Donny Gluckstein review: The people against fascism?

David Broder reviews: Donny Gluckstein, 'A people’s history of the Second World War: resistance versus empire', Pluto Press, 2012, pp288, £17.50

Resistance: but in whose interests?

Britain has a bit of an obsession with World War II. Whether drunk football fans singing the Dambusters theme at England matches or the apathetic BBC2 schedulers’ constant resort to more Dad’s army repeats, people treasure our collective myth of ‘the war’. All in it together, sacrificing and making do, our island home standing proud and free. Not just the last triumph of the British empire, but an unambiguous war for democracy. Or so they say.

But Donny Gluckstein’s book - just like James Heartfield’s Unpatriotic history and a recent re-edition of Ray Challinor’s Struggle for hearts and minds - begs to differ, bringing into relief the hypocrisy of the western imperialist powers and the darker episodes of the war effort, as against the motives of many ordinary Britons fighting the war. According to Gluckstein, the ‘people’s war’ that rank-and-file soldiers fought, and so too the anti-fascist resistance movements in Axis-occupied areas, was distinct from the ‘imperialist’ war between the major powers over territory and colonies.

Of course, there is nothing new in saying that Britain did not just fight foreign fascism over the years 1939-45, but was itself transformed domestically. Indeed, such a narrative was consciously mobilised by the British government during the war. From the depiction of social change, as women came into the workforce in Millions like us, to the shared sacrifice and breakdown of rigid class barriers in Mrs Miniver or the spontaneous will to resist fascism of Went the day well, wartime propagandists constantly stressed popular participation, collective effort and democratic spirit. So too in later memorialisation: the priggish bank manager, captain Mainwaring, conservative but with a chip on his shoulder about his terribly lower-middle-class upbringing, reproaches his deputy, the aristocratic Sergeant Wilson, “Things will be different after the war, you know!”

As Gluckstein notes, Angus Calder even produced a history called The people’s war. The task Gluckstein sets himself, though, is to extend this to an international plane, showing how the ‘people’s war’ was distinct from - or clashed with - the imperialist war, in each of the specific arenas of conflict, from the French resistance to India and Vietnam.

In this sense, I am not exactly paying the author much of a compliment when I say that he has covered a wide array of situations and research material. While his project does not cover the war in its entirety (the Soviet Union and Japan being the most notable omissions), he does attempt to imply the ‘people’s resistance versus empire’ schema to each and every one. Although the author is a member of the Socialist Workers Party, he does not claim to be writing a Marxist history of the conflict, but rather to be testing his ‘people’s war’ idea.

As we shall see, the problem with this analytical framework is not just oversimplifying some among his 15 case studies, but also blurring the specifically class-struggle elements of the crisis the war entailed. Unfortunately the limitations of space, language and my own knowledge mean I will have to restrict my comments to his analysis of western Europe, and the way in which the classless ‘people’s war’ praised by Gluckstein is in fact a mainstream myth of anti-fascism and was used in the period of World War II to demobilise potential revolutionary forces.

In Spain

In his opening chapter, ‘Spanish prelude’, Gluckstein explains how the ‘people’s war’ against fascism began in 1936, in response to general Franco’s coup attempt. While the western democracies tacitly preferred the victory of the Italian and German-backed nationalists, important sections of the Spanish working class resisted Franco en masse. Certainly, it was a brave choice to apply the ‘people’s war’ idea to the fight of the Spanish republic, which fractured precisely along the lines of whether the struggle was simply anti-fascist or else also entailed a working class revolution.

Gluckstein’s explanation is that the ‘people’s’ war’ was itself a revolution, confronting the army (p14), but imperialist France and Britain failed to support the democratically elected government (as might be expected, if the overthrow of capitalism was on the cards), while the communists, in line with Stalin’s desire to appear moderate and appease the western democracies, wanted to limit the struggle to simple opposition to Franco (p19). As such, his criticism is not directed against the communists, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) and Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) for making a bloc with bourgeois legality in the Popular Front, subordinating the revolution, but instead and only on the western democracies’ failure to support the republic, and then Stalin for kowtowing to these same imperialist powers. Yet the revolution was doomed not from the point where the Popular Front broke down, but rather when it began: when the contrasting class interests of the republican state and the working class were smothered, as the anarchists and POUM capitulated to a bourgeois-liberal leadership.

Gluckstein’s focus has the effect of exaggerating the role of a nebulous ‘imperialism’ and downplaying the direct, class opposition between the remnants of the republican state (which, unmentioned by Gluckstein, had attempted to reach an accommodation with Franco and initially mobilised no opposition) and the revolutionary movement arising during the war crisis. If the western democracies were opposed to ‘reds’ in Spain, the Popular Front was the instrument of the non-fascist Spanish ruling class to muzzle them, under the ‘pragmatic’ argument that all other political questions were subordinate to the urgent, joint fight against Franco, and would have to be addressed only upon some undefined tomorrow.

This superficially ‘common sense’ idea played a similar role in the French and Italian resistances, and, on a rather lesser scale, the ‘vote for anyone but the BNP’ propaganda of Unite Against Fascism. But note Leon Trotsky’s bitter denunciation of “the empty abstraction of anti-fascism” and the Popular Front in his writings on Spain: “The very concepts of ‘anti-fascism’ and ‘anti-fascist’ are fictions and lies. Marxism approaches all phenomena from a class standpoint. [Republican prime minister] Azaña is ‘anti-fascist’ only to the extent that fascism hinders bourgeois intellectuals from carving out parliamentary or other careers. Confronted with the necessity of choosing between fascism and the proletarian revolution, Azaña will always prove to be on the side of the fascists. His entire policy during the seven years of revolution proves this.”

A rather bombastic critic, certainly, but certainly one worth engaging with: instead, the author makes just one reference to Trotsky, in his introduction (p7). Gluckstein’s smoothing over of the domestic class battle, within the republic, is also expressed in a mechanical division of labour among anti-Franco forces: thus the revolution is portrayed as going on behind the lines (factory and land occupations, confrontations with bosses), whereas the front is a simple military campaign, as if there were no connection between overall political leadership and the fate of local efforts to transform the economy. Indeed, the very words ‘people’s war’ are strongly redolent of the kind of rhetoric the bourgeois republicans and Stalinists used, to try to pose the war as an all-class alliance without internal contradictions.


Indeed, rather than seeing perspectives of social and political transformation as intertwined with the struggle between classes, Gluckstein’s book favours a sociological and often reductive interpretation of class, drawing a link between the fact that workers and other ‘ordinary people’ were mobilised against fascism and their espousal of little-defined aspirations for social reform, as a cause ‘parallel’ to, but separate from, the clash of empires led by generals and politicians.

The division between the ‘imperialist’ and ‘people’s’ war essentially seems, then, to be predicated on a rather tendentious view that Allied ruling class leaders were not subjectively opposed to Hitler, whereas the ‘ordinary people’ under their command fought for various reformist objectives. Certainly, Gluckstein can deploy some juicy quotes by Churchill and other ruling class figures praising Hitler, Franco and Mussolini, whose ‘order’ they preferred to the spectre of godless Bolshevism - but he still plays down the degree to which they really did fight fascism, a regime which certainly did not prove necessary to the survival of world capitalism.

Figures such as Joseph Goebbels, who believed that the Allies would need the Nazis to keep order after the war, were wrong: unlike at the end of World War I, the Axis countries occupied by the Allies were not humiliatingly punished, as advocated by Lord Vansittart, but instead rebuilt with some form of welfarist democracy, helped by Marshall plan aid dollars. Combined with the later creation of what would become the European Union, they planned for democratic stability and managed class tensions in western Europe much more consciously than the author lets on.

Moreover, Gluckstein rarely comes very close to defining what ‘the people’ means as a political subject, instead characterising it largely negatively and in terms of its sociological make-up, that is, the participation in Resistance movements of people who were not workers (p. 12). In a response to SWP historian Ian Birchall’s review of his book, Gluckstein writes: “If anything, WWII came closer than WWI to lining up the armies separately, because in country after country a movement of ‘a section of the petty bourgeoisie [and] the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses’ fought both Axis or foreign occupation and their open (‘Quisling’) collaborators in the domestic ruling class.”2

However, the implication of Gluckstein’s reading is that the fight against ‘Quisling’ elements of the ruling class is in itself revolutionary, which seems to fudge the distinction between anti-Nazism and class struggle. But the general trend of World War II was for ruling classes to break with Hitler and save themselves, as Allied victory became inevitable (most notably Italy), or else for non-collaborationist elements of the state to find themselves on the right side of history (France, the Netherlands, Norway, etc).

Revolution is not just about destroying some external enemy, or eliminating the ruling class in a military confrontation, but actively creating new social relations and democratic forms. Unless you imagine fascism, or individual fascists, to be absolutely necessary to the survival of capitalism, even the most ‘militant’ anti-fascism (hanging collaborators from lamp-posts, blowing up Wehrmacht units, purging institutions of Nazi sympathisers post-war), if not part of a conscious political mobilisation to reorder society, will leave capitalist class domination fundamentally intact.

Never in this book does Gluckstein bring such questions into relief, and discussion of aspirations to remake society post-war is always unsatisfactorily vague. While a ‘people’s history’, this is definitely not history from below, and Gluckstein rarely dwells on the complexity of working class people’s political ideas and traditions, nor their efforts at organising, preferring to highlight the perfidy of bourgeois politicians and the attitudes of the main Stalinist and social democratic parties.

This has the unfortunate effect of portraying working class people as passive victims of events, left crestfallen, as bad leaders betrayed their naive expectations, and also leads to anachronism. Indeed, despite an analysis surprisingly long on praise for the role of the communist parties in resistance movements, Gluckstein does not spare us from sterile speculation, at 70 years’ distance, on the possible results of different tactics, such as when he argues that a “genuine people’s war imbued with internationalism and emphasising the common interest of ordinary people in opposing all ruling classes” (whatever “ordinary people” means) “could have generated mass support for [the Polish resistance] in Volhynia” (p63). However, he does not seriously engage with the WWII-era critics of the mainstream popular-frontist resistance strategies - even though their critiques are surely much more interesting to the reader than his own, since they both lived through and tried to shape the events concerned, testing analysis against reality.

I presume the reader will accept that resistance movements did more to shape the terrain for their own countries’ post-war political life than they actually tipped the balance of the war in the Allies’ favour (indeed, victories such as Stalingrad, proving that Hitler was not infallible, but rather doomed, were important spurs to partisan activity in all countries). As such, the question of the left’s approach to resistance struggles is not so much a question of whether or not it was really necessary to fight fascism, in the abstract, but what kind of post-war society such movements were gradually building, as they approached governmental power. While the author could hardly have been expected to address every Trotskyist, left-communist and anarchist group under the sun, the most glaring sins of omission are those which pose clear challenges to his ‘people’s war’ interpretative schema. I will focus here on the example of Italy.

Anti-fascism in Italy

The Italian ruling class was imperilled in World War II, 20 years of fascism and a disastrous war effort sparking significant working class rebellion. Massive strikes in the northern industrial centres in March 1943, organised around wage demands, galvanised elements within the regime that saw Mussolini as leading them into the abyss, and on July 25, just after the Allies landed in Sicily, the king and the fascist Grand Council overthrew the hapless Duce.

In his place, the king appointed marshal Pietro Badoglio, conqueror of Ethiopia in 1935-36, who (having bloodily suppressed anti-fascist demonstrations greeting the fall of Mussolini, in order to maintain order) began peace negotiations with the Allies. When the armistice was announced on September 8, Nazi Germany immediately invaded to shore up its strategic position, quickly overrunning most of the country. Hitler soon put Mussolini back in office, charged with keeping order in the puppet ‘Salò republic’.

Meanwhile, Badoglio remained prime minister of the kingdom of Italy in the Allied-occupied areas in the south of the country, supported by the British and Americans. Anti-fascist partisan activity and workplace organisation continued to build in the German-controlled north and centre, with tens of thousands of young men flooding into the resistance from November 1943 as an alternative to being conscripted to the Salò armed forces.

The resistance movement was primarily organised in the popular-front Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale (CLN), with the pro-Moscow Communist Party (PCI) by some way its largest element. Gluckstein argues that the CLN’s ‘people’s war’ against the Nazi-fascists had a radical agenda: “Fighting both Salò and the Wehrmacht gave mass struggle a dual character. It was a battle for national liberation, and a ‘true civil war’ for ‘class emancipation’” (p147).

His citation of the words ‘class emancipation’ is rather precarious, here, suggesting that the mere fact of civil war against a domestic opponent collaborating with the Nazis - Salò - implies that the fight had a ‘class’ character. However, he writes: “Although workers played such a prominent role in Italy, even here the people’s war was never a pure class phenomenon”, as northern industrialists hedged their bets by funding the CLN parties and keeping open contacts with both the fascists and US intelligence (p153). Indeed, the CLN was a cross-class phenomenon - but not just because of industrialists’ support or sociological make-up, but rather its political breadth. As well as the communist and socialist parties and the left-republican Partito d’Azione, the CLN included two liberal parties and the Christian Democrats, gathered behind a programme of national unity.

Indeed, ever since the Comintern’s Seventh Congress the PCI had taken a series of positions designed to apply the Stalinist popular front strategy to Italy, mostly relying on the idea that Mussolini was selling out Italy’s interests for the sake of his alliance with Germany. Such a narrative ran through the several appeals “extending a hand to fascists of whatever rank” in the exile PCI press from 1936-39, including the argument that Italy had “just and honest” territorial interests in the Balkans, and that Mussolini was reckless to instead build an empire in Africa (which was, of course, already ‘taken’).

The Stalinist policy was to isolate Hitler internationally, and, failing that, to drive a wedge between Mussolini and the Italian bourgeois establishment, while also stirring discontent in the fascist mass organisations. As Trotskyist Pietro Tresso caustically argued in 1938, the PCI view was that “It was necessary to tear (fascist) Italy from its affair with Hitler, and rally it to the fight for ‘democracy’. For this purpose ‘our brothers in black shirts’ could give us the greatest of support. The enemy is no longer fascism, but Hitlerism. So enough of anti-fascism. In Italy there are no longer either fascists or anti-fascists, much like for a long time there has been no mention in the Stalinist ‘newspapers’ of proletarians and bourgeois, nor rich peasants and poor ones, nor exploited and exploiters. In Italy there is now nothing but Italians and anti-Italians.”3

Similarly, throughout the German occupation of Italy, from September 1943 onwards, the PCI portrayed its cause in nationalist terms, invoking the imagery of the 19th century Italian wars of unification and insisting that it had no immediate revolutionary aims, instead calling on all Italians to close ranks and fight to “kick out the Germans”. Its press explicitly counterposed a national struggle to the class-struggle policy of other communist organisations, which the Stalinists denounced as divisive “class particularism”.

Having declared war on Germany - which was then occupying all of central and northern Italy - in October 1943, Pietro Badoglio wanted the CLN parties to join his Allied-backed government and lend it popular credibility. However, the PCI leadership initially refused, on the grounds that the monarchy was too divisive, too compromised by its association with fascism, to act as an effective figurehead for the national struggle. Other CLN parties were similarly reluctant to support the new regime, fearing being outflanked to their left by the PCI should they break ranks.

But in April 1944, under Moscow’s instructions, the PCI changed tack with the so-called ‘Salerno turn’, leading to all CLN parties joining His Majesty’s government. While many militants complained of accommodation to the hated monarchy, this turn had a certain political logic. Closely aligned to the Allied powers and promising to delay addressing institutional questions until after the war (thereby stabilising bourgeois order at the moment when it was most in crisis), it was only natural that the CLN cross-class alliance would try to make a bloc with forces with similar objectives, including elements of the ruling class which had seen that the Rome-Berlin Axis was doomed to failure.

Indeed, this was exactly the PCI vision Tresso had pointed to in 1938 - parts of the fascist-era establishment had cut Mussolini loose in order to join up with the democratic Allies, and thus could also be welcomed into the popular front in Italy. Curiously, though, Gluckstein writes that “The Salerno turn transformed the PCI’s role in the resistance. Class struggle was to be replaced by ‘national unity’ with the bosses, the monarchy, ex-fascists, and anyone not overtly in the Nazi camp” (p155). He adds: “One consequence of the Salerno turn was the growth of revolutionary movements outside the PCI advocating the class struggle transposed onto an international plane.” He cites the examples of Stella Rossa, which had about half as many members as the PCI in Turin, and Bandiera Rossa, the largest formation of the Roman resistance - both of them heterodox organisations outside the CLN and believing in the immediate possibility of socialist revolution.

A number of Gluckstein’s references on these pages are from an article by Arturo Peregalli in Revolutionary History Vol 5, No4, based on his masterful work L’altra resistenza. However, the author’s portrayal of this text and the events there described is misleading, forced to fit his own ‘people’s war’ schema. In fact, just a few lines after Peregalli refers to radical left groups seeing the war as “the class struggle transposed onto an international plane”, the late Italian historian correctly explains that “These movements were not surprised by the ‘Salerno turn’: they merely regarded it as a tactical adjustment that would extend the [already existing] all-class alliance to the royalists. Their critique of the PCI’s policies covered more than just the changes after March 1944.”4

It is not true that the PCI - or at least its press and leadership - had a class-struggle strategy prior to the Salerno turn; instead, it argued that class-conscious workers should mobilise together with all true Italians for the CLN. PCI-organised strikes in the northern factories both before and after Salerno had this same objective. Moreover, the other main communist groups were not post-Salerno splits, but rather independent formations arising out of local initiatives, often somewhat eclectic and informed by the lasting traditions of the pre-1926 Communist Party. The 20-year fascist suppression of the left had meant that many militants, isolated from international Stalinism, held onto fragments of the early, revolutionary and class-against-class ideas of the Comintern. They saw the war as the ripe moment to ‘settle accounts’ with Italian capitalism, and thus refused to submit their own objectives to a generic war against fascism.

Hence legendary Bandiera Rossa partisan, tram-driver Tigrino Sabatini, explained to his comrades in autumn 1943, “Lenin turned war into revolution. Stalin, Togliatti and [the Rome PCI’s Mario] Alicata send revolutionaries to fight the war.”5 Sabatini and 185 of his comrades would be murdered by the Nazis during the nine-month occupation of Rome - a third of the anti-fascist total.

Whereas Gluckstein identifies the CLN and its fight against the Salò republic with “class struggle”, and its embrace of Badoglio and the monarchy against this same enemy as unprincipled “national unity”, thus giving rise to revolutionary oppositions - in fact these other communist movements were significant from the very start of the resistance period. As Bandiera Rossa explained as early as October 1943, class struggle was not just a spur to action against Nazis, but instead a clash taking place within the anti-fascist camp, between revolutionary perspectives and those who “drugged the masses with talk of freedom”, using national unity against the Nazi-fascists as a cover for the restoration of bourgeois order.

As it happened, Badoglio only remained prime minister until June 6 1944, to be replaced by former Rome CLN president, the liberal Ivanoe Bonomi, as the Allies reached the Italian capital. The CLN parties remained in governmental alliance until 1947, establishing a republican constitution via referendum. As such, Salerno was not the moment of ‘betrayal’ of class struggle or the CLN’s people’s war in order to forge national unity: rather, it put the pre-existing Stalinist popular-front strategy into practice, concretising the full extent of PCI class collaboration. Indeed, it proved to be just a temporary phase in the CLN’s wider operation of channelling working class rebellion into safe, parliamentary-democratic channels.

As part of this, the PCI made largely non-specific rhetorical promises of social reform - the kind of demagogic ideas so praised by Gluckstein - both to defend its appeal to its members (and indulge their hopes of a future, ‘radical’ change of tack) and undercut rival communist organisations. But, combined with this effort to confuse opposition with its two-faced promises, the Stalinists also subjected leftist opponents to ‘Nazi’-baiting and even direct physical repression. Stella Rossa - publicly attacked by leading PCI member Pietro Secchia as a “mask of the Gestapo” – had its leader, Temistocle Vaccarella, assassinated by Stalinist hoodlums during the German occupation; other such victims included the left communists, Fausto Atti and Mario Acquaviva. Across the Alps, Pietro Tresso and three of his French comrades suffered a similar fate.

SWP’s anti-fascism

As well as his misreading of Peregalli, I had other concerns about the author’s real grasp of the realities of World War II. I could not quite make out whether the sentence, “The Soviets put no obstacle in the way of British and US supply planes flying the 1,250km from their nearest bases in Italy [to Poland]” (p68), was meant to be a joke. The clash between Charles de Gaulle and the ex-Vichyist generals in North Africa is basically ignored, and the whole chronology of his chapter on France screwed up by wrongly dating the Anglo-American invasion of Algeria as November 1943 rather than the previous year (pp92-94). But I am going to shy away from writing a response to Gluckstein as long as the original book.

In my final remarks I would like to briefly describe how Gluckstein’s failure to understand the role of anti-fascist and democratic ideology in World War II, and its mythology, is connected with the SWP’s current understanding of the modern-day British far right and how to fight it.

Reading Gluckstein’s book reminded me of an article I once read in Socialist Worker, in an issue largely dedicated to anti-fascist themes (it was produced for a Unite Against Fascism demo responding to the election of BNPer Richard Barnbrook to the London assembly). Simon Assaf interviewed a Guyanese RAF veteran on the experience of West Indians who volunteered to fight for Britain. While undoubtedly highlighting the racism which blighted the armed forces, the piece nonetheless promotes the idea that everyone pulled together, coloniser and colonised, against fascism, such as in a reference to “the extra taxes, raw materials and food that flowed from the colonies to support the war” (my italics).6 Indeed, this piece also advertised an Imperial War Museum exhibition on West Indians supporting the British war effort.

Surely this shows not so much the contradiction between ‘people’s’ and ‘imperialist’ war, but rather that anti-Nazism is closely linked with British ‘patriotic’ mythology and, the more minority groups whose contribution to the war effort can be recognised, the more effective its role in creating a sense of common identity and shared values, without distinction of class, race or gender? Indeed, on YouTube you can even find a 1965 video of Churchill’s funeral, to the tune of ‘I vow to thee, my country’, and when the camera pans past a black man, it suddenly zooms in on his face, to draw our attention: ‘See, even they appreciated him.’7 There is nothing new, nothing radical in focusing on the participation of subaltern groups in the collective war mobilisation. At worst it is merely jumping on the bandwagon of identity politics, without concern for what the war really meant.

But, rather than seeing the continual recreations of the far right as evidence of the crisis of working class organisation combined with social breakdown, the SWP portray the English Defence League and British National Party as ‘Nazis’, directly tapping into the collective myth of the British empire’s ‘good war’. It seems rather odd, though, to suggest that British racists draw their main inspiration from German Nazism - a bit like the Football Association’s current plan to address racism in the sport by giving classes in British culture to foreign players. This is exactly the kind of superiority complex at the heart of mainstream racism in Britain: unlike the foreigners, even our colonial empire was an enlightening civilising mission, our crimes in World War II were still part of the fight for democracy, and so on.

This is precisely what the claim that the Tories or the establishment or the BBC are trying to legitimise the BNP does not get. In fact, when Nick Griffin was on Question time, Tory Baroness Warsi specifically defended Winston Churchill (whatever his own racism) from the BNP attempt to associate themselves with his politics. Why? Because the British ruling class has never needed fascists, but rather proudly recalls the fight against Hitler. Liberal inclusiveness, all of us in it together, writing social conflict out of history, is a much better way to galvanise a shared identity. More ‘militant’ anti-fascism, demanding the BNP is excluded from public space and calling on people to vote for anyone, so long as they are not ‘the Nazis’, merely serves to galvanise the idea of a ‘legitimate’ mainstream, from the SWP to David Cameron.

And such was the mobilising power of the ‘people’s war’, from communists to Churchill, 70 years ago.






5. Quoted in F Chilanti Ex: con uno scritto di Antonio Pizzut Milan 1969, p49.

6. Socialist Worker June 21 2008.


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