J.R. Johnson

Labor and the Second World War

The First Installment of a New Pamphlet

(27 October 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 82, 27 October 1939, pp. 1 & 2..
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Germany and the “democracies,” Great Britain and France, are once more locked in murderous conflict. President Roosevelt, like Woodrow Wilson, has declared America’s neutrality. But moving even faster than Wilson, Roosevelt, in his first broadcast after the beginning of hostilities, incited the American people to participation on the side of the “democracies”: “Even a neutral has a right to take account of facts. Even a neutral cannot be asked to close his mind or close his conscience.”

Hitler and the German imperialists bear their full share of responsibility for the competition in murder now raging in Europe. We work and wait for the day when the European workers will sweep away fascism. But to work toward the destruction of fascism does not in any way mean to support the “democracies.” What are these “democracies”? Today Great Britain rules by force of arms nearly 400 million people in India; and in 1935, while the British representative at the League of Nations was protesting against the Italian bombing of Ethiopia, British airplanes were bombing civilians on the northwest frontier of India.

British “Democracy” in India and Africa

Forty million Indian peasants do not get one square meal in two days. The 1931 census showed that 321 out of 350 million people were illiterate. Over 40% of the Indian revenue is used for the upkeep of the military forces that hold the people in chains. So powerful is the spirit of revolt against this 300-year-old exploitation and tyranny that in ten years the Indian National Congress, on a program of complete independence from Britain, has grown from 400,000 to 6,000,000.

In Africa Britain holds sixty million Africans in a condition of semi-slavery. In Kenya and Rhodesia natives work for ten and fifteen cents a day. All through South and East Africa they live in locations, which they are forbidden to leave after curfew without special personal permission. Representatives in the governing council they have none.

To crush a revolution among the Burmese peasants in1929 cost ten thousand lives. Sixteen “rebels” were decapitated and their heads exhibited in a row by the representatives of British “democracy.”

In Palestine the British set Arab against Jew, in Canada English against French. In Egypt they gave a share of the pickings to the Egyptian aristocracy in return for their aid in suppressing the millions of peasants. In Ceylon and the West Indies, Malta and Hong Kong, one glance destroys the fiction of British “democracy.”

British “Democracy,” Strangler of Ireland

It is not only colored people or backward nations over which British “democracy stands as jailer for the sake of power and profits. The millions of Irish in American cities are there because of British “democracy.” In 1847, at the time of the potato famine, the London Times, then as now the organ of British imperialism, rejoiced at the Irish emigration and hoped that an Irishman would soon be as rare on the banks of the Liffey as a red man on the banks of the Hudson. In the first election after the war of 1914–1918, the Irish people elected, out of a hundred constituencies, seventy-six candidates who stood for Irish independence. British “democracy” recognized this expression of Irish democracy by murder, terror, and destruction. And when in 1921 the Irish had won a partial freedom by revolutionary struggle and sacrifice, British “democracy”forced them to submit to a partition, creating the British colony of Northern Ireland. From 1921 to this day the British-controlled government there has had the power to arrest without warrant and keep in jail without trial.

Such is the “democracy” of Great Britain, a tyranny and oppression on which the sun has never set for over two hundred years.

French “Democracy” No Better Than British

The history of one modern imperialism is the history of them all. Second only to British “democracy,” and that only for lack of opportunity, is French “democracy.” Today forty millions of Negroes, Algerians, Tunisians, and Moors in Africa suffer for the power and profits of French “democracy.” Between 1911 and 1926 the population in French equatorial Africa declined by six million. The people of French Indo-China are in a state of continuous revolt. At the last elections. Ta-thu-Thau and Tran-van-Trach, the revolutionary candidates of the Fourth International, were elected to the legislative council, one of them from the prison in which French “democracy” held him, a convincing testimony of the people’s hatred for their rulers. Such is the political repression that local Indo-Chinese editors were jailed for reprinting articles appearing in the paper of Leon Blum, the head of the Popular Front government in Paris. In the same way, Ramsay McDonald, when Socialist Prime Minister of Great Britain, banned copies of his own book on socialism from circulation in India.

War for Profit, Not for “Democracy”

These are the “democracies.” In the six years that the Nazis have ruled Germany, they did not have the opportunity to commit a fraction of the aggression, the tyranny, the destruction of human liberty and democratic rights, that France and Britain have perpetrated since their last war for “democracy.”

Democracy has nothing to do with this war. Does anyone in his senses believe that if Britain were a fascist state tomorrow it would fight less desperately for the profits of its Empire? When Chamberlain was being attacked for “appealing” the fascist governments, he said in the House of Commons that he finds it difficult to become enthusiastic over forms of government. Today Chamberlain, as for years past, is trying to win over his ally, Mussolini, the very founder of fascist barbarism. No, fascist or “democratic,” the imperialists are fighting because only by fighting can they prevent their immediate extinction. They have no alternative, and the first thing to understand about these worldwide collisions is the nature of capitalist economy, which drives the imperialists unceasingly to war.

The Nature of Capitalist Economy

To understand one great imperialist country is to understand all. And Great Britain, the classic example of capitalist development and imperialist expansion, offers the finest example for tracing the undeviating road of capitalist profits to imperialist war.

Up to 1851 Britain was the workshop of the world, exploiting the British market and its great colony of India, “the brightest jewel in the British crown” – and the blackest page in British history. British industry was at its zenith. The wealth of the British ruling class came primarily from industrial production, and in 1851 25% of the British population was engaged in the basic industries. Investments abroad were less than three billion dollars. Fifty years afterwards the portion of the population in basic industries was 15% instead of 25%. But investments abroad, three billion dollars in 1862, were fifty billions in 1901. This, in our period, is the curse of capitalist production from which it cannot escape: mounting investments abroad and a declining economy at home.

Between 1778, the beginning of the industrial revolution, and 1851, the characteristic capitalist owned and managed his factory and competed freely with his fellows. But as capitalism expands and profits accumulate, there is an inevitable tendency to combination of the larger firms and elimination of the smaller. Any American city can give a dozen examples of this during the last twenty years. The bigger the combine, the greater the amount of capital needed to finance its gigantic operations. Thus arises the financial capitalist, who has little or no connection with the management of industry or the application of capital to production.

The Effects of Finance-Capital

The wealth of the country is controlled by a few thousand people whose only labor is to clip coupons and draw returns from investment. The old type of capitalist sold goods at home and abroad. The modern finance-capitalist exports capital, first to rising imperialisms like America, as Britain did in the years before and after the Civil War, and then to more backward countries, where capital is scarce and labor, land, and raw materials are cheap. Thus in his constant search for more profitable fields of investment, he creates industries abroad whose production competes with and undermines the industries at home. These industries, thus challenged, have to seek more and better markets for their goods and new sources of raw materials.

Against the competition it had itself helped to create, British industry could not hold its own. While the investments were mounting from three to fifty billions, the number of workers in the textile industry declined from 94 to 74 per 1,000 of the population. Once well started,this process moves at breakneck speed. Between 1901 and 1914 British investments abroad jumped from fifty to one hundred billion dollars, while textile workers declined from 74 to 62 per 1000. The British working class was stirred into vigorous life by the need of self defence. In the twenty-five years between 1889 and 1914, at the very time when finance-capitalists were accumulating greater wealth than ever before, such were the working conditions and fluctuations of wages in British industry that the British workers doubled the size of their trade unions and, beginning in 1900, created a labor party that had nearly 150 members in Parliament before fifteen years had passed.

The Conflict of Imperialisms

But that very half century, 1851–1901, saw the emergence of new imperialisms. Japan was drawn into the circle of modern nations by Commodore Perry in 1854. Tsarist Russia made half a step forward by her semi-emancipation of the serfs in 1861. By the destruction of the slave-power in 1865 America became a nation fully organized for capitalist development. Bismarck united the scattered States of Germany in the war of 1870 against France. Italy completed her struggle for national unity in 1870.

Except America, which still had the vast territories of the West to exploit, every imperialist nation began a mad scramble for territory all over the globe, in the perpetual quest for new markets, sources of raw materials, and fields for investment. In twenty short years, 1880–1900, the vast continent of Africa was divided. Britain had long since established herself in China. She seized Burma. France seized Indo-China. Germany seized Kiaochow and Wei-hai-wei. She seized Samoa and half of New Guinea; Great Britain seized the other half. Britain and France almost fought over the control of the head waters of the Nile, but France decided that it would be better to play second fiddle to Britain in return for an alliance against Germany. Japan and Russia, both raiding China, fought it out in the Russo-Japanese war.

The German Challenge to British Imperialism

Germany, centrally situated in the heart of Europe, became the most dangerous rival of Great Britain and with the most highly developed industrial technique in the world. Cheap German goods challenged Britain’s in every corner of the globe. Germany planned a railway from Berlin to Bagdad along which fast trains would carry German goods into England’s precious Eastern markets. German capitalists clamored for more colonies and larger “spheres of influence,” and more ominous than their words was the clang of the shipyards building the German fleet. But long before 1914 all available territory had been seized. Germany could acquire new colonies only by taking them from other empires, particularly those of Britain and France.

All this time the imperialists were fighting each other by tariffs, quotas, trade agreements, boycotts, and other “peaceful” means. But they knew that this was a preparation for a more sanguinary battle. Both sides multiplied armaments, consolidated alliances and prepared the people for the coming struggle by incessant nationalistic propaganda.

(To be continued)

Last updated on 14 February 2018