Europe in the 1930s and 1940s – From war to revolution and counterrevolution

As the world enters a new turbulent period of wars and revolutions Rob Sewell looks at the situation in Europe in the period of the 1930s and 1940s.

The 1930s was a period characterised by revolution and counterrevolution. Throughout Europe, under the impact of the world slump and political crisis, events unfolded in rapid succession. In Germany, Hitler rose to power over the spines of the working class. In Spain, the fall of the monarchy ushered in an unfolding revolution, which culminated in a popular insurrection against Franco. In France, the popular front government faced a wave of factory occupations, which it was eventually able to undermine with the aid of the leaders of the Communist Party. Again in Spain, the failure to carry through the revolution to a conclusion, due to the misleadership of the workers' parties, resulted in the defeat of the Republic and the victory of fascism. These tragic defeats eventually prepared the ground for a new world conflagration in which seventy million perished.

Throughout the 1930s, almost single-handedly, Trotsky waged a battle against the erroneous policies of the reformist and Stalinist leaders that served to shipwreck the revolution. From 1928 to 1934, he sharply criticised the lunacy of "third period" Stalinism, where the Communist Parties denounced the social democrats as "fascists", and split the workers' movement in the face of Hitler fascism. Trotsky predicted, "that if the most important organisations of the German working class continue their present policy, the victory of fascism will be assured almost automatically…" Unfortunately, his warnings went unheard. The insane policy of 'social fascism' was to lead to the splitting of the German working class - the strongest in the world - and the handing over of power to Hitler without a fight.

This ultra-left policy lasted up until 1934-35, when the Communist International under Stalin suddenly turned in an opportunist direction and adopted, not a Leninist policy, but the policy of Popular Frontism. This policy advocated an alliance, in reality the subordination, of workers' parties with those of the "progressive" liberal capitalist parties, to form a progressive bloc against fascism. This meant the abandonment of the principle of class independence that underpinned Leninism. Trotsky correctly described Popular Frontism as a "malicious caricature of Menshevism", and "a strike-breaking conspiracy".


In France in June 1936, the revolutionary crisis resulted in a strike wave and factory occupations involving two million workers. "We were faced with an explosion of discontent by masses who, humiliated and repressed for years, had been chewing on their discontent…" stated Jouhaux, the leader of the CGT (Trade Union Confederation). But in order to placate the Popular Front Government that had come to power in May, the French Communist Party deliberately derailed the movement. "While it is important to lead well a movement for economic demands", stated the CP leader Thorez, "it is also necessary to know how to end it."

In Spain, the uprising of the proletariat of Catalonia in July 1936 could have been the starting-point for the overthrow of capitalism throughout Spain. "Having confidence henceforth only in their own strength", stated the Soviet historian Maidanik, "they took control of the streets and, without waiting for the government's decisions, began to implement the People's Front programme from below, using revolutionary methods…" Unfortunately, Stalin did not want revolution in Spain, or elsewhere for that matter, and, using the policies of class collaboration, deliberately sabotaged the revolutionary struggle in the cause of 'unity' to save the Republic. This was part of Stalin's strategy to win support amongst the western bourgeois democracies, and reaffirm his "moderate" credentials. The last ditch attempt to halt the back-sliding of the revolution in Barcelona in May 1937 was defeated with the full support of Stalinism, which demoralised the workers and prepared the ground for the victory of Franco.

Within the Soviet Union, fearful that the revolutionary events in Europe would rekindle the aspirations of the Russian workers, Stalin launched a series of bloody purge trials aimed at exterminating all those associated with the October Revolution. The old Bolshevik leaders were subjected to the greatest frame-up in history, accused of being agents of Hitler and then shot. Trotsky and his son, the main defendants, were sentenced in their absence and targeted for assassination. In 1937, in a further twist to the purges, the leadership of the Red Army was decapitated. In the end, millions perished in the Stalinist gulags and labour camps to prop up the Stalin regime.

These actions and defeats strengthened Hitler's hand and prepared the way for the blood bath of the second world war. The Stalin-Hitler Pact (August 1939), which carried through the partition of Poland, was a cynical attempt by Stalin to avoid war. "Our relations with Germany have radically improved", stated Molotov, "We have always held that a strong Germany is an indispensable condition for a durable peace in Europe." Within a year Molotov was describing Hitler's occupation of Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and France as "great successes", and blaming Britain for continuing the war! All that was to change in June 1941 when Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, and the Communist Parties were forced to execute an abrupt U-turn.

Leon Trotsky, who understood clearly what was coming, attempted to gather together new revolutionary forces. The original Left Opposition that had been expelled from the Communist Party in 1927 had become the International Left Opposition, with groups in a series of countries. After the German debacle, Trotsky turned his back on the CP and looked towards the radical forces within the orbit of the social democratic organisations.


With the world slump, the victory of fascism in Germany and the rise of mass unemployment, the traditional mass organisations of the working class were in ferment. In Britain, Trotsky attempted to collaborate with the leaders of the ILP, which had recently split from the Labour Party, hoping to win them to the idea of building a new International. While this approach bore few concrete results, the approaching world war instilled greater urgency into Trotsky's work of launching a new revolutionary International as the internationalists had done after the collapse of the Second International in August 1914.

In September 1938, the Fourth International was formed. "The Fourth International has already arisen out of great events: the greatest defeats of the proletariat in history", stated Trotsky. Although comprising small forces, it looked to the future with confidence and determination. Above all, it was strong in doctrine, programme, tradition, and in the tempering of its cadres. It adopted a Transitional Programme on which it aimed to develop a mass revolutionary current internationally.

"In the last twenty years, it is true, the proletariat has suffered one defeat after another, each graver than the preceding one, became disillusioned with its old parties and met the war undoubtedly in depressed spirits. One should not, however, overestimate the stability or durability of such moods. Events created them, events will dispel them", stated Trotsky in the Manifesto on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution.

"War, as well as revolution, is made first and foremost by the younger generation. Millions of the youth unable to find access to industry began their lives as unemployed and therefore remain outside of political life. Today they are finding their place or they will find it on the morrow: the state organises them into regiments and for this very reason opens the possibility for their revolutionary unification. Without a doubt the war will also shake off the apathy of the older generations.

"There remains the question of leadership. Will not the revolution be betrayed this time too, inasmuch as there are two Internationals in the service of imperialism while the genuine revolutionary elements constitute a tiny minority? In other words, shall we succeed in preparing in time a party capable of leading the proletarian revolution? In order to answer this question correctly it is necessary to pose it correctly. Naturally, this or that uprising may end and surely will end in defeat, owing to the immaturity of the revolutionary leadership. But it is not a question of a single uprising. It is a question of an entire revolutionary epoch.

The capitalist world has no way out, unless a prolonged death agony is so considered. It is necessary to prepare for long years, if not decades, of wars, uprisings, brief interludes of true, new wars, and new uprisings. A young revolutionary party must base itself on this perspective. History will provide it with enough opportunities and possibilities to test itself, to accumulate experience, and to mature. The swifter the ranks of the vanguard are fused, the more the epoch of bloody convulsions will be shortened, the less destruction will our planet suffer. But the great historical problem will not be solved in any case until a revolutionary party stands at the head of the proletariat. The question of tempos and time intervals is of enormous importance; but it alters neither the general historical perspective nor the direction of our policy. The conclusion is a simple one: it is necessary to carry on the work of educating and organising the proletarian vanguard with tenfold energy. Precisely in this lies the task of the Fourth International…"

This revolutionary perspective, imbued with a burning confidence in the future, was based upon the experience of the First World War. At that time, the horrific bloodshed of the war shook the consciousness of millions and provoked a revolutionary wave throughout Europe. Trotsky understood that this new imperialist war would also provoke a revolutionary crisis that would serve to transform the fledgling International into a mass force. Within ten years, Trotsky predicted, not one stone upon another would be left of the old organisations and the Fourth International would dominate the planet. In the process, the Stalinist regime within the Soviet Union would fall, either by capitalist counterrevolution or through a political revolution that would restore genuine workers' democracy.

The first part of Trotsky's prognosis was confirmed by events. The war produced a revolutionary wave in a whole series of countries. Unfortunately, the forces of Trotskyism - of revolutionary Marxism - were too small and isolated to take advantage of the situation. Given the way in which the war unfolded, the Soviet Union, rather than being overthrown defeated Hitler and emerged, colossally strengthened, which add to the prestige of the Communist Parties internationally. In turn, the Communist Parties, which had been transformed into mere mouthpieces for Russian foreign policy, played a counterrevolutionary role. They used their influence to sidetrack the revolutionary situations and helped to consolidate capitalism, which was in danger of being overthrown.

For example, in Italy in the spring of 1943, the workers of Turin led a massive strike movement that culminated in the overthrow of Mussolini. The Italian bourgeoisie in the guise of the Badoglio government, frightened by the mass movement, sought refuge in the south, while the German army occupied the north. The working class took the initiative to drive out the fascists, launching a general strike in March 1944, where over a million took part. Eventually the fascists were defeated and the revolutionary partisans, under the leadership of the CP and SP, took control. Power was in the hands of 30,000 armed partisans, and through them the popular committees. However, this developing revolution went against the secret agreements made between Stalin and the imperialists to carve up Europe into spheres of influence. As a consequence, the exiled CP leader Togliatti was flown in from Moscow to impose the Stalin line.


Using the prestige of the Soviet Union he used the Italian CP, now a mass party of the working class, to undermine the revolutionary movement. As opposed to socialist revolution, he put forward a government of national unity under Marshal Badoglio, later to be replaced by Bonomi. The Allied armies, together with the CP led the way in disarming the partisans. To facilitate this counterrevolution in a democratic form, Togliatti and other CP leaders were forced to enter the government as Minister of Justice, Finance, Treasury and Agriculture. By May 1947, after saving Italian capitalism, the CP Ministers were sacked from the government.

Again, in Greece, the Communist Party controlled the resistance. At the end of 1944 the resistance movement was practically in control of the whole country. However, Stalin had made a deal with Churchill to hand over Greece to the British sphere of influence. On 7th November 1944, Churchill wrote to Eden: "In my opinion, having paid the price we have to Russia for freedom of action in Greece, we should not hesitate to use British troops to support the Royal Hellenic Government under M. Papandreou… I fully expect a clash with EAM [the CP-led National Liberation Front], and we must not shrink from it, provided the ground is well chosen."

The battle between British forces and those of the resistance lasted from December 1944 to February 1945, when an armistice was signed leading to the Varkiza agreement. This deal was used to re-establish royal power and begin the repression of working class organisations. Stalin declared, "I have confidence in the British government's policy in Greece." It was this treachery that prevented the triumph of the Greek revolution.

In France, the pro-fascist Vichy regime was discredited. The French resistance movement was under the control of the Communist Party. Prior to the liberation of Paris by the Allies, the resistance movement liberated the greater part of France, including Paris. The liberation committees almost everywhere became organs of power. The CP was the main force behind this rising, and once Vichy had collapsed France was convulsed in a revolutionary wave. The Anglo-American armies were faced with a fait accompli.

However, as soon as De Gaulle established a government he began to undermine the committees. Two representatives of the CP were rapidly drawn into the government, and despite their protests, De Gaulle signed a decree dissolving the militias. The General saw his task as to "trim the Communists' claws", with the eager cooperation of Thorez, the General Secretary of the CP. Thorez came out for law and order and the disbanding of the militias and all 'irregular' groups. Given the leading role of the Stalinists, the militias liquidated themselves into the French 'grand army'.

Thorez then came out as the champion of restoring French capitalism. A campaign was now launched to increase production, in which the workers should not make excessive demands or strike. The people must, said Thorez, "steel themselves for the battle for production as they steeled themselves for the battle of liberation. The task is to rebuild the greatness of France, to secure in more than words the material conditions of French independence."

In doing so, the CP propped up a government that was actively engaged in acts of colonial repression. They savagely repressed the Constantin district of Algeria in which thousands of Algerians were killed. Repression was also used against the peoples of Syria and Lebanon, who were demanding independence. The same was true of Vietnam. In fact the colonial war against the Vietnamese people continued for six months under 'Communist' leadership. From January 1947, the Minister of Defence in this government was a 'Communist'. When the National Assembly in March voted military credits for the colonial war, the Communist group abstained, but the five CP ministers voted in favour, in order to maintain 'government solidarity'.

The Communist Parties of Austria, Finland, Belgium, Denmark and Norway under Stalin's orders also joined the governments in the immediate post-war period. In 1944-5 only the Communist parties could halt the revolutionary movement, and in practice this is what they did. They saved capitalism. They acted in the same fashion as the social democrats following the first world war.

This betrayal provided the political prerequisite for the recovery of capitalism, and the upswing that was to develop over the following twenty-five years. Stalinism managed to survive another 45 years, but collapsed ignominiously with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Stalinist bureaucrats discarded their 'Communist' Party cards and joined the bandwagon of capitalist restoration, as Trotsky had predicted.

After the war, with Trotsky dead, the Fourth International was not able to adjust to the new world situation and degenerated. Despite this, the ideas of Trotsky are a treasure-trove. They represent the defence of revolutionary Marxism after Lenin's death. The collapse of Stalinism has served to eliminate a massive barrier to revolutionary change. Today, the developing world crisis of capitalism is producing the most turbulent and crisis-ridden period since the second world war. This will intensify in the coming period. With general strikes in Europe, and revolutionary crisis in Latin America and South East Asia, the working class has again ventured to make its mark on history. With correct ideas and strategy, learning the lessons of the past, this colossus can ensure the end of capitalism and open, in the words of Engels, "a new epoch of history, in which mankind itself, and with mankind all branches of its activity, especially the natural sciences, too, will experience an advance that will put everything preceding it into insignificance."