Part III:

“The shift of Stalin to the side of Germany was temporarily embarrassing to the liberals who had so long accepted his regime as a mainstay of the ‘democratic front’. But already they are recovering from their first pained surprise and boldly denouncing “Red Totalitarianism” and “Communist Imperialism.” Someone who first began to read the liberal weeklies a month ago would never suspect there was a time when these journals were, to say the least, on intimate terms with Stalinism. For the pact has really simplified the whole pre-war liberal position. For some time now the liberals have been made uncomfortable by the increasingly plain indications of the totalitarian nature of the Stalinist dictatorship. Neither the Czar in the last war nor Stalin in this one could be called ideal bed companions for the defenders of democracy. The liberals, of course, put up with them as long as they seemed to be necessary for the great crusade. But there is a remarkable similarity in the editorial reactions to the defection of the Soviet Union from the democratic front this time and the liberal weeklies’ editorials on the overthrow of Czarism in 1917. Now at last, is the general idea, the battle line is sharply drawn between the forces of freedom and tyranny. No longer must they labor to explain away or suppress the crimes and corruptions emanating from the Kremlin.

More clearly than ever do they see this war as essentially an ideological conflict, a clash of ideas translated into military terms. The life-principle  (democracy) used in mortal — or at any rate, soon-to-be-mortal — combat with the death-principle (fascism) between the Maginot Line and the Westwall, and the rhetoric of freedom, slightly moth-eaten by now, is enlisted on behalf of the Allied arms.

The first world war opened an era in which imperialism’s struggles for power are presented, by both sides, as Armageddons fought out to decide eternal principles.This is a refinement in the art of war peculiar to the twilight of capitalism. In the formative centuries of European capitalism, wars were publicly recognised as instruments of commercial and territorial aggrandisement. No one thought it necessary to amalgamate cultural values and military objectives. It was typical that Frederick the Great entertained Voltaire and immersed his court in the superior French culture at the same time as he was prosecuting war against France. These wars were, of course, little more than duels between professional armies, with the normal processes of life going on behind the battle-lines.

War in our time, however, is totalitarian, requiring the coordination into the military machine of the whole civil life of the nation. Further more, war today being so vastly more destructive in its effects on life and property than past wars, and also being so increasingly inconclusive and futile even in terms of power politics — what did the last war settle? — it is all the more essential to create powerful ideological sanctions for the slaughter. The basic sanction of this sort is the myth of national unity,  the patriotic love of fatherland which is supposed to rise above material and individual interests, uniting all classes in defense of a common cultural ideal. This nationalist sanction reached its full development in the last half of the last century. To it our own century has added another, one which is especially potent in liberal and intellectual circles. This is a sort of ‘international patriotism’, so to speak — the idea that the world is divided between forces of “democracy” and “autocracy” (1914- 1918), or, this time, “freedom” and “fascism.”

The old-fashioned nationalist arguments in favour of our participation in the war are not particularly dangerous in the liberal-labor circles. It is the internationalist doctrine which is really seductive. We are faced, its advocates assert with a concrete threat to the free institutions of Western civilisation, and we cannot remain indifferent to the possible victory of fascist Germany. Many of them admit the last war was a doctrinal fraud, but this war, they say, is “different,” since fascism is incomparably more threatening than Kaiserism ever was. Some will even admit that the Allied cause is tainted with imperialism, but, as Freda Kirchway of the Nation recently put it: “The qualified blessings of old-fashioned imperialism  must be preserved as a bulwark against the spread of fascist domination.” Fascism  is the brute fact, and all theories must be adapted — read ‘perverted’ — towards the great end of its defeat.

The general idea is that the Kaiser made war for the simple aims of what Miss Kirchway with nostalgia calls “old fashioned imperialism”: to get colonies, to break England’s mastery of the seas, to open up new markets; while Hitlerism has all these aims plus another of a quite different and more sinister category: to extend the fascist political system throughout the world. It is true that there are still important differences between political life in France and in Germany, but this is not because France has not yet been conquered by Germany, but because French capitalism has not yet reached the crisis stage of its German prototype.  As we pointed out in our editorial last spring, fascism is produced by the internal development of monopoly capitalism, not by any force of arms from outside. In the same way, the foreign policies of the fascist nations are determined, as are those of the”democracies,” by the needs of their internal economies, which are still based on capitalist property relations. The differences between this war and the last are mostly to be found in new diplomatic  forms and alliances which merely play over the surface of events and can be understood only as reflections of the basic imperialist antagonisms among the great powers of Europe. If  fascism turned to aggression as a matter of principle, spreading the true faith with fire and sword in Islamic fashion, one would expect to find Italy and Germany fighting together in this war. Actually, of course, the economic and geographical differences between the two nations have proved to be decisive, and Italy is not only neutral but may very well repeat her performance of the last war and join the Allies.

Last spring we noted that no one looked forward with any real enthusiasm or even confidence to the outcome of the second world war. Now that the war has come, this is still true. The embattled “democracies” have not ventured to define their war aim any more specifically than, “Hitler Must Go!” (and what must Come?) On both sides the morale of the population is low.

For this is the tragedy’s second performance. We have seen it all before! This is where we came in! And it is impossible to muster the same emotions of horror and surprise which the first showing exacted from us.  In the very novelty of the thing, in the feeling, moreover, than an event so unprecedented must belong to the order of natural calamities, the 1914 generation found some little comfort. They had discovered as Paul Valery said, that “the most beautiful and ancient things, the most formidable and best-ordered, are perishable by accident.” But even the attitude of discovery, the shocked surprise of the old-world humanist in things undreamt of in his philosophy, is denied to us today. And it is a fact that the newspapers, the cartoons, and even those shrines of moral indignation, the liberal journals have so far shown  a curious restraint. It is not the restraint of scientific detachment, however, nor does it arise from a settled sense of rectitude; it is the low-toned voice of a guilty conscience. For most people know that war is not a cosmic accident, nor the result of cruel impulses rooted in human nature. On the contrary they know that it belongs among those phenomena which , properly understood, are subject to human control.

This control, however, cannot be exercised by the ruling classes in the great imperialist democracies, for it is the economic system which serves their interests which must also resort to these periodic military bloodlettings in order to resolve economic conflicts otherwise insoluble. Within the perspective of capitalism, the best that can happen if the Allies win the war is a new Versailles, followed by the same round of political convulsions as ended up in the triumph of fascism. For it seems impossible that the war will not bring on immeasurably greater economic crises than any we have yet known, and that the mass desperation which these will provoke can be curbed by anything short of the abandonment of all democratic forms.

Many liberals, of course, are aware of the precariousness of the pro-war position. But they cling to it because they profess to see no alternative to entrusting the anti-fascist cause to the armies of imperialism. This is not surprising, since they reject the Marxist analysis of war and fascism as products of the capitalist system itself. But in their recoil from the revolutionary socialist program, they are forced back, step by step, to the most naked apologetics for imperialism. As the war has drawn nearer this country, the space between the revolutionary and the imperialist positions has steadily shrunk until it will soon not be big enough for even a New Republic editor to balance himself upon.

It is notable that the pro-war liberals can still support one cause with real enthusiasm: the revolutionary mission of the German people to overthrow Hitlerism. But even here they are involved in a hopeless contradiction. For an Anglo-French invasion is bound to arouse German patriotism, rallying all classes behind Hitler in a war of “National defense.” Thus French and British nationalism cancel out German nationalism in favour of the imperialist interests dominating both camps.  In fact, an imperialist war can be waged only so long as national unity is maintained on both sides of the firing line. The international solidarity of the workers, with the masses in each nation fighting not against their brothers across the border but against their own capitalist government is the only force that can either bring into being real democracy or make war and fascism unnecessary. This is the alternative which our liberals find too Utopian or too bloodthirsty.

NEXT WEEK: poems by Louise Bogan, Rexroth, and others….