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Irving Howe

Independent Socialism, Building Workers’ Confidence,
Is Only Answer to Stalinism

Observations on the Events
in Czechoslovakia

(March 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 10, 8 March 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The hearts of all socialists were – it would be useless to deny it – sick with sorrow and apprehension last week. Who could watch the Stalinist coup in Czechoslovakia without suffering a sense of oppression? Who could avoid feeling that we are today repeating what happened ten years ago: a good part of Europe succumbing to the irresistible pressures of a mighty totalitarian power; the world preparing for war with that dazed, almost unfeeling response of a patient to whom pain and horror are so intimate that they are accepted as a natural part of the social landscape? And who, worst of all, could avoid the feeling of discouragement – to say it bluntly – which a socialist must feel about so many events in Europe?

For to be truthful and to avoid the various myopic and opiatic forms of “official optimism,” we must recognize that the world is today in a far worse state than it was ten years ago when Hitler overran Europe; and that the socialist movement is in an even weaker condition, less able to cope with the events in Europe than it was then. The very passage of time, of ten years from Hitlerism ascendant to a world war to Stalinism ascendant, is proof enough for this assertion. Only fools and scoundrels can keep talking about European politics as if all is well, as if the working class is reaching the peak of its road. The truth is otherwise.

And the recognition of this truth is the first essential for any discussion of what has happened. Only the most sober realism, only, if you will, the most honest pessimism can possibly serve as a basis for useful discussion. The “official optimism” of the Fourth International suggests something far worse than we maintain: it suggests that the political situation is so bad that it will not do to face the truth. And so instead of simple facts, we find incantations and ritual rites. That is the really corrosive variety of pessimism – the pessimism of self-deception.


Even a quick glance at the European situation recalls the upward surge of Hitlerism. When Trotsky declared that fascism and Stalinism are symmetrical phenomena, he was offering a remarkably brilliant observation, the full implications of which have not yet been explored. For what he was suggesting by means of his analogy was that fascism and Stalinism were neither identical nor antithetical; neither simply part of a vague, nameless, Unidentifiable terror such as the liberals would have it; nor enemies unto the death as the neo-Stalinists would have it. Instead they represent parallel, but different. aspects of the decline of contemporary society.

Recent developments have shown conclusively how different Nazism and Stalinism are socially: most important of all, in their attitudes to capitalist society. Where the Nazis by and large perpetuated and strengthened private property, the Stalinists by and large have destroyed it in the countries they occupied. Those who saw “capitalist” property relations in the Stalinized countries of Eastern Europe or those who poked around the Russian farm collectives searching for “capitalist” property relations, will either have to face the simple facts or else retire once and for all in an arena of private fantasies. Wherever Stalinism takes state power, it expropriates the capitalist class. If we do not understand that, we are lost.

But – and here is the second essential point in our comparison – the more Stalinist policy shows itself to be socially different from that of the Nazis, the more does it prove to be profoundly similar in its human consequences and techniques of power. And this is not an accident, for if we follow Trotsky’s suggestive remark that Stalinism and fascism are symmetrical we see that precisely through and because of the social differences do the totally reactionary human consequence follow. For the element of symmetry within the social difference is that both are completely totalitarian movements the primary aim of which is to suppress mass initiative – to utilize the deep stirrings of the masses while simultaneously depriving them of all initiative and self-will.


These general remarks acquire immediate significance in relation to the Czech situation. When the Nazis conquered Czechoslovakia they did so against the general opposition of the Czech workers. When tbe Stalinists conquered Czechoslovakia they did so with the general support, it would seem, of the Czech workers. This is a highly distasteful fact for a socialist to swallow; but it IS a fact. No doubt many Czech workers were terrorized into giving unwilling aid to the Stalinists, no doubt others hate the Stalinists; but the pattern of recent events makes quite clear that the Stalinists had the active support of the bulk of the workers and unions. Otherwise they could not have seized power.

How Can the Stalinists Win Workers’ Support?

Here we come to the central question: why do European workers support the Stalinists? Why did the Czech workers help the totalitarian bandits seize the government? For this is the first case, with the possible exception of Yugoslavia, where the workers actually seemed to favor the Stalinists – again, making all the allowances mentioned above. In Poland, to cite the sharpest contrast, the workers certainly did not support the Stalinists; they repeatedly showed signs of the bitterest opposition. If we can, to some extent, discover why the Czech workers supported the Stalinists, then we may also understand why the French and Italian workers do likewise.

I think the answer is that the support by the Czech workers of the Stalinists is based on a unique mixture of reactionary and revolutionary motivations.

It is certainly true that the workers of Europe still look upon the Stalinists as the inheritors of the tradition of the Russian Revolution and that this remains one of the Stalinists’ most valuable assets. There can also be no doubt that in the eyes of the workers the “revolutionary” character of the Stalinists is underlined by the fact that they DO expropriate factories that they DO drive out private capitalists in the countries they take over. And is that not supposed to be a quintessential characteristic of socialism? But merely to let the matter go at this is not enough. For if the support of the Stalinists by Europe’s workers is explained on the basis of their desire for socialism and their belief that the Stalinists will bring socialism, then one has the right to ask: why do the workers still think that there is socialism in Russia? Why have they not learned that the Stalinists are totalitarian despots? Why have they not learned these facts from their numerous tragic experiences with Stalinism?

It is easy enough to dismiss such questions as “subjective,” but I think they go to the heart of the matter. The workers support the Stalinists because they want socialism – that is certainly true; but they also support them because their conception of what socialism is has been debased and corrupted as a result of the cataclysmic declines and the barbaric experiences of recent history, in other words, the “revolutionary” kernel of their reasons for supporting Stalinism is encased in a reactionary shell. There are sufficient reasons for this situation. Ever since the great historic opportunity for a total victory of socialism in the early 1920s in Europe was lost, humanity has paid the consequences. The terrifying experiences of the intervening decades have tended to destroy, first, the initiative of the workers and, second, their conception of what the aim of their struggle was. More and more, as their self-confidence was shattered by the rise of totalitarianism, by the outbreak of war, by the development of the atomic bomb, the working class, and with it all humanity, has become an object of manipulation by totalitarian parties. That is the essential point of similarity between Stalinism and Hitlerism.

Recent Decades Leave Reactionary Heritage

The results of defeat are not merely the consolidation of the power of the ruling, classes, but above all the disintegration of the initiative and confidence of the rebellious classes. The European workers, subjected to the dehumanization of Nazism, to the barbarism of the war, to the numbing demagogy of Stalinism, are not the same workers who marched into the foreground of history thirty years ago. To deny this is to deny the movement of history ... and the cost of defeat.

Furthermore, the entire trend of recent history has been toward the creation of gigantic bureaucratic structures that weigh on the backs of the masses and impart to them a feeling of helplessness. How can I, a solitary individual in a totalitarian state, watched by the janitor who is an agent of the secret police, watched in the factory by who knows how many agents of the party, supervised even during my few hours of synthetic culture – how can I do anything against that state, how can I do anything requiring the high degree of initiative of cooperating together with the man on the next bench? That is the feeling which totalitarianism imparts. For the modern totalitarian state has developed unprecedented techniques of oppression – the result of a situation in which technology has far outstripped humanity’s success in controlling it for socially beneficial purposes.

This is the heritage the European working class has received from the past three decades. Stalinism consciously exploits this heritage. It denounces capitalism, for It knows that the workers of Europe, no matter what else, will never again be able to rouse any enthusiasm for capitalism. It promises socialism, for which generations have struggled. But it quite consciously and deliberately continues to handle the masses in precisely the same manipulative manner the Nazis did. It thereby exploits the still powerful yearnings of the workers for a new society within the context of the passive social responses inherited from the Nazi experience and the terror of the war where, as under the Nazi regime, the individual worker could only feel helpless before the power of exterior forces loosed against him from above.

In this sense, Stalinism is the legatee of Nazism; in this sense, it continues the decay of capitalist civilization begun by Nazism – driving it to the point where capitalist property relations are abolished while the worst social and human aspects of capitalism are extended to a point never before imagined.

And it is in this sense that it is necessary and permissible to lump capitalism, fascism and Stalinism in one category: for all their great differences, they are all part of a general, total decline of modern class society; for all their great differences, they all subvert the independence and initiative of the masses.

Here, I think, will arise the supreme point of difference between a reborn socialist movement and all defenders of class oppression: the revolutionary socialists will seek to restore the self-confidence, the democratic initiative of the masses of people while the bourgeois parties, the fascists and the Stalinists will wish only to manipulate them. Revolutionary, democratic self-initiative against all authoritarian movements – that is the central cry of the third camp of socialism. Until that is achieved, the “revolutionary-reactionary” appeal of the Stalinists will continue to win the European masses, or to drive them to the opposite revolutionary-reactionary appeal of fascism.


In the light of these general remarks, the attitude of revolutionary socialists toward Czech events becomes a relatively simple matter. Once and for all we can put aside the preposterous ghost of “what is your attitude toward nationalization of industry per se?” There is no such thing as nationalization of industry apart from a social context. Undertaken by a Stalinist regime, such nationalization cannot be separated from the total context of Stalinist totalitarianism. It is, in that situation, part of a reactionary historical process. Undertaken by a democratic socialist regime, it is part of a genuinely liberating process. The casuistic, theological nonsense about nationalization “in and of itself” should finally be thrown into the ashcan: there is no nationalization, or anything else, in and of itself.

The Czech events will provide a central testing point for any possible reinvigoration of the European and American socialist movements. The slightest support to, the slightest ambiguity about, the Stalinist coup is fatal. It removes those holding such a view – let us say it bluntly – from the arena of independent socialism into the arena, of left-wing and at times not so left-wing supporters of Stalinism, than which NO position could be more miserable.

We have no yet seen the response of the “official parties” of the Trotskyist movement. Yet it seems hard to see how a position holding that Stalinist Russia is a “workers’ state” (no matter how “degenerated”) can lead to anything but support (no matter how “conditional”) of the Stalinist coup. For have not the Stalinists driven out the bourgeois ministers from the regime? Have they not “taken over” the factories from their private owners?

Let us hope that for once inconsistency triumphs and the “official parties” do not take the logical – and catastrophic – consequence of their position.

As for us, we state quite without ambiguity that in Czechoslovakia we would apply the same position that we had for Poland in an analogous situation. we would protest together with all those who opposed the abolition of democratic rights by the Stalinist regime; we would march with the students who protested the closing down of the bourgeois democratic parties’ newspapers. Let anyone make of this what they will. But before any howling is raised, one question must be answered: when the GPU and its Czech assistants come to arrest oppositionists, be they Social-Democrats or members of Benes’ party or the students, would you stand with the cops or their victims, with the hunters or the hunted? For us, to ask this question is to answer it.


This does not mean, however, that we in any way give support to the political doctrines of the bourgeois democratic parties. For if the Czech events have anything at all to teach us, it is the complete paralysis and bankruptcy of the democratic capitalist parties.

In the eyes of the masses the parties of Benes and his counterparts defend the intolerable status quo; which is the truth. The bourgeois democratic parties have no social dynamism, no hope, no perspective. They merely repeat their hollow phrases about democracy, but they are unable to clothe these phrases with the reality of social program and accomplishment.

Parties of Capitalism Cannot Hold Masses

Was there anything ever more miserable than the way in which the bourgeois democratic parties collapsed in Czechoslovakia and in all of Eastern Europe? And together with them, the Social Democrats, half of whom folded like men with paper spines and the other half simply sold out to Stalin?

Why? Because they are congenital cowards? Perhaps; but not completely. For the truth is that the bourgeois democratic parties had lost their hold on the masses, especially the most militant, active and aggressive sections of the masses. – those who will come out on the streets.

To depend on Social Democracy, to depend on liberalism as a means of stopping Stalinism in Europe, is to guarantee the victory of Stalinism. Absolutely and without the slightest doubt, it is to sign Europe away to Stalinism. These are the parties which cling nostalgically to the Stable youth of capitalism, the parties that could shine in 1912, but which have proved themselves were paper dikes against the mass floods of fascism and Stalinism. These are the parties of the past: whoever wins, whatever happens, they are finished.


But if the phrases of a Benes – that wretched parody of Schuschnigg – cannot stop Stalinism, if the phrases of a Blum are equally helpless ... then perhaps U.S. bombs may do better. Here we must face the possibility that the rapid tempo of Stalin’s conquests may result in war rather sooner than had been expected. Thus far Stalin has merely consolidated bis power in those countries Russian troops had already occupied. That process of consolidation is now almost complete. If the Stalinists try to move further west, the possibility of a war in the immediate future becomes real.

What the compulsions forcing Stalinism to SUCH rapid expansion are, is at present impossible to say with any degree of definitiveness. Internal economic crisis? The hope of scurrying off with conquests when it is clear that the U.S. will offer no more opposition than formal diplomatic protests? The possession of the atom bomb secrets and thereby absence of fear that the U.S. alone could use this weapon in case of war? Whatever it may be, the Russians seem to be forcing the issue. If they continue, it means war, quickly. For there are no longer left any “luxury positions” for the capitalist powers: Italy, Western Germany, France cannot be surrendered without a serious loss in power.

Imperialist War Would Bring New Disasters

I know that there are many liberals and socialists of a sort who are flirting with the idea of war as the only way to stop Stalinism. I do not want here to argue this matter in detail, but only to ask a few, and not necessarily the most important, questions which arise from recent experience:


One conclusion stands out above all: the evil of this world is indivisible. Stalinism engages in a death-fight with capitalism; but they each reinforce the retrogressive features of the other. The masses who adhere to Stalinism cannot be broken from it by the empty phrases of the capitalist states. The capitalist powers have nothing to offer the European masses – not even the temporary half-rations of the Marshall Plan can revive the remnants of European capitalism. And those workers who still support capitalism can hardly be broken from it by a policy of half-support of Stalinism in Europe (or of playing footsie with the Wallace movement).

Guard and Nourish Socialist Independence

The evil of this world is indivisible. That is the premise of the third camp perspective of socialism, and that, we think, will prove its eventual basis of victory.

We wish to fool nobody – neither those who listen to us nor ourselves. The perspective for Europe is in the immediate future dark, very dark. Yet there remains, in France and England, to cite but two possibilities, bases for socialist growth. In France as it becomes increasingly a battleground between Stalin’s Thorez and Washington’s de Gaulle (or, at the moment, Schumann), an INDEPENDENT socialist movement uniting all those who reject both imperialist monsters can grow ... If only it will be INDEPENDENT. In this country, too, what is essential is a regroupment of all those – parties and/or individuals – who are ready to work for a democratic socialist future as against both capitalism and Stalinism without supporting either.

Yet ... what are the chances? Does it not seem highly likely that the socialists of Europe will provide humanity with that one so essential example of the oppressed standing up as free men and taking their destiny into their own hands – before the war of the atom bombs breaks out?

That at the moment the war of atom bombs seems to be the more likely result of the current historical tragedy is, for this writer at least, too obvious to require iteration. But it is not inevitable. It is not unavoidable! It is still possible for men to act! Perhaps their action can forestall the atom war; perhaps it can only keep alive that spark of thought and hope that flickering but still beautiful socialist dream – with which those to follow us will try to rebuild from the ashes of the atoms. But even if it is the latter perspective which will be realized, to nourish and guard that spark seems to us the most worthy and useful of dedications.

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