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James M. Fenwick

Off Limits

(28 April 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 17, 28 April 1947, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

Seven years ago, on May 1, 1940, the first issue of Labor Action appeared. Seven years is a long time in a person’s life, especially if he is young. To many, the names which were in the news then (Narvik! Trondheim!) are already dead, as lost in history as the Somme or The Wilderness.

But these were seven years which were more than seven years, for never before in time has so much experience been compressed into so short a span. Empires destined to endure for a thousand years were pounded to pieces in a few months. With them whole ideologies vanished like smoke. Even revolutionary doctrine did not escape unscathed. Analyses, particularly those made by the Socialist Workers Party in this country, and by the Fourth International in Europe, were disputed by history.

This is a good place along the way to stop and look back over the road since May 1940, when the lull of what some sagely labeled “the phony war” was succeeded by the steel storm of the blitzkrieg which was to leave Germany the master of Europe.

What did the succeeding seven years teach us? More particularly, for the political lessons have been drawn elsewhere, what did the military struggles teach us?

Benefits and Lessons

In a personal sense it introduced us to the military life, a total experience which this country had endured only' once before – during the Civil War. Modern war, which more and more becomes the normal mode of existence of capitalism, emerged from the world of manifestoes and theses into actuality. The tempering of our cadres, morally and in understanding, was achieved. Internationalism became a living thing. We went “with our generation” in the deepest sense of Trotsky’s phrase. Some did not come back. Some came back wounded. All who returned came back more firmly dedicated to the struggles ahead, whose amplitude will be the greatest in history.

The second benefit derived during this seven-year period was a more just appreciation of the role of military struggle in the social complexus. A needed corrective was applied to the primary role assigned to politics, which had sometimes been interpreted in a too unilateral sense. A corollary to this was a general underestimation of the necessity for a trained revolutionary party for the stimulation of social movements. The absence of such parties, particularly in Europe, permitted military actions to exercise more “pure” effects. For proof of this it is necessary only to think back over the course of history in World War I.

Where We Erred

Among the beliefs which were explicitly held by the organization, or were more informally expressed within it, were the following, belief in all of which were possible because of an underestimation of the military factor:

  1. That the war in Europe would be a long one of mutual destruction on both sides, as in World War I, which would be brought to a close only by social revolution. This conclusion resulted in good part from an overestimation of Nazi military skill, her material resources and the strength of her continental enemies, and an underestimation of the military-economic potential of the Allies.
  2. That the fall of Russia under the Nazi attack was practically a foregone conclusion. This was based on a simplistic belief in the internal instability of Russia (Hitler made the same error) and underestimated the military and logistic problems faced by the Germans, the effect of weather and terrain, and the effect of Lend-Lease weapons and food. The surprise engendered by the announcement of the Hitler-Stalin pact, it might be said parenthetically, was in part induced by a glossing over of the military problems presented to both Germany and Russia.
  3. That the Japanese war would continue much longer than it did. This, again, was based upon an underestimation of the effects of strategic bombing upon Japanese economy and of the United States war potential. And, paradoxically enough, it was the underestimation of the total effect of a military regime upon the army and the civil population which negated Trotsky’s earlier speculation that Japan, whose contradictions most closely resembled Czarist Russia’s, might be the first to collapse under the war strain. Similar errors were made in regard to Germany.

The Complexity of Analysis

Social analysis is a subtle art. Even Engels, who made such stunning prognoses on World War I, went overboard on the military side in analyzing the American Civil War, and prompted Marx to restore his perspective. Trotsky himself at one time envisaged World War II as lasting only six months.

In truth, had other decisions been made – military decisions – the war might well have evolved in variant form. If England had been invaded after Dunkirk (she did not then have matériel to arm a division) and if Russia had then been attacked (some German generals wanted this) the invasion of Europe, where even an Anzio was almost a failure, would have been fantastically costly. Then, indeed, there might have been a stalemate broken only by revolution.

Our past errors were not serious ones. The mistakes which were made were shared by others in possession of more concrete data than Was available to us. But we saw more clearly than any others. In a period of the militarization of the world, however, we must give the art and science of war our closest study in order to eliminate at least the grossest errors.

The art of politics is like the childhood game of jackstraws, wherein to extricate the tangled elements requires patient study, steady vision, and the greatest subtlety of touch.

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