Thursday, 4 October 2012

Book Review and Response: A People's History of the Second World War

From LSHG Newsletter #47 (Autumn 2012)

A People's History of the Second World War: Resistance Versus Empire
A People’s History of the Second World War
By Donny Gluckstein
Pluto, London 2012, 288pp
ISBN: 978-0745328027

The Second World War still arouses passions. When the popular website Socialist Unity published two items commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the battle of Britain - here and here - it provoked an exceptionally acrimonious discussion. So Donny Gluckstein’s new book is very welcome.
It is short – a little over 200 pages of text – but full of scrupulously researched information. There is little abstract argument – each point is illustrated by concrete and often surprising details. There is no jargon, and the argument is accessible to any reader with the minimum of background who wants to pursue the question. Yet the book is based on years of research. Published sources in six languages are quoted; Gluckstein has visited World War II museums from Denmark to Indonesia.
This is not a chronological account (though there is a useful timeline to help readers find their bearings); fourteen short chapters deal with the war in fourteen different countries – Britain, France, USA, Germany, but also less known theatres of war like Latvia and Indonesia. Sadly Japan and Russia are missing – it would have been interesting to look at how the Nazis’ racial theories made them unable to exploit the obvious unpopularity of Stalin’s regime.
Gluckstein sets out to confront the enigma at the heart of World War II – was it a war against fascism and in defence of democracy, or was it a conflict between rival imperialisms? His answer is that in fact there were two parallel but distinct wars, an imperialist war, but also a “people’s war” in which workers and the oppressed of the colonial world sought to establish a better and more humane world. The two wars overlapped and there was often friction between them; the complex interaction varied from country to country. But although there is much more to be said, Gluckstein’s model provides a valuable approach for interpreting the often contradictory phenomena of the war.
Of course the argument is not entirely novel. Gluckstein follows in the tradition of Gabriel Kolko's magnificent The Politics of War, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1969) which described the USA facing the three problems of British imperialism, the USSR and the international Communist movement, and what he simply called “the Left”, the two latter being interconnected but separable. In his The Meaning of the Second World War (Verso, 1986), Ernest Mandel identified no less than five separate wars being fought between 1939 and 1945.
Gluckstein shows clearly the imperialist nature of the war. Britain and de Gaulle’s French forces were fighting to preserve their colonial empires, Germany to expand its territorial control, the USA to extend its political and economic hegemony. Those who argue, quite rightly, that there is a real difference between fascism and bourgeois democracy and that the latter is worth defending, often forget that things may have looked somewhat different to those in India, Algeria or the US deep south who did not enjoy the benefits of bourgeois democracy.
Thus, as Gluckstein points out, Britain occupied India, with 400 million inhabitants, more than the total population of the countries occupied by the Nazis. And while those under Nazi rule suffered grievously, many of them were spared the atrocious brutality and famine imposed on the Indian population, whom Winston Churchill described as “a beastly people with a beastly religion” (not surprisingly he obstructed any moves to alleviate the Indian famine). Gluckstein brings out the role of Churchill, who was determined that the war for “democracy” should be a war to preserve the British Empire. Britain’s war strategy was racist in the most literal sense of the term. And the racism extended, not only to colonial subjects, but to anyone unfortunate enough not to have been born British. Even the American Ambassador in Athens accused Churchill of treating the Greeks like “natives under the British Raj”.
Likewise Gluckstein shows that the United States was riddled with the crudest racism. The US armed forces remained segregated throughout the war and both Roosevelt and Truman explicitly disavowed racial equality. As one black militant asked with some justice:

Why should I shed my blood for Roosevelt’s America ….for the whole Jim Crow Negro-hating South, for the low-paid, dirty jobs for which negroes have to fight….?

He tells the story of the German antifascist committees (Antifas) which blossomed in the aftermath of the collapse of Nazism – and of how they were smashed by both the Russians and the Western powers, who wanted no possibility of German workers actually taking things into their own hands. The accounts of revolutionary struggle in Vietnam and Indonesia will be new to many readers.
As Gluckstein points out, the world we live in today was formed by World War II. The “people’s war” left a legacy in the form of the very real reforms won at the end of the war, despite ruling classes which wanted to return to the world of the thirties. As he reminds us, many of those gains are still the object of struggle in our own day – the NHS being just the most obvious example. This book needs a sequel dealing with the gains of the peace – welfare reform and colonial liberation – and the limits imposed on them by the survival of imperialism. Nobody could do the job better than Gluckstein.
However, having recommended the book wholeheartedly, I should like to note some reservations, in the hope of provoking further discussion and perhaps greater clarity about this important question.
To begin with, I am not entirely happy with the concept of “people’s war”. It is certainly true that a great many of those who fought in the war, whether in the regular armies or in the various guerrilla and partisan forces, did so with the aspiration of radical social change. Yet the class forces and political leaderships involved in the “people’s war” were far from homogeneous, and I sometimes had the feeling that in the interests of arguing his thesis, Gluckstein was being insufficiently critical towards some of these movements. A case could be made for saying that his account of both the Italian and the Yugoslav partisans is sanitised and a little romanticised. But for the sake of space I will concentrate on his treatment of the French Resistance.
He is quite right to draw a distinction between de Gaulle and his followers and those who were involved in the internal Resistance, which was heavily influenced by the French Communist Party (PCF). Yet in doing so he tends to be too uncritical of the latter current. As a result the nature and influence of Stalinism, which were of enormous significance in several countries, are not deal with adequately.
Gluckstein notes the errors of the PCF during the period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, only to suggest that after the turn of June 1941 things were more or less all right. There is an implication (made explicit in the section on Italy) that the Stalinist parties were genuine working-class parties distorted by the fact that their leadership was controlled from Moscow. Things were not so simple. The line of the PCF in the Resistance was a direct continuation of the Popular Front of the 1930s. But popular frontism was not imposed on the PCF from Moscow; it sprang from a republican tradition that could be traced back to 1789. The fact that that tradition blended so well with Stalinist popular frontism explains why the PCF was the star section of the Comintern in the 1930s. And those traditions persist on the French left long after the demise of Stalinism. The disgraceful failure of many sections of the French left to defend Muslim women’s right to wear the hijab derives, not from Stalinism, but from a misunderstood interpretation of the secularist tradition originating in the French revolution.
The PCF saw the resistance as essentially a national struggle. Gluckstein does not mention that one of the slogans encouraged by the PCF was “à chacun son boche – everyone should kill a German”. This tried to reduce the war to one of French against Germans – reenacting the same conflicts that had taken place in 1870 and 1914-1918. The fact that the Resistance contained many non-French militants – Armenians, Spanish and even Germans - was glossed over and the full facts of such participation have only become known relatively recently. The PCF was happy to encourage the crudest nationalist rhetoric – like de Gaulle it invoked the heritage of Joan of Arc. Stalinist propaganda stressed the national element of the struggle.
The Resistance military strategy is also open to criticism. When the PCF entered the Resistance after the German invasion of Russia, it advocated the use of attacks on individual German soldiers. For example, Resisters would ask a German soldier in the street for a light, then shoot him. The Germans responded with savage reprisals – 10 or 20 Resisters were executed for each soldier killed. The aim
was indeed to incite repression, in the hope of intensifying hostility between the occupiers and the native population (a similar strategy has been used by many colonial liberation movements).
But when the strategy was initially introduced, at Russian instigation, many PCF members were deeply unhappy, feeling it to be quite alien to French socialist traditions and it took some time for the PCF rank-and-file to be convinced of the strategy. Some were quite happy to assassinate officers, but were against random killing of rank-and-file soldiers. Such tactics ignored the fact that most German soldiers were working-class conscripts, and that the German working class had been Hitler’s first victim. It was only twenty years since the great revolutionary wave of 1918-23 in Germany. Many soldiers might have remembered these events, or have known of them through their families. Certainly not all Germans were convinced Nazis, a point Gluckstein makes very clearly in his account of the “Antifas”. Yet in the section on Italy, he explicitly defends “terrorism”.
In the sections on Britain and Indochina Gluckstein gives a brief account of the activities of revolutionary socialists (Trotskyists) who opposed fascism but also rejected Stalinism and nationalism. But in the section on France his concern to reduce the account to a simple dichotomy between imperialist war and people’s war leads him to omit any reference to the French Trotskyists.
Yet despite their small numbers the French Trotskyists had some remarkable achievements. Their principle was that a German soldier was a potential comrade, not an enemy; as their paper La Vérité put it:

“The terrorist act creates a barrier between French workers and German soldiers, but no victory is possible without unity between them”.

They succeeded in organising meetings with German soldiers and actually published a paper for members of the German armed forces, Arbeiter und Soldat. Yet they faced murderous attacks from both the Gestapo and the PCF. Jean-René Chauvin, a remarkable activist who survived Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Buchenwald, was physically attacked in a German camp by Stalinists – but rescued by other Communists. There is a considerable literature on these activities in French; they are less well known in Britain, but the welcome publication by Merlin in the next few months of Yvan Craipeau’s Swimming Against the Stream will provide much valuable information. There is still much more to be said about the complexities and contradictions of World War II.

Ian Birchall

Author’s Response

I’d like to thank Ian for his generous and thought-provoking review of A People’s History of the Second World War. While perhaps not deserving his praise, I would debate some of the reservations he expresses. The left moves forward through discussion and polemic.
Ian writes that ‘the argument is not entirely novel’, referring to Kolko’s The Politics of War and Mandel’s The Meaning of the Second World War. Novelty for its own sake is pointless. But the perspective in A People’s History does not follow either of these previous authors. Without minimising the value of both books neither Kolko, writing on US policy with the Cold War in the background, nor Mandel writing as an orthodox Trotskyist, see Russia’s role as imperialist. The former emphasises US strategy in a multi-faceted but single war (and dissects it brilliantly), while the latter splinters the conflict into several elements, each of analytical value.
Yet unless the USSR is understood as imperialist (albeit based on state capitalism rather than market capitalism), it is impossible to grasp the essence of World War II in which the fundamental divide of capitalism (between exploiters and exploited) was refracted through the prism of Clausewitz’s dictum: ‘war expresses politics by other means’.
Between 1939 and 1945 the world was gripped by an all-encompassing process of military struggle; but one that was neither unitary nor fragmentary. It was an inter-penetration of opposites – of people’s war and imperialist war (one of whose protagonists was the USSR). Such a perspective allows resistance movements and popular struggles from below to be properly appreciated, because they can be disentangled from the imperialist forces (including Russia) that they fought alongside with (and sometimes against).
So – two wars, not more. Ian is unhappy with ‘people’s war’. 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.
Lenin's comment on Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising is analogous:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations in the colonies and in Europe, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression by the landowners, the church, and the monarchy, against national oppression, etc. — to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism", and another, somewhere else and says, "We are
for imperialism", and that will be a social revolution! Only those who hold such a ridiculously pedantic view could vilify the Irish rebellion by calling it a "putsch".

If anything, WWII came closer than WWI to lining up the armies separately, because in country after country a movement of ‘a section of the petty bourgeoisie [and] the politically nonconscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses’ fought both Axis or foreign occupation and their open (‘Quisling’) collaborators in the domestic ruling class.
Ian makes a valid point about omissions, both of certain countries and issues within them. Mea culpa. The publisher’s word limit and the sheer scale of events imposed a selective approach. My only defence is that if, for example, Trotskyism was not covered in France, it was treated (however inadequately) in Britain and Vietnam. The same is true of the role of women, the sociology of resistance movement, and much more.
The substantive point that Ian wishes to make, however, is brought out in his discussion of the French resistance. He highlights sharp Trotskyist criticisms of the PCF. These were absolutely justified, and if A People’s History gives the impression ‘that things were more or less all right’ after July 1941, this is a serious sin of omission. Clearly, the book’s critical treatment of CP policies in other places such as Italy, Greece, Latvia, Poland is not sufficiently corrective of this.
However, while stressing the doleful impact of Russian imperialism on its foreign supporters, it is equally vital to recognise the contradictory character of the international Communist movement during WWII. Ian reminds us of the crass nationalist PCF slogan “ à chacun son boche – everyone should kill a German”, itself but a pale echo of Russian propaganda, as encapsulated by Ehrenburg’s notorious rhetoric:

If you kill one German, kill another - there is nothing more amusing for us than a heap of German corpses. Count not the days, nor the kilometres. Count only the number of Germans killed by you. Kill the German - that is your grandmother's request. Kill the German! - that is your child's prayer. Kill the German! – your motherland cries out. Do not miss. Do not let through. Kill!

At the very same time many Communists also reflected working class roots and socialist politics, in however distorted a form. Once freed from the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1941 they spearheaded resistance to fascism both domestic and foreign, as well as expressing the popular thirst for economic and political liberation.
The incredible upsurge in the popularity of CPs across the world by 1945 cannot be explained otherwise. (It cannot, for example, be put down solely to the Red Army’s successes. Stalin’s army was indeed victorious, but so were Churchill’s and Roosevelt/Trumans’). It would be both undialectical and historically inaccurate to stress only Communist subservience to Russia’s imperialist policies on the one hand, or commitment to anti-fascism and liberation on the other. A contradictory balance must be struck.
Another important point Ian raises is in regard to military strategy. He writes, ‘Yet in the section on Italy, he explicitly defends “terrorism”.’ This is presumably meant as a criticism. The issue is a very important, but very difficult one. The context of world war was unlike, say 9/11 or 7/7. Even though a bomb is a bomb, one must distinguish, however tricky that is, between individual acts taken in isolation from, and against, the mass of the population, and acts of violence as an expression of the will of the masses to resist foreign occupation (which Italian resisters themselves termed terrorism). Furthermore, it is essential to locate the tactical debate on terrorism in the wider strategic framework of attentism versus armed struggle. ‘Attentism’ was the policy of groups linked to the Western imperialist powers such as EDES in Greece, the Chetniks in Yugoslavia, or de Gaulle’s Secret Army. They wanted to hold back popular resistance (often using the excuse of Axis reprisals) until such time as official Allied armies arrived to ‘stabilise’ the situation under ‘legitimate’ capitalise rule. Their mentors in London and Washington proposed exactly the same, and were ready to betray resistance movements to the enemy in order to achieve this end (the case of General Alexander in Italy being an infamous example). The issue of whether was one for or against attentism, rather than the subsidiary issue of terrorism, was the most important element in determining whether or not there was a people’s war against continuing Axis rule, slavery and death (with unopposed Allied domination to follow).
A People’s History of the Second World War indeed has many limitations. The book is undoubtedly, and perhaps inevitably, a patchwork quilt. But even a patchwork quilt can keep you warm. Hopefully the drawbacks lie more in its scope (with only certain countries covered, and the consequences of war barely sketched when the story stops in 1945), than in the overall analysis of the parallel wars it presents. It is up to the reader whether it successfully covers its subject.

Donny Gluckstein

Edited to add: Reviews of this work by John Newsinger, Mark Killian and John Molyneux


  1. Worth a read for the willing role of Australia's ruling class during WWII - Australia's Pacific War: challenging a national myth - by Socialist Alternative's Tom O'Lincoln. Check out

  2. There's also a review by Mark Killian in the latest edition of Socialist Review (UK)

  3. John Molyneux's review:

  4. No mention of the Proletarian Military Policy in any of the reviews! Something wrong there if we are looking at Trotskys ideas as is cde Molyneux.