November 11, 2022 | 9 minutes read | Tags: Anti-imperialism & world revolution, Bourgeois Politics, Class struggle in Britain

The Poppy Appeal: A Symbol of British Imperialism

A principled, socialist, and anti-imperialist position can only be to reject the Poppy Appeal in its entirety and to identify it for what it is: an ode to British imperialism.

The Poppy Appeal: A Symbol of British Imperialism

Author: DC is a member of Red Fightback's North London branch. This article updates and replaces one originally posted on Red Fightback's website for Remembrance Day in 2020.

As soon as November comes around those of us in Britain cannot avoid seeing and hearing about the Royal British Legion’s ‘Poppy Appeal’.  What is the history of this national campaign, ostensibly for the ‘remembrance’ for war dead?  And what role does it currently serve?  Originating as a product of the first World War, the scope of the Appeal has since been extended to the remembrance of all British service personnel past and present.   In doing so it has become crucial to the public framing of all subsequent British military operations.

The British Legion’s reverence for British crown forces is evident.  Our position is entirely the opposite: the British military are pawns of the imperialist bourgeoisie.  Whether the World War conscripts drafted to kill other proletarians for the British empire, the murderers of innocents in occupied Ireland, or the participants in the lootings of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya in the twenty-first century, this link is present throughout.  The Poppy Appeal and the Royal British Legion serve as paeans to and active aids of British imperialism past and present, going hand in hand with a reactionary, bourgeois nationalism, and serving to exonerate British imperialism of its crimes through rewriting, whitewashing and deification.  As such, socialists in Britain must reject and combat it as part of our anti-imperialist duties.

The Origin of the Poppy

The roots of the Poppy’s association with remembrance of war-dead are in a poem of Canadian Colonel John McCrae. In Flanders Fields was popularised by Moira Michael who, after reading it in 1918, deemed it a fitting commemoration. The Poppy was formally adopted as a mark of remembrance by the newly-founded British Legion in 1921, receiving the glowing approval of Field Marshall Douglas Haig - the Butcher of the Somme.[1] These origins render doubtful at best the common claim that the Poppy Appeal exists as an 'apolitical' mark of respect and remembrance of those killed in the first World War. The argument that the Poppy is apolitical rings hollow when you notice that the supposedly 'innocent' token of remembrance is only used by those imperialist powers who claimed victory in the first World War. Indeed, as historian James Fox has noted:

The poppy never found its way into the cultural practices of the war’s defeated nations, and that may be because the only men whose sacrifice was believed to deserve such a symbol were those who had fought on the ‘right’ side. Poppies [...] had been converted into victory medals. And if doubts still linger over the partisan politics of the memorial poppy, one only need name the person who introduced it to Britain: Field Marshall Douglas Haig – a man who had a vested interest in justifying the conflict to whose victory he had so controversially contributed.[2]

The unavoidably political roots of the war, lying in the antagonisms within world imperialism, also help dismiss the suggestion its symbolisation by the Poppy could avoid a political slant. As Lenin, Sylvia Pankhurst, John Maclean and other socialists identified at the time, this war was an imperialist war; the culmination of inter-imperialist rivalries, and an expression of the leading capitalist powers' need for a re-division of territorial boundaries to enable their bourgeoisies access to markets and resources. Therefore the victors of the war were only the imperialist bourgeoisies of those nations. We can see this from what gains the victors demanded: the treaties of Versailles and Sèvres in 1920, which re-allocated colonial possession of the German[3] and Ottoman[4] Empires to the victorious European powers.[5]

The victory obtained in the first World War was not obtained for the working classes of Britain, but for the reactionary nationalism of British capitalism. Nor was the war a matter of 'guaranteeing their freedom' as the Royal British Legion and many others have asserted. The Legion's reverential ‘remembrance’ of such slaughters, and the wider culture surrounding the Poppy that it promotes, is based on putting pride in ‘one’s country’ and its imperialist war efforts. It turns the victims of imperialist bloodletting into victors and heroes fighting for a freedom and democracy that the war did not bring them. Similarly, the post-war peace process did not bring self-determination for colonial subjects: Woodrow Wilson’s narrow conception of self-determination denied anti-colonial claims.[6] This nationalist remembrance of (only British) war dead glorifies imperialist war and legitimises the logic of imperialist bourgeoisies - who would sooner send hundreds of thousands of exploited classes to an abattoir for their profits, than allow the liberation of the subjugated classes of Europe or sacrifice their superprofits from the Global South and colonised world.

This distortion is not accidental, or tolerable. The first World War cannot be understood as anything other than a travesty for the working and oppressed peoples of the world, and as a monumental land and resource grab by imperialists. By suppressing this, the Royal British Legion plays a deliberate supporting role in the British imperialist project, manufacturing consent for the capitalist state and its imperialist wars. Even the proceeds from poppy sales serve to ease the Ministry of Defence’s burden by providing “lifelong support to serving and ex-serving personnel and their families.”

Extension of the Appeal

The Legion first expanded the Appeal to British forces serving in the second World War, to celebrate their sacrifices and the ‘triumph’ over fascism. Unsurprisingly it rested on another revisionist presentation of imperialist war, with WWII being a further culmination of inter-imperialist rivalry. Far from being anti-fascist, the imperialist powers of America and Europe enabled, appeased and profited from fascist ascension in the hope it would stem the tide of socialist revolution, commiting themselves to this view until the very moment fascism threatened their hegemony. Further, throughout the war itself western firms like the American General Motors and Ford continued to invest in the German economy, and profited from Germany’s waging of war and genocide.[7]

The assertion that Allied efforts in the second World War, excluding those of the Soviet Union, were rooted in principled anti-fascism is patently untrue. In reality both Britain’s war effort and the designs of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill (himself rather an admirer of Mussolini) were geared to protecting Britain’s Empire and its hegemony.[8] Before the British Empire was threatened by fascism, the Nazis looked to British colonial methods and American racial hierarchies for inspiration for their European project. Indeed, Hitler himself saw similarities between his colonial ambitions in Eastern Europe and British rule in India, arguing "Russian territory is our India and, just as the English rule India with a handful of people, so we will govern this our colonial territory”[9] In this sense, fascist imperialism can be seen as closely related to general European imperialism, but brought home to Europe. As Trinidadian communist and Pan-Africanist George Padmore observed:

It is no exaggeration to say that Hitler and his Gestapo sadists are merely applying, with the usual Germanic efficiency, in Poland and other conquered countries, colonial practices borrowed lock, stock and barrel from the British in Southern Africa.

How much further has the Poppy Appeal been extended? Who else does it remember and how? For the Royal British Legion the answer is plain: the campaign commemorates all service personnel in British armed forces from the first World War, up to the present, without exclusion. With such a basis, it is beyond question that the Poppy is a symbol of reverence for imperialist butchery. The slaughter of 329 Indians at the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919? The devastation of Iraq in 1920 by the RAF - who dropped 97 tons of bombs and poison killing 9,000 in response to Arab and Kurdish resistance to the Sykes-Picot division of Arabia? The Legion says the Poppy is to remember and honour the perpetrators of these crimes.[10] The British imperial forces who crushed the anti-imperialist Malayan resistance[11], which saw 4500 British airstrikes in the first five years of the so-called ‘emergency’? Those responsible for the killing of over 10,000 and internment of some 80,000 Kenyans in the Mau-Mau uprising of 1952-56? Those British occupation forces who murdered fourteen unarmed protestors in Derry in 1972, on what became known as Bloody Sunday? They too are among those remembered and supported by the Poppy Appeal and its fundraising.[12]

There are of course countless more examples of British imperialist pillage and butchery since the end of the first World War, and the Legion insists the Poppy remembers and honours them all. More recently the Poppy is held up in honour of British coalition forces complicit in the looting and mass murder of the hundreds of thousands killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The Appeal is utterly morally bankrupt, unreserved in its commitment to commemorating terrorist agents of British imperialism.

The real function and purpose of the Poppy, then, cannot possibly be to express “hope for a peaceful future” as the Royal British Legion claims. The path to such a future requires the destruction of the British military, not its glorification. Nor is it to commemorate those who have ‘died for our freedom’. Its real function is to peddle a reactionary jingoistic narrative palatable to British imperialism, portraying as a common victory what in reality was a victory for the allied bourgeoisies. Its role is to build a lens of pride and commemoration, focussed away from the massacre of the working class and of the exploited peoples of the world at the altar of imperialist capital. The Poppy Appeal demonstrates the success of the British bourgeoisie’s propagandising and rewriting of the British military’s history and functions into a parable of British nobility and honour, borne out by victory in the World Wars and perpetuated by continued glorification of British and NATO imperialism globally ever since.

The Alternative

There have been recent initiatives that attempt to push back against the Poppy culture and the Legion’s weaponization of remembrance. Perhaps most notable is the Peace Pledge Union’s white poppy campaign. The the white poppy does not glorify agents of imperialism with the same narrow nationalistic ferocity as the Royal British Legion, and correctly places an emphasis on civilian deaths in conflict. However it suffers the fatal error of grouping together agents of imperialism and their victims, expressing the need to remember "all victims of all wars."[13] This draws an unacceptable equivalence between imperialism and its victims or those killed resisting it, implying that they are both equally worthy of commemoration. Such a position of abstract pacifism rests on a gross misrepresentation of imperialism - in fact it goes so far as to be a rehabilitation of imperialism, as an evil to be commiserated but never materially resisted. As such - although less egregious - the White Poppy too is bankrupt.

Instead a principled, socialist, and anti-imperialist position can only be to reject both the Royal British Legion and the Poppy Appeal in their entirety. We must identify the Appeal for it for what it is: an ode to British imperialism and a promotion of reactionary bourgeois jingoism. We must fight against this, for international solidarity among the oppressed and working classes of the world, for direct support of anti-imperialist struggles globally, and for internationalism over narrow bourgeois nationalist politics of glorification.

Down with imperialism, down with the blood-stained Poppy and the bankrupt imperialist politics of commemorating Britain’s crimes!

  1. Kevin Rooney and James Heartfield, The Blood-Stained Poppy Winchester: Zero Books, 2019), pp.8-10. ↩︎

  2. James Fox, “Poppy Politics: Remembrance of Things Present”, Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2014), pp. 24-5. ↩︎

  3. These treaties saw Germany cede its African colonies to victorious European nations and South Africa, its East Asian territories to Japan and New Zealand ↩︎

  4. The collapsing Ottoman Empire lost Syria and Lebanon to France, and the British secured 'mandates' for Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine with the approval of the new League of Nations, along with 'protectorate' administration over much of the Arabian Peninsula. ↩︎

  5. The growth of the British Empire puts this division of the spoils into perspective: the British Empire held 11,900,000 square miles of land pre-WWI in 1914, and commanded a population of 412 million people (23 per-cent of the world’s population). After the post-war ‘peace’ treaties, this territorial control had risen to 13,700,000 square miles (nearly a quarter of all the world’s land) and 460 million people, Heartfield and Rooney, Blood-Stained Poppy, pp. 64-5. This increase in territory and access to raw materials and new markets was Britain's 'prize' for victory, showing the utter bankruptcy of the 'peace process' as a mechanism for imperialist expansion and vindication of the imperilaist ends for which Britain fought the war. ↩︎

  6. Indeed, Woodrow Wilson's liberal doctrine of self-determination, unlike Lenin's revolutionary and anti-colonial conception, explicitly excluded non-European colonial populations and did not question the logic of the world colonial system or support decolonisation. Instead, its scope was confined to self-determination within defeated European empires such as the Austro-Hungarian. ↩︎

  7. Michael Parenti, Blackshirts and Reds: Rational Fascism and the Overthrow of Communism (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1997), P. 19. ↩︎

  8. Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill Volume V: Prophet of Truth 1922-1939 (Michigan: Hillsdale College Press, 1976) P. 226 ↩︎

  9. Jürgen Zimmerer, ‘Colonialism and the Holocaust: Towards an Archaeology of Genocide’ in Henning Melber and John Y. Jones (eds.), Development Dialogue, 50, P. 95). ↩︎

  10. Heartfield and Rooney, Blood-Stained Poppy, pp. 119-20. ↩︎

  11. Which threatened British control of rubber plantations and tin mines, and was repressed by a counterinsurgency campaign initiated by Attlee’s Labour government. Ibid., pp. 124-5. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., pp. 125-133. ↩︎

  13. The campaign asserts that they "want to remember British military dead, but they are not the only victims of war […] suffering does not stop at national borders, and nor should remembrance” ↩︎