Revolutionaries in Britain and the struggle against imperialist war, Part 4: How the Trotskyists enlisted in WW2

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In the concluding part of this series by an ICC sympathiser, we examine the failure of the Trotskyist movement to uphold an internationalist position and draw some conclusions about the response of proletarian political groups to the Second World War.

The Trotskyists

The Fourth International was founded on the basis that capitalism was in its ‘death throes’, but unlike the Italian Communist Left which defended the same position, Trotsky concluded from this that revolution was on the immediate agenda (1). As the historic course opened towards generalised imperialist war, this led him to defend increasingly dangerous opportunist positions, including:

-               support for bourgeois democracy as a ‘lesser evil’ against fascism;

-               unconditional defence of the Soviet Union;

-               support for ‘national liberation’.

Even before the Second World War these positions led the Trotskyists to take sides in inter-imperialist wars: for example, with the democratic imperialisms against fascism in Spain; Stalinist Russia against Poland and Finland, and China against Japan.

These positions were enshrined in the Transitional Pro­gramme; a series of demands supposed to be impossible for capitalism to grant, therefore demonstrating the system’s bankruptcy and pushing the working class to struggle for its destruction. At the beginning of the Second World War, Trotsky set out the main lines of a ‘Proletarian Military Policy’ (PMP), which was essentially an application of the transitional programme to a period of universal war and militarism, centred on the demand for compulsory milit­ary training under the control of the trade unions (2).

Trotsky himself remained faithful to internationalism, affirming in his manifesto on the war that: “…the Fourth International builds its policy not on the military fortunes of the capitalist states but on the transformation of the imperialist war into a war of the workers against the capitalists…” (3). But the policies he outlined put the Trotskyist movement on an extremely steep, slippery slope towards abandoning an internationalist position, and supporting the participation of the workers in an imperialist war in the name of defending democracy against fascism. Trotsky argued:  

“We cannot escape from the militarisation, but inside the machine we can observe the class line. The American workers do not want to be conquered by Hitler, and to those who say ‘Let us have a peace program,’ the worker will reply, ‘But Hitler does not want a peace program.’ Therefore we say: We will defend the United States with a workers’ army, with workers’ officers, with a workers’ government…”

The role of the Trotskyists was to actively participate in this war for democracy as “the best soldiers and the best officers and at the same time [sic] the best class militants” (4). In his zeal to distance himself from pacifists and liberals, Trotsky even went as far as advocating American military intervention in Europe as the best way to defend democracy in America (5). After Trotsky’s murder by the Stalinists in August 1940, it was left to the members of the Fourth International, led by its largest section the American Socialist Workers’ Party, to turn his proposals into a practical intervention.

In Britain in 1939 the two main Trotskyist groups were the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), which was the official section of the Fourth International; and the Workers’ International League (WIL), formed from a split in 1937.  Both groups denounced the British bourgeoisie’s war preparations and raised internationalist slogans: ‘Turn the imperialist war into a civil war’, ‘The enemy is in your own country’.

However, other aspects of the Trotskyist programme undermined this opposition:

-               Both groups spread illusions in the Labour Party and the trade unions as mass bodies belonging to the working class. Far from warning workers against the dangers of these capitalist organs, which were essential to the bourgeoisie for mobilising workers behind a war to defend democracy, they called for the election of a Labour government with a full ‘socialist’ (i.e. state capitalist) programme, supposedly to ‘expose it in front of the masses.’

-               Both groups clung to the un-Marxist idea that Russia was still a ‘workers’ state’ because ‘collectivised property relations’ and a ‘planned economy’ existed there, which must therefore be defended. Even after the Hitler-Stalin pact and the Red Army’s invasion of Finland and Poland, they denied that the Stalinist regime had any imperialist designs, and even saw a ‘progressive side’ to Stalin’s occupation of eastern Poland because he had taken measures like expropriating private landlords (6).

Both the RSL and the WIL raised transitional demands before the war, but it was the WIL which enthusiastically took up the Proletarian Military Policy - thus solving the problem for the Trotskyists of raising such demands inside the capitalist war machine during wartime - while the RSL began to break up and became increasingly inactive. Differences opened up after the German invasion of France in 1940. The WIL explained the victory of fascism as due to the French bourgeoisie’s reluctance to fight for fear of arming the workers. To prevent an invasion of Britain the WIL raised the slogan, ‘arm the workers’, and criticised the British capitalist class for “...refusing to take the one course which would doom any invasion, however formidable, to inevitable futility and defeat: the arming, mobilising and organising of the entire working class for resistance, factory by factory, street by street, house by house.”

The WIL posed the problem as one of transforming the imperialist war, not into a civil war, but “a genuine revolutionary war against Hitlerism” (7), thus crossing the line from internationalism to national defence. The slogan ‘arm the workers’ put forward at the height of an invasion scare could only lead the workers to defend their ‘own’ capitalist state.  

Nor was this just a matter of abstract propaganda; it led in practice to support for the increased exploitation of the working class in order to produce guns and material for the imperialist war. The WIL was activist and gained some influence among industrial workers as the war went on and strikes grew. While it opposed the Stalinist-controlled Joint Production Committees, which tied workers to ferocious levels of exploitation in the cause of anti-fascism, the WIL argued that production could be increased as long as it was under ‘workers’ control’. It gave uncritical support to the Trotskyist-led shop stewards’ committee in the Nottingham Royal Ordnance Factory, which was briefly granted control by the management over production and pay, and where output of guns duly rose. An additional justification was that the guns were intended to aid the Russian war effort. In reality of course the workers had no control whatsoever over how the British bourgeoisie directed its war material; and even if the guns did get to Russia they were weapons in the struggle of the democratic gangsters – with their ally, the butcher Stalin - against their fascist rivals.

The WIL’s active support for the war effort was no aberration but the logical consequence of its enthusiastic adoption of the Proletarian Military Policy developed by the American SWP, which publicly declared that it had no intention of sabotaging the war or obstructing America’s military forces in any way. Put on trial for conspiracy in 1941, the SWP’s leaders, far from denouncing the war or calling for the overthrow of the capitalist state, publicly declared their support for a war against Hitler as long as it was under the leadership of a ‘workers’ and farmers’ government’(8).

This open defence of social patriotic views provoked a reaction from some in the Trotskyist movement, particularly Grandizo Munis of the exiled Spanish section, the Revolutionary Communists of Austria (RKD), and the Greek Trotskyist Agis Stinas (9). At first a minority in the WIL also opposed the new line, criticising it as a concession to defencism, but they soon gave in and the policy was confirmed. The centre and left factions of the RSL opposed it, while the right – closely allied to the WIL - supported it.  The RSL criticised the WIL for pandering to chauvinism in the working class, and identified the PMP as a symptom of the degeneration of the Fourth International towards the bourgeoisie (10). But when the RSL and the WIL merged in March 1944 it was on the basis of the latter’s positions, and the new organisation, the Revolutionary Communist Party, overwhelmingly adopted the PMP with the full backing of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International.

Trotskyist historians have since tried to play down the significance of this betrayal, claiming that the PMP was merely a tactic, applicable only in certain circumstances, and later dropped. Any errors committed by the WIL or other groups were similarly tactical or the result of polemical excess. In fact, as we have seen, the PMP was devised by Trotsky himself as the specific means of applying the Trotskyist transitional programme in wartime. It became the official position of the Fourth International and was promoted as such by its central organs. Far from being in any way repudiated, the policy and its wartime application were confirmed at the FI’s first post-war congress in 1948. At this point, those revolutionaries who had remained faithful to internationalism, like Munis, Stinas and the RKD (and later Natalia Trotsky), were forced to break definitively with the Trotskyist movement.

Nor was the PMP the only means by which the Trotskyists betrayed internationalism.  As we have seen, the slogan of ‘unconditional defence of the Soviet Union’ also led them to give practical support for the war.  Only those revolutionaries who were able to recognise that proletarian internationalism was their primary duty in an imperialist war, and who rejected any support for the counter-revolutionary Russian state, were able to avoid the betrayal of internationalism.


The response of political groups in Britain to the Second World War highlights the crucial importance for revolutionaries of opposing any support whatsoever for bourgeois democracy. Any concession to the idea that workers should fight to defend democracy against fascism led straight into the arms of the democratic capitalist gangsters, who did not hesitate to use the horrors of Nazism as an alibi for their own sordid imperialist interests.  This is precisely the trap that the Trotskyists plunged headlong into with their call to ‘arm the workers’ for ’a revolutionary war against Hitler’.

For the anarchists of the Freedom group, the trap was sprung earlier, in Spain, where their uncritical support for the capitalist ‘Popular Front’ government led them to take sides under the reactionary banner of anti-fascism, thus passing over to the enemy camp. The heavy influence of anarchism also led the weak council communist current to take sides in this war, and only the split of the anarchist faction – together with the admittedly weak influence of the communist left - allowed the APCF to climb out of this trap and defend a basic internationalist position in the Second World War.

In between these two currents, the grouping around Spain and the World and War Commentary avoided the trap of anti-fascism to a certain extent, but did not break with other aspects of anarchism. As with the Friends of Durruti group in Spain, rather than demonstrating the vitality of the anarchist movement, it expressed the resistance by proletarian elements to anarchism’s betrayals, while its failure to break clearly from anarchist positions weakened its ability to make an organised intervention with clear political perspectives for the class struggle.

In splendid isolation from events, while avoiding an open betrayal, the SPGB still managed to add its own dose of mystification about the war and democratic rights, and showed its unhealthy respect for the niceties of bourgeois legality by giving up any anti-war activity in the face of the threat of suppression by the democratic state.

The profound defeats suffered by the proletariat after 1921 meant that it entered the Second World War with a much more unfavourable balance of forces than the first.  Does this mean that the defence of internationalism was of symbolic value only? The class struggle did not stop during wartime and there were important strikes in Britain towards the end, in which it was important for a revolutionary voice to be heard – against the reactionary slogans of the Trotskyists and the vague educational efforts of the anarchists. The strike waves in Italy and Germany and elsewhere testify to the combativity of the proletariat even in the most difficult conditions, and it was the duty of revolutionaries in all these struggles to provide a clear communist intervention.s

In the period of counter-revolution – of which the world war was the ultimate expression - the watchword, as the Italian Left understood, was ‘No betrayal!’. The surviving minorities of revolutionaries in Britain – very, very weak and confused – nevertheless represented the political continuity between the ‘old’ workers’ movement and the proletarian party of the future. Internationalism was the unbroken thread, an essential position in the communist programme of humanity. Even in the extremely hazardous conditions of occupied Europe, under threat from the Gestapo, local police and Stalinist assassins, elements of the surviving communist left undertook anti-war activity, issuing leaflets calling on soldiers to fraternise, etc. This is an example of internationalism in action that revolutionaries must take as their inspiration: the watchword of the workers’ movement, ‘workers’ of the world unite!’, is still our first duty today.   MH

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