a hope unfulfilled: communists in world war II

David Broder writes on the disappointed revolutionary aspirations of the WWII-era left

The recent collapse of dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia marked inspiring victories for the mass uprisings in the Arab world. However, these revolts have again posed an age-old question of revolutionary politics: is the aim to get rid of this or that leader, or to overthrow the system as such?

This question was sharply posed in the late World War II period when mass resistance movements besieged fascist régimes across Europe. These movements were dominated by activists who believed in the desirability of communism.

But as such, the maintenance of capitalist order after the war was a major defeat. Why did resistance not mean revolution? Here I shall focus on the examples of France and Italy.

Communists for fascism

The Nazi-Soviet pact of 23rd August 1939 was the trigger for the outbreak of the war, giving Hitler a free hand to invade Poland. It also forced Communist Parties to abandon their anti-fascist stance: if Stalin said Hitler was a ‘partner for peace’, then they had to present this line too. For the French Communist Party (PCF) this meant heaping all the blame for the war on British imperialism and advocating the western Allies give in to Hitler’s demands. This was particularly problematic given the party’s traditional ‘patriotism’: tens of thousands of members resigned in disgust.

Exploiting popular anger against the Communists, the French authorities banned the party in late September 1939. By May 1940 some 5,500 of its members had been arrested, including some among the Italian Communist Party (PCI) leaders in exile. They joined thousands of Spanish civil war veterans and foreign anti-fascists held in prison camps by France’s democratic government.

One of those internees was the Hungarian journalist Arthur Koestler, held in a rudimentary camp established in the Roland Garros tennis stadium in Paris. He pointed to the flimsy anti-fascism of the French authorities, but also the apathy of the working class, both of which augured badly for the war effort. The ruling class knew what they were fighting for – the maintenance of the status quo – but not really what to rally the population against; the working class knew they wanted to fight against Nazism, but had no idea what they were fighting for.

Indeed, the French army did nothing to combat Germany in the first eight months of hostilities, and when the Wehrmacht turned west in May 1940, France collapsed within just six weeks. Deputy Prime Minister Marshal Philippe Pétain advised against resistance; at least the Germans would restore order. As Hitler’s forces overran the country, Pétain set up a new puppet régime based at Vichy in the southern ‘free zone’; the whole north and west of France was occupied by the Wehrmacht.

The PCF applied to the Nazis for their paper to be made legal again: after all, following the terms of the pact, it could promote French-Nazi-Soviet peace. The occupying authorities refused, but the PCF maintained an ambiguous relation to the occupation, focusing criticism on British imperialism, or else Pétain himself, and not Hitler. Nonetheless, the extent of oppression was such that many young PCF activists took part in nationalist demonstrations on 11th November 1940, and the party played a leading role in the May 1941 miners’ strike in the north.

Italy, meanwhile, rather blundered into the war: just three months before invading Poland Hitler had promised fascist leader Benito Mussolini that there would be no war until 1943. The country was not a signatory of the pact with Stalin, and did not declare war on France until 10th June 1940, once the Germans were already rapidly approaching Paris. A disastrous assault on Greece in October that year showed that Mussolini could not be trusted to achieve anything by himself, and Italy became something of a liability for the Axis. Moreover, the PCI denounced Mussolini’s involvement in the war, comparing it to his aggression against Ethiopia in 1935 and his intervention on Franco’s side in the Spanish civil war.

That said, the exiled PCI leadership had in recent years had a dubious relationship with the fascist régime. Although banned since 1926, the Communists made appeals for national reconciliation, such as a 1936 call for “all Italians to march together” behind Mussolini’s demagogically anti-capitalist manifesto of 1919. Before the pact, the PCI also attempted to put pressure on the Italian ruling class to junk Mussolini and align themselves with Britain and France as to isolate Hitler, blaming the fascist dictator for selling out Italy’s interests to German imperialism. This was all a matter of manoeuvring in line with Soviet diplomacy: as the Italian Trotskyist Pietro Tresso explained in1938, the PCI’s chief concern was not fascism versus anti-fascism, still less capitalism versus socialism, but only Moscow’s allies and Moscow’s enemies.

The turn to resistance

The situation in the war changed dramatically on 22nd June 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR. This ‘Operation Barbarossa’ was the largest military offensive in history, involving some 3.2 million troops. Within weeks the Wehrmacht had occupied thousands of miles of Soviet territory: the USSR was in grave danger. For the PCF and PCI, this urgently posed the need to build anti-fascist resistance.

Without doubt, many Stalinists did fight heroically as partisans. They were at war with a German army which was far better trained, armed and supplied. Tens of thousands of them were imprisoned, tortured and died for the cause.

However, they did not advance revolutionary politics. They were tied to Stalin’s strategy, unity with the Allies against Germany. This demanded they defend the capitalist order and oppose forces of rebellion. The Stalinists condemned the British miners’ strike of 1941 because it undermined war production; they opposed demands for colonial freedom; Pietro Tresso was murdered by PCF members in the French Resistance. Nor did they recognise class divisions in German society: it was simply a land of naturally militaristic ‘Huns’.

Much in contrast, the Trotskyist Parti Ouvrier Internationaliste (POI) in France characterised the war as inter-imperialist. They did not take part in the French resistance, both out of opposition to its anti-German chauvinist and pro-imperialist politics, and because of the threat of Stalinist assault. However, the POI defended the USSR, and what they saw as the gains of the 1917 revolution, against both German invasion and the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The POI advocated international workers’ unity, and as such produced a newspaper for German occupation soldiers, Arbeiter und Soldat. The POI recognised that these troops were working-class conscripts in uniform, many of them former Social Democrats and Communists, the first victims of Nazi repression. The paper argued for a resumption of the defeated revolutionary struggles of the end of World War I, and against any illusions in the intentions of the Allied imperialist powers. It demonstrated a strong belief in the potential power of German workers and the centrality of their revolution to the European workers’ cause. Moreover the paper featured letters from both soldiers and the home front, as did the paper Der Arbeiter, also linked to the POI but more driven by the initiative of troops themselves.

The group also favoured fraternisation between French workers and German troops. This was however extremely dangerous and the organisation was betrayed by an Austrian soldier, possibly a Nazi agent provocateur. On 6th October 1943 the Gestapo raided a meeting in Brest: 18 of the participants were executed. The next days saw a continued campaign to break up the organisation: in total around 50 German soldiers were murdered and another 50 French activists arrested, many of them sent to concentration camps from which they would never return.

Although not in thrall to the USSR like the Trotskyists, anarchists’ politics did not necessarily add any clarity to the situation. Nowhere did anarchists organise independently for a specifically revolutionary movement. Their traditional stress on militant anti-fascism did not necessarily imply anything more than fighting the German troops. For example, many Spanish exiles fought bravely in the French resistance: but this adherence to a force led by the conservative Charles de Gaulle and the Stalinists belied a separation between their means of struggle and their ultimate objectives.

Fascists against fascism

The Soviets held back the Wehrmacht onslaught at Stalingrad and began a counter-offensive;, together with the USA’s entry into the war in December 1941, it was clear that fascism was doomed. However, this also posed the question of what kind of Europe would follow the war.

The resistance movements were heterogeneous politically, defined by what they opposed rather than any positive agenda. In Italy the PCI chose a cross-class alliance with the republican Action Party, the social-democratic PSI and the Christian Democrats rather than the revolutionary left. Rather than fighting capitalism itself they attacked Mussolini for having sold out ‘the nation’ to German imperialism.

The PCF contributed enormously to the French resistance. But a more significant section of the élite fought against the Nazis in France than in Italy, since Vichy was so strongly associated with defeat. Indeed, the resistance’s main leader Charles de Gaulle himself approved of many of Pétain’s anti-working class reforms “if only they were not associated with collaboration” with the occupation. Others in ruling circles tried to appeal to the senile Vichy leader to turn to the Allies.

Much of the ruling class did indeed change tack following the heavy Axis defeats in North Africa in November 1942. His hand forced by Allied landings in Algeria, Vichy commander Admiral Darlan switched sides. The anti-Semite Darlan now established a pro-American régime in Algiers, together with Vichy Interior Minister Pierre Pucheu. Fearing their puppet’s imminent collapse, the Germans and Italians occupied the ‘free zone’ ruled by Pétain. When a young monarchist assassinated Darlan on Christmas Eve 1942, the Allies handed power to General Giraud, also a disaffected Vichyist. When de Gaulle objected, the Americans forced the pair to work together as a two-headed leadership.

The fall of North Africa was also bad news for Mussolini. With Tunisia just a stone’s throw from Sicily, the south of Italy now faced the threat of Allied landings. His situation was all the more critical due to a new domestic crisis.

The first twenty years of fascism had suffocated the working class. For all the miseries of the régime, most Italian workers thought it best to keep their heads down, to ‘get by’. But fascism was unable even to feed the population. Even if the authorities did supply the promised rations, these offered each citizen only 895 calories a day, less than half the necessary amount. Food protests by women in Milan in summer 1942 were followed by strikes at the Alfa Romeo and Tedeschi factories. Given the fumbled concessions of a disoriented régime, each action inspired confidence in others that fascism was not all-powerful, and could be challenged.

After a winter of gradual building, March 1943 saw an eruption of struggle in northern Italy. Following a stoppage at Turin’s Rasetti factory on Friday 5th, the giant FIAT Mirafiori works walked out, encouraging similar actions at a dozen other workplaces after the weekend. As news of the rebellion spread by word of mouth and the underground press, other workers were encouraged to add their voices to the chorus of dissent. By the end of the month there were also major strikes in Milan – perhaps 100,000 workers participated in total.

These were not the kind of strikes which could bring the economy to its knees. Many of the actions were just a few hours long. They were more important as a political act. For two decades workers had considered any and all acts of disobedience as a potential death sentence. Now that keeping their heads down was no longer an option, they confronted the régime responsible for their despair. Hundreds of workers were deported and arrested in March: but this was not enough to stop the movement. Hitler raged that Italy’s fascists had not taken a hard enough line.

The disintegration of the home front posed a major challenge to the Italian régime: if they did not get a grip on the situation then the state would be besieged both from within Italy and by Allied forces. The King and fascist ministers decided that removing Mussolini could save the system. At 2am on the night of 24th-25th July 1943, a meeting of the Fascist Grand Council voted to depose Mussolini. He was bundled into an ambulance and taken to prison.

On the 25th Italians took to the streets, joyously celebrating the fall of the hated dictator. This was a victory for the pressure they had exerted. So long the oppressor of the Italian workers, the self-proclaimed heir to the Roman Emperors was now humiliated.

And it was the ruling class, not Mussolini’s victims, who set the terms of the new order. In his place came Marshal Pietro Badoglio, fascist apparatchik and leader of the 1935 Italian invasion of Ethiopia. He promised change: but quickly moved to assert his authority over the nascent workers’ movement. On the 27th troops opened fire on a peace demonstration in Reggio, killing nine workers. The following day a march through Bari to salute political prisoners was broken up by gunshots: 23 more deaths. The army also broke up demonstrations in Milan, Turin, Florence, La Spezia, and Sesto Fiorentino; the next month would see 38,500 political arrests.

The war continued: the Allies had begun landings in Sicily on the 10th. However, the King and Badoglio quickly moved to negotiate peace. Having stressed their loyalty to the Axis, they signed an armistice on 3rd September: when this was revealed a week later, the Wehrmacht invaded Italy. Badoglio did nothing to organise resistance and fled Rome, while the Germans quickly took over almost the whole country. They freed Mussolini from prison and made him declare a new government; meanwhile, the Allied-occupied areas were ruled by Badoglio. Long-time fascists such as the Agnellis, who owned FIAT, started hedging their bets, producing for Germany yet also funding the anti-fascist parties.

Thus by September 1943 the Allies had won over leading fascists in both France and Italy. The Axis was clearly beginning to fracture. But these were no democrats. They supported fascism when it was on the rise and were proud of their role in building Hitler’s empire. Their motivation was purely to defend the stability of the existing social order from more profound change, by sacrificing individual leaders.

Communists against communism

One of the thousands of activists arrested by the French authorities in October 1939 was Palmiro Togliatti, leader of the Italian Communist Party. Fortunately for Togliatti, they did not recognise him and he was released in May 1940, allowing him to flee to the USSR before the German occupation. Having worked for the Communist International in the 1930s, he was adept at implementing Stalin’s orders: for instance, playing a leading role in the struggle against anarchists and the POUM during the Spanish civil war.

Following the Soviet dictator, he now promoted the unity of all forces against the Axis. Indeed, now that he was with the Allies, Badoglio requested help from the pro-resistance parties in order to give him more popular legitimacy: the logic of the Stalinist position was thus to oblige. Togliatti, returning to Italy in March 1944, announced that the PCI would unconditionally accept the offer to join a cross-party government, even under the King.

The PCF had also entered negotiations to join the provisional government in Algeria as early as August 1943. De Gaulle also needed democratic legitimacy – the existing régime was, after all, unelected and based in a colony. Two PCF members joined his administration in April 1944.

These cross-class coalitions set the tone of the resistance movements and therefore the resultant post-war establishment. Both France and Italy had multi-party governments based on these coalitions until spring 1947, when they were exploded by Cold War tensions.

Some Communists were more aggressive in asserting their power. In 1944 the Limousin resistance movement, led by a dissident PCF branch, established something like their own government. As in Yugoslavia, where Stalinism was insurrectionary in its tactics, it created not workers’ power, but a bureaucratic and hierarchical state apparatus.

The PCF reined in workers’ struggles wherever they were not merely an adjunct of the national resistance. The nascent factory committees were quickly hollowed out in favour of mere workers’ participation in management bodies. National unity and state power were constantly promoted over grassroots initiative. In January 1945 PCF leader Maurice Thorez demanded “one army, one police, one administration”.

Trotskyist critiques often portray Stalinism as revolutionary in words but reformist in deeds. But the problem with Stalinist reformism was not just that it sought gradual change in stages. Rather, in occupying the structures of state-level manoeuvre, its strategy and vision of socialism reproduced the characteristics of representation under capitalism. All the initiative had to come from the central state apparatus, while the mass of workers passively awaited change delivered on their behalf, unable to define its terms for themselves.

Workers for communism?

France’s POI were isolated but also hopeful as to the prospects for the post-war world. They could draw inspiration from the example of World War I, which concluded with a revolutionary wave across the Russian Empire, Germany, Hungary and northern Italy, led by groups who had been small at the outbreak of hostilities. But if the Wehrmacht was driven out of France and Italy only thanks to the Allies, an American-British occupation would surely not provide much of an opportunity to overthrow capitalism. The very existence of the Badoglio and de Gaulle provisional governments was intended to preclude any such political vacuum.

However, it was far from only the Trotskyists who had ambitions of a revolutionary outcome to the war. The rank-and-file Communist Party members who dominated the partisan forces saw cross-class alliances as just a tactical episode, later to be followed by revolution. But there was little perspective of exactly what change was necessary and how it should come about.

Both countries had a high pitch of labour militancy, with strikes against deportations in France and a series of strike waves in Genoa, Milan and Turin. Class exploitation was a centrally important motivation for resisting the repressive occupation régimes. However, as the Communist Parties’ hegemony developed, many strikes simply had the intention of disrupting Axis supplies and communications to help the Allies, rather than building workers’ organisation as such.

The Trotskyist historian Pierre Broué stressed the importance of the PCF’s pre-1939 hegemony to its support in the latter part of World War II. Given its strong roots in the class, even now operating on the underground the party could make significant political turns and retain the trust of millions of passive supporters. Although the Hitler-Stalin pact had threatened these ties, the PCF adapted to Moscow’s line in relatively good order. Broué counterposed this to the PCI, which Mussolini had crushed in 1926, relatively early in the history of the Communist International. Since the party leadership was exiled and had no effective organisation in Italy, it was unable to impose Stalinist politics on the working class. As such, when the workers’ movement arose from the ashes, it would have the politics of the early Communists, not those of Palmiro Togliatti.

However, Broué’s analysis is limited to analysing Stalinist betrayal. If Communist Parties dominated resistance movements and these struggles did not lead to revolution, it makes sense to ask what these parties’ failings were; however, we must also ask why they were not simply bypassed. If the French Trotskyists could take pride in their principles but did not have the numbers to put them into practice: why didn’t their numbers grow? And if Togliatti stood at odds with the still-deep rooted traditions of Italian communism, then why was his party not marginalised?

Since Trotskyism came from a split in an already well-developed Soviet bureaucracy, it places undue responsibility on leaders to change events. It blames the Communist Parties for not being forthright enough to take power on behalf of the working class. The problem with such an argument is that it portrays workers as passive victims of their leaders’ betrayals, rather than active subjects able to cast leaders aside and act on their own behalf.

The Movimento Comunista d’Italia

This question is particularly pertinent to Italy, since the PCI was not the only major communist organisation in the country. A number of groups arose in 1942-43 thanks to local initiatives by communists raising their heads after years of repression. Many of the important leaders of such parties had been members of the Communist Party in the 1920s, but expelled or forced to leave due to fascist repression.

Indeed, in the period following the armistice, the PCI was not even the largest communist party in the capital. That honour lay with the Movimento Comunista d’Italia (MCd’I), sometimes known after its newspaper Bandiera Rossa. In November 1943 it boasted some 2,500 members in Rome, whereas the PCI had around 1,700.

The Italian left was strongly marked by differing levels of experience. Any activists under 30 would have been too young to remember anything other than fascist totalitarianism; older comrades had lived through the early years of the PCd’I. This period had involved a degree of struggle between still-revolutionary forces and bureaucratic elements, but it was curtailed prematurely by the crushing of the party by fascism: the exile press and its debates did not reach Italy at all.

Therefore activists rekindling the struggle had an ambiguous tradition to look back to. When the MCd’I formed in late August 1943 it brought libertarians together with not only a vanguardist Bordigist tendency, but even outright Stalinists. Some ex-PCI members literally could not believe that Stalin wanted Italian Communists to support Badoglio and the monarchy, and condemned Togliatti for betraying the Soviet leader! However, differences ran deeper than the resistance strategy: the MCd’I condemned bureaucracy and technocratic visions of communism.

But apart from its democratic culture, what distinguished the MCd’I from the PCI most was its rejection of the politics of national unity or support for the Allies. Instead it highlighted the need to “transform the war against Nazism into a war against all capitalism”.

Indeed, much unlike the other groups to the left of the PCI, the MCd’I was heavily devoted to partisan activity. Its raids on German prisons, weapons depots and troop trains were the envy of Rome, and it played a major role in galvanising a spirit of resistance in the city. However, it refused to participate in the National Liberation Committees, calling on the PCI to break ties with the pro-capitalist parties and instead join its own Red Army.

At the same time, the MCd’I had strong cells in certain workplaces. With over seventy firefighters, its activists set a German train transporting fuel alight, then arranged for crews to hose water onto the petrol such that it burned all the more fiercely. Its telephone exchange workers put dozens of lines out of use; its post and telegram branch misdirected and sabotaged German mail. Its members at the state statistics agency ISTAT sabotaged the census, such that it reported 90% of the population were women, disrupting the conscription of men for the army and labour service. They also produced over a hundred thousand fake ID cards and work permits for political refugees and Jews.

The group took bold initiatives: for instance, disrupting a mass execution by shooting all the SS officers and freeing the prisoners; giving out 10,000 leaflets in one fell swoop by co-ordinating gangs of three people to go to each of 120 cinemas at the same time; breaking into a prison camp and freeing the Soviet POWs. However, this also visited heavy repression on the group. Two-thirds of the MCd’I leadership had been arrested in December 1942, and when Badoglio released political prisoners after the armistice, they were the last to be freed. 186 MCd’I members were killed during the nine-month occupation, over a third of the anti-fascist total in Rome.

External pressures

So the PCI did not outpace other groups simply because of the prestige of the USSR or the kudos it had earned fighting the German occupation, although certainly it benefited from both these factors. The argument presented in its press – whereby the Communists stood for effective action and its leftist rivals were just armchair revolutionaries – was far from the reality. Indeed, the PCI parted ways with many of its most committed activists, replaced by weakly politicised new recruits. Two thousand members broke away in Turin to form Stella Rossa; the Naples federation also split. The dissident Salerno federation’s newspaper was banned by the Allied authorities, and the editor imprisoned: at its conference in April 1944, with even main PCI leaders present, the ‘national unity’ line was forced through by only one vote. The advocates of this policy not only relied on such gerrymandering but also on the promise that this was just a tactical episode, and that revolution would soon be back on the agenda.

Many were not prepared to wait until the war was over to start the fight for workers’ power. But workers and the dispossessed in Rome struggled to build an alternative. The MCd’I’s strongest popular base was in the borgate, suburbs around Rome where some 80% of residents lived below the poverty line. Populated by southern migrants and slum dwellers forced out of the centre by demolitions, these areas were separated from the city by several miles of barren countryside. Large areas lacked running water or sewage systems. This situation was worsened further by the war and collapse of the régime’s food supplies, such that by 1944 survival itself became citizens’ most pressing concern. As Silverio Corvisieri wrote: “It is true that hunger pushes the wolf from its lair, and that a lack of food represents an incentive to rebellion, but this does not deny the fact that there is a limit to what a human being can bear.”

This kind of situation did not augur well for establishing organs of counter-power, encouraging a narrow short-term focus: ‘get Italy free from the Nazis, get the economy going again, and then we can discuss socialism’. While the resurgent working-class movement did display imaginative tactics – the Turin tram drivers who went on ‘strike’ by refusing to take any fares, or the countless examples of raids on state-run or Wehrmacht food stores – this did not necessarily build any lasting organisation. Moreover, the Nazis adopted an effective carrot-and-stick strategy, which terrorised the masses with hostage-taking and reprisals for anti-fascist attacks, at the same time as granting limited concessions over rations.

The Allies also exerted pressure on the workers’ movement from the outside. In Naples, answering Communist Party requests, the American military government revoked the licence of the radical trade union federation’s newspaper, until its editor was replaced with a PCI member. At Villa Borghese in May 1944 a British Army emissary arrogantly ordered the MCd’I’s Antonino Poce that there must be no popular insurrection against the Nazis in Rome; Poce angrily objected that a British major had no right to tell communists what to do, but since this order also meant the PCI would not participate, the Bandiera Rossa’s forces had no choice but to knuckle under. That same month, when workers in France’s second city Marseille revolted against the fascist authorities over a cut in the bread ration, their general strike, gripping the whole city, was crushed by American bombers. 1,752 people were killed.

Allied intervention was no idle threat: the western imperialist powers were determined to set the terms of liberation and the new Europe. In Greece the Allies took sides with the far-right monarchy and suppressed the Communist Party-led resistance movement. On a smaller scale, after the Allied occupation of Rome and the reconstitution of the local state, the police mounted a massive offensive against the borgate. There were a series of armed assaults, rounding up thousands of partisans: in the Quarticciolo district alone there were some 700 arrests, with residents lined up against the wall at gunpoint and revolutionaries forced to identify themselves.

But the MCd’I’s own strategy also imposed limits on its growth. Despite its anti-capitalist politics, it threw all of its organisational efforts into fighting the Germans: it even stopped publishing its popular newspaper in order to focus on military resistance. Moreover, the revolutionary left had no national organisation whereas the PCI was well-drilled and effective in propagandising for its line. While the PCI membership in Rome soared – from 300 in July 1943 to 1,700 in November 1943 and 39,000 in December 1944 – over this period the MCd’I only grew from 2,500 to 6,000.


1945 was not a repeat of the revolutionary conclusion of World War I, but only a faint echo. The ruling class was far better-prepared to impose a new order, making concessions to the working class in order to avert revolution. Stalinism was an active agent of this process. However, it is also important to understand why those with truly revolutionary ambitions failed to make more of an impression on events.

Here I have just briefly sketched some of the forces involved in the anti-fascist resistance movements and the communists who rivalled them from the left. Of course this does not fully explain all the particular episodes of the war, but rather the reasons why different tendencies behaved as they did. I feel that these experiences are rich in important lessons which transcend the specific dynamics of the period.

One is that there is not much use in having a correct political line if you either do nothing to put it into action, or else get stuck into activism and leave the political vision by the wayside. Those who rejected Stalinist politics of national unity, but themselves supported anti-Nazi resistance movements, often fell into this contradiction.

Coalitions have a strong tendency to advance the power of those who already stand closest to the hegemonic institutions, since capitalism can accept these new leaders into its midst while pacifying the resistance movements from which they emerge.

The greater lesson, however, it that it is no good fighting a particular régime without at the same time building some form of counter-power with which to replace it: fighting an authoritarian régime in unity with bourgeois democrats will simply bring the latter to power. The means of struggle are replicated in the ends achieved.