Max Shachtman


An open letter to “our friends in Asia”

(April 1951)

From Labor Action, April 1951.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Nineteen Americans who, “although connected with different political groups or parties in the United States, are democratic socialists by conviction,” have addressed an appeal To Our Friends in Asia, which is in reproduced for discussion in the February 11, 1951, issue of Janata, the newspaper of the Socialist Party of India. The signers include such old, as well as recent, converts to “democratic socialism” as August Claessens, William Bohn, Harry Laidler, Clarence Senior, Norman Thomas, J.B.S. Hardman, and, in their latest incarnations, of course, Upton Sinclair, Sidney Hook and James T. Farrell.

It is not their intention, they say at the outset, “to discuss war in Korea and the crisis in the Far East comprehensively,” except to “testify that, in the minds of the American people, our intervention in Korea in support of the UN and its beginning of world law against military aggression in no way was a drive for imperialist profit or power.” We would go further, at the outset and add that no war, as The Nineteen so imprudently call Truman’s “police actions,” has been so unpopular and so unsupported in modern times by the American people who were no more consulted in the launching of it than was their Congress or the United Nations itself. But for the moment we will not dwell on the delicate question of Korea either, although for different reasons than those of The Nineteen They are concerned with other matters

“World peace and an understanding of its problems are necessarily complicated by the honest but mistaken opinion which we have so often heard to the effect that American imperialism may at the moment be less objectionable in its methods than Soviet imperialism, but that imperialism is imperialism, and true lovers of peace and freedom should stand clear of both forms of it. This theory may seem plausible in the light of the history of imperialism and the obvious and undeniable faults of our imperfect American democracy. Yet it is, we submit, incorrect in the light of the facts. The outstanding conflict today is between democracy with all its human and capitalist imperfections, and totalitarian despotism.”

These words sum up the contentions and purpose of the writers of the appeal The purpose, at any rate, is clear: it is to enlist the true lovers of peace and freedom, of whom there are so many in India in particular, on the side of the imperfect American democracy in its old and soon-not so-cold war with Stalinist Russia, by disabusing them of the honest but decidedly mistaken idea that they “should stand clear” – that is, remain as independent as the Indians want to be – of both sides. Why mistaken? Because while it is true that Stalinism is despotic and imperialistic (on this score The Nineteen are right) in light of the facts, it seems, American capitalism, though it has its blemishes, mind you, is democratic and, what is more important, it is not imperialistic. These are such good tidings in these harsh times that they deserve the added publicity we can give them!

“The development of American capitalism has not led to imperialism; it does not fulfil Lenin’s theory of imperialism as the inevitable last stage of capitalism. The greatest bloc in the way of greater and more fraternal American cooperation in the worldwide war against want is born not of an imperialist drive for profit but of the old isolationism. The Marshall Plan was not a project of capitalists who see in it a necessary condition of the survival of their system. On the contrary, the most reactionary capitalist groups, like the National Association of Manufacturers and the interests for which the powerful Chicago Tribune speaks, were luke-warm or hostile to the plan. The Republican Party leaders who most vigorously champion capitalism today do not seek imperial expansion through forced investments, but are generally opposed to any great extension of American economic aid abroad.”

And we are reminded that “as far back as the administration of the very conservative Republican president, Calvin Coolidge, (Americans) began to discover that imperialism, including dollar diplomacy backed by US Marines didn’t pay.” And further that “Dwight Morrow, who had been a member of the famous banking House of Morgan, reversed the policy of aggressive support of American investment.” And a little more of the same.

Blessed, happy land! Tender, noble land! Just and generous land! That is our United States. What else can we call a land that has so long been free from the greatest curse of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – imperialism – the curse that drove other lands, but not ours, to fatten on the blood, toil and tears of hundreds of millions? And by “ours,” we mean not only ourselves. Free from the curse is Truman, is the Democratic Party (plus or minus the “democratic socialists by conviction”; is even the Republican Party, the most vigorous champion of capitalism today; is even the Chicago Tribune and Colonel McCormick, who cannot be made to stir an inch outside of Cook County, let alone the frontiers of the USA; is even the National Association of Manufacturers and the House of Morgan, to say nothing of the saintly Coolidge.

Not only is it a land that takes nothing from other people. Better yet: it gives freely of its substance.

“It is a matter of record that the US government has spent on relief and rehabilitation in Europe and Asia since the war $36,600,000,000 ... this expenditure, for which no economic or political concessions were exacted, is completely out of line with the Leninist theory of imperialism.”

And what makes possible this triumphant defiance of Lenin’s theory? This:

“Countries like Great Britain, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Germany, were in their home territories limited in extent and lacked a great many of the natural resources necessary for capitalist development. They were thus far more strongly impelled than the US to seek in industrially backward region sources of supply of raw materials as well as of manufactured goods. The economic facts of life in America were and are very different from the facts in Europe which led Lenin to formulate his theory of imperialism.”

That being that, it obviously behoves the lovers of peace and freedom in India to range themselves on the side of the United States in the war with Stalinist Russia and stop this mistaken and nonsensical business of standing clear of both. It is hard to imagine a stronger appeal to the Indian people by the State Department or, for that matter, by the National Association of Manufacturers, even though they are both indifferent, if not downright hostile, to imperialism.

Let us be serious now with the statement of The Nineteen. It is not easy, but we will try. A serious try means, first of all, to ignore their scholarly references to Lenin’s theory of imperialism. The few who read it a long time ago have forgotten what it said, to say nothing of what they themselves once said. The others, not having read it, had nothing to forget.

Lenin indicated that there were different types of capitalist imperialism, British colonial imperialism being one, what he called the usury imperialism of France being another, and the imperialism of Germany, which had virtually no colonies, being a third type. American capitalism has indeed had a unique evolution, due to its specific geographical, material and historical circumstances, but that has only meant that its imperialism is of still another type – differing from the others not in its fundamental nature but only in the forms it has taken, just as the forms themselves have differed from stage to stage.

American imperialism appeared on the scene as a dominant world power not when Britain, France, Holland and Belgium did, but only in comparatively recent times. Socialists interested in contributing to a real understanding of American capitalism would analyse its rise precisely in relation to these times. US imperialism rose to power in a period when the Russian Revolution removed one-sixth of the world from the field of capitalist exploitation and expansion, thereby dealing the old world of capitalist imperialism its first crippling blow; when the rest of the capitalist world emerged from the first world war in a state of impoverishment, exhaustion and even collapse, leaving the USA as the only victor in the war, the only one to come out of it stronger economically and politically and in a position to place and keep the other capitalist nations on rations; when the traditional lands of colonial oppression and exploitation began their political awakening and self-emancipation which, by now, in 1951, has made the restoration and maintenance of the old capitalist empires in Asia, Africa and Latin America extraordinarily difficult and in some cases utterly impossible; when the social-revolutionary struggle of the working class in Europe continues intermittently but irrepressibly to prevent the establishment of a capitalist equilibrium anywhere in the world.

These circumstances do more to determine the form of American imperialism than any of the superficialities and ludicrous phrases of The Nineteen. To these circumstances must be added the vastly complicated phenomenon of Stalinism and Stalinist imperialism, which we readily grant Lenin did not feel necessary to analyse when he first set forth his series in 1916. However, the development of Stalinism does not modify, let alone diminish, the imperialist character of American capitalism. It only accentuates it, and makes it more odiously manifest to the peoples of the world – a fact which is really emphasized by the necessity The Nineteen feel to make their “explanatory” appeal to the Asian peoples.

From the standpoint of the working class and of socialism, the triumph of Stalinism, which enslaves the people, is the very antithesis of the great Russian Revolution which began their liberation. But from the standpoint of the capitalist classes, there is no such antithesis. Wherever Stalinism threatens, it also threatens the capitalists; where it conquers, it wipes them out; where it wipes them out, it narrows down still further the “living space” of world capitalism. Nowadays, these last two words mean more and more: American capitalism.

The capitalist world is so far gone in its disintegration that there is not a single country that can challenge the Stalinist empire, let alone defeat it. Indeed, leave out the USA and all the rest of the capitalist world could not successfully clash with Stalinism. That’s the miserable state reached by capitalism which so many helpless and muddle-headed people still think of salvaging. Capitalism can hope to beat the Kremlin only if it is organized, sustained and led by the United States.

The simple people of the world have not read Lenin’s work on imperialism. But in their own way, they understand it not too badly; in any case, better than the nineteen democratic socialist scholars, including those who once did read it. Millions, tens of millions, understand that American capitalism can maintain its exceptional position in the world, a position which the ret do not and cannot and will not enjoy, not by its political superiority, not by triumphing over Stalinism by means of better political weapons, but by a war involving the entire world and threatening its very existence.

The people, everyone knows, do not judge by theories but by results. Millions in Europe alone have gone through two world wars in one life-time. From both of them, they came out more cruelly impoverished, more thoroughly bled, more deeply rent and scarred than before. The US came out of both with many casualties, to be sure, but with far, far fewer than Europe; above all, it came out both times richer, more powerful, more dominant. With what feelings do you think the people of Europe – and Asia – now face the prospect of a third world war?

To tell them that the US is an “imperfect democracy,” is to mislead them – or rather to try, because they are not so easy to mislead. Even to say it is a capitalist democracy is not sufficiently accurate. The US is indeed a democracy of a kind – an aristocratic imperialist democracy. Its aristocratic democracy – enjoyed by an aristocracy among the world’s capitalist classes and even an aristocracy among the world’s working classes – is based on its extraordinary economic power. Its economic power is based upon the impoverishment of the rest of the capitalist world.

Because it is a capitalist country, the capitalist class is privileged as against the working class. Because it is an imperialist aristocrat, it is, as a nation, privileged as against all the other capitalist nations. That is why it arouses the hostility not only of the common people of the rest of the world but even of the capitalist classes of the other countries! And we will see that the US, its working class in particular, will have to pay even more heavily and tragically for the aristocratic position it enjoys and which saturates it with a chauvinistic psychology from which not even “democratic socialists by conviction” are as exempt as they would like to believe.

If everyone in this country does not understand the aristocratic privileges enjoyed by the US, everyone in the other countries does. What is more, the vast majority abroad understands that American capitalism (not imperialism of course, just capitalism) does not intend to share these privileges with the rest of the world and, so long as capitalism exists here, under Coolidge or Truman or even Colonel McCormick, it will never share them.

“Why should we share them, when we alone worked for them with our own hands?” exclaims the honestly innocent – as well as the not-so-innocent – American patriot who does not realize how heavily saturated he is with good American chauvinism. He does not grasp the feelings of the peoples of the other countries; his leaders and his newspapers do not allow him to grasp them. These peoples, the Europeans in particular, feel that in the two greatest world crises of the twentieth century, it was they, far, far, far more than we, who made the sacrifices of blood and wealth; but it was we, and we alone, who came out vastly richer, richer at the expense of their pauperization, and relatively at least, physically unscathed. The Chicago Tribune does not understand this because its class head is not, as it were, shaped that way. But what about the “democratic socialists”?

The peoples of the world also see that the US has no intention of sharing its privileges, let alone of foregoing them. They know – they need not be reminded every week by The Nineteen, for the Chicago Tribune reminds them of it every day – that the US has “spent on relief and rehabilitation in Europe and Asia since the war $36,500,000,000.” Some of these funds undoubtedly saved many, many lives and reconstructed much of the economy, primarily, as even the recent American trade-union delegations to Europe have pointed out, for the benefit of the capitalist classes. But what stands out, what appears to them and is far more important is this: the ‘relief and habilitation” of Europe and Asia, and the additional billions being poured into those lands now, are sent and used for the purpose of mobilizing them for the third world war which they all fear and hate. For that, they do not have the gratitude that American chauvinists expect them to show.

Why not? Look at the situation “in the light of the facts.” Last year, the US appropriated about 34-35 million dollars under Truman’s “Point Four Program” for the building up of the underdeveloped and backward countries. Practically for these countries, it meant next to nothing. About half went to the UN, where it is dribbled away; the other half is likewise dribbled away; altogether it could change the economic situation of the countries envisaged by the breadth of one finger.

But – the appropriation proposed by Truman for the fiscal year of 1952 for direct military aid to countries abroad – that is, to mobilize and arm them for war and destruction – amounts to no less than 6 billion dollars, or almost twenty times as much as was appropriated last year for Point Four! The budget proposed for the same period for the arming of the US alone amounts to a good 40 billion dollars, and it will, of course, be adopted by Congress with minor changes, if any. But the miserable few million dollars – miserable by comparison with the war budget – required to alleviate somewhat the appalling famine that threatens India? That appropriation is held up. Every child knows why. Do The Nineteen? Then why do they not write a letter to their friends in Asia explaining that the US is not imperialist, that it does not use its economic power to impose its political and military decisions upon a weaker nation?

American capitalism, imperialist through and through, talks about defending democracy from Stalinist imperialism. It may even be that its spokesmen believe what they say. No matter. We need not believe about a man what he believes about himself. In reality, they want to defend only their privileges and power which precisely because they are imperialists, they do not and will not share with the other peoples of the World. But they cannot defend their privileges without the support of other nations and they know it. This support they cannot get from the free will of the peoples. This too they know and many of them virtually admit it. The present world political situation is so delicate for them, so hazardous that they cannot impose their will on other nations in the “old” imperialist manner, by sheer, open employment of armed force. A fine reception that would meet!

So, they seek to impose their leadership by the means unique to American imperialism today, their exceptional economic power, on which their military power is based. They cannot send marines to France or England or India, as they did to Nicaragua a quarter century ago; and they need not do that today. They hold over the ruling classes of the other countries their unique economic power, saying, in effect: “Without us, your economy will collapse overnight; the Stalinists will take power; or the workers themselves will take power; in either case, you are done for.” Or “If you had voted right in the UN meetings, there would be no delay in sending you food to ward off your famine”. Every well-educated child, even, if he’s not a “democratic socialist by conviction” knows how restless and irked even the UN delegates from the capitalist countries feel under this constant economic-political pressure of American imperialism. If that is how they feel, is it so hard to imagine how their peoples at home feel and how right they are about American capitalism’s imperialist nature, even without reading Lenin or Hobson?

Unquestionably, write The Nineteen,

“the American people are ready to use large sums for cooperative war against want throughout the world, especially if this war can be substituted for the present terribly expensive race in arms.”

Right! We would even like to say, one hundred percent right. But the sentiments of the American people are not what the other peoples call into question, and the shift in terms is – how shall we say? – misleading. What is in question is: American capitalism, American imperialism.

And that question is at the heart of hearts of the whole question. To that question, evasively affirmed by The Nineteen who cannot quite summon up enough strength to say “the American capitalist class” or “the American government,” we reply categorically NO! American capitalism is concerned not with world peace, but with world profits, not with world prosperity but with its own jealously-guarded privileges. It will spend billions of dollars to prepare for the most hideous war in history, and more billions of dollars and millions of lives to fight it, millions of American lives and millions of lives of peoples of other lands it can enlist behind its command, in the hope that this war will enhance its wealth and privilege, as the last two wars did. But for the “cooperative war against want throughout the world,” it will grudgingly count out pennies and dimes and even that not always. That, The Nineteen do not see, is because American capitalism is imperialist and imperialism does not exist to improve the conditions of the people, most certainly not of the pariah peoples among whom the American aristocrat is dominant.

All that has been said is not meant, by so much as a word, to deny the abhorrent character of Stalinist despotism, which we understood somewhat earlier than the defender of the Moscow Trials, Upton Sinclair. Not by so much as a word is it meant to deny that Stalinism is a menace to socialism, to the working class, to the freedom and future of the people. We know what Stalinism signifies, we have said it often and we will not stop saying it.

But it is meant to say this: American imperialism because it is what it is in its very nature, cannot conduct progressive struggle against Stalinism, cannot conduct democratic struggle against it. It is, by its very nature, too dependent on the reactionary forces that depend on it – the dark clerical parties of Europe, the Vatican and its Franco, and the Rhees, Bao Dais and Chiang-Kai-Sheks or Asia. It cannot even come to harmonious terms with such inadequate democrats, if we may say so, as the Labourite chiefs in England and Nehru in India. American imperialism cannot instil confidence in itself among the popular masses of the world, not even the “free world,” as it calls it, not even with the help of “democratic socialists by conviction.”

So far as the masses of the people of the world are concerned, American imperialism stands virtually alone and that is how it will stand There is the tragic penalty the American people, who are indeed menaced by the rise of Stalinist totalitarianism, must pay for the rues and aristocratic privileges of the American ruling classes! It is a penalty from which we can be released only under one condition: a workers’ government in the US, with a genuinely democratic program – for that alone can win the brotherhood and confidence of the peoples of the world Only under that condition, and nothing short of that.

That cannot come tomorrow morning – we really know that! But it will never come so long as the workers of this country do not declare their complete political independence of the capitalist class, its parties, and their imperialist course which poisons us with chauvinist ideas and alienates us from the peoples of other lands and them from us. That independence will never come if we listen to and preach the sickening apologies for American imperialism that are typified by the Appeal to Our Friends in Asia.

And it will not come soon if our friends in Asia, who are so far ahead of us that they have decided to “stand clear” – to be independent of – Stalinism and American imperialism, and thereby have begun to raise up a new rallying point of hope for peace and freedom – if these friends listen to the shallow appeals of the defenders of American-imperialism-which-is-not-imperialist, defenders who have given up the fight against war and begun to recruit for it. We want with all our strength to believe that the people of India, justly proud of their hard-won independence and resolved to extend it in all fields, and above all their most advanced fighters, the socialists of India, will stand stoutly by their positions.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 3.5.2011