Who was fighting in the 2nd World War? And which side was the right one, and which wrong? In this post I want to explore these questions (not entirely conclusively) with focus on China/East Asia, and in light of the reflections I reflected a couple of days ago.
The second world war is often presented as being between two sides – the Axis and the Allies (perhaps with the latter split into the Western and Soviet camps). But I think it makes more sense to see it as a three-way conflict, because in many, perhaps most, of the countries invaded by the Axis powers’ expansion, those who fought against them were just as opposed to, and opposed by, the Allies.
The most obvious and prominent example is the Chinese Communist Party, who were the main resistance to the Japanese in China but had to also fight against the Nationalists who were supported by the Allies. Similar things occurred to a lesser extent in many other countries, such as the Philippines, Greece, France and Yugoslavia. But let’s take China as an example. Mao fights the Allies and the Japanese, the Japanese fight Mao and the Allies, the Allies fight Mao and the Japanese.
If we tried to evaluate any of these three forces according to elementary standards of human decency, they would all fail. The Japanese demonstrated this best in their treatment of captive and conquered populations during the war itself; the ‘popular’ forces under the CCP demonstrated this best when they conquered China after the war and established a brutal tyranny and history’s largest famine; and the Allies demonstrated it best a couple of decades later when they flattened Vietnam and Cambodia in order to retain the imperial control that the French had been unable to hang onto. But in no case was this a surprise, if we look attentively at their methods before and after.
(Looking back I see how long this post has gotten, so those after the short summary should scroll down to the bottom, starting from where I repeat the word ‘so’ three times…)
NB: for me the primary standard for moral outrage is the knowing intentional destruction of civilian life. It’s secondary whether this is done reluctantly or eagerly, from cynical or from fanatical motives. I say this partly because motives are easier to conceal that dead bodies, and partly because the anyobody’s moral guilt is not my main concern, but rather the understanding and prediction of bad things happening.
So all three major participants look pretty bad if we ask that question. But what if we ask the sort of questions I talked about yesterday – what is the internal make-up of each force, and so what were its potential developments – they appear very different.
In the context, for instance, of the East Asian region, the Allies were a pretty purely imperialistic power – that is, they exerted power here not on the basis of the consent of the local populations, but of far removed populations. The Japanese were imperialistic in relation to most of Asia, but not in relation to Japan itself – but the basis of whatever consent they could command from the population of Japan was an ideology of tradition, obedience, and hierarchy – submission to the Japanese elite and triumph over the inferior races of mainland Asia. The Chinese Communist Party, however, was a ‘popular’ force in that its power derived almost entirely from the aspirations of the Chinese population to self-assertion, disobedience and equality.
I would say that this means their ‘possibility functions’ were quite different. Imperialistic forces have a relatively narrow range – their independence of the population they dominate means that they can be expected to range between the kind of uninterested impoverishment and exploitation that marked most of the history of their dealings with China, the generosity they might provide to valued local allies, and the massive destruction that they might be driven to when threatened or frustrated.
A popular force, on the other hand, because its power comes from the self-assertion of the masses, has the potential to escape from the control of its leaders and push genuinely emancipatory processes. It is also, of course, capable of going distinctly sour (and rousing the masses not for liberation but for an apocalyptic sort of self-immolation), and more often of just drying up and becoming ‘indistinguishable from the humans’. But this isn’t fated from the beginning; it’s the outcome of the play of internal forces within the movement – the fact that popular leaders have to try to ‘ride the tiger’, encourage and rely on precisely the kind of dangerous rebellion and disobedience that they also want to constrict. This internal play of forces isn’t present in imperialism, because imperialists don’t have the same dependence on the masses.
What of the nationalistic forces of Japan? There’s a certain dependence on the masses – but of a very different sort. Any self-organisation, militancy, insolence, on the part of the exploited classes is unambiguously a threat to this sort of right-wing power, while to the popular forces in China it was ambiguous, both a threat and a necessity to the CCP leadership.
So that, I think, is what I see as the essential difference between the three competing forces in East Asia. Given this, let’s apply the ‘goodie-formula’ and ‘baddie-formula’ I talked about in the last post. Saying someone is ‘the right side’ means saying that others shouldn’t attack them and should aid them, and that it’s good for them to gain power and bad for them to lose it – saying someone is ‘the wrong side’ means saying the opposites.
So starting with ‘shouldn’t attack’ – how would being attacked affect the internal balance of powers within the different forces? I think in general, a force that depends on popular support will tend to find that outside aggression strengthens its leaders because it cements the perception of an identity between leadership and population, allowing better claim to ‘representation’. The exception seems to be when the perception of outside aggression becomes a perception of catastrophic defeat, which is often very destabilising.
And it stands to reason, I would think, that an attack which directly targets the civilian population is liable to do this more, and is certainly not liable to build solidarity between that population and any outside population. This goes along with it being generally a horrible thing to do.
But of course this interacts with the ‘increase or decrease in power’ – Force A will generally only attack Force B if it thinks doing so will make it better off in the balance of power.
The upshot of these considerations for me is the following judgement:
“by and large, the allies and the Axis powers should not have attacked the popular movements, but the popular movements should have resisted and attacked imperial domination from either source, and no side should have indiscriminately attacked the enemy civilian populations”.
But what about ‘should help’? If I’m against, say, the Japanese attacking the CCP, do I think the Japanese should have helped them? In general, no, and the issue of imperialism is important here. I think that receiving aid from a ‘external’ source, specifically an imperial one, a foreign government trying to exert power over local populations, will also tend to strengthen the leadership of a movement against its mass base.
That’s because this aid will give the leadership power that’s independent of its popular base, and gives it different incentives (to do what the imperial powers want). For example, the Chinese nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek were able to carelessly abuse their conscript armies without any need to garner the active support of the population (which is admittedly a difference of degree, not of kind, from the CCP).
Of course aid is often useful, and this isn’t the whole story – different circumstances, different considerations, might change this. But I think in terms of advancing the interests (with an emphasis on freedom and self-rule among those interests) of a local population, foreign aid to their leadership often does more harm than good.
And finally, what about considering an increase/decrease in a force’s power a good/bad thing? In isolation, I think I’d say that
1) an increase in imperial power is liable to be a bad thing, given its entire lack of incentive to meet local popular needs;
2) an increase in the power of a right-wing nationalist force is also a bad thing, both in that it cements exploitation and oppression within that nation and is also prone to strengthen its imperial impulses abroad; but
3) an increase in the power of a popular force is probably a neutral thing. I say that because I suspect that such an increase could easily favour the consolidation of control by the leadership – or might go in the opposite direction, depending on how things pan out.
Rapidly approaching the 1,500 word mark, I will try to summarise my thinking-out-loud up to this point.
The Japanese: In that I would support attacks on Japanese military forces, would oppose aid to them, and see a reduction in their power as desirable, they fit all the criteria for being ‘bad guys’. Hopefully this won’t surprise anyone.
The Allies: But the same largely goes for the Allies (which is, principally, the USA, the USSR, and Chiang’s Nationalists in China), in that I would support attacks on them and things which weakened their hold over the area (setting aside whose hold was thereby increaed).
The ‘Popular’ Forces: These are about half-way between ticking the boxes for ‘bad-guy’ and for ‘good-guy’. In that they rely on the power of the masses asserting themselves against their superiors, they have the potential to be a force for freedom – but this potential is liable to be weakened both by attacks and by aid from outside. Outside interference helps to obscure the potential antagonism between the masses and the leadership, and prevents its development to its logical end (which is the masses’ victory – unless the leaders are cyborg super-soldiers, they will necessarily lose if there’s ever a conflict that really lines up on those lines). But with that antagonism still smothered over, the growing power of these forces may just be the road towards the Great Leap Forward.
So in sum, there were three major forces at work in East Asia in WWII, of which 2.5 were bad guys and 0.5 were good guys.
Post-Script: it might be felt that I’m dodging the real question of whether I would have supported the Allies against, relative to, the Japanese. Wasn’t it better that the Allies won? Well, was it? Better for Indochina? Better for Korea? Perhaps it was. But I don’t know if I do have to answer that question – or rather, why I have to answer that but not ‘would it have been better if the Ethiopian invaders had been beaten by the Somalian Islamists?’, or ‘would it have been better if the French had ruled Ghana rather than the British?’, or ‘would it have been better for the Predators to have beaten the Aliens, or vice versa?’
In inter-imperialist wars, whoever wins, we lose.