November 8, 2020 | 9 minutes read | Tags: Class struggle in Britain, Anti-imperialism & world revolution, News & Analysis

The Poppy Appeal: An Ode to British Imperialism

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

The Poppy Appeal: An Ode to British Imperialism

That time of year is upon us once again. As soon as November comes around, those of us in Britain cannot avoid seeing and hearing about, as well as engaging with the Royal British Legion’s ‘Poppy appeal’; a national campaign, ostensibly of ‘remembrance’ of war dead. Originally a product of World War I, the British Legion has expanded the scope of this ‘remembrance’ to such a point where the expressed position of the Legion is that its appeal extends to all British service personnel past and present, with the funds raised from poppy sales serving to take the burden off the Ministry of Defence through providing “lifelong support to serving and ex-serving personnel and their families.”

Whether World War conscripts drafted to kill other working class European forces for the benefit of the British imperialist bourgeoisie, murderers of innocents in occupied Ireland, or participants in the lootings of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya of the twenty-first century: the British Legion’s reverence for British crown forces, pawns of the imperialist bourgeoisie, is plain to see and all socialists in Britain must reject and combat it as part of our anti-imperialist duties.  On this basis, it is claimed and historicised in this article that the Poppy Appeal and the Royal British Legion exist as an ode to and a propping up of British imperialism past and present, as well as a broader promotion of reactionary nationalism that the working classes should reject in favour of anti-imperialist solidarity.

The roots of the Poppy’s association with remembrance of war-dead can be first seen in the poem of (imperialist) Canadian Colonel John McCrae. In Flanders Fields was popularised by Moira Michael, who after reading it in 1918 deemed it a fitting token of remembrance. The Poppy was formally adopted as a mark of remembrance by the newly founded British Legion in 1921, carrying the glowing approval of wartime British Field Marshall Douglas Haig (the Butcher of the Somme).[1] With such origins in mind, it is often stated that the Poppy Appeal exists as an apolitical mark of respect and remembrance of those killed in WWI and WWII, who are said to have ‘died for our freedom’ and thereby worthy of commemoration. But as will become clear, this is at odds with not only the Royal British Legion’s position on the meaning of the Poppy and whom it commemorates, but is too predicated upon a misrepresentation of the nature of the World Wars.

The presentation of the Poppy as an apolitical symbol of WWI remembrance is swiftly dismissed when its nature as a token of victory for British imperialism becomes clear, by virtue of the very fact that its utility rests solely in the hands of those imperialist powers who claimed ‘victory’ in the First World War. Indeed, historian James Fox notes that “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, in other words, 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]

A related task is that of identifying what exactly laid at the centre of WWI, the need to identify the antagonisms became so irreconcilable as to render it inevitable, and why therefore any attempts to depoliticise it are as much of an absurdity as is conceivable. As Lenin, Sylvia Pankhurst, John Maclean and other socialists identified at the time, this war was an imperialist war; the culmination of increasing inter-imperialist rivalries and the stark reality of the necessity of a redivision of territorial boundaries to consolidate access to markets and resources for the European bourgeoisies of the day. The question of victory in such a war can therefore only be understood through a recognition of for whom this was a victory: the imperialist bourgeoisies of the victorious nations. The answer to what was to be gained from such monumental bloodletting is most clear upon observation of the aftermath: the treaties of Versailles and Sèvres in 1920, core components of each being the redivision of territories of the German and Ottoman Empires respectively. This saw Germany cede ‘its’ African colonies to other European imperialist powers, East Asian colonies to Japan and Samoa to New Zealand, the French seizure of Syria and Lebanon, and the British acquisition of mandates for Mesopotamia (Iraq), its oil fields, as well as Palestine from Ottoman rule as stipulated by the newly-established League of Nations, in addition to ‘protectorate’ satellite administration over much of the Arabian Peninsula. Indeed, put into perspective, the British Empire held pre-war in 1914 11,900,000 square miles of land, commanding 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.[3] That this was an imperialist war is beyond doubt when observing this “division of the spoils” and central role of empire to this war.[4]

The question of victory in WWI, then, was not one of victory for the working classes of Britain, nor a matter of guaranteeing their freedom as the RBL and many others (including former-PM David Cameron) have asserted, but a ‘victory’ for the reactionary nationalism of British capitalism. The ‘remembering’ of such slaughters in the manner the RBL encourages, and the wider culture surrounding the Poppy, indisputably promotes an air of gratitude and pride in one’s country’s (imperialist) war efforts instead of repulsion, pity for all victims and revolutionary animosity among the working classes of Britain. This is sign enough of the imperialist, national chauvinist nature of this ‘remembrance’ and ‘commemoration’ which is in reality the most political of glorifications. A truly working class approach to WWI cannot be anything other than identifying it as a source only of more contempt for the murderous imperialist ruling classes of Europe, and another justification for their overthrow in a socialist revolution. These were and continue to be ruling classes who would sooner send hundreds of thousands of exploited classes to the abattoir in pursuit of new populations to colonise than to allow the liberation of the subjugated of Europe and the colonised of the world. This imperialist war being seen as anything other than a travesty for all sides is an imperative the RBL categorically does not and cannot adhere to on account of its continued centrality to the British imperialist project.

Similarly, the RBL declares that the Poppy commemorates British forces serving in WWII, to celebrate their sacrifices and the ‘triumph’ over fascism. But this too represents a revisionist presentation of another imperialist war; for in reality it was but another culmination of inter-imperialist rivalry, with the added crimes of the imperialist powers of America and Europe enabling, profiting from and appeasing fascist ascension to stem the tide of socialist revolution until the very moment that fascism became a threat to global imperialist hegemony of particularly Britain, the USA and France. Indeed, throughout the war western capitalist 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.[5] The assertion that Allied efforts in WWII (excluding the Soviet Union) were rooted in anti-fascism or represented a battle of good against evil could not be further from the truth; the reality of Britain’s war effort and the motivations of wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill (an admirer of Mussolini) were geared to protecting Britain’s Empire and hegemony.[6] The notion of Britain’s war efffort as anti-fascist is dismissed as the fallacy it is by the fact of Hitlerite facism’s application of British colonial methods to Europe, with Trinidad-born communist George Padmore observing that “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.” Like the First World War, then, there is no justification for the celebratory remembrance promoted by the Poppy cultists for a bloodletting of imperialism’s own making, nor is there any viable anti-imperialist alternative to rejecting such commemoration wholesale.

More broadly, there is the question of ‘whom is being remembered’ by the Poppy appeal? The RBL answers this question plainly; that the campaign commemorates all service personnel in British armed forces from WWI “up to the present”, without exclusion. The reverence of imperialist butchery is put beyond all question with this being brought into the frame. On this basis, it matters not to the Royal British Legion what crimes since WWI British forces committed, be it 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 RBL says the Poppy remembers and reveres the perpetrators of these crimes.[7] Equally, the RBL includes in its campaign of ‘remembrance’ those British imperial forces who crushed the anti-imperialist Malayan resistance that threatened British control of rubber plantations and tin mines, which saw 4500 British airstrikes in the first five years of the so-called ‘emergency’, a counterinsurgency campaign initiated by Attlee’s Labour government.[8] Those responsible for the killing of over 10,000 and internment of some 80,000 Kenyans in the Mau-Mau uprising of 1952-56, like those responsible the murder of 14 unarmed protestors in Derry in 1972 by British occupation forces on what became known as Bloody Sunday, are too by necessity among those ‘remembered’ and supported by the Poppy Appeal and its fundraising.[9] In more recent times, the Poppy is held up in remembrance of those British coalition forces complicit in the looting and mass murder of the hundreds of thousands killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. There are countless more examples of British imperialist pillage and butchery since the end of WWI that the RBL insists on extending its ‘remembrance’ to, but this brief list should go some way in illustrating the complete and utter moral bankruptcy of a Royal British Legion campaign that ‘commemorates’ the terrorist agents of British imperialism.

Not only does the RBL ‘commemorate’ agents of imperialism, but actively funnels the proceeds raised by its Poppy Appeal to continue to prop up the British imperialist military machine and take the burden off of the Ministry of Defence through ‘charitable’ work with current and ex-military service personnel and their families, as they proudly proclaim on their website. This continued function of not merely legitimisation and commemoration, but the active aiding of agents of British imperialism tears away any grounds for arguing for the ‘respectful and apolitical’ meaning of the Poppy: the opposite is true, it celebrates imperialist butchers of the past and supports those of the present.

The real function and purpose of the Poppy, then, is not to express “hope for a peaceful future” as the RBL claims, but to peddle a reactionary jingoistic narrative palatable to British imperialism, and to dupe the working classes into viewing the massacring of their classes and the exploited of the world at the altar of imperialist capital through a lens of pride and commemoration that goes hand in hand with narratives of victory that in reality were victories for the allied bourgeoisies. The morphing together of ‘remembrance’ and victory reflects the partisan realities of the Poppy Appeal’s celebration of imperialism, and only 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.

There have been in recent years initiatives that attempt to push back against the Poppy culture and the British Legion’s weaponization of remembrance, perhaps most notably the Peace Pledge Union’s white poppy campaign. Though the white poppy does not glorify agents of imperialism with the same narrow nationalistic ferocity as the RBL, and correctly places an emphasis on civilian deaths in conflict, it suffers the fatal error of grouping together agents of imperialism and their victims, expressing the need to remember ‘all victims of all wars’. Through asserting that “we 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” there is necessarily carried the sentiment that, for example, British military deaths in occupied Ireland are equally worthy of ‘remembrance’ as civilian victims of the British- and American-led invasion of Iraq. 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 rests on a gross misrepresentation and rehabilitation of imperialism and illustrates the bankruptcy of the white poppy’s so-called narrative of peace.

Finally, is the matter of the alternative. A principled, socialist, and anti-imperialist position can only be to reject the RBL and the Poppy Appeal in its entirety and to identify it for what it is: an ode to British imperialism and a promotion of reactionary bourgeois jingoism. Instead, we must fight for international solidarity among the oppressed and working classes of the world, direct support towards anti-imperialist struggles globally and choose 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] Heartfield and Rooney, Blood-Stained Poppy, pp. 64-5.

[4] Ibid.

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

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

[7] Heartfield and Rooney, Blood-Stained Poppy, pp.119-20.

[8] Ibid., pp. 124-5.

[9] Ibid., pp. 125-133.