[Marxism] RE: Communist tasks

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Feb 18 07:26:05 MST 2004

Walter Lippmann wrote:
> Of course in the old SWP they thought it
> made no difference who won World War II, either.
> After all, it was just an inter-imperialist conflict, so
> the outcome was a matter of indifference to its eloquent
> editorialists.

Sent: Tuesday, January 27, 2004 4:57 PM
Subject: Re: Macdonald on WWII
 From Alan Wald awald at umich.edu

I think that Leo Casey oversimplifies considerably when he builds upon 
Dwight Macdonald's quote to assert that it was:

"the official position of most Trotskyists throughout the war, who -- 
with classic ideological rigidity -- simply saw WW II as a replay of WW 
I. The position that WW II was simply another inter-imperialist war is 
the Trotskyist equivalent of the Stalinist's support for the 
Hitler-Stalin Pact."

It is possible that Hook, in the mid-1930s, saw the coming WWII as 
simply "a replay of WWI," and that may be parallel to the CP view at the 
time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. But the published writings of Trotsky 
show that this was not the view of Trotsky himself at the time the war 
broke out in Europe (after 1939), when he said: "The present war, as we 
have stated on more than one occasion, is a continuation of the last 
war. But a continuation does not signify a repetition. As a general 
rule, a continuation signifies a development, a deepening, a sharpening."

Was this refusal to call WWII a "replay" just rhetoric, or did it mean 
something in practice? Again, Trotsky's writings show that he moved from 
his original WWI position of proposing a two stage approach (first 
overthrow our own capitalist system through "revolutionary defeatism," 
then defend the new society) to a one stage approach (fight in the 
capitalist-run army against fascism in a disciplined manner, but 
maintain ideological agitation for one's socialist alternative).

Some followers of Trotsky carried this out faithfully. For example, 
James P. Cannon, leader of the SWP (which was the largest Trotskyist 
group in the US), stated in Sept. 1940: "We didn't visualize, nobody 
visualized, a world situation in which whole countries would be 
conquered by fascist armies. The workers don't want to be conquered by 
foreign invaders, above all by the fascists. They require a program of 
military struggle against foreign invaders which assures their class 
independence." In the SWP's paper, THE MILITANT, the leading Trotskyist 
attorney, Albert Goldman, wrote that Hitler was "the greatest enemy of 
the working class" and that the SWP advocated that "all those we 
influence must go to war and do what they are told by the 
capitalists....we would not prevent war materials being shipped to fight 
Germany and Japan." Of course, in Europe Trotskyists worked militarily 
where they could with the anti-fascist partisans. Later on, adherents of 
this WWII perspective (Steve Roberts, Ernest Mandel), produced studies 
of WWII arguing that it was actually a number of different kinds of wars 
occurring simultaneously, each of which involved different analyses and 
strategic responses. (Sources for the above quotations, and similar 
ones, can be found in my 1987 book, THE NEW YORK INTELLECTUALS, pp. 

Dwight Macdonald's approach to WWII was from a revolutionary pacifist 
position, which is quite different from Trotsky's and the Trotskyists. I 
think it is fair to say that Max Shachtman's Workers Party started with 
a view closer to McDonald's, although Shachtman's WP was not pacifist. 
At first the WP actually advocated draft resistance, then, for different 
reasons, came to a position close to the SWP in practice (even expelling 
draft dodgers). Other intellectuals influenced by Trotskyism, such as 
Clement Greenberg and Meyer Schapiro (under the pseudonym. David Merian) 
also expressed views on WWII in their own ways. So did the ENQUIRY group 
(Irving Kristol et al), which had departed from Shachtman's WP.

No doubt some varieties of Trotskyists accused the SWP of selling out to 
imperialism in its WWII position, and others suggested that the SWP was 
actually supporting the war because it was really pro-Soviet. It is 
possible that today, some groups or individuals claiming to be the true 
heirs of the "Cannon" tradition may oversimplify the WWII analysis of 
the SWP to something along the lines of Leo Casey's summary, especially 
if oversimplification is characteristic of their general outlook. 
However, the written record of Trotsky, and all these diverse groups and 
individuals connected with "Trotskyism" at the time (WWII), along with 
the actual record (not anecdotes) of activities of members of groups, is 
the most accurate guide.

Of course, much of the prevailing Trotskyist analysis, even of the SWP, 
was certainly off the mark to various degrees on many points--especially 
the beliefs that the USA would itself turn totalitarian during war time; 
that liberal capitalism would not be able to defeat fascism; that WWII 
would be followed by a wave of liberating socialist revolutions in 
Europe, and that the Stalinist regime might well be toppled by a genuine 
workers' revolt; etc. (True enough, an "apologist" for orthodox 
Trotyskyism could note that there was war-time repression and that the 
SWP leaders themselves were jailed; but, to me, this repression was 
hardly totalitarianism. Likewise, there were post-war social 
transformations in China and Eastern Europe, but I myself don't believe 
that these were of the kind predicted by the Trotskyists.) At the same 
time, the skepticism of Cannon, Shachtman, et al about the official 
ideology of WWII, their support of the right of workers to strike even 
in wartime, their opposition to Japanese-American internment, their 
consistent opposition to the segregated military (and support to A. 
Phillip Randolph's March on Washington, opposed by the CP), and their 
outrage at the dropping of the Atom Bomb on Japan (again, in contrast to 
the CP's celebration of it), are important, positive contributions to a 
broader, reconstructed radical tradition in the USA. Even Macdonald's 
WWII writings, despite his (wholly unacceptable, to me) position of 
opposing military struggle against Hitler, are extremely valuable in 
affirming a legacy of the need to defend democratic rights during war 
and expose atrocities, even in the face of accusations of lack of 

In my personal opinion, characterrizing as "ultra-left insanity" the 
range of views that actually took place in the context of understanding 
of WWII as "a clash of rival imperialisms" is hardly conducive to a 
dialogue among scholars seeking to understand the diversities and 
complexities of Left theory and practice. Among more recent figures of 
note, that basic anti-imperialist stance was promoted by A. J. Muste (a 
revolutionary pacifist) and Howard Zinn. They may be mistaken in many 
respects, but neither was/is insane.

Alan Wald, English Dept.,
University of Michigan. 3187 Angell Hall,
Ann Arbor, Mi. 48109-1003.


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