Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

James Burnham

Their Government

(21 April 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 26, 21 April 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On January 3rd, in his annual message to Congress, President Roosevelt announced the slogans under which he was asking the American workers to get ready to give their lives to the Sixty Families. They were three: For Religion; For the Sanctity of International Law; and For Democracy.

Somehow or other, now that the war crisis looks as if it might break into the open any hour, something seems to be going wrong with these slogans. Of course, even in January there were a few cynics who thought that the slogans contained just a touch of demagogy – particularly when they looked back only a month at the unusual kinds of democracy which had been represented at Lima; but today the gap between the slogans and reality seems to be spreading so wide that even a few honest men are beginning to wonder.

For example, the war nearly began two weeks ago over the Italian occupation of Albania. No one will deny that the Italian venture was an act of piracy. Nevertheless, though this has apparently been overlooked by the daily press, Albania has never been known as a model of democracy. It was ruled over by a king who, before gaining the throne, was a notorious bandit; and he ruled, after taking office, with the same bandit and gangster methods in which he had been nurtured.

Oddly enough, Zog reigned as the direct dependent of Italy. And, still more odd, this arrangement had been supervised and decided upon by Great Britain.

The religious issue, also, is a little curious in the case of Albania. Protestant England is the main objector; Catholic Italy the conqueror; and the victims are most of them Mohammedan.

International law was no doubt violated. But international law was no less rudely upset, at Versailles and after, in the creation of Albania.

Sweet Freedom of Polish Democracy

In the present crisis, Poland has been the focus of the chief avowed attention. Great Britain, which managed to dry its tears over the gobbling up of Manchuria, Ethiopia, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Memel, has promised to take up the sword of an avenging angel if one hair is touched on Poland’s tender little head.

There is much, perhaps, that might be said for Poland. But one thing, I am afraid, that cannot be included by even the wildest imagination is that Poland has ever tainted her governmental practices with the slightest touch of the heresy of democracy. Since the formation of modern Poland – by virtue of clauses in international law written by the guns of the victorious Allies – she has never swerved from reliance upon the firm hand of military dictatorship. The few years during which opposition parties were permitted a nominal and pathetic existence have long been ended.

And the tortured persons of her Jews will provide a comment upon Poland’s attitude toward the sacred rights of religion.

There are, indeed, few nations in the world that have a more brutal record than Poland’s in the consistent repression of democratic rights.

We Are All Democrats Now

As I recall, it was hardly yesterday that Chamberlain and the prelates of the Church of England were telling us that Russia was the most hideous tyranny in history, and, besides, with atheism as its state policy, was the anti-Christ. Now Russia is the most wooed of potential allies.

Atheism and tyranny are words to use when the masses sense some hope in a new social system; but arms and airplanes are more to the point when it comes near to the time to fight the war for democracy. Matters of ideology, said Chamberlain the other day when answering a questioner in the House of Commons, “do not concern us in a question of this kind.”

Greece, too, has now been brought toward the fold of democracy. Chamberlain and Daladier, with the blessing of Roosevelt, have informed the world that if Greece is threatened the war for democracy will begin.

Greece, if I recall correctly, not many years ago, after a long history of military and semi-military dictatorship, was definitively transformed into a totalitarian fascist state under General Metaxas.

Not to Speak of the Back Yard

Such are among the flies that are spotting the slogan-ointment, democratic brand, which our masters are spreading over the diseased face of the war into which they are taking us.

It would be downright unkind to add to these any reference to the even more extraordinary democracy which prevails in India, Indo-China, the French Sudan or even Puerto Rico. When Roosevelt is next sending communications to selected rulers of the world, and asking about intentions and pledges they are willing to give, he might include brief notes to Chamberlain, Daladier, and himself. He might enquire: What are your respective intentions as to India, Indo-China, the Sudan and Puerto Rico? Are you prepared to pledge that in such and such a time you will free them and their hundreds of millions of inhabitants from the frightful and shameful yoke under which you now oppress them?

Yes, it is harder today than in 1914 for a gang of imperialist robbers to be convincing when they talk about making the world safe for democracy – or for anything else except their own bloody profit. As the opening of the war gets close, while each clique runs madly in its last desperate scramble for allies, the camouflage drops off, and the war shows itself for what it is: a new world struggle for the re-partition of the world among the major imperialist rivals, a struggle to decide who will have first choice in the exploitation and oppression of the great masses of mankind. All the fine moral ideals, from democracy to religion to national independence, are, for the imperialists, only so much grist to the mills that turn out the cynical demagogy whereby they hope once more to delude the people.

Burnham Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 17 January 2016