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Irving Howe

Masaryk: His Suicide Marks the End of a Road

(March 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 12, 22 March 1948, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jan Masaryk’s suicide – or murder – was admittedly, a sad event, but the causes of that sadness are rather, more complex than, most newspaper comments have been willing to notice. [1]

Was it, however, suicide or murder? We have no way of knowing. We can only say what is obvious on the basis of the entire history of Stalinism: there is no, reason to believe that it couldn’t have been a murder. After all, such specialists in human enslavement and destruction as the Stalinists would hardly hesitate to rub out this weak, ineffectual liberal if there were any sign that he was trying to slip out of their grasp. They have murdered many in the past and before we are through with them, they will no doubt murder many in the future.

Yet we would guess – and that is all it is: a guess – that in this case Masaryk took his own life. If that is so, then the political implications of his action are extremely interesting. For one thing, he who only yesterday was being scorned by the American press as a coward and a traitor who had sold out to Stalinism is now depicted as a martyr to his country.

Was He a Martyr?

But what does his martyrdom consist of? Did he die trying to rally the people of Czechoslovakia against tyranny? Did he die fighting in an underground movement to free the Czechs? No; he died because he must have sensed the futility of his course; he must have sensed that he had worked himself into a hopeless position in which he was now completely the prisoner of the Stalinists. In fact, the last public statement Masaryk made was one in support of the Stalinist coup. And it was the weakness, the political bankruptcy of Masaryk and his like that made possible the seemingly constitutional rise to power of the Stalinists. Masaryk played the same role with regards to the Stalinists as did Von Papen with regards to Hitler. There is no heroism in either; and without heroism there is no genuine martyrdom.

Not all who die are martyrs.

Perhaps, as seems only too likely, we shall soon hear distressing news from Prague about the Stalinist regime’s persecution of Czech Trotskyists. If a Czech Trotskyist or a Czech socialist were to be murdered there would be an instance of genuine martyrdom. These people would be dying for something.

You may wonder why this emphasis on martyrdom. What’s the difference if Masaryk was a martyr or not? Insofar as Masaryk personally is concerned, it matters very little. But politically it matters a great deal.

For Masaryk’s suicide was not merely a personal act; it was a political event, both directly and symbolically. Masaryk’s act was the end of the road of bourgeois liberal politics.

Masaryk committed suicide when his political role seemed hopeless. He had been utilized by the Stalinists; he had no mass following in Czechoslovakia among either pro- or anti-Stalinists; he was at a dead end.

Weak and Pliant Fools

Suppose Masaryk had felt it was possible for him to rally masses of Czechs against Stalinist tyranny? Would he then have committed suicide? We cannot say, of course, but it seems unlikely. It seems, rather, that he would have found sustenance in this mass support, a basis on which to manage somehow to oppose the Stalinists.

But that is the whole point: bourgeois liberalism simply cannot compete against Stalinism in Europe. It can offer only words about democracy. Now the democratic rights that such people as Masaryk talk about are very precious to us. But precisely because they are precious we must recognize Masaryk’s helplessness in defending them from Stalinist attack. The Stalinists speak in the name of something new, something that seems to the masses anti-capitalism (and whatever else, their experience in Europe convinces them that capitalism, the old order, is helpless and hopeless) as well as in the name of something that seems to smack of socialism.

Bourgeois liberalism, whether represented by. someone as weak as Masaryk or someone stronger in personal traits, is helpless before Stalinism. And for those bourgeois liberals who try to cooperate with the Stalinists, the political end is the one which became Masaryk’s personal end: suicide, extinction.

Bourgeois liberalism has had a remarkable history. Once proud and defiant, it stood at the head of the great revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries, sweeping aside the crowns of kings, but already beginning to feel a bit uneasy about its brawny proletarian partner that jostled it in the battle while demanding a fairer share of the victory. Today liberalism is a weak and pliant tool, no matter how conscience stricken, of one or another of the ruling imperialist powers of the world. Its rhetoric is stale, its hopes illusory, its program antiquated.

Precisely because liberalism in general is best characterized by the act of Masaryk, is it all the more necessary for socialism to make its own, its precious unambiguous possession, those strands of belief of once vital liberalism that remain important for our day: its emphasis on democratic rights, on human individuality and human diversity. What they talked about we must make real.

Note by ETOL

1. The following issue of Labor Action contained the following correction:

The opening line of Comrade Irving Howe’s article on Masaryk in last week’s issue of Labor Action was dropped. The missing line reads: “Jan Masaryk’s suicide – or murder – was admittedly,” etc.

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