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The Meaning Of The Second World War

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Paul Mason reviews The Meaning Of The Second World War by Ernest Mandel (Verso 1986 pbk £6.95)

Except for the Russian Revolution no event has shaped the modern class struggle more than the Second World War. The basic outlines of every contemporary war and revolutionary struggle were drawn during World War II. Yet despite its importance, the war remains a virtual closed book for the British labour movement.

No Labour politician dares to 'politicise' the war. No section of the Communist Party wants to remember the Daily Worker's triumphal headlines on the morning of Hiroshima. The view that this was an 'anti-fascist' war, fought by 'the people' remains the only acceptable one. It is reinforced time and again by the media: not just through endlessly repeated war films, but through documentary series like The People's War and the currently showing World at War.

Against this background Ernest Mandel's The Meaning of the Second World War is a welcome attempt to summarise the Marxist analysis of WWII. Brief but thought-provoking, the book is a work of Marxist historiography. It challenges bourgeois, reformist and Stalinist war historians, not with a wealth of evidence, but with a theoretical framework. From the standpoint of Lenin and Trotsky's view of war in the modern epoch as the product of inter-imperialist rivalry Mandel attempts to throw light onto events shrouded by ruling-class and Stalinist myth and legend.

But the book contains errors symptomatic of Mandel's centrist politics which as the leading thinker of the USFI are not his alone. Its mistakes are a product of the general theoretical disorientation of Trotskyism after 1945. Whilst this is not an attempt to outline the Trotskyist programme against inter-imperialist war the fruits of the USFI's opportunism are present at key points in Mandel's analysis.

Mandel has been described as the 'orthodox revisionist'. Both the book's achievements and errors confirm the accuracy of this description. The most important task of any Marxist explanation of WWII is to demonstrate its fundamentally inter-imperialist character. That is, to explain that the Second World War was fought between the imperialist powers for the same class interests as the, retrospectively accepted, 'bad' war of 1914-18. The exceptions to this; the war of the USSR against Germany and the various wars of liberation by the oppressed colonial countries, must be seen in the context of a war whose essential driving force was the struggle over the world market between rival imperialist powers. Thus despite Britain's alliance with the USSR so this was not an anti-fascist war. Just as much as British Marxists should have defended the USSR so they should have used the tactics of revolutionary defeatism in relation to their 'own' country.

Mandel sets about the task of explaining this in a way reminiscent of his work on capitalist economic crisis. He begins with an explanation of imperialism's inherent flaw: the contradiction between a world economy and its political form, competition between nation states. He then defines the role of war as an expression of that contradiction: 'Wars are precisely a mechanism for adjusting or adapting the military and political balance of forces to the new industrial and financial one.'

As in his economic writing Mandel's strength lies in his desire to concretise general laws and tendencies such as the above; explaining the mediation of fundamental economic conflicts through political, and in this case, military conflict.

The first half of Mandel's book is a largely successful attempt to root the war aims and unfolding alliances of the protagonists in their chosen route to hegemony over the world market. In particular he shows how the central dynamic of WWII was the conflicting desires of Germany, Japan and the USA to replace Britain, France and Holland with a single dominant imperialist power. Along the way Mandel deals with several of the accepted nostrums of bourgeois war historians.

Against the argument that WWII was the inevitable outcome of the 'injustices' of the post 1918 settlement, Mandel focuses on the Pacific conflict. He charts the co-existence of US and Japanese interests in the Far East between the Boxer Rebellion and the WashinGton Naval Agreement (1922). He explains how it was Japanese imperialism's decision to break from its economic isolationism after 1930 which led to conflict with the USA for 'strategic insertion' into China and the Pacific. It was this rather than any 'aggrieved national pride' which led to Japan's war of conquest in the Far East, and made the war of 1942-45 inevitable.

Against AJP Taylor's theory that Hitler blundered into WWII, Mandel gives a convincing account of the pre-war years which confirms Trotsky's 1932 prediction; that by entrusting its fate to fascist desperadoes, German imperialism had made another European war inevitable.

Mandel even puts forward evidence that both severe economic crisis (1938-9) and the short term limits of German raw materials determined both Hitler's offensives into East Europe, France and Russia and their form—the blitzkrieg or surprise war of territorial conquest.

Such arguments would of course be dismissed by bourgeois war historians a 'crude economic determinism'. But for Taylor and Trevor-Roper it is concepts like Hitler's 'megalomania', Chamberlain's 'weakness' which govern the outcome of great events. That is why the authenticity of Hitler's diaries is of greater interest to these great thinkers than scientific analysis of the German economy.

The charge of economic determinism should least of all be levelled at Mandel however. At the same time as showing the influence of inter-imperialist economic rivalry he constantly stresses the 'relative autonomy' of the political and military spheres. For example he writes of the final outcome: 'Was this outcome decided at Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam? Was it in other words the product of diplomatic horsetrading, 'mistakes' or even 'betrayals'? To a large extent it was determined on the battlefield.' (p50)

Here Mandel only confirms Trotsky's understanding of the relation of military to economic factors during a war, as when he wrote in 1940: 'All the great questions will be decided in the next epoch arms in hand.' (Trotsky Writings 1939-40 p221)

On the basis of this understanding Mandel constructs, in the second part of his book, an outline of the war's military history. This is particularly useful for British Marxists. It shows how Britain and the USA let the Soviet Union suffer the brunt of German imperialism's onslaught, remaining content until 1943 to reconquer their colonies in North Africa and the Far East. It describes, too, how from France to Northern Italy to Greece the pace of the AnglO-US advance was entirely determined by the aim of maintaining capitalism. It confirms the historical truth of the FI's 1944 slogan: 'Capitalist Second Front means Counterrevolution in Europe!', and provides useful facts for any argument against the 'anti-fascist war' myths propagated by the ruling class.

However, having defended and concretised Marxist orthodoxy in theory, Mandel characteristically abandons it when he comes to look at its programmatic implications.

Following the categories laid down by Lenin and Zinoviev in 1915-16, Mandel divides up the military conflicts of 1939-45 into several types. He characterises the major conflicts as inter-imperialist, with the exception of the USSR vs Germany, and the various colonial liberation wars against both allied and axis powers. These he describes as 'just wars': 'By "just wars" are meant wars which should have been fought and and which revolutionaries supported then as they do now' (p45).

Apart from arbitarily seperating China from the rest because it 'would develop into a socialist revolution', he is correct up to this point.The errors begin where Mandel tries to deal with the resistance movements in imperialist countries occupied by other imperialist countries. He adds to the category of just wars: 'A just war of national liberation fought by the populations of the occupied countries of Europe, which would grow into socialist revolution (Yugoslavia and Albania) or open civil war (Greece, North Italy)'.

This passage contains a welter of errors, confusions and deliberate omissions. Every one of these can be traced to Mandel's centrist view of the resistance movements and the post war social overturns in East Europe. The most decisive error is in the use of the term 'occupied country'. As Zinoviev pointed out during World War I, it is not who attacks first, who is occupied, who is guilty of lying, etc. which determines the Marxist attitude to war. It is the class interest behind the conflict.

The civil war in Northern Italy was just, not because Germany had occupied Italy, but because it was the war of the working class against its oppressor. The insurrectionary movement of the Italian workers would have been just even if it had been aimed at US and British forces, just as the Greek insurrection was. The logic of ascribing occupied Italy the label 'oppressed nation' is to extend this also to the other imperialist countries which were at some time occupied by their enemy. As for 'occupied' France, however, there is a studied silence in Mandel's typology.

This is no accident. Mandel has been a key protagonist of the argument that Trotskyists who refused to take part in the bourgeois/Stalinist led French resistance were 'sectarian'. Yet the resistance fought under the flag of French imperialism. Instead of the fraternisation between troops so nostalgically remembered of World War I, the French Stalinists slogan in 1944 was 'each man kill his Boche'. The Trotskyist tactic towards armed resistance movements in Nazi-occupied France and Belgium are not dealt with here. What is laid down however is a theoretical framework for justifying opportunism towards blatantly nationalist armed alliances which included everything from the CP to De Gaulle and French fascism.

It is revealing to note that Mandel doesn't extend the privileged status of 'occupied country' to Germany and Japan in 1945, despite the fact that Anglo-US imperialism imposed the strictest curbs on the freedom of workers in these countries until after 1947.

Mandel's earlier capitulation to Tito and Hoxha equally mar his ability to scientifically characterise the conflicts in Eastern Europe. From the beginning, Mandel has regarded the social overturns in Yugoslavia and Albania as different in type from the social overturns in the rest of the area after 1945, hence their inclusion by name in the list of just wars. What of Poland, Czechoslovakia etc? Again Mandel says nothing. But any scientific study, which can afford room to a detailed account of the Red Army's advance from Stalingrad, should also give at least a cursory characterisation of the conflicts in Eastern Europe.
In his conclusion Mandel shows how the fundamental contradictions of imperialism were not solved by the war, merely reshaped on a massive scale. In World War II capitalism made the transition from regional economic blocs to a real world economy; from protected markets to US protected free trade; from inter-imperialist rivalry to the cold war; from direct colonial exploitation to the 'free' exploitation of the multi-nationals. In the course of the war a technological revolution was set in motion. Nuclear power and nuclear warfare, rocket and jet propulsion, the computer, the antibiotic drug, all were fruits of the war years. All this laid the basis for a massive surge of economic growth which confused and disoriented Trotskyists who took literally, i.e. one-sidedly, the Transitional Programme's dictum 'Mankind's productive forces decay'. But 40 years later the fundamental contradictions between imperialisms, the workers states and the semi-colonial countries increase in depth and scope recreating many of the conditions of the decade before World War II

Anyone who has searched in vain in the left press for the facts and arguments about World War II; anyone watching The World at War for the first time; anyone looking for a historical background to the Fourth International's debates on tactics during World War II should read this book. But anyone who is a Trotskyist should read it critically.