May 9, 2020

75 Years Since the Victory over Fascism - The Decisive Blow to Colonialism

By Tyson Riel Strandlund

When asked to reflect on the defeat of fascism, the images that come to mind for most are set in Europe, either on the bloody battlefields of World War II, or behind the barbed wire of the concentration camps. For liberal and otherwise revisionist historians, the Holocaust and other atrocities by the Nazis are depicted either as the result of Hitler’s personality or “insanity”, or worse, as an inevitable response to Soviet “totalitarianism”. As historical materialists, we understand that “great man” history or psycho-history of this kind which ignores the material and social forces at play in any historical setting is idealism, and reflects a disdain for the working class on whose shoulders history is truly carried. Indeed, there is some truth in the assertion that German fascism grew from a response to the Soviet Union, but not, as is falsely claimed, a response to Soviet aggression or attacks on personal liberties. For the 75th anniversary of the heroic victory over fascism, for which the Soviet people sacrificed as many as 30 million lives, it’s my hope to help make the case – which at one time was well known – that this victory, for the vast majority of people in the world, was a victory over the forces of colonialism and imperialism.

As a historian, I must ask my audience for some patience if I’m inclined to begin in 1794, when revolutionary France first abolished slavery throughout the empire, which soon led to the declaration of independence by Haiti led by Toussaint L'Ouverture. The world’s first successful slave rebellion marked the beginning of the end for the old colonial relations. While their foundations were shaken however, it would take more than a hundred years for the weakest link of imperialism to finally be broken – that of the Russian Empire. Too often overlooked is the fact that the first socialist revolution was also a national liberation struggle for the over a hundred distinct nationalities in what would become the Soviet Union. These nations gained sovereignty and self-determination for the first time as voluntary components of the Soviet Union and its eventual 15 republics, each further divided into as many autonomous units as necessary to account for the rich array of peoples and languages and cultures that composed the new multinational state. This not only materially weakened imperialism on a global scale with the defeat of a major imperialist power, but further set an example to the colonized peoples of the world that it is indeed possible to win against the colonial empires, and to build a society run by the workers. Not only this, but taking place in a country where capitalism had only just begun developing, existing alongside pre-capitalist, feudal modes of production, the October Revolution demonstrated the power of subjective over strictly objective forces, and that the maturation of capitalism is not a prerequisite for revolt. In so doing, the Soviet Union had posed an open challenge to the forces of imperialism which would echo throughout the Third World. It is this challenge that fascism was called on to answer.

Aimé Césaire did not differentiate between colonialism and fascism. It was clear to him that fascism was a political form of bourgeois rule in times when parliamentary democracy posed a threat to capitalism. Colonialism meanwhile was essentially “naked power” justified by racism to seize resources otherwise unattainable by less coercive means. Indian historian Vijay Prashad similarly described colonialism and fascism as “different in form, while in manners identical.” The concentration camps, the exclusion of the working population from politics, and the unhindered rule of corporations and the capitalist class in their thirst for profits, while perhaps novel in Europe was all too familiar in the colonies. Hitler’s aim was indeed to make a colony of Eastern Europe, its population to be mostly exterminated, and the remainder enslaved.

The Soviets understood the links between colonialism and fascism, tied together by racism. The Soviet record in this regard is perfectly clear – never at any point in their history did they rely on colonialism in any form. From the national liberation of the Soviet republics and of Mongolia, to the fight against Franco in Spain, the Soviet Union in spite of great challenges can truly be said to have “walked the walk” of proletarian internationalism, even in the interwar years. The purpose of fascism was to suppress these revolts in the colonies and at home, and to maintain imperial domination by the capitalist class by any means. The imperialist powers of Britain and the United States were therefore more than willing to share in the spoils with the Axis so long as they kept the spread of socialism and anti-colonial movements at bay, which explains their eagerness to appease Hitler with territories in Europe, as well as the lengthy list of non-aggression pacts signed by the Western powers in the decade prior to the outbreak of war (and prior, mind you, to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed as a desperate measure to buy time after the refusals by Western powers to form an alliance against Hitler, and of anti-communist Poland and Czechoslovakia to receive Red Army troops to defend against the inevitable invasion).

The defeat of fascist Germany, Italy, and Japan represented the defeat of the foremost detachment of imperialism, weakened the colonial powers, and significantly changed the global balance of forces. Only a few years prior, the idea that the imperialist powers would be forced to relinquish their colonial possessions was unthinkable. The ripening of internal conditions and the disintegration of colonialism and imperialism made possible a new era of national liberation in the post-war years, strengthened not only morally and ideologically by the Soviet Union and the newly formed socialist bloc, but increasingly materially. The crushing of fascism had by the 1950s allowed the socialist system to become a decisive influence in the world, and by the 1970s achieved socialist preponderance. The weakening of imperialism had made possible for the first time completely new alliances of forces, and an increased unity of the global proletariat. These conditions allowed for the emergence and victory of national liberation movements even without the destruction of capitalism in the imperial metropole, and further cleared the way for non-capitalist development in pre-capitalist societies for whom development had been stunted by colonialism. It is for this reason that nationalism in the Third World countries took on an inherently different character than the nationalism of the imperialist powers, having developed under very different material conditions.

Lenin’s theory of imperialism suggested that as a result of colonialism, the capitalist powers created their own gravediggers by creating an industrial proletariat that would develop a collectivist consciousness and overthrow the colonial masters. For this reason, the Soviets viewed industrialization as objectively anti-imperialist. Although the colonial powers did not create even development, but in many ways hindered it, creating infrastructure that helped maintain their profits and hampering industrialization which would threaten their monopolies in the imperial core. Far from wrong however, today Lenin has been proven more correct than ever – his theory simply came too early. Formal independence in Asia, Africa, and Latin America created the conditions for a national bourgeoisie to arise, industrialization to take place, and the basis for real economic independence to be established. But as we know, these countries today, many of which were developing along socialist or non-capitalist paths, have since been forced back onto their knees, and the optimism which coloured the 1970’s has disappeared.

While the post-war years on one hand were a period of liberation and revolution for colonized peoples of the world, the imperialist powers meanwhile wasted no time in setting to work expunging the record and obscuring the connection between fascism and colonialism. The suggestion that fascism was simply Nazism and the “insanity” of Hitler allowed Europe and North America to revive colonialism without embarrassment. The Dutch sent their forces to Indonesia, the British suppressed uprisings from Africa to Southeast Asia, the French attempted to retake their former colonies in Algeria and Indochina, and the Americans carried out coups and invasions across Latin America and as far away as Iran. US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles feared that decolonization would cost the US its military bases and access to raw resources, and called for “patience” towards decolonization, and by this means the language of imperialism was quickly revived. While fascism had been defeated, it was clear that colonialism would be welcomed into the post-war era cleansed of any such associations.

Today, the Soviet Union is no more, nor is the socialist block that provided the Third World with alternative trade partners and aid aimed at industrialization and independence rather than exploitation and use strictly of raw resources. Formal colonialism has been replaced with neo-colonialism, and those countries which had achieved real economic independence are gone save a few, with domination imposed more subtly through predatory loans and authoritarian compradors more loyal to international capital than their own people. The policy of Détente which the US had been forced to accept in the 1970’s gave way to renewed willingness to engage militarily by the 1980’s, and with the loss of the Soviet deterrence, has left US imperialism with few obstacles preventing direct or indirect military involvement and destabilization. The countries of Soviet Central Asia which the UN had become accustomed to comparing developmentally to the countries of Western Europe have been plunged back into a state more comparable to neighbouring Afghanistan, with the other formerly socialist countries experiencing similar declines in all measures of living standards. Ultra-nationalism is once more being employed to compensate for lack of democratic participation by the working class, as austerity measures are increasingly put in place in even the most advanced capitalist economies, and colonial projects are being intensified in an attempt to withstand falling rates of profits and the inherent contradictions of capitalism. As we stand on the precipice of yet another global recession, there will be attempts to create distractions and cast blame on socialist countries like China and Venezuela, to blame other independent countries like Iran and Syria, but most immediately here in Canada, to scapegoat Indigenous people and immigrants for this unavoidable crisis of capitalism.

For the 75th anniversary of the victory over fascism, I would have readers remember that this victory was arguably the most significant blow ever given to colonialism – but furthermore that this fight is not over. The struggle against fascism lives on in the struggle against imperialism, against racism, and against neo-colonialism, all alive and well in this country, as the RCMP’s attacks on Indigenous sovereignty on behalf of the capitalist class have shown – to say nothing of the vitriolic response by non-Indigenous Canadians. There is no Red Army to save us this time. If the Canadian working class has any hope of avoiding a renewed rise of fascism, then it must make common cause with both the world proletariat and Indigenous people for whom it was never truly defeated.

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