Operation Barbarossa

February 15, 2019 (1643 words) :: Fleshing out a (possibly tenuous) parallel between capital's relationship to labour & Germany's 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union.
Tags: ideology, class-struggle, the-man-in-the-high-castle

This post is day 46 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

Picking up on a theme that has shown up in the course of several blog posts, especially 45 (When your opponent plays defect every time), and 24 (Capital knows who the enemy is), I want to hone in on one particular ideological aspect of class struggle, this time through the lens of Soviet-Nazi relations during WWII. Even if you’re not especially into WWII history, please bear with me anyway.

There was a brief phase in my childhood whenI had the good fortune of living near the BAnQ, a huge public library in Montreal (and the official public library for all of Quebec). I used to spend a lot of time there, hanging out between the shelves, trying to read my way through this terrifyingly massive store of human knowledge.

One particular book, I spent more time with than any other. I don’t think I ever checked it out, because at almost 1,000 pages it was too heavy to bring home; I would simply read it at the library, over and over and over. The book was titled The Second Wold War: A Complete History and boy, was it riveting.

I can’t remember why I first decided to read the book. Maybe because I had recently read Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, and the WWII-inflected plotline made me want to learn more about the actual history? Maybe because I just thought it was something I should learn to be a well-rounded human being? I never had the same fervor when it came to the first world war, or any unnumbered major historical conflicts. There was something about WWII that made it feel especially important to learn about - some combination of chronological proximity, the role of technological innovation, and all the subterfuge that was going on.

One aspect of WWII that especially fascinated me was the relationship between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. On August 23, 1939 - just over a week before Germany invaded Poland - the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed, a neutrality pact which signaled an alliance between the two states. Of course, as we know from history, that neutrality did not last: on June 22, 1941, the Nazis - who had been mobilising troops near the German-Soviet border for months - invaded the Soviet Union, which they called “Operation Barbarossa”.

It was a massacre. The Soviet army was not ready for an invasion of this scale. There were some units stationed along the border, but Stalin’s defensive mobilisation started late and seemed half-hearted at best, especially when compared to Hitler’s deliberate and strategic mobilisations over several months.

Why was there such an imbalance? Why hadn’t the Soviet Union been prepared in advance?

The historical record here is conflicting, and the extent of Stalin’s knowledge of what Hitler was doing is still an ongoing debate. What’s clear is that Stalin did not act as if he believed that a Nazi invasion was imminent - at least, until it was too late. This despite the fact that he had known, early on, about the German troops gathering near the border, a movement that had alarmed many on the Soviet side. Churchill and Roosevelt, who had learned of the troop movements through their respective intelligence services and could surmise Hitler’s impending intentions, tried to warn Stalin as well, but to no avail.

What Stalin actually believed is harder to ascertain, of course. With the benefit of hindsight & meticulously-researched history books, it’s tempting to ascribe his lack of action to naivety, but things were much less clear-cut at the time. It’s possible that he knew very well that Hitler would be invading in the summer of 1941, and that his limited preparation in response was a strategic calculation, under the assumption that they wouldn’t be able to mobilise enough units to fully repel the invasion anyway, and so they might as well mobilise just enough and let winter do the rest. And even if he truly believed that Hitler would not be invading - or at least, not yet - there could be merit to that belief: Hitler may have provided a plausible cover for the troop movements, and why would Stalin trust Churchill or Roosevelt over his putative ally?

Either way, there’s probably not a whole lot Stalin could have done when the whole force of the Reich was bearing down on him. In any case, the tide turned the following winter, when the Germany army was defeated at Stalingrad - in hindsight, something of a watershed line for the whole war.

We don’t know how history would have turned out had Stalin been more prepared for Barbarossa. As much as I love The Man in the High Castle, I’m not going to indulge in the exercise of imagining alternative presents based on different choices made during WWII. It might have shortened the war, or it might have prolonged it, or even led to an entirely differently result. For better or worse, that chapter’s closed, and we’ll never find out.

But history’s value as a guide is not limited to the realm of alternate history. You can take lessons from history and apply them to entirely different contexts, illuminating possible perspectives that you never would have noticed otherwise.

If you’re willing to entertain the possibility “the second world war” and “class war” might have some parallels, consider that we’re now in a situation akin to that of the early days of 1941, when German troops were starting to show up at the border and Luftwaffe planes just happened to be doing aerial surveillance over Soviet territory.

Look at the case of Amazon, which recently pulled out of its plan to open another office in Queens, New York, probably as the result of sustained opposition from the local community. Now cue the backlash from the ruling class and its bootlickers, bemoaning the loss of Amazon’s potential tax revenue (which surely Amazon’s in-house counsel would be trying to lower anyway) and, of course, jobs. But who would actually want these jobs? We all know what working at Amazon is actually like for the majority of its workers, despite the company’s PR offensives. Amazon’s promise to improve life for New Yorkers is about as convincing as Hitler assuring Stalin that the millions of German troops on the Soviet-German border are merely preparing for a future invasion of Britain.

And sure, the status quo isn’t great either, but welcoming Amazon with open arms is essentially embracing exploitation and inequality, while foreclosing more egalitarian visions for the future. In previous posts I’ve used the analogy of capitalism trapping us within a local maximum, and I think it’s applicable here too. It doesn’t have to be a choice between Amazon digesting another city vs New York having no money for public services. The apparent constraints here are the product of a flawed system, but it’s system that was created by humans, which means it can also be changed by humans.

There was a time when capital had to actually act as if it cared about providing people with jobs and livelihoods, if only for some of the world’s population (mostly white, male workers in affluent nations). But this compromise - a neutrality pact, you could say - was not capitalism’s default state; it was attained through labour showing its strength. The Keynesian golden ages were characterised by high union representation and density, stronger welfare states, and lower wealth inequality. But now we’re living through a period of terrifyingly stark wealth inequality, threadbare safety nets, and the widespread vilification of organised labour, as epitomised by Reagan and Thatcher.

The détente is crumbling, in other words. And capital shows no signs of slowing down its assault on workers: corporations dream of automating away their already compliant workforces, preferring fantasies of servile robots to maintaing the burden of employing workers who receive benefits, god forbid. In the meanwhile, they’re creating a class of workers who already don’t receive benefits - because they’re contractors, independent or through staffing agencies - under the pretense that it’s what those workers want.

How can this be happening, when the entire justification for capital’s outsize power is the belief that corporations create jobs? How can corporations get away with treating workers as disposable? Isn’t the whole premise behind centring the economy around jobs based on the optimality of allowing corporations to allocate resources via wage-labour? How can capital be attacking the very ideological justification for capitalism’s existence?

Because it thinks it can get away with it. Why else? Because it assumes labour won’t realise, or at least won’t have the resources to fight back.

Of course, no analogy is ever perfect. For one, there’s no equivalent of “Stalin” in the story of class struggle; the working class is currently too fragmented to really act in a unified way, as if led from above. Still, there’s a reason it’s called class war, and sometimes you can draw historical parallels that clarify the picture just a little bit.

Given our current economic nightmare, I think it’s pretty safe to say that capital never intended to maintain peace forever. It was always just waiting for the right moment to attack, and in the meantime, it’s been mobilising its forces. In the absence of visible opposition, the imperative for endless expansion and accumulation would always take over.

The historical lesson of Operation Barbarossa is that sometimes you don’t realise how bad things are until it’s too late, even if all the evidence is staring you in the face. But the other lesson is that even if this is the case, it doesn’t mean the war is necessarily lost. Once the facade of peace is dropped, and battle lines are clearly drawn, then things can change, and the aggressor might end up having to retreat.

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