Marxism and the second world war

Eighty years ago, the major powers plunged humanity into the horror of world war. Despite the contending claims this was, at root, a struggle for markets, and economic and political dominance. In a shortened version of an article first published in Socialism Today No.131, PETER TAAFFE looks at the background to the war and the responsibility of socialists in wartime.

The total number of victims of the second world war dwarfed even the carnage of the first. Estimates of the number of casualties suggest some 60 million died, 20 million soldiers and 40 million civilians. Many civilians died of disease, starvation, massacres, bombing and deliberate genocide. The now-disappeared ‘Soviet Union’ lost around 27 million, just under half of all the casualties in the war.

Eighty-five per cent of those killed were on the ‘Allied’ side (mostly Soviet and Chinese) and 15% on the ‘Axis’ side: Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Japan. One estimate puts the number of civilians who died in Nazi concentration camps at twelve million, while 1.5 million died from bombing. Seven million died in Europe from other causes and 7.5 million Chinese perished under the heel of brutal Japanese imperialism.

The horror of world war left its indelible impression on the generations that experienced it. This was underlined by the funeral of Harry Patch, the last surviving British veteran of the first world war trenches, who died in July 2009 at the age of 111. Significantly, the heroic Harry Patch came out in his later years against war. This humble plumber by profession insisted that two soldiers each from the armies of Belgium, France and, significantly, Germany act as pallbearers for his coffin. This serves to underline the attitude of those who went through the muck and filth of war and yet rejected narrow nationalism and chauvinism against the men and women on the ‘other side’, who were dragooned into a war against their interests with many paying the ultimate price.

The first world war was supposed to be the ‘war to end all wars’ and was, moreover, branded as a ‘war for democracy’. In fact, there were only limited voting rights for men in most of the countries involved, particularly tsarist Russia, no voting rights for women in national elections in any of the belligerent countries until after the war, and no democratic rights for the masses in the colonial ‘possessions’ of the European powers. In reality, it was a struggle for the re-division of world markets, sources of raw materials, etc, between different bands of brigands with the ‘victors’ – Britain, France and the US – imposing a vengeful and suffocating peace on Germany, summed up by the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 which, in turn, laid the basis for a war 20 years later.

In reality, there is no inevitability in history for wars and suffering if the working class, presented with the opportunity, intervenes in time to change its course. This was entirely possible following the first world war with the Russian revolution initiating a revolutionary wave throughout Europe: in Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, and with a powerful echo in Britain and even the US. Yet, tragically, the very organisations of the working class which had prepared before the first world war to help them change society became, at the decisive hour, a bulwark for capitalism. The social-democratic leaders came to capitalism’s rescue, supporting their ‘own’ sides in the war and helping to suppress revolutions, particularly in Germany between 1917 and 1923. A successful German revolution undoubtedly would have initiated a revolutionary wave which would have transformed Europe and the world.

The roots of war

Frightened by the experience of the German revolution, US capitalism in particular intervened through the Dawes Plan to underwrite Germany and Europe in the 1920s. But this did not solve the fundamental contradiction of capitalism and imperialism which had led to the first world war. The roots of this lay in the colossal development of the productive forces – the organisation of labour, science and technique – that had outgrown both private ownership by a handful of monopoly capitalists and the existence of nation states. Vladimir Lenin had declared that ‘capitalism means war’ and, if the first world war was not ended by a successful socialist overturn, it would be followed by a second and third.

But the semi-stabilisation of Germany after the failure of the 1923 revolution appeared to contradict this and other Marxist analyses of the situation. German industry certainly developed economically but was still hemmed in by the Versailles Treaty and particularly by its lack of colonies and markets for its goods. These were cornered by the older colonial powers, foremost by British and French imperialism – particularly the ‘semi-colonies’ of eastern Europe – and increasingly by the new giant on the block, US imperialism.

The onset of the world crisis of 1929 found German capitalism with enough economic power virtually to supply the world yet prevented from doing so by the domination of its imperialist rivals. This led to a sharp crisis of revolution and counter-revolution which, as we know, led – because of the cowardly social-democratic and Communist Party leaders’ refusal to bar his way – to the victory of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in March 1933.

Almost immediately, Leon Trotsky, summing up the position of Marxism, predicted that, unless Hitler was stopped right away, this would inevitably unleash a resurgent German imperialism in an attempt to grab colonies and raw materials which, in turn, would culminate in a new world war. So great were the dangers to the workers’ movement, not just in Germany but worldwide, that Trotsky postulated the idea that a workers’ state would mobilise its military might and even threaten intervention in Germany.

However, the workers’ state of Russia had degenerated from the workers’ democracy of Lenin and Trotsky to the dictatorial regime of Joseph Stalin and the bureaucracy upon which he rested. From a policy of promoting the struggle for world socialism, Stalin had ridden to power on the slogan ‘socialism in one country’, which personified the abandonment of the original aims of the Russian revolution by the usurping bureaucratic elite that increasingly dominated the state and society. Rather than confronting Hitler, Stalin gravitated between seeking alliances with the so-called ‘democratic’ imperialist powers and secret attempts to come to an agreement with the Nazi regime at certain stages also.

Trotsky’s writings on the process leading to the second world war are priceless for understanding the character of capitalism – particularly its modern expression through imperialism – and its drive towards war under certain circumstances. He pointed out that the so-called ‘peace’ at Versailles had laid the basis for German capitalism to undertake the task of ‘national unification’ of the German-speaking peoples on the basis of its imperialist programme. This facilitated the rise of Hitler’s fascist forces, the mobilisation of the despairing petty bourgeois in the main. Hitler’s demand for the incorporation of over three million Sudeten Germans – living within the borders of post-1918 Czechoslovakia – and Austria, etc, became merely the first steps for German capitalism to challenge frontally the power of Anglo-French imperialism, in particular in eastern Europe.

Revolution in Spain

Trotsky therefore consistently argued that a world war was posed unless the only force that could stop this, the organised working class, acted to change society in a revolutionary direction. Moreover, great opportunities developed in Spain and France in particular to carry this through in decisive battles to complete a democratic socialist revolution, which had been undertaken by the mass uprising against General Franco. This would have completely eliminated the possibility of a new world war with its mountain of victims and suffering. In fact, Spain was a dress rehearsal for the second world war. It involved two of the Axis powers, Germany and Italy, on the side of Franco, testing the military tactics and hardware – the ‘blitzkrieg’ of Guernica for instance – deployed on a massive scale in the second world war, particularly in Hitler’s attack on Russia in 1941.

Yet, the Spanish revolution between 1931 and 1937 provided not just one but many opportunities for the working class to take power. In July 1936, the spontaneous actions of the Catalonian working class ignited a movement against Franco throughout Spain which initially left four-fifths of the country in the hands of the working class. The state machine of the capitalists was reduced to ashes and real power rested in the workers’ organisations and their armed detachments. The capitalists fled to the side of Franco with only a shadow of them remaining in ‘Republican’ Spain.

Decisive in derailing the revolution was the perfidious role of the Communist Party – completely under the control of the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy and reflecting its every whim. Also, the failure of the POUM – whose leaders like Andrés Nin and Juan Andrade had initially been in the ranks of the Trotskyist movement – to utilise the exceptionally favourable revolutionary situation to mobilise the working class and the peasants for power allowed this favourable opportunity to slip out of the hands of the masses.

A successful Spanish revolution, coming barely a month after the massive sit-down strikes in France, would have initiated a revolutionary wave which would have first shaken then overthrown the fascist regimes of Hitler and Benito Mussolini, as well as the brutal Stalinist bureaucratic regime in Russia itself. It was no accident that the great purge trials, in which Trotsky and his son, Leon Sedov, were the main defendants, took place under the shadow of the Spanish revolution. Not only capitalism but also the Stalinist bureaucratic elite, who were mortally afraid of revolution now, were threatened by the hot flames of the Spanish revolution. The Russian bureaucracy conducted a ‘one-sided civil war’ to exterminate the last vestiges of Lenin’s Bolshevik party and the memory of the heroic 1917 revolution. Its tragic defeat enormously weakened the working class and laid the basis for war later.

Cynical manoeuvring

Modern historians in their commentary on events leading to the second world war try to present a picture of the western democracies’ consistent and implacable hostility to Hitler and Mussolini’s regimes. The Communist parties, dancing to the tune of Moscow, also in this period attempted to distinguish the more ‘progressive’ role and motivations of the capitalist ‘democracies’ from the ‘fascist powers’. However, when Stalin sought and achieved a rapprochement with Hitler, they emphasised the opposite case: that there was no fundamental difference between the different capitalist regimes. In reality, beneath the very different character of the political regimes of ‘fascism’ and ‘democracy’, the main factor leading to the second world war, as in the first, was the clash between different imperialist interests present in all these regimes.

When it served their purposes and they were threatened by revolution, the capitalists seek to switch from ‘democracy’ to dictatorial regimes with as little difficulty as a man changing his shirt. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, following the ‘sell-out’ of that country in the Munich agreement of September 1938 between the representatives of British and French imperialism (Neville Chamberlain and Édouard Daladier) on one side, and Hitler and Mussolini on the other, the ‘democratic’ government of Edvard Beneš merely handed over power to a military dictatorship and fled to London.

As to British imperialism’s ‘implacable opposition’ to Hitler, its most celebrated representative before the outbreak of war, Winston Churchill, wrote the following about Hitler’s rise to power in the 1939 edition of his book, Great Contemporaries: “I have always said that if Great Britain was defeated in war, I hope we would find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations”. The Nazis were financed and aided by the British ruling class with massive support from British big business so long as they faced east, towards attacking the Soviet Union. Thus Britain effectively backed Hitler’s rearmament programme in the 1935 Anglo-German naval agreement that allowed an expansion of the German navy that broke the Versailles Treaty’s limits.

David Lloyd George, the famous ‘Liberal’ leader, also described Hitler as a ‘bulwark’ against Bolshevism. Churchill, speaking in Rome in 1927, had heaped praise on Mussolini’s fascists: “If I had been Italian, I am sure I should have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites of Leninism”. In other words, when the fundamental interests of the capitalists are threatened – the maintenance and enhancement of their profits, markets, etc – no matter the previous incantations about ‘democracy’, they will attempt to resort to the most brutal dictatorial methods if all else fails. These were the factors – an underlying clash between different antagonistic imperialist interests – which led to the second world war.

Perhaps the fact that Hitler and Mussolini ended up by going to war against British and French imperialism, eventually drawing in the US, contradicts the above argument? British capitalism first attempted to mollify and accommodate the ambitions of German imperialism, particularly with the concessions made over Czechoslovakia following the Munich agreement. But Hitler’s intervention in Poland was a crossing of the Rubicon for British and French imperialism, as it threatened their semi-colonies throughout eastern Europe and in the rest of the world.

Incredibly and shamefully, as the fascist forces of Hitler were preparing to crush Poland, Stalin chose precisely this moment to rush to Hitler’s aid by signing the notorious Hitler-Stalin pact which Trotsky had long anticipated. Eight days later, the Nazis launched their attack and the second world war had begun. In this way, Stalin hoped to insure Russia against attack from the Nazi hordes. But, again as Trotsky had foretold, this pact would be seen as a mere scrap of paper to Hitler, who was now free to set his planes and tanks against France and, ultimately, Britain. Having completed this task, he would turn on the Soviet Union and its resources, particularly its oil and grain. Stalin facilitated this task by the wholesale execution of the flower of Russia’s military general staff. Brilliant military strategists like Mikhail Tukachevsky, who had earlier anticipated Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics, perished in the purges.

Working-class interests

The position that socialists and Marxists take in a war is of the utmost importance. It is an acid test. For us, the question must always be posed: what class is conducting the war and for whose sake is it being carried out? Honeyed phrases about ‘democracy’ and ‘who started the war’ are minor issues from the standpoint of the working class. Diplomats on either side of a war always picture the ‘enemy’, successfully, to the mass of ‘their’ people as the ‘aggressor’. But the political superstructure of a capitalist regime of one kind or another cannot change the reactionary economic foundations of imperialism, which is the main driving force of a war. In this sense, the second world war was primarily a continuation of the first in the struggle between rival imperialist powers.

However, continuation does not signify repetition. The existence of fascist regimes – the essence of which was the complete extirpation of all elements of democracy, particularly of workers’ democracy: the trade unions, the right to strike, freedom of assembly, etc – had a huge effect on the political outlook, the view towards the war of workers, particularly in the ‘democratic’ regimes of Britain, France, the US, etc. There was no enthusiasm for the second world war amongst the mass of the working class, as there had been in some countries at the outset of the first world war, because of the experiences of that war. But the mass of the working class in Britain, for instance, saw the clear anti-working class character of Hitler and Mussolini and did not want a fascist regime, particularly not a foreign oppressor, imposed upon them, and nor did the French and the European working class. Therefore, once the war began this compelled genuine Marxism to elaborate a policy for the war.

During the first world war, pacifism expressed the hostility of even workers towards the slaughter of the war. Therefore, there was a certain toleration of conscientious objectors. There was also, in some countries, a significant and growing minority of worker activists who opposed the war. Before the second world war began, there was a general sentiment of opposition to war and for ‘peace’. But once it had begun, a policy for the war became urgent for the Marxists. To merely repeat some of the formulae of Lenin from the first world war, as some sectarian groups did at the time and still do today in similar circumstances, was totally inadequate.

After 1914, Lenin had rallied the unprepared and scattered Marxist and socialist forces left in the aftermath of the debacle of the collapse of the Second International with the so-called policy of ‘revolutionary defeatism’. This was a policy for the cadres, the vanguard of the vanguard, and not one for winning the mass of the working class. Karl Liebknecht’s formula of ‘the main enemy is at home’ expressed better a policy for the mass mobilisation of the working class. However, what Lenin was driving at was the necessity – in the teeth of the chauvinist and nationalist capitulation of the leaders of the Second International – for the adoption, in fact a continuation, of a class-struggle policy during the war on the part of the organisations of the working class and preparation for the socialist revolution which would come out of the war.

Socialists and revolutionaries implacably opposed the issue of the defence of the so-called ‘capitalist fatherland’. This was entirely correct. But it was not sufficient for winning the masses or, as Trotsky put it, for “training cadres who in turn must win the masses who did not want a foreign conqueror”. It was not Lenin’s policy of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ but the slogan of ‘all power to the soviets’, linked later to the idea of ‘bread, peace and freedom’, which was decisive in the Bolsheviks winning the working class and taking power in October 1917.

Therefore, once the second world war had begun, Marxist forces in this country around the Workers’ International League – from which the Socialist Party today traces its origins – formulated a clear class-struggle policy for the situation then which had the aim of winning the masses. Moreover, this did have a significant effect on sections of the working class during the war.

Trotsky summed up the problem of a Marxist military policy during the second world war: “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 [the then US president] says, it is necessary to defend the country: good, only it must be our country not of the 60 families and their Wall Street’.”

Workers in Britain, he continued, as in America, “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 (or Britain) with a workers’ army with workers’ officers, and with a workers’ government, etc”. Therefore the Marxist-Trotskyists went with their class into the army and, in a skilful manner, pursued a policy of developing and enhancing there and outside in industry a class-struggle policy and programme.

The capitalists, when it is a choice between the working class and a foreign oppressor, invariably choose the latter, as was shown by the Paris Commune of 1871. Then the cowardly French capitalists received the support of the Prussian-German forces against their own working class. As France fell in the second world war to the Nazi military offensive, the French capitalists steadfastly refused to arm the working class, as the Marxists demanded at the time, also precisely because of the fear of a repetition of the Paris Commune.

Brutality on all sides

The military course of the war is well known and does not need to be repeated here. The intervention of US imperialism and the heroic resistance of the Russian masses – despite Stalin’s crimes – in halting and turning back Hitler’s military forces were decisive in turning the tide against Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese imperialism, resulting in their ultimate defeat. In the process, however, the world was laid waste as the figures on the number of victims indicate, as well as the destruction of wealth and industry.

Yet, even now, the complete story of aspects of the war has not been fully told, as the book by Anthony Beevor, D-Day, indicates. Brutal and insensitive military measures were not the preserve of Hitler and Mussolini alone. Beevor’s book on the effects of the D-Day intervention in Normandy shows the savage blanket military measures that were deployed by all sides in a war of this character. He contends that the 70,000 French civilians killed by Allied bombing in the first five months of 1944 exceed the total number killed in Britain by German bombs! The bombing campaign that prepared the D-Day invasion was orchestrated by ‘Bomber’ Harris, later responsible for laying waste to the German city of Dresden.

The war, again as Trotsky had indicated, did produce the beginning of a revolutionary wave and an enormous radicalisation of the masses, initiated by the Italian revolution of 1943 and the overthrow of Mussolini and his replacement Marshall Badoglio, as well as the struggles of the working class in northern Italy. The heroic Parisian working class took the city when General de Gaulle was 50 miles from the capital. He was rushed in by American forces when this happened in order to prevent its liberation becoming the spark for a new French revolution, this time socialist and working class in character.

In Britain, the general election of 1945, quite astonishingly to most commentators at the time, resulted in the eviction from office of the war ‘victor’, Churchill. This was largely because of the massive rejection of the Tories and their society. The troops rejected going back to the conditions of the 1930s that led to the war. Christopher Bailey and Tim Harper, in their epochal Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire, commented: “Before the election, Churchill had been disgusted to hear from Sir William Slim that 90% of the troops in the East were going to vote Labour and the other 10% would not vote at all”. They go on: “Labour supporters, heartily tired of dysentery, malaria… poor pay, wanted to see the brave new world that the left-wing tutors in the army education corps had promised them. Moreover… mutinies amongst British forces from Karachi to Singapore” took place.

Wartime Trotskyists

Marxists, particularly the Trotskyists, intervened successfully in the process of the radicalisation of the troops during the war. Rejecting a policy of desertion or political abstentionism, the Trotskyists had sought to work within the army as the ‘best soldiers’, as Trotsky put it. In the soldiers’ parliament in Cairo, for instance, Trotskyists worked very successfully, despite the attempt of the military brass to persecute them earlier in the war.

A heroic role was also adopted by Trotskyists in Europe. In Greece, for instance, under the heel of fascism, the Greek Trotskyist leader, Pontiles Pouliopoulous, who spoke Italian, made a revolutionary appeal in their own language to his Italian firing squad. An Italian witness said later: “Pouliopoulous had a hero’s attitude. He addressed the Italian troops as ‘brothers’ and stated, ‘in killing us you kill yourselves – you are fighting the idea of the socialist revolution’.” The Italian troops refused to fire but the fascist officer in charge stepped in to carry out the execution. In industry in Britain, while the Communist Party ‘in support of the war effort’ condemned and tried to suppress strikes, the Trotskyists championed the legitimate demands of the working class in the course of the war, leading successful movements of apprentices, electricians and other workers on wages and conditions.

The situation developed along the lines predicted by Trotsky. A revolutionary wave swept from Italy to the rest of Europe and Britain, in this country in the form of the election of a Labour government, to the mass radicalisation of the French workers, etc. Unfortunately, however, the genuine forces of Marxism were not sufficiently strong to utilise the opportunities that were presented. Therefore Stalinism – which was strengthened by the war through the extension in eastern Europe of the planned economy, albeit dominated by a bureaucratic caste, and the victory of the Chinese revolution – and the forces of reformism were able to betray this movement. This created the political preconditions for the world boom that followed between 1950 and 1975.

Since the end of the second world war, rather than the peaceful future promised, the last 75 years have been characterised not by a new world war – if one discounts the so called ‘cold war’ – but a series of bloody colonial wars. This forced imperialism to abandon direct control of the neo-colonial areas but, if anything, its economic stranglehold is even greater today to the detriment of the masses there. In the recent period, of course, we have had the Iraq war resulting in the biggest population displacement since 1945 and now the bloody imbroglio of Afghanistan. Truly, Lenin’s prognosis that capitalism means war, that it is a system of horror without end, unfolds before our eyes today.

It is true that a new world war along the lines of the first or second world wars is not possible or likely given the world relationship of forces. In the era of nuclear weapons, a new war would mean not just barbarism, to use Rosa Luxemburg’s words, but the very extinction of civilisation through the destruction of the productive forces, particularly the most important productive force, the working class. Therefore, the capitalists would not engage in a war which would ensure not only the destruction of their system but of them, their families and all human life and society as we know it. The existence of capitalist democracy – particularly the workers’ organisations, trade unions, etc – is the most powerful factor in staying their hand.

If, however, as a result of the working class failing to take power, a new dictator arose, for instance in the US, then all bets would be off. This is unlikely because the working class will, in the first instance, respond to the crisis and move in the direction of changing society. It would take not one setback or defeat but a series of defeats before capitalism would be able to impose a reactionary regime or dictatorship on society. Therefore, the lessons of the second world war are that it represents a barbarous page in history which must never be repeated. But this, in turn, can only be guaranteed by the socialist revolution and the creation of a democratic socialist world.