From Socialist Voice, May 2005

Sixtieth anniversary of the defeat of fascism

On the 9th of May the peoples of Europe and the world marked the sixtieth anniversary of the ending of the Second World War and the defeat of German fascism. This anniversary has once again given the forces of the right and the political establishment throughout Europe an opportunity to engage in an aggressive anti-communist campaign.
    The subject of these attacks has been the history and the role played by the Soviet Union in the anti-fascist struggles of the 1930s and 40s. For people who consider themselves Marxists it is important to use the tools of our political ideology to look deeper into the forces, the processes and the historical conditions under which socialism was being built, the strengths and the conditions the left struggled under, the level of political development, what forces and struggles shaped that particular historical period.
    The roots of the Second World War lay in the outcome of the First World War. (Even the term “world war” is incorrect, because it involved in the main only European imperialist powers, which drew those countries and peoples that they colonised into their fight for imperial domination.) The reparations that Germany, the defeated power after the First World War, had to pay to the victor countries caused great hardship for the German people, as well as for banks and corporations. These repayments also coincided with the major economic slump throughout the capitalist countries of Europe and North America.
    The rise of fascism within the European imperial powers was a product of the crisis of capitalism and the inability of the ruling elites to rule in the old way. Fascism was their last line of defence. Another contributing factor was the carnage and the immense loss of life resulting from the slaughter in Europe in the struggle of the elites to carve up the colonial possessions of their competitors.
    Millions of workers and demobbed soldiers and their families were left destitute. Their understanding of who was responsible for the carnage, and who benefited, was clear to millions. The workers’ movement, in particular communist forces, grew in strength at the end of the First World War, inspired by the success of the Bolsheviks and the Russian Revolution. The revolution inspired millions of workers around the globe.
    In its infancy the Russian Revolution came under huge pressure from internal reaction, in alliance with fifteen foreign armies, which invaded Russia in their efforts to stamp out the workers’ revolution.
    The Russia in which the Bolsheviks came to power had huge problems, drained by the massive loss of life during the war, with a small but developed capitalist basis. The vast majority of the population were peasants, with workers forming a minority. It covered one-sixth of the world’s land surface. Social development ranged from a small working class to a large peasantry, with primitive tribes, feudalism, and deep religious fundamentalism in the southern states. The North Caucasus was a patchwork of small nationalities and clans. (Since the dismantling of the Soviet Union, these differences have re-emerged with a vengeance.)
    They inherited a country devastated by war, with very poor infrastructure, massive poverty, and the bulk of the population illiterate, with ethnic and religious tensions, surrounded by hostile forces, invaded, blockaded, and boycotted.
    The Bolsheviks were a small party made up of workers, peasants, soldiers, and intellectuals. They had to rebuild a ruined country on a vast scale with limited resources. There were no plans or blueprints, no benefit of hindsight to draw upon. No-one had ever attempted to build socialism before. So indeed many mistakes were made. Revolutions are living, human processes: they are human constructs. Revolutions are the working out of contradictions within society to propel society forward to solve those contradictions. The outcome is never sure or clear-cut; one key factor is the degree of a coherent revolutionary leadership of the process.
    So the Bolsheviks had to deal with both objective and subjective factors in very difficult conditions and new and unknown political terrain. They grappled with many problems, not without a great deal of internal debate and division on strategy and tactics. We also have to take into consideration the subjective approach of some of the prominent individuals central to the leadership of the Bolsheviks. The untimely death of Lenin, the great strategist and tactician, left a vacuum within the leadership.
    Another factor that needs to be considered is the impact that the Civil War and the war of intervention had on the emerging new state, the role played by internal security organisations, and the feeling of isolation that bore down upon the fledgling state and the turning in upon itself.
    In the rest of Europe in the 1920s and 30s, fascism was on the rise as capitalism was having great difficulty in finding a way out of what was known as the “great depression,” in which tens of millions of workers were unemployed, starving, and homeless. In the 1930s Portugal, Spain, Germany, Greece and Italy fell under fascist control. In many European countries there was the emergence of strong fascist movements; what they all had in common was complete opposition to workers’ organisations, such as trade unions and political parties of the left. Under the “non-intervention” policy, Britain, France and the United States refused to aid the elected Republican government in Spain, while fascist Germany and Italy armed and aided the fascist generals, and the Soviet Union armed and supported the elected government.
    The Soviets had therefore a lot of experience of the duplicity of the western powers. They also understood the very nature of fascism.
    The Soviet Union, despite past experiences with western powers, attempted to build anti-fascist unity with both Britain and France, but to no avail. They were conscious of the desire of certain British, French and American interests to use Nazism against them. As a last resort, the Soviets signed a pact with Germany in order to buy time to allow the removal of factories and other infrastructure beyond the Ural Mountains and to build the necessary military defences. The Red Army had suffered heavy losses from the Civil War and the war of intervention, and the purges of the 30s had weakened its capacity to rebuild.
    This pact did cause a great deal of confusion within the world communist movement at the time. It caused a lot of soul-searching. Many were torn between supporting the young Soviet state and their own experience and understanding of fascism. Communists and other democrats in Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain and Portugal were suffering greatly under fascism at that time. The majority of communist parties came down on the side of the pact, recognising that it was only a matter of time before the fascists attacked the Soviet Union.
    The Soviet Union carried the hopes of millions, and its survival was primary, most importantly to the Soviet people but also for workers and communists around the world. Things that they may have believed to be wrong were put aside in the interests of the survival of the great experiment that was the Soviet Union.
    Many things that happened at the time and that have only come to light, such as the handing over of German and Austrian communists by the Soviets to the fascists, were wrong and indefensible.
    The “Molotov-Ribbentrop” and “Stalin-Hitler” agreements can be looked at in a number of ways. One was that Stalin was a fool and naïve; or was he attempting to turn the tables on France and Britain? Both imperial powers wanted fascism to attack the Soviet Union and smash Bolshevism. The British wanted to steer Hitler eastwards to complete what they tried to do in 1919, while the Soviets wanted to delay Hitler and, if not, to force a conflict on the western front first. So the Soviets were attempting to play the British at their own game.
    When war did break out, two-thirds of the fascist army was amassed on the Soviet front. It was the heroic sacrifice of the people that tore the guts out of the fascist forces and liberated most of Europe.

• We will deal with the aftermath of the world war in the next issue of Socialist Voice.

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