Duncan Hallas

Wars within wars

(March 1987)

Book review, Socialist Worker Review, No.96, March 1987, pp.30-1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Meaning of the Second World War
Ernest Mandel
Verso, £6.95

THE MERIT of this book is that, cutting through both official and popular myths, it lays bare the real roots of the war in class terms.

It was not a war against fascism. It was not a war for democracy. It was a war between a number of powers, a number of rival blocs of capital, for the domination of the world.

Mandel writes:

“Capitalism implies competition. With the emergence of large corporations and cartels-ic, the advent of monopoly capitalism-this competition assumed a new dimension. It became qualitatively more politico-economic and therefore military-economic.”

That is the heart of the matter and it is amply demonstrated in this book. Unfortunately Mandel weakens the presentation by sweeping, unsubstantial and sometimes downright wrong statements.

Thus the timing of Hitler’s attack on Poland is attributed to narrowly economic calculations, which is nonsense.

More important, after establishing that the Second World War, like the First, was an imperialist war, he calls it “a logical and inevitable outcome of World War One”.

Of course it was not inevitable, nor does Mandel himself believe his statement. Leaving aside the revolutionary possibilities in Europe in the immediate aftermath of 1917-18, a whole series of working class defeats was necessary to make another general imperialist war possible.

To mention only some of them – the failure of the German revolution in 1923, the defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1925-7, the catastrophe of Hitler’s victory in 1933, the strangling of the Spanish revolution by the Popular Front in 1936-8 – all these events and more paved the road to World War II. Mandel makes this very point elsewhere in the book.

This is not a mere quibble, because the example is not an isolated one.

Nor is one’s confidence in Mandel’s judgement enhanced by his attempt to expound the “partial rationality” of the mass extermination of the Jews (pp 92-3).

Anti-semitism was a necessary weapon of German fascism. The extermination programme, carded out during the desperate struggle on the Eastern Front, was not. It involved a substantial diversion of scarce resources of personnel, transport. etc. and the destruction of a large reservoir of usable labour – which was in very short supply by early 1943.

It was not rational from the standpoint of German imperialism. It was the outcome of the sheer bloody barbarism and irrationality of Hitler’s regime.

The war, then, was an imperialist war – but it was not simply an imperialist war. The first breach in the precarious and partial world hegemony of the British and French empires came in Asia. In 1931 Japan invaded and conquered Manchuria. The Anglo-French (and US) response was mere protest. In 1937 a full scale Japanese invasion of China followed.

Now, from a Leninist point of view, the two sides were not equivalent-although the two governments were equally vicious and reactionary. China was a semi-colonial country, Japan a purely imperialist one.

Trotsky’s position was unequivocal. Revolutionary internationalists must be for the military defence of China in spite of, and independently of, the treacherous, semi-collaborationist and ultra-reactionary regime of Chiang Kai-shek. Not revolutionary defeatism, but revolutionary defencism must be the line of Chinese revolutionaries.

Then, at the end of 1941, Japan and the USA went to war and the Sino-Japanese war became part of the world war between the two great imperialist coalitions.

Should Chinese revolutionaries have changed their position? Was the situation now analogous to that of Serbia in August 1914 (i.e. – as Lenin argued – military defence of an isolated Serbia against Austrian imperialism, but that consideration was outweighed by the imperialist character of the war as a whole) or was it qualitatively different?

The Chinese Trotskyists split on the issue. Who was right?

Astonishingly Mandel does not discuss the matter. Mandel does not discuss the attitudes of Trotskyists to the European resistance movements either – though he knows as well as anyone that the French Trotskyists were deeply divided about it.

Nor does he discuss divisions among both British and American Trotskyists as to what position to take on the war.

Now, admittedly, these are difficult questions, but for Mandel, a leading figure in an international tendency claiming Trotsky’s mantle, not to mention the actual positions of the Trotskyists and the divisions amongst them, is truly scandalous.

On one question, though, Mandel is unequivocal: the duty of revolutionaries is to defend the USSR in spite of Stalin’s terror.

That was Trotsky’s position till his death (arid Tony Cliff’s too during the war). Again, however, the awkward questions are avoided: given that position (military defencism, no political support) what about Russian expansion in 1944-5?

Was the expansion of Stalin’s power in some sense progressive and so to be supported? The issue revolved around the question of agitating for the withdrawal of all occupying forces in Europe. After some hesitation Mandel came to support the call for withdrawal of the armies (including the Red Army).

But then came the Cold War and Mandel, like so many others, changed his tune.

The bourgeois Bonapartist regimes of Eastern Europe (Mandel’s description of them as late as 1948) suddenly became workers’ states (albeit “deformed”).

The reader will not be surprised to learn that Mandel does not discuss this turnabout either.

To summarise: this book has its uses and should be read. But a revolutionary, candid or critical account it is not.


Last updated on 27.12.2003