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John Green,author of Britain’s Communists: The Untold Story (Artery Publications) writes in the Morning Star, that Britain’s communists were fighting the rising threat of fascism – even while appeasement was still in vogue.


COMMUNISTS in Britain, as in other European countries, were clear very early on that the rise of fascism in Europe and particularly the refusal of the Western powers to assist the Spanish Republican government fuelled the prospect of a new conflagration in Europe.
They did everything in their power to warn of the danger, but the ruling elites preferred to appease fascism and viewed their enemy as the Soviet Union.
Already as early as 1935, when Italy invaded Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), the Communist Party immediately campaigned for sanctions against the aggressor.
When the government refused to respond and the Labour Party declined taking any action, it initiated direct action by workers involved in making or supplying war materials to Italy.
Before the outbreak of the second world war, fascist Japan mounted an all-out offensive against China.
While governments looked on, workers in several parts of the world, including Britain, decided to take action.
British communists successfully initiated industrial action to block exports to Japan. In December 1937, a Canadian liner, the Duchess of Richmond, arrived in Southampton carrying 200 tons of Japanese goods.
At the docks there was a very active Communist Party branch and when one of its members, Trevor Stallard, discovered where the cargo had originated, he called a meeting of the men and they agreed not to unload the Japanese cargo. The event made headlines.
The London Communist Party then distributed leaflets to London dockers, calling on them to emulate their colleagues in Southampton. In January 1938 stevedores in Middlesbrough refused to load a Japanese ship, the Haruna Maru, with a cargo of pig iron destined for Japan.
In 1938, when Hitler threatened Austria and Britain’s government was still appeasing the dictator, British communists called for prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s removal.
The London Communist Party called for a mass demonstration and the setting up of a Council of Action to bring down the government. Its call met with a huge response, and 40,000 joined a protest march.
In March 1938, the Soviet Union proposed discussions between the French, British and US governments in order to plan joint action against Hitler and ensure European security.
At the time the communist Daily Worker was the only daily paper which consistently demanded that we stand by the Czechs in the face of Hitler’s aggression.
The party organised around 3,000 Stand by the Czechs meetings up and down the country and it distributed 500,000 leaflets entitled Stop the Betrayal.
Only one MP in Parliament attacked the prime minister for appeasing Hitler and that was the communist Willie Gallacher, who was barracked by his fellow MPs. His speech was barely mentioned in the press.
In April 1940 the “phoney war” was overtaken by the real war. In May Chamberlain was forced to resign and Winston Churchill took over as prime minister.
Nevertheless, behind the scenes, the government was still discussing whether or not to ban communist propaganda. At this time the party had adopted a controversial anti-war position, because of the failure of Britain and France to cement an alliance with the Soviet Union. It characterised the war as an inter-imperialist one, and demanded a war directed seriously against fascism.
The government banned the Communist Party leaflet The People Must Act, which called on the government to pursue the war seriously by working with all anti-fascist forces. It also banned the publication of the Daily Worker.
In September 1940, the German blitz on London began, but the government had totally neglected to build air raid shelters to protect the population.
They had been constructed for ministers and government officials, and installed in luxury apartments for the rich, but not for the poor. The Communist Party called for a system of tunnel shelters for London and other big towns.
The London district of the party issued 100,000 leaflets and 5,000 posters demanding the immediate construction of bomb shelters and the opening of Tube stations as night shelters.
The following week police raided party offices and bookshops and seized all the leaflets and posters they could find, often using violent methods of entry, as if they were dealing with criminals.
These raids were also accompanied by police action to close the Tube stations whenever an air-raid warning sounded, to prevent citizens using them as shelters.
By the end of September, however, 79 Underground stations in Greater London were already being used for around 177,000 people.
Undaunted by police raids, the party published and distributed another 20,000 leaflets, demanding the construction of bomb-proof shelters and the setting up of shelter committees. Many party members were involved in these committees.
In January 1941 on the party’s initiative a People’s Convention was convened.
The aim was to press the government to institute changes in the country to isolate the “men of Munich” and the powerful and wealthy friends of fascism — those whose policies had helped build up Hitler’s power.
It demanded a government truly representative of the people, a protection of living standards, for democratic trade union rights, adequate air-raid protection and friendship with the Soviet Union.
There were 665 delegates representing trade unions, 471 were from shop stewards committees and the remainder from broad organisations.
The convention received wide coverage in the mainstream press, since there were clearly strong feelings among the population at large about the issues discussed.
Soon after nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Churchill announced that Britain would co-operate with the Soviet Union.
On the basis of that historic decision, the party then reversed its policy of not supporting an “imperialist war” and now threw its weight behind the government.
The new allied coalition with the Soviet Union in the war against fascism brought about a big change in the party’s fortunes.
Its membership grew massively, from 22,000 at the end of 1941 to 53,000 only four months later.
It was also a young membership: of the 1,323 delegates at its May 1942 conference, over 500 were in their twenties and another 500 in their thirties.
Thousands around the country began attending Anglo-Soviet solidarity meetings and when Churchill’s wife herself launched the Aid to Russia appeal it met with an unprecedented response.
Inevitably communist speakers were much in demand at such events.
Meetings were often chaired by local lord mayors and the platforms draped with the Union Jack alongside the Soviet flag.
God Save the King was sung along with the Internationale!
In October 1942, a 50,000-strong rally organised by the Communist Party was held in Trafalgar Square calling for the opening of a second front in Europe.
The Party itself was still growing fast, and now had one member for every four individual members of the Labour Party.
With the more propitious environment in the country, communists were also now beginning to be elected to leading positions in many trade unions, particularly in the mining and engineering unions.
Although the armed forces were ostensibly fighting for democracy against fascist totalitarianism, the field of education became a controversial one.
The War Office felt that educational activities for the forces would help boost morale and relieve boredom.
On the other hand, some in the higher echelons of the army were perturbed at the idea of too much education and democracy, as potentially undermining their power.
For a time the communist philosopher Dr John Lewis was employed by the Army Education Corps as a full-time lecturer until those in charge got wind of him and he was promptly sacked.
Churchill himself said: “I do not approve of this system of encouraging political discussions in the army among soldiers.”
So obsessed were the authorities about communist influence in the armed forces that they tried to prevent some from getting into the services at all.
One of the party’s chief theoreticians and later editor of its journal Marxism Today, James Klugmann, ran classes on fascism, the causes of war, dialectics and socialism on the troopship he was on and was given the sobriquet “the prof” by the lads.
He was later parachuted into Yugoslavia as a liaison officer with Tito’s partisans and eventually rose to the rank of major.
One of the high points of political activity in the forces was the so-called “forces parliaments.”
In Cairo the Army Education Corps had set up a cultural centre for leisure activities for the men stationed nearby.
Those communists stationed out in the Middle East managed to contact each other and set up “mock” parliaments, run on party lines, to debate the issues of the day and discuss what form a post-war Britain should take.
Similar forces parliaments were set up in the Far East too. They organised mock elections but, with the aim of Labour-Communist unity, communists did not stand on a separate platform.
Labour won overwhelmingly. These parliaments attracted around 500 participants, but in April 1944 the army top brass closed them down.
The landslide victory for the Labour Party in 1945 was in no small measure due to the votes of those in the armed services, and a small amount of credit for that should go to communists and others who organised such discussion groups and mock parliaments, encouraging their fellow soldiers to vote Labour.
By the summer of 1944, the party had begun circulating its new draft programme for a post-war Britain.
In doing so it was responding to the mood in the country for a fresh start and a widespread determination not to return to the hunger, poverty and unemployment of the ’30s.
It also produced a discussion document, Guiding Lines on Questions of Post-war Reconstruction, and set up a number of committees to look at specific areas of society, such as education, housing, agriculture and transport.
All this culminated in a document titled Britain for the People: Proposals for Post-war Policy. It emphasised the need to build on what had been achieved during the war.