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Tim Wohlforth

Periodicals in Review

(Spring 1961)

From International Socialist Review, Vol.22 No.2, Spring 1961, pp.62-63.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Campus

From out of the American academy has come another student publication, New University Thought. It has many similarities with Studies on the Left which is entering its second year of publication. Being written primarily for graduate students and young professors, it is published at the University of Chicago, which, by no mere coincidence has a large and relatively unchanging graduate student population. It even looks much like Studies on the Left.

There are differences, of course, outside of location (Studies on the Left is published at the University of Wisconsin) , minor and major ones. For instance, one gets the impression that the political science department predominates in the U of C journal while the history department runs the show in the Wisconsin effort. A more important difference is the political one. Studies on the Left is an openly socialist journal while New University Thought is a liberal publication published by liberals and those socialists who appreciate being mistaken for liberals. The Autumn issue boasts an editorial that lukewarmly supports Kennedy in the election. The back cover features a quote from who we supect was their real candidate – Adlai Stevenson.

The appearance of two new left-wing student journals in the past year or so is an extremely important development. It is a sign on the intellectual front of the same beginnings of ferment on the campus which produced the action movements around the sit-ins, HUAC, Civil Defense, etc. These publications signify that the intellectual currents on campus today are seeking independent forms of expression. Most of the campus intellectuals of a few years ago had nothing to say and therefore felt no pressing need for their own organs of expression. Those few who did wish to express themselves were well satisfied with the publications of their elders.

It is saddening, but we suppose quite natural, that the intellectual expression of rebellion in these two publications seems so pallid when compared to the fresh actions of the students. Both publications have a lifeless, detached quality to them. Exciting ideas are noted more by their absence than their presence. Even the articles written in both publications commenting on the actions of the students lack much of the spirit of the actions themselves. Nor are the authors able to make up for this lack through a deep and original analysis of the significance of the actions. The writers, rather, appear as spectators in the tradition of their academic elders – especially those of the sociology department.

Most ironic of all, these young academicians are unable to break themselves from the stultifying jargon and phoney “objectivity” of the academic community even to the extent that a number of the older radical academicians have. The young contributors to these new journals seem to be writing with more concern with what their professors will think of what they write than with communication with their fellow students – the bulk of whom, believe it or not, are not academic careerists. None of these young writers are able to even approach the spirit and style of C. Wright Mills; most of them do not even come up to the mark set by such “old” radicals as Professors Sweezy and Baran of the Monthly Review.

Someone seems to have sold these young intellectuals a bill of goods that in order for an article to be worthy of publication it must be dull and written in a language that no “ordinary” educated intellectual can understand. In this respect the more radical Studies on the Left is, paradoxically, far more guilty than its liberal rival from the University of Chicago.

The most important thing of all about the appearance of these two publications is not their various weaknesses politically and stylisticly. The important thing is that they have appeared at all. What they really symbolize is the beginning of a new intellectual ferment on the left in American universities. Before this ferment is over many fine intellectuals will, as they did in the nineteen thirties, move into the camp of the working class and become revolutionary Marxists.

The errors of these young intellectuals today are the errors of infancy. It is interesting to note that the “infantile disorder” we are witnessing in their efforts is one of mimicry of the elders rather than any sort of ultra-left com-p’ete rejection of the elders. This in itself is a sign of how overbearingly conservative American society still is and what a great distance we have to go, for mimicry is natural to the pre-school set while parental rejection is generally associated with adolescenee.

MR’s Looking Glass

The current debate that has been going on between Moscow and Peking on peaceful coexistence has had an interesting impact on at least one influential radical journal in the US – the Monthly Review. The editors of MR, in a three-part series of articles on The Theory of US Foreign Policy (September, October, and November, 1960), have definitely come out on the side of Mao in this discussion. (See also A New New Deal? February, 1961.)

Their theory is no mere carbon copy of the Chinese thesis. As one has come to expect from these talented intellectuals, the theory is quite original in many respects and certainly deserves comment in its own right.

It goes something like this:

  1. “The primary purpose of foreign policy under conditions of developed monopoly capitalism is to provide the justification for the maintenance of a huge (and growing) military establishment.”
  2. This aggressive cold-war anti-Communist foreign policy runs into direct conflict with the “national interest of the underdeveloped countries.” This is the main reason for the series of defeats suffered by US foreign policy.
  3. “These defeats have led to no modifications, still less alteration, of foreign policy for the simple reason that as yet they have had but little impact on the domestic economy.”
  4. Soon the continuation of this trend of defeats will begin to have its effect on the large monopoly corporations that run this country as the shrinking of the “free” world will cut down their ability to exploit abroad. However, despite this, American foreign policy will not change. “The United States is going to plunge along its present disastrous international course, suffering defeat after defeat, even after these defeats have begun to inflict increasingly direct and serious losses on the giant corporations that dominate American life” (emphasis in original). The main reason given for this conclusion by the editors is that a change in foreign policy would necessitate a dismantling of the whole structure of anti-communism set up in this country and setting upon a policy of a “new New Deal.” This would not be tolerated by business.
  5. The colonial revolution will continue to threaten US positions throughout the world. In reaction to the colonial revolution the United States will apply pressure, as in Cuba, that will force these revolutions in the direction of socialism. “The course of Cuban-American relations in the last two years shows the whole process, in microcosm as it were. This is a case in which history is likely to repeat itself not once but many times in a future which it is probably safe to measure in years rather than decades.”
  6. The triumph of socialism in most of the world will not doom capitalism. The editors do not think that under such conditions economic collapse is likely to occur. Rather they state: “structural changes in monopoly capitalism that would permit it to survive as’capitalism in one country’ are conceivable.” They end their three-part series with the vision of a fascist America with an autarchic capitalist system in a sea of socialist states – the existence of these states being at least partially due to the foolhardy policies of the US itself.

The theory, taken as a whole, contrasts rather sharply with the theoretical approach of the USSR. Carl Marzani, in an article in the January MR, while noting that the MR editors “stand on strong theoretical grounds of classical Marxism,” observes that “the major stand of present Soviet foreign policy is geared to a judgement that American foreign policy can be made to change.” There is no doubt that the MR editors have performed an important service, a service similar to that of the Chinese, in fighting the illusions emanating from the Kremlin that the essential nature of US foreign policy can be altered without altering the social system.

This contribution is particularly important when one realizes that the bulk of the readers of the Monthly Review have been quite susceptible to this type of reasoning – as, in fact, have the editors in the past. The editors of MR have been following a pretty consistent political path since the shake-up of the Stalinist world at the time of the Hungarian Revolution which loosened them from their previous political moorings. Thus, earlier, they had been among the strongest supporters of the Chinese Communes at a time when the official Soviet line was quite critical of these developments. More recently, they labelled Cuba “socialist” while the official Soviet line was that it was capitalist and that every effort must be made to keep it capitalist.

However, there is a certain strain of reasoning that runs through all these articles which seems to reflect the editors’ previous views. The editors seem to be saying that a deal that would “stabilize” the world (i.e. guarantee to the capitalists unchallenged rule over most of the earth’s surface) is a good thing to work for – however, it is unrealizable under current conditions. In other words they seem to differ not so much with the aims of the Soviet bureaucrats as with their judgment on the possibility of achieving these aims. As the editors themselves put it: “Today conditions are completely different, and the meaning of peaceful coexistence has also changed.” Likewise, on the domestic scene, the MR editors seem to be saying not so much that they oppose another new deal as a disguised form of capitalist rule, but rather that, sadly, such a new deal just isn’t in the cards right now. This is important to note for should the international or domestic situation change, the editors themselves might change too.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of the editors’ theoretical construction is not so much in what they say, but in what they leave out. As has become common in radical intellectual circles in both Europe and this country, the MR editors completely ignore the role of the working class in the advanced countries. The editors see socialism triumphing only in the colonial areas and even there not under working class leadership. In the advanced countries the editors see only the prospect of fascism. They express an attitude of complete fatalism towards the struggle of the workers in the advanced countries to change the imperialist foreign policy by fundamentally changing the social system through revolution. Rather, they replace the working class revolution with the colonial revolution. Needless to say if the working class revolution is futile in the advanced countries it makes no sense to waste one’s time trying to construct a party capable of leading that revolution. Therefore the MR editors’ conception of their own political role – commentators on the passing scene rather than active participants in the struggle to build a revolutionary party – flows logically from their world view.

Other aspects of their theoretical construction also deserve attention. The view of the MR that US foreign policy has been formulated solely as a rationale for armaments spending which in turn keeps the economy going is, we feel, somewhat simplistic. Marzani, on the other hand, feels that “the Truman-Dulles foreign policy, begun in 1945, has as its primary purpose the domination of the world entailing war upon the Soviet Union to weaken it or destroy it.” Interestingly, this view gives less support for Marzani’s peaceful coexistence theory than does the MR’s view he is polemizing against. We feel Marzani is also a little simplistic if he feels that the dominant section of the ruling class ever really envisioned that they would be able, in the immediate postwar period, to declare war on the USSR. However, Marzani gets considerably closer to the truth than do the MR editors.

While armaments spending is important to the US economy, that does not necessarily mean that our foreign policy has been determined solely by this factor. We suggest that both the armaments build-up and our foreign policy are instruments essential to the ruling class’s attempt to control a section of the world and keep this section open for its economic operations. US foreign policy has been motivated primarily by these imperialistic considerations because, contrary to the theories of the MR editors, the US capitalists do not feel they can survive isolated in a socialist world. The capitalists quite correctly seem to agree with Lenin that capitalism in one country is just as impossible as that other pet theory of the MR editors – socialism in one country.

Carl Marzani does make one other valid point against the MR editors. He accuses them of “an underestimation of the degree of self-consciousness in the ruling class.” We are not at all sure that the US will continually repeat the pattern of its relations with Cuba – constantly pushing bourgeois democratic revolutions in the direction of socialism. While under certain conditions such a “hard” policy will be utilized by the capitalists either through stupidity or in the hope that they can completely crush the revolution, under other circumstances it is not out of the question that the capitalists will recognize that the revolution cannot be crushed. Under such circumstances, they will attempt to limit the revolution – to contain it within “safe” capitalist bounds. Is that not what the British did in Iraq with Khrushchev’s help?

So, while we agree with the MR editors that a complete worldwide stabilization is out of the question precisely because the leaders of the USSR could not guarantee maintenance of such a division since they do not completely control the revolutionary forces of the colonial world, we do feel temporary deals can be made and will be made by the capitalists. Under such conditions the attitudes of both the USSR and China are critically important. It is interesting to note that the editors of MR, the leaders of the USSR, and the Chinese leaders all seem to agree on one thing – that what should be done in Laos today is to restore to power the “legitimate government” (to quote the MR). In other words, rather than the Pathet Lao carrying through a revolutionary struggle for power in the interests of the workers and peasants of Laos, they all favor a coalition government with the capitalists which would keep Laos securely in the framework of capitalism – even if of the “neutralist” variety. This, perhaps, gives us “in microcosm” the MR’s real views on peaceful coexistence.

While we are pleased to see the editors of MR bring into question some of the precepts of the peaceful coexistence theory as practised by the Kremlin, we still feel that the editors should look more thoroughly into this theory. Perhaps they will then agree with us that the theory needs more than renovating – it should be totally discarded.

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