,’ the soldiers of the London garrison staged a demonstration before the prime minister’s residence. Industrial action spread too involving miners, railwaymen. On May 10, 1920, London dockers refused to load ammunitions destined for Poland (then fighting against Russia) into the ‘Jolly George’ and coal-heavers refused to load coal into the ship. On August 3, when the Red Army had thrown the Polish armies out of the Ukraine and was making further advances, Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, sent a note to the Soviet Government threatening war. All over Britain protest demonstrations took place, many of them adopting the demand for a general strike in the event of war. The labour movement set up a Council of Action, and throughout Britain 50 local Councils of Action were organized. Their militant stand against war with Soviet Russia compelled the government to change its intentions of open war against the first socialist state. Lenin gave a most positive assessment of the achievements of the Council of Action.

It was in this atmosphere of heightened activity of the British working class that the British Communist party was founded. At a conference on July 31 — August 1, 1920 the Communist Party of Great Britain was formed. The British Socialist party together with other left-wing organizations of the working class, as well as a number of individual members of the Independent Labour party and shop stewards founded the party. This achievement was an important step forward. A Marxist party was established with deep roots in the labour movement, ready to carry forward the great traditions of British workers. These traditions were based on a strong class-consciousness, militancy and international solidarity. The Young Communist League was established early in October 1922.

Meanwhile the Labour party rapidly increased its votes as a result of rising class struggles after the war. By January 1924 it was the second largest party in parliament and Ramsay MacDonald, the right-wing leader of the Labour party formed the first Labour government with Liberal support. True, this government lasted only for nine months due to its policy of collaboration with the ruling class. MacDonald continued substantially the same policy as the Conservatives. He introduced harsh economic and financial measures in the interests of the oligarchy, suppressed strikes with threats of force, maintained a policy of coercion in India. True, in the face of growing working class discontent the Labour government introduced some limited reforms concerning an improved programme for housing, increased unemployment benefits. However, most important was the diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union on February 2, 1924 carried out under the immediate demand of the working class. Trade relations were established much earlier in 1921. In general, the basic policies of MacDonald were capitalist and imperialist. It was quite natural of a right-winger who openly boasted of his antagonism to Communism. Eventually, this policy of class collaboration brought the Labour government down and the Conservatives led by Baldwin held office from 1924 to 1929. The party of ‘big business’ led a determined struggle of the employers to reduce living standards for the workers of Britain. This enhanced the struggle of the working class for its rights. The highest pitch in the conflict between labour and capital in this period was the General Strike of 1926, when the pressure of working class solidarity forced the leaders of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to call a general strike. Its aim was to support the miners in resisting a savage attack by the mine-owners, who wanted to cut their wages and lengthen their hours of work. The government backed the mine-owners. The General Strike began on May 3. Its overwhelming success surprised everyone and greatly strengthened the self-confidence of the organized workers. Local Trades Councils became Councils of Action controlling all local services. The demonstration of the power of the working class, the scope of the movement, its political character were a direct threat to the class collaboration policies of the TUC and Labour party leaders. They therefore hastened to end the strike. Without even getting any agreement they called off the strike in return for a personal, unofficial promise by a Liberal party leader that he would help reopen talks with the mine-owners. The miners’ union protested at this betrayal, and their struggle went on for another seven months.

Deprived of the General Council’s help, betrayed by the trade union bureaucrats the miners were forced to start work on conditions set by the employers. In the following year the Conservative government passed in Parliament a reactionary law banning general strikes, mass picketing. Other repressive measures were introduced. Despite its failure the General Strike showed the working class what could be achieved by unity and concerted action. In general the period of 1924—9 was the time of one of the most reactionary Conservative governments headed by Baldwin. In foreign policy it was characterized by anti-Soviet provocations and other reactionary moves which reflected the imperialist ambitions of Great Britain.

The bitterness following the General Strike and its betrayal, the anger against the employers who took their revenge after the strike, the harsh measures imposed by the Conservatives contributed to the growth of support for the Labour party. In 1929 as a result of the general elections the Labour party emerged as the strongest party in Parliament. But it again depended on Liberal support in the forming of the government. MacDonald became Prime Minister just in time to face the beginning of the world economic crisis. With mass unemployment reaching almost three million MacDonald acting on the advice of the tycoons of the City of London introduced drastic cuts in government expenditure, including pay cuts for teachers, civil servants, the armed forces. The TUC opposed these proposals and the cabinet split on a proposal to cut unemployment insurance benefits. This led to the resignation of MacDonald as prime minister of a Labour government and the formation of a coalition of national government first headed by MacDonald with a majority of Tory ministers and later succeeded by the diehard reactionary Baldwin. The policies of the new government marked the beginning of one of the most disastrous and disgraceful periods in English history and a prelude to World War II.

Such developments emphasized the urgency of establishing a daily paper of the working class which would serve as a vital link between the Communist party and thousands of workers, giving day to day leadership in working class struggle carried out in a complicated atmosphere. In 1929 the Communist party held its Congress and Harry Pollitt became its general secretary. The Congress passed a special resolution on establishing a daily paper of the working class. The Daily Worker was started on January 1, 1930 with a capital of ten thousand pounds at a time when capitalists estimated that a new daily paper needed at least one million pounds capital to start. Its survival was called ‘the miracle of Fleet Street’, and it established a very high reputation as the leader and inspiration of left-wing workers throughout Britain. It was to play a vital part in rallying around the Communist party many thousands of workers and intellectuals in common struggle against the capitalist class.

The first acts of the National government roused masses of people to resistance and restored the fighting spirit of the working class. Teachers and civil servants had their salaries cut by 15 per cent, the unemployed had their small insurance payments cut by 10 per cent and a humiliating ‘means test’ was imposed. The armed forces also had their pay cut and the Home Fleet of the Royal Navy mutinied at Invergordon (Scotland). From 1933 onwards there was a slow recovery, especially in the southern half of Britain where new industries developed. But otherwise the older industrial centres remained distressed with large-scale unemployment. The total figure remained at over a million well into the Second World War.

The 1930s saw militant advances in the labour movement. It was a period of growing political activity, particularly against the threat of fascism at home and abroad. Militant actions were taken by the working class at workshop and factory level by shop stewards. The Communist party was in the forefront of the struggle against the ruling class and the growing threat of fascism. It was the main force behind the big conferences and huge rallies which won tremendous support throughout the labour movement. This was an important period for the development of organized rank-and-file movements in many industries, leading the struggle for more progressive policies in the trade unions.

The position of the unemployed was seriously worsened by the government insurance ciits^ Several Hunger Marches to London were organized, bringing the plight of the unemployed to the attention of the whole country and helping to maintain the fighting spirit of the unemployed workers. (Hunger Marches in 1932 and 1934 became the occasion for mass demonstrations with employed workers joining their unemployed brothers in action.

The main political problem in the 1930s was the fight against fascisms Britain’s ruling class were not unaware of the threat to their world position presented by Hitler Germany, but their anti-Communist and anti-Soviet mentality dominated their outlook both at home and abroad and led them to encourage fascist aggression. The ‘non-intervention’ policy, the policy of appeasement of the British government was aimed at turning Hitler’s aggression towards the east against the Soviet Union. This policy had its drastic consequences, it paved the way for World War II. British fascism headed by Oswald Mosley was never a large movement but it was well endowed with money by ‘big business’ and could have become dangerous but, for the determined struggle of the British working class led by the Communist party/ Fascist rallies with supporters brought by train from all parts of Britain, were met by a call to ‘drown fascism in a sea of working class activity. The Communist parly was the driving force in recruiting volunteers to form the British Battalion of the International Brigade of which Harry Pollitt himself was the main inspirer. In September 1934 the Mosley demonstration in Hyde Park had almost as many police around it, to keep back an anti-fascist rally many times bigger, and in Manchester in October the voice of Mosley was drowned in a sea of opposition] All over the country Mosley suffered one serious rebuff after another, the high spot being the complete rout of the Mosleyites in the East End of London in October 1936.v

In 1935 the Conservative party won the election campaign and Baldwin headed the new Conservative government of diehard reactionaries. It turned a blind eye to aggression by Germany, Japan and Italy. Japan invaded China and Italy Abyssinia. In 1936 came Franco’s revolt against the republican government of Spain, assisted by fascist troops from Italy and Germany. Britain pursued a ‘non-intervention’ policy to stop help going to the Spanish government. By 1937 Baldwin had been replaced by Neville Chamberlain who more openly yielded to one fascist demand after another — the policy known as appeasement. The British government gave its tacit approval of Hitler’s occupation of Austria in 1938.\

Next came Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain met Hitler twice to discuss the ‘solution’ of the fate of Czechoslovakia. The climax of the events took place in September 1938 when the leaders of Britain, Germany, Italy and France (Chamberlain, Hitler, Mussolini, Deladier) met in Munich and decided to give part of Czechoslovakia (the Sudeten area) to Germany} The Czech government was even not consulted. British guarantees proved to be a fake and soon the fascist army occupied the whole country. The Soviet Union in these difficult years did its utmost to prevent fascist aggression, but these initiatives were turned down by the Western powers. Their aim was to direct fascist aggression against the first Socialist state.

In 1939 the Italian fascists occupied Albania and a few months later Hitler demanded the port of Danzig and the Polish corridor which separated East Prussia from the rest of Germany. On September 1, 1939 Germany invaded Poland and World War II started. On September 3, 1939 Britain and France were at war with Germany. World War II started, but not in the way that Chamberlain had hoped. Instead of Hitler turning east, he had decided to start by turning on what he considered the weaker powers in the west. Due to imperialist plays the world again was in the abyss of war.

This period witnessed the emergence of the national liberation movement in the colonies. Though the British empire extended its territories after World War I British colonial rule was challenged by an upsurge of the liberation movement. A wave of strikes occurred in India in 1918 and labour unrest continued well into 1922. Afghanistan was lost. A vast movement emerged in Egypt and in 1922 Britain was forced to withdraw its rights of protectorate over Egypt. The crisis of the British empire was vividly expressed in Ireland where the British government was forced to grant independence to southern Ireland in 1921 and the Irish Free State was founded. Though the national liberation movement in Ireland had not won a final victory because the country was partitioned and six counties of Ulster remained under the British crown it enhanced the independence movements in other parts of the British empire.

However, British attitude to the non-white colonies was essentially different. Here, the British government resorted to repressive measures to crush down the independence movement which acquired an anti-imperialist character. Especially harsh were the measures taken by the British imperialists against India. They used violent methods in repressing the movement and its most outstanding leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and other freedom fighters. However, these measures were of no avail and all India was involved in a mass civil disobedience campaign organized by the National Congress party. Frightened by the scope of the movement British imperialism promised to grant India dominion status which it delayed in every possible way. The Indian cause was interrupted by World War II.

The protagonists of the British empire try to represent the crisis of the empire and its transformation into the Commonwealth as a result of Britain’s humane policy of granting independence to the former colonies. However, in reality, the decline of the empire was a result of the national liberation movement of the peoples of the colonies, a manifestation of the world revolutionary process in the epoch of transition from capitalism to socialism.

« ||| »

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.