Resistance movements during World War II

51Gblu33XmL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Donny Gluckstein (ed), Fighting on all Fronts: popular resistance in the Second World War, London, Bookmarks, 2015; reviewed by Philip Ferguson

This is a fascinating book.  Its ten contributors provide eleven chapters – two are by Gluckstein – on people’s resistance to dictatorship in Europe and Asia/Pacific during World War 2 and struggles within two capitalist democracies (Australia and Ireland, the latter not being formally involved in the second great imperialist conflagration).

The struggles range from Jewish resistance to the Nazis and the Holocaust in Eastern Europe, especially Poland, to the Slovak national uprising of 1944 to resistance to French rule in Algeria to Burmese resistance to both British and Japanese imperialism to the Huk rebellion in the Philippines.  While the countries covered exclude key imperialist players, and sometimes the choice of places to cover seemed a little strange, hopefully there will be a second volume to cover struggles in the United States, Britain and Germany – especially since Gluckstein is an expert of Nazi Germany and has already written a fine book about the rise of the Nazis and the course of their regime.


One advantage, however, of covering the places that are covered is that these are generally the least-known.  I certainly found that most of the chapters added considerably to my knowledge of resistance during what several generations of us used to call “the war”.  Perhaps the most fascinating for me was Janey Stone’s impressive account of struggles by East European Jews, and non-Jewish supporters, against repression and annihilation.  The ‘mainstream’ impression is that Jews went meekly to the slaughter but Janey, marshalling a great mass of evidence, shows this was far from the case.  While we’ve all heard of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, this was only one event (albeit a significant one) in a sustained period of resistance.  Another widely-held misconception that Janey shatters is that non-Jewish populations, most especially the Poles, were riddled with anti-Semitism.  She shows that, to the contrary, there was a wide section of Poles who opposed the persecution of Jews and Poland and provided support and worked with Jewish people in resisting the Nazis’ attempts to isolate and annihilate them.  She also shows how some Jews, particularly Zionists, opposed such resistance and collaborated with the Nazis.

Kieran Allen’s chapter on the south of Ireland covered territory far more familiar to me but will certainly be of interest to readers less acquainted with the neutrality – well, neutrality on the Allies’ side – of the southern Irish state and the reasons for that formal position.  Kieran’s chapter did, however, make me think more about the role of the ‘Emergency’, as that period of modern Irish history is called, in consolidating a narrow 26-county (ie southern Irish) nationalism as against the broader conception of an all-Ireland republic.  And, of course, the key role here was played by Fianna Fail which, from its inception in 1925, subtitled itself ‘the republican party’.

As one might expect, the ‘democratic’ imperialist powers and those presiding over them resorted to a great deal of rhetoric about ‘freedom’, including the right of peoples to govern themselves, but really only meant white western Europeans.  Thus when the Allies took over Algeria, they were far more interested in working with members of the old Vichy establishment there than in supporting the right of the mass of the Algerian people to rule themselves.  Frank Renken does a good job of laying bare the kind of machinations that went on in relation to Algeria, resulting in a ‘liberation’ that left the mass of the Algerian people back under the heel of France – well, until they rose in rebellion in 1956 and after six years of bloody war and vicious French repression finally gained independence in 1962.

Old ruling elites

One of the themes of the book, indeed, is the way that old pre-war elites manoeuvred to maintain their position – some collaborating with the Nazis, some taking off for Britain – in what they saw as the long-term.  While they pursued different tactics – collaboration and resistance – their strategy was to make sure they were still the ruling class after the mass destruction of human beings eventually came to an end.  A couple of the places where this theme is explored most are the Netherlands and Czechoslovakia.  Mark Kilian looks at the roles played by different factions of the Dutch elite and how they sought to ensure the continuance of their wealth and profits above all.  Moreover, many of the Nazi collaborators in the Dutch bourgeoisie got off scot-free after the war – as Kilian notes, so many of the key collaborators were such an integral part of the Dutch establishment that there was no way they would have to face the music at the end of the war.  Meanwhile, the Dutch working class, which had shown considerable courage in engaging in mass public rallies and in strikes during the war, were faced with a return to the old status-quo at the end of the war.  Nevertheless the fighting spirit of Dutch workers, shown so dramatically during the war, meant the Dutch rulers had to make some concessions to them.  The Dutch elite were, however, uninclined to make any concessions to the Indonesian people’s desire for independence.  They dispatched 130,000 soldiers to Indonesia to keep that country under their heel.

One of the most impressive centres of resistance to Nazi occupation was Czechoslovakia.  For instance, although it was shortlived, the insurrection in Slovakia in 1944 was one of the largest armed rebellions against Nazi rule during the war.  Almost 80,000 armed fighters took part in this uprising against the fascist puppet regime of Father Josef Tiso in Slovakia – the Germans directly ruled the Czech lands while allowing a puppet regime control in Slovakia.  During the two months of the rebellion – late August to late October – some attempts were made at building an alternative civil society.  The discrediting of the national bourgeoisie, part of which surrender to the Nazis and part of which collaborated with them, opened the way to forces within the workers’ movement, most notably the Communist Party, to play a leading role in the resistance.

Although strikes and other actions by workers and also students took place in Czechoslovakia at different points during the war, victories by the Allies, especially the Soviet victory at Stalingrad, helped improve the confidence of sections of the masses and draw them into action.  However, it was led by equivocating generals from the old Czech army and a certain lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Soviet regime to provide assistance as it preferred its own troops to liberate the country.  The sections of the old capitalist establishment operating now out of London also help confuse matters.

An important theme of the first half of the book, the section dealing with war and resistance in the West, is the role played by left-wing forces, in particular the Communist parties.  While many communists were committed and brave opponents of the capitalist system and Nazi repression, the CPs as institutions played quite contradictory roles.  In the case of Algeria, for instance, the French CP favoured continuing French rule and spent part of its energy undermining liberation forces there, while the Algerian CP flip-flopped between opposing French rule and not wanting to alienate the anti-Nazi French forces led by de Gaulle, because they were allied to the Stalin regime in Moscow.  The CPs generally followed rather blindly the positions – and needs – of Stalin and the Soviet regime, although those needs frequently ran counter to the needs of the working class in the Nazi-occupied countries.

The first section of the book also contains a chapter, by Gluckstein, examining Russia, Stalin and people’s war.  This provides fascinating material on partisan resistance to the Nazi armies within Russia.  One of the tragedies of the war was that Russian POWs who escaped from German custody and took to partisan war against the Nazis were regarded with great suspicion by Stalin and many of them ended up in long-term detention after the war.  Gluckstein contrasts the skills of the partisans with the mistakes made again and again by the Soviet regime, using some very telling primary sources.


The second section of the book deals with the East, with chapters on Australia, China, Japan, Burma and the Philippines.  Tom O’Lincoln’s chapter looks at the imperialist role and war aims of Australia in the Pacific theatre of war.  The Australian ruling class sought to use the war to continue an imperial expansion that they had begun six decades earlier.  The war aims of the Australian bourgeoisie, Tom notes, costs the lives of Australian soldiers in offensives at the end of the war that were not even necessary for the defeat of Japan.  They were about ensuring the territorial claims of the Australian ruling class at the end of the war.  He also outlines the racist attitudes – and formal legal restrictions – of Australian officials and overlords towards the indigenous populations they ruled.  No wonder some of the locals swung back and forward between the Japanese and Australians.  The Australians also invaded East Timor, a colony of a neutral country at the time (Portugal); this, in turn, brought the Japanese into East Timor, which had not previously been part of their war plans.  In the case of Indonesia, the Australian state policy was to ensure its return to Dutch rule; this involved helping suppress the independence movement.

Tom’s chapter also deals with the home front.  Although active working class opposition to the war was not on any mass scale, it was far from insignificant.  For instance, strikes continued throughout the war, including drawing in new layers of workers, notably women.  The war saw a large increase in the numbers of women in the paid workforce and demands arose for pay rises.  Women who had not been involved in unions before meant they were less inclined to respect union leaders’ calls for war restraint.  Some tens of thousands of workers, many of them women, were involved in stoppages in textiles and munitions factories and the percentage of working women in unins rose from 33% to 52%.  Industrial action took place over equal pay, piece rates, the length of the working week, victimisation of militants and other issues.

Class conflict also emerged in the Australian army between sections of the working class ranks and middle and upper class officer caste.  Tom, however, is realistic about the scale of rebellion, noting that unfortunately fatalistic submission was more the norm.  The Australian ruling class was also helped by the fact that most people feared a Japanese invasion, not knowing that the Japanese had no interest in invading the continent.

Australia and Japan were, of course, imperialist countries; the other places dealt with in this section of the book were colonial possessions – Burma was under British control, the Philippines under US control – or, in the case of China, parts of the country were effectively under foreign control while the major part was a neo-colony presided over by a repressive bourgeois-nationalist movement more interested in suppressing domestic leftism than fighting Japanese invader-occupiers.

The chapter on Burma briefly traces the evolution of Burmese nationalism from a moderate elite form to more radical forms.  Unions and left organisations developed in the early 1900s and by the 1930s British rule was facing major disturbances.  1939 saw the formation of the first communist cell.

As in India, a section of Burmese nationalists saw the Japanese occupation as preferable to British rule, regarding it as a stepping stone to independence.  The Japanese presence was contradictory – on the one hand plundering the country for resources, on the other providing a pseudo-independence.  The situation was complicated by the existence of populations of ethnic minorities, who faced repression and, in some cases, mass murder at the hands of the Burmese Independence Army who were allied to Japan.  In late 1944, as the Japanese were facing defeat at the hands of the Allies in the Pacific, their Burmese allies turned against them and struck out for full independence.

Burma suffered from the ravages of the British and Japanese armies, as well as internal ethnic conflict.  The towering figure of this period of Burmese history was Aung San, a radical nationalist who sided alternatively with the Japanese and Allies and after the war secured Burmese independence, only to be murdered in 1947.

The chapter on China records the domination of the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the western powers and imperial Japan.  The three key political players by the 1920s were the warlords, the KMT (bourgeois nationalists) and the Communist Party.  Donny Gluckstein charts out the interactions of these forces and the Japanese invaders.  While KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek tried to achieve independence for China by playing imperialist powers off against each other, his chief concern was to hold back internal social revolution by the working class and poor peasantry.  The communists were viciously suppressed.  These classes saw the nationalist army, Gluckstein notes, as “a parasitic body feeding off them”, while the CP was much more attractive.  Gluckstein, interestingly, notes the differences between Moscow’s politics and the Chinese CP which, far from blindly following Stalin, struck out on its own when it disagreed and how the CP transformed life in liberated areas.

The CP used people’s war  in rural China, but there were also important strikes and other struggles by urban workers.


There is a contradiction in this chapter, however.  Gluckstein is quite admiring of certain aspects of the CP and their resistance, but is also a supporter of the theory of state-capitalism.  This forces him to try to find ways to prove the Chinese CP was Stalinist and instituted a new kind of capitalism.  This is a problem which rather bedevils the arguments of different Trotskyists in relation to China.  Having, in my teens, supported a particular type of Trotskyist analysis – that the Chinese ‘Stalinists’ were forced to lead a revolution against their will and the result was a ‘deformed workers’ state’ – I eventually discarded this view.  Even when I held it, I had a problem with it.  I could see that conservative trade union bureaucrats can be pressured to call a strike, but that is an entirely different little thing to a social revolution.  It seems bizarre, to put it kindly, to imagine people can be made to overturn an entire social system against their will.

I’m not a Maoist either, but I simply think the various Trotskyist views on China are untenable.  They also sit awkwardly within Gluckstein’s chapter.  It is almost as if he is not really convinced of the state-capitalist argument – which is that all the forms of ‘Stalinism’ and counter-revolutionary through and through – and produces a chunk of positive material about the Chinese CP but then feels obliged to try to force the state-capitalist template onto his analysis, somewhat undermining an otherwise very interesting and useful account of events in China.

The last two chapters of the book were definitely highlights for me.  Kaye Broadbent and Tom O’Lincoln look at antiwar resistance within Japan and Ben Hillier looks at the Philippines, in particular the Huk struggle against the Japanese and the Americans.

Resistance within Japan

There is a widespread view in the main English-speaking countries that the Japanese population was staunchly pro-war and followed the emperor and the war machine mindlessly.  Japan is also charged with starting the war in the Pacific by attacking the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii in December 1941.  Kaye and Tom’s chapter challenges both these prejudices.  The Japanese rulers were certainly brutal imperialists, but “(t)he US forced Japan to take the road of conquest”, as they put it.  They back this up with credible evidence from British and American officials themselves.  Essentially, the Americans in particular, worried about some imperialist rivalry from Japan, cut the country off from fuel, trade and money.  The Japanese elite saw the only way out of this was war – to get hold of what they needed – and that the only chance of success in war was by using the element of surprise.

The authors chart the substantial resistance to militarism within Japan, despite very heavy repression.  As the vicious crackdowns silence one form of dissident expression, another would arise.  Military officers were not hugely popular and nor was the emperor.  Highly politicised cultural groups frequently criticised state militarism, workers resisted both by staying away fromc work and by sabotaging war production.

Workers got angrier as the war proceeded and they faced falling wages, rising prices and food shortages.  Between 1940-45, there were over 2,300 strikes.  Japanese soldiers also defected, for instance to the CP in China and the nationalist movement in Indonesia.  The authors cite the Japanese naval minister as saying he favoured surrender not out of fear of the atom bombs but fear of rising social tensions within Japan.

After the war, the left expanded quickly and substantially/  Trade unions too registered substantial growth.  The occupation, led by US General McArthur imposed anti-strike legislation.  One way Japanese workers resisted this was by not striking – but occupying their workplaces!  Fearful of substantial class conflict and the impact of the revolution in China, the US authorities left much of then old existing order of Japan intact.  The emperor was maintained, as were the huge Japanese corporations that had been key drivers of Japanese imperialism.  War crimes trials were stopped.

It might have been helpful, however, to include just a paragraph about how these outcomes shaped postwar Japan to today.

The Philippines resistance movement

The final chapter looks at the Philippines.  The resistance movement here was, perhaps, unique.  It consisted not of small somewhat isolated groups of activists but of a substantial armed force linked to mass organisations, in particular in the central area of Luzon, the largest island.  Moreover, here national liberation was closely linked to the fight against class exploitation.  Ben Hillier briefly traces the development of class relations following the Spanish conquest and then the takeover of the islands by the Americans in the Spanish-American war at the end of the 1800s.  Shortly before this war a nationalist movement emerged, part of which represented the interests of the national elite but another section of which had more plebeian ties.  He also looks at the contradictory role of the Catholic Church – on the one hand the church as landowner was exploiter and oppressor; on the other hand sections of clergy helped mobilise masses of the oppressed for social change and independence.

Under US rule resistance was brutally crushed and the Filipino upper classes flourished.  US rule, bringing more developed capitalism, more effectively impoverished chunks of tenant farmers.  While a working class emerged, concentrated in Manila, it was dispersed in small, mainly non-industrial workplaces.  Despite such objective problems, and repression, a workers’ movement, and with it a far-left, began to emerge.  A communist party was finally formed in 1930.  In 1938 it merged with the social democrats of the Socialist Party, as both currents placed emphasis on anti-fascism and anti-militarism.

A few days after Pearl Harbour, the Japanese invaded the Philippines.  Some of the bourgeois nationalists consorted with the Japanese, thinking that as fellow Asians the conquerors might be more likely to be sympathetic to independence than the American rulers.  Chunks of the old oligarchy were outright pro-Japanese.  As Ben records, “a loose alignment of everyone hated by the people was supporting the Japanese occupation”.  The invasion prompted the formation of the Hukbalahap (Huk for short), which very quickly went on the offensive.  The Huk actively recruited women fighters, with about 10% of the guerrillas eventually being women, something unprecedented at the time.

The Huk became very effective fighters, eventually killing 25,000 Japanese troops, collaborating police, and spies.  They established effectively liberated areas, where democratically-elected local councils were established and reforms carried out.  While the Huk were courageous fighters, Ben argues that there was a severe lack of political education and training.  When the US re-invaded the islands in 1944, many Huk welcomed them.  Yet, within a matter of months, the US authorities were arresting Huk leaders and activists.  Democratically-elected local officials in what had been strong Huk areas were removed as the US helped re-establish the power of old elites, including those who had collaborated with the Japanese occupation.

While the US granted formal political independence in July 1946, the archipelago was now a US neo-colony rather than a truly independent country.  In 1948 the Huk and the Communist Party were allowed.  The CP officially opposed a new rebellion but a layer of Huk and CP activists launched a new armed struggle against the dictatorial neo-colonial regime.  The Americans provided substantial military and economic aid to an embattled regime which was now able to substantially expand its armed forces and general repressive apparatus.  The revolutionary base was exhausted, having resisted the Filipino elite, the Japanese and the Americans.  In 1955 the People’s Liberation Army, as the Huk had renamed themselves in the insurrectionary period after WW2, was disbanded, while the CP itself was in tatters.

Ben ends on a positive note, suggesting “The coming of the dusk over this remarkable movement, however, would not put the aspirations and grievances of the labouring classes to bed. The defeat of the resistance would prove only an extended interlude to the rising of another rebellious sun.”

Although the attempts to fit some of the arguments in several chapters into state-capitalist theory just doesn’t work, to my eyes, this is overall a very good book.  It adds substantially to the historiography of the Second World War and of popular movements.  It challenges the dominant/official discourse on the war, a discourse which largely excludes resistance movements or/and distorts their politics to play down or erase the role of anti-capitalist left forces in fighting both the fascist powers and the ‘democratic’ imperialists.

Hopefully, there will be another volume, one which examines the struggles of workers and progressive democrats against wartime austerity and repression in powers such as the United States and Britain; the substantial Italian resistance; movements in other European countries such as Denmark and Norway; and what was happening in important colonial countries such as India, Korea and Egypt.

Further reading on Redline:

The Second World War: the battles of the books

World War II: the real story

The Pacific War, racism and Hiroshima


  1. Hi Phil, thanks for your very kind comments and complimentary review of our book.For your information, this is actually the second volume (effectively). The other countries you mentioned have already been covered in a book written entirely by Donny Gluckstein, A People’s History of the Second World War: Resistance Versus Empire, which includes France, Germany and the US.
    That’s why our book covers less well known countries. Also, as an anthology rather than a book written by one person, each author to some extent chose their own country to write about, hence the somewhat eclectic nature of the selection.

  2. Hi Janey, thanks for your comments. I’ll check out the other book – the chapter contents look interesting.

    Hey, I hope you have given some talks on the stuff you covered in the book. I found your chapter fascinating.

    Phil F

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