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1945 - Victory in Europe
When 'liberation' meant socialism
Commemorations marking the 70th anniversary 'victory in Europe' (VE) day recently took place in Britain (and throughout the world) with establishment dignitaries saluting veteran service men and women who liberated Europe from the clutches of fascism.
However, the official ceremonies didn't refer to the prevalent mood of the working class at the end of World War Two, ie a desire not to return to the horrors of war, mass unemployment and poverty associated with capitalism.
As Dave Carr explains in the following article, first published in 2005, the period 1945-47 was characterised by a resurgent working class fighting for socialism.
VE had come at an enormous cost. 40 million soldiers and civilians had been killed. 27.5 million in the Soviet Union alone. The German ruling class's gamble with fascism had resulted in much of eastern Europe coming under the influence of the USSR, with capitalism and landlordism being swept away there.
In the West, capitalist industry was on its knees - crippled by the burden and destruction of the war. Throughout Europe the mass migrations of demobbed soldiers, workers and refugees was creating political instability. Everywhere there were food shortages, unemployment, homelessness and poverty.
But as the Allies advanced into Germany they frequently found factories and mines taken over by committees of workers who had driven out SS saboteurs. The first act of the Allies was to ban these anti-fascist organisations! Nonetheless, the power of the workers' committees meant that the demand for nationalisation of the mines of Krupps and other war industries became widespread.
For example, in 1946 in Hesse, Western Germany, 71% approved of the socialisation of industry in a referendum. A shocked US commander Clay vetoed it.
However, the resurrected German Communists (KPD) and social-democrat (SPD) parties, lagged behind workers' demands by only calling for partial nationalisation of industries, while both called for a renewal of capitalism.
In 1947 a strike wave took place in the industrialised Ruhr area of Germany which included demands for nationalisation of industry. At its height 350,000 workers were on strike. The US occupiers in response threatened to cut food rations and to impose martial law.
The Allies' situation was saved by the trade union leaders and KPD leaders who restrained the workers from taking action. Improved food supplies, an end to the dismantling of industry, and the establishment by the occupying authorities of 'works councils' to address workers' wages and conditions, gradually eased the conflict.
In France and Italy the dying days of the war saw massive strike waves by a working class growing in confidence of its power. This was to be a major problem for the Allied occupation.
In late 1943, after Mussolini's removal, the Italian workers in the industrialised north, still under the control of the German army, organised strikes and a 15,000-strong armed resistance movement.
In March 1944 one million workers struck in the occupied north. In Milan the bosses were forced to pay the workers for the days on strike!
Liberation in 1945 left communist and socialist workers dictating to the capitalists the terms and conditions of employment. Perhaps as many as two million workers joined the Communist Party.
Likewise in France, 50,000 Parisians - arms in hands - drove out the German occupiers forcing the Allies to rush General Charles de Gaulle into the liberated city to head off a new Paris commune (1871 workers' uprising).
The Resistance movement published a charter demanding nationalisation of the capitalist monopolies. In many regions this demand was implemented with many companies being run by workers' committees.
In the first elections in France in October 1945 the Communists won 26.1% of the vote and the socialists 24.8% - a majority. Moreover, for the first time a majority of workers were organised in trade unions.
The capitalists' fears following the collapse of the Nazi regimes was summed up by the Economist (1 December 1945):
"The collapse of that New Order imparted a great revolutionary momentum to Europe. It stimulated all the vague and confused but nevertheless radical and socialist impulses of the masses. Significantly every programme with which the various Resistance groups throughout Europe emerged from the underground contained demands for nationalisation of the banks and large-scale industries; and these programmes bore the signatures of Christian Democrats as well as of socialists and communists" (Quoted in Capitalism since World War II by Andrew Glyn et al).
In the victorious countries of Britain and the US the working class demanded its reward for defeating fascism. Above all, there was a widespread mood that there should be no return to the poverty and unemployment that characterised capitalism between the two wars.
In the US the trade unions embarked on a massive strike wave for better wages and conditions in 1946.
In Britain, the Attlee Labour government was swept into office and established a welfare state and carried through the nationalisation of basic industries such as coal, energy production, railways, steel, etc. But, generally, it was only the investment-starved, near bankrupt companies that were taken over.
The most profitable parts of industry remained in private hands. Yet the weakened capitalist class would not have been able to seriously resist widespread public ownership measures but the Labour and trade union leaders had no intention of challenging capitalism.
With war-weary US, British and Commonwealth troops desperate to return home, a determined revolutionary workers' movement could have successfully overthrown capitalism at this time. However, Stalin, who controlled the communist movement, had agreed during 1944-45 with Churchill and Roosevelt to co-exist with imperialism and to divide conquered Europe into Western and Soviet 'spheres of influence'.
This counter-revolutionary arrangement was to last until the fall of Stalinism in the USSR and eastern Europe between 1989-91.
In France, despite the weakness of the capitalist class and the enormous strength of the Communist Party (PCF), no revolution took place. Instead, the PCF participated in a 'government of national unity' which ruthlessly pursued an imperialist policy in Vietnam (Indo-China), Algeria, Madagascar and elsewhere. Having held back strikes and workers' movements, the PCF was dumped from government by the capitalists in 1947.
In 1947, US imperialism, now a capitalist superpower, (British imperialism was bankrupt and faced colonial revolutions in its decaying empire) sought to undermine revolution in Western Europe by imposing stability through the Marshall Aid recovery programme. $13 billion in grants and loans were pumped into Europe's ravaged industries over four years.
Many of the capitalist institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (forerunner of the World Trade Organisation) were established in the immediate post-war period to impose US imperialism's power on the world economy and prevent restrictions to 'free trade' which had dogged the world economy before the war.
The right-wing leaders of the British and US labour movement were also mobilised in defence of capitalism in Europe. The British TUC persuaded the German trade union leaders to take measures to prevent communist influence.
Eventually, the revolutionary wave in Europe exhausted itself, blocked by the political leadership of the workers' organisations who acted as transmission belts for the policies of either imperialism or Stalinism.
In Western Europe the ruling classes could not, following the collapse of the Nazi and fascist regimes, use force to ensure the continuation of capitalism. Instead they relied upon the pro-capitalist leaders of the workers' movement, along with those who argued that socialism should be "postponed", to resist the popular demands for socialism and gradually stabilise the capitalist system.
- See also 'Marxists and the Second World War' by Peter Taaffe general secretary of the Socialist Party (issue 592, available online: www.socialistparty.org.uk). Written to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the start of World War Two. Peter discusses whether such a global catastrophe can be avoided in the modern era.
Eastern Europe - Stalin establishes his satellite states
In 1944-45 the Red Army rolled across eastern Europe, ushering the collapse of the Nazis and their quisling regimes. This gave rise to revolutionary movements of workers and peasants. However, Stalin and his bureaucratic clique had no intention of allowing a socialist revolution to reach its conclusion, as a democratic socialist society would end the rule of the privileged bureaucracy.
In 1944, as the workers of Warsaw in Poland rose up against the Nazi occupiers, Stalin halted the Red Army on the city's outskirts until the insurrection was crushed.
In East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and elsewhere, anti-fascist committees, workers' factory committees and soviets were snuffed out by Soviet officials. Governments in these occupied countries were established with officials drawn from social-democratic and capitalist parties. But the key ministries - police and army - were controlled by the Stalinist bureaucrats who rested on the only real power, the Red Army.
Eventually these 'popular front' governments were swept aside and 'unification' of the social-democratic parties and communist parties took place. The new regimes became mirror images of Stalinist Russia. Industry (much already having been looted as 'war reparations' - £15 billion from East Germany alone) was nationalised as the new Stalinist regimes leaned on the working class to deal a blow to the capitalists.
However, not a hint of workers' democracy was allowed and many genuine revolutionaries wound up in prison. These countries became 'deformed workers' states' ie nationalised economies, but bureaucratically planned and run by totalitarian regimes.
What is 'Stalinism'?
Stalinism describes the rule of an undemocratic bureaucratic clique. This caste emerged in the aftermath of the 1917 Russian revolution, which had swept aside capitalism and landlordism.
The newly established workers' state began to degenerate however. This was not inevitable but a consequence of failed revolutions elsewhere. This confined the revolution to a war ravaged and economically devastated country. An exhausted revolutionary working class eventually lost control of the state apparatus to an emergent bureaucracy headed by Stalin. Workers' democracy was extinguished and many gains of the revolution reversed, but the bureaucracy's privileges depended upon maintaining the nationalised planned economy.
(see 'The Russian Revolution and the Rise and Fall of Stalinism' on www.socialistparty.org.uk)
World revolution abandoned
As predicted by the socialist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, Stalin's anti-revolutionary strategy of 'socialism in one country' would lead to the political degeneration of the communist movement along national and reformist lines.
Defence of the USSR, ie the privileged bureaucracy, and a foreign policy of 'peaceful co-existence' with imperialism meant a jettisoning of the world socialist revolution.
Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm concurs that Stalin's position during and after WWII was to derail revolutionary movements. "The communist revolutions actually made (Yugoslavia, Albania, later China) were made against Stalin's advice... Few remember that Stalin urged the Yugoslav communists to keep the monarchy or that in 1945 British communists were opposed to the break-up of the Churchill wartime coalition.
"For practical purposes, as dissident revolutionaries recognised, it was a permanent goodbye to world revolution. Socialism would be confined to the USSR and the area assigned by diplomatic negotiation as its zone of influence, ie basically that occupied by the Red Army at the end of the war" (The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm).