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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(2 March 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 8, 2 March 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

American Class Consciousness

The most interesting thing in the new U.S.A. issue of Fortune is the latest instalment of the Fortune Survey. Just how accurate and scientifically unbiassed this national poll is, I don’t know. (It came remarkably close to the 1936 presidential election results.) But to the extent that it is an accurate reflection of public opinion, this month’s instalment makes sober reading

That the social and economic conditions for the transference of power from the bourgeoisie to the workers have, in this country, been ripe for some time – this, I think, can easily be demonstrated. But Fortune’s Survey would seem to indicate that this is far from being yet reflected in mass consciousness.

The question was asked: “What word would you use to name the class in America you belong to?” To this, 47% answered “middle class”, 15% said “working class”, and 28% said they didn’t know.

Another question: “Do you think the interests of employers and employees are, by their very nature, opposed, or are they basically the same?” 56% answered “the same”, 25% said “opposed”, the rest didn’t know. Factory workers, as one would expect, were the most class conscious here: here – and yet more of even this section of the masses thought class interests were “basically the same” (41%) than thought they were opposed (37%).

Asked: “What do you really think would be a satisfactory income for you?”, exactly half of all answering named sums of $2,500 a year and under. It is true that even such an income is far below what most people get today, but to be content with so little shows a dangerous mood of humility and resignation among the masses.

The most ominous finding was that, while 49% thought anybody at any time should have the right of free speech, almost as many (44%) said they would “prohibit some”. And of these latter, much the biggest proportion (40%) defined the “some” they would gag as “Browder, communists, reds, radicals, Thomas, socialists”. The next biggest gag group was the 18% in favor of denying free speech to “Kuhn, Bund Leaders, Nazis, Fascists”. This would seem to indicate that “reds” are about twice as unpopular in this country at the moment as fascists. (It would have been interesting and valuable to have had this same question asked before the Hitler-Stalin Pact. I venture to guess that the anti-”red” sentiment would have been appreciably weaker.

The People Reject War

As the war drags on, its sterile, futile, reactionary character becomes increasingly clear to the American masses. In the first week of the war, the Gallup Poll asked the question: “If it appears that Germany is defeating England and France, should the United States declare war on Germany and send our army and navy to Europe to fight?” To this, 44% said “Yes”, 56% said “No”. The same question was asked a few weeks ago. This time 23% said “Yes”, 77% “No”. In the same way, the percentage of those who think the U.S. will stay out of the European war has risen from 54% last October to a current figure of 68%.

This swing in public sentiment, which set in a few weeks after the war began, has forced the Roosevelt Administration to soft-pedal its jingoistic pro-Ally propaganda, and to backwater on its war plans. But it would be folly to imagine either that the Administration has given up its plans for getting the country into the war on the side of the “democracies”, or that the present trend of public feeling cannot be reversed in the near future. No amount of popular hatred of war will by itself suffice to keep the country out of the present war. This mass sentiment must be organized and given expression by powerful labor and radical organizations if it is to play an important role.

But Capitalism Demands War

Regardless of what the masses think and want, the economic necessities of American capitalism press the nation inexorably towards participation in the war. The links of gold and steel which bind our economy to that of the rest of world imperialism are far stouter than the simple-minded, provincial “isolationist” believes. At the present time, for example, eleven billions of American money are in long-term investments abroad. Last year’s exports were higher than in 1938, and the month of December, 1939, in particular, was 37% above December, 1938.

Furthermore, the character of this trade has changed in recent years in such a way as to link American economy more tightly to European wars. A comparison of the chief items of export in 1926–1930 with 1939, shows that raw cotton has had the biggest drop (11%), iron and steel mill products the biggest rise (9%). In general, decreases are in farm products and consumers’ goods, while the increases are in such war materials as aircraft, oil, chemicals, iron and steel scrap. In a word, the United States ten years ago was the provisioner of Europe, today is the armorer of Europe.

There is space here to mention only one other tie: the enormous flow of gold from Europe to the safe haven of this country in the last few years. Since 1934, Fortune estimates that $10,500,000,000 of European gold has been received here; of which only $2,800,000,000 was in settlement of foreign trade balances. The rest represented “a vast, unwelcome entrance of foreign capital” in the form of short-term bank balances and foreign investments in American securities.

According to a recent report of the U.S. Department of Commerce, this inflow of gold from Europe has been greatly stimulated by the war. In 1938 the total inflow was $1,500,000,000; last year it was just double that figure, namely $3,000,000,000. As soon as the war abroad becomes “serious”, this torrent of gold pouring Westward across the Atlantic will set in motion an Eastward counter-current of American guns and copper and oil and chemicals. No capitalist government can withstand the gravitational pull of this economic interaction between America and Europe. It will become a question not of whether to enter the war, but purely as to how to get the country in. And this second problem can be solved by the ruling class more easily than the isolationists realize.

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