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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

(24 November 1939)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 90, 24 November 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Il Duce on War

If there is one thing that this war is making clear, it is that world capitalism has reached a stage of decay so advanced that the distinction between “war” and “peace” has broken down completely. Or rather, there is no longer any such thing as “normal, peace-time conditions” under capitalist economy.

This point was developed at length in the last New International, in the editorial and in my own column. And now it is stated boldly and explicitly by one of the chieftains of the enemy. According to a dispatch from Rome in today’s N.Y. Times, Premier Mussolini, in a speech addressed – significantly enough – to the Supreme Commission for Autarchy, expressed himself as follows:

“There is not an economy for peacetime and an economy for wartime. There is only a war economy, because historically ... it has been demonstrated that a state of armed warfare is a normal state of the people, at least of those living on the European continent, because even in years of so-called peace other types of war are waged, which in their turn prepare our armed warfare.

“Therefore, it is the fact, or rather the imminent fatality, of armed warfare that ought to dominate and that does dominate economy.

“He who fails to reach this conclusion is an ignoramus who has not got the right to complain or be surprised at the catastrophe toward which he is going.”

In matters like these, Il Duce speaks with the authority of an expert.

“We’re All Socialists Now”

The late Judge Gary of the Steel Corporation once said, “We’re all socialists now.” The general reaction to the Judge’s statement was in the nature of a belly laugh. But those were simpler times. Today Gary might well be taken quite seriously.

A proclamation was issued by a labor leader the other day to the proletariat of a certain European country: “SOCIALISM AGAINST CAPITALISM! THAT IS OUR BATTLECRY!” These words were addressed to the workers of Germany by Dr. Robert Ley, head of Hitler’s “Labor Front.” The war aims of Germany Dr. Ley defined as “the complete destruction of England and the domination of her moneybags over the rest of the people on the globe.” (It might be added that the main point of Dr. Ley’s message to the German workers was that their working day was to be increased two hours – at no extra pay.)

Thus the Nazis are beginning to raise on high the banner of socialism. Perhaps even more extraordinary, the rulers of the Soviet Union have also taken this banner out of the Kremlin attic and have flung it to the breeze, exuding a strong odor of mothballs. Charlie McCarthy Molotov denounces the war as an imperialist blood bath. Charlie McCarthy Browder damns the Roosevelt Administration as the tool of the bourgeoisie and even ventures a few unkind words about the Roman Catholic Church. And the puppet master in the Kremlin smokes his genial pipe in approval, removing it only to ask for a few more islands in the Gulf of Finland.

Rousseau to Ribbentrop

It may be objected that it is laboring the obvious to point such contradictions between the words of power politicians and their deeds. From time immemorial, statesmen have veiled their real policies in the handsomest available ideological trappings. However, I think there is an interesting difference in the way such trappings have been used in the past and the way they are used today.

In the youth of capitalism, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, no one made any serious effort to pretend that there was anything very real or eternal about the verbal rationalizations used in the game of power politics. The language of diplomacy, was, of course, highly euphemistic; nor did statesmen fail to appeal to the noblest human sentiments in covering up whatever particular piece of skullduggery they were perpetrating at the moment. But it was generally understood that these high-minded phrases were simply the poker chips of the game, to be shoved about from day to day among the players as suited the tactical needs of the moment. Statesmen went through the forms just as lawyers go through the forms of talking about justice in our courts today – and with just as cynically realistic an understanding that it was all form and talk.

Then along came Rousseau and the rights of man and all sorts of other humanitarian and idealistic doctrines, finding their political expression in the French Revolution. There also arose the idea, hitherto unknown, that the people had certain democratic rights and that policies must be justified by their beneficial effect on the great majority of mankind. The liberal bourgeois politicians of the nineteenth century spent their lives in eloquently enunciating these high-minded, inspiring principles. It is true that the necessities of capitalism forced them constantly to act in sharp contradiction to their words. But if they wore an ideological costume to hide the shocking nakedness of capitalist exploitation, it was at least always the same costume. Gladstone was an old humbug, but he was eternally and consistently false to the same set of principles.

The Ideological Wardrobe

But where Gladstone got himself up in the same liberal costume all his life, Hitler and Stalin have a whole ideological wardrobe. Just as the King of England has one uniform for visiting the fleet, another for receiving the Lord Mayor of London, and so on, so Hitler, though he goes everywhere in the same belted uniform, changes ideological costumes according to whether his audience is made up of capitalists or workers. Molotov’s recent remark about fascism being “a matter of taste” – as though it were a question of choosing a new hat – is clearly in this spirit.

What the totalitarian regimes are now showing us is a weird combination of the eighteenth and the nineteenth century usages in these matters. They feel the nineteenth century’s need for gaining mass democratic sanctions for their policies, for shrouding their dirty work in high-sounding phrases of concern for the well-being of The People. But at the same time, they manipulate these ideological garments with the cynical abruptness of eighteenth century politics, changing from one cosmic, all-embracing philosophy to its opposite with the facility of a Metternich substituting one diplomatic formula for another.

In the last few months, the Kremlin and its mouthpieces have used indifferently, as instruments to be picked up or tossed aside according to the turn of events from day to day, the idealistic phrases of liberal bourgeois democracy and the impassioned rhetoric of Marxist revolution. When these bewildering changes of costume are possible, it is more important than ever for all who sincerely believe in the revolutionary road to cut through the jungle of phrases to the hard political reality underneath. Also to make this clear to the workers, lest they fail to differentiate between Stalin’s fake “Marxism” and the real thing.

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