Hal Draper

“Why Have You Changed Your Position on the War Blocs?”

An Open Letter
to Ignazio Silone

(February 1956)

From Labor Action, Vol. XX No. 6, 6 February 1956, p. 6.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by A. Forse for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Dear Comrade Silone:

We were glad to publish your political statement in Labor Action, for we know that what you have to say will be of justifiably great interest to all who admire your novels as well as all who respect your past contributions to the struggle for socialism and human rights.

If we seek to continue the dialogue now, it is because of our feeling that your statement does not do justice to the need which prompted it. That need is the need which every politically responsible person faces of confronting his views of today with his views of yesterday and accounting for the transformation.

We have no thought of questioning the propriety of changing one’s mind, even of changing one’s mind from being a principled opponent of imperialist war to being a critical supporter of one of the imperialist war blocs. But do you feel that you have adequately faced, and presented, the grounds on which you have gone through this political transubstantiation?

We can go only on your present statement for we know of no other place where you have discussed this quintessential point, this heart of contemporary socialist politics, this touchstone for the revitalisation of an independent socialist movement.

And therefore we have some questions to pose on whether this statement of yours has truly presented a rationale for support of the “Atlantic” camp of imperialism, or whether it has avoided answering the insistent questions which demand replies from your politics.

Spotlight on One Question

Before doing so, we had better make clear what we are not questioning at this point, to avoid misunderstanding.

We are, it goes without saying, happy at your insistence, even today, on liberation of the oppressed peoples not by external warmakers but by their own revolution: and at your continued adherence to the socialist aim. Nor are we questioning, in this space, your views on Marxism, or, Proudhonism, on orthodoxies, on philosophy, on the difficulties of the Italian socialist movement or the clashes within it, on the composition of the Italian CP or the dynamics of its crisis, etc. — interesting and important as all these matters are.

We are here raising only the question: Why have you abandoned the ideas of Third Camp internationalism, as you explained them in your brilliant 1939 interview reprinted elsewhere in these pages? And why have you become a critical supporter of one of the war blocs?

We are interested in your reasons, not those of the multitude of backsliders and renegades from socialism whose name is legion in the United States. From them we have heard many political motivations, with many variants, and so we have a modest acquaintanceship with the possibilities that exist. But why have you gone in this direction? That is what we do not find to be elaborated in your statement — not to us, if to you.

We do not find such an explanation in the section which you head The Third Front. There we find a peculiar re-definition of the term which makes it mean merely “the home front,” the terrain on which the decisive fight should take place. It apparently no longer means the anti-war political position which you explained in 1939. In any case, in no way does it attempt to deal with, explain, or even reject this anti-war political position. You quote your theses, but you do not quote anything which either supports or opposes the war; you quote some general considerations, some of which are partly true in themselves, but which largely can be made to face either way.

Why Are We Forced

As far as we can see, the nearest you come to formulating your reasons for abandoning the Third Camp position, and supporting the Atlantic Pact, is in the section you quote from the 1950 PSU statement, which, we take it, you present also as your own opinion. Here the sole motivation is that “the continuing Soviet pressure has brought about the conclusion of an Atlantic Pact which has forced European socialism, without renouncing its (European) federalist aims, to continue the struggle for peace on positions withdrawn further back, like those constituted by the Atlantic pact.”

But why does the conclusion of a military alliance by the imperialists “force” socialists to retreat from their anti-war position and adopt (“withdraw to”) a critical pre-war bloc position?

Why exactly did you decide that the function of socialists in this war crisis is not to fight both imperialist blocs but rather to make sure that the “democratic” imperialists remain “purely defensive”, unmilitaristic, free from reactionary tendencies, and otherwise unsullied — to produce a perfectly antiseptic imperialism, in other words, while international misunderstandings are to be taken care of by “negotiations, mediation, arbitration,” etc?

In 1939 you explained why the “conservative” (i.e. pro status-quo) democracies could not effectively fight a totalitarian system which put forward “false solutions, easy solutions, ersatz solutions — but, all the same, solutions of the real problems of our time.” Why have you decided to turn a blind eye to this thought, when with regard to Stalinism and its dynamic appeal to the masses it is clearly twice as true now?

In 1939 you stressed that there could be no real peace or real liberty, except under socialism. Has the era of H-bomb capitalism and totalitarian Stalinism caused you to revise this estimate?

In 1939 you said that the alternatives of “status quo or regression” were false ones. Have you decided now that it is right for a socialist to devote his energies to defending the “conservative” (i.e. capitalist) status quo in order to escape the greater evil of Stalinism?

Socialism in Moth-Balls

In 1939 you saw with utter clarity the suicidal nature of such social-patriotic “realism” from the point of view of fighting the totalitarian enemy itself as well as from the point of view of emancipating the working class from the present evil of that social order which has oppressed them much longer than the new exploiting system of Stalinism. You were able to say:

“When the socialists, with the best possible anti-fascist intentions, renounce their own program, put their own theories in moth balls, and accept the negative positions of conservative democracy, they think they are doing their bit in the struggle to crush fascism. Actually, they leave to fascism the distinction of alone daring to bring forward in public certain problems, thus driving into the fascists’ arms thousands of workers who will not accept the status quo.”

Is this not a hundred times truer today? Isn’t this the reason why despite party crises and all the crimes and betrayals committed by Stalinism the CP still retains massive working-class support in countries like Italy and France and why this workers’ support has not been weaned away by socialist groups which have put their own programme “in mothballs”?

No doubt many things have changed since 1939 and it would be superfluous to call attention to this well known fact politically; but have you formulated to yourself just why the reactionary changes that have taken place in the world should push you to put your own theories in “mothballs” in the belief that (this time anyway!) this is the clever way of combating the Stalinist menace?


Surely it cannot be the fact that today you see the “sophism of equidistance”, unlike the unreconstructed anti-war fighters of yesterday. For you already exposed this “sophism” in 1939 more clearly than you do today.

We refer to the section in your 1939 interview in which, in the very course of explaining your principled Third Camp view, you took pains to “make clear at the outset” that “it would be a serious mistake to put bourgeois democracy and fascism on the same level, in view of the great differences between these two forms of political organisation.” You implemented this distinction by a reference to the famous Stalinist “social-fascist” policy and analysis. You put this necessary distinction in its proper perspective by showing that to oppose both camps of imperialism, it is not necessary to identify or equate both camps of imperialism.

You did not, then, put forward any theory of “equidistance”. It was not a geometrical but a political selection that you put forward in explaining why the totalitarian menace could not be beaten back by supporting the “conservative” status quo.

Whose, then, is this “sophism of equidistance” against which you now polemicise? And after this “sophism” has been ignominously refuted, what dent has been made in the unsophisticated position of the anti-war socialism which you used to hold and have now abandoned?

Is it not more relevant, however, to look at what you simultaneously counterpose to this “sophism” in your final section, the section in which you sum up your views on “anti-communist”? You chose to do this through a quotation from the programme of the Committee for Cultural Freedom.

It is only with the greatest hesitation that we would accept assurance that you really allow this organisation to sum up your politics. In this quotation we find that the trouble with capitalism (which appears there only under the pseudonym of the “democratic regimes”) is its “imperfections”; and we find that your role vis-à-vis your own state is summed up as that of “responsible citizens” ...

Does this really speak for you? In that case, what have we to do here with quibbles about “equidistance,” when it is a question of more basic positions on capitalism? Were you not a “responsible citizen” of Italy when you were fighting the fascist regime?

No, it is hard to believe that this speaks for you, and one would prefer to believe that you were slandering yourself in using this bourgeois sophism as the very climax of your political statement of faith. But then we have to remember that you are indeed a leader and officer of this very organisation you quote

The Politics of ‘Cultural Freedom’

You say that this Italian section of the Congress of Cultural Freedom devotes four-fifths of its activities to “the defence of cultural freedom in Italy,” and you apparently deny the charge that it is primarily and overwhelmingly concerned with being the propaganda mouthpiece among intellectuals of the Atlantic war bloc. We ourselves, of course, cannot pass comment on this since we are not sufficiently well acquainted with the organisation in Italy. All we can say is that it would be indeed remarkable if you are right, for we do know what this organisation is in our own country, the US, from which it gets its inspiration. We have produced and documented the fact that the Cultural Freedom Committee which was founded here under the leadership of the “liberal” witch hunter Sidney Hook, was not even willing to come out against the infamous McCarran anti-alien law which was denounced as “racist” by less “responsible” liberals than the valiant defenders of cultural freedom. We have proved that this organisation devotes four-fifths of its work to pure and simple cold war propaganda, not too far distant from the State Department’s own brand, and that its one-fifth of attention to threats against internal liberty is devoted mainly to straightening out cases where staunch supporters of capitalism have been mistakenly witch hunted themselves.

But leaving aside characterisation of the Cultural Freedom Committee there are some questions to be raised that are germane to the subject of this letter.

For example we note with some appreciation that you inveigh against substituting the struggle of small groups for real work inside mass organisations: very well, though we do not know what mass organisations you would suggest. In any case, even assuming the justice of your complaints against the anonymous “imbeciles” in your country, which we do not understand any too well: how does this justify your personal decision to put your socialist programme in moth balls and transfer your political activities to a group which is neither a small socialist organisation nor a mass socialist organisation, more even a mass organisation of any kind, but largely (in the US at least) an Association for the Moth-Ball Storage of Ex-Radicals’ Theories?

For, by the way, it is a mistake to believe that you have left “active political life.” The Cultural Freedom Committee is primarily a political organisation, though of course not a “party”. It is so by the terms of its orientation, activity and reason for existence. What you have left is active socialist political activity.

To Defend Democracy

Do you think that in this way you “are doing your bit to crush Stalinism”? But if “all the ideological systems inherited form the last centuries” are in crisis, including all “variants” of Marxism, then surely you do not exempt the democratic ideology from this sweep? If all proposed alternatives to the outlived “conservative” status quo are in such mortal crisis, can it be that the most stable rock to be found is — that outlived conservative status quo itself!

If you have now “withdrawn your positions” from the advanced tranches of revolutionary socialism and its democracy to the more prudent rear-lines of bourgeois democracy, what experience of recent life or history has persuaded you that this is where the bastions of human values are to be best defended?

Perhaps it is the capacity of the “democratic regimes” for guaranteeing human liberties, as we have been finding out here in the US before, during and since the reign of McCarthy? It is perhaps the “democratic” capacity to de-Nazify the German reaction under our pet Adenauer, or demilitarise the Japanese warlords.

Is it perhaps the “democratic” capacity to break away even from Hitlerite allies like Franco? Is it perhaps the “democratic” capacity to break with butchers like Chiang Kai-shek or Syngman Rhee or the semi-fascist lords of Thailand who are America’s only “bastions of democracy” in the Asian world? ...

It is not our purpose to deny or gloss over the crisis of socialism in today’s world, nor to present our claim to possess any easy formulas for overcoming it. This is not in question here. Indeed, none of the proofs that such a crisis exists is, inter alia, the matter we are discussing. But precisely because socialism faces its crisis, is it not the duty of every socialist who has not been overcome by despair to resist when “they try to force on us the dilemma: status quo or regression” and to devote himself to the unflagging task in whatever manner of seeking, finding and pursuing the revolutionary and democratic socialist way out of the shambles that has been made of this world by rival exploiters.

Last updated on: 24 February 2015