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B. Farnborough

Marxists in the Second World War

From Labour Review, Vol. 4 No. 1, April–May 1959, pp. 25–28.
B. Farnborough was a pseudonym of Brian Pearce. [1]
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan.Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

William Hunter’s article in the December Labour Review is a most valuable contribution to the literature of his subject. Nevertheless I think it needs to be supplemented if the reader is to understand clearly the difference between the Marxist line and that of the ‘Communist’ Party in the period before June 22, 1941, when Hitler attacked Russia; and between the Marxist line and the line of, say, the Independent Labour Party in the period after that historic date. It is also important to show that the Marxists did not mechanically repeat Lenin’s slogans of 1914–17 in the war of 1939–45.

The British Stalinists, after their initial blunder of proclaiming support for the war (and calling for an allied offensive from the Maginot Line into Germany), turned, not to Lenin’s line of ‘turn the imperialist war into civil war’, but to demanding that peace be made on the basis of the Soviet-German declaration of September 28, 1939 (Poland’s done for, so what is there to fight about?’). The pamphlet Why This War?, by R.P. Dutt, issued at the beginning of November, stated: ‘The government must be compelled to make peace. We demand an immediate Armistice and the calling of a peace Conference’ (p. 18), and did not shrink from changing the wording of Karl Liebknecht’s slogan from ‘the main enemy is at home’ into ‘the enemy is at home’ (p. 23). During the entire period up to the fall of France the British Communist Party functioned as a propaganda agency for Hitler. Typical was the editorial in the Daily Worker of February 1, 1940, commenting on a speech by the Führer: ‘Hitler repeated once again his claim that the war was thrust upon him by Britain. Against this historic fact there is no reply. Britain declared war, not Germany. Attempts were made to end this war, but the Soviet-German peace overtures were rejected by Britain.’ Already in this period the Marxists had to differentiate their approach from that of the Stalinists: ‘The Militant wants peace, but it does not want an imperialist peace ... The peace which the Daily Worker now demands on behalf of Hitler and Stalin is an imperialist peace,’ declared the London Militant in its issue of October 1939.

Hitler’s onslaught on the Low Countries and France, the sell-out by the French ruling class headed by Pétain, the immediate menace of invasion of Britain, and the repercussions of all this among the capitalists and the workers of this country respectively, drew from the British Communist Party a remarkable manifesto, published on June 22, 1940. This warned against the Churchill government, which not only contained ‘men of Munich’ but also compromised the defence of the people by identifying it with ‘the maintenance of Empire possessions and the dominance of the ruling class’. If the workers were to ‘defeat all their enemies within and without Britain’, a new government must come to power, ‘really representative of the working people, a government in which there shall be no representative of imperialism or friend of fascism’. All responsible for the situation must be cleared out of commanding, positions, in the services and in the economy; the key industries nationalized; workers’ control committees take over in the enterprises; the workers armed, on a factory basis; the class system in the appointment of officers broken down; complete freedom for the working-class movement ensured; the subject people of the Empire liberated.

What is particularly interesting about this manifesto is that it substantially coincided with the line indicated by Trotsky in his last writings (he was murdered in August 1940). Thus in his reply to some questions from American friends he wrote:

’The American workers do not want to be conquered by Hitler, and to those who say “Let us have a peace programme”, the workers will reply “But Hitler does not want a peace programme”. Therefore we say: We will defend the United States with a workers’ army, with workers’ officers, with a workers’ government etc. ... It would be doubly stupid to present a purely abstract pacifist position today: the feeling the masses have is that it is necessary to defend themselves. We must say: “Roosevelt (or Willkie) says it is necessary to defend the country: good! Only it must be our country, not that of the Sixty Families and their Wall Street. The army must be under our own command; we must have our own officers, who will be loyal to us.” In this way we can find an approach to the masses that will not push them away from us, and thus prepare them for the second step – a more revolutionary one. We must use the example of France to the very end ...

Again, in a memorandum commenting on a ‘very pretentious, very muddled and stupid article’ in the Partisan Review for July–August 1940, Trotsky warned against a mechanical resuscitation of Lenin’s slogans:

The present war, as we have stated on more than one occasion, is a continuation of the last war. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. As a general rule, a continuation signifies a development, a deepening, a sharpening. Our policy, the policy of the revolutionary proletariat towards the second imperialist war is a continuation of the policy elaborated during the last imperialist war. primarily under Lenin’s leadership. But a continuation does not signify a repetition ... In 1915 Lenin referred in his writings to revolutionary wars which the victorious proletariat would have to wage. But it was a question of an indefinite historical prospect, and not of the task for the next day ... The second world war poses the question of change of regimes more imperiously, more urgently, than did the first war. It is first and foremost a question of the political regime. The workers are aware that democracy is suffering shipwreck everywhere, and that they are threatened by fascism even in those countries where fascism is as yet non-existent.

The implications of Trotsky’s ideas were fully worked out, after his death, at a special conference of the Socialist Workers’ Party of the USA held at Chicago in September 1940, which adopted what was called ‘the military policy’, a policy for proletarianizing the armed forces. Speaking on this occasion, James P. Cannon said:

‘Our fight against war under conditions of peace was correct as far as it went. But it was not adequate. It must be extended. The old principles, which remain unchanged, must be applied concretely to the new conditions of permanent war and universal militarism. We didn’t visualize a world situation in which whole countries would be conquered by fascist armies. The workers don’t want to be conquered by foreign invaders, above all by fascists. They require a programme of military struggle against foreign invaders which assures their class independence. That is the gist of the problem.

‘Many times in the past we were put to a certain disadvantage: the demagogy of the social democrats against us was effective to a certain extent. They said: “You have no answer to the question of how to fight against Hitler, how to prevent Hitler from conquering France, Belgium etc.” (Of course, their programme was very simple – the suspension of the class struggle and complete subordination of the workers to the bourgeoisie. We have seen the results of this treacherous policy.) Well, we answered in a general way, the workers will first overthrow the bourgeoisie at home, and then they will take care of invaders. That was a good programme, but the workers did not make the revolution in time. Now the two tasks must be telescoped and carried out simultaneously ...

‘We are willing to fight Hitler. No worker wants to see that gang of fascist barbarians overrun this country or any country. But we want to fight fascism under a leadership we can trust ... We will never let anything happen as it did in France .... The workers themselves must take charge of this fight against Hitler, and anybody else who invades their rights ...

‘The contradiction between the patriotism of the bourgeoisie and that of the masses must be the point of departure of our revolutionary activity We must base ourselves upon the reality of war and upon the reaction of the masses towards the events of the war ...

This policy became the policy of the Marxists in Britain in the months following the fall of France. Thus, for example, in the December 1940 issue of Youth for Socialism, an article The War Extends concluded:

‘No worker in this country wants to come under the bloody tyranny of Hitler. On the contrary he will fight against this with all his strength. But he cannot do this while Britain is capitalist; while India is in bondage; while the capitalist class controls the Army and the workers are unarmed.

‘The defeat of Hitler, the defence of Britain, the ending of the war – these are not simply a matter of superior arms or more numerous arms. More important is – who wields the arms and for what? If it is exploited workers fighting for capitalism, their “victory” will not be so very different from “defeat”. But if it is militant workers fighting for socialism they will, besides the weapons they take out of the hands of the capitalists, have one supreme weapon against it which Hitler cannot fight – the fact that the German worker can now join them in the fight against Hitler, free from the fear of British capitalism waiting to pounce on them.’

A policy decision of the Marxist ‘Workers’ International League’ pointed out that it would be wrong to lump the ‘defencist’ feeling of the masses with that of the capitalist class or the Labour leadership. ‘The defencism of the masses stems largely from entirely progressive motives of preserving their own class organizations and democratic rights from destruction at the hands of fascism and from a foreign invader’; and it was accompanied by ‘a deep-seated suspicion of the aims and slogans of the ruling class’. The Marxists’ task was to find ways of separating the workers from the capitalists and their lackeys, following out the indication given by Trotsky, in the Transitional Programme (1938), that in the patriotism of the masses there are ‘elements which we must know how to seize upon in order to draw the requisite conclusions’. Youth for Socialism of February 1941 carried an article on the approach once more of the campaigning season, under the headlines: Arm the Workers: The Only Guarantee against Hitler’s Invasion (Not by curtailing the power of the workers in the factory and the Army – but by organizing workers’ control of industry and arms can there be a guarantee of victory not only over Hitler but over the Fifth Column gang of capitalists at home ...).

Now this policy, which the British Communist Party had in essence proclaimed as its own in the manifesto of June 22, 1940, was abandoned by that party within a few weeks. Ivor Montagu’s book The Traitor Class, an expansion of the manifesto’s central idea, was formally repudiated by William Rust in a review in the Labour Monthly of November 1940. The Stalinists had embarked in August – following the dispatch by the Churchill government of the Cripps mission to Moscow – on a new line which concentrated on calling for a ‘People’s Government’ which should strengthen ‘friendship with the USSR’. At the People’s Convention assembled in January 1941 under Stalinist guidance the following five amendments, moved by the Southall branch of the National Union of Railwaymen, on Marxist inspiration, were all turned down by the Standing Orders Committee: ‘The arming of the working class under the control of the trade unions and workers’ committees’; ‘nationalization of banks, land, transport and large industries without compensation’; ‘unconditional defence of the USSR against capitalist attack’; ‘the immediate ending of the party truce with the insistence on a campaign for Labour to take full power on the basis of this programme as the first step to the overthrow of the capitalist system and the seizure of power by the working class’; and ‘a socialist appeal to the German and European workers for the overthrow of their own capitalist class simultaneously with the struggle against British capitalism and the establishment of a United States of Socialist Europe.’

The Marxist line in this period was succinctly put by the New York Militant: ‘The real solution is to transform the imperialist war into a war against fascism’ (March 15, 1941).

When the attack on the Soviet Union took place, the immediate reaction of the British Communist Party was to call for a new government and a purge of reactionary elements in controlling positions, as the only guarantee of a genuine alliance with Russia. But after diplomatic talks in Moscow had convinced the panic-stricken Soviet bureaucracy that the British imperialists were now their good friends, the line changed abruptly – as may be seen by comparing World News and Views of June 28 with the same paper of July 12. From then on till 1945 the British Stalinists were for full support to the Churchill Government and the war which it was conducting. Suggestions that aid to the Soviet Union was not incompatible with, and even perhaps required, a fight against Churchill, were denounced as ‘treachery’ – this in spite of the view expressed by J.R. Campbell in his ‘recantation’ statement published in World News and Views, December 2, 1939, that ‘the policy of the fight on two fronts ... would have been a correct policy (in peace or in war) with regard to an imperialist government in alliance with the Soviet Union’.

Similarly rebuffed as ‘criminal nonsense’ were suggestions that because the Red Army was fighting a just war that did not necessarily and automatically change the character of the war being waged by British imperialism. War was ‘indivisible’, it was proclaimed; like peace in Litvinov’s day. Conveniently forgotten was the document circulated within the party, under date April 24, 1941, on The Situation in the Balkans, at the time when Stalin was flirting with Yugoslav and Greek resistance to Hitler’s aggression (in May he dropped the countries in question like hot bricks, expelling their ambassadors from Moscow, in frantic appeasement of his Nazi ally). In this document it had been affirmed that ‘the fact that British forces, fighting for the aims of British imperialism, were fighting alongside the Greek forces, does not alter the main character of the Greek struggle, any more than the supply of arms and munitions by the United States (in pursuit of the aims of American imperialism) alters the main character of the Chinese war of defence against conquest and enslavement by Japan’.

In the new phase of the war the Marxists continued the main trend of their policy unchanged. Thus, the Socialist Appeal for April 1942 published an open letter to the national conference of the ILP, whose attitude was abstractly ‘anti-war’, in which the Workers’ International League declared: ‘We cannot merely denounce the war as an imperialist war and say, as the pacifists do, that we shall have nothing to do with this foul thing ... Only a working-class policy for war which would separate the workers from the capitalists and at the same time guarantee success against all foreign capitalist aggression could mobilize the masses for the struggle for power.’

A new feature in the Marxist policy, however, was the call for sending all possible aid to the Soviet Union in the form of arms supplies, under supervision by the trade unions. The significance of this demand will be appreciated by readers of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Officers and Gentlemen (1935), in which a couple of reactionaries discuss tank production and one remarks that the workers are allowed to chalk ‘Greetings to Uncle Joe’, and so forth, on the tanks they turn out, as this encourages them to work hard and produce tanks faster – but the tanks are sent where they will be most useful from the British imperialist standpoint ...

When the campaign for the Second Front began, the Socialist Appeal pointed out (November 1941) that the Stalinists were cynically exploiting the earnest desire of the workers to help Russia. Following the fall of France the British Communist Party had correctly hammered away at the unreliability of the officer caste as anti-fascists – yet now they were demanding an invasion of the Continent under the leadership of those same officers The workers must take control of industry and of the armed forces. The effect of this on the Continent, including Germany, would be revolutionary; and then a British expeditionary force, if needed, would be welcomed by the European workers. Only workers’ power could transform the imperialist war into a genuine war in defence of the Soviet Union and against fascism. Trafalgar Square demonstrations notwithstanding, unless and until the effective control of the armed forces was taken out of their hands, the British ruling class would not open a second front except for their own purposes.

‘It will not be a front to aid Russia but a front to take advantage of Russian resistance. It will not be a front to smash fascism but only to establish the domination of “democratic” imperialism. It will liberate Europe from its present tyranny but will only establish a new tyranny’ (Socialist Appeal, June 1942).

The truth of this estimation of what an imperialist ‘second front’ would mean had been seen clearly enough by R.P. Dutt when he wrote, in the Labour Monthly of February 1941, about the role for which the British Army was already then being prepared:

‘In such a situation of general disorder [following a hypothetical breakdown of the Nazi regime], with spreading civil war, and with the popular forces still poorly armed and only partially organized, a trained and disciplined army of one million in the field could do a great deal to take ever from Hitler the task of holding down the peoples of Europe and strangling the socialist revolution – just as the British forces in 1918 took over directly from the waning German imperialist forces in the Baltic States.’

And it had been equally clearly explained to Franco’s Foreign Minister, frightened about the approaching defeat of Hitler by the Red Army, when British ambassador Sir Samuel Hoare talked to him in Madrid in February 1943: ‘There will then undoubtedly be great British and American armies on the Continent. These armies will be equipped with the finest modern munitions. They will be composed of fresh-line troops, whose ranks have not been previously devastated by years of exhausting war on the Russian front’ (quoted in Spain, March 22, 1948).

The outcome of the second world war and the history of the subsequent period eloquently condemn the misleadership of the workers by the Stalinists in those critical years, guided by a disastrously false conception of the interests of the Soviet Union. And they justify those who carried the banner of Marxism, amid conditions of extraordinary difficulty, avoiding both the Scylla of opportunism and the Charybdis of sectarianism.

B. Farnborough


Transcriber’s Note

1. The reason for the pseudonym B. Farnborough, is that the article is about the early war period. B is of course Brian Pearce’s initial but Farnborough was because of a meeting when he was on an OCTU course, near Farnborough. (OCTU was the Officer Training set-up for war-time commissions.) One of his fellow officers was very close to the party, if not in the CP, and they had long discussions on Farnborough Common about the party’s line which, before the fall of France was, as the article points out, very pro-German. This man asked Pearce whether, if they went into action he should desert to the enemy. Pearce answered him thus:– “Well x, I agree that the practical implications of the Party’s line are difficult to work out but I emphatically would not do that” He did not add “In particular x because you are Jewish”! – Note by Ted Crawford after being told this story by Brian Pearce, June 2006.

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