Reason in revolt: Why we fight capitalism even when it is 'progressive'

by Sean Matgamna

On D-Day, 6 June 1944, an armada of ships and planes launched British, American and Commonwealth soldiers into a full-scale invasion of Hitler-ruled mainland Europe. The official celebration of the 60th anniversary of that momentous event cannot but arouse mixed feelings in socialists.

We watch George W Bush and his junior partner Tony Blair, surrounded by the leaders of bourgeois-democratic Europe, rolling out the clichés and conventional bourgeois-democratic pieties. Yet, though pluto-democratic capitalism rules Europe still, it is a fact that those armies did in 1944-5 liberate Europe.

Every bourgeois-democratic legal right which today's labour movements utilise in their work, and without which they could not exist except as small persecuted underground movements, was restored by the victories of those armies, aided by risings which the invasion triggered in Hitler-controlled Europe.

The struggles of the working class and others against their native reactionaries in the years after 1944-5 secured the bourgeois democratic rights that exist now. But the starting point for all that was the assault on Nazi power launched on 6 June 1944.

Before then German fascist armies controlled most of Europe, excepting only Sweden to the north, Switzerland in the middle, the offshore islands of Britain and Ireland to the west, and Spain and Portugal, where "native" fascist regimes ruled. Stalin's totalitarian armies, advancing from the East, controlled the rest of it.

Everywhere in that Europe, excepting only the four bourgeois-democratic states, the old labour movements had been broken up, outlawed and destroyed, their militants conscripted into armies or labour armies, jailed, or killed.

On the day Stalin's assassin struck Trotsky down, 20 August 1940, the work of a century of building labour movements in Europe had been all but wiped out.

Only underground fragments of it survived. Some of those did work which international socialists have a right to be proud of, like the strike by Marxist-led Amsterdam dock workers in protest at the rounding up for deportation of Holland's Jews, and the publication in France of the underground Marxist paper Arbeiter und Soldat, which French Trotskyists and German soldiers produced for the workers in uniform of the German army. (More than a dozen French civilians and German soldiers, lost their lives in that work.)

The strongest underground fragments of the labour movement were Stalinist mutations, armed with the programme of creating their own totalitarian states.

The states whose armies fought their way up the Normandy beaches on 6 June 1944 had done terrible things in the British colonies; in the USA, where tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were rounded up and put into internment camps; and in the bombing, before and after D-Day, of German civilians. Fourteen months after 6 June 1944 they would atom-bomb the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Even so, against the Nazi rulers of Europe and the militarist rulers of Japan, they carried bourgeois democracy on their bayonets. They promised liberation to the peoples of Europe, they were greeted as liberators, and ultimately it was liberators they proved to have been.

Inside ten months they had begun to restore to the peoples of Europe democratic and social rights and freedoms which it had taken the more advanced of them decades and centuries of working-class and popular struggles to win. In Japan, the conquering US army - the army of the same criminal government that had atom-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki - carried through a bourgeois revolution from above - land reform, and the installation of a bourgeois democracy hitherto unknown in Japan. Both Japan and West Germany had their sovereignty restored within a decade –- Germany within 4 years.

These liberating armies did not deliver socialism. They did not free the peoples of Europe - or of the US and Britain - from capitalist exploitation. In other words, they were bourgeois.

But the bourgeois-democratic parliamentary system they helped create allows the working class to think about its affairs, express its politics and organise to fight for socialism. Looking back, it is, I suggest, impossible from a socialist or working-class point of view to refute the judgment that the invading armies of 6 June represented progress against reaction.

The strongest counter-argument against the idea that the British and Americans - despite their bourgeois ideas, standards, aspirations and methods - embodied progress against historic regression, and civilisation against geno-imperialist Nazi barbarism, is the fact that they were allied with Stalinist Russia. Trotsky justly wrote in 1938 that Stalin's political system differed from Hitler's "only in more unbridled savagery".

Stalin's armies chased the Hitlerites to Berlin, conquering and plundering and raping as they went. When the Russians took Vienna or Berlin, many tens of thousands of women were raped. In contrast to the "Red Army", the US army hanged some American soldiers convicted of rape.

Stalin consolidated totalitarian states modelled on his own in eastern and most of south-eastern Europe, and in half of Germany. The people there had neither national nor any sort of civil rights for the next half century. The workers of eastern Germany, who fell under German fascist rule in January 1933, did not recover the rights of citizens in a bourgeois democracy, which they lost in 1933, or national rights, which they lost in 1945, until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, nearly 60 years later.

I paint this picture in true but deliberately strong colours in order to bring into focus the thing that concerns me here - the attitude which socialists took to those who represented progress and bourgeois democratic liberty 60 years ago.

We did not simply "support" them. We did not pretend they were something other than what they were - exponents and practitioners of bourgeois exploitation, and imperialists motivated fundamentally by imperialist rivalry with Germany.

The Trotskyists in Britain* proclaimed the war against fascism to be a war the workers had a life-or-death interest in winning. But they preached distrust of the ability - and in many cases the will - of the capitalist ruling class to win the war against fascism.

They demanded freedom for Britain's colonies.

They proposed such things as union-controlled training schools for working-class officers.

They advocated that the working class push the ruling class aside and seize power, and continue to prosecute the war against fascism to victory. That would have been the best outcome. The second best outcome was the victory of bourgeois-democratic capitalism over the Nazis.

The biggest ostensibly revolutionary socialist organisation in Britain, the ILP, supported, in fact though sometimes not in plain words, the war, while calling on the workers to fight in Britain immediately for socialism.

There was much that was unclear and incoherent in what the Trotskyists and the ILP said. Many who think that what they did was right would reject the idea that their policy was a variant of "revolutionary defencism", and the Trotskyists of the 1940s would have indignantly rejected that description, but in my opinion that is what it was.

Nobody on the anti-Stalinist Marxist left had anything like a pro-Hitler or a pro-Hirohito policy. Even the outright "defeatists" towards the British ruling class had no overt "softness" on Hitler in their arguments. They would have - and did - denounce those who made such propaganda as poisonous enemies of the working class and of socialism.

Neither the defeatists, nor those who were de facto "revolutionary defencists", thought it their business to counter the - often hypocritical - anti-Nazi propaganda of the British state by defending or "explaining" Hitler. The idea that the Trotskyists or the ILP might have done that would have been regarded by all of them as either the product of a deranged mind, or of a malicious slanderer.

Such misrepresentation was, of course, put into circulation by the biggest proclaimedly Marxist organisation, the Communist Party of Great Britain, which denounced them as fascists and (unsuccessfully) called on the workers to "treat a Trotskyist as you would a fascist".

It was that same CPGB which, during the Hitler-Stalin pact (from August 1939 to 22 June 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia), had been "defeatist" in the pro-Hitler sense. They had supported Hitler's foreign policy (now Stalin's also). They depicted Hitler's Germany as a comparatively weak state, victim of the Versailles Treaty imposed by those who had defeated Germany in the 1914-18 war, and moreover, as a state rendered progressive by its pact with Stalin and its opposition to the worst imperialist states, Britain and France.

They used bits of the truth - for example, that Germany, late in becoming a unified state (1871), had been a latecomer to imperialist competition, in a world already divided up by Britain, France, etc. To defend Germany they pointed to the horrors and crimes committed by Germany's enemies in their colonies. They insisted that Britain and France were worse than Hitler's Germany, pointing to their contemporary colonial empires and the whole of their long colonial and imperialist history to "prove" it.

Germany, they insisted, was the innocent victim of British and French imperialist aggression. When an enterprising Stalinist managed to talk to a shot-down and wounded German bomber pilot in a hospital, the CPGB published the interview under a headline: "Yes, says German pilot, Germany wants peace".

Then when peace-loving and only mildly imperialist Hitler invaded Russia, they switched to all-out strike-breaking support for the British government.

One has to go back to 1939-41 and the antics of the Stalinist party to find a parallel to the antics of today's pseudo-left in relation to the war against the comparatively weak regional-imperialist fascistic state, Iraq.

But what of their mirror image, the socialists who draw exactly the same conclusion about Britain and America from the vile nature of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq as some socialists in the 1940s (George Orwell, for example) once drew from the nature of Hitler's Germany? Those who support Bush and Blair?

They are as unbalanced and nonsensical in their own way as those who model their policy in relation to Iraq on the CPGB's in relation to Nazi Germany during the Stalin-Hitler pact.

Grant, for the sake of argument, that the US neo-conservatives have with the invasion of Iraq launched a drive to install bourgeois-democratic regimes in the Middle East, intending to do there something like what the invaders of June 1944 did in Europe - and that they will succeed. In fact, it is by no means so simple and straightforward, but let us pretend it is.

Then socialists will be glad of the progress they make - as we are glad to see Saddam Hussein brought down. But even if they play the role of "bourgeois revolutionaries" from above in the Middle East, the American and British bourgeois states will not thereby cease to be what they are - states that protect and promote, under bourgeois-democratic political systems, a never-ending capitalist exploitation of the workers at home and abroad. The system as a whole remains what it is even if something "progressive" is being done in one of its parts - in this case, the Middle East.

Even if they were to play an entirely progressive role in the Middle East by creating bourgeois democratic regimes where now there are air-tight dictatorships, nothing in the socialist criticism of capitalism is thereby cancelled out, because nothing of the socialist alternative to capitalism which we fight for is thereby achieved.

Indeed, the more the societies in the Middle East become open and nakedly marketist - Iraq is planned to be a case in point - the more plain, obvious, and logically incontrovertible becomes the crying need for the socialist alternative to capitalism.

When the "anti-imperialist" pseudo-left justify their support for a Milosevic (in 1999) or Saddam Hussein by pointing out how many millions of people die needlessly each year as a result of the international capitalist system which Britain and the USA maintain and promote, it is an obscenity only because the argument is being used - as it was used in 1939-41 to justify Hitler - to justify regimes of repression and mass murder. But it is the truth. It stands between us and any notion that the bourgeois system is not so bad after all.

It is, even in the best conditions, a system of brutal exploitation, of socially and culturally corrosive commercialism, and of grotesque ecosystem-destroying waste.

We must replace it by socialism!

*A small minority of Trotskyists in Britain, The Revolutionary Socialist League, though it was the official section of the Fourth International proclaimed in September 1938, were straightforward “revolutionary defeatists” and denounced the others as “Defencists”. In the USA the Workers Party was Defeatist and the Cannonite Socialist Workers Party had a policy like the majority inBritain, The Workers International League/Revolutionary Communist Party. But the political situation in the USA was not the same oin Britain. The USA was not faced with Facist invasion and conquest.