The novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has touched all economic, social and political affairs globally. Because our generation lacks any experience of a pandemic on this scale, it is easy to feel disorientated and without bearings. One potential way to deal with this situation is to look back in history for similar moments, and the Second World War is one such candidate. This has been spotted by our rulers. On 3 March, the Sun reported: “V FOR VICTORY. Boris Johnson Evokes Blitz Spirit”.1
Inevitably the comparison has limitations. The Second World War arose from the imperialist rivalry between the Axis and Allied states, while the virus is an invisible biological agent. There were many instantaneous deaths in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima, and the mortality rate was very high. The impact of Covid-19 is slower and the death rate is lower. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is not the same as a howitzer. The war ended the mass unemployment that preceded it, while there are huge levels of joblessness being generated during this pandemic.
Nonetheless there are striking comparisons. Huge numbers risk losing their lives to the virus, like in any world war, and its genesis and spread are a intimately linked to the operation of the capitalist system. In this instance, the connection is through agricultural practices, disease control mechanisms (or lack of them) and so on.
Developments at the heart of both war and the pandemic have been shaped by two major contradictions: first, the clash between our needs as human beings and the drives of the capitalist system; second, the tension between continuity and change within existing social, material and ideological structures. In both the war and the pandemic, there was initially the superficial appearance of unity in combating what is seen as a common enemy. However, a process of unfolding contradictions ensues that undermines this, moving the situation towards conflict.
The road to war: from appeasement to the virus
The Second World War began when the Axis countries of Germany, Italy and Japan confronted the Allied states. The former were rising capitalist powers—Germany and Italy had only recently unified as nation-states—and they wanted to supplant long-established imperialisms such as Britain and France. During the 1930s, the British government made concession after concession to the expansionist Axis bloc in the vain hope the dangers would dissipate. Appeasement was championed by Neville Chamberlain, the Tory prime minister. The most notorious episode came in September 1938. At the so-called Munich Conference, Chamberlain and France’s President Édouard Daladier handed Czechoslovakia to Hitler, sacrificing an ally and the last outpost of parliamentary democracy in eastern Europe. This concession was made despite the German army’s high command, which was fearful of war, secretly telling the Allies that it would arrest Hitler if his bullying was stood up to. Chamberlain saw the destruction of Czechoslovakia as a small price to pay for carrying on as usual. He returned from Munich waving a sheet of paper and promising “peace in our time”.
In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland. With appeasement in tatters, Chamberlain was forced to declare war—but even then action was minimal. A so-called “phoney war” continued until Germany took the offensive in Scandinavia and France in the summer of 1940. Military disasters then followed thick and fast for the Allies.
The appeasers were famously denounced as “guilty men” because they laid the ground for this development.2 There are guilty men today too. In early 2020, with the virus on the march and when every minute counted, another Tory prime minister ignored the crisis. In February he described calls for urgent action as “bizarre” and “beyond what is medically rational.” Instead his government was “ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other”.3 In practice, this meant maintaining business as usual despite the danger.
Soon after, the British government abandoned containment and contact tracing. The calculation was probably that, with an estimated death rate of 1 percent, the disappearance of some 500,000 people from the British population was a price worth paying. Trust was put in the unproven theory that those who survived would gain long-term immunity, so preventing a second wave. Maybe a promissory note inscribed with “herd immunity in our time” was in Johnson’s pocket. He had forgotten that workers are not simply what used to be called “factory hands”. They also have personal lives, families, parents, children and friends. It was not irrationality, or what is today labelled “coronaphobia”, that led to spontaneous withdrawal of children from schools and self-imposed social distancing. This push from below forced the British government to announce a lockdown, which penetrated further than it expected into the economy. Tragically it came too late to avoid us topping the European death league.
In 1940 the Tories belatedly discovered a champion of anti-appeasement. Winston Churchill was touted as a principled opponent of Chamberlain’s failed policy, becoming prime minister in charge of a coalition government. The prospectus was false. An elitist, right-wing politician in domestic affairs, he had also supported the Japanese invasion of China and favoured buying off the fascist dictator Mussolini when he invaded Abyssinia (today Ethiopia). He had told Il Duce, “if I had been an Italian, I am sure that would have been wholeheartedly with you from start to finish”.4 The greatest opportunity to block the growth of Nazi and fascist power had been in 1936 when both Italy and Germany backed General Francisco Franco’s nationalist rebellion against the elected Popular Front government in Spain. The Spanish Civil War has been described as the dress rehearsal for the Second World War. Yet Churchill insisted “a majority of Spaniards are on the rebel [that is, Franco’s] side” and applauded Mussolini’s support for Franco: “Italian methods are a guide”.5
In taking this stance he set himself squarely against the mass of the British population. Polls showed support for the Spanish Republicans of eight to one. This was significant because it demonstrated a far-reaching and principled hatred of fascism and dictatorship that would continue right through the Second World War and shape how that conflict was understood by the masses.
Churchill’s unmerited reputation rests entirely on his calls for action against Germany. These were indeed strident, but arose because he judged that, unlike Italy and Japan, German expansion posed a threat to the British Empire.
The economic imperatives of total war
If there is a war against coronavirus, then it tends towards total war. During most imperialist aggressions the fighting front is distant from the imperialist source, and the impact at home is restricted. The wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Kosovo, Syria and Ukraine are examples. However, during both the First and the Second World Wars, Britain experienced a scale of mobilisation and insatiable demand for munitions that deeply impacted on almost all areas of domestic society. For example, large numbers of women were mobilised to replace departed soldiers. There was now a “home front”, and it was every bit as important as the military front in determining the outcome. Similarly with this pandemic there is a literal home front, locked-down dwellings, and the military front is no further than the nearby hospital or care home.
Society is transformed in important ways during total war, although capitalism remains the basis of the economic system. The balance between investment to support the system (infrastructure, welfare provision and public services—or armed defence) and the production of profits is altered in favour of the former. During total war, what is produced can decide victory or defeat. This cannot be left entirely to market forces. So, even though the long-term aim of the ruling class during the Second World War was to restore a peacetime based on the maximisation of profit, in the short term society had to be organised differently. Measures hitherto unthinkable, such as nationalisation of key industries and rationing of food supplies, were hurriedly adopted. By 1941, almost half the population were in some type of employment for the government.6
We can see this process operating now. With business as usual disrupted (though profiteering in areas such as PPE continues), policies of state-aid, the furlough scheme and so on have been adopted. The fabled “magic money tree”, which the Tories claimed did not exist, has borne exotic fruit and hundreds of billions of pounds have been thrown at the pandemic. The railways have been taken over to prevent the franchisees shutting them down and other sectors have been bailed out. A difference from the war is that the measures taken today have not generated full employment so much as put major parts of the economy into state-financed hibernation. Increased jobs in some areas, such as online deliveries, are far from compensating for the rise in unemployment. Yet what is common to both cases is a phenomenal increase in government intervention.
The capitalist press calls such moves “socialism”. However, introducing elements of planning into an economy is not the same as socialism. Even under peacetime market conditions, production within capitalist enterprises is planned. As units of capital grow, so too does the scale of the planning involved. Modern just-in-time production, often organised on an international scale, is an example. Between 1939 and 1945, wartime states coordinated entire national economies and bent them towards winning victory, yet the ultimate aim was still to bolster capitalism and class relations were not suspended. Stalinist Russia, the key adversary of the Axis during war, had the most all-encompassing and centralised planning system. Nevertheless, this was an example of state capitalism, not socialism. In place of the private enterprise typical of market-based economies, the Soviet state bureaucracy owned and controlled the means of production and used these to accumulate physical capital. The working class was exploited under both systems. Indeed Soviet workers had even fewer rights than those in the West.7
It is not only because the Soviet Union (falsely) called itself socialist that the bourgeois press gets it wrong when it evaluates state economic direction. There are actually superficial similarities between a capitalist war economy and socialism. As Tony Cliff put it, “in a socialist economy the aim of production is the creation of use-values; the main aim of a war economy, too, is the production of use values”.8 What distinguishes the two is not planning as such but rather its purpose—war in defence of capital or meeting human need.
An overriding theme of the official media is that today, like in 1940, “we are all in it together”.9 In the same vein, early on in the pandemic Johnson appeared to spurn Margaret Thatcher’s legacy by pointedly arguing “there is such a thing as society”.10
In reality, we were not all in it together during the Second World War and we are not now either. Currently, though we face the same enemy, the purpose of government policy and of the capitalist class in general diverges from the public interest. Capitalism is driven by the imperative to make profits and to accumulate capital, which depends on the functioning of workplaces. Old people in care homes are treated as expendable, but there is a problem when workers are afraid to travel on public transport or sacrifice themselves and loved ones on the altar of profit. Capitalism sincerely wishes to get past the pandemic, but only to return to business as usual. Everyone else wants to get past the pandemic so that the people around them do not die.
Consider the halting steps of the Tories. Leave aside for a moment chronic underfunding of the National Health Service (NHS) due to austerity or the government’s decision to ignore the dangers revealed by Exercise Cygnus, its 2016 pandemic simulation. If slowing the virus’s spread in order to save lives had truly been in the forefront of the government’s mind, then encouraging social distancing by addressing the needs of workers and the self-employed should have come first, and the balance sheets of big business last. Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s measures were announced in precisely the reverse order. Internal government debates about how quickly to lift the lockdown have concerned what strategy best suits business. The split is between those who are prepared to risk a second wave of Covid-19 and those who are not.
What about the Second World War? At the time of the Blitz, Churchill made his most stirring speeches. Yet even then the rhetoric was duplicitous. Films such as Darkest Hour have reminded people of Churchill’s well-known quotes, but less widely noticed is that the subtext for all of them was defence of the British Empire, rather than the interests of ordinary people. The italicised phrases below are famous, but the rest of the quotes are rarely given:
I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat…for without victory there can be no survival—let that be realised—no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for.
Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years, men will say: “This was their finest hour.”
Johnson, a biographer of Churchill, claims, “if it had not been for his bravery and his obstinacy…democracy would not exist”.11 The reality was that Churchill’s approach risked disaster because war aims shape war strategy. In 1941, Hitler repudiated his non-aggression pact with Stalin and launched Operation Barbarossa, the biggest land invasion in history. Germany needed the Soviet Union’s oil supplies, and to reach them the Wehrmacht had to get past the city of Stalingrad. The battle for the city took place from August 1942 to February 1943. It was the event upon which victory or defeat turned and the margin was extremely tight.
With 674 German divisions deployed in the east, compared to some 56 in the west, Stalin had begged his allies to open a second front by crossing the English Channel. Churchill’s prejudices and cold calculation meant that he delayed assistance, even after it became technically possible to launch an assault on the European mainland. Ultimately 26 million or more Soviet citizens died, compared to fewer than half a million British people. Churchill eventually approved the D-Day landings, but only when it became clear in the summer of 1944 that, despite the odds, the Soviets would be victorious and were sweeping westwards.
Meanwhile, Britain focussed on other things. It defended its empire, with major engagements taking place in north Africa and Singapore, and slaughtered German civilians. The figure of 32,000 killed in the Blitz was dwarfed by the roughly 500,000 German non-combatants killed by Arthur Harris’s Bomber Command. That operation drained physical and human resources away from the real war effort, costing almost 6 percent of Britain’s GDP.12 The bombing campaign was self-defeating. Far from bringing victory, it encouraged a German “Blitz spirit”. Hitler’s armaments minister wrote, “the estimated 9 percent loss of our production capacity was amply balanced out by increased effort”.13
At the beginning of the war the notion that we were all in it together seemed superficially plausible due to the indiscriminate nature of Germany’s bombing targets. However, it took little time for evidence to emerge of a gulf between the motivation of the rulers and those of the mass of people. John Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, wrote in his diary that, although the prime minister was happy to seek refuge from bombs in a disused underground station himself, he was “thinking on authoritarian lines about shelters and talks about forcibly preventing people from going into the underground”.14 On 14 September 1940, families from London’s East End forced their way into the Savoy Hotel’s bomb shelter, sharing it with the Duke and Duchess of Kent.15 Later, under Communist Party leadership, they fought their way into the underground system.16 The enduring image of the Blitz—people sleeping en masse in tube stations—is not a symbol of national unity but one of working class defiance.
Recently there was similar hypocrisy over the first tests for Covid-19. When Prince Charles and Boris Johnson became ill, they were immediately tested, while “front-line” NHS staff were not. A macabre joke with echoes of the Savoy in 1940 began circulating round hospitals: “How do you get tested for corona? Cough on a politician or royal and wait for the results.”
The Blitz also led to the rise of mutual aid in the face of government indifference. Angus Calder gives some examples:
Father John Groser…took the law into his own hands. He smashed open a local depot. He lit a bonfire outside his church and fed the hungry. There was not a cabinet minister or an official who would have dared to stand in his way or to challenge this “illicit” act. Similarly, in another London borough a local official of the Ministry of Food found a crowd of homeless uncared for. He broke open a block of flats. He put them in. He got hold of furniture by hook or by crook, he got the electricity, gas and water supply turned on, and he brought them food.17
More recently, the pandemic has encouraged the development of another mass movement from below. Alongside the weekly Thursday evening clapping for the NHS, which shamed the government into participation, there have been mutual aid organisations established and fundraising campaigns as people act to overcome government failings. Here the situation is complex. Though these efforts compensate for the shortcomings of government, this does not mean they are consciously directed against the government. Despite their disastrous blunders in the early days of the pandemic, the Tories initially rose in the opinion polls. Nonetheless, bodies such as the Covid-19 Action Committees are a sign of growing anger and genuine solidarity with those in the frontline or those suffering due to government ineptitude. It is these initiatives from below, and innumerable other acts of generosity and solidarity, that are affirming in practice that there is such a thing as society—not the weasel words of the architects of austerity and state racism.
We are only a few months into the crisis, yet the feeling that we are in it together is already coming under immense strain. Nonetheless, it remains possible for many to hold a contradictory consciousness: supporting the government because it commands the organisational power and capability to overcome the pandemic, while simultaneously grasping that it is failing to serve the common interest.
From Blitz to Betteshanger and Beveridge
Spontaneous initiatives of the sort seen during the Blitz did not emerge in a vacuum. Just as the needs of capitalism continued to structure state action, so reformist ideology shaped popular thinking. From the start of the war the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy stepped forward to curb rank and file initiative. This was a trend enhanced once Churchill’s coalition administration was established in May 1940. Though they might quibble over some details, for this reformist layer the aims of the ruling class in the war were indistinguishable from those of the common people, and no evidence to the contrary would disabuse them of this idea.
The central figure in this phenomenon was Ernest Bevin. Since 1922 Bevin had been the general secretary of the largest trade union in Britain, the Transport and General Workers Union (a precursor to the today’s Unite). As minister of labour, he created Defence Regulation 1AA, which made incitement to strike unlawful. One author calls this law “the most powerful anti-strike weapon…since the 1799 Combination Acts”.18 Now the employers could go on the offensive. In Manchester, for example, the engineering union declared that they were not only fighting the Axis. “For the workers it is truly a war on two fronts, or, if you like, back and front”.19
This was nothing new. Reformist leaders have behaved the same way in every major crisis. Rejecting the possibility of a revolutionary transformation of society, their goal is to work within the existing system to wrest improvements for the working class. But if capitalism is dead, where will the reforms come from? Thus reformist leaders almost invariably act as its life-support mechanism.
Labour and the union leaders also received unexpected assistance from the Communist Party after Hitler attacked the Soviet Union. The party was small in size but influential among industrial militants. From June 1941 the Communists dropped talk of the war being an imperialist conflict, swung behind the war effort and announced: “Our fight is not against the Churchill government”.20
Despite early struggles over access to air raid shelters, the seeming congruence of ruling class and working class aims—defeat of Hitler (for 2020, read defeat of the virus)—slowed the growth of radical thinking. Even as exploitation by the employers intensified, the national network of Mass Observers noted “men and women worked long hours, not for a boss, not for any one person’s private advantage, but for everyone”.21 Indeed, even more militant elements in the trade union movement called for increased class collaboration to maximise production.
The same complicated attitude applied to the increasingly draconian exercise of state power, which went far beyond anti-strike laws. During the war lights were hidden at night to protect from air raids. This was the blackout, “the only physical manifestation of the bombing war that was experienced by everyone and for which every citizen was responsible”.22 Lockdown plays an equivalent role now. State enforcement of the blackout was rigorous and almost one million people, one in 50, were prosecuted for breaches. Yet the ever-present Mass Observation team noted public support for sentencing, with 30 percent calling for harsher punishments.23
These varied developments highlight the dual role of the state. On the one hand, it is a coercive organ of class oppression and imperial competition—what Lenin called “armed bodies of men”. On the other hand, it has a coordinating function, providing a framework for the operation of the system. This includes a variety of functions such as setting the “rules of the game” through laws, issuing money and sometimes providing infrastructure that capitalism requires such as education, health or roads. The mixture of coercion and coordination varies according to circumstances. When there is no direct threat, coercion may be restricted to targeting oppressed groups such as migrants, black and Asian communities, young people and so on. In Second World War Britain, coercion, both external and internal, became far more dominant as a feature: “The Government assumed totalitarian control over all employees”.24
The situation was volatile, especially after the Blitz came to an end in 1941. The following year saw the Battle of Stalingrad. This was understood to be the turning point abroad, and it functioned in the same way at home. Support for the war effort was unwavering but the mood was shifting. The reality of divergent aims in a class society would out, and this could frustrate even the best efforts of the Tories, Labour, the Communist Party and the union leaders. During the war, the government wanted to hold back living standards.25 Meanwhile, average working hours rose by 11 percent, the cost of living rose by between 30 and 50 percent, and consumption fell by 30 percent.26 Ignoring calls for a class truce, working people began to turn to collective organisation. Trade union membership rose from around 4.5 million to 7 million—and people came out on strike. Disputes increased fourfold between 1938 and 1945, the greatest acceleration taking place from 1942 onwards.
The most famous stoppage was in 1942 at Betteshanger colliery, near Deal in Kent. Miners here struck for 19 days in demand of better pay for those working difficult coal seams. Three local union officials were jailed and fines were handed out to 1,050 strikers. However, prosecuting the ringleaders failed to suppress the union and the workers refused to pay the fines. The state dared not arrest over a thousand miners. When the strike spread to other mines, the pay rise was won.27
By 1944, there were 2,000 strikes amounting to 3.7 million days lost output. These were in defiance of the law. With official channels blocking action, the strikes were often led by new forces that rejected the sacrifice of working class interests to help the bosses out of their predicament. For example, Trotskyists from the Revolutionary Communist Party led a strike of 100,000 apprentices in 1944.28 On the electoral front, the Common Wealth Party, a socialist organisation opposed to Labour’s electoral truce with the Tories, won five parliamentary seats from 1942 to 1945.
The context for this was a general change in consciousness. This cannot be understood without remembering that preceding the war there had been years of economic depression, mass unemployment and hunger. The idea that the end of the war might mean a return to all that was anathema. Mass Observers reported that “people want put right first things that went wrong.” They wanted the “certainty of a job, and then the certainty of a decent house to live in…a worker should be allowed enough to live in comfort for the rest of his life”.29 Grudging confirmation of the new mood was provided in February 1943 by Quintin Hogg, a Tory minister, who argued, “if you do not give the people social reforms, they are going to give you revolution”.30 Many bosses agreed: “If industry does not plan for revolution, there’ll be revolution”.31
This was the background to the furore surrounding the Beveridge Report. William Beveridge, an economist and a member of the Liberal Party, was commissioned to look into welfare policy. His recommendations were fairly modest and only intended to provide a social safety net for the most disadvantaged. Yet to Churchill and his friends this was “half-way along the road to Moscow”.32 The public view differed. Opinion polls showed 90 percent plus approval and an incredible 635,000 copies of this dry government publication were sold. The basis was laid for a post-war “cradle to grave” benefits system, expanded education, the NHS and mass council housing.
We are still far from the end of the pandemic crisis and this makes it difficult to predict how events will evolve in the longer term. But what happened between the Blitz and the end of the war may provide clues. As victory neared, tensions that had remained submerged during the war erupted despite all the institutional and ideological impediments. Hopefully pent-up hatred of neoliberalism and the austerity imposed since the 2008 crash will produce a similar revulsion to returning to the past.
The international context
In many ways, of all countries, the British experience between 1939 and 1945 is most analogous to the current pandemic crisis. Nonetheless, useful lessons can also be gleaned from places under Axis occupation. Here governments were driven into exile, leaving people physically cut off from their erstwhile rulers. This enabled the development of fighting self-organisation and mutual aid to occur unmolested, and on a large scale. The result was a series of popular resistance movements.
German-occupied Greece was a good example. Admiration of what was achieved by the National Liberation Front (EAM), and its Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), rings out from one description, despite the author being a British military liaison officer, a sort of James Bond prototype, who later became a Tory MP and lord:
Having acquired control of almost the whole country…they had given it things that it had never known before. Communications in the mountains, by wireless, courier or telephone, have never been so good… The benefits of civilisation and culture trickled into the mountains for the first time. Schools, local government, law courts and public utilities that had been ended by the war now worked again.33
Other places as far apart as Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland and China showed the potential for self-organisation on the scale necessary for a revolutionary transformation of society.34 Allied governments found resistance movements useful as they engaged the Axis behind the front line, but minimal assistance was given to them and any sympathy evaporated as the war drew to a close. After all, these governments saw their purpose as restoring or expanding imperial dominance, not introducing progressive change or, horror of horrors, a socialist society.
Greece was a case in point. Churchill wanted to restore the Greek king, who was universally detested for having imposed fascist rule in the 1930s. Churchill was terrified that the success of the resistance in expelling the Nazis from the Greek mainland would block that plan. He ordered the British military to “act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress” when it reached Athens.35 During December 1944 the city was bombed and 50,000 killed. The British army played the same role in Indonesia, releasing Japanese prisoners of war to assist them in battles to reintroduce Dutch colonial rule. In South Vietnam, British troops worked with an assortment of reactionary forces to return French colonialism. Offers from the Indian National Congress to fight against the Axis were spurned. Instead, leaders of the independence movement, including Mohandas Gandhi, were imprisoned and their followers killed.
Thus, on an international scale, any notion that the British government was “in it together” with ordinary people was cruelly exposed as a lie. With a few notable exceptions where resistance movements gained state power such as Yugoslavia, North Vietnam and China, the outcome was a return to the status quo.
Hopeful signs of anger over the handling of the pandemic in Britain are distantly related to such resistance movements, as are the embryonic organisations springing up such as Covid-19 Action Committees. With Keir Starmer’s Labour Party adopting a supine approach and the trade union’s official machinery partially or wholly paralysed, numerous groups of workers have had to self-organise to protect their immediate health and safety in the workplace. Often unreported, this push from the rank and file upwards is a phenomenon not seen for years due to the paralysing effects of Tory anti-union legislation, combined with the failure of Labour and union officials to challenge it.
However, after the Second World War the European resistance was quite literally disarmed, and then swiftly disbanded. To understand why, it is necessary to look at the leaderships of these movements. The soil upon which they grew was an instinctive rejection of Axis occupation and collaborationist ruling classes such as in Vichy France. However, to go beyond the initial spontaneous anger took courage, determination and, above all, organisation. The pioneering force here was usually the Communist Party. Before 1939, many Communist Parties had been hounded almost to extinction, and yet they recovered and often provided the organising core and leadership of the anti-fascist resistance movements. This was extremely impressive and courageous, and was helped by the fact that many Communists were rooted industrial militants who could tap into rising anger and desire for action. But, tragically, the Communist Parties had a fundamental flaw. They regarded Stalin’s Soviet Union as a socialist society, and were therefore prepared to slavishly follow its directions. The subordination of the movements to the needs of a (state capitalist) ruling class was a real weakness. Stalin struck what was known as the “percentages deal” with the western Allied governments. This gave him permission to dominate Eastern Europe, in return for his guaranteeing them the same freedom of action elsewhere. Ultimately resistance movements were neutralised through a combination of direct Allied pressure and the Soviet Union’s insistence that they stand down.
The revolutionary socialist impulse
If campaigns over Covid-19 radicalise as the divergent interests of capital and ordinary people become more glaring, then who leads them will be as critical as it was in 1945. One question to consider is how non-Stalinist revolutionary socialists operated in the context of total war. To judge this we need to consider both the First and Second World Wars. The two imperialist conflicts were linked in that the major protagonists were identical—Britain, France, the US and Russia or the Soviet Union on the one side; Germany on the other. Churchill and France’s Charles de Gaulle actually referred to the entire 1914-45 period as a second Thirty Years War.
However, revolutionaries did not adopt identical strategies in each conflict. They moulded their approach to the specific character of each war. In 1914, many of the countries that fought on either side had relatively similar political systems—monarchies (Britain, Germany and Russia) or elected presidents (France and America). On the Western Front, trench warfare brought prolonged stalemate so that, with the exception of Belgium, the enemy was unable to occupy entire countries and their governments remained in power. With little obvious difference between the two sides, it was easier to understand that the tragic slaughter of worker by worker served only the interests of the system. When leading revolutionaries formulated slogans, they came up with phrases such as “revolutionary defeatism” (Lenin in Russia) or “the main enemy is at home” (Karl Liebknecht in Germany). These were effective, inspiring the October 1917 insurrection in Petrograd and the overthrow of the Kaiser in Berlin in November 1918.
The Second World War was no less an imperialist conflict, but saw fascist regimes pitted against parliamentary democracies such as France, Britain and the US, plus the Soviet Union with its socialist gloss. Opposition to fascism may have been irrelevant to the Allied governments, but it mattered to the working class, which recognised the extremely reactionary character of Hitler’s policies and the threat that he posed. Furthermore, trench warfare was replaced by mobile weaponry. Panzer tank divisions on the ground and Luftwaffe planes above enabled German conquest of much of the continent. To describe your own government as the chief enemy, and call for its defeat, would have gained little traction under occupation by the Wehrmacht, with the Gestapo close behind and the Holocaust in the background.
Instead, revolutionaries had to prioritise two things: first, pointing out the imperialist origins of the war and the way the Allied ruling classes were fighting it badly and for their own benefit; second, pushing forward the development of independent self-activity from below. Such an approach maintained a commitment to defeat fascism, while promoting domestic working class struggle against the system that had produced fascism and war in the first place. In the British context this required making demands regarding the conduct of the war, such as the opening of a second front, while simultaneously posing the need for a different society.
The Trotskyist movement in Britain was split for much of the war between the Revolutionary Socialist League and the Workers’ International League. There was no synthesis encompassing the two priorities mentioned above, and instead each wing emphasised one of the two elements.
The context of the pandemic is closer to the Second World War than to the First. Our equivalent of the anti-fascist struggle is internationalism. Only such a global approach to tackling coronavirus will succeed. But it is also here in Britain that the war must be won and lives saved. That needs a strategy based on human needs, rather than the needs of business. As during the Second World War, victory is being delayed at tremendous human cost due to the painfully slow provision of PPE, mass testing and contact tracing, and the failure to ensure that everyone in the community has their risk of contracting Covid-19 reduced.
In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Britain held a general election. Churchill’s pitch was to wave the flag, extol the free market and oppose the welfare state, even in Beveridge’s moderate form: “Here in old England…in this glorious island…we do not like to be regimented and ordered about and have every action of our lives prescribed for us.” For Labour, Clement Attlee asked people to decide whether “in peace as in war, that public welfare comes before private interest”.36 Churchill was expected to win.
However, the false notion of “we are all in it together”, prevalent early on, had been extinguished by the real experience of capitalist society under conditions of total war. Common apathy, that feeling that nothing can be done, that change never happens or, to use Thatcher’s phrase, “there is no alternative”, had been replaced by an unquenchable thirst for change. Millions responded to Attlee’s appeal, casting their ballot papers against selfish private interest and in favour of a different kind of society. The Tories dropped to 213 seats, while Labour gained its first ever majority with 393 MPs.
Unfortunately the electorate did not get what they voted for. Labour undoubtedly made strides in welfare and nationalisation, but ultimately it remained a thoroughly reformist party. It compromised with the system, broke strikes, adopted nuclear weapons and attempted to hold on to the British Empire. The advances in welfare ushered in by the 1945 government were tolerated while the economy boomed, but since the 1970s they have been systematically undermined by both Labour and Tory governments. Seventy-five years on from VE (Victory in Europe) Day, even as we clap for front-line medical staff, it must not be forgotten that the NHS was wrung from the ruling class after an imperialist war that devastated the planet and consumed some 70 million lives. That was the price of capitalism then.
The end of the Second World War coincided with the longest sustained boom in capitalism’s history and what Ian Angus calls “the great acceleration” in environmental degradation. Angus explains that this was “without doubt the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of mankind,” and it forms a plausible date for the start of the epoch of the Anthropocene.37 Although the coronavirus is not a deliberate product of capitalism, the agricultural practices and assault on nature adopted by business in the post-war period has led directly to the current pandemic.
There are clear parallels between the Second World War and today. But there are important differences. If capitalism survives the coronavirus, there will probably be no return to business as usual, and still less a sustained boom. Alongside the “normal” poverty, racism, sexism and brutality of the market system, a deep recession is likely, along with a looming ecological disaster. For the future of humanity, this is not an occasion for “keeping calm and carrying on”. This time there must be no turning back.
Donny Gluckstein is a trade union activist in the EIS. He is one of the authors of The Labour Party: A Marxist History (3rd edition, 2019, Bookmarks).
1 Brown, 2020.
2 Guilty Men was a polemical book by “Cato”—a pseudonym for a group of journalists that included future Labour leader Michael Foot. Published in July 1940, it denounced the policy of appeasement.
3 Quoted in Kimber, 2020.
4 Churchill, 1927.
5 Capet, 2009.
6 Cliff and Gluckstein, 1996, p209.
7 See Cliff, 1974.
8 Cliff, 1974, p. 232. This terminology comes from Karl Marx, who describes the commodities created under capitalism as both “use-values” (things that can be considered useful in some context) and “values” (things that can be exchanged for a certain amount on the market). He points out that any society will need to create use-values, but that capitalism is largely driven by the desire of capitalists to expand the value they possess.
9 See, for example, Guardian, 2020 and Gutteres, 2020.
10 Quoted in Harris, 2020. Thatcher had notoriously claimed in a 1987 interview that “there’s no such thing as society”.
12 Fahey, 2004, p451.
13 Quoted in Hastings, 1979, p233.
15 Heartfield, 2012; p23, Piratin, 2006, p73.
16 Piratin, 2006, p75.
17 Calder, 1971, p220.
18 Davis, 1993, p187.
19 Quoted in Croucher, 1982, p170.
20 Quoted in Mahon, 1976, p269.
21 Mass Observation archive, FR2067, p3. Mass Observation was a social research organisation that aimed to document the everyday lives and attitudes of ordinary people.
22 Wiggam, 2011, p28.
23 Wiggam, 2011, p103.
24 Marwick, 1968, p291.
25 Heartfield, 2012, p12, p22.
26 Heartfield, 2012, p12.
27 Cliff, 1996, pp203-204.
28 Landles, 2013.
29 Mass Observation, FR2067, p3.
30 Cliff, 1996, p211.
31 Gluckstein, 2012, p104.
32 Marwick, 1968, p307.
33 Woodhouse, 1948, pp146-147.
34 For examples, see Gluckstein, 2015.
35 For an overview of popular resistance movements during the Second World War, see Gluckstein, 2012, p51.
36 Gluckstein, 2012, p110.
37 Angus, 2016, p39.