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James Burnham

Let the People Vote on War!

At the Moment War Breaks, Every Person Will Be Forced
Under the War Machine’s Totalitarian Heel

(14 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 50, 14 July 1939, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Totalitarian War

IN PAST civilizations, war was usually the business of a restricted class or caste of the population. The great majority not only took no part in the fighting, but, in point of fact, their lives were very little affected, even indirectly, by the conduct and outcome of wars and battles.

In feudal times, for example, most of the people were serfs and vileins, who lived attached to the land where they were born. They gained their sustenance from locally self-sufficient agriculture and simple handicrafts, with scarcely any trade or commerce. They were required to turn over a certain percentage of their crops to their feudal lord, and usually also to work for a certain number of days each year on jobs assigned to them by their lord or his bailiffs. They were not, however, subject to any kind of military service.

With the exception of one or two of the Crusades, wars were fought exclusively by members of the feudal nobility itself, assisted by their personal servants who acted, however, in non-military capacities. Fighting was considered, you might say, to be a “privilege” and prerogative of the nobility. In these feudal wars, not many persons, even of the nobility, were killed. Most weapons were crude, suited not for mass slaughter but for individual, hand-to-hand combat; and fairly adequate protective devices, such as armor and shields, were worn.

The results of these wars, moreover, did not greatly affect the conditions of life of the great majority. Sometimes a chivalric army would commandeer all the crops of a given district, or even lay it waste by fire and pillage. But, since the armies were small and slow-moving, the roads few and poor and scattered, this did not happen often in any particular place. And the question of who won the war was of hardly any concern to the average serf. His duties and obligations were the same whether Baron X or Count Y was his lord.

Even in the first centuries of modern times, the situation did not greatly change. In fifteenth century Italy, for instance, where the first stage of modern civilization reached its height, the powerful cities usually conducted wars by hiring mercenary armies. Most of the citizenry kept busy at its industrial and commercial tasks, and the major inconvenience of war was only an added drain on the treasury.

Everybody Involved Now

Today, everything is changed. The world-wide division of labor, the development of a world economy, rapid transportation and communication, more or less universal education, have transformed war from the sport of nobles or the profession of mercenaries into a mass enterprise involving every single member of the population. Directly or indirectly, everyone is part of the war machine.

In the first place, in our day, vast numbers of the population are directly concerned in the fighting of a war. The war armies are not restricted groups of professionals but mass armies made up of millions of individuals. Most of these millions are drafted or conscripted from the broad ranks of workers and peasants and farmers. In the battles of modern wars, great masses of people are killed or wounded. In the war of 1914–18 at least thirteen million were killed, and about thirty million more were wounded.

But with the growth of new methods of fighting, such as airplane bombing and gas attacks, many persons who are not soldiers are killed and wounded in modern battles. A bomb or a gas shell does its work as quickly on old women or children as on men with uniforms.

In modern war, moreover, death and wounds and disease are not confined to the battlefields. Scarcity of food, disruption of medical service, dislocation of hygienic and sanitary measures, all extend the casualty lists traceable to the war by untold millions.

These factors, however, all of them directly bound up with war in its fighting aspect, by no means complete the picture. The war of 1914–18 taught us that in modern war, the entire population and all activities must be assembled into the war machine. The army is no longer just the soldiers in uniform; everyone belongs to the army. Every factory, mine and mill and farm go on a war basis. Education and movies and religion and art are harnessed to war propaganda. All organizations, such as political parties and unions and clubs and fraternal societies, either line up for the war or are illegalized. No “individual freedom” is tolerated. Everyone must think and talk and act for the war, or be subject to the most severe penalties.

Includes All Humanity

In short, war has become, in our day, totalitarian. War is no longer a matter for some sections of the population, and some types of activities. War dominates and controls the total life and activities of the totality of the population. The governments and general staffs of every nation recognize this to be the case. That is why the war plans of all governments include the organization of the whole country and the entire population along totalitarian lines. In the case of the United States, as elsewhere, these plans are fully prepared. Many of them are included in the famous document known as the “Industrial Mobilization Plan,” the provisions of which are scheduled to go into effect on “M”-Day – the day that war begins.

The problem of modern war is, thus, a problem for every human being. With the destiny of each one of us at stake, it would seem wise and proper for us to try to decide ourselves what to do, and not to turn ourselves blindly over to the hands of others.

(Continued in next issue: The History of the Ludlow War Referendum)

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