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James Burnham

Their Government

(25 August 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 62, 25 August 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

No front is neglected in the ever-hastening preparations for the war. While, last week, the nations were turning out new armaments at the rate of two billions of dollars worth a month, and additional millions of men were being mobilized in Europe, Columbia University, second richest of this Country’s educational institutions, was doing its bit in the moral make-ready.

Under the direction of Dean Russell of Columbia’s Teachers College (the most influential school of education in the United States), a three days’ “Congress on Education for Democracy” was held and immensely publicized in the press. Some 400 “delegates” of various organizations were present, and several thousand others attended the sessions. The meaning of the Congress was well symbolized by its leading guest and by the chairman of its key session, the huge banquet held at the Waldorf-Astoria.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, elder statesman of Britain’s Conservative party, was the guest. Winthrop W. Aldrich, head of the country’s largest bank, the Chase National, was the chairman.

Such Congresses, however, are never complete without their “left decoration”. To their shame and disgrace, this was prominently provided by Ernest Bevin, one of the chiefs of the British Trades Unions and the British Labor Party; Charles Beard, America’s leading liberal historian; Norman Thomas, whose picture the Times wisely featured; and William Green, who sent an effusive message from Atlantic City.

Democracy of Baldwin and Aldrich

The dozens of speeches at the sessions were studded with some of the biggest generalities on record. Simple facts and concrete details were beneath the scorn of these master-minds. Here were to be found only “eternal truths”: freedom and liberty and conscience and God. “If civilization is to avoid overwhelming damage,” bleated President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia, “and perhaps ruin for centuries, there is something to be done which must be done now.”

No one, of course, was so indiscreet as to mention just what it is that “must be done now”. But they did not need to put it into words. What must be done, the whole Congress implied and prepared for, is to go to war against the Axis powers.

The most farcical performance of the whole three days was the speech of the Ambassador from Poland. Poland, giving its lessons to the people – on democracy! Poland, land of eternal military dictatorship, pogroms, suppression of minority rights, everlasting violence against the labor movement, telling just how and why we must “fight for democracy”!

But it should not be imagined that this Congress was a trivial affair or a joke, or that the time, energy and money spent on it was wasted. Congresses such as these, and the permanent organization which issued out of it, are an indispensable part of imperialism’s preparation for war.

It is particularly significant that Teachers College sponsored this Congress. Imperialism prostitutes everything in society to its ends, and firm control over the educational system, with the educators’ vast influence over the moral and intellectual climate of the public, is essential to its plans. It must be confessed, alas, that the big shots of the teaching world do not need much urging to fulfill their prostitutes’ role.

The people would never accept the war if they knew one-half of the hideous, vicious truth about it. Therefore the “leaders of intellectual and cultural life” have got to manufacture lies attractive enough to make the masses willing to die for the Sixty Families and their counterparts in the other great powers.

Democracy That the Congress Forgot

The gathering was entitled a Congress on Education for Democracy. Now I will be the first to grant that the world is very much in need of education for democracy. A Congress in this country might well devote its serious attention to the subject.

Spokesmen from the United States could easily compose most eloquent speeches explaining how U.S. imperialism murders democracy through its military dictatorship in Puerto Rico, and could raise the democratic demand for the independence of Puerto Rico. They could tell how the ten million Negroes of the South are deprived of all democratic rights, and herded in squalid, disease-ridden ghettoes; and demand full political, economic and social rights for the Negroes. They could analyze the M-Day plans of the U.S. government, already in their first stages of setting up a totalitarian military dictatorship.

The Polish speaker could discuss the endless crimes of the Polish landlords, industrialists, politicians and generals against democracy.

The British delegates would not have to search far for material. They could tell the story of Ireland. They could show by what devices an imperialist handful keeps 350,000,000 Indians ground into the earth – and might even make clear that democracy, genuine democracy, means immediate freedom and independence for India. They could give the simple facts about Palestine, Ceylon, South Africa ...

And they might, all of them, show why, if a war involving all of mankind threatens, the peoples themselves are not given the right to decide whether that war is worth fighting.

But such a Congress on education for democracy would not be called by Dean Russell, nor would its delegates comprise the glittering figures of the Earl of Bewdley, Winthrop Aldrich, Ernest Bevin, or Charles Beard. It would be a congress which would have to name these liars and hypocrites, these pimps of the spirit, as among the most vicious of the enemies of real democracy. The struggle of the masses for democracy must recognize in them and their Congresses a corrupt and degraded instrument of the enemy.

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