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Irving Howe

Liberals State Their Program of Bankruptcy

(December 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 52, 29 December 1941, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The outbreak of the war has revealed many things in sharper and clearer perspective than could previously be seen. For one thing, it ha’s punctured completely all the radical pretenses which a considerable number of intellectuals attempted to enjoy. Not that these pretenses have been put forward very insistently; most of the intellectuals were long ago sucked into the fold of Rooseveltian capitalism, just as their forebears of the last generation were enticed by the Wilsonian New Order.

But the climactic statement of intellectual bankruptcy came after the war declaration was issued. The Nation and the New Republic, guiding lights of a section of an entire generation, devoted almost their entire editorial statements to the problem of the war.

If any additional proof be needed of the programmatic bankruptcy and intellectual poverty of the American liberals it is here provided, and brimming over the cup, too.

It is to be taken for granted that The Nation and the New Republic are openly for the war, that they give way to no one in patriotic and stirring phrases about the just and glorious character of the war. They long ago attached themselves to the chariot of American imperialism and nobody expected them to jump off.

What is, however, so noticeable at the present time is the complete lack of any political program, of any set of motivating ideas behind their present trumpet calls for the war. They write in the manner in which one expects the ordinary capitalist newspaper to write – not even that, since a paper like The Times constantly takes great pains to emphasize the programmatic issues of the war, as it sees them. The Nation and the New Republic write, rather, in the pseudo-scientific manner of that plague of American journalism – the self-constituted military expert. We therefore encounter the absurd spectacle of Miss Freda Kirchwey trying her best to write of the war in the accepted Hanson Baldwinish manner.

A Completely Uncritical Attitude

The liberals have so lost themselves in their uncritical attitude toward the imperialist war that they do not even attempt to distinguish their aims and purposes in the war from those of, say, the Herald Tribune. Rather does The Nation find itself swept over by the evanescent thrill of “national unity” – Miss Kirchwey is ready to trot out her best adjectives for the cause of saving democracy in Siam and Borneo.

She writes of the country at war:

“We feel a happy sense of union swelling in bur hearts; hatred and contempt for our enemy run warmly in our blood ... We are one – all of us ... We feel our strength and our virtue. We know ourselves to be honorable, peaceable, unaggressive, generous, conciliatory.”

It is this undiluted chauvinism, this two-penny jingoism which is the sole program of The Nation. Remember, it writes these words of American imperialism, the shining star of altruism in a world of gangsters.

Beyond this there is nothing. No program, no thought on the purpose of the war and, above all, no mention of that most embarrassing of topics: the character of the post-war world for which the war is allegedly being fought. The Nation confines itself exclusively to amateurish military pronunciamentos, which have the same value as those of any layman – zero.

The New Republic likewise concentrates on armchair strategy. Ah, it sighs, if only Bruce Bliven or George Soule could conduct this war instead of General MacArthur or Admiral Cunningham – from a point of safety, of course ...

On The Domestic Front

But the New Republic manages to tear itself away from its military preoccupations to write an editorial on the “Domestic Front.”

It advocates the struggle against inflation, but “it is up to labor not to accept a freezing of all wages, but to set its face against those wage increases which will necessarily increase prices (provided a decent minimum already exists).” (Our emphasis)

It advocates increased taxation, in order to lap up the recent increase in consumer buying power. “Unless we give up the extra money in savings or taxes we shall surely have inflation and a weakening of the war potential.”

It advocates opposition to anti-strike legislation, but warns labor of its “share of the responsibility.”

It advocates the preservation of civil liberties, but warns of their necessary limitations.

This program could – in fact, has – readily been proposed and accepted by ordinary, conservative bourgeois papers. It is far less radical than the program for labor proposed by Wendell Willkie.

The liberals have lost whatever function they once had. They have always been incapable of participating in the struggle for socialism. Now they no longer play the role of avant-garde within the framework of capitalist society. They do not even challenge, criticize, propose. Their voices are not distinct from, they are rather lost in, the pack of journalistic hyenas who screech their super-nationalistic choruses.


The Social-Democrats

The reaction of the Social-Democratic New Leader is also of some interest.

In its major article on the war, Ferdinand Lundberg writes in the New Leader of December 13, as follows:

The world is not headed for a markedly better day, not in the next 1,000 years anyhow. None of these things are oil the agenda of history! Socialism, social security, the New Leisure, a land flowing with milk and honey. They will not be on the agenda of history even if the ‘Defensive Bloc’ (i.e., the Allies) wins the war and establishes a new and effective League of Nations. Within the realizable future there will not be two cars in every garage, a chicken in every pot, a model apartment for every family.”

Very interesting! What happens to the Four Freedoms, the Atlantic Charter, the Better World over which the war is supposed to be fought? What, in the opinion of this pro-Roosevelt author, is this war about? Where is the brave hew world for which millions are to die?


The Socialist Party

The Norman Thomas Socialist Party gave out a statement on the war which condemned the “wanton attack” of Japan while declaring that the war was a “culmination of a long struggle of European, American and Asiatic imperialisms for advantage of dominance in the Far East – an imperialist struggle which we opposed and continue to oppose.”

The statement came out in defense of civil liberties during wartime, but failed to specify the attitude of the SP toward the political character of the war.


The Militant, which was the organ of the Socialist Workers Party until two weeks ago, responded to the war by printing a lengthy analysis of the Espionage Act and the manner in which it had been used in the First World War.

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