The nature of World War II

First published: October 1995

World War II, the fiftieth anniversary of which has been celebrated recently, set the entire framework for current world politics. It was incomparably the greatest armed conflict in human history. But it was also something more. It was the greatest class struggle in the twentieth century.

The first problem in approaching World War II is its sheer size. With fifty million dead – thirty million of them in eastern Europe – with war on three continents, with the greatest number of people under arms in human history, it bears the same sort of relation to a strike that the Himalayas do an anthill.

For this reason, when the great class struggles of the twentieth century are noted, you often are given a list something like Russia in 1917, Germany in 1919–23, Spain in 1936–38, China in 1946–49 etc. Yet World War II, while absent from the standard agendas, towers over all these in terms of its impact on world politics.

The immediate origins of the great conflagration of 1939–45 lay in the unfinished business of 1914–18. In World War I the combined power of Britain, France and above all the United States, defeated Germany in a straightforward inter–imperialist war. World War II was a direct continuation of this inter–imperialist struggle.

In this second conflict, however, the two chief imperialist antagonists, Germany and the United States, were much more directly counterposed. Hitler rapidly crushed France and would easily have defeated Britain without the support the latter received from the US from 1939 onwards. From the point of view of inter–imperialist struggle the entire period has rightly been entitled ‘the struggle for world supremacy between Germany and the United States – 1914–1945’. All other forces, including Britain, were essentially intermediaries in that clash.

In Asia, the United States fought it out directly with Japan. Through a war in which it smashed its imperialist opponents, and allies, the United States emerged in 1945 as the greatest capitalist state in the world.

But at the very moment of its triumph the United States found its power threatened by the two fundamental forces which, in their combination, had allowed the relatively rapid defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan. They were the struggle waged by the USSR on the one hand and that of the people of Asia – above all the struggle led by the Chinese Communist Party – on the other.

Indeed, in a military sense it may be said that the outcome of World War II was in a sense already decided in the period 1931–39. The greatest strategic decision of the war was that of Japan not to attack the USSR from the east while Hitler simultaneously assaulted it from the west. If the Soviet Union had been forced in 1941 to fight a war on two fronts it would almost certainly have been defeated by Germany. Even purely militarily, let alone the more profound economic and social effects, the Soviet divisions which in 1941 threw back the German armies at the gates of Moscow were those transferred from the eastern borders of the USSR where they had previously been facing the Japanese army in China. It was the war in China, spearheaded by the Chinese Communist Party, that saved the USSR from a war on two fronts and thereby conclusively decided the outcome of World War II.

Japanese imperialism could not strike westwards and northwards into the USSR because its armies were bogged down in a war in China which absorbed two thirds of its armed forces. Even the war with the United States in the Pacific was, in terms of the forces committed, an enforced secondary effort for Japan while its main armies were concentrated in the campaigns in China. The war in the Pacific was waged between Japan and the United States for the control of China and east Asia. But in the end the Chinese people defeated both of them.

Whereas the crushing defeats of the European working class in the 1920s and 1930s led directly to opening the door to the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, the struggle waged by the Chinese Communist Party saved the USSR from defeat – despite the massive setback the Chinese revolution had suffered at Stalin’s hands in 1926–27. Out of the combined victory of China and the USSR flowed the entire course not simply of the war itself but of the whole post-war period.

The victory of the USSR in Europe decisively made possible the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism in Yugoslavia and the subsequent destruction of capitalist rule in Eastern Europe. Stalin blocked revolution in Greece, France and Italy – and installed a bureaucratic tyranny in the new workers’ states of Eastern Europe – but the victory of the USSR in the war decisively strengthened the working class movement throughout the world.

In Asia the Chinese Communist Party emerged from the struggle with Japan ruling one third of the country and with an army which succeeded in destroying that of Chiang Kai–shek in the last four years of civil war that followed in 1945. The Chinese workers’ state then fought to halt the US armies in Korea. To the south of China the initial victories of Japan struck a devastating blow against the Asian empires of Britain, France and Holland. Out of the first victories of an Asian power over the white imperialisms of Europe rose an immense wave of crisis and revolt.

By the end of the war it was clear the British could no longer remain in India – inaugurating the vast wave of ‘decolonisation’ of the post war period. By 1945 the Vietnamese Communist Party could launch the thirty years of war that led it to defeat first French and then US imperialism.

The victory of the USSR, the victory of the Chinese revolution, the successive victories of the revolution in Indochina provided the world framework, and material aid, which allowed the revolutions first in Cuba and then in Central America to unfold. World War II provided the basis of all that followed it. It was an extraordinary realisation of a perspective seen long before by Lenin. In his words, ‘In the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle [for socialism] will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China etc account for the overwhelming majority of the population of the globe. And during the past few years it is this majority that has been drawn into the struggle for emancipation with extraordinary rapidity, so that in this respect there cannot be the slightest doubt what the final outcome of the world struggle will be.’

World War II, and the struggles which it propelled, and which succeeded it, was the greatest confirmation in history of this perspective. The west European working class proved incapable of defeating fascism. But the Soviet working class, and the working class and peasants of China and Asia, proved capable of smashing to pieces German fascism, Japanese militarism, and then the triumphant march of the United States. But there was another socialist whose perspective was confirmed with shattering clarity by World War II in addition to Lenin. This was Leon Trotsky.

In 1933, at the moment of the rise to power of Hitler, Trotsky drew two fundamental conclusions. Firstly that the victory of fascism under Hitler meant inevitable war between Germany and the USSR – for only a state that had utterly crushed its own working class could risk war with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, that this war would bring revolution in its wake.

The second conclusion of Trotsky, the most shattering of its time, was his conclusion that the policy of the Soviet bureaucracy in permitting Hitler to come to power represented the definitive end of its role as an instrument of world revolution – that world socialist revolution from then on would take place outside the politically defined orbit of the Soviet bureaucracy.

This conclusion, which led Trotsky to launch the Fourth International, appeared bizarre at a moment when Stalin stood at the height of his prestige – and when self–styled democrats in Britain, such as Shaw, the Webbs, and the New Statesman were singing the praises of the Soviet leadership. Yet Trotsky was proved entirely correct in his overall perspective – although the time scale involved was far longer, and the forms more complex than he had foreseen. The USSR was victorious in World War II not because of but despite of Stalin.

It was Stalin’s policies which permitted Hitler to come to power, which allowed the defeat of the revolution in Spain and of the working class in France, and which finally led to the Soviet Union being militarily and politically unprepared for the assault of Hitler’s armies.

If the Chinese Communist Party had followed the policies urged on it by Stalin, rather than those of Mao Tse–tung, the Chinese revolution would have been defeated and in consequence the USSR would have been destroyed. It was only through breaking with the orientation demanded by the Soviet bureaucracy that each of the victorious revolutions emerging from World War II – Yugoslavia, China, and Vietnam – were achieved.

Where the line of Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy was followed – as in France, Italy and Greece – the result was either a catastrophic missed opportunity or a crushing defeat of the working class. The later revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua did not even organisationally take place through the Communist Parties. In Cuba the Communist Party backed the revolution only at the last moment. In Nicaragua the FSLN triumphed independently of the Communist Party. While the forms of development were far more complex than Trotsky had foreseen – in particular he had not imagined that certain of the Communist Parties could break with the line of Moscow – nevertheless his overall historical perspective was triumphantly confirmed.

But, to return to our starting point. The recent media celebrations are largely concentrating on what was a sideshow – the small campaign in western Europe waged by Britain and the United States which never absorbed even a third of the German army. The real World War II – the one waged in the USSR and Asia – has only a few marginal gestures made to it in the celebrations. The sheer scale of what took place still makes it hard for sections of the left to grasp the magnitude of those years. For in 1939–41 took place the greatest single class struggle in human history: the Second World War.