Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

The New International, October 1939


The Second World War


From New International, Vol.5 No.10, October 1939, pp.292-295.
transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


THE SECOND WORLD WAR began on September 1st, twenty-five years and one month after the start of the first world war.

What the War is About

Capitalist economy produces goods for a market the limits of which are determined not by men’s biological, psychological and cultural needs, but by the ability to realize a profit, and to re-convert the profit realized into further production. It is impossible for the economy of any national capitalist state to be self-contained. In the first place, because of the uneven distribution of natural resources in the world, no nation contains all of the raw materials which it requires. Secondly, the effective consumer market in all advanced capitalist nations is never sufficient to absorb the total output of the economy, and markets must be sought outside the national boundaries. Thirdly, because of the limitations of the domestic market and the disproportions generated within every advanced capitalist economy, there is never a sufficient outlet for capital investments internally, and such outlets must also be sought elsewhere.

These difficulties, which appeared early in capitalist history, are greatly magnified in the imperialist stage of capitalist development. Colossal debt burdens, both public and private, weigh like millstones on the neck of production. Huge concentrations of capital in plant, machinery and equipment reduce the flexibility of the system in adapting itself to cyclical and technological changes. Debts and the concentration of capital tend to lower the rate of profit; and the devices of monopoly, tariffs and speeded exploitation employed to counteract this tendency only aggravate the difficulties.

All advanced capitalist nations face these same troubles. Even the most stringent internal measures cannot meet them. All the powers are compelled to try to alleviate them by external means: by cheapening the cost of raw materials through gaining or holding control over the sources of these materials; by extending the range of the available commodity market; by getting new outlets for capital investment and by the super-exploitation of backward peoples in less developed parts of the world.

These three aims control the foreign policies of all the imperialist governments. In peace-time they are served by all the machinery of commercial and cultural penetration, tariffs, loans, expeditionary forces, bribery, exchange manipulation, intrigue and corruption. But since the stake is politico-economic subjugation and possible social death for the losing nation (or group of nations) and its ruling class, the contest must be periodically fought to a decision by arms. Indeed, advantage in the contest always rests on superior force, so that in the process as a whole, peace-time can only be understood as the preparatory interval between wars.

The War of 1914-18 established the temporary dominance of British and French imperialism in the Old World (Europe, Asia and Africa) and of United States imperialism in the West. This dominance was given legal expression by the Versailles Treaty, perhaps the most ruthless treaty ever written. About seven hundred million colonial peoples were designated as slaves of London and Paris. The map of Europe was re-drawn without the slightest reference to the needs and desires of the European masses, but solely with the object of providing strategical bulwarks to Anglo-French hegemony.

Permanent acceptance by German imperialism of the Versailles order would have meant economic strangulation and death. Not being willing to commit suicide, it had therefore to set for itself the goal of the smashing of Versailles and a new division of the world. At the same time, German imperialism had to prevent the smashing of the Versailles order by the only other possible, and diametrically opposite, way: by the German workers’ revolution. The blocking of the revolution, and its gigantic preparatory efforts, would have been impossible under the loose forms of parliamentary democracy; and German imperialism, after casting aside its Weimar stewards, was therefore compelled to utilize Hitler and Nazism.

During the past five years, German imperialism has taken its preliminary steps: building of a new army; re-incorporation of the Saar; re-militarization of the Rhineland; absorption of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Memel. At each step, Britain and France complained and resisted; but, having everything to lose – not merely from the challenge of Germany but even more from the threatening internal collapse of their respective empires – and very little to gain, they feared war. They went along from week to week, hoping that Hitler might somehow soften or become lost in an invasion of Russia; and meanwhile they got their armaments and industry and ideology ready. Hitler did not falter or fall, and he made an alliance with Russia. Dangerous as was war now, it would be still more dangerous tomorrow. If Germany were not crushed, British and French imperialisms were through. Not being willing to commit suicide, therefore, Britain and France declared war.

The second World War, then, is a war among rival imperialisms for a new division of the world, a war for the rights of exploitation of the masses of the world as a whole and the peoples of the colonial and semi-colonial areas in particular. The issue of the war is, simply: who is going to get the major share of the swag?

This is what the second World War is about. And this is all it is about.

Who Is Guilty?

It would be as absurd to assign degrees of responsibility and guilt among the rival imperialisms as in the case of gang warfare. If two gangs of racketeers were in control, respectively, of Chicago’s North and South Sides; and if the South Side gang, finding pickings too slim to sustain operations, were compelled to muscle in on the North Side, we would not argue over who was guilty nor would we worry who fired the first shot. We would condemn the system of racketeering, and assign equal guilt to both the gangs that operated branches of that system.

So also in the second World War. If Hitler has appeared usually as the “aggressor,” this is only because he has had nothing that Britain and France want, whereas they have, as a result of their prior aggressions, what he needs. If we are both hungry and you, having all the food, refuse to give me any, then I will naturally have to appear as aggressor if I try to take some from you. To complete the analogy, however, it should be remarked that all the food has in the first place been stolen from the original producers whom we both intend to go on robbing.

To subject, first Germany itself, then Austria, Czechoslovakia, Danzig and Poland ... to Nazism is indeed a crime against humanity too black to be painted. But it is a crime of exactly the same character as Versailles, which subjected half of the world to the British and French imperialists.

Sometimes it is argued that even if Versailles was a crime, that crime is in the past, over and done with, and should be, if not forgotten, at least tolerated to avoid still worse crimes of the present and future. This argument is not merely sophistical but false. The crime of Versailles was not finished when the treaty was signed – that only began it. The crime lives day by day in the starvation, misery and oppression of the hundreds of millions in India, Africa, Ceylon, Indo-China, who are crushed beneath the boots of British and French imperialism.

It is the system of imperialism which is responsible for the war. It is the rulers of that system, the big-businessmen and bankers of London and Berlin and Paris and Rome and New York, who are guilty. The blood stains all of their hands alike.

The United States and the War

United States imperialism, far from being immune to those corroding difficulties which beset all imperialist nations, is profoundly troubled by them. Though the most fortunate of all imperialisms in natural resources, geographical situation and unparalleled productive plant, the rifts within United States economy, as shown by such factors as the size of unemployment, are perhaps the deepest of all. The internal program for the salvation of United States capitalism – the New Deal – is a dismal and complete failure. There remains only the external program.

The immediate external objectives of United States imperialism are firm domination of Latin America, free entry into the Far East, and guarantee over access to key raw materials, such as rubber, which are not available in the Americas. But the dream of the American plutocracy, the strongest branch of world imperialism, goes beyond these immediate objectives. It sets as its goal nothing short of world domination – not necessarily world political sovereignty, of course, but economic domination over the entire world, backed by sufficient force to maintain it.

In the present war, United States imperialism must act to secure at least its immediate aims; and will try for as much of its more grandiose goal as proves possible. To suppose, as do some pseudo-sophisticates, that United States imperialism is the duped “pawn” of Britain or of any other nation, is lamentably naive. America’s Sixty Families take orders from no other power; quite the contrary, they give them. Far from “bailing out” Britain in the present war, they will be best satisfied if the end of the war finds both Britain and Germany, as well as the other powers, so exhausted as no longer to be serious rivals.

The aim of United States imperialism requires that it be in a position to dictate the peace. [1] It cannot be in such a position unless it intervenes with military as well as economic force. The armed entry of the United States into the war is therefore a virtual certainty.

Entry into the war, called for by the general aims of United States imperialism, follows also from narrower considerations.

The United States is not neutral in any but a formal sense today. It is acting and prepared to continue to act as the supply base for the Anglo-French bloc. Britain and France have available for purchases in this country something more than $9,000,000,000 in gold, securities and credit balances. The spending of this money will, as the unprecedented speculative war-boom in Wall Street immediately indicated, increase the profits of American business, and, together with a prospective monopoly in Latin America, has already brought about a partial general industrial upturn. When these funds are exhausted, American business will be faced with catastrophe if foreign purchases are shut off. Therefore the Johnson Act will be dropped, and credit extended, in order to keep production and profits going. But the extension of credit will rapidly become over-extension; the stake in the outcome of the war will becoma overwhelming; and military intervention, from this point of view also, will have to be undertaken in order to direct the settlement and safeguard Wall Street’s mortgage on the world.

How soon may we expect military intervention on the part of the United States?

There are three factors which favor some delay:

  1. From a strictly economic point of view, American business would like to squeeze the last drop of profit out of the war under conditions of “neutrality” before taking the risk and expense of military intervention.
  2. United States imperialism, as we have explained, would like to wait until both sides are exhausted, in order to be sure that its own intervention will be decisive and controlling.
  3. The American people, though undoubtedly favoring Britain and France as against Germany, are overwhelmingly against military intervention. Imperialists never let the will of the people stand in their way, but this resistance cannot be smashed overnight.

Against these three factors must be set at least another three which oppose them and work toward speedy entry:

  1. It is probable that the British and French available funds and credits will be rapidly exhausted. Just prior to the first World War, the rate of world armament expenditure was approximately $2,400,000,000 a year. Just before the present war began, the rate was about this sum per month: that is, twelve times as great. During the last war, the Anglo-French bloc spent around $14,000,000,000 in this country (including the period while this country was itself at war). Available funds and credits for this war could hardly be made higher than $14,000,000,000 before the United States would have to enter. If the rate of armament expenditure is an index of the general rate of expenditure for the war, then the $14,000,000,000 could last only four or five months. This period should, perhaps, be stretched somewhat by the physical impossibility of transporting that sum’s worth of goods within so short a time; but even with stretching, this consideration means that United States business will be faced with the choice of collapse or military intervention in a fraction of the time which elapsed in the last war.
  2. In spite of the fact that they say they are preparing for an indefinitely long war, the imperialists must strive to shorten it. They must do this because they realize perfectly well (and this is why they did not want the war and put it off as long as they could) that if the war lasts a long time, the suffering and social chaos it engenders will bring about revolts at home and above all uprisings in the colonies. Small consolation for Chamberlain if he defeats Hitler only to lose India and Africa – and perhaps London. But, without the United States, the sides seem to be too evenly balanced for a quick end. Since the primary fear of United States imperialism, like that of every other imperialism, is revolution, this too calls for early entry in order “to finish up the job” in double-quick time.
  3. A third and very important factor making for quick entry is the Roosevelt administration. Roosevelt and his immediate associates are the outstanding and most vicious war-mongers in the country. With their entire domestic policy bankrupt, the war is the only item left in their bag of political tricks. Roosevelt’s personal future and that of his group depend upon getting this country into the war, preferably before the party conventions next spring. If they succeed in this, they will sail through to continued control of the governmental apparatus and a third term. Roosevelt is scarcely attempting to conceal his intentions. His hold-up of the Bremen, the provocative speeches of his subordinates, his declaration of a state of “limited national emergency,” his increases in the armed forces and the espionage and radical squads, his plans for the special session of Congress, as well as his past history, all prove that from the very first week he is steering full speed toward direct participation in the war. There is every reason to believe that one important consideration leading Britain to decide to fight now was that Roosevelt is still in office.

Weighing these factors, we may conclude that the United States will probably enter the war in a period of from three to nine months after its outbreak. A delay beyond that time could be brought about only by an organized strengthening of the popular resistance to the war.

The War and Democracy

Democracy is not involved in the slightest measure among the issues of the present war. This is proved not merely by the positive analysis of what the war is actually about, but in the following additional ways:

  1. Even in peace-time, three-fourths of the subjects of Britain and France – the colonial subjects – live under a political regime not of parliamentary democracy but of dictatorship and brutal tyranny, resting openly on military force. These subjects, moreover, are kept at a level of economic subjection far below that of the home citizens of the fascist powers.
  2. In jockeying for alliances, Britain and France spent nearly a year bidding for the Soviet Union, whose political regime is not distinguishable from that of Nazism. They concluded an alliance with Turkey, which has been an unbroken totalitarian military dictatorship since the last war. They made a pact with Greece, which has a fascist government under the dictator, Metaxas. They are even now still trying to swing Italy into their orbit. They are ready to accept any of the Balkan nations, none of which has any pretenses to democracy. They permitted, and aided the victory of Franco in Spain. They delivered what democracy there was in Czechoslovakia to Hitler. The United States, similarly, considers itself in alliance with all of the Latin American countries, not more than three of which have any traces of democracy, and Roosevelt fetes in Washington Somoza, Trujillo, and Batista, the bloodiest and most dishonored of the Latin American dictators. In its colonial policy, as in the case of Puerto Rico, the United States follows exactly the pattern of Britain and France.
  3. In their entire history, at Versailles, and in their day-by-day rule, the British, French and American empires are engaged in a permanent suppression of the democratic right of the self-determination of peoples, and think of the “independence of small nations” only in terms of the aims of their imperial strategies. Witness: all Africa, India, Ceylon, Indo-China, China, the Arabs, the Nicaraguans, the Cubans and Puerto Ricans and Hawaiians and Filipinos, the peoples of Central Europe carved to bits by Versailles.
  4. Britain and France began the war on the issue of Poland. Poland is not and never was a democracy. Since its reconstruction after the last war, it has been one of the most brutal military dictatorships in the world. It has been ruled with blood and iron by immensely wealthy landowners, industrialists and generals. It is the classic nurse of anti-Semitism, the model for large-scale pogroms, and the imperialist oppressor of a section of the Ukrainian people.
  5. Within one week after the war began, the regimes of England, France and Germany had approached identity, merged in totalitarian war dictatorships (which, by the way, are not quite the same as peace-time fascism). The remaining differences – minor from the point of view of the average citizen – will be dropped soon enough. Abolition of the rights to strike, assemble, speak freely; complete censorship (more rigid in England and France than in Germany, according to the New York Times); general conscription; universal national registration; abolition of the right to change jobs or even to stop working; indefinite extension of the working day; ration cards ... Democracy was blacked out overnight. The pretense of “opposition parties” is officially kept only because there is no more opposition: the British parties have already agreed “not to contest by-elections” – in other words, one name on the ballot, in the approved totalitarian manner.

In the United States, the development will be exactly the same. Plans for the totalitarian dictatorship in this country, as is now openly admitted, are completed.

But it is necessary to say even more than this. The present war, into which some deluded workers and farmers will, alas, willingly march because they believe it is “against fascism” and “to save democracy,” is in actuality the war to end democracy, as democracy has been known in the modern world. The era in which the post-Renaissance form of democracy – that is, parliamentary democracy based on capitalist property relations – was historically possible, comes to an end with this war. It lingers for a few months in the United States, perhaps a little longer in a couple of out-of-the-way nations. But its day is done.

The totalitarian dictatorships of the war will never revert to functioning parliamentary democracies. The dislocations of the war itself and the even greater chaos which will follow the war will not possibly permit democratic government in the old sense. So long as capitalist imperialism remains in the saddle, democracy is finished.

The only kind of democracy possible for the future is socialist democracy.

The End of the War

How and when will the war end? If we rule out the all but impossible miracle of a sudden armistice (which would really change nothing but the time span, and that very slightly), it is apparent that the entire world will participate in this war. Even those nations which do not at first participate by arms must, from the nature of modern war, line up economically in one or another camp. They will be bases of supplies, their destinies linked to the war as integrally as if their soldiers were fighting. And very few nations will escape direct battle.

It should not be assumed that the coalitions are already fixed, or that they may not change during the course of the war itself. Italy? Russia? Japan? ... the possible combinations are myriad.

But this is plain: there is no imperialist solution for the war. What peace terms could possibly be written that would have the remotest chance of solving any of the world’s major problems, that would be any more than the passing record of temporary exhaustion, to be shattered again not in twenty-five years but in that many months ? How revealing that none of the powers can even suggest, in concrete language, what its war aims are!

If imperialism continues in power, there is no end to war.

But it is far more likely that, through this war, imperialism is killing itself. Arms are being put into the hands of tens upon tens of millions of workers and peasants. Every internal strain of world imperialism is stretched to the breaking point. Will the workers and peasants continue indefinitely to slaughter each other for the profit of their masters? It is scarcely conceivable. Will India and Africa continue passive, when they realize that the agonies of their imperialist rulers are also their own great occasions to seize freedom and power? It is unthinkable.

The overthrow of imperialism, the victory of the masses in the triumph of socialism, and only this can stop the war and bring a just and lasting peace. Through a socialist peace, freedom, security, and economic coordination can guarantee the future. The Socialist United States of Europe, of the Americas, a free Asia and a free Africa, a World Federation of Socialist Republics: these mighty slogans now, with the war, lose all their abstractness. They and they alone are the goal, the immediate goal, for mankind.

That goal will be won!



1. This was indicated by Bernard M. Baruch, chairman of the War Industries Board in the last war, who on September 14th, immediately following a confidential conference with President Roosevelt at the White House, said:

“If this country ever participated in another peace conference it should demand a veto power over the terms of settlement instead of what it did at Versailles. We must not permit a situation like that after the last war when President Wilson made proposals for peace and had them voted down by others who had this veto power.” – NY Times, September 15, 1939.

Top of page

Main NI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 8.8.2006