No Quislings on the left

Submitted by Matthew on 8 February, 2012 - 12:11

I live in a part of London where streets of identical Victorian houses are sporadically punctuated by uglier buildings of visibly 1940s or 1950s design. The architectural incongruity stems from the extensive pounding the area took from the Luftwaffe during the blitz.

Indeed, just a few minutes’ walk away, a block of industrial dwellings-style flats carries a blue plaque commemorating the 154 people who died after a direct hit on its shelter one night in October 1940. Some 26 corpses were charred beyond recognition.

Yet the biggest Trotskyist group in Britain at that time, the Revolutionary Socialist League, started World War Two with a position of opposition to Air Raid Precautions, the government organisation that worked to protect civilians from the bombers. It stood condemned as simply one aspect of imperialist war preparations. The RSL pledged to “tell the workers that their only effective defence lies in the prevention of imperialist war by class struggle against capitalism”, and that therefore they should boycott the blackout.

I’m always wary about judging the actions of socialist groups in other times and places from the standpoint of the present. Maybe you had to be there for the line to make sense, as the saying goes. But this must have been a hard line to sell in the East End, and would most likely have seen some comrades get their faces filled in.

The issue of what Britain’s 200 or so Trots did or did not do all those years ago is likely to be revived shortly, when Professor Colin Shindler publishes his book Israel and the European Left: Between Solidarity and Delegitimisation at some point in February.

The academic has already trailed some of what he plans to say with an article in the Jewish Chronicle, in which he questions what the Marxist left would have done had Hitler conquered the United Kingdom.

Shindler doesn’t quite have the guts to state outright that it would have collaborated with the occupiers, but drops heavy hints to that effect.

He makes much of the fact that the Comintern and its sections opposed the war effort, with the Communist Party of Great Britain calling for peace with Berlin right up until the day Hitler turned on his erstwhile allies in the Kremlin.

All Trotskyist outfits analysed the war as an inter-imperialist conflict. As far as I can make out from the standard works on British Trotskyism in this period, the RSL called for the defeat of “their own side”. Presumably they did not bring this point to the fore in their agitation, as otherwise they would have been shut down by the state as fifth columnists.

Obviously no-one can assess Shindler’s book properly until it comes out, but I suspect that the object of the exercise will be to “read back” from the postures today adopted by parts of the far left in the name of anti-Zionism, and so pin charges of anti-semitism on their political forebears.

A successful Nazi invasion of Britain is a counterfactual, of course, but we can probably judge what would have happened from the experience of countries that did fall under German control.

The Quislings would have emerged from the political right, as they did everywhere else.

I’d buttress that contention with the evidence in Richard Griffiths’ sizeable 1980 study Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933-39, which amply documents the outright sympathy fascism enjoyed in some Conservative circles. One entirely plausible scenario would have seen the reinstallation of Edward VIII in Buckingham Palace as a puppet king.

And the left? Yes, doubtless there would have been a period of utter confusion, possibly even some initial attempts at accommodation by the Stalinists. But history does show that Marxists of all varieties acquitted themselves bravely in Nazi Europe, frequently emerging to lead the resistance movements. The heroism of the Trotskyist movement — from its publication of leftwing newspapers aimed at rank and file German soldiers to its participation in the Warsaw Uprising — is beyond dispute.

There is no reason to think that Britain would have been an exception to either of the two above rules, and no need to make that case unless one’s prime concern is a rather simple-minded desire to score points in the here and now.

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