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Tim Wohlforth

Periodicals in Review

(Fall 1959)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.20 No.4, Fall 1959, pp.124-127.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Mills-Howe Controversy

The publication Dissent, which specializes in doing as little as possible of what its title suggests, has had its pages enlivened recently by a revealing controversy.

The controversy began with a review of C. Wright Mills’ Causes of World War Three by Dissent editor Irving Howe (Spring 1959). Howe found the book “unacceptable for the democratic left” not because of Mills’ rejection of a Marxist theoretical approach or because of the concomitant strain of idealism in his thinking. What Howe objects to is Mills’ opposition to the cold-war ideologists and his recognition of the real state of affairs in the world. He accuses Mills of systematically understating “the significance of political ideas and ideologies as motifs affecting the behavior of and helping to explain the differences between nations – and a failing most inevitably a consequence of his hard-boiled stress upon ‘power’ as a dominant factor in world politics.” Mills does not see the cold war as a struggle between the “democracy” of the “free world” and the authoritarianism of the USSR. He underrates the “role of democratic sentiments in the West.”

In others words, Mills is guilty in Howe’s eyes of not swallowing the cold-war myth that the United States is struggling to preserve democracy in the world. He is further guilty of suggesting such “highly problematic notions” that the US should “abandon all military bases and installations outside the continental domain of the United States.”

* * *

In the Summer 1959 Dissent Mills answers Howe.

“No doubt there are others but I have seen only three ‘negative’ US reviews of my essay, the Causes of World War Three. In the Wall Street Journal, William H. Chamberlain wrote – as expected; in the N.Y. Post, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote – as expected; and in Dissent, you wrote – unexpectedly. I had thought you had abandoned the foot-dragging mood of the Cold War and were trying to make a new beginning. I had thought that an editor of Dissent would have taken due note of differences, and then gone on to build a new left, taking into account the changed state of the world and the sorry condition of US foreign policy. But no. Why waste time with lib-lab apologists and fanatical anti-Communists? But you are supposed to be in some way or another ‘left.’ So I feel the need to make a few points and to ask you a few questions ... Just how does your basic view of the world confrontation today differ from the line expressed by the work of Dulles-Adenauer?”

Mills says further:

“You write like the cold warriors. To dissent is lovely. But, Irving, as regards foreign policy, from what, tell me, do you dissent? ... What have you recently read – apart from rumors filed from Hong Kong – about China?”

He concludes:

“I’ll stick to the assessments and proposals I’ve outlined in my essay and continue to elaborate them with the help of those who have not yet joined The Old Futilitarians of the dead American left.”

American Labor Movement

In the summer of 1958, the American Socialist published, jointly with the Monthly Review, a special issue containing nine articles on the subjects, American Labor Today. This attempt to sum up the state of the American labor movement contained much of value, but neglected entirely the crucial problem of the labor bureaucracy.

In Bert Cochran’s comprehensive introductory piece, there were a few general references to “ranks” and “leadership” but no mention of the existence of a privileged caste or social strata of union officials with needs and aspirations that are not merely different from, but antagonistic to, those of the ranks. In Cochran’s article it is the abstraction – “labor” or “the American labor movement” – which is following reactionary policies or making mistakes, or neglecting opportunities, or dissipating strength. The impression is given that the labor movement constituted, if not one big happy family, at least a unit headed in one direction. Cochran and the other authors point out in some detail how the American labor movement has not been getting very far along socialist lines. There is no intimation, however, that one of the prime causes for this has been the formation of the modern labor bureaucracy which is imbued with capitalist ideology, tied in with the capitalist parties and government and organically hostile to class-struggle militancy and socialist impulses from below.

The nine articles have now appeared as a book and the September 1959 issue of American Socialist prints a review by Mulford Q. Sibley who points out an inconsistency in Cochran’s contribution: How, questions Sibley, can Cochran retain his faith in the revolutionary future of the labor movement in the face of his “recital of details, which from a socialist point of view, tend to make one despair?”

Cochran must have anticipated this question. In the July-August issue of his magazine, in an article, Choices Before America, he observes that the working class of Western capitalist countries have not made successful socialist revolutions and asks:

”Was Marx – we can broaden it and ask, was modern socialism – totally wrong in viewing the working class as the inheritor of the mantle of the revolutionary bourgeoisie of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, destined to inherit power in order to reorganize society on new socialist lines? Or, was the error of the kind that frequently occurs between the theoretical exposition of an idea and its worldly realization, and which with suitable modifications can still retain some historical validity?”

Cochran answers his question thus:

“Today, the balance sheet reads that despite two world wars the system remains firmly in the saddle and the Western trade unions and labor parties are rightfully considered as a prime element of the social stability. The Western working classes, at least judging by the past century, seem to lack the will to power that gripped the merchants and entrepreneurs during the twilight of feudalism.”

* * *

“In the thirties,” says Cochran, “Trotsky and others tried to explain the non-revolutionism of the labor organizations and their folding up in times of crisis in terms of a betrayal on the part of their leaders. But he failed to grapple with the root problem why leaders who allegedly betrayed the wishes of their ranks continued to enjoy their support and were re-elected time and again after committing their so-called betrayals.”

Cochran ignores the fact that Trotsky “grappled” at length with precisely this question. For example: after Franco’s victory in Spain a French periodical, Que Faire, wrote that the defeat of the Spanish revolution under leaders who betrayed it was due to the lack of will of the Spanish workers to follow any other leaders. Trotsky answered in an article entitled The Class, The Party and The Leadership, published in the United States in the December 1940 issue of the Fourth International (now the International Socialist Review).

“Our author,” wrote Trotsky, “depicts the matter as if the proletariat were in a well stocked shoe store, selecting a new pair of boots ... As regards new leadership, the choice is very limited. Only gradually, only on the basis of their own experience through several stages can the broad layers of the masses become convinced that a new leadership is firmer, more reliable, more loyal than the old. To be sure, during a revolution, i.e., when events move swiftly, a weak party can quickly grow into a mighty one provided it lucidly understands the course of the revolution and possesses staunch cadres that do not become intoxicated with phrases and are not terrorized by persecution. But such a party must be available prior to the revolution inasmuch as the process of educating the cadres requires a considerable period of time and the revolution does not afford this time ... History is not an automatic process. Otherwise, why leaders? why parties? why programs? why theoretical struggles?”

Marketable Ex-Radicalism

While the radical movement is at its lowest ebb numerically in this country the ex-radicals seem legion. Sidney Lens in the Sept. 5 Nation documents the prominence of former radicals in the trade union bureaucracies, the leading magazines, and in the employment of the US State Department itself.

Lens feels that ex-radicalism has become “a marketable commodity” in contemporary America. The United States entered a post-war world in which its main protagonist called itself Marxist and in which the new nationalist leaders in the Asian and African countries likewise were influenced by radical ideas. Washington needed people who could handle radical ideas to serve its own international interests. The ex-radical filled the bill.

“In many ways,” Lens concludes, “the professional ex is the most powerful influence in today’s tendency to conform. Because of his past, he is even more fearful of ‘sticking his neck out’ than the arch-conservative.”

* * *

Another function of the “ex” is to carry on polemics against Marxism for the American rulers. One former radical who has made this his profession is Bertram D. Wolfe. Wolfe was an editor of the Lovestoneite Revolutionary Age which ceased publication in 1940 when the Lovestoneite group formally dissolved. He is known for his book Three Who Made a Revolution. The Spring, 1959 issue of Antioch Review contains an article by Wolfe, Marxism Today. It has become fashionable among American intellectuals to announce regularly that this or that prediction of Marx has been proven wrong by history. Wolfe now carries this campaign to its logical extreme and blandly states, “No other serious thinker of the nineteenth century was so frequently, egregiously, and totally wrong in his predictions.”

Wolfe does not bother, of course, to prove his claim that Marx was “totally wrong.” He hopes that the audience he is writing for will largely accept the assertion uncritically. The cold-war ideological reaction and the fearful conformity produced by the witch hunt has encouraged the Wolfes to believe they can get away with the most absurd nonsense. Unchallenged by a vigorous and expanding Marxist movement, the ex-radical becomes intellectually lazy in the performance of his anti-Marxist chores. He relies on assertion and labelling rather than argumentation and proof. Wolfe even claims that “unlike the declassed intellectuals who offered them leadership the workers themselves have never been attracted to this ‘mission’” [that of overthrowing capitalism and establishing a classless society – T.W.]. Just exactly how Wolfe squares this astonishing statement with the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution, the heroic revolutionary attempts of the German, Austrian and Spanish workers, and the mass socialist and communist workers’ movements in Western Europe, etc., one does not know.

We do not hold that Marx and his followers were infallible in their predictions. It is clear now that Marx and Engels tended to err in estimating the tempo of the world revolution. They underestimated the ability of decaying capitalism to preserve its tottering rule (at the great cost to humanity of catastrophic depressions, two world wars and the hell of fascism, to be sure). And they didn’t foresee the full scope of the task of creating working-class leadership capable of leading victorious struggles against capitalism. But can anyone deny that the basic outline of Marx’s predictions are being realized in our time? Marx’s concept of a planned economy, which many of his contemporaries simply dismissed as a theoretical and practical impossibility, has now been achieved despite all imperfections in one-third of the world. Another one-third of the world, the colonial areas, is now in a profound struggle against imperialism so that the remaining advanced capitalist countries find themselves living in a hostile world.

Students and Youth

The Spring 1959 issue of Polemic, a journal of contemporary ideas published by students at Western Reserve University, was largely devoted to a symposium on The Condition of the American Left with contributions from spokesmen of most of the radical organizations and groups in the US including Herbert Aptheker of the Communist Party and Farrell Dobbs of the Socialist Workers Party. Comments on these contributions by Western Reserve students and faculty members followed.

The idea of such exchanges of views between American radicals and the university public is excellent and let us hope other universities attempt it. Polemic is technically very impressive. It beautifully combines graphic arts, different textured papers and modern well-designed typography. The general opulent effect created, however, seems somewhat out of keeping with the subject matter – the American radical movement. There isn’t a single socialist organization that could afford such a luxurious format.

* * *

Challenge, the monthly paper of the Young People’s Socialist League, has ceased publication. This was occasioned both by a financial crisis in the organization and by general dissatisfaction with the publication among YPSL members. The YPSL was evidently attempting to publish a paper which they assumed students would like, even though they themselves thought it to be on too low a level. As a result the members did not like it enough to bother to sell it and when they attempted to sell it they discovered that the students agreed with their own evaluation of it.

The abandonment of Challenge is part of a trend – the shrinking number of publications in the Social Democratic sphere of radical politics. With the merger of the Shachtmanites and the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation the weekly Labor Action and the quarterly New International were given up. All that is left is the monthly Socialist Call, the semi-socialist Dissent and the irregular annual student magazine Anvil.

Now the only socialist youth newspaper in the country is the Young Socialist. The YS is marking the end of its second full year of publication. This summer it published a special eight-page issue which dealt with the question of peace.

A new student radical journal, Studies on the Left, is to be launched this fall by a group of graduate students at the University of Wisconsin. These students, who have been active in the large Wisconsin Socialist Club, say that the journal “is connected with no specific theoretical position or political organization. The journal aims at significant, scholarly, readable articles, of whatever radical or socialist position.” Its address is P.O. Box 2121, Madison 5, Wis.

Those interested in the socialist youth movement in the US should read the article On Party Youth Work by Hyman Lumar appearing in the June 1959 issue of Political Affairs, the monthly magazine of the Communist Party. Lumar notes:

“The dissolution of the Labor Youth League and the subsequent abandonment of attention to youth work were among the worst consequences of the crisis through which the Party has just passed. For a considerable period of time, there has been virtually a complete void in this field of activity.”

After outlining the continued basic differences of opinion within the CP on how to organize its youth and the divergent forms of present youth activity Lumar concludes:

“There appears to be no sufficient base for the immediate formation of a national youth organization ...”

Popular Front Reappraised

The Monthly Review, which has long been an uncritical supporter of the European Communist parties’ policy of popular front, printed an article in its December 1958 issue which basically challenged this policy. The article, The Politics of Contemporary Capitalism by Ralph Miliband, was reprinted from the British New Reasoner.

Miliband said, “The most important fact about the Left in Western Europe since the end of the war is that it has come nowhere near to presenting a really serious threat to the established order.” He blames this state of affairs on the policy of the European Communist parties, especially in France and Italy, of participating in the post-war bourgeois coalition governments.

This policy, he pointed out,

“seemed to represent a major Communist advance. In fact, the gain was almost wholly on the other side. For it immediately neutralized the Communists as a source of discord at a critical time by trapping them into the constricting net of constitutional respectability. It compelled them to play second-fiddle in non-Communist orchestras, and to play from a score to the composition of which they had made no more than a marginal contribution.”

“So long as they were badly needed to provide the disciplined cooperation of the working classes in the task of reconstruction,” he concluded, “they were tolerated if not actually welcomed. But once they could be dispensed with, they were dismissed and thrown back into habitual, and largely ineffective opposition.”

Miliband does not conclude from this searching reappraisal of post-war Stalinist policies, as we do, that the Communist parties should have openly struggled for workers’ power and the socialist reconstruction of their countries. He feels that America and Great Britain would have crushed any such attempt as it did in Greece.

What Miliband fails to see is that the ability of the West to crush the Greek revolution was due precisely to the capitulation of the CPs of France and Italy to the bourgeois governments of their countries, thus leaving the Greek people to stand up against the imperialists by themselves. Further, Stalin at the Yalta Conference had agreed with Churchill that Greece as well as France and Italy were to remain under capitalist domination. This, far more than the direct onslaught of the Western imperialists, caused the defeat in Greece.

* * *

The National Guardian, which during the crisis following the Khrushchev revelations made significant advances towards an independent and critical position on the crimes against socialist democracy in the USSR, has been showing signs of a swing back to unthinking adulation of the regimes in the Soviet lands. A recent example of this was the publication of an article in the Sept. 7, 1959 issue, by W.E.B. DuBois on Forty-two Years of the USSR. DuBois says,

“The Soviet Union is achieving a democracy which Britain, France and the United States are losing. Nowhere in the Western world are political policies so discussed and listened to as in Russia. That is the reason they reach a unanimity which is normal since, under natural law, there are no two sides to every question but one Truth which must be found and followed – or disaster follows.”

DuBois’ testimony that democracy is being achieved in the Soviet Union is not too convincing when it comes from someone who told us that it was already achieved and in splendid working order under Stalin’s regime of mass murder.

Besides, following DuBois’ logic we would be compelled to say that the “unanimity” which followed the rise of McCarthyism was a sign of growing democracy in the United States. We are firmly convinced, however, that in this respect DuBois is absolutely right – the Western countries are indeed losing democracy.

For our part we are confident that there are significant advances towards democracy in the Soviet orbit. This democracy is being won in struggle by workers and intellectuals against the bureaucratic usurpers and against the bureaucratic myth of “unanimity.” The workers in Soviet countries don’t make the slightest concession to the cold-war when they fight for socialist democracy. And socialists in capitalist countries ought to wake up to the tragic fallacy of trying to win friends for socialism by covering up the truth about the bureaucratic dictatorship in the Soviet Union.

Let socialists tell the real score about the Soviet Union; about the tremendous economic and social achievments resulting from the system of planned economy; about the socialist revolution that made this possible; about the imperialist blockade and threats of intervention which more than anything else nourished the growth of the Soviet bureaucracy; and, about the socialist struggles of the working class in the Soviet lands for democracy. Thinking American workers and students who are getting fed up with the cold-war lies about the Soviet Union will welcome such straightforward explanations from socialists. Double talk and cover-ups will only leave them bewildered and incredulous.

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