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The New International, December 1945


James Barrett

New Tactics in Fighting Totalitarianism – II

A Critique of the Radical and Liberal Positions


From The New International, Vol. XI No. 9, December 1945, pp. 267–269.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(The first half of this article appeared last month)


The radical, following these arguments thus far, might agree that they have proved the inconsistency of the liberal’s position – inconsistent even if we grant for purposes of argument the justice of the capitalist framework. Fortified with the Marxian theory of the state, he on the contrary feels singularly free from these illogicalities. Actually, however, he shares with the liberal all the weaknesses we have dealt with. Added to these should be the dereliction of those who refer to themselves as “radicals” or “socialists,” even though they merely gave “military” support to the war, but who kept absolutely silent about the people who the liberals were accusing of sedition and treason. The method of counteraction on the part of Kahn-Sayers, Cousins and others (as we tried to point out) may have been futile, but they at least stated their position, something the “radical” supporters of the war had not even attempted. The entire radical press, too, incidentally had virtually neglected the sedition trial of the twenty nine Minneapolis defendants, as well as its important implications. In addition to the shared weaknesses, the radical has a few unique to himself, preventing him from fighting totalitarianism audaciously. Subscribing to the class theory of the state has not saved him from drawing conclusions which make his political activities almost as ineffective as those of the liberal.

Since the state, he argues, is the coercive instrumentality of the “enemy class,” all problems concerning the working class must be solved by that class alone. Furthermore, it must never engage in activity which will “play into the hands of the enemy,” such as “red-baiting” (an honorific term, never clearly defined), contributing articles to the “reactionary press,” giving publicity to gangsterism in unions and suing any member of a “sister” political party for libel. Should the fascists here try to disrupt radical activities, the workers must organize their own “guards.” If the state ever attempts to stop fascist meetings (a “hypocritical” gesture at best, since it is supposed to be covertly supporting these groups), the radical either takes no position on this “family” quarrel, or he opposes the state in this “dangerous precedent” of suppression.

Effect of Theory Upon Unions

In practice this absolutistic theory has led to the following:

(1) A tendency toward capitulation of the rank and file in working-class organizations before corrupt and bureaucratic leadership which exploits the workers’ fear of “playing into the hands of the enemy.” Instead of seeking court protection against terror, venality, etc., radicals always counsel “internal criticism” instead, lest the “enemy” discover the unsavory union secrets. As a result, the Peglers and the Sokolskys have been permitted to take the offensive not only against the leadership, but the entire labor movement, because the rank and file, influenced by the radical’s anti-statism, have not separated themselves aggressively from their leaders and taken the initiative in exposing and prosecuting their perfidy. In many cases, whenever these columnists have scooped a union scandal, the leaders themselves have actually profited by exploiting the attack as an “anti-union” drive, and by labelling their inner-union oppositionists as “tools of the enemy.” [15] Furthermore, the radical alienates all those whom he wants to politicalize because to them he seems to have more in common with corruption than with elementary democratic procedures. No one will deny that struggles inherent in all organizational life should be conducted within the organization itself, but “dialecticians” ostensibly trained to recognize changes of “quantity into quality” seem to have great difficulty in differentiating between trade union struggles and criminal acts. Under the scare-head slogan of “Don’t call the cops,” the radical subscribes to a hush-hush policy which he himself has traditionally castigated in other organizations.

(2) Other forms of self-imposed impotence: He must never utilize the “reactionary press” to discuss totalitarian practices within the labor movement, including those inside Russia, according to many radicals. The same radical (including Trotsky himself), who sees no political distinction between democratic capitalism and fascism and who has accused the Stalinists of almost every crime in the calendar, will draw the line at attacking the latter in the “reactionary press.” How this press differs fundamentally from any other capitalist organ, since even fascism is politically equated with capitalism, is never explained. Also not made clear is how such position is to be reconciled with Trotsky’s own statement that when a plague is raging it is necessary to post warnings upon brothels as well as churches, or with Lenin’s alleged remark that he would have given the capitalists a page in Pravda if he could have written a column in their press. Stalinist perfidy, for instance, which affects the fate of millions all over the world, is to be discussed only in the “family” press – among those, in other words, who are for the most part already aware of the danger. As for the prohibition against prosecuting non-bourgeois political opponents for libel or slander, this too is a senseless policy. Many victims who have refused to sue the .Stalinists and others surely cannot contend that a capitalist court is unable to deal justly with libel or slander. A lie is a lie, and no one should be permitted to poison another’s reputation. What cause are these people serving by refusing to take legal action?

Workers and Intra-Capitalist Struggles

(3) Evasive or purely defensive maneuvers: Assuming the thesis of intra-capitalist struggle (in which the state suppression of another group of capitalists is interpreted merely as a “family” quarrel), should the workers take no position on such factional fights? The French proletariat, then, should have been unconcerned whether it was Blum or the Cagoulards who won power. And the Spanish radicals should not have demanded the arrest of Franco’s plotters. The workers, in other words, must always wait until fascism first conducts mass meetings or initiates offensive acts, so that they might later enjoy the luxury of pickets and “armed guards.” Assuming further the state’s covert support of the fascists, what better method than to expose the democratic pretensions of the state which, by refusing to suppress them in the early stages of their activity, reveals its own dictatorial sympathies and provides compelling opportunity for further mass action under independent working-class leadership. The radical, however, actually engages in activities which flatly contradict his absolutistic anti-state theory. He is often forced to call upon the state for protection. When a Tresca or a Trotsky is murdered, the radical does not advise the working class to organize its own posse in order to capture the murderer. He demands that the state’s police investigate and make public the facts involved in the deaths of these men – the very state which, he tells us, is not to be called upon or pressured into action for the suppression of the fascists! Furthermore, there are conditions during which the radicals give “critical” and even military support to their own bourgeoisie, conditions of “dual power,” “marching separately and striking together,” “revolutionary defensism,” etc. Finally, the radical does not draw all the practicable conclusions from his theory of “rights” which differentiates among those pertaining to property, to purely working class interests (striking, picketing, etc.), and to those general civil and political privileges ostensibly enjoyed by all citizens. Since the latter “rights” are to be exploited for revolutionary purposes, logic would seem to dictate that they be fully utilized by militant and aggressive methods. Why, then, in the struggle against bigotry, neglect the possibilities of those juridical instrumentalities (an inherent part of those “rights”) discussed above in connection with liberalism, i.e., the use of anti-totalitarian legislation? Whenever the radical is confronted with this argument, he displays attitudes which are the result not only of certain traditionalized misapprehensions of his own, but of capitalist propaganda as well. Every ruling class attempts – and succeeds, otherwise it could not remain a ruling class – to inculcate attitudes of dependency, helplessness and fear in. the minds of the ruled. And, ironically enough, these attitudes have in some cases even permeated the thinking of radicals themselves who in other respects have taken a correct political position with regard to the state. A case in point are their characteristic responses to this proposed legislation directed against totalitarians:

“Will not the state use such laws against us? Must we not assume that if it is willing to pass such legislation, it is actually getting ready (as the phrase has it) to ‘smash the working class’? Is it not our main duty to explain that only socialism, not anti-totalitarian legislation, can rid society of bigotry? Does not the fiasco of the sedition trial prove that the government is not interested in prosecuting totalitarians?”

On “Double-Edged” Legislation

In the first place, it might be suggested that whenever the state is preparing an offensive more militant than those which ordinarily characterize its rule, it does not have to resort to ambiguously-framed or “omnibus” laws as a weapon, especially during the crisis period of declining capitalism. It comes out unequivocally, for example, with a no-strike proposal. Let us assume, however, that it can still afford the luxury of double-edged legislation such as the radical fears. Under such conditions, of course, it becomes the routine duty of all radicals to expose the customary duplicity of the state. But suppose a liberal congressman proposes a bill specifically limited to the prosecution of totalitarian propaganda, as well as deeds, should the radical support it or not? Or, still better, what political logic can possibly prevent the radical from taking the offensive, initiating such bill himself and organizing in its support countless trade unionists and militant liberals interested in laws “with teeth”? [16] Such activity would have tremendous significance for the legal-minded American whose present non-revolutionary consciousness the radical is always lamenting. Should the state under these circumstances attempt to block such legislation, or being forced under mass pressure to adopt it, later try to use it against radical activity, the ruling class would not only be flagrantly exposed for its chicanery in subverting the law, but it would be forced to provide palpable evidence before millions, of the class nature of its state. One could argue further, of course, that by the time it becomes a necessary norm for the state to take such a position, the radicals will have prepared the working class and its allies for actions transcending the framework of legality. [17]

In the second place, the questions which the radical raises by way of rejoinder to our argument reveal still another aspect of his defensive psychology. In expressing his apprehensiveness in connection with the law’s being used possibly against himself instead of the totalitarian bigot, he is falling into the very trap which the state’s propaganda has traditionally prepared for him. The harmonistic political theory of the bourgeoisie never stops repeating its necessary myth that all minority parties are merely minorities, “essential” to the “healthy” functioning of the democratic processes, that all points of view (euphemistically referred to as the “left” and “right”) must be represented in the “market place,” etc. What the radical seems to have forgotten is that his is not just a minority party; to think in these terms is to play the rôle of a poor relation, to plead for “tolerance” of his position, and to be “permitted” to exist. Even to suggest, therefore, both to himself and to others that under the same law his organization and not the totalitarian’s may be attacked is to betray a psychological weakness, as well as a confusion with regard to revolutionary tactics, which transmits itself easily to those whom he is trying to politicalize. His is a minority party only in numbers. Its democratic program and goals, unlike any other political current, express the basic interests of the majority of mankind; and the radical keeps repeating this truth continually and aggressively so that no one can fail to differentiate between him and the totalitarian. One would ordinarily feel apologetic about mentioning this elementary fact in a revolutionary journal were it not that so many radicals are insulting both their own intelligence and rendering a harmful disservice to the socialist cause by equating themselves with other minority groups and parties. Almost every radical with whom I have discussed the views presented here counters with: “But if the state suppresses Gerald Smith, it will also suppress us.” Whenever I hear this, I am always tempted to propose such person as an additional member to Trotsky’s suggested “League of Abandoned Hopes,” for any radical is surely ready for retirement if he gives up a fight in advance because he considers it an insurmountable task to make clear to others the difference between political pathology and Marxism.

On Relation of Capitalism to Racism

In the third place, when the radical counters with “capitalism is the cause of bigotry, racism, etc., and therefore only socialism can eradicate these,” he is – as far as a fighting program is concerned – defending economic determinism, not historical materialism. [18] His statement is correct as a general framework of reference, but it neither explains specific conditions nor confronts immediate problems. Merely advocating “socialism” does not bridge the gap between the present and the future. You actually alienate those most needful of your help and who can also become allies in struggles whose implicit logic drives straight toward the socialist goal. Furthermore, the very phrasing of the above counterposes the problem inaccurately. What we can say is that racism or bigotry implies exploitive, stratified or class societies. But having said this, we must admit the force of historical or cultural traditions (folkways and mores, fear of violated taboos, hostility toward such sociological types as the “stranger,” the “marginal trader,” the “unclean,” etc.). We must admit also sufficient, as well as necessary conditions, i.e., racism may imply capitalism, but the reverse need not be true. A complete posing of the problem, then, should include psychological factors, e.g., envy, jealousy, inferiority and guilt neuroses, projection, etc., and especially illogicality. The radical, therefore, must also learn to cope with these areas of non-rationality.

To conclude, a word as to the sedition trial, whose bedlam proceedings are supposed to prove, according to the radical’s logic (Macdonald’s and others’), the inability of the government to prosecute totalitarians. This type of reasoning is a further example of the radical’s capitulation to bourgeois propaganda. To begin with, the burlesque form of the trial should not have diverted our attention from its essential class content. [19] Should the government even decide to free all the accused, such action would differ in no way qualitatively, for example, from the Supreme Court’s freeing of Harzel and Baumgarten, even though the Court’s decision was accompanied by dignity, instead of slapstick. Can anyone seriously deny that if the government felt itself actually or possibly endangered militarily it would waste no time with protracted juridical technicalities, but would punish the offenders with the greatest promptness. The situation, however, happens to be such that it can afford to permit the accused all the legal luxuries inherent in a defense trial. And what better way to convince the world that a court in a “democracy” does differ from one under Hitler! Some of the accused, in turn, are taking full advantage of their opportunity to create the impression that actually they are only harmless crackpots and should therefore be dismissed by the court. Furthermore, the government’s action in this trial cannot be used as a precedent indicating what it would do in cases prosecuting bigotry. In such cases occurring within the context of projected conditions discussed throughout this article, there would be involved, of necessity, the democratic interests of millions of people. One has only to contrast the keen attitude of most Americans toward the racial issues in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, Los Angeles, etc., with their indifference to the sedition trial. The latter has a remoteness about it, since it involves a problem which to them seems to concern only the military. Were these Americans ever to feel their safety immediately threatened, they would without question be deeply interested and would press the government for speedy prosecution. What the radicals, however, cannot afford to do is neglect this trial as they have done thus far. Not only must they explain to the public the implications involved, especially since the accused also happen to be part of a growing totalitarian movement engaged in the vilest racial bigotry, but they must expose once again another example of legal formalisms in a bourgeois court of “justice.”

The radicals, as well as the liberals, then, disoriented by errors of judgment, theory and practice, have been unable to cope audaciously with the more insidious forces of totalitarianism. It is imperative that they reexamine their libertarian principles.

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15. For some artful dodging on union malpractices, see the articles by Zarltsky and Waldman (The New Leader, September 2. 1944). Coolidge argues that government intervention in union, racial discrimination should be opposed because the unions are class organs confronting a “hostile class” (Negroes In Organized Labor, The New International, April, 1945). How then can he logically support some sort of permanent FEPC which would ostensibly apply to every other person or group but not to unions? Punitive legislation against discrimination and segregation must be enforced everywhere; otherwise you are defending a double standard of elementary ethics. As for the idea of a “hostile class,” suppose organizations of other classes (small farmers, small business, etc.) practice bigotry, would Coolidge want the law to apply to them? Does he support the Supreme Court’s ruling against the reprehensible discrimination of the railway labor unions? Union leaders and radicals always maintain that there should be Inner-union education rather than laws to deal with prejudice. The government took a similar position with regard to Army segregation, but in this case the radicals called for immediate democratization. They might as well draw ALL the implications involved: wherever non-segregation was enforced, the successful results exceeded all libertarian hopes.

16. The radicals have not even initiated any action on behalf of legislation against discrimination and segregation. The Workers Party did propose an FEPC type of law at the Michigan Commonwealth Federation conference, but note that (a) such legal measures have been considered by some militant liberals before (even Roosevelt, regardless of his motives, beat the radicals to a libertarian position on bigotry when he asked for a permanent FEPC); (b) the radicals are eager to attack industry and the government but are not so clear-voiced when confronted with trade-union bigotry; and (c) such proposed legislation appears to be an “occasional” piece (labor party conferences, etc.) instead of an integral and continual slogan of immediate demands. In other words, not only is there “tail-endism” but it is sporadic besides. Also to be mentioned is the tendency to give such legislation only “critical” support which turns out to be the ultimate alternative of “socialism” or, at least, a “labor party.” The result is a general “yes, but” condescending attitude of anti-”fabianism” on the part of the radicals which disheartens minorities just when they are being ostensibly organized for a very important immediate demand, social and racial equality. “Critical” support of a legal measure should refer specifically to its supposed inadequacies as a BILL and not be construed to mean any millennial objective (see Outlawing Discrimination Through Permanent FEPC, The New Leader, February 12, 1944, for a correct approach to “critical” support). It goes without saying, preaching socialism should be a routine job of the radical.

17. Labor Action argues that the “first step” against fascist groups is “labor defense squads” (August 3, 1945). Other radicals speak of physically “smashing” or “busting up” fascist meetings. This is precisely the tactic to alienate the very people whom you want to win over in your struggle against fascism; it also helps foster the prevalent opinion that any fight which might ensue is only a private row between two minority “gangs.” At this stage of political development the most effective tactics are mass action for anti-totalitarian legislation (as long as the law permits peaceful assemblage, you place yourself in an indefensible position in initiating violence), lectures and general propaganda in areas where fascists schedule their meetings, pressure upon hall-owners, picketing, attendance at fascist meetings, etc. When conditions arise where the law persists in permitting fascist gatherings but interferes with the above democratic counter-tactics, then the time has come for not only “defense” but “offense” squads. A point of information in regard to the Los Angeles reaction to G.K. Smith: Labor Action refers to the Stalinists as the “Copperheads of the labor movement” while Draper taunts them for refusing a united front. Suppose they had accepted. Is it correct to unite with “Copperheads” of labor in order to save that very labor? Furthermore, when the Stalinists finally did participate, they and many others in this popular frontism held a separate (!) meeting; i.e., they talked to themselves, since obviously only “anti-fascists” attended. Was there any mass picketing at the Smith meeting which was being held at the same time? How did the radicals differentiate themselves from the popular front while present at the “democratic” rally? Finally, how does it follow that the latter was, to quote Labor Action, “necessary and effective”? (August 13, 1946).

18. This is the usual approach of The Weekly People, The Western Socialist and The Fighting Worker. However, even The Call, Labor Action and The Militant do not completely escape such all-or-nothing philosophy. References can be presented to those interested.

19. D. Bell (The New Leader, June 3. 1944) gives a picture of the trial proceedings diametrically opposite to that of the other journalists. He found no bedlam, just the more-than-usual boredom associated with protracted court minutiae. Typical of him and the whole New Leader group in connection with totalitarians is their inability to draw any political conclusion for mass action. They are content merely to “expose,” to “smoke out.” as though disclosure per se automatically hinders or stops bigots. This is an illusion continually fostered by men like Fraenkel, J.H. Holmes and Ernst. The latter wants to ferret out fascists and Stalinists so that “we can better defend them under our Bill of Rights!” (Emphasis mine. Saturday Review of Literature, September 1, 1946.)

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