War from above, resistance from below

Issue: 151

Marnie Holborow

A review of Donny Gluckstein (ed), Fighting on all Fronts: Popular Resistance and the Second World War (Bookmarks, 2015), £13.99

As Donny Gluckstein points out in the introduction to this book, understanding the nature of the Second World War is fundamental to our understanding of the world today. Liberal and left wing opinion sees it as a war between democracy and fascism, or “progress and reaction” as Eric Hobsbawm described it. This leads some to see the Allies’ victory as the straightforward triumph of democracy and ushering in American prosperity for all. For example, the Confederation of German Trade Unions has suggested, without any hint of irony, that workers today should get behind the idea of “a new Marshall plan” as the basis for a “progressive strategy” for the crisis-ridden European Union.

This simplistic interpretation ignores the fact that none of the Allied powers went to war for progressive reasons. Winston Churchill sought to maintain British rule over its empire, Stalin used the “Great Patriotic War” as an opportunity to conquer the non-Russian peoples of Eastern Europe and Franklin Roosevelt, despite his oft-cited New Deal credentials, was neutral on the Nazi threat and then, at the end of the war, intervened only to extend the influence of the United States in the Pacific and replace Britain as the new world banker. This was a war fought by the Allies and the Axis powers to maintain or extend their control over territories, a “second imperialist war”, as Leon Trotsky called it.

But, unlike the First World War, the Second World War was a popular war in Europe, mainly because of the presence of fascism. Despite the most horrific slaughter of people in huge numbers, support for the war grew as it progressed. In his previous book, A People’s History of the Second World War, Gluckstein puts forward the theory that the war involved two separate wars running in parallel, the imperialist war and the people’s one. The contributors to this volume carry over the people’s war theme, in varying degrees, to different situations during the Second World War—to the nationalist resistance in Algeria, the Jewish Resistance in Eastern Europe, the underground movement in the Netherlands, the resistance to the Nazi invasion of Russia, the Slovak National Rising of 1944. In a second section, resistance to the war in the east is covered: Australian workers’ militancy and mutinies in the army, nationalist resistance in Burma to two imperialisms on its soil, the Chinese Revolution, the Japanese resistance movement and the Philippine Huk rebellion. A mass of valuable information is assembled here, opening up the hidden history of the Second World War—a war fought by the mass of people, both in Europe and in Asia, who were motivated by very different things to their rulers.

Gluckstein’s two-wars theme allows a strong focus on the class dynamic of the war from above, as well as below. Frank Renken’s chapter on Algeria, for example, shows how imperialist rivalry between the British and French over colonial possessions in North Africa led Churchill, in 1941, to be more set against the influence of Charles de Gaulle—supposedly Britain’s ally—than against the Vichy-sponsored government in Algiers. The book highlights elsewhere the opportunism of the Allies’ entry into the war, which happened, not in response to fascism, but when their own imperial designs were under threat. At the end of the war too, even as the official line of the Allied Powers became self-determination for all nations, the big three—the UK, Russia and the US—casually flouted their proclaimed principle and proceeded to submit nations to their control as it suited them.

Even in those countries which were neutral during the war, as Kieran Allen’s chapter on Ireland shows, ruling class interests came into play. The “Emergency”, the name given to Irish neutrality, a stand against the imperialist war which he defends, also served to consolidate Fianna Fáil as the expression of the new Irish ruling class. Éamon De Valera’s repressive “emergency” measures targeted republicans and industrial action by workers. These were to lay the foundation, with the co-option of the trade union bureaucracy, of a form of national unity that was to tie the Irish labour movement to the 26 county state in the decades after the war.

But the book’s main focus is on the various popular movements against Nazi occupation and imperialist expansionism. These provide an alternative to what William Crane calls here the Bridge on the River Kwai version of history, which places heroic, imperious individuals at its centre and ignores the agency of the mass of people. His chapter on Burma presents, instead, the political twists and turns of the nationalist movement and the organisations involved: from the Burma Independence Army, the influence on the movement of the Communist Parties of Burma and of India, to the final rebellion which drove the imperial army from Rangoon in 1944.

Janey Stone’s chapter on Jewish resistance refutes another myth—that Jewish people did nothing to resist their terrible fate. She describes, in the Warsaw Uprising, how the resistance was political and determined. The main organisation, the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ZOB) made up of the Jewish Labour Bund, the Labour Zionists and the Communists, were widely recognised for their military prowess, even by the Nazis. As noted by Marek Edelman, one of its leading members, the ZOB made the Jew in the street realise that it was possible to do something against the Nazis. These inspiring accounts alone make this book an important read.

Is “people’s war” the right term to describe all these resistance movements during the war? Its uses and shortcomings have been discussed in detail elsewhere.* Gluckstein himself recognises in the introduction to this book that the term people’s war is “problematic”, but “correct”. There is not enough space here to pursue the argument in depth but a couple of points relating to this volume do stand out.

First, the accounts here show that the different struggles during the war involved different kinds of resistance. A people’s war from below may perhaps fit in the case of countries occupied by the Nazis and with home-grown fascists—in the case of the Slovak uprising and possibly the underground resistance and strike movement in the Netherlands. However, people’s war is more problematic for the situation in Stalin’s Russia or other national liberation struggles in the Pacific.

Ernest Mandel’s classic Trotskyist account of the nature of the Second World War characterises the Russian front as the progressive self-defence of a workers’ state against German imperialism. Gluckstein’s chapter refutes both these assumptions, showing that the war waged by Stalin was motivated by imperialist aims and that wartime Russia could by no stretch be called a workers’ state, but maintains that Stalin’s victory relied on the war from below. The scale and extent of the partisan movement, its impressive attacks on the railway system and the mass involvement of civilians at the resistance at Stalingrad were, it is true, a strong source of inspiration for resistance movements elsewhere. The terrible loss of life—an incredible 27 million Soviet citizens—certainly points to a heroic struggle of huge proportions. But in all of this, as Gluckstein recognises, top-down, brutal control was always present, through the Moscow Partisan HQ controlling weapons and propaganda. The iron grip of Stalinism, with mass deportations, the gulags and the killing of deserters, forced the war drive. Gluckstein maintains that out of “the disjuncture of the imperialist war and the people’s war” Stalin was able to unite the people, despite everything, and somehow to become the symbol of their victorious fight. A people’s war, albeit in an alienated fashion, would seem to be taking the notion too far. The Russian people were not in any sense in control of the war, because of the level of repression inflicted by Stalin’s regime.

This touches on a further political difficulty with the notion of a “people’s war”. The term is irrecoverably bound up with its adoption by the Communist Parties in many countries, as Gluckstein partly admits. Once the USSR had been invaded, Stalin used people’s war as justification for linking up with the Allies, as a way of putting nation before class, and as a means of covering over the USSR’s own imperial aims. This perspective negatively impacted on the liberation movement in China. Gluckstein argues very convincingly that Mao’s Chinese Communist Party, under the influence of Moscow, came to represent class interests independent of the workers and the peasantry. In a conscious deflection away from workers’ revolution, Mao pursued the agenda of independence, national unity and economic growth—which flowed from the CP’s official line of a people’s war. One can’t help feeling that the need for permanent revolution within this national liberation struggle, argued so forcefully in Gluckstein’s chapter, makes “people’s war” redundant as a meaningful political category.

More broadly, when it is taken into consideration how the people’s war was used to justify, at the end of the war, the disbanding of the resistance movements in the national interest, there are good reasons to be wary about embracing it at all. What stands out in this book is precisely how, time and time again, Communist Party influence led the movements to capitulate to the peace settlement advocated by the local ruling class. In the Philippines the Communist Party (the PKP) looked to Japan as an ally to wage a patriotic cross-class war. In Australia the CP were constrained in their solidarity with Indonesian independence by pursuing the Moscow line that the national war effort should not be jeopardised. A people’s war was, in effect, a useful political slogan for forestalling class struggle and containing revolution.

With this reserve, Fighting on all Fronts does provide a much needed history from below of the Second World War, and brings to light struggles seldom given more than a paragraph in standard accounts. While imperialism left its mark on the nature of the war, it also triggered a mass struggle by ordinary people, who fought back against the odds by whatever means they could. The book successfully counters glib accounts of it being somehow a good war. It wasn’t. The war was brutal and barbaric on a horrific scale and it was only the action of partisans, people on the land, civilians and workers in different parts of the world that gave a glimpse of what could end war once and for all.

Marnie Holborow is a member of the Socialist Workers Party and People before Profit in Ireland. She is the author of Language and Neoliberalism and has recently written on higher education and austerity in Ireland.

* See Leandros Bolaris’s review in International Socialism issue 138 (http://isj.org.uk/two-in-one/) and Donny Gluckstein’s reply in issue 140 (http://isj.org.uk/socialism-and-the-second-world-war-a-response-to-leandros-bolaris/). See also John Molyneux in the Irish Marxist Review at http://irishmarxistreview.net/index.php/imr/article/view/47 and Bill Crane’s piece at http://tinyurl.com/zurq8pt