From New International, Vol.5 No.4, April 1939, pp.99-101.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
The question is no longer, “Will there be a new world imperialist war?” but merely, “Exactly when, and how, and with what lineup, will the war start?” And now that we are to be asked to give our lives for democracy, it is well to understand what millions will be dying for
WHEN, ON A MOUNTAINSIDE, prolonged action of the elements, alternate thaws and freezings, the beating of rains and flow of quiet springs, have loosened a great mass of rocks and earth, a trivial, seemingly chance event – a tree uprooted by the wind or a poised rock unbalanced by a twig – can start the avalanche which will devastate the valley. That the avalanche will come, this the student of the mountainside will know. But no man can predict with accuracy the exact moment of its descent. What we can know is that all major conditions are at hand, that we await only the small “accident” which completes the cause.
So, also, with a social avalanche, with war or revolution. It is only within rough limits that we can predict the precise date of the outbreak of a great war or revolution. We can know that the major conditions are all present, that a stage has been reached when a solution of the problems directly facing society can be reached only through war or revolution; but the moment of the first battle will depend also on the “accident”, on an isolated border clash, an assassination, perhaps on the excited emotion of a neurotic statesman.
The world has now reached that stage, reached it six months or even a year ago. The question is no longer, “Will there be a new world imperialist war?” but merely, “Exactly when, and how, and with just what lineup, will the war start?” An appropriate order from Benes or Sirovy might have begun the war in September. Whatever the wishes of Daladier or Stalin or Chamberlain, it is not plausible that the battlefield could have been squeezed within the Versailles-made borders of Czechoslovakia. September passed, but the world soon understood that the peace of Munich was not salvation but another step toward the inferno.
THE PEACE OF Versailles assigned political boundaries to the world in approximate correspondence to the relative economic and military strength of the great Powers at the conclusion of the last war. Pious phrases and legal formalities, distinctions among mandates and protectorates and colonies and dominions, should not deceive us. It is comparable to the ending of a hard-fought strike: the agreement finally typed out and signed is filled with neat legal phraseology, often with fine verbal tributes to industrial harmony and the joys of collective bargaining; but the agreement simply records, in its own way, what was decided by the direct test of strength in the struggle. In 1918 Germany and Austria were smashed by superior arms, finances and economic resources. The provisions of the Treaty summed up what had already happened.
Today the political division of the world no longer corresponds to the relative economic, financial and military strength of the powers, nor to their imperious nee.ds. Nor is there any longer room in the world for a half-dozen great powers. Times are sharper than in 1914, the cupboard emptier, the wolves howling more fiercely. There is not enough to go around. The battle is for survival, against national death; and someone must lose out. Already the altering of the Versailles balance has been plainly enough recorded. Japan takes Manchuria and moves into China; Italy, Ethiopia; Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia and Memel. Treaties, laws and moral ideals bow helplessly to the death struggles of imperialism.
How pitiful an illusion that the re-division of the world could be accomplished by negotiation, agreement, discussion ! What is at stake is the life of the imperialist powers. Those that lose out now are wiped off the historical scene forever. Puppets and pawns – Manchurias and Austrias and Ethiopias and Czechoslovakias – can be forced to commit suicide. But the masters will fight to the end.
The avalanche is ready. We live in its path, waiting for the dislodged stone that will send it hurling down on our heads.
WHY IS IT THAT England did not go to war in September? Why did England adopt the line of appeasement – for it was England, of course, that was the major agent in shaping the course that led to Munich. All of the popular explanations – that Chamberlain is lacking in patriotism, that he is a “traitor to democracy”, that there were not enough British airplanes, that Lindbergh spread tales out of school – are superficial.
England did not go to war because the British ruling class fears the war, because the British ruling class has everything to lose and nothing to win from the war. England is caught in a trap: it is threatened almost equally by not fighting or by fighting.
The main enemy of British imperialism is not Hitler.
He is a threat, a serious threat, true enough. But if it were only a question of Hitler, England would not have to be afraid. The resources in money, material and men upon which England, together with her easily obtainable allies, could count are enough to overwhelm Hitler.
But the main enemy is within, and it is that enemy which the British ruling class above all fears. The main enemy is the four-hundred-millioned masses of India, stirring restlessly, the tens of millions of African Negroes, the Arabian masses pounding at the gates of British power in the Near East, the people of Eire sending their Valentine bombs to the City, the peoples of the dominions who do not intend to fight forever for the London banks, yes, and the English workers who, in spite of the parliamentary traitors who officially lead them have not yet permitted a conscription law.
The Empire, the gouty, senile tyrant that is left of the triumphant giant who conquered the world in the virile manhood of capitalism, is breaking up from within. Chamberlain understands what is happening. He knows that the yoke of the war dictatorship is not strong enough, once the casualty lists begin mounting, the work hours stretching out, the bombs falling, the food growing scarce, to hold in leash those straining centrifugal forces.
Yes, India has given us a few months or a year of peace, to the English workers and the French workers and the workers of the United States. It has given us these precious weeks before the war dictatorship, in which we can still speak the truth publicly; time for some hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands more to learn what the war means, to prepare to meet it, to resolve to lead the way out of it through the overthrow of the whole system of wars. Philistines wonder, sometimes, what Marxists mean when they use their cold, abstract phrases about the alliance between the class struggle of the workers and the struggle of the colonial peoples for national liberation. This is what they mean. It is not that the hounded Indian peasant, fighting desperately for a bowl of rice against the whip of the British Raj and his native deputies, thinks about the American workers, not that the peasant has any conscious interest in the goal of international socialism. But the fight for life of the Indian masses is a fight against the war and the war-makers, against the system of imperialism from which wars issue. And the fight, open and threatened, of the peasants of India has been enough to delay the war; and will, after the war starts, be the first aid in transforming the imperialist war into a war of world-wide liberation.
When we reflect on these things, how openly does the hideous true face of social-patriotism show itself! The Stalinists and reformists, in the name of freedom and socialism, tell us to fight England’s war against her rival, Hitler! What, then, do we say to the peasants of India, the African Negroes, the Arabian peoples? No: England’s war is not our war. Our war is the war of the Indian masses, and that war is against England, against British as well as Hitler’s imperialism.
ENGLAND WILL HAVE to fight. There is no other way. But the British ruling class still seeks to delay, to put off the day which begins the end of the British Empire.
Chamberlain, pursuing his tortuous course, makes a “new turn” in connection with the imminent crisis over Danzig and the Polish Corridor. And at once there follows a new somersault for all the columnists and editorial writers, all the reformists and liberals, for the whole crew which thinks that writing about history means commenting on the latest platitudes which are belched out of the most prominent shirt fronts. Chamberlain is no more the traitor of Munich. Almost, he is the Galahad-leader of the world battle for democracy. Good old Neville, he has learned since September. Doubless he has been reading the Nation and New Masses, perhaps even the Daily Worker. These British Public School men, they have the right stuff in them after all, when the crisis comes.
Shortness of memory seems to be rather a social than a psychological disease. Men, unwilling or unable to face the world they live in, blot it out by forgetting each yesterday and feeding on the fantasies of tomorrow. We no longer wish to remember the stern British indignation once over Manchuria. We have forgotten those days of the sanctions campaign and all the brave moral nothings over Ethiopia. Yes, we have thoroughly forgotten those two days just before Munich when Chamberlain became for an evening the hero even of Heywood Broun, when his ringing denunciation of Hitler, his moving summons to the conscience of mankind drew all virtuous hearts to his side.
It is the same Chamberlain who speaks today that spoke at Munich; it is the same voice, the voice of the British ruling class, painfully maneuvering its way through the imperialist rocks, tacking now to windward, now to leeward, building toward the occasion when conscription and the war dictatorship will meet no effective resistance, seeking the most favorable moment for the launching of hostilities, testing for the most persuasive moral issues.
It is not excluded that a war will break out over Poland; in general, it is no longer excluded that war will begin tomorrow. But it is sure enough that Chamberlain doesn’t want, doesn’t intend to have a war this month over Poland. His current “Stop Hitler!” phrases are, for him, an easy prelude to still another Munich.
From both the military and the ideological points of view, Poland is not propitious. Just what would the defense of Poland mean from the military aspect? The shrewd Lloyd George underlined the military difficulty:
If war occurred tomorrow we could not send a single battalion to Poland. France could not. She would be confronted with fortifications which are infinitely more formidable than the Hindenburg line which took us four years to break through with casualties running into millions.
But what is going to happen to Poland while we are blockading Germany – a blockade for which she is much better prepared than in 1914-18 – and while the French are breaking through very powerful fortifications?
France could operate only from the west; she would have to throw her armies against the Siegfried Line in an offensive strategy which all military commentators agree is the most costly and dangerous method of modern warfare, and would meanwhile be exposed on the Spanish and Italian frontiers. The British Fleet could, perhaps, blockade Danzig and the German ports; but in the first months this would prove little hindrance to the German legions.
The armies which would have to bear the full brunt of the defense would have to come from the east, from Poland itself and from the Soviet Union, and perhaps from the south, from Rumania. This, true enough, might not be too displeasing to England. If her world could remain static while the mass armies of the Soviet Union and Hitler wore each other out, she could get ready to step in more strongly as decisive arbiter. But no wonder Poland, held in so gigantic a pincers, with her own territory sure to be the battlefield, is wary. And little wonder that the Soviet Union, remembering also her Eastern flank, is, in the words of Roy Howard’s dispatch, “coy as usual”.
And on the moral side, the Polish issue is no more savory. “Poor little Poland!” It sticks in the craw a bit. Not half so rich a flavor as “Poor little Belgium!” In every respect inferior to “Poor little Czechoslovakia!” Poland: the land of permanent military dictatorship; of hundred-thousand acred landlords and peasants living like cattle; of sweated, starving workers; of outlawed parties and always-suppressed civil liberties; of pogroms and ghettoes and endless persecutions. The goods are rather frayed and tarnished to be put over on the ultimate consumer. Even poor little Albania, which Mussolini now pushes forward, with its musical comedy king and his fortune-hunting sisters, might be preferable.
A SINGLE BRIEF note on Britain’s valiant partner, who now gets ready together with Britain to allow us to win our spurs, under their joint auspices, as martyrs in the cause of truth and freedom. Our comrade, the Spanish Bolshevik-Leninist, Munis, was imprisoned in Barcelona under a frame-up charge. Through a remarkable series of incidents, he and the others with him got out of the city just before Franco entered and made a perilous way to the border. (The story of this escape was published in the Socialist Appeal.) He was asked, “What was your impression after your entry into France?” He replied:
I had the impression of passing from one prison into another. Eight hours after having crossed the frontier I was shut into the concentration camp of Boulon. During two days I ate only a little bread given to me by some French workers whom we passed on the road. The soldiers gave us beatings with their gun-butts. For the first three nights I slept outdoors on the ground, in a driving rain. I went to the doctor with a fever of 104 degrees. What I managed to get from him was permission to sleep on straw in a little farm, big enough for ten people, where seventy women and children were crammed in ... I was also at Argeles and in other camps; conditions were even worse. No barracks. Everyone slept outdoors. No medical attention. An unbelievable food situation. A fifth, at most a quarter of the refugees got a little bread ...
Now that we are once more about to give our lives for democracy, it is well to know what we shall be dying for.
Last updated on 8.8.2006