Chapter VIII — World War II

Return to Table of Contents

America and the Second World War

Marx explained long ago that capitalism develops as a world economic system. Today nobody can doubt the correctness of this statement. In 1935 Roosevelt stated: “Foreign markets must be regained if America’s producers are to rebuild a full and enduring domestic prosperity for our people.” That is the reason why the U.S.A. was compelled to participate in the world, despite the objections of the isolationists.

Since the First World War, America’s position as the most powerful and wealthy imperialist power had been clear to all. So when in 1939 a new conflict broke out between the old imperialist powers of Europe, it was only a matter of time before the U.S.A. would have to be involved. After some early ambiguity, Roosevelt came down decisively in favour of using America’s colossal military, industrial and economic power to enhance its position as the leading capitalist nation on earth.

Paradoxically, until the 1930s, the main antagonism on a world scale was between the rising power of the U.S.A. and the old imperial master of the planet, Great Britain. Trotsky had even posed the possibility of war between the two if the U.S.A. insisted on boosting its naval strength to the point of challenging Britain’s dominance of the seas. In the end, however, it was the threat to American commercial interests posed by Japan and Germany that decided the issue. In particular, the clash of interests of the U.S.A. and Japan in Asia and the Pacific was decisive. Japan was challenging the Open Door policy of the United States in China and Germany was making a similar challenge in Europe. Even more threatening was the expansion of Japanese and German interests in Latin America.

Roosevelt attempted to modify the Neutrality Acts in order to prepare for war, but was thwarted at every step by the powerful isolationist lobby. However, the outbreak of war in Europe gave him an excuse to embark on a major program of rearmament with the approval of a budget of $18 billion in 1940. By September Congress was ready to approve the first peacetime conscription Act. All that was missing was the necessary incident that could ignite a mood of mass indignation leading to a declaration of war. At the time of the election of 1940, the polls indicated that the majority of the U.S. public was still opposed to intervention. Roosevelt played along with the general mood: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

No sooner had he been re-elected, however, Roosevelt took steps to involve America in the war. He persuaded Congress to approve a Lease Lend Act to send arms and supplies to Britain. He ordered the navy to attack German submarines that interfered with the shipment of these supplies. He announced on the radio: “America has been attacked by German rattlesnakes of the seas.” These were concrete steps in the direction of war.

The decisive turning point was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. This was precisely the incident that Roosevelt needed. In fact, it is perfectly obvious that he brought it about deliberately. For the whole of the previous year, Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had refused to sell crucial resources, notably oil and steel, to Japan. This embargo convinced the war party in Tokyo that war with the United States was inevitable. The war party demanded immediate action to secure the economic supplies denied to them by the U.S.A. This led inexorably to the attack on Pearl Harbour. U.S. intelligence had cracked the Japanese secret codes and therefore knew about the Japanese plans. Roosevelt and Hull were also well aware of the consequences of their embargo and their refusal to negotiate. The American fleet at Pearl Harbor was an obvious target. Yet strangely, when the Japanese attacked, the American commanders were completely unprepared.

Pearl Harbour was the excuse Roosevelt was looking for. He demanded that the Congress recognize that a state of war existed with Japan, and who could argue? Yet as late as 1945, 80 percent of Americans consulted in a poll considered that Roosevelt had violated his 1940 pledge to keep America out of the war. Pearl Harbor was worth more than ten divisions to Roosevelt.

Russia and the War

The policies and tactics of the British and American ruling class in the Second World War were not at all dictated by a love of democracy or hatred of fascism, as the official propaganda wants us to believe, but by class interests. When Hitler invaded the U.S.S.R. in 1941, the British ruling class calculated that the Soviet Union would be defeated by Germany, but that in the process Germany would be so enfeebled that it would be possible to step in and kill two birds with one stone. It is likely that the strategists in Washington were thinking on more or less similar lines. But like Hitler, the British and U.S. ruling circles had miscalculated. Instead of being defeated by Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union fought back and inflicted a decisive defeat on Hitler’s armies.

The defenders of capitalism can never admit the real reason for this extraordinary victory, but it is a self-evident fact: the existence of a nationalized planned economy gave the U.S.S.R. an enormous advantage in the war. Despite the criminal policies of Stalin, which nearly brought about the collapse of the U.S.S.R. at the beginning of the war, the Soviet Union was able to swiftly recover and rebuild its industrial and military capacity. The truth is that the war against Hitler in Europe was fought mainly by the U.S.S.R. and the Red Army. For most of the war the British and Americans were mere spectators. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Moscow repeatedly demanded the opening of a second front against Germany. But Churchill was in no hurry to oblige them. The reason for this was not so much military as political.

The Soviet working class was fighting to defend what remained of the gains of the October Revolution. Despite the monstrous crimes of Stalin and the Bureaucracy, the nationalized planned economy represented an enormous historic conquest. Compared with the barbarism of fascism – the distilled essence of imperialism and monopoly capitalism, these were things worth fighting and dying for. The working people of the U.S.S.R. did both on the most appalling scale.

In 1943 alone, the U.S.S.R. produced 130,000 pieces of artillery, 24,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, 29,900 combat aircraft. The Nazis, with all the huge resources of Europe behind them, also stepped up production, turning out 73,000 pieces of artillery, 10,700 tanks and assault guns and 19,300 combat aircraft. (See V. Sipols, The Road to a Great Victory, p. 132.) These figures speak for themselves. The U.S.S.R., by mobilizing the immense power of a planned economy, managed to out-produce and outgun the mighty Wehrmacht. That is the secret of its success.

To some extent the same was true of the United States. The need to mobilize all the productive forces of the U.S.A. for the war effort made it necessary to introduce at least some measures of central control and planning. This was, of course, not socialism but “state capitalism”. Roosevelt appointed a War Resources Board with a prominent representative of big business at its head, Edward Stettinius of U.S. Steel. His ideal was not a workers’ democracy but an economy run by a handful of big corporations operating without price competition within the parameters of objectives laid down by the state: a kind of “managed capitalism”.

It goes without saying that a genuine planned economy is not possible under capitalism. Nevertheless, we are entitled to ask the following question to the defenders of market economics and free enterprise: if the capitalist system is so superior, when America (and Britain) had its back to the wall, when economic efficiency and production were a matter of life and death, did your government simply rely on the laws of the free market? It did not. It introduced elements of central planning, state control and even nationalization. Why? The answer is very clear: because this gave better results!

And we are entitled to ask another, even more interesting question: if a semi-planned economy could give such good results in time of war, why cannot a genuine socialist planned economy, combined with democratic control and administration by the workers themselves, not give even better results in time of peace?

The Turn of the Tide

The real turning point of the War was the Soviet counteroffensive in 1942, culminating in the Battle of Stalingrad and later in the even more decisive Battle of Kursk. After a ferocious battle lasting one week, the German resistance collapsed. To the fury of Hitler, who had ordered the Sixth Army to “fight to the death,” General Paulus surrendered to the Soviet army. Even Churchill, that rabid anti-Communist, was compelled to admit that the Red Army had “torn the guts out of the German army” at Stalingrad.

Throughout the war, the Russians were demanding that the Allies open a second front against Germany in Europe. This was resisted particularly by Churchill. Churchill wanted to confine the Allies’ war to the Mediterranean, partly with an eye on the Suez Canal and the route to British India, and partly because he was contemplating an invasion of the Balkans to bloc the Red Army’s advance there. In other words, his calculations were based exclusively on the strategic interests of British imperialism and the need to defend the British Empire. In addition, Churchill had still not entirely given up the hope that Russia and Germany would exhaust themselves, creating a stalemate in the east.

The conflicts between Churchill and Roosevelt on the question of D-day were of a political and not a military character. The interests of U.S. imperialism and British imperialism were entirely contradictory in this respect. Washington, while formally the ally of London, was all the time aiming to use the war to weaken the position of Britain in the world and particularly to break its stranglehold on India and Africa. At the same time it was concerned to halt the advance of the Red Army and gain control over a weakened Europe after the war. That explains the haste of the Americans to open the second front in Europe and Churchill’s lack of enthusiasm for it. Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s main diplomatic representative, complained that Churchill’s delaying tactics had “lengthened the timing of the war.”

In the end, Churchill’s calculations backfired. The Red Army defeated the Wehrmacht and embarked on the most spectacular advance in military history. They took control of Eastern Europe and held onto it. The landlords and capitalists of Poland, Hungary and the other countries of the region had collaborated with the Nazis and fled together with them.

Trotsky once said that to kill a tiger one requires a shotgun, but to kill a flea, a thumbnail is sufficient. The Stalinists liquidated capitalism in Eastern Europe but they did not introduce socialism. These regimes began where the Russian revolution ended – as bureaucratically deformed workers’ states. The expropriation of the capitalists and landlords was undoubtedly a progressive task, but it was carried out bureaucratically, from above, without the democratic participation and control of the working class.

The regimes that emerged from this were a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism. Unlike the Russian workers’ state established by the Bolsheviks in 1917, they offered no attraction to the workers of Western Europe. With the exception of Czechoslovakia, the bourgeoisie of Eastern Europe had been very weak before the War. The U.S. imperialists attempted to strengthen the bourgeois elements and gain control of Eastern Europe by offering them Marshall Aid. Stalin understood the manoeuvre and gave the order. The Stalinists took power by expelling the bourgeois elements from the coalitions and nationalizing the means of production.

Origins of the Cold War

President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 and was replaced by Vice President Truman. Many people have assumed that Roosevelt was less anti-Communist than his successor. But this is not the case. The reason why Roosevelt did not want an immediate clash with Moscow was that it did not suit the interests of American imperialism to break with Moscow at that point in time. In addition to the considerations already mentioned, the Americans had another reason for not sharing Churchill’s enthusiasm for a “crusade against Bolshevism” – or, at least, the timing. The Americans’ main preoccupation was the war in the Pacific, where they were still locked in a life-or-death struggle with Japanese imperialism.

The problem was that the U.S.S.R. had a huge army in the heart of Europe. Only the possession of nuclear weapons gave the U.S.A. a potential advantage, since the U.S.S.R. did not yet have the atom bomb. But the bomb had not yet been tested, and there was no guarantee that it would work. The Americans tested the first atom bomb on June 16, 1945 at the very time the wartime Allies were meeting in Berlin to discuss the post-war situation.

Truman and Churchill were informed that the test had been successful and wasted no time in letting Stalin know all about it. They hoped to use the threat of nuclear devastation to tip the balance of the negotiations in their favor. Some have maintained that the Cold War did not begin until 1947, but in fact it began immediately after the surrender of Japan, and was prepared even before that. D.F. Fleming states: “President Truman was ready to begin it before he had been in office two weeks.” (D.F. Fleming, The Cold War and its Origins, 1917-1960, Vol. 1, p. 268.)

The possession of the atom bomb gave Truman a sense of superiority, which he did not feel the need to hide. James F. Burns, director of the U.S. war mobilization department, assured Truman that possession of the atom bomb would put the U.S.A. in a position “to dictate our own terms at the end of the war.” (Harry S. Truman, Memoirs, vol. I, Year of Destiny, New York, p. 87.)

As usual, Churchill was the first to foment an anti-Communist crusade. This rabid reactionary and warmonger did everything in his power to push the Americans into a conflict with Russia. Describing his mood at this time, General Allen Brooke, the Chief of the British Imperial General Staff, noted in his diary that “he was always seeing himself capable of eliminating all the Russian centres of industry and population […]” (Arthur Bryant, Triumph in the West, 1943-1946, London, 1959. p. 478.) But the British working class had had enough of Churchill. They had had enough of war too, and certainly had no desire to engage in a new war, least of all against the Soviet Union. In the 1945 general election they kicked Churchill and the Conservatives out of power and voted massively for a Labour government.

In any case, Britain was already reduced to the role of a secondary power, a mere satellite of the U.S.A. – a role that has continued to the present day. The Americans did not pay much attention to Churchill’s raving because they still had unfinished business in the Pacific. They needed the help of the Soviet Union to defeat Japan, and therefore were not in a hurry to bring about a premature confrontation with the Russians in Europe. That could wait until Japan had surrendered.

The Defeat of Japan

All the peoples paid a terrible price for the War. Britain’s casualties totalled 370,000, the U.S.A., 300,000. But the Soviet Union lost a staggering 27 millions – about half of all the casualties of the Second World War. According to one estimate, even before the Normandy landings, 90 percent of all young men between the age of 18 and 21 in the Soviet Union had already been killed. These chilling figures accurately express the real situation. They show that the people of the Soviet Union suffered a disproportionate number of casualties, because the main front in Europe was the eastern front.

Western historians, motivated rather by political considerations than historical truth, have systematically minimized the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. This systematic campaign of distortion has increased a hundred-fold since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The defenders of capitalism are not willing to acknowledge the achievements of the nationalized planned economy in the U.S.S.R.. They cannot admit that the spectacular military victory over Hitler’s Germany was due precisely to this.

In order to belittle the role of the U.S.S.R. in the war, they exaggerate the importance of things like American Lease-Lend to the Soviet Union. This falsification is easy to answer. The fact is that the Red Army had halted the German advance and begun to counterattack by the end of 1941 in the Battle of Moscow – before any supplies had reached the U.S.S.R. from the U.S.A., Britain or Canada.

These supplies came mainly in the period 1943-5, that is, at a period when the Soviet economy was already producing more military hardware than the German war machine. They accounted only for a fraction of Soviet war production: two percent of artillery, ten percent of tanks and twelve percent of aircraft. In no sense can this be considered decisive to the Soviet war effort as a whole. Its importance was marginal.

The real reasons for the marvellous achievements of the Soviet Union in the Second World War was something the Western historians are never prepared to admit – firstly, the superiority of a nationalized economy and central planning, and secondly, the determination of the Soviet working class to defend what remained of the conquests of the October Revolution against fascism and imperialism.

This was no thanks to Stalin and the bureaucracy, who had placed the U.S.S.R. in extreme danger by their criminal and irresponsible policy before the War, but in spite of them. The Soviet workers, despite all the crimes of Stalin and the bureaucracy, rallied to the defence of the U.S.S.R. and fought like tigers. This was what ultimately guaranteed victory.

The role of the U.S.S.R. in the defeat of Japan has always been overlooked. Actually, it was quite a significant one. Americas war in the Pacific had resolved itself into a bloody slogging match to wrest control of one coral atoll after another from Japanese control. What is never mentioned is that the Japanese had a powerful land army in Manchuria, the Kwantung army. Its total strength was up to a million men. It had 1,215 tanks, 6,640 guns and mortars and 1,907 combat aircraft.

This formidable fighting force was faced by 1,185,000 Soviet troops stationed in the Soviet Far East. These were reinforced with additional forces after the surrender of Germany and when the offensive began on August 9 totalled 1,747,000 troops, 5,250 tanks and self-propelled guns, 29,835 guns and mortars and 5,171 combat aircraft. In a campaign lasting just six days the Red Army smashed the Japanese forces and advanced through Manchuria with lightning speed. The Soviet forces entered Korea and the South Sakhalin and Kurile Islands and were in striking distance of Japan itself.

On August 6, Truman ordered the U.S. Air Force to drop an atom bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, the very day the Soviet army began its offensive, they dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki. They did this despite the fact that these were civilian cities with no military value and the Japanese were already defeated and suing for peace. The fact is that these atom bombs were intended as a warning to the U.S.S.R. not to continue the Red Army’s advance, otherwise they could have occupied Japan. The use of the atom bomb was a political act. It was intended to show Stalin that the U.S.A. now possessed a terrible new weapon of mass destruction and was prepared to use it against civilian populations. There was an implicit threat: what we have done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki we can do to Moscow and Leningrad.

Once Japan had surrendered, Washington’s attitude to Moscow changed immediately. The whole shape of the post-war world was now determined. The world would be dominated by two great giants: mighty U.S. imperialism on the one hand and mighty Russian Stalinism on the other. They represented two fundamentally opposed socio-economic systems with antagonistic interests. A titanic struggle between them was inevitable.

The American imperialists now felt themselves masters of the world. They had suffered relatively little from the war. Their productive base was intact, whereas most of Europe’s industry lay in a heap of smouldering rubble. Two thirds of all the available gold in the world was in Fort Knox. The U.S.A. had a huge army and a monopoly of nuclear weapons. They could impose their conditions on the rest of the world. Only the Soviet Union stood in their way. The arrogance of American power was put into words by the managing director of The New York Times Neil MacNeil, who wrote that
“both the United States and the world need peace based on American principles – a Pax Americana […] We should accept an American peace. We should accept nothing less.” (Neil MacNeil, An American Peace, New York, 1944, p. 264.)

The Post-War Economic Upswing

The period after the Second World War was completely different to the period that followed the First World War. After 1945 there was a remarkable upswing of the productive forces in the U.S.A. and internationally. What were the basic reasons for the developments of the post-Second World War economy? In 1938, Leon Trotsky had predicted that the war would end with a revolutionary wave. In fact there were a whole series of revolutionary explosions after 1943, in Italy, France, Greece, and even Denmark. Unfortunately, the Stalinists and the social democrats, in Britain and Western Europe succeeded in diverting this revolutionary movement into safe reformist channels, and the revolutionary potential was wasted. This created the political climate for a recovery of capitalism.

The effects of the war, in the destruction of consumer and capital goods, created a big market (war has effects similar to, but deeper than, a slump in the destruction of capital). These effects, according to United Nations’ statisticians, only disappeared in 1958. Moreover, during the war a whole series of new avenues of investment were opened up as a by-product of arms production – plastics, aluminium, rockets, electronics, atomic energy and its by-products.
The growth of these new industries provided the basis for an enormous increase in productive investment after the war. The increasing output of the newer industries – chemicals, artificial fibers, synthetic rubber, plastics, rapid rise in light metals, aluminum, magnesium, electric household equipment, natural gas, electric energy, together with the building activity caused by post-war reconstruction, provided the basis for a huge boom.

However, a key role was played by the U.S.A. America had emerged virtually unscathed from the War, while her main competitors – Britain, France, Germany, Japan – were either severely damaged or completely shattered. Two-thirds of the world’s gold was in the vaults of Fort Knox. The U.S.A. was therefore able to dictate terms to the rest of the Western world. The Bretton-Woods agreement established the dollar as the world currency, which further assisted the growth of world trade.

The war had created enormous amounts of fictitious capital, created by the armaments expenditure, which amount to 10 per cent of the national income in Britain and America. But in a situation of a gigantic upswing of the productive forces, nobody was worried about the danger of inflation. On the contrary, everybody wanted to get hold of dollars (the pound sterling was now reduced to a secondary currency, reflecting the decline of Britain as a world power). The dollar was considered to be “as good as gold.”

Fear of revolution and “Communism” compelled Washington to intervene decisively to save the European capitalists. The Marshall Plan and other economic aid played a key role in assisting the recovery of Western Europe. This in turn provided new markets for the mighty productive capacity of the U.S.A. The increasing trade, especially in capital goods and engineering products, between the capitalist countries, consequent on the increased economic investment, in its turn acted as a spur. State intervention also played a role in stimulating economic activity, especially in countries like Britain where the post-War Labour government carried out a policy of nationalization and reforms.

A new world order was gradually taking shape. The old empires ruled by Britain, France, Holland and Belgium, had been shaken to their foundations by the war and the Japanese conquests in Asia. One by one, the old colonial masters were being driven out by national liberation movements. This provided new opportunities for U.S. imperialism to muscle in on the new markets in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, elbowing their European rivals to one side.
The new market for capital and engineering products gave the local bourgeoisie the opportunity to develop industry on a greater scale than ever before. All these factors interacted on one another. The increased demand for raw materials, through the development of industry in the metropolitan countries in its turn, reacted on the undeveloped countries and vice-versa. All these factors explain the increase in production since the war. But the decisive factor was the increased scope for capital investment, which is the main engine of capitalist development.

America After 1945

For all these reasons, after the Second World War, America experienced a period of tremendous and sustained economic growth that set its stamp on her entire development. It shaped the consciousness of its people in a decisive way. For decades, American capitalism seemed to be “delivering the goods”. The economy was growing rapidly and the recessions were so shallow and fleeting that they were barely noticed. Living standards were increasing. There was an abundance of things like refrigerators, televisions, telephones and cars that made people feel prosperous.

The feeling that “we have never had it so good” was reinforced by what Americans could see in the rest of the world. Whenever anybody complained, the defenders of the established order could point triumphantly to Stalinist Russia, that monstrous bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism and say: “You want socialism? That’s socialism for you – dictatorship and the rule of an autocratic bureaucracy! You will be slaves of the state. Is that what you want?” And even the most critical American worker would shake his or her head and conclude that the devil they knew was probably a lot better than the one they didn’t.

In case they were not completely convinced, however, a little coercion could be brought to bear. It was not as severe as the white terror that followed the First World War. That was not necessary, given the full employment and rising living standards. But during what was known as the Cold War, state repression was unleashed in quite a ruthless manner. It was known as the McCarthy era.

On February 9, 1950 Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin claimed that there were no fewer than two hundred Communists in the State Department. This outrageous allegation unleashed a witch-hunt against everyone who was even slightly “tainted” with left wing, progressive or even vaguely democratic opinions in public life. The hysteria that accompanied this campaign closely resembled the kind of pathological collective hysteria of the notorious Salem witch trials of the 17th century. This comparison was made explicit in Arthur Miller’s famous play The Crucible.

In fact, the witch hunting of the American Left had commenced a couple of years earlier. After 1945 the American ruling class lived in dread of Communism and revolution, and launched a “Reds under the bed” campaign, using the House of Un-American Committee (HUAC) to grill suspects. Prominent among the interrogators was an ambitious young Republican congressman, Richard Milhous Nixon (later dubbed “Tricky Dicky”) who was out to make a name for himself as a notorious red-baiter. He subsequently became President, only to be removed for crooked practices following the Watergate scandal.

The power behind the scenes of these witch-hunts was FBI chief and ultra-reactionary, J. Edgar Hoover, who for years ran a state within the state, acting as a law unto himself, scorning all the principles of democratic government, and imitating the conduct of the Mafia that he was supposed to be fighting. This Paragon of Public Virtue said in March 1947: “Communism, in reality, is not a political party. It reveals a conditions akin to a disease that spreads like an epidemic and like an epidemic a quarantine is necessary to keep it from infecting this nation.” (Quoted in Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing, Cold War, p. 109.)

Since his death, Hoover has been exposed as a corrupt gangster who used extortion and blackmail to exert unconstitutional control over elected politicians while he extolled the virtues of American democracy, and secretly led a luxurious and degenerate lifestyle while he delivered lectures on the need for puritanical morals. These were the kind of heroes who led the crusade against Communism in the U.S.A.

Obsessed with his hatred of Communism and radicals, Hoover ordered his agents to use illegal means: wiretaps, break-ins, phone intercepts and bugging of private homes to get incriminating evidence. Neighbors were encouraged to spy on neighbors; parents were asked to spy on their children, and children on their parents. When defence lawyers exposed these illegal practices and used this to get cases thrown out, Hoover launched an attack on the National Lawyers’ Guild, which he accused of being a Communist front (!).

One of the first great achievements of the witch-hunt was to send to the electric chair a young electrical engineer, Julius Rosenberg, and his wife Ethel. They were charged with passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The evidence against Rosenberg came largely from his brother-in-law David Greenglass, who had been part of a wartime spy network. Though interrogated by the FBI, Julius Rosenberg refused to give information or name any other agents. So the FBI arrested his wife, Ethel, although she was clearly not a spy, in order to break her husband. It did not work. He remained silent.

Rosenberg was found guilty of passing secrets to the Russians. Spying in wartime is punishable by death, but when Rosenberg passed secrets to Russia, it was an ally of the U.S.A. But despite pleas for clemency, among others from Albert Einstein and Pope Pius XII, both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sent to the electric chair. What is interesting is the conduct of the judicial system in this case. The judges were clearly intimidated to the point where they did not dare defy the general hysteria. Arthur Kinoy, the Rosenberg’s lawyer, reports the words of one such judge:

“Judge Frank looked at us and he said something that we have never, never forgotten. He said, ‘If I were as young as you are, I would be sitting there saying the same things you’re saying, arguing the same points you’re arguing, making the same argument that these planned executions are invalid. But when you are as old as I am, you will understand why I cannot do it.’ And he stands up, turns his back to us, and walks away, and we were devastated. We began to sense something which in later years we understood so clearly. That was that Jerome Frank, as the leading liberal judge, was terrorized himself and frightened by the atmosphere of fear in the country. That if he as a liberal would do something to save Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s life, he would be charged as a commie.” (Quoted in Jeremy Isaacs and Taylor Downing, Cold War, p. 113.)

The tentacles of the witch hunters extended into every branch of public life. Given the importance of the film industry in American life, Hollywood became a key target. Hoover established an extensive network of spies and informers, chief among whom was a second-rate actor in B-movies called Ronald Reagan. Based in Los Angeles, Reagan was President of the Screen Actors’ Guild. He used his position to pass on information about his colleagues to Hoover. This was the start of a promising political career that ended in the White House. When he died recently, there was flood of laudatory obituaries, praising the former President for his great intellect and ability and attributing to him the posthumous title of “the man who defeated Communism.”

Although he could be accused of many things (bad acting, lack of principles, cowardice, dishonesty, ignorance, provincial narrow-mindedness, disloyalty towards friends and colleagues etc.) no serious person could ever accuse Ronald Reagan of possessing either intellect or ability. As a matter of historical record, the U.S.S.R. (which, in the period under consideration, had very little in common with Communism) collapsed because of its internal contradictions and this had nothing to do with the intellect or abilities of Ronald Reagan.

In 1951, the HUAC launched an all-out offensive against Hollywood. Prominent actors and film directors were grilled by the HUAC, in scenes reminiscent of the Inquisition. The only way to escape from this torture was to incriminate others. Some brave souls refused. The great German composer Hans Eisler, who had fled to America from Nazi persecution and wrote distinguished film scores, when he was accused of being the “Marx of the music world”, answered that he was flattered by the comparison, and was deported for his courage.

However, others were not so courageous. The bosses of the big Hollywood studios pledged not to employ anybody who had ever been a Communist or had refused under oath to declare that they had never been a Communist. Many of the big names in Hollywood decided that discretion was the better part of valor and collaborated in the dirty name of denouncing their fellow actors. Elia Kazan, the famous director who introduced Marlon Brando to the cinema, named eleven former Communists to the HUAC. Jerome Robbins, the successful Broadway and Hollywood choreographer also co-operated with the Inquisition, as did Sterling Hayden. But the man who broke the record for denunciation was screenwriter Martin Berkeley, who named no fewer than 162 Hollywood artists as Communists, past or present.

The consequences for those so-named were dire. They would be sacked and never work again in any studio in Hollywood or any other part of the U.S.A. They would immediately lose their livelihood and reputation and be treated as outcasts and pariahs. About 250 Hollywood personalities were blacklisted in this way in the early 1950s. Some just disappeared. Others went into exile. A few continued to work under assumed names, like Dalton Trumbo, author of Johnny Got His Gun, who caused the whole industry considerable embarrassment when he actually won an Oscar in 1956 for a screenplay written under the name of Robert Rich. One group of blacklisted filmmakers and actors made the marvellous film “Salt of the Earth”, brilliantly depicting the class struggle in the silver mines of New Mexico.

Among the victims of McCarthyism were some of the most talented directors, writers and performers in America. Some did not work again till the 1960s. The great Negro singer Paul Robeson was savagely persecuted. The legendary Charles Chaplin, although British by birth and nationality, had lived in the U.S.A. for over 30 years. He had learned while in England that he would be denounced as a Communist and decided to live the rest of his life outside the U.S.A. He did not return to the U.S.A. until 1972 and then only briefly to accept a special Academy Award. American culture was the real loser.

The place of talented people was taken by hacks who were prepared to write third-rate trash like I was a Communist for the FBI, which won an Oscar for the best documentary (this shows how much an Oscar is really worth). Other gems of the period included My Son John, which depicts a nice young American boy, who, unknown to his parents, becomes a Communist, and I Married a Communist, which depicts a nice American girl who married one, Evil Epidemic, in honor of J. Edgar Hoover, and so on.

The health of the American cinema industry was in good hands. The Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals was presided by good old John Wayne. This fearless, clean-living cowboy of the silver screen was always speaking lines like “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” In this case what a man like John Wayne had to do was to betray his friends and colleagues and throw them to the wolves. This did not require much courage but definitely did one’s career no harm.

Other heroes of the same kind were Clark Gable (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”), Gary Cooper and John Ford, who were all on the executive committee of the MPAPA. The presence of the last two named is perhaps ironical, since the celebrated film High Noon, starring Gary Cooper and directed by John Ford, has been widely interpreted as a criticism of McCarthyism in the guise of a Western.

The witch hunters then turned their unwelcome attentions to American education. The worthy senator from Wisconsin discovered that American colleges and universities were hotbeds of Red subversion. Formally, there was no black list as in Hollywood, but in practice anyone involved in political activity of the “wrong sort” would not easily get a job in academia. J. Edgar Hoover, whose educational qualifications were somewhat comparable to those of Conan the Barbarian, complained that American schools were in the hands of “Reducators”. The latter were “tearing down respect for agencies of government, belittling tradition and moral customs and […] creating doubts in the validity of the American way of life.”

The ruling class let these mad dogs off the leash to snap and snarl to their heart’s content. It was useful to have such people intimidate the Left. But the real Establishment had no intention of handing power to the mad dogs. In the end McCarthy overreached himself when he began to interfere with the most sensitive part of the state, the armed forces. In a series of sensational television interviews in 1954, McCarthy accused the U.S. Army of being infiltrated by Communists. That was too much. Having made use of the Senator’s services, the Establishment unceremoniously ditched him. The Senate voted to condemn him for bringing it into disrepute. He was politically a dead man.

The Unions After 1945

Many European leftists regard Americans as hopelessly reactionary. This view demonstrates a lamentable ignorance of American history. I hope that this short study will serve at least partially to correct the error. Americans are neither more nor less revolutionary than anybody else. What is true, as Marx pointed out long ago, is that social being determines consciousness. For several decades after 1945, for the special reasons that we have outlined above, capitalism entered into a phase of upswing. It was the greatest economic fireworks display in history. The main beneficiary was the U.S.A. The living standards of most Americans increased (some more than others, it is true). This was the material basis for a major psychological change. The idea was widely accepted that capitalism was “delivering the goods”. Workers are generally very practical people, and pragmatism has sunk deeper roots in America than any other country. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a wise old American saying.

Under these conditions the old revolutionary traditions of U.S. labor, old traditions that went back to the Knights of Labor, passing through the Labor Uprising of 1877, the Chicago Martyrs, the Wobblies, and the class struggles of the 1920s and 1930s, receded from the collective consciousness and were largely forgotten. The new generation knew little of them. In that sense, the knot of history was broken. There is no automatic mechanism whereby the traditions of the working class, the lessons of past victories and defeats can be transmitted from one generation to another. The only mechanism that can fulfil this role is the revolutionary party. The absence of a Marxist revolutionary party with deep roots in the working class in America is a serious problem. It means that the class can only learn through its own experience: this is a slow and painful process that can take decades. This is a situation that must be remedied in the coming period.

Although politically speaking the American workers are not as educated as their European counterparts and lack a class party through which to express their interests and aspirations, even in a distorted and incomplete manner, this by no means signifies that they lack class-consciousness. What they lack in political organization they have made up for in terms of industrial organization and militancy. On the industrial front the American workers have had a tradition that is second to none. It is true that, as in Europe, the American unions are under attack and the control of a bureaucracy that does its best to suffocate the militancy of the rank and file. The capitalist class does its best to corrupt and bribe the union tops. Through the bureaucracy of the unions, the influence of bourgeois ideology, class collaboration and so on, can percolate down into the working class. In particular, the leaders of the big unions are linked to the Democrats, just as the British union leaders were linked to the Liberals in the 19th century. But this situation was the logical consequence of the long years of economic upswing and prosperity. It did not survive in Britain, and will not survive the new period of storm and stress into which we are now heading in the United States.

The traditions of the CIO in its early years are something that the new generation of young Americans should take time out to study. They were reflected very poorly in the big Hollywood movie Hoffa, and much better in the earlier and lesser-known film called FIST – the only decent film Sylvester Stallone ever made. The main thing to see is that this is not ancient history. The class struggle did not cease in the 1930s but has continued, with ebbs and flows, ever since. The American workers have always had a good union tradition, and as a matter of fact, the number of strikes actually increased in the years after the Second World War. From 1936 through 1955, there was a staggering total of 78,798 strikes in the United States, involving 42,366,000 strikers. The breakdown was as follows:

Number of Strikes and Strikers (By Decades)
Years                     Number of Strikes       Number of Strikers
1923-32                           9,658                          3,952,000
1936-45                          35,519                        15,856,000
1946-55                          43,279                        26,510,000

In order to curb union militancy, the bosses and the government introduced the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Yet in 1949 there were major strikes in the coal and steel industries; 1952, was a year of coal and steel strikes; and 1959, the year of the 116-day steel strike, the largest strike of all-time in the United States as measured by total workdays on strike.

Big business and its state were, and remain, bitterly hostile to trade unionism. Although unions are no longer illegal, the state does not hesitate to invoke anti-union legislation whenever it suits the bosses to do so. The national emergency machinery provided under the Taft-Hartley Act for the investigation of disputes threatening to “imperil national health or safety” was invoked by the President in 23 situations from the time of its enactment in 1947 through 1963 – and is still called upon today.

This is not ancient history. Taft-Hartley is alive and well and still used for busting unions in the U.S.A. President Ronald Reagan fired most of the nation’s air traffic controllers for striking illegally and ordered their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association, decertified. 13,000 air traffic controllers defied the return-to-work order. Subsequently 400,000 unionists participated in the largest labor rally in American history which was held in Washington in protest against the policies of the Reagan administration. More recently still, George W. Bush used Taft-Hartley against the longshoremen of the ILWU.

In addition, there are other laws that are regularly invoked by the legal establishment to prevent the workers from using their legitimate right to strike. In the war between Labor and Capital, the state is not impartial now any more than it was in the past! The fight for union rights, against unjust anti-union laws is a burning need for the American working class. This fact also shows the utter futility of trying to separate trade unionism from politics.

If anyone believes the class struggle is dead in the U.S.A. I advise him or her to look at experience of strikes such as that of the miners in 1989. In April of that year the United Mine Workers (UMW) called a strike against the Pittston Coal Group for unfair labor practices. These miners had worked 14 months without a contract before the UMW called the strike. Among the practices cited by UMW were the discontinuing of medical benefits for pensioners, widows, and the disabled; refusal to contribute to a benefit trust established in 1950 for miners who retired before 1974; and refusing to bargain in good faith.

Miners in Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia struck against Pittston.

The miners and their families engaged in an inspiring civil disobedience campaign against the company. In the time-honoured tradition of the American bosses, the strike was met with calculated violence, as state troopers were called out to arrest striking miners. The miners fought back courageously with dynamite. Despite the enormous importance of this strike, the “free press” of the U.S.A. made practically no mention of it, preferring to give a great deal of coverage to another miners’ strike – in Russia!

The movement of the American working class to fight for its own interests continues – as the recent disputes at UPS and on the West Coast docks shows very clearly. If there have not been more strikes and if the living standards and conditions of the workers have not kept pace with the huger increase in profits, it was due to a failure of the leadership of the unions, not the workers. In recent years the trade unions have hit difficulties as a result of this. As in other countries, the unions in the United States have become heavily bureaucratized and the leaders were out of touch with the problems of ordinary workers.

The rundown of heavy industries in the North and East – the traditional base of unionism – has led to a fall in membership. Yet the leadership proved incapable of responding to the challenge posed by Big Business to the union movement. With the development of new industries in the South and West, millions of workers in the United States are now unorganized. The task of organizing them into unions is perhaps the most pressing need at the present time. In order to solve this problem, the unions must go back to their roots, to the militant traditions of the CIO when they organized the unorganized in the stormy years of the 1930s. When that happens, we shall discover that those formerly inert and “backward” layers will be among the most militant and revolutionary in the whole union movement.

The unions have always been the basic organizations of the class. They are on the front line in the defence of the most basic rights of the working class. Without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism, the socialist transformation of society would be utopia. Therefore the struggle to transform the unions, to democratize them at all levels and make them genuinely responsive to the wishes and aspirations of working people, to turn them into genuine organs of struggle, is a prior condition for the fight for a socialist America, in which the unions will play the role that was envisaged for them by the pioneers of Labor – as the basic organizations for running the economy in an industrial democracy.

Return to Table of Contents

Go to Chapter IX — The Colonial Revolution

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!