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Albert Goldman

Where We Stand

(7 June 1941)

From The Militant, Vol. V No. 23, 7 June 1941, p. 6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Roosevelt’s “Freedom of the Seas”

Roosevelt’s sudden resurrection of the doctrine of freedom of the seas brings to mind a prediction made by Comrade Trotsky. When the first draft of the Manifesto of the Fourth International on the Imperialist War and the Proletarian Revolution cam up from Coyoacan, it contained a sentence to the effect that American imperialism will intervene in the world war under the slogan of freedom of the seas. That sentence was in the paragraph which is now the first on page 9 of the printed Manifesto. The present formulation is: “Under one or another pretext and slogan the United States will intervene in the tremendous clash,” etc.

I recall that when I read the first draft and saw the definite prediction on the part of Comrade Trotsky that the slogan of freedom of the seas would be utilized by the American imperialists, my usual caution prompted me to raise an objection. It was rather risky, I argued, to make such a definite prediction, especially in view of the fact that the United States had partially, if not wholly, surrendered the right of freedom of the seas by the Neutrality Act. My objection was delivered to Comrade Trotsky and with his customary habit of giving in on secondary questions he agreed to the present very cautious formulation. But he did not agree that the freedom-of-the-seas idea had been surrendered by the American ruling class.

* * *

The present formulation in the Manifesto does not exclude the possibility of the utilization by the imperialists of the slogan of the freedom of the seas. Indeed, it was worded so as not to exclude that possibility. But I must confess that at that time the idea that Roosevelt would utilize that slogan appeared extremely improbable to me. It was used by Wilson and because of that, very fact it appeared to me that it would not be utilized by Roosevelt.

Freedom of the seas is not a slogan capable of arousing tremendous enthusiasm amongst the masses. Can one imagine huge numbers volunteering to join the army and navy to protect the right of U.S. merchant ships to deliver goods to foreign countries? It is not a slogan that even the ruling class would become enthusiastic about (although in so far as it is connected with trade and profit it is far more truthful than the slogan of fighting for democracy). As a matter of fact, there was no serious opposition to the passing of the Neutrality Law which in effect surrendered the doctrine of the freedom of the seas. There was some opposition from some elements of the reactionaries, but not on a large or serious scale.

Why the Slogan is Revived

It cannot therefore be the purpose of the administration, in its revival of the slogan, to obtain greater support either amongst the masses or amongst important sections of the ruling class. As far as the masses are concerned, the slogan of a struggle for democracy against fascism remains primary. The masses can be gotten to support the war only because of their fear and hate of fascism. And as far as the ruling class is concerned, even that section which is now opposed to Roosevelt’s foreign policy, it will support the war because its basic economic interests are involved.

Insisting on the right of the freedom of the seas at the present time can be explained only on the theory that the Roosevelt administration wants to go further than it has gone in helping Britain defeat Hitler and at the same time prepare some “legal” basis for entry into the war. Because Roosevelt made such a flat statement some time ago that convoying means shooting and shooting means war, he would like to find a different way than convoying by which to intervene actively in the shooting war. The doctrine of freedom of the seas might furnish the necessary pretext. It certainly furnishes a legal justification for the “patrol system.”

What the Slogan Really Means

And then it must not be forgotten that the doctrine in itself is a very good one to hold in reserve for the future even as against British imperialism. What does freedom of the seas actually mean? It certainly does not mean what it says. For it is obvious that only those countries can have freedom of the seas who are powerful enough to enforce it. The countries without a strong navy must in actuality look to their “protecting” big brothers to give them freedom of the seas. Freedom of the seas in actuality means the right of the strongest to dictate the conditions under which merchant ships of other countries will be permitted to ply the ocean.

Before the war became total in its character – that is, before monopoly capitalism gained complete control of the economic life of the world and before the whole nation became an integrated part of the war effort – it was possible for a number of rules to be observed during a conflict between two nations. It was possible under limited circumstances to make some distinction between contraband and non-contraband goods. But under modern conditions everything is contraband because everything is necessary for waging war. Monopoly capitalism based on the highest development of technique made all rules of war obsolete.

There can be no such thing as freedom of the seas when the world is dominated by a few strong imperialist nations warring amongst themselves for supremacy and exploiting all the weak nations. True freedom of the, seas can exist only when world economy is organized on a socialist basis with the whole world freely participating, in the production and exchange of goods. Freedom of the seas will come into being when the working masses will organize such a world.

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