The Party During the War

What was never to happen again did in fact happen. In September 1939, after months of negotiations, appeasement and sabre-rattling, war was declared against Germany; a conflict that was soon to engulf the world. It was to prove a testing time for the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The Party’s opposition to war had been well-publicised since our formation in 1904. Our Manifesto in August 1914 ended with the classic passage: “Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and Socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of Capitalism and the triumph of Socialism The World for the Workers!” A similar manifesto was published in September 1939.

The socialist case against war is unique but logical, arising from an analysis of capitalism and our opposition to it. Capitalism, based on class ownership of the means of wealth production and distribution, generates a relentless search by the various capitalist powers for markets and sources of raw materials. These are essential ingredients in the ever-growing chase for profits — the life blood of the system. The capitalist class tries to solve this antagonism between powers by diplomatic measures, or the turning of the screw by the more powerful on the weaker. But if this fails then war can be the outcome, and even in this age of nuclear annihilation the threat of war still dominates the foreign policies of in particular the major powers. So the socialist opposition to war is not a pacifist or a moral one but an inescapable conclusion of our general case. The total abolition of war and the threat of war will only be realised with the overthrow of capitalism and the restructuring of society on the basis of common ownership and production solely to meet human needs. For a more detailed analysis of our attitude to war there is no better reading than our pamphlet The Socialist Party and War.

Refusing to Fight

During the war our organisation had much to contend with. Our Head Office at Great Dover Street was almost demolished by a bomb, with the loss of many records. Strict paper rationing reduced the size of the Socialist Standard. The introduction of the wartime Emergency Powers legislation restricted what our writers and speakers could say, although this never prevented us from propagating the socialist case including our opposition to war.

But what of our members? We would all have a different tale to tell. Some, due to personal circumstances such as the pressures of family responsibilities, had to take on military service of some form or another. For the overwhelming majority of military age, however, it was a period of Conscientious Objectors Tribunals or of “being on the run”. Adopting the latter course, I am sure, needed a certain type of personality. They had no identity papers, or perhaps forged ones, no ration book, and had to take any job where no questions were asked. These members were constantly on the watch for police raids to catch deserters from the armed forces. It was not an easy life. Finally, for those caught up in the military machine who then adopted the socialist attitude to war, it was sheer hell. These members, but a handful, would have a harrowing tale to tell.

For this writer, it meant registering as a Conscientious Objector when the call-up day arrived. The socialist case against war had been argued many times at different Tribunals, sometimes with success, but individual cases were largely a matter of luck. You could win or lose, and I lost. The Fulham Tribunal, where I appeared, was chaired by Judge Hargreaves and included a very nasty trade union representative — Mr Swayles — who certainly had no time for the SPGB and was particularly offensive to those appealing on religious grounds. I was turned down at the Tribunal and again at the Appeal Court and eventually served my sentence in Wormwood Scrubs Prison.

As a kid I had often played football against the walls of this establishment, little thinking I should ever be on the other side. To be locked up in a cell on your own for 20 hours a day is not only frustrating but boring. One library book a week was allowed; my choice one week was The History of Cycling which began at page 28: the other pages had been torn out by other prisoners as cigarette papers. The food, needless to say, left a lot to be desired. My training in sewing mail bags for the Post Office was not quite in the same category as the present government’s training schemes; it did nothing for my future. An opportunity, during my daily exercise, to engage in conversation with a member of the Independent Labour Party (also in prison for his opposition to war) was the highlight of my stay. There were other SPGB members in the Scrubs at the same time, but “residing” in different blocks we had no contact. Rumours abounded: that all COs were to be released or moved into the country; that the Germans were suing for peace. Eventually another Tribunal did give me my freedom, and once again I joined my fellow members in the struggle. For a period land work in the heart of Sussex curtailed my activities, but I was soon to return to London to work for socialism, with all the enthusiasm of youth.

Socialist Activity Continues

It was a period of unprecedented outdoor meetings — Hyde Park, Woolwich, Finsbury Park, East Ham, to name but a few in London. Out of London there were Glasgow, Birmingham. Manchester and Bristol. The socialist case was heard by thousands of workers. Most of the audiences were tolerant and by no means antagonistic to the Party. This was very marked at Beresford Square, Woolwich, where a majority of the audience were often soldiers from the nearby barracks. There were of course the oddballs who wanted to drag you from the platform, or even have you shot, but such incidents were rare.

In Hyde Park the meetings were often interrupted by an air raid and we would beat a hasty retreat with shrapnel falling around from the anti-aircraft guns in the Park. The most vicious and unpleasant hostility came from the members of the Communist Party. They had wriggled this way and that way during the first months of war, and when Russia was attacked there was no greater supporter of the war than the CP. They would congregate at our meetings, hurling abuse at the speaker singing the virtues of Stalin. Do they ever think back on those days?

May Day in Hyde Park was always a great occasion, with hundreds milling around the various meetings. The SPGB on that day hired a coal cart from which to speak, the horse contentedly grazing nearby out of harness. A panel of speakers would enable the meeting to carry on for 5 or 6 hours non-stop, and it was the one occasion when you could get away with selling literature in the Park. In those days the police always required the names and addresses of the speakers and usually asked what the subject was too.

Indoor meetings when the war first commenced were a non-starter because of the fear of air raids, but as things settled down so we filled Conway Hall time and again. There were good literature sales, bumper collections and enthusiastic audiences. I recall my first indoor lecture — ‘Can Capitalism Cure Unemployment?’ — one of a series run by Bloomsbury Branch at the Trade Union Club near Leicester Square. That I still speak on the same subject today says little for the ability of capitalism to cure this problem. I was soon speaking indoors and outdoors both in London and the provinces, and also ran a speakers’ class. Leaving aside the sheer brutality and waste of the war, they were exciting times. Sadness would creep in when the death of a comrade was announced — killed by a bomb.

Competing for capitalism

After the bombing of Great Dover Street we set up headquarters in Gloucester Place, a stone’s throw from Hyde Park. It was a grand house with well-proportioned and decorated rooms, and on winter evenings classes would be held on economics, history, politics, etc. Our next home in Rugby Chambers, Rugby Street, was the scene of many heated debates on the Executive Committee with plans aired for extending our propaganda in the provinces. The unofficial HO at this time for many London members was Lyons Corner House at Marble Arch. A pot of tea would last for hours as discussion took place on political matters, and many a speakers’ list was drawn up by the Propaganda Committee at those tables.

The war years saw an intense concentration of propaganda, culminating in our first parliamentary election contest, in Paddington North in 1945. The war in the Far East was still going on; the class war in which we were engaged has never stopped. May its end be not too long in coming.

Cyril May

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