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James Burnham

Let the People Vote on War!

(25 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 53, 25 July 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Referendum and the Fight Against War

The basic reason why the great majority of the people are in favor of the war referendum is because they are afraid a war is coming and they do not want a war. The bulk of the people – the workers and farmers and teachers and professionals and small shopkeepers – know that they have nothing to gain and everything, from their lives to all of their liberties, to lose from a war. They are looking for some way to stop the war, or at least put a big obstacle in its path. They believe that the popular referendum is the way in which the war can be stopped, since everyone knows that if the people had a free chance to decide, they would vote against participation in any war which is now or is likely to be on the horizon of the United States.

A Democratic Demand

Revolutionary socialists, and their party, the Socialist Workers Party, do not think that a popular referendum can, in and by itself, stop war. We believe that modern wars spring from causes which are deep within the present capitalist system of society; and that to get rid of war permanently we shall have to remove those causes by overthrowing capitalism and building in its place a free socialist society.

The Sixty Families and their agents who administer the government for them will go to war whatever laws are on the statute books. In an article attacking the Ludlow bill, Walter Lippman once gave this cynically away: “If an American President,” he wrote, “wants to go to war, he can go no matter what the Ludlow amendment says.”

Nevertheless, we, as revolutionary socialists, fully and firmly support the demand for a popular referendum on war. We stand with the great majority of the people against the war-mongers and the war-makers. The proposal for a war referendum is truly democratic, and revolutionary socialists favor every genuinely democratic process. The question of the war must be brought into the light of day! The people, in endorsing the war referendum, give expression to their hatred of the war and their wish to struggle against it. We share that hatred, and take our place in that struggle.

The fight for the war referendum, whatever its limitations, is unquestionably one powerful means of fighting against the war. This is shown plainly by the nature of the opposition to the referendum. The movement for the referendum finds itself at every stage in the sharpest conflict with the war-mongers. If there is still disagreement about the best means for fighting war, we can learn from the experience of common struggle.

Upon Whom Shall We Rely?

One lesson can already be drawn from the experiences of the movement for the war referendum. That lesson is that the “official” leaders of the movement, the Ludlow s and LaFollettes, cannot be relied upon. They give lip service in speeches and at election time, but they have already shown in practice that they cannot be counted on to carry the struggle through.

In the first place, they have not rallied the people behind them in a great popular wave that would sweep over the heads of the opposition. They jockey around in the offices or committee rooms of Washington, and permit the war-mongers to file their bills away in dusty pigeon-holes. For such a cause as the war referendum, there is no hope in legalistic by-play at the top; strength can come only from the surging voice of the people.

In the second place, they have tacked so many modifications onto the simple, clear demand for the referendum that they have warped it beyond recognition. With all of Latin America, all United States possessions (including, no doubt all consulates and embassies, which are technically possessions, in every country) excluded not merely if invaded but even at the immediate “threat” of invasion, a clever statesman could find a way of maintaining that the referendum could never apply.

In order to bring the proposal back to its clear original form, and to put it on the most solid foundation, three changes in the current versions are necessary:

  1. It should call for a direct, popular, referendum vote in the case of any and all wars. This is the only safeguard. History has shown that diplomats in each and every country are always able to claim that any war into which their nation enters is a “defensive” war. Calling a war defensive is only a way of trying to make it look respectable. The people who should decide whether to fight a war, are also the ones to decide whether or not a given war is defensive.
  2. The referendum decision should be required not merely prior to any declaration of war, but prior to the use of any of the armed forces of the United States in any armed conflict whatsoever. Nowadays wars are sometimes not “declared”, but undeclared wars can be just as destructive as any others. The point is for the people to decide not only the partly formal question of the declaration of war, but the concrete question of the war itself, which means armed conflict.
  3. In the war referendum, the right to vote should be given to all of the age of 18 and over. Those who are 18 and over are called upon to die in the war, are drafted. If they are old enough to fight in the war, they are old enough to vote on the question of entering it.

The people want the war referendum. That is the unchallenged fact. What must be done is for the people themselves to take the fight for the referendum into their own hands. Nothing has been or will be done by waiting for Congressmen and Senators. The issue of the referendum must be brought into every trade union, farm organization and farmers’ cooperative, every fraternal society and club and youth group. Rallies, petitions, speeches, meetings, canvassings must gather the already vast but unorganized support of the referendum into a powerful, united force. Before the assembled might of the people, the secret diplomats, the star-chamber heroes, the war-mongers and their fellow conspirators, will be routed into the open and compelled to give their accounting.

Let the people decide!

(The end)

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