Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

Marxism and World War Two

Reading Time: 8 minutes

This article looks at what led to the worst slaughter in human history and the events of the war. In doing so it contrasts the approach of genuine Marxists (grouped internationality around the exiled revolutionary, Trotsky) with the approach of Stalin and the Communist Party.

The First World War, which cost of 13 million lives, was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”. At the start of the First World War, Lenin wrote: “Imperialism has placed the fate of European culture at stake. After this war, if a series of successful revolutions do not occur, more wars will follow… a ‘war to end all wars’ is a hollow and pernicious fairy tale”.

Twenty-five years later, at the start of the Second World War, Trotsky pointed out: “the present war – the second imperialist war – is not an accident; it does not result from the will of this or that dictator. It was predicted long ago… Lenin’s prediction has become a tragic truth”.

The immediate cause of the Second World War was the rivalry between the wealthy colonial empires, Britain and France, and the up and coming plunderers, Germany and Italy. In the Pacific, the situation boiled down to a battle for control of the region between the United States and Japan.

As Trotsky explained, “in contrast to the nineteenth century, when the competition between capitalist countries developed on an expanding world market, the economic arena of struggle today is narrowing down so that nothing remains open to the imperialists except tearing pieces of the world market away from each other”.

The idea that came to be put about, that the Second World War was to protect “democracy” and save the world from fascism, was not the case at all. The British, French and American capitalists supported Hitler and Mussolini in their rise to power and were most impressed with how they had crushed the German and Italian workers’ movements on the way.

In 1927 the ‘great democrat’ Winston Churchill said in Rome, “I could not help being charmed… by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers… If I had been Italian I am sure that I should have been whole heartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism… Italy has shown that there is a way of fighting the subversive forces which can rally the masses of the people… Hereafter no great nation will be unprovided with an ultimate means of protection from the cancerous growth of Bolshevism”.

In other words the “great protectors of democracy would have been quite prepared to see fascism in Britain, America, Australia and anywhere else rather than see the workers take power. Thus their portrayal of themselves as great defenders of democracy against fascism was simply rubbish. It was only when their own positions were directly threatened that they changed their line on fascism.

Germany suffered terribly with her loss in World War One, the provisions of the Treaty of Versailles and then the great depression. In order to rebuild the devastated German economy on a capitalist basis, it was necessary to expand. Testing what the reaction would be from the major imperialist powers, Hitler’s armies gradually occupied different areas surrounding Germany between 1936 and 1939. The final straw was the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938/39 as it changed the balance of forces in Europe. Hitler’s invasion of Poland some six months later signalled the official beginning of the World War.

In 1940, in the space of three months the Nazis crushed Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and France. The attempt to knock out Britain by blockade and bombing failed, but in 1941 the Nazis also conquered Yugoslavia and Greece. Meanwhile the conflict over control of the Pacific region between America and Japan burst into open warfare with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. And then there was Russia.

With the degeneration of the Russian revolution and the consequent rise to power of Stalin and the bureaucracy he represented, Soviet foreign policy had been an ongoing series of zig-zags and u-turns since the mid 1920s. They had completely derailed the international revolutionary movement and directly paved the way to World War Two. But the pinnacle was reached in 1939 with the signing of a non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler.

As Trotsky remarked at the time “After five years of the crudest fawning upon the democracies… the Comintern suddenly discovered in the Autumn of 1939 the criminal imperialism of the Western democracies. Left about face! From then on not a single word of Czechoslovakia and Poland, the seizure of Denmark and Norway and the shocking bestialities inflicted by Hitler’s gangs against the Jewish and Polish people! Hitler was made out to be a peace-loving vegetarian continually being provoked by the Western imperialists.”

Amongst members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) there was a certain amount of confusion and it seems they actually got ‘the line’ wrong initially. The Trotskyist newspaper ‘The Militant’ of December 1939 reported a Sydney Labour Council meeting where “McPhillips (of the CPA)… made a grimly ironical speech, which, if the motion had not concerned the life and death questions of war and peace, he would have been quite amusing. For he claimed that the progressive war of September 14 1939, had become an imperialist war by November 16 1939. Needless to say he didn’t consider it necessary to explain the cause of this remarkable transformation.”

And then, in June 1941, Hitler (as he had always intended from the beginning) attacked the Soviet Union. Stalin was taken by complete surprise. For their part, the British and American governments were quite pleased. They envisaged a bloody campaign in which the Russians and Germans would so exhaust each other that they would be able to virtually walk in and mop-up afterwards.

However, their plans and Hitler’s plans went wrong. The heroic resistance of the Russian people who lost 20 million dead, turned the invasion around. But as the British Marxist Ted Grant pointed out: “what is not generally realised is that at the time of the attack by the German forces the fire-power of the Russian army was greater than the fire-power of the German army; and other things being equal the Soviet Union should have defeated the Germans within the first six months of the war”. But the major reason so many Russian lives were lost was that during his purges of the 1930’s, Stalin had wiped out over 70% of the effective officers and cadres of the Russian army!

In addition, instead of Lenin’s internationalist policy, appealing to the German soldiers to win them over to the idea of revolution (as the Russians had succeeded in doing in 1917/18) Stalin waged the struggle from a nationalist, if not racist angle. Such slogans as “the only good German is a dead German”, were raised by the Stalinists. This policy offered only retribution – not to the German fascists, the German capitalists or the SS, which would have been quite justified – but to the German people as a whole!

As Ted Grant pointed out “… Hitler actually distributed and redistributed Russian propaganda material to the German army, because it aided discipline in that it left no way out for the German soldiers except Nazi discipline. Can anyone imagine the German High Command helping with the circulation of Bolshevik propaganda in the period 1917-18?!! That was the difference between Stalinist propaganda and Bolshevik propaganda”.

The policies of the Communists in Australia flowed from Stalin’s international policies. With the German invasion of the Soviet Union, suddenly the war underwent yet another transformation from an “imperialist war” into a “people’s war” according to the CPA. This is turn meant a complete subordination of the interests of the workers to the interests of the “nation” which was completely against the grain of everything Lenin had ever written. In the Ironworkers Union which they controlled at the time, the leadership declared that the union must “accept it’s share of responsibility for increasing production and by all possible means prevent stoppages of work”. It also meant acceptance of wage pegging, compulsory overtime and cancellation of public holidays.

With companies making massive profits out of the war the Marxists, grouped in the Trotskyist Workers Party of Australia, put forward the demand for the “nationalisation of the war industries” while the Stalinists urged more and more production. In places where the Stalinists were in leading positions in the unions their attitude caused great disgruntlement amongst rank and file workers.

At Mort’s Dock on the Sydney waterfront in 1943 an article appeared in the CPA paper the ‘Rivet’ written by a young Stalinist. He was working as a labourer on the dock and complained that the elderly tradesman he was working with was too slow and went on to suggest “that more care be taken into the allotment of labour to enable better production to be maintained”. The reaction at the dock was so angry that at a mass meeting it was decided to boycott the paper and ban the collection of money for its publication!

It was at Mort’s Dock where the differing policies of Marxism and Stalinism on the domestic front were perhaps most clearly defined. While the federal leadership of the Ironworkers Union was Stalinist, the job delegate on the dock, Nick Origlass, was a well known Marxist and leader of the Workers Party. Throughout the war he waged a mighty struggle against the class-collaboration and dictatorial methods of the Stalinists. Their attempts to remove him resulted in a strike of 3,000 dockworkers which lasted for six weeks until he was reinstated.

In the army too, whilst being good soldiers, the Marxists throughout the world never ceased putting forward socialist ideas. In the Eighth Army fighting in North Africa, they were particularly successful. The Stalinists on the other hand subordinated working class demands because the defence of the USSR against Hitler was the most important priority. Despite the monstrous ruling clique in Russia, the Marxists believed Russia’s defence was crucial as well, because of the fact that capitalism had been overthrown there. But on the question of how to defend it a wide gulf once again separated them from the Stalinists.

In sharp contrast to Lenin’s position, that the best defence of the Soviet Union was the international working class (which the Marxists continued to put forward), Stalin and his followers relied on the “democratic” capitalist powers – those same countries that had applauded Hitler on his way to power over the blood and bones of the German working class. The fact that the Russians survived the war was not due to Britain and America, it was due to the heroism of the Russian people.

As one of the underground Australian Marxist newspapers ‘Workers News’ put it in April 1943 when the British and Americans were talking of opening up a “second front” against the Germans in the West, “the talk of a second front was becoming louder not so much to relieve the Red Army some of it’s burden, but to ensure that the defeat of Hitler would not appear to be entirely to the strength of the Soviet Forces and, incidentally, to throttle any revolution that might break out co-incidental with the collapse of the Hitler machine”.

And as Ted Grant pointed out, “… the Second World War, in the European arena at least, was a Russian-German war. British and US imperialism remained onlookers. The only reason they made the Second Front in 1944… was to save capitalism in Europe”. The dropping of the Atomic bombs on Japan were also directly intended as a warning to the Russians to leave the defeat of Japan (and the spoils of victory) to the US.

Thus, at a cost of 55 million lives, the Second World War came to an end. But as Lenin warned all those years ago, all the conditions that led to the war starting still exist today – the insatiable need of capitalism for more markets and materials. It is the task of the working class to overthrow the system that breeds war. There will be many chances in the period ahead.

Unless capitalism is overthrown on an international scale new wars inevitably beckon, which with the colossal destructive power of nuclear weapons, threatens the loss of huge swathes of humanity. It is the task of Marxism to ensure that the labour and trade union movement in Australia and internationally is armed with the ideas and leadership to ensure the future is one of democratic socialism, and not war and destruction in the drive for profits.

This article was written by Paul True and originally published in The Militant (predecessor of The Socialist) during the 1990s.


The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many of the problems with capitalism. The Socialist strives to explain the systemic causes of this crisis, and reports about the issues that are important to working people. We also help to organise struggles against the powers that be.

We don’t receive a cent from big business or governments. Our work is fully funded by our supporters. Even if half the people who read our website every month donated a few dollars each we would raise thousands to help our work!

We need organisations of struggle now more than ever, so if you support what we do please consider making a donation.

One-off or regular donations can be made securely HERE.