«Winchester, UK Washington, USA First published by Zero Books, 2012 Zero Books is an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd., Laurel House, Station ...»
There was in America a strong anti-war tradition that was rooted in the labour movement and the left. The Independent Labour League proclaimed in 1939 that ‘this second world war is neither more nor less than the continuation of the first’. ‘It represents the same imperialist conflict … THIS WAR IS NOT OUR WAR’.10 Those wise owls in the more patriotic left, who thought that Roosevelt and Churchill were in fact friends of the oppressed were given to mocking these socialist anti-war campaigners as ‘dupes of Hitler’. On the other hand Irving Howe wrote that the war was not ‘a holy crusade for “democracy” but rather an imperialist war; that is a war for profits, for economic domination.’ To him ‘The babble about the four freedoms was just... talk.’ It was ‘Talk to prod us into war and into blood and into death. Talk to make us give up the greatest right a workingman has: his right to strike.’ 11 Most active amongst anti-war campaigners was A. J. Muste, whose Fellowship of Reconciliation struggled to get the message across throughout the conflict. To Muste the war was a conflict between two powers for survival and domination. One set of powers, which includes Britain and the United States, and perhaps “Free France”, controls some seventy per cent of the earth’s resources and thirty million square miles of territory. The imperialistic status quo thus to their advantage was achieved by a series of wars including the last one.
The other set of powers, controlling 15 per cent of the earth’s resources, though, were going to challenge them. Muste predicted that an Allied victory would yield ‘a new American empire’ and that ‘we shall be the next nation to seek world domination – in other words to do what we condemn Hitler for doing’.12 Muste and the fellowship of reconciliation organised and supported conscientious objectors. Among New York’s intellectuals Dwight McDonald and Irving Howe started the anti-war journal Politics.13 On 27 October 1941 six members of the Socialist Workers Party in America were brought to trial accused of undermining the government under a clause in the Aliens Registration Act (the ‘Smith Act’) passed the previous year. Twenty three were sentenced to terms between a year and sixteen months. James Cannon, the party’s leader and one of the
The Roosevelt regime claims to oppose fascism but it collaborates, when expedient, with the fascists. It claims to be defending the four freedoms while trying to deny these freedoms to its political opponents. We Trotskyists, however, are defending democratic rights here at home against Roosevelt’s assault upon them. We are fighting for the freedom he hypocritically pretends to be safeguarding.14 Harold Laski of the Labour Party’s Executive Committee wrote a pamphlet Is This An Imperialist War? which conceded that ‘a large number of Labour Parties contain members’ for whom ‘the present war is simply, like the last, another “imperialist war”’. 15 In spring 1940 Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Ellen Wilkinson were barracked at regional conferences in South Wales, the East Midlands and Stirling for arguing the case for war. By March of that year ninety Constituency Labour Parties had passed anti-war resolutions to the annual conference that was to take place in June, though the war drums silenced that opposition by the summer.16 In the British Parliament, the James Maxton of the Independent Labour Party objected when Churchill announced that the position of Leader of the Opposition had been ‘put in abeyance’ as all the major parties had joined in coalition: ‘there is an attempt being made to put opposition into abeyance’.17 Throughout the war Maxton tried to challenge the government, though he was mostly shouted down. Maxton’s allies in the small but vociferous Independent Labour Party felt isolated by the rush to war on the left, but still they kept up the argument. In a pamphlet Socialism can beat Fascism, Fenner Brockway and John McNair wrote in 1940 We want an end to the war, not by a victory for Fascism, not by a victory for Imperialism, not by a victory for Capitalism on either side, but by a victory of the peoples across the frontiers over Fascism, Imperialism, Capitalism. (p 10) Brockway branded the British war effort imperialist and argued that ‘dictatorship is also
growing in Britain’:
No socialist, indeed no sincere democrat can identify himself with imperialism against Nazism, or can be satisfied with an end of the war which would destroy the Nazi form of dictatorship only.18 The communist parties had a strong core of working class leaders. Their allegiance to the nominally ‘communist’ military dictatorship in Russia played havoc with the development of their political stance, imposing some abrupt reversals. It is common to dismiss the parties’ opposition to the Allied war effort in the first year of the war as just an opportunist adaptation to the Hitler-Stalin pact. But when CP USA leader William Foster wrote in The Communist of July 1941 that ‘the present war represents a violent redivision of the world among the imperialist power’, he was right. In those early years the Communist Party of Great Britain organised a Peoples’ Convention with large numbers of working class delegates sceptical about the direction of the war. As evidence of the British government’s nervousness at such opposition, The Daily Worker was banned.
Class War in occupied Europe
The Fascist regime in Italy, despite its many years of repression aimed at the left and organised labour, was hit by labour unrest at the height of the war, beginning with a rash of strikes early in March 1943. Communists and other radical groups helped to organise a small wave of strikes in Turin, beginning with a walkout at Mirafiori plant that was followed by a strike of the 800 workers at the Rasettie factory on the Corso Cirié on 5 March. On Monday, 8 March yet more joined the protests, either coming out of work, or by organ-ising go-slows and working to rule. 100, 000 joined the disputes in the Piedmont region, and on 24 March in Milan around 130 000 workers came out in support. Mussolini demanded that strikers be shot, but on the ground the Fascisti avoided face to face attacks – 300 were arrested in Milan and 150 in Turin, but most were quickly released again. Mussolini said that the Fascist movement had been put back twenty years – within four months he was to be deposed.19 There was little hope for the anti-Fascist opposition from the Allies, though.
Eden, in a letter to Cordell Hull that January argued that the view of His Majesty’s Government was that they should ‘aim at such disorder in Italy as would necessitate a German occupation’. and ‘the best means of achieving this aim is to intensify all forms of military operations against Italy’.20 Eden’s hopes came true, and northern Italy was occupied by the Germans and made the puppet state of the Italian Social Republic, or ‘Salo Republic’. In Turin 50,000 Fiat workers went on strike in November 1943, demanding better pay and rations. On 1 March 1944 200,000 went on strike in Milan and Genoa, again centred on the Fiat plants. Strikers were deported to Germany, and later when the occupiers began seizing plant, too, there were more strikes in June 1944. The strike leaders were allied to the Communist Party, the Justice and Liberty group and the Committees for National Liberation.21 In occupied Western Europe the weight of the occupation was harsh, and open hostility was beginning to grow. French miners in the Nord Pas De Calais were loaded with increased targets to meet Nazi demands for industry, after British coal imports were stopped in June 1940. At the same time employers thought to take advantage of the way that the Nazi occupation had tipped the balance of power in their favour, by forcing down miners’ pay. On 27 May 1941 miners at the Dahomey colliery stopped work. Within the week one hundred thousand miners were on strike. Other industries came out in support: engineering, railways, ceramics and textile workers came out in support – and open defiance of the Nazi occupation. Miners met secretly in woods to avoid the Nazis (earlier in the year a miners’ delegation sent to negotiate a settlement to a local strike had been arrested). With the men at risk of arrest while picketing, their wives and daughters took their place, so that the Nazi authorities had to put them under curfew for the hour around the beginning and end of each shift. Vichy officials were so intimidated by the strikers militant challenge, that they avoided posting Nazi proclamations. Losing a grip on the situation the Nazi authorities could only cut rations and starve the men back to work. Emergency courts heard cases against the strikers and against the women pickets and around 400 were deported to Germany – around half of whom never came back.22 Pressure on the French authorities to send workers to Germany stoked anger. In the Gnome-Rhône works in Vichy-ruled Lyon 700 workers were chosen to be sent north in October 1942. Only 15 turned up and so the other 685 were dismissed. In reply all 3000 employees struck, and very quickly other workforces came out too as the strike spread throughout Lyon and to the towns of St Etienne, Grenoble, Annecy and Chamberry. There were further strikes in November 1943 again in Nord Pas De Calais and Lyon, with seventy thousand demanding better rations – though pointedly the strikes were concentrated in German interests. Finally, in June 1944, as the invasion was underway, scores of strikes broke out, concentrated in Paris and on the railways.23 In Amsterdam, on 17 and 18 February 1941 strikes were organised in shipyards to protest against plans to deport Dutch workers to Germany, and against Nazi attacks on the Jewish quarter. On 25 February, a general strike was called that shook the occupying authorities. In April and May of 1943 a wave of strikes across Holland against the internment of ex-soldiers broke out, starting in the town of Hengelo, spreading through the mining district of Limburg, the Philips works in Eindhoven and many other places. Important to German technology the Philips works were not working normally for ten days. That summer, in August 1943, a strike wave overtook Denmark.24 In Norway around 25,000 trade unionists had struck in September 1941 – but the German authorities executed two union activists Viggo Hansteen and Rolf Wickstrøm, damping down industrial militancy. Still, when the Quisling government tried to dragoon teachers into a Fascist Teachers Union the following year, most of the 14,000 refused and a thousand were deported to forced labour in the north.25 Workers’ protests against wartime conditions were by no means restricted to the Axis powers. The Allies, too, were pushing their own working people to the limit to arm their troops, and those workers began to fight back in earnest.
Class War in America
The conflict was starkest in the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ itself. There strikes fell back after America joined the war, thanks to the No Strike Agreement that the unions signed. At first employers felt sure that they could crack down on workers ‘because of the war’, explained Flint union official Jack Palmer.26 But in 1943 the number of strikes started to climb again with around two million joining in.
The union officers’ ‘no strike pledge’ brought them close relations with the government, but won nothing for their members, who quite quickly bridled at the limits. Local Union of Auto Workers president Jess Ferrazza ‘used to think I had accomplished something if one of the plants had not gone on strike because this thing kept popping up all over’. Ferrazza felt ‘like a fireman with a water bucket running around trying to put fires out’. The unions were so hand-in-glove with the government contractors that Colonel George Strong, the Air Corps procurement officer blamed younger workers ‘who aren’t subject to control by either management or by the union’ and ‘who care nothing about unionism’ for the strikes.27 Trade unionists were losing faith with the War Labor Board calling it the ‘graveyard of grievances’.
With goods shoddy and in poor supply, workers’ extra wages did not go far. Still, the great increase in employment gave them a strong sense of solidarity. Grace Lee remembered an ‘exhilarating’, ‘transcending time’: ‘People had been torn from their traditional moorings to fight in the armed services or to work in the defence plants.’ 28 These turbulent times gave workers heart, which they needed if they were to break the ‘no strike’ pledge that their representatives had made. According to Norm Bully, of General Motors’ Buick plant in Flint ‘When we found that there was no other solution except a wildcat strike, we found ourselves striking not only against the corporation, but against practically the government’ and against ‘our own union and its pledge’. According to labour historian Martin Glaberman ‘military officers in uniform were present in all the war production plants during the war and they regularly intervened in strikes and potential strikes’.29 Striking Milwaukee munitions workers tear-gassed by state troopers There was one union that did not sign up to the ‘No Strike’ agreement, the Mechanics Educational Society of America (MESA). The MESA was founded in 1932 by an English immigrant Matthew Smith who had been active in the Amalgamated Engineering Union. The MESA had around 64 000 members, hardly any full-time officials, and organised a number of strikes. The Detroit Press were outraged to hear that Smith had never bothered to become a citizen: ‘I’m an internationalist, a citizen of the human race’, he said. Called to account before a US Senate Committee, Smith was asked ‘no matter what happens to the country, your membership come first’? ‘I come from a country that had 91 wars in 100 years’ said Smith: ‘I am getting a bit cynical about them’. ‘My members’, said Smith ‘don’t know how to
work for the four, five or six freedoms,’ parodying Roosevelt’s ‘Five Freedoms’ speech:
‘They work for cash.’ In revenge at the MESA’s strike policy, the National Labour Relations Board gave over representation rights to their more compliant rivals in the Congress of Industrial Organisations – to which the MESA replied with an industry-wide strike in 1944. 30 The strike spread to 48 plants, and the Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson wired