Revolution #89, May 20, 2007
Editors' Note: The following are excerpts from an edited version of a talk by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, to a group of Party supporters, in the fall of last year (2006). This is the sixth in a series of excerpts we will be running in Revolution. Subheads and footnotes have been added for publication here. The entire talk is available online at revcom.us/avakian/anotherway.
Current Conflicts and Analogies to World War 2
To step back a bit, what is going on in the world as a whole is more complex than Jihad vs. McWorld/McCrusade. There is China, there is India—there is a whole large area of Asia, and other parts of the world, which don't figure neatly into this. And we shouldn't go around trying to cram reality into neat little boxes. It's more complex than that. The world and what is driving things in the world cannot be fully described by this contradiction of Jihad vs. McWorld/McCrusade. But this is a big part of the dynamics driving things right now, even if not the only factor. And we can certainly say that there is no part of the world that is, or will be, unaffected by this conflict–-and most fundamentally and essentially by the actual dynamics and motive forces underlying this conflict and in particular the actual aims, necessities, and actions of the U.S. imperialists. This conflict, understood in this way, will increasingly exert a major influence on events in the world, even while they will not all be reducible to it and we should not try to reduce them all to it.
With this in mind, I want to talk about the analogies to World War 2, and the whole frame of reference of that war, which is frequently invoked in support of the "war on terror" today. Again there are both things that are real and things that are instrumentalist, and outright deceitful, in this analogy to World War 2 and that frame of reference. If you look at recent speeches by representatives of the Bush regime, for example (some of which I've cited earlier in this talk), or if you read the book Fiasco, you will see that for people like Wolfowitz and many others, even though they were very young at the time of World War 2, this is an operative frame of reference for them. Of course, this is seen through a certain lens and through the prism of the interests of U.S. imperialism in the current world situation. And it is both demagoguery and their actual way of thinking when they continually cite these analogies to World War 2, to Hitler, to appeasement of Hitler, and so on and so forth. People like Wolfowitz and others actually do see much of reality through this prism. But, at the same time, they fundamentally distort this reality: They have a fundamentally distorted view of, and perpetuate and propagate a distorted view of, the nature and course of World War 2 itself and of things bound up with it.
The Real Nature of World War 2—and the Role of Different Forces in that War
If you go back and read Revolution magazine1 from the late '70s and early '80s, you'll see that our Party went through a process of reexamining our understanding of World War 2 and forging a more correct understanding of the character and course of that war. At the time of the founding of the Party in 1975 (and in the Revolutionary Union, which was the forerunner of the RCP), we had basically gone along with the "received wisdom" of the international communist movement, which said that, particularly after the Soviet Union was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1941 and entered the war, World War 2 was a different kind of war, and different in particular from the previous world war. Even though we always recognized that a lot of the things that U.S. imperialism was doing in World War 2 were in pursuit of its imperialist interests, we accepted the "received wisdom" which treated that war as principally an "anti-fascist war" with the Soviet Union aligned with other governments that were opposed to the axis of Germany and Japan (and, for a while, Italy). But then, at the end of the 1970s and into the early '80s, we carried out a lot of study and a lot of struggle which led us to a different, more correct analysis of this. We came to the understanding that this war was, from the beginning and in its main and essential aspect, a war fought among imperialists for imperialist aims, even while, much more so than during World War 1, there were just and revolutionary aspects to World War 2, including the Chinese people's war against Japanese occupation and the wars of liberation waged by other peoples in Southeast Asia against Japan, for example. And the role of the Soviet Union, which was then a socialist country, was different than the role of the imperialist states and bourgeois forces with which the Soviet Union was aligned (including the U.S. as well as Britain), even though it was not nearly as different as it should have been. That's a whole discussion I don't want to back into here. The decisive point here is that World War 2 was essentially not a "great anti-fascist war," even though a lot of people in the world were motivated by opposition to fascism and the ravages carried out by the "fascist Axis," and even though there were liberatory aspects of great significance in that war. So it was a more complex war than World War 1, which was basically and almost entirely inter-imperialist. But World War 2 was also, essentially and in its main and defining aspect, a war among imperialists to determine which would be the dominant power(s) controlling the largest part of the world, including in the vast areas of (what is now generally referred to as) the Third World.
It remains very important to have a correct understanding of this war, because it still casts its shadow in significant ways, both materially and ideologically—both the outcome of that war and also the way in which a certain interpretation of that war is used to shape the thinking of people, including the way in which many people are still influenced by this more or less unconsciously. Even people who were not around at the time, and people who know little if anything about the actual causes and the actual course of World War 2, are still influenced by the "long shadow" cast by that war—by the outcome of the war, what it gave rise to, and what has gone on as a result of that, over the whole period up to the present (though this has been a complex and contradictory process, and has not developed in some linear, uniform, and straight-line way). So it was very important for us to come to the understanding that World War 2 was principally a war fought among imperialists for redivision of the world, as World War 1 had been in a much fuller way, even while in World War 2, on the part of the Soviet Union, on the part of the Chinese war of resistance and other wars of resistance and liberation against occupation by Japan and other "fascist axis" countries, there was definitely a positive and progressive aspect, a liberatory aspect, that should have been supported.
Once you understand the actual nature of that war, then you understand more about the actual history of U.S. imperialism. If you go back and read America in Decline,2 some of the history recounted and analyzed there, including with regard to World War 2, is very important and highly relevant today. And you see that what the U.S. was fighting for—what the ruling class in the U.S. was quite consciously fighting for—was pursuit of its own imperialist interests. That is why they dropped the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities at the end of that war, but it's also why they fought the war as a whole the way they did—and didn't fight it the way they didn't—that is, why, for several years, they largely held back from getting involved in the major theaters of the war in Europe in particular, and let the Soviet Union do the bulk of the fighting on that front and take the overwhelming brunt of the destruction and casualties.
Stalin, Hitler, and Churchill—Communism, Fascism and Imperialism—and World War 2
And that gets to another very important point: the character of how World War 2 is presented to people in the "West," in the so-called "Free World," is just a fundamental and grotesque distortion. For example, there is this movie out now, Flag of Our Fathers, about Iwo Jima. Now, in that movie, you can see how a lot of people got chewed up in that one battle (for the island of Iwo Jima). A lot more American lives were lost in World War 2 than in wars since then. But that was in the hundreds of thousands. In the Soviet Union, 20 million people's lives were lost in the course of that war—20 million. And that is a reflection of something very basic. Never mind about Iwo Jima, or Operation Overlord and the Normandy Landing, and all that stuff—that is not what defeated the Nazis, that is not what broke the back of the German army. It was the Soviet Union and the tremendous sacrifice of its people that was the main factor in the defeat of Nazi Germany. But I would like to have an essay contest to see how many college graduates in the U.S. would get this history right—a very small percentage, I would bet.
Even if you take someone like Keith Olbermann, who is coming forward on MSNBC as a sort of liberal opponent of what Bush is doing, his frame of reference is seriously flawed. For example, he attacked this speech by Rumsfeld where Rumsfeld basically said that people who were opposing the Iraq War were appeasers—that's just one small step short of calling them traitors (and they do have the shrieking voices out there, explicitly talking treason, calling people traitors—check out Ann Coulter and David Horowitz, for example). But it was very interesting that in Olbermann's response to this, a lot of it was in the terms of who is the real Winston Churchill here—who is the real statesman that we should all respect? Well, what about Winston Churchill—what did he actually represent, what was he really all about? If, for example, you read the book All the Shah's Men,3 about the U.S.-led coup in Iran in 1953, you can see what Churchill was saying and doing in regard to that part of the world, coming out of World War 2—how he was defending and championing, in blunt and grotesque terms, the interests of British imperialism. Or go back and study the actual history of Churchill even before that: He was never anything but a crude grasping imperialist who is responsible for great crimes against people colonized and oppressed by British imperialism. But he is a hero, an icon, "in the West," in the "Free World," not only because of his role in leading Britain in World War 2; and not only because of his general stand as a champion and leader of imperialism; but also, more particularly, because of his hatred for revolutions against imperialism, and especially his hatred for communism, and the way he "stood up to Stalin," denouncing the "Iron Curtain" after World War 2, and so on.
Now I don't have time here to offer any kind of overall and all-sided analysis and evaluation of Stalin and his role in different periods. But I do want to point out that almost universally those who denounce Stalin and dismiss him as a terrible tyrant—who make him the very representation of tyrannical, totalitarian rule—know very little about Stalin and have done very little study of what Stalin actually thought and said, what he actually did and why, and in particular what necessity Stalin was responding to in various circumstances. For these people—from outright reactionaries to many self-described "progressive" people—Stalin has essentially been reduced to a swear word. As far as I know, there are 13 published volumes of Stalin's works. I don't know how many of these people who are always denouncing Stalin have read any of this. At one point, I read all 13 of these volumes, and I have a lot of criticisms of Stalin, including some very serious criticisms, based on seriously studying not only what Stalin himself said and wrote but also many different analyses of "the Stalin period." I'm not saying you have to read all this—or anything like all of it—before you could have any opinions or any right to speak about Stalin; but Stalin is a major historical figure, the period of Stalin's leadership in the Soviet Union (and in the international communist movement) involves major historical events and turning points, and you should at least make a serious attempt to be informed, in a basic way, about something like that before you become part of the chorus denouncing (or praising) it. The reality is, however, that overwhelmingly and with few exceptions, the people who denounce Stalin, often and generally in visceral terms, really know very little, if anything, about Stalin, what he was actually dealing with, and what he did, and why, in those circumstances.
This brings me back to the question of World War 2 and the role that was actually played by different forces in World War 2, including the Soviet Union under Stalin's leadership. Now, it is a fact that, during that war, Churchill even acknowledged that, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, roughly three-quarters of the German army was occupied fighting the Soviets, fighting on the Eastern Front. And it is a fact that it was the Battle of Stalingrad that broke the back of the German war machine and turned around the whole course of the war, as Mao pointed out at the time. But you can't find—I don't know what this figure would be, maybe something like one in 10,000 Americans, who even knows that (whatever the figure is, it's astronomical).
So the whole character of World War 2 is distorted even from that standpoint. What was represented by and what was the role played by different forces, and who actually did what—even on the basic level of who actually did what in fighting the war—all this is grossly distorted. You would never know from this litany you always get, lumping Stalin with Hitler—"Hitler and Stalin… Hitler and Stalin… Hitler and Stalin" (and often Mao gets thrown in these days, and sometimes Lenin too)—you would never know that Hitler and Stalin, and the countries they headed, were on opposite sides of this gigantic cataclysmic encounter called World War 2.
I remember a comrade telling me a number of years ago that she had an argument with one of her reactionary relatives during the Vietnam War—almost everybody who was around during the Vietnam War had those arguments with some of their relatives—and her relative, who was actually from "the World War 2 generation," was insisting: "We've got to fight the communists—we had to fight them in World War 2, and we have to fight them now." And the comrade answered: "No, no—we were on the same side as the Soviet Union in World War 2!" But her relative insisted again: "No, we weren't!" This is the kind of thinking, and the rewriting of history, that goes on, that is widely fostered and promoted.
And this makes it easier to bring in these grotesquely erroneous theories of people like Hannah Arendt about totalitarianism. As a matter of fact, Arendt's theory of "totalitarianism" never measured up to the real world—it was not an accurate and scientific analysis even as applied to the Nazis and other fascists—it was not an accurate description of what the actual dynamics and what the actual forces at play were. And this is all the more true when it comes to the communists. It is striking in reading Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism (which I did in connection with writing the book Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?4) that with Arendt there is a lack of any real understanding—and in fact there is a gross distortion—of basic questions, including why it was that the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany ended up on opposite sides in World War 2 and engaged in a several year, all-out confrontation in which the fate of millions of lives and the continued existence, or extinction, of the respective governments was determined. Did all this come about and unfold simply as a result of a fit of "pique" on the part of Stalin or something—or some personality conflicts, or "the clash of totalitarian urges and wills"?
Arendt's analysis is just totally non-materialist and completely off the mark in terms of the real nature and real causes of things, including momentous events in human history. But people are broadly influenced by these ill-founded and erroneous analyses like Arendt's. The fact that Nazism and fascism, on the one hand, and communism on the other hand, are radically and fundamentally different; and the fact that in World War 2 communists and fascists were on opposite sides, bitterly fighting against each other—all this is nowhere in the "popular consciousness." And if you asked people to summarize what are the aims and objectives and outlooks of the fascists, on the one hand, and the communists, on the other, overwhelmingly they couldn't do it. Very, very few people could do it with any accuracy.
And when we hear these analogies invoked about "appeasement" (referring to British policy toward Hitler before the outbreak of World War 2 and comparing it to events today), one of the main things that is generally left out is that the whole point—or certainly one of the main points—of this "appeasement" was to push Hitler and Nazi Germany to the East, to attack the Soviet Union. It wasn't like: "Oh, Hitler's a good guy and we can get him to act reasonably and cease being a threat to us." Glenn Beck is always fond of referring to a senator (from Idaho I believe) who at the time of World War 2 was probably one of those pro-Nazi American politicians. This senator supposedly said something like: "If I could just talk to Hitler, I know we could somehow work this all out." In his role of utilizing right-wing comic book terms and scenarios to whip up support not only for the war in Iraq but the extension of war to Iran, Beck likes to use statements like this to ridicule the idea that "we" can deal reasonably with what he presents as the modern-day equivalents of Hitler—meaning anyone now getting in the way of U.S. objectives of unchallenged domination not just in the Middle East but throughout the world. But, once again, the real deal is that this "appeasement" before World War 2 was largely aimed at pushing Germany to the East.
In his book Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?, Arno Mayer makes an analysis, in a serious and basically materialist way, of the real difference between how Hitler viewed and acted toward the East—and in particular the Soviet Union—as opposed to how Hitler dealt with the West. This book by Mayer also sheds important light on the overall actions and motivations of the Nazis in particular, including the mass genocide of Jewish people and how that fit into the larger context of Hitler's views, aims, and objectives. It is for very good reasons that we are constantly bringing forward these days the statement by Pastor Martin Niemöller about his experiences in failing to join with others in resisting the Nazis in Germany—until it became too late to effectively resist. How many people, even among those who are aware of this statement by Niemöller, are familiar with, and understand the meaning of, the first sentence in that statement? Put this on a test: fill in the blank—Pastor Niemöller said, "First they came for the____." How many people could fill it in correctly? How many people would know that it says: "First they came for the communists"? How many people know that Hitler and the Nazis had to break the back of the very large and influential Communist Party of Germany at that time in order to implement the Nazi program? (It is true that the German Communist Party was riddled with many erroneous tendencies—tendencies which ultimately and objectively amounted to a reformist, rather than a revolutionary, stance and program—but that does not change the basic fact that crushing the German Communist Party was essential for Hitler and the Nazis in order to carry out their objectives, in Germany itself as well as on an international scale.) How many people know that? I'm not talking about people who have been prevented from knowing much about the world at all—I'm talking about people who are literate, educated, and think they know a lot about the world, but have been systematically miseducated and misled, and to some degree have fallen into believing these things because, once again, it is (or it seems to be) comfortable to believe them—it conforms to certain prejudices, predilections and predetermined ideas that have to do with the way people's lives are organized under this system, especially living in the "number one imperialist power in the world" ("the world's only superpower").
1. For example, the articles "Outline of Views on the Historical Experience of the International Communist Movement and the Lessons for Today" and "Some Notes on the Military and Diplomatic History of WW2" in Revolution Issue 49, June 1981 (out of print).[back]
2. Raymond Lotta with Frank Shannon, America in Decline (Chicago: Banner Press, 1984).[back]
3. Stephen Kinzer, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003).[back]
4. Bob Avakian, Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That? (Chicago: Banner Press, 1986) [back]