1945 and its aftermath – an eyewitness remembers

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Communist Party veteran DAVID GROVE remembers celebrating victory over fascism 75 years ago, and asks why the bright promise of 1945 went unfulfilled.

OR anyone, like me, born in the 1920s, the year 1945 was, politically, the most exciting of our lives. And it was probably the most critical year in human history.

Worldwide there was victory over fascism, and in Britain Labour won the general election with a big majority on a radical manifesto.

Seventy-five years later some Labour activists see the ensuing Attlee government as an inspiring model, especially for the many young people who joined the party after Jeremy Corbyn became leader. So it is vital for the left to be clear about the legacy of 1945.

In assessing the historical significance of the Labour government we must never forget the international dimension, the government’s interaction with progressive and reactionary trends around the world. And we must take account not just of what the government did but of what it might have done, of the objective possibilities for change latent in the global balance of forces.

Ken Loach invoked “The Spirit of ’45” in his film of that name. I have vivid memories of that spirit. It animated a large number of people, even including many who voted for Churchill because he won the war. The spirit of ’45 was a widespread shared desire, powerful if still vague in its details, for fundamental political, economic and social change.

The British working class, and many middle-class people too, were determined that Britain should not go back to its pre-war plight, when so many communities suffered poverty, slums and unemployment, and we all lived under the threat of war.

A similar spirit moved the peoples of Europe and Asia who had fought gallantly in the resistance movements. Probably never before or since have so many men and women in so many places been drawn into collective action and discussion, been ready to consider and adopt new ways of thinking and doing.

But it was not Margaret Thatcher, as Ken’s film implies, who first undermined these aspirations. It was that very Labour government that the spirit of ’45 had put in power. Marxists need to expose the social-democratic illusions that made this betrayal possible.

The emergence of the new

1945 was a year of immense and novel possibilities. The second world war had ended in the resounding defeat of fascism. European and Japanese capital were greatly weakened, under pressure to make concessions to working people, and needing state action to help it reorganise.

The Red Army had liberated the Auschwitz death camp and put an end to the nazi holocaust of millions of Jews, Roma, LGBT and disabled people, and communists.

The Soviet Union had suffered enormous destruction and loss of life: it desperately needed peace and security, aid and trade, to rebuild the shattered economy and resume social advance.

While rightly suspicious of the intentions of Britain and the US, the Soviet leadership was ready to promote peaceful coexistence. The victories of the Red Army had given “the Russians” immense prestige among all the peoples of the world.

The planned economy of a workers’ state was an attractive model for post-war reconstruction.

In Europe the left had led the resistance to fascist occupation in France, Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and elsewhere, and had entered several post-war governments. In Asia the peoples of the colonies saw the British empire defeated by an Asian power.

Some collaborated with Japanese imperialism. But growing numbers saw the battles against the Japanese and against the old empires as a single struggle for freedom from colonialism. Communists and their allies led the liberation movements in Malaya, Burma, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, and were ready to assume power.

India was on the verge of a national uprising against British rule. The Chinese socialist revolution was nearing victory. Anti-colonial movements had arisen in parts of Africa. The fifth pan-African congress met in Manchester. The Arab League was founded. The United Nations was established with the potential to preserve peace and promote international co-operation. The World Federation of Trade Unions united Soviet and Western workers’ organisations.

The second world war had been the first great peoples’ war. This was not just in the sense that whole populations were drawn in: military and civilian, men and women, young and old. But in the more profound sense that masses of people saw the war as a historical process which they could help to shape, and victory as a big step on the way to a better world.

The campaign in Britain for a “Second Front Now” was a striking example of this popular engagement. The Army Bureau of Current Affairs (ABCA) drew many serving men and women into discussions about the future, which became increasingly left-wing in tone. Later it was joked that ABCA’s only battle honour was the Labour victory in the 1945 election!

Mutinies and threatened mutinies around demobilisation and the hint of war against the Soviet Union revealed new attitudes in the armed forces.

The success of the anti-fascist struggle had led to a widespread belief that profound social changes were imminent. A people’s war had generated a rare confidence in the potential of collective action.

Together these positive features of the world in 1945 had the makings of a global revolutionary situation.

On the other hand, North American capital was greatly strengthened by the war: the United States had emerged as by far the strongest economic and military power, both absolutely and relatively, that the world has ever seen.

Truman’s terror bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were a signal that US imperialism would use its monopoly of nuclear weapons in a drive for world domination. As James Burnham, the management guru, wrote in 1947, “A World Empire has become possible, and the attempt will be made to establish a World Empire.” But he said it would be called “the policy of democratic world order”.

It seems to me that in 1945 the worldwide forces of progress and reaction were so finely balanced that the Labour government could have tipped the global scales to the left. The British people’s contribution to the victory over fascism had given worldwide prestige to the great British labour movement.

As Robert Griffiths has written: “Labour’s election triumph, which delivered an overall majority of 145 seats in the Commons, sparked off victory bonfires all over Europe. Progressive forces everywhere celebrated the left-turn taken by the working class of such a major capitalist and imperialist power.”

Labour’s options

The government had to make a choice. Not between Washington and Moscow, as the issue is sometimes misleadingly framed – but between being a very junior partner in the US imperialist project, or working with both the US and the USSR, through the United Nations, to promote peaceful reconstruction and colonial liberation.

If they had opted for the latter, the choice would have been in line with the manifesto that had won the election. The relevant passage read: “We must consolidate in peace the great wartime association of the British Commonwealth with the USA and the USSR. Let it not be forgotten that in the years leading up to the war the Tories were so scared of Russia that they missed the chance to establish a partnership which might well have prevented the war.”

Had the 1945 government followed the path of peaceful collaboration, the post-war world could have been very different. US imperialism might have been held in check and the cold war avoided. Socialist democracy might have flourished in eastern Europe and perhaps western Europe too.

Decolonisation might have been a much less painful process. There can be little doubt that such a prospect would have been welcomed by a majority of people in every land.

But it was not to be. The government chose to ignore its own manifesto pledge and adopt the cold-war agenda set out in Churchill’s notorious “iron curtain” speech at Fulton in 1946.

Instead of promoting colonial liberation, it sent British troops to help restore French rule in Indo-China and Dutch rule in Indonesia, as well as British rule in Malaya. The government was forced by mass action and US pressure to give independence to India, but the settlement was tarnished by the partitioning of the subcontinent.

Instead of carrying through the free elections agreed with the Greek resistance, it was complicit in the royalist terror and rigged election.

Instead of co-operating with the European left, it expelled Labour MPs who offered support (the Nenni telegram) to those Italian socialists who were allied with the communists.

Instead of promoting nuclear disarmament, it decided (secretly at first) to build an atom bomb with “the bloody Union Jack flying on top of it” (Ernest Bevin).

Instead of building on the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, it prioritised the special relationship with the US, helping them to start the Cold War, and joining their hot war against North Korea.

Massive rearmament led to a wage freeze, and to a witch-hunt against communists and the left. This alliance with US imperialism, continued by later Conservative and Labour governments, led step by step through the Marshall Plan and Nato to the European Union, neoliberal economic policies, austerity, privatisation, and aggressive wars of intervention in Asia and Africa.

Painful as it is to record, the foreign policy of the 1945-51 Labour government started a chain of events that now threatens to undo all that remains of its domestic achievements.

Some defenders of the government will no doubt argue that really they had no choice. Britain needed US loans to survive. But the USA also needed Britain as its closest ally. This could have given Labour some leverage to negotiate loans that did not commit us to the US imperialist project. And of course if we had reduced our own overseas imperialist commitments we wouldn’t have needed the loans.

Labour and the ruling class

The National Health Service and Social Security were indeed historic steps forward.

But the government’s home policies didn’t challenge capitalist power any more than its foreign policy. They didn’t need to.

Already in 1942 the president of the former Federation of British Industries had written that reform was the only alternative to the socialist revolution that people would want after the war.

John Foster has explained how the ruling capitalist class needed a Labour government to deliver concessions and at the same time to discipline the working class: right-wing trade-union leaders would prevent workers taking advantage of full employment to increase wages. So both the Economist and the Financial Times supported Labour in 1945.

Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin, the dominant Labour leaders, had held top positions in the war cabinet. They had worked with senior civil servants and businessmen. These controllers of the capitalist state felt their interests would be quite safe with such Labour ministers, while the latter believed that the former could be used to carry out progressive policies.

Even the NHS was compromised. Its highly centralised and unaccountable structure has made it easier for Tories and New Labour to marketise and privatise it. But the attack on the principle of a free health service began with Labour’s 1951 budget, which – to pay for inflated military spending – imposed charges for spectacles and dentures, and raised the possibility of prescription charges. It led to the resignation of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the NHS.

It is sometimes said that the 1945 Labour government nationalised the commanding heights of the economy. It didn’t.

Public ownership was extended only to the failing energy and transport sectors that were vital for the profits of capital in general. Banks and finance houses, oil companies, chemical and engineering combines – the real commanding heights – were left in private hands.

And the nationalised industries were in the main run by former owners and managers; their pricing policies favoured corporate customers, making it hard for them to show a healthy return on investment.

Of course socialism couldn’t be enacted in one five-year parliament. The 1945 manifesto had said: “The Labour Party is a socialist party, and proud of it. Its ultimate purpose is the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain.”

Fine sentiments. But the manifesto went on: “Socialism cannot come overnight, as the product of a week-end revolution.” This quaint form of words was meant to conceal the truth that the Labour leaders had no long-term strategy for achieving socialism, and no intention of devising one.

Very soon the rhetoric about a socialist commonwealth was replaced by Herbert Morrison’s “Socialism is the assertion of social responsibility for matters of social concern” – whatever that may mean.

The Town and Country Planning Act has enabled local authorities to protect much of our urban and rural heritage. But planners have been unable to shape our cities and towns into the better places that people dreamed of in the 1940s, mainly because of the constraints imposed by the private ownership of land.

The 1945 manifesto said: “Labour believes in land nationalisation.” Yet the government did nothing to implement that pledge. The resulting demoralisation of planners and public disenchantment with planning has made it easier for successive Tory governments virtually to dismantle the planning system launched with such high hopes in 1947.

Apart from the survival (so far) of the NHS, the legacy of 1945 is almost entirely negative.

There is though one positive feature pointed out by Cliff and Gluckstein in their Trotskyite history of the Labour Party. Because it was a Labour government that forged post-war class collaboration, the idea was planted that workers have a right to a job, to health, and to housing. This stored up a potential for resistance when standards were attacked, as we have seen especially in the many local campaigns to defend the NHS from cuts and privatisation.

Where was the left?

Sadly, there was no political force strong enough to articulate the popular desire for fundamental change, and mobilise enough people to compel the government to implement the pledges in its manifesto.

The Communist Party had grown rapidly during the war and now had around 50,000 members. They had considerable influence in factories and universities, and in some trade unions.

At the 1945 Labour Party conference a motion for CP affiliation was only narrowly defeated. But there were only two communist MPs and a few dozen local councillors. The party had yet to develop a credible strategy for advancing to socialism in contemporary British conditions: the British Road to Socialism was still six years away.

There were some sincere and dedicated socialists among Labour MPs and activists. But the left was neither united nor organised. Many on the left were progressive on one issue, reactionary on another, lacking a consistent world outlook.

The trade unions were bigger and stronger than before the war. But their progressive contribution was limited by sectionalism (limiting their demands broadly to the wages and conditions of their own members) and economism (confining their action to the industrial arena), two tendencies that helped to perpetuate control by right-wing bureaucrats.

In Britain the subjective factors simply did not match up to the objective opportunities presented by the world situation. This whole sad story of 1945 and its sequel reflects the false consciousness that has underpinned right-wing Labour’s disastrous policies. It has led over the years to the disenchantment of many active Labour Party members and loyal Labour voters. Five main illusions of social democracy are:

  • Failure to understand the nature and continuing power of imperialism;
  • Failure to recognise that the state serves monopoly capitalism and in its present form can’t be used to carry out socialist policies;
  • Failure to see that parliamentary processes alone will never achieve socialism but must always be subordinate to a mass movement based on workplaces and communities;
  • Belief that class collaboration rather than class struggle is the way forward for the British people, and
  • Failure to recognise that anti-communism divides the movement and weakens the struggle for progress.

As the Marxist historian Victor Kiernan wrote of 1945 fifty years later: “It was one of the great historical turning-points at which history failed to turn.” And much of the responsibility for that failure, I suggest, lies with the social democratic stance of the right-wing politicians who dominated the Labour government, and the right-wing trade-union bureaucrats who supported them.

From the standpoint of the 20th-century socialist revolution, Labour’s 1945-51 government was a total disaster. It is vital to understand the reasons for that so that next time a revolutionary situation approaches the movement can be much better prepared to take advantage of it and to move our country forward towards socialism.

This article is adapted from one appearing in issue 95 of Communist Review. Subscribe at https://www.communist-party.org.uk/shop/cr.html