Skip to Content

Fascism, Democracy and the War

Workers who suffered under the monstrous Mussolini and Hitler dictatorships were clearly worse off than their fellow wage slaves in the so-called democratic countries. It is a popular fiction that Britain and its allies went to war against the fascist nations in 1939 to defeat an evil ideology and save the world for democracy. This is a lie, just as false as those invented to persuade workers to be slaughtered in the trenches in 1914. The fact is that Britain and its allies were motivated by a political and economic desire to protect their long-held interests in the world market against the expansionist aims of the fascist nations which had arrived late on the scene of world imperialism. The claim that a major war was initiated to liberate workers from fascist tyranny sounds very noble, but has little to do with the sordid motives of the capitalist class.

Fascism and the British capitalists

The first fascist state in Europe was Mussolini's Italy. It was established in 1923, long before the British capitalists contemplated going to war to save workers from the fascists. Far from regarding this new type of capitalist government as a deadly threat. Britain's leaders approved of Italian fascism. Winston Churchill told the fascists that

    "If I had been an Italian, I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you from start to finish in your triumphant struggle..." (Quoted in The Times, 21 January 1927)

Churchill took the same attitude to Hitler, stating that if Britain was ever threatened with "communism", he hoped that a man such as Adolf Hitler would be available to lead the nation to safety. Indeed, the capitalist leaders admired Hitler's ability to keep the workers in check; consider the words expressed by Ramsay MacDonald to the National Government's Labour Committee on 6 November 1933:

    "The secret of the success of the dictatorships is that they have managed somehow or other to make the soul of a nation alive. We may be shocked at what they are doing, but they have certainly awakened something in the hearts of their people which has given them a new vision and a new energy to pursue national affairs. In this country the three parties in co-operation are doing that ..."

So much for the opposition to fascism of Britain's first Labour Prime Minister. He was simply stating the desire of the capitalist class: that workers must accept the needs of the profit system and if the fascists were succeeding in such a task they cannot be condemned. This was well summed up by the Tory, Lord Melchett, who stated that:

    "I admire Fascism because it is successful in bringing about social peace . . . I have been working for years towards the same peace in the industrial field of England . . . Fascism is tending towards the realisation of my political ideals, namely, to make all classes collaborate loyally."

David Lloyd George, the hero of the modem Liberals, was so impressed by Nazism that he went to visit Hitler in 1936. This visit was arranged by Philip Conwell-Evans. an enthusiast for the fascist cause, who had been a senior figure in the 1929

Labour government. He kept notes on the talks between the Fuhrer and the Liberal and reported that Lloyd George told Hitler that:

    " ... public opinion in Great Britain was to an increasing degree showing more and more understanding for Hitler’s position and the one anxiety of British public opinion today was to bring about the closest co-operation between the two countries." (Quoted in Appendix II of Martin Gilbert's The Roots of Appeasement, London 1966.)

On 17 September 1936, Lloyd George had an article published in The Daily Express which was full of enthusiasm for Nazism and referred to Hitler as "a born leader of men". In another article he stated that the Nazis had "effected a remarkable improvement in the working conditions of both men and women" (News Chronicle, 21 September 1936). Two years earlier he had told the House of Commons: "Do not let us be in a hurry to condemn Germany. We shall be welcoming Germany as our friend" (Hansard., 28 November 1934).

As with Hitler, so with the fascist General Franco. The Conservative historian, Maurice Cowling, has written that "most Conservative MPs sympathised with Franco from the start . . . and did not regard Franco as a Fascist . . (The Impact of Hitler, p.266, Cambridge. 1975). Among those who were enthusiastic in their initial support for Franco was Churchill. Numerous examples can be cited to demonstrate the widespread enthusiasm within the British capitalist class for the tactics of the fascist governments. They were seen as models of efficient capitalism and were respected. The idea that capitalism could be managed democratically (which has never much impressed the capitalists) was becoming unfashionable in the 1930s. Typical of this was a speech made by Gordon Selfridge to the American Chamber of Commerce in London; The Times of 22 June 1932 reports him as stating that:

    "as an American he spoke to fifty representative men in America and did not find one who disagreed with his view that democracy in that great country could not possibly succeed as a system of government . . .  a country should be managed as a great business was managed."

Francis Yeats-Brown, who was the assistant editor of The Spectator between 1926 and 1931, expressed a popular ruling-class sentiment when he wrote that "the hope of order in Europe depends upon the abolition of democracy and the establishment of Corporate States" (10 November 1933).

Not only capitalists, but many workers also, were no longer prepared to place their faith in capitalist democracy. One of the main reasons for this is that the political parties all seemed to be standing for the same system and pursuing policies which led to the same old problems occurring again and again. Who can blame workers for feeling that elections and the other features of democracy are a waste of time if they do not lead to people being better off? It was capitalist politics, particularly the policies of reformism, which brought democracy into disrepute. This sentiment was well expressed by a character in Shaw's play, On The Rocks, written in 1933: he was a Prime Minister who knew that reform policies could make no difference to the working class and he undemocratically concluded:

    "The people of this country . . .  are sick of twaddle about liberty when they have no liberty . . They are sick of me and sick of you and sick of the whole lot of us. They want to see something done that will give them decent employment . . . They can’t set matters to right themselves, so they want rulers who will discipline them and make them do it instead of making them do the other thing. They are ready to go mad with enthusiasm for any man strong enough to make them do anything, even if it is only Jew baiting, provided it’s something tyrannical, something coercive, something that we all pretend no Englishman will submit to. though we’ve known ever since we gave them the vote that they'd submit to anything."

Shaw, who was as confused as he was condescending, was of the view that Mussolini and the Italian fascists had gone further in the direction of Socialism than the English Labour Party could yet venture if they were in power" (Quoted in Bernard Shaw and Fascism. London 1927). It was not until the late 1930s, when fascist foreign policy began to interfere with the imperial interests of the older capitalist powers, that British capitalist leaders began to use fascism as an ideological stick with which to beat their economic rivals. For example, it is an accepted fact that the British Foreign Office was well aware that German Jews were being subjected to state persecution and many dissidents were being tortured and killed by the fascists years before war was declared. If it was "the menace of fascism" which our bosses were so opposed to why were so many of them praising it until the moment that fascism threatened their economic power?

The Leninist attitude

No small contribution to the anti-democratic atmosphere in Britain in the 1930s was made by the Communist Party of Great Britain. As the main party of organised Leninism, the CP propagated two ideas which were both confused and dangerous. Firstly, it was CP policy between 1928 and 1935 to label all its opponents as "social fascists". The term was attributed to anyone who rejected the claims of the Russian state to be socialist. It was argued that there was no difference between fascist parties and social democratic ones: if they were not Leninists they must be fascists. This view, adopted because it was laid down by the Communist International (Comintern) led to the absurd conclusion on the part of the CP that "bourgeois democracy" was indistinguishable from fascism. Secondly, the CP pointed to Russia as the example of real democracy in action. The Stalinist police state of the 1930s arguably more dictatorial than Russia today - was described as "people’s democracy" and the CP maintained that instead of the limited democracy granted under private capitalism workers should aim to achieve the higher form of democracy of Stalin's Russia. Of course, this "people’s democracy" amounted to state-capitalist dictatorship and was feared by many workers as being no better than fascism. So. the CP added to popular confusion about what democracy means and. in presenting Stalinist dictatorship as real democracy. they led many workers to oppose the idea of democracy.

In 1935 the CP changed its policy and regarded fascism as a threat to the working class. This change was a reflection of Kremlin-dominated Comintern policy: the CP was then, as now. a party whose function was to defend the policies of the Kremlin. In September 1939. when the British capitalists went reluctantly to war with the fascist powers. the CP supported the war and published a pamphlet, written by Harry Pollitt, called How To Win The War. The following month the Comintern informed the British CP of the non-aggression pact which had been made between Russia and Germany and as a result the CP changed its position and opposed the war. Pollitt’s pamphlet was withdrawn from circulation and a new one. written by Palme Dutt. was issued, arguing the opposite of that being put forward a month earlier. Pollitt was forced to apologise for having supported the war. stating that

    "I recognise that my action in resisting the carrying out of the line of the Communist Party and the Communist International represented an impermissible infraction of our Party’s discipline. I request the Central Committee to give me facilities to prove in deeds that I know how to take my place in the front ranks." (Quoted in 1939: The Communist Party and the War, London 1984).

On 2 September 1939 the CP issued a manifesto stating that "We are in favour of all necessary measures to secure the victory of democracy over fascism ”. (Remember: until 1935 the CP did not distinguish between the two.) Then, on 7 October 1939. after a British CP delegate had returned from Moscow with instructions to oppose the war because Russia had come to terms with Germany. a new manifesto was issued stating that:

    "The truth about this war must be told. This war is not a war for democracy against Fascism . . . This war is a fight between imperialist powers over profits, colonies and world domination."

The CP had turned its policy on its head because of Russian foreign policy. In fact, its revised policy made more sense: the war was not about ideology and was indeed a fight between economic competitors. In June 1941 the Nazis broke the pact with Russia and Stalin became an ally of Churchill - two great defenders of democracy! Once again, the CP line changed within days and the war was no longer to be opposed, but supported. Indeed, during the war the CP urged workers to place faith in Churchill’s great leadership and was instrumental in strike-breaking in areas where workers’ trade-union action might damage the war effort.

In 1979 the CP History Group held a conference to discuss its war policy and the proceedings have been published as a book: 1939: The Communist Party and the War edited by John Attfield and Stephen Williams. The CP is evidently anxious to explain away this sorry episode in its anti-socialist history but, judging from some of the contributions, it has no option but to admit to the fact that its role has been to echo, in the most unprincipled fashion, the decisions of Kremlin dictators. Monty Johnstone - supposedly a more critical leader within the modem CP - argues (p.24) that Russia was correct to make a pact with the Nazis. Perhaps such a pact was in Russia’s interest, but is it not then necessary for the CP to point out that such an interest could have nothing to do with socialism? The slavish response of CPers to Kremlin policy was summed up by the contribution made by Eric Scott who was secretary of the High Wycombe branch of the CP in 1939: he had supported the CP's September policy and was worried when he heard that it had been changed:

    " ... I thought that this was a betrayal of the anti-fascist fight. I spent a very uncomfortable forty-eight hours scratching my head and thinking it all over, and then I said. "well, if the Soviet Union takes this attitude. I suppose we can’t do anything else but take the same attitude." (pp. 128/9)

This uncritical dogmatism, so characteristic of the British CP. explains how workers who were advocating one view at one moment adopted a completely different one the next. They were victims of their own faith in leadership from Moscow. Again, in the contribution made by the late Lon Elliott:

    "The Soviet Union had tremendous prestige in the Communist movement, tremendous weight in the Communist International. We all of us felt, perfectly rightly I think, that the defence of the one and only socialist state was an absolutely paramount question at the time—it was the only socialist state. It seems to me . . . that the decision of the Comintern that this was an imperialist war was decisive." (pp.68/9)

Apart from the obvious nonsense of referring to Russia as a "socialist state", it is a sure indictment of the willingness of Leninists to be told what to think that a decision made by the Comintern, in response to Russian foreign policy interests, led CPers to decide how to respond to fascism. The CP’s attitude to fascism was that it should only be opposed if Stalinism was threatened — just the same as the policy of the British capitalist class who only opposed fascism when it conflicted with their national interests.

The socialist response

Socialists have never been in any doubt as to the crucial importance of democratic methods as a means of achieving socialism. Unlike the parties of the Right and the Left, which contemptuously use the rhetoric of democracy in order to maintain capitalism in one form or another, the Socialist Party has always accepted that a fully democratic system of society can only be brought about by thoroughly democratic tactics. For that reason socialists (while recognising that capitalism will never be fully democratic) have urged workers in countries where they lack democratic rights to obtain them for the sake of building a socialist movement. It was therefore, quite obvious that the socialist response to the fascist dictatorships was one of total opposition, firstly because they were capitalist governments, but additionally because they were anti-democratic. This hostility to fascism was not determined by political opportunism, but by clear socialist principles. In 1850 Engels wrote of the working class that

    "They must see now that under no circumstances have they any guarantee for bettering their social position unless by universal suffrage, which would enable them to send a majority of working men in the House of Commons," (The Ten Hours Question, The Democratic Review, March 1850).

The importance of democracy for socialists was expressed in the June 1939 Socialist Standard:

    "Under democracy, the workers are allowed to form their own political and economic organisations and within limits, freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press is permitted as well as the freedom of the electorate choosing between contending political parties."

This was not to say that democracy in itself was enough:

    "Democracy, in itself, cannot solve a single problem of the working class . . .  As long as the working class supports capitalism and capitalist policies, it will, in the long run. ultimately give its support to that policy best calculated to meet the political and economic needs of capitalism - even though that policy may be fascist."

At the time of the Spanish Civil War some members took the view that democracy had to be fought for that the war was in defence of democratic rights and deserved workers' support. This was the view of A. E. Jacomb, who had been an active founder member of the Party, and by a number of members of then then Islington branch. The vast majority of Party members rejected this attitude, understanding that

    "If Fascism arose in Britain, with or without war. it could only be because the British capitalists wanted it and the workers supported it or were apathetic" (The Socialist Standard, January 1939).

It is not possible to terrorise workers into a respect for democracy: if they are persuaded. as they were in the fascist countries. that democracy is not worth having, then no army will succeed in imposing democracy on them. So while maintaining at all times that "We much prefer a democracy to a dictatorship" (Socialist Standard, January 1941), the Socialist Party opposed the war. pointing out in 1939. as in 1914, that the war was between capitalist rivals and was unworthy of the shedding of working-class blood. On 24 September 1939 the Socialist Party's war manifesto was published and it contained the following sound analysis:

   "The present conflict is represented in certain quarters as one between "freedom" and "tyranny" and for the rights of small nations.

       The Socialist Party of Great Britain is fully aware of the sufferings of German workers under Nazi rule, and wholeheartedly supports the efforts of workers everywhere to secure democratic rights against the powers of suppression. but the history of the past decades shows the futility of war as a means of safeguarding democracy."

Indeed, the history of the Second World War proved the validity of this contention for, after 1945, when the dictatorships were apparently defeated, the process began whereby more workers in Europe are living under dictatorships today than in 1939.

Fascist dictatorships today

Using the term fascism in its broadest sense, we can see that in 1986 there is no shortage of governments in the world which can be well described as such: the military dictatorships of Central and South America; the one-party states of Africa; the racism of the apartheid regime in South Africa; the centralised tyrannies of the state capitalist countries. including the Russian Empire and China. In relation to the so-called communist countries, it has been stated that:

    "Russia must be placed first among the new totalitarian states. It was the first to adopt the new state principle. It went furthest in its application. It was the first to establish a constitutional dictatorship, together with the political and terror system which goes with it. Adopting all the features of the total state, it thus became the model for those other countries which were forced to do away with the democratic state system and change to dictatorial rule. Russia was the example for fascism" (Otto Rühle. The Struggle Against Fascism Begins With The Struggle Against Bolshevism. 1981. p.5; originally published in 1939).

These days it is popular for those on the Left to attack the openly capitalist tyrannies, such as the monstrous regime in racist South Africa, while making apologies for equally dictatorial governments such as the one in Poland which uses thugs to beat trade unionists with truncheons and incarcerates dissenters in prisons. At the same time the Right wingers are very articulate when it comes to showing the undemocratic nature of the state capitalist countries, which are military and trade rivals of the Western nations but close their eyes to the overtly capitalist tyrannies. Socialists are alone in our total and equal hostility to all dictatorships. We are on the side of the workers in Russia and South Africa, Chile and China against their oppressors. We point out that only class-conscious workers can make full use of democracy but democracy must be obtained in order to build a movement of class-conscious workers.

Like in the 1930s, when the so-called democratic politicians in Britain were not that averse to fascist tactics, we know that the leaders who make a great noise about how democratic they are today could adopt more ruthless and dictatorial methods tomorrow. During the coal strike we saw all too dearly how readily these "Democrats" who rule over us will suspend rights, such as the freedom of movement within Britain, when it is to their advantage in the class war. The fact is that as long as workers follow leaders whose job is to run capitalism we are all the victims of power which is above us: the dictatorship of capital tyrannises us. whether it is wearing the mask of democracy or not.

The way to counter the racist nonsense with which British fascists today poison the minds of workers is not for us to become more capable thugs but to present a clear, practical alternative to the frustration bred by the system. Fascism is part of the messy business of running capitalism; only socialists. with our principled case for social revolution, offer workers a weapon which will blow fascism and capitalism from the face of the earth.

Steve Coleman