Mr. Lerner: Ideas Are Weapons,
But How Use Them?

(7 June 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 23, 7 June 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for MIA.

The big capitalist has gold, and to preserve it he cases himself in brass. He will not only do anything; he will say anything. But there are some hired scribblers who act as mouthpieces for capital: They themselves are not capitalists. No, sir! They write long books to show the evils of capitalism. They are even in favor of revolution, of revolution in general; that is to say, of revolutions which took place in the past and those which are to come fifty years from now. But show them, not an actual, struggling, living revolution, but the mere hint of one, and these fellows set up such a howling against it, you cannot hear your own voice. A typical, a significant, an exemplary representative of this breed is Max Lerner.

Various Types of Democracy

Before we introduce the learned gentleman himself, let us look for a moment at the revolution which has him so scared. It is the coming revolution in Germany. Says Mr. Lerner himself in PM, April 30:

“As the Germans are being pressed back into what they call their Festung-Europa, and the last chapters of the war prepare to be written, vast public discussion (begins) of what we shall do with our enemies when we have beaten them in war.”

There Mr. Lerner is right. The books and articles are appearing in a thickening stream. Lerner reviews two of them. Their names are not important. One of them suggests that the Germans make war because their family life is built around the dominant father. Another one suggests that the average German suffers from “paranoia,” a need to dominate others and a feeling that he is being persecuted. This, if you please, is the sociological analysis of the capitalist thinkers in America, in the fourth decade of the twentieth century. It is, of course, a lot of hooey.

Lerner finds both books “suggestive but inadequate.” He knows better. He has studied history and political economy. He is even in favor of revolution. He says so in his article: “There is an unfulfilled revolution in Germany, with which the German people have a rendezvous.” So far, so good. Nothing could be better. The idea is unimpeachable. The phrasing is precise and dramatic. Suppose we make clear exactly what the unfulfilled revolution in Germany is.

Democracy is of many kinds. In Greece, in its best days, there was a truly wonderful democracy – if you were a free man. The famous Greek democracy rested on the merciless exploitation of hundreds of thousands of slaves. In France, in 1789, there took place the great French Revolution. This laid the basis of bourgeois or capitalist democracy: freedom of speech; parliamentary government, freedom of association for workers, etc.

It did not all come at once. At times some of it was lost. But, by and large, the revolution established these things in principle. A French King and many people lost their heads before this was done. In England, also, democracy was established by a revolution, and there too a King and others of his friends lost their heads. In America, democracy was established in the War of Independence, and George III didn’t lost his head, only because he took good care to keep it on the other side of the water.

Britain, France, America, decade by decade, developed the democracy which had been established in principle by the various revolutions. But in all of these countries the democracy, as in Greece, had a definite, economic basis. This basis was the ownership of the means pf production, land and capital, by a comparatively small section of the population.

Then, in 1917, came another type of democracy. In Russia the workers and peasants overthrew the capitalist class and made the means of production, land and capital, common property. So that, broadly speaking, you can have democracy based on slavery, you can have democracy based on capitalist property, and you can have democracy based on a genuine collective ownership of the means of production – proletarian or workers’ democracy.

Capitalism – or Socialism!

Now Germany in 1914 was a democracy, it was not so advanced a democracy as America, but there was an elected Parliament with votes for all; there were municipalities; there was freedom of the press; there was a powerful trade union movement and a powerful labor parliamentary group. But all this was on the basis of capitalist production, and by 1914, as readers of Labor Action are aware, capitalist society in each major country was engaged in desperate preparation to crush its rivals for control of the world market.

After four years of terrible suffering, Germany lost, and the infuriated people drove out the Kaiser and established a republic – the famous Weimar Republic. It was a wonderful republic, a democratic republic, with a constitution written by a learned democratic professor and approved by all the Max Lerners; German and otherwise.

Every democratic liberty which the professor and his friends could find in every country, they incorporated into the constitution. It was the latest model in democratic constitutions. Only – it left intact the capitalistic basis pf German society. It left the landlords with the land and the great industrialists with the capital. You know what happened.

The developed capitalist economy, whether it is ruled by a King or by a President, demands expansion. As was inevitable, the German economy took the course it had taken under the Kaiser. For Germany, it was either socialism, collective ownership, or capitalism and imperialist war. The industrialists saw this quite clearly. They smashed the wonderful constitution to bits. Britain and America, Germany, Japan arid Italy prepared for another redivision of the world, and we are all where we are today.

(Continued next week)

Last updated on 24 May 2015