Socialism and the Second World War: A response to Leandros Bolaris

Issue: 140

Donny Gluckstein

Leandros Bolaris’s discussion of A People’s History is very welcome. A Marxist analysis of the Second World War remains relevant because, as he writes, “the bloodiest conflict in human history” remains part of current politics.1 The critique’s sections on Greece and France provide important supplementary information absent from the book due to lack of space.

There is a difference, however, regarding interpretation. Bolaris rejects the idea that alongside the undoubted imperialist war between Axis and Allies there was also a parallel anti-fascist people’s war. Instead he takes the classic position developed by Trotsky from his experience of the 1914-18 conflict. So his review begins by stating that the Second World War was “an imperialist one, the product of imperialist rivalries tuned to a crescendo by the pressures of the Great Depression of the 1930s. That was Leon Trotsky’s analysis”.2 It concludes with these words: “Trotsky’s ideas and analysis are always a good place to start”.3 I couldn’t agree more. That is the place to start. The problem, however, is that this is where Bolaris also ends.

Alas, Trotsky was assassinated in August 1940. That was 20 months before the first news of armed resistance behind Axis lines reached the outside world. His death therefore pre-dated virtually everything discussed in A People’s History, whose subtitle is Resistance versus Empire. Trotsky was right about the imperialist character of the clash between Axis and Allies but could know nothing of the character of the mass movements from below that followed his untimely death. Unless we ascribe to Trotsky a remarkable clairvoyance, there is surely something to be said about what happened in the following five years.

Trying to shoehorn the unprecedented wave of resistance movements to fascism and anti-colonial struggles into a framework from the First World War in which these elements were absent leads Bolaris to some intractable contradictions. How, if the Second World War was exclusively imperialist, can he also write that it was “a war fought not only by regular armies but also by mass movements of anti-fascist resistance”?4 Does this mean that in fighting the same Axis enemy as the Allied governments such “mass movements” were fighting for imperialism and giving their lives for their exploiters? If so, why does Bolaris write that such movements should be “an inspiration” today, rather than pitied?

Of course, this is not Bolaris’s intention at all. So he veers in the opposite direction further on: “We have to use a different tool of analysis from the concept of the parallel wars. And that is the concept of an imperialist war triggering vast social upheavals, revolts, and revolutions”.5 Unfortunately, that approach works no better. If 1939-45 was a period of “social upheavals, revolts, and revolutions” against capitalism, why were these only directed against the Axis rather than the Allies? (That the Allied governments attacked the mass movements is an entirely different story, one that supports the notion of parallel but conflicting wars against the Axis.) In fact, Bolaris implicitly recognises the limitations of transposing an analysis of the First World War onto the Second when he adds straight afterwards: “But nowhere, and that is a real difference from the ‘Great War’, did these revolts end up in a successful workers’ revolution as in Russia or in a straightforward challenge to the capitalist social order as in Germany, Italy and Hungary, and nowhere did the radicalisation crystallise into new more or less mass revolutionary parties”.6 If the Second World War does not fit the First World War model, would it not be wise to study the Second World War on its own terms?

Trotsky’s Marxism in general was unsurpassed, but he saw too little of the Second World War to predict what would happen during its course. He wrote, for example, “In the very first months of the war, therefore, a stormy reaction against the fumes of chauvinism will set in among the working masses. The first victims of this reaction, along with fascism, will be parties of the Second and Third Internationals”.7 Fortunately, Bolaris is not so scripturally dogmatic as to conclude, as did the American Trotskyist James P Cannon in 1945, that “the war is not over” because the parties of the Second and Third Internationals (reformist and Stalinist) survived and thrived.8 Trotsky’s legacy remains invaluable, not as a monument or dead statue, but as a method, part of the living tradition of Marxism that grapples with issues as they arise using the tools of previous thinkers to carve out new theories and insights.

Forcing 1939-45 into the mould of 1914-18 and its aftermath creates problems at the more detailed level too. Bolaris rejects A People’s History’s description of the Spanish Revolution as a prelude to the Second World War, saying it was “more like an epilogue” to earlier events.9 Was the model of the International Brigades and their resistance to Franco not of significance to anti-fascists everywhere? Bolaris applies the same gloomy conclusion to France. For the working class its “epilogue was the defeat of the General Strike of 30 November 1938”.10 Was the underground opposition to both the Nazis and Vichy not important? In sum, was the Second World War only an “epilogue”, rather than something which witnessed mass struggles in their own right? Again it is not Bolaris’s intention to belittle these struggles but it is the result of his argument.

Using Trotsky as both starting point and end point, Bolaris agrees with the Fourth International that “the alternative to the crisis and to fascism was the proletarian revolution”.11 Without a doubt proletarian revolution would have been a wonderful thing, as it would be today. Indeed in an absolute sense it was the solution and we would not be in the middle of a worldwide capitalist crisis today if there had been one. But what should be and what is are, unfortunately, very often different. The call of the Fourth International was generally ignored and, alas, the organisation remained minuscule throughout the war. Yet 20 years earlier that very same call for proletarian revolution had made sense to millions. What was the difference? From 1914 to 1918 “the enemy was at home” (to use Liebknecht’s expression)12 and there were consequently only two choices: either to side with your own imperialist rulers in a senseless slaughter or to revolt against them. But during 1939-45, when Nazi jackboots were stomping over Norway, Denmark, France, Holland, Belgium, Greece, Yugoslavia, etc, the situation was a little more complicated. There was a new enemy at home—whose Gestapo and concentration camps represented a whole new level of threat—whom the former ruling classes either collaborated with or opposed from exile.

Furthermore, in writing a history of the war, socialists have to consider not just the “party line” but what the masses were actually doing. Imposing a one size fits all imperialist label to 1939-45 leads to downplaying the way mass movements developed from below, behind enemy lines (so largely independently of foreign imperialist interference), and had their own reasons to fight—even if proletarian revolution was not their first concern.

Bolaris puts inverted commas around quotes from A People’s History—”unity of opposites” and “dialectics”. He says that to suggest:

that the war was both an imperialist conflict and a people’s war is like going round in circles. The trouble is that through circular arguments like these we can easily end up accepting that the Second World War was an anti-fascist one: after all it was the American bombers and the Russian tanks that smashed the Nazi war machine and the vast majority of the resistance fighters considered their struggles as a contribution to that effort.13

This is to misunderstand the book’s key argument: the people’s war and the imperialist war were opposites, even though the Allied governments and resistance movements were fighting the same enemy. The Allies fought for imperialism—their imperialism against a rival imperialism. The masses fought against imperialism (of the Axis variety). They frequently discovered that this brought them into conflict with Allied imperialism too. The notion of wars running along parallel lines (but simultaneously intersecting) may not sit well with Euclidean geometry, but it rips apart the circle that Bolaris justifiably objects to—the common view that Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D Roosevelt and the ordinary people were “all in it together”.

The argument is important. As A People’s History shows, alongside imperialist war on the Axis there were popular mass movements against fascism and dictatorship in Spain, Greece, Yugoslavia, Poland, France, Italy, Vietnam, India and Indonesia. In Britain, Austria, Germany and the US mass movements also challenged the respective ruling classes at various moments. Each one of these was attacked, suppressed, subverted or undermined by the Allies. We can choose to see these struggles as minor side episodes in an exclusively imperialist war, and focus on their failure to achieve a Bolshevik-style revolution, or we can try to appreciate these struggles for what they were. And what they were was indeed “an inspiration” for today, as the world crisis drags on, the ruling class turns to divide and rule tactics, and creates the soil in which fascism grows. To counter this there is a vitally important weapon in our arsenal—the way in which ordinary people fought against fascism during the Second World War.

In the title of his review Bolaris poses a key question—”Two in One?” or, as he writes further on, “Why have just two parallel wars?”14 He points out that Ernest Mandel’s book on the subject had five—inter-imperialist war for world domination, plus the defensive war of the Soviet Union, China, national liberation wars in Asia, and struggles in occupied Europe. The implication is that the number is fairly arbitrary and dependent on the personal predilections of the historian. A few reviewers of A People’s History have come up with their own—three being a current favourite. My argument is founded on the notion that there were two fundamental processes at work. These are familiar to all Marxists: on the one hand, competition between capitalists; and, on the other, the struggle of the exploited and oppressed against the ruling class. These processes usually take different rhythms in different places, do not necessarily overlap and are manifested in a fairly uneven fashion.

However, various factors brought them to simultaneously coincide and reach the highest pitch in the 1939-45 period: the unfinished business of rival imperialisms after the First World War, the international revolutionary movement sparked off by Russia in 1917, the impact of the world economic crisis of 1929 and the mobility of modern warfare (manifested in Blitzkrieg), which carried these issues into the heart of societies across the planet. In combination all four factors meant a violent clash at the summit of society accompanied by extreme conflict between the summit and the base. Of course, events in places as far apart as the Soviet Union, China, Asia and Europe were not identical. It would be ridiculous to suggest they were. But these driving forces above and below were universally present, the result often being parallel but contradictory wars.

Bolaris raises many other issues of detail which lie outside the question of “Two in One?”, but an interminable discussion of all of them might weary the reader, so I’ll finish with a curiosity of his argumentation. He marshals interesting and important facts with which to apparently demolish A People’s History. On further investigation it turns out that many of these points appear in the book itself. He writes:

“What about the millions that took part in the Quit India movement?”15 Agreed—see pages 168-172.

“Most westerners have never heard of the famine in the Vietnamese region of Tonkin in 1943-4 which probably killed more peasants than all the years of war which followed”.16 Agreed—see pages 194-195.

“Algerians may have a different opinion about the principles on which the Fourth Republic had been based after the war”.17 Agreed—see page 96.

The Greek resistance drove out the Nazis but was destroyed by Britain because: “part of this political weakness had been the idea that the war was an anti-fascist/democratic struggle of ‘our Great Allies’”.18 Agreed—see page 48.

“The story of the heroic Italian Resistance is not only the strikes…but also…’the turning point of Salerno’ [which] was the decision of the PCI to enter the Badoglio government under King Emmanuel II”.19 Agreed—see pages 155-156.

This strange procedure can be explained. Bolaris is too knowledgeable, has too good a sensitivity to the mass struggle from below, not to understand the Second World War in practice, even if his rigid theoretical framework encourages him to deny what he knows. Let’s leave the last word to him:

There can be no doubt that the Italian workers in the north in 1943-5 fighting their war against the Fascist Italian Social Republic and the Wehrmacht, the activists and fighters in the National Liberation Front and its armed wing (EAM-ELAS) in occupied Greece, Tito’s partisans, a huge portion of French resisters (but not all) had a very different motivation from Churchill, Roosevelt or Stalin—not only motivation but also goals. For many, perhaps the majority, of the Italian workers in the north of Italy the prize of their struggle would be a Red Italy, one with workers in power (that applied to many activists of the Italian Communist Party [PCI]—the party leadership had to fight hard to defuse all these “ultra-left” notions). For EAM-ELAS fighters the goal was “Laokratia” (“people’s power”) a regime radically different from the prewar Greece of stark class inequalities and state oppression.20

In contrasting “their war” with its “very different motivation” and “not only motivation but also goals” for “’people’s power”’ to that of “Churchill, Roosevelt or Stalin”, Bolaris superbly demonstrates the two different wars going on at the same time. So let’s agree—James P Cannon was wrong and the war is over.


1: Bolaris, 2013, p147, in a review of Gluckstein, 2012.

2: Bolaris, 2013, p147.

3: Bolaris, 2013, p160.

4: Bolaris, 2013, p147.

5: Bolaris, 2013, pp158-159.

6: Bolaris, 2013, p159.

7: Trotsky, 1938.

8: Cannon, 1977, p200.

9: Bolaris, 2013, p149.

10: Bolaris, 2013, p150.

11: Bolaris, 2013, p147.

12: Liebknecht, 1973.

13: Bolaris, 2013, p148-149.

14: Bolaris, 2013, p151.

15: Bolaris, 2013, p151.

16: Bolaris, 2013, p159.

17: Bolaris, 2013, p153.

18: Bolaris, 2013, p157.

19: Bolaris, 2013, p154.

20: Bolaris, 2013, p153, emphasis added.


Bolaris, Leandros, 2013, “Two in One?”, International Socialism 138 (Spring),

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

Liebknecht, Karl, 1973 [1907], Militarism and Antimilitarism (Rivers Press),

Cannon, James P, 1977, The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century”, (Pathfinder).

Trotsky, Leon, 1938, “A Fresh Lesson: On the Character of the Coming War”, New International, volume 4, number 12,