Max Shachtman

Fascism and the Imperialist War

Article Three

(November 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 3 No. 33, 25 November 1940, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The already voluminous literature of discussion in and around the radical movement is concerned with the question of the day: What should be the working-class or socialist attitude towards the war? And well it might be concerned with this question, for on the answer to it hinges nothing less than the future of humanity.

Nine-tenths of yesterday’s radicals or near-radicals have already foresworn their old allegiances. We said this, that or the other thing yesterday? No matter. We say the opposite today. Fascism has changed everything. The Austrian house-painter has, you see, wiped out capitalism, his Blitzkrieg threatens to wipe out the world and our way of life, and we? – we proceed immediately to wipe out the class struggle and our principles. In different accents, in different forms, our ex-radicals are all saying one thing. Support the war against Hitler!

Yet, no matter where they came from originally, no matter what specific set of principles they are abandoning, no matter what form they couch their pleas in, the ex-radical gentlemen have one thing in common. They and their arguments tend to gravitate in one direction: the superannuated patriots of the right wing of the social democrats in this country, the New Leader crowd. A case in point is the versatile Sidney Hook, professor of philosophy in one of our illustrious universities, ace-Marxologist, part-time politician, advisor of the people, and now, expert in matters-of-war.

A Changing World – Hook Proves It

As a teacher, not only of university students but also of the radical movement, you would expect that he has something definite to say. And so he has. Only, what he says today differs from, and more often than not contradicts, what he said the day before. His outstanding distinction is the fact that in about a decade of public political activity he has not held a single important political view for more than a twelfth-month. If there were any doubt that this is a changing world, the hospital chart of Hook’s political fevers would speedily dispel it.

He first acquired political prominence by active intellectual sponsorship of the presidential ticket of the Stalinists in 1932, when “Third Period” idiocy was gathering full speed. We find him next as the theoretician of the strange combine that was founded under the name of the American Workers Party. After a few months of its existence, he helped bring about its fusion with the Trotskyist organization, out of which came the Workers Party of the United States. Exhausted by this progressive but brief effort, he dropped out of the movement entirely. Since then, he has shifted steadily to the right. His attacks on Bolshevism increased in volume, malice and distortion, but still he insisted that he was a revolutionary socialist. Finally, he took to writing for the New Leader, organ of as corrupt and shoddy a gang of right-wing “socialists” as you want to find. It was a bad symptom. When Hook was taxed with it, he protested that he has nothing whatsoever in common with the gang, that, though he despised them, he was utilizing their invitation to write in order to put forward “his own” ideas. We thought differently, and we said so. Finally, in the New Leader of August 31, 1940, Hook, having absorbed the surrounding atmosphere like a sponge, comes forward as a full-fledged social-patriot, singing the praises of the holy war against fascism. He, the “radical,” the “Marxist,” is triumphantly presented by Abe Cahan’s editors to demolish the revolutionary socialists whose views, as one of them says, “are drawn from archaic traditions, or a hyper-thyroid and garrulous revolutionism.” Let us see from the job he does whether the laborer is worthy of his hire.

A Re-Hash of Social-Patriotism

Hook is for supporting England against Germany, and for the U.S. government sending all aid to England. If that means U.S. entry into the war, he cannot for the life of him understand “why should socialists oppose a war against Hitlerism?” The arguments against his position – and substantially his article is directed against us of the Workers Party – he divides into four parts, which we will list and number.

ONE: It is wrong “to assume that what was a valid position in respect to the first world war must still be valid in respect to this one.”

TWO: It is wrong “to substitute the question: ‘Who is responsible for the present war?’ for the question: ‘What are the consequences to democracy and socialism of victory by one side or the other?’, and to conclude from the fact of equal responsibility that the consequences of the victory of either side will be the same.”

THREE: It is wrong “to wax eloquent about the dangers of one course of action so as to ignore the greater dangers of any practical alternative.”

FOUR: “Only one serious argument has ever been advanced against socialist support of a war against fascism. It is asserted that such a war will bring totalitarianism to the democracies which engage in it ... The possibility cannot be gainsaid. But the probability of such an outcome is much less than that a triumphant Hitlerism will result in totalitarianism everywhere ... But in a war between the democracies and Hitlerism, there are only two practical courses of action open for socialists: either to devote their energies to help the democracies win, or to oppose them and thus weaken their struggle against Fascism. The first may lead to totalitarianism; the second will lead to totalitarianism.”

Now if this wretched re-hash of social-patriotic apologetics were written by a contemporary of those “socialists” who dragooned the workers into the war of 1914, it might be passed over in silence just as one passes in pitying silence an incurable drunkard who is found lying in the gutter for the fiftieth time. But this is written by Sidney Hook, the eminent “Marxist,” that is, by a man who knows better. There is a horrible world war going on now. It was not unexpected. It was not unforetold. We Marxists saw it coming; we predicted it; we analyzed it in advance. So did Hook. Our self-styled socialist undertakes in his article to analyze the war and recommend the attitude that should be taken towards it. But although he covers almost a whole newspaper page with ink, he does not – this Marxist of ours – spend one word to ask and answer the first, elementary, indispensable question:

The Character of the Present War

Is it a reactionary war? Is it an imperialist war? is what we used to ask, and answer affirmatively, about the war to come, the war now being fought. So did Hook. But he does it no longer. On the question of the character of the war – not one word. In place of an answer, we get the profoundly smug platitude which ought to go over big in Hook’s freshman classes: It is wrong to “assume that what was a valid position in respect to the first world war must still be valid in respect to this one.” We do not assume that it must be valid. We set out to prove that it is valid, and no-one, least of all Hook, proves the contrary.

The last world war was a struggle between imperialist powers, each seeking either to preserve old plunder or acquire new plunder; it was not a struggle between Republicanism (France) and Monarchism (Germany) or between Culture (Germany) and Czarism (Russia); neither side played a progressive role and the war was reactionary on both sides. The present world war is likewise a struggle between two imperialist bandit camps, one seeking to preserve its plunder, the other seeking to take it away; it is not a struggle between Democracy (England) and Fascism (Germany); neither side is playing a progressive role and the war is reactionary on both sides.

That is how a socialist, Professor Hook, approaches the question. And that is why your first point is spurious.

Hook’s second point is no improvement, and that on both questions, the one he considers legitimate and the one he says is illegitimately substituted for it. The question of “responsibility” is not arbitrary, beside the point, or merely a matter of moral judgment. It relates directly to the question of the character of the war and the socialist attitude towards it. To be sure, we understand why Hook considers the question of “responsibility” illegitimate: it is most embarrassing to all “democratic” war-mongers. But above all, it is pertinent.

The present war is, except for minor shifts, a direct continuation of the war of 1914–1918. The “peace” of 1918–1939 was nothing but a long interval between battles. It was an armed truce during which the belligerents, the principal imperialist rivals, re-assembled their forces, re-armed, jockeyed to occupy the most favorable fighting positions for the resumption of the war. The last war was not caused by the fact that the Kaiser’s left arm was shrivelled; the present war is not caused by the fact that Hitler’s soul is shrivelled. Both wars were caused by the clash of imperialist interests and appetites. The real stakes in the war, then and now, are not Kaiserism or Democracy or Fascism, but which imperialist gang is to dominate the colonies of the world, the commercial lanes, the sources of raw materials, the fields of investment, the spheres of influence, the sources of cheap labor. In the last war, the imperialist lusts of Germany were strangled by the noose of Versailles. In this war, Hitler wants to strangle Britain with a German Versailles. And Britain, the citadel of Democracy? Her aim is to fasten upon renascent German imperialism a super-Versailles! Let Hook deny it.

The Consequences of a Position

But what about the famous “consequences to democracy and socialism of victory by one side or the other”? To deal with this point requires dealing also with Hook’s third and fourth points.

Our “socialist” has completely abandoned the idea that the working class can raise itself, by its own independent action, out of the slime and horror. In our own “archaic” and “hyper-thyroid” way, that of capitalism and imperialism, war and fascism. The world has gone to the dogs, and the working class along with it. Only one of the two imperialist gangsters can emerge triumphant. And we, poor impotent souls? Our only hope is to carry liberty to Germany on the points of those imperialist bayonets which are a “lesser evil” as compared with the other imperialist bayonets. “A defeat of Hitler in all likelihood will lead to a socialist revolution in the Fascist countries.” writes Hook. Is it now our turn to say: It is wrong “to assume that what was a valid position in respect to the first world war must still be valid in respect to this one”? It wasn’t valid in the last world war either, to be sure, but it was the Kaiser-socialists in Germany who argued that “a defeat of the Czar in all likelihood will lead to a socialist revolution in Russia”; and the Anglo-French social-imperialists who argued that “a defeat of the Kaiser in all likelihood will lead to a socialist revolution in Germany.” No, Professor Hook, when you snitch the arguments of Scheidemann and Cachin, you should give credit where credit is due. It is bad manners to plagiarize.

Let us look further into the quite relevant question of consequences.

Does Hook know how Hitler has succeeded, to a great extent, in breaking down the socialist spirit and morale of the German working class? Not by force alone. The whole Fascist ideology is based upon the notion of the identity of interests of all classes. There is no class struggle, say the Nazis, there is only the nation, and the nation is the race. How do the Fascists dispel the internationalist “doubts” of the socialist masses in the country? By pointing to the class-collaboration and social-imperialism of their “comrades” in the “democratic” countries. “Do you see how they unite with their governments in war time? Do you see how they defend the ill-gotten colonial gains of their masters?” By these far from stupid arguments, the Nazis tear up the fabric of socialist spirit in the heart of the German workers.

Hook has either forgotten the Saar plebiscite and the experience in Sudetenland or else he never understood them. Why did the Sudeten-German socialist and communist masses move over by the thousands to the banner of Heinlein-Hitlerism? their nationalism, their capitulation, were fed powerfully by the nationalism and capitulation of the Czech social democrats and Stalinists to the Czech bourgeoisie.

The first consequence of labor and socialist support to the imperialist democracies in the war is a consolidation of Hitler’s ideological stranglehold over the German masses. Hook can dispose of the Versailles of 1919 and Churchill’s super-Versailles plan of today by pretending he never even heard of it, or if he did. it is not important; the German masses are not so nimble.

But there are other consequences, just as bad or worse. Hook tries to scare the old maids editing the New Leader – who are scared enough as it is – by warning against the policy of civil war against the democratic capitalist government while it is at war with a Fascist power.” Good. In order that the old maids may get at least one night’s sleep, we promise on our word of honor not to start a civil war the minute the Roosovelt-Cahan-Hook Holy War Against Fascism is launched. In return, let us see what Hook will have to promise, that is, what are the consequences of his pro-war policy.

Hook ridicules the fear that some capitalists here will not fight Hitler. “Rather should such a fear lead us to a drive for the successful conclusion of the war against Fascism, in the course of which Hitler’s allies (in England or the United States – M.S.) can be exposed.”

From It Flows a Program of Action

Now, unless this is all a literary exercise, certain consequences, that is, a certain program of action, among other things, must follow from this position. You cannot “drive the successful conclusion of the war against Fascism” by bombarding Berlin with copies of Hook’s philosophical works. With due deference to them, something more potent is needed nowadays. The first objective of the “drive” must logically be: a tremendous armaments program that will enable the U.S.A. to catch up with and outstrip not only Germany, but Germany plus Italy plus Japan plus any other allies they can muster. More than that. Modern war requires the replenishment of used material at a greater speed and in greater volume than ever before. And remember. This war is not a week-end excursion. Both Churchill and Hitler envisage a duration of at least five years.

All this will require a bit of doing. It will mean imposing an economic burden on the country – heavier every day – such as it has never known. Who will bear this burden? The population as a whole? All classes of the population (surely Hook has heard that there are classes in the United States)? And how will this burden be divided among the classes? What share will be allotted to the workers and the farmers, and what share to the capitalists? Will it be equally distributed? And above all, who will decide on the distribution?

The government will decide, yes, the good, democratic, anti-fascist government. What is this government? Is it above alt the classes, impartially administering justice to all? Is it the government of the capitalists and of the workers? Is it the government of the capitalist class – or is this, too, one of those ideas of Marxism that must be declared obsolete, “archaic” and “hyper-thyroid”?

What will be the general line of the decision made by this government? Hook’s colleagues on the New Leader, at least, are under no illusions on this score. One of them, the infamous Willi Schlamm, writes: “Is there any word of contempt strong enough to characterize the intellectual and moral state of the people who, witnessing France’s ordeal, will dare to tell their naive audience that you can have both, peace AND growing welfare for ‘the masses’?” And the editors themselves write: “France fell because of too much ease and comfort and the good things of life, which the people were not willing to exchange for ‘regimentation’.” In their way, they are right, and Hook is wrong. The Holy War of the Democracies means an end to the “growing welfare” of the masses, or any welfare whatsoever. It means exchanging “ease and comfort and the good things of life” for “regimentation.” That is, it means the accelerated decay of the Democracies into Totalitarianism!

But labor must resist all that, while supporting the war, says Hook. It must pursue “independent action” and preserve its “organizational integrity.” Presumably, it must resist having the stupendous economic burden of the war thrown upon its shoulders, while the bourgeoisie coins its blood-money profits. Presumably, it must resist encroachments upon its democratic rights. How? By preserving its “independent labor action” and organizational integrity.” Independent labor action is a hollow phrase unless it is identical with independent class action. Against what class is this action to be directed? Against the bourgeoisie and (begging your forgiveness?) against its government. At any rate, not against the working class, let us ardently hope.

On the Side of Which Class?

We promised Hook not to launch a civil war as soon as Roosevelt declares war. But what is civil war? It is only the culminating point of class war, of class struggle in modern society, In defense of their class interests, which becomes more and not less urgent during war, the workers carry on a class struggle. In the course of that struggle, they seek to win and finally do win the support of the masses of the people. The question is thereupon posed: Who is to be master at home? The militant, democratically-organized masses reach out for the power that is properly theirs. The ruling class stands in the way, seeking to crush the people by force. A civil war, of greater or lesser scope, of greater or lesser duration, of greater or lesser violence, then ensues.

Hook is not really aiming at “civil war” threats, which come from nowhere. (He knows, of course, how ridiculous it is to speak of that.) He is aiming at the class struggle. That is how all turncoats from Marxism, from revolutionary socialism, end up: by renouncing the class struggle, by preaching class peace, reconciliation, collaboration. That is another of the consequences of Hook’s policy. There are still others.

Hook would have us support the American capitalist government in the war, as the British Labor Party is supporting its government. He wants to “drive” for a speedy victory over fascism, because of the “consequences” of a victory of the other side. He is against “civil war” (in reality, against working class independent action) at home because it weakens the dear old government in its fight against Hitler.

What, then, would Hook, as emissary to India of His Majesty’s Ever So Democratic Government, tell the Indian masses to do now? (Surely Hook has heard somewhere that England is an imperialist power, where a few million Englishmen democratically exploit and oppress a few hundred million Indians.) Would he tell them that this is no time to fight England, that this is no time to fight for such an unimportant aim of democracy as national independence? That such a fight would weaken the “democracies” and help Hitler? In other words, would he tell them what every rogue and helpmeet of British imperialism is telling them?

Now, suppose the Indian revolutionists were very forbearing and didn’t kick Hook down the stairs, but at the same time refused to take his advice. Suppose they adopted the maxim known to every intelligent Irishman: England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity. Suppose they launched a real fight for national independence, as the Irish did in the last war. And suppose further (fantastic assumption, is it not!) that Democratic England (which Can Take It, but which Won’t Let It Go) orders its troops to suppress the Indian democratic (truly democratic!) uprising. On whose side of the fight will Hook be? Or a case closer to home. Suppose, in one or another Latin American country, the masses begin resisting the – not imperialistic, oh no! just the “democratic” economic and military encroachments of the U.S. government. On whose side of the fight will Hook be? In both cases, the “independent action” of the masses would be directed against imperialism. In one case, it would be weakening the British Empire; in the other, the American Empire. The consequences of Hook’s position lead straight to the suppression of revolutionary national struggles for independence in the realms of Democratic Imperialism. Hook is already speaking the language of the slave-consoling priest working for the slaveholder: Your master is bad, but it could be worse.

The Class Struggle Must Go On!

Yes, yes – it will be said – but with all that, you still cannot deny that Rooseveltian democracy is “better” than Hitlerite fascism. Quite true. We do not deny it and we never have. What we have insisted on is this:

The only way in which to preserve and extend those democratic rights which we have conquered under democratic capitalism is, in the present period, to carry on an independent class struggle against fascistically-infected or fascistically-corrupted bourgeois democracy. How can any intelligent person think otherwise, especially after the experiences of the past few years? The masses entrusted the bourgeois democrats with the struggle against Hitler, arid they got Hitlerism in 1933. They did the same in the struggle against Franco – and Franco was handed the victory by the same “democrats.” They did the same in Czechoslovakia – and before Benes fled to teach Chicago students how to preserve democracy, he turned the government over to the Syrovy military dictatorship, which turned it over to Hitler. They did the same in France – and they got Vichy totalitarianism plus Hitler. Does the lesson of all these tragedies merely mean that ... we must repeat them? Hook can dismiss all this airily with the sporting reference to the necessity of taking “risks.” Support of the war may lead to totalitarianism, says he. And you see, say his blunter colleagues, in England there is not yet a totalitarian regime. To be sure, there is not. Why not? Because countries like the U.S.A. and England, the former especially, still have great economic resources. France had less. Germany, in 1931–1933, still less. In England, the war pressure has only begun to make itself felt. Hook, in common with all the war-mongers, drugs the workers, shuts their eyes to reality, instead of opening them, showing them where developments are leading, and warning them in time. He is not a teacher of labor; he runs a hasheesh joint for democratic imperialism. He does not point out that tomorrow, when the going gets rougher, as the question of “distributing” the war burden in light of diminishing reserves and resources becomes intensely acute for all classes in England, the present government or its successor will be as little able to afford its present “democratic luxuries” as was France (even before the war began), and later, as was Germany when Hitler took power. He does not point out that as the war proceeds, the British bourgeois regime will have to centralize increasingly all economic and political power, will have to call for increasingly unbearable “sacrifices” by the masses, will have to take rigorous measures to suppress (and then forcibly to prevent, in advance) all expressions of dissatisfaction, economic or political, both at home and in the colonies.

Hook tries to reduce the problem to an academic dispute over whether the democracies will surely become totalitarian, or only probably, or only possibly! The real problem is: What policy is best calculated to prevent the evolution to totalitarianism in the bourgeois democracies? Hook says, by subjecting labor to the imperialists, by supporting the imperialist war, by a “drive” for victory – and all that entails. That policy is precisely what paralyzes labor, what smooths the road towards fascism by removing from that road the only obstacle, an independent and militant labor movement. We say, labor must lake no responsibility for the war either before or after it is declared. It must defend its class interests at all times, its economic position and its democratic rights. It can do this only if it maintains complete independence of the imperialist government and its war. Unless it does this, its goose is cooked.

His Is the Voice of Despair

Having in mind the banner of the Third Camp which we have raised in this war, Hook declares that his views might be invalid if we could prove that “there exists a third feasible alternative.” Like the Cannonites, Hook does not see a Third Camp. But, he implies, if it did exist, and was really powerful force, a “feasible alternative,” he would forego supporting imperialism and support the Third Camp of the proletariat and the colonial instead. Whether Hook knows it or not, there is the nub of the matter!

Hook speaks with the voice of despair, the voice of the philistine. There are only two courses open to labor, says our “socialist”: one way you surely get totalitarianism, the other way you may get totalitarianism. In our own “archaic” way, we always thought the task of the socialist was to point out to labor how it could get freedom.

The workers are not organized yet, not prepared yet, not conscious yet. Therefore, the philistine has always said, it must not be organized, prepared or made conscious of its power, its goal, its invincibility. Therefore, the traitor to labor has always said, it must support the bourgeoisie – oh, of course, the good bourgeoisie and not the wicked ones.

The workers are not yet ready for revolution and socialism. Therefore, the masters of logic and philosophy have always said, they must support capitalism and join with it to suppress revolution. If, however, in spite of us, the revolution does triumph, they added later on, we shall “recognize” it once it is consolidated. Meanwhile, however, we shall follow a policy guaranteed to prevent or, at the very least, to delay the revolution and socialism.

Does Hook know that here, as elsewhere, he is merely plagiarizing from the social-patriots of the first world war? That is exactly how they argued. Where is your practical alternative? Where is this revolution you babble about? In Russia the “babblers” prepared and brought about the revolution and put an end to capitalism and war, because during the war they taught that neither capitalism nor its war should be supported. In Germany, the ‘’practical” friends of labor did all they could to prevent the revolution from breaking out, suppressed it in blood when it did break out, perpetuated capitalism, and got fascism plus another, more ghastly war.

Hook writes scornfully. “We will defeat Hitler, cries the revolutionary Mad Hatter, only by first defeating the enemy within our own country, those who are ready to fight Fascism although not yet ready to fight for socialism.” Churchill, you see, is “ready lo fight Fascism” but he is “not yet” ready to fight for socialism. So is J.P. Morgan. So is Henry Ford. So is Getulio Vargas. Such a beautiful formula! Such an honest formula! And how plausible it sounds: The country is not yet ready for socialism; it is ready for an imperialist war under guise of a struggle “against Fascism.” Therefore, support the imperialist war. That’s a few shades worse than the position of Karl Kautsky in 1914. We cannot answer Hook better than by quoting Lenin’s reply to Kautsky:

“Kautsky’s old sophism, here again repeated, namely, that ‘at the beginning of the war’ the Left Wing looked upon the situation as presenting the alternative of either imperialism of Socialism, has already been analyzed. This is a shameless sleight of hand, since Kautsky knows very well that the Left Wing put forth another alternative; either the party jopins imperialist plunder and deception or it preaches and prepares for revolutionary action.” (My emphasis – M.S.)

We Preach the Victory of Socialism

That is precisely what is involved today. Hook wants labor to support the war for imperialist plunder and deception, and, just in passing, contributes to that deception. We preach and prepare for the victory of socialism. We seek to organize (not disorganize!) the mighty forces of the Third Camp. We tell them the truth (not lies) about the war. We urge them to act independently of the imperialist war-mongers, not to become their willing slaves. We tell them to pursue the class struggle in order to protect their elementary interests, not to suspend the struggle. We tell them to rely on their own strength, initiative, program and leadership, not to rely on the salvation that will be brought them by their class enemy and its apologists, Professors included.

We tell them to utilize their manifold opportunities to smash a rotten social order, its fascist spawn, its wars, it misery and sufferings. Hook tells them: Not now. Let us first help England keep her slaves in Somaliland instead of turning them over to Italy; let us first help Wall Street establish its economic and political enslavement of Latin America, lest Germany and Italy get there first; let us first help Wall Street bring the slaves of the Dutch East Indies under its imperialist sway, lest they fall under the sway of Japan. After that is done and a super-Versailles is imposed on the fascist powers, you have my permission to talk about socialism, but not before.

If we follow Hook, however, we will probably find, as Trotsky once pointed out. that five or ten years later, capitalism will spawn super-fascism somewhere. Hook will then teach us that we must support Hitler-fascism as a lesser evil in its war against the super-fascism.

Like Max Eastman, Hook began a few years ago to take “orthodox Marxism” to task for its “mystic faith” in the inevitability of socialism. Oh no, said Hook sagely, socialism is not automatically produced; it is the product of conscious, organized and directed mass activity. Not bad, eh? Thereupon, again like Eastman, he proceeded to suspend his conscious, organized and directed activity for socialism. Now he’s developed to a “higher” stage: he wants the rest of us to suspend our activity – we must win the war for democracy, at all costs. Tomorrow? Tomorrow he will adopt Eastman’s latest conclusion: socialism in general is not so desirable, after all. We can only hope that he will not develop to the “highest” stage, where ex-socialists join actively with the bourgeoisie in preventing the unrepentant socialists from carrying out their revolutionary activity. We can only hope. But not with much confidence.

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