From Socialist Worker Review, No.77, June 1985, p.27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
MARX was fond of saying history repeats itself, first as a tragedy, then as a farce. The Second World War, resulting in the loss of 56 million human lives, the wholesale destruction of cities and the reduction of countless people to semi-destitution, was a tragedy of unparalleled international dimensions.
Forty years later, the celebrations to commemorate the end of the war proved to be, with their bickerings and Bitburgs, not only a farce but an insult to the fallen.
Why were so many prepared to die? What did they think they were fighting for? In the German capital a Russian woman soldier scrawled on a shattered wall of the Reichstag: ‘We have fought from Stalingrad to Berlin to put an end to war.’ Similar sentiments were expressed by a young British tank commander named Edward Thompson, a veteran of the Italian campaign. This is how he described the future as foreseen by himself and his fellow soldiers:
‘All of Europe, from the Urals to the Atlantic, was moved by a consensual expectation of a democratic and peaceful postwar continent. We supposed that the old gangs of money, privilege and militarism would go. Most of us supposed that the nations of west and southern Europe would conduct their anti-fascist alliance towards some form of socialism.’
Alas, despite all the fervent wishes, the glittering tomorrow never came. The real tragedy of 1945 was that the new society, desired almost universally by working people everywhere, was so nearly in their grasp and yet so far away. Never before had the various ruling classes been so vulnerable, so isolated. Never before had the working classes been so well armed and so angry. A united states of socialist Europe could have been built. The big problem was that neither communist nor socialist parties wished to see fundamental change.
Yet, as the example of Germany reveals, the plight of the capitalists was parlous. All the German ruling class had been Hitler’s accomplices: big business financed the Nazi Party’s rise to power, benefited from Hitler’s policy of territorial aggrandisement, used slave labour in their wartime factories until the workers dropped, and then despatched them to the gas chambers. Likewise in occupied Europe, the vast majority of politicians and businessmen collaborated; resistance came overwhelmingly from the working class.
Even in countries like Britain, almost everybody wanted to see drastic changes. In the course of the war, the British public’s attitude altered, as its experiences led it to view the 1930s in a new, more critical manner. The idea that, to quote Vera Lynn’s song, ‘It will be a lovely day tomorrow’ was essential for the war effort. The creation of the welfare state after 1945 needs to be seen against the background of a determined and well-organised working class menacing the existing order.
As the years passed, however, the danger receded, and those reforms have gradually been whittled away. The much-vaunted Beveridge Plan, abolishing the dreaded Means Test and providing security, as a right, to all from the cradle to the grave has vanished.
The NHS, in its original conception as a free and comprehensive health service, has become a thing of the past. And then, of course, the promise never again to allow human beings to suffer the hopelessness and degradation of being thrown on the industrial scrapheap has been dishonoured.
Now Thatcher rules in the spirit of the 1930s rather than that of 1945.
How did we get into the present mess? Why did the optimism of 1945 evaporate?
An imperialist peace followed an imperialist war, not really fought against fascism but rather over spheres of influence, raw materials, markets. At international conferences politicians showed scant regard for the wishes of subject nationalities; workers wanting to secure some control over their own lives were unceremoniously suppressed.
In the East Stalin imposed ruthless dictatorships in each country, weeding out militants and other undesirables. Significantly, in both halves of Europe the rulers relied on civil and military personnel with disreputable Nazi pasts.
Despite the savagery with which the German Sixth Army had swept through Russia, its commander – General von Paulus – became a good comrade, a Kremlin-appointed spokesman for the ‘Free Germans’. Similarly, in Italy the Americans and British appointed fascist General Badoglio, responsible for using poison gas during Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, to run the Allied ‘liberated’ Italy.
France provides a good illustration of what happened in that honeymoon period of East/West co-operation. The French Communist Party joined a coalition government led by the reactionary General de Gaulle.
The British Communist Party played an equally reactionary tune in 1945. After some hesitation, the Labour leaders decided to break the political truce. They went on to fight the general election as an independent party, trouncing the Tories and winning a large Labour parliamentary majority. This, at the time, was much to the left of the Communist Party, which wanted to see a coalition government, including Conservatives and Liberals.
When at the 1946 Labour Party conference the Communist Party applied for affiliation, Herbert Morrison, for the NEC, quite rightly pointed out that the CP’s position, had it been adopted, would have meant ditching what was to be the first majority Labour government.
In those days, the Communist Party was immeasurably stronger than it is now. Far from finding a need to distance itself from Moscow, the CP basked in the Soviet Union’s prestige, proud of the unparalleled progress made there. But as the years passed by, that image became tarnished; not merely were there the revolts against Russian rule – East Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Poland 1980 – but also the split with China and the revelations of the 20th Party Congress. As a result, the Communist Parties in Europe would be unable to play again the counter-revolutionary role as effectively as in 1945.
Likewise Labour reformism has lost, over the years, much of its dynamism and popular appeal. Though not fundamentally changing the social system, the Attlee government nevertheless introduced the most important improvements ever enacted by a parliamentary administration in the general conditions of working people. But subsequent Labour governments have, in most areas, nibbled away at the post-1945 achievements.
The decline of traditional organisations (Labour and Communist) has led some individuals, such as Professors Hobsbawn and Stuart Hall, to assume they are a symptom of the decline of the working class itself, and have gone on to propose some desperately right-wing remedies. But what these individuals overlook is the existence of a political tendency – Trotskyism – that has grown greatly since 1945.
Turn to its publications at the end of the Second World War and you will find, broadly speaking, the same ppints that I have made in this article, namely, first, that the imperialist horse-dealings at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences would not provide the basis for an enduring peace; secondly, that Stalinism and reformism would play a counter-revolutionary role; and, third, that the working class itself, through its own struggles, was the only force that could bring socialism.
The tiny Trotskyist organisation in 1945 had a membership of less than a tenth of the SWP today and probably less than a twenty-fifth who consider themselves now to be Trotskyists. Simultaneously, in that period the amount of Trotskyist literature has increased both quantitatively and qualitatively while penetration into the class, involvement in class struggles, has also greatly expanded.
In 1938, Trotsky had prophetically written: ‘The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.’ Seven years later people everywhere yearned for peace and prosperity.
Yet, despite the weakened and discredited state of the various ruling classes, no serious attempt was made to overthrow the existing system. 1945 was a missed opportunity – next time it comes it must not be missed again.
Last updated: 28 March 2010