(Dossier) The US SWP and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937- 1945) — On US intervention and material aid to China

Sherman tanks

First published at Workers Voice.

Like in the case of the present war, where the United States is intervening as an “ally” of Ukraine, in the Second Sino-Japanese War the United States entered the war in 1941, becoming the imperialist “ally” of China and started sending direct material aid to China in its war of national liberation against Japan. At the time, a debate emerged between the Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International on the one hand, and the Workers’ Party (WP) led by Max Shachtman on the other. The latter argued that US intervention in the war in 1941 qualitatively changed the character of the war from a war of national liberation to an inter-imperialist war, and that therefore revolutionaries should stop giving any support to the Chinese masses and instead argue for revolutionary defeatism in the US and Japan. The SWP polemized with the WP and continued giving active support to the Chinese masses at war with Japan while arguing for a class independent position in the struggle, and opposing US imperialist aims in the war. 

In 1944 however, the effect of US intervention changed the relation of class forces in China as it started supporting the bourgeois reactionary side in the developing Chinese civil war. It became allied with counter-revolutionary forces. In response the SWP and the Fourth International changed their policy and raised “US Out of China”, embracing fully the revolutionary defeatist position as the sole position to defend in the US, and actively opposing any kind of material aid being sent to China. The SWP could do this tactical shift without entering in any major political contradiction because it had been denouncing the real goals of US intervention since 1941, and because it had maintained all along a clear line of class independent from its own imperialist government. There is a lot to learn by analyzing and understanding the position of the SWP and the Fourth International in that war. 

Regarding US material aid to China, the SWP did not raise any campaign to oppose it, but it did not “campaign” for it either, neither in 1937 when the war started, nor after 1941, demanding more and better military aid from the Roosevelt administration to China. This does not mean that it was in any way “neutral” in the war. In “Principles and Tactics In War” (1937), Rudolph Klement, analyzing and developing the 1934 Fourth International resolution The War and the Fourth International, stated that in wars of national liberation, the proletariat of imperialist countries whose government is “allied” to the progressive side in the war has a complicated task of “combining revolutionary defeatism towards their own bourgeoisie with support of progressive wars.”[1] How to combine these tasks and methods is the truly difficult thing, as Klement affirms: “It will have to be left to the instinct and revolutionary perspicacity of the proletariat, which is well aware of its tasks, to make the right distinction in every concrete situation, to avoid injuring the military interests of the far-off ally of the proletariat out of narrow national class struggle considerations, no matter how revolutionary they seem, as well to avoid doing the dirty work for its “own” imperialism on the pretext of giving indirect aid to its allies. The only real and decisive aid that the workers can bring the latter is by seizing and holding the power.” 

The SWP offers us a valuable example of how one of the most developed sections of the nascent Fourth International was able to carry out that combination of tasks and sophisticated politics during the Second Sino-Japanese War. From reading the SWP press and the way the party analyzed, denounced and exposed the aims of the US material aid we can draw some valuable lessons for today. This study could (and maybe should) be completed and supplemented with how they tackled the question of arms during the Spanish Revolution, which was a very different situation because the imperialist governments of France, Britain and the US had a “neutrality” policy by which they agreed not sell or sent arms to the loyalists, a policy against which the Trotskyists of the Fourth International openly campaigned demanding “Arms for the Spanish Workers”.[2] 

During the first period of the war, between 1937 and 1941, the SWP did not campaign for arms or material aid for China. In general the SWP opposed “campaigning” to demand the US government intervene in military conflicts and made a distinction between not opposing or rather favoring government material aid on the one hand, and mobilizing in the streets to demand it from the government on the other. They applied that policy consistently, even when the USSR entered the war, and the defense of the Soviet state was at stake. As the Goldman article contained in the attached dossier states: “We favored material aid to the Loyalist government but, for the same reasons that actuated us in the case of Ethiopia, we refused to campaign for government aid but insisted on independent working-class action for aid to the Loyalist government…There is a difference between not raising any objection, when a capitalist government sends aid, and agitating for such aid. The key to the whole question consists in the understanding that we cannot rely on bourgeois governments to aid our cause. Neither can we take any responsibility for bourgeois governmental policy.”[3] 

During the war in China, the SWP did not simply “not oppose” US material aid in the sense of not saying or doing anything, that is to say in an abstentionist or neutral way. Since the beginning of the war, like was the case with Ethiopia, it took the position of supporting China against Japan and mobilizing material aid to the Chinese resistance in two ways: 1) actively promoting worker’s boycotts to Japan, and 2) collecting direct material aid for the Communist League of China and the working-class resistance through fund drives. Regarding the “workers’ sanctions” it stated in 1937: 

The efforts of all revolutionists in China and abroad must be directed toward precisely this independent mobilization of the masses. Above all, the American workers must intervene directly in the struggle against Japanese imperialism. Cargoes destined for the Japanese military machine must be immobilized. That is the key task here. Let the slogan be raised for the seamen and longshoremen on the West Coast, particularly "Not a ship, not a ton of cargo for Japanese imperialism!" The powerful organizations of the maritime workers have it in their power in this country to strike a mortal blow at Japan's imperialist drive in China.[4] 

The workers’ sanction campaign was implemented in January 1938, with the Socialist Appeal printing a resolution from a CIO-affiliate union in Chicago that stated “we support and actively extend a producers' boycott on Japanese war materials and Japanese goods in general, said boycott to be conducted by the trade unions, and to take the form of refusal to load, transport, unload or use as raw materials of manufacture any goods coming from or destined for Japan.”[5] 

Since the beginning of the war, the SWP differentiated its policy from the Communist Party and Stalinism, who was calling for US intervention in China against the war with Japan, that is putting forward once again popular front politics instead of an independent class strategy to win the war: 

When the Stalinist party today calls upon the government at Washington to invoke the "Nine-Power Pact" they line themselves up with the drive toward the future war of American against Japanese imperialism. With this the working class has nothing in common. Against this the working class must pit all its forces or else again become cannon fodder "to make the world safe against the Mikado".

No, we must intervene in our own way in support of the Chinese struggle against the Japanese imperialist invasion, without identifying ourselves or our action for a moment with the imperialist interests of "our own" government.[6] 

Regarding material aid when the US government decided to intervene in the conflict starting 1941, it actually wrote regular articles in its press to analyze US military policy in Asia, with two editorial lines which showed, in its exposition of the goals of US aid, that neither the SWP nor US workers should be neutral in this war, but rather than the US government was not really aiding or aiding enough the Chinese masses and that thus it could not be trusted: 

1) by the permanent denunciation of the real aims of US military intervention and warnings about the mid- and long-term goals of imperialism. 

2) by relaying the criticism from the Chinese front about the insufficiency of the aid, to also show how in the US-China military “alliance” against Japan, the Chinese people were never equal partners, that it was an inherently imperialist military alliance were imperialist powers decide alone the military policy according to their needs, and not according to the needs of the Chinese people to defend Japan. 

That is to say that the party press showed in practice, by analyzing the actual military policy of the US government on the ground based on news and reports from the Chinese resistance, that US military aid intervention was not about helping the Chinese quickly win the war, but about using a prolonged war to weaken Japan and securing a series of strategic objectives in the region, in particular in India. 

Regarding the denunciation of the overall goals of US imperialism in the war, the second Massini article in the dossier exposes the hypocrisy of the partial continuation of business between the US and Japan during the war (ie the selective nature of economic sanctions and their enforcement) and concludes: 

It is not surprising that government officials don't want the American people to have this information. For it conclusively demonstrates what the capitalists are fighting for. Their basic perspective is to continue as exploiters of China, regardless of who wins the war. Naturally, they would prefer to have the United States win, for then American capitalism would be in the number one position as exploiter of China, with British and Japanese capitalists reduced to secondary positions…. Washington continues to talk about a "war for democracy" and struggle to the death against fascism and imperialism, but the activities of American capitalists are not determined or affected by such talk. The bosses understand that this talk is for consumption by the masses. As for themselves, their perspective is – as it was before the war and as it will be after the war – continued participation in the exploitation of the colonies.[7] 

Regarding point 2, the Massini articles included in the dossier do something very smart: they abundantly quoted the criticisms from Lin Yutang against the insufficiency and delay of US military aid, indirectly legitimizing the demand for direct and unconditional military aid from the Chinese front, yet it framed these criticisms within a Marxist political analysis that exposed the “imperialist” nature of the alliance in the way the US military policy was carried out, and how it was designed to diminish both the agency and confidence of the Chinese masses in resistance. It stated that the “complaints” from the Chinese front could be classified into two categories: 

1. China is not getting the supplies which it was promised; delivery of these supplies to China is being "sabotaged”… 

2. China is not being consulted or informed about the "grand strategy" of the United Nations in the war in the Far Fast.[8] 

Regarding the latter point, the lack of consulation and equal partnership in the military alliance showed that the US government can only enter in relations of imperialist domination for its own benefit: 

For despite the war with Japan, China is still regarded as an "inferior," treated not as an equal among equals in the high councils of the "United Nations” - but as a semi-colonial country which is to be tolerated but not given a voice in deciding questions of important policy and strategy-, which is to be given a little material aid now and then but never in preference to the imperialist powers. For despite the war with Japan, China is still regarded as an "inferior," treated not as an equal among equals in the high councils of the "United Nations” - but as a semi-colonial country which is to be tolerated but not given a voice in deciding questions of important policy and strategy-, which is to be given a little material aid now and then but never in preference to the imperialist powers.[9]

The fact that the US limited and delayed sending heavy military equipment, especially aircraft and air defense systems shows that imperialist aid is always designed to preserve military and technological superiority between imperialist and semi-colonial countries, so that the latter can never acquire through temporally military alliance enough material means to become truly independent and contest their dependence from imperialist powers: 

Their policy of keeping China from becoming too independently "strong," and thus perhaps becoming an inspiration for all the oppressed colonial peoples, is not the result of “blundering” but of their coldly calculated desire to run the war in such a way that the Chinese government will become and be forced to remain wholly subservient to the dictates of the imperialist "democracies”.[10] 

An imperialist power will never give equal access to resources and technology to any partner in a war, especially not to a semi-colonial one, because it knows that all the military equipment sent or lent during a war has the potential of being used eventually against it. 

The most important thing of these articles is first that they clearly “favored” US military aid to the Chinese while exposing its real nature – without however proposing to campaign to send a different kind of aid; second is that they keep concluding that the only reliable solution to win the war lied in the independent mobilization of the working class in China and internationally: 

For China to place all its hopes on a change in American policy would be suicidal, for there can be no guarantee that the Willkie; Yarnell line toward China will ever become the official policy of the American government. Nor is there any basic difference between the "dollar imperialism" of Willkie and the cruder imperialism of Churchill. 

We are for the victory of China over Japan because China is a semi-colonial country fighting for national independence against an imperialist power. As genuine supporters of China we must warn the Chinese people that their salvation lies only in themselves and their true allies, the colonial peoples and the revolutionary workers of all countries.[11] 

Klement explained that in that “combination” of tasks to the proletariat of “allied” countries has to carry out: “the methods of revolutionary defeatism remain unaltered: revolutionary propaganda, irreconcilable opposition to the regime, the class struggle from its purely economic up to its highest political form (the armed uprising), fraternisation of the troops, transformation of the war into the civil war.”[12] In the case of the SWP, the party consistently sustained a line of class independence from the Roosevelt government. Refusing to cultivate any illusions that this government could be an ally of working people anywhere in times of war was key, for in 1944 the SWP had to change its policy in relation to China: it went from combining the tasks of revolutionary defeatism towards the US government and the material and political support to the progressive war in China, to a full revolutionary defeatist program in the war. 

This does not mean that during the prelude and course of imperialist war, the SWP did not carry out campaigns which included demands on the Roosevelt administration. Quite the opposite, it did it with its critical support to the Ludlow Amendment campaign in 1938 (which was proposing to amend the US constitution so that the US government would have to get approval by popular referendum before embarking in any war), or with the incredibly valuable Proletarian Military Policy adopted in 1940, which in fact raised demands on the US government to give full training and control to workers and unions of war business to set the basis to change the imperialist war into a civil war: 

The revolutionary strategy can only be to take this militarism as a reality and counterpose a class program of the proletariat to the program of the imperialists at every point. We fight against sending worker-soldiers into battle without proper training and equipment. We oppose the military direction of worker-soldiers by bourgeois officers who have no regard for their treatment, their protection and their lives. We demand federal funds for the military training of workers and worker-officers under the control of the trade unions. Military appropriations? Yes — but only for the establishment and equipment of worker training camps! Compulsory military training of workers? Yes — but only under the control of the trade unions![13] 

In both cases, the SWP carried out these campaigns with the transitional method, that is to say using the campaigns echoed by the masses or initiating its own to inject its own program of opposition to imperialist war with transitional demands, and calling for independent mobilization of the working class.

Download a PDF of the entire dossier by clicking the link at the bottom of this page.


[1] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol1/no1/printact.html 

[2] Felix Morrow, “Arms for Spanish Workers,”, Socialist Appeal, December 1936. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/socialistappeal/pdf/v2n11-dec-1936-soc-ap-chi.pdf 

[3] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/writers/goldman/1941/07/usaid.htm 

[4] Lo Se “Arm Chinese Mass, Only Hope”, Socialist Appeal, August 28th 1937. 

[5] “Chicago Workers Aid China Fight; Urge Independent Labor Action”, Socialist Appeal, January 1 1938. 

[6] Lo Se “Arm Chinese Mass, Only Hope”, Socialist Appeal, August 28th 1937.

[7] Massini, “US Bosses in Shanghai Still Do ‘Business As Usual’ with Japanese” (September 1942). 

[8] Massini, “US Bosses in Shanghai Still Do ‘Business As Usual’ with Japanese” (September 1942). 

[9] Massini, “US Bosses in Shanghai Still Do ‘Business As Usual’ with Japanese” (September 1942). 

[10] Massini, “US Bosses in Shanghai Still Do ‘Business As Usual’ with Japanese” (September 1942). 

[11] Morrow, “The Allies Attitude to China’s War” (December 1942). 

[12] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/revhist/backiss/vol1/no1/printact.html 

[13] https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/icl-spartacists/prs2-pmp/swp-pmp.html