Book Review: The Good War? By William Bowles

25 October 2003

The People as Enemy by John Spritzler, Black Rose Books, 2003

I have to admit this was a difficult book to review because of its sweep and the complexity of events that Spritzler attempts to present. As I thought about how to approach writing this review, I found myself pulled in several directions, for without dealing with each of the multi-faceted and interconnected events of the 20th century, how can one do justice to the book and most importantly, the events he analyses? I have to admit that short of writing something almost as long as the book itself, it proved impossible to deal with all the issues Spritzler raises in the space of a review. What I have tried to do is isolate the essential arguments and demonstrate whether or not I think he’s made his case.

Briefly, the book attempts to demonstrate that the accepted causes of WWII are a fiction. That the real causes lay in the fact that the leading capitalist nations, ‘engineered’ WWII to stave off social revolution in Europe, America and Japan. What Spritzler calls the ‘social control’ theory. And that once the war started, wherever the West and the USSR saw genuine peoples revolution taking place as a result of the struggle against the Germans, it was in the interests of both to suppress them.

You could also say that the book is a (very) broad analysis of 20th century capitalism and of the Russian Revolution, the complex relationship between the two, how they impacted on each other and in turn the world.

To bring Spritzler’s argument up-to-date, the deceit and lies being fed to the citizens of the US and the UK, to justify the invasion of Iraq were motivated in part by the realisation that the people had lost confidence in their governments and that it was necessary to divert attention away from domestic issues by fomenting a foreign war. And herein lies the relevance and value of the book. The question is, does Spritzler make his case?

Forestalling Revolution?
Questioning the reasons for WWII isn’t easy, it was after all, the ‘good war’, the ‘peoples’ war’. It was also the war and the period immediately before it, that shaped the outlook and attitudes of my parents’ generation and also of mine. For anyone to question the ‘accepted’ reasons as to why we went to war against Fascism is inviting the wrath of many, from the left to the right of the political spectrum.

The traditional view of WWII is that it was a struggle between good and evil, between democracy and dictatorship and who could quarrel with that? After all, the Third Reich murdered millions, invaded and occupied a dozen or more countries causing untold misery that to this day, still affects the attitudes and outlook of many people toward the Germans. It resulted in the development and use of nuclear weapons, the ‘arms race’ and the Cold War, to mention only its most obvious legacies. But it also contributed to the post-war liberation movements that swept Africa and Asia and the Chinese Revolution (would they have happened anyway?).

Spritzler argues that the real reason for WWII was to halt a ‘peoples revolution’, in Europe, Japan, and the United States. To do this he has had to look at the history of the 20th century, starting with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and moving on to the Great Depression triggered by the crash of capital in 1929 and the subsequent rise of Fascism in Germany and Japan. No mean feat, as it means compressing complex and interconnected events and their reasons into 184 pages and in doing so, the author has to skate over much and with that, bring to bear the benefit of hindsight to events that carries with it the dangers of over-simplification.

Would there have been social revolutions in the US, Europe and Japan without the war intervening? This is a question that is impossible to answer and it’s the major weakness of Spritzler’s argument. Did Stalin collude with the West in suppressing peoples’ revolutions and also contribute to the rise of Fascism in order to hold onto power?

Revolutions betrayed?
From the day the Bolsheviks took power, Russia came under attack from the West and from that day on until the day it collapsed, it remained under sustained attack from the capitalist powers in one form or another. After all, the Bolshevik Revolution had sparked an unprecedented politicisation of working people, that in turn led to the rise of working class revolutionary parties, militant trade unionism and the spread of revolutionary ideas, that Winston Churchill described as, “A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Bolshevism.”

It’s true that Stalin betrayed Republican Spain during the Civil War and finally, during and after the closing days of WWII, colluded with the Allies to prevent socialist revolutions in Italy, France, Greece and elsewhere. The question is why? There are two possible answers only one of which Spritzler supplies. Spritzler maintains that Stalin was afraid that genuine peoples’ revolution in Eastern and Western Europe would have sparked a revolt in the USSR and the second is based on the fear of invasion by the West.

The problem is that the two possibilities are interconnected. After all, Spritzler points out that the West was divided over whether the ‘real’ enemy was Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, hence it’s possible that revolution in Western Europe could have sparked an invasion of Russia on the pretext that they were ‘inspired’ by Stalin.

By the end of the war, air power had become the deciding factor and even though Stalin had over 500,000 troops in Europe, he had virtually no bomber capacity, especially long range bombers, and no atomic bomb. ‘Strategic’ bombing had never been a part of Soviet war fighting capacity, as a result, the Soviet Union was extremely vulnerable from the air. By contrast, the US had thousands of long range bombers, capable reaching targets across the Soviet Union.

My own interpretation is that Stalin was motivated more by the fear of attack, in other words, his response was fundamentally a nationalist one, the defence of ‘Mother Russia’. That genuine socialist revolutions in Europe might have challenged his personal power and that of the Communist Party is inevitably a component but in no way alters this interpretation of events.

The competition theory
Spritzler argues that WWII was not a war between competing capitalist nations for markets (the ‘competition theory’). He provides us with some evidence for this, for example, the largest corporations in the US, Ford, GM, Dupont, Standard Oil (now Exxon), ITT and others, continued their business dealings with the Third Reich throughout the war. Indeed they made it quite plain that they weren’t going to let war get in the way of doing business no matter who it was with. And moreover, the leaders of these corporations were all pro-Fascist, anti-semitic and of course, virulently anti-Communist and anti-working class.

US-owned plants in Germany and occupied France continued to turn out products for the German war machine including engines for trucks and through the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), that had leading German Nazis and Americans on its board, billions including gold from the extermination camps passed through BIS to banks in Switzerland. It wasn’t until the war was almost over that BIS was dissolved. Standard Oil continued to supply specialised lubricants to the Japanese airforce even after Pearl Harbour. However, he doesn’t convince me that competition played no part at all.

Revolution at home?

“”[O]n September 22, 1919, 350,000 steelworkers went on strike. The Sheriff of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania, the heart of the industry, “issued a proclamation forbidding outdoor meetings anywhere in the county” and in most steel centers local authorities forbade even indoor meetings. “In Gary, Indiana the National Guard occupied the city and forbade strikes.” Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer “warned publicly that the strike harbored the threat of Bolshevism.””

This was just one of many that swept the country and the state’s response was to murder, beat and jail workers across the nation. Statements, like that of Attorney General Palmer focused on the ‘Bolshevik threat’ and during the infamous Palmer Raids of the same year [1919], over 5,000 people were arrested, trade union offices and those of leftist parties raided and 249 people were deported.

A strike in July of 1934 of 20,000 textile workers in Alabama quickly spread throughout the South and East Coast until 325,000 workers were involved.

“The governor of South Carolina declared martial law on September 9, announcing that a “state of insurrection” existed.” The strike continued to spread and 10,000 National Guardsmen were mobilised in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. The number on strike grew to 421,000.

In May of 1935, FDR told William Randolph Hearst:

“I want to save our system, the capitalistic system; to save it is to give some heed to world thought of today. I want to equilize the distribution of wealth.”

Under urging from FDR Congress set up the National Labor Relations Board and this was followed by the Wagner Act and the Social Security Act in 1935, all designed to contain the demands of American workers. But following a massive strike of GM workers in 1937 over union recognition the New York Times wrote:

“It is generally feared that an attempt to evict the strikers with special deputies would lead to an inevitable amount of bloodshed and the state of armed insurrection.”

In 1937 400,000 workers all over the country struck. The New Deal had clearly not addressed the demands of working people. Hence the need for war with its use of nationalism, patriotism, xenophobia and racism, all of which were utilised by the Western allies in order to turn worker against worker. Spritzler shows that FDR’s opposition to entering the war was a complete sham and that he did everything he could to drag the US into the war, including provoking Japan. There is evidence to support the view that FDR knew in advance about the attack on Pearl Harbour.

A war between ‘democracy and ‘fascism’?
In the years leading up to WWII there was considerable debate in the US (as there was in the UK) about whether or not to form an alliance with Germany and Japan against the Soviet Union. The argument within the American ruling class wasn’t over whether ‘democracy’ or Fascism was preferable but which system would best guarantee the preservation of capitalism. And as Spritzler demonstrates, the rise of the Third Reich was German capitalism’s response to a rising tide of revolutionary workers’ demands. Hitler’s financiers were (aside from Bush the smaller’s grandpa, Prescott Bush) big capital, including Krupps, Thyssens, BASF and the major banks. But for Churchill and British imperialism, Germany represented a greater (immediate) threat than did Soviet Russia and so in the final analysis, it was to be war with Germany.

I think the weakness of the book is that it tends to oversimply the issues. Whilst it is true that there was rising opposition to capitalism following the Bolshevik Revolution that scared the living daylights out of the capitalist classes, was the clamour for war motivated purely by the fear of revolution, real or imagined? Was it the failure of the state in both Japan and the US to suppress the demands of workers that led directly to war and that competition between the capitalist powers over markets played no part? Was it only Stalin’s desire to hang onto power that determined his betrayal of socialist revolutions elsewhere, including Comintern’s policy of ‘social fascism’ that contributed to the Nazis capturing power in 1933? Or was his motivation largely that of a nationalist, afraid of invasion by the West?

One of the problems of Spritzler’s argument is that he doesn’t address the contradiction between the West’s hatred and fear of Communism at home and abroad, and Stalin’s ‘collusion’ with the West. After all, Stalin was well aware that the Nazis planned to invade and that the invasion might well be supported by the US and the UK (and according to Spritzler, it could well have turned out that way), hence his attempt to get a mutual defence treaty with England and France and only when that failed, with Nazi Germany. One could make a good case for a purely nationalist interpretation of Stalin’s policies. And the same holds true for Stalin’s betrayal of workers uprisings during and after the war ended. Above all else, Russia was afraid that following the defeat of Fascism, the West would turn its attentions to the Soviet Union and who could gainsay him? History was on his side.

Dropping the atomic bomb on Japan, along with the “terror bombing” raids that killed millions in Germany and Japan, that Spritzler maintains were aimed not to destroy the Axis war machine but to suppress workers resistance not only to Fascism but also to capitalism, Stalin interpreted as a direct warning to the Soviet Union. Indeed, the bombings could just as easily have addressed both issues.

So the jury is still out as far as I am concerned. Meticulously documented, with hundreds of footnotes, as a record of the times it’s invaluable. What makes the book important is its exposure of the West’s duplicity and lies concerning the reasons for war, any war and its relevance to the world of today.

The People as Enemy by John Spritzler, Black Rose Books, 2003

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