The ideological gymnastics of R. Palme Dutt: How to avoid the ‘inter-imperialist war’ issue

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During my research on the relationship between the Communist Parties of Great Britain and India, I came across this reproduction of an interview with Rajani Palme Dutt with the People’s Age (an organ of the CPI) from 1946. In the interview, Dutt is confronted with a speech by Stalin (made in February 1946) that seemed to overturn the well-established Stalinist line that the first years of the Second World War (September 1939 to June 1941) was an ‘inter-imperialist war’ (as seen with this 1939 flyer produced by the CPGB). In February 1946, Stalin announced:

[T]he Second World War differed substantially in character from the first. It must be borne in mind that before attacking the Allied countries the major fascist states – Germany, Japan and Italy – destroyed the last vestiges of bourgeois-democratic liberties at home and established there a cruel, terroristic regime, trampled upon the principle of sovereignty and free development of small countries, proclaimed as their own the policy of seizing foreign territory and publicly stated that they were aiming at world domination and the spreading of the fascist regime all over the world; and by seizing Czechoslovakia and the central regions of China, the Axis Powers showed that they were ready to carry out their threat to enslave all the peace-loving peoples. In view of this, the Second World War against the Axis Powers, unlike the First World War, assumed from the very outset the character of an anti-fascist war, a war of liberation, one of the tasks of which was to restore democratic liberties. The entry of the Soviet Union into the war against the Axis Powers could only augment – and really did augment – the anti-fascist and liberating character of the Second World War.

To align with this new argument by Stalin and not contradict the older ‘inter-imperialist’ line, Dutt had to argue that the Second World War didn’t start in 1939, but actually in the mid-1930s:

When did the Second World War begin? Everybody knows it did not begin in 1939. It began before that… We are all aware how we have traced its development right from its inception over Manchuria in 1931, growing and expanding from that to Abyssinia, to Spain, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and broadening out into the character of a full world war… It is perfectly clear that the struggle of the Chinese people against the attack of Japanese Fascism, already beginning from 1931 in Manchuria and extending to China as a whole in 1937, was an anti-Fascist people’s struggle. The struggle of the Abyssinian people, supported by the international progressive forces all over the world, against Italian Fascism was a liberation struggle against Fascism. The struggle of the Spanish Republic against German and Italian Fascism, beginning from the summer of 1936 and drawing upon itself all the forces of the world on either side was a highly developed international struggle against Fascism.

Like the idea of the ‘phony war’, Dutt characterised the ‘inter-imperialist war’ as merely a phase’ within the wider conflict:

In the course of this entire development, a phase arose in September 1939 when CHAMBERLAIN and DALADIER declared war on Hitler, not for the purpose of carrying forward the struggle against Fascism, but in fact in pursuance of their same line of policy that they were already pursuing from Munich onwards, that is, to turn Germany from the West to the East. The reactionary character of their policy was shown by the complete passivity in relation to Germany and the concentration of their military preparations through Finland for war on the Soviet Union, which was only prevented by the speed with which the Red Army broke the Mannerheim Line. All this was one phase, one episode within the Second World War. It was an episode entirely expressing Anglo-French Imperialist policy, basically anti-democratic, basically anti-Soviet, and having nothing in common with the anti-Fascist liberation struggle of the peoples. That Imperialist episode ended in the most disastrous consequences, with the over-running of Europe by Nazism. But from this arose the further consequence – the rise of the liberation struggle in Europe through the resistance movements led by Communist Parties against the Nazi occupying forces… As a result when the opportunity came in June 1941 for the alliance to be reached with the Soviet Union, the same Britain which two years earlier had rejected that alliance when offered by the Soviet Union, now with the complete agreement of all political parties and sections immediately seized the chance of that alliance. Thus, there at last developed the full and united struggle of all peoples against Fascism and the victory over Fascism, for which we Communists had striven consistently from the outset. That is the total character of the development of the Second World War, the historical character of which was this liberation struggle of the peoples against Fascism and within which the Imperialist phase of the war, the reactionary policy and ‘phoney war’ of Anglo-French Imperialism in 1939, is one episode and not the beginning of the war.

Dutt referred to Stalin’s History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (Bolsheviks) from 1938 to strengthen his assertion that the Second World War had already begun by 1939. In Stalin’s 1938 book, he talked about the ‘second imperialist war’ and stated:

All these facts show that a second imperialist war has actually begun. It began stealthily, without any declaration of war. States and nations have, almost imperceptibly, slipped into the orbit of a second imperialist war. It was the three aggressor states, the fascist ruling circles of Germany, Italy and Japan, that began the war in various parts of the world. It is being waged over a huge expanse of territory, stretching from Gibraltar to Shanghai. It has already drawn over five hundred million people into its orbit. In the final analysis, it is being waged against the capitalist interests of Great Britain, France and the U.S.A., since its object is a redivision of the world and of the spheres of influence in favour of the aggressor countries and at the expense of the so-called democratic states.

This idea of a ‘second imperialist war’ was not just limited to Stalin (and revived by Dutt). In September 1939, Mao Tse Tung announced that the ‘second imperialist war’ had begun, but referred to the war only breaking in 1939. The Trotskyist Fourth International also referred to the conflict in 1940 as a ‘new imperialist war’, but again, specified that this new war had broke out in 1939.

I haven’t found reference in any other pieces of CPGB literature to the Second World War actually beginning before 1939 (but it is still early days) and I’m wondering whether this was just a one-off ideological gymnastic routine by Dutt. If anyone has any other information about this issue, please get in touch!

EDITED TO ADD: I found this in the April 1946 editorial of Dutt’s journal Labour Monthly which is very close to the wording of Stalin’s 1946 speech:

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