Source: The New International, New York, Vol. V No. 5, May 1939, pp. 156–7.
Transcribed: Ted Crawford.
HTML Markup: David Walters.
Proofreader: Einde O’Callaghan (August 2015).
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (marxists.org) 2005. You can freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & proofreaders above.
Men Must Act
by Lewis Mumford
Harcourt, Brace. $1.50.
As a spokesman of the liberal intelligentsia, Mumford has not been conspicuous for trail-blazing; he has remained close to his constituency; and this fact gives this book an importance as an index to the present mentality of that constituency which it does not possess as a work of thought.
The post-war revolutionary upsurge lightly touched this group and therefore Mumford (The Story of Utopias, 1922); European stability under American tutelage and the decline of the revolutionary movement brought a return to literary pursuits until the 1929 crisis drove the liberal intelligentsia again a step or two toward the revolutionary movement (Mumford chaired a Harlan miners defense meeting and introduced everybody as “comrade”) then the New Deal opened the doors of the ABC’s to the intelligentsia which in turn turned its back on radicalism; Muntford’s constituency is now busily engaged in providing moral justification for supporting American imperialism in the coming World War, and this book codifies the war ideology at its present roughly-fashioned stage.
The logic of politics is remorseless, indeed. In order to justify on idealistic grounds the support of one imperialist camp against another, Mumford is driven step by step to revise the former opinions of the left liberals on all basic questions: the first World War the League of Nations, the nature of capitalist democracy, the nature of fascism, etc. etc. Perhaps the best introduction to this book—and I write of it primarily for that purpose, for this is a book which every opponent of the coming war should read in order to understand how that war is being justified—is to indicate the major amputations Mumford has been compelled by his present political logic to make on the ideas formerly held by his constituency.
Few of these liberals held out against war in 1917; yet no tenet of the liberal creed since then and until very recently has been more firmly held than that the war was a conflict among imperialist bandits and should have received no honest intellectual support. In the post-war years one of the main functions of The New Republic and The Nation was to publish material demonstrating that fact, painstakingly prepared, in the main, by intellectuals remorseful of their support of the war.
On their behalf, however, Mumford now abandons this tenet:
“ ... the United States spent thousands lives and billions of dollars to save world for democracy between 1917 and 1919 ... What was wrong was not that we sought to preserve democracy : what alone was wrong was that we failed.
“ ... many people have come to accept the economic interpretation of our actions as one that in fact explains them. According this fable, the war was entered into by the United States to save the Morgan loans to the Allies ...
“ ... What made millions of intelligent Americans join hands with such rascals and profiteers is that something else actually was at stake. Why, toward the end of the war, did the higher type of German—I met many—fervently wish the Allies to win? ...
“And mark this: something was actually gained by America’s entrance into the war on behalf of democracy: a breathing space. Germany’s assault on democracy was staved off for another twenty years ... it was certainly better than immediate serfdom as vassals of a triumphant, militaristic, still essentially feudal Germany. That we did not gather the beneficent results of a democratc victory is not a proof of the notion that we were fooled or misguided when we sought to save democracy.” (p. 155)
If Czar Nicholas (who was overthrown not by those who fought to make the world safe for democracy but precisely by those who denounced the war), Clemenceau, Lloyd George and Bernard Baruch—not to forget those other fighters for democracy whom Mumford doesn’t mention, the Emperor of Japan and the King of Italy!—were morally superior to their enemies, the peace written by the victors must also have virtues. Mumford takes this step, too. abandoning all that the liberal intelligentsia had to say about the Versailles iniquity, the League of Nations which was put on it as a fig-leaf, and the rapacious imperialisms which it served:
“ ... Imperialism had become, by the end of the nineteenth century, apologetic, shame-faced, abashed: in the very hypocrisy by, which their naked economic aims were cloaked, the imperial powers made their first dim acknowledgment of political morals. So they way was opened to a different state of reciprocity and free government; this took place in Cuba and the Philippines after the American conquest there; it took place in South Africa ...
“For the last generation there was, in international affairs, a steady gain for moral decency. Even the Treaty of Versailles, though it lacked justice and magnanimity, was coupled with at least the lip recognition of a more rational political order, embodied in the League of Nations ... Most intelligent Germans knew then, and still know, that the treaty the German government had in store for the Allies, had they been victorious was far more ferocious in its injustices.
... Indefensible as any imperialism now is, the League of Nations, with all its shortcomings, offered a means whereby the Lilliputian nations of the world were, until 1930, gradually getting the imperialist Gullivers to accept a network of restriction that would have made further military conquests impossible.” (65–66)
This idyll of American, British, French imperialism quite takes one’s breath away: Cuba has free government—forget the American government-instigated overthrow of the Grau San Martin government and the American government-supported bloody regime of Batista, not to speak of American government-supported dictatorships in most Latin-American countries—all this under Roosevelt—the British have given the white minority in South Africa the right to a local dictatorship over the black majority—that should make you forget the Britishers’ own dictatorship over four hundred million toilers in India, or the French dictatorship over the North Africans. In an offhand manner Mumford ignores a little detail of present history: that every Englishman has nine or ten slaves working for him, every Frenchman two or three slaves; never mind that, Mumford indicates, the Englishman and the Frenchman have democracy at home. Freedom for the oppressed colonial peoples? Not in Mumford’s program for “Re-fortification of Democracy.”
The real face of imperialism cannot appear in Mumford’s book for the same reason that he cannot permit us to think for a moment upon the real nature of wage slavery in the home countries: his thesis is that there is an “unbridgeable gulf” between life of the fascist countries and that of the democratic empires.
And to accentuate that “unbridgeable gulf” so that we shall be sufficiently hardened to plunge cold steel into the guts of every German, Mumford not only idealizes the democracies but also indicts the entire German people. In America “those who have a firm belief in democracy ... probably includes the greater number of intelligent Americans, representing every shade of economic status and political conviction”—bosses included. The sole exceptions Mumford stakes in his “democratic front” are those “intransigent industrialists who seek to maintain the absolutism of their rule, as practiced anciently in the company town”, the “stone age industrialists”. But as “anciently” and “stone age” happily portend, this is past; now, “our more progressive industries, led by men who have claims to industrial statesmanship, have in principle accepted the need for democratic participation and security of livelihood.” (p. 139) We are all one happy democratic family, bosses and workers manage industry by “democratic participation”, no significant section of employers are opposed to the Wagner Act or use strikebreakers or stool-pigeons or other union-busting methods, and the Fansteel, Apex and similar court decisions of the last few weeks really belong to the dim past.
In Germany, on the other hand, all—workers, including thirteen million who voted Communist or Socialist in 1932, etc.—are Nazis in their ideology. In an article on Spengler in the January 11, 1939 New Republic, Mumford proclaimed the “pathology of the German mind” to be the “sinister world problem” today. The German mind—not that of the rulers but of the people. Mumford in this book speaks of “the residual barbarisms in German civilization: the soil out of which Nazism grew” and seeks to “remove forever those superficial interpretations of Nazism which overlook how much of its animus and creed already existed—long before Hitler and Rosenberg—in Luther, Fichte, Hegel, Treitschke, Nietzsche, Wagner, and Houston Chamberlain.” (p. 176) Fascism is “an error of politically undeveloped countries, such as Italy and Germany historically were and are” (p. 24); “the majority of Germans succumbed ... they relapsed into the cult of Wotan: the savage and the primeval. Momentarily halted in their creative act of construction, the Germans vengefully turned on their own handiwork and tore it down.” (pp. 55–56) Not the Nazis, mind you, but “the majority of Germans” or, better still, “the Germans.” Wield your bayonets, you fighters for democracy, with the firm assurance that those you kill are really not human; they are Huns.
That by Mumford’s own criterion—”Every trade union, every co-operative society, every neighborhood association, is a training ground for the more complicated problems of collective government” the German people were far more democratic in traditions and practice than America; that “German civilization” gave us not only the forerunners of Nazism but also Marx and Engels, Bebel and Liebknecht—we live in an atmosphere of war psychosis in which a spokesman of the liberal intelligentsia can blandly assign Hegel to the Nazis! Hegel, whose direct fructifying inspiration, to mention but one instance, on John Dewey and his disciples, and through them on progressive philosophy and education, must be known even to Mumford!
Elsewhere I propose to examine in detail Mumford’s racial theory of the causes for the rise of fascism. If there is an “unbridgeable gulf” between the democratic empires and the fascist, why is the “oldest and surest form of democratic government”—Britain—ruled concededly by a “pro-fascist ruling class”?
Mumford’s book is couched in the form of a polemic—against pacifists, isolationists, and neutrality-seekers. But all these will be with Mumford in the war. Why doesn’t Mumford confront the arguments of those who will not be with him—the revolutionary Marxists? These consistent opponents of the war remain unmentioned; and that is an index to Mumford’s intellectual dishonesty.
Last updated on: 17 January 2016