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Irving Howe

Books in Review

A New Bourgeois Critic

(April 1942)

From New International, Vol. VIII No. 3, April 1942, pp. 94–95.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Age of Fable
by Gustav Stolper
369 pp. Reynal and Hitchcock. $3.00

The reception which this book received from the bourgeois reviewers was one of unanimous enthusiasm. Both in the daily press and in the magazines it was hailed as a clarifying force in a world of confusion, a book which destroyed obsolete social myths and which contributed the fine edge of precision to a world in which sloppiness and musty thinking are the rule.

The author has for his purpose a two-edged literary war against the outlived ideologies of the 19th century laissez-faire capitalism and what he designates as the oversimplified, scholastic, utopian, rigid formulae of Marxism. Most of the book – as might be expected – is concerned with the latter. After all, it hardly requires much argumentative skill or factual material to prove that 18th century capitalist thought is outlived; that is pretty much a matter of beating a dead horse.

But as for Marxism, that is something else again. Despite the ceaseless “annihilations” to which it is subjected these days, Marxism manages to continue to disturb the mental peace of the powers that be.

Stolper is really out to slap the Marxist dragon. But since he knows that such an announced purpose won’t do very well for circulation purposes, he veils his book with references to “the age of fable.” Most of the “fables” turn out to be parts of Marxism. He argues not directly against the premises and conclusions of Marxism, but rather by attempting to show that Marxism constantly oversimplifies complex phenomena and ignores facts which contradict its thesis.

Another Anti-Marxist Diatribe

We hope that we shall not be accused of either intolerance or impatience when we say that it is simply not worth while to attempt a lengthy refutation of the book; certain anti-Marxist works have at least the value of having marshalled some array of factual material or of having a finely developed theoretical argument. Stolper’s book has neither. It is a compendium of every cliché hurled against Marxism since 1848, containing the most blatant puerilities, innumerable non sequiturs, irrelevancies and a fair-sized dose of plain ignorance. The best way to substantiate this harsh judgment is to cite a few choice sentences from a book which is supposed to expose the loose thinking of Marxism:

1) In arguing against the Marxist theory of the economic causes of war and the concept that the world was divided, at the time of the outbreak of the war in Europe, into “have” and “have-not” imperialist powers, Stolper writes: “You cannot quite refrain from wondering whether Germany, the powerful leader of the Have-nots, looked at Poland as a Have nation when she invaded this neighbor and thereby started the Second World War.” (Page XIV)

This incredible argument, used by many bourgeois observers, ignoring the simple fact that when Germany invaded Poland she did so merely as an initial military step in a war involving global stakes, is offered as proof that the basic cause of war is not economic or imperialist! Presumably when Japan invades Burma that likewise disproves that the war is an imperialist struggle between the Have and Have-not powers. What Stolper does is to play the semantic game – he confuses the relation between imperialist powers and the strategy of war, subsidiary territorial seizures with the main objectives, and because of his unscientific approach, searches for the explanations of these phenomenon in subjective factors in no way controlling the current world situation.

2) In discussing the American democratic tradition, Stolper writes of the last war: “There were labor unions; they were either conservative or were disregarded altogether.” (Page 11) Here again Stolper shows that he knows little or nothing about American history. The American labor movement was divided during the last war between the conservative AFL and the radical anti-war IWW. The AFL made possible America’s war effort by pledging complete support to Wilson and his administration. A close liaison was established between that section of organized labor and the government. So far as the IWW was concerned its militancy brought the forces of reaction and the state into operation against it. Long prison terms, dark-of-the-night assassinations, physical attacks were the measures employed to “ignore” the IWW in 1917 and 1918!

An Authority on Bolshevism

3) In discussing the Bolshevik Revolution, Stolper informs us that “Utopia was organized over an area covering one-sixth of the globe by methods of massacre and terror compared to which even the terrors of war seemed to pale.” (Page 13) Isn’t this really too precious – this comparison of the Leninist revolution with imperialist war, especially coming at a time when imperialism is literally devouring generations and countries?

4) In discussing Marxism, Stolper writes: “Those who believe in the fable of collectivism do not seem to care about the accomplishments of the 19th century; they are only shocked by its shortcomings.” (Page 33) Doesn’t this historical expert know that at a time when England was shaken by the powerful writings of Ruskin and Carlyle, which attacked the evils of industrial capitalism out of a desire to return to pre-industrial times, it was precisely Marx who emphasized the progressive aspects of the bourgeois revolution (”the 19th century”) despite its toll in human misery? And isn’t it a fact that it is the Marxists today who point to a progressive phase of early capitalism, in contradistinction to its present decadent phase, indicating a completely objective approach to history?

5) In discussing Bolshevism, Stolper states: “Only against the historical background of the Russian state can the reality of Bolshevism be understood. The fundamental psychological attitude of the average Russian has not been much changed by the revolution.” (Page 31) One must really be an expert and a former economic correspondent for the London Times to be able to write that the psychology of the muhjik and worker was not much changed by the Bolshevik revolution, that the Soviets stimulated the same psychological reactions as czarism.

6) In discussing British imperialism, Stolper attempts to show that it wasn’t so bad after all. He trots out all the old puerilities about building roads, etc. And then he has the gall to inform his readers that Britain – which doesn’t really have an imperialist apparatus in India, because there are only some 500 members of the British civil service residing in India! – has been aiding in all the attempts of the Indian people to improve their conditions. Thus, in writing of Gandhi’s fasts, he says: “In this great humanitarian work for the suppressed classes Gandhi is offered and accepts the full collaboration of the British.” Which is partly true, at least in the sense that the British were willing to provide jails for him in which to fast.

These illustrations ought to be enough to give the reader a glimpse of the character of this book. It is really a pathetic illustration of the desperation of the bourgeois intellectual world which attempts to seize on every straw for support, even if that straw be as crumpled as this one is.

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