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Dwight Macdonald

Off the Record

(28 February 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 11, 28 February 1939, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On the Other Side of the Railroad Tracks

The 1938 edition of the Periodicals Directory is a volume of 465 close-printed pages which lists and describes 10,200 publications, most of them trade papers. There is a section headed “Grocery Trades,” with 29 publications listed, another headed “Vending Machines,” with 4, and so on. But there is no section headed either “Munitions” or “Armaments” or “War Supplies,” and the only trace of the subject in the lengthy index is: “Rifles – See GAMES AND SPORTS: Hunting; Shooting.”

The munitions industry apparently boasts not a single trade paper. As the respectable citizens of a community don’t talk about the red light district across the railroad tracks, so the business fraternity observes a taboo of silence on that great industry which has become the very heart of modern capitalism: Death, Inc. The furriers have trade journals, and so have those who make paper cups and harmonicas and perfumes and ice cream, but the merchants of death, whose vast enterprises are keeping the great capitalist economies of the world going along even as limpingly as they are today, these gentlemen do not discuss their trade in public. Their business lies across the railroad tracks.

Fig out of Thistle

According to the Good Book, thistle trees don’t produce figs. But I challenge any reader of this column to guess what periodical printed the following editorial comment on Roosevelt’s recent “War Message” to Congress:

“We must make up our minds, said the President, to save our religious and democratic institutions, for ‘we know what might happen to us of the United States if the new philosophies of forces were to encompass the other continents and invade our own.’ Although the aggressor States were not named, it was sufficiently obvious that Mr. Roosevelt had in mind Germany, Italy, and Japan. He failed to indicate, however, that whatever these countries formerly could boast of freedom and tolerance was destroyed from within, and not from without. Nor was any reference made to the complete improbability of an attack by any or all of those aggressor governments upon the United States, or to the even more remote contingency of success in any foreign attack so long as the liberties left us by our own government are worth fighting for and preserving.”

This voice of sanity in a mad world was raised by The Commercial & Financial Chronicle. The moral scarcely needs underlining: (1) businessmen talk among themselves realistically and not in the tones they use for wide public consumption; (2) unlike the liberal intelligentsia, finance capital has a serious stake in capitalism and so thinks twice before risking its vast properties in the maelstrom of a world war. Which doesn’t prevent it, of course, when the moment has arrived at which it judges war is “necessary.” from swinging its heavy battalions decisively into line between the liberal and reformist skirmishers. But if the Chronicle is to be taken as an index of Wall Street opinion, that moment has not yet arrived. In this, at least, the editors of the Nation are in advance of their age.

Afterthoughts on Monday Night

After the splendid demonstration put on by the Socialist Workers Party last Monday, it may seem ungrateful to offer criticism. But precisely because the affair was a success, because the SWP showed, in militant action, its superiority over the other parties of the Left, I think certain serious shortcomings should be pointed out. I must begin by stating that from eight o’clock on, I was inside the Garden – I hope it’s not necessary to add I was there on business, not pleasure. But I have checked my criticisms with those who saw the whole business, and I think they are justified.

Generally speaking, I should say the SWP did not plan the affair carefully enough, did not use showmanship in putting over its message, and failed utterly to exploit the demonstration as a means of advertising to the general public the SWP and its press. By the time I arrived on the scene – about 7:00 – there was not a banner or a placard to be seen except for one small cardboard sign a girl was holding aloft in her hands, without benefit of a stick. I was told the police had seized and destroyed all such signs at the beginning of the demonstration. But this should have been foreseen, and reserve supplies should have been provided, smuggled in under coats or cached in some place outside the battle zone. Without signs or banners, the public saw merely what I saw: a confused, anonymous mass of demonstrators. Far more serious was the failure to distribute SWP literature. I saw not a single copy of the Appeal, or the New International offered for sale, and I am told there was no effort made at any time to sell literature. I was told, indeed, that during the speeches by Max Shachtman, James Burnham and others, there was at least one enterprising vendor circulating among the crowd offering for sale – the Daily Worker! Among the tens of thousands of outsiders who in the course of the evening either took part in the demonstration or watched it sympathetically, there must have been thousands who would have paid three cents for an Appeal. For that matter, my own pamphlet, Fascism and the American Scene, should have sold well in such a crowd. But no one – including myself – thought of exploiting the occasion.

Small matters, these? It was just their superiority in details like banners and showmanship that gave the Nazis a great advantage over their left-wing opponents. (Hitler is said to design his party’s insignia and flags himself.) Today, when the Enemy has reduced mass propaganda to an exact science, a revolutionary party must pay attention to the details as well as the broad outlines, to the technique as well as ‘to the content of its appeal to the masses.

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