Ted Grant

Suez—the Crisis of Western Imperialism

Source: Workers’ International Review, vol. 1 no. 2 (December 1956-January 1957)
Transcription: Francesco 2009
Proofread: Fred 2009
Markup: Manuel 2009
Note: Ted Grant wrote under the pseudonym of George Edwards

Taking advantage of the involvement of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, with the national uprising against Russian domination in Hungary and Poland, and the stirring of the peoples in the other satellite countries; and with the attention of American Imperialism on the last stages of the American elections; Anglo-French Imperialism decided to strike in order to restore their dominance in the Middle East. The Israeli attack was obviously prepared with the collusion of Britain and France.

Using the flimsiest excuses about the necessity to “restore order and peace” and the “danger to navigation and the Suez Canal” the Governments of Britain and France launched the invasion at a time they considered favourable. For them if they were not to dwindle to second-rate Powers the reality of the present position this seemed the last chance to act. The stake was vital: Suez, Oil, the strategic position of the Middle East.

Despite its inconvenience they were quite prepared to throw off the mask of pacifism, of the cloak of the “United Nations” to gain this glittering prize. In addition for France there was the aim of strengthening her North African Empire, by destroying the apparent fountain head of Arab Nationalism in Cairo.

Their calculations were transparent. A swift military blow and the seizure of the Canal within two or three weeks. Having established themselves they could dictate terms. And once the struggle was over world and national public opinion would settle down and accept a “fait accompli”.

The puffed-up pretensions of the Nasser regime would soon be pricked. They had “double-crossed” their American “allies”—knowing that American capitalism would have to make the best of a bad job and accept a different relation of forces in the Middle East, without coming forward as the supreme arbiter.

Role of Israel

Their whole policy and position in the Middle East had collapsed in ruins, at a time when the Middle East had gained rather than diminished in importance for them and Western Europe economically, strategically, politically.

Israel, as a small power entirely dependent on Western imperialism is incapable of playing an independent role. With the war of France against the Arabic-speaking peoples of North Africa, and the loss of her Syrian and Lebanese colonies, France lacks a strong base in the area and turned to Israel as her point of support. From courting the Arab ruling classes in the area—not so long ago Britain supported tentatively a “solution” of the Arab-Israel conflict in the partition of Israel on the old Palestine plan of the United Nations—Britain decided to make a switch. To teach the Egyptian ruling class a “lesson” and act as a warning to the ruling class of the other Arab States she acted in collusion with Israel.

This was the policy of desperate bankrupts. For a decade, Britain had suffered a series of setbacks and defeats in the Middle East. She had acted at the end of the war to try and squeeze France out of the area, only to see the incursion of her ally and mighty overlord American Imperialism especially to back up the Great Oil Combines’ penetration of the region. Then, even worse, through the supply of arms and loans to Egypt, Syria and others, and even penetration by trade: Russia. For a century and more she had successfully blocked the path to Czarist infiltration only to see a far stronger Power, not even capitalist, successfully gain access to the area.

Since the attempt of Egypt to play off the Western Bloc of Powers against the Eastern, British policy has collapsed in ruins. The attempt first to do a deal with Nasser, then to exert financial and economic sanctions failed completely. Partly under American pressure Britain evacuated the Canal Zone, but failed to conciliate the Nasser regime. America in its turn opened the way to the Middle East crisis by vacillating, first conciliating, then exerting pressure, then trying to conciliate the Nasser clique. In the general debacle she was careless of the interests of her Western allies, in turn laying the basis for the present crisis.

Support for Nasser

Meanwhile Nasser’s policy of anti-Imperialism, of a struggle against Israel, for a nationalist unification of the Arab East was gaining more and more support in the area. Even in Jordan, a puppet creation of Britain which amounted to a subsidised base for British Imperialism, a ferment began among the masses and the Palestine refugees. Britain found her military “advisers” expelled under the pressure of the masses…and faced possible complete collapse of Jordan as a state. Anti-British imperialist parties gained a majority in the elections. Syria had turned her face to the Soviet Union. Even in Iraq, the last solid support for Britain, the ruling clique of semi-feudal landowners and capitalists found the ground shaking under their feet under the Nationalist awakening and adopted a more cool attitude towards Britain. British imperialist policy in the Middle East was facing utter catastrophe.

Under these circumstances, decaying British Imperialism decided to act. Probably she made a secret agreement with Israel to allow her to annex the Gaza strip, and in the event of the collapse of Jordan, Israel to seize with tacit British consent all the territory up to the Jordan river, Jordan proper to be absorbed by Iraq.

British Imperialism thus took to the road of naked power-politics with only the most transparent disguise. The Egyptian air force was rapidly immobilised or virtually destroyed and within a few days Port Said and a quarter of the Canal occupied.

But the propaganda of British Imperialism for the last few decades had saturated the consciousness of the British masses, not only the working class but the middle class as well. In defence of their loot they could rouse a response among the masses. As open “aggressors” clearly actuated by the interests of British Imperialism they lost the “moral” sanction that British Capitalism has hitherto managed successfully to put over in its struggles.

Here was a powerful lesson for the masses that the ruling class will descend to all methods in defence of their profits and privileges.

Character of opposition

Under these conditions from the open support of suggested British action in the Canal Zone which had been put forward by Gaitskell at the beginning of the Suez crisis, on the basis of “bi-partisanship” in foreign policy, the Labour leaders passed to opposition. For the Labour and Trade Union leadership, support would have meant the collapse of the entire ideological structure in international relations which they have built up in place of proletarian internationalism. This would have provoked a crisis perhaps confined at first to the active members of the Party. Thus Gaitskell and the other Labour leaders offered opposition on “moral” grounds to the intervention in Egypt against the wishes of the United Nations. But the opposition on the parliamentary plane and the resolutions of the T.U.C. had tremendous reverberations among the masses. The workers took the agitation seriously and wanted to mobilise for action. The dockers began to hold meetings threatening strike action for 24 hours. Other sections of the workers were moving forward demanding action by the trade unions. Some workers were pressing for a 24 hour general strike. Hastily the T.U.C. and the Labour leaders hurried to repudiate “unconstitutional action”, and announced that the struggle would be conducted in purely platonic fashion by opposition in Parliament and meetings and rallies in the country. At the same time opposition within the middle class was also very widespread. The flagrant violation of all the shibboleths of the past was too great for wide sections to stomach. Even within the ranks of the Conservative Party, including members of Parliament, misgiving was widespread.

The only way out for the Government in face of the impending mobilisation of the masses against the war lay in quick and easy success. The occupation of Port Said with negligible casualties seemed to presage success. But British Imperialism had not expected that the Soviet bureaucracy, embroiled in savagely suppressing the Hungarian Revolution, would be able to react to events in the Middle East. They were rudely awakened by the threats of intervention in the Soviet Note to Britain and France. “Volunteers” and arms for the Egyptian struggle were promised by the Russian press. China threatened to send 300,000 volunteers.

Under these circumstances the Egyptian struggle threatened to turn into a small war of attrition on the lines of the Korean War. But with the Opposition of the majority of the British people, the verbal opposition of the leadership of the Labour Movement would not have been able to hold the masses in check. Heavy casualties would have been answered by mass strikes, demanding an end of the war.

Russia and America

In addition the Eden adventure could only retain the support of the ruling clique on condition that it did not lead to complications. With the opposition of America, the threatened support of Russia, even if only indirectly for Egypt, and decisively the internal effects at home, the Eden Government had to retreat before completing their major objective, the seizure of the entire length of the Suez Canal.

Making the best of a half-completed job Britain and France ordered a cease-fire. They hope at least to gain the “internationalisation” of the Suez Canal through the United Nations, in agreement with the United States.

Meanwhile in the words of the Daily Herald, “Britain and France have been cut down to size, and reduced to their status of second-rate Powers.” The feeble gesture has left British capitalism even more dependent on the American ruling class.

The Suez Canal has been blocked and it may take weeks or even months to clear it. Oil pipelines have been blown up in Syria. Throughout the Middle East Anglo-French Imperialism has earned a redoubled antagonism and hatred among the masses.

The French have failed in their objective of overawing the Algerian masses by a crushing of the Nasser regime. Thus the project has misfired.

In Egypt the rottenness of the regime has been exposed by the collapse of the Egyptian army in Sinai and the Gaza strip within a few days attack by the Israeli army. The opposition to the British and French paratroops landings was more in the nature of token resistance rather than a battle to the death. Egypt, like the other Arab States in the Middle East, remains a semi-feudal regime where the poverty of the masses, living only slightly above starvation level, contrasts with the opulence of the landlords and capitalists. Thus the rank and file of the army, recruited from the landless fellahin, lacked the morale to wage a determined struggle. The Army Junta in Egypt, attempting to turn the discontent of the masses against Imperialism, nevertheless is undermined by the failure to solve the land problem in the interests of the land-hungry masses.

The crisis continues

Nothing has been solved. The Middle East remains a powder-keg of discontent and antagonisms. The attempt to squeeze out Russian and American influence has failed. The Russian influence in the area is increased. Throughout the world the Anglo-French Imperialists have incurred the odium of being “aggressors”. In addition the bill for the short-lived and inglorious adventure has yet to be paid. Oil, food and raw materials will all rise in price in the coming months. The cost of living will increase steeply.

In the meantime the inertia which hung over the working class in the last years has been dispelled by these events. The trade union leadership will be compelled to voice the demands of the workers against making the masses pay for the crimes of the Government. Shortage of oil may cause a slow-down of industrial production. Thus both at home and abroad the convulsive reaction of British Imperialism will further underline its loss of power.

At a period when it will be most difficult for the Tory Government to make concessions, due to conditions on the world market, it will be faced with the problem of either allowing wage increases or having big industrial struggles. Either way can only accentuate the decline in the power of aged British capitalism. Industrial struggles will further weaken the prestige of British Imperialism, concessions would provoke once again a flight from the Pound, due to the unsound position of the British economy.

The way out

The relations between British capitalism and her dominant partner America will have to be sorted out, with Britain accepting the role of very secondary partner.

In the Middle East the ferment of the Arab masses will be further increased by these events. The yearning for unity of all the Arab States will receive a powerful impetus. The rottenness of the feudal-capitalist rulers has been revealed. The way is being prepared for a new Nationalist upsurge, which will further complicate the problem for the Imperialist Powers.

For the British workers, the problems of Suez and the Middle East can only be solved in the interests of the Arab and British peoples by a struggle for power on a Socialist programme, which would include mutual aid and assistance to the Colonial Peoples. Reliance on the Dis-United Nations can merely bind the masses hand and foot with the knots of the discords of the Great Powers. The only way to solve the problem of this modern Gordian knot, is to cut through the tangle, with an uncompromising class anti-Imperialist policy. For the working class there can be no other solution.