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Marxism and the Second World War

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Fifty million people died in World War Two. Now anniversary events are taking place across the world to mark the beginning of the slaughter. This article, originally published in the British socialist paper Workers Power in 1989 explores some of the myths that we are taught about the war.

From the Fleet Street supplements and the BBC you can find out what fashions were like, what homes cost and who the stars were in "Those Dancing Years" (The Daily Mail).

The biggest carnage in human history exudes a golden glow in the memory of the British bosses for one good reason. They duped the workers into fighting a bosses' war and came out of that war with their profit system intact.

They did this by convincing the workers and soldiers that it was a war to defend democracy, a war against fascism, a "people's war".

It was a lie then and it is a lie now.

The Second World War was fought, like the first, over the redivision of the world between the colonial empires of a few imperialist countries. Democracy was not an issue between the bosses of the warring states.

In the colonies and semi-colonies that it went to war to "save", Britain had never offered a shred of democracy to the millions of workers and peasants. 'They were ruled from Whitehall and their subjection justified by a racism every bit as virulent as Nazi Germany's antisemitism.

Poland, which Britain went to war to "save", had never been a democracy. At the time of the Stalin-Hitler pact it was one of the most repressive dictatorships in the world.

Neither was Britain choosy about its allies. They included the South African apartheid state, Stalin's totalitarian dictatorship and by the end of the war Salazar’s fascist Portugal. In the run up to the war Britain courted the military dictatorships of both Greece and Turkey. Throughout the 1930s it bolstered Nazi Germany as a bulwark against the USSR. And it played Hitler off against French imperialism.

At home, once war broke out, democracy went out of the window. Strikes were banned, strikers jailed, censorship imposed, identity cards introduced and the right to change jobs removed for those in essential industries. You could vote, but only for the Party which held the seat already. The coalition government suspended elections and signed a mutual non-aggression pact for by elections.

British imperialism was so concerned to reconquer its North African semi-colonies that it allowed the USSR to fight fascism alone in Europe until 1943. Needless to say its victories did not bring democracy to Egypt, Libya etc. They brought renewed dictatorial puppet governments.

At the end of the war Britain and the USA feared workers revolution so much in Germany and Japan that they immediately installed Hirohito as emperor and scores of top Nazis as post-war administrators of the West German state.

Against the Greek workers and peasants, who had liberated themselves from fascism Britain imposed the rule of the pro-fascist generals.

The real Second World War, stripped of the myths generated by the Tories, Labour and so-called Communist Parties, bears no resemblance to a war for democracy.

After crushing the workers struggles which erupted after World War Two Stalinism and imperialism hand in hand have presided over an imperialist "peace" which has seen a further thirty million killed in regional wars.

As the media regales us with details of "utility clothing" and Glenn Millers greatest hits, Marxists mourn and remember the workers whose lives and futures were squandered by the British bosses.

As the world order erected on the bones of millions begins to crumble it presents the opportunity to avenge them. The generation the bosses have earmarked to fight World War Three can and must make the 1990s a decade of workers' revolution instead.

Hitler’s megalomania, Chamberlain’s weakness, the rise of dictators and political extremism, the clash of national characters, and the unfair settlement of World War One. These are the popular explanations of World War Two being churned out by every commemorative TV programme, book or exhibition.

Every one, of them avoids the question of class, of the basic economic interests which drove the world to war in 1939. Only Marxism dares to explain the causes of the Second World War scientifically. That is because only Marxism proceeds from the fundamental economic and class questions which underlay the political and military actions of millions of Individuals in 1939-45.

The nineteenth century general, Clausewitz came nearer to the truth that most of today's pundits when he explained that "war Is the continuation of politics by other means.

The Second World War was a continuation of the inter-imperialist rivalry which had wracked century from its outset.

Germany, Japan and the USA the latest and economically strongest Imperialist countries. Britain and France had ruled the roost before 1914 and, due to their military supremacy, installed themselves as leading political powers after the end of the First World War.

As the imperialist ruling classes had gone to war in 1914 because after the 1890s the whole world had been divided into colonial or semi-colonial spheres of influence. After this new colonial conquests were impossible without the forcible re-division of the world.

Capitalism had created an International economy which constantly strained against the fetters imposed by national boundaries. As long as the working class does not resolve this contradiction by tearing down the borders through international revolution the capitalists will seek to resolve it through wars of conquest and expansion.

The 1914-18 war not only failed to solve this contradiction, but intensified it. The result was two decades of stagnation for capitalism; the contraction of the world economy and its fragmentation into trading blocs protected by the major Imperialist powers (the British and French empires, Latin America for the USA).

The growing modern imperialisms were compelled to seek a violent way out of this stagnation. This set the terms of the alliances which fought the Second World War. Whereas Germany and Japan opted to carve out large land empires and protected trading blocs of their own, the US economy's appetite for markets and raw materials could not be satisfied in this way.

The interests of US Imperialism dictated that it put an end to the world of protected trading blocs and economic regionalisation and create an open world market in which the USA could predominate. This necessitated in the first place a war to prevent Germany and Japan from carving out their new empires. In the second place it meant destroying the old colonial empires of Britain and France.