Alongside the protests of the unemployed, two mass campaigns dominated politics in the 1930s – against fascism and war. The working class movement and its activists played a central role in spreading the message.
Many workers had witnessed the devastating effects of the First World War. They had seen through chauvinistic propaganda.
There were three positions within the labour movement in the 1930s. These were firstly pacifism, secondly support for the League of Nations and “collective security”, which came to dominate Labour Party policy, and thirdly anti-imperialism.
At times these different strands came together to push the anti-war message. There was wide support when pacifist vicar Dick Sheppard launched the Peace Pledge Union.
The question of war became entwined with the rise of fascism. This was both a domestic and international threat. In Britain Sir Oswald Mosley left Labour to set up the British Union of Fascists, known as the blackshirts.
Sections of the British ruling class showed their fascist sympathies, with the Daily Mail running a front page with the headline, “Hurrah For The Blackshirts”. The most determined opposition to the fascists came from within the working class.
Whenever Mosley toured industrial areas he met serious opposition. He was most famously thwarted when he tried to parade through the East End of London.
Two mass protests, at Cable Street in October 1936 and Gardiner’s Corner in 1937, rebuffed him despite police attempts to drive a way through.
Many thousands of workers – Jew and gentile, Irish and English – united under the slogan “they shall not pass”.
The non-pacifist left opposed the British government’s concessions to Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini. When foreign minister Samuel Hoare agreed to Mussolini’s conquest of much of Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia) in late 1935, the public outcry forced him to resign from office.
The government saw no reason why it shouldn’t treat the fascist powers with diplomatic courtesy and accommodate their imperialist demands.
The left also opposed rearmament because it knew its sole purpose for the ruling class was to defend the empire, as repression in India, Egypt and Palestine illustrated.
One event exposed the weakness of pacifism. On 17 July 1936, general Franco attempted a military coup against the centre left government in Spain.
Workers’ rebellion in Barcelona and elsewhere foiled his initial plan and the Spanish Civil War began. In Britain, Aid Spain Committees provided solidarity for the republicans.
The bombing of densely populated working class areas was first witnessed in Barcelona. Posters with photographs of the dead among the ruins prophetically warned, “If you tolerate this, your children will be next.”
Over a thousand people in Britain volunteered for the International Brigades to fight Franco’s fascists.
Britain’s hypocritical non-intervention policy starved the Spanish republic of weapons as Hitler and Mussolini armed Franco.
In October 1938, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain sanctioned Hitler’s seizure of a large part of Czechoslovakia. Only after Hitler invaded the remaining part of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 did Chamberlain’s government realise the threat that Germany posed to its interests.
Thousands of activists had pinned their hopes on the Soviet Union to stop fascism. They were bitterly disappointed when Russian leader Josef Stalin and Hitler signed a pact in August 1939.
Only small numbers on the far left had seen through the fiction that the Soviet Union was a workers’ paradise and were able to develop a consistent position against fascism, capitalism and war.
By this time, British workers were willing to fight fascism, but not on the terms of their rulers. The Second World War in Britain was sold as a “people’s war” and substantial reforms resulted from workers’ sacrifices.
The 1945 Labour government introduced the NHS, nationalisation, educational reforms and national insurance.
The 1930s and the war that followed showed the outright barbarism of capitalism. The popular slogan of 1945 that stuck with a generation was “never again” – they would never return to the 1930s.
The Jarrow Crusade: Protest and Legend by Matt Perry is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop (£12.95). Phone 020 7637 1848.