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Irving Howe

Despots Never Hesitate to Utilize Fools

Harold Laski in Stalin’s Service

(10 March 1947)

From Labor Action, Vol. 11 No. 10, 10 March 1947, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Professor H. Laski Offers Definition of Democracy

I think myself that mutual understanding would be helped if Russian statesmen said plainly that the international situation is not yet compatible with political democracy within Russia, instead of insisting that their political system is more genuinely democratic, than that of any other country. It is of real importance, in this matter, to be honest. I think Russia has achieved a remarkable social democracy; it has gone. In my judgment, farther toward an effective democracy in the realm of economic life than any other country I have seen. But on the political plane there is no right of opposition; hostility to the policies of the one-party state brings very quickly the formidable charge of treasonable conspiracy. No writ of habeas corpus is honored. There can be arrest, internment, and exile without trial; a man may be imprisoned or executed without even his wife knowing the offense with which he is charged, or the evidence brought against him, or whether he is alive or dead. The secret police remain an imperium in imperio, reaching long fingers into the control of every aspect of national life."


Harold Laski
The Nation, March 1, 1947

For some time now a number of journalists have been earning their groceries the easy way by writing about U.S.-Russian relationships. They tell their readers why the U.S. “doesn’t understand” Russia, or why Russia “doesn’t understand” the U.S. – as if inter-imperialist struggles could be reduced to the level of lovers’ quarrels or even problems of mastering unfamiliar languages. A notorious fellow-traveler, Edgar Snow, is presently boosting his income by spinning out a few such pieces for the Saturday Evening Post, in which he ranges from Stalinist apologetics to cracker-barrel philosophy to badly digested “Dostoievskian” reflections on the Russian soul.

Though one expects this from the hit-and-run scribblers of the popular weeklies, it is also to be expected, presumably, that a socialist would try to dig a little deeper into political problems. Especially one who has a world-wide reputation!

Harold J. Laski, author of numerous books and former chairman of the British Labor Party though he is, does not, however, succeed in rising an inch above the level of chatter-box gossip and provincial psychology in his article, Russia, Why Does It Act that Way? – A Psycho-Political Study. (The Nation, March 1, 1947)

For Laski the problem of current politics boils down to ... protocol and psychology. After describing the strained nature of U.S.-Russian relationships, he writes:

“What this requires first of all is the recognition that politics is the cart of compromise, and that there must be the skill and insight to find the way to a good compromise when it is necessary. I am not certain that. Mr. Molotov has that skill and insight in the degree that. Mr. Litvinov had; I am quite sure that Generalissimo Stalin has it.”

This quotation, you will admit, is rather dazzling. For Laski the current is not due to such matters as who shall rule Germany, who dominate the Mediterranean, who control Manchuria; for Kim it is a matter of bad manners: Molotov is not so refined as Litvinov. But if “Generalissimo” Stalin is – “I am quite sure” trills Harold to the titillated Nation readers – so well-mannered, why does he tolerate the coarse Molotov? Why didn’t Laski, in his recent visit to Moscow, inform Stalin that his Foreign Minister is so difficult? Or doesn’t Laski make as glaring an ass of himself in the Kremlin as in the pages of The Nation?

How then shall we solve this difficult, problem? Laski concludes his “psycho-political study” by urging that “the Russian government needs very badly to humanize its Foreign Office and its diplomatic services. If every Russian ambassador abroad treated the citizens of the country to which he is accredited with the wisdom and good-humor with which Stalin treats his visitors, the legend would soon perish that the Russians are a strange race, anxious at any cost to destroy bourgeois civilization.”

Laski’s entire “psycho-political study” is on this same incredibly vulgar fishwife level. He does not even try to state what kind of society he believes Russia to be, what its role in current world politics is. Instead, he engages in a farcical sort of psychology à la Dale Carnegie: “The new Russia is not sure of itself. It is looking for insults. It is afraid that someone may forget it has come of age. That leads it to throw its weight about and to be difficult and irritating in negotiation.”

Perhaps then the real solution is to send Molotov to a psychiatrist if Stalin fails to heed Laski’s advice to set up finishing schools for his diplomats?

Enough of this tomfoolery. Were Laski merely a political nitwit – he is that too, of course – he would be harmless. But together with his advice on manners and his psychological punditing, he presents rather slick apologetics for Stalinism. He tries to make the American reader sympathetic to the current Russian imperialism by citing the record of intervention by capitalist powers in the early years of the Russian revolution; but he does not indicate that this intervention was directed against the revolutionary workers state of Lenin rather than the present bureaucratic dictatorship of Stalin. And he attempts to justify Russian imperialism by citing imperialist acts of the U.S. and Britain – that most depraved and cynical suggestion that the oppressive imperialism of the western capitalist powers provides in any way justification for the imperialism of Stalinist Russia!

It is precisely those like Laski, who, permitting themselves ah occasional criticism of Stalinism are its most effective apologists. Read, for instance, his central paragraph which is reprinted in a box in this article. Here we have a frank admission that Russia is a political dictatorship and a full list of the facts to prove it. But simultaneously Laski (like his counterpart in American Muddleheadness, Henry Wallace) writes that Stalinist Russia “has achieved a remarkable social democracy; it has gone farther toward an effective democracy in the realm of economic life than any other country I have seen.”

This sort of nonsense is at present very popular: “admitted that Russia is. a political dictatorship, still isn’t there economic democracy?” Yet neither Laski nor Wallace tell us how it is possible to have economic democracy in a political dictatorship. Let us reduce the matter to its simplest denominator. Suppose a worker in a Russian factory is dissatisfied with something, Can he strike? Can he vote for opposition parties? Can he organize a party of his own or publish a paper urging the removal of the state leadership?

I think it is obvious, or should be, that economic democracy is impossible without political democracy; just as, in turn political democracy cannot be complete without economic democracy. The Separation created by Laski and Wallace is a nonsensical absurdity intended to fool those who know Stalinism is a monstrous police dictatorship but who are not as familiar with the workings of this dictatorship in the economic realm.

But that is a great lesson of our time: life under capitalism teaches us that political democracy can reach fruition only when the economic democracy of Socialism is achieved; and life under Stalinism teaches us that without political democracy, the necessary step of state ownership of industry is also not enough.

Laski, because he does have a reputation for being a socialist theoretician, does infinitely greater service to Stalinism than its undisguised apologists. That his article proves ottce more that he has no legitimate title to the proud calling of socialist theoretician does not lessen his service to Stalin. Despots never hesitate to utilize fools.

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