Assessment

'The depression was finally ended not by a new prosperity but through World War II, that is, thorough the colossal destruction of capital on a worldwide scale and a restructuring of the world economy that assured the profitable expansion of capital for another period.' (Mattick, 1978: 141)

The Second World War reordered the pecking order between capitalist rivals, redistributing world shares of raw materials and markets, finance and military power, primarily facilitating US expansion into the role of global policeman, as well as lender of last resort. The destruction of capital that Mattick refers to was a condition for the restructuring of industry. Where accumulated capital had become so great as to dwarf returns, the only route to new accumulation was to devalue much of that capital stock - but that was not something that could be done voluntarily, so warfare proved to be a way of forcibly destroying the over-accumulated capital. Pointedly, those developed countries that suffered the most extreme destruction were also those that grew most rapidly after the war - Germany and Japan, who had the opportunity to build new greenfield sites, while Britain was still tacking new tools onto ancient machinery.

But the reordering of relations between the capitalist powers was premised upon reordering the relationship between capital and labour. 'The higher level of the rate of exploitation which had been brought about by force was maintained for ten years after the period of fascism', wrote Elmar Altvater, 'the "West German economic miracle" was pre-programmed in the course of the "thousand year Reich" (Altvater et al, 1974: 7, 9). Mazower agrees: 'a nazi public utility like Volkswagen, or private utility like Daimler-Benz, laid down plant and equipment in the 1930s (and early 1940s) that would form the basis for post-war growth' (Mazower, 1998: 130). But these changes were not just restricted to Germany. In all of Western Europe, post-war reconstruction was boosted by the redirection of resources from consumption to investment initially made under the discipline of war.

Beneath the conflict international, the capitalist powers had a common interest in suppressing working class opposition. Though they fought Germany over territory and markets, the Allies gained from the Nazi disciplining of the working class in Europe. Furthermore they redirected working class opposition to Fascism in Germany and Italy into support for the adoption of an enhanced industrial discipline at home. The ideology of the People's War proved even more effective a means winning authority over the working class than Nazi repression. Having been persuaded to sacrifice all in the struggle against Fascism, the masses were recruited to the stabilisation of capitalist production in Europe. The Allies gained by the German war against the partisans, too. Nazi defeats of national resistance movements made the second (Allied) occupation of Europe a great deal easier. In December 1943, the British Middle East HQ sent Captain Don Stott (pictured right) to negotiate with Hitler's envoy in Greece, Hermann Neubacher of the Gestapo on the best way to defeat the partisans. 'This war should end in a common struggle by the allies and the German forces against Bolshevism,' Stott told them (Eudes, 1972: 108).

At the same time, European national elites exhausted their moral resources when they collaborated with the Nazi reaction. The standing of European nations was shattered by the derogation of authority to successive invading powers. In Germany, the elite stood exposed for its collaboration with Fascism. The left-supported resistance movements saved national pride in Europe.

Much has been made of the 'social revolution' that the war entailed, a phrase coined by Labour MP Richard Crossman (Gallagher, 1951: 163). It is true that there were considerable changes brought about by the war. Many of these tended over time to improve the material conditions of the mass of people, like the National Health Service in the UK, or the GI Bills extending education and home loans in the US. But for the most part, these reforms were necessary for continuing the process of capitalist development. And what is more, they were paid for by the phenomenal increase in output wrung from the working class through the wartime restructuring of industry.

The political shift to the left in Western Europe after the war has entrenched the belief that a social revolution had taken place. The presence of communists in post-war governments was not a sign of a radicalisation of society, but of the contribution that the communists had made to the restoration of the nation state. And as Mark Mazower points out, the left's gains were quickly overturned: 'Across Europe, former resistance leaders were being marginalized' he writes, drawing attention to the atomisation and inwardness that overtook society at the war's end. By 1948 'the radicalisation of the war years had vanished' (Mazower, 1998: 210, 237). In fact the radicalisation was largely illusory. Nervous that they had lost all authority, ruling elites made concessions to the left immediately after the war, only to snatch them back once it became apparent that they could rule without the radicals. Substantially the war years had the effect of breaking down working class solidarity, which was either crushed, or used to promote austerity measures that wore down its appeal.

The difference between the reaction to the end of the First World War and the second is striking: in 1918, a significant section of the working class knew that they had been beaten, and wanted to do something about it; with the re-establishment of capitalist reproduction in 1945 the entire working class movement thought that they had won a great victory. That conviction was the ruling classes' greatest achievement.

April 2005