From Fourth International, Vol.12 No.1, January-February 12951, pp.3-8.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
President Truman’s proclamation of a state of National Emergency signals America’s entry into the social crisis from which it alone of all the capitalist countries had thus far escaped. The fatal step of placing American economy on a war footing and transforming the nation into an armed camp has Been taken with the bluster and arrogance typical of the American plutocracy. But the pose can scarcely hide the reality: the gnawing feeling of uncertainty, the sense of impending disaster which pervades the ruling class. Beyond these feverish military preparations lies a catastrophic cycle of wars and revolutions that may well propel the mightiest imperialist power to its doom.
The metamorphosis of the world position of American imperialism within a brief five years is literally breathtaking, but characteristic of the rocket-like speed of the historic process in our epoch.
US imperialism emerged from World War II the dominant capitalist power in the world. Its economy flourished with expanded productive capacity and a rising national income while its capitalist rivals in both camps were prostrated by the war, bankrupted by the huge expenditures of labor and capital required, ruined by monstrous destruction. While the rest of the world lay in mortal crisis America prospered, partly because of that crisis and partly at its expense.
Yet the world crisis could no more be ignored than an epidemic in the slums, which, left unchecked, must eventually penetrate even into the exclusive and remote habitats of the rich. For five years US capitalism has been engaged in the most prodigious of rescue operations. Billions of American dollars have been injected like blood-plasma into the ailing capitalist system on both continents. With each succeeding year the enormity of the task grew instead of diminishing, until today America itself is being drawn into the vortex of the world crisis with the end further from view than ever.
The problem, no longer permitting of ambiguities, is now posed in all its terrifying scope: US capitalism must abandon the profits and privileges of its insular position and domestic markets, it must commit all its accumulated reserves in an unpredictable military venture on a global scale and, in complete defiance of the most treasured traditions and sentiments of the people, it must convert the nation literally overnight into a garrison state, it must strain its productive capacity and manpower to the breaking point. With what end? Who of America’s rulers, in the privacy of his own thoughts, excludes the possibility that US capitalism will perish in the attempt?
Only the most restricted section of America’s rulers understood the problem in these cataclysmic terms, and of these there were few who were ready to face the reality squarely. Bernard Baruch, multi-millionaire and evil genius of two world wars, stood alone like a prophet of doom with his grim warnings and demands for the immediate regimentation of American life. The American bourgeoisie was too fat, too sated with super-profits to listen, let alone to understand, and in any case unprepared by its whole past to cope with a problem of such magnitude. They cursed Roosevelt for Yalta, Truman for Potsdam and the “politicians” for being intimidated by the irrepressible demand of the American soldiers (echoed today in Korea and throughout the land to “Bring the GIs home!”) to demobilize the armed forces after the victory over Germany and Japan. In the last resort there was always the smug consolation that the Almighty Dollar would take care of all their troubles; it always had in the past, why not now when American currency was in greater demand than ever before?
Putting aside the reality like a bad dream, the ruling circles nevertheless could not evade the need for a global strategy, a long-range plan to take the place of daily improvisations. Since the end of the war, American foreign policy has been dominated by the conceptions of the young “wizard” of the State Department, George Kennan. “Communism,” he believed, could be contained within its orbit, and eventually pushed back behind its Russian frontiers, there to be destroyed from within through aid from abroad. This was based on the one-sided premise that the Soviet bureaucracy feared war above all else, that it was despised by its own subjects who, with real encouragement from a powerful foreign force would settle their accounts with the Kremlin and open the gates of the Soviet Union once again to the flow of foreign capital. Therein was its fundamental fallacy, though not the only one. All that was needed, according to Kennan, was to infuse economic and military strength into the capitalist world, so that it could become a mighty bastion from which to operate, to resist by force any encroachments on the periphery of the two worlds and even to take “calculated risks” to divest the Russians of control they already had.
Kennan’s strategy received official sanction in the proclamation of the Truman Doctrine and was implemented by the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Pact. For a time it appeared to be successful: in Iran, in Turkey, in the air-lift over Berlin, in the civil war in Greece and in the establishment of a certain equilibrium in the economy of Western Europe. In reality, compared to the task to be accomplished, these were minor victories, but they inflated the self-confidence of the American bourgeoisie. Everything was for the best in the best of all possible world. The ECA absorbed surpluses and created bigger markets, the armaments program took up the slack in production, and all the while profits kept rolling in, seemingly in an unending stream. The strategy had supplementary benefits at home in silencing opposition and protest and in intimidating the trade unions. In a moment of doubt, the American bourgeois could always comfort himself with the thought that if the US was no longer the sole possessor of the A-Bomb at least it had better facilities to manufacture them faster and in greater number than the Russians.
This illusion received its first fillip from reality when the North Koreans crossed the 38th Parallel last June 25. And it finally died a bloody death on the banks of the Yalu. There in the frozen wastes and mountain passes near the Manchurian border lie the ruins not only of the only army US imperialism possessed, not only of the reputation of its most touted general, not only of the prowess of American arms based on the last word in modern technology, but above all of Kennan’s carefully elaborated world strategy and with it the Truman Doctrine. It is especially this latter aspect that has turned defeat in a small, isolated theater of war into a major disaster.
The defeat has baffled and disoriented America’s rulers, creating among them what Walter Lippman terms a “crisis of confidence” which has also gripped their capitalist allies in Europe who have added truculence and suspicion to lack of faith. What went wrong? What will happen now? Which way shall we turn? To Europe? To Asia? Will Stalin unleash the war now? Is there still time to prepare? The questions crowd on one another like a nightmare.
One examines the bourgeois press in vain for a serious political analysis of the causes of the debacle in Korea. A whole variety of reasons are given: Acheson’s policy caught the country unprepared for a major engagement. MacArthur is responsible, he committed every military boner in the book. Truman should not have allowed us to become involved in such a hazardous conflict on the tip of the hostile Asiatic mainland. The Russians tricked us into a war where they could stand by as spectators while their North Korean and Chinese pawns did the fighting for them. These answers are all superficial, dealing only with effects; they skirt but never probe the two basic reasons for the defeat.
First: What MacArthur encountered in Korea was not Kennan’s conception of Stalin’s tyrannical but frightened Politburo but a torrent of social revolution which is sweeping his armies into the sea. MacArthur was misled by the Kremlin’s failure to provide adequate equipment to the North Koreans when victory was in their grasp on the Pusan beachhead last summer. This appeared to vindicate the thesis that, once faced with a stronger military adversary who would not hesitate before any risk, the Kremlin would abandon its puppets and retire from the scene.
Thus fortified in his megalomaniac notion that history is made by masters moving masses like pawns on a chessboard, MacArthur, despite innumerable warnings, gaily marched his army, with Christmas carols running through their heads, to the Manchurian frontier. There he was to discover, at the expense of his soldier victims, that if he could dare ignore the revolution in North Korea, the mighty anti-imperialist Chinese revolution did not choose to ignore MacArthur. He was to discover that if the Soviet bureaucracy could be forced to retreat in panic before the threat of war, the million-headed masses of China were determined to settle accounts with their imperialist enemies regardless of consequences. (To be sure MacArthur discovered much but understood little. He gives the palm of of battle to the camel which, in the hands of these revolutionary Chinese, proved a mightier engine of war, he opined, than all his super-tanks and jet-propelled planes.)
The thundering lesson of Korea for the imperialists is that they confront not merely the Kremlin and the Soviet army but a revolutionary tide that is rising irresistibly throughout Asia and will eventually sweep all the continents. The Soviet bureaucracy may try to exploit this upsurge for its own ends, but it can no longer command, manipulate and betray it as in the past. Native Stalinist leaderships, like those in China and Korea, are far more sensitive to the pressure of their own revolutionary masses than to that of the Kremlin with whom they tend to maneuver as independent powers.
The decisive military facts of the next war are to be found not in charts and tables at the Pentagon but in the alignment of social forces in Asia, and in the conclusions to be drawn therefrom for Europe. This is the lesson of Korea that Washington dare not face.
Second: The defeat in Korea was due to an error, if you wish to call it that, which flowed in reality from an insoluble problem of global strategy. If Hitler’s downfall from a military point of view was due in part to having to fight on two fronts in Europe, then how much greater is the dilemma of the Pentagon which must face adversaries in two remote and opposite parts of the world, both in Europe and in Asia! For five years Washington juggled with this problem but the trick could not be mastered because, in fact, it cannot be mastered.
At the war’s end US imperialism, with the Kremlin’s aid was engaged in putting out the fires of revolution both in Europe and in Asia. But after two years of fruitless, but fabulously expensive attempts to bolster up the hopelessly corrupt Chiang Kai-shek regime, it was Marshall himself who authored the strategy of building a bulwark in Western Europe without regard to losses in Asia. Life did not permit the strict enforcement of this decision and, despite itself, American imperialism was constantly drawn back to the Orient. Mao’s victory in 1949 had to be considered an ultimate threat to, Formosa, Japan and the Philippines. The French were hopelessly enmeshed in a colonial struggle in Indo-China, compromising the position of France internally and threatening the loss of another imperialist base in Asia. With all these modifications, the decision to give Europe first preference remained the guiding line of the State Department until the outbreak of the war in Korea.
Then suddenly and without plan America became committed up to its neck in Asia – this after three years of abandoning Asia for Europe! It is quite possible, of course, that in their blind ignorance of the dynamics of class forces Truman and his advisors really conceived the action in Korea as a “police action” that would be quickly finished, that would teach the Russians an unforgettable lesson, that would enhance the confidence of West European capitalism in their American protector. But before many months had passed, the best part of America’s military establishment was committed to Asia, where an embroilment had been considered most unfavorable, while Europe, deliberately chosen as the best bastion, remained completely defenseless Mad Stalin been the dynamic “imperialist” depicted by the frightened petty-bourgeois intellectuals, he would have marched to the English Channel at this propitious moment.
Then came the defeat. Once again Acheson rushed back to Brussels to convince Europe that the US was still determined to carry out its original project even though the Atlantic Pact had remained little more than promise and wind. He found the German people hostile to rearmament, unwilling to see their country again become the cockpit of war; he found that the opposition of the French bourgeoisie to German rearmament was fed by defeatist moods which made France a poor risk rather than a “center of resistance.”
The Korean war had had a sobering effect on an already badly frightened European capitalist class. In their eyes the policy of “calculated risks” has been seriously compromised. To take such a risk, for example, by beginning the rearmament of Germany might result in civil war and the speedy Russian occupation of all of Europe before the first contingents of the new army were assembled. An even more fundamental lesson that has been drawn from the Korean experience is that for Europe the alternative to Russian occupation is total destruction by American bombs. The net result thus far of the Brussels conference has been the appointment of General Eisenhower as commander-in-chief of a non-existing European army.
Inherent in this new situation, in this strong rise of neutralist moods among the European bourgeoisie is a new turn in America’s foreign policy: a retreat from the main arenas of social struggle to the perimeters of the European theater, to the building of bases in Spain, North Africa and Britain, to what can be in effect a variety of Hoover’s “isolationism.”
The inescapable conclusion from these precipitate switches, this jumping from continent to continent is that there is no viable long-term policy for US imperialism. Truman was eminently correct when he asked his Republican opponents who were demanding Acheson’s head, what other course they proposed to take the place of the one he and Acheson had followed. The only answer that has come is that of Hoover-Kennedy, which, in essence, is not an answer.
The most astute of the bourgeois journalists, Walter Lippman, can dream nostalgically of the days of Gladstone and the slower rhythm of the Nineteenth Century which permitted British imperialism to solve its problems at leisure and as they arose. But nostalgia is no substitute for a program and, in that field, Lippman can propose nothing better than that the US drastically reduce its commitments in Europe and in Asia, in brief a policy resembling that of the isolationist Chicago Tribune which he has so sharply castigated over the years.
A traditional phenomenon in American politics, “isolationism” has taken many forms and undergone many changes. If one can speak of isolationism today, it must be recalled that in the past ten years it has consisted of a demand to turn America’s back on Europe and to concentrate on the Pacific and Asia. The significance of Herbert Hoover’s new statement is that he, as the chief advocate of this form of “isolationism,” now proposes to quit the Asian mainland as well as the European continent. (For Hoover and the capitalists for whom he speaks, the dream of China has turned to ashes: instead of 500 million customers for Coca Cola and Standard Oil there are 500,000,000 uncompromising foes with a military manpower of 40,000,000 to enforce their will).
Today such a policy represents a retreat on the world arena, in essence an abandonment of the dream of the “American Century.” Its effect will be to compromise the rule of the 60 richest Families in their own domain, to create all the conditions for internal crisis and therewith for the most titanic struggle of the classes in history. The alternative course for the American plutocracy, equally bad, is to plunge into a suicidal war, without perspectives, without great hopes of victory. And in the end, after wasting America’s resources, the plutocracy will not escape the explosion of class conflict at home which will be far vaster and more violent precisely because of the terrible privations the masses suffer during the war.
It is serious enough for the American bourgeoisie that a “crisis of confidence” exists, that they cannot find an effective policy. Far more serious is the fact that the dilemma of the rulers is beginning to enter, albeit slowly, into the consciousness of the American people. The defeat in Korea marks the beginning of moods of suspicion, distrust and eventually of opposition among the working people of the United States to the plans and policies of Wall Street which will one day weigh far more heavily in the scales than all the atom bombs at Oak Ridge.
Up to the Korean defeat, Washington could proceed with equanimity in its global imperialist strategy without regard to the reactions of the masses. A situation of relative economic stability prevailed in the country. Profiting from its world privileged position and from its fabuluous super-profits the bourgeoisie could afford to yield certain concessions under the pressure of the organized labor movement. They were not enough to make any radical improvement in the living conditions of the masses, which has never crossed very far over the borderline of poverty and insecurity – despite the post-war “prosperity,” one-third of the nation has remained ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed – but enough to lend a certain allure to Truman’s “Welfare State” demagogy and to give the trade union bureaucracy a weapon against the advocates of militant action, independent labor politics’and a bold social program.
That, under such conditions, there was no great thought or concern among the masses about foreign policy or world stiategy; is quite understandable. To be sure, there existed a certain disquietude about the frightfully destructive character of a new world war. But the bourgeoisie, possessed of a formidable apparatus for forming public opinion which is as highly trustified as the steel or auto industry and speaks with one voice and on the same general line – was able to successfully allay these fears. America’s position, the general conception held, was invincible; its industrial technique was unrivalled; there were dollars enough to buy allies, and force enough, especially atom bombs, to intimidate warlike enemies. War, therefore, was unlikely but if it came, America’s superiority in the air, and its ability to supply the armies of other countries, would quickly bring it to an end; with a few alterations and discomforts, life would then go on as usual. A minority, with a more realistic view of what war would entail, was driven to silence or isolated by an organized campaign of official repression.
The defeat in Korea has uprooted these conceptions. Air superiority and bombs were not enough to win; soldiers, by thousands and hundreds of thousands were needed, and primarily American soldiers because other countries seemed reluctant to provide more than token forces, And these soldiers had to fight in territories thousands of miles from home surrounded by a hostile people, ignorant of the geography, language and customs of the land and living in constant dread of being ambushed by guerrillas. If the results of so limited an engagement as that in Korea have been so calamitous, what a terrible prospect is a war with Russia and China combined? This question is not one propounded by defeatists in the US or by elements sympathetic to the Kremlin or even to communism. It arises from the very midst of the people in their effort to get a realistic view of what the plans of their rulers for world empire hold in store for them.
It is this deep dissatisfaction with the bankrupt policies and conceptions of yesterday, this searching for a new approach to the great world problems that marks the beginning in the ideological domain of the epoch of social crisis in the United States. As the former nervous and self-assured reaction – “If there must be a war, let’s get it over with quickly” – becomes untenable, the questions of war and peace will cease to be the private preserve of a tiny ruling clique and the road will be cleared for the entrance of the masses as an independent force on the political arena.
If the Korean war has laid the basis for a transformation of mass consciousness, then Truman’s proclamation of a National Emergency will create the conditions for gigantic struggles. The plans implicit in this proclamation include the transformation of the US into an armed camp with millions of soldiers in time of “peace,” the creation of austerity conditions in the midst of abundance, the domination of all phases of American life by an arrogant clique of militarists and corporation executives. The Alsop brothers, arguing against certain hesitations in ruling circles, write:
“If the decision to create a real air superiority at whatever cost is finally taken, the effort involved will be far from painless. For any kind of balanced force, the other services will require comparable appropriations. This will mean, annual budgets on the order of $100 billion and a full war economy. It will mean real ‘guns instead of butter,’ the kind of lowering of living standards which this country certainly never experienced during the last war. But the decision to go the whole way is certain to be taken in the end, simply because with every passing day it becomes more bleakly obvious that halfway measures are not enough to insure the survival of the nation.” (N.Y. Herald-Tribune, Dec. 26, 1950).
This “decision” runs counter to the most cherished traditions of the American people, counter to their native understanding and instinctive reactions, and is bound to call forth an ever-growing resistance.
The United States today is not in the same position as was Nazi Germany. It is not starving and suffocating within narrow borders. It is not surrounded by hostile neighbors who have robbed it of territory, raw materials, burdened it with reparations. The watchword “Expand or die!” has no meaning to the American people. There is no large army of unemployed, no desperate, disinherited middle class. There have been no disappointing experiences with reformism and Stalinism, no great defeats to make it appear that there is no other road than “guns instead of butter.”
Yet it must be remembered that, in spite of all these conditions favoring the warmakers, the resistance of the German people to the imperialist war program of their rulers was so great that ft required a Hitler and the whip of fascism to beat them into submission. How much greater then will be the resistance of the American masses who must be wrenched out of their traditional ways at a time when popular dissatisfaction with existing conditions is at its lowest ebb, who must see their prosperity-created illusions of attaining a measure of security smashed to bits! How much more difficult will it be for the American bourgeoisie to achieve its aims without a Hitler and in a capitalist democracy, distorted though it is by police-state laws!
It is unlikely that the bourgeoisie will succeed in convincing the American masses that the rigors and loss of liberty of a war economy are required as an act of “national salvation.” In any case that idea cannot penetrate deeply or last long. It must be quickly supplanted by the bitter realization that Big Business and the Big Brass in their desperation at being unable to solve their world problems have turned on the American people, that regimentation and Prussianization constitute an attempt to maintain their rule at home where it has failed abroad, that their own rulers and not some remote foreign enemy are plotting against their very lives.
The forces of great social conflict are gathering in the United States, the very citadel of world capitalism. It is futile to speculate as to the time they will mature. Suffice it to understand the trend and the magnitude they will assume. It was undoubtedly in anticipation of an eventual social crisis at home that the American bourgeoisie began almost three years ago to accelerate two processes essential to its survival: the integration of the trade union bureaucracy into the state machine; and official repression to crush all centers of opposition.
To enforce its planned regimentation of 15 million organized workers, under inflationary conditions with wages frozen, a shortage of consumers’ goods and workers tied to their jobs, the services of the Murrays, the Greens, the Reuthers as a police apparatus within the unions will be more vital than ever to the American capitalists. Already the top leaders of the CIO and AFL have been summoned to Washington to be assigned their role. But even this conference revealed that, for all of their servility and cowardice, the union bureaucrats were aware that they could not play this role in the same manner as they had in World War II. They can no longer appear as the mere instruments of Big Business and the Big Brass within the worker’s’ ranks. Hence the demand of the union leaders for representation in all echelons of the apparatus of the war economy which, they insisted, must at least appear as a “joint enterprise” of labor and capital.
Regardless of the precise outcome of this debased and treacherous bargaining, the trade union bureaucrats will be more identified and interlinked than ever with the war machine. They will function as the shield to protect the corporations and the government from the anger and the discontent of the workers. If this serves in the first stages to deflect and postpone the outbreak of workers’ struggles, it will only assure their becoming more explosive and uncontrollable at a later stage.
The ensuing class battles will tend to assume unofficial and “illegal” forms: wildcat strikes, job actions, rank-and-file movements. But as these struggles will encounter at every turn the furious and violent opposition of the government and in the first instance of the trade union bureaucracy, a powerful stimulus will be given for rebellion within the unions. A new layer of revolutionary militants will be forged in battle and will come to the fore as happened in the Thirties in the struggle against the AFL moguls which led to the creation of the CIO. The premises will be created for the formation of a powerful left wing – so long arrested by peculiar American conditions and by the treachery of the Stalinists – on a far higher and more mature level than ever before.
Confronted by the suicidal foreign policy of their rulers and by the hostile intervention of the state in every instance, the new left wing will tend to develop a program that will go to fundamentals. It cannot fail to set as its principal task the formation of an independent labor party.
But generated by a genuine left wing, the mass party of the American workers will not be the tame, reformist formation it was in Great Britain in the relatively placid era at the turn of the century. It will tend to become, at least in its lower ranks, an instrument of class conflict directed against the ruling monopolists and their state, an expression of tremendous discontent and will to struggle. It will be fought by the ruling oligarchy as though it were a revolutionary party with all the ruthlessness of their robber-baron training, with official repression and extra-legal fascist-like terror. But this reaction, no matter how violent in form, will not succeed – as the whole history of class struggles in the US proves – in intimidating or crushing the rebellious millions of American labor. On the contrary, it will steel them in their determination and assure their further revolutionary development.
This analysis is not to be construed as merely the expression of revolutionary optimism, although there is reason enough for the greatest confidence and hope. It is a prognosis clearly deducible from the new trends at work in American society, from the changing relationships of class forces. We are confident that the months and year’s to come will see its vindication in life.
To be sure, there are other possible variants which may alter this prognosis as to form and detail but not in its main trend. It is sufficient merely to cite the two other principal but opposite variants inherent in the present situation:
- It is not excluded that, faced with the hopeless dilemma of its present world situation, Washington will decide to withdraw from the Asiatic and European arenas, to “reduce its commitments,” as Lippman and Hoover propose, but in even more drastic form. And in doing so, it would have to abandon its all-embracing plans for a war economy. This would give rise to great convulsions in the American economic structure and must lead inevitably to the outbreak of a profound economic crisis, with millions of unemployed, and to the great class battles inherent in such a situation.
- Also not excluded is the possibility that Washington may plunge into war in the early future. The precipitation of war would temporarily arrest the development of class forces and struggles in the US, but only temporarily. All the trends described in the main analysis above would not only eventually come to the forefront but would be exacerbated to the extreme by the hopelessness of the war, by the terrible casualties and privations it would cause, by the repressions and brutality of the militarists and bourgeoisie toward the people at home.
The epoch of social crisis is opening in the United States. Its full impact may be postponed, though not for long. But it cannot be avoided. The workers of America are preparing their entry on the stage of world history. They, with their mighty hands, will decide the fate of the human race.
The prophetic words of Friedrich Engels, written well over six decades ago on June 6, 1886 to a friend in the US are now in process of realization. It is appropriate to cite these lines now, because therein lies not only a brilliant vindication of Marxism and its method, but of the unfailing confidence of the great masters of social science in the progressive capacities and potentialities of the proletariat.
“The explosion of the class war in America,” Engels wrote, “will be for the bourgeoisie of the entire world what the collapse of Russian Czarism will be for the great military monarchies of Europe – the downfall of their last great bastion. For America, after all, was the ideal of the entire bourgeoisie: a vast rich country on the ascendency, having purely bourgeois institutions untouched by feudal remnants and monarchical traditions and without any permanent and hereditary proletariat. There everyone has been able to become if not a capitalist then at any rate an independent person, producing or selling by his own means, for his own benefit. And since up to now there have not been classes with opposite interests, our – and your – bourgeoisie believed that America was above the antagonisms and struggles of the classes. This illusion is now destroyed, the last bourgeois paradise on earth is about to rapidly change into a purgatory and can only be saved from becoming a hell like Europe by the advance of the American proletariat which is just beginning to sprout its wings. The manner in which the proletarians have made their appearance on the scene is absolutely extraordinary – six months ago no one suspected anything, and now they appear suddenly in organized masses on the point of throwing terror in the whole capitalist class. My only regret is that Marx did not live to see it!”
One can hardly reproach the old master, who so clearly saw the main lines of development, for being in error as to time. The changes which have occurred in the past 65 years require a few but not fundamental modifications in his analysis. American capitalism, which was the ideal of the bourgeoisie everywhere, now carries all of world capitalism on its back. It is indeed “the last great bastion.” The American proletariat, almost completely unorganized in 1886, is now an organized force of 15 million strong. And if the absence of feudal remnants has created classic conditions for the class struggle, then the absence of strong Social-Democratic and Stalinist movements in the US today favors the creation of a powerful Marxist revolutionary movement which can assure the victory of the American proletariat. Not world empire, but world socialism, will be their answer to the dilemma of American foreign policy.
Last updated on: 23 March 2009