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James Burnham

Nyon Meet Aids British War Plans

Trade Union Leaders Repeat 1914 Betrayal

(September 1937)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 1 No. 6, 18 September 1937, pp. 1, 3 & 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Events of the part ten days again serve to bring out sharply the unprecedented depth of the developing world crisis. Outstanding in their symptomatic importance were the hastily summoned Nyon Conference and the British Trades Union Congress. Both represent substantial victories for the delicate strategy of British Imperialism,

The policy of the British Government is based upon the central aim of preserving for exploitation by British capital the Empire’s colonial possessions and dominions, as against threats from rival imperialist powers or from colonial revolt. The British statesmen are well aware that success in this aim rests in the last analysis on armed force. Such force has been literally used during the past twenty years in the suppression of colonial uprisings; but the exhaustion of the rival powers following the last War enabled Great Britain to maintain its position against these powers, up to the present, by juridical means and without resort to armed international conflict.

Juridical Solution Inadequate

Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia demonstrated, however, that juridical solutions were becoming inadequate. The structure of international “legality”, crowned under the Versailles system by the League of Nations, was swept away by Mussolini’s legions in Africa and Hitler’s new army in the Rhineland. The first phase of the open struggle for the re-division of the world had begun. Henceforth the immediate and determining factor in the policies of all of the great powers was the concrete preparation Tor war on an international scale.

For Great Britain this meant the belated undertaking of a major rearmament program, a program not yet by any means completed. Meanwhile, Great Britain is confronted by the tasks: (a) of delaying the outbreak of war on a world scale at least until her rearmament program is well along; and (b) of jockeying for the most favorable position in the maze of alliances and counter-alliances.

Tactic to Delay

In pursuit of the first end, Great Britain first tries to delay as long as possible each new conflict, and then to localize it when it breaks out, as in the cases of Manchuria and Ethiopia, and now in Spain and China. She tries to do this not merely geographically, by keeping the area of the fighting to a minimum, but also diplomatically, by trying to prevent unnecessary repercussions in other spheres from the given conflict. In addition, at the appropriate moments, she offers “solutions” designed to provide a formula for settling the conflict with the least international disturbance. Often several solutions are attempted, offered at first experimentally, and withdrawn if the time is not ripe – as was so conspicuously true of Great Britain’s handling of the Ethiopian affair.

In seeking to delay the outbreak of the war, however, Great Britain finds herself in a partial dilemma. The advances of the rival powers threaten constantly to weaken Britain’s own military and naval position. She must weigh this threat always against her incomplete preparedness, for if her position were too much weakened in advance, she would not be recompensed even by gaining the delay for further rearmament. From this results the apparent inconsistency, hesitation, zig-zags of British foreign policy: in reality only the cautious, sober, and careful experimental moves of the world’s most accomplished diplomats in working out the most useful solutions to problems which by their very nature are incapable of being wholly solved.

The Italian conquest of Ethiopia did, in point of fact, to some degree weaken Britain’s position. Nevertheless, her astute maneuvers kept the loss to a minimum, and effectively gained time.

Compromise in Spain

For Spain, Britain has followed the same general course as in the Ethiopian affair: localization of the disturbance, protection so far as possible of her own position as against the other powers, attempts and proposals at a “solution”. The most favorable – though not the sole acceptable – solution from Britain’s point of view is a “compromise” of the Civil War by agreement between the opposing military staffs, the establishment of some form of unified bourgeois regime perhaps backed by international (troops), with protection for the “rights” and interests of all of the imperialist powers in Spain and no new naval bases for Italy or Germany. This solution is undoubtedly making headway, particularly since the internal developments in Spain have, since May, been rapidly erasing the line between the Loyalist and Franco regimes and thus taking the social content out of the Civil War.

Opposes Rome-Berlin Axis

Britain’s second task, of jockeying for the most favorable position in the maze of alliances and counter-alliances, is being carried out in her traditional manner, chiefly through the negative means of preventing the firm consolidation of an overpowering alliance on the Continent. This, of course, is her only worry over the “Rome-Berlin” axis: Britain is quite content to find terms with either Germany or Italy, but she must aim to obstruct the crystallization of too powerful a bloc, from which France would be excluded, around Germany and Italy.

Suddenly, about a month ago, the raids on neutral shipping – including many ships of British registry – began to occur almost daily in the Mediterranean. Here was a threat far more serious than the Civil War in Spain, for Britain must keep the Mediterranean open. At the same time the Rome-Berlin axis was tightening. The “lumbering democracy” proved able to act as quickly as the dictatorship: the Nyon Conference was called and completed in what must be close to record time.

Britain Wins “Strong Hand”

As a preliminary, Britain was willing to permit the Soviet Union the luxury of its sharp notes to Italy: an act which the Kremlin, slavishly dependent on the British Foreign Office, would never have committed without Britain’s prior knowledge.

The Conference was held, and Britain can record the following results: the Rome-Berlin axis was (through the exclusion of Italy and Germany) if not weakened, reminded that it should not have too exclusive a character but must take the rest of Europe into account; a juridical status was given to the presence of a large section of the British Fleet in the Mediterranean; recognition of belligerent rights for Franco – demanded by Germany and Italy, and a pre-requisite for a solution of the Spanish conflict – was advanced a stage further by giving identical treatment in the Nyon Declarations to the fleets of Franco and of the Loyalist Government; the Non-intervention Committee was dropped into the background; Britain recovered freedom to exercise effective control on how much material aid enters Spain for either side (it has been her general policy to attempt to balance aid in such a manner as to prevent either army from winning a quick and overwhelming victory, but this balance was upset by the serious threat of “piracy”’ to all aid to the Loyalists); all of these, together with the fact of the Conference itself and Britain’s new “strong hand”, constitute a further step toward Britain’s solution of the Spanish question through a “compromise”.

War Postponed

From Britain’s success at Nyon there follows the probability of the postponement for the immediate future of the imperialist world war, since such postponement is part of Britain’s basic strategy. This probability is by no means, however, a certainty, and no way alters the inexplicable fact that the conclusion of the present period of international developments will be found in the new war on a world scale. It is still possible that Britain will find her position being so seriously undermined that she will resort to what would be in effect “preventive” war before completing her rearmament program.

Again, it is not at all certain that the Spanish Civil War can be liquidated in any manner; in which case the struggle in Spain (together with that in China) may spread link by link until the great powers find themselves involved in war de facto with perhaps no diplomatic recognition or declaration of a “state of war”. And, furthermore, the general international tension is by now so grave that some one of the daily “incidents” might well lead to an irrevocable step.

Labor “Leaders” Help

Recognizing these possibilities, Britain does not wait “at home”. Military rearmament is not enough, her rulers know, for the successful prosecution of the war. She must solidify the “national union” of all classes in order both to have a free hand for rapid negotiations and maneuvers (such as the Nyon Conference), and likewise be assured of complete support when the war itself breaks. Thus the decisions of the Trades Union Congress, which ended its session simultaneously with the Nyon Conference, are by no means an accident. The entire Congress revolved around the question of the foreign policy of the National Government. The entire work of the Congress was summed up in its vote to support the rearmament policy of the Government. In this way, the officialdom of the British working class, following the lead of the Socialist and Stalinist deputies who in Prance in January voted the French war budget, announce their treachery in advance, in advance declare to the imperialist government that they will turn over to it the British masses for slaughter in the imperialist war.

Pledge Sell-Out Beforehand

During the last war it was not until after hostilities had begun that the parties of the Second International completed their betrayal and voted the war budget. The immeasurably greater profundity of the present crisis of world capitalism is indicated by this fact that today the bourgeoisie must exact its pledge beforehand. And it is this fact which at the same time gives the revolutionists the opportunity, which they did not have in 1914, to make clear before the outbreak of the war the exact character of the betrayal, to point unerringly at those guilty; of it, and to rally the forces which are determined, at any and every cost, to oppose the war.

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