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International Socialist Review, Summer 1959


Daniel Roberts

Three Wars in One


From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.3, Summer 1959, pp.72-77.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Do the political patterns of World War II suggest lessons in the struggle for peace today? The record offers a way of testing some current issues in dispute

* * *

AMONG many people friendly to the Soviet Union the belief exists that the only practical hope for peace lies in Washington and Moscow reaching an agreement to give up war as an instrument of policy. As spokesmen of the Communist party often put it, all that is needed to end the cold war and the danger of nuclear conflict is to restore the alliance that existed between America and the Soviet Union during World War II.

They blame Truman for breaking off Roosevelt’s alleged policy of friendship for the USSR. They blame Dulles for worsening the anti-Soviet trend.

Their program for rectifying this situation boils downs to a simple prescription: work within the Democratic party. By helping Democrats to win office, they maintain, it is possible to influence the party in the direction of a “people’s coalition” – such as existed in America under “FDR” during World War II – thus strengthening the “forces for peace.”

Against this policy of class collaboration, the Socialist Workers party advocates following socialist principles in the struggle for peace. These begin with opposition to capitalist candidates, no matter what demagogic labels they may wear. The SWP favors doing everything possible to popularize socialism, including running socialist candidates for office. The SWP opposes company unionism in the political struggle as well as the wage struggle and supports the trends in both fields toward independence and militancy. The SWP seeks, as the alternative to war, a socialist America.

These views are attacked by CP leaders as “sectarian,” “divisive,” “utopian” and worse.

Who is right? The question is not unimportant, for it involves the struggle for peace and the road to socialism. The fate of tens of millions, in fact the fate of all mankind, hinges on coming up with a correct answer.

The CP’s proposals hark back to an earlier appraisal of the problems of war, peace, defense of the Soviet Union, and the struggle against reaction. This was their analysis of the character of World War II and their estimate of the Allied camp as a “democratic,” “people’s” coalition against fascism.

The present policy of the CP is an extension of that position, just as the SWP’s policy today is an extension of the position it took during World War II. It can therefore prove useful to review the differences of that time, for it is possible to check them against what actually happened and thus see who turned out to be right. Obviously this is highly relevant to the CP’s insistence upon a return to the political patterns of World War II.

Even more important than who was right, however, study of the actual course of history in the light of prognosis can offer us better understanding of the class forces involved in World War II, how that colossal conflict affected them, and what direction they are moving in today. On that basis it should prove considerably easier to work out realistic political policies for the period before us.

Were They Imperialists?

A BASIC premise offered by Communist leaders under Stalin’s influence was that the powers allied to the Soviet Union in World War II became historically progressive through their pact with the workers state. From September 1939 to June 1941 this proposition benefited the Axis powers. British, French and American war aims were denounced as imperialistic – which they certainly were; German war aims were presented as in the interests of national self-defense – which they certainly were not. [1]

When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union and Stalin hastily concluded an alliance with Britain and the United States, signs were at once reversed. The Axis countries alone now pursued reactionary imperialist objectives, whereas the American-British-Russian alliance pursued democratic, national-liberationist – in short, historically progressive – goals. This still remains the official CP version of the character of the second world war.

In order to justify such switches, Communist party leaders had to discard completely Lenin’s conclusions about the nature of imperialism. They had to revive, in effect, the notorious position propounded by the Social Democratic theoretician Karl Kautsky during World War I; namely, that imperialism is but one of alternative policies that the major capitalist powers are free to follow, that it is not organic to the stage of big business rule. In World War I, German, French, British, Italian, Russian and American “socialists” utilized Kautsky’s arguments to justify support for their respective governments. (Kautsky himself remained neutral.)

To refute Kautsky, Lenin showed by painstaking economic and historical analysis that “imperialism ... represents a special stage in the development of capitalism”; i.e., imperialism is synonymous with Western capitalism since the turn of the twentieth century; that it is, in fact, the last or highest stage of capitalism itself. [2]

According to Lenin, one of the features of imperialism is the rule of financial oligarchies (such as America’s sixty wealthiest families) in the major capitalist countries. The foreign policy pursued by any of the major capitalist powers cannot be anything but imperialistic; that is, designed to exploit other countries. Wars between major capitalist powers are inevitably conflicts involving “redivision” of the world. They have no progressive content and can acquire none. Imperialism threatens civilization with total destruction. Its wars spread untold misery. Consequently, said Lenin, “Imperialism is the eve of the proletarian social revolution. This has been confirmed since 1917 on a world-wide scale.”

At bottom the dispute over the war question between the Communist party and the Socialist Workers party – between Stalinism and Trotskyism – involved the validity of Lenin’s characterization of imperialism. It is still involved in the dispute over how best to fight for peace. The Socialist Workers party has adhered to the Leninist criteria; the Communist party has abandoned them. [3]

It should be emphasized that whether or not workers ought to defend the Soviet Union from imperialist attack is not at issue. From the beginning, the Socialist Workers party has supported unconditional defense of the workers state, regardless of its leadership. Likewise not at issue is the right of the Soviet government to make military alliances with one group of imperialist powers against a different group – or to switch alliances if need be. What is in dispute is whether or not socialists should offer political support to the imperialist ally of the Soviet Union and whether or not they should help expose that ally’s true war aims and oppose them.

In proposing that socialists give no political support to any of the major capitalist powers during the war, the Socialist Workers party held to Leninism, which taught in the first years of the Soviet Union’s existence that while the workers state might be compelled to sign a temporary agreement with one or another imperialist power, this must not be permitted to alter socialist opposition to the imperialist government.

Some substantial facts in World War II spoke for the correctness of this position. In Britain, France and the United States, big business ruled as unquestionably as in Germany, Italy and Japan. In the three democracies, upon the outbreak of war, big business promptly introduced police-state measures that substantially narrowed the difference between fascist and bourgeois-democratic forms of rule. For instance, in the US the Smith “Gag” Act was passed in 1940 and applied shortly thereafter against eighteen leading members of the Socialist Workers party and of the Minneapolis Truckdrivers Local 544-CIO.

In their colonies and semi-colonies, British, French and American imperialism ruled with totalitarian brutality. The US, for example, governed through military dictators in most of Latin America.

In each of the three democracies, big business was fascist-minded and had experimented with fascist movements. (Father Coughlin and Mayor Hague in the United States.) Furthermore, when military defeat loomed, the major section of the French capitalist class struck a bargain with Hitler and became “collaborationist” – thus using German fascism to crush working-class resistance at home.

Both the Axis and the British-French-American powers sought either to retain or to acquire colonies, markets, sources of raw material and areas of cheap labor where capital could be invested at a high rate of profit. This substantiated once again what Lenin had noted about the tendency to imperialist redivision of the world among the great powers.

As the vast slaughter unfolded, the SWP called attention to important additional facts. Each of the warring capitalist camps displayed in turn its mortal enmity to the land of the October 1917 Revolution. Thus in 1940, when the Soviet Union attacked Finland, the French, British and American imperialists prepared to intervene militarily in defense of their outpost. Later when the German armies penetrated deeply into the Soviet Union, the Allies appeared to be considering the advisability of slicing out chunks of territory for themselves rather than rushing material aid to the beleaguered country. [4]

Foreshadowing American postwar policy of “containing communism” within a network of military bases, Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox declared that “the US must police the world for the next hundred years.” In anticipation of the type of rule they wished to impose in Europe, the Allies maintained a stable of kings, queens and capitalist politicians of every variety heading up “governments-in-exile.” At the end of the war, the Allies foisted a number of them on European peoples against their will (for instance, in Greece). Throughout the war, the Roosevelt administration maintained friendly relations with the totalitarian, pro-Axis Petain government of Vichy and with the fascist dictator Franco. After the Italian masses overthrew Mussolini, the Allies used their occupation troops to prop up the Italian monarchy and the fascist general Badoglio. In Japan, MacArthur carefully protected the divine Mikado from popular resentment. (That a former Nazi general currently commands NATO’s European ground troops is not surprising; it is only another manifestation of the same reactionary foreign policy.)

But didn’t the US alliance with the Soviet Union mark a departure from imperialist policy? Didn’t it reflect democratic forces in American government which came to recognize the menace of Nazism and to see the need for united action to defeat it?

Imperialist statesmen are quite capable of giving revolutionary forces a temporary assist if they calculate that it will serve their own ends. The Kaiser provided Lenin with a sealed train, let it be recalled; yet it never occurred to Lenin to regard this as evidence of a “democratic” ingredient in the Hohenzollern dynasty. When Lenin’s government came to power, too, imperialist powers concluded temporary agreements with the workers state for the sake of advantages against imperialist rivals. (These, of course, also brought advantages to the Soviet Union.) The most famous of them in the early days of the Soviet republic was the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which German imperialism decided would secure the release of armies from the Russian front for use in the western trenches. That was not taken as a reflection of “democratic” forces in the German General Staff. (Even Hitler signed a pact with Stalin that meant conceding considerable territory to the Soviet Union.)

In World War II, pursuing its goal of ultimate world domination, American imperialism had to decide whether it should seek to destroy the Soviet Union before or after reducing its rivals to the status of vassals. (Hitler was compelled to make a similar choice at the beginning of the war.)

American imperialism elected to defeat its imperialist rivals first, taking a chance on carving up the Soviet Union later.

Once the Axis had been defeated, American imperialism lost no time in regrouping its capitalist foes and allies alike in a world crusade against “communism.” The cold war thus did not represent a reversion to imperialism but simply the succeeding phase of a policy aiming at exploitation of the entire globe. What other rational explanation can be offered for the rapidity with which America’s rulers shifted in 1945 from alliance with the Soviet Union to construction of a military machine equipped with sufficient nuclear poisons to “overkill” all mankind sixty or seventy times?

World War II was thus essentially imperialist in character. But interim-perialist rivalries, while predominant, were far from exclusive in the sanguinary conflict. In this it differed from World War I except for the closing phase of that slaughter. Interlaced with the utterly reactionary fight among the imperialist wolves were two other wars of quite different character.

These two wars were the Soviet Union’s defense against Germany and China’s struggle for national liberation from Japan. That both the Soviet Union and China were allied with a reactionary imperialist bloc did not lessen the progressive character of their struggles just as it did not lessen the reactionary character of their allies.

In addition, a number of other essentially independent working-class and independent colonial-freedom movements took shape or developed at heightened speeds during the second world war.

To take a correct position on these struggles, socialists had to separate them out and consider them on their own merits; that is, in relation to their class content and their effect on the world-wide movement for socialism. Otherwise well-meaning socialists could find themselves on the wrong side. This happened with such currents as the one headed by Max Shachtman, which ended up denying the progressive character of the struggles of both China and the Soviet Union.

Trotsky’s followers, however, armed with a dialectical approach to these complex problems, found no great difficulty in reaching correct attitudes toward China and the Soviet Union while still consistently opposing imperialism.

Defense of the Soviet Union

IT HAS been argued that Trotsky’s position on the Soviet Union was emotionally motivated. One school of psychologists, who interpret his opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy as synonymous with opposition to the Soviet Union as a whole, contends that his attitude derived from pique at being defeated by the “practical” Stalin. A more generous opinion is that the murder of Trotsky’s children, collaborators and friends led him to unreasoning hatred. An opposite school, however, dissatisfied with Trotsky’s firm defense of the Soviet Union under the most trying circumstances, thinks that his role in founding the first workers state blinded him to its defects – his emotions blocked him from any other course than defending his creation no matter what it had evolved into.

These amateur psychologists fail to understand Trotsky’s politics, which were thoroughly rational.

Trotsky kept in sight the basic economic and social institutions that were established by the October Revolution – state monopoly of foreign trade, the planned economy, the anti-capitalist structure of government, the socialist outlook of the masses. No matter how deeply these had degenerated under Stalin’s regime, Trotsky held that the Soviet institutions still added up to a workers state. From this it followed that the socialist opposition to Stalinism could in no way accede to imperialist intervention in Soviet affairs. It was the job of the Soviet working people – and no one else – to get rid of Stalinist tyranny and restore proletarian democracy. Those in socialist opposition to Stalinism, in fact, in order to advance the world-wide struggle for socialism, were duty-bound to serve as the best defenders of the Soviet Union.

In 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, Trotsky wrote:

“Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones ... The defense of the USSR coincides in principle with the preparation of the world proletarian revolution.”

Events have fully confirmed the view that the possibility of new revolutionary conquests was linked to the defense of “old positions.” The heroic resistance of the Soviet workers and peasants saved the USSR after Stalin’s policies had brought the workers state to the verge of catastrophic defeats. [5] With the first Soviet victories, a resistance movement that had already begun to take shape in many parts of Europe against the Nazis and the collaborationist bourgeoisie gained revolutionary scope. Partisan forces began operating throughout Eastern Europe, reinforcing Soviet guerrillas behind the German lines.

In Yugoslavia, partisans, spearheaded by proletarian brigades, pinned down considerable German forces even before the Nazi invasion of the USSR. The Yugoslavs, under Tito’s leadership, rendered valiant aid in the defense of the Soviet Union. But they too needed the further inspiration of Soviet victories to forge ahead to their own victory and the establishment of a workers state.

In Greece, another mass revolutionary movement – the ELAS partisans – in 1943 gained control of the entire country except for Athens, then lost it when the Greek Communist party leadership obeyed Stalin’s orders to yield power to the British in accordance with the secret deal he had made at Yalta and Teheran with the imperialist statesmen Churchill and Roosevelt.

The impact of the Soviet victories decisively shaped the political evolution of the French resistance movement. The working class gained ascendancy within it, and the Communist party acquired effective leadership. In Italy, too, the Soviet victories spurred the revolutionary movement that toppled Mussolini in August 1943 and that continued to unfold against both the German occupation in the north and the Allied occupation in the south.

In Germany, the accumulation of military catastrophes broke the apathy that had settled upon the working class following Hitler’s victory in 1933. The beginnings of a revolutionary movement appeared as the Nazi regime collapsed.

The Soviet victories were an element in the resurgence of socialist sentiment among the British workers. In 1945 they booted Churchill out of office and put the Labour party in power with a clear mandate to end British capitalism and institute a planned economy, a mandate which the Labour leaders, unfortunately, did not relish.

Clearly, socialist sentiment was even more powerful in Europe following World War II than it was at the end of World War I. How then explain the astonishing fact that socialism did not sweep the continent, toppling capitalism with its fascist barbarism and world wars? [6]

The answer to that question offers powerful testimony to the political correctness of revolutionary socialist opposition to Stalinism. Stalin and the Communist party leaders who made a cult of his personality did not agree with Trotsky that “The defense of the USSR coincides in principle with the preparation of the world proletarian revolution.”

As a caste enjoying special privileges in the Soviet Union, the Stalinist bureaucracy feared that victorious socialist revolutions in Western Europe would inspire the Soviet workers to oust them from power. One of the reflections of this fear was the Stalinist theory that socialist aims had to be discarded in World War II, or indefinitely postponed, since the conflict – again according to Stalinist theory – was essentially a struggle between democracy and fascism. Therefore, to believe this leadership, the struggle for socialism could only play into the hands of the fascists.

This outlook received its most glaring expression in Stalin’s chauvinistic manner of waging the war. All appeals to socialist sentiments were dropped. Russian patriotic traditions replaced them. Hatred for the German people was a dominant theme in Soviet propaganda, a policy that did much to reinforce the Nazi hold on the German masses.

Other equally reactionary consequences followed. Stalin’s secret deals with Roosevelt and Churchill called for retaining capitalism in power throughout Europe, with the Soviet Union allotted the buffer zone which it had taken anyway in Eastern Europe for purposes of military defense.

Even in Bulgaria and Rumania, the USSR’s immediate neighbors, decrees were issued as the Red Army marched across the border that “the existing social structure” was not to be altered, although the working people were organizing strikes, dividing up landlords’ estates and getting rid of the fascist officials.

Only after American imperialism – with the help of the Communist parties – had stabilized capitalist rule in Western Europe to some degree, had launched the cold war, was testing atomic bombs in the Pacific and stockpiling nuclear weapons, did the Kremlin reluctantly take the defensive measure of abolishing capitalist rule in Eastern Europe by bureaucratic-military means.

Thus the Soviet victory in World War II had dual consequences. On the one hand it served as a mighty stimulus to working-class militancy and socialist aspirations everywhere; on the other hand, the Stalinist component served to derail these promising developments. In its main lines the reality turned out pretty much as the Trotskyists had foreseen it at the beginning of the war.

Defense of China

THE third war, intermingled with the imperialist conflict between the Allies and the Axis, was China’s struggle against Japan. This was highly complex. At first sight it might seem impossible for revolutionary socialists to do anything but abstain or say, like Mercutio, “A plague o’ both your houses!”

The Chinese ruling class was as rotted a combination of capitalist-landlord compradores as existed in the world. These venal servants of imperialism and exploiters of the Chinese workers and peasants were headed by the brutal dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek, the butcher of the working-class revolution of 1925-27. Moreover China was the ally and recipient of aid from the world’s most powerful imperialist power, the United States. Where could anything progressive be found in a capitalist country headed by a government manifesting such reactionary characteristics?

As in the case of the Soviet Union, the Shachtmanites couldn’t see anything defensible in China and they argued against the Trotskyist position, which was to support China against Japan.

What was progressive was China’s place in relationship to Japan. Japanese capitalism had reached the imperialist stage. China was a semi-colony that had yet to achieve the stage of an integrated nation. Lenin long ago pointed out that the working class in the imperialist centers had everything to gain from making common cause with the colonial bourgeoisie in such struggles while retaining political independence due to the limitations inherent in a bourgeois nationalist leadership. Applying this concept, the Trotskyists remained in political opposition to the Chiang dictatorship but subordinated this opposition to the defense of China.

How well the Trotskyist estimate corresponded to the objective course of this war can be seen in retrospect. The Chinese people sought from 1931 to resist the encroachments of Japanese imperialism, and, by shaking off the Japanese yoke, to win national liberation from all imperialist powers, including the US Chiang’s incredibly corrupt regime repeatedly sought compromise with Japanese imperialism but the costly concessions did not halt the Japanese advance. It was only the revolutionary resistance of the Chinese people that prevented Japan from consolidating its conquests and overrunning all of China.

The Kuomintang’s do-nothing record, its outrageous exactions from the peasants, its looting and plundering, and its increasingly abject dependence on American imperialism lost it any measure of acquiescence it might have enjoyed among the masses during the war. With China’s victory, the people set out to get rid of this hated government.

In accordance with the Kremlin’s characterization of World War II, the Chinese followers of Stalin did not steer toward socialist aims. They did everything possible to bolster Chiang Kai-shek despite repeated brush-offs from the dictator. China in their opinion was not ripe for an economic and social overturn. Chinese capitalism still had a historic mission to accomplish and they were willing to do what they could to maintain it.

When the Chinese people took the road of economic and social revolution, however, the Communist party found itself propelled into leadership. As in the case of Tito in Yugoslavia, Mao disregarded Stalin’s directives. (At the outset of the civil war, Stalin recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s regime as the legitimate Chinese government and urged Mao Tse-tung to make a deal with the dictator.) Mao also disregarded his own theories. The alternative was to be flattened by the revolutionary steamroller.

Thus China – coveted prize of both Japanese and American imperialism – continuing the struggle begun against Japan, underwent a profound social and economic revolution, escaped all would-be imperialist overlords and emerged as an independent power, a result Roosevelt had not anticipated when he included China in his wartime alliance. [7] But Trotskyist theory did foresee this consequence and the Trotskyist political position aimed at facilitating it.

In view of the final victory of the Chinese Communist party did a correct theory and a correct political position prove meaningless? In this situation, at enormous unnecessary cost, a quarter of the human race proved capable of establishing its will on the main questions – the defeat of imperialism and its national agents and the displacement of capitalism by planned economy. The case of India, however, should also be taken into account to gain a more balanced appreciation of the role of theory and political positions in the colonial world during the war.

In August 1942 when mass strikes and demonstrations swept India, and the Congress party of the Indian capitalists called for a civil-disobedience campaign to win independence from England, the Trotskyists supported the struggle. The Indian Communist party leadership, while paying lip service to India’s objective of independence, opposed the actual struggle. In common with Churchill, the US State Department and the British Labour party brass, the CP declared that the Indian people’s rising interfered with the Allied war effort and thus offered objective aid to Japanese imperialism.

This prognosis turned out to be somewhat inaccurate. The August 1942 strikes did not help the Japanese at all, but they did aid the cause of Indian freedom and the revolutionary struggle to liquidate imperialism in general. By 1945 the British were compelled to grant India her independence or face a revolutionary movement far more powerful and determined than even the August 1942 uprising.

But the Communist party was so discredited by its wartime position in India that it lost its opportunity to become a leading force. Still worse, it brought discredit on communism itself. The result was that the Congress party filled

the vacuum and won domination of Indian politics. The Indian bourgeoisie was able to arrest the logical course of the revolutionary ferment, preserve the capitalist structure, and survive as a ruling class. India is paying for this today with abysmal poverty, the constant threat of famine, and economic stagnation.

Were the Miners Right?

BESIDES the three wars already considered, it will prove instructive to bring into sharper focus still another conflict – the class struggle in America during World War II.

The capitalists did not forget their class interests during the war. On the contrary, as always, they utilized the bloodbath to advance their interests, beginning with those that could be added up in bank accounts in the form of profits. Through Roosevelt in the White House and through the Democratic-Republican coalition in Congress they sought to “contain” the labor movement under threat of massive retaliation.

The Socialist Workers party called attention to this elementary fact again and again, and, in the fighting socialist tradition of Eugene V. Debs, advocated that the working people should defend their interests despite the war. This was the positive content of socialist opposition to the imperialist conflict. It was that simple in essence.

The American workers were resolutely against fascism anywhere, any time, at home, in Italy, in Germany, in Spain. They tended to support the war in the mistaken belief that Roosevelt was telling the truth about fighting for democracy and for “four freedoms.”

But the fraud of Roosevelt’s “equality of sacrifice” program, which froze wages in the face of inflation while profit-taking reached astronomical heights; revelations of how the giant corporations honored their lucrative cartel obligations with German firms while German and American workers were killing one another; the evident intentions of the employers, operating from the vantage point of government boards, to rob workers of their union gains – all these prompted the American working people to look to their own interests.

The miners led the resistance. In an epic series of coal-mine strikes in 1943, the United Mine Workers stood up to the combined pressure of the employers, the Roosevelt administration, the courts, the big business press, lynch-minded professional patriots and the AFL and CIO bureaucracy. [8]

(John L. Lewis, it is worth noting, never broke from capitalist politics. A Roosevelt supporter, he switched to the Republicans when he became disillusioned with the Democrats. Moreover, he was an ardent anti-Communist and not averse to bureaucratic practices. The Socialist Workers party called attention to these negative factors in the outlook of the head of the United Mine Workers, but offered its unconditional support to the union in its strike struggles.)

Organized labor in America owes its existence today to the success of the wartime mine workers strikes. Emboldened by what the miners had gained through militant struggle, rank-and-file unionists everywhere pressed for similar concessions from the employers and their government. The postwar union-busting schemes of the monopolies were drowned in the great strike wave of 1946 when almost two million workers walked the picket lines at one time.

The class struggles touched off by the mine strikes paid off in another direction as well. They inspired the “Get Us Home” demonstrations of American troops in the European and Pacific theaters following V-J Day. Big business had different plans for the servicemen. It wanted the GIs to police the world and ready themselves to march against the Soviet Union. The draftees, led by union men in the ranks, frustrated these plans. The brass hats had to accede to the servicemen’s demands. The War Department was forced to curtail the size of its armed forces abroad and to replace the veterans with unseasoned drafted youths. That slowed down American imperialism’s timetable for World War III, a fortunate occurrence from which we benefit to this day.

In contrast to the revolutionary socialist course of supporting such militant struggles, the Communist party leadership joined in making a cult of Roosevelt and of outvying the professional patriots in broadcasting the Churchill-Roosevelt-Stalin propaganda about a war for democracy and “four freedoms.” The Communist party became notorious in the labor movement for its “win-the-war” zeal.

They backed the Nazi-like “relocation” of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps because of their color and ancestry; they told the Negro people that under no circumstances must the struggle for equality be pressed during wartime; they frothed at the mouth over the coal miners daring to go out on strike; they shouted hooray for the conviction of the SWP leaders under the Smith Act and urged even stiffer sentences; they took the lead in promoting the no-strike pledge and proposed to extend it after the war; they cheered for the bombs that Truman dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; they fought every manifestation of sentiment for building a labor party. In brief, under the slogan of fighting a war for “democracy,” they opposed the democratic right of the working people to defend their standard of living, their union organizations, and their political interests in wartime.

What this cost the Communist party in political influence is now apparent to all. When the postwar witch-hunt began, the unfortunate Communist party victims found themselves without a friend in the labor movement. The wartime record of Stalinism on civil liberties, civil rights, labor solidarity, defense of the working-class standard of living, and defense of the trade unions against employer attack contributed mightily to the catastrophic collapse of the party. [9]

‘Yes, But –’

EVEN at this late date, in face of this eloquent record, one still hears the argument, “But wasn’t it necessary to place the defeat of fascism in the front rank of socialist objectives?”

The answer is, “Yes, it was necessary. The problem was how to defeat fascism.”

The Socialist Workers party held that the only effective course is through development of struggles of the working class and its allies. The beginning point is militant defense of democratic conquests that are suffering erosion at the hands of a capitalist class inclined in its old age to resort to fascism. Some of the key issues involve civil liberties, civil rights, the equality of minorities, democracy in the armed forces, freedom of the trade unions from government control, participation of labor in politics in defense of its own interests and through its own political party.

The key is to strengthen the labor movement and this includes defending it from bureaucratic abuses and violations of the democratic process in the unions themselves. The construction of a powerful labor movement able to represent the political interests of the poorest levels of the population, including farmers and small businessmen, prepares the way for socialism – the only enduring guarantee against reaction, fascist or otherwise.

The Communist party took the opposite course – to utilize the anti-fascist sentiments of the working class to instill trust in “liberal” capitalists in general and the Democratic party in particular.

To farm out the fight against fascism is to court disaster. In democratic France, for instance, the capitalist class invited the Nazis to discipline the working class in 1940. After the war ended, the same French capitalists turned once again in the direction of fascism, installing De Gaulle’s bonapartist regime as an anticipatory move. Had the French workers possessed control over the armed forces in 1940, they might have succeeded in continuing the struggle against the Nazis as they moved toward replacing the capitalist government with a workers and farmers government. And if the Communist party or Social Democratic leaders had followed a socialist course, France in all likelihood would be enjoying the benefits of a planned economy and a humane socialist government right now instead of facing the threat of fascism and nuclear war. [10]

Still another argument is to admit that American entry into World War II was motivated by imperialist aims; but to maintain that despite these aims the net effect was to smash fascism in Europe and Asia and facilitate the advance of the world revolutionary movement.

This appears difficult to answer; yet the implication that it was correct to support American imperialism in World War II indicates a flaw in the reasoning.

Wars have often proved the mother of revolutions, but that should not lead us to advocate war, should it? It is not the war that causes the revolution. It simply speeds up economic, social and political forces that were headed in that direction anyway.

Behind the argument lurks the assumption, one is inclined to believe, that American capitalism was superior to German, Italian or Japanese capitalism and that its democracy tended to rub off onto others if close enough contact were made. Two striking instances will indicate the reality. In the case of Spain, American capitalism under both Democrats and Republicans, has followed a policy for more than twenty years of deliberately bolstering fascism.

In China, American capitalism took the side of Chiang’s dictatorship against all the democratic aspirations of the Chinese people and in violation of all the wartime promises of “four freedoms.” In hope of obtaining revolutionary consequences should socialists have offered support to the State Department in these cases?

If it be argued, in reply, that these cases indicate imperialist aims rather than the objectively revolutionary consequences of American intervention, let us consider the case of Korea. American involvement in that civil war had the objective consequence of vastly speeding revolutionary developments in China. From that did it follow that socialists should have supported the American role in Korea instead of condemning and opposing it as they did?

Back comes the answer,

“In none of these cases was America fighting fascism. Aside from Korea, objectively revolutionary consequences can be expected only where America is in war against a reactionary regime like Hitler’s.”

Actually, a review of how the revolutionary movement unfolded during World War II shows that its advance was facilitated not just by Allied victories but by the alternation of Axis and Allied victories. This was more clearly evident in Asia than in Europe, but it applied to Europe, too.

Japan’s victories in the Far East, by forcing China on its own resources, began a revolutionary process that concluded in social overturn. True enough, the revolutionary process took another big step forward when Japan was defeated by the Allies. But as we have already noted – and we should note it well! – the revolution had to defeat American imperialism to consolidate its final victory.

In Southeast Asia, Japan’s victories disrupted the established patterns of imperialist rule, and this spurred anti-imperialist sentiment greatly. It happens to be a fact that Japanese imperialism shrewdly permitted the Southeast Asians more self-rule than they had enjoyed under Holland, Britain or France. When Japanese military power was smashed, these colonial peoples felt strong enough to make a bid for independence. But to win it – let this again be noted – they had to defeat the “democratic” imperialists of Western Europe backed by American military supplies.

In Europe, the German victories exposed the reactionary character of the capitalist classes throughout the continent, for they turned collaborationist in the main upon the entry of the occupation troops. The victories thereby sharpened class divisions and generated a resistance movement that tended to take a working-class direction. When the German victories were then followed by Soviet victories, the resistance movements took on mass scope. With the shipwreck of German imperialism, these forces surged toward government power, confronting Anglo-American imperialism with the problem of pushing them back. (They succeeded in doing this, but, as we have observed, only with the help of the Communist parties.)

If revolutionary socialists had attempted to base their positions in World War II upon the objectively revolutionary consequences possibly arising from the most reactionary forces in motion, they would have had to support first the Axis, then the Allies, and finally – if and when they appeared, in view of such a policy – the insurgent forces. That would not have been very practical. (What came from supporting first the Axis and then the Allies was tested by the Communist party, as we have seen.)

Furthermore, it would have missed the most important revolutionary consequence of all – the growth of socialist consciousness in general, the growth of working-class realization that what is basically wrong is capitalism itself; not just in Germany, Italy, France, Britain, America but in the world as a whole. Since the Communist Manifesto, revolutionary socialists have considered it their duty to represent this general working-class outlook which rises above national borders and narrow spans of time.

To recapitulate: It is not true that sectarian considerations motivated the Socialist Workers position in World War II. Opposition to the imperialist conflict derived from general revolutionary socialist principles tested for more than a century. They were applied, moreover, with careful consideration to the complex intertwining of three wars involving highly contradictory forces. Experience verified the correctness of supporting the Soviet Union, the colonial countries and the struggles of the American workers in wartime; and of opposing with utmost resoluteness the imperialist powers that ventured to plunge mankind into this fearful carnage.

The positions taken in World War II retain their importance today for the insight they offer to current attitudes in the struggle for peace and as a guide for correct ways of opposing the cold war. Militant workers have much to gain from studying them as they consider how to avert the nuclear conflict which American imperialism began preparing as a direct consequence of its victory in World War II.


1. For instance, the Sunday Worker, Feb. 25, 1940, stated: “The Soviet Union’s pacts with Germany rescued the German people from the •worst of counter-revolutionary wars and ditched the predatory plans of the Allied warmakers against both the Soviet and the German peoples.” The Comintern press spoke of the Anglo-French alliance as the “imperialist bloc against the German people.” A main slogan of the American Communist party was, “The Yanks Are Not Coming!” Roosevelt was denounced as an imperialist warmonger, a characterization closer to the truth than his later designation as a champion of peace, democracy and American-Soviet friendship.

2. V.I. Lenin. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, written January-July, 1916, with prefaces to new editions, April 20, 1917, and July 6, 1920.

3. The viewpoint of the Socialist Workers party is well expressed in a resolution adopted by the Tenth National Convention in October 1942. (In The Workers and the Second World War.) Another key document is the manifesto of the Fourth International, Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution. For a defense of the position under fire, Socialism on Trial, the official record of James P. Cannon’s testimony in the first Smith Act trial, is recommended. These can be obtained from Pioneer Publishers, 116 University PL, New York 3.

4. The Army and Navy Journal of Sept. 27, 1941, reported possible moves by Gen. Wavell to send British troops into the Caucasus “so as to relieve the Soviets of the necessity of guarding that valuable oil region.” At an Allied conference held the same time to plan aid to the USSR, nothing tangible resulted but talk.

5. In his speech at the secret session of the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist party, Khrushchev referred to some of Stalin’s crimes. His list included debilitation of the command of the armed forces in the blood purges of the 1930s and Stalin’s refusal to believe reports that the Nazis were planning to attack. In 1941 the Trotskyist movement pointed to these as among the major reasons for the initial costly defeats suffered by the Soviet Union.

6. In an article on the current international crisis over Berlin, Joseph C. Harsch observed in the Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 18, 1959): “At that time [1945] Moscow possessed enormous and apparently expanding political power and influence. Communism was strong and emergent in every part of Europe. Germany, France, and Italy were all deeply infected.”

7. For a vivid account of how China’s struggle, thrown on its own resources, developed stage by stage to the profoundest overturn since the October 1917 Revolution in Czarist Russia, the reader is referred to Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World.

8. See the excellent account by Art Preis, How the Miners Won, in the spring issue of International Socialist Review.

9. In Atlanta penitentiary as a victim of the Smith Act, John Gates, a top leader of the Communist party, read how Debs, who had been sentenced to the same prison as a witchhunt victim in World War I, had been able to run an effective campaign for President from behind bars and had been eventually freed by a huge mass movement in his behalf. In painful contrast to this, Gates observed, there was an “almost complete absence of popular concern over our imprisonment.” (The Story of an American Communist, Thomas Nelson & Sons, New York.) Gates failed to note that Debs followed a policy of socialist opposition to World War I.

10. For an excellent analysis of the Trotskyist wartime program against fascism, the reader is referred to B. Farnborough’s letter in the April-May 1959 issue of Labour Review, theoretical publication of Britain’s Socialist Labour League Farnborough’s letter supplements Marxists in the Second World War by William Hunter, an article that I also recommened highly. It appeared in the December 1958 issue of Labour Review. These issues of the British magazine may be obtained through International Socialist Review.

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Last updated on: 2 May 2009