The Marxist Analysis of the Second World War – A Contribution to the Discussion



The Second World War looms large in the consciousness of practically every nation. In most of the West, without exception it is regarded as the Platonic ideal of a “good war.” The military effort to defeat Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1940s is probably the ultimate Good Thing done by our people and our government, no matter where you live (at least if you live in the West). Had our boys not gone to war, so the saying goes, we would all be speaking German now, which stands in for the unimaginable destruction and violence that would have come along with the other side winning.

Even after over a decade of cultural programming in the U.S. to make us believe in Islam as the ultimate existential threat, which followed four decades of the same with Communism, neither of these has quite the same menace for us that Nazi Germany has. The fascinating evil of The Triumph of the Will, Operation Barbarossa, the gas chambers, and so on has if anything increased as more time separates us from them. In fact, a large part of the success of anticommunist and Islamophobic ideologies has been based on likening their target to the “totalitarianism” and “fanaticism” of which Nazism is the exemplar. Our collective cultural hangover from the war goes on and on with the effect of us being very often unable to make sense of it in a comprehensive way.

The position of the Marxist left in all of this cultural trauma and remembrance is somewhat ambiguous. Unlike almost all others, we are in a position to see clearly the real causes of the war: the defeat of the revolutionary wave following 1917, the rise of fascism as an extreme solution to the instability of capitalism in those years, the uneasy settlement between the major powers following the Versailles Treaty. Unlike liberals, we know Versailles was an inevitable outcome of an imperialist world system rather than the victors being mean to the vanquished. And no one but the revolutionary left can see the intimate connection between the end of the imperialist war and the revolutions of Russia, Germany and others – this is more often than not simply left out of the history books due to a lack of understanding by bourgeois historians.

Yet even on the segments of the left that are gifted with this clear sight about the causes of the war there is very often a complete failure to apply these insights. It is only with the space that decades of time allows us that we can take a fresh look at the causes of the war, the policy of Trotsky and his followers as the bearers of our revolutionary tradition during the war, and begin to make some tentative judgments on whether they were right or wrong.

Therefore, Donny Gluckstein’s recent book A People’s History of the Second World War (Pluto Press, 2012) should be regarded as a key contribution. I will say upfront I haven’t had the chance to read it. I have, however, listened to Gluckstein’s talk on his book from this year’s Historical Materialism Conference in London, and read reviews of it in various socialist publications. I want to respond both to Gluckstein’s argument and the critique of it by John Molyneux in the Irish Left Review.

Both Gluckstein and Molyneux should be given their due as preeminent socialist historians and activists of the British SWP. Gluckstein is the son of Tony Cliff, the longtime leader of the SWP, and is the author of The Western Soviets, The Paris Commune: A Revolutionary Democracy, and The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class. Molyneux is a prominent SWP writer and theoretician, now a member of its Irish sister organization. He is the author of What is the Real Marxist Tradition, Marxism and the Party, along with numerous articles and books of visual-arts critique.

The debate over Gluckstein’s book should be regarded as of key importance in establishing a coherent analysis of the wartime period. From the debates between Gluckstein and his reviewers, it is clear that such an analysis does not yet exist within our tradition. This essay is intended as a small contribution toward that understanding.

Imperialism versus the “People’s War”?

I will begin by trying to summarize what I have gleaned is Gluckstein’s argument. I disagree with it, but it is important and worth taking seriously. Briefly, he says that WW2 should be understood as two separate wars, running in parallel: the imperialist war and the people’s war. Both of these terms are drawn from Marxist discourse in the twentieth century. An imperialist war is a conflict between two imperialist powers or groups of powers; in these situations, revolutionaries should not pick a side rather but strive to create the conditions under which the war could transform into a revolutionary conflict between exploiters and exploited.

This analysis was developed in the wake of the Social Democracy’s collapse into patriotic blocs with the ruling class on the eve of the first great conflict of the type, the First World War. On the other hand, the people’s war was a term first brought into the left by Stalinists who argued not just the working class, but all classes (the “people”) of nations under attack by fascism had an objective interest in its defeat. In such a situation, therefore, the patriotic blocs that caused Communism’s break with the Second International were on the agenda again and even necessary; contrarily, pressing the demands of the working class was a block to the formation of these blocs, which objectively aided fascism.

Racist Dr. Seuss cartoon depicting the Japanese-American "fifth column."

Racist Dr. Seuss cartoon depicting the Japanese-American “fifth column.”

Gluckstein develops his own view of the “people’s war” that is separate from the Stalinist one. An example of unambiguous people’s war might be the guerrilla struggles in Eastern Europe, especially in Poland, Yugoslavia and Greece. Here, nationalist and Communist partisans with popular support waged successful national liberation struggles against the occupying German and Italian forces. These struggles were explicitly framed as such, and it is fair to say that most of the partisans and their supporters expected a socialist outcome rather than merely removing the fascists. Similar things can be said about the struggles to remove the Japanese in French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies.

An example of unambiguous imperialist war, on the other hand, might be the U.S. versus Japan in the Pacific; this was a conflict between two imperialist powers that had been started long before 1941, and was without question over the control of the Pacific Ocean and its resources. The war was conducted on both sides using the most brutal tactics and the most vile racist propaganda. Japan was not fascist,[1] and there was no sense of anything but an imperialist, top-down struggle to displace it from its holdings. Except by implication of its connection with the war in Europe, there was nothing of the popular, anti-fascist struggle that was seen there. This war, according to Gluckstein, includes the Pacific as well as the North African and Eastern European fronts.

The war in Western Europe, however, is best framed as a combination of both imperialist war and people’s war. While the British ruling class waged war against Germany to maintain its imperialist possessions rather than out of any genuine anti-fascist sentiment (indeed, Winston Churchill was on the hard right and an admirer of Mussolini), the same could not be said about British workers, whose leftwing and democratic inclinations impelled them to join the armed forces and fight an anti-fascist war. The same might be said of France, and later on, the United States.

The many battles, fronts and theaters in the war can be understood as part of the imperialist war, the people’s war, or a combination of both. Though the two wars ran in parallel to each other, says Gluckstein, there were major points of disruption when they came in conflict, thus exposing their fundamentally opposed natures.

An example of this is the 1944 uprising in Warsaw led by the Polish nationalist Home Army with Communist involvement. When the Germans had been pushed to the western side of the Vistula by Soviet forces, the uprising occurred to drive them from Warsaw before the Red Army could arrive. Soviet troops settled on the other side of the river. They refused to send supplies to aid the rebels and even refused to allow US and British planes refueling behind their lines if they should want to drop off their own supplies.[2] Gluckstein says this shows the two opposed wars coming into conflict with each other. An independent Poland was directly contrary to what Stalin sought, hence, he waited for the Nazis to crush them before moving in himself.

There are many other points of such conflict: the Allied invasion of Greece to subdue the Communist-led ELAS/EAM national liberation movement, the British defeat of nationalist rebels in the Dutch East Indies, and the rehabilitated Vichy forces doing the same to the Viet Minh in Indochina (Gluckstein 2012b).

John Molyneux in his review gives Gluckstein credit for addressing the imperialist character of the war, but has problems with his characterization of various struggles as a “people’s war.” He writes:

Gluckstein doesn’t succeed in giving a clear definition of what he means by People’s War. He himself acknowledges it is ‘problematic as an idea and might appear insufficiently rigorous’ [p.12] and he is not able to distinguish it satisfactorily from national war or class war – all wars have a class content and are, in some sense, manifestations of class struggle, and most national wars have a social dimension to them (certainly wars of national liberation do).

Second, his concept of ‘two distinct wars’ or ‘two parallel wars’ involves the notion of a single People’s War but it is not really plausible to describe the resistance struggles in Europe and the anti-imperialist struggles in Asia as part of a single war or the same war except in so far as they are aspects of the Second World War as a whole. Nor is it convincing to speak of distinct People’s War in Britain or the USA where no separate armed forces or fighting takes place, except in the very broadest sense of the people’s war that is waged throughout the history of class society. In other words he tries to stretch the term too far and ends up shoehorning struggles into it which don’t fit.

Third, Gluckstein refers on a number of occasions to the existence of ‘parallel wars’ but his own analysis shows that far from running in parallel these different struggles both intersect and, at times, sharply conflict with one another.

I think Molyneux is right where he questions the existence of a “people’s war” going on in the US and British armed forces. Whatever the intentions of American and British workers in these armies, they objectively served the interests of their rulers, which was to defeat the Axis for the sake of defending their imperial possessions or acquiring new ones. These soldiers went to war to defend democracy against fascism, but soldiers in countless wars have fought to preserve democracy and ended up objectively serving imperialism.[3] To try to understand the Western front as anything other than an inter-imperialist conflict is a concession to American or British patriotic sentiment. Of course, this viewpoint would have significant consequences for socialist strategy, which I’ll get to later.

Fundamentally, I think “people’s war” is an anti-Marxist concept. It assumes the fundamental unity of interests of classes in a nation, both proletariat and bourgeoisie. Marxism does not deal with “peoples,” but with social classes, and secondarily, nations. We can understand and speak to the dynamics of both class and national struggles, but not the struggles of whole “peoples,” especially on an international scale. Thus, it is an extension of Popular Front politics that cannot be adapted to fit within a framework based on class struggle.

Gluckstein proposes a “people’s war” which is separate from the imperialist war. In defense of this concept he writes, “The book freely admits it is ‘problematic as an idea’, pointing out its evanescent character and rapid dissolution as a movement after 1945. Maybe a different term can be found, and although it is true that the war from below lacked homogeneity, the concept of ‘people’s war’ captures the complexity of events” (Birchall and Gluckstein 2012).

As I wrote, however, this can only be defined through artificial separations and clubbing together of diverse conflicts. It makes little sense to club together the service of American and British workers in the imperialist armies in France, with the nationalist uprising in Poland. This has no explanatory value.

I also agree with Molyneux that Gluckstein’s proposal of “two parallel wars” is incoherent and, at a certain point, nonsensical. “There was such a thing as the Second World War, so its underlying character can and should be investigated. And the discovery of parallel wars within it shows, to use the language of dialectics, that the Second World War represented a ‘unity of opposites,’” Gluckstein writes. But as Molyneux says, a dialectical unity exists within a single whole, rather than two entirely separate, even if “parallel” wholes.

Two, Three, Many World Wars

Molyneux believes that the Second World War was one conflict, and it was an imperialist war. I question this very much. I think we call “World War Two” was not one war, but several wars that mutually impacted upon each other, if not in the terms Gluckstein suggests.

I’ll take the example of the war in the Pacific. This was a conflict that occurred independently of the war in Europe, as I said. But what many people do not realize is that it began long before the war in Europe, and therefore it had its own separate dynamic. The conquest of Manchuria and the rape of the rest of China, as well as other developments leading right up to Pearl Harbor are all part of a separate conflict that set Japanese imperialism against Anglo-American imperialism. It was not unaffected by the war in Europe, but these connections were based only on Germany’s alliance of convenience with Japan – their war aims did not significantly overlap. Well into the conflict, the American military brass spoke openly of “two wars,” one in Europe and one in the Pacific.

Defining the war in the Pacific as imperialist overall does not preclude the existence of national or class struggles within it – aspects of what Gluckstein calls the unitary “people’s war.” But these do not determine its overall character. Moreover, these national liberation struggles were fought on, and assisted by both sides. Whereas the Chinese people in their war against Japan found their objective allies in Britain and the United States, the Burmese and Indians in their national liberation struggle against Britain looked to Japan as their ally.

Probably Gluckstein’s most convincing case for parallel wars is the Eastern front. But even here, I do not understand why the war fought between partisans and Germany should not be understood as separate from the war fought between Germany and the Soviet Union. The fundamental conflict was between Soviet imperialism and German imperialism with its allies – which, once again, does not preclude the existence of national liberation struggles within the war, but these were part of the overall conflict and their outcome was determined by its result.[4]

The band of hostile brothers in a German commemorative print of the Munich Agreement.

Chamberlain and Daladier, Hitler and Mussolini – the band of hostile brothers in a German commemorative print on the occasion of the the Munich Agreement.

Ernest Mandel, the late theoretician of the Fourth International, has a formulation different from both, found in his article “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two,” which Molyneux quotes favorably in his own analysis. Mandel says that we are dealing with no less than five separate wars:

  1. A worldwide conflict between Anglo-Franco-American imperialism and German, Italian, and Japanese imperialism.
  2. The national liberation struggle of China against Japan.
  3. The progressive self-defense of the Soviet Union, a workers’ state, against German imperialism.
  4. National liberation struggles by the people of India, Ceylon, Burma, Indochina and Indonesia, waged against British, French, Dutch or Japanese imperialism.
  5. The resistance in Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, Italy and France against German and Italian occupation. (Mandel 1976)

I think Mandel’s formulation is incredibly problematic. He does not sufficiently justify why, if there was one war on a global scale, the other wars did not form component parts of the first. Moreover, the resistance in Poland ill matches the character of the Yugoslav and Greek resistance, and the anti-fascist and class struggles in Italy and France were completely different from both of them in substance. Of course, just like Molyneux and Gluckstein, I do not believe that the Soviet Union was a workers’ state, and therefore would say the war on the Eastern Front was an imperialist war.[5]

Before I lay out my own position, for convenience I will sum up the ones I have described so far. Gluckstein believes there were two wars, a people’s war and an imperialist war running side by side. It was revolutionary to participate in the first, but not the second. Molyneux in contrast believes there was only one war, an imperialist war, which nevertheless required working class participation. Mandel believes that there were five wars, of which one was imperialist and four were progressive, and therefore requiring revolutionary participation.

I believe that all of these formulations give ground to the idea of a Stalinist-type “people’s war,” even if this is contrary to their intentions. Gluckstein and Molyneux believe in the common interests of the working class in Britain and America with their rulers. Molyneux says this outright, while Gluckstein tries to square the circle by introducing the concept of parallel wars. Mandel matches them by asserting the progressive nature of the war in the East and the French resistance, ignoring the reactionary and imperialist aspects of both. Whatever the formulation, all of these propose common interests between workers and the Allied ruling classes in defeating fascism.

Gluckstein says there were two wars, Molyneux one, Mandel five. At the risk of complicating things beyond understanding, I propose that there were three:

  1. The war in Western Europe and North Africa between German and Italian imperialism on one side, and British, French and American imperialism on the other, including anti-fascist and class struggles in Italy and to a much lesser extent in France.[6] This began in September 1939 with the declaration of war by the Allies and ended in May 1945 with the surrender of Germany.
  2. The war on the Eastern European front between German imperialism and its allies against Soviet imperialism, including numerous national liberation struggles against both. This began in June 1941 with Operation Barbarossa and also ended in May 1945 with German surrender.
  3. The war in the Pacific between Japanese imperialism and Anglo-American imperialism, including numerous national liberation struggles, also against both. This war started in September 1931 with the Manchurian Incident, and concluded in June 1945 with Japanese surrender.

Whether they think there were one, two, or five different wars, the formulations of Molyneux, Gluckstein and Mandel all require us to lump together a variety of wars that are inter-imperialist and anti-fascist, national and class struggles. For Marxists all of these are completely different from each other in nature. On the other hand, my view of three separate but mutually interpenetrating imperialist wars allows us to see the common laws of motion in each.

First, the three conflicts were separate. The conflict in the Pacific began a full decade before Pearl Harbor, with the conquest of Manchuria. At this point the central dynamic was one of Japanese imperialism versus the Chinese national liberation struggle; ten years later this would shift to one of conflict between Japanese imperialism and Anglo-American imperialism. But as the Chinese national liberation struggle certainly did not end or shift dramatically in its character when America entered the war, these two phases of the war interpenetrate, forming a single dialectical unity.

The conflict in Eastern Europe, as well, was presaged by German expansion into Austria and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic states and invasion of Finland. This also includes, most famously, the partition of Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union. These cleared the deck for the central conflict between German and Soviet imperialisms.

Second, the three wars were mutually interpenetrating. Most practically, the invasion of Poland by Germany meant the beginning of war in the west. While they waged war in Europe, the leaders of Britain and France never had their colonial empires in Asia very far from their minds.[7] To defeat them in Asia, the Japanese required that they were pinned down in Europe by Germany. Similarly, the fate of the Soviet offensive in Eastern Europe depended greatly on the opening of the offensive in France.

Third, all of these conflicts were imperialist. The fundamental struggle was for the re-division of territory, colonies, and profits in each of them. The world working class had no objective interest in whether America or Japan won in the Pacific, nor – not to put too fine a point on it – whether the Soviet Union or Germany and its allies won on the Eastern Front.

This is very much in keeping with the revolutionary Marxist perspective of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg in the First World War. Molyneux, along with many other sincere revolutionaries during and after the war, believes that fascism represented such an extreme danger to humanity that it was necessary for revolutionaries to intervene on the Allied side. But fundamentally, inter-imperialist conflicts tend to run on a continuum in terms of the barbarism, destruction and extermination they unleash.

Red Army and Wehrmacht fraternize at the victory parade in Brest-Litovsk after the partition of Poland.

Red Army and Wehrmacht fraternize at the victory parade in Brest-Litovsk after the partition of Poland.

To put it bluntly: what makes the Nazi war machine in Eastern Europe substantially different from its imperial predecessor in the same territory? And, in the same terms, what differentiates the holocausts perpetrated by British and French imperialism different from the Shoah, the only event we feel comfortable calling a holocaust today?[8]

As in all imperialist wars, each of these three conflicts opened the possibility of nations that are oppressed or colonized by one side freeing themselves in alliance with the other. National liberation struggles, at least according to the Marxist tradition, are equally progressive regardless of the context. It is just as progressive for India to free itself in alliance with Japan as it is for Indonesia to free itself in alliance with Britain.

Revolutionary Participation in an Imperialist War?

The bulk of Molyneux’s argument is his elaboration of revolutionary socialist tactics (or what they should have been, anyway) during the war. For the most part, his position is a restatement of the “proletarian military policy” which Trotsky urged his followers to adopt shortly before his death (Trotsky 1940a and b).[9] The essence of the strategy was that revolutionaries should join the armed forces and call on the working class in Allied nations to do so as well, but at the same time expose the imperialist aims of the ruling class and fight for the transformation of the military struggle against fascism to a working-class basis, which primarily meant the empowerment of trade unions as vehicles of military struggle. Molyneux writes:

… despite the fact, amply documented by Gluckstein, that the Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin governments and the ruling classes they represented (I do not accept the notion that Russia was still a workers’ state), fought the war for their own imperialist interests and not for democracy or anti-fascist principle, it was nevertheless in the interests of the working class internationally that Nazi Germany and its fascist allies were militarily defeated. To put the matter sharply and clearly I think that revolutionary socialists should not have been neutral on D-Day or at Stalingrad.

In support of this it should be noted that the position of neutrality or a ‘plague on both houses’ appears to have had no serious resonance with any of the working classes in any of the belligerent countries. Whereas in the First World War initial war fever steadily waned as the war developed and turned eventually into outright revolutionary opposition (in Russia and Germany), no such process occurred anywhere in the Second World War. On the contrary the large scale radicalization that took place did so as part of pursuing the war against the Axis.

Moreover working class instincts and inclinations were objectively correct in this. Neither they at the time, nor we with hindsight, can be indifferent to the consequences of Nazi/fascist victory. It would have been an utter catastrophe for all the workers of Europe and very possibly the world. Fascism destroyed all independent working class organization in Italy, Germany and Spain. Had Hitler and co. won they would done the same everywhere else. The Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, 20 million or so Russians, up to 500,000 Roma, millions of Poles and so on. If they had won how many more would they have exterminated? It true, as we have seen, that Roosevelt, Churchill and co were not fighting an anti-fascist war in the sense that they were motivated by opposition to fascism but objectively, whatever their motives, they were fighting fascist regimes and it is a simple fact that the victory of the Allies resulted in the demolition of the fascist regimes and the restoration, at least in Western Europe, of bourgeois democracy (Molyneux 2012).[10]

I applaud this formulation for drawing out the issues at stake precisely and clearly. I believe, however, that his argument is based on an analysis that is limited to Western Europe, and a very mistaken analysis at that. It requires detailed unpacking, so I will take some time with it before analyzing the consequences of his position for socialist strategy.

First: bourgeois democracy was not restored in all of Western Europe. Franco’s rule was maintained in Spain, with which Britain and the United States made a separate peace. The victory of bourgeois “anti-fascism” in France and Germany meant the continuation of dictatorial rule and the atomization of the working class in Spain – and also, Portugal. I question the characterization of the Franco and Salazar regimes as fascist,[11] but the Iberian Peninsula remains a very significant exception to the assertion that bourgeois democracy was restored in the West.

Second: bourgeois democracy was reestablished in France, Italy and West Germany at the cost of derailing the progressive/revolutionary struggles by members of the resistance, partisans and antifas. It required the collaboration of the Stalinist CPs to impose an explicitly counter-revolutionary settlement on the working class. Even during the war, the aims of the continental working class were directly opposed to those of the Allied rulers.

Third: bourgeois democracy was certainly never established in Eastern Europe. Red Army occupation of these countries led to the imposition of an equally counter-revolutionary settlement, that of Stalinist state capitalism. Unless I am very mistaken, Molyneux would not see the imposition of Stalinism as “progressive” in any sense.

In other words, the imperialist victory against fascism meant the end of progressive struggles that had been waged on the margins of the wars in Eastern and Western Europe. A counter-revolutionary settlement was imposed on the whole continent. In Greece, just to point to the most extreme example, this meant an invasion by Britain to decapitate the radicalizing national liberation struggle.

Fourth: the outcome of limited bourgeois democracy in the West objectively meant the restoration of the empires of Britain, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Whereas the Indian and Burmese freedom struggles had gained the edge over Britain during the war, decolonization in Indochina, the East Indies, Africa and the Middle East would take further wars lasting years or even decades.

Is this progressive?

Is this progressive?

Furthermore, I find that Molyneux’s account, like many of the war even on the left, is more or less in awe of fascism. No doubt, it represented a catastrophic setback to the working class of Italy and Germany, as well as the territories both occupied. But this was not a permanent defeat. One of the great merits of Gluckstein’s book on the Nazi regime is that it reminds us how hamstrung the German war effort was because of the state’s fear of the latent power of the working class. The invasion of Poland had been launched despite the fact that it would cause war in the West because of an slowdown in the German economy, which the regime feared would cause working-class unrest. During the war rationing could not be fully implemented, conscription could not be extended to requisite levels, and armaments factories did not even have two shifts until late in 1943. In other words, German society never reached a complete war mobilization because the Nazi regime feared a repeat of 1918 or 1923. When the hammer-blows of war began to rain down on Germany itself, workers were quick to rediscover their interests, especially in the form of the antifa battalions (Gluckstein 2011).

Going along with these points, the logic of Molyneux’s position might have some very disturbing humanitarian consequences. The Allies committed some of the most horrible crimes against humanity in the wartime period: the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What “objective interest” did the international proletariat have in the incineration of thousands of German and Japanese workers? No more interest, I would think, than they did in the Shoah.

“I think that revolutionary socialists should not have been neutral on D-Day or at Stalingrad,” says Molyneux. This is all very well. But what does a position in favor of the Allied forces in these battles mean – or rather, what would it have meant for the revolutionaries attempting to deal with them? Since fascism “destroyed all independent working class organization” in its home and threatened to do the same elsewhere, what concrete policy would revolutionaries follow to stop the threat? Would they join the army? Would they call on workers to stop strikes that harmed the war effort, like the Stalinists did?

I do not disagree with the truth of what Molyneux says: fascism meant the defeat of the working class as well as barbarism and extermination on a mass scale. In the face of this, I understand why many sincere revolutionaries believed that suspending the class struggle was what was required. But I respectfully disagree. Workers have no “objective interest” in the victory of their rulers in any imperialist conflict, and posing the question as one of extermination is, to my mind, something like moral blackmail.

One fact that Molyneux seems to ignore is that, during the course of the war, some revolutionary groups in the Allied nations did pursue an explicitly antiwar policy. I am thinking primarily of the American SWP, and the split from them led by Max Shachtman, the Workers’ Party. Both these groups won credibility by leading strikes against organized labor’s no-strike pledge, for which they were denounced by the Stalinists, and persecuted by the American state under the Smith Act.[12] What does Molyneux think of their efforts? Should they have desisted and joined the army?[13]

What frustrates me most of all about Molyneux’s argument, however, is the fundamentally Eurocentric terms he deals in. Though he refers at the beginning and end of his review to anti-colonial struggles in the context of the war, the substance of his analysis deals only with Europe. In what follows, I will try to correct this with the case of India, since it is the country I am most familiar with from my own studies, as well as the country in which these questions were posed most sharply.

Molyneux quotes Gluckstein’s summary favorably, so I will start from there:

On 3 September 1939 Indians woke to discover they were at war. London did not bother to ask for approval, unlike Dominions such as Canada or Australia. When Churchill told the Commons that ‘India has a great part to play in the world’s struggle for freedom’ that did not include independence for India’s 400 million, a population that exceeded the maximum number conquered by the Third Reich.

One consequence of the ‘struggle for freedom’ was the Bengal famine of 1943… It consumed between 1.5 and 3.5 million lives despite civil servants describing the previous harvest as ‘a good one’… This continued an appalling record – 12 major famines since colonization began. In the 1860s an Indian economist [Dadabhai Naoroji – B.C.] had discovered the basic cause: a sum greater than the sub-continent’s land value was drained off annually to support British occupation and profits…

The 1943 famine was directly connected to India’s involvement in the Second World War, because after it began eleven times the usual number of soldiers were maintained at the country’s expense.

Field Marshall Wavell… pointed out ‘the very different attitude towards feeding a starving population when there is starvation in Europe’. Churchill was unabashed… sending food amounted to ‘appeasement’ of the Congress Party. The official record notes that the Canadian PM had 100,000 tons of grain loaded on a ship bound for India but was ‘dissuaded by a strong personal appeal from Winston’ from sending it (Gluckstein 2012a).

The history of the war in India included not just suffering, but active and militant resistance. Initially, the Congress Party had wavered over whether India should support Britain’s war effort. Gandhi and Nehru both instinctively opposed fascism, but they did not budge from the position that Indians could not wage war for freedom when their own country was not free. Britain’s officials obstinately refused to meet their most basic requests: autonomy in administration and prosecution of the war effort, and a guarantee of independence immediately following the defeat of Germany and Japan. Thus was launched the Quit India agitation, a mass campaign of violent and nonviolent resistance involving millions of Indians at its height, which was brutally repressed by the British.

What does Molyneux think about all this? He says:

In the colonial countries it would have been necessary [for revolutionaries] to argue, in opposition to the Communist Parties, against any idea of deferring the struggle for independence. Clearly a risen and free India, and even more so a workers’ India, would have been a huge assistance to the struggle against Fascism and an infinitely harder country for Japan or Germany to subdue than an India still subjugated by Britain.

But whether “a risen and free India” would have been “a huge assistance in the struggle against fascism” and “infinitely harder” for Japan and Germany to defeat is really beside the point. This is sloganeering, not the concrete analysis of concrete conditions. Britain stood in the way of Indian independence, and this was part and parcel of its imperialist war against Germany and Japan.[14]

Bose reviews the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the all-female regiment of the INA.

Bose reviews the Rani of Jhansi regiment, the all-female regiment of the INA.

In this situation, why should the Indian people see Japan or Germany as their main enemies? They knew enough to decide this question for themselves: thousands of Indian prisoners of war in Southeast Asia joined Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, which fought to liberate India alongside the Japanese. Bose and the INA won enormous popular support within India even though they only breached its northeast corridor, when they were thrown back at Imphal in 1943.

What should have been the position of Indian revolutionaries? The Trotskyists, the few that there were in India, joined in the Quit India agitation. The more numerous Trotskyists in Ceylon led illegal strikes on plantations tasked with supplying food for the war effort. From what he wrote, Molyneux seems to think they were right. But I do not see how he squares this with his support for the British war effort as a whole, considering that he believes the war to have been one united conflict. If the international working class had a direct interest in defeating fascism, and if India stood to aid this effort, shouldn’t the Indians have done their utmost to aid Britain?

Molyneux is also hesitant in his analysis of the war’s impact on the neutral countries: “I do not think that in neutral countries such as Ireland or in South America, socialists should have called for joining in the War,” is the only remark he makes. But why not? If the world’s working class had an objective interest in defeating fascism, wasn’t it the responsibility of revolutionaries in Ireland and Latin America to make sure that they joined in the struggle? To limit ourselves to Ireland alone, the consequence of this position would have been a subordinate alliance with Britain while it occupied Irish territory in Ulster.

Conclusion: The Revolution that Wasn’t There

What, therefore, was the correct strategy for revolutionaries to take in World War II? Of course, it would depend on the place. In the imperialist countries, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and Japan, it meant very practically the continuation of class struggle and antiwar propaganda against the state. This, of course, required a great deal of bravery in extremely adverse conditions. Severe repression was meted out to those in the Allied nations who broke the no-strike pledges and agitated against the war, even if it did not match that of fascism in its sheer ferocity.

In times of war as well as peace, socialists have always found themselves in the ranks of national liberation forces, whose struggles we regard as objectively revolutionary. Revolutionaries in Eastern Europe could, and did, find themselves in the liberation struggles of Poland, Yugoslavia, and Greece against Germany, just as their counterparts in India and Ceylon struggled against British imperialism.

As these struggles moved in a radical direction, the specter of revolution was raised, just as it had been in World War I. By the end of the war, even Catholic partisans in Italy were speaking openly of the need to abolish capitalism. The people who had defeated Germany in Yugoslavia and Greece fought fascism from a left-wing stance, and expected socialism after the war. Similarly, the end of the war in the Pacific meant the defeat of Japan and the decline of Britain, and therefore the liberation of China, India, Burma, Indochina, the Philippines, and the East Indies from the imperialist yoke.

The First World War ended with the opening of a global war of the proletariat and oppressed peoples of the world against capitalism. The Second could have ended in the same way. This was, indeed, the outcome Trotsky had predicted before his death. It did not happen, because the forces of imperialism, which includes Stalinism, turned out to be stronger, more alert, and quicker on their feet than he had expected.

Needless to say, that the Stalinist and Social-Democratic leadership of workers in the Allied countries succeeded in enlisting them in the “people’s war” played a major part in forestalling the class struggle in the imperialist countries, whereas in the last war their struggles had broken out into revolution.

But this was a possible outcome, and it was the duty of revolutionaries at the time to do their best to bring it to fruition. In this respect, the record of Trotskyists in the United States, Britain, France, Italy, Eastern Europe, India, Ceylon and other places is unimpeachable. The ambiguities and contradictions in the formal Trotskyist position on the war allowed militants within that movement to emphasize the parts of it that best accorded with their revolutionary, class-struggle instincts. But the blueprint itself, however one warms it over and rephrases it, lost its value even before Trotsky wrote it down.

Nevertheless, his followers carried the roots of our tradition across the explosion of war, barbarism and extermination brought on world capitalism, in both its “democratic” and fascist forms. We owe them our homage – which most of all means a clear understanding of their motivations. And saying they fought the “people’s war,” in whatever way it is posed, is an insult to their memory.


[1] Japan during the war was a straight military dictatorship. There had never been a mass movement of the petty bourgeoisie to smash working class resistance. Indeed, the Japanese working class had never been ready to take power, as the German and Italian workers had. These countries are the home of fascism in its classic form – and I would argue, the only real fascist countries to date (see note 11 below). Factions within the Japanese military, particularly Kodoha (The Imperial Way) and Toseiha (Control) drew on different aspects of European fascist ideology, but both assumed top-down military rule and rejected any participation by civilians in the imperialist project.

[2] The arrival of the Red Army at the banks of the Vistula was the culmination of what was probably the speediest advance in military history, causing troops to far outrun their supply lines. Thus they were not in a position to militarily aid the uprising, though as Gluckstein points out it would have been possible to send supplies. Stalin was not interested in this because the Home Army’s success would place another barrier in the way of Soviet subjugation of Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe.

[3] Taking the history of the United States alone, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, both Gulf wars, and Afghanistan all come to mind.

[4] Just as Yugoslavs and some Poles looked to the Soviet Union for aid in gaining their freedom from Germany, so Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Latvians fought alongside the Wehrmacht for their freedom from Russia. It goes without saying that nations never gained independence from Germany, and moreover the consequences of collaboration would lead many to participate in the Shoah. For any Marxist, this is one of the most thorny issues of the war and I don’t want to provide a final answer to it, just to point out that it is there and deserves much more thought.

[5] I view the Soviet Union as imperialist based on the oppression of nations internal to the USSR and its interventions in Finland, Poland and the Baltic states. Of course, this understanding is based on Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism, which I do not plan on debating here. Gabriel Kolko, the American left historian, tries to deal with the same issues as Gluckstein in his classic work The Politics of War, but his understanding of the Eastern Front, and particularly of Stalin’s actions in Greece, is hamstrung because he cannot see the USSR as imperialist.

[6] The anti-fascist struggle by the Italian partisans was much broader and more radical than that of the French resistance, despite the mythmaking attempts by Mandel in the article I quoted above. France did see anti-fascist and class struggles, but on a much lower scale than in Italy or the other occupied European countries. In his review of Gluckstein’s book, Ian Birchall, also of the SWP, discusses the reactionary character of the Resistance. Gaullists and Stalinists collaborated in a strictly patriotic struggle which lauded the killings of German working-class conscripts under the slogan “à chacun son boche” – everyone should kill a German. On the other hand, French Trotskyists consistently attempted to reach German enlisted men through a paper they produced, Arbeiter und Soldat, to which they received some positive response (Birchall and Gluckstein 2012).

[7] The war in the Pacific had a quite decisive impact on the Eastern European war as well. Japan’s rulers looked just as much toward Mongolia and Siberia as they did toward Pacific and Southeast Asia as parts of the future “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.” While the Nomonhan Incident/Battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939 (which ended with the humiliation of Japan by the Red Army) ended their expansion toward the north at the time, a decision to strike north and west again instead of south and east would have pinned down the Soviet Union on both sides. It was only because the non-agression treaty with Japan held that Red Army units deployed in Siberia could be moved west, which saved Moscow from the Wehrmacht in the winter of 1941.

[8] It’s possible to argue that German imperialism was worse because the number of bodies from the Shoah vastly outweighs the atrocities of Britain, France and the Soviet Union during the war years. But is the number of bodies a useful Marxist category? And what practical impact does this have on our strategy and theory? In addition, if you added them up, I would hazard a guess that the number of deaths resulting from British atrocities in South Asia alone in the ninety years from the Mutiny to independence compares to that of the Shoah – in which case, it is not a matter of the numbers but rather of the shorter amount of time in which Nazi Germany killed millions, and the unique methods it employed to do so. It could be said that for Germany, a late-developing power emerging from a very recent and catastrophic defeat in WW1, its imperialist crimes were compressed into a much shorter timeframe than that allowed to the older and more “civilized” imperialism of Britain.

Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt by Richard Gott (London/New York: Verso, 2012) is an excellent and valuable synthesis on the violence and barbarism that Britain unleashed worldwide in building and consolidating its empire (1747-1857 or so). As he writes, “… Britain’s imperial experience ranks more closely with Chingiz Khan or Attila the Hun than with those of Alexander the Great… the rulers of the British Empire will one day be perceived to rank with the dictators of the twentieth century as the authors of crimes against humanity on an infamous scale.”

[9] Molyneux starts from a similar position to Trotsky, but his argument does not entirely match. The “proletarian military policy” is gleaned from several sketches Trotsky composed very near the end of his life with the purpose of elaborating the Fourth International’s wartime strategy – the term itself is not that of Trotsky, but of James Cannon. The American SWP and the British WIL adopted it as their official line, but it was challenged by the French CQI and the American Workers’ Party, which still considered itself a part of the International (Prometheus 1989). It is doubtful how many Trotskyists adopted this strategy, and even when they did, it proved ambiguous and failed as a guide to concrete policies (see note 12 below).

[10] At the end of his review, Molyneux notes three conflicts which he believes provide precedents for his view of WW2: the Spanish Civil War, the American Civil War, and the German occupation of Paris during the Commune. Since a reply to this does not fit easily anywhere else, I will do it in this footnote.

Molyneux argues that Spanish revolutionaries in 1936-9 gave the Republic military support against fascism, while seeking to overthrow it from within. But first of all, this is not the same as the strategy he proposes in WW2 – nowhere does he mention British workers fighting fascism on the Continent at the same time they prepared to overthrow Churchill, and indeed, this would be a nonsensical position. But he is also ignoring a decisive shift in nature of the war as it wore on – from a mass antifascist uprising based on the working class that resulted in a situation of dual power, to a proxy conflict between Italy/Germany, supporting the Nationalists, and the Soviet Union, supporting the Republic. This shift of course was predicated on the extermination of the organs of workers’ power, the crushing of the revolutionary organizations, and the murder of many revolutionaries.

The German occupation of Paris in 1871 can be similarly disposed of. Molyneux argues here that the imperialist war between France and Prussia was turned by the establishment of the Commune into its opposite – a revolutionary war to abolish capitalism. I find this confusing. Did the Parisian workers ally with Thiers against Bismarck or vice-versa? No – the Commune was based on revolutionary opposition to both, with the hostility between the government of the Commune and Versailles ending in a war that marked the death of the revolution. Bismarck actually released a number of French prisoners of war to aid in the suppression of the Commune. The very institutions of the Third Republic were forged in combat with the Commune and collaboration with Prussia, just as the counterrevolutionary settlement after WW2 in Europe was imposed in opposition to the class, national and antifascist struggles in Greece, Italy and France.

Molyneux’s mention of the American Civil War in this context is actually very disappointing. The Civil War was not an inter-imperialist conflict. It was a revolutionary war to abolish slavery, in which the Northern bourgeoisie was a key protagonist – see my article on leftist views of the movie Lincoln. Molyneux should know that it was on this basis that Marx supported a cross-class alliance – because in 1861, this was both possible and necessary. The years 1939-45, as I have tried to summarize, tell a very different story.

[11] Franco had defeated the Spanish Republic in a conventional military conflict, and the fascist party in Spain – the National Falange led by José Antonio Primo de Rivera – was demobilized early on in the war. Later, they were told to merge with the Carlists, a traditionalist Catholic movement supporting the royal claims of the younger line of Bourbon pretenders to the throne, centered in Navarra. This was a bitter pill for the Falangists, who saw themselves as modernizers. I think Spain was a case in which the ruling class found it still possible to rule through the traditional institutions of the military and the Church, rather than having to resort to the battering ram of fascism. Of course, this was only possible thanks to heavy military support from fascist Italy and Germany. (For the record, I do not believe Romania, Hungary, etc were fascist either, based on a similar rationale).

[12] The WP split from the American SWP in 1939 over the defense of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state, a conflict immediately precipitated by the Soviet invasion of Finland. Of the existing Trotskyist groups, they were probably the ones to draw the sharpest line against any notion of a “people’s war” or “war to save democracy.” The January 1942 issue of their newspaper, Labor Action, ran the following slogan on its masthead: “The War to Save Democracy: End Jim Crow.”

Since before the split, Shachtman and his followers had defended the strategy of the Third Camp, independent of the Entente powers, the Axis, and the Soviet Union alike. While their erstwhile comrades in the SWP officially adopted the “proletarian military policy” (note 9, above) they rapidly broke with it in practice. A 1942 editorial in its magazine Fourth International by James Cannon said the following:

We considered the war upon the part of all the capitalist powers involved—Germany and France, Italy and Great Britain — as an imperialist war.

This characterization of the war was determined for us by the character of the state powers involved in it. They were all capitalist states in the epoch of imperialism; themselves imperialist—oppressing other nations or peoples—or satellites of imperialist powers. The extension of the war to the Pacific and the formal entry of the United States and Japan change nothing in this basic analysis.

While Cannon wrote that the defense of the Soviet Union, still a workers’ state, was progressive (as was the Chinese freedom struggle against Japan), he maintained that the military efforts of Britain and France were primarily intended “to maintain their lordship over the hundreds of millions of subject peoples in the British and French empires.” To defend this, he wrote, “means to defend their oppression of the masses of Africa and Asia, above all it means to defend the decaying capitalist social order” (Cannon 1942). These documents from New International, Labor Action, and Fourth International, are available online along with much more, thanks to the untiring work of Einde O’Callaghan.

[13] I do not mean to say that joining the army was not a legitimate decision, even for a revolutionary. Molyneux is right to argue that both in Britain and America, support for the war effort was consistently high. I think that revolutionaries could, at the time, make the decision to join the armed forces since this was where the working class was going – but without having any illusions in the war effort, and seeking opportunities to agitate against it from within. Duncan Hallas, much later a leader of the British SWP, had joined up, but after the war led a strike in the British Army in Egypt. Such actions led to the quick withdrawal of Britain from the colonial world. What Hallas did is very different from the scabbing that Stalinists openly engaged in during the war.

In the article I quote above in note 11, Cannon also did not call on revolutionaries to resist conscription: “The Trotskyists go with their generation into the armed forces. We abide by the decisions of the majority. But we retain our opinions and insist on our right to express them.”

[14] I have written elsewhere about the class character of the Indian freedom struggle. I will just say that a “worker’s India” was nowhere in the cards during the 1940s. Furthermore, in practical terms a free India would have actually served to hinder the struggle against the Axis. It is far more convenient to wage war with the existing army and state apparatus than to move to an entirely different system in the middle of struggle. I don’t think Molyneux would argue on these terms for the suspension of the freedom struggle, but it is hidden in the logic of his position.


Birchall, Ian, and Donny Gluckstein (2012). “Review and Response: A People’s History of the Second World War.”

Cannon, James (1942). “A Statement on the War,” in Fourth International 3.1, pp. 3-4.

Gluckstein, Donny (2011). The Nazis, Capitalism, and the Working Class. Chicago: Haymarket.

Gluckstein, Donny (2012a). A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance versus Empire. London: Pluto.

Gluckstein, Donny (2012b). “War, Resistance and Revolution.” Lecture at the 2012 Historical Materialism Conference in London, UK, November 10th.

Mandel, Ernest (1976). “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War Two.” Lecture transcript from the International Marxist Group Conference, London, UK.

Molyneux, John (2012). “Review: Donny Gluckstein, A People’s History of the Second World War,” in Irish Marxist Review 1.4, pp. 89-98.

Prometheus Research Library (1989). Documents on the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’ – Prometheus Research Series No. 2.

Trotsky, Leon (1940a). “How to Really Defend Democracy.” Fourth International 1.5, pp.126-127.

Trotsky, Leon (1940b). “Some Questions on American Problems.” Fourth International 1.5, pp. 132-135.


Filed under History, Politics

10 responses to “The Marxist Analysis of the Second World War – A Contribution to the Discussion

  1. neprimerimye

    To corect a minor error of fact the RSL / Britain rejected the Proletarian or American Military Policy. It was the smaller WIL that adopted the PMP and in part grew during the war years while the RSl disintegrated.

    Good essay on the whole.

    Mike Pearn

  2. Tom O'Lincoln

    Well done setting out the third possible point of the compass. I wrote a book on Australia’s Pacific War some time ago and found myself driven into various pragmatic formulations. It is hard to get a neat construct for such a complex affair. I do agree that the people’s war concept doesn’t work too well in Australia, where the mass motivating ideological force was the yellow peril. I agree with you that Japan wasn’t fascist, but with 300,000 dead in Nanjing the fear was still penetrating. I may try to get back to you in more detail if that’s OK.
    BTW was it you who made a friendliy comment about my essay on Rammstein?

    • Thank you very much, Tom. I look forward to whatever thoughts you have. You’re welcome to email me at catbert836 (at) gmail (dot) com, or of course to post them here.

      I haven’t been able to scare up a copy of your book “Australia’s Pacific War” yet, so I won’t comment much, except to say that it seems like Americans had it relatively easy in terms of the yellow peril propaganda compared to Australians. I hope at some point to be able to expand my thoughts into a more coherent piece dealing with case studies of the less studied wartime situations in Australia and others.

      Thank you for your remarks. Also yes, I did share your article on Rammstein – they are a favorite of mine and it was a relief to see an analysis of them, as I don’t know German.

  3. neprimerimye

    Have you read the materials that we published in Revolutionary History on revolutionary defeatism and the proletarian military policy? Sam Levys essay in particular I strongly recommend.

    It’s worth noting how Sam argues that the PMP was intended for work in the armed forces. Note also how he raises criticisms of the use the SWP (USA) made of the slogan in its work for its trade union cretinism. He levels similar criticisms at the right wing of the WIL, on this question, which he identifies with Healy and Grant.

    I raise this arcane point as to the detailed history of British Trotskyism as it indicates how specific the PMP was intended to be in both time and place. In other words it supports much of your analysis above.

  4. Leandros Bolaris

    I agree with 90 per cent of your argument. Just two points. The first about Molyneyx’s formula of “military but political support” specialy on D-Day etc. Well, in the Greek case the EAM-ELAS welcomed the military presense of the British troops in October 1944 while the German troops were retreating to Yugoslavia. I can’t see how the revolutionaries could follow John’s “line”. Support “militarily but not politicaly” the same troops that two months later crushed the movement in Athens? Actually, the Greek trotskyists as early as 1943 were warnig that “the Anglo-American allies will come not as liberators but as a new army of occupation”. Second, a disagreement. It’s wrong for very obvious reasons, to compare Holocaust with the imperialist crimes in Asia and Africa.

    • Thank you, Leandros. But may I ask what these “very obvious reasons” are? I think a Marxist perspective on the Shoah has to recognize it as precisely a great imperialist crime among others, unlike the Zionist p.o.v. about it “being outside of history,” etc. Alex Callinicos elaborates on this in his article “Plumbing the Depths”:

      • Leandros

        Imperialist crime yes but not as any others. We can deduce nazi crimes from capitalism ‘s logic but we cannot reduce them to it. I think Callinicos is trying to make exactly that point, Glucstein also in his book on nazism etc. There’s a qualitative difference between firebombing Dresden and sending six million people to the gas chambers. We dont have to excuse the first to know the difference. There are not only Zionists in rhis world unfortunately there are Holocaust deniers also or, to put it more accurately, Holocaust “trivializers”. I am not accusing you of that of course.

      • I think one of the valuable things that Callinicos points out in the article is that we have to put the Shoah in the context of German eastward expansion, which because of the conditions under which it operated was necessarily a war of extermination. And that the negative ideological fulfillment of the Nazi project gets slotted into that. We can understand the Shoah as a horrible, unique crime of imperialism while understanding its roots in the German imperialist project, which as I pointed out in the article had only a decade to make good the conquests, and hence the crimes, that Britain had carried out over two centuries.

        One reason I’m concerned about this is that allowing the Shoah a place “outside of history,” as well as giving legitimacy to Zionism, possibly gives it to the idea of a “progressive war” on the Eastern front, even among those of us who have no time for the idea that the USSR was a workers state. It could be argued that because the Shoah was a crime of such magnitude and exception, that supporting anything no matter how reactionary was necessary to end it – the typical people’s war idea, except writ small.

        I think we have to recognize in accordance with the principles on which Lenin and his comrades split from Social Democracy, that there is no choice for the working class between imperialist powers no matter how great their crimes. For instance, before the war the Soviet state was responsible for the extermination of a whole generation of revolutionaries, a civil war carried out against its own peasantry in which hundreds of thousands died, the deportation of Chechans and other minorities, and the gulag system, which at some points matched the Nazi death camps, and purposefully so.

        Furthermore I would not compare Dresden to the Shoah. You are right that it is qualitatively different, in this case because there was a military target in Dresden. But I would say the bombings of Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki were intended to cause as much death and carnage to civilians, mostly working class, as possible. In the context of the war in the Pacific, which as I mentioned was incredibly racialized (the war in Europe was against the Nazis as opposed to “Germans,” while the Pacific war was always against “the Nips”) it was considered completely legitimate to wipe out as many Japanese civilians as possible.

        So I would make a comparison between the Shoah and these, as well as the many massacres, intentional famines, etc that went along with British and French rule in the colonies. It might not have been as scientific as the Shoah was, but can we really afford to separate them without being completely uncaring to the victims of one or the other?

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