First Published: In Struggle! No. 241, March 10, 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
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If the Second World War was really like it is depicted in all the Hollywood movies, an epic battle won by a bunch of heroic G.I. Joes, explaining it would be awfully easy. But Hollywood’s war stories are just as much tinsel and glitter as its musicals and cardboard love stories. World War Two was a lot more than just that for various social classes. The war resolved problems that had become too sharp to resolve by any other means with the bloodiest slaughter ever seen. It brought an end to the transitional period of the twenties and thirties which had seen great changes in the role of the capitalist State in the economy in order to ward off revolution (see issue 238). It was the end of a period of crisis and depression. It was also the beginning of a new period in world history. There was to be a new relation of farces between countries which was soon temporarily confirmed by the way the Allies divvied up the world after their military victory.
Communists were also at a turning point. The war wiped off all the makeup, accentuating every contradiction. For many parties, it was the beginning of the end. For others, they would soon be taking power.
One critical question stood out in all the contradictions and struggles and had more impact than any other on how all the social forces were to act: what kind of war was it?
The First World War had been an inter-imperialist war in which the rival imperialist powers redivided the world. This “war to end all wars” did nothing to put an end to inter-imperialist rivalries. To understand the Second War, we must sketch in at least summarily the basic rivalries between the main countries involved after 1918.
Imperialist Germany was defeated, but it did not tarry in rebuilding its powerful industrial base with a little help from its friends in the U.S. who provided credit at a tidy profit to themselves. This was the source of conflicts between the U.S. and France whose hard line demands for payment of large war reparations by Germany threatened to hurt the amount of profits that U.S. investors would rake in. Germany soon ran into the same kind of problems that had plagued it just before the 1914-18 war. It had very few of its own natural resources. It was without a colonial empire which could supply it with the necessary materials and outlets for sale of finished products and investment of capital. It was getting squeezed. The 1929 crash and Depression fragmented the world market into even more rigidly defined protected areas, making Germany’s suffocation still more pronounced. This is what Hitler wastalking about when he proclaimed Germany’s need for more “liebsraum” (breathing space). Hitler dreamed of a continental empire in Europe rather than a colonial one on other continents. Eastern Europe was the prime target: it has traditionally been a source of supply for German industry.
Japan found itself in a similar predicament. It had been forced by the British and Americans in 1921 to give up all its economic privileges in China. Japan was being hit hard by the Depression and the closing off of markets. Its industry was totally dependent on imported raw materials. Italy was in roughly the same boat as the two others. These rising imperialist powers were completely unable to develop with the world order being carved up as it was.
The world order these countries came up against was one in which British power was in sharp decline, although it still clung fast to its vast empire, the biggest one ever built. The French empire followed close on the heels of the British. The thirties was its high point, but French imperialism was by and large less dynamic than its rivals. The United States was moving ahead fast. U.S. capital supplanted British money in North and South America (including in Canada) in the twenties and thirties. The slogan “America for the Americans” expressed succinctly one of the material bases to the United States’ tentative neutrality in the looming war. Not to mention all the Yankee dollars invested right in Germany. Finally, the Soviet Union, although it was not involved in the rivalries to redivide the world, bothered a lot of folks and their economic and political interests due to its social system which was in contradiction with theirs. None of these gentlemen would shed a tear if it should be wiped off the face of the map.
The outbreak of a war always raises the same question: what kind of war is it? Is it a just war, a war that is the continuation of a progressive, political policy aimed at eliminating oppression? Or is it a politically reactionary and hence unjust war which in no way furthers the cause of liberation? The answer to this question determines what the tasks will be for the working class in relation to a particular war.
The First World War provoked an avalanche of very pointed polemics among the Social-Democrats (including, at that point, the Bolsheviks, etc.) over what kind of war it was. The Second World War did not engender the same kind of sharp debate, for polemics had by then gone out of style. As we shall see this was rather unfortunate because facts were to prove that a debate at that point could have been useful. The nature of the war and the corresponding tasks was not exactly clearly understood by all the communist parties.
There was a basic analysis of the war which was finally accepted nevertheless which makes it possible to understand the practice of the communists in the war. This thesis, which has since become “classic” for Marxist-Leninists, goes as follows:
The Second World War developed in two stages. The first stage lasted from its commencement in 1939 to June 22, 1941. It was an inter-imperialist war, a battle for spoils between rival bourgeoisies, in which the working class could have no interest. On June 22, 1941, a second stage began. The war changed into an anti-fascist war, a war for national liberation and the defence of the socialist homeland. From that point on. the proletariat had a direct stake in fighting the fascist Axis powers of Germany, Japan and Italy. In short, the accepted thesis was that the war had two SUCCESSIVE stages contained in it, each of them completely different, each of them resulting in very different tasks for the progressive forces. Can we today agree with this thesis?
Based on the facts presented earlier, we can certainly say that the war was purely and simply an inter-imperialist war to redivide the world FOR THE BOURGEOISIES involved. The policy pursued by all the bourgeoisies in the years leading up to the war in Spain. Austria and so on, as well as within their own countries, was clear enough: to encourage fascism and the oppression of the colonized peoples. There was no great miraculous transformation in this stand on September 2, 1939. The freeing of peoples from oppression was in no way the concern, or a product of the objective interests of imperialism.
Even more interestingly, the war looked like a simple inter-imperialist war FROM THE VANTAGE POINT OF THE SOVIET UNION too. The U.S.S.R. was deeply involved in building socialism in a single country. The upper-most priority for Soviet leaders was necessarily to preserve conditions which would enable this to continue, the most important condition being international peace. The main threat to peace was not Nazism. It was German imperialism, whether it was democratic or fascist. This is an assumption which should be kept in mind. This reasoning was the source of a number of Soviet positions, including the famous German-Soviet (or Hitler-Stalin) pact.
Hence, the war was definitely inter-imperialist. But was it solely inter-imperialist? Did the political objectives of the ruling classes in the war necessarily dictate what the nature of the war had to be for all classes?
Couldn’t the war have a different character for different classes depending on precisely what each class was fighting to attain through the war?
THE WORKING CLASS had a definite interest in defeating fascism both in its own country and on a world scale. Its policy had been one of fighting fascism for many years. When the conflict developed with Germany, Italy and Japan, workers saw more than just a fight with other imperialist powers. They saw it as a fight against fascism, a fight against the bastions of fascism which workers had never stopped battling. In all countries, the Nazis and all strata of local reactionaries gave one another mutual support.In such a context, the participation of the working class in the war had a progressive side; it meant fighting for liberation, to defend democratic freedoms previously won and national sovereignty in the occupied countries.
We would argue that, contrary to the “classic” thesis, the war was FROM THE BEGINNING both anti-fascist and inter-imperialist. These two aspects of the war were to remain throughout. The short-term overlapping of the interests of two fundamentally opposed classes, the working class and the bourgeoisie, was what made possible the creation of a united front against the fascist Axis bloc countries.
The policy pursued by the communists during the Hitler-Stalin pact period was not exactly brilliant; nor was it particularly well adapted to the concrete conditions. When war broke out, the immediate response of many communist parties was to throw themselves unreservedly into the arms of their own bourgeoisie to establish an immediate holy class alliance. A month later, after the executive committee of the Communist International had blown the whistle, the very same parties did an 180 degree about-face. The war was nothing more or less than an inter-imperialist conflict. Therefore the main struggle was against one’s own government and the leaders of reformist social-democracy. In other words, the main enemy was the same gang that had been the communists’ main friends just a month earlier. The general political objective for which communists were fighting had, despite all the flipping and flopping, remained the same since it was set at the Seventh Comintern Congress of 1935. The aim was to establish a “people’s government” emanating from the struggle of an anti-fascist united front. The communists would participate in such governments under certain conditions. The people’s government, while not yet the dictatorship of the proletariat, would serve to lead to it.
Communists saw their own governments and reformist social-democracy as the main enemies and winning a “people’s government” as the main objective throughout the whole “first stage” while the German-Soviet pact was still in effect, thereby downplaying or completely ignoring the necessity of a struggle against German fascism. The programme document published by the French Communist Party (PCF) even managed the feat of failing to mention the need to fight German Nazism once. It was as if the diplomatic pact between the Soviet Union and the German State had to bind the communist parties of the world to a policy of political “non-aggression” too. During the same period, the Soviet Union was handling the Nazis with kid gloves, concentrating all its fire on the French and British imperialists which were “responsible for this war”.
Unless you contend that the interests of the world proletariat can be reduced to those of any single country, whether it is engaged in building socialism or not, then one must conclude that the communist line during this period did not correspond very well to the interests of the people. And what happened was what you would expect to happen if this were the case: in one country after another, from Poland to Czechoslovakia to France to Canada there was a mounting flood of resignations from the communist party. The increased influence which had been won among working people visibly declined, something which cannot be explained away as simply due to repression.
The invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 opened a new stage in the war. The anti-fascist forces increased tenfold. The Soviet Union, at the cost of tremendous sacrifice and hardship, was to be the rock upon which the Nazi ship was to be broken apart. It was no longer possible for the Soviet Union to keep out of the war so it changed its policy radically. On the one hand, the U.S.S.R. sought to cement an alliance with French and British imperialism and the United States. At the same time, it issued an appeal to the peoples of the world to go all out to hasten the fall of the Nazis. Within the Soviet Union, a policy of making concessions was implemented in order to achieve as broad a united front as possible: the free market was extended for the peasants; the party was opened up to easy entry by the intelligentsia; religion was more openly tolerated, etc.
In the western countries, this heralded another radical shift in policy for the communists. The object of defending the Soviet Union now justified the struggle against Nazi Germany. Communists threw themselves energetically into the creation of a strong Resistance and soon found themselves heading it up. From this point on, the membership and influence of the communists increased in leaps and bounds.
The Resistance was not just a battle against the Germans and the local collaborators. In Eastern Europe, for example, communists called upon the peasants to join the Resistance. They linked it to the fight against the big landowners and the Church who were blocking agrarian reform and were pro-fascist besides. In France, which was typical of other countries, the Resistance programme gave support to the struggle against all forms of exploitation and oppression. It called for a good, long list of what were viewed by some as “deep-going” reforms: a legal minimum wage, systematization of a programme of public social welfare, unemployment insurance, etc. Such a programme managed to express accurately enough the prevailing attitudes of the masses of working people and the partisans fighting fascism. The French communist Andre Marty was to say that the Resistance wanted no part of a continued “France dominated by trusts”. The partisans were not going to carry out this whole battle just to return things to the same as they were before 1939.
The Resistance programme raised the kind of social and economic demands that inevitably posed the question of what kind of State would be able to accomplish them. Wouldn’t the 800,000 armed partisans, led directly or indirectly in large part by the French Communist Party, perhaps want to establish their own State over the areas which they had liberated themselves? This prospect was a very real and dangerous one in the eyes of the French bourgeoisie. They did not know either just how far this, “swing to the left” which was so evident after the war in just about all countries, including Canada. might go.
The bourgeoisie was concerned above all else with ensuring that the liberation won by the united front making up the Resistance, of which it was a part, would be turned to the advantage of its own class. There is no lack of examples of this. The opening of the second front in June of 1944 was partly because the Allies wanted to ensure that the liberation of Europe that was unfolding at that point would not be redirected against the power of the bourgeois class and in favour of the Soviet Union which was liberating Europe all alone. This shows just how political the role of the “liberating” armies was. It also indicates quite clearly what the policy was of the two camps, Soviet and Allied. The bourgeoisies never forgot that the war was inter-imperialist. They had no intention at any point of undermining the bourgeois order. The question is: did the communists forget about the inter-imperialist character of the war?
The line of building a united front had become central again. Many communist parties, although not all, took this as a green light to engage in gross capitulation. In Canada, the party dissolved itself in 1943 in order that it could better uphold a line of collaboration with the Canadian bourgeoisie in a government of national reconstruction which was vaguely committed to social progress for ordinary Canadians. To say the least, this was a rather wierd understanding of what it meant to promote a transitional “people’s government”.
Yet this was indeed the line, or close to it, taken by a large number of parties. The example for such behaviour was set in some pretty high places within the communist movement: the Communist International was dissolved in 1943 in order to promote the united front. Although the PCF played a dominant role in the Resistance united front, they nevertheless placed that great bourgeois patriot, Charles de Gaulle, at its head. Worse still, the French party, like its Canadian counterpart, expressed the desire to, see ALL participants in the united front, including the bourgeoisie, continue to be united AFTER liberation to form a government that would implement the demands they had been raising throughghout the war. It was as if every class, including both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, were fighting to attain the same goals in the war. And to put the icing on the cake, as the French bourgeoisie prepared itself to retake power in conditions which were not entirely favourable to it, the Communist leaders came along in the nick of time to disarm the partisans in both France and Italy. There would be no right with the bourgeoisie. Only the extraction of the promise of early elections and a Constituent assembly of some sort to draft new constitutions. Power was handed back to the bourgeoisie on a silver platter. The second world war was to mark the beginning of a new policy for all but a few countries like Albania and China. This policy had little to do with overthrowing the bourgeois State.
This policy of the Western communist parties is difficult to understand in hindsight unless you look at the international context prevailing at the time. The most important fact was the division of the world into two camps, East and West, Soviet-influenced and Western-imperialism dominated. Everything that happened at that time was as if the Soviet Union had made a deal to give up on promoting their idea of revolution in Western Europe if they could continue to promote it in Eastern Europe. The Communist International had brought together dozens of parties from every continent: it was dissolved and later replaced, in 1947, by the Cominform. The Cominform only embraced the parties in power in Eastern Europe and those participating in governments in France and Italy.
Some have interpreted this as the political manoeuvres of a great power acting like all great powers do. There is undoubtedly some of that to it. A country does not become a great power in a day, and the Soviet Union certainly became one. But there is more to it than that. What happened is also a reflection of a certain way of seeing how socialism was going to develop, in the world. This approach is that socialism will spread mainly insofar as the Soviet Union is strengthened and various countries are progressively broken away from the imperialist bloc. This was the reasoning underlying all the actions of the Soviet Union from the beginning of the war, including the German-Soviet pact. Today it must be clearly stated that this was an incorrect way of looking at how socialism was going to develop.
The fact that most of the communist parties accepted this way of looking at things and therefore generally subordinated their own political objectives to what seemed to be demanded by the overriding needs of the Soviet Union is not really surprising. It is an historical fact which has its origins in the conditions prevailing between the two world wars. The working class had suffered one defeat after another. Union membership had declined by 40% since the twenties in the United States, France, and Great Britain. The same decline took place in the numbers of communists belonging to the Communist International. In this non-revolutionary situation that even the purest of desires by the Soviet Union could not transform into a revolutionary situation, the continued control of State power by the working class in the land of the Soviets looked like the only significant victory in the whole sorry mess. The Bolshevik party was seen as the experienced guide able to lead others to victory. The Soviet Union itself seemed to be the KEY to the world revolutionary process.
The positions taken by communists during the Second World War did not fall from the clear blue. They can be explained. But they just the same did not lead to any advance towards revolution. The supporters of complete tailism with regard to everything promoted by China are learning the same lesson all over again...
 For a strong defence of this thesis. see PROLETARIAN UNITY No. 10. pp. 34-47.