Max Shachtman


Socialist policy in the war

(September 1950)

From Socialist Leader, 30 September 1950.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Some people refuse to learn. Others refuse to remember. And still others remember what they have learned only up to the moment when events call upon them to put it into practice, whereupon they start to forget. Critics of the Independent Socialist League’s position on the war are asking that we support the United States in the war, not only in Korea, but in the Third World War that is being prepared.

Why? Because there is a big difference between capitalist democracy and Stalinist totalitarianism. While the former is an evil, it still permits the existence of a labour movement and some democracy: the latter is, however, a far greater evil since it wipes out all forms of democracy.

But since we have been saying something like this for some time and something like it can be read in almost every American newspaper, the repetition of it does not extend our knowledge. It only shows that if some people do not learn, others do.

Why, then? Because Stalinism has now grown so powerful that it threatens the capitalist world and along with it the very existence of any democracy and any form of working-class and socialist movement, not in some general way but with arms in hands.

While it would be a good thing if there were a big movement independent of the two evils, this does not exist and has no prospect of coming into existence “under actual world conditions.” This dictates to those who champion such a movement only the choice between the two evils and the choice, for realistic people, should fall upon the lesser of the two.

To many these simple arguments may seem plausible. To, socialists - those who remember what they have learned – they do not. They are arguments for an end to the socialist movement and the perspective of socialist freedom. They were not invented by their most recent sponsors but only adopted and adapted by them.

A socialist is not the ordinary man-in-the-street who is saturated with ignorance and prejudices pumped into him every day from a hundred pipelines.

The socialist endeavours to think about social problems scientifically. The first question he asks himself about any problem that needs tackling, any force that must be combatted, is this: How has this problem arisen, how has this force emerged?

Only after this question has been answered as ably as social science permits, is it possible to tackle it intelligently, effectively and with progressive results. If ever this procedure applied to a social problem, it applies to the problem of Stalinism.

It is therefore positively astounding that our critics, so anxious to crush Stalinism do not follow such a procedure in the present case, especially since they were once familiar with it. Not one of them asks these questions or even appears conscious of the need to refer to them.

How does it happen that this monstrosity of Stalinism has grown so world-powerful that it threatens imminently to triumph over everybody and everything else?

How does it happen that the working class and social movements now face a choice, or so it is claimed, only between two evils?

How does it happen that, as one critic claims, the only way to defeat Stalinism is by the military might of decadent capitalist imperialism, by supporting it in an atomic-bomb war which the most optimist commentator acknowledges will imperil the very existence of civilization?

These crucial questions demand answers. Our critics triumph over the demands. They obviate all need for answers by not posing the questions. The device is simple but effective. Also it gives them more space in which at last to reveal the information, to take one stimulating example, that bad as American imperialism is, “its characteristic imperialist conduct has not been toward political domination” of any important modern country, which is the most heartening tidings the German and Japanese people have read since the war ended.

In the struggle between capitalism and Stalinism we have a struggle not only between two imperialisms but between two different social systems. That is true, and we have no objection to learning it again from our critics. Likewise true and infinitely more important is our conception of the relationship between these two systems.

Stalinism arose out of the failure of the international working class to emulate the Russian workers in putting an end to capitalism. It arose out of the failure of the working class and its organizations to break with the capitalist class, its parties, its politics. its wars, its society. It arose out of (and of course it contributed to) the failure of the socialist movement to carry on an uncompromising struggle against the decay of capitalism in the name of a clear-cut socialist alternative.

The same reasons explain the growth of the power and influence of Stalinism in more recent times. An almost mathematically exact relationship can be established between the failure of the labour and socialist movements to present an independent socialist answer to the crisis of capitalism as it becomes deeper and more extensive – on the one side – and the growth of Stalinism as it presents an anti-capitalist (anti-capitalist, but not socialist) answer to the problems of society – on the other side.

Or to put it differently: Stalinism is the punishment inflicted on the working class for its failure, or rather the failure of its official leadership to cut loose from sinking capitalism and to strike out aggressively toward class independence and socialism.

Or still another way: Stalinism derives its social power from its ability to provide an anti-capitalist (but reactionary) solution to those social problems which capitalism, in any given situation or any given country, can no longer cope with on a capitalist basis and which the official labour movement is not organized to cope with on a socialist basis.

These are the generalizations from which we proceed in our political action. Generalizations? To some people the word conveys the notion of some academic, lifeless “abstractions,” good enough perhaps for mental gymnastics but of little value in practical political activity.

To us, they are the concentrated expression of what is relevant, significant and decisive in the actual experiences of society for the past three decades, continually confirmed by new experiences everyday.

From these “definitions” of Stalinism, it follows for us that its social power can be undermined and destroyed only to the extent that the labour movement throws off all responsibility for the politics of capitalism, its wars included, and leads the way out of the present blind alley of society with an independent programme of socialist reconstruction. Nothing more is needed and nothing less will do.

We have no intention or desire, no right and no need, to abandon the fight for socialism in this way or in any other. The Third Camp does exist. It is nothing but the camp of the workers and oppressed peoples everywhere who are sick to death of insecurity, exploitation, subjection and increasingly abominable wars, who aspire to freedom, peace and equality.

We never promised that we would be able to organize them into an independent movement, packed, wrapped, sealed and delivered by a specified date. We did say that unless they are organized into a movement independent of capitalism and Stalinism, the decay and disintegration of the world would continue, as it has. We did say that the forces of the Third Camp of socialism and liberty, are here, and it is our sworn duty to help organize them into an independent movement.

The only way we know how to do this is: tell the truth about capitalism and Stalinism; help make those we can reach conscious of the problem of society today and how to solve it, and increase the clarity of those who are already partly conscious of it.

Take but two examples, because they are the outstanding ones: millions in India reject Stalinism but they reject American imperialism as well; millions of workers in Britain reject Stalinism but they chafe angrily at their dependence upon American imperialism and at its demands that they toe the mark set by Washington.

We will do nothing to erase these encouraging signs! We will do everything we and our friends can do to deepen the understanding of capitalist imperialism and Stalinist totalitarianism among these millions, and help them become what they strive half-consciously to be – independent rallying centres of resistance to the two reactions, hope for a mighty force that can cope with both of them.

And we will act the same way not only on those continents, but on our own, and in our own land, too. We will continue in our way even if we are alone for a time. But we will not be alone.

To build the foundations for hope in the future required not only opposition to Stalinism but, among other reasons, precisely because of that, opposition to the war – the present “little” one monster war which is being prepared so feverishly and callously. We are not pacifist, we are not “conscientious objectors” we do not refuse military service, either in the draft or in the army itself, for those are not our ways, as everybody knows. But we do not support the war in Korea, which is our socialist duty, and is in the great anti-imperialist tradition.

Our opposition to the war does not mean support of Stalinism, in Russia or elsewhere.

Only ignorant or mendacious people say that. The best that can be said for such people is that they are so completely sceptical about the ability of the masses to attain socialist independence freedom and peace, that in their obtuseness they conclude that the only way American imperialism can be opposed is by helping Stalinist imperialism. We will try to teach the ignorant better; and we will answer the mendacious as they deserve to be answered.

Our opposition to Stalinist imperialism is not one whit less uncompromising than our opposition to American imperialism. We do not need any instruction on how to fight the latter so that the former is not the gainer thereby. We do not oppose American imperialism so that it may be defeated by Stalinism.

It is not Stalinism we want to see take power in this country; we are working for the power of the working class. As always, we shall be guided accordingly. During this war we shall continue without relaxation in our fight for the cause of the working class, of democracy, of socialism and against all reactionary attacks upon them. We will see what the war-supporters do!

The Social-Democrats, to whom the Third Camp is a joke because they long ago ceased to regard socialism as a real fighting goal, have naturally proclaimed their adherence to the cause of American imperialism in Korea. The Fourth Internationalists, to whom the Third Camp is an incomprehensible and uncomprehended blasphemy because they regard Stalinist totalitarianism as part of the working-class camp, have just as naturally proclaimed their adherence to the side of the Stalinists in Korea.

The voice of socialist independence and internationalism is stilled in those movements or reduced to a whisper.

In our movement, it will remain clear and firm. It will be heard, and it will be echoed.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 3.5.2011