By summer 1943 the Axis war machine was suffering heavy setbacks. Although Hitler had completed a total occupation of France in November 1942, and still held on to his conquests in the Low Countries, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Greece, Ukraine, Belarus, the Baltic States and parts of western Russia, the Axis powers no longer looked able to win the war. The German defeat at Stalingrad and the subsequent loss of much of south-western Russia; the Allies’ conquest of North Africa and threatened landings in southern Italy; Japan’s defeats in the Pacific; the taking of much of Macedonia, southern Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and part of Slovenia by Tito’s partisans; and the mounting French Resistance were all bad omens for the Nazi leaders and their satraps.
With increasing privations, continued Allied bombings and mounting military disasters, there were significant stirrings of discontent in the Axis countries. Not only did German officers make plans to remove Hitler and take charge of the war effort but in Rome the Fascist Grand Council voted 19-7 on 25 July 1943 to no-confidence Benito Mussolini, who was summoned to King Victor Emmanuel III, arrested and taken to jail in an ambulance. This manoeuvre on the part of the King and Marshal Pietro Badoglio was a ‘revolution from above’ mounted to save the ruling class from the threat of working-class uprisings. As the Trotskyist Partito Comunista Internazionalista commented:
“The bourgeoisie, the monarchy and the Church, who created and supported Fascism, who today are throwing Mussolini to the people to avoid going down with him, and who don democratic and populist clothes in order to continue the exploitation and oppression of the working class, have no right to say anything in today’s crisis. This right exclusively belongs to the working class, the peasants and the soldiers, the eternal victims of the imperialist octopus.”
The late World War Two period is usually compared unfavourably to the wave of revolutionary struggles provoked by World War One, such as the February and October revolutions in Russia; anti-war demonstrations in Germany; soviets in Bavaria and Hungary; and a series of revolutionary opportunities in Germany until 1923; contrary to Trotsky’s prediction that it would cause an even greater revolutionary crisis. However, during this period there were significant working-class struggles in several belligerent countries, including strike waves across northern Italy; miners’ strikes in Britain and the United States; strikes tens of thousands strong against forced deportations in France and Belgium; the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; and small-scale mutinies in the German armed forces.
But for the most part working-class mobilisation was co-opted into the Allied war effort. Hundreds of thousands of workers who supported the Communist Parties of Europe, loyal to Moscow, devoted themselves to “resistance” armies led by bourgeois nationalists. Stalin postured as “anti-fascist” yet was keen for CPs to work alongside the same nationalists, generals and bankers who had helped the fascists crush the workers’ movements of Europe in the first place. Just as before the war the French CP leader Maurice Thorez had called on “patriotic” French fascists to join a “national front” against the Nazis, Stalin created a “Committee for a Free Germany” mostly composed of ex-Nazi generals; along with his allies supposedly liberating Europe from fascism he left Franco in power in Spain and Salazar in Portugal; he betrayed his supporters in Greece, who were then butchered by the monarchists’ allies, the British Army, at the end of that country’s civil war; and he ordered the Italian CP to support the monarchy and lay down its weapons. In 1943-45 the rulers of the USSR played a significant role in stabilising European capitalism.
Hostile to all strikes and independent working-class action which might undermine the Allied war effort, the Communist Parties instead focused on agitation against Germans — in France the Communist Party raised the slogans “everyone, united against the Krauts” and “everyone kill a Kraut”. The anti-German chauvinist hysteria promoted by Stalin, who portrayed the war to his own subjects as just another chapter in the Slavs’ struggle against the Germans, must be held responsible for the vengeance exacted on the German people at the end of the war, including hundreds of thousands of rapes by Russian troops. This was a far cry from the disciplined behaviour of the real Red Army in the 1918-21 civil war.
The Trotskyist Fourth International had no truck with this chauvinism, nor the Stalinist ideas that workers in the Allied countries should cross picket lines to aid the USSR’s war effort or that the war was a struggle between ‘democratic nations’ and ‘fascist nations’. However, its press often fostered illusions in the progressive character of the USSR’s war effort, claiming that as a “degenerated workers’ state” with a nationalised economy it deserved support against the Axis, and furthermore in some of its sections’ press hailed the success of “Trotsky’s Red Army” in fighting back the Wehrmacht. American Trotskyist James Cannon said that Trotskyists would “fight in the front rank” of the Soviet army to defend the USSR. Of course, the Fourth International’s optimistic claims that the USSR’s successes in the war were the result the “planned economy”, which gave Russian workers something worth defending and because the Russian army was still, somehow, “Trotsky’s Red Army” were nonsensical: the Russian economy had experienced complete counter-revolution, with an atomised working-class unable to act independently with its own unions, soviets or party; the Communist Party had been gutted, almost all the leading actors in the revolution had been shot; the Red Army had been purged repeatedly, with titles and saluting reintroduced as well as orders and military academies named after Tsarist war heroes like Aleksandr Suvorov; early setbacks in the war at the hands of Germany (whose own war economy was almost entirely state-run) ran counter to claims of the Stalinist economic machine’s superiority; and throughout the war the Russians relied heavily on food supplies, military equipment and thousands of Studebaker trucks from the United States.
French Trotskyists were sharply critical of the Gaullist “French Resistance”, characterising it as an instrument of Allied imperialism which aspired not simply to liberate France but also to let it hold onto its colonial empire. Rather than calling on workers to act as a supporting cast for the Allied war effort, these internationalists called for fraternisation with soldiers, working-class struggle against the belligerent governments and a “revolutionary defeatist” attitude towards both sides, hoping to transform the imperialist war into class war. As Jean Rous explained in a motion to the centrist Parti Socialiste Ouvrier et Paysan’s (Workers and Peasant’s Socialist Party) congress in 1939:
“The party will not be put off the belief that the main enemy is in our own country by the possibility that mass revolutionary agitation in time of war may contribute to the military defeat of our country. Accepting this possibility does not mean encouraging or wanting victory for Hitler, but on the contrary will encourage the total defeat of Hitler and worldwide fascism. Indeed:
“1. Revolutionary agitation led by workers in our country will exercise a powerful contagious influence on workers in the fascist countries; will provoke the break up of the rival capitalist armies, fraternisation between soldiers of both sides and the collapse of the dictatorships; and will light the flame of world revolution, the only means of defeating war and fascism, across the globe.
“2. Besides, a revolutionary seizure of power by the working class in our country will turn the imperialist war into a civil war and create the conditions for meaningful national defence: only a proletariat in control of its own destiny and defending a socialist order will be able to mount an invincible resistance to foreign fascism…”