Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War, Verso, London, 1986, pp210, £6.95.

In a review of this book elsewhere (Confrontation 3, Summer 1988) I criticised Ernest Mandel for his concessions to bourgeois historicism and for downplaying the catastrophic defeat that the Second World War represented for the international working class. Here I shall concentrate upon another aspect of his book – his apology for Stalinism.

We get a sense of Mandel’s problems when we read, on the back cover blurb, that the fight between the “hideously distorted Socialism” of the USSR and the “Nazi capitalism” of Germany represented “a decisive new element in the war”. Now, though Mandel does not follow his publishers in describing the Soviet Union as Socialist, it is clear that he too finds it a conundrum. It is “non-capitalist” (p.45), but fewer than 20 pages later it is guilty of “partial (post-capitalist) commodity production” (p.82). With this lack of clarity on the nature of the Soviet regime, it is hardly surprising that Mandel cannot explain its military exploits.

What Verso terms “hideously distorted Socialism”, Mandel translates as the contradiction between the USSR’s strengthening industrial and military infrastructure and the purges and diplomatic fiascos, initiated by Stalin, that ran alongside this process. How did the Soviet Union resolve that contradiction'? Eventually, Mandel says, the “achievements of October” (p.38) won out against all else, allowing Moscow to triumph over Berlin. Let us examine this claim.

It is true that the Soviet economy was strengthened in a dramatic manner in the ’thirties. But this was more a matter of the emergence of a new social formation and a weighty bureaucracy than strength in depth or strength in quality. The Stalinists’ great claims to fame were quantitative growth, and a shift, between 1932 and 1937, of the proportion of machine tools installed from 22 per cent Soviet-built to more than 90 per cent Soviet-built. On nearly every other index, however, the Soviet economy was weak – even in military-industrial sectors.

The Stalinists began the ’thirties with famine. By 1933 and the second Five Year Plan, Kazakhstan had to endure its third year of famine based on collectivisation (one million dead out of a nomadic population of less than four million), and the Ukraine its second based on ethnically-inspired terror (five million dead). Famine had also claimed a million lives in the North Caucasus and another million elsewhere in Russia. That same year, investment fell by 14 per cent, gross industrial production rose by only five per cent, and shortages and crises in transport were everywhere. The Five Year Plan had to be revised completely.

By 1937, when the purges were at their height, matters were little improved. Investment had sunk by 10 per cent in two years of bloodletting, and was especially poor in military basics such as iron, steel and construction. Real wages were perhaps a third down on those available in 1928; grain yields did not compare with those raised in the first Five Year Plan; the shortage of recruits in industry, construction and especially transport, where labour turnover stood at more than 100 per cent, stood at a new high of 1.5 million.

The Soviet economy grew because of the bureaucracy’s freedom to mobilise resources. Through terror, social engineering and a certain amount of foreign technology, a system was fashioned which could deliver ’ some of the goods, some of the time. The condition of the urban working class spoke a lot more for the strengthening of Soviet military-industrial might than did the “achievements of October”.

In 1926, 18 per cent of the Soviet Union’s population of 147 million people were in the cities. By 1939, 33 per cent of a population of 170 million were. In Moscow, in 1935, more than 90 per cent of tenants in old accommodation – the general rule in the city – lived one or more to a room; 25 per cent lived in dormitories, and five per cent in kitchens and corridors.

Slave labour

In the cities, as in the concentration camps, it was slave labour, not the gains of 1917, which allowed the Soviet economy to face down the Germans. From 1935 we are in the era of Stakhanov. Then, between 1937 and 1940, real wages dropped by 10 per cent. After laws introduced in 1940, being 20 minutes late for work meant up to six months’ hard labour and up to 25 per cent cuts in pay; unauthorised departures from work could mean four months in jail; low quality production work could lead to eight years in jail. The working day was lengthened from seven to eight hours, the working week from five to six days, and pay stayed the same,

After 1934, when food rationing gave way to price rises, wives went out to work much more. They thus joined with general demographic trends in adding more simultaneous working days to the Soviet economy. In 1938 maternity leave was cut from 112 to 70 days; in 1940 fees were introduced for students in upper secondary and higher education. It was, therefore, through the suffering of working class families that the bureaucracy was able to generate the wealth to fight and win the war

Mandel’s contradiction – industrial might vs. purges and foreign policy fiascos – amounts to little more than a liberal apology for Stalinism. Killing millions and allying with Hitler Mandel condemns with withering criticism; but he always makes clear that industry and thus the achievements of October were paramount. In fact, though, it is simply sentimental to attribute the USSR’s survival after 1941 to the overturn of October 1917. Not only did civil war, famine and the New Economic Policy separate the two periods: the purges themselves destroyed such tenuous links as still existed, by the mid ’thirties, between old Bolshevism and the new bureaucratism. After 1935, the bureaucracy was in complete control. Three in every four workers were on piece wages. In the West, the proletariat had been crushed.

It was the defeats of the working class that both empowered the Kremlin to win the war and ensured that the Soviet death toll reached 20 million. By the early ’forties Stalin had, in effect, run the Soviet economy on a war footing for more than a decade: just as he had thrown manpower and sweat at economic problems before, he now threw lives at the Nazi invaders. For Mandel, the revival in Soviet production after December 1941 demonstrates “the economic and social superiority of a planned economy” (p.53). In other words, it was the nationalised property relations established in 1917 which saw the USSR through. In reality, however, nationalised property relations, without conscious workers’ management, were little match for the law of value when it came to either economic or military competition.

The Soviet Union held out because the bureaucracy, could centralise and use resources as ruthlessly as the Nazis, but over a larger population and under natural conditions (distance, climate) which it could turn to its advantage. To put the Soviet Union’s survival down to ‘planned economy’ is ridiculous. Soviet research and development, for example, was poorly coordinated, too theoretical in orientation, and further weakened by the impact of imports of new, foreign technology. Foreign technology itself was often badly handled, and expert foreign technicians were made the subject of random terror. These fundamental defects were carried through to every sphere. The bulk of pre-war industrial investment was made in the west of the Soviet Union, the area most vulnerable to foreign attack. The territorial gains derived from the Hitler-Stalin Pact were put to no good use; nor were consistent intelligence reports about the Nazis’ plans for invasion. In terms of Stalin’s, generalship, Khrushchev’s report, in his Secret Speech of 1956, that Stalin could be lost for a map at crucial junctures in the war – this, today, still has the ring of truth about it. After the war, too, little changed. It took the Stalinist bureaucracy ten years to rebuild a number of important Soviet towns.

From on high there were orders, targets and repression in the war, and, as in other countries, the Soviet Union denied workers holidays, mobilised children and pensioners for the war effort, lengthened working hours and cut the availability of consumer goods. But collective, conscious planning never existed. What little the Soviet Union had ever managed to establish had been extinguished by the mid ’twenties.

Instead of bringing out the defeat of the Soviet proletariat, Mandel prefers to stress “the tremendous individual commitment of the Soviet working class” (p.53) and the “considerable morale among the workforce and the fighting men and women” (p.69). But this is not the end of his attempt unjustly to dignify the property relations of the Soviet Union with a progressive character. He makes a similar effort in his discussion of US aid during the war.

Most commentators accept that it was Soviet-built tanks and Soviet-built aircraft which won the day, not foreign technology. But Mandel feels the need to point out that “the amount of aid extended by the USA through Lend Lease and otherwise to all its allies was relatively small: some 15 per cent of its military output” (p.70). What he forgets is that, by his own figures (p.52), 15 per cent of the USA’s military output, even though only some of it went to the Soviet Union, was worth in 1942 $5.6 billion – in other words, getting on for half the Soviet Union’s military output of $13.9 billion. So while “l5 per cent” cost the USA little, it meant a lot to its allies – the Soviet Union included. In particular, the Kremlin gained from the USA more than 40,000 machine tools, nearly 2,000 Russian-gauge locomotives, and a large part of the 400,000 increase in military vehicles it recorded in the four years after 1941, when its fleet amounted to only 272,000. Apart from 4.5 million tons of American packaged food, more than two million tons of high-grade oil, millions of pairs of shoes and an enormous quantity of clothes, these vehicles were vital to the Soviet military: at the Teheran Conference of the Allies in 1943, Stalin reported that, in his offensive against Germany, his margin was simply 60 mobile divisions. Much of that mobility he owed not to Leninist planning, but to Studebaker trucks.

Mandel’s dishonesty over the dynamics of Soviet economic and military conduct is also evident in his omissions. In effect, he refuses to discuss the logic behind the labyrinth of Soviet foreign policy in the ’thirties. He supplies a paragraph on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, a page on the Soviet Union’s ensuing occupation of eastern Poland but nothing at all on its deportation of over a million Poles to the USSR, and a few phrases only about other Soviet operations between 1939 and 1940: war against Finland, seizure and purging of Estonia (1.13 million people), Latvia (1.95 million), Lithuania (2.57 million) and Bessarabia. Aside from this, all Mandel offers on the Soviets’ pre-war international position is a footnote defending Britain and France from a polemic from the venal Molotov.


Mandel ignores the Kremlin's policy of peaceful coexistence with one or more imperialist powers at the expense of others – a policy which motivated Stalin from 1926-27 on, and one which still informs the actions of Mikhail Gorbachev and his worldwide followers today. For Mandel:

The Red Army’s complete lack of readiness in 1941 was the direct result of Stalin’s disastrous misunderstanding of the political situation in Europe and of Hitler’s – i.e., German imperialism’s – intentions in the coming war … the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 appeared increasingly as a strategic orientation rather than a tactical move (p33).

But the policy of peaceful coexistence was something much more profound than Stalin’s “misunderstanding” of European affairs. It was a “strategic orientation” in itself: the Hitler-Stalin Pact was but the tactical outcome of more than 12 years of fruitless searching for a durable imperialist ally.

Like bourgeois critics, Mandel likes to ridicule Stalin’s myopia about Hitler’s military intentions. But behind that individual myopia, the whole Stalinist dogma of Socialism in one country stressed the military intentions of outside imperialists above all else. For Stalin, the Soviet Union had only military, not economic, external threats to come to terms with. Especially after the Wall Street Crash of October 1929 sparked off a major recession in the West, Stalin made the exploitation of contradictions between the imperialists the dominating axis of his foreign policy, and abandoned all hopes of international revolution. Traditional Russian fears of encirclement, new and well-founded fears of nationalist unrest in the Soviet borderlands, and a desperate search for foreign technology – all these, not Stalin’s miscalculations, made the non-aggression pact inevitable.


After all, Moscow relied upon German technology for the implementation of much of the Soviet Union’s first Five Year Plan. Only during the first few years of Hitler’s power – from 1933 until 1936 – did Stalin stop formally courting Germany, and even then secret contacts continued. Indeed, the Byzantine course of Soviet foreign policy did much to discredit Communism in the eyes of the international working class even before the Hitler-Stalin Pact. Once the Pact became public, confusion reigned supreme throughout the international left.

In 1933 Moscow gained diplomatic recognition from the USA, spurred by its considerable dependence on American (and especially General Electric) technology. Once it had joined the imperialist League of Nations in 1934, foreign commissar Maxim Litvinov became the chief spokesman for ‘Collective Security’ against Hitler. As a result, British junior minister Anthony Eden, when brought to the Kremlin in 1935, was treated to the first rendition of God Save the Queen by a Moscow band since Tsarist times; in the same year, too, the signing of the Franco-Soviet Pact showed Stalin not adverse to concluding a deal of principle with a right-winger as slippery as Pierre Laval.

Does Mandel touch on how, in 1937, Stalin’s betrayal of the Spanish revolution ensured that what remained of the international vanguard of the working class was purged just as mercilessly as the people of the Soviet Union? Or on how, given the collapse of Anglo-French opposition to Hitler in the Munich crisis of September 1938, Stalin’s foreign policy framework dictated that he appoint a Politburo member, Molotov, to take charge of the all-important work of building a new alliance with Germany? Not at all. For him, Stalin was involved in a “reckless diplomatic game” (p.33). Writing the achievements of 1917 as large as he does, Mandel refuses to clarify how the Soviet Union was subordinate to the West and on the losing end of Allied appeasement of Nazism.

Nor does he consider the wider implications of Moscow’s eventual wartime alliance with Britain and America against Germany and Japan. In retrospect, we can see in the Second World War the beginnings of that integration into the world economy and world affairs which Gorbachev both benefits from, and is exercised by, today. In the years running up to the war, the Soviet economy was largely autarchic: shortages of foreign exchange, and attempts at import substitution, denied for foreign technology even the qualitative impact it had had before. During the war, by contrast, Moscow benefited not only from US Lend Lease, as we have seen, but also from British technology: one British firm of boilermakers, for example, alone supplied the Soviet power industry with 13 percent of its steam-generating capacity between 1942 and 1945. The war also gave Moscow a network of technical spies in the West which proved useful for at least two decades.

At the diplomatic-military level, the war marked the highpoint of peaceful co-existence. In August 1942, Stalin received Churchill, the West’s most notorious anti-Communist in Moscow, and graciously accepted his statement that the Allies were in no position to open a Second Front against Berlin. In 1943 he came out in favour of Roosevelt’s formula, upheld at Casablanca in the January or that year, of unconditional surrender for Germany; at Teheran in November, he also indicated his willingness to join in the war against Japan. With the establishment of the US Military Mission in Moscow in 1943, Soviet American exchange of and collaboration in intelligence began in earnest, as did the carpet-bombing of Germany by American planes based in the Ukraine. By October 1944, Stalin and Churchill jointly shared a standing ovation in the Bolshoi Theatre. The Comintern no longer existed, but joint planning of operations against German and Japan was underway. Over Italy Stalin had given his approval of the government of Marshal Badoglio, the invader of Abyssinia; over Japan he was shortly to agree to the rule of General MacArthur; he became such a zealous supporter of the United Nations that he proposed a specially formed U N air force to help police the world. The deception of the international working class, around the banner of anti-Fascist unity and the ‘Big Three’, was complete.


Although the Cold War meant a temporary collapse in East-West links, the 1941-46 period gave the Soviet Union ‘superpower’ status, and irrevocably too. The tangled web of trade and debt relations which today binds the Soviet Union to Western economies has its origins in the Second World War.

Many of those relations today derive not directly from the Soviet Union, but from those states in Eastern Europe which it was able to take over and, as Mandel puts it, transform “into a strategic glacis designed to protect the country’s western flank against possible future German revanchism” (p.62). However, Mandel’s treatment of the buffer states is entirely perfunctory. He spends a paragraph on the Warsaw Rising, pausing only briefly to mention how “ongoing repression by the NKVD” brought it forward and how Stalin’s unkept promises of Red Army assistance decapitated it (p.144). Then, in a striking reversal of his earlier subjectivism, he asks of the war’s conclusion:

Was the outcome decided at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam? Was it, in other words, the product of diplomatic horse-trading, ‘mistakes’ or even ‘betrayals’? To a large extent it was determined on the battlefield. (p.150)

Mandel wants to show that objective military circumstances, not the politics of Stalinism, were at issue in Eastern Europe. He discusses what would have happened if Washington had listened to London, if Eisenhower had gone beyond the Elbe, if Germany had capitulated in 1944, if Poland had made a deal with the Soviet Union in 1942, if the Red Army had arrived in Berlin before the Allies, and soon (pp.151-3). But that Stalinism might just be guilty “even” of betrayals bothers him hardly at all, so anxious is he to separate himself from vulgar, “conspiratorial” accounts of Soviet behaviour. Thus we are led to the following statement:

From the standpoint of the long-term interests of the working class, not to mention the interests of world Socialism it would of course have been preferable if the masses of Romania and the other East European countries had been able to liberate themselves through their own forms of struggle. The Soviet bureaucracy’s ‘revolutions from above’ bequeathed an ugly political legacy, not only in this part of Europe, but throughout the world. But this issue in turn had been largely pre-determined by what happened in the ’twenties and ’thirties, ie by the internal crisis of the Comintern and the growing passivity of the labouring masses. (p.156)

Now: during the years 1944-47, the workers of Eastern Europe went through one in what was to be a series of ordeals at the hands of Stalinism. That many of them welcomed the Red Army only to be repressed by it only confirms the point. Yet Mandel’s delicacy in evading this issue is breathtaking. Those East European workers who can still bring themselves voluntarily to recall their treatment at the hands of the Red Army will be glad to learn from Mandel that it was “of course” contrary to their “long-term” interest, not “preferable”, etc. They would, no doubt, also be comforted to learn that their fate was “pre-determined” by their “growing passivity” in earlier times. In fact matters stand very differently.

Throughout the Forties, the Balkans were the ideal place for the Kremlin to take advantage of imperialist rivalries, imperialist exhaustion and a general discrediting of the weak, far-right local bourgeoisies. At every stage, however, the USSR's grounds for expansion were defensive, a confession of the superior economic performance of the West. As a result, the workers of Eastern Europe were always and entirely the victims of the process. They experienced no revolutions from above – with or without inverted commas. What they saw was a social formation less efficient even than capitalism being consolidated through social engineering and terror.

Apart from nationalisations and manipulation of political parties, the bourgeois state bureaucracy, the intelligentsia and so on, terror was an essential, if uncontrollable, element in the extension of the Soviet system to Eastern Europe. In the Soviet Union, terror had been a necessary evil in the removal of the New Economic Policy: it proved doubly necessary in capitalist Eastern Europe. The Kremlin’s fear of and hostility towards nationalism in border territories was another factor making the purges in Eastern Europe even more ferocious than the internal purges of 1935-37.

It is true that Mandel describes the overturns in Eastern Europe as “a strictly military-bureaucratic operation … with no intention of "stimulating" international Socialist revolution” (p.166) and that he condemns the Kremlin’s deportation of 11 million German refugees from Eastern Europe as “indefensible” (p.163). Mandel also observes, of the Allies’ post-war carve-up, that “the gains of capitalism were certainly greater than those of the Soviet bureaucracy” (pl66). There, however, he stops.

In the West there is a great amount of hysteria about Stalinist purges in general, and those conducted in Eastern Europe in particular. Yet the task of dispelling this hysteria is not made easier by Mandel’s conspicuous desire to pass over the facts. When the Germans invaded in 1941, the NKVD shot thousands of Balts and Ukrainians in prison camps while the Red Army retreated. In 1944 deportation, imprisonment or execution caught perhaps half a million Romanians, as many Hungarians and yet more Ukrainians, Tartars, Caucasians and other nationalities. Five years later show trials opened in Prague, Budapest and Sofia, as Poland’s Gomulka was jailed, Yugoslavia’s Tito was ostracised, and more than a million East European Communists, stripped of party membership, met a grisly fate. The purges were not confined either to Eastern Europe or to wartime: politically, the Soviet Union was highly unstable after Germany's initial successes in 1941 and only widespread terror within what remained of its borders could guarantee the eradication of dissent and assure a serious war effort. Moreover, purges inside the Soviet Union raged in 1946-47 (against Jews and army officers) and again in 1949-50 (a wave of arrests and shootings in Leningrad). Thousands of Lithuanians, Ukrainians and prisoners also died in major disturbances in the late ’forties. Are these developments not part of the defeats of the international working class? Are they not part of the meaning of the Second World War? Mandel does not want to talk about them.

Mandel refuses to settle scores with Stalinism. Here, in his chapter on ‘ldeology’, is how he deals with the growth of Russian chauvinism in the war:

At the beginning of World War II the Soviet bureaucracy tried to stick to the peculiar ideology that had emerged from the Thermidor: a mixture of crude, dogmatised and simplified ‘Marxism-Leninism’, doctored and deformed to suit the bureaucracy’s specific interests; a no less crudely Byzantine cult of Stalin (the soldiers and workers were literally called to fight and die ‘;for the Fatherland, for Stalin’); and a growing Great Russian nationalism. Following German imperialist aggression, the Communist and pseudo-Communist themes rapidly receded into the background, as, incidentally, did the Stalin cult – at least until 1943. Russian nationalism more and more came to the fore, together with pan-Slavism. This culminated in Stalin’s Victory Manifesto of May 1945, which defined the victory as that of the Slav peoples in “their century-old struggle against the Germanic peoples”. So much for the counter-revolutionary (Trotskyist?) formula of the Communist Manifesto, according to which the history of all societies is the history of class struggles, not the history of ethnic struggles. (p.86)

If only the whole impact of the war on the consciousness of the Soviet working class could be dismissed in such a cavalier manner – by a quick reference to the Communist Manifesto! Unfortunately, things are not so simple.

It is ridiculous to overplay the ‘class’ aspects of the Soviet victory and underplay the ethnic ones. The Stalinist treatment of Russian nationalities and of Eastern Europe had a clear racial dimension to it, and this needs saying again and again. It was not just that Stalin disinterred Tsarist figures as national heroes, revived the trappings of the Tsar’s army (salutes, epaulettes, Cossacks), reclaimed Tsarist possessions from Japan (Sakhalin, the Kurils, Port Arthur), ordered a new national anthem to replace the Internationale, and gave his official seal of approval to the Russian Orthodox Church. Every broadcast by the man ended with the ringing slogan “Death to the German invaders”. While the Soviet Union colluded in the establishment of Israel, a principal charge laid at the feet of those purged in the late forties was ‘Zionism’ or ‘cosmopolitanism’: the war provided a major impetus to anti-semitic feeling in the USSR. Nationalism, a natural response to Nazi intervention, was turned by Stalin into a major source of Soviet social cohesion and military élan. To hint at this in half a paragraph is criminal.

It is criminal, in particular, because as we have noted of the West, the Soviet workers’ political defeat at the hands of nationalist reaction was not so interpreted by them. On the contrary, Stalin emerged from the war as a national hero. Despite horrendous losses, the doctrine of Socialism in one country appeared vindicated. Stalin’s “victory of the Slavs” was unscientific, but it was what people thought and still think in the Soviet Union today. We cannot ignore this.

Ernest Mandel was a principled and heroic Trotskyist during the Second World War. In its immediate aftermath he was not so soft on the conduct of Stalinism in Eastern Europe as, sadly, he is now (See The Soviet Union After the War, International Information Bulletin, Socialist Workers Party (US), Vol.1, No.2, 1946). For more than 40 years Mandel has dominated the international Trotskyist movement; his works are published in many languages, his prestige is great, and of his personal integrity there can be no doubt. But he understands neither the Soviet Union nor its involvement in the Second World War.

Gemma Forest

Updated by ETOL: 5.7.2003