Class and Warfare

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Review of ’The People as Enemy‘ by John Spritzler, Black Rose Books £17.99

More than 50 million soldiers and civilians perished in the Second World War. Bombs were directed by Allies and Axis alike to create massive firestorms to slaughter as many civilians as possible. Entire cities were strategically razed. Yet this war is uniquely regarded as the ’people‘s war‘ on the grounds that the aim of the Allied leaders was to save the world from unimaginable tyranny.

John Spritzler‘s The People As Enemy challenges the basic assumptions of this view, proposing a radically different understanding of this chapter of history. He argues that the origins of the war were the same in each country: the elite‘s desperate fear of their own revolutionary working class.

Spritzler conducts a detailed study of class conflict throughout the 1930s in Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and the US. The research is impressive. In particular, he reveals how Hitler was forced into the blitzkrieg (lightning war) strategy by a combination of economic weakness and political unrest among a German working class who never transferred their support to him. Spritzler also demonstrates how Roosevelt attempted to provoke Japanese aggression that would allow the US elite to enter the war.

Elsewhere, Spritzler draws heavily on historian Gabriel Kolko‘s work to present an account of how the Allies attacked the anti-fascist resistance from Italy to the Philippines, in many cases cooperating with fascist collaborators to prevent the working class seizing power.

While providing useful insights into the level of collaboration between ruling elites in the warring nations and their common desire to crush workers‘ power, The People as Enemy fails to provide a comprehensive analysis of the war. Spritzler concludes that the desire of elites to suppress the working class was the only motivating force behind the war. While he has no doubt that Stalin wanted an ’enlarged Russian empire‘ and wanted to divide the world up between the Allies, this was merely in order ’to help prevent ...revolutions from succeeding anywhere‘.

The tension at the heart of Spritzler‘s analysis frequently surfaces. When discussing the divide in Allied ruling class opinion over whether to side with Hitler or Stalin he argues that Henry Ford ’admired Hitler and did not believe he posed a threat to US power‘. He states that in 1933 Roosevelt ’demonstrated his desire to get the US into a war in the Far East‘, but is unable to explain why within the framework of his argument.

What is lacking, in short, is an account of imperialism.

The economic backdrop to the war was the 1929-32 crisis, the gravest yet to have rocked capitalism. All the warring states leapt in the same direction: protectionism and state intervention in the economy.

By 1939 this strategy had lead to such competition between rival imperialisms that the only way out of capitalism‘s malaise was a wholesale redivision of the world. Spritzler fails to tackle this question, and the book is weaker for it.

Nevertheless, The People as Enemy is an important addition to the weight of argument against the ’people‘s war‘ view. The level of working class rebellion he uncovers and recounts is amazing and often inspiring. He succeeds in demonstrating the weaknesses underpinning the elite‘s position and their dread of the working class and their revolutionary aspirations.

Significant too is the fact that in important respects the ideas employed by Allied leaders are being used again today. The notion of a supremely evil, though strictly foreign, threat against whom we must unite with our leaders in a spirit of patriotism and self sacrifice is the ideological stick behind the ’war on terrorism‘. This may have so far borne fruit for the US elite - both in terms of restricting civil liberties at home and expanding empire abroad.

Fortunately, however, far fewer people are succumbing to this idea now than then.