J.R. Johnson

Laski, St. Paul and Stalin

A Prophet in Search of New Values

(June 1944)

From New International, Vol. X No. 6, June 1944, pp. 182–186.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell.

The title of Laski’s new book, Faith, Reason and Civilization, is very accurate. He seeks by reason (“historical analysis”) to give civilization (capitalism in decline) a new faith (Stalinism).

Yet this book is strange and new. Laski, ardent supporter of the imperialist war, begins by a strong tribute to the heroic deeds of European youth in the war against Hitler. But as he sees victory approaching he fears that all his sacrifice and effort may have been in vain. Laski says that as he has so often said before, that capitalism must be superseded. But Churchill the great hero of Britain in the war, is a hopeless reactionary who admired Mussolini as long as Mussolini did not attack Britain. Everywhere the outlook for the capitalist democracies is, on the whole, gloomy. We need a new faith, new values. Then the reader, with no more preparation, is hurled 2,000 years back into the world of early Christianity.

“Political convulsion seems to combine with intellectual decay to wreck the foundations of the Roman civilization. But the great writers of the Bible, “Amos or the Second Isaiah ... Saint Paul,” by “the magic of their alchemy could not only promise regeneration to an Empire in decline; by the age of Constantine they had come to dominate the whole outlook of the Western world.” It is the magic of Laski’s alchemy which makes Amos and Isaiah promise regeneration to the Roman Empire. Though it is true that if they and Paul had promised any such thing they could have promised it only by magic. Let us, however, follow what Laski actually tries to do. He has by now reached Chapter IV, significantly entitled “Ideas as Acts.” The argument is now in full blast. We cannot quote indefinitely. Page 27 should be read and re-read. Briefly, “The victory of Christianity over paganism meant a revitalization of the human mind.” And Laski immediately poses the question: “I do not think anyone can examine with care our contemporary situation without being constantly reminded that we again require some faith that will revitalize the human mind. Almost as clearly as in the declining days of the Roman Empire, our scheme of values seems to have broken down.”

It is impossible to make head or tail of this historically. The Roman Empire really began to decline some two centuries at the very least after Amos, Isaiah and Paul. After Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion, the Roman Empire tell into greater difficulties than ever. Laski, however, goes on to give us two chapters, one on the recovery, and the other on the substance of faith. Faith. Faith. Values. Values. He then proceeds to discuss The Soviet Idea and Its Perspectives and The Soviet Idea and Victory. By now we are at Page 63. Then follows the longest chapter in the book, 57 pages on The Source of New Values. This is what really concerns Laski. His next chapter, on Epicurus and Lucretius, is proof of his interests in this book. It is only then that he takes up the modern theme, Bolshevism and Capitalism, and moves rapidly to a conclusion. Laski does not deign to argue about Stalinist Russia. He takes its desirability for granted. Like the Dean of Canterbury but with less excuse he falls back always on “Verily, verily, I say unto you ...”, “No one can help feeling ...”, “No one can deny ...”, and so on, whenever he wishes to make a point about Russia in particular. As the scheme of his book shows, he is concerned primarily with early Christianity and the search for values. We have written before and will write again of the “labor faker” politics of Laski. What we propose to do here is to deal with him on the ground he has chosen. He claims to be exhibiting “in a general way the Marxist approach to the issues with which [he] deals. The only way to expose satisfactorily this claim is to show what we consider the Marxist way of dealing with these issues. Thus we shall expose the falseness of his historical method which is in direct co-relation with the falseness of his political conclusions and is either the cause or the effect of them.

The Intellectuals in Antiquity

It is today common knowledge that the state cult of religion in the classical world was aimed deliberately at keeping the masses in subjection. In two important periods, in Greece during the time of Epicurus and in the Rome of Lucretius, a philosophical movement fiercely attacked the official state mysticism. On each occasion the movement gained wide support among intellectuals, though the extent to which it gained really popular support is disputed. It is characteristic of Laski’s historical analysis that he reports the desertion of the movement by the intellectuals because they feared the revolt of the masses, then immediately loses himself in moral denunciations of them for doing so. Their desertion, according to him, resulted in the victory of “superstition,” which dominated society and defeated “reason.”

This, it is presumed, is Marxism. In reality this is no more than petty-bourgeois radicalism. On a question so crucial to his whole argument, Laski does not have a single word to say n about the social relations as they developed at the given stage of the process of production. This is his fundamental error and the error of most of his kind. The intellectuals who attacked the state-religions of Greece and Rome were not intellectuals in general whose supineness we must note and beware of. They were the fruit of a rising “bourgeoisie,” and as such were the protagonists of a materialist philosophy directed against the mysticism of a land-owning aristocracy. One suggestive investigator [1] claims that this “bourgeoisie” was an investing “bourgeoisie.” In a commercial society, the relation between debtor and creditor, producer and consumer, becomes an abstract relation. The investor therefore sees himself as an isolated individual, in opposition to the land-owner of the Gens who sees himself as part of an organic society. As carefully as he calculates his investments he calculates his pleasures, hence the hedonism of the Epicureans. In physics he sees nature as a collection of atoms united together in an ordered universe, etc. But this incipient capitalism which at various periods in the classical world was able to challenge landed property never became economically strong enough to supersede it. Marx states that the history of Rome was the history of landed property. No less and no more. No rival class emerged. The final breakdown of that economic order threw the whole society into chaos. Intellectuals, faithful or unfaithful, could not have saved it.

Yet Laski writes sentence after sentence like this, “The Rome that Sallust depicts for us had already begun to lose that inner integrity ...” Inner integrity indeed! Maybe that inner integrity was saved by the magic alchemy of Amos and Isaiah. But lost in the pursuit and recovery of inner integrity and faith and values, Laski shows little conception of Christianity in its relation to social forces. Hear him again, “In the result it [Christianity] had relatively little influence on the realm of social constitution because ...” Because what? Because “as it was shaped by Paul and his successors it emphasized this life only as the vestibule to eternity, and put the chief importance of its dreams on the next world rather than upon this.” Why did they do this? And if they did this, why did Christianity become ultimately such a powerful force? There is no serious treatment of this in these pages, devoted as we have seen to drawing historical inspiration and contemporary enlightenment from the study of this period. We must develop this subject ourselves briefly. The values of Christianity are as intimately related to the values of the modern world as embryo is to mature man. The true historical connection will lead us straight to the heart of the modern problem and the fallacy of Stalinism as a source of values for a decaying society.

Rise of Early Christianity

The rise of early Christianity took place in historical connection with the decline of Republican Rome. Ancient Rome was in unending chaos and it was only during the first century AD that the Augustan era opened up a new period of stabilization under the Caesars. The decline of the public authority broke the traditional hold upon the mind of the masses. Paul might write as he pleased. The masses for their part believed that the end of the world was at hand. They confidently expected the second coming of Christ. That was their slogan for the building of a new society. Few things are more historically dramatic, moving and significant, than this outcome of the recognition of human personality on a mass scale. But even along with that expectation of Christ’s coming the early Church tried “to heal the sick, to feed the hungry, to succor the diseased, to rescue the fallen, to visit the prisoners, to for-give the erring, to teach the ignorant ...” This tremendous mass movement itself attempted to form a new society on earth. It failed as it was bound to fail, but its greatness lay in the fact that it unequivocally established that all human beings were equal in the sight of God at least. In classical society the slave was a thing. The mere presentation of the doctrine of Christianity was revolutionary. It revitalized ancient thought. Good. But let us not forget what these early Christians actually tried to do. The revitalization of the human mind was the second best and the result of the attempt to revitalize the human body.

When the Roman Empire which had unified European civilization finally disintegrated into the isolated manorial units, Christianity, i.e., the Church, succeeded to the power of the Emperors. (To confine the argument to the West) the Church it was which organized production in monastic centers. Priests and monks owned land and on the large domains took the lead in the organization of agriculture. Possessing such tradition of learning as remained, the Church became the most powerful economic, social, and political force in the early medieval world. The secular feudal lords worked hand in hand with the Church. In time, however, urban civilization revived in a commercial form. Once more, on this basis, a materialist philosophy, rationalism, became a force. But this time the intellectuals and rebel churchmen had a firmer social basis and Christianity had to make concessions. St. Thomas Aquinas achieved a rationalization of theology with philosophy. Catholicism proclaimed anew the unity of European civilization. But whereas the Roman Empire had unified Europe but had divided the world into civilized and barbarians, the medieval Church admitted the equality of all nations. Whereas the Roman unity had been based on slavery, the medieval serf had not only a religious but a legal personality. He could have a wife and family and own movables. And if he could not gain equality on earth, at least it could be his in heaven and meanwhile God had his representative on earth, the Catholic Church. What had been in Paul’s day the leader of a popular mass movement was now the ruler of the civilized world. Today, as for centuries past, the church, having no economic power, can only attach itself to reaction.

Yet Laski with his concern about values and faith, spends page after page discussing, in the twentieth century, the value of Catholicism as a source of new values. “So that when men like Mr. Dawson plead so persuasively for the return of the unity of Christian civilization, especially for its return under the aegis of the Pope, the outsider is, I think, bound to ask upon what basis, especially in the realm of mind and morals, the return is to be effected ...” How delicate a negative! Laski understands nothing of Christianity, neither the early flowering nor the late maturity nor its futility today. The first eruption did not owe its power to “mind and morals.” The Church ,in its most powerful days did not owe its power to “mind and morals.” And before seriously considering the Pope as a world-leader today, “especially in the realm of mind and morals,” Laski should reflect on the historical method of Stalin whose state is to be one source of the new values. It is reported that at one session of the Teheran Conference Roosevelt and Churchill discoursed at length on the role of the Vatican in post-war Europe. Stalin so pointedly refrained from taking part that these two co-thinkers of Laski on the importance of the Pope, asked Stalin what was his opinion. Whereupon Stalin asked, “How many divisions has the Pope?” The discussion ceased.

Yet as we have stated there is a historical (and logical) connection between Christianity and the modern world. Only the truth is exactly the opposite of what Laski, with his perpetual petty-bourgeois concern over abstract values thinks it is. Modern socialism is the concretization of the desires and demands of Christianity both in its primitive and in its advanced stages. What the masses for centuries had to transfer to heaven is now and increasingly the aim of their daily lives. This must be grasped in its entirety. The early Church did make an effort to create the kingdom of heaven upon earth by helping the poor and the afflicted. The medieval Church preached the equality of nations and the unity of European civilization under one visible ruler, the Catholic Church. So far then medieval thought represented a social ideal infinitely superior to the best classical thought. Still it was only an ideal. Its only hope of embodiment was transferred to a celestial sphere. But the outstanding feature of the contemporary world is that the principles for which Christianity stood in its best days are now regarded as matters of life and death by the average worker. This is no accident at all though we can only state the facts here. European civilization must become a unity? Hundreds of millions of European workers know that this must be achieved or the continent will perish. Equality of nations? That, too, the great masses of Europe passionately desire, not as an ideal but to be able to live in peace. A central government to represent the interests of all? As late as 1935, Lord Cecil could get eleven million votes in a plebiscite in Britain supporting the idea of a League of Nations. And when workers say a League of Nations and collective security they mean it. And that early attempt to succor the poor, to help the afflicted, to teach the ignorant? The great mass of the workers in European countries conceive of Labor Parties as doing just that, within the conditions of the modern world.

The whole history of civilization since Christianity consists in the concretization of the values proclaimed so abstractly (and in time deceitfully) by Christianity. Once the human personality had arrived at the stage of theoretical equality, the further progress of civilization is to be judged by the degree to which this equality is realized. Furthermore, every step toward greater equality has meant a deepening of the very concept of human personality. Commercial capitalism brought the Renaissance and the Humanists. The birth of industrial capitalism brought the Reformation with its principle of individual responsibility. The growing maturity of industrial capitalism brought the concept of political freedom – the Rights of Man. But with the deepening profundity of thought developed the spontaneous claims of the masses of the people. After the French Revolution European society produced the highest peaks of bourgeois thinking. Ricardo, Hegel, Shelley, Beethoven, Saint-Simon, Goethe, these men and their generation laid the theoretical foundations of modern society. But two decades afterward the workers in the streets of Paris demanded for the first time “the social republic.” We do not idealize the workers. Engels says quite bluntly that what this social republic was to be they did not know. But the very bourgeois society which had produced its most gifted body of thinkers and artists had also given birth to a proletariat which instinctively demanded the application to itself of every value which the philosophers and the various classes they represented had demanded through the ages.

He who would exhibit the Marxist method must grasp the full significance of that early uprising of the masses when Christianity proclaimed its message. We must watch not only the primitiveness and simplicity of its aims but their comprehensive scope. Then, by slow degrees, through the centuries, we see one part of the aim becoming concrete for one section of the population, and then another part for another section. Ideas arise from concrete conditions to become partially embodied in social classes and give rise to further interrelations between the spiral of real and ideal, content and form. This is the dialectic to which Marx gave a firm materialist basis in the developing processes of production. As society develops, the possibilities for the individual development of man be-come greater and greater, but the conflict of classes becomes sharper and sharper. We stand today at an extreme stage of these interrelated phenomena of social development. When a modern worker demands the right of free speech, the right of free press, of free assembly, continuous employment, social insurance, the best medical attention, the best education, he demands in reality the “social republic.” Spinoza and Kant would stand aghast at what the average worker takes for granted today. But he does not demand them as an individual or in the primitive manner the early Christian did. In America, for instance, there are some thirteen million workers organized for nothing else but the preservation and extension of these values. These are the values of modern civilization. They are embodied in the very web and texture of the lives of the masses of the people. Never were such precious values so resolutely held as necessary to complete living by so substantial and so powerful a section of society. Socialism means simply the complete expansion and fulfillment of these values in the life of the individual. This can only be attained by the most merciless struggle of the whole class against its capitalist masters. The realization of this necessity is the final prelude to full self-consciousness. This is the basis of all values in contemporary society. All talk of values which does not see this is not only pernicious. It is dangerous. No man who understood this could jump across the centuries and seek a historical parallel for a modern faith in Amos and Paul. The abstract faith of those days is the concrete truth of today choked and stifled by capitalism. And no man who understood modern values would have to go looking anywhere for them. For those with eyes to see they are as big as mountains. Least of all would he go looking and finding them in Stalinist Russia, where the ruling class is the mortal enemy of the working class. If this is not so, why then the totalitarian state in Russia? To see Laski wriggling in and around this dilemma is full of values as a lesson in faith. Tennyson, who looked into the future as far as human eye could see and saw the parliament of man, the federation of the world, would be in difficulties to recognize Stalinist totalitarianism as its first installment. But Laski’s “faith” he knew and described perfectly in the famous line “And faith unfaithful kept him falsely true.”

It is time to place before these intellectuals, perpetually babbling about values, some of the elementary facts of modern life. Name any value you like. Artistic integrity? But it cannot exist in the totalitarian state. So powerful is the working class in a modern society, so widespread and rapid the means of transport and communication that once the working class is chained the totalitarian rulers dare not allow any innovation in any field. All effort must serve their domination or is ipso facto dangerous. The artist cannot live in an ivory tower in the totalitarian state. He cannot abstain. He must emerge from the ranks and shout his Heil or write his Ode to Stalin in manner more significant than the rest in accordance with his greater gifts.

The long overdue emancipation of women? But the totalitarian state passes the most reactionary laws and deprives woman of the gains she has made during over half a century. Witness the laws in Stalinist Russia. The personal relation-ships of society? Where there is not free speech in public there cannot be free speech in private. There is no need to continue with the list. The values of democracy as defended by the working class are the values on which rest all other values, social, personal, artistic, critical, what you will. That is the culmination of the social development of two thousand years of civilization. If the liberties of the working class are destroyed, the whole heritage of civilization goes with them.

In America, Richard Wright and Martha Graham, Eugene O’Neill and John Dewey, James Farrell and Frank Capra, Wendell Willkie and Henry A. Wallace carry on their various activities by grace of the AFL and the CIO. Some of our politicos, literati, artists and others may not know this. The workers may not be aware of it either. It is true nevertheless, the great truth of our time. Furthermore, only the working class is organically a defender of democratic values. The middle class, or certain sections of it, under the whip of the social crisis, may throw over democracy and seek salvation from some fantastic doctrine. The farmers may follow their example. But organized labor occupies such a place in the social structure of an advanced community that the greater the crisis, the more it must in its own self-defense defend its democratic rights; and by so doing preserve all that is still valuable in the heritage of Western civilization. Where these are at stake, as they are today, isn’t it a crime to perpetuate this would-be philosophical prattle about values?

Laski, the Blind

We can now draw the historical argument to a Laski complains that, although we are on the eve great changes in society, the period between 1914 and 1939 saw no great theoretical works heralding the new age, as had appeared in previous periods of social preparation. What blindness is this? It is of the same type which misses so completely the significance of the social revolution attempted by early Christianity and attributes a ridiculous significance to Amos and Isaiah. First of all, what has Laski himself been living on theoretically all these years but on parts of Lenin’s Imperialism, to mention only one book. But secondly, he does not see that never before in history has social revolution been so openly and assiduously prepared for. He looks for books and does not see the Communist International in the days before Stalin began its emasculation. He looks for theories on law and government and does not see the unparalleled value for future society of the foundation of the Soviet state by Lenin and Trotsky and its achievements, successes and failures until Stalin finally destroyed it by the constitution of 1936. The state resting on the Soviets, the councils of the workers organized in the production process – this is what is new. How able is this professor who has not a word of analysis new state form and the mountains of controversy it still but complains that there are no books. Is greater proof needed of the bankruptcy of his historical method, alike in dealing with early Christianity, in discussing Papal leadership of modern society without a thought of the role of the Papacy in modern production, and now in bewailing the lack of great books during the last twenty-five years and using that as proof that the new society was not being prepared?

We denounce Laski’s impudence in calling his vacuous theories an exhibition of the Marxist method. We say that a Marxist in discussing Christianity and the modern world should have at least indicated that the ideals of Christianity are embodied in the modern working-class movement.

We say finally that for us, today, the great inspiration of early Christianity is not the faith inspired by Amos, Isaiah and Paul. It is exactly the opposite. It is the fact that the masses, as soon as they felt themselves men, began straightaway to build the “social republic,” or at least to expect it, and in our epoch we see their successors, organized labor, making mighty effort after mighty effort to destroy the hated old society and substitute the socialist order. What connection has Stalin’s totalitarian state with all this except as its open enemy? “It is not yet clear that the kind of world envisaged after victory by Mr. Churchill is the kind of world likely to appeal to Marshal Stalin. Such evidence as we have suggests that it is at least possible that they think on different lines.” O delicate phrasemaker! You cannot even convincingly deceive yourself.

An Apologist for Stalinism

This is the fundamental political crime of Laski’s book. He attempts to gild the totalitarian character of the Stalinist state. He says:

“If the Communist Party of the Soviet Union left the central principle of its faith to the chance decision of an electorate still in the phase where the denial of the socialist idea is the rule rather than the exception, that would be as remarkable as a willingness on the part of the Western democracies to see without repining the access of socialist parties to the state-power.”

A generation after 1917 this is what Laski has the nerve to say of the electorate of Russia. He talks glibly of communism and the soviet idea. But that communism and the soviet idea represent a stage of democracy for beyond bourgeois democracy, to that he is totally impervious. He tells us that “the soviet citizen enjoys what may perhaps be termed a democracy of the secondary order, the import of which we must not minimize.” A democracy of a secondary order! Is this one of the new values? And what, pray, is a democracy of the secondary order? “He [the Soviet citizen] may not criticize Stalin ...” In other words, he may not criticize the economic, social or political policy of the state. Nay, more. When Stalin’s sense of values decrees that Shostakovich’s music is “modernistic” and needs to have “tunes,” he cannot criticize that too. And when Molotov says that fascism is a question of taste, in as much as Molotov speaks for Stalin, the Soviet citizen cannot criticize that either. What is worse, he must immediately, at all meetings, public and private, heartily proclaim that fascism is a matter of taste. In return for this stultification, the Soviet citizen “can criticize his foreman or his manager; he can protest against the inefficiency of this factory or that farm or even department of state.”

This is the democracy for which Laski so diligently seeks inspiration in early Christianity. Rickenbacker, a notorious reactionary, found Stalin’s conception of the place of workers s in Stalinist society very satisfactory. And Eric Johnston, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, told the Russian leaders that when he, as an American capitalist, looked at their guaranteed profit he felt “like a hero.” The values that they found are more serious than Laski’s. That the standard of living of the Russian masses is lower than it was before 1914 has no meaning for Laski.

What is worse is that Laski has the imprudence to use the term elite to describe the ruling class in his new society. This is no accident. It follows automatically his attitude to the crimes committed by the Russian elite against the Russian people – “immense blunders and fantastic cruelties,” to use his own words. He brazenly says: “I accept the ugliness of all these things and I do not even attempt to excuse them.” And then this seeker after new values, having found them in this elite state, gives us a demonstration of the intellectual values with which he seeks new social values.” Few Roman Catholics would today defend the barbarities of the Inquisition; but they would deny that these barbarities disprove the validity of the Roman claim.” If the Catholics can do it, why can’t we? Once you abandon the democratic rights of the working class in contemporary society, all is lost, even logic and good sense.

Laski has two main points. He says that the structure of Soviet economy allows the unlimited extension of consumer demand. That, we shall have to see. Secondly, he leans heavily on the Russian military victories which have without doubt been the outstanding military feature of the war. He forgets that modern Russia is the product of a revolution which wiped out the social sores of centuries and created a modern people in a modern state. No one in his senses denies that. And this modern state the workers and peasants decided to defend despite the crimes of the elite. What they really think of the elite we shall all have the opportunity of seeing in the coming period. We venture the opinion, however, that they will not think what Laski thinks.

The Value-Seekers

Laski’s book is characteristic of an increasing intellectual disintegration among intellectuals of all types. He may say, as he does in this one, that the intellectuals must take their stand with the masses. Any intellectual with Laski’s ideas who takes his stand with the masses can only help to corrupt them. Daniel Bell in the May issue of Politics attacks Laski, but these two are of the same brand. Laski, running away from Churchill and proletarian power, embraces the Stalinist “ethos” and bathes himself in the faith it gives. Bell detests the doctrine but agrees that it is religion. “The dividing line which modern society strove to maintain between religious and social facts has disappeared in Russia ... That is what gives it the unity and cohesion.” From both of these the Marxists have to separate themselves with an unrelenting hostility. The Russian proletariat of today is the product of the development of European civilization. Nothing on earth can prevent its struggle for proletarian democracy. Bell confounds a modern proletariat with the masses of antiquity. It is Laski turned inside out.

It will be instructive to end with a glance at some of the most outstanding of those who, in recent years, whatever their differences, and we do not deny or minimize these differences, have one thing in common, rejection of the international socialist revolution as analyzed by Lenin. Ortega y Grasset [sic], a Spanish intellectual, wrote a book some years ago called The Revolt of the Masses. Values concerned him. He was not looking for new ones. He wished to defend the old ones against the workers. They are now in the safe keeping of Franco. Julien Benda created a furore with his The Treason of the Intellectuals. They, these unfortunates, were not sufficiently concerned with spiritual values. Presumably these are now safe with Petain and Laval. After a long lifetime spent in defending the sacred values of liberalism, Croce sought to put them into practice in the cabinet of Badoglio. Santayana, who wrote exquisitely on values for many years, now declares his sympathy for the values established and preserved as long as possible by Mussolini. Laski seeks and finds his spiritual home in Stalin’s “democracy of a secondary type.”

Sidney Hook, another expert shuffler of the value-cards, now concerns himself with the “hero” in history. Burnham goes back for inspiration to Machiavelli. At least he drew the line at Amos and Isaiah. And so they gyrate.

We, on the contrary, stand on the Leninist ground that the present epoch is an epoch of imperialist war and proletarian revolution. We, under all circumstances, place foremost the defense of the working class as the defense of modern civilization. Our task is to help in making the workers aware by precept and organization of their great task of emancipation in a society which increasingly shoves the whole of humanity down the road to barbarism. Those are the values by which we live and we are the merciless enemy of those who, under whatever banner, seek to inject other values into the working-class movement.


1. A.D. Winspear, Science and Society, Vol. IV, No. 4, page 458.

Last updated on 14 October 2015