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Irving Howe

The Frauds of Louis Fischer

(October 1941)

From The New International, Vol. VII No. 9, October 1941, pp. 240–4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE IMPORTANCE OF A MAN like Louis Fischer is sometimes underestimated. There is an inclination to pass him by as merely another journalist who has written the inevitable memoirs in the I Was There style. [1] Such an estimate in this case, however, would be completely erroneous.

For fifteen years Fischer has been writing as the journalistic high priest of the left intelligentsia, as a Stalinist and as the serious and authoritative spokesman of liberalism. He has garnered an international reputation, and the articles which we have read in The Nation have appeared in similar journals throughout the world: the Parisian L’Europe Nouvelle, the London New Statesman and Nation, the refugee Weltbuehne, the English Reynolds News, as well as other liberal journals. He has been in the unique position where, because of his ostentatious support of the popular program of the liberal intelligentsia and his until recently intimate connections with the Stalinist movement, he has been able to influence an extremely large section of intellectual opinion throughout the democratic world.

His book continues along the same lines. In no sense can it be considered in the same class as most foreign correspondent books. The anecdotes, the intimate interviews with leading statesmen, the personal details, the “impressions” are all present; but they are completely subordinate. Men and Politics is more in the nature of political history and a political document – not a personal autobiography. But it is an important book. It is the most complete and authoritative presentation of the point of view of the intrinsic non-Stalinist variety of Peoples Frontism, of social reformism, on the history of the last decade that has yet come to our attention. Fischer was, until the pact with Hitler, a servile hack of the Stalinists and did more than one literary “job” for them. Yet his writing in this book is so couched as to make you believe that his alliance with the Stalinists was, for him, a marriage of convenience; that the alliance could exist only so long as the Stalinists subordinated themselves to his essential program: bourgeois liberalism. In turn, he was ready to distort the Stalin-Trotsky fight, to maintain discreet silence about the Moscow trials, and about the deeds of the GPU in Spain (with which he was more than a little familiar). Only when Stalin abandoned his affair with bourgeois liberalism to engage in a brief flirtation with Hitler did Fischer discover the inherently repugnant moral nature of Stalinism and make his way back to pure and simple liberalism. Thus the knave writes.

Fischer is, thus, the representative and spokesman of an entire group. Bates, Sheean, Hicks and scores of others are part of it, but Fischer alone has succeeded in recording their history and development in a rounded, comprehensive and political Odyssey of the “Liberal Democrat.”

The Post-War Period and Fascism

Fischer traces the entire history of post-war Europe in terms of a moral struggle. The world made a mess of things during and after the First World War. The primary characteristic of post-war Europe was a mixture of greed and stupidity. Faced with the monster of Hitlerism, the democratic countries are paralyzed by their short-sighted failure to adopt a system of collective security which will end Hitlerism. Today, however, there are better and wiser men at the helm and provided Fischer can persuade Churchill and Roosevelt to adopt his program for reorganizing capitalism after the victory, the world may yet be saved. And Fischer, a sadder and wiser man, has learned that dictatorships in any form are bad: Bolshevism and Stalinism (for him they are the same!) are in essential respects different from fascism.

This simple approach to history does not ignore the class struggle; it merely chooses sides in that struggle. All of Fischer’s political calculations are based upon the assumption of the continued existence of capitalism. All of his writing on post-war Europe assumes the impossibility of a successful proletarian revolution. To function on the assumption that socialism is not a realistic perspective is not to ignore the class struggle; it is merely, in fact, a desire to choose politically within the framework of capitalism. Fischer might protest by citing his espousal of various progressive causes (Spain), his sympathy for the workers, etc., but his denial of the socialist revolution as a European or international perspective provides the decisive political coloration of the book.

With these few words on the general methodology and approach of the author, we can proceed directly to consider the four major topical divisions of the book.

Fischer and the Soviet Union

The question has often been raised about Fischer and his ilk, to what degree do they believe what they write? It is essentially an irrelevant question, but in Fischer’s case it has some interest. There is no particular reason to doubt that Fischer sincerely believes in collective security as the only way to stop Hitlerism, and there is as little doubt that Fischer did not, could not possibly have believed much of what he wrote about Russia. For Fischer was not a decrepit old nanny-goat, as were the Webbs, who “proved” the existence of freedom in Russia by citing its guarantee in the constitution. The articles which Fischer wrote on Russia (some of the less blatant ones are interwoven into the book) were just as much “jobs” for Stalinism as was the murder of Ignace Reiss by the GPU.

Fischer’s best chapter on Russia is his first, Lenin’s Russia. It is limited to the field in which he writes best: quick, pointed observations which are more than mere surface impressions but which are incapable of being integrated into a genuine theoretical understanding.

This is nowhere better seen than in his lengthy section on the Stalin-Trotsky fight. Fischer has made a hobby of attempting to construct a defense of the Stalinist theoretical and economic position during the Opposition fight, and he continues essentially along the same lines. Fischer is disposed, first of all, to minimize the objective social roots of the struggle and place great emphasis on what profound journalists call “the personal feud.” But let us wait with that and examine his theoretical explanation.

Fischer’s explanation follows the basic Stalinist lines. The Trotskyism, lacking faith in the peasantry and considering it an enemy of socialism, wanted a program of “super-industrialization.” The only way in which this could be achieved would be to squeeze the peasantry. But that would antagonize the peasantry, drive them into basic opposition to the regime and endanger its existence. Yes, says Fischer, Trotsky was brilliant enough in seeing the danger of capitalist regrowth toward the end of the NEP; he was, however, incapable of proposing a real solution.

It is this fantastic nonsense, sold by Fischer at least a dozen times to every liberal journal throughout the world, which is again peddled as a serious analysis. What is the truth?

The Problems of Russian Economy

The Russian economy, prostrated by the ordeal of the imperialist war, the revolution and the subsequent civil war with its military organization of economic life, was only gradually nursed back into a position whereby it could even equal the economic norms of pre-Czarist Russia. Lenin achieved this on the basis of abandoning the “systematic regimentation of consumption in a besieged fortress” which was “War Communism,” in favor of the New Economic Policy. War Communism was predicated on the belief that aid would come from the victorious German proletariat and thus permit a direct transition to socialist economy. The factories of Russia, however, could not do what it was hoped the factories of Germany would, and as a result it was necessary to find a new policy. This was the NEP, which permitted free trading, abolished forced requisitions and replaced them with a fixed grain tax.

This policy has the temporary effect of increasing the amount of land under cultivation, increasing the amount of agricultural production and giving a certain impetus to industry, to the point where it almost reached the pre-Czarist level. But by 1928 the NEP begins to fall down. The growth of new capitalist elements – the petty trader, the kulak – and the growth of the omniverous bureaucracy threaten the very existence of the economy. The kulak, not being satisfied by the weak industry, hoards his grain, since he can get nothing for it except paper rubles, which were becoming inflated.

The only way to genuinely stimulate the growth of agricultural commodity production is to embark on an ambitious but rationally planned system of industrialization. Only if Russian industry were capable of providing the machinery necessary for large scale agriculture could genuine collectives be established and the basis for undermining the kulaks created.

These are the general, internal economic features of the situation. The problem of industrialization is not one that can be posed only, as Fischer demagogically does, between city and countryside, between worker and peasant. The only way to close the gap, to narrow the scissors, is by an ambitious policy of industrialization which makes possible the gradual, voluntary but relatively rapid collectivization of agriculture and the squeezing out of the kulak at a similar pace. For then the technique necessary for collective farming, as well as the products desired by the kulak in exchange for his, would be available..

Ha-ha, chortles the wise Fischer, will this not also result in strengthening the kulak? But here is where the proletarian state comes in. It must place a heavy tax on the excess profits of the kulaks, as well as a forced loan of 150 million poods of grain. And with this we answer the other bright question propounded by Fischer. He asks: Who will pay for this industrialization program, and will a policy of “squeezing the peasants” not result in antagonizing them? (Twenty pages later we find him apologizing for some rather more significant squeezing: Stalin’s forced collectivizations, famines and peasant pogroms ... but no matter.) The answer to this question has already been indicated in relation to Trotsky’s proposed policy toward the kulaks. It needs but to be added that the Left Opposition proposed that the vast and swelling bureaucracy be sharply cut to provide additional funds for industrialization. But how can Fischer take this factor into account, since he does not even see the existence of a bureaucracy? He is too preoccupied in peddling the old tales that Trotsky wanted to “milk the peasantry” and liquidate the Kulak to understand that Trotsky’s program would have limited the kulaks (since it was economically impossible to abolish them), aided the poorer peasants and assaulted the bureaucracy.

He Falsifies the Rôle of Trotsky

But let us leave these matters alone for a moment. Fischer is guilty, in his account of the struggle, of even greater crimes of omission than commission. Not a word is to be found on the question of party democracy and soviet democracy, not one word. That is one reason why he cannot understand, even if he wished to, why Trotsky continued to oppose Stalin once the latter made his about-face to forced collectivization and super-industrialization. There is not a word about the validity or non-validity of the Stalinist theory of Socialism in One Country. That is why Fischer will later keep his discreet silence about the period in which the dependence of Soviet economy on world economy was proved by the effects of the world crisis on the Five Year Plan. Trotsky’s insistence that only with the proletarian revolution in western Europe could socialism be established in Russia, Fischer distorts in the most callous fashion. Trotsky, we are suddenly informed, “had no faith in united fronts” ... because he opposed the Anglo-Russian trade union bloc! The incorrectness of Trotsky’s position is shown by the fact that the revolutions in the West did not come, demonstrating “that the prospect of revolution in an advanced European country was not bright.” But that the rôle of the Social-Democracy and the Stalinists might have had something to do with this – not a word. The world is not ready for proletarian revolutions: in the advanced countries capitalism is too strong, in the backward countries the proletariat is too weak. Inescapable logic! And in the meantime it is better to support Stalin ... he is practical.

Fischer Learns from ... Duranty!

If Fischer owes a debt of gratitude to the Stalinist theoreticians for his explanation of the struggle, he owes an even greater debt to that well known expert on the Russian soul and its psychology, Walter Duranty. It is from Duranty that he has borrowed his “personality analysis” – those puerile and stupid bits of gossip. Trotsky “was an erratic and capricious individual”; he “either ignored individual psychology or else did not understand it”; he “preferred a field of activity for himself where he would be first.” Fischer also repeats the by now threadbare phrases (which are, incidentally, also repeated by people who never were Stalinist hacks and who should know better) about Trotsky’s organizational naiveté, his inability to build a faction. Stalin is not as smart; he cannot write (or read) as well as Trotsky; but he has “strength, will and faith.”

These are the writings not of an impressionable schoolboy but of a man who is regarded as an “authority” in the capitalist world and who has hobnobbed with the “great statesmen” of the age. It is slight wonder that Fischer chose Stalin as against Trotsky; it was a perfectly correct choice for him.

Having made this choice, there was nothing for Fischer to do except defend Stalin all along the line. That, of course, was what he actually did. Having since broken with Stalinism, he is at great pains to begin his criticism of Stalin early in the book in order to make it appear as if he were always critical. Fischer has not forgotten what he learned from the Stalin school of journalism: he is still quite adept at rewriting history, even if it be his own personal history.

Fischer conveniently neglects to discuss the famous forced collectivization, with its mass murders, mass famines, its resultant industrial breakdown because of the inability of industry to keep pace with the newly-collectivized agriculture, its destruction of workers’ standards, its final debacle in inflation, and then Stalin’s new right turn – Dizzy With Success – permitting gradual differentiation within the collective, as well as the substitution of the artel for the kolhoz. Fischer keeps quiet about the period of the Great Wretchedness. But he did not keep quiet then.

Fischer Is a Liar

At that time he was busy hailing the forced collectivization as the guarantee of socialism in Russia. He was writing such absurdities as: “It was largely because Trotsky did not foresee the possibility of collectivizing Soviet agriculture that he rejected Stalin’s thesis of socialism in one country.” He was hailing the birth of a classless society. And it all readied a grand climax in 1936 when the new Stalinist constitution was introduced. Let me quote a few of the things he wrote in The Nation at that time:

“It is difficult for him (Trotsky – I.H.) to believe that the bureaucracy will undermine itself, yet that is the very reason for the newly introduced secret ballot.”

“When a truth about the Soviet Union is told too early to unprepared minds, it is ‘propaganda’ ... Now for a few years it will be ‘propaganda’ is say that Russia is scrapping the dictatorship and establishing a real democracy.”

“Collectivization, industrialization and now the launching of democracy – with these remarkable achievements, Stalin’s place in history is secure.”

“The constitution guarantees paid employment, leisure and free education to all the inhabitants of the country. This describes an existing condition.”

“The date (of the adoption of the constitution – I.H.) will be a new era in civil liberties for Soviet citizens ... the Stalin dictatorship is the first to resign in favor of democracy.”

In his present book, Fischer proceeds blandly to inform us that the constitution did not guarantee any sort of liberty but was merely a facade for the increasing GPU terror. The serious reader has the right to inquire: Why and when did you change, Mr. Fischer? And why did you lie when the constitution was first published?

But Fischer feels no particular responsibility for what he wrote then. He merely proceeds to lie a bit more. Here are two sentences from the same page (349):

“I think, therefore, that originally Stalin really intended the Soviet constitution as a charter of greater freedom.”

“Yet just at the moment when the constitution ... came into being, the personal dictatorship showed its ugliest face.”

A Few More Questions to the Penman

This man is obviously caught in a trap between his previous lies and his retrospective attempts either to ignore or whitewash them. But we must not allow him. We must again ask:

Only a person like you, Louis Fischer, king of the philistines and prince of liars, could establish such a record of filth and hypocrisy. But you established a unique record; nobody but you could have written: “The Stalin dictatorship is the first to resign in favor of democracy.”

A Discourse on Spain

Fischer’s theoretical contributions on the Spanish Civil are much less ambitious than his chapters on Russia. They are written in that sickly, hypocritical lyricism which characterizes most liberal apologists of Azana and Stalin.

The basic social problem in Spain, as seen by Fischer, was the existence of feudalism in large sectors of its economy. The civil war was provoked by the resistance of feudalism to the reforms which the republican government was instituting and the resultant line-up of opposing forces was: the feudal land-owning class against all “progressive sections” of the population. By “progressive sections” we are to understand the capitalist class (since capitalism is progressive in relation to feudalism) as well as the workers and peasants. It is by this silly little myth that Fischer would justify the political alliance of the Spanish reformist working class parties with the bourgeois parties of Azana and Martinez Barrio.

But Fischer, who is forced to recognize more than the official Stalinist hacks, must necessarily admit that considerable sections of his progressive Spanish capitalist class were in alliance with Franco’s “feudal” forces. This he explains on the basis of the short-sightedness of the Spanish bourgeoisie who should have sided with the forces of progressivism but who feared that a relaxation of the police power and a revolt aimed at the landlords might catapult against them. Revealing admission! It is already enough to condemn Peoples Frontism. But what Fischer fails – or does not wish – to see is that in a backward country, such as Spain, which functions in the contracting world market of declining capitalism, the reactionary character of agricultural relations are buttressed and maintained by capitalism, that it is often the banks or the industrialists allied with or dependent on the banks, which fear the destruction of the power of the landowner. The destruction of the semi-feudal relations of agriculture in a backward country entails the destruction of the finance capitalist who has part of his investment in the land. That is why it is necessary to destroy capitalism in order to even complete the bourgeois revolution in agriculture; that is why the proletariat alone today can satisfy the needs of the peasantry, which in the period of expanding, progressive capitalism could to some degree be satisfied by the bourgeoisie.

It is because of this basic theoretical ignorance that Fischer is unable to understand anything that took place in Spain. We do not wish to exaggerate – but Fischer understands nothing of fundamental theoretical questions. In other cases he deliberately lies.

The Class Issues

Let us take a few problems of the civil war at random. First, what might be called the internal political curve of the Loyalist camp. Up to a certain point in the war, roughly about the time of the Barcelona May Day, the power of the proletariat, while in capable of finding organized revolutionary expression, remains great and to some degree even increases. After May Day, we see the consolidation of the bourgeois democratic regime of Negrin and the destruction of the dual power of the proletariat. Fischer is completely blind to this development. For him, the problem is military, not social. The consolidation of the bourgeois government, the destruction of the peasant collectives, workers’ control of the factories, and the workers’ militia in Catalonia, the restoration of the land to the pro-Loyalist landowners, the persecution of the revolutionary proletarian organizations – all these are not indices of a rightward political swing but rather of an increase in the efficiency of the Loyalist camp. Proletarian initiative is equated with lack of a centralized military command; dual power is equated with sabotage of the military struggle against Franco.

Fischer is thus forced to whitewash the military betrayals of the bourgeoisie at Santander and Bilbao. He has not a word to say about the fact that it was the unarmed proletariat (even after Franco struck, Azana, Fischer’s darling, refused arms to the proletariat of Madrid) which saved Madrid and Barcelona from the fascist officers. He does not understand that the issue was not: Shall there be a centralized command? But rather: What shall be the political character of the regime which sponsors the centralized command: proletarian or bourgeois? And it was only because Fischer’s friends – Caballero, Negrin, Azana, Prieto, Hernandez and Stalin – decreed that Spain would not go beyond the bounds of liberal capitalism, that Franco won the war.

To buttress his untenable argument, Fischer is forced to repeat the Stalinist canards about Spain. The anarchists, we are told, were cowards at the front and did not take the fighting seriously. Then how does Fischer explain that the Sarragossa and Catalonian fronts, on which the anarchists fought, were the only ones where the Loyalists held firm throughout the war? How does he explain the fact that in the crucial early days it was only the anarchist column, commanded by Durrutti, that saved Madrid?

Another point needs briefly to be mentioned. Fischer waxes enthusiastic about the aid which Russia gave to Spain. There is considerable evidence in his book to indicate that at that time he was working in very close contact with the Soviet embassy under the control of Marcel Rosenberg, a GPU agent which whom Fischer was extremely intimate. Fischer, however, does not bother to inform us the price which Stalin exacted for his paltry material aid: the destruction of the Spanish revolution. He has not a word to say about the fact that had it not been for the intervention of the GPU, the possibility of a proletarian assumption of power would have still been great; and that could have transformed a defeat into a victory.

And Still He Lies

Instead, Fischer resorts to the crudest sort of falsifications. Negrin and the Stalinists, we are informed, desired nationalization of industry and collectivization of the land; they merely opposed hasty and anarchic expropriations! (How this man can lie!) The entire course of the Negrin regime was the destruction of collectives and workers’ control of industry. The very program of the Peoples Front opposed collectivization: “We do not accept the principle of the nationalization of the land and its free distribution to the peasants.” Could anything be plainer?

Fischer repeats the old slander that it was the desertion of a POUM regiment from the front and its march on Barcelona which provoked the Barcelona May Day. Nothing of the kind occurred, of course; the Barcelona May Days were merely the most dramatic instance of the destruction of proletarian dual power.

It is only after repeating this Stalinist version of the Spanish events that Fischer remembers ... he is no longer a Stalinist. He therefore decorates his chapters on Spain (which are merely a reprint of his pamphlet written in 1937–8 completely Stalinist document) with some anti-Stalinist trimmings and some interesting admissions. The latter are more important. Fischer tells us that he knew of the murder of a Trotskyite named Wolfe by the Stalinists. He was informed by a high Stalinist official (Who? Why does Fischer still shield him?) that the documents purporting to prove the POUM fascist were forgeries manufactured by the GPU.

Why did Fischer keep quiet about these things? Why did he not tell the truth then?

The Nature of the War

If only Chamberlain had not been a fool, if only Delbos had had courage, if only the British and French bourgeoisie had realized that it was in their interests to defend Spain and Czechoslovakia, if only Bonnet had been honest, if only there had been no appeasers, if only there had been some politicians who would have fought against the appeasers ...

If only ...

Fischer’s writings on Russia and Spain are venomous and dishonest, his chapters on the war and its background are simply pathetic. It was all due to the blindness and stupidity and lack of courage of a few men. Fascism, the decay of capitalism, the social conditions of the proletariat, the destruction of the revolution by Stalin – these are not even considered.

But the gossip of the slimy Bonnet, the sighs of the watery Delbos – these are important.

Why did the European democratic bourgeoisie follow the policy of appeasement? There are numerous, complex reasons and Fischer notices none of them. He sees only the most superficial manifestations of these reasons – the personal impotence and cowardice of the appeaser politicians. Let us list a few of the basic reasons.

The bourgeoisie feared war. It feared was because it was aware of the consequences. It was aware of the potential might of the proletariat, which might be set off by a large-scale war. It was aware that the result of the First World War had been the success of the proletarian revolution in one country and the near-success in several others. It did not relish the possible repetition of similar circumstances. Resultantly, it was prepared to make considerable concessions to Hitler in order to preserve the capitalist peace.

England and France did not want war because they had everything to lose and little to gain. The entire post-war history of Europe had been marked by a continuous struggle between France and England, the latter attempting to prevent France from gaining continental hegemony. That is one reason why England had watched the rise of Hitler with considerable sympathy. France, with the fall of Czechoslovakia, had already lost whatever domination it had over the continent.

France by herself was in no position to fight against Hitler. England continued to play off Hitler against France. France responded by tacitly supporting Mussolini’s Ethiopian venture in order to retaliate against England. But this was “bad,” say Fischer. No, it was neither bad nor good; it was simply the political expression of imperialist rivalries which exist even among the democracies.

A third reason for the appeasement policy was the perspective which considerable sections of the French and English bourgeoisie had of unleashing Hitler, the super-Wrangel, on the Soviet Union, there to satisfy his imperialist appetite. These sections would not have even been averse to participating in the kill themselves; that was one motive in the signing of the Munich pact. The politicians of France and England did not guide their policies by the catchwords of democracy because they realized that that was not the issue.

Still another reason for appeasement was the need of the democracies to gain time in order to re-arm. They knew, if no one else did, their military weakness in comparison to Hitler. When Chamberlain came back from Munich he said that he had brought “peace for our time”; but he urged the tripling of all military expenditures in Parliament. The appeasement policy was extremely complex and subtle; it was based on a desire actually to appease Hitler and a desire to hold him off until satisfactory conditions could be found to oppose him. It could undoubtedly be argued that the French and English bourgeoisie made a grave error, from their class point of view, in not fighting Hitler at the time he invaded Czechoslovakia. But this error, and the conservatism and ineptitude and cowardice which to some degree prompted Chamberlain and Daladier to make it, are by no means basic to an analysis of appeasement. Only if the class issues involved, the inter-imperialist rivalries, their developments and mutations, and the internal social conditions are kept in mind, can an adequate analysis of the appeasement policy be made. If it is elevated to a supra-class and supra-historical abstraction – a sort of bogeyman of history – it serves only to confuse and not to explain.

An Instructor in Morality!

Fischer is today in the unenviable situation of being unable to live down his foul past or to substitute a more attractive present. He is an hysterical supporter of the imperialist war and he peddles the left social-patriotic platform of Laski and Williams to justify his position. But throughout his final programmatic chapter there is a constant strain of defeatism and despair. He is forced, at the end, to admit the decline of the entire social system and he has slight faith in the patchwork program he proposes. Like the others of his creed and generation, he is lost, finished. And not many tears need be shed on his behalf.

* * *

It is clear, therefore, is it not, that with such a record and background, Louis Fischer may shortly be expected to write an annihilating critique of the amorality of ... Bolshevism.


1. Men and Politics, by Louis Fischer; 672 pages. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. $3.50.

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