Sabby Sagall looks at the hidden history of support for international causes among British workers.
It is often assumed that the British working class movement is insular. In fact it has a tradition of solidarity with foreign struggles that has featured strongly throughout its history.
An early example is the support given by British workers to the Northern anti-slavery forces in the American Civil War of 1861-64. This was basically a war to determine whether America would develop into a plantation slave economy or an industrial society. The two could no longer coexist and it was therefore a class struggle between the Southern slaveholding aristocracy and the Northern capitalist democracy. In Britain, support was given on strictly class lines. Almost the entire ruling class supported the South--the landowners out of instinctive class loyalty, the cotton and shipping magnates because the Northern army under President Lincoln had mounted a blockade of the Southern ports to halt the flow of exports and imports. Among other things this meant that raw cotton could not be exported to supply the Lancashire cotton mills. The cotton factory owners were pleading with the government to intervene on the side of the South in order to lift the blockade. And Prime Minister Palmerston was indeed minded to launch such an intervention.
However, British workers held mammoth meetings up and down the country to prevent such military support for the South. Karl Marx wrote at the time, 'The obstinacy with which the working class keeps silent, or breaks its silence only to raise its voice against intervention...is admirable.' According to some historians, even the Lancashire cotton workers, who suffered most acutely from the shortage of raw cotton, resisted the attempts of their employers to bludgeon them into a campaign to raise the Northern blockade.
Another example is that of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Following the February revolution which overthrew the Tsar, huge mass meetings and demonstrations expressed the support of British workers. Then, after the Bolshevik revolution in October, the Shop Stewards' Movement, created during the First World War, actively canvassed support for the Bolshevik peace initiative. Following the outbreak of civil war in 1918, some 20 capitalist states sent troops to assist the White Army's attempt to crush the revolution. But in 1919 there was extensive opposition to the dispatch by Prime Minister Lloyd George of a British expeditionary force to the Russian port of Archangel to assist the White counter-revolutionary army. Many of the soldiers ordered to Russia mutinied and refused to go, while many of the troops already there also mutinied. The creation of a 'Hands Off Russia' committee forced the government to withdraw its forces, though it continued to support the Whites with money and supplies.
In April 1920 this indirect intervention reached its climax when Poland invaded Russia with British and French backing. In May a renewed campaign against intervention was heroically launched at London's East India Docks. A ship called the Jolly George was awaiting a shipload of arms destined for the Polish army. The dockers refused to load the ship and prevented it from sailing. A week later they were publicly congratulated by their leader, Ernest Bevin. Following the dockers' lead, the railwaymen's executive called on its members to refuse to handle munitions destined for Poland. But in August, when the Poles were being driven back, Lloyd George threatened large-scale military action against the Soviet Union unless its army withdrew. The labour movement responded by forming a national Council of Action.
Councils of action
Anti-war demonstrations were held throughout Britain. A national conference summoned by the Labour Party and the TUC authorised the formation of the Council of Action, granting it powers to call a general strike in the event of an attack on Russia. Local councils of action sprang up spontaneously throughout the country, based on the trades councils and local Labour Parties. The government realised that the war against the Soviet Union was opposed by the vast majority and that persistence could lead to a revolutionary situation. Lloyd George abandoned his belligerent attitude towards the Soviet Union, advising the Poles to make peace.
No doubt the most famous example of solidarity is that of the Spanish Civil War. Massive support was given by the British labour movement to the Spanish Republican government in its attempt to fight off the fascist rebellion spearheaded by the army under General Franco. At the time of the uprising in July 1936 the Republican government consisted exclusively of Liberal republicans, having come to power the previous February through the electoral victory of the 'Popular Front' which united liberals, socialists and Communists. It now broadened its base by introducing into the government socialists and Communists. This, together with the growth of the initially small Spanish Communist Party and the increasing supply of arms by Soviet Russia, prompted the British right wing press to claim vindication in its labelling of the Republican government as a hotbed of 'Reds'.
Franco was supported by the Falange fascist party, various monarchist groups, almost the entire hierarchy of the Catholic church, the large landowners (particularly in the south), and certain sections of the middle class. Within weeks of the outbreak of the civil war it was clear that Nazi Germany and fascist Italy were giving massive support to Franco in the form of weapons, advisers and even regular soldiers. Meanwhile, the Spanish government was prevented from buying arms with which to put down the rebellion by the British and French policy of non-intervention. But for the willingness of the Soviet Union at that stage to sell arms to the Spanish government, the Republic would have collapsed early on.
In Britain sections of the ruling class and the right wing press supported Franco, believing him to be a patriot who would save Spain from the Reds by affirming law and order and upholding Christianity. But in the end they were a small minority. If one looks at the public opinion polls taken at the time, support for Franco ranged from 7 to 14 percent, whereas support for the Republican government ranged from 57 to 72 percent. However, the Labour Party conference of 1936 supported non-intervention on the grounds that it might encourage Germany and Italy to pull out, and also keep Britain out. But it was soon clear that the policy had no influence whatsoever on Germany and Italy and was merely endangering the survival of the Spanish Republican government. Four weeks later, the Labour leaders declared that the Spanish government should have the right to buy arms and in 1937 both the Labour Party and the TUC condemned the policy of non-intervention.
Key issues of the day
This occurred within the context of a rapidly growing grassroots campaign in which the Spanish Civil War was felt to encapsulate the key issues of the day--the defence of freedom and of democratic government against right wing military subversion and the universal struggle of the impoverished masses against their rich oppressors. It was also a test case of the battle against the growing threat of fascism. After the town of Guernica was destroyed by German bombers, the feeling grew that if Germany and Italy could get away with it in Spain, it could be Britain's turn next.
In this climate there was growing frustration with the Labour leaders' policy of waiting for the next election instead of challenging government policy, and with the TUC's refusal to support calls for industrial action against non-intervention and their attempts to channel the anger into relief work for the war victims. An extensive network of relief committees had sprang up throughout the country, testifying to the strength of solidarity feelings.
The local Aid for Spain Committees were the backbone of the movement. Almost every town had its committee, collecting food and money for medical aid and organising meetings to propagate the Republican cause. In working class districts these committees were like enlarged trades councils, uniting delegates from union branches with representatives of the Co-op Guilds, of local Labour Parties and other organisations.
Some Aid for Spain Committees set themselves the goal of collecting a ton of food--equal to 5,000 cans of milk. Members would leaflet a street one evening and knock on doors the next. The response was often astounding--even in the poorest working class districts, people would come willingly to the doors bearing gifts. Some 29 food ships were sent to Republican Spain as donations. There were, in addition, local collections for medical supplies. The first British ambulance unit with British doctors and nurses was sent to Spain in August 1936. Many more were to follow, with several cities sending their own ambulances bought with funds raised locally.
The mining communities were among the most active supporters of the Republican cause. The Miners' Federation of Great Britain had already made substantial donations when it decided in May 1938 to raise an additional £83,000 by levying 2s 6d per member. A typical levy in an industrial dispute would be 3d a head. Will Lawther of the Durham miners, whose brother had been killed in Spain, told the 1938 TUC that of the £68,000 that had already come in, £16,000 had come from two distressed areas. It was estimated that altogether £2 million was collected in food and cash to help Republican Spain. Rank and file feeling ran so high that despite the official TUC leaders' insistence on avoiding 'unconstitutional' action, there were token strikes in some engineering factories. Workers from de Havilland and Dorman Long downed tools to march down Whitehall, demanding arms for Spain.
However, the most significant 'unconstitutional' initiative was the formation of the British Battalion of the International Brigades. The International Brigades, consisting of volunteers from many countries, played an important role in the fighting. Some 2,000 British volunteers were among them, first as individuals belonging to various units, then as members of their own British Battalion. Around 500 were killed and 1,200 injured. About half were Communist Party members, while the rest belonged either to the Labour Party, or the Independent Labour Party, or else were unaffiliated.
Among the British volunteers were writers, artists and other intellectuals. However, 80 percent were working class, from all over Britain--many from Scotland, Wales and the distressed areas. Some had been unemployed, and some left their jobs to join up. There were miners, engineers, building workers, indeed representatives from all trades, the first two to sign up being clothing workers.
This year many union conferences have passed resolutions giving support to the Palestinian struggle. Many have also sponsored the Stop the War Coalition opposing a war on Iraq, including Aslef, CWU, FBU, Natfhe, NUJ, NUM, RMT and Unison. The history of our movement can be an inspiration as we build these campaigns in the coming months.