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John G. Wright

War by Norman Thomas

(December 1935)

From New International, Vo.2, No.12, December 1935, p.240.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

War: No Profit, No Glory, No Need
By Norman Thomas
Frederick A. Stokes Co. New York. $1.50.

The new international war crisis is no longer a matter for prophecy and prediction. It is already here, inaugurated by the launching of the Italian campaign in Ethiopia. We have entered the period of the armed struggle of the imperialist powers for a re-division of the world. This does not, of course, mean that open world war is scheduled to begin immediately. Delay, hesitation, maneuvering are still, for the moment, possible. What it means is that the approach of the world war has now become the decisive and determining factor in international, and thus also in national, developments.

This is no less true within the working class than in the case of the bourgeoisie and their national states. Once again it is the war crisis that strips bare the pretenders and betrayers within the working class, that acts as a powerful solvent to separate the opportunists, the social patriots, the sectarians, from the revolutionists – for, more directly and obviously than in any other test, it is the revolutionists alone who can stand before the impact of the war crisis.

It is against this background, then, that we must judge any and every statement of position on the question of war. On the question of war every responsible person must be completely serious. No evasions, no half-truths can be accepted. The only answer to war is the full answer, with no sugar-coating.

In the light of these considerations, what are we to say about Norman Thomas’ new book on war, a book published only a week or two after the beginning of the Ethiopian campaign ? It must be remembered that this is a book of great significance for the labor movement in this country. Thomas is justifiably known as the public leader of the Socialist party, its most popular speaker, writer, and candidate. He is more particularly known as the official leader of the official Militants, the man to whom many of the leftward moving Socialist party members still look for leadership in the fight against the right wing and for the regeneration of the socialist movement. His answer to the most crucial problem facing the working class deserves the most careful study and analysis.

But, alas, to begin with we find that this new book is three-fourths mere journalism, mere loose writing about the horrors of the last war and the probable horrors of the next, doubtful history about the origins of war in human society and the character of early wars, side paragraphs of questionable biology, anthropology and psychology. Such journalistic treatment has, no doubt, a place, and sometimes a correct one, in the agitational side of the struggle against war. It does not always have the effect that is intended. Some years ago, Kenneth Burke pointed out how convincing portrayals of the horrors of war may easily be turned toward the ends of the war makers, since these made the sacrifices of the soldiers seem even greater acts of nobility. But the present time demands, not “popular” essays, but – the correct answers to the fundamental questions.

It is, therefore, the remaining quarter of Thomas’ book, the political sections, which concern us. These may be adequately judged by outlining Thomas’ five point program for “struggle against war” in this country:

  1. “An immediate, solemn declaration of national policy by the President and Congress that the United States will not supply, or permit its citizens to supply, arms, munitions, or financial support to belligerents or prospective belligerents.”
  2. “... the largest measure of disarmament that the public can be persuaded to accept.”
  3. A cessation or mitigation of imperialist policies on the part of the U. S. government. (Thomas records with approval that the government has not been “so aggressively imperialist” in the thirties as in the twenties.)
  4. Repeal of the Asiatic exclusion laws.
  5. “International cooperation”, as against “isolation”.

Put clown in outline, in black on white, this might seem almost like a joke. What world, one is tempted to ask, is Thomas living in? To propose disarmament seriously in the stage of preparation for the new world war! To beg the most powerful imperialist power on earth to be a little less imperialistic and not antagonize other nations! To solve the Far Eastern conflicts by admitting a few Japanese to California! To cooperate internationally – with the war makers! To preserve peace by founding it on a public promise of the war government of U. S. finance-capital! Truly, a program for the Duponts and the directors of the Chase National Bank to smile over.

It is, of course, not an accident that Norman Thomas puts forward such a program. Thomas’ approach to social problems is always first and primarily ethical and psychological. Politics is for him a kind of by-product, and political statements in his works usually give the impression of being in parentheses. Consequently it is not surprising that his political position is a strange and precarious melange. All through this book on war we find the constant expression of political problems in their ethical and psychological form. We are told about war’s “madness”; “this ‘homicidal mania’ which men call war”; the “megalomania” of Mussolini which can be satisfied only by foreign conquest; the “nasty mess” resulting from the Rickett concession; the “dreadful” hazards of the secret war for oil: the failure of the League of Nations to show “real zeal in behalf of justice and peace”; the encouraging factor of “the sincerity with which the European masses have condemned Mussolini’s raid” ... But nowhere in this book do we find a sharp, clear analysis of what makes wars, and, in the light of what makes them, how they can be got rid of. There are, it is true, a few side remarks to the effect that the “capitalist nationalist system” breeds wars, and that we shall have to build a “cooperative society” in order to be secure in peace. But these remarks are introduced almost apologetically, as if Thomas were anxious to avoid offending anyone who might be enlisted in the “struggle for peace” so long as this didn’t upset the rest of his customary behavior.

Nowhere is the weakness clearer than in the last chapter, which is entitled, A Postscript on War and Revolution. Here Thomas takes the position which has now become pretty well standard among large sections of the leadership of world social democracy who can no longer keep their standing with the old type out and out gradualism. “Violent revolution” is a terrible thing – in all probability even more terrible than international war – but nevertheless there is a “possibility” that it may have to be undertaken as a last resort. The “sane revolutionist” will not “utterly renounce the use of violence”; “if new world war is begun there may be nothing for it but to try to turn it into the right sort of revolution in order to end the war” (will that be the aim of the right sort of revolution? To end the war? – Thomas states no other aim). But the events in Austria and Spain alone have proved with entire conclusiveness that this “sane revolutionary” attitude is not one degree better than pure and simple gradualism: to admit only the “possibility” of fighting, and then to drop the whole subject, is only to guarantee in advance that you will lose the fight when it starts.

Nevertheless, there are greater surprises in Thomas’ position, and of an opposite sort. In a footnote, written apparently while the book was in proof, he writes a paragraph on the Seventh Congress of the CI, which briefly and yet decisively analyzes the CI’s present position on war from close to a Marxist point of view. This single paragraph says more on the question of war than the entire remainder of the book. Readers should begin with this paragraph, and should then use it as a critical weapon to carry them steadily through what precedes it.

It is, of course, Thomas’ ethical and psychological approach, combined with his personal charm and speaking abilities, which wins him so devoted a following. But above all on the question of war ethics and psychology and personal sincerity are not enough. Thomas is “right” enough in his feelings; but he is wrong in politics. In politics he wants it both ways: he wants – occasionally and if “absolutely necessary” – a revolutionary struggle for workers’ power (which is the only struggle against war as it is the only means for attaining socialism), and he wants also peace – international peace and a peaceful education toward the “cooperative society”. He wants it both ways; but the trouble is that you can’t have it both ways. This the members of the Socialist party are perhaps beginning to learn. And within their own ranks they have good teachers. For the Old Guard thinks not ethically but politically. They know what they want, and they want it just one way – their way. When the left socialists understand this clearly, they will understand also the solution to their own problems. And they will see that, on the question of war as on every other, it is not Thomas’ answer – which is in reality an effort to avoid answering – but the only possible answer: the Marxist, the revolutionary answer.


Last updated: 8.3.2005