Articles  •  Britain

Internationalism: Labour’s missing link

29 October 2017

SINCE 1914 Labour has been an imperialist party with antiwar activists within it. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, many will be hoping that ratio can be reversed. Whilst Corbyn’s antiwar credentials are unimpeachable, Labour’s history shows the struggle to shake off its subservience to British imperialism is far more than just a numbers game: it’s a struggle that strikes right at the core of Labour’s self-identity and purpose. 

For more than 100 years Labour in government and in opposition, has repeatedly backed Britain’s ruling class in its wars and adventures. Whenever the call to arms was raised, Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Michael Foot and Tony Blair all wrapped themselves in the butcher’s apron. 

Despite its mythology, Labour did not lead the way during the long retreat from Empire. Only when it was obliged by bankruptcy, military defeat or us pressure, did Labour relinquish those parts of the Empire it could not hold on to. And when it departed it left the bloody mess of partition in India, Palestine and Ireland.  

Since its relegation to the second tier of great powers, it repeatedly backed the USA in its own wars and invasions.  Blair defied a huge antiwar movement and sacrificed half the party’s membership and millions of votes to defend British’s imperialism’s alliance with the USA.

Time for change?

With an antiwar leader and a large antiwar membership, things should be different now.  

In the May election campaign Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry denounced Theresa May for “striking deals” with the government’s “jihadist-funding friends in Saudi Arabia and Qatar” and said that Labour would “not just return to the Cook Doctrine, but take immediate steps in government to enact it”. This was a reference to Robin Cook’s abortive “ethical foreign policy” announced under Blair in 1997, which included not selling arms to dictatorships engaged in repressing their own people.

In fact Labour’s 2017 manifesto was a retreat from this. It promised to put Cook’s “ethics” into practice, enshrining “peace, universal rights and international law” at the heart of foreign policy. But it also committed a Labour government to spending the full Nato target of two per cent of GDP on defence and to renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent.

One of the main obstacles to securing a progressive international policy are those trade unions with well paid and highly skilled members in the arms industry, whose trenchant defence of jobs, inevitably ends up with demands for bigger contracts and more sales. 

This attitude is one of the few things that left and right wing mps can agree on. John Woodcock called for Labour mps to become ambassadors for the ‘defence’ industry and John Spellar urged the government to “up their game and secure new contracts, especially with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.” Not to be outdone, Cat Smith and Liz McInnes have also lobbied the government to do more to support the arms industry.

Instead of planning to redeploy this skilled labour towards socially useful tasks, Labour and the trade union leaders support the merchants of death on economic grounds.  

The self-interested trade unionism of this privileged ‘aristocracy of labour’ is a major source of the patriotic, pro-imperialist pressure on the Labour Party. 

The second is the fundamental contradiction of the Labour Party itself. Labour seeks to legislate reforms on behalf of the working class, rather than lead it to power. Its strict adherence to exclusively electoralist methods means it has to deeply persuade the capitalists that it will govern on their behalf “as well”.

To prove this it allows British imperialism a free hand abroad. Thus Labour’s support Nato and Trident is not just “the price we have to pay” for a Corbyn government. It is its declaration to the capitalist class, that it will safeguard its interests even at the price of its cherished reforms. 

This means we can only have a radical socialist programme and an internationalist foreign policy if we radically change the Labour Party, starting with its attitude to the British ruling class and British capitalism’s interests worldwide. 


The whole of Labour’s history and the behaviour of pro-Corbyn MPs suggests that will not happen unless the new radicalised membership and the youth who flocked to Corbyn’s rallies during the election assert themselves and begin to debate and fight for an internationalist foreign policy.

This should include not just opposition to Trident renewal but also decommissioning all of Britain’s nuclear weapons. It should mean getting out of Nato, the imperialist alliance that ranks Labour’s Ernest Bevin as one of its key initiators. It also means defending free movement for European workers and opening our borders to the refugees fleeing our ruling classes’ wars in the Middle East and Africa.

Britain’s responsibility for the wars and crises engulfing the world means Labour’s ordinary members, and Labour as a party, need to start taking international affairs deadly seriously. 

Everything indicates that we are entering a period of escalating conflicts and clashes between the rival imperialist powers that could eventually lead to another world war. Only by building an international alliance of socialists – a new revolutionary socialist International – can we ensure that the next war does not see Labour enthusiastically rally to the flag as it has done so many times before

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