Their fables and ours
World War II is a breeding ground for comforting myths, argues Paul Demarty - for both the bourgeoisie and the left
The 75th anniversary of the allied victory in Europe comes at, let us say, an interesting time, for many reasons.
Most obvious, perhaps, is the Covid-19 pandemic - one of whose effects has been to restore to public discourse a wartime grammar. And, when we British talk about wartime without qualification, it is World War II that is meant - and indeed specifically its European dimension. (Few British patriots would want to linger too long on the humiliations suffered by undermanned and underequipped troops at the hands of the Japanese in south-east Asia.)
The main melody of this ideological tune is bittersweet rather than nakedly jingoistic. That Britain had a very bad war until 1942 is surely undeniable; and so ‘wartime’-speak in this country focuses on home-front resilience (‘the spirit of the Blitz’) and heroic improvisation in the face of disaster (‘the spirit of Dunkirk’), together with a refusal to compromise with evil, even when it seemed to triumph (‘the bulldog spirit’).
But, of course, this rhetoric was not rotting in the back of a desk-drawer in Whitehall for decades until some poor Chinese people got a little too close to the wrong bat. The role of national pageantry has advanced steadily in public life over a decade of Tory rule. Michael Gove’s attempt to reclaim the memory of the 1914-18 bloodbath from leftie propaganda like Blackadder goes forth and Oh! What a lovely war, though unsuccessful, was typical of a period in which we have enjoyed four solid years of WWI memorials, two royal weddings, a Diamond Jubilee, epic films by the leading British directors of our day (Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Sam Mendes’s 1917) - and now Victory in Europe Day. WWII is the safest bet of them all - living royals have feet of clay, and the Great War is too obviously a disaster. Most of all, there is not a good enough villain in either of those. The kaiser may have been a prickly militarist and autocrat, but he is no Adolf Hitler.
Hitler, in the end, is the greatest resource of the WWII memorial industry. The grandiose cruelty of his war aims, his obscene philosophy of racial subjugation, the ranting oratory, the pogroms, and - in the end - the deliberate, industrialised extermination of millions, all contribute to this. Hitler was a calamity for the peoples of Europe, but in memory is a gift to the heirs of his opponents - not only evil in the banal way famously imputed to his servant, Adolf Eichmann, by Hannah Arendt, but radically evil, and openly perverse with respect to the traditional ideologies of European or even German superiority.1
Establishment memorialism is not really about memory, but forgetting; the radical evil of Nazism is got up, like a Guy Fawkes effigy, to be burned, in an act ultimately of misdirection. The entente powers’ decision to impose ‘victor’s justice’ through the Treaty of Versailles, the catastrophic impact of the great depression in Germany (to the point of unemployment figures reaching 40%), the ambiguity of British war aims in 1939 and after - all are obscured from view by the mass graves of Auschwitz and the smashed windows of Kristallnacht. Nazism appears on the scene not as a result of a particular historical situation, in which the ‘victors’ are morally implicated, but as a return of something deeply irrational in human nature (or perhaps just in German nature), activated by a satanic tempter with a toothbrush moustache.
The fact that this is British national propaganda, of course, smoothes over the brute fact that it was the USSR and USA who, between them, made the most serious contributions to the defeat of Hitler: the Soviets paid the blood-price and the Americans - apart from their battlefield contributions - provided material support, without which none of the Allied armies would have been much use.
All of this makes WWII interesting territory for the left. A particular case is that of the Morning Star and its Communist Party of Britain, which covered the proceedings comprehensively. A Star editorial on VE Day itself noted that, “for those who rule us, and for the well-paid tribes of scribblers who serve them, it is an opportunity to wallow in an ecstasy of hypocrisy festooned with the Union flag”. Although in 1945 “the British people were united in celebrating the end of fascist rule in Europe”, they began the war “disunited, with very many suspicious that the ruling class ... were keen to find an accommodation with [the fascist] regimes. These suspicions were not without solid foundations.”
The piece goes on to mention some of the most egregious evidence - Edward VIII’s open fascist sympathies and admiration for Hitler, British complicity in the German annexation of Czechoslovakia, etc. Neville Chamberlain’s replacement by Churchill - succinctly called an “arch-imperialist, ardent capitalist class warrior and inveterate racist” - paved the way for alliance with the USSR, and thereby a “measure of class compromise”.
So, while the British establishment congratulates itself - a hypocrisy highlighted by the replacement of the usual May bank holiday, “a celebration of workers’ unity”, with a special VE Day holiday - in reality it “belongs not to the ruling classes of Europe, which, when they could, collaborated actively with fascism, but to the mass of working people of all lands who bore the burdens of war and emerged triumphantly”.
The May 8 editorial concludes:
In memory of our half-million dead fly the Union flag if you wish, but remember that on May 8 1945 it flew alongside the hammer and sickle, the French tricolour, the stars and stripes and the flag of China in honour of our common international triumph over fascist barbarism.2
A further article by CPB general secretary Robert Griffiths hits many of the same notes, but - unlike the editorial - explicitly proposes it as a kind of patriotism. As opposed to the chauvinism of a Churchill, there is “another type of patriotism ... outlined by Soviet revolutionary leader Lenin in his article, ‘On the national pride of the great Russians’, and echoed by Georgi Dimitrov”. This patriotism “celebrates the struggles and achievements of the common people of one’s own nation against the forces of exploitation and oppression”. It is exemplified by the Soviet ‘great patriotic war’, the tenacious partisans in Nazi-occupied Europe and “the British, Welsh and Scottish [but not English ...?] patriotism which motivated and sustained ... our own armed forces in their heroic contribution to Victory in Europe”.
Griffiths is also keen to denounce efforts at writing the USSR out of this history: “The Soviet armed forces who liberated most of the extermination camps of central and eastern Europe ... [are] therefore placed on the same level as those who planned and carried out the holocaust.”3
Comrade Griffiths writes as a member of the CPB - that is, an explicit ‘official communist’ - and thus is freer with his tongue than the editors of the Star, who must maintain a safe distance as custodians of a ‘broad paper of the labour movement’. Most telling is his reference to Dimitrov, the leader of the Communist International in the 1930s and thus the architect of Comintern’s swerve from the catastrophic, sectarian ‘third period’ line, in which the social democratic parties were characterised as equivalent to - or possibly worse than - the fascists, to the popular front policy of the later 1930s and after.
The substance of the popular front was to characterise fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital”,4 and thus seek an alliance of the people - that is, beyond the limits of the workers’ movement and parties - to defeat it. Though the backbone of popular-front projects was nearly always the relevant Communist Party, these parties could not espouse their formal programmes for revolution, since that would alienate the bourgeois components of the alliance. In practice, they relied ever more on ‘social patriotism’ of the sort espoused by Griffiths.
In substance this line outlasted fascism, and indeed the Comintern; it provided the fundamental strategic coordinates for the programmes of the post-war ‘official communist’ parties, with ‘state monopoly capital’ taking the place of fascism. Among those programmes, of course, is what was first of all called the British road to socialism, but today exists as Britain’s road to socialism - the programme of the CPGB in several versions over the years, and now of the CPB.
Griffiths and the Star fly the flag for this history, without seriously confronting it. They do not mention the disastrous third-period line, which made it impossible for the workers’ movement to resist the rise of Hitler in any meaningful way, and perhaps ought to stand above forced collectivisation and the Moscow trials in the league table of Stalinist crimes, given what resulted from the Nazi dictatorship. They do not mention either that the failure of social-patriotic popular front governments aided the spread of fascism. The terms of the deal with the bourgeois parties in Spain, for example, meant that it was inadmissible to free the colonies during the civil war - that would have immediately set Franco in a pincer between Republican Spain and Morocco, but would also have fatally compromised Soviet-French diplomacy.
In France itself, the popular-front government of 1936 lasted barely two years before Léon Blum was replaced by Édouard Daladier as premier. Daladier’s role at Munich was quite as shameful as Chamberlain’s, even though he was a ‘Radical Socialist’ rather than a conservative. The resulting demoralisation contributed to the success of the French right in essentially sabotaging the war effort and bringing into being the partition of France into occupied and Vichy-governed zones.
That demoralisation was exacerbated by the other historical event that somehow escapes Griffiths’ notice - the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which was naturally accompanied by another drastic reversal in Comintern politics to third-periodism and denunciation of the Allies’ imperialist war aims. Griffiths is very concerned that Germany and the USSR should not share the war guilt, and that is doubtless right - Stalin’s strategic aim was a buffer zone between himself and Hitler, whereas Hitler’s was a vast tract of Lebensraum for German colonists stretching to the Urals, forming the basis for a 1,000-year Reich. If we are to air the bourgeoisie’s dirty linen, however, we cannot pretend that our own used undies smell of roses. This is especially the case if we are a down-the-line ‘official communist’ like Griffiths, and very keen on singing the praises of the ‘Great Patriotic War’. We cannot ignore the embarrassing fact that, between the summer of 1939 and that of 1941, the arch-imperialist, Churchill, was committed to defeating Hitler (to defend the empire), and the anti-imperialist Communist Parties were not (to defend Soviet diplomacy).
Despite the bitter legacy of Molotov-Ribbentrop, the Star and Griffiths are right that the forces available in practice to the anti-fascist resistance in Europe, west and east, were overwhelmingly communist or communist-influenced. (Bourgeois ideologues who make a ‘totalitarian’ amalgam out of Nazism and communism simply brush this reality out of existence, preferring to venerate the few noteworthy ‘respectable’ martyrs of the struggle instead.) Though their propaganda was frequently merely ‘patriotic’, and even chauvinist with regard to the Germans, it is rather difficult to blame them, given the exploits of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS in their countries. The result was a transformed political landscape in Europe. The eastern European countries that became Stalinist regimes could only do so because there existed some local support for the communists. In France and Italy, the communist parties enjoyed mass support and enormous prestige.
So the stage was set for the next act - the cold war, which was fought quietly amid the ruins of old Europe, and rather louder in Asia, Africa and the Americas. The United States achieved global leadership over the capitalist world, and increasingly outstripped the malfunctioning Stalinist economies, dividing them politically and ensnaring several of them in western debt. Its supremacy seemed unassailable after 1991; but now we mark the signs of its own decline, which was never more obvious than today, with a crypto-isolationist idiot for a president and a wider political establishment in complete disarray. What there isn’t - yet - is an obvious successor.
The two world wars bookend the death spiral of British global hegemony - a process that cost 130 million lives in those two conflicts. While the first of them ended with a lot of ‘never again’ solemnising, the path to the second was laid out almost immediately with the terms of the peace: the only real alternative, as the principled socialists of the time realised, was social revolution, which - by doing away with the corrosive logic of the inter-state competition endemic to capitalism - could euthanise British power, rather than waiting for it to bring forth a monster to tear it apart, as actually happened.
This, in the end, is the problem with Griffiths’ ‘patriotism’ - and, indeed, with similar concoctions, from Billy Bragg to Blue Labour. The Lenin article he mentions uses ‘patriotism’ to advance an alternative canon of brave revolutionary opponents of tsarism to the ‘Great Russians’ of the official histories. To call this patriotism is inexact, but then the trouble is that it is a rather inexact word. In Griffiths’ hands, it is merely standard popular frontism: that is, it is an alternative general framework for our political interactions to explicit advocacy of socialist transformation on an international basis, which was still in theory the purpose of the Comintern parties in 1935, but had devolved into a hundred British, French, etc ‘roads to socialism’ (all of which were, ironically, substantially equivalent). Though he does not mention Brexit, the CPB’s Brexitism is one particularly egregious outworking of this abandonment: it is assumed that this ‘progressive’ patriotism is ultimately at work in the vote to leave the European Union, and that therefore one must fight for leftwing governments to move towards socialism on this basis to prevent its betrayal by the Tories - a strategy as subjectively implausible as it is objectively fantastical.
If we are to face a similar crisis in American power to that faced by Britain in 1914-45, we had better do a better job, or the cost will be far greater, in this age of nuclear arsenals and drone warfare. That means dispensing with our own comforting myths and facing up to the complications of our own history. It is to be hoped that we have more success than the British ruling class, which is now entirely consumed by its own apologetics.
Compare the notorious Manifesto of the Ninety-Three of 1914 (a statement signed by leading German intellectuals, in which Germany’s military conduct was defended in the name of Goethe, Beethoven and Kant - that is, of liberal, humanist civilisation) to Hitler’s repudiation of such ideals and open support for annexations, mass enslavement and murder.↩︎