David Osler is Upset

I like David Osler, I might not agree with him, but I like him. Despite this, I cannot allow his latest blog post to stand without commenting. He has taken umbrage at Professor Colin Shindler’s essay in the Jewish Chronicle which posed the counterfactual:  “What would have been the reaction of the British left if Adolf Hitler had been victorious in 1940 and successfully conquered the United Kingdom?”

Shindler comments on the Nazi-Soviet pact, and Osler accepts that it is not an earth-shattering unheard piece of news “That the Soviet Union aided the Nazi war effort between 1939 and 1941.” However, Osler argues that his own “best guess” is “that the bulk of the Communist Party of Great Britain would have shown the same bravery as the volunteers that went to Spain only a few years previously.” Osler does not say how the CPGB members would have been brave. He specifically ignores the fact that the CPGB toed the Soviet line and its members justified anything that Stalin did. That is why, even though some had reservations, the Central Committee of the CPGB fell behind the Soviet line that the war was Imperialist and Britain’s involvement was not to be supported.[1]

In order to get an idea how the Communist Party in Britain might have acted, it is instructive to consider the actions of the German Communist Party (KPD) when Hitler was rising to power. Conan Fischer points out that in 1932 the KPD proposed United Action. Posters appeared in Germany “showing Communist, Nazi and Socialist workers standing shoulder to shoulder in class solidarity against the bourgeoisie.” In fact, the term United Action was used because the Communists did not want to use the term Anti-Fascist Action as it would alienate the Nazis! [2] The KPD, backed by Russia, ensured that Hitler could finally take power. One former German Communist commented that Zinoviev said to him in 1933, “Apart from the German Social Democrats, Stalin bears the main responsibility to history for Hitler’s victory.” [3]

It should therefore be no surprise that in August 1939 that Communists such as Sean O’Casey, himself on the editorial board of the Daily Worker, demanded peace with Hitler. [4]

But what really has upset Osler is Shindler’s remarks on Trotskyists and WWII. Shindler said that for Leon Trotsky and many of his supporters, “There was little to choose between the Axis and the Allies, between Hitler and Churchill.”  Osler was not amused. He claims that “The majority [of the Fourth International] adopted a policy of supporting the war effort while agitating for it be come [sic] under workers’ control.” Rather than Osler’s claim, which is not sourced, we can look at what the Fourth International actually said. Between May 19 and May 26, 1940, the Fourth International held an emergency conference and adopted a manifesto. They made clear that the war that was occurring was not a war that they supported. Indeed , the opposite was the case. The manifesto explicitly stated: “we mobilize the women and youth against the war.” It also contained the following:

The victory of the imperialists of Great Britain and France would be not less frightful for the ultimate fate of mankind than that of Hitler and Mussolini. Bourgeois democracy cannot be saved. By helping their bourgeoisie against foreign fascism, the workers would only accelerate the victory of fascism in their own country. [5]

Britain and France were placed on the same moral level as Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Trotsky himself took the view that the chances for the revolution would be better if democracies collapsed and the Nazis conquered Europe because: “Hitler will have too many worries in Berlin to be able successfully to fulfill the role of executioner in Paris, Brussels or London.” Trotsky’s view was “From the standpoint of a revolution in one’s own country the defeat of one’s own imperialist government is undoubtedly a ‘lesser evil.’” As far as Trotsky was concerned, Churchill winning the war was not in the interests of the revolutionary socialists, what was of interest and indeed a “lesser evil” was Churchill and the British government being defeated.[6]

This anti-war stance was reflected among British Trotskyists. While Chamberlain was frantically rearming, British Trotskyists were arguing for disarmament. Leading British Trotskyist Ted Grant argued that any support for rearmament was “a betrayal of the working class.” He was explicit:

A struggle must be waged in the Labour movement against all war preparations. We must fight against the real cause of war, and against the people that benefit from it. Our enemy is not the German, Italian or French workers. It is capitalism everywhere. Our strongest blows must be directed against our main enemy, British capitalism at home.[7]

The absurdity of the policies of the Trotskyists in Europe relative to World War II can be noted by, for example, by looking at the Dutch Trotskyists. Despite the fact Holland had been successfully invaded by Nazi Germany in May 1940, Dutch Trotskyists argued that it was a “gratifying phenomenon” that workers in the Allied countries had “wielded the strike weapon.” They declared that Social Democrats wishing for the victory of the Allies “show that they have understood absolutely nothing of Marxism.”[8]

Osler argues that “The very suggestion that the British Trot groups were in any sense a fifth column is utterly distasteful.”  Despite Osler’s distaste, British Trotskyists were opposed to Britain rearming, they were opposed to Chamberlain/Churchill going to war with Germany, and Trotskyists supported strike action, which could have harmed the war effort. When the British government was trying to rally the nation behind its war effort, British Trotskyists were arguing that the “main enemy” was not Nazi Germany and fascist Italy but the British government.


[1] Andrew Thorpe, The British Communist Party and Moscow 1920-1943, (Manchester University Press, 2000) pp. 258-259.
[2] Conan Fischer, “Class Enemies or Class Brothers? Communist Nazi Relations in Germany 1929-33,”European History Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 3, July 1985 p. 271.
[3] Robert C. Tucker, “The Emergence of Stalin’s Foreign Policy,” Slavic Review, Vol. 36. No. 4. (December 1977) p.584.
[4] George Watson, “The Eye-Opener of 1939 or How the World Saw the Nazi-Soviet Pact,” History Today, Vol 54. No. 8. August 2004, pp. 48-53.
[5] Manifesto of the Fourth International on Imperialist War and the Imperialist War: Imperialist War And The Proletarian World Revolution, Adopted by the Emergency Conference of the Fourth International, May 19-26, 1940. Available online.
[6] Leon Trotsky, “We Do Not Change Our Course,”  Fourth International, Vol 1, No. 5, October 1940, pp.135-137. Available online.
[7] Ted Grant, “Against ‘National Defence,’” Youth for Socialism, vol. 1 no. 7 (March 1939).  Available online.
[8] The imperialist war and the proletarian class struggle, A political declaration of the Comite van Revolutionnaire Marxisten (CRM), August 1943 translated and republished in Revolutionary History Vol. 1, No. 4, Winter 1988-1989 and available online.

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