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The Inter-War Years

In Britain, the interwar years saw Labour come to displace the Liberals as the second party and alternative government to the Tories. In the 1924 general election the Tories lost their overall majority and for the first time a Labour government, even if a minority one supported by the votes of Liberal MPs, came into office under Ramsay MacDonald. It didn’t last long and didn’t achieve much except to demonstrate to the Establishment that Labour was “fit to govern” the British Empire. The same situation occurred again in 1929, only this time it ended in disaster for Labour as the government collapsed under the impact of the slump and Ramsay MacDonald left to be Prime Minister in a Tory-dominated government.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the working class was on the defensive as employers, faced with increased competition from abroad and in the 1930s with shrinking markets, tried to protect their profits by pushing down wages. It was evident as early as 1922 that things were heading for a show-down. The Socialist Standard pointed out that the only way of testing the relative strengths of the two sides of industry would be a general strike. The employers and the government made the same calculation. The test came in May 1926 with the General Strike, which the workers lost.

Then came the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and yet another “Great Depression”. Although employment held up in the new industries of the Midlands and the South East, in the old industrial heartlands of the North, Scotland and Wales surviving on the dole became a major concern. Here, too, the government sought to make economies, introducing in 1934 the notorious household Means Test which left a bitter memory amongst workers for years to come.

Abroad, the period opened with the fall of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires and the appeal of the Bolshevik government in Russia to workers elsewhere to come to their aid. A significant minority of workers did come to regard the Bolshevik regime as socialist and so as worthy of support. Thus, the working class political scene saw the appearance of Communist Parties alongside the openly reformist Labour and Social Democratic parties. The Socialist Standard was not impressed either with the claim that Russia was socialist (the SPGB pioneered the view in the English-speaking world that what was being developed in Russia was state capitalism) nor with the activities of the British Communist Party whose policies were increasingly dictated from Moscow and ranged from calling for a Labour government to urging the unemployed to fight the police.

In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany, marking the end of political democracy there. Political democracy was under threat in other countries too, culminating in the Spanish Civil War that broke out in 1936. Many continued to see the main danger as being another world war but many others now saw the main issue as having become democracy versus fascism. This view was encouraged by the Communist Party, especially following a change in Russian foreign policy in 1935, but this only muddied the issue as state-capitalist Russia was just as much a political dictatorship as Nazi Germany. The Socialist Party was not taken in, though most Leftwing intellectuals were. The Socialist Standard, while emphasising the importance of political democracy for the working class, rejected both a united front with pro-capitalist parties and war—which everyone knew would mean another world war—as a means to defend it.