Whenever World War Two is depicted in British culture we see imposing images of a time of unprecedented national unity. The idea of “Blitz Spirit” depicts a nation in crisis brought together around a shared sense of national identity led valiantly by Churchill who oversaw the Tory and Labour national unity government. In reality, this is a massive distortion of the truth.
Instead, just as with the coronavirus crisis today, the ineptitude of parliamentary leaders and spiralling economic inequality led to a sharp rise in working-class outrage. Throughout the early 40s young people, workers and even large parts of the middle class moved into struggle, demanding a fundamental change in society towards socialism. Out of fear of a revolution, the Labour Party and trade union leaderships in 1945 were forced into the most comprehensive programme of social reform in Britain’s history. This gave birth to the NHS and the ending of absolute poverty and unemployment which blighted the country in the 1930s. Studying WW2 is useful for socialists because it gives an indication of the potential outpouring of working-class struggle that can come from today’s coronavirus crisis. Epic national crises cause people to question the system they live under and demand change. It’s vital that the left channel this desire for change in the direction of socialism.
Lead up to WW2 and the start of the war
The combination of the devastation of the great depression during the 1930 with the decline of living standards due to the rearmament process meant workers had little trust in the Conservatives. They relied heavily on jingoistic rhetoric to rally support for the war effort which further alienated much of the working class. However, workers also feared fascism and still had faith in the Labour Party and union leaderships who were posing the war as one for the defence of democracy. This gave the national unity government of Labour and Conservatives tentative support from the masses at the start of the war. Nevertheless, this rapidly broke down as the catastrophe of the war ensued.
A succession of disastrous military defeats across Europe and North Africa led the Allies into a very bleak position by 1941. The generals’ tactics looked inept and the Nazis cutting edge weaponry made British industry seem outdated. On top of this was an even more dramatic fall in living standards as industry was shifted towards the war effort with little room for the production of the necessities of life leading to despair and outrage. Workers may have tolerated this but at the same time, big business made record profits out of the rearmament programme. The idea that “we are in this together” was seen as shamefully hypocritical. We have seen a similar pattern between March and June with the unravelling of the Tory party’s support during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Perhaps the best example of the class divisions that were opening up in society comes from the Blitz itself. The air raid precautions were heavily favoured towards protecting wealthier parts of suburban London and small businesses while the working class, cramped accommodation of east London was largely left alone. Additionally, the now definitive images of the London Underground being used to protect people ignore the mass campaign of direct action undertaken by workers to force them open. The government initially banned people from seeking cover there. The overwhelming majority of the 43,000 that died during the Blitz were from working-class communities who lacked protection. This contempt for working-class life by the ruling class was understood very clearly. Rather than a time of increasing national unity, the Blitz exacerbated class division.
For example, when Churchill and various members of the royal family went to visit the damaged parts of east London they were booed on arrival, such was the palpable hatred. We see this repeated today as Coronavirus has disproportionately affected those in low-income work or from the BAME community often related to poorer housing conditions.
Sweeping mood for socialism
By the early 1940s, the anger that was bubbling across the country began to express itself at the ballot box. A series of by-elections between 1941-43 gave a clear indication of the direction society was moving. There were many sweeping victories for independents running on a radical socialist programme as the frustration with Labour’s role in the national unity government began to take hold. The best example of this was Wallasey in Merseyside, a former Tory safe seat. It was won by independent Alderman Reakes, a former Labour member, with radical rhetoric for the need for socialism and the nationalisation of the means of production. The same pattern was seen in Tory safe seats such as Grantham, Brighton and Rugby, as well as comprehensive Labour majorities in working-class areas like Cardiff.
A Times article from 1943 exemplifies the absolute panic of the capitalist press during these by-election results:
“Recent by-elections are among many symptoms which show that the challenge of a positive appeal [in reference to the nationalisation of the economy] will bring fresh heart and fresh enthusiasm to the ordinary citizen bearing without complaint [!] the burden and the drabness of war on the home front. The candidate who can offer such an appeal will, in the long run, win the suffrages of the electorate”,
There was a tangible fear of radical sentiment brewing across society.
Limits of trade union leaders
Rather than a time of peace and cooperation, the war had also sparked the biggest wave of industrial militancy since the 1920s.
Critical to understanding this development is grasping the role the trade union leaderships played. As Trotsky argued in 1940, the key limitation of trade unions is that they are only ever a vehicle to winning partial reforms within the capitalist system.
This means that the leadership of unions generally see their role as taking whatever crumbs big business will give them rather than as a means to fundamentally transforming society. Without the pressure of a mass movement from below, union leaders tend to become more conservative and co-opted by big business and parliamentary politicians. The capitalist class will consciously create these relationships using trade union leaders as a means to hold back struggle. This was also exemplified in the 2011 pensions dispute where the union leaders sold out a burgeoning anti-austerity movement.
During periods of national crisis, these fundamental contradictions are massively sped up as union leaders desperately want to be seen as ‘safe’ for big business and will look to support their own national capitalist class under the guise of ‘national unity’. Francis O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, has followed this thinking exactly during the Covid crisis – actively talking about the shared interest between big business and workers at a time where workers’ job security and safety are under massive threat. However, one side effect of this is that workers are forced into more wildcat action against the will of their leadership. This in turn can lead to a more radical socialist consciousness as they have to overcome the cynicism of their union bureaucracies. As Trotsky predicted, this is exactly the process that took place during WW2 as workers undertook mass wildcat action while calling for a radical socialist transformation of society.
The industrial struggle of WW2
Another danger in a national crisis is that it is used to bring in draconian legislation to block legitimate workers’ struggle. The Coronavirus Bill has already been used to shut down protests this year, such as a trans rights demo in September, in an eerily similar manner to the struggles during WW2. During WW2, union leaders sided with the government who banned striking in the name of ‘national unity’. This led to a series of wildcat strikes throughout the early 40s culminating in over 3.7 million working days lost in 1944 alone. The peak of this action came in the 1944 mining strike, as miners wages had taken a huge cut as well as their conditions being made unbearable. Additionally, in 1944 one-third of all conscripted apprentices in the country were sent into the mines to increase production for the second front. These apprentices, also known as the Bevan Boys, were a conscript army of teenagers who were forced into conditions in the mines that were statistically more dangerous than being a soldier on the front itself.
Our forerunners, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) played a key role in linking up apprentices and mining workers across the country. The strikers were attacked by right-wing Labour leaders such as Ernest Bevan who said “it’s worse than if Hitler had bombed Sheffield and our lines of communication had been shut”. The TUC and the capitalist press followed suit. However, importantly the mass of the working class was behind the strike.
The radicalisation that had taken place during this period meant workers had a clear understanding of what was at stake. Members of the conscript army from the frontline sent messages of support, including a long letter to the Home Office defending leading members of the RCP who were being sent to prison for their role in organising the strike. The troops of the 8th Army clearly stated that they supported the miners’ fight for better working conditions and that “the right to strike is part of the rights we are fighting for.” A clear indication that the troops were not simply fighting for some crude notion of patriotism – they were fighting for a better life when they returned home. They hoped for a better life coming from the ideas of socialism and the struggles of the labour movement.
It’s this all-encompassing mood sweeping the nation that scared the national unity government – both Tory and Labour. The Conservative MP and future cabinet member Quintin Hogg warned parliament in 1943 that “unless we give the people social reform, they will give us social revolution.” This pressure mounted on the TUC and Labour leadership. By the election of 1945, the Labour Party produced the most radical manifesto in its history calling for the creation of a socialist commonwealth. Because this echoed overwhelmingly with the mood in society they won by a landslide with 47% of the vote and 393 seats.
This vote was not a vote for the Labour Party itself. The mood amongst workers was one of ‘giving Labour a chance to implement the programme’, but not with absolute trust for those that had been holding back the movement in the previous few years. During the Labour conference of 1944, members heckled the leaders for their role in the national unity government, demanding that they leave and fight for an alternative vision of society. Even after the election, there was still an element of distrust from many workers. For example, under pressure from the rank and file members, railway union leaders immediately threatened to strike to guarantee the implementation of the manifesto pledges because Labour leaders such as Ernest Bevan had suggested after the election that the programme may have been unrealistic.
Comparisons with today
We can see several apparent comparisons between WW2 and the Covid-19 crisis today. The immediate boost for the Conservative party gained under a sense of national unity with a desire to defeat the virus was quickly diminished as the Tories’ incompetency and hypocrisy began to show through. The incredibly high death toll along with a series of PR disasters meant that by May the opinion poll numbers were falling. The icing on the cake was the Dominic Cummings affair which exposed the full extent of hypocrisy, alienating and angering millions further.
Additionally, underlying this outrage has been growing economic anxiety of which we have still not seen the full effects of. A mood for radical change in society is budding and has been growing since the 2008 crisis. An Ipso Mori poll taken in April showed 75% support for a scheme to ensure that all those that can work have a job (effectively government intervention for full employment). Similar support has been seen in polling for a Universal Basic Income, rent controls as well as big wage increases to previously underappreciated key workers. In one recent poll only 2% of people did not agree with the statement that the British economy required fundamental reform.
In September a cross-party enquiry of MPs said that people across the county were “remarkably united” in their desire for change. The report found that people who had seen government intervention during the crisis wanted that to be applied to the economic issues of the day, such as inequality and the environment. This indicates another noteworthy parallel with WW2 – the economic interventions used to fight the war effort exposed the lies around the possibility of interventionist economic policies in the 1930s. The cat was out of the bag: if we can have full employment and a planned economy to make weapons, we can have full employment to rebuild society. It seems that the interventions taken for Covid-19, such as the furlough scheme, have had a similar effect on people’s beliefs today.
Although there is a general radical mood for change this has not translated into a clear understanding of the problems being rooted in capitalism. The generation before WW2 had been through a series of cataclysmic historical events – WW1, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the general strike of 1926 and the Great Depression all of which clarified divisions in society based on class lines. We have not yet seen movements on this scale in Britain, although there is a general increase in struggle. Struggles which have taken place against austerity in the last decade have not been given the necessary political lead. This means that workers do not necessarily feel as part of a cohesive unit whose main enemy is the capitalist class and the profit system they benefit from.
That also means that a whole number of different ideas, including those of the populist right, have filled this void. We have even tens of thousands in London in the past weeks in the bizarre anti-lockdown protest movement. This has channelled a lot of the understandable fear and mistrust in the government toward conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, it’s symptomatic of the failures of the left to articulate an alternative vision for dealing with the virus and to repressive lockdown measures now blocking legitimate protest movements. For example, we have already seen pro-trans rights and anti-racist demonstrations shut down under lockdown laws in the past few months with no oppostion from the organised workers’ movement.
The Conservative party have also taken advantage of this confusion by pushing this anti-establishment mood for change to their advantage via the Brexit vote. They are now for the first time in their history more popular electorally than Labour with the bottom 1/5th percentile of the income distribution. This does not indicate a massive shift to the right in society as some of the more hysterical elements of the liberal media will point to. But, instead, there is a general search for ideas to solve the problems of dwindling living standards. For example, between 2015-19 an unprecedented 50% of the electorate changed voting allegiance. A stark indication of the instability of the era we are now facing – but also the opportunities for the left to win people over to a movement which can transform society in a socialist direction.
This is why it’s imperative that there is a genuine party of struggle in the next era based in working-class communities and workplaces fighting for socialist ideas. This can be a pole of attraction that helps unite different movements such as Black Lives Matter and the environmental movement around a unified struggle against the capitalist system. Although perhaps not on the same scale or clarity of radicalisation as WW2, the horrendous crisis triggered by Covid-19 could lead to society moving in a socialist direction. However, without a clear party of the left we risk the return of the growth of the far-right or new establishment parties dressing themselves up in radical rhetoric while continuing the economic norms of the past 40 years.
This means we must recognise that Starmer’s Labour, which represents a return of the pro-big business Blairite control of the Labour Party, will not be a useful vehicle for the kind of struggle needed. Starmer’s general lack of popularity during this crisis is an indication of Labours current complete absence of opposition but also the real shift in mood in society. Trade unionists, socialists and community campaigners must begin to form a new genuinely democratic mass party of struggle which represents all workers and movements which are fighting against the capitalist system. This is why Socialist Alternative is calling for the creation of conferences of resistance to organise like-minded activists inside and outside of Labour to cohere struggle and give these movements a political voice .
Additionally, Socialist Alternative want to go further than the limited reforms of the post-war settlement which ultimately were defeated because they remained within the confines of capitalism. For a genuine socialist society in which the means of creating wealth is owned publicly and democratically out of the hands of the capitalist class who lead us to war, inequality, prejudice and environmental disaster.