The outpouring of hypocritical blather from imperialist politicians in celebration of the 70th anniversary of the D-day invasion of Normandy by US, Canadian and British troops in June 1944 was to be expected. US President Barack Obama, speaking at the memorial celebration in France said in part, “Our claim to equality, our claim to freedom and the inherent dignity of every human being; that claim is written in the blood on these beaches.” What equality, what freedom? – might have asked the Black soldiers who returned home from Europe in 1945 to face Jim Crow segregation and violence. What human dignity? – might be asking the countless thousands of prisoners condemned to inhuman solitary-confinement conditions under the Obama government’s policy of mass incarceration today.
But among the commemorations of D-day there have also been some blogs and articles from socialists which (while some of them also point to the often-ignored Soviet contribution to the defeat of Hitler) echo the claim that the Normandy invasion was part of the struggle against fascism in Europe.
I engaged in a discussion on one of them, parts of which I reproduce below. The post included an extended excerpt from a military historian’s account of D-day, which I have not included here – anyone interested can find it on the original website here. I have made some very minor alterations to the wording of my contributions for the sake of clarity. Once again, the original can be seen on the original website.
Original post on Shiraz Socialist:
D-day: part of the anti-fascist struggle
Ernest Mandel once proposed that World War Two should be seen as, simultaneously, an inter-imperialist dispute and an anti-fascist struggle. The two elements are difficult to disentangle, even in retrospect, but both should be recognised and, insofar as we can, distinguished between. D-Day was, I’d contend, indubitably part of the anti-fascist struggle. The young workers who fought and died then, and the dwindling band of elderly survivors, deserve our profound respect and gratitude.
Mandel’s article gives no support at all to the idea that D-day was part of an anti-fascist struggle. He talks about the Second World War being a combination of five wars (although War Number 2 and War Number 4 look much the same to me) – the inter-imperialist war (War Number 1) the defensive and national liberation wars of the oppressed nations of China, Asia and Africa (Wars Number 2 and 4), the defence of the Soviet workers state (War Number 3) and the anti-fascist working class resistance war in the Balkans, Poland, and to a lesser extent France and Italy (War number 5).
I don’t see how D-day could possibly be considered as anything other than part of the inter-imperialist war. It was entirely a clash of the military forces of imperialist powers. The French resistance played relatively little part, and to the extent that they were involved at all (presumably by spying etc) they were, on this occasion at least, completely integrated into the imperialist war effort. Above all else, D-day was about US imperialism asserting its dominance over post-war Europe, by stepping in to take command after its imperialist rivals in Germany, the UK, and France had exhausted each other in four years of war.
One of the worst results of the Stalinist political mis-education of the working class in the 1930s, the Popular Fronts etc, was that many workers came to believe that the way to defeat fascism was by supporting ‘democratic’ wing of the imperialist bourgeoisie. Many workers no doubt thought at the time that supporting the Allied war effort was part of the anti-fascist struggle. But there is no reason to present it as such today.
Response from Jim Denham:
James: your last-but-one sentence seems to me to be, in many ways, the most important: workers at the time believed they were fighting fascism, and saw no alternative means of doing so than to be part of the Allied war effort (not that they had much choice, of course).
Yes, the French resistance was “completely integrated into the imperialist war effort”, but how could it not have been? And wouldn’t any working class anti-fascist resistance movement have found itself in the same position? If you think that such integration could have been avoided, I’d like to know how.
As for the motives of US imperialism at that time: of course! What else would you expect? But does that mean we’d have opposed the D-Day invasion, or been neutral as between the bourgeois democracies of the Allies and Nazi genocidal totalitarianism ?
I don’t think that’s a tenable position for socialists of whatever stripe. Trotsky and Cannon wrestled with this problem, and both quite clearly were searching for a formula that would allow them to fight the Nazis while remaining true to the old “revolutionary defeatism” appropriate to WW1: they failed, and the PMP [proletarian military policy – JR] is an incoherent attempt to square the circle. But their instincts were correct: they wanted to be part of the anti-fascist struggle and realised that the old formula of “revolutionary defeatism” did not answer the urgent requirements of the moment.
I agree that it was all but inevitable in the circumstances, given the legacy of Stalinist and Social-Democratic mis-education in the French workers movement, and the relationship of forces at the time, that the French resistance would be absorbed by the imperialist war machine (and that consequently the opportunities provided by the liberation would be lost).
However, that is not the same as saying that forms of resistance independent of the bourgeoisie were not possible. Mandel, who was himself a resistance fighter, clearly believed it was possible. The proof of this is Yugoslavia, where, under even more difficult circumstances and despite the handicap of Stalinist leadership, the partisans resisted pressure both from the Western European powers and from Moscow, and took their own course, and built an army capable of both ridding the country of Nazi occupation and overthrowing capitalism.
In Greece, by contrast, troops from democratic Britain did get a foothold – the ‘Greek D-day,’ if you like – and the outcome was very different.
James: NO! it was NOT due to any “mis-education in the French workers movement” that the resistance found itself in ‘de facto’ alliance with the Allies:
You really haven’t answered the question: in practice, what would the socialists have done at D-Day?
We’re not here talking about Yugoslavia or Greece, but Europe and D-Day:
I ask you again: should we have *opposed* the D-Day invasion, or been neutral as between the bourgeois democracies of the Allies and Nazi genocidal totalitarianism ?
I made the reference to Greece because you frame the question as one of either supporting the democratic Allies against totalitarian Germany, or adopting a stance of neutrality or indifference. I think this framing of the question is part of the problem, and Greece is the proof of this.
The democratic Allies also invaded Greece as part of their war to drive back the German-Italian occupation of the Balkans – and once their troops were on the ground, proceeded to carry out an assault on the working class Greek partisans who had already largely defeated the German occupation. The Greek working class suffered the greatest defeat in its history.
A key element in the ability of the imperialist Allies to deal this blow to our class was the decision by some elements among the Greek partisans – framing the question in the same way that you do – to support the British invasion. This fatal mistake politically disarmed the working class in face of the British assault.
So, to return to your question and answer it directly in relation to France: I think socialists at the time would definitely not have supported the Allied invasion. The options were not limited to choosing between one or other gang of imperialist bandits to exploit us.
But to call this stance ‘neutrality’ would be a misrepresentation. D-day was obviously a major event, and resistance fighters would have been following the developing situation closely, looking for opportunities to advance the independent interests of the working class as they arose, reporting on them in their underground press (there were many illegal publications in occupied France, including working class press) and preparing their forces for new openings for mass action. These openings were not long in coming. Workers actions were already spreading throughout occupied Europe from early 1944.
In other words, they would have continued the work they had been doing under the Nazi occupation.
You asked earlier how the resistance fighters could have avoided integration into the imperialist war machine: the best example that I know of is of the revolutionary fighter Abram Leon, a Jewish communist working in occupied Belgium, and a comrade of Ernest Mandel.
Leon and his co-thinkers managed to produce a revolutionary underground newspaper, which they distributed among the rank-and-file soldiers of the Wehrmacht amongst others – an act of revolutionary courage rarely surpassed. Mandel wrote an obituary to him in 1947 which is available on the Marxists Internet Archive. It is a fascinating and inspiring account of how a revolutionary nucleus conducts itself under these conditions and is well worth reading.
“I think socialists at the time would definitely not have supported the Allied invasion”:
I’m very sorry and disappointed to read that, James. Because it makes us people who fundamentally disagree. I cannot, for the life of me, think how a decent person, who considers themselves an anti-fascist and a democrat, can arrive at such a position.
Frankly, I’m horrified, and now regard you as little more than indifferent to, and unserious about, the Nazi threat.
I’m sorry we couldn’t reach agreement, but appreciate the civil tone of the discussion nonetheless.