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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(5 September 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 65, 5 September 1939, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Editorial note: Hereafter Dwight Macdonald will contribute to the Socialist Appeal a twice-weekly column dealing exclusively with the economic, political and propagandistic war preparations on this side of the Atlantic.)

A Short History of Liberalism, Vol. II.
The Liberals Dismount

I must admit I was a bit surprised at the abruptness with which the liberal weeklies hopped off the Stalinist band wagon after the horrible news about the Soviet-Nazi pact was out. I had expected a decent interval of squirming, rationalizations, and covering-up. Instead, in the very first issues published after the news broke, both the Nation and the New Republic began to swing their editorial axes in no uncertain fashion at the foundations of the impressive ideological structure they themselves for years now have been building up. The demolition job was done so fast, indeed, as to suggest the use not of axes but of straight dynamite. Thus ends a long and beautiful friendship.

There is a lesson here, it seems to me. We have tended to over-rate the fidelity to Stalinism of the vast army of liberal-bourgeois fellow-travellers of the American C.P. So long as the Stalin regime seemed useable as a catspaw for America’s war aims, so long did the liberals remain among the faithful. But once this role of Stalinism was cast in doubt – to say the least – the liberals dropped the C.P. like a hot potato. The question of who was using whom has been resolved most dramatically: it is now crystal-clear that the liberals were using the Stalinists, and not vice versa. Thus the pact has acted as one of those major, cataclysmic political shocks, which as Trotsky once put it, suddenly and unmistakeably lay bare the real, underlying class relationships of the intelligentsia. It takes such cataclysms to expose their roots, since in this sphere such connections are normally vague, hidden, and complicated.

The Ghost Goes West

The most pathetic casualty of the crisis was the newborn Committee of 400 which the Stalinists recently concocted to counter the damaging effects of the Committee for Cultural Freedom and the League for Cultural Freedom & Socialism. Such creations are shadowy, spectral affairs at best, but this particular ghost went west in record time. It burst into the press on August 14 with a stirring appeal to all men of good will to forget their petty sectarian quarrels and unite behind the Kremlin in the good fight against fascism. ‘’The Fascists and their allies are well aware that democracy will win if its supporters are united. Accordingly, they are intent on destroying such unity at all costs ... They have tried to prevent a united anti-aggression front by sowing suspicion between the Soviet Union and other nations interested in maintaining peace.” Just one week to the day after this noble, moving appeal, the pact was announced. What this news has done to the psyches of Dr. Max Lamer, Prof. Robert Morss Lovett, Corliss Lamont, Vincent Sheean, Dashiell Hammett, Donald Ogden Stewart, and their 394 comrades in arms – this is matter for Freudian speculation.

Johnson vs. Johnson

A central pillar of the War Deal is Louis Johnson, Assistant Secretary of War and the real power in the War Department. Johnson is a tough Legionnaire-politico, so tough, in fact, as to appall even General Hugh Johnson (no relation). The newly created War Resources Board, chairmanned by Stettinius of U.S. Steel and manned by DuPont-Morgan executives, was Louis Johnson’s brain-child. In one of his recent Scripps-Howard columns, General Johnson makes some sharp criticism of this board.

Old Iron Pants isn’t shocked by the idea in itself. Quite the contrary: “The need for such a board is absolute ... American industry in war must be under a one-man dictatorship as ruthless as Hitler’s.” It is the composition of the board that bothers the General. “To lead a country into war,” he writes with cynical frankness, “you have to do everything possible to carry full popular support ... Imagine the American enthusiasm for what would instantly be called ‘a Morgan-duPont war personally conducted by General Motors and the U.S. Steel Corp’.” The General goes on to accuse his namesake of a bit of Trotskyist sabotage: “Somebody in government was very dumb in ... inventing delay and discord as our first step in war preparation. Could it have been Assistant Secretary of War Johnson?” Comrade Vyshinsky, reach me that dossier marked “J”.

The Basutos Are Saved

Whether there is war or not, and whether the Axis or the Democracies are the victors, one thing can be predicted right now: no force except their own revolutionary action is going to strike off the shackles from the colonial peoples. The veneer of “democracy” is at its thinnest in the colonies. There the real nature of the struggle between the democratic and the totalitarian states appear nakedly, unmistakeably as a thieves’ quarrel over the privilege of picking the pockets of the masses.

Thus in a recent issue of the Pariser Tageszeitung, a German emigre daily of the Thomas Mann school of anti-fascism, there was an indignant news item headed: GOEBBELS ALSO KNOWS BASUTO, to the effect that Nazi propaganda, in the Basuto language, was being circulated in a newspaper among the Basuto tribes of the Transvaal. And how did the British meet this threat? The N.Y. Times report is specific: “The authorities of the Union of South Africa, realizing the danger of such propaganda among the easily influenced natives, especially when many of them are in economic difficulties, promptly confiscated the paper.” The Basutos are in “economic difficulties,” it seems. But they are not without powerful friends. Herr Hitler solves their troubles with propaganda. And Mr. Chamberlain solves them by “promptly” confiscating Herr Hitler’s propaganda. Which leaves the Basutos just where they were before.

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