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Irving Howe

Terror – The Barbaric Master of Europe

(5 August 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 31, 5 August 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE human imagination has obvious limitations. It is a platitude that the sight of a child with a cut finger moves us more than a report that millions of people are hungry in some distant nation. Our sensitivities are calloused by the age in which we live: suffering, death, horror and cruelty have become such commonplace things, that we take them for granted as if familiar parts of a landscape. And we deliberately harden ourselves to our world; it is almost necessary to do so if we are to survive the mad society in which we live.

As I would read through an issue of Labor Action after it had been put “to bed” at the printshop, I would wonder to myself: here is an article written about hunger in India, which says that 20,000,000 people face starvation in that country. Does it, can it really convey the emotional impact which it should?

Can these abstract, general words really describe what has happened to this world?

* * *

Camp der Consetration

Take a glance at the drawing accompanying this article. It is done by a boy of 13 who was in one of Hitler’s concentration camps and who survived death by a miracle. His parents were shot. He himself was led one day with 150 children to be shot. The bullets hit him on the left arm. He fell down, and with the blood of his arm he colored his face and remained the only survivor among the 149 dead children. He then escaped in the darkness.

The drawing which this child made represents the execution.

Perhaps in this remarkable drawing we can understand the fate of society under capitalism; perhaps if we try to imagine what horror this child went through as we look at this drawing we learn something about capitalist society which no words can suggest.

I myself was moved by a small detail even more than by the little figures falling under the fire of the SS guards. Notice the row of prisoners’ huts drawn on the side with numbers on each of them. That this child should have been so impregnated with the regimented orderliness of a totalitarian society – the meaning of his meticulous numbering of the huts – seemed to me the final, ultimate condemnation of the world which already had brought so much suffering to him. For capitalism means not only starvation and war and insecurity; it is the debasement of a man to the point where he is a mere robot-slave.

And then the robot-slave numbers the huts of his concentration camp ...

* * *

Europe is a continent in ruins. The story of its desolation as a result of the war has been told often enough. What is important is this:

Whole generations are growing up who know nothing but death and destruction. (We are reminded of the child in London who, when lights were turned on after the war, thought of them as unusual and yearned for the blackout which to him represented normality.) There is no longer a “normal” way of life under capitalism in Europe. Europe witnesses whole shifts of population; mass starvation; destruction of peoples, and disorganization of personalities.

It is a continent of nightmares. And what characterizes it most strongly is the constant use of terror as a means of social action.

Terror has become the normal way of running a society. Terror means not only physical violence and oppression. Of that we can see the most blatant examples in Eastern Europe where the Stalinist imperialism shifts people as if they were mere puppets. Just last week the Russian ruling militarists decided in Austria to exile all those of German origin: 54,000 helpless people were forced to make their way back to Germany, from one land of starvation to another. Under present conditions in Europe such a movement means endless misery and deprivation for these people.

The rulers of Europe shift peoples as if they were sand on a beach which one molds with one’s toes. Trieste: what shall happen to it? Does anyone think of consulting the people who live there? Does anyone think of holding a free plebiscite? Of course not. The future of Trieste is decided in secret conference among the big powers in Paris. This too is a form of terror.

In the modern highly organized, bureaucratically run capitalist state, the worker, the member of the lower middle class, feels himself a helpless individual whose fate is decided by powers stronger than himself. Does he dare to oppose the powers that rule? Does he dare to think for himself? Does he dare to dissent from the chorus of yeas? Then he has the entire state apparatus against him.

The capitalist decline which has struck Europe and Asia so dramatically, and which is making itself felt in this country, too, results in a destruction of all the traditional relationships and values which to some little extent once made life bearable. During the war, whole countries were uprooted and whole peoples shifted. Families were broken up; human beings degraded in concentration and work camps. Nor was it Hitler only who did these things. As the most terrible manifestation of capitalist society, Hitlerism was the most barbaric government in Western Europe; but let it be remembered that on the other side stood the British Empire and the French Empire which were soon to suppress colonial revolts in the Far East and the totalitarian Stalinist regime which had exiled millions to forced labor camps and which was as tight a dictatorship as any country in the world.

The decline of capitalist society in Europe manifested itself in every country and in every way. Perhaps the most dramatic manifestation was, socially speaking, its effect on children. I recall reading a few months ago the brief letter a little girl wrote from a Nazi concentration camp: “Now I must say goodbye. Tomorrow mother goes into the gas chamber, and I will be thrown into the well.” That was all she wrote, so matter of fact in its story, so devoid of any emotion for her death had become a normal, everyday event.

* * *

Capitalism in decline, capitalism hanging on simply because there is no force powerful enough to push it in its grave, exacts this toll. Starvation is the most dramatic manifestation of it, but by no means the only one. Yet, when you try to imagine people in Austria living week in and week out on a diet of 800 calories – and when you try to imagine the gradual decline of their bodies, their constant state of weakness from constant hunger, the destruction of morale and energy which must result from all this – you can understand how starvation is at the bottom of the whole business. People who are starving cannot live independently, with courage and strength for very long. Their bodies force them to do things against which their minds rebel.

Together with starvation comes the rest: the degradation of individuals and groups; the callous disregard by the ruling powers for any desires of people themselves; the disruption of normal family life; the indoctrination of children into the ways of destruction and war.

Some individuals, including former socialists, have seen in this situation reasons for the belief that all that is possible in Europe today is for scattered individuals to live nobly, to try to salvage for themselves alone a decent way of life. We reject this conception. Precisely because capitalism tends so much to break the bonds between them, to make them feel helpless before the massive powers of the modern police state – precisely because of this do the workers and people of Europe need more than ever organization on a collective plane: trade unions and revolutionary parties. The individual is helpless in the police state. That is true. But to retire to a life of private nobility is neither possible nor helpful. Where the capitalist decline tends to scatter and disorganize people, there especially do the workers need more than ever the sense of solidarity and the possibility of effective action which can come from a genuine revolutionary party.

Socialism has become a condition for survival; it is a reality in the here and the now, for we have already crossed the threshold of the barbarism produced by capitalist decline.

If men would live as human beings, drawing from the earth and the machines that which can give them plenty and security – they must fight for socialism.

If men would gain a sense of dignity and purpose, a feeling that their lives are more than tribulation and suffering, they must fight for socialism.

That is the path out of the desert.

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