Workers West: From Fascism to the New Left

The period from the Great Depression to the emergence of the New Left is quite significant for the history of labor force movements. Workers had to face and fight against the ideology of fascism, the oppressing policy of capitalists, and gender discrimination. Thus, this time might be crucial to discover to understand the role of a labor force within the scope of the historical process. Countries that accepted capitalism as a model of economic, social, and political development tend to forget lessons of the past that show how discriminative attitude to labor forces may lead to unrest and strikes. However, there is an immense number of scholars’ works of diverse characters that may reveal the importance of appropriate labor policy. Despite this, capitalists always want to keep high-profit margins even when overcoming profit crisis means to abandon good working conditions and wages. So, constant scientific investigations in this field might be relevant to undertake. It requires the usage of appropriate terms and ideas from the academic dimension. Thus, in order to ensure a coherent train of thought, theoretical concepts from Silver’s Forces in Labor will be used.

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The crisis of 1929–33 brought down the most severe calamities in the capitalist countries. In 1933, the jobless rate reached 25% in the US.1 During the period, the average annual unemployment rate was extremely high both in the US and in the UK.2 Real wages were low; in the midst of a sharp aggravation of class clashes, the threat of fascism, used by capitalists as a shock against revolutionary forces, intensified. German labor force, despite the hopelessly bold struggle for its revolutionary aims, could not prevent the seizure of power by the Nazis due to the deep split in its ranks.3 In Austria, workers, with Communists and Social Democrats among them, rose to the armed battle against the fascist regime but were defeated.4 In France, the restoration of workers’ unity and the emergence of the Popular Front on the initiative of the Communist Party allowed workers to achieve great success in the fight for democracy and substantial social gains.5 In Spain, the proletariat became the main force of the National Revolutionary War against fascism.6 Thus, labor forces led the fight against the impending new world war in most Western countries.

World War II is the most bloody, terrible, and cruel phenomenon of human history that caused an irreversible impact on the memory of global society. In particular, the policy that was accepted by Hitler relatively to the domestic labor force. Horrible labor camps, tortures of prisoners of war to break their spirit and compel to work, and ruthless exploitation of people from occupied territories are just a small part of Nazi terror. Only 1 percent of foreign labor constituted the German labor force in 1939, but by September 1944, it was about 20 percent.7 Plenty of them was under conditions of fear, inhuman exploitation, and terrible hunger. Most of the captured workers were from France, the Netherlands, and the Soviet Union. What is more, about 1.4 million women were employed as domestic servants,8 which emphasizes the dominant male breadwinner model that was still relevant even during the War. Thus, it might be assumed that the Nazi regime, in accordance with its ideology, considered foreign workers as a contemptible element of German economic and embodied nothing but disrespect and discrimination to the “inferior races.”

In the European countries, coalition governments emerged from participants of labor parties (communists, socialists, social democrats) and other anti-fascist forces. With the maintenance of labor unions in the governments, a lot of effective economic and political changes were undertaken. In an atmosphere of after-war desire for unity that swept the proletarian masses, the World Federation of Trade Unions (1945) was born, which included trade unions of 53 countries with a total number of 60 million members.9 Later, some of the positions won by labor movements were lost due to the Cold War that was waged by the Western authorities and the anti-communism of the right-wing leaders of Social Democracy. Notably, with the assistance of the mentioned political powers, the Communists in several countries were removed from the governments. As a result, most of the labor unions of the West left the WFTU.

In the countries of developed capitalism, post-war economic changes were accompanied by an increase of revolutionary societies, significant shifts in its structure, material situation, and conditions of the class contradictions. However, these changes have occurred very unevenly across countries and over time. This tendency has undergone a significant shift in favor of more relevant industries (engineering, computer programming, chemistry, etc.). In these sectors, the tendency to expand the boundaries of workers to the expense of new professions generated by modern production was most clearly manifested. Changes in qualifications of workers and the labor conditions due to scientific progress caused a relative decrease in the number of workers of product industries. So, a lot of workers were involved in service industries (technicians, controllers, laboratory assistants, operators of information machines, etc.). Accordingly, an increase of high-qualified workers (adjusters, repairmen, etc.) and a significant reduction of unskilled workers took place.

The average educational level of workers rose (in the USA it was up to 10-12 years of education; in other developed capitalist countries this level varied from 5 to 10 years). As mentioned above, more and more labor forces were being involved in the service industries. Moreover, in these sectors, the proportion of women was significantly high. Hence, the male breadwinner model in which many managers and bosses had been actively investing before the increasing number of women strikes took place, started to lose its efficiency, appropriacy, and popularity.

After World War II, the struggle of labor forces in developed capitalist countries for their vital interests reached an unprecedented scale. For instance, about 4.5 million workers participated in the strike wave in the United States in 1946.10 The effectiveness of strikes has increased; one of the factors contributing to this is the achievement of the countries of socialism. The real wages of industrial workers during the post-war period increased in the United States, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, and Japan, where wages by the end of War fell to a deficient level.11 Growth in the consuming ability of workers due to a successful class struggle has contributed to an increase in economic development and employment. However, there still was a certain income inequality during the post-World War II period.12 The social and economic achievements of workers (reforms in the field of social security and medical services) did not stabilize the intensity of labor, nervous tension, and occupational injuries. The destiny of a significant number of workers remained living in poverty.

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Since the late 60s, a new upsurge of the labor movement began in the Western countries of capitalism. The capitalists carried out anti-labor laws, further attempts to limit the independence of trade unions, etc. Workers were severely affected by the crisis since the world economic crisis that began in 1974 – the most acute in the post-war period.13 Unemployment rose sharply again; the crisis arose in the face of rampant inflation and rising prices; the growth of real wages in most capitalist countries stalled; in some countries, it stopped. The desire of businesspeople to overcome the losses of the crisis by sacrificing appropriate working conditions and wages met stiff resistance from labor movements. The New Left supported the struggle in defense of the economic workers’ rights, for a substantive policy of labor unions, and against the neo-fascist threat.14 Thus, the authorities of the Western countries of capitalism faced, to the exact extent, crises of legitimacy as they could not achieve the goal of compromise with their citizens.

In conclusion, it seems reasonable to assume that workers of Western capitalism countries had to go through the hard and sophisticated way to assert their rights during the discovered period. They faced a lot of obstacles such as fascism regimes, capitalists’ aspirations to constant profit, sacrificing acceptable working terms and conditions, and wave-like economic booms and slumps. Notably, the usage of settled theoretical concepts contributed to a consistent train of thought. In the end, the role of labor forces in the historical process might be considered as one of the most crucial. Moreover, conscious ignorance of these forces within the scope of relative scholar researches may lead to inappropriate conclusions and ideas.


Barbash, Jack. “The labor movement after World War II.” Monthly Labor Review 99, no. 11 (1976): 34–37.

Booth, A. E. and S. Glynn. “Unemployment in the Interwar Period: A Multiple Problem.” Journal of Contemporary History 10, no. 4 (1975): 611–636.

Cornia, Giovanni Andrea, Tony Addison and Sampsa Kiiski. Income Distribution Changes and Their Impact in the Post-Second World War Period. PDF. World Institute for Development Economics Research, 2003.

Graham H. and P. Preston. “The Popular Front and the Struggle Against Fascism.” In The Popular Front in Europe, edited by H. Graham and P. Preston, 1–20. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987.

Hall, Stuart. “Life and Times of the First New Left.” New Left Review 61. (2010): 177–196.

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Kolko, G. Century of war: Politics, conflicts, and society since 1914. New York: The New Press, 1994.

Lucia, Danny. “The unemployed movements of the 1930s.” International Socialist Review. 2010. Web.

Schmidt, D. E. “Public opinion and media coverage of labor unions.” Journal of Labor Research 14, no. 2 (1993): 151–164.

World Federation of Trade Unions. “History of WFTU.” Web.


  1. Danny Lucia, “The unemployed movements of the 1930s,” International Socialist Review, 2010, Web.
  2. A. E. Booth and S. Glynn, “Unemployment in the Interwar Period: A Multiple Problem,” Journal of Contemporary History 10, no. 4 (1975): 612.
  3. H. Graham and P. Preston, “The Popular Front and the Struggle Against Fascism,” In The Popular Front in Europe, ed. H. Graham and P. Preston (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1987), 5.
  4. Graham and Preston, The Popular Front, 7.
  5. Ibid, 11.
  6. Ibid, 7.
  7. G. Kolko, Century of war: Politics, conflicts, and society since 1914 (New York: The New Press, 1994), 190.
  8. Kolko, Century of war, 192.
  9. World Federation of Trade Unions, “History of WFTU,” Web.
  10. Jack Barbash, “The labor movement after World War II,” Monthly Labor Review 99, no. 11 (1976): 34.
  11. Giovanni Andrea Cornea, Tony Addison and Sampsa Kiiski, Income Distribution Changes and Their Impact in the Post-Second World War Period, PDF, World Institute for Development Economics Research, 2003, 1.
  12. Cornea et al, World Institute, 3–4.
  13. D. E. Schmidt, “Public opinion and media coverage of labor unions,” Journal of Labor Research 14, no. 2 (1993): 158.
  14. Stuart Hall, “Life and Times of the First New Left,” New Left Review 61, (2010): 186–188.
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