C.L.R. James

The Way Out for Europe

(April 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 4, April 1943, pp. 116–119. Under the name J.R Johnson.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.

The immediate question for the masses of people in occupied Europe is the struggle for food and the necessities of life. Politically they see this task as the expulsion of the German invader. On that there is no disagreement. Yet never has the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe been so urgent as it is today. The slogan is a propaganda, not an action, slogan. The whole point of the transition program was to provide steps between the concrete, immediate and the conscious struggle for socialism. Yet the socialist slogan has its place. And any political orientation which seek to place it further away and not nearer to the day-to-day political slogans rests on a deep, a profound, miscomprehension of the European crisis.

Every concrete political judgment or proposal is the outcome of three factors. There is, first, your general estimate of the situation as a whole, as, for example, when you say of Europe today: socialism or barbarism; or of Russia that it is a workers’ state. It is this which governs your estimate of the particular form which the general is taking at a given moment; as, for example, when you say today: Europe is being destroyed, or when, in 1939, we proclaimed the ruinous theory that the main imperialist aim during the coming war would be the destruction of the workers’ state. Finally, there is always the concrete issue, for example, your precise estimate of the national question in Europe, or (as in 1939), your appraisal of the invasion of Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia by the Stalinist army. All of these constituents of a judgment are in actuality inextricably intermingled; they are constantly shifting and influencing each other. But by and large they have priority according to the order named. We propose to examine the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe and its connection with the national question in that continent. We begin from the premise: Socialism or barbarism.

I. The European Barbarism

The most obvious feature of Europe today is that it is being rapidly battered to pieces. Whole provinces, not only cities, are laid waste; masses of capital are produced and destroyed, or transferred from one end of the continent to the other, without any relation whatever to human needs; the economy is uprooted and shaken together as in some cyclopean rattle. Millions of people are scattered in armies all over the continent; other millions, torn from their homes, are laboring in parts near or remote; millions homeless; the vast majority know no life but that of hunted and starving rats. Europe at the end of the war will emerge into the post-war misery as ancient man emerged from a cave after a tornado. Hitler today is challenging Roosevelt and Churchill with just this: You want to go on? Good, let us go on!

Europe has been devastated before, yet never, never on a scale approaching this. But the devastation is not a mere fact, however appalling and pregnant with consequences though that is. This devastation is the climax to a period such as no previous age has ever known. The hopelessness of capitalist economy is not a matter of production charts and statistics of foreign trade. Its bankruptcy is expressed in the unending anarchy, the accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation; the civil, the national, the imperialist wars, the combination of all three. The economic system has nothing more to offer us but these in increasing measure. That is the lesson of the last forty years. That is what capitalism is today teaching to the workers on a scale and with an emphasis beyond any education by the most powerful revolutionary organization. It is no longer a question of the analysis of surplus value, or the export of finance-capital. It is life as it has been and must be. Socialism or barbarism is no longer theory. It is fact. Those who were born in 1917 (and will create the world of tomorrow) have grown to maturity in that decade before the war, which saw the world economic crisis and “the liquidation of the kulak as a class,” Japan’s attack on China and the rape of Ethiopia; the rise of Hitler and the collaboration between Hitler and democracy in the murder of Spain and Czechoslovakia. That was the decade of New Deals, Popular Fronts and the plans for four or five years which have always ended in increased misery, the decade of national sit-down strikes in the West and national boycotts in the East.

Every decade has its symbols, the manifestations which most strikingly characterize its essence. The symbols of the pre-war decade were the concentration camp and the mass political purge, the state-organized and continent-wide pogrom, the decade when Julius Streicher and the Protocols of Zion competed with Vishinsky and the Moscow Trials for the suffrage of European youth; the decade of the totalitarian radio and the totalitarian press, the decade when official murder and public cynicism made “shot while trying to escape” a universal password; all leading to the inevitable climax of the war.

How to believe that the European workers were impervious to all this? The European workers are sick to death of the old Europe. This was the basis of the politics of Trotsky, the embodiment of the socialist revolution, as it is of the politics of Hitler, the representative figure of the capitalist barbarism. Both understood and underscored the deep urge of the European masses to rid themselves of the never-ending, ever-increasing burdens, and the decisive role of the now defunct Social Democracy in crushing their fighting spirit. Both knew that the war would rapidly pose the ultimate solution.

Now as the war takes its gargantuan toll from a generation strained to the point of exhaustion even before the war began, how is it possible to believe that the European workers do not know what is happening to Europe? They do not have to read it in the papers. There under their feet and above their heads the barbarism is closing in upon them. If socialism is still to them an abstraction, the barbarism is not. As recent dispatches report in the minds of all Spaniards one thought, “What is going to happen to Spain?,” so the ghastly European reality forces upon the minds of all Europeans, “What next for Europe?”

The Coming Vacuum

This is the opinion (and the fear) of the best-informed of the bourgeois observers. To take one: In the New York Times of February 17, Anne O’Hare McCormick, their able correspondent on foreign affairs, writes an article, remarkable in more respects than one. It deserves an extended quotation. (We have added some emphasis):

The most striking thing about France today — and on this point all reporters agree — is that the people have lost the fear of the Germans that has obsessed the French mind and French policy for fifty years. Paradoxically, the France that was easily defeated has regained self-confidence under German occupation. Under the mocking eyes of the conquered the conquerors have destroyed the legend of German efficiency. They have taught the French to believe again in their own civilization, their own intelligence, even in the superiority of their own muddle-headed and hidebound bureaucracy.

This release from the Nazi spell is taking place all over Europe. It is perhaps as important as anything happening on the battlefield, because it is the result of German inability to organize and rule other countries as much as it is the effect of the retreat from Russia. It is not too much to say that as an order of life, as a uniting force in an anarchic Europe, as an ideology that attracted followers in every neighboring country, national socialism is petering out faster than German military power.

National socialism, in fact, is also in retreat. It is dying as a political force; but as it weakens it creates a vacuum which other forces are bound to fill. Will democracy more into that vacuum? Will communism? Will new and violent extremes of nationalism?

The year 1943 is not 1917. We live in an age when a leading journalist, doing her routine, estimates the possibilities of a new society in Europe with the objectivity that one gives only to the commonplace. How, again, is it possible to believe that the European workers do not know and cannot see, even though negatively, that a crisis in human affairs has been reached? Go wrong here and there can be no recovery.

The Filling of the Vacuum

The vacuum does not wait until the day of the Nazi downfall. It is in process of creation now, and as it is created it is being filled, ideologically, by the tremendous historical events of these climactic war years.

Between 1940 and 1943 Europe has seen two great historical landmarks. The first of these is the collapse of France, far more powerful in its impingement upon the European consciousness than the defeat of Germany in 1918. Unlike the years after 1871 and 1918, recovery after such a defeat, in the world of today, would entail an effort as great or even greater than the conqueror’s. In those days it was said that Europe needed a master, that Europe needed reorganization, that the unending social crisis (which had led to the catastrophe) had to be solved in some way. Russia was a cesspool of Moscow Trials, mass murder and the shocking treachery of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Perhaps Hitler’s way was the way after all. Hitler, true to his doctrines, attempted the reorganization of Europe. The most significant lesson of the present period is his ghastly failure. The task is beyond capitalism. Had Hitlerism shown the slightest ability to heal some of the old sores it would have had the continent under its domination for a generation. But the new order was quickly recognized as merely a new and more efficient machinery for the old plunder. As the people felt on their flesh what the German conquest meant, they began to struggle blindly, at first without perspective. Before two years had passed, the second great historical landmark penetrated deep into the European consciousness.

To the masses of the people in continental Europe, the second great historical landmark of the war has been the achievements of Russia. The heroism of Leningrad, Moscow and Sevastopol; the successful defense of Stalingrad, an achievement without parallel in the whole history of war; the courage and resilience of the Russian offensive; the cohesion of Stalinist society, these things have had an indelible effect on the masses of the European people. The collapse of France, the glory of Russia, that is the kind of history the workers understand at all times, but particularly when, as in Europe, so much of their personal fate depended upon whether Russia held or not. For them Russia is Bolshevism, a workers’ state, a state without capitalists, socialism. The question of the new society against the old has been posed in Europe on a gigantic scale, so that the most inattentive pupil can read, and this at a time when the pupil strains every nerve because his future depends upon it. So that in addition to the negative consciousness of a putrescent capitalism, there is the positive achievement of Russia which stands in their minds as the antithesis of capitalist society. A revolutionist who believes that the workers of Europe are thinking of Russia in terms of Stalinist dictatorship, terrorism, the Moscow Trials, etc., does not see his activity as a reflection of the historical world, but sees the world as an embodiment of the preoccupation of the revolutionary movement. What illusions (and what distorted truths) are mingled in this estimate by the workers is another matter. What concerns us is the fact, the most potent historical fact of the present European crisis. We turn our backs on it, misunderstand it, or forget it at our peril. The vacuum is being filled. All Europe has “socialism” in the background of its mind.

“We, or Rather, Our Sons ...”

Let us ourselves approach this problem in reverse. Behind any proposal to make a change in the application of the socialist slogan undoubtedly lurks some variant of the idea that Lenin put forward in 1915. Given certain conditions of continued reaction and domination of Europe by a single power, a great national war is once more possible in Europe. No such situation as Lenin envisaged is visible in Europe today. Lenin in the course of his article used the phrase “twenty years.” It is decisive. It would (in 1915) have taken at least twenty years to impose an alien domination on modern Europe Mere conquest is comparatively easy; alien domination is something else.

Trotsky in 1938 repeated the thought with an elaboration that gives even greater clarity. In denouncing those who claimed that if Hitler attacked Czechoslovakia alone, Czechoslovakia’s national independence should be defended, Trotsky wrote as follows (The New International, November 1938, page 328):

In reality, all speculative arguments of this kind and the frightening of people over future national calamities for the sake of the support of this or that imperialist bourgeoisie flow from tacit rejection of revolutionary perspective and revolutionary policy. Naturally if a new war ends [our emphasis] in the military victory of this or that imperialist camp; if a war calls forth neither a revolutionary uprising nor a victory of the proletariat; if a new imperialist peace [our emphasis] more terrible than the Versailles Treaty places new chains for decades [our emphasis] upon the people; if unfortunate humanity bears all this in silence and submission — not only Czechoslovakia or Belgium but also France [our emphasis] can be hurled back into the position of an oppressed nation.

What Trotsky is saying is that, though this is theoretically possible, as far as he is concerned, such a perspective has no reality. He himself asks the question: “Is such an outlook excluded?” and proceeds (as if he scented danger) to answer the question all over again. If the proletariat submitted ...; if the Fourth International failed ...; if the terrors of war did not urge to rebellion; if the colonial peoples bled patiently ..., “Under these conditions the level of civilization will inevitably be lowered and the general retrogression and decomposition may again place national wars on the order of the day for Europe.”

But forthwith Trotsky pushes that possibility where it belongs: “Even then, we, or rather our sons [our very emphatic emphasis] will have to determine the policy in regard to future wars on the basis of the new situation.”

Is one single one of those historical conditions to be considered as fulfilled? Most obviously not. Under the present historical circumstances, the very reverse of “passivity, capitulation, defeat and decline,” at a time when all tensions are at their highest, the domination of France by Germany is and can only be considered by revolutionary socialists as an episode in the inter-imperialist struggle, a great, an important, a pregnant, but yet, nevertheless, basically an episode.

Absolute clarity on this is not only useful as a safeguard and line of demarcation. It carries a powerful implication that the more reactionary the steps imperialism takes, the greater the degradation it imposes upon Europe, the more concrete will become the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe.

The Nazis and “Socialism”

If we wish an instructive test of the soundness of the above, let us observe the counter-revolution in the person of these master politicians, the Nazi leaders. As the crisis deepened they called upon the workers of the world to unite; and after a long absence in which the crisis of German imperialism is made obvious, not only to the world at large but to the German people themselves, Hitler ends his speech of March 22 as follows:

In the future, the peoples with true culture will be neither Jewish-Bolshevist nor Jewish-capitalist ... The German national socialist state ... will continue to work after this war with untiring energy toward realizing its program that in its last consequences will lead to the complete removal of all differences of classes and to the establishment of a true socialist community.

At the moment when he needs to pose the national defense of Germany in its sharpest form, this greatest of agitators poses it within the framework of “socialism” and the “classless society.” Thereby Hitler shows the same unerring grasp of the mass mind in Europe today as he did of the Russian state in 1939. He knows that if even many millions of workers are not immediately conscious of socialism as the alternative to their present misery, that consciousness is just below the surface, established there by the whole past history of Europe and the movement of the objective situation. He seeks to unearth the awakening thoughts in advance, to capture them or to turn them in his direction. He seeks to associate the idea of a new society with himself and thus to rob the Marxists of their heritage. His satellites in the occupied countries follow faithfully. Pétain proclaimed the national revolution, and Laval now promises the French workers: socialism.

If these impudent scoundrels find it imperative to masquerade before the workers as the real revolutionists, the genuine socialists, why should revolutionists, at this critical juncture, propose a retreat instead of an advance with the slogan: the Socialist United States of Europe? Nothing that capitalism can do in Europe today can now suppress or dull the response to the socialist idea among the European workers. For Hitler or any other conqueror might dazzingly conquer living space. But the destruction of the idea of socialism in the Europe of this generation would require the conquest not only of space but of time as well. And that not only Hitler but God Almighty himself could not do.

Barbarism Is a Social Phenomenon

Let us finally etch into our minds some picture of what is happening in Europe today, let us struggle to grasp this first and primary manifestation of the age in which we live, the most barbarous history has ever known. This we must do, for without this background we shall continually be taking two steps backward when the capitalist chaos invites a bold advance.

The science of the Middle Ages, unable to account for the calamities which periodically overtook them, peopled the earth and sky with the angels of God and the devils of Satan contending over human destiny. That ignorance, capitalist technique and capitalist rationalism have destroyed. But the new angels and devils which they have substituted fly daily in armadas a thousand strong, dropping real fire and real brimstone, still angels and devils, but now indistinguishable from each other except by the label fascism and the label democracy. The mechanized dragons and the heavy artillery devastate the countryside, destroying in an hour the labors of a lifetime. Give them two years more and what will remain? Lyons and Bordeaux, Turin and Genoa, Essen and Cologne, Hamburg and Bremen, Warsaw and Cracow, and a hundred others that have stood for centuries will be but names and rubble. Leningrad lives, but it is a town of living skeletons and two million fresh graves. How many more offensives and counter-offensives will Europe see, with swarms of tanks, planes, guns and men, creating deserts before they call it peace? From Germany alone some five million young men, the most precious possession of the nation, are now dead, seriously wounded, incapacitated or prisoners in the Russian campaign. Once more Hitler has blasted his way into the charred ruins of Kharkov. Will he attempt another offensive in 1943? And yet another in 1944? How many millions more will strew the road to Stalingrad and then perhaps the road back again? Two more years of such warfare will create in the homes of Germany and all its satellites an abomination of desolation; the Ukraine will be a new Golgotha, a field of skulls; and Kharkov, Rostov and Stalingrad, not human habitations but collections of dead men’s bones. If not in Russia, then the full frenzy of the capitalist madness will rage in Southern Europe; or in Northern Europe; or perhaps in all three places together. Man is now being taught that he must control the devils that his own hand creates or he will perish.

Is it merely houses, factories and fields that are being destroyed? To think that would be an illusion as gigantic as the historical catastrophe that is unrolling before our eyes. These are but the embodiment of the social relations that are at the basis of society. Destroy these on the scale that they are being destroyed and you loosen every material and traditional tie which cements that society, already shaken, battered and reeling from the accumulated shocks of thirty years. Without the socialist revolution, Europe faces a post-war of famine, disease, political and social chaos and violence to which the years after Versailles will seem like paradise.

This barbarism Roosevelt proposes to discipline into some sort of capitalist law and capitalist order by means of exhausted American soldiers clamoring to go home; hastily trained administrators, manipulating puppet governments; and rations of bacon, dehydrated spinach and cigarettes. He may succeed. He may. Marxism predicts, it does not prophesy. But Roosevelt’s chances of success are for Roosevelt to advocate. That today is not our business. When everything is still to be decided, our task is to show to the workers the workers’ way out. Not bring to the fore the question of a new order? That question is out of our hands. We could argue about that five years ago, not today. History has posed the question already, is posing it even where, at first sight, is only ignorance, fanaticism and destruction. Lenin once wrote that when a worker says he will defend his country, it is the instinct of an oppressed man that speaks. The apparent paradox hides the simplicity with which genius summarizes in a sentence the most profound contradictions of the historical dialectic. The incredible intensity of the national passions displayed by both attackers and defenders at Stalingrad testify to far more than mere servile acquiescence. In this fanatical “defense of the fatherland” by the warring children of totalitarianism is concealed the hope, the determination to finish once and for all with the old sacrifices and the old suffering, to insure that this will be the final struggle and the gateway into the promised land. Thus the very violence with which the old is destroying itself is a positing of the new. Our task is to give it a local habitation and a name. Its local habitation is the power of the working class. Its name is the Socialist United States of Europe.

(To be continued)

Last updated on 24 May 2015