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Irving Howe

Poison Gas:
The Imperialist War Adds a Refinement

(May 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 20, 18 May 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What is most completely apparent from an examination of Churchill’s latest speech, and what is sinking into the consciousness of. humanity, is the fact that the war is no nearer to a decisive solution than it was on the day Hitler’s troops marched into Poland.

The war has spread like a plague – from Poland to New Caledonia, to Madagascar and to Wichita, Kan. For the first time in history there is literally a world war.


In this connection, we are reminded of two people we once knew – two young men who had a “thorough understanding” of the world political situation. They saw that another world imperialist war was on the horizon. But they, being clever intellectuals, would not allow themselves to be sucked into this hell of war the way the common mass of humanity would. Rather than surrender, or rather than struggle for a better world, they applied their wits and determined to escape. They decided to go to Tahiti, firm in the knowledge that, imperialist war or not, the peaceful native shores of Tahiti would remain untouched.

Unlike so many other dreamers, they actually carried out their plan. They left for and arrived in Tahiti. We do not know what their fate was; it is of slight importance. But we cannot refrain from noting the irony in the fact that this Pacific isle which they chose for their retreat has seen some of the most violent fighting which the imperialist war has yet unleashed.

There is no escape. We live in an international capitalist society; we suffer from an international imperialist war; we will build international socialism or perish.


The war drags on; Churchill boasts that there have been more German casualties on the Russian front than in the entire last war; Hitler gives out. a monotonous series of announcements of killings in the occupied countries. But there is no end.

None of the Allied propagandists speak of the war ending in 1942 or 1933 or even 1944. And Hitler too is reticent about predicting a final victory. They are both locked in a titanic struggle of international proportions; one half of the world against the other. And in the meantime, millions suffer and die.

U.S. Price Administrator Henderson announces that we shall soon be down to our 1932 standard of living and that our standard of living will continue to go down; Hitler announces another of his endless cuts in food rations.

We are living through the literal last convulsions of capitalist society in decay – a spectacle of horror and madness. Neither side has any solution except interminable warfare; neither side is capable of undermining the other by political methods because both sides fight for the retention of their reactionary status quo and not for the creation of a new, free, peaceful society.

All that Churchill could promise the German people was ... poison gas. Is that the way to break the tie between the weary German soldiers and Hilter’s regime? Is that how to inspire them to revolutionary sacrifice against Hitlerism? Yes, it is an attractive program indeed that Churchill has lined up for the German workers: poison gas, the super-Versailles Treaty to grind them down as they were ground down after the last war, national dismemberment ...

And Hitler’s promises? We need but glance at Athens, where hundreds perish from starvation in the streets; at the Eastern front, where the youth of Germany is being decimated; at the firing squads in France, to see once more that Hitler’s “New Order” is nothing but slavery and barbarism.


Where then shall we go? What shall the mass of suffering ordinary folk do?

There is a hope. In this world of chaos and destruction, the star of socialism shines with constancy and promise. Not the ceaseless wars, the chaotic post-war disintegration, the dictatorial brutality which capitalism promises; but the peace, the freedom, the human brotherhood which socialism alone can bring.

That is our road. That is the path on which we travel as the third year of the imperialist war – inaugurating, perhaps, the era of poison gas – continues on its course.

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