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James M. Fenwick

Carlson: “Homo Stalinensis”

(January 1948)

From The New International, Vol. XIV No. 1, January 1948, pp. 26–27.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

The past decade in most capitalist countries has witnessed the emergence of a new socio-political type identified variously by such names as crypto-communist, proto-Stalinist, Stalinoid liberal, etc.

What characterizes these persons is, alternatively, either the pursuit of capitalist aims using the Stalinist deformation of socialist methods, or the pursuit of Stalinist aims by the employment of capitalist methods. Not infrequently both methods are employed simultaneously, especially when the conjunctural interests of Russia and a given capitalist country are the same – for instance, as was the case during the Second World War when both Russia and her capitalist allies sought the defeat of Germany.

Such individuals are most easily observable in Europe, where social tensions are greater. They are particularly definable in England, where the absence of a mass Stalinist party prevents their being absorbed in a larger political milieu. Konni Zilliacus, the “left” Labor Party member; Joseph Needham, the biochemist; or the so-called “Red” Dean of Canterbury are representative types from abroad. Henry Wallace is a good domestic example.

While there is a certain amount of interpenetration with the “fellow-travelers” of the depression period both in personnel and in social characteristics, yet in what may be called the bureaucratic-collectivist man we have a new formation. In the pre-war fellow-traveler was still visible the last flush of socialist idealism. It is not insignificant that even the term has become rarer in the active political vocabulary. The bureaucratic-collectivist type, opportunist when patching up a career, brutal when in power, is a product of the economic, political and moral decline of our times.

The activity of such types in European areas controlled by Russia, and their more circumscribed activity in the United States, lend an interest to studying the evolution of these ambivalent individuals. The development of their mentality is not necessarily a unilinear one. The recently published biography [1] of Evans Carlson, the famous commander of the Marine Second Raider Battalion during World War II, is exceptionally interesting in that it shows the development of this mentality in one of the most inhibiting of all spheres – the military.

Gung Ho and Morale Building

Carlson’s fame rests upon two small model operations carried out in 1942: an attack on Makin Island and a long march through Guadalcanal. Though these victories were puffed up by the United States press, since they were among the first victories by American troops after a long series of defeats at the hands of the Japanese, it was recognized that in these victories there was an unusual element which helped make Carlson’s achievement possible. This was the esprit de corps which he was able to establish. It was symbolized in the famous philosophy of Gung Ho! – an expression taken from the Chinese and meaning, roughly, cooperation.

Gung Ho was based partly on practices developed in classic form in the Red Army of Lenin and Trotsky’s time. Says Michael Blankfort, Carlson’s Stalinist biographer, describing the plans for the unit:

“... there would be no caste differences in the Raiders. Officers would be leaders by ability and knowledge and character – and not because they held the President’s commission. They would give no unnecessary orders; they would not order a man to do what they themselves were not prepared to do with him; they would have no special mess or barracks or club. And there would be no unnecessary saluting.”

Before being executed, military operations were explained in their entirety to the men. The political background of the war and Allied war aims were similarly developed.

The ideological investiture was, however, purely capitalist. The polarities were of the standard aggressor-victim and fascism-democracy type. On the personal level there was a total absence of a policy of fraternization with Japanese soldiers. “Can you cut a Jap’s throat without flinching?” Carlson would ask. “Can you choke him to death without puking?” But he would explain, relates his biographer, “that this wasn’t a race war or a war of color against color.” Carlson’s command was, of course, Jim Crow.

Standard military morale builders, such as prayer, patriotism, and unit pride, were applied with maximum intensity by Carlson. Physical conditioning was exceptionally severe. This program was applied to an elite group: one thousand men personally selected by Carlson and his officers among three thousand volunteers from an arm of the service which was itself composed of volunteers, the Marine Corps.

It should therefore be small cause for wonder that Carlson achieved exceptional military results with minimal forces. Other facts are also interesting. The psychoneurosis rate in his battalion was probably the lowest of any combat unit in the United States infantry. Only one man cracked up in the Guadalcanal operation. Carlson’s methods of what he called “ethical indoctrination” were so successful that they formed the subject matter of a Yale study.

Carlson’s Road to Stalinism

Though elements of Carlson’s success are obviously due to factors other than his “ethical indoctrination,” the role played by his conceptions and their radical implications were well, if instinctively, recognized by the officer caste in the Marine Corps. After Guadalcanal he was never again placed in direct charge of men. He was discriminated against in other ways also.

Short of engaging in psycho-analytic speculations, it can be said that Carlson’s whole life was molded by the military services, which he joined at sixteen and a half and served almost uninterruptedly until his death in 1947. The chief conditioning factor in his life prior to the army was probably the fact that he was the son of a poor Congregationalist minister. The atmosphere of the Protestant ethic, so well described by the sociologist Max Weber, was unquestionably influential in the development of the democratic aspects of his system.

Early in his Marine Corps career he read Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. By as late as 1927, however, when he was witness to the bloody collapse of the revolutionary upsurge in China, he preserved an imperialist attitude toward Far Eastern events. But at this time he fell under the influence of Admiral Mark L. Bristol, a liberal in terms of naval thinking, who did not believe that an emotional attitude toward the Orient was a substitute for a serious study of it. He also initiated an educational program among Marine enlisted men. When he was transferred to Nicaragua Carlson began to apply enlightened methods in dealing with native troops under his command (he spoke to them exclusively in Spanish, for instance), but of course these were democratic methods directed against the nationalist movement. Here also he picked up an interest in guerrilla warfare.

The years 1937–38 in China – years of the decline and Stalinization of the peasant movement – were decisive for Carlson. During this period he traveled with the Stalinist Eighth Route Army as a Marine observer. The results obtained by the limited democracy granted the troops by the Chinese Stalinists (which was, in any case, greater than that in the United States armed forces) could not but impress Carlson. Edgar Snow and Agnes Smedley, with whom he became acquainted in China, also proved of importance in conditioning his thinking. He emerged a proponent of the Stalinist peasant military movement and an opponent of Japan, which the United States was at that time appeasing and encouraging.

Following the war he joined the American Veterans Committee. In 1947 he announced his candidacy for state senator in California, with the PCA backing him and the Stalinists doing the pushing from behind. In the last days of his life Carlson’s thinking took a further turn: he expressed a belief in the necessity of “socialism” – i.e., the Russian system.

The evolution of the bureaucratic-collectivist man was on its way.


1. The Big Yankee, by Michael Blankfort. Little, Brown, Boston 1947.

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