Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 20 February 2003

There is no doubt that Tribune has plenty to crow about in its record on various wars, but — contrary to the leader in last week’s issue — that doesn’t really include the 1930s and the start of the second world war.

True, the paper backed the right side in the Spanish civil war, arguing for military aid for the Republic and condemning the British Government’s asinine policy of non-intervention, with its willful blindness towards the massive armed support being given to Franco’s insurgent Nationalists by fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Tribune was also consistently critical of the Government’s policy of appeasement of Mussolini and Hitler, correctly warning that it only encouraged them in their expansionist ambitions.

But on the key question of what Britain should do instead of appeasing the dictators, Tribune — like nearly everyone else on the left in Britain — was badly caught out by the turn of events.

The paper had been set up by Stafford Cripps and others at the beginning of 1937 as the organ of the “Unity Campaign” to create a “United Front” of Labour and other left parties, most importantly the Communist Party, against fascism and appeasement. The CP had representatives on Tribune’s editorial board and played a crucial part in determining the paper’s editorial position.

The CP’s influence made sure that — despite protests from the Independent Labour Party and others — Tribune had nothing of substance to say either about the cynical way the Soviet Union sabotaged the Republican cause in Spain or about Stalin’s terror in the Soviet Union itself. The CP also played a role in ensuring that the paper opposed British rearmament against the threat posed by Nazi Germany (though in this almost the whole of the left was in agreement) and placed all its hopes in the creation of an anti-fascist international alliance of Britain, France and the other democracies of Europe with the Soviet Union. And when, in August 1939, the treacherous Stalin concluded an alliance with Hitler, Tribune was taken aback.

When Hitler subsequently invaded Poland, prompting Britain and France to declare war on Germany, the paper was left completely at sea. Should it embrace the British war effort as anti-fascist?

Or should it take the mendacious Moscow line and oppose the war as an inter-imperialist one?

For more than six months, to its shame, it opted for the latter course, following pretty much the defeatist position adopted at Moscow’s insistence by the Communist Party (despite the opposition of Harry Pollitt and other CP leaders). It was only after Aneurin Bevan and various other democratic socialists staged a boardroom coup in spring 1940 and ousted the Stalinists — including the editor, H J Hartshorn, who was replaced by Raymond Postgate — that Tribune abandoned its cringe before the Soviet Union’s betrayal of the left.

Now, you might be thinking, this is all very well, but it has nothing to do with what’s happening in the present. In 2003, who cares who was right in 1937, 1938, 1939 and 1940?

Well, I do, and I think everybody else ought to, not just because I think history matters in itself but because there are important lessons to be learned today from the mistakes of the left in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not agreeing here with those of the pro-war party who have spent the past year or more ranting on about how Saddam Hussein is the new Hitler and how those opposed to war are the modern equivalents of the appeasers. That line of invective was eloquently disposed of by Michael Foot in last week’s issue.

No, I’m talking about the way in which the outbreak of war profoundly changes political realities. Right up to the Hitler-Stalin pact, the idea that the world could be saved from war by an anti-fascist alliance between the democracies and the Soviet Union made a great deal of sense. Stalin was not the ideal ally — but the threat from Nazi Germany was such that desperate measures were necessary.

The pact, and the ensuing war, changed all that irrevocably. They were not what the left had wanted — any more than the Left today wants war against Saddam. But once the war had started, the left was forced into choosing between adapting to the new circumstances or railing impotently from the sidelines. We’re going to have to do the same if, as seems increasingly likely, the US launches the assault on Saddam we were marching against last Saturday.

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