The Treason of the Intellectuals

James P. Cannon

Drafted: 1947
Source: Fighting for Socialism in the “American Century”; Reprinted from The Militant, New York, 1947 (c) Resistance Books 2001 Published by Resistance Books 23 Abercrombie St, Chippendale NSW 2008, Permission for on-line publication provided by Resistance Books for use by the James P. Cannon Internet Archive in 2003.
Transcription\HTML Markup: David Walters

The following article appeared in the Militant, May 24, 1947. In it Cannon indicts those leftist intellectuals of the 1930s who had made their peace with capitalism, often becoming rabid right-wingers. But he stresses that those committed intellectuals who throw in their lot with the revolutionary workers’ movement can play a key role. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky are outstanding examples.

Whatever became of the revolutionary intellectuals—and why? What happened to the numerically formidable aggregation of cogitators and problem-solvers who challenged capitalism to a showdown fight in the unforgotten ’30s and appeared to be all set to mount the barricades with fountain pens unsheathed?

Time was when it seemed that a section of the American intelligentsia, quartered in New York, was at long last preparing to emulate that renowned band of educated people in Western Europe and old Russia who so bravely revolted against the spiritual stagnation and decay of bourgeois society, abandoned their own class in disgust and contempt, formulated and popularised the socialist doctrines of the proletariat, and placed themselves at the head of its emancipation.

Alas, the hopes aroused by the vociferously uttered challenges of the American intellectuals proved to be immeasurably greater than their capacity to fulfil them. The contrast between their showing and that of the revolutionary intellectuals of Europe and tsarist Russia is appalling to contemplate. The latter went ahead of the workers’ movement, organised it, supplied it with ideological weapons and inspired it to strive for great goals.

But here in America the radical intellectuals—with only a very few exceptions—abandoned the mission they had undertaken just at the time when the workers, rising out of nothingness, moved under their own power to create gigantic organisations which boldly engaged in head-on struggle against the most powerful monopolists. Great class battles have taken place, and more momentous ones are in preparation. The workers are on the march. But all is quiet on the intellectual front. The imperialists “pacified” that sector without a fight.

The American intellectuals didn’t simply step out for a rest, like tired warriors nursing their wounds after a hard campaign. They quit before the fight got really started. They took it on the lam. They deserted and betrayed. Their well-advertised revolt against capitalism ended “not with a bang but a whimper”.

The learned professors such as Hook and Burnham, the writers such as Eastman and Corey, and the journalists whose names are too numerous to mention, did not fall back to an independent middle position after they had deserted the workers whom they had promised to lead and the youth whom they had promised truly to instruct. They went over to the enemy, unconditionally and all the way, with all their bags and such baggage as they had, and helped to lie the youth into the war.

And they lost no time about it. With the most unseemly haste, without a decent interval for meditation, they began forthwith to ideologise in behalf of American monopoly capitalism as calmly and easily as one changes his shirt. If you draw a line somewhere to the left of the Hearst press and to the right of the New York Times, you will identify the present political position of our absconding highbrows. Even Henry Wallace, with his populist-pacifist blather about the “common man” and “peace by understanding”, is much too radical, too far to the left, for them. These newly converted servitors of capitalism outshout all others in their zeal, as the man who came to Christ late in life prayed more fervently than the Christians of longer standing and surer conviction.

Professor Sidney Hook, who once expounded the class struggle, declaimed against imperialist war and explained that workers’ internationalism alone can lead to peace and socialism, now reveals in the New York Times Magazine that the basic conflict of our age is that between “democracy” and “totalitarianism”.

Professor James Burnham once informed us, with straight-faced solemnity, that for him “socialism is a moral ideal”. Today, with the force-worshipping mentality of a fascist and the irresponsibility of an idiot shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre, he incites the power-drunk American imperialists to convince the world of their benevolence by hurling atomic bombs.

Authors like Lewis Corey, who once wrote Marxist books against capitalism in favour of socialism, now writes other books in a directly opposite sense to justify and glorify capitalism. Max Eastman, the original champion of Trotsky and his revolutionary cause, now writes like Herbert Hoover, with the difference only that the style is better.

A fair-sized mob of journalists, who for a while served or aspired to serve the labour movement and the cause of internationalism, have comfortably settled back into editorial spots on the most conservative and reactionary newspapers and magazines and labour there to “slant” the news and poison the wells of public information. A considerable number of the more educated or more sophisticated radicals, ex-Trotskyists or almost-Trotskyists, who fancied themselves to be racehorses, so to speak—and of purest breed at that—now work as harness-broken dray horses hauling loads for Henry Luce, the “American century” man, and contentedly munch their oats in the editorial stables of Time-Life-Fortune.

One and all, these fugitives from the revolution think the late Thomas Wolfe was off base when he said, “You can’t go home again”, and refute him with pragmatic proof: “We can and we did”. To anyone who values and respects human dignity they present a most unattractive spectacle. Their performance borders on obscenity when they take time out from ballyhooing the “Truman Doctrine” to deliver little homilies about “independence” and to expatiate, like any hypocritical crook, mammon-serving sky pilot or confidence man, on the well-known virtues of “morality”. They are just about as independent—and just about as moral—as advertising copywriters or the authors of radio commercials, including the singing variety.

The dominating fact of present-day society is the struggle between the two great classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the outcome of which will decide the fate of humanity. No individual and no other class can be “independent” or neutral in this struggle. All must take sides and serve or follow one of the great classes or the other. The powerless, in-between, petty-bourgeois class, which is incapable of maintaining an independent policy, swings from one side to the other, always attracted to the side which displays the greatest power at the moment.

The New York intellectuals, unknown to themselves, are simply verifying this Marxist political law by swinging over to the dominant power of the present day, along with the rest of the petty-bourgeois class to which they belong. At the present time American monopoly capitalism gives the appearance of invincible power. That is what determines the current predilection of the petty-bourgeois class to side with the monopolists against the workers.

To be sure, the present picture of social relations is somewhat deceptive. The “invincibility” of American imperialism is only the temporary and superficial appearance of things and is certain to be exploded in the course of further developments. But the petty-bourgeois intellectuals would not know about that, for they are not much given to analysis, deep thinking and foresight.

No one can be “independent” in the struggle between the great classes. But even in the more limited sense of the term, the independence of character which enables and even requires one to make a free choice of ideas regardless of external circumstances and pressures, and to hold firmly to those which he considers to be right, to see a light and follow it regardless—the quality which most precisely distinguishes the revolutionist from the functionary and the flunkey—even this kind of independence is alien to the palpitating New York intelligentsia who change their ideas according to changes of the weather and the atmospheric pressures of the day.

In the early ’30s, when American capitalism was writhing in the depths of the crisis, while the Soviet Union under Stalin seemed to be going forward from one success to another—and physically annihilating the Trotskyist opposition in the process—the present day professional anti-Stalinists were nearly all fellow-travellers of Stalinism, sponsors of the Stalinist “League Against War and Fascism” and organisers of the “Artists and Writers Committee for Foster and Ford” in 1932.

Later on, when the economic conjuncture in capitalist America began to improve, at the same time that some spots began to show up in the Soviet sun, our doughty fellow-travellers began to travel in another direction, from Stalin and Browder to Roosevelt and Truman, some of them detouring and tipping their hats to Trotsky on the way.

These “independent thinkers” haven’t the least idea what it means and what it takes to fight for an idea independently, against any odds whatever. They only know how to serve a power, not to create one of their own. And these professional “moralists” don’t bother much about honesty and scrupulousness in practice.

In their apologist propaganda for American “democracy” they systematically throw the Stalinists and the Trotskyists together into one sack which they label alternatively “communist” and “totalitarian”—although they are well aware of the fundamental differences between these mortally antagonistic tendencies.

Their venomous hatred of the Trotskyists has the same profound psychological basis as that of the Stalinists. They hate us for the same reason that the Stalinists hate us—because we are witnesses to their treachery. Our existence and our struggle are evidence against them, and a reproach to them. Their desertion, of course, is not evidence of the elimination of the class struggle, which most of them discovered late and soon forgot. It is a sign, rather, of its sharpening and intensification—a process which exerts its pressure everywhere and squeezes people into their proper places.

The working class of America is taking these defections in stride, building up great organisations, tempering them in struggle and looking ever more confidently to a better future. That is the greatest assurance that the present state of affairs, which is not good for the great majority of people, can and will be changed for the better, for the workers have the power to change what needs to be changed and to do what needs to be done.

The terrified rout of the New York professors, writers, journalists and serious thinkers, who didn’t stop to think, would be comical—were it not for the sadly disappointed and betrayed hopes of the new generation of students who have been led into a blind alley of pessimism and resignation by these educated Judas goats. It is really too bad that the young generation in the universities, including the veterans who have returned to their studies bitter and disillusioned, have been temporarily disoriented by the circumstance that those ideologists, whom they had a right to look to for enlightenment and guidance, turned rotten before they became ripe, like apples blighted by an untimely frost.

The workers, too, need the forces of enlightenment and progress which a section of the educated classes, as individuals, can supply and did supply so notably in Europe and old Russia. It will happen here, too. There can be no doubt that the further disintegration of capitalist society in the United States will impel a section of the intelligentsia to revolt. This revolt will acquire great significance when it leads them, as it must, to join forces with the labour movement in the revolutionary struggle for the socialist transformation of society, which alone can save humanity from the abyss.

This union of revolutionary intellectuals with the best representatives of militant labour will open up a perspective of great promise for the leadership of the coming American revolution. But this promise, from the side of the intellectuals, depends entirely and exclusively on the new generation now approaching maturity.

The workers will make the emancipating revolution in any case, but the task will be easier if the young intellectuals contribute reinforcements to the leadership in time. For that the workers must look forward, not backward. The shameless traitors of the old generation are spiritually dead, and there is no such thing as resurrection. Cross them off. Look to the living and let the dead bury the dead.