Harry Frankel

The Renegades:
Lewis Corey

(January 1943)

From Fourth International, Vol.4 No.1, January 1943, pp.27-29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

One of the plainest phenomena of recent years has been the sharp swing to the right that has taken place among the middle class intellectuals everywhere in the world. Yesterday foes of imperialist war, they are today in the front ranks of the pro-war propagandists.

What was the reason for this occurrence? If we listened to the average intellectual we would be told that he went through a process of enlightenment. He “began to doubt Marxism,” and soon “saw” that Marxism is “hampered by traditionalism and old fashioned ideas.” These thoughts led him to “think of more progressive ideas in keeping with the times,” and before long he “regretfully abandoned Marxism.”

This is an inadequate explanation. It neglects to take into account the fact that this “enlightenment” was not limited to a few individuals, but embraced a whole generation of intellectuals. Was it a mere coincidence that the same ideas “occurred” to all of them at the same time? The movement of the intellectuals away from Marxism is a social and not an individual phenomenon.

The explanation is simply this: Sections of the petty-bourgeoisie came to the movement for socialism as a result of the breakdown of capitalist economy during the end of the 1920s and first part of the ’30s. The onslaught of reaction in the years preceding the Second World War, and the outbreak of the war itself, drove these people away from the working-class movement. It was not a new “clarity of thought,” but sheer terror at where their ideas were taking them that led them to abandon Marxism. They found it impossible to break all their ties with the old system and face the isolation, the difficulties and the personal privation – not to speak of repression – which the flood of reaction was beginning to impose on the revolutionists. One way and another, the intellectuals made their peace with capitalism.

The rightward turn of the intellectuals produced a barrage of books in which are set forth in great detail the various and sundry errors of Marxism. No sooner had they found their miserable way out, than they began to cast about for arguments to justify their course. It was as part of this process that Lewis Corey has written The Unfinished Task.

The Unfinished Task [1] is billed on the jacket design as being by the author of The Decline of American Capitalism. This is only the first of the many inaccuracies to be found in this volume. The Lewis Corey who wrote The Decline of American Capitalism in 1934 belonged to an entirely different political species than the author in 1942 of this apology of capitalism.

The theory of his present book is simple enough. In the beginning there was free enterprise. Mankind flourished and democracy grew. But into this Garden of Eden crept the stealthy trusts, who committed the original sin called monopoly, in consequence of which the human race has been passing its days in the tortured expiation of this sin. The restoration of the “free market” will bring with it a restoration of the lost paradise.

The “free market” is described as follows:

“The supreme merit of the free market is its objective economic controls that reduce to a minimum the direct administrative controls which endanger freedom and personality. A free market is the democratic expression of the spirit of live and let live. It promotes a sense of equality.” (Loc. cit., p.285.)

And so on.

There are short-tempered readers who might be tempted to dismiss The Unfinished Task after reading this painful passage. It is necessary, however, to examine Corey’s ideas in greater detail.

Corey claims to be interested above all in the maintenance of democracy. Democracy is inseparably associated in his mind with four factors:

  1. “The separation of economic and political power.”
  2. “Widespread popular ownership of property.”
  3. “The relations of freedom of enterprise, the free market, and competition.”
  4. “Free labor unionism.”

According to Corey, these factors all existed in the America of the 1830’s, and the struggle for democracy was won. This then is the Garden of Eden for which he yearns.

So far as the first point is concerned, it is simply untrue. There never was a party, program or government in the United States, from Federalism to the New Deal, that did not operate in the interest of an economic class. Separation of economic and political power never existed. There is a demagogic myth to that effect, calculated to deceive the masses. Corey has chosen, for reasons best known to himself, to accept that myth, but that does not alter the reality.

Of the remaining points we will say little, although “widespread popular indebtedness” might be added to point 2, and it is questionable that labor unionism was quite “free.” We will permit them to stand on the strength that they were faintly characteristic of American capitalism in the Jacksonian period.

The important fact is, however, that this Jacksonian Garden of Eden rested on chattel slavery. This becomes clear when one views the whole national structure, and does not limit his view to one or another frontier or agrarian locality. Almost one-third of the population of the United States was the property of a handful of slave owners, and was bought and sold in the market place. This fact is assiduously ignored by Corey. Only thereby can he glorify the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian “democrats” of that day, who saw nothing wrong with the extension of the “free market” to trade in human flesh.

Petty-bourgeois democracy was the product of infant capitalism. But capitalism remained an infant, in America only so long as its forward development was retarded by the existence of the chattel slave system. Therefore, Jacksonian democracy could hope to dominate only so long as slavery existed! This is Corey’s “democracy.” It was destroyed, never to return, by the Civil War.

In his eagerness to attribute all progressive features of American economic and political development to the petty-bourgeois agrarian influence, Corey neglects to mention that even after the Civil War, bourgeois democracy existed under the auspices of competitive industrial capitalism. This is another indication of the petty-bourgeois social roots of his theories.

Were Corey to picture “free enterprise” in a correct light, he would see it as the transitory and anarchic mode of production improvised by history from the bourgeois forms, which already had emerged under feudal society, and which served as the only convenient and the only possible structure for the development of industry at that time. When the ice jam of feudalism in the river of history was blasted loose by the dynamite of the bourgeois industrial and political revolutions and the ice chunks came churning down the narrows and falls at breakneck speed: that was free enterprise. It continued until it piled up in a new ice jam called monopoly and imperialist capitalism, a jam which can be blasted loose only by the socialist revolution. It was only a transitory phase. Nobody wants it any more. Surely not the bourgeoisie which must exist today on a monopolist basis or perish. Not the workers, who will want to organize a planned society when they hold the power. Only the petty-bourgeois intellectuals, to whom shopkeeper virtue is the best of all virtue, shopkeeper democracy the purest of all democracy, and petty, anarchic shopkeeper planning the finest of all economic planning; only the petty-bourgeois intellectual who fears the future more than he desires progress wants to cling to this outmoded improvisation, and even deifies it as the best of all possible systems.

What is the working-class socialist program? It is that the factories, the mines, the mills – as a matter of fact all the means of production – must be run and administered by the workers of those industries, and that the local and national planning and direction be in the hands of elected councils of the workers, farmers, and all other productive sections of the nation. The realization of this idea would establish democracy on the economic field and guarantee the flowering of democracy on the political and all other fields. Corey opposes this program, and yet he says he is for “democracy.”

It becomes clear that Corey shares with all the other “democrats” of our day the most pernicious lack of confidence in the ability of the people to govern themselves. Therefore, the minority bourgeoisie must continue to rule and a few reforms and “free labor unions” will be added for conscience sake. This is the essence of Corey’s “democracy.”

Corey’s basic argument on this point is the example of Russia:

“The economic framework of traditional socialism now exists in the Soviet Union: collective ownership, no capitalist property or profits. Yet there is no democracy: Russian ‘socialism’ is totalitarian. That is contrary to all expectations and ideals of socialism, a disturbing development that has led to all kinds of theoretical hocus-pocus.” (Page 131.)

It is quite possible to solve this problem without having recourse to “theoretical hocus-pocus.” Corey says that “widespread property ownership” and “free enterprise” result in democracy. But in France after the most sweeping bourgeois revolution in history, and the establishment on the widest basis in all Europe of small landowning and free enterprise, there came, in the beginning, nothing but dictatorship. There was the Jacobin dictatorship, followed by the dictatorship of the Directorate and the Napoleonic dictatorship. Why was this? Mr. Corey might answer that the vast dead-weight of feudal remnants inside of France and the pressure of feudal Europe surrounding France, as well as the military pressure of hostile England, deformed the political structure and inhibited the development of political democracy. Mr. Corey would see that easily enough because it happened 150 years ago. But he refuses to see that the terrible pressures of the bourgeois world upon the Soviet Union have deformed the young socialist republic in much the same way.

It is well known that all true liberals in England, Europe and America supported the rising French bourgeoisie against its reactionary feudal enemies who were being assisted by the English competitors of the French bourgeoisie. It is also well known that there existed at that time not a few Coreys who, pointing to the “excesses” and “dictatorship,” turned their backs on the struggling revolution. Corey’s progenitors were in the camp of the counter-revolution at that time, as he is today.

Corey’s Insolvable Riddle

What is the real meaning of Corey’s fabled relationship between democracy and “free enterprise”? He complains that socialists do not understand:

“Socialism was caught unaware by totalitarianism because it misunderstood the economic basis of democracy. It forgot the relation between democracy and economic freedom and never understood the relation of free business (economic) enterprise to free enterprise of all kinds, which is democracy.” (Page 131.)

But if socialists do not “understand” there are others who see eye to eye with Mr. Corey. On October 13, 1942 the reactionary New York World-Telegram devoted a complete page to the republication of a long editorial from the Saturday Evening Post; an editorial which noted down in fairly accurate form the most petrified prejudices of the American bourgeoisie. The windup and climax ran as follows:

“Is there any one rock of truth to which the common man may cling while the storm rages about him? Is there any one pillar of freedom which is the key to all freedom around which he can concentrate his defenses?

“There is such a freedom. Economic freedom. The freedom to develop his productive abilities, sell them to the highest bidder, and retain for himself and his family a fair share of the benefits. When this freedom is destroyed the entire democratic structure goes with it.”

Economic freedom is the key to all freedom! Corey is having remarkable success with the propagation of his new doctrine.

An even more remarkable proof of the virility of Corey’s ideas presents itself. Shortly after the publication of Corey’s book in April of this year, no less a body than the National Association of Manufacturers announced a series of conferences to spread “understanding of the necessity of continuing freedom of enterprise in order to preserve other freedoms.”

That there is a germ of truth in this thought, it is impossible to deny. Socialists understand that real economic democracy is the only guarantee of the growth of political democracy. Their program will assure economic democracy. The bourgeoisie on the other hand tries to pass off the so-called “free market” and the freedom of man to exploit man as economic democracy, and Corey only echoes the big bourgeoisie. The petty-bourgeois democrat is only a “progressive” shadow of the spokesmen for monopoly capitalism. Corey’s myth is an exact replica of the myth which is spread by the bourgeoisie as a cloak for its rule!

To complete his apology for capitalism, Corey must exonerate it of all responsibility for fascism. For this reason he accepts the idea that the fascist nations are no longer capitalist. The refutation of this idea offers no problem for the simple reason that not a shred of evidence is adduced to support it. This theory seems to be offered solely on the strength of its present popularity in intellectual circles. The fact that the contention that fascism is something different from capitalism has never been proven and is false to the core seems to make no difference to Corey.

It is not necessary to present all the factual material here. We need only refer to two of the more recent books on the subject. Howard K. Smith’s Last Train from Berlin contains sufficient refutation of Corey’s notion. There is also the more comprehensive survey by Maxine Sweezey, The Structure of German Economy.

It is also necessary for Carey to explain away imperialism. Thus he constructs an artificial division between the imperialism of Germany, Italy and Japan and that of the “democratic” nations:

“Fascist imperialism is not, however, the old capitalist imperialism. The fundamental difference is this: while the old capitalist imperialism is disintegrating, fascism reintegrates imperialism in new forms that give it new strength and greater scope.” (Page 94.)

On the next page he explains why the “old imperialism is disintegrating.”

“Imperalism cannot block the drive of the colonial peoples toward economic balance and independence; it could do so only by using an overwhelming violence that democratic nations would not permit”

This absurdity was written way back in the spring of 1942. Soon came the events in India. Recall Mr. Corey’s statement. “Imperialism,” he said, could “block the drive of the colonial peoples towards independence ... only by using an overwhelming violence that democratic nations would not permit.” And then the storm of British violence broke on the heads of the Indian people, with flogging, shooting, bombing and aerial strafing being used as the daily weapons of John Bull in India. By that time it was clear that Corey’s statement was something less than accurate.

Corey might try to explain away the obvious efforts of the American government to prop up the remnants of the French colonial empire, and guarantee its future existence. It is plain to see that Corey’s statement is false, and can only serve as a cover of whitewash for the activities of the imperialist “democracies.”

The Unfinished Task is a typical product of the panic of the intellectuals. It represents a rationalization of this panic rather than an honest intellectual effort. Corey’s ideas are plainly nothing but a recodification of the most ancient petty-bourgeois prejudices and nostrums. His economic “system” is incapable of achievement and would be reactionary if it could be attained.

The Unfinished Task never once touches upon the real unfinished task, which is the final and complete destruction of the capitalist system, and the construction of a socialist order by the workers organized as the ruling class. This is the source of all its errors.



1. The Unfinished Task: Economic Reconstruction for Democracy, by Lewis Corey. The Viking Press, New York, 1942. 314 pages. $3.00.


Last updated on 19.7.2006