1944 commemorations: 50 years of Imperialist Lies, Part 2

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In the first part of this article we tried to bring out just how ignominious were the commemorations of the 1944 landings which in no way represented a “social” liberation for the working class. On the contrary they represented an unprecedented massacre in the final years of the war; misery and terror throughout the years of reconstruction. All the members of the different capitalist camps that fought one another were responsible for the war and it resulted in a redivision of the world between the great powers. As we’ve stressed many times in this Review, the working class didn’t make an appearance centre stage as it did during the First World War. In every country the workers were petrified by the capitalist terror. But although the proletariat was unable to rise to what it’s capable of historically by overthrowing the bourgeoisie this doesn’t mean that it had “disappeared” or that it had completely lost its combativity or that its revolutionary minorities remained completely inactive.

The working class is the only force able to oppose the unleashing of imperialist barbarism; the First World War was incontestable proof of this. The bourgeoisie went to war only after it had ensured that the international proletariat was enroled in the war and rendered impotent. Today’s democratic bourgeoisie can spout on about its liberation; its predecessors took very careful precautions before, during and after the war to stop the proletariat from shaking once more its barbarous edifice as it had done in Russia in 1917 and in Germany in 1918. The experience of the revolutionary wave that arose during and in opposition to that war confirmed the fact that the bourgeoisie is not an all-powerful class. The mass struggle of the proletariat leading to insurrection is a social bomb a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb built under the auspices of the “democratic” bourgeoisie. Once you refuse to be taken in by all the eulogising of chronological accounts of individual military battles against the evil of Hitler the whole process of the Second World War demonstrates that the proletariat remained one of the central preoccupations of the bourgeoisie in the various antagonistic camps. This doesn’t mean that the proletariat was in a condition to threaten the existing order as it had done two decades earlier but it remained a primary concern for the bourgeoisie. The latter couldn’t completely wipe out the class that produced the fundamental wealth in society so it had rather to destroy its consciousness. It had to obliterate from the minds of the workers the very idea that they exist as a social entity that is antagonistic to the interests of the “nation”, make them forget that once they unite massively they are able to change the course of history.

As we will briefly outline here, each time there was a risk of the proletariat rising up and attempting to affirm itself as a class a holy alliance of imperialisms was formed that crossed their own battle lines. The Nazi, democratic or Stalinist bourgeoisies reacted to preserve the capitalist social order, often without even having to co-ordinate their action. The immunological defences of the reactionary social order arise naturally. It’s only after half a century that the proletariat can draw the lessons of this long defeat, of the capacity of the decadent bourgeoisie to defend its order of terror.

1. Before the War

The 1939-45 war was only possible because in the 1930s the proletariat didn’t have sufficient strength to prevent an international conflict; it had lost its consciousness of its class identity. The bourgeoisie succeeded in annihilating the proletarian threat in three stages:

- the crushing of the great revolutionary wave in the period after 1917 which ended in the triumph of Stalinism and the theory of “socialism in one country” being adopted by the Communist International;

- the dispersal of the social convulsions that took place in the centre of capitalism where the alternative between socialism or barbarism was decisively played out: in Germany this was mainly under the leadership of Social-Democracy with Nazism coming along to finish the job by imposing unprecedented terror on the workers;

- the total derailment of the workers’ movement in the democratic countries under the guise of “freedom against fascism” with the ideology of the “popular fronts” which managed to paralyse the workers of the industrialised countries more subtly than did “national unity” in 1914.

In Europe the “popular front” formula was no more than the forerunner of the National Front of the CP and other left parties during the war. Workers in the developed countries were manipulated into a situation in which they bowed either before anti-fascism or before fascism; symmetrical ideologies both of which entail submission to the defence of the “national interest”, to the imperialism of their respective bourgeoisies in other words. The German workers in the 1930s weren’t “victims of the Treaty of Versailles” as their rulers claimed but of the same crisis that affected their class brothers throughout the world. In the same way the workers of western Europe and of the United States weren’t the victims of Hitler, the unique “causative factor of the war” before the Almighty but of their own “democratic” bourgeoisies in their eagerness to defend their own sordid imperialist interests. In 1936 the mystification around anti-fascism and the “defence of democracy” was accompanied by propaganda aimed at pushing workers to take sides between the rival fractions of the bourgeoisie: fascism/anti-fascism, right/left, Franco/the Republic. In most of the European countries the “Popular Front” ideology which, as the name suggests, was an alliance between enemy classes recycled and aimed at convincing workers to accept unimaginable sacrifices, was created by left governments or left parties “in opposition” and had the ideological support of Stalinist Russia.

On the whole the war in Spain was a rehearsal for the World War with its confrontation between different imperialisms who stood behind the various Spanish fractions. And it served above all as a laboratory for the “popular fronts” and made it possible to concretise and designate “the enemy” (fascism) that the workers of western Europe would be called upon to fight against by mobilising behind their bourgeoisie. The hundreds of thousands of Spanish workers who were massacred were a better “proof” of the need for a “democratic war” than the assassination of an archduke in Sarajevo had been twenty years earlier.

The bourgeoisie could only go to war by defeating the workers, by convincing them that it was also their war:

The bourgeoisie aims to put a stop to the class struggle or more precisely to destroy the proletariat’s power as a class, to destroy its consciousness, derail its struggles when it places its agents within the proletariat to empty the struggles of their revolutionary consciousness and draw them onto the path of reformism and nationalism which is the final and decisive condition for the outbreak of imperialist war[1].

In fact the bourgeoisie had learned from the experience of the revolutionary wave which began during the First World War; before unleashing the Second World War it made sure that it had completely crushed the proletariat, more effectively beaten it into submission than when it waged the “Great War”.

In relation to the political vanguard of the proletariat specifically we have to say that opportunism had triumphed within the workers’ parties several years before the beginning of the conflict and had transformed them into agents of the bourgeois state. In 1914 this had been less clear cut as in the majority of countries revolutionary currents continued to exist within the parties of the 2nd International. For example the Russian Bolsheviks or the German Spartakists were members of the Social-Democratic parties and they fought within these parties. When the war broke out the Social-Democratic parties were totally under the control of the bourgeoisie but within their ranks there were still signs of proletarian life which upheld the banner of proletarian internationalism notably at the conferences of Zimmerwald and Kienthal. On the other hand the parties belonging to the 3rd International ended up in the arms of the bourgeoisie during the 1930s, well before the beginning of the World War for which they were to act as zealous recruiting officers. And they were also reinforced by the Trotskyist organisations which at that moment passed over bag and baggage into the camp of the bourgeoisie by embracing the cause of one imperialist camp against the other (in the name of the defence of the USSR, of anti-fascism and other disgusting themes). Finally the breaking up, the extreme isolation of the revolutionary minorities who continued to defend principled positions against the war further attests to the extent of the defeat suffered by the proletariat.

Atomised, politically fragmented by the betrayal of the parties that spoke in their name and by the near non-existence of their communist vanguard, the workers’ response to the outbreak of war was one of general confusion.

2. During the war

As during the first global conflict it needed at least two or three years before the working class, stunned by the entry into war, could find the path of struggle once more. In spite of the terrible conditions existing in the World War and especially the terror that reigned because of it the working class showed that it was still able to struggle on its own terrain. However the terrible defeat it had suffered during the war meant that most of these struggles weren’t at a high enough level to lead in the medium term to revolution or to seriously unsettle the bourgeoisie. Most of the movements were dispersed, cut off from the lessons of previous struggles and above all they weren’t yet armed with a real reflection on why the international revolutionary wave begun in Russia in 1917 had been defeated.

So albeit in the worst of conditions the workers showed that in most of the belligerent countries they were able to raise their heads once more but censorship and media brain-washing predominated as long as the press was still in existence. In the bombed factories, in the prison camps, in the areas where they lived the workers tended naturally to rediscover their classic means of protesting. In France for example from the second half of 1941 there were dozens of strikes for improved wages and working hours. Workers tended to turn their backs on all participation in the war (although half the country was occupied): “class instinct was stronger than national duty[2]. The miners’ strike in the Pas-de-Calais is a significant demonstration of this. They laid the responsibility for the worsening of working conditions at the door of their French bosses, they weren’t yet following the Stalinist slogans for the “patriotic struggle”. The description of this strike is telling:

The strike on the 7th at Douges broke out in the same way that strikes have always broken out in the pits. There was discontent. They’d had enough. The miners didn’t consider the question of legality any more in 1941 than in 1936 or 1902. They weren’t concerned that there were infantry companies at the front line or a popular front government in power or Hitler’s men waiting to deport them. Down the pits they consulted together and agreed. They cried “Long live the strike” and they sang at the top of their voices, tears in their eyes, tears of joy, tears of success[3]. The movement extended over several days, leaving the German military powerless and involving more than 70,000 miners. The movement was savagely repressed [4].

1942 saw other workers’ strikes, some of them accompanied by street demonstrations. The introduction of the “relief” (forced labour in Germany) provoked strikes even when the country was occupied until the PCF and the Trotskyists derailed the combat into a nationalist struggle. We should note however that the strikes and demonstrations remained restricted to the economic level against food rationing and supplies going for military needs. In the Borinage in Belgium January was marked by a series of strikes and protest movements in the coal mines. In June a strike broke out in the Herstal factory and housewives demonstrated in front of the Hotel de Ville in Liège. When it was announced that thousands of workers would be forcibly deported in the winter of 1942, 10,000 workers once more went on strike in Liège and the movement involved 20,000 others. In the same period there was a strike of Italian workers in Germany in a big aircraft factory and at the beginning of 1943 in Essen, there was a strike of foreign workers, some of them French.

The proletariat was unable to develop a frontal struggle against the war, against its own bourgeoisie, in the way that the Russian workers had done in 1917. If the struggle remains at this level (a protest that doesn’t become general) then although it may be a reaction against the bosses and the unions who break strikes, once the bosses agree to salary increases (as they did in the USA and England for example) it enables the government to continue the war all the more effectively. The risk in this situation is that the nationalist ideology of the Liberation can be grafted onto it. Well before the introduction in France of “forced labour” (the bread and wine for the National Union in 1942-43), the British bourgeoisie possessed a fanatical advocate of forced labour in the form of the British CP and its hysterical reaction to the German attack on Russia in the middle of 1941. From then on and in concert with the Trotskyists through the unions there was no longer any question of strike action but rather of increasing production in order to help the war effort and support the Russian (imperialist) bastion [5].

The continuation of the World War worked against the bourgeoisie in spite of the profound weakness of the proletariat as we can see from the increase in strike days in England. In the period when war was declared there was a drastic fall but from 1941 onwards the number of strikes increased until 1944, then it once more decreased after the “Victory”.

In the assessment it made of this period during the war the Communist Left in France recognised the importance of these strikes and supported them in their immediate objectives but it was “not lured into their vision which is still limited and contingent[6]. In the face of all these strikes that were relatively dispersed and did not link up most of the time owing to the predominance of military censorship the international bourgeoisie on both the German and the allied sides did all it could to prevent them radicalising, often by making minor economic concessions and always by using the unions which in their various forms were, and remain, an instrument of the bourgeois state. Social relations couldn’t remain peaceful for long during the war when inflation was increasing steadily.

The terrible seriousness of the situation makes it possible to understand why the revolutionary minorities of the period held out more hope for a revolution than was warranted by the real balance of class forces. The whole of Europe lived “on its uppers”, only workers who did fifteen to twenty hours overtime a week were able to afford food products, the price of which had increased tenfold in three years. In this situation of privation and hatred - a hatred that was redoubled by the sense of impotence in the face of internment and deportations - the outbreak of a mass struggle lasting several months by nearly two thousand Italian workers in March 1943, alerted the international bourgeoisie even more than the strikes breaking out in several countries, that it was time to prepare the lie of the Liberation as the only possible outcome of the war. We shouldn’t overestimate the scope of this movement but we must acknowledge that confronted with this autonomous action of the Italian proletariat on its own class terrain the Italian bourgeoisie took prompt and appropriate measures and in this it was assisted by the whole of the world bourgeoisie, which shows that it maintained the same vigilance that it had exhibited before the war.

At the end of March 50,000 workers went on strike in Turin for a “bombing” bonus and an increase in food rations without giving a thought to Mussolini’s views on the matter. Their rapid victory encouraged class action throughout the whole of north Italy against night work in the areas in danger of being bombed. This movement triumphed in its turn. The concessions didn’t placate the working class, new strikes arose accompanied by demonstrations against the war. This frightened the Italian bourgeoisie and in 24 hours it turned tail. But the Allied bourgeoisie was on the alert and occupied the south of Italy in the Autumn.  This resurgence of the proletariat had to be countered by patching up the national Union on a royalist and democratic basis. With the complicity of the old fascist fogeys Grandi and Ciano who’d suddenly been converted to anti-fascism Vittorio Emanuele came out from the woodwork to stop Mussolini. In spite of everything mass demonstrations continued and spread throughout Turin, Milan, Bologna. Railway workers organised impressive strikes. In view of the breadth of the movement the caretaker government of Badoglio fled to Sicily in order to leave Mussolini - who’d been freed by Hitler - to return and carry out the repression with the Nazis and the tacit consent of Churchill. The German forces savagely bombarded working class towns. Churchill, who had said openly that it was necessary to “let the Italians stew in their own juice  declared that he did not want to negotiate with such a government. The working class certainly shows itself to be a liberator (as long as it’s able to go forward in accordance with its own dynamic) and to block it the Anglo-Saxon allies deemed it wise to change the puppets and pull the strings themselves. After the terrible repression and the consequent swelling of the ranks of the partisans whose resistance was completely within a capitalist framework the Allies were able to advance from the south to “liberate” the north and reinstate Badoglio [7]. The bourgeoisie succeeded in dragging the Italian workers onto their own capitalist terrain with the ideology of the National Union just as it had done in France with the struggle against forced labour. It managed to do so up until the so-called Liberation, all strictly controlled by the Stalinist militias and the mafia.

This impressive movement that began in March 1943 was neither an accident nor a rarity in the midst of the general horror of the global holocaust. As we’ve just emphasised, during 1943 there was a timid international wave of resurgence in the struggle about which we obviously have little information. To give some examples: a strike at the Coqueril factory in Liège; 3,500 workers in struggle at an aircraft factory on the Clyde and a strike of miners near Doncaster, England (May 1943); strike of foreign workers in a Messerschmitt factory in Germany; strike at AEG, an important factory near Berlin where Dutch workers brought Belgian, French and even German workers into a protest against the low standard of the works canteen; strikes in Athens and demonstrations of housewives; 2,000 workers were on strike in Scotland in December 1943.

The mass strike of Italian workers remained encapsulated in Italy and the Resistance had robbed it of its class character. The ensuing massacre is the result of the failure sustained by the workers in the midst of the war: when the proletariat allows itself to be caught in the nationalist groove it is savagely decimated. To impose terror after proletarian actions of this kind is a constant tactic of the bourgeoisie. Moreover this terror was indispensable for the bourgeoisie because it hadn’t finished the war and it wanted its hands free until it had done so, particularly in theatres of operation outside Europe.

In eastern Europe wherever there was the danger of workers rising up, albeit without a revolutionary perspective, the bourgeoisie operated a burnt earth policy.

During the summer of 1944 the workers in Warsaw remained under the control of the Polish SP based in London. They participated in the insurrection launched by the Resistance when they learnt that the Red Army had entered the outskirts of the capital from the other side of the Vistula. And it was with the tacit consent of the Allies and the clear passivity of the Stalinist state that the German state was able to carry out its role of policeman and butcher by massacring tens of thousands of workers and razing the town to the ground. Eight days later Warsaw was a graveyard. Finally the “red” army let the massacre in Budapest take place and then made their entry as an army of grave diggers.

For its part the “liberating” western bourgeoisie did not want to risk social explosions against the war in the defeated countries. To avoid them it carried out monstrous bombings of German towns, bombings that for the most part had no military value but which were aimed at the workers’ districts (in Dresden in February 1945 the death toll was nearly 150,000, more than double that at Hiroshima). The aim was to exterminate as many workers as possible and terrorise the survivors so that they wouldn’t attempt to renew the revolutionary struggles of 1918 to 1923. Likewise the “democratic” bourgeoisie ensured it had the means to systematically occupy territory where the Nazis had had to withdraw. All offers of negotiation or armistice from Hitler’s opponents in Germany were rejected. If Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had allowed the formation of a native German government in a vanquished country they would never have slept easy in their beds, it would have constituted a major threat. As in 1918 a vanquished German state would inevitably be weak in the face of a working class that was revolted by large scale slaughter and profound misery, and in the face of demobilised soldiers. The allied armies took it upon themselves to ensure order throughout Germany for an indefinite period (and they remained there until 1994 though for other reasons) and in doing so gave weight for a long time to one of century’s grossest lies: the “collective guilt” of the German people.

3. Towards the “Liberation”

Throughout the last months of the war Germany experienced a series of riots, desertions and strikes. But a democratic figurehead such as Badoglio was superfluous amidst the hell of the bombings. The German working class had been terrorised, caught between the hammer and the anvil, between the allied armies and the Russian soldiers who were flooding in. Along the route taken by the disintegrating German army deserters were hung to act as a deterrent to others. The situation could have become disturbing if the bourgeoisie hadn’t continued to prepare the terrain in all its wretchedness for the period immediately after war. The ferocious repression was enough and social peace was preserved by the occupation and the shameless partition of Germany. Even though it was quite correct to welcome the reactions of the proletariat in Germany, our comrades at the time over-estimated the strength of the opposition that the bourgeoisie was confronting:

When soldiers refuse to fight, coming close to civil war in some places, when sailors take up their revolvers against the war, when housewives, the Volkssturm, refugees increase the jitteriness of the German situation, the most formidable of military and police machines disintegrates and revolt is an immediate perspective. Von Rundstedt is repeating the policy of Ebert in 1918, he hopes to avoid civil war by treating for peace. The allies have understood the revolutionary threat contained in what began in Italy in 1943. The peace is now faced with the crisis that is raging savagely in Europe without the means to hide the contradictions which will be resolved by class war. The war effort, the brown plague, the barracks can no longer act as a pretext either to feed industries that have atrophied or to continue holding the working class in the present state of slavery and famine. But what’s more serious is the prospect of German soldiers returning to their ruined homes and the repetition of the 1918 revolution which is increasingly inevitable(...) For great ills there are heroic remedies: destroy, kill, starve, annihilate the German working class. We are a long way from punishing the brown plague, we are very far from the capitalists’ promise of peace. Democracy has demonstrated that it’s better able to defend bourgeois interests than the fascist dictatorship[8].

In fact the American and Russian armies were present in the  streets in vanquished countries such as Germany, leaving no no-man’s land in the conquered towns and stifling any hint of proletarian resistance. In the victorious countries an incredible degree of chauvinism was generated that was much worse than in the First World War. As the revolutionary minority predicted, the democratic bourgeoisie feared contagion from the demobilised German soldiers, some of whom made no attempt to hide their joy: in old film they can be seen smiling and throwing their hats in the air. So the Western bourgeoisie decided to intern them in France and Britain. Part of the disintegrated German army was held abroad; 400,000 soldiers who were prisoners of war were dispatched to Britain and interned for several years after the end of the war to avoid them fomenting revolution, as their fathers had done before them, once they returned to their own country and the misery of Europe in the immediate post war period [9].

Most revolutionary groups were enthusiastic about these events, grafting onto them the schema of the victorious revolution in Russia and the eruption of the proletariat against the war. The conditions of 1917 could not be repeated because the bourgeoisie had learnt its lessons.

It was nearly two years after the dramatic movement of the workers in Italy in 1943 before the clearest of the revolutionary minority were able to draw the lessons of the defeat the workers had sustained at an international level, and once more to profit from the drastic conditions of the World War to give an orientation for the revolution. The bourgeoisie knew how to keep the initiative and profit from the absence of revolutionary parties.

Enriched by the experience of the first war and far better prepared for a possible revolutionary threat, international capitalism reacted solidly and with exceptional skill and prudence against a proletariat decapitated of its vanguard. From 1943 the war was transformed into a civil war. In saying this we don’t mean that the inter-imperialist antagonisms had disappeared or that they’d ceased to act in the pursuit of war. These antagonisms continued and increased but to a lesser extent and in a way that was secondary to the seriousness of the threat facing the capitalist world in the shape of a revolutionary explosion. The revolutionary threat will be the central concern and preoccupation of capitalism in both blocs: that’s what primarily determines the course of military operations, their strategy and the direction they take.(...)In the first imperialist war when once the proletariat took the path of revolution it kept the initiative and forced global capitalism to stop the war. By contrast in the present war capitalism seized the initiative at the first sign of the revolution in Italy in 1943 and implacably pursued a civil war against the proletariat. It forcibly prevented any concentration of proletarian forces, refused to stop the war even though Germany repeatedly demanded an armistice after the disappearance of the Hitler government, it resorted to monstrous carnage and a pitiless preventive massacre in order to nip in the bud any hint of a revolutionary threat from the German proletariat(...) The revolt of workers and soldiers who in certain towns got the better of the fascists, forced the allies to hasten their march and finish this war of extermination before they had planned to do so[10].

4. The action of the revolutionary minorities

As we have said, the war was only possible because the 3rd International had degenerated and the communist parties had gone over into the bourgeois camp. The revolutionary minorities who fought against the rise of Stalinism and fascism from a class perspective were all defeated, expelled from the democratic countries and eliminated and deported from Russia and Germany. Of the international unity that the Internationals have represented in every epoch there remained only scraps, fractions, dispersed minorities often without any links between them. The Left Opposition of Trotsky, a current that had fought against the degeneration of the Russian revolution was gradually drawn towards opportunist positions on the Single Front (the possibility of an alliance with the left parties of the bourgeoisie) and its successor “anti-fascism”. Although Trotsky died, assassinated as was Jaurès (because in the eyes of the world bourgeoisie he symbolised the proletarian threat even more than the great tribune of the 2nd International) by the beginning of the second world holocaust his partisans were no better than the social chauvinists at the beginning of the century since they took the side of one of the imperialist camps; that of Russia and the Resistance.

Most of the minorities were no more than fragile vessels adrift amidst the disarray of the proletariat and they disintegrated when war broke out. In the 1930s only the Italian fraction regrouped around the review Bilan defended the position that the workers’ movement had entered into a period of defeat that would lead to war [11].

The passage to clandestinity brought dispersal and the loss of precious contacts that had been built up over years. In Italy there was no organised group. In France it was only in 1942 in the depth of the imperialist war that the militants who had fought in the Italian fraction and had sought refuge there regrouped together and formulated political class positions against the opportunism of the Trotskyist organisations. They called themselves the French nucleus of the Communist Left. These courageous militants produced a declaration of principles which clearly rejected the “defence of the USSR:

“The Soviet state is an instrument of the international bourgeoisie and has a counter-revolutionary function. The defence of the USSR in the name of what remains of the gains of October must therefore be rejected and replaced by an uncompromising struggle against the Stalinist agents of the bourgeoisie(...)Democracy and fascism are two aspects of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie which correspond to the economic and political needs  of the bourgeoisie at given moments. Consequently as the working class has to establish its own dictatorship after destroying the capitalist state it must not take the side of one or other of these forms.”

Contact was re-established with elements of the revolutionary current in Belgium, Holland and with Austrian refugees in France. In the very dangerous conditions of clandestinity important debates emanated from Marseille around why the workers’ movement had undergone the recent defeat and re-establishing what were the class lines between proletariat and bourgeoisie. This revolutionary minority continued to intervene against the capitalist war and for the emancipation of the proletariat in complete continuity with the struggle of the 3rd International at its origins. Other groups who rejected the defence of the imperialist USSR and all forms of chauvinism emerged more or less clearly from the Trotskyist orbit: Munis’ group in Spain, the Revolutionäre Kommunisten Deutschlands of Austria and Dutch councilist groups. The leaflets put out by these groups against the war, distributed clandestinely, left on train seats were vilified by the bourgeoisie of the Resistance from Stalinists to democrats as “Hitler-Trotskyist”. Those who distributed them ran the risk of being shot on sight (see the documents published above and the presentation to them).

In Italy after the powerful struggles in 1943 the dispersed elements of the Left regrouped around Damen and later around Bordiga, a renowned figure of the left in the 2nd and 3rd Internationals. In July 1943 they constituted the Partito Comunista Internazionalista, but as they believed (as did most revolutionaries at the time) that there was to be an insurrectional push of the working class they succumbed to the capitalist Liberation and for all their courage had great difficulty defending clear positions to workers who were mobilised behind the sirens of the bourgeoisie [12]. They were unable to promote the regroupment of revolutionaries at an international level and were reduced to a tiny minority after the war. In particular they refused to carry out any serious work with the French nucleus which from that time on called itself the Communist Left in France [13].

In fact in spite of all their courage the revolutionary groups who defended international class positions during the 2nd World War were unable to influence the course of events because of the terrible defeat that the proletariat had suffered and the capacity of the bourgeoisie to systematically take the initiative and prevent the development of any class movement that could pose a real threat. But their contribution to the historic struggle of the proletariat is not at this level. It resides fundamentally in the process of reflection that it represented and which allowed them to draw the lessons of the important events that had taken place, a reflection that has continued up to the present day.

5. What lessons for revolutionaries?

To continue with their critical method, to ourselves sieve through their errors is a mark of respect to the Marxist tradition that these groups upheld in the past, it is to remain faithful to the struggle that they waged. The Communist Left in France was able to correct the error it made in judging it possible that the process of defeat could be reversed during the Second World War even if they didn’t necessarily draw out all the implications of the fact that the course was not towards revolution. There were nevertheless other groups, in Italy in particular, who continued to apply a schematic view of revolutionary defeatism.

The Italian revolutionaries formed the party in Italy in a voluntarist and adventurist way around figures from the CI such as Bordiga and Damen and so didn’t really arm themselves with the means to re-establish class principles, much less to draw the real lessons from the experience of the past. Not only was this International Communist Party bound to fail - it rapidly found itself reduced to a sect - but it was also led to reject a Marxist analytic method in favour of a barren dogmatism which simply reiterated the schemas of the past on the question of war in particular. Even during the Liberation the PCI continued to believe that a revolutionary cycle would be initiated, parodying Lenin’s: “The transformation of the imperialist war into a civil war begins after the war has ended[14]. To repeat Lenin’s formula that every proletariat must desire “the defeat of its own bourgeoisie” as a spring board for the revolution - a position that was incorrect even at the time because it inferred that the workers of the conquering countries did not have this same spring board - makes the success of the revolution dependent on the failure of the home bourgeoisie and is no more than a mechanistic abstraction. In fact even during the first revolutionary wave, although the war acted initially as an important stimulus in mobilising the proletariat, it later gave rise to a division between the workers of the defeated countries who were the most clear and combative and those of the victorious countries against whom the bourgeoisie succeeded in using euphoria at the “victory” to paralyse their struggle and the development of their consciousness. Moreover the experience of 1917-18 also showed that if a revolutionary movement develops out of World War the bourgeoisie can play the card of ending the war, a card that it didn’t hesitate to play in November 1918 when the revolution in Germany was developing. This eliminates the main nourishment for the development of consciousness and action on the part of the proletariat.

Our comrades of the Communist Left were wrong when, on the basis of the unique example of the Russian revolution, they under-estimated the debilitating consequences of the world imperialist war on the proletariat. The Second World War was to bring elements towards a clearer analysis of this crucial question. As those groups who claim to be the sole inheritors of the Italian Communist Left unfortunately demonstrate, to repeat the errors of the past today is to block the real path towards class confrontation, it is to affirm the impossibility of enriching the Marxist method and to refuse to act as the guide that the proletariat needs [15].

The question of war has always been of the greatest importance in the workers’ movement. Modern imperialist war, hand in hand with exploitation and the attacks of the economic crisis, remains a major factor in developing the consciousness that the revolution is indispensable. Clearly the permanent nature of war in capitalism’s decadent phase has to be a valuable factor towards reflection. This process of reflection must not stop now that the collapse of the eastern bloc, formerly presented as the devil incarnate, has momentarily postponed the possibility of another World War. The wars that are taking place on the borders of Europe serve as a reminder to the proletariat that “those who forget about war will one day have to endure it[16]. The great responsibility of the proletariat is still to rise up against this decomposing society. The perspective of a different society, achieved under the leadership of the proletariat, must of necessity entail the development of the class’ realisation that it must fight on its own social terrain and find its strength there. The growing struggle of the proletariat is a struggle that is antithetical to the military objectives of the bourgeoisie.

In spite of all the eulogistic refrains about the “new world order” set up in 1989 the working class of the industrialised countries should not be taken in by promises of a respite before the next round of human destruction. The fate that capitalism inescapably promises us is either a third World War if a new system of imperialist blocs is constituted, or else the total rotting away of society accompanied by famines, epidemics and a plethora of military conflicts in which the nuclear weapons that are produced all over the place will be called into service.

The alternative is still communist revolution or the destruction of humanity. United and determined workers can disarm the minority that pulls the strings and even make atomic bombs obsolete. So we must firmly reject the old argument of the bourgeoisie that claims that from now on modern technology will prevent any proletarian revolution. Technology is the product of men and it obeys a determined policy. Imperialist policy is always strongly determined, as the events of the Second World War demonstrate, by the state of submission of the working class. The historic resurgence of the proletariat at the end of the 1960s showed what is at stake, even if the international proletariat has not yet drawn all its lessons. In those places that have escaped the ravages of war the economic crisis hits, increases hardship and reveals the bankruptcy of capitalism.

The revolutionary minorities must sieve through the experience of the past. The “midnight of the century” experienced the greatest crime that humanity has ever known but it would be still more criminal to believe that the risk of the total destruction of humanity no longer exists. It isn’t enough to denounce the current wars, revolutionary minorities must be able to analyse the secrets of the imperialist policy of the world bourgeoisie, not in order to light the fuse in every place torn apart by war today and where militarism reigns supreme but rather to show the proletariat that the struggle doesn’t take place “at the front” but is conducted “behind the lines”.

In order to fight against imperialist war, which is always with us, and struggle against the attacks of the bourgeois economic crisis the working class must undergo a whole series of struggles and experiences which will lead towards the revolutionary civil war just when the bourgeoisie believes it’s at peace. A long period of class struggle is still necessary, nothing will be easy.

The proletariat has no choice. Capitalism will lead to the destruction of humanity if the proletariat proves to be powerless to destroy it.


[1] "Report On The International Situation To The July 1945 Conference Of The Communist Left In France", International Review 59.

[2] Gregoire Madjarian, Conflits, pouvoirs et societé à la Libération. The work of Stéphane Courtois, Le PCF dans la guerre is also interesting.

[3] From the memoirs of Auguste Lecoeur, ex-right hand man of the French Stalinist leader Thorez. He was excluded after the war and is therefore freer to express the truth about the struggle which he and others lied about at the time, claiming that it was primarily a nationalist struggle.

[4] Because of the situation this movement was premature and isolated, and it was unable to have the resounding effect of the massive struggle of the Italian workers in 1943. It’s worth noting however the differences between the fearful occupation of the German military (the officers never dared go down the pits) and the dictatorship exercised by the PCF over the miners at the Liberation. A television report on France’s Channel 3 in August disclosed some amazing revelations from some of the miners who survived the "battle for production". Servants of the Gaullist government, Stalinist ministers demanded an enormous effort to the point that the mines became a graveyard - after the war. Thousand of their comrades who died of silicosis or because of mechanisation and excessive speed-ups were martyred not by the "Boche" or even by the struggle "against the Boche" but on the orders of the Stalinist minister Thorez. In order to "set the country on its feet again" Thorez didn’t hesitate to declare, "If the miners die at their post, their wives will replace them". Only in totalitarian Russia was life expectancy so short.

[5] Anti-Parliamentary Communism. The movement for Workers’ Councils, 1917-45, Mark Shipway.

[6] Report On The International Situation, July 1945.

[7] We deal with this movement in Italy in 1943 in the International Review 75.

[8] "La Paix", L’Etincelle no 5, organ of the Communist Left in France.

[9] The re-education of German prisoners in England from 1945 to 1948, Henry Faulk, Chatto and Windus, London 1977.

[10] Extract from the Report On The International Situation, Communist Left in France, July 1945, reprinted in the International Review 59, 1989.

[11] We don’t have room here to go over in detail the debates in the Italian fraction or the divergences between the different groups but the history of the Communist Left in Italy is available to our readers.

[12] See the articles: "The ambiguity of Battaglia Comunista on the question of the partisans", International Review 8, Dec 1976, "The origins of the PCI: what it claims to be, what it is", International Review 32, 1st quarter 1983 and "Concerning the origins of the PCI", International Review 34, 3rd quarter 1983.

[13] On the history of these groups see the Italian Communist Left and the International Review nos. 34, 35, 38, 39, 64, 65, 66.

[14] Quoted from Internationalisme 36, 1948, reprinted in International Review 36, 1st quarter 1984.

[15] At the time of the Gulf war we showed what bad use the currents who claim descent from the Italian Left still make of revolutionary defeatism when they called for "fraternisation between Iraqi and western soldiers" (see the article "The political proletarian milieu faced with the Gulf war", International Review 64, 1st quarter 1991). In a zone and in conditions in which the proletariat is extremely weak, to toss into the air slogans of this type that stem from anarchist voluntarism can only at best give credence to individual desertions. These comrades must ask themselves why the bourgeoisie has the means to lead local wars without worrying about the proletariat and why it is unable to unleash them in the heart of the industrialised metropoles. Worse still, these slogans, broadly taken up by all the leftist sects, are often only a fig leaf to cover support for the imperialism of the little countries oppressed by the big ones. A recent issue (no 427) of Le Prolétaire offers a slogan in the form of the smarmy title: "French imperialism out of Africa and Rwanda!" We are the first to denounce French imperialism as a butcher in its resistance to the kick in the pants that American imperialism is giving it, and it bears an enormous responsibility for the massacre of more than 500,000 human beings in Rwanda. But we would be ashamed to share a slogan with American imperialism! Such a slogan for the PCI certainly has a very "defeatist" sound to it. So what? French imperialism has effectively been defeated in Rwanda, in what way has it advanced one iota the class consciousness of the workers in France?

[16] Albert Camus.

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