J.R. Johnson

Labor and the Second World War

(31 October 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 83, 31 October 1939, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


The Rise of the Socialist Movement

Each imperialism had to contend not only with rival imperialisms abroad, but with an even more deadly enemy the organized workers at home.

Monopoly capitalism increased the concentration of great masses of workers into large units of industry, which facilitated their organization into powerful unions. The concentration of wealth at one end of society and the resulting poverty and unemployment at the other, the restriction of production to serve the profits of the few rather than the needs of the many, the worldwide competition between great monopolies controlling the economic life of whole nations, the burden of armaments in preparation for the war that loomed – these and other connected causes sharpened the inevitable crises of capitalist production and intensified the insecurity and dissatisfaction of the masses.

Militant labor movements, both industrial and political, embracing millions of workers in each country, menaced the imperialists throughout Western Europe. These movements marched under the banner of socialism, the substitution of public for private ownership. The imperialists could pacify a portion of these workers by paying high wages and creating a labor aristocracy, which functioned as a check on the millions of workers below. This bribery, however, required still greater profits, more new sources of raw materials, more new markets, still wider fields for investment. But new ones were not to be had. It was necessary therefore more intensively to exploit the old. But this intensive exploitation of the colonies brought new dangers. The industrialization of India and China by exported capital had created there a working class that now began to revolt against the increasingly inhuman conditions imposed upon them by their imperialist masters. Trapped between the competition of their rivals abroad and the pressure of the socialist movements at home, menaced by the growth of the labor movement in the colonies, the imperialists could see no way out but a redivision of the colonies, industrial centers, and “spheres of influence.” They fought it out between 1914 and 1918, at the cost of ten million dead on the battlefield, twenty-five million wounded, and suffering and destruction beyond human calculation. That was their first great war for “democracy.”

The Way Out

As early as October 1914, a profound student of politics, undeceived by all the propaganda, wrote as follows.

“The European war, which the governments and the bourgeois parties of all countries have been preparing for decades, has broken out. The growth of armaments, the extreme sharpening of the struggle for markets in the epoch of the latest, the imperialist, stage in the development of capitalism in the foremost countries, and the dynastic interests of the most backward East European monarchies were inevitably bound to bring about, and have brought about, the present war. To seize land and to conquer foreign nations, to ruin a competing nation and to pillage her wealth, to divert the attention of the toiling masses from the internal political crises of Russia, Germany, England and other countries, to disunite the workers and fool them with nationalism, to exterminate their vanguard in order to weaken the revolutionary movement of the proletariat – such is the only real content, the significance and the meaning of the present war.”

The writer ended his analysis with a program of action:

“Transform the present imperialist war into civil war – is the only correct proletarian slogan ... However difficult such a transformation may appear at any given time Socialists will never relinquish systematic, persistent, undeviating, preparatory work in this direction, since war has become a fact ...

“Long live the international fraternity of the workers against the chauvinism and patriotism of the bourgeoisie of all countries!”

This was Lenin, the great follower of Marx and Engels, the founders of scientific socialism.

Imperialist War and Proletarian Revolution

But the war of 1914–1918 settled nothing. It could settle nothing. It could re-divide but it could not increase. Only the discovery of a continent with a few hundred million natives could save imperialism from a crisis that was now permanent.

And, as in the colonial sphere, so in Europe.

The Treaty of Versailles reshuffled boundaries, but national states remained. Even under capitalism the productive forces had attained a high degree of internationalism. The war had shown that what was now needed was the re-organization of world economy by an international cooperative plan instead of on a national competitive basis. What else could prevent the periodical explosions of rival national economies into devastating imperialist war? But private ownership of the means of production was the basis of the national state. The abolition of private ownership was apolitical task, and could be accomplished only by the socialist revolution of the working class. It was for these reasons that Lenin characterized the period in which we live as the period of imperialist wars and proletarian revolutions.

In one great country, Russia, the workers and peasants, under the leadership of the Bolshevik Party, well educated and prepared by Lenin, overthrew the capitalist system. They transformed the basic industries from private into collectivised property, and boldly set out upon the road to socialism. The workers in Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia swept away their monarchical governments and established democratic republics – but they failed to abolish the capitalist system of property. The new Russian economy was thereby left isolated. In the rest of the world, the national state, private property and the oppressed colonial countries, in other words all the pre-war dynamite, remained. The imperialists were thus faced with the same problem as before: the accumulation of profit, the need for investment, and a world that obstinately remained the same size as it had been in 1914. Their post-war plight was now more desperate than ever, for the example of the Russian Revolution stimulated the militancy of the workers in Europe and unleashed revolutionary movements in India, China, Palestine, Egypt and other colonial countries.

The Imperialists Try Fascism

A method of temporarily solving one phase of the difficulty was discovered by the Italian capitalists. They subsidized Mussolini, who attacked the workers’ movements with armed bands. The leaders of the labor aristocracy, flourishing as members of parliament and trade union bureaucrats, would not lead the workers to the only way out – the revolutionary struggle for socialism. The workers were defeated and terrorized. Deprived of their trade unions and their democratic rights, they were powerless to resist wage cuts, and increased hours. Thus for a time fascism stifled the pressure of the working class on the capitalist system.

But for a time only. The powers maintained an unstable equilibrium until 1929, when the world crisis once more showed the bankruptcy of the capitalist system. Britain, France, Belgium and Holland could maintain “democracy” at home only by squeezing their colonies still more. The colonials replied with fierce uprisings, which though unsuccessful, weakened still more the unstable system. Germany and Austria had no colonials to squeeze. The German capitalists followed Mussolini’s example and subsidized Hitler and his fascist bands. The German workers failed to resist, their movement was destroyed, here also, as in Italy, with the connivance of the “democratic” government. With the workers crushed, Hitler was free to begin the rearmament of Germany.

In 1931 Japanese capitalists were seeking to solve their crisis by the absorption of China. In 1935 Mussolini launched his attack on Ethiopia. Another great war for“democracy” was on the order of the day.

Once More Imperialist War

Britain and France, leading lights of the League of Nations, took no serious steps against either Japan or Italy. The League was only a means of protecting their own possessions and organizing support for their own defense. By1938 Hitler began to expand over Eastern Europe, first into Austria, next in Czechoslovakia. Hitler and Mussolini helped establish fascism in Spain. Britain and France,with their workers hostile at home and their colonies on the verge of revolution, could only retreat, offer “appeasement,” and try to bargain with Hitler for what they called a “general settlement.” Britain had helped in the rearmament of Germany, hoping to push Hitler into an attack on the Soviet Union. But the plan miscarried. Instead, Hitler accepted for the moment an alliance with Stalin.

The very practical gentlemen who rule Britain and France care nothing for “poor little Poland,” for “democracy” (which was destroyed in Spain with their tacit assistance), for the Jews whom Hitler murdered – for anything they talk so much about. But if Germany, allied to the Soviet Union, conquered Poland and was allowed to digest its conquests, then British imperialism, its markets, colonies and profits were in mortal danger. Chamberlain put aside his umbrella, picked up his rifle, and marched forward as the leader, in the second great war for “democracy.”

American Capitalism and the First World War

While the European imperialisms scrambled in Asia and Africa, American capitalism prospered. The elasticity of a young and vigorous capitalism, the extent and wealth of the United States, gave American capitalists the illusion that this was God’s own country, immune from Europe’s troubles. But they, too, felt the need for colonies, and took some away from Spain, before the Twentieth Century began. And they began their struggle to dominate Latin America, shouldering aside here Britain and Germany, and encountered Japan and other rivals in the Far East.

During the 1914–1918 war, American capitalists made billions selling supplies and munitions, chiefly to the “democracies,” who controlled the seas. When the “democracies” could no longer pay cash, American capitalists invested vast fortunes in credits to them. But by 1917 the “democracies” were in danger of being defeated, imperilling American investments. Furthermore, the whole of American economy was now geared to the production of war material for the “democracies.” A German victory would mean immense losses abroad and a desperate crisis at home. The American capitalists gave their orders to Woodrow Wilson, and he, elected but five months before as the man who “kept us out of war,” led America into the trenches, to make the world safe for “democracy” and the investments of American capital.

The Economic Crisis of 1929

The exhaustion of European imperialism and the vast profits made from the war enormously increased America’s financial power. This wealth had to find a field for investment – the perpetual preoccupation of capitalism. Because they had to invest somewhere, American capitalists invested in Europe, bankrupt as it was, as well as in Latin America and the Far East. For a time imperialism on a world scale seemed to prosper as never before. But it was an artificial prosperity: prosperity under capitalism means accumulation of profits, and accumulation of profits means a necessity for further expansion. Expansion where? In 1929 the system crashed again, and this time as never before.

In no country was the crisis worse than in America. By 1932 the unemployed numbered at least seventeen million. Whereas Britain underwent a slow decline over more than half a century, American capitalism plunged downward half the distance in one year and, today, after nine years, gives no sign of recovery. Such is the violence of capitalist disintegration in our time.

New Deal into War Deal

Roosevelt was elected in 1932 as the man to solve the crisis. Vain hope! By an adroit combination of relief, government expenditures, and demagogy, he impressed the people. Profiting by the slight alleviation of the world crisis, he was re-elected in 1936 by the enthusiastic vote of a hopeful but deluded people. But one year later another catastrophic convulsion, the sharpest drop in American history, demonstrated finally to those who still needed proof that American capitalism was, like the rest of the world, in permanent crisis.

Four million workers organized into the CIO; for the first time hundreds of thousands of Negroes entered the organized labor movement; sit-down strikes followed one another in quick succession – the American workers were learning from their brothers in Europe. Here was danger, and Roosevelt, like every other capitalist statesman, knew only one way out – imperialist war.

For an immediate issue he didn’t have to look far. Japan, long a rival of American imperialism for the great Chinese market, began a large-scale war in China and served notice on all other capitalists to keep out. In close cooperation with Japan, Germany and Italy, using cheap goods wrung out of their defeated workers at home, were pushing into that special preserve of American imperialism, Latin America. Listen then to Franklin Roosevelt at Chicago in October 1937 speaking to the startled people of America:

Let the People Vote Against the War

“Innocent peoples and nations are being cruelly sacrificed ... The peace-loving nations ... Those who cherish their freedom ... the sanctity of international treaties ...international morality ... moral consciousness ...”

When a “democratic.” statesman shouts hosannahs to peace and international law, then the imperialist war is not far off.

In our time peace is merely a period of preparation for war. The moment was drawing near, the preparations had to be accelerated on all fronts.

Roosevelt set out on his war-mongering career.

Late in 1937 Congressman Louis Ludlow managed to get his proposed amendment to the Constitution discharged from the Judiciary Committee where it had been collecting dust for almost three years to the floor of the House. This called for a referendum vote among all the people before a war could be declared by the United States government against another country. The Ludlow amendment is not a revolutionary measure; even if passed it cannot by itself stop war. But it does give the people an opportunity to express at least an opinion on whether millions should be cut short in their prime. A vote against the war might be a preliminary to more effective means of stopping it.

Franklin Roosevelt, war-monger, opposed the amendment. Under heavy pressure by the President, the House refused, by a vote of 209 to 188, even to discuss it. The close vote shows that the congressmen were aware of the strong sentiment among the people in its favor. In the very week the vote was taken, a Gallup poll showed 75% of the people in favor of the amendment. That was why many dared not vote against it.

Franklin Roosevelt, war-monger, has bitterly fought the bill ever since. Let the people vote against the war! Let the people decide! No, says Franklin Roosevelt, war-monger.

“Fight at the Drop of a Hat”

On February 4, 1938, through Admiral Leahy, chief of naval operations, Franklin Roosevelt, war-monger, outlined before the House Committee, and to the world, his blueprint for war. A note was sent to Japan heralding the naval race.

On February 17, 1938, Franklin Roosevelt, war-monger, called a secret meeting of the great financial, industrial and newspaper lords, the heads of the army and navy – the real rulers of this country. At Chicago it was all peace and international morality, but now, when these high-up gangsters were speaking not to the public, but to one another, you could have closed your eyes and imagined yourself in Rome or Berlin. Said Roosevelt, “This nation used to be ready to fight at the drop of a hat and we must get it that way again.”

On February 24, Franklin Roosevelt, war-monger, asked the New York upstate WPA for lists of unmarried men on home or work relief. He did not hide why he wanted the lists. It was to get the men into the army.

On March 5, Franklin Roosevelt, war-monger, announced plans for a war alliance with the Latin American states.

On March 26, 1938, the war situation sharpened in Europe. No European nation, no three European nations, could attack us, could send across the ocean three or four million soldiers and all the supplies they would need. Roosevelt knows this as well as anybody else, but he seized the opportunity to increase the naval budget. In 1934 it was $290,000,000. Early in 1938 he had it up to $1,000,000,000. Now he added an extraordinary appropriation, making a total of $2,121,000,000. For the army the budget was $500,000,000.

During the next few weeks he praised the Sheppard-May bill which provides for the mobilization of industry for war. He initiated vast naval maneuvers in the Pacific, on a front of five thousand miles from Alaska to Samoa. This was a warning to Japan, whose drive in China continued unabated. While the naval maneuvers were taking place, he announced war-games on land and in the air, to last until the fall.

(Continued in Next Issue)

Last updated on 18 April 2018