A dangerous view
The blood never dried: a people’s history of the British Empire, John Newsinger, Bookmarks Publications 2006, £11.99
John Newsinger presents his book The blood never dried: A people’s history of the British Empire, as a riposte to contemporary apologists for imperialism such as Niall Ferguson. His own argument, however, is far more dangerous for the anti-war movement, as it seeks to justify a continued alliance with the Labour Party through its left wing. This is the strategy of the SWP, of which Newsinger is a member.
The SWP openly backed Labour until the 1997 general election despite the increasingly reactionary programme of ‘New Labour’. Now this is untenable: Labour has lost all credibility amongst anti-war activists. As a result the SWP has been forced to provide more covert support which continues the alliance with Labour’s left wing, but which also seeks to build an alternative, a more credible Labour Party, Respect. Newsinger provides an ideological defence for this standpoint.
The first chapters of The blood never dried deal with episodes of British colonialism in the 19th century which particularly illustrate the barbarity and naked greed of the British ruling class: its support for slave plantations in Jamaica, the Irish famine of 1846/47, the Opium Wars against China, its savage suppression of the 1857 Indian Mutiny and its conquest of Egypt and Sudan in the 1870s and 1880s. But when Newsinger moves into the 20th century and deals with the 1916 Easter Rising his reactionary standpoint becomes evident.
Lenin welcomed the Rising, condemned those who called it a putsch, and used it to expose the doctrinaire concept of a ‘pure’ social revolution. Against those who argued that it was ‘premature’ he said:
‘It is only in premature, individual, sporadic and therefore unsuccessful revolutionary movements that the masses gain experience, acquire knowledge, gather strength and get to know their real leaders, the socialist proletarians, and in this way prepare for the general onslaught.’
Newsinger rejects this. He complains ‘if only the rebels had waited’ (p102) and although he concedes that ‘Lenin provided the starting point for any analysis of the Easter Rising’, he adds that ‘he [Lenin] lamented the fact “that they rose prematurely, when the European revolt of the proletariat had not yet matured”’ (p102) without referring to Lenin’s subsequent comments. Elsewhere Newsinger has described the Rising as ‘a classic instance of a putsch’ which Connolly should have opposed (Newsinger, Rebel City – Larkin, Connolly and the Dublin Labour Movement). He also refers to a report the Labour Party issued in January 1921 that in his view:
‘stated quite bluntly that there were things being done “in the name of Britain which must make her name stink in the nostrils of the whole world”. It condemned “the reign of terror in Ireland” and the way it was being used to hold the Irish in subjection to “an empire that is the friend of small nations”. The Labour Party could never get it quite right’. (Newsinger p105)
The flippant conclusion obscures the fact that Labour could and did get it right – from the standpoint of imperialism. Critically, Labour refused to recognise the Dail Eireann in 1918 to which the mass of Irish people had given their allegiance; it objected to the British use of force not out of concern for the victims but because it might turn them towards revolution. Labour favoured self-determination only if a subsequent Irish constitution ‘afforded protection to minorities’ and prevented ‘Ireland from becoming a military or naval menace to Great Britain’ which together conceded the need for partition and a continued occupation. (see David Reed, Ireland, the Key to the British Revolution, 1984)
This takes us to the central point. Newsinger does point out that the Labour Party has always been pro-imperialist, saying for instance that: ‘While Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the New Labour government might well have dispensed with just about everything the Labour Party stood for, as far as domestic policies are concerned, with regard to imperialism they are very much in the Labour tradition’. (p10)
But what is this tradition? How and why did it arise? Newsinger cannot explain since he implicitly rejects Lenin’s developments of Marx and Engels’ positions on the nature of British imperialism, its impact on the British working class and the development of opportunism as a necessary trend within the working class movement of an imperialist nation. This theoretical poverty becomes evident when Newsinger contrasts ‘New Labour’ with ‘Old’: New Labour has proclaimed itself ‘unequivocally the party of business’ and presided over increased inequality ‘whereas the Labour Party was originally founded to challenge this state of affairs’ (p231).
Only an idealist could imagine that the Labour Party was founded to challenge capitalism and inequality. From the outset, it represented the interests of a privileged stratum of the working class, the labour aristocracy, and defended the source of those privileges – British imperialism. Labour’s establishment was a retrograde step for the working class since it entrenched the power of the labour aristocracy against the mass of the working class after the defeat of the unskilled union movement in the late 1890s. Labour’s reactionary role as a bastion against communism was consolidated with the Party’s 1918 constitution and later with its takeover of the Labour and Socialist International.
Newsinger can as little account for Labour’s absolute commitment to defending the colonial empire in 1945-51 as he can for its earlier opposition to Irish self-determination. Although he cites the fabulous profits the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company made in this post-war period (p165), he misses out Bevin’s key concern when he quotes the Labour Foreign Secretary as saying that ‘the Middle East was an area of “cardinal importance...second only to the United Kingdom itself”’ (p167). Let Bevin himself explain:
‘His Majesty’s Government must maintain a continuing interest in that area if only because our economic and financial interests in the Middle East are of vast importance to us...If these interests were lost to us, the effect on the life of this country would be a considerable reduction in the standard of living...British interests in the Middle East contribute substantially not only to the interests of the people there, but to the wage packets of the workpeople of this country’. (Cited in Robert Clough, The Labour Party: A party fit for imperialism, p87)
The same weakness is evident when Newsinger deals with both the dollar-earning capacity of Malaya’s tin and rubber industries and the accumulation of sterling balances from the colonies – which were essentially forced loans (p207). Newsinger agrees that ‘it was under Attlee’s government that British colonies were to be most ruthlessly and successfully exploited’ (ibid). But he does not describe the political consequences. For that we have to turn to one of his sources who concludes that through the manipulation of the sterling balances, ‘the colonies were compelled to subsidise Britain’s post-war standard of living...the Labour government used colonies to protect the British consumer from the high social price which continental countries were then paying for their post-war reconstruction’. (DK Fieldhouse in R Ovendale, The foreign policy of the British Labour government 1945-51, pp96, 99). Relative social peace in Britain was bought at the expense of the colonial people.
Newsinger thus detaches the economics of imperialism from its politics. He compounds this by belittling the independent interests of British imperialism post 1945. True, he refers at times to the global character of ‘British interests’ (p181, p221) or to ‘British capitalism’s global interests’ (p228). But he never concedes that such ‘interests’ reveal the predatory, parasitic character of an imperialist power or that Britain has remained the second major imperialist power throughout this time. Far from it: in his introduction Newsinger says he wants ‘to explore the process of British subordination to American imperialism that has taken place since the Second World War’ (p11), saying that after Suez, ‘both Conservative and Labour governments have aspired to a subordinate role in the American Empire. This remains the situation today and it will continue when Blair has gone. In opposing our own government, we are participants in the global fight against American imperialism’ (ibid).
Newsinger’s crude anti-US political standpoint starts with the Labour-led British intervention in Korea in 1950 where he argues that British intervention was no more than Britain paying a ‘blood price’ for its alliance with the US (p217), adding that ‘The cabinet decided that “British land forces should be sent in order to consolidate Anglo-American friendship and to placate American public opinion”. British troops were to fight and die in an American war’ (p218, emphasis added).
It is one thing to say that British imperialism is a junior partner of US imperialism. But to characterise this as ‘dependency’ minimises Britain’s significance as the world’s second imperialist power and Newsinger achieves this by omitting any of the relevant facts (for which see David Yaffe’s article in FRFI 194). He is part of an anti-American tradition in British social democratic politics which dates back more than 50 years. Thus the CPGB declared in its 1952 political programme, the British Road to Socialism that ‘the subjection of Britain
to American imperialism is a betrayal of the British people in the interests of big business...In the economic sphere, Britain has been turned into a satellite of America’ (p7). Tony Benn holds a similar position, writing in 2004 that ‘if there is a role for Britain that would make sense it would be as an independent nation’, whilst cautioning that ‘if we began moving in this direction...the response in the White House...could be explosive as they face the world without Britain as its colony’. (Socialist Campaign Group News, June 2004) This, from the President of the Stop the War Coalition, draws out the reactionary logic of Newsinger’s argument very clearly.
What are the political consequences? Whilst Newsinger says (p10) that ‘Labour politicians invented a tradition of anti-imperialism for the consumption of Labour Party members’, he also says ‘many Labour Party members, or more likely today, ex-members, and some Labour MPs certainly have been anti-imperialists and believe in this tradition’ (p10 and, similarly, p146). Yet he cites only one instance where such internal opposition could be argued to have made a difference – in preventing British troops being sent to Vietnam (although hundreds were sent covertly). Even then, they were unable to prevent the Wilson government from giving full support to the US’s onslaught. Otherwise left Labour MPs have been completely powerless.
Lenin was very precise about what was required of anti-imperialists, arguing that the ‘fight against imperialism is a sham and humbug unless it is inseparably bound up with the fight against opportunism’. In other words, such Labour members would have to break with and fight openly against the imperialist and racist party to which they belong. Instead, the anti-American standpoint Newsinger sets out continues to tie the working class to the middle class and bourgeoisie, and hence to the Labour Party: it is a defence of opportunism.
In conclusion, Newsinger fails to explain the material basis for Labour’s imperialism. He reduces Britain’s position in the post-war period as the second most powerful imperialist power to a mere dependant of the US.* His ‘anti-imperialism’ can include any Labour reactionary who mouths anti-US sentiments. Lindsey German’s recent call to welcome previously pro-war MPs as new recruits to the anti-war movement (Socialist Review, September 2006) is a case in point. A few weeks later, a mere dozen such MPs supported a call for an inquiry into the war thereby illustrating the bankruptcy of such a strategy. Anti-imperialists must oppose it.
* Some might point to other SWP representatives as acknowledging the existence of British imperialism. For instance, Chris Harman writes that ‘New Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair is commonly referred to as George Bush’s “poodle”. This sums up the subordinate position Britain plays in relation to US imperialism. But it also underestimates the degree to which British capitalism has its own imperialist interests’ (International Socialism 99 No4). Harman sees a military dependency on the US, but he also refers to ‘the decline in the economic importance of the [British] empire in the 1950s and 1960s’ without explaining how and why Britain’s overseas investments remain second only to those of the US, or what their political significance is. Like Newsinger, he separates the politics of imperialism from its economics.