Macdonald Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index   |   ETOL Main Page

Dwight Macdonald

Liberalism Marches – Where?

(June 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 10, 17 June 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

For years Marxists have been insisting that the fine professions of the liberals were a fraud, for years we have been prophesying that these highminded idealistic gentlemen would crack under the first real war pressure and line up enthusiastically with the reactionaries and imperialists they so boldly denounced in quiet times. For this harsh view of liberalism we have been called all sorts of names, from “cynics” to “sectarian fanatics.” Now the war pressure has come, suddenly and crushingly, and every morning’s paper is documenting our prophecies. Last week the New Republic announced the resignations of two of its editors, Lewis Mumford and Waldo Frank. They have resigned because they don’t think the New Republic is warlike enough. As far as one can tell from their vague and confused letters of resignation, they doubt the simon-pure quality of the New Republic’s anti-fascism and seem even to suspect that their fellow editors may be tainted with fifth columnitis.

Last week the papers carried a short item to the effect that Bertrand Russell has publicly renounced his pacifism and is now supporting His Majesty’s government in the war.

News now comes, in the New Leader (of London) for May 2, that Victor Gollancz, the British left-wing publisher whose Left Book Club was one of the most important Stalinist “innocent” organizations, and John Strachey, who must be counted as essentially a liberal despite his long service to Stalinism, have definitely left the Stalinist camp. They have run out so fast, indeed, that, as is often the case these days, their momentum has carried them clear into the middle of the British imperialist war camp.

“The disappointing thing,” writes Fenner Brockway sadly, “is that both Strachey and Gollancz have become pro-war on the British and French Side.” Poor old Brockway! What disappointments the next few months still have in store for him!

“The Frankfurter Decision”

The most complete job of moral hari-kari, however, was committed by Felix Frankfurter, defender of Sacco and Vanzetti, onetime “man behind the New Deal” and now a Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. According to Uncensored, whose current issue tells the whole story, “Justice Frankfurter has become one of the most active and most emotional under-cover advocates of foreign intervention in the capital.” Last week Frankfurter drew the logical conclusion from his pro-war position: he wrote one of the most ominous and reactionary decisions that has lately come out of the Supreme Court. By a vote of 8 to 1 (the honorable dissenter was Justice Stone) the court decided that two school children, members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, must salute the American flag, despite religious scruples against doing so. Lined up with Frankfurter in handing down this decision were all the other “New Deal” justices – Black, Murphy, Reed, and Douglas. The recent trend of Supreme Court decisions in such civil liberties cases has been liberal, but the war is really serious now and the smiling puppet-master in the White House is in no mood for any fooling around. His “boys” on the bench are showing they know how to behave.

One of the organizations which helped defend the non-flag-saluters was the American Civil Liberties Union. Frankfurter was a member of its national committee until he went on the bench.

In his decision, Frankfurter hailed the stars and stripes as standing for “absolute safety for free institutions against foreign aggression.” Later on, he stated that the issue was whether schools should be barred “from determining; the appropriateness of various means to evoke that unifying sentiment without which there can ultimately be no liberties, civil or religious.”

Justice Stone wrote a memorable sentence in his dissent:

“History teaches us that there have been but few infringements of personal liberty by the State which have not been justified, as they are here, in the name of righteousness and public good, and few which have not been directed, as they are now, at helpless political minorities.”

Historical note in conclusion: Frankfurter was one of the twelve lawyers who signed a celebrated attack against the Palmer “red raids” of 1920; one of the prosecuting attorneys working for Palmer in those raids was named Owen J. Roberts. Last week, Frankfurter, and Roberts, sitting side by side on the Supreme Court bench, voted side by side to compel school children to salute the flag.

Macdonald Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 26.8.2012