Notes of the Month

The Future of the War

(March 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 2, March 1942, pp. 35–37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan (December 2012).

It is only six months to the end of the third and the beginning of the fourth year of the Second World War. Yet there are no substantial indications warranting the conclusion that a victory of one camp over the other is close at hand. All the trends and indications that can be observed at present warrant a directly opposite conclusion, namely, that a victory of one side over the other, that is, such a victory as would put an end to the war at least for a period of time, is extremely unlikely. It is obvious, at the very outset, that although the war has already been fought for two and a half years, there is as yet nothing in either the advances or retreats on both sides during this whole period that adds up to a decisive knockout. Any number of battles have been lost or won in the war, but the issue still remains inconclusive.

More than this, however. It is only now, thirty months since the war began, that it can said that the real world war has begun in earnest. It is only with the entry of the United States and Japan into the struggle that virtually all the possible participants in a world war have become formal, direct and active participants. Outside of the European continent, the First World War, practically speaking, amounted to nothing. The Second World War, however, is being actively fought in the Atlantic as well as the Pacific, in Asia, Oceania and Africa as well as in Europe; and actual warfare in the western hemisphere is more and more regarded as a certainty if the war is prolonged.

Neither side is capable of winning the war by destroying the enemy politically, that is, by conducting such a political campaign as would result in undermining the social foundations of the enemy’s regime or in depriving it of social support to such an extent as to make further military struggle futile. There remains to both of them only physical struggle as the means by which the war can be won, that is, by continued economic pressure (blockade) and by direct military combat.

However, it is precisely because of this that, given the actual relationship of forces, the prospect of an early end of the war by the imperialists themselves is exceedingly remote. A knockout blow against small and weak countries can be delivered either by the mere threat of military attack or by swift and speedily conclusive attack. In the case of large and powerful countries, with great resources in man power, raw materials and advanced industrial strength, the course of the war has shown that, with the possible exception of France, the speed of the successes attained in such countries as Poland or Norway or Syria cannot be duplicated in such countries as England, Germany, Russia, the United States or Japan. Added to this is the fact that, generally speaking, the greater the distance between the contenders and therefore the longer the lines of attack and communication, the more slender the prospect of speedy triumphs and the more likely the prospect of long-lasting wars of attrition.

Geography and Food in the War

This prospect is further underscored by the geographical position of the principal belligerents. If victory requires, as it does, the physical invasion of the enemy, the occupation of decisive centers of his territory and the incapacitation of his armed forces, then there is little reason to visualize a victory for either side in the near future. Separating seas are no absolute barrier to victory, as has been demonstrated by Japan in the Pacific and by Germany in Norway and Crete, provided the victor has overwhelming or at any rate very considerable superiority over the vanquished. Where, however, the contenders are more or less evenly matched, or where one advantage (say, superiority in trained effectives on the one side) is counterbalanced by another (say, superiority in sea power on the other side), water barriers constitute a powerful factor working to prolong the war. If Germany has not yet invaded England, it has been not for lack of desire but because of the tremendous difficulties represented by the Channel. It is not reasonable to assume that the crossing the Channel which Germany has not yet undertaken after two and a half years of the war, will be undertaken, and with success, by the British moving in the opposite direction within the next immediate period. What holds for that small body of water holds with manifold force for the distances that must be covered between Europe and America, on one side of the globe, and between America and Asia on the other.

Finally, were it possible for one side to deprive the other of essential foodstuffs or war-making materials in the near future, this would have a decisive effect on bringing the war to a speedy end. But this does not seem to be a very realistic perspective. Neither of the two great alliances appears to be in a position to starve the other out of the war. No less important is the fact that neither alliance claims, or can claim, overwhelming military superiority over the other for a considerable period of time to come. All the boastful optimism of the American imperialists to the contrary notwithstanding, what they are actually engaged in at the present time is a desperate, frenzied race to acquire parity in man power, planes, tanks, arms and munitions with the Axis powers whose strength and resources they systematically underestimated. Military superiority, especially of such proportions as would make possible a decisive military defeat of the enemy, is a goal requiring years for its attainment.

The Masses in the Two Camps

Given the continuation of imperialist rule in the warring countries, that is assuming that the forces of socialism do not triumph in the very midst of this war as they did in the last war, the war itself may go on, year after year, bringing in its train the most terrible sufferings and destruction yet imagined by man – the appalling national famine in Greece, which threatens the physical extermination of two generations is an ominous harbinger – and dragging on to the point of mutual exhaustion of the nations of war and perhaps even of all classes in each nation. The rise of fascism and reactionary totalitarianism after the First World War gave enormous emphasis and acute meaning to the dilemma: Socialism or a new barbarism! The Second World War, the most futile and reactionary of all wars in modern history, gives far greater emphasis and meaning than ever before to the same dilemma amplifying it now to read: Socialism and peace and freedom to all the peoples of the earth, or the new barbarism of a world doomed to wars in permanence!

The acceptance of the possibility of a war of long duration – in fact, the great probability of a long war if imperialism remains in power – does not, as might first appear to be the case, rule out the revolutionary perspective. In fact, it is the growing awareness of the toiling peoples that the war, and all the misery and sufferings it entails, may last indefinitely, that will become to an increasing extent a powerful factor contributing to the development of the social revolution, and by the same token, to the termination of the war itself.

This is true of the toiling peoples of the Axis countries. It is common knowledge that the masses entered – that is, were dragooned into – the war without displaying any genuine enthusiasm, much less a chauvinistic passion, for it. Many of the common people of countries like Germany, Italy and even Japan, that is, many of the workers, the peasants and the small middle class people, were undoubtedly duped into at least passive support of the war by the argument that the acquisition of “lebensraum” would improve their economic position and in any case would relieve them of the hardships imposed by the period of preparation for the war. But after two and a half years of war, not even the almost uninterrupted victories of Germany have proved to be great or conclusive enough to guarantee the position of the Nazi regime with the people. Providing the German masses with a higher standard of living than that of the people in the occupied countries – and at the cruellest expense of the latter – has thus far prevented a radical breakdown in the “morale” of the German people, which has been further sustained by the clever use made by Nazi leaders of the argument that Germany will suffer a super-Versailles if she is defeated. But to have done no more than sustain a morale that was not very high to begin with; to have done no more than that in face of victories which include the conquest of virtually all of Europe – is a very pitiful record for the Nazi regime.

There cannot be the slightest possibility of doubt that the German people are thinking, and in the period ahead will think even more seriously, along these lines: The fruits of conquest are probably a very fine thing; but to have the opportunity to enjoy these fruits would be much more to the point. The name of this opportunity is “peace” which is at present still associated with a decisive military victory. Tomorrow, however, when it becomes clearer that such a decisive victory is nowhere in sight, or that it is to be attained only after years of completely exhausting struggle, in the course of which the fruits of conquest will wither and die, the moods of the people will certainly change along these lines: With the regime we have in power now, we will never enjoy peace and security of any kind, even the most modest kind. The present mood of the people explains to a large extent why they are ready to fight with such determination and “fanaticism” for victory; it is probably more accurate to say, why they are ready to fight with such determination against being defeated. Tomorrow’s mood of the people will be the decisive condition for precipitating that collapse of the regime and the popular revolution that occurred in Russia in 1917 and in Austria and Germany a year and a half later.

What of the United Nations?

Among the peoples of the United Nations a similar, though not identical, situation obtains. Here too there was from the very beginning no popular enthusiasm for the war and all subsequent efforts of liberals and social-patriots to give the imperialist struggle an attractive coating of a “people’s war” or a “people’s crusade” have not resulted in making the masses any more enthusiastic. The toilers looked upon the war of 1939 as a continuation of the imperialist bandit struggle of 1914–1915, one of the most important after-effects of which was an almost universal disillusionment. But once the war was on and it became plainer that it was not a “phoney war,” the masses developed not a greater enthusiasm but a much greater interest and concern. The imperialist ruling class has ably exploited for its own purposes the hatred the masses feel toward fascism and the fear they have of the latter’s triumph. In countries like England and Russia particularly, the masses are prepared to fight not so much in order that their rulers emerge from the war as the victors but in order that the enemy, in the person of German fascism, shall not establish his rule over them, with the complete suppression of the working class that this immediately signifies.

At the same time, the masses, especially in England and the United States, have resisted to the best of their abilities, given the sickening treachery of their official leaders, every effort to deprive them of their own democratic rights and to lower their standards of living at a time when the economic and political position of the capitalist class is being consolidated and protected by the ruling regime. It is noticeable, again especially in these two countries, that where at first the main factor in the support, even if tacit, that the masses gave the war was their hatred and fear of fascism, a new factor is now entering into this support. It may be said to represent the fear of the masses of workers that unless they “see it through to the end” and quickly, the war will drag on indefinitely; this is accompanied by the feeling that the longer the war lasts, the more completely will the new democratic capitalist countries be transformed into totalitarian war dictatorships. In England this phenomenon takes the form of labor’s dissatisfaction with the obvious inability of the ruling class and the Churchill government to make any progress toward defeating the enemy, that is, toward bringing the war in an end.

In the United States, this phenomenon is increasingly observable among soldiers and civilians. Among soldiers, the “improvement in morale” noticeable since the United States entered the war is due to the feeling that “it’s serious now” and unless there is better training and equipment, the ranks will be unable to protect themselves in combat, much less bring the war to an early end. Among civilians, and particularly among the workers, it takes contradictory and still confused forms; yet it is sufficiently dear in such plans, no matter how bureaucratically conceived and imbued with class collaboration and imperialist ideology, as the Reuther plan, the Murray plan, etc. Through the distorting mirror of the trade union officialdom, labor is expressing its still incoherent but unmistakable distrust of the capitalist class in the “conduct of the war” and war production, its desire for a voice and vote in directing the operations of the means of production, its fear that the imperialists are “not competent” to conduct the imperialist war to an early conclusion, and at the present time above all perhaps, its fears that the capitalists are concerned in this war with only two things, namely, the immediate business of making huge profits, now and quickly, and – along with that – the utilization of the “emergency” for the purpose of hammering down the political and economic position of the workers.

At present, to be sure, this sentiment is canalized into support, however unenthusiastic, for imperialism, thanks to the services rendered the ruling class by its traditional labor lieutenants and by the foreign branches of the Stalinist bureaucracy. But as the war continues, and the imperialists are less and less able to give serious indications of how or when it may be terminated, this sentiment will undoubtedly express itself in other channels, in other ways.

To the imperialist democrats, the solution to the problem of victory is: Give us the tools and we will do the job, i.e., turn out more planes, ships, tanks, guns and troops than the Axis and eventually we will overwhelm it. To catch up with the Axis in this field, much less to overwhelm it, requires, however, a conversion of virtually the whole economic and social life of the country to war production. Under the rule of the bourgeoisie, such a conversion can take place only at the expense of the democratic rights and economic position of the masses, that is, only by reactionary means and in a reactionary direction. In other words, it can be accomplished only by adopting the “secret” of Hitlerism – the systematic disfranchisement and enslavement of the toilers. But to the argument that this is what is necessary to win the war as speedily as possible, the American workers have thus far given every indication that they have a fundamentally contrary argument, namely, the war can be won sooner by drastic encroachments into the economic, and therefore the political, power of the bourgeoisie, and the corresponding protection and advancement of the interests of labor. This is the basic meaning of the support given by workers to such programs as the Murray and Reuther plans, the spirited continuation of struggles for higher wages which take the form of strikes even now, the muted resistance in every factory to the demagogical and hypocritical pleas of the bourgeoisie that labor make the “sacrifices.”

Socialism the Way Out

The fear of a long-lasting war, the desire to bring the war to an early conclusion, is thus an important factor in the struggle for socialism; more accurately, it can be made an important factor in that struggle. Before the war began, we established the fact that the anti-fascist patriotism of the masses, as distinguished from the patriotism of the ruling class, was potentially progressive in the proletarian and socialist sense. In the same way, it is now possible and necessary to say that the fear of a long war felt by the working masses is potentially progressive.

We cannot today, any more than we could yesterday, take the slightest political responsibility for the imperialist war, or characterize it any differently now than we have in the past. It is of the utmost importance that this be borne in mind, for we reject completely all theories and policies based on the idea that our opposition to the war is confined merely to the “conduct of the war. We must not take political responsibility for the World War.

But it would be totally absurd to conclude from this that we are totally indifferent to what happens in the minds of the working class and above all what happens to the position and interests of the working class during the war. Such nihilism has nothing in common with Marxism. Quite the contrary. It is precisely we Marxists who concern ourselves with the position and interests of the working class during the war – that is, during the period when backsliders and traitors abandon the cause of the working class. Indeed, the transitional program of the Workers Party is calculated, among other things, to represent the interests of the workers during the very course of the war, to give the most coherent, the most consistent, the most conscious and the most progressive expression to the moods and desires of the people, the workers, the poor farmers and lower middle classes.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 23 December 2014