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Jews and the Marxist left in world war two

SOAS professor Colin Shindler can’t quite bring himself openly to state that British Marxists would have collaborated with the Wehrmacht had Germany invaded Britain in 1940. So he implies it instead, resorting to the transparently shoddy device of putting a question mark after each de facto accusation contained in his essay for the Jewish Chronicle last week.

His basic thesis – doubtless to be expanded in the book he publishes next month – is that despite over-representation of Jews in revolutionary movements in the first half of the last century, the left would have prevaricated in the fight against fascism and was at best indifferent to the fate of European Jewry.

That the Soviet Union aided the Nazi war effort between 1939 and 1941 will not be news to anyone with a grasp of the literature. Nor is Stalin’s explicit anti-semitism in any question. Those who wish to justify the zig zags of the Third International and its affiliates at this time will no doubt put forward their explanations in the course of the lefty-bashing frenzy that Shindler’s volume will inevitably generate.

My own best guess is that the bulk of the Communist Party of Great Britain would have shown the same bravery as the volunteers that went to Spain only a few years previously. It wasn’t the left that stood for appeasement, Prof Shindler.

But the very kindest thing that can be said of the author’s claims about the Trotskyist movement is that he tells far less than half the story. As Shindler must know from his researches, revolutionary defeatism was a minority position within the Fourth International.

The majority adopted a policy of supporting the war effort while agitating for it be come under workers’ control, on the grounds that the ruling classes on the Allied side would prove irresolute in taking the anti-fascist struggle to the finish.

That mistaken assessment is easy to mock from the standpoint of 2012, but was not an obvious screwball assertion to put forward at the time. After all, one of the reasons that France was conquered so rapidly is that large parts of the French bourgeoisie favoured exactly such an outcome.

Even in Britain, Lord Halifax and sections of the Tory Party pushed for accomodation with Hitler, while Churchill’s anti-fascist credentials are tarnished by his often stated admiration for Mussolini and his alliance with Metaxas. While Shindler nowhere calls the loyalties of the British right into question, there would have been no shortage whatsoever of wannabe Quislings. Some historians have even hinted at a comeback for Edward VIII.

By contrast, the heroic record of Trotskyists in occupied Europe speaks for itself. Hundreds paid with their lives for activism ranging from participation in Warsaw Uprising to their publication of an underground newspaper aimed at the German armed forces. The very suggestion that the British Trot groups were in any sense a fifth column is utterly distasteful.

Yes, the issues Shindler raises are serious ones and deserve a balanced account. But at the very least, decency dictates an accurate report of the facts. We will have to wait and see whether his book will be adequate to that need.

One Comment

  1. Dave K says:

    I think Schindler just has no idea and has not read anything about the British Trotskyist movement. If you read Richardson and Bornstein’s War And The International its clear that the revolutionary defeatist group, the RSL, was a tiny disintegrating group. The Workers International League held to the Prolertarian Military Policy first outlined by James Cannon.
    An example of their position is this article by Ted Grant about India. Arguing for the arming of the indian masses.
    Here is a archive of the WIL/ RCPs paper the Socialist appeal again it argues for arming the workers to defeat invasion and “petainism”

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