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Dwight Macdonald

Reading from Left To Right

(November 1939)

From New International, Vol.5 No.11, November 1939, pp.332-334.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Notes on a War

The catchword of the warmongers of the left is: “This war is different” – varied by “1939 is not 1914”. The implication is that, whatever the imperialistic taint of the last war, this time the issue is really vital to the security and happiness of the world. But the difference between the two wars on this score seems to be to be all in favor of the last war. In the twenty-five years that have elapsed since 1914, capitalism as a social system has enormously deteriorated. Fascism is the ultimate expression of this decay, but in the great “democracies” the process has also been going on. The last war was the catastrophe which marked the end of the old “free” capitalism of the last century, the end of Victorian rationalism, of the rosy illusions of reformism and Bismarckian “state socialism”, of the Manchester school of free trade and universal popular education and a dozen other quaint nostrums for the cancer that was even then eating away at capitalism. When the last war began, the reformist and liberal politicians who so effectively led the masses to the slaughtering pens were able to present the war as a final struggle to crush the diabolical enemy who would destroy all these things. The French and English masses were told they were fighting for parliamentary democracy against “autocracy” and “militarism”, and Wilson’s soap bubble vision of a League of Nations floated unpunctured above the trenches. Likewise, the German masses were told by the Social Democracy they were defending the fatherland of international socialism from Czarism and British imperialism. Both sides therefore marched off to battle with bands playing, flags flying proudly, and social-patriotic orators confidently proclaiming the noble aims of the war. Every one thought the war would “settle” things once and for all, and that the world would be, in Wilson’s phrase, “a better place to live in” once the victory had been won.

The crusading exaltation with which the masses went to war in 1914 is nowhere in evidence today. The troops have marched off to the battlefield and the civilian populations have gone about the complicated business of preparing against bombing and gassing from the air. in a numb, sullen spirit which only a propaganda ministry dares to call “sober resolve” or “grim determination”. If every one woke up with the jitters in the cold grey dawn of 1919, this time the party is beginning with the handover. Not even the liberal-reformist politicians can see any real perspectives for capitalism in the future. The events of the last twenty-five years have exposed to every one what in the pre-1914 period only a few Marxists understood: that war, mass misery, and increasing economic chaos are inseparable from the development of monopoly capitalism. Not even reformist politicians venture to put forth for public consumption any optimistic visions of a better world once Hitler is crushed. Not even the liberal weeklies dare to speculate very closely on what the “democracies” will do with their victory – if they win it. On the “democratic” side, this is a purely defensive war, a desperate rear-guard action with no perspective more ambitious than “Stop Hitler!” at its end. Therefore, the less said about war aims, the better. As Lord Linlithgow informed the Indian Congress Party the other day: “His Majesty’s Government have not themselves defined with any ultimate precision their objectives in the prosecution of the war, and it is obvious that such a definition can only come at a later stage of the campaign ...” Obviously.

* * *

Another difference between this war and the last one is that war came in 1914 with dramatic unexpectedness, while this time it has been tensely expected by everyone for years.

Even after the Sarajevo assassination in 1914 no one except a few highly placed diplomats and politicians who were on the inside and knew what was brewing, and a few Marxists who were on the outside but were able to judge the situation accurately by theoretical analysis – no one really thought it would come to a general European war. But during all those years when the entire liberal-reformist movement of Europe, from the “Marxist” social democrats Jaurès and Bernstein to the bourgeois liberal Lloyd George, were talking of the “new order” of gradual, peaceful, evolutionary progress under capitalism, in all those years the economic contradictions and basic imperialist antagonisms had been steadily building up to the explosion point. When the blow-up finally came, it was to the masses and their leaders a totally unexpected eruption of hidden, half-forgotten forces.

Taken by surprise, the masses in 1914 were easily whipped into a war hysteria. It would all be over in a few months, and victory would “settle” things once for all, so that the march of social progress could be resumed. It was possible, furthermore, for the apologists for capitalism to present the last war as a sort of natural, accidental catastrophe – an avalanche brought thundering down on Europe by the pistol shots at Sarajevo. This time, however, there is no such element of surprise in the outbreak of war. By now, war is seen clearly even by the masses to be no accident of nature. It has emerged nakedly as the normal mode of life for the decaying capitalist system. It is true that the labor movement is weaker this time than in 1914, and that there is less militant, organized opposition to war. But it is also true that the masses this time have fewer illusions about the causes of war and the good results to be hoped for from war. Apathy, passive submission, resignation, cynicism – such seems to be the popular mood at the outbreak of the second world war.

The last war represented a sharp break with the normal peacetime life of Europe. Within a month of the declaration of war, military moves of the utmost scope and importance were made. Before the first half years was out, the German armies had almost captured Paris, the battle of the Marne had been fought, and Von Hindenburg and Ludendorff had dealt a crushing blow to Russia at Tannenburg and the Masurian Lakes – the greatest victories of the entire conflict. This war has so far, by comparison, been fought in slow motion. The reason for the difference is, of course, partly technical: the formidable strength of the Westwall and the Maginot Line. But it also has broader implications. Europe has been in a state of war not since September 1, 1939, but since Hitler sent his troops into the Rhineland in 1935. This war, so far as England and France at least were concerned, was conducted with diplomatic and economic weapons rather than bombs and cannon. But the threat of armed force was always very close to the surface, much closer than before the last war. The delay in seriously beginning hostilities this time is significant of the merging of war into the normal political and social structure of life which has taken place in the last quarter of a century. Clausewitz’s famous axiom about war being the continuation of politics by other means has been stood on its head: this war has been suspended while the belligerents engage in a series of political maneuvers. This time, politics turns but to be the continuation of war “by other means”. Or rather, both techniques are being used simultaneously, the propaganda battles and diplomatic campaigns in Moscow, Washington, and other “neutral” capitals playing at least as important a part as the military and naval engagements. The distinction between war and politics as imperialist techniques, or between war and peace as ways of life under capitalism, this has been broken down, and war has been fused into the normal, everyday structure of existence both of the state and the individual.

* * *

This fusion of the military and the political-social aspects of war in our time also expresses itself in the totalitarian nature of modern warfare, in which civilians and soldiers are alike exposed to death and mutilation. The bombing plane has erased the term, “non-combatant”, from the military lexicon. It would even be possible to argue that the soldiers manning the Westwall and the Maginot Line are safer in their deep burrows of steel and concrete than the civilian populations of Paris and Berlin. Thus this war has developed from a duel between professional armies first to a struggle between mass democratic armies, and finally to its present form, involving the entire population of the belligerents, without distinction as to age, sex, or uniform. War has thus come to have an increasingly social – as against purely military and technical – character. Another aspect of this is the fact that a modern army is highly mechanized and needs vast quantities of machine products, everything from time fuses to electric cookers. It has been estimated that it takes about five industrial workers behind the lines to keep one soldier supplied with the instruments of his trade. On the one hand, the civilian population behind the lines has become more and more essential to the troops in the field, and on the other hand, this same population has become increasingly exposed to the attacks of the enemy. Thus it is more than ever essential that morale on the “home front” be maintained, while it is also more than ever possible for the enemy to break this civilian morale. Even in the last war, the home front was the decisive factor : the German military machine broke down finally not because of any great Allied victories – there were none – but because the political unrest behind the lines, caused by the privations of the civil masses, finally “infected” the army. Revolutionary opposition to this war may well spread faster on the home front than among the troops in the field.

Socialist Stomatology

These are times that try men’s souls, especially if they were unwary enough to enlist in the ranks of the “friends of the Soviet Union”. In this dark hour, these “friends” have been scuttling off the sinking ship of the Third International in droves. The liberal weeklies have indignantly flounced out of bed; such great minds as Granville Hicks and Heywood Broun, not to mention Robert Forsyth, have ventured to express their suspicions of the Kremlin in public; “innocent” groups are folding up on every hand. But all is not lost! Stalin still has Corliss Lamont. And he still has The American Quarterly on the Soviet Union, whose current issue, performs the really remarkable feat of printing 150 pages on Soviet affairs without venturing any further on dangerous ground than reprinting (strictly without comment) the text of the Stalin-Hitler Pact and of Molotov’s speech to the Soviet Congress about it. The curious reader can enlighten himself in this magazine, published a week or two ago, on Shakespeare in the Soviet Union, Children’s Theatres in the Soviet Union, Retailing Practices in the Soviet Union, Psychology in the Soviet Union. Oriental Studies in the Soviet Union, and, the grand climax, Dentistry in the Soviet Union!

Let professional grumblers and unstable intellectuals carp as they like about the trials, the mass purges, the Pact, the invasion of Poland, here is conclusive proof that socialism has been achieved in the Soviet Union, just as Stalin says. Here, in this sensational article by Dr. Alfred J. Asgis, is evidence of the enduring quality of Soviet socialism, which persists, granite, unalterable, through all minor episodes like the alliance with Hitler. The better to handle his vast topic, Dr. Asgis divides it into three eminently reasonable headings: “(a) Dentistry in the Soviet Union in general; (b) Dental education; and (c) The growth of the dental profession in the Soviet Union.” Dr. Asgis demonstrates beyond all reasonable doubt that Socialist dentistry under Stalin has made gigantic strides forward. Tsarist Russia, for instance, in its entire miserable existence was able to produce only 200,000 sets of false teeth, while in the year 1934 alone, the city of Leningrad alone produced 800,000 sets of Marxist dentures.

Dr. Asgis is honest enough not to conceal the fact that there are flaws in this stirring record of Bolshevik victory on the Denture and Bridgework Front. Thus he frankly admits that Soviet artificial teeth “are not up to the mark in shading and range in coloring”. He also reveals the existence of. a crisis in the production of dental rubber which may well be called to Kaganovitch’s attention after he has finished with the railroads. The trouble seems to be that the Kremlin has of late been preoccupied with other matters and so has not given to dental progress the full attention it should have. In Dr. Asgis’ words: “When other aspects of Soviet life demand immediate attention, such as agriculture, national defense, industry, etc., the growth of dental industry is naturally retarded.”

This seems logical enough. But there is a more serious explanation possible of the failure of Soviet dentistry, for all its sensational victories, to conquer these weaknesses. I have no wish to get either Dr. Asgis or his dental colleagues into trouble with the Soviet authorities, but it is impossible not to read between the lines of his article certain indications of serious ideological deviations. What is one to make of a formulation such as this, for example: “The majority of Soviet physicians are inclined to accept the endogenous theory of the cause of caries, caused by disorders in metabolism and by traumatic factors of a neurotrophic character.” This sounds like Menshevik, petty-bourgeois formalism to me. And there seems to be more than a hint of Trotskyist-Bukharinist defeatism in the statement attributed to Dr. Alexander A. Limberg, Professor of Stomatology at the Medical Institute in Leningrad: “Because the emphasis is on providing dental care for the masses immediately, it is impossible for the present to carry out the ideal program of education.” A good Bolshevik, Dr. Lemberg, doesn’t blame his own failures on the masses. It is significant, also, that Dr. Asgis quotes this dangerously incorrect formulation without in any way criticising it or disassociating himself from it. It is to be hoped, for his own sake as well as for that of the Soviet masses, that Dr. Asgis will hasten to correct these deviations in an otherwise valuable article.


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