Practical HistorycoWinston Churchill; cenotaph; London; May Day; Reclaim the Streets; revolutionary opposition to Second World War;

This response to the graffitiing of official monuments in London on May Day 2000 looks at the origins of war memorials in the social conflicts at the end of World War One and at the myth of the Second World War as an anti-fascist crusade. See also A good day out in London? for further reflections on May Day 2000..

Churchill, the Cenotaph and May Day 2000

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"The destruction of representational images is the destruction of a hierarchy that is no longer recognised... The solidity of the images was the expression of their permanence. They seem to have existed for ever, upright and immovable; never before had it been possible to approach them with hostile intent. Now they are hauled down and broken to pieces" (Elias Canetti, "Crowds and Power", 1960)

As Canetti observed, the statues of the old order are often prime targets in turbulent times. Compared with the numerous Stalinist monuments demolished in Eastern Europe since 1990, or Nelson’s pillar in Dublin (blown up by the IRA in 1966), Winston Churchill and the Cenotaph got off lightly with a few daubs of paint on May Day 2000 in London.

Yet it was precisely the superficial damage to these monuments that generated the most political/media outrage in the aftermath. Far more than the Reclaim the Streets ‘guerilla gardening action’ or the trashing of MacDonalds in Whitehall. Far more too than the racist attack in the Midlands on the same day when a black man, not a man of stone, was set alight.

Walking around London we can see many statues of generals, politicians, monarchs and imperialists. Taken together these physically embody the British nationalist mythology with its colonies and conquests. Their largely unnoticed integration into the everyday life of the city in itself stakes a claim for the ‘naturalness’ of the ideology they represent. It is only when we tamper with the symbolic power of these inanimate objects that their role becomes apparent. The minor redecoration of monuments on May Day touched on one of the cornerstones of the ideology of the British state - the nature of the First and Second World Wars.

The Cenotaph and the end of the First World War

"Why glorify war?" (graffiti on the Cenotaph, May Day 2000)

The Cenotaph in Whitehall was first opened as a temporary war memorial on Peace Day, 19 July 1919 when celebrations to mark the end of the First World War were held throughout the UK and Ireland. The Times referred to Peace Day as "the greatest ritual day in our history"; the object of this state ritual was to represent society as a harmonious whole united in remembrance, and to paper over the social tensions of the period.

Internationally, as the Times also observed, it was a time when ‘a spirit of unrest broods over the earth’ with the shock waves of the Russian and German revolutions still reverberating around Europe and beyond. On Peace day the Workers Dreadnought called on workers to join their French and Italian counterparts in a strike to "protest against the shameful war on the Workers Republics" of Hungary and Russia (WD 19 July 1919). A two day general strike did take place in Italy, and there were also strikes in Norway, Austria and Berlin, although in Britain only some London dockers seemed to have heeded the call (WD 26 July 1919).

In the British armed forces there was widespread discontent. In January and February 1919 what Andrew Rothstein has described as "an extraordinary protest movement of strikes and demonstrations" demanding demobilisation shook the military. Whitehall itself was a focus for this, with thousands of soldiers commandeering lorries (painted with slogans) to put their demands to the War Office and the Government.

On the home front there were strikes, including on Peace Day itself on North Eastern Railways, and in the mines of Yorkshire and Wales. In Luton, resentment at the treatment of ex-servicemen fuelled a riot on Peace Day in which the Town Hall was burnt down. In the next few days crowds attacked police stations in Wolverhampton and Swindon, and there was rioting in Coventry. Peace Day celebrations were also marked by violence in Dublin (where a policeman was shot in clashes with crowds) and Cork, a symptom of the pressure the British empire was coming under in Ireland, India, Egypt and elsewhere.

Clearly the social conflicts of the post-war period were not hidden even on this day of apparent national unity. Even the moderate leftist Labour Leader declared: "The industrial situation, the increasing cost of living, the 23 wars which, according to Bonar Law, are still going on, the dissatisfaction of the ex-service men and their treatment, all combine to make the public feel the celebration of peace when there is no peace, is a ghastly mockery. In the circumstances the "peace" celebrations assume the form of the burial ceremony of the hopes of all who supported the war to make an end to war’ (17 July 1919).

The following year the Cenotaph was rebuilt as a permanent structure against a background of further protests and riots by unemployed ex-servicemen. Ever since it has functioned as a national shrine where politicians have gathered on Remembrance Day to shed their crocodile tears for the British war dead while actively preparing for further military adventures.

The Critical Arts Ensemble have argued that ‘Monuments... function as reflective spaces where individuals can commune with the wonder and mystery of the state. In these areas, the contestational voice is silenced. In these spaces, the whole nation lives as a single community in total agreement, all social problems dissipate... where the rift between citizen and state is healed in a sick moment of a spectacular reconfiguration of memory'. The Cenotaph would seem to be fit this picture exactly. The message of the death cult centred around it with its poppies and its silences is not to question why people died but to accept that it was worth it, and will be worth it again. Whatever genuine feelings ex-servicemen and women may harbour for their dead colleagues, the function of the Cenotaph is to glorify the British war machine and ensure the death of many more.

Churchill and World War Two

"We have opposed the war because it is not a war for freedom, because it has always been a war of conquest, a war for imperialist gain’ (War Commentary, London, December 1943).

"The Capitalist system - production for Profit instead of for use - is the cause of War! In the struggle for markets, in which to realise their profits, the Capitalists of the world clash, and then expect their ‘hands’ to become ‘cannon fodder’" (Solidarity, Glasgow, May Day 1939).

The case against Churchill was clearly articulated by James Matthews, the former soldier jailed for painting on his statue on May Day: "Churchill was an exponent of capitalism and of imperialism and anti-semitism. A Tory reactionary vehemently opposed to the emancipation of women and to independence in India. The media machine made this paunchy little man much larger than life - a colossal, towering figure of great stature and bearing with trademark cigar, bowler hat and V-sign. The reality was an often irrational, sometimes vainglorious leader whose impetuosity, egotism and bigotry on occasion cost many lives unnecessarily and caused much suffering that was needless and unjustified".

Schnews too praised the 'pleasing improvement' to 'the statue of that racist old bigot Winston Churchill. He once described communists as "swarms of typhus-bearing vermin" and held similar views about everyone else who wasn’t rich, reactionary and British like himself. Justifying the slaughter of indigenous peoples, he wrote "I do not admit that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia by the fact that a stronger race has come in and taken their place". '

Still this skirted around what Churchill’s statue represents in a broader sense - the myth of the Second World War as a glorious anti-fascist crusade, marked by social unity and Britain’s position as a major global power with right as well as might on its side. All parts of this story are to say the least questionable - the absence of class conflict has always been exaggerated, with strikes by miners and others during the war; Britain was already in decline as a global power, with the US and the Soviet Union playing a more significant role in the defeat of the Axis powers than is usually acknowledged in British history. And despite the support of the left (including the Communist Party) for the war effort, a significant minority of anarchists and communists denied that the war was about fighting fascism at all. Many of them spent time in prison for refusing to be conscripted into the armed forces, while the editors of the anarchist War Commentary were jailed for inciting disaffection from the military.

The anarchists and communists who refused to fight in the war were in no sense soft on fascism. Many of them had direct experience of fighting fascists in all corners of Europe from the East End of London to Spain. Marie Louise Berneri, prosecuted for her role in editing the anarchist paper War Commentary, was herself a refugee from fascist Italy. Her mother had been arrested by the Gestapo when the Germans reached Paris.

But with their experience of the First World War, the Depression and the Counter-Revolution in Spain, this generation of revolutionaries were only too aware that capitalism in all its guises - democratic, fascist, Stalinist - produced war, terror and poverty. Berneri’s father, Camillo had been murdered by Stalinists in Barcelona during the May Days of 1937, a graphic illustration of the fact that fascism could only be defeated by uprooting all forms of capitalism.

They were also aware that the German and Japanese war machines had been built with the help of imports from the US, Russia and the British Empire, and that the ruling class ‘did not object to Hitlerism when the German workers were beaten in the streets and sent into concentration camps. But when they see the rise of a militaristic power threatening their colonial interests, their loot, then the youth of the workers have to be trained and thrown into bloody struggle in order to protect those interests’ (John McGovern, speech at a No Conscription League meeting in Glasgow, October 1939).

Refugees from fascist terror in Europe, Jews included, faced internment as 'enemy aliens' alongside nazi sympathisers. By mid-1940 8000 internees had been gathered into camps in Britain, to be deported to the dominions. In July 1940 800 internees being forcibly transported to Canada died when the SS Arandora Star was sunk by a German U Boat.

Although retrospectively the Holocaust has been used to legitimise the Allied war effort saving Europe' s Jews was not a priority at the time for British and American governments (see David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust). For instance, recently declassified documents show British and US intelligence knew in advance about the Nazis' 1943 plan to deport Italian Jews to Auschwitz but failed to act on it (Britain 'could have saved Italian Jews' , Guardian, Tuesday June 27, 2000 ).

The Allied War Machine did not target fascists but whole populations. War Commentary denounced ‘the wholesale destruction of cities, and the mass murder of their populations through terrorist raids’ by the RAF (September 1943). In 1943 mass strikes by Italian workers had helped bring down Mussolini; Churchill’s response was to order the bombing of the workers’ strongholds of Milan and Turin.

The experience of the war confirmed that the democratic powers were quite happy to support dictatorship when it suited them. At the end of the war, British forces helped crush opposition to Churchill’s plans for a right wing monarchist puppet government in Greece. By December 1945, 18,000 had been jailed and hundreds had been killed, paving the way for 20 years of military dictatorship. The hopes of Spanish exiles that Allied victory would sweep away Franco’s fascist regime were likewise disappointed.

The British Empire

‘Was the ruling class which shot down the workers at Tonypandy in Wales concerned about Freedom? Or those who intervened on the side of the coal-owners against the miners in 1926? They have burned down cottages in Ireland, in India, in Egypt and in South Africa. Boys and girls of nine years have worked in the mines in India, where for demanding the right to freedom 375 men, women and children were shot at Amritsar" (John McGovern, speech at a No Conscription League meeting in Glasgow, October 1939).

The British Empire itself was an exercise in racist dictatorship across large areas of the world before, during and after the Second World War. As the Glasgow-based Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation noted In their May Day 1939 manifesto ‘Resist War!’, ‘The British Ruling Class... dictate by fascist methods to the colonial workers and peasants’ (Solidarity, May 1939).

Between the wars the RAF had frequently been used to bomb rebels in India, Iraq and elsewhere. In Iraq, 9000 rebels were killed or wounded by British forces in an unsuccessful revolt against colonial rule in 1920. Whole villages were destroyed by British artillery, and suspected rebels shot without trial. The RAF were used to machine gun villagers and to launch gas attacks, notoriously supported by Churchill who stated in 1919 that he was "strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes".

Soldiers from the British colonies played a significant role in the Allied victory, as did native resistance forces in western colonies occupied by the Japanese. Their reward was further repression at the hands of both Churchill and the post-war Labour Government.

In the Dutch colony of Indonesia, Japanese forces surrendered to the local resistance movement in August 1945. The resistance proclaimed a republic independent of Dutch colonial rule, to which Britain responded with a massive armed assault on the city of Surabaya. The city was shelled from British battleships and bombed by the RAF before being invaded with the help of rearmed Japanese soldiers under British officers. In this way Dutch colonial rule was re-established.

70,000 servicemen from the Gold Coast in Africa served with British forces in the war, out of a population of just 3,000,000. In 1948 police fired on a demonstration of demobilised ex-servicemen protesting at rising costs of living, killing two and sparking a major uprising. A general strike against British rule in 1950 was met with a state of siege and arrests.

In 1948, the British Labour Government presided over mass repression in Malaya, the occupation of which gave Britain control of 45% of world rubber production and 30% of the world output of tin. Striking workers were shot by police and workers organisations banned. In the 12 year armed conflict that followed, the British set up concentration camps and used assassination squads against suspected supporters of the Malayan Communist Party and other opponents of its rule.

We don’t have to look too far to find plenty of other horror stories from the other allied powers – witness the labour camps of the Soviet Union or the racist terror in the USA. (29 black workers were killed by police and other racists in the Detroit riots of June 1943).

To say that the allied powers committed atrocities before, during and after the war is not to downplay the Holocaust, or to claim that it was a mere detail (as the French fascist Le Pen put it). Of course there have been other genocides before and since, but there was something unique about deliberate mass industrialized extermination informed by a scientific ideology. Equally there is something obscene about creating a hierarchy of massacres, or arguing that one massacre justifies or nullifies another.

Why does it matter?

Is this all just a question of historical argument? Unfortunately not. The ideology of democratic, humanitarian, anti-fascist warfare is continually resurrected to legitimate the militarism of the British State and its NATO allies, as seen in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq.

More broadly anybody serious about confronting capitalism has to work through the legacy of British imperialism, racism and warfare which continues to shape political economy today. How else can we understand what’s currently going on with asylum seekers, or the continuing importance of the City of London in the world economy.

The far right and many liberal leftists claim to oppose capitalism but want to hold on to the nation state and its armed forces. Capitalism isn't just global financial institutions like the WTO or the IMF. Nor is just an abstract system of production and exchange. Confronting capitalism means challenging all that holds it in place - the military, camps for asylum seekers, nationalism… and monumental myths about the past.


May Day 2000:


World War One:

World War Two:

(version 1.2, last updated 12 July 2000)

See also A good day out in London? for further reflections on May Day 2000.

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