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Irving Howe

Genocide or Socialism

(9 December 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 49, 9 December 1946, p. 5.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Language, it has been said, reflects the state of a civilization, its health or sickness. If that statement is true, then we can find an extraordinary index of the decline of capitalist civilization in the recent influx of new terms into our language. Think of some of them: Blitzkrieg; concentration camp; buzz bombs; radar; atom bomb; bacteria warfare. These are the verbal reflection of a society which has sunk to such depths that – at the very moment when it has advanced man’s mastery over nature to an unprecedented extent – it threatens quite literally the very existence of the human race itself.

Accordingly, there is still another new word: genocide. It was popularized at the recent Nuremberg trials where Hitler’s cronies were accused of having attempted to destroy entire peoples – the Jews and the Poles. But the conception of genocide is not merely applicable to those peoples that fell victim to Nazism. Increasingly, it becomes descriptive of capitalist civilization as a whole. Not, of course, that the conception of genocide can be applied literally and immediately to the United States, for example. But if you will read the reports of starvation in Europe, the terrible prospects for the coming winter, then you will see how capitalism is providing a sort of genocide-in-extension for humanity.

Almost a century ago the two founders of socialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, wrote that capitalism was doomed, that it contained in itself the seeds of its own destruction and that humanity faced the choice of socialism or barbarism. In the subsequent heroic period of socialism, when the movement grew and success seemed assured, and later when in fact there took place in Russia the first successful working class revolution, little attention was paid to the second half of Marx’s prediction: “socialism or barbarism.” For when socialism seemed so surely on the order of the day, when the mighty armies of revolution were rallying under Lenin’s inspired banner, what cause was there to inquire into the phrase: “or barbarism?”

Decline of a Social System

But today when we are living after the most terrible series of defeats for the working class and for socialism; today when the previously unheard-of and unimagined symmetrical totalitarianisms of fascism and Stalinism have arisen as the end-products of the decline of a social system putrifying for lack of a force powerful enough to overthrow it; today, then, we must begin to inquire what meaning can reasonably be assigned to the latter half of the Marxian alternative: socialism or barbarism.

And when we see the popularization of the term GENOCIDE, its casual acceptance by a world acclimated to accumulating social horror, we have at least a symptom, a SIGN of what that phrase “OR BARBARISM” can mean.

Surely, no one can say that he has in his mind or heart fully registered. and assimilated the meaning of the corruption, the absolutely stinking decomposition of modern society. It is too much for one mind to try to grasp.

Who could have foretold or imagined twenty-five years ago what has happened to Europe in the past decade? Who would have believed that six million Jews could be murdered in the center of modern culture? Who would have believed that Stalinism would arise, having at its command the loyalty of millions, of devoted, workers who sincerely believe that this totalitarian monster is the symbol of socialist liberation? Who would have believed that the continent would today be a maze of homeless peoples, shifted first by the Nazis and then by the Allied victors, millions uprooted; a plague-spot of terrible hunger where millions of children are being doomed to tuberculosis; a miasma of corruption and despair, half of it gripped in the vise of the totalitarianism which arose over the grave of the Russian revolution?

The Meaning of Genocide

When we think of socialism or barbarism, we must not fall into the trap of imagining that barbarism means the human descent into some form of primitive life in which technology exists only as a vestigial remnant of a previous society. That is a possible future degeneration from the contemporary barbarism which threatens humanity, a barbarism which is highly organized and utilizes technology. But today the threat is real: it is the threat symbolized by such simple words as atom bomb and genocide.

Think again of the facts: Europe starves. No rational organization has come as a result of the war; none is possible. Capitalist economies crack at the seams and in many countries measures are required to keep it together which are ultimately additional attacks on it. The whole world shudders at the possibility of atomic war – and at the fact that preparations for such a war continue.

Do not think of the alternative socialism or barbarism as some hypothetical aspect of the future; the barbarism of modern society has already begun.

And what are the odds in this race between the bright rational future society of plenty and leisure and peace which is the promise of socialism as against the decline into neo-despotism, or barbarism or whatever you wish to call it?

The odds are in part what we make them. It would be the height of folly to say that upon a world scale at the present moment the socialist movement – that is, the real socialist movement and not the horrible contrary of it, Stalinism – is flourishing or on the verge of success. The black days are still with the socialist movement internationally and they will remain for some time yet. Only rogues or fools attempt to deny this simple fact.

The Future of the Working Class

But still there is reason for hope and possibility for victory. For so long as the working class – the only source of potential revolutionary socialist power – remains capable of revolt, so long as it is restive, so long as it exists as a working class, there remains the possibility of a socialist triumph.

What do we mean by that phrase, “so long as it remains as a working class?” So long as the working class retains its central position in the process of production, the position which simultaneously makes it indispensable and yet constantly prods it to active revolt because of the intolerable conditions of life to which capitalism dooms it, then it is to this class that we must look as the power which can overthrow all of the old social rubbish and start afresh.

There is nothing automatic about this; there are no guarantees. First and foremost it is necessary to build a movement which dedicates itself to rebuilding the socialist cause on a revolutionary and democratic basis. The very course of struggle opens new possibilities of victory. Every human being who desires to put an end to this society of corruption and decay, of war and starvation, must find his place in the reassembling revolutionary socialist movement, at the head of which in the United States stands the Workers Party.

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