1930s >> 1938 >> no-412-december-1938

Assisting Workers Abroad

For a long time now working-class organisations have had a splendid tradition of helping workers in other countries in their industrial and political struggles. This has not been confined to any one country, though some workers shed their extreme isolation earlier than others. The fine way in which Continental unions rallied to give their help to British workers during the General Strike and Mines struggle of 1926 is matched by the occasions when workers in Great Britain have given money and other practical aid to their fellows abroad. One aspect of this has been the help given to refugees suffering under the dictatorships, and to Spanish workers.
Yet along with all of these activities there is a harmful side, particularly evident in Great Britain. It consists of well-intentioned but ill-informed pronouncements on any and every event in other countries, to the neglect of a proper attitude towards affairs at home or within the Empire. A case in point is the clash of nationalities in a dozen countries in Europe. Telling foreign governments what they ought to do about Jews and Czechs, Poles and Sudeten Germans, helps nobody, and gives support to the false idea that an all-round solution of the nationalities problem is practicable in a capitalist world. The clash of nationalities will never end under capitalism, because every capitalist state, when it has an object to serve, fosters the clash in order to further its own trading and imperialist ambitions. Hitler has only to point to India, Palestine, and Ireland, to convince his own working-class admirers that British workers who give expression to such views are merely acting as the tools or willing partners of British imperialism. As a German anti-Nazi told Miss Ellen Wilkinson, “the difficulty to contend with is not so much the Nazis as the belief among the [German] workers that the British and French workers are behind their governments—and particularly the British—in keeping Germany down.” (Manchester Guardian, August 29th, 1938.)
In other words, the first duty of working-class organisations when they declare their abhorrence of the iniquities of foreign capitalist governments is to show clearly and unmistakably that they are opposed to their own ruling class and free from the suspicion of condoning its actions.
A more positive harm done in the international sphere is the unintentional misleading of groups of workers abroad. It is good to send resolutions of sympathy to organisations in foreign countries, but time after time the effect has been to create the impression that really decisive help could be given when this was not the case. Perhaps the most glaring instance was the impression conveyed to the Russians in 1918 and the following years, that British workers were on the verge of coming to their aid by overthrowing capitalism. Incredible as it may seem now, the Bolsheviks did literally believe that this was in large measure true.
Coming to more recent events, contact with refugees from Austria, Germany and Czechoslovakia shows that many of them feel they have been betrayed by workers in France and Britain. Receiving resolutions of sympathy and support, they translated these expressions of goodwill into concrete pledges of effective help—help which, of course, could not be given.
The fact is that there has been a great deal of misunderstanding among continental trade unionists and Social-Democrats about the power or influence of the British trade unions and Labour Party. They have thought that the latter would be able to force the British Government to give protection against the dictators. Some—in Spain, for example—have even counted on the British ruling class itself taking action on their behalf out of pure love of democracy.
All of this indicates a failure to understand the nature of capitalism—whether governed by dictators or self-styled democrats. That lack of understanding is to be found in every country, and the task of fostering an international working- class outlook and international organisation is made more difficult by ignoring it. Internationalism will only have a sure foundation to the extent to which such illusions are ruthlessly cut out. A first step is to tell foreign workers frankly that with the best will in the world the amount of practical help that can be given is strictly limited, and therefore it is necessary for them not to build great hopes on succour from abroad to make up for their own weakness.
The best help that the workers anywhere can give to their foreign comrades is to redouble their efforts to strengthen the Socialist movement in their own country and hasten the day when the workers will control social affairs.