Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Polemic: Parallel Wars - A reply to Leandros Bolaris

By Steve Cushion - Secretary UCU London Retired Members branch
(From LSHG Newsletter # 50 Autumn 2013)

Leandros Bolaris's attack on Donny Gluckstein's People's History of the Second World War (See Two in One in International Socialism 138, 2013), misses the point on a number of issues. The argument that there were two parallel wars, a "People's War" and an "Imperialist War" is not, as Bolaris asserts, going round in circles and does not necessarily end up accepting that the Second Word War was solely an "anti-fascist" war"(1). We surely do not judge a war by the perceptions of the participants or the public statements of the leaders; if we did this, we would see the English Civil War as merely a religious conflict and ignore the revolutionary implications. In the context of the times, a mere twenty years after First World War, any attempt to raise an army in Britain based on "King and Country" or any similar imperialist slogan would have been an abject failure and the ruling class was shrewd enough to recognise this. Therefore, the fact that most participants thought that the Allies were fighting an anti-fascist war is a tribute to skilful government propaganda and the confusion caused by the class-collaborationist politics of the "Popular Front". What people think they are doing is often at odds with material reality.

Donny Gluckstein does indeed "follow a long line of left-wing historians" with good reason: France's rulers were indeed more afraid of the Popular Front than the Germans.(2) The Popular Front was, in one sense, a corpse before it was even born, but this does not mean that the events of 1934- 36 had not badly scared the French bourgeoisie; the French working class were not crushed, but had merely suffered a setback. The Munich Agreement, Roosevelt's election promise to stay out of any European conflict and the Hitler-Stalin Pact show the reluctance of the ruling elites of all the major future Allied powers to go to war, in part because they well remembered the revolutionary situation in which the First World War ended. I would argue that the collapse of the French Army was more than just a tactical blunder by the French High Command, it rather reflected an ambivalence about the war in the minds of a ruling class whose attitude may be summed up by a 1941 letter from a Lille factory owner to his trade newspaper: 'I would rather see my country occupied by the Germans than my factory occupied by the workers'.(3) A careful reading of quote from Trotsky in Leandros Bolaris's article reveals that it was principally an attack on the folly of the Popular Front rather than an explanation of the Fall of France.

The French and British governments were forced to go to war in defence of Poland because they saw, and saw very much more clearly than Stalin, that the invasion of Poland was a prelude to the invasion of Russia. If the German army had managed to conquer Russia, that country's vast natural resources, when combined with German industrial strength, would have meant that Germany could have dominated the world economy and won any future war with any or all of the Allies. So the Allied rulers had a difficult balancing act to perform, to persuade their citizens to fight an imperialist war and to avoid that war ending in a revolutionary situation in the manner of 1914-1918. Declaring it an antifascist war was an effective way of doing this; class-conscious workers were rightly appalled at the way fascism was rolling out over Europe, smashing trade unions and workers' parties, cutting wages and putting the bourgeoisie firmly in the saddle. This fear of fascism was completely justified, however unconditional support for Churchill, Stalin, Roosevelt and De Gaulle, which was advocated by the trade union bureaucracy and the Social Democrat and Stalinist leaders, was not the way to defeat fascism. These reformist workers' leaders also helped the Allies fight the war in such a way as to avoid independent working class activity: advocating no-strike agreements and promoting increased production in Britain and the USA, while urging the resistance to subordinate its activities to the needs of the Allied High Command in the occupied countries. However, given the nature of underground resistance movements, this latter aim was only partially successful.

Leandros Bolaris is absolutely correct to say that the FTP-MOI was not fighting for a return of the pre-war capitalist French Republic that had persecuted them. This was not only true for immigrant workers. Within the the French Communist Party, there was a difference of emphasis between Paris and the Pas-de-Calais. Guided by the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Paris leadership thought that they had to organise within the context of a German victory. Taking a position of neutrality between what they saw as the rival imperialisms of Germany and Britain, the official publications ignored the German occupation and concentrated their attacks on the Vichy government and French capitalism.(4) Many of their comrades in the mining basin of Northern France were convinced, however, that the war would end in revolution, as had happened in Russia after the war of 1914, and that revolution would spring from the ashes of the defeat of German fascism. French capitalism was weak, they argued, the war would weaken it still further until it became merely an adjunct of German capitalism. Julien Hapiot, head of the Young Communists in the Pas-de-Calais and a veteran of the International Brigades in Spain thought that: 'It is much better to shoot the master rather than the dog'.(5)

I am not in a position to discuss the situation in Greece, but as a contribution to the debate on the Second World War, it may be useful to look in some detail at the situation in Northern France following the German invasion. This area formed part of a Paris, August 1945.  An unarmed crowd captures a German tank "Forbidden Zone", run directly by the German authorities in Brussels and effectively cut off from the rest of France, allowing the resistance to develop with greater independence. In particular the communist party in the mining basin of the Pas-de-Calais entered into active resistance much earlier than the national organisation, many believing that the war would end in a revolution similar to 1917. While the PCF leadership in Paris was attempting to negotiate the legal appearance of Humanité, on the strength of their support for the Hitler-Stalin pact, their comrades in the North were gathering as much of the weaponry abandoned by the fleeing French soldiers as they could.(6)

A group of communist miners, succeeded in organising a mass strike against increased workloads in June 1941, involving 100,000 miners, 85% of the workforce in the region. They held out impressively for 10 days, but eventually the sheer weight of German Army repression forced a return to work. In organising a strike to resist the employers' offensive in the mines, rather as they might have done in times of peace, but coming up against the reality of the Nazi occupation, the local communists concluded that the defeat of the occupying forces was an essential prerequisite for any social progress and that this required armed action. Although they were unhappy with the national line of the party which accepted the German occupation, they had tried to ignore the problem as far as possible. Being so forcibly confronted with the German Army, they realised that they could not duck the issue and so, as the strike went on, one can see that the link between opposition to the occupation and social liberation becoming more evident in their propaganda.(7)

The employers of the region collaborated completely with the Germans and the mine owners gave the police the names of those they considered to be ringleaders.(8) As a result, 450 arrests were made, of whom 270 were deported to concentration camps in Germany and 130 never returned. The repression led many other militants to go into hiding. Emboldened and politically radicalised by the strike, many of these began a campaign of sabotage with the aim of encouraging the local population and sapping the moral of the occupying forces and their collaborationist allies. These militants armed themselves, initially for self-defence, and, from their base of support in the mining communities, started blowing up electricity pylons, derailing trains etc. This led to a need for more explosives and these were obtained by raids on the dynamite stores in the mines, which in turn produced violent confrontations with the security forces. In the North of France, the first attacks on individual German soldiers were in large part motivated by the need to obtain more weapons.

Much ink has been spilt about the wisdom of attacking individual soldiers, but less has been said about the practicalities. The first two attacks in the North turned to farce when the old pistols misfired and the assassination attempts degenerated into fist fights.(9) This inexperience could only be overcome by practice and demonstrates a major practical problem with attentism(10); when the time comes to fight, political correctness is no substitute for experience. The main political outcome of the strike was to provide the French Resistance with its most solid base. The traditional solidarity of the close knit mining communities and the anti-German, anti-Vichy and anti-employer sentiments generated by the strike enabled these urban guerrillas an unparalleled freedom of movement and support networks. In 1942 and 1943 over half the armed attacks and sabotage in France happened in the Nord/Pas-de-Calais.(11)

When the employers are seen as traitors, the class struggle appears patriotic. Overcoming this contradiction requires skilful political work by socialists, stressing the class nature of resistance. In France the reverse happened, as the tactic of the Popular Front played down the class struggle to ensure collaboration with Anglo-American imperialism. By the end of 1942, all of the original leaders of the 1941 miners' strike were either dead, in prison awaiting execution or fled to remote parts where they were not known. This allowed the national leadership of the PCF to impose its
class collaborationist, nationalist policies on newly emerging, inexperienced militants.(12)

A major objection to attacks on German soldiers is that this would hinder the appeal to mutiny or desertion. This argument ignores the fact that mutinous situations and collaboration with erstwhile enemies rarely come when their army is victorious: Russia 1917, Germany 1918, the US in Vietnam. The largest group of German soldiers who changed sides in WW2 were recruited into the Red Army after the battle of Stalingrad.(13) While German soldiers could treat France as a holiday camp, there was little incentive to rebel or even think about it. The insecurity caused by attacks on German soldiers was more likely to produce an atmosphere receptive to anti-fascist propaganda than when they were living the high life in the "City of Light". In the North of France, the tactic of individual assassinations became largely replaced by the derailing of troop trains; why kill or injure one when you can get them 500 at a time? The most famous transfer of allegiance was that of the Paris Police, who had loyally carried out the commands of their Fascist hierarchy, including being responsible for rounding up the Jews of Paris. However, in 1944, with German and Vichy France facing defeat, they saved their bacon by joining the uprising. Less well known, 300 German soldiers also joined the Paris uprising. German-speaking communists in the MOI, an immigrant workers' organisation, published a paper called Soldat im Western, at the same time as other immigrant communists were engaged in armed resistance.(14)

The two tactics, the carrot and the stick, were, I would argue, correctly seen as complementary; the real problem with the MOI approach was the Popular Front politics of that propaganda, not the tactic itself. When seen from the perspective of the MOI, armed attacks on German soldiers take on a different perspective. Many were refugees from the Spanish Civil War, both Spanish Republicans and International Brigade volunteers, others were Jews who had watched their families and neighbours being deported. During 1942 and the first half of 1943, they provided the principal active armed groups in Paris, treated as expendable by the PCF leadership.(15) It is unlikely that these fighters risked their lives for "la France"; a socialist explanation of their motivation is much more plausible and is consistent with the surviving evidence.

The French Trotskyists also had some success in spreading propaganda amongst the German soldiers and sailors in Brest, but were reluctant to take part in the armed struggle, although some, like André Calvès, a Trotskyist from Brest, did join the communist-led armed resistance group, the FTP, long before the half-hearted recognition by the European Secretariat of the Fourth International of the importance of the resistance as a mass movement, as contained in the 1943 "resolution on the partisan movement".(16) This resolution is effectively attentiste, despite its revolutionary rhetoric.(17) Had the French Trotskyists armed themselves earlier, they would have been in a much better position to implement a united front policy with other resistance groups, as well as to defend themselves from Stalinist sectarian aggression.

Donny Gluckstein's formulation of "Imperialist War" and "People's War" is a step forward in the analysis of the Second World War. He is correct to start his history of the Second World War with a discussion of the Spanish Civil War because the political question was the same: should socialists moderate their demands, play down the possibility of socialism and collaborate with an anti-fascist bourgeoisie, or should they argue that workers self-activity is the best way to defeat fascism and try to turn war into revolution. We do not expect the state to defeat the EDL on the streets of Walthamstow, neither should workers have relied on the Anglo-Americans to defeat Fascism in the 1940s. The Allies fought the war in such a way as to ensure that there would not be a revolutionary situation at the end, as there had been at the end of the previous war. Mass aerial bombardment and the insistence of unconditional surrender are examples of this approach.

Leandros Bolaris's description of the situation in Greece shows the importance the Allied governments placed on avoiding any element of socialism in the final settlement and were prepared to divert resources from the fight against Nazi Germany to ensure such an outcome. "Neither Washington nor Berlin" seems to be the correct approach to the imperialist aspects of the war. On the other hand, describing the resistance as part of a "People's War" is useful . It indicates that it was a rebellion seeking social improvements, but recognises that it was a cross class movement involving workers, peasants and elements of the petite-bourgeoisie. There was not the revolutionary leadership to turn this into a revolution, but the fear of such a revolution was still enough to win considerable social reforms.

1 Bolaris, 2013, p.148-149
2 Bolaris, 2013, p.151
3 Revue du Nord, L'Occupation en France et en Belgique 1940-44 , No 2 (hors série), Lille, 1988, p746
4 For more on the national position of the PCF at the start of the occupation: Noguères, Henri, Histoire de la Résistance en France, Laffont, Paris, 1967 ( Volume 1) Courtois, Stéphane, Le PCF dans la Guerre, Editions Ramsay, Paris 1980 Tillon, Charles, On Chantait Rouge, Laffont, Paris, 1977
5 Pannequin, Roger, Ami si tu tombes, Le Sagittaire, Paris, 1976 p90
6 Rémy, La Résistance dans le Nord, Famot, Genève, 1974 p122
7 Cushion, Steve, The 1941 miners' strike in northern France: from a dispute over soap to armed resistance. Socialist History 29, 2006 pp. 41-55
8 Michel, Joël, La mine, Gallimard, Paris, 1993 p84
9 "Carnets de Charles Debarge" Charles Debarge, a miner who became a resistence leader in the Pas-de-Calais, kept a journal up until the last days before his death at the hands of the French police. A copy may be seen in the Musée Municipal de Denain.
10 attentism was the name given to the policy adopted by the Gaullist resistence of waiting until the Allied invasion before moving to the offensive
11 Pierrart, André & Rousseau, Michel, Eusabio Ferrari, Editions Syros, Paris, 1980 p.146
12 Noguères, Henri, Histoire de la Résistance en France, Laffont, Paris, 1967 tome 2 p.229
13 Veyrier, Marcel, La Wehrmacht Rouge, Paris: Juillard, 1970
14 Collin, Claude , "Le Travail Allemand : origines et filiations", Guerres mondiales et conflits contemporains n°230 2008/2
15 Courtois, Stéphane, Peschanski, Denis, Rayski, Adam, Le sang de l’étrange - les immigrés de la MOI dans la Résistance,Paris, Fayard, 1989 Manouchian, Mélinée, Manouchian, Paris, Éditeurs français réunis, 1977
16 Mandel, Ernest, Trotskyists and World War Two, 1976 -http://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/1976/xx/trotsww2.htm Calves, Andre, J’ai essayé de comprendre, Mémoires: 1920-1950, http://andre-calves.org
17 Prager, Rodolphe, L’Internationale dans la guerre 1940-1946, Editions La Brêche, 1981(English translation by John Archer in Revolutionary History http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol1/no3/prager.html

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