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Tim Nelson: Trotskyism during the Second World War

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The Class Truce

RCP Demo
Despite its small size, and many political problems, the Trotskyist movement carried out important activity during the Second World War. The conditions for activity were extremely inhospitable. In mainland Europe, for the majority of the period, fascism dominated either through dictatorships or military occupation. In the West, the conditions of wartime society and the dominance of social democracy, Stalinism and the trade union bureaucracy over the working class movement made revolutionary activity extremely difficult. To begin with, the Trotskyists expected the start of the Second World War to be marked by the same kind of wave of patriotic enthusiasm which greeted the war in 1914. However, Raymond Challinor argues that this was far from the case. As many in the working class had experienced the horrors of the First World War, very few wished to see another one. Furthermore, most Trotskyists in Britain and elsewhere were taken by surprise when the expected crackdown on anti-war organisations did not occur, and they were allowed to continue to operate after war was declared. In fact, anti-war parties in Britain, most notably the Independent Labour Party (ILP), a left wing reformist organisation, but also Trotskyist organisations such as the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) and the Workers International League (WIL); actually grew in membership in the first phase of the war. However, public opinion tended to fluctuate depending upon the ups and downs of the war, and the small size of the anti-war parties and groups meant that there was largely no organised expression to any anti-war feeling. The Labour Party leadership, true to form, was whole-heartedly in favour of the war. There was some internal dissention: Clement Atlee and other Labour leaders were heckled and argued down at regional Labour conferences, and by March 1940 ninety constituency parties had passed anti-war motions. By this point in time, however, the Labour Party was firmly tied into the British state. It had presided over governments in the 1930s which had administered the Empire with the same brutality as the Conservatives or Liberals did. While the party in 1931 had split under Ramsey MacDonald over whether to pursue an openly capitalist solution to the economic crisis, the party had since then largely accepted the Conservative economic policies. By the late 1930s, the Labour leadership was arguing for greater arms spending, and many Labour MPs were calling for war with Germany while Chamberlain was still arguing for appeasement. In 1940, after the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force, the Labour Party entered a coalition government with the Tories and Liberals. No more general elections would be called for the duration of the war, and all three parties signed a “no contest” agreement, where they would not contest seats in by-elections- the incumbent party would run unopposed.

In both the United States and Great Britain the trade union bureaucracy (in the case of the USA, this meant the AFL and the supposedly more militant CIO), signed “no strike” agreements. Pay for workers tended to stagnate, while prices went up and working conditions deteriorated. In Britain, “Production Committees” were set up, where trade union convenors and shop stewards sat down with managers and owners to ensure speed ups of production and discipline workers who failed to comply. In the United States, similar functions were carried out by “Labour Management Committees”. In both countries, the wartime economy meant a far greater role for the state. While the British Labour Party would refer to this as “wartime socialism”, in reality it led neither to better pay and conditions for workers or to greater control for them over their workplace. It instead meant an even more rigid management structure and greater powers for employers; all backed, and usually enforced, by the trade unions, and advocated by purportedly workers’ parties. An example of the increased authoritarianism of the wartime economy in Britain was the Emergency Powers Act, which bound workers to their jobs, and compelled them when required to move from one job to another. Workers in both countries were fined or imprisoned for striking or refusing direction at work. Anti-war activity was increasingly cracked down upon. In 1940, even before the United States joined the war, Congress passed the Smith Act, which prohibited the advocating of refusal of armed duty or the overthrow of the government by force. In Minneapolis in 1943, eighteen members of the Socialist Workers Party were imprisoned under this act. The combination of vastly increased powers for the state, the enforcement of its economic policies on the shop floor by trade unions, and the collaboration of supposedly workers’ parties, meant the chances of growth for a radical working class movement in this period were greatly decreased.

Stalinist Scabs

The Stalinist Communist parties played a thoroughly cynical role in these countries during the war. Their behaviour appeared to prove Max Shachtman’s argument that they were little more than an extension of the Soviet bureaucracy and were only concerned with advancing and defending its interests. Given that the Soviet Union’s policies changed drastically during the war, to the point that it changed sides in the conflict, this led to wild vacillations on the part of Western Communist parties. When the war in Europe first broke out in 1939, the Communist Party of Great Britain was still pursuing its policy of the Popular Front, where it was seeking alliances with “progressive” capitalist parties. This was a result of the Stalinist bureaucracy seeking to form an alliance with the democratic bourgeois states against Nazi Germany. With the Nazi-Soviet pact, this strategy was swiftly dropped. This led to even the General Secretary of the Communist Party at this time, Harry Pollitt, being caught off guard, and dropped in disgrace for pursuing the “patriotic” line. The war was now an imperialist war, and the Allied states should be opposed. The Communist parties essentially called for an end to the war on Hitler’s terms.

This line, of course, changed dramatically once again, after Nazi Germany invaded Russia in June 1941. Raymond Challinor describes the effects of this on Communist Party members:

In 1941: On June 21 at 5:29am, as they slept in their beds, the Second World War was reactionary- it needed to be opposed- but at 6:30am, when the Wehrmacht launched its invasion of the Soviet Union, all suddenly changed: Policies of the British government which had previously been attacked now had to be defended, strikes that had been supported now had to be broken.

The Stalinists now pursued a policy of outright class collaboration. They supported the coalition government, and backed the no contest agreement, to the point that they supported Conservative candidates in election, in some cases active campaigning for them over anti-war candidates put forward by the ILP. Their role on the industrial front, however, was much more important to Western capitalism. In both the United States and Britain, the Stalinists had built a strong cadre of militants within the trade union movement during the 1920s and 1930s. While much smaller than their sister parties in much of Europe, they had through trading on the legacy of the Russian Revolution and at times putting themselves at the head of much of the militant activity which occurred in between the two world wars, attracted to them many of the most class conscious industrial militants and implanted themselves in the trade union movement. They now used this influence to back the war effort. They were central to setting up and supporting the Production Committees and Labour Management Committees, and were the greatest advocates of the speed up campaign. When strikes did occur, the Communist Party would break them- organising back to work campaigns and scabbing operations. This was combined with a vicious campaign of witch-hunting and victimisation of militants, particularly against Trotskyists and other revolutionaries. A leaflet widely distributed by the Communist Party of Great Britain encouraged people to: “Treat a Trotskyist as you would a Nazi”. Strikers and anti-war campaigners were vilified as Hitler’s agents.

The Proletarian Military Policy

One of the most serious problems confronting Trotskyists in countries which were at war with the fascist states was the question of how to relate to workers who, quite rightly, wanted to see fascism defeated. While the Cannonites argued that the actions of the Soviet Union were not imperialist, whether it was allied to German or Anglo-American imperialism they always maintained that for the US and Great Britain this was an imperialist war, and therefore refused to support it. This therefore separated them from the Stalinist parties whose analysis of the imperialist nature of their native bourgeoisie changed with Stalin’s allegiances. However, while Trotskyists recognised that the war was an imperialist war, they were not indifferent to its outcome. Trotsky, well ahead of the rest of the left, especially the Stalinists, recognised early on that a victory for fascism would be catastrophic for the working class. In states such as Germany and Italy and countries which they occupied, the basic rights which workers had wrested from the bourgeoisie were completely stripped away- their unions and parties were banned, the rights to demonstrate and assemble were taken away, socialists and militants were killed and imprisoned. Socialists were of course not indifferent to this, nor should they have been. Therefore, opposition to the imperialism of their own governments was tempered by a desire to see fascism defeated. An extension of this problem was that such desires to see fascism defeated could easily be manipulated by the governments of democratic imperialisms into support for the state. The real benefits for the working class under bourgeois democracy, as opposed to the totalitarian oppression of fascism, coupled with the fact that the democratic capitalist states were confronting the fascists militarily, meant many working class people could become enthusiastic supporters for the war. Even those who were very critical of their own bourgeoisie could understandably believe that the only realistic possibility of defeating fascism was through the armed might provided by British and American imperialism. Many, however, could also be convinced of nationalist arguments in the inherent superiority of Britain and America. The main vehicles for the political expression of attitudes which combined nationalism and the desire to defend democracy and defeat democracy within the working class were the social democratic and Communist parties. While many workers remained loyal to them due to their programmatic commitment to social change and the working class, they also made all of the arguments given above, and argued that workers’ desire to defeat fascism meant they had to support the war effort and the state. The question for Trotskyists therefore was how were they to oppose the imperialism of their own bourgeoisie, and the increased exploitation and oppression of workers as a result of the war, while at the same time work for the defeat of fascism?

In response to these problems Cannon, the SWP and the Fourth International were to develop what was to become known as the “Proletarian Military Policy”. This was ostensibly based on some unfinished articles and letters by Trotsky written just before he was assassinated. In these, Trotsky had argued that revolutionaries should maintain that the defeat of fascism could only be guaranteed if the war was carried out under the leadership of the working class itself. It was Trotsky’s view that the Second World War would bring about the collapse of bourgeois democracy, and the only possible results of this war would either be workers’ revolution or the establishment of authoritarian dictatorships. The victory of the Allies in the war against fascism therefore would not lead to a victory for the working class but only to a different version of authoritarianism unless the workers revolted. The Trotskyists therefore needed to advance policies which recognised the need, and the working class’s desire, to combat fascism, while insisting that this would not be achieved by supporting the bourgeoisie, who had no interest in combating fascism and were only interested in defending and expanding their imperial interests and further exploiting their own working class.

One of the key issues during the war was that of conscription. In both Britain and the United States the state was resorting to mass conscription for the armed forces. It was a major debate among socialists about whether this should be opposed, and if so, how it should be opposed. A similar issue had faced revolutionaries in Europe during the First World War. While expressing sympathy with those who resisted, or avoiding conscription, revolutionary Marxists then had argued against socialists using the tactic of “conscientious objection”, i.e. refusing to be conscripted. Conscientious objectors often faced serious repression, and while Marxists expressed solidarity with them, and certainly refused to join in with the condemnations, they argued that this form of action was ineffective. It relied on individual acts of resistance- one person would have to consciously make a decision to carry out the action and face the repercussions alone- and was unlikely to inspire a mass campaign. When militants carried out this activity they separated themselves from the thousands of conscripted workers. Many who carried out those individual acts of resistance tended to be of a pacifist persuasion, who refused to engage in violence as a matter of personal principle. Anti-imperialist revolutionaries such as Lenin argued that Marxists should join the army with the class and conduct agitation there. If the war began to expose class antagonisms, this would also occur within the military, and it was the role of revolutionaries to be within the army to agitate for and deepen these antagonisms. Lenin went further and argued that the training of thousands of workers in arms could in fact play a crucial role at the time of the revolution. This analysis was proven entirely correct at the end of the First World War, when not only were class antagonisms exposed within the army , but mutinies and resistance by members of the armed forces were central to the ending of the war and the initiation of revolution. Sailors in Kronstadt and Kiel were fundamental to the development of revolutionary situations in Russia and Germany respectively, as were the effective disintegrations of their front lines as troops rebelled and deserted. Soldiers and sailors in Russia provided the shock troops for the revolutionary movement in 1917.

Trotsky and Cannon both expected a revolutionary situation at least on the scale of that in 1917-23 to emerge out of the Second World War, they therefore argued that Lenin and others’ approach to conscription was largely the correct one to apply. There were, however, some key differences. The first was that the attitude towards “pacifism”, by which was generally meant conscientious objection and the dodging of conscription, was very different. Cannon in particular seemed to cross the line between airing strategic differences with pacifists and individual resistance to conscription, and outright denunciation. This seems to have emerged out of a rather confused analogy where Cannon compared revolutionaries’ participation in the army to participation in wage-labour. He argued that a revolutionary would not refuse to work in a factory or elsewhere out of opposition to capitalism, and would instead join the workforce and agitate for struggle- this same approach should be applied to the army. So far this was correct, but he went on to argue that those who individually resisted conscription were essentially betraying the working class by avoiding the violence and allowing others to face it. While this may have been the viewpoint of some conscripted workers, this was hardly the position that revolutionaries should hold. Of course some people, out of suspicion of the system or hatred of violence would refuse to fight for the state. While revolutionaries may have tactical differences with this approach, they would understand the position, and support their right to refuse. One Cannonite, in the SWP organ Socialist Appeal went as far as to compare conscientious objectors to scabs, in that they rejected collective resistance in favour of individualism. Part of this shift in rhetoric could be put down to the Trotskyist movement’s descent into sectarianism. What was previously argued with on the basis of strategic or tactical difference was denounced as betrayal of the working class. However, there were further pressures which led to this- the genuine wish to see the defeat of fascism among workers and socialists meant that time and again Trotskyists, when stating their opposition to the war, were faced with the question of how they would defeat fascism instead. Their reply was that they would do so through a working class revolution which would remove the imperialist bourgeoisie from the leadership in the war against fascism and replace them with the working class. This required them to come up with an alternative programme for the war, rather than simply calling for its end outright, or for the defeat of their own bourgeoisie, as revolutionaries had done during the First World War. This meant that rather than taking unequivocal position against all manifestations of militarism, the SWP instead advanced a policy which not only fudged the issue of conscription, but was also completely impractical, even utopian, for the purposes of agitation among workers and the armed forces.

Cannon argued for what he referred to as the “telescoping” of two tasks. Trotskyists had been arguing that first the workers should overthrow the bourgeois state, and then combat fascism. This, however, did not occur in time, and therefore the two tasks- the workers’ revolution and the fight against fascism- needed to be “telescoped” and carried out simultaneously. Therefore, workers should fight in the war against fascism while simultaneously attempting to bring about the workers’ revolution. The demands of the Trotskyists should reflect that dual approach. Therefore, what was argued for was “trade union control of conscription”. This meant that Trotskyists should support the idea of compulsory military training, but demand that this should be administered by the unions. They should also agitate within the army for the election of officers. The idea was that this would raise the idea that workers should be in the leadership of the war against fascism, as the bourgeoisie could not be trusted- only being concerned with its own imperial interests. Shachtman believed that this policy was confused. He recognised that the Marxist analysis was that in order to wage war against fascism in its own interests, the working class would in fact need to overthrow the bourgeois state. Shachtman had not at this point broken with the Cannonites over the question of whether a revolution would emerge out of the Second World War- he still believed it likely. However, he argued that the Proletarian Military Policy was not the mechanism to achieve this. He pointed out that in previous revolutionary situations such as Russia in 1917, the working class had organised its own military forces entirely independent of the bourgeois state- it had not seized control of the already existing imperialist army. However, the policy advocated by the Cannonites, which was to demand the state hand over compulsory military training to the control of the unions, and call for the bourgeois state to fund this, was something entirely different. It suggested that reforms to the already existing bourgeois army was possible and that the granting of these demands by the state would alter the nature of the war. Furthermore, this led the Cannonites to cease their opposition to conscription and other manifestations of militarism, as their policy was instead to argue for some form of “proletarianisation” of them rather than opposition.

Shachtman recognised a crucial difference when it came to war policy. He pointed out that Cannon and his followers were advancing the Proletarian Military Policy primarily as an agitational slogan, as opposed to one of propaganda. He made the comparison with the policies and slogans of the Bolsheviks during the First World War. The Bolsheviks raised the slogan “turn the imperialist war into a civil war”. This according to Shachtman, and in fact to Trotsky before he died, was not a slogan which attracted mass support. Its intention was to attract anti-war militants to the Bolsheviks, and raise the level of their own members’ politics. In this sense it was a propagandist slogan, as its primary role was educational to already existing militants rather than a slogan aimed at generating mass activity, which would have made it agitational. The slogans “Peace, Land and Bread” and “All Power to the Soviets” performed this latter role. For Shachtman, the problem with the Proletarian Military Policy was that it was being advanced by the Cannonites as an agitational slogan. The working class was not yet convinced of the need for a workers’ army or a revolutionary government, and therefore advancing slogans such as trade union-controlled military training camps would just seem fantastic. Agitational slogans should have been aimed at exposing imperialism, opposing militarism, combating fascism and confronting exploitation on the home front. Propaganda slogans should be aimed at posing alternative strategies for fighting fascism under a workers’ government. By treating the revolution as a short-term prospect Cannon and others were advancing slogans which were simply not possible in the immediate future, and compromises aimed at making these policies “more practical” simply led them down the route of advocating measures, such as the transformation of the already existing bourgeois army into a workers’ army, which would have been impossible even in an advanced revolutionary situation.

The British Trotskyists

The Trotskyist movement in Britain was even smaller and more divided than that in the United States. By 1938 there were four small Trotskyist organisations: The Revolutionary Socialist League ; the Militant, which conducted entryist work inside the Labour Party; the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a Scottish group; and the Workers International League, a recent split from the Militant. The latter included in its leadership Jock Haston, Ted Grant and Gerry Healy. When Cannon visited Britain in 1938 to encourage unity in advance of the Fourth International’s founding conference the former three merged, adopting the name of the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL). The Workers International League (WIL) remained separate, and as a result was denounced for sectarianism and cliquishness at the Fourth International’s conference. The RSL entered the war with roughly one hundred and fifty members, the WIL around thirty. While both were obviously small, the RSL at the beginning of the war seemed to be in a much stronger position with its greater size, the support of Cannon and its affiliation to the Fourth International. There were, however, some problems which made this position rather unstable. Firstly, although now united in one organisation, the RSL remained faction-ridden as a rule, with a lack of shared perspective. It also pursued a strategy of entryism into the Labour Party. This was from being an inherently mistaken strategy. Many revolutionary groups have benefited from working within mass social democratic and other reformist parties. Particularly in the case of Britain, where the Labour Party’s dominance over the working class movement meant it was often the organisation where many of the most class conscious workers could be found. Trotsky advocated such a tactic in his writings on the “French Turn” that smaller groups could benefit from entry into reformist organisations. While it could be argued that those workers who joined the Stalinist Communist parties may in fact be more advanced in terms of class, and in some cases revolutionary, consciousness; the monolithic and authoritarian nature of those parties’ internal regimes, coupled with their implacable hostility to Trotskyism, made entry into them pointless. It was based on an extension of the analysis that the radicalisation of workers would occur very quickly, and given the mass working class parties were bureaucratised and reformist, they would not be able to provide the necessary leadership. The role of revolutionaries was to position themselves in anticipation of the inevitable radicalisation in order to be ready to provide that leadership. This theory was flawed, but it was in fact often the case that the best place in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s to find radicalised workers was the Labour Party, and a small organisation such as the RSL could potentially sustain itself as a result of entry work. However, there would be a change in the internal dynamics of the Labour Party during the Second World War which would wrong foot the RSL. Due to the “no contest” agreement, where Labour, the Liberals and the Conservatives agreed not to stand against each other in elections, Constituency Labour parties and other grassroots Labour organisations in which entryist groups would tend to direct their activity lay relatively dormant. Official Labour involvement in anti-war and industrial militancy was certainly not permitted, and this meant the RSL became increasingly isolated.

More importantly, however, the RSL made a number of political errors which meant that it was less able to take advantage of what militant activity there was during the war. Interestingly, this was in part down to their less enthusiastic attitude towards the Proletarian Military Policy. The majority of the RSL disagreed with the policy, and wanted to take a more outright anti-militarist line. The WIL, despite its lack of affiliation to the Fourth International, supported the policy. While there were definite problems with it, the WIL’s acceptance of it meant they took a much more pro-active stance when it came to a key issue facing the British working class in the early stages of the war- that of air raid shelters during the Blitz. The RSL position was to oppose the building of air raid shelters as “imperialist war preparations”, while the WIL position was to demand better shelters with greater facilities for working class people. At the beginning of the German bombing campaign, the British state was grossly underprepared when it came to air raid shelters for the working class. There were not enough shelters for everyone, and those that were available were poorly built and dangerous, with a lack of proper facilities. In London to begin with underground stations were closed off. An illegal campaign began where working class people would break into the stations in order to gain shelter, in which the WIL were heavily involved. This campaign began to take the form of mass self-activity as people began to spontaneously organise themselves to run these shelters independently of the state. Some shelters began to print their own bulletins and magazines, and a London-wide network, the London Underground Station and Shelterer’s Committee was founded in November 1940, with Trotskyists and Communists (the Stalinists, due to the Nazi-Soviet Pact, were still anti-war at this time) in the leadership. This network helped form local self-governing committees for shelterers. Throughout the country in areas affected by the bombing campaign, a movement developed demanding better shelters developed. . These movements largely grew without the involvement of the official Labour Party or the trade union bureaucracy, which was mainly interested in supporting the government. Leadership was largely formed spontaneously out of those most active in the struggle, although it often included Independent Labour Party members, Communistsm anarchists and in some cases members of the WIL. Such a movement, involving self-organised activity of the working class was of vital importance for a revolutionary organisation to be involved in. The RSL’s initial sectarian position towards it and the WIL’s early enthusiastic involvement left the former weaker and the latter stronger. Although with the increased authoritarian nature of the state, the class collaborationist activities of the Labour and Communist parties and the official trade union movement, and the small size of revolutionary organisations, the chances for revolutionary activity were low during the war; there were opportunities for Trotskyists within the movement. When there was working class activity in this time it tended to be more radical, with self-organisation and independence from the official labour movement being a necessity, and the consequences of provoking employers and the state being much greater. The ILP, the WIL and anarchists all organised within the armed forces. The ILP Forces Group produced a bulletin and held meetings, while a group of anarchists produced a publication called the War Commentary. A number of soldiers were disciplined for involvement in these groups, and anti-war feeling among the ranks became increasingly common. The most important working class activity at this time however, was the growth of an unofficial strike movement. These strikes, which increased in size and militancy towards the end of the war, were a response to frozen pay and worsened conditions in the vast majority of workplaces. From 1941 to the end of the war there were miners’ strikes, shipyard workers on the Clyde and in Barrow struck in 1942, in 1943 there was a 100,000 strong apprentices strike in Yorkshire, Tyneside and the Clyde. In response to this the WIL, alongside the ILP and anarchist groups formed the Militant Workers Federation, which provided a network of support and solidarity for striking workers, and was by necessity completely independent of the official labour movement.

Due to their more active involvement in the working class movement during the war the WIL grew, while the RSL shrunk. By 1943 the WIL had around three hundred members, the RSL roughly twenty. Despite this the RSL remained the official British section of the Fourth International. To rectify this, and to recognise that the WIL had more faithfully followed the International’s line during the war, a unity conference was called with delegates from the WIL, the RSL and some splits from the latter. The vast majority of delegates were WIL members, and the new organisation which was formed, the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) adopted the WIL’s positions almost entirely, and also its leadership. While due to its refusal to join the RSL originally the WIL had been denied affiliation to the Fourth International, they still considered themselves members of it in spirit. While the RSL had opposed the Proletarian Military Policy and had even expelled a faction, the Trotskyist Opposition around Hilda Lane and John Lawrence, which had supported the policy; the WIL supported it. The newly formed RCP included the Trotskyist Opposition, and with theirs and the WIL’s support adopted the Proletarian Military Policy. Despite the seeming unity brought about by the formation of the RCP, the party remained deeply factionalised. The unity had largely been imposed from the outside by the secretariat of the Fourth International, and therefore had the makings of a stitch-up from above which papered over political differences rather than resolved them. The man sent by the secretariat to encourage unity was James P Cannon’s supporter, Sam Gordon. There were at that time three factions either within the RSL or recently split from it. In the WIL, the leadership around Jock Haston was largely working class in background and practical in its political outlook. There was, however, a minority tendency around Gerry Healy, which had few consistent positions except that Healy should be in charge. Sam Gordon brought together John Lawrence and Gerry Healy and backed them in his favourites in the RCP leadership. After the war, Jock Haston and others in the leadership began to challenge the majority position in the Fourth International that a workers’ revolution was imminent. Healy wholly supported the idea and argued that since newly radicalised workers would inevitably flock to the Labour Party, the RCP should conduct entry work. Aside from the rights and wrongs of both sides of the debate, the Fourth International secretariat ruled that the group around Healy- a minority, but a minority that agreed with Cannon- should be free to conduct entry work independent of party discipline. This highhanded ruling and the general poisonous internal atmosphere generated by Healy in the party, eventually led Haston and many others to simply walk away. Healy was to emerge from this period as the pre-eminent leader of British Trotskyism, as a direct result of the Cannonites’ meddling. This was never going to be a good thing. Haston’s resignation letter raised serious questions as to the political direction of the RCP and the Fourth International:

e have no right to claim political and organisational authority as the international leadership of the world proletariat. On the basis of our experiences over the past 10 or 15 years I consider we must adopt a more modest title, perspective and role. Instead of continuing with the pretence that we are a healthy and virile ideological leadership wielding authority over 35 sections. I believe it is time to squarely face up to the fact that the International has not provided the leadership and has no reasonable authority to wield an organisational discipline over its few members.

It was not simply the Cannonites’ disastrous intervention in the factional squabbles in Britain which meant that many of the gains made by the WIL during the war were squandered. The fact remained that, despite excellent activity which was rewarded with modest growth, the Trotskyist movement in Britain remained tidy. Despite playing a cretinous role in the class struggle during the war, the CPGB gained a peak sixty thousand members. This growth was referred to as the “Stalingrad levy” and was based almost entirely on people being impressed by the Soviet Union’s victories over Nazi-Germany, and the Communist Party’s support for the war effort. The main beneficiary from the war was the Labour Party however, which won the 1945 election by landslide. The Labour Party was promising the working class a continuation of full employment and nationalisation in peace time. Coming out of the war the British working class seemed more organised, with a united sense of purpose, than possibly it had ever been before. The state’s reliance on the official labour movement during the war meant that it was firmly established and secure within society. The gains made- nationalisation, full employment, the welfare state- were real benefits for the class, and the defence and extension of these gains would be central issues for decades to come. The growth of independent working class militancy during the war would continue after it. While much of this new atmosphere would be expressed through the traditional workers’ parties and official trade union movement, there was clearly real potential for mass, radical working class activity. How the Trotskyist movement responded to this would have serious consequences for if for years to come.

The European Resistance Movements

While the conditions for revolutionary activity during the Second World War in Britain and America were very bad, in countries occupied by the fascist states they were dire. The fascist occupation ensured that all possibilities for open political activity which were granted by bourgeois democracy- independent trade unions, workers’ parties, free elections, freedom of press- were closed down. The fascists installed repressive regimes under which the working class in particular was subjected to brutal repression. The most severe repression was of course reserved for ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQ people and disabled people; millions of whom were murdered in concentration camps or forced into slave labour. Political dissidents ranging all the way from anti-Nazi patriots and liberals to Communists, socialists and revolutionaries were also persecuted. With their basic political freedoms taken away workers were subjected to pay freezes, inflation, unemployment and increased hours, and many workers were deported to Germany to operate industry there. As a result of all this, resistance movements developed in opposition to fascist occupation, often taking the form of armed struggle against the invaders. This may have taken the form of acts of terrorism and sabotage, and in some cases partisan warfare. Italy, which had an indigenous fascist state rather than one imposed by invasion, also had an anti-fascist partisan movement. Despite the bans on strikes and trade union activity, there were some examples of industrial struggle against fascism, most notably in Italy and Greece, where mass strike movements virtually toppled or drove out the fascists in those countries, but also in France and elsewhere.

How Trotskyists should relate to these movements was a central question for those in mainland Europe. The nature of fascist repression in occupied countries meant that it was not only the working class who had an interest in its defeat- many members of the nationalist bourgeoisie, such as the Gaulists in France or the monarchists in Greece and Yugoslavia were also involved in the struggle. The Stalinist Communist parties were almost universally one of the more dominant components in the resistance movements. Given that Trotskyists considered the war an imperialist war, to what extent they should take part in the resistance was a key question, as was how they should relate to the dominant forces- primarily nationalism and Stalinism- within it. In the resistance movements the Stalinist parties pursued the policy of a national front against fascism, where they attempted to form alliances with bourgeois parties and nationalists. They also attempted to ensure that wherever possible these movements would gain the support of Anglo-American imperialism. In this, they were following the line from Moscow, where Stalin wished to ensure his allies’ interests were supported and maintained by the Communist parties. This meant that movements should be curtailed from heading in any kind of radical direction, private property should be defended and demands for social change should be held back. It also meant that in many cases Communist propaganda and rhetoric in occupied countries at this time was violently nationalistic and anti-German, making no distinction between working class Germans in the military, many of whom were conscripts, and Nazi officers. Many of the nationalists involved in anti-fascist resistance movements were linked to supporters of the old regime who had been displaced by the fascist invasions and aimed primarily at a restoration of the status quo. The Metaxites in Greece were aiming at a restoration of the monarchy and the dictatorship which had supported it. The Greek Communist Party, the KKE, sought to hold back any radicalisation of the mass movement in Greece, and maintain an alliance with the Metaxites, who were backed by British imperialism. In France, the Gaullists supported the Free French Army headed by General De Gaulle, whose primary interest was the defence of the French Empire and the defence of capitalism after the Nazis were defeated. For them, the support of Anglo-American imperialism was central.

The Trotskyist movement in Europe was extremely small and isolated even before fascism dominated Europe. Its cadre was decimated as a result of the repression of by the fascists, and the authoritarian conditions under which they worked isolated them even further. The Fourth International’s position was that although it was true that the leadership of the resistance movement was dominated by bourgeois nationalists and Stalinists, and through them was heavily influenced by Anglo-American imperialism; the role of revolutionaries was to expose their weaknesses, and this could not be achieved simply by abstaining from the mass movements. The majority of people who took part in or supported the movement were not doing so out of love of the old regimes or as a result of orders from the Kremlin, or even out of petty nationalism; but rather because of the awful conditions and brutal oppression imposed by fascism. This was as true in imperial countries under occupation such as France, as it was for weaker nations. The war for the resistance fighters was not an imperialist war but a movement for liberation from fascism, and therefore had to be completely supported. Given that Trotskyists believed that the Second World War was likely to end in revolution, the role of revolutionaries was to support these movements while maintaining independent positions from those of the Stalinists and the nationalists, and try to agitate for mass working class activity to push them in a revolutionary direction. The Trotskyists across Europe uniformly failed to do this, or in fact to have any real impact on the resistance movement at all. This was not necessarily because of any failure of line, but rather was a result of their tiny size and lack of implantation in the working class.

The best example of how this analysis worked in practice was that of France. Before the German invasion the Workers International Party (POI) was the Fourth International’s largest national section in Europe. It was, however, experiencing problems even before the invasion. It had entered the centrist Workers and Peasants Party (PSOP), which had undergone a split and thrown them into crisis. After the invasion, under illegal conditions, four small Trotskyist groups emerged. The largest was the POI, however it was smaller than it had been, only three or four hundred, and had lost almost all of its experienced cadre- virtually all of them were under twenty five years of age. The smaller groups were the Internationalist Communist Committee for the Construction of the Fourth International (CCI), a propaganda group; Class Struggle, which had split from the rest in 1940; and the October group. Like most Trotskyists at this time, the French groups put the idea of a revolution resulting from the war at the centre of their analysis, and expected revolution in Germany. They therefore placed fraternisation with German working class soldiers, as opposed to targeting them with violence, at the forefront of their activity. The idea of fraternisation was undoubtedly correct in that it aimed at workers’ solidarity, and stands in contrast to the French Stalinists’ slogan “let everyone kill a Hun”. However, this strategy had a limited impact, in part due to the vast overestimation of the prospects for a German revolution and mutiny in the army, but more generally because of the limited size of the Trotskyist groups. The POI and others supported the partisan movement as an essentially spontaneous uprising against the fascist occupation, mostly based on rural areas. However, they rejected the tactic, employed throughout much of the resistance, of individual acts of terrorism against the occupying forces. This was in part due to their refusal to accept the nationalist arguments which portrayed the German working class soldiers as the real enemy, but also due to the Marxist perspective that individual acts of terrorism do nothing to mobilise the mass of the population, and instead put the task of liberation into the hands of a minority. The French Stalinist Communist Party, the PCF, on the other hand, put terrorist activity against the occupying army at the centre of their activity, as did the Gaullists. Perhaps some of the most important activity the French Trotskyists carried out was in the workplace struggle. Conditions for workers in the occupied north and in Vichy France were dire and some of the first struggles, such as a miners’ strike in 1941, were based on economic demands. Despite the ban on strikes, and the state’s support for the employers, there were a number of strike actions during the occupation. Trotskyists submerged themselves into the industrial struggle, seeing it as key to developing the resistance along class, as opposed to national lines. However, even here the PCF was overwhelmingly more effective. Due to the ban on independent unions the Trotskyists largely neglected union organisation, while the PCF built the CGT union federation under conditions of illegality.

As referred to above, the Stalinist policy from 1941 onwards was one of class collaboration and support for Anglo-American imperialism in Western Europe. In most countries it pursued the policy of the national front, and unity with the nationalists and the old regime. The one exception here was the partisan struggle in Yugoslavia where the Communist-led forces under Tito fought a three way war against the fascist occupation and the British backed monarchists. The reasons for this exception are complex. Yugoslavia was on a fault line where Soviet and British interests clashed, and until a 1944 meeting between Churchill and Stalin in Moscow, both were competing for control there. The Titoist movement also exercised a degree of independence from Moscow and was willing to reject the Kremlin’s instructions. However, in the vast majority of countries with resistance movements, the Stalinists followed the national front policy and rejected class-based resistance.They also, therefore, made concessions to petty nationalism and racism in much of their propaganda and agitation, declaring the war an anti-German rather than an anti-fascist struggle. This suited the class-collaborationist approach of the Stalinists, and mirrored the rhetoric of Russia itself- Stalin had announced the war against German a “Great Patriotic War” and appealed to Greater Russian Chauvinism. Despite, and it must be said partly because of this approach, the Stalinist Communist parties in the occupied countries gained a great amount of support during and after the war. The members’ activity during the resistance was heroic in many ways, both the armed struggle and general political activity in clandestinely held huge risks for those who participated. The Stalinists’ role in leading these struggles put them in prime position to make serious gains when the war was over, as did the Soviet Union’s victories over Nazi Germany.

The Trotskyist method in the resistance movement- agitation in factories, critical but unconditional support for the armed resistance, fraternisation with occupying soldiers, refusal to unite with the bourgeoisie or capitulate to nationalism- were absolutely correct in the circumstances. However, manu of the policies were carried out in anticipation of a European revolution which did not happen. Much like in Britain, although under dramatically different circumstances, the European Trotskyist movement, rather than concentrating on making limited gains and consolidating them within the framework of a movement and events they could not hope to control; instead based its manoeuvres on the idea that there would be a dramatic upturn in struggle that would sweep away the “traditional workers’ parties” and place a revolutionary organisation in the leadership. The successes during the war, often based on principled activity, only served to mask the deeper problems with their analysis. However, whatever political problems or mistakes in practice there were within the Trotskyist movement at this time, the main problem it faced was that it was simply too small to shape or even influence events. Despite having a position of supporting the resistance in many cases this meant little more than circulating propaganda in its support. The Trotskyists certainly weren’t in a position to challenge the nationalists or Stalinists for leadership in these struggles. This small size and relative powerlessness conflicted sharply with the analysis which suggested an inevitable radicalisation of the working class and the growth of revolutionary politics.


The Trotskyist movement carried out some heroic activity during the Second World War, in some of the worst conditions imaginable. However, overall it was to emerge from the war weaker, not stronger. Its cadres in Europe had been extinguished in many cases, and those that remained were small and isolated. The “traditional” workers’ parties, the social democrats and Stalinist Communists, on the other hand, grew massively. The Communist parties were, due to their larger size and level of organisation, in a much better position to organise the resistance movements in occupied countries. It is also not unusual that in periods of radicalisation and newly gained liberty that workers return to their traditional parties. In Britain and the United States, while the Trotskyists had been able to involve themselves in some important working class activity, their growth had been at best modest. The Trotskyist movement in both these countries remained comprised of sects. The SWP and the WIL had based their activity on the Proletarian Military Policy, which was based on the expectation that a workers’ revolution would emerge out of the war. The spontaneous and radical nature of the activity during the war meant that this wrong-headed perspective actually placed the Trotskyists in a good position. How this perspective would help them in the changed circumstances towards the end of the war remained to be seen.