The British Empire’s Accidental War With Nazi Germany

Britain‘s Purely Imperialist War Against Nazi Germany

by Gwydion M. Williams

Today’s political commentators confuse democracy with pluralism, and both with virtuousness. So when Egypt elects an Islamist government with a non-Western understanding of virtue, this cannot be democratic, even though it might be technically true that a clear majority of voters wanted either this or even harder-line Islam.

Democracy means being exactly like the Anglosphere, that is their underlying belief. So it’s worth showing that the Anglosphere in the Twenty-Tens has very different values from the Anglosphere of the Nineteen-Forties.

England and Scotland had parliaments from mediaeval times, but these represented only the rich. The system was not even loosely democratic until the 1880s, when 60% of adult males in the British Isles got the vote. For many years after that – up until 1945, really – a majority of voters were content to re-elect members of the old elite, who governed much as they had in pre-democratic days.

Note also, this was just the British Isles, with Southern Ireland subtracted after Home Rule. Mostly-white colonies had powerful parliaments: non-while colonies had either nothing or a powerless assembly. The Indian Subcontinent was drafted into the war by its British-appointed Governor-General, ignoring the wished of the Congress Party, which had a clear majority of elected representatives.

Whatever was being fought for in the war that started in 1939, it was not democracy.

The key year of 1940 saw four famous speeches by Winston Churchill, rallying Britons after the Fall of France. They were Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat; Their Finest Hour; The Few and We Shall Fight on the Beaches.[1] Between the four of them, there is exactly one mention of democracy, and it says nothing about improving or extending it. It occurs in “The Few“:

“These two great organisations of the English-speaking democracies, the British Empire and the United States, will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general advantage.”

The Few” is mostly about the air war, but Churchill made it clear that this included Bomber Command as well as Fighter Command. Britain in two World Wars did rather more than Germany to undermine the civilised notion of war being limited to soldiers in uniform, with the rest of the population left alone as far as possible.

The Second World War was fought by the British Empire to preserve the British Empire. Just as Abraham Lincoln declared himself willing to free some, all or none of the slaves in order to preserve the Union, Britain’s rulers were pragmatic about the rise of Nazism. It was both a threat and an opportunity. Winston Churchill had been an enthusiast for Mussolini, as indeed were many other right-wingers in Britain and the USA. He must have reckoned – correctly – that Mussolini’s Italy had no particular grudge against Britain and would anyway never be strong enough to be a threat. Churchill also knew that this did not apply to Germany. Being himself ruthless enough to start a war if he saw a prospect of gain, he never doubted that Hitler wanted to dominate Europe and was expecting that this would mean another war. Chamberlain failed to realise this, and the British ruling class as a whole seem to have switched their opinion when Hitler endorsed the break-up of Czechoslovakia into Czech and Slovak halves, and then annexed the Czech portion.

Given the stuff that Hitler had already got away with, it’s not credible that the switch occurred because of moral outrage at this breach of the Munich Agreement. If there had been strong moral outrage when it became clear what Nazism was, a boycott of the Berlin Olympic Games would have been an option and might well have changed history.

The 1936 Olympic Games had been awarded to Berlin at a time when the new Weimar Republic was a tolerant Parliamentary Democracy. By 1936, Hitler had become openly a dictator, not bothering with an election when President Hindenburg died. No one imagined that mass killing of Jews was in prospect: the Nazis themselves probably didn’t dare contemplate it at the time. But German Jews, many of them resident for centuries, had been stripped of their citizenship. Drastic censorship, book-burning and Concentration Camps were open policies that the Nazis were proud of. The 1934 “Night of the Long Knives” had seen mass political killings, not just the obnoxious Brownshirts (SA), but also the rival Nazi faction of Gregor Strasser and prominent conservative anti-Nazis, including former Chancellor Kurt von Schleicher. (And they also murdered his wife, who was a witness.)

The Berlin Olympic Games were a Nazi showcase and accepted as such. The USA contemplated staying away, but in fact came. Likewise British Jewish athlete and sports commentator Harold Abrahams, co-hero of that splendid film, Chariots of Fire. (Maybe someone should do a sequel, Chariots Get Muddy, dealing with this awkward moral failure.) As far as I know, all of the usual attendees turned up, apart from Spain under its short-lived Popular Front government.

The Moscow Olympics of 1980 were boycotted by 65 of the normal attendees, in response to the invasion of Afghanistan. There was a serious attempt at boycotting China in 2008 over Tibet, and perhaps only the beginnings of the West’s continuing economic crisis stopped this getting more serious. But very few considered boycotting Berlin 1936, even though Germany had gone from a parliamentary system to dictatorship and from European norms to right-wing intolerance.

Britain’s sudden reversal of its previously conciliatory attitude to Germany had nothing to do with morality. It was all about power.

Ripping apart Czechoslovakia without consulting Britain or France was a strong indication that Hitler thought a war was going to happen regardless and was not seeking to build up trust with Britain or France. It was this that caused Britain’s rulers to decide that Hitler must be either humbled or destroyed. And Poland useful as bait in what they must have seen as a cunning trap.

Curiously, Hitler thought that even after humbling the Czechs, historically quite close to the Poles, he could still make a deal with Poland that would give him Danzig in return for abandoning any claim to the Polish Corridor, which had an ethnic-German majority. He hoped also to recruit them as allies for an attack on the Soviet Union, which could give the Poles other territory they were after, including parts of the Ukraine that they had sometimes ruled.

It might have been sensible for Poland’s right-wing government to make a deal, but no one who’d studied Polish history would have assumed it. Poland had survived being split between Prussia, Austria and Russia precisely because it refused to think about the odds. Hitler should have been able to figure this, and also realise that might tip the balance of opinion in Britain by going back on his earlier promises over Czechoslovakia. He didn’t, and the war was on.

Many individuals – including my father – joined that fight on the basis that the Nazis represented a much worse form of imperialism. That the outcome would be a massive advance for democracy and for left-wing ideas was barely to be hoped for in the early years. There was also a natural inclination to rally to your own side when war had become a fact of life and you had to decide if you cared if your own side lost it. This feeling claimed H G Wells, among other, during the First World War. He had long been against the idea of a European war, and hoped that civilised Europeans might revolt against such a war if it came. This hope was expressed rather improbably in a 1906 story called In the Days of the Comet, much more seriously in The World Set Free. This novel, set a few decades in the future, was published a few months before the 1914-18 war started and accurately foreseeing its senseless nature[2]. But when the actual war started he backed down from his original insights and produced patriotic gush in Mr. Britling Sees It Through.

British left-wingers joining World War Two might have turned out to be equally mistaken. But history delivered them a much more favourable post-war world than they could have been expecting.

It is definitely not right to blame those who were not British who refused to help Britain in Britain’s hour of need, when their own needs were basically ignored. This was the position of Ireland, Iran and India, and it is unreasonable to blame them for trying stay out of it. But blame is seldom rational: Finland chose to join the German invasion of the Soviet Union, seeking mostly to recover lost land but definitely making an overall Nazi victory more likely. Somehow they never get blamed for this: they were told off merely for maintaining a careful neutrality during the years they were on the front line of the Cold War,

The British Empire was planning to invade Norway regardless of what Germany did. As it happened, Germany struck first, though a definite promise from the British Empire to respect neutrals might prevented this.

Later on in the war, with Ireland’s ports mattering in the key “Battle of the Atlantic”, Churchill ready either to invade the Irish Free State or to award it loyal little Ulster if it would join the Allies. Protestant Ulster was loyal, but the empire was not loyal to them and the “Battle of the Atlantic” was the most plausible moment when Britain might have been defeated. De Valeria, who had fought as an Irish Nationalist ally of Germany in the 1916 Easter Rising, wisely decided to stay out of this new war.

It was definitely an Imperial war at first, up until the invasion of the Soviet Union and arguably afterwards. Britain had dominated the world’s oceans and the best overseas colonies since the Seven Years War and the remarkable victories of 1759. And it did this with Prussia as a regular ally, Britain and Prussia helping each other rise at the expense of mutual enemies, and too far apart to have important clashes of interest. This dominance and the early industrialisation of Britain meant that members of the British elite could “bestride the measured world / like a colossus”[3]. Or like a set of colossi, rather, because the elite were rather good at sharing power with each other. Ready to take orders from a lawful superior whom they might consider an actual inferior, sometimes correctly. They were much better than rival European elites at compromising and working together. Better at ensuring that at least some of the top jobs and honours were given to gifted men from the lower ranks of the privileged classes.

That was the Georgian period, 18th and early 19th century, a sexually tolerant and religiously skeptical elite with a considerable interest in science and a frequent concern for knowledge for its own sake. This was the period when the Industrial Revolution occurred, when the British navy got hegemony and when British control of North America and India was established. The Victorian British had a grand clean-up of Georgian values, but threw out good with bad. The worst of the bad was the fatal decision to tighten up racial segregation in British India, placing the entire Hindu and Muslim elite below any white man.

This was one weakness of the British Empire: it might compare itself to the Roman Empire, but it ignored the Roman lesson of incorporating local elites who would accept the culture of the Empire. It placed them below anyone white in their own country, though not in Britain itself, where Indian princes were accepted into aristocratic circles that were largely closed to colonial officials. It let them gain the highest academic distinctions but then refused them the privileges that normally went with such achievement. This happened to Gandhi, a qualified lawyer who was not allowed to travel First Class on a train in South Africa. It was irrational and was bound to push the British-trained elites towards separatism.

The second weakness was that Britain had formed a global empire without conquering its immediate neighbours. This is very rare in world history: mostly empires begin by one group conquering its neighbours and only then striking out into the wider world. Persians conquered the closely-related Medes before anyone else. Half-Greek Macedonians unified Greece. Romans conquered other Latins and then the other peoples of Italy. Islam conquered Arabs first and the wider world later. Mongols subdued rival nomads before invading the surrounding civilisations. Moscow conquered other Russians before taking on the wider world. But neither Portugal nor the Dutch tried expanding in Europe while they were conquering overseas. Spain and France tried and either could have unified Europe, but both failed. Britain helped both to fail, and scooped up the overseas or strategic prizes after each major European war. And Prussia was mostly an ally, as I mentioned earlier. Only when Prussia unified Germany and when the non-European world was largely conquered or helpless did Britain suddenly decide that nice Germany had been corrupted by centuries of Prussian evil.

With hindsight, we can see that 1914 was the peak of European power. The New World consisted mostly of seceded European colonies, but among these only the USA was formidable. The British Empire hoped to draw it back in to a wider Anglosphere, which would have been British-dominated if it had happened then. Elsewhere, Ethiopia and Thailand were hold-outs, but both vulnerable. China was huge but weak and had rulers who assumed that they could only stay in power with the permission of the Imperialists (which remained the case till 1949). Japan was one grand anomaly, not at all like Europe but at a level with Europe, having defeated Tsarist Russia in 1904-5, with British help. The other was the Ottoman Empire, preserved from partition by Britain in the 19th century, but then targeted in 1914.

The war that started in 1939 was another attempt by Britain to prevent any one power dominating Continental Europe. France could have achieved it in 1919, had Unified Germany been broken up into its former components, as France wanted. The British ruling class preferred to play a complex game for continued world hegemony, a game that ultimately backfired on them and killed tens of millions in the process. Nazi Germany was allowed to rise, because it kept France scared and close to Britain, and Nazis might be useful against the Soviet Union and global communism. But then Hitler was hasty and got re-classified as the main menace. Rather than mend fences and perhaps leave Danzig unresolved in return for Poland helping him against the Soviet Union, he chose a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union that left him free to conquer Poland.

The Pact was no more immoral than various other deals, including Chamberlain claiming to have “no knowledge” of vast numbers of regular German and Italian troops fighting in the Spanish Civil War, and letting a democratically elected Spanish government be gradually destroyed. Britain’s ruling class had tried to use Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union, but was later willing to hand over much of Middle-Europe including their ally Poland in exchange for the Soviet Union doing the main work of destroying Nazi Germany.

The war might have ended in September 1939, when Poland was overrun. Hitler could have offered to restore Poland minus the Polish Corridor, in return for peace. But Poland had collapsed within weeks, whereas Serbia had taken more than a year to conquer in World War One. He chose once again to be arrogant, and for a time it paid off. An initial rather poor plan for an attack in the West got leaked to the Allies by a plane crash, so a riskier alternative plan was tried and succeeded brilliantly.

Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in place of a sick and dying Chamberlain, only to find that the war was falling apart. That was May 1940, and by June France was essentially gone. Having been correctly blamed for the 1916 disaster at Gallipoli and having somehow escaped blame for his part in the disastrous failure in Norway, he had the good luck to take over as Prime Minister just as the Fall of France was beginning. Had he become Prime Minister a month or two earlier, he would almost certainly have been blamed, even if he had actually done nothing wrong. Had Chamberlain hung on for another month, the Tories would have been likely to conclude that the war was lost and that the new Prime Minister must be a man ready to admit this.

Churchill wanted to save the British Empire, and fancied that he might be presiding over the “finest hour” in a possible thousand-year history. Since the prior history of the Empire was four centuries at most, he nowadays sounds utterly unrealistic. He was in many ways living in the past, the Late Victorian world of his young manhood. But British prestige stood higher in 1940 than it did later, with the disastrous 1942 surrender of Singapore to a numerically inferior Japanese army damaging the British Empire beyond hope of repair.

Churchill never saw it so. In November 1942, in another famous speech called “The End of the Beginning“, he said:

“I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire. For that task, if ever it were prescribed, someone else would have to be found, and, under democracy, I suppose the nation would have to be consulted. I am proud to be a member of that vast commonwealth and society of nations and communities gathered in and around the ancient British monarchy, without which the good cause might well have perished from the face of the earth. Here we are, and here we stand, a veritable rock of salvation in this drifting world.”[4]

He had earlier said:

“For ourselves we have no wish but to see France free and strong, with her Empire gathered round her and with Alsace-Lorraine restored. We covet no French possession; we have no acquisitive appetites or ambitions in North Africa or any other part of the world.”

He wanted to go back to the pre-war world, not into the future that actually emerged after a couple of decades of bitter anti-colonial struggle.

Anti-colonialism was called “communist-inspired” up until it won. In many ways it was, in as much as serious Third World nationalists found that global communism was their main ally. The USA played a mixed and ambiguous role: I will deal with this in another article, with a likely title of White Knights In Blue-Collar Armour. But while the British Labour Party was vaguely anti-colonial, Churchill and the Tories wanted the world as before. Celebrating the end of the War in Europe (and with Japan still holding out), he said

“We have all of us made our mistakes, but the strength of the Parliamentary institution has been shown to enable it at the same moment to preserve all the title-deeds of democracy while waging war in the most stern and protracted form.”[5]

Along with the delusion that Churchill’s 1940 stand was for democracy, you get the notion that this and the USA’s later involvement was to defend Jews. Actually the Nazis in 1940 had mostly killed political opponents, apart from ordinary wartime casualties, and it was the British who were keenest on bombing of cities. The Nazis had ill-treated lots of Jews and tried to persuade them to emigrate, but there were not a lot of places that would take them. This continued during the war, when Germany might have been willing to ship out its Jews but they remained unwanted.

All of these off-message facts have to be evaded by the New Right, and fanciful notions substituted. So in Empire, Professor Neil Ferguson lifts a phrase from Orwell’s elephant-shooting story[6], about the British Empire being due to be replaced by much worse forms of Imperialism. He inflates this to rewrite history and argue that the British Empire nobly sacrificed itself to defeat the much worse imperialisms of Japan and Nazi Germany. He produces no evidence that anyone besides Orwell took this view – even supposing that Orwell himself meant it.

Shooting An Elephant was published in 1936, at a time when no one knew whether Britain was actually going to fight either Germany or Japan. Professor Ferguson cites it without a date, unlike the previous quote from a German.[7] He also lists a string of authentic atrocities by other empires: similar British misdeeds like the Bengal Famine, the Amritsar Massacre and the British invention of Concentration Camps are mentioned in other parts of the book but not set along-side non-British offences for a judgement of who was worst.

Orwell gave his views on the Empire much more clearly in his 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. There, he argued that socialists should support the existing government, then led by Winston Churchill. For socialists, this was as difficult as it would be for modern left-wingers to have supported a National Unity government led by Enoch Powell or Margaret Thatcher. Orwell argued – and on this point I agree with him – that this was better than defeat by Nazi Germany. His main concern was not invasion but the prospect of a peace in which Britain accepted Nazi hegemony:

“It is quite true that the English are hypocritical about their Empire. In the working class this hypocrisy takes the form of not knowing that the Empire exists….

“The British ruling class were not altogether wrong in thinking that Fascism was on their side. It is a fact that any rich man, unless he is a Jew, has less to fear from Fascism than from either Communism or democratic Socialism. One ought never to forget this, for nearly the whole of German and Italian propaganda is designed to cover it up. The natural instinct of men like Simon, Hoare, Chamberlain etc. was to come to an agreement with Hitler. But—and here the peculiar feature of English life that I have spoken of, the deep sense of national solidarity, comes in—they could only do so by breaking up the Empire and selling their own people into semi-slavery. A truly corrupt class would have done this without hesitation, as in France. But things had not gone that distance in England.” [8]

That Hitler wanted to conquer Britain and rule the whole world was the standard British belief at the time, and continues to be so. It is probably not so, but Hitler had failed to spell it out. He could have afforded a peace without the British Empire giving up anything: this would have left him immensely strengthened and able to attack the Soviet Union later on, at a time of his choosing. Or he could have collected a few prizes: there were people in the British government who thought a good peace would be one in which Gibraltar and Malta were handed over and the German colonies returned. But Hitler never did communicate just what it was he wanted for Britain. It was a serious failure on his part, and very fortunate for the future of left-wing causes.

Orwell feared a peace that would have amounted to a surrender. He did also hope for the possibility of a better Britain and a better British Empire. Contrary to what Ferguson says, he does not foresee or desire the end of Empire as such:

“To a Labour government in power, three imperial policies would have been open. One was to continue administering the Empire exactly as before, which meant dropping all pretensions to Socialism. Another was to set the subject peoples “free”, which meant in practice handing them over to Japan, Italy and other predatory powers, and incidentally causing a catastrophic drop in the British standard of living. The third was to develop a POSITIVE imperial policy, and aim at transforming the Empire into a federation of Socialist states, like a looser and freer version of the Union of Soviet Republics. But the Labour Party’s history and background made this impossible. It was a party of the trade unions, hopelessly parochial in outlook, with little interest in imperial affairs and no contacts among the men who actually held the Empire together…

“I suggest that the following six-point programme is the kind of thing we need. The first three points deal with England’s internal policy, the other three with the Empire and the world:

“1. Nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries.

“2. Limitation of incomes, on such a scale that the highest taxfree income in Britain does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one.

“3. Reform of the educational system along democratic lines.

“4. Immediate Dominion status for India, with power to secede when the war is over.

“5. Formation of an Imperial General Council, in which the coloured peoples are to be represented.

“6. Declaration of formal alliance with China, Abyssinia and all other victims of the Fascist powers….

“An English Socialist government will transform the nation from top to bottom, but it will still bear all over it the unmistakable marks of our own civilisation, the peculiar civilisation which I discussed earlier in this book.

“It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier’s cap-buttons. It will not set up any explicit class dictatorship. It will group itself round the old Labour Party and its mass following will be in the trade unions, but it will draw into it most of the middle class and many of the younger sons of the bourgeoisie. Most of its directing brains will come from the new indeterminate class of skilled workers, technical experts, airmen, scientists, architects and journalists, the people who feel at home in the radio and ferro-concrete age…

“But all the same it will have done the essential thing. It will have nationalised industry, scaled down incomes, set up a classless educational system. Its real nature will be apparent from the hatred which the surviving rich men of the world will feel for it. It will aim not at disintegrating the Empire but at turning it into a federation of Socialist states, freed not so much from the British flag as from the money-lender, the dividend-drawer and the woodenheaded British official.” [9]

The need for the Empire to keep Britain prosperous was widely believed at the time, even among socialists. But history suggests otherwise: Britain actually did better while the Empire was falling apart, with Tory leader Macmillan saying “you’ve never had it so good”. The years 1950-75 look remarkably successful with the benefit of hindsight. Also Switzerland had no colonies, and nor did the Scandinavian countries apart from a small Danish dominion, yet they did fine. The USA had the most secure and best-paid working class in the world before it went off on its venture for world hegemony.

Back in the 1890s, Afro-American leader Brooker T. Washington warned that “you can’t hold a man down without staying down with him”. Whites in the “Beautiful South” refused to listen and remained the poorest, most violent and ignorant part of the USA. Britain meantime fought hard to hang onto its vast empire, but actually did much better when restored to the status of a middle-sized European power. Only to a ruling class nostalgic for the days when their leaders could “bestride the measured world / like a colossus” had anything to complain about. As Orwell says, a lot of the British working class ignored it. Much of the middle class had little interest in it: at best it was a place for exotic adventures and a long way away from the things they cared about.

But if they didn’t much value the Empire, they did believe in English or British superiority, and saw nothing immoral in dominating the “lesser breeds”. Small numbers of non-whites present in Britain before the 1950s mass immigration were not seen as a problem, but also not seen as equal. Definitely not acceptable in positions of authority over anyone white. And for the English, a narrow prejudice against other Europeans and even other Britons was the norm.

The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius is usually cited with the second half of the title omitted. It sounds horribly vain nowadays, yet it is what the man himself said, and there is no reason to doubt that he meant it. Orwell was also a remarkably typical Englishman in seeing British virtues as essentially English. Such genius as existed in the British Empire was more often Scottish, Welsh, Irish or British-Jewish than English, but this was mostly ignored.

The unicorn in the heraldic lion and unicorn was of Scottish origin. Scotland had two unicorns on its coat of arms: England had two lions. James the 6th of Scotland and 1st of England made a new coat of arms with one of each. This was the symbolism that Orwell annexed for England alone.

Professor Ferguson is himself Scottish, born in Glasgow. His book Empire would be better entitled My Beautiful Imperialism. In the hierarchy of the Empire, the Scots were just a little lower than the English. For the size of population, they had considerably more jobs within the Empire than anyone else. Scots with global ambitions needed the English rather more than the English needed them, and have tended to adjust their morals accordingly.

Orwell’s defence of the “English Genius” was published in February 1941, a year before the humiliating surrender of Singapore. This was the defeat that made it impossibly to continue the British Empire as it was before: a force of some 85,000 was defeated by a Japanese army less than half that size, despite possessing what was supposed to be a uniquely powerful fortress. This came on top of the earlier sinking in the Malaya campaign of battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse by the Japanese at the cost of a mere three aircraft. Many of the soldiers raised from non-white portions of the British Empire were reluctant to fight. Some – particularly Indians – switched to fight for the Japanese. The story of Subhas Chandra Bose and the Indian National Army has been left in undeserved oblivion and needs to be restored to its proper place in history.

Having an Imperial General Council in which selected non-white politicians would have ranked above most white Britons and equal to everyone other than the Monarch would have made an immense difference and might well have preserved the Commonwealth as a meaningful political unit. But even the mildest moves in that direction were met with foaming-mouthed fury from the colonial types whose long-term existence would have been preserved by it. And on the whole, they were supported by an “Imperial Parliament” at Westminster where English electors had overwhelming power.

The Westminster Parliament was quite good at governing the English, and was acceptable to the Scots. Not so acceptable to the Welsh, but they have in practice been a national minority within England.[10] In the wider world and facing stronger potential rivals, the Westminster Parliament failed badly. In British North America, in Ireland and in the Indian Subcontinent, they successfully produced a population that was somewhat similar to the English, but failed to realise that their creation had to be conciliated and handled carefully if it was to remain attached. Timely concessions to British North Americans, to Irish who had become English-speaking and to a highly Anglicised elite in the Indian subcontinent would have kept the British Empire as a going concern. But the Westminster Parliament was often and accurately described as the “best gentlemen’s club in London”. It was pig-headed and short-sighted about “admitting the wrong sort of chap” and about giving up its prerogatives. It was and still is dominated by the sort of Englishman who is never wrong even if all of the disasters they were warned against have come to pass with uncanny accuracy.

Orwell might dream of the Empire becoming “a federation of Socialist states, like a looser and freer version of the Union of Soviet Republics”. But this dream came to nothing, while the USSR actually worked while Stalin was running it. From 1927 to 1953, when he was in charge, global socialism advanced wonderfully. The dominance of anti-Stalin elements since then has coincided with a loss of many of the gains, which does not however seem to make the Stalin critics doubt their own wisdom.

Stalin – and Lenin before him – were in the habit of making choices on the basis of “this is not what I’d have wished for, but it will work”. And it did work. Their critics dreamed up all sorts of much nicer schemes, but almost all of these failed to work.

The democratisation, de-colonisation and general levelling that happened after World War Two should be credited 60% to Stalin’s Soviet Union, 30% to the United States and 10% to the British Labour Party. Labour had rallied to a Tory-led government from a sensible fear of something much worse. That they would be able to use Churchill and then discard him would not have been even a day-dreaming fantasy in 1940. And they were mostly accidental beneficiaries of processes they had not anticipated and mostly did not understand even after it happens.

If the alliance of the British Empire, French Empire and Polish Republic had defeated Nazi Germany, or had simply produced a stalemate that had led to Hitler’s overthrow and a compromise peace, then a very different world would have emerged. Probably a continuation of colonial empires for much longer, and much less levelling and democracy within Europe itself.


[1] All these and others can be found at []

[2] Wells’s story includes atomic weapons, but much less lethal than the real thing. He also seems to have forgotten about his earlier idea for “Land Ironclads”, developed as Tanks by the British but not significant until World War Two.

[3] This phrase is from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

[4] []

[5] []

[6] Shooting An Elephant, a gripping story from Orwell’s time as a colonial policeman in Burma. And suspected of being mostly fiction.

[7] Ferguson, Niall. Empire, Chapter 6.

[8] []

[9] []

[10] The officially-designated Principality of Wales had no single existence before the English kings conquered the various small Welsh kingdoms. Different portions are dependent on different parts of English, the major centres of Liverpool / Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol / London.

First published in Labour Affairs, 2013.

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