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Dwight Macdonald

Reading from Left to Right

The New Turn in The War – Some Speculations

(June 1940)

From New International, Vol.VI No.5 (Whole No.44), June 1940, pp.104-105.
Transcribed by Damon Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

ONE of the chief bases for Marxism’s claim to superiority over other methods of interpreting history is that it can more accurately predict the future. And in the last decade, this claim has indeed received some impressive documentation. The collapse of the Popular Front in France and the New Deal in this country; the Hitler-Stalin pact; the explosion of the second world war; the crumbling of the bourgeois isolationist front in this country in the last month-these were all foreseen by Marxist analysis. But in the past year there have occurred turns of world history which we, as Marxists, did not foresee, notably the imperialist role played by the Soviet Union in the early months of the war, and – the question which is currently the most important for us – the tremendous military power of the German armies and, correspondingly, the unexpected military weakness of the Allies.

(Whether this means that Marxist doctrine itself requires some overhauling, or whether it simply shows a failure on the part of our movement to correctly apply Marxism – this important question cannot be gone into here. Personally I believe the latter to be the case.)

This miscalculation as to the course of the war has forced us to radically alter our agitational line in the past month, and may also indicate that our understanding of the social and economic nature of German fascism, and of the degree of its difference from the old-style imperialisms of England and France, that this understanding has been defective. Our perspective on the war up to a month ago assumed (1) a long drawn-out struggle which would leave both sides exhausted, (2) an ultimate Allied victory. (In other words, we, along with most bourgeois opinion, thought of this war as essentially a repetition of the last war.) Therefore, the main aim of our propaganda was to show that an Allied victory would not mean democracy, that the Allies were fighting for the same imperialist aims as the Nazis.

These propositions remain as true today as ever, but they are now somewhat beside the point. The new turn the war has taken poses two questions to us: (1) what modifications, if any, are necessary in our propaganda? (2) is the unexpected power of the Nazi offensive simply a military-technical question, or is it a reflection of a much greater qualitative difference between the Nazi socio-economic system and the Anglo-French system than we have up to now recognized?

These questions seem to me to be the most important problems now facing our movement. Elsewhere in this issue there is an article by E. Erber discussing the first. In following issues, I plan to attempt some consideration of the second question, based on data now being gathered. This month I propose to turn over this department to a manuscript dealing with these themes, which has recently come into my hands. As will be seen, it is written as informal notes or memoranda. The author prefers to remain anonymous. I have added a few comments of my own at the end.

The paper takes up the general nature of the war and raises the interesting question of totalitarianism-from-above as against totalitarianism-from-below:


Up to now, Marxist propaganda has been based on the assumption that Germany will be defeated in this war. Its gist, in proletarian English, is: what good is victory with the prospect of another and greater war twenty years from now?

From this assumption of Allied victory stems the hopeless floundering of the revolutionary movement since the beginning of the war, its inability not only to make itself felt, but to grow at all.

The Marxists pointed out that only a totalitarian nation could fight a total war. Totalitarianism is masses plus machines, not machines alone. What conclusions were drawn from this observation? Only the conclusions of ABC. But it was not at all considered that totalitarian-ism by legal decree, which is in substance the wartime totalitarianism of the Allies, is not the terrible monolithism that wins wars. It more closely resembles the adaptation of classic South American government.

From the Marxist premises, the only possible conclusion is that Germany must win the war. For if, only totalitarianism can win the war, and if M-Day is not the right brand, being totalitarianism by decree and not from below, then Germany must win. Yet in our activity we have failed to draw that conclusion.

To induce from the imperialist necessity of totalitarianism that the Allies will establish fascism on the pattern of the Industrial Mobilization Bill is only possible if revolutionary thought has become corrupted by two muddy streams: “third period” Stalinism with its inability to distinguish between fascism and militarism, and “official” thought in this country, which cannot see its own demise.


It is wrong to call M-Day a blueprint for fascism. Fascism is a movement from below, utilized not even by individual capitalists necessarily, but by institutionalized capitalism as a whole. Fascism in America will not come by administrative repression. It will come when the war-torn soldiers and civil populace overturn the executives of the “Jewish War”. Watch the Christian Front; the psychology of its members suggests that when America participates, they will go along. Their mental reservations will be far different from those of Norman Thomas or Jack Altman. A program of Jingoism coupled with demands for the ousting of Jews from the control of the Jingo machine, exposes of “Jewish treason” in the conduct of the war – the coincidence of Jewish treason in the conduct of a Jewish war is no more difficult to reconcile than that of the harmony of (Jewish) Bolshevism and (Jewish) finance-capital worked out by Spengler – will prepare for the timed opposition by which the Coughlin mob will either try to effect a revolution during the war or after it.


If the basis of the tremendous German victories so far were really nothing more than the military superiority of Germany, Man’s Hope would become the outstanding political document of our epoch, and revolutionists should “fight rather to keep something alive than in the hope that anything will triumph”. For military inferiority would be just as real for a Red France as for a Black France.

The Allies cannot win because their peoples have nothing to fight for. It is the unofficial stalling of the buck privates which determines defeat. There are ideas by which even the lowly masses live, and democracy was once one of them. The democratic and imperial ideas have crumbled, and the birth rate is falling. And the birth-rate is important. It means not only that capitalism has reached an economic impasse, where children become a luxury. The rich have less children than the poor. It means that the process of the dissolution of faith in the validity of life which dominated the English world of letters in the last century has reached its hedonistic conclusion in this century. For the wealthy, it is too much pain to bear children; it complicates divorces; etc.

Only the totalitarian nations have been able to arrest the fall of the birth-rate by state subsidies. But the subsidy is enforced by the idea: the evening of imperialism is shining on the Stonehenge-estates.

It does not matter whether the German masses have anything to fight for; it is important that they think they have. German economy by its policy of dynamic aggression is able to postpone its collapse; the mass depends on the velocity. Military defeat can make a revolutionary Germany again, but not from the incredible Allies.

Can the entrance of America turn the tide? Are the American people all used up, or ready for imperialist resurgence? The United States is Carthage to Hitler’s Rome just as England is Rome to Hitler’s Attila.

The American masses are duped as to the nature of the war much more easily than they were in 1917, but they will fight much less efficiently when they are sent. The majority of the working class right now believe that American participation in the world slaughter would be beneficient to the national interest but probably mortal to their own interest; and they are afraid.


To transform fear into revolutionary heroism is not easy. It is necessary for revolutionists to confront the people with their own fear. It is time to analyze the war from the standpoint of inevitable German victory, even with American entry, and trace the basis of that victory in the national paralysis of the status-quo powers. We must, above all, expose the economic roots of this paralysis, this death-wish. In-stead of beginning from proofs that Allied victory will settle nothing, we must begin with what is for the masses the almost experiential certainty of German victory and prove that only a revolutionary army can defeat Hitler.

The most valuable point made above, it seems to me is the distinction between Anglo-French-American totalitarianism by administrative decree “from above”, and the more organic and monolithic German variety “from below”. We have understood clearly enough that fascism could not be built in this country from the top down, that the great corporations and banking interests could not charm into being a native fascism by any amount of money and force. As Guerin puts it: “Fascism is not born solely from the desires and subsidies of big business.” But, while rejecting the Stalinist equation of Hooverism with fascism, we have not been keenly enough aware that, by the same token, the Administration’s M-Day and industrial mobilization plans cannot properly be called “fascist”. The war has not strengthened native fascist movements; on the contrary, they are now in the “fifth column” category. The new American totalitarianism now being worked out jointly by finance capital and the New Deal in Washington is not fascist because its basic ideology is the old bourgeois-democratic stuff that has already proved its historical bankruptcy in England and France. This fact makes the greatest difference to both bourgeois and revolutionary strategies in this next period over here.

But my correspondent overstresses his valid point when he writes, “It does not matter whether the German masses have anything to fight for; it is important that they think they have.” The great weakness in Hitler’s position is precisely that it does matter to the German masses whether they have something real to fight for, and that a German victory will by no means give solid, material answers to this question of war aims. The Allies are facing their supreme crisis now. Hitler will face his after he wins the war.

In the same way, my correspondent overstresses the factor of morale in this war – “the unofficial stalling of the buck privates.” It is true that the German troops seem to have high morale, and, even more significant, that the new German military tactics (parachute troops, wholesale use of tanks and planes) depend much more on the initiative and courage of the individual soldier than do the defensive tactics of the Allies. But it is also true, if the newspapers are to be believed, that the remarkable feat of evacuating most of the BEF from Dunkirk was possible only because of high morale among the Allied troops. Not morale but equipment seems to be the decisive factor in this war.

Finally, I don’t believe that most American workers believe entry into the war would be good for America’s national interests but fatal to their own class interests. I don’t think they make any such distinction. The American working class will have to become very much more class conscious than it is now before it understands that its class interests can conflict with the national interest as well as coincide with it.


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