War, Realism and the "Lesser Evil". The Socialist Attitude on the Problem of War by Julius Jacobson, in Anvil and Student Partisan, Fall 1950.

Submitted by SJW on 11 April, 2018 - 12:54 Author: Julius Jacobson

One of the greatest tragedies of a Third World War which is now drawing closer is the lack of organized opposition to it. The mass of people are not enthusiastically pro-war but they are resigned to it, while the organized social, political and cultural movements, with rare exceptions, are exerting their influence to create the necessary enthusiasm for the all-out Atom War. Military men with their national honor, business men with their funds, publishers with their journalists, politicians with their rehearsed inflammatory speeches, are all busily using their respective resources to instill an aggressive, chauvinistic mood into the American people. It is what one would expect of them. It is their profession - their war of life. Our attention is directed to them only insofar as they influence others.

But how pathetic is the "socialist" who invokes the good name of socialism as his own unique contribution to the impoverished intellectual arsenal of our bourgeois and liberal warriors. The bourgeois proponent and the liberal apologist of war may inspire our contempt but the "socialist" who embroiders American imperialism with his delicate needlework provokes stronger feelings.

Nevertheless, the arguments of the pro-war socialist must be met. They are, unfortunately, the dominant views within the socialist movement and all too frequently found in the writers and activities of non-socialist intellectuals and labor leaders.

More than 35 years have passed since the beginning of World War I. At that time the world socialist movement split into two distinct parts: the majority supporting their respective governments, the minority living up to the anti-war traditions of the socialist movement. The arguments presented by the anti-war socialists at that time are fundamentally sound today. This is not to deny the existence of new and more complex problems in a complex world. These new factors which frequently form the basis for the pro-war position of former radicals will not be ignored, but dealt with directly.

New Aspects of a Third War

In the First World War we witnessed a struggle for the redivision of the world. Old regimes were destroyed and new states created, authority and power changed hands but international subjugation by a single nation was not achieved, never having been an objective of either the Allied or Central powers. A multiplicity of inter-imperialist conflicts among the victor states and later the revived Central powers developed. America emerged as the strongest world power but England, Japan, France, later Germany, were far from liquidated as industrial, financial and political rivals.

Following World War II all but two great powers, Russia and the United States were eliminated as powerful independent world political forces. Two rival blocs were organized; in one the authority of Russia is unquestioned, in the other the dominance of the U.S. is more diplomatic and subtle, not as complete but, nevertheless, real. The Third World War will be different from the First and Second in that out of it can emerge only one great world power. That is, the U.S. and Russia left to their own devices will conduct that kind of war the consequences of which will be the elimination of the defeated bloc.

A second important distinction between an atomic war and World Wars I and II is that this impending war will be a struggle between two hostile, incompatible social systems. World War II saw an alliance between democratic capitalism and Stalinism on one side combatting fascist capitalism, on the other. The coming war will have no such mixed features. At stake will not only merely governments, but social systems. Russian totalitarianism is based upon nationalized property and the Russian ruling class asserts itself through its political control of the state. An expansion of the powers of the Russian ruling class can only be consolidated through extending its social system. Witness Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, to mention but a few countries where capitalist property relations along with individual capitalists have been substantially destroyed. A victory of Russia, then, can only mean tremendous encroachments upon capitalistic organization of all of Europe and Asia. On the other hand, a victory of the United States would see the liquidation of Communist Parties as state powers, that is, their liquidation as a ruling class.

In the First World War the political "merits" of both sides were more or less equal. Kaiserism was autocratic but it was a democratic paradise compared to Czarist Russia; and the Wilsonian myth was exploded in 1917-1918 with the establishment here of Prussian-like government controls. In World War II this political equality between the warring blocs was no longer true. It would be absurd to equate the brutality of Nazi Germany with the inequities and injustices of capitalist America and England; but it must be remembered that allied with England and the United States was Russia, a totalitarian country, not one whit less brutal than Hitler Germany.

In World War III, at least initially, the political contrast will be more sharply drawn. On the one side, will be primarily the forces of democratic capitalism, leavened, of course, by a few South American military dictatorships and no doubt Franco's Spain. And on the other, the armies of Stalinist terror. Within the former bloc will be nations with varying degrees of political liberty and with, at least, semi-independent labor movements; within the latter there will be no freedom and no labor movement performing anything more than state, administrative functions. This, then, is our third difference.

The final distinction is the atom bomb. Not since the invention of gunpowder has a military weapon been of such political importance. Its unbelievable destructive potential plays an important part in the diplomatic and military calculations of all nations. (The destructiveness of the bomb, however, has been exaggerated. The A-Bomb cannot destroy the world physically and it cannot destroy technology which has its foundations in indestructible human knowledge.)

The "Lesser Evil" Theory

The first three differences (global struggle, social war, political contrasts) have by now become stock arguments of many radicals who opposed World War I, and even World War II, but now accept the "lesser evil" theory for supporting the United States in a third war. According to this theory progress can be best served by a military victory of the American bloc.

A victory of Russia, it is argued, would mean the total liquidation of political freedom and total state supervision of the working class. A victory of the American led forces will, at least, leave socialists and radicals with a minimum of political latitude and labor movements with some of its former independence and viability. Thus, it is argued, there is a conjuncture of interests between the American bourgeoisie, which may fight for its own imperialist ends, and the labor and left-wing movement which must fight to keep itself free from Stalinist enslavement. This theory is reinforced by the continual reminder that there is no organized alternative to either of the war blocs; the trade unions in the U.S. remain politically conservative and the socialist movement has only a fragment of the membership necessary for an affective third force. Therefore, it is concluded, radicals must be "realistic", "undogmatic", "get out of their ivory tower", and support the "lesser evil". Reforms, they claim, can still be fought for, but will within the framework of achieving the main objective - the winning of the war.

The above is a condensed, fair presentation of the "lesser evil" point of view. There are additional arguments given and they will be discussed in the course of this article. The "lesser evil" theory appears on the surface to be convincing, for, after all, it is so "reasonable" and so "realistic".

The Power of Stalinism

The point has already been made that a third war will be different in that it will be a social war. In a social war the question of ideology is of paramount political and military importance. The fact is, whether we like it or not, that the United States is incapable of offering an effective alternative to Stalinism in the eyes of the European, and particularly the Asiatic peoples. Stalinism demagogically speaks the language of the working class and socialism. Its ability to pose as the defender of the oppressed and the fact that it is an opponent of the old, exploiting capitalist society lends it an authority among the people which can never by enjoyed by capitalism. More than that, Stalinism actually carries out a part of its promise. It promises the expropriation of the industrial capitalist; it carries out this promise. It promises the expropriation of the landlords and offers "land reforms"; it carries out these promises, as well. Up to a point, there is a seeming correspondence between the needs and interests of the European workers, the Asiatic peasants and the program and actions of Stalinism. Of course, these economic and social "reforms" are carried out within the framework of a reactionary police state. However, it is not the police state which the Asiatic peasant can see in Stalinism, but understandably though mistakenly, the opportunity to till his own soil. The Indo-Chinese peasant who is being won over to Stalinism is not impressed by American propaganda about Russian slave camps. Much more meaningful to him are the "land reforms" in adjacent Stalinist China and the weapons provided by Russia to expel French imperialism. Nor is Truman's newly made promise to supply the French with arms in Indo-China and the renewed promise of support to Chiang-Kai-Shek likely to win significant sections of peasants from Stalinism to "The American Way of Life." This latest policy of Truman is no accident. As the struggle between Stalinism and capitalism grows more intense, the older and less dynamic order must follow a policy which will increasingly alienate the European and Asiatic people. Those pro-war socialists who speak in the name of realism, and yet declare that America need not pursue a reactionary policy in Europe and Asia are the ones who have lost all sense of reality. It should be obvious that the United States cannot encourage militant, independent nationalist movements in Asia, and should be no less obvious that in Europe the United States must seek to restore an unpopular, debilitated capitalist order.

The support of the Rhee regime is not an accidental policy. American foreign policy has been consistent in its support and sponsorship of the most reactionary regimes. There is the American backed Quirino in the Philippines, Bao Dai in Indo-China, Chiang Kai-shek, on his Formosa retreat, Washington backed dictators in Latin America, Churchill in England, MacArthur's regime in Japan and a long list of other miserable regimes, reactionaries and aspiring tyrants aided and propped up by the American State Department. Whether a narrow minded Byrnes or a man with "social vision" such as Acheson heads the State Department the policy has been substantially the same. The reason for the similarities, ie., consistency, in basic State Department policies can be found in the basically reactionary structure of American society. Those who think of changing the foreign policy by getting more enlightened officials in the State Department (such as Senate liberals who voted for the McCarran "concentration camp" law?) have lost contact with the realities of the social issues involved in the Russian-American conflict.

The Results of American Policy

What better evidence can one find for our contention that Stalinism cannot be defeated by America in the ideological war - and this has important military implications - than the war in Korea. The war in Korea is a microcosmic preview of the World War to come. One of the first lessons our pro-war "socialist" should learn from this localized war is the inability of capitalism to achieve popular support for itself and the ability of Stalinism to increase its prestige among the peasants by pointing to such frightening and brutal methods as those enforced by the puppet Rhee government which frustrated the peasants' desire for land through terror and mass murder. The Korea peasants who were "liberated" in 1945 were by no means Stalinists, but as a direct result of American policy, they have been driven into the open arms of Stalinism, where they can only be crushed in a totalitarian embrace.

Project the Korean war on to a world scale and then judge the "realism" of the simple assumption offered by the pro-war radical. In a world war, American policy, now localized in Korea, will assume international proportions. Just as in Korea, American policy in Europe will leave capitalism isolated. The Stalinists will always be in a position to maintain their prestige among the working peoples so long as their only opponents are the upholders of the old, corrupt regimes and those who defend those regimes as the "lesser evil".

The American and South Korean troops have recaptured the territory lost in the first three months of the war. And what has been the reception in the "liberated" cities? Not even the press can hide the fact that the American troops are being received with attitudes ranging from coldness to hostility. The three-month Stalinist dictatorship in Seoul has not displaced the South Koreans hatred of the corrupt Rhee government which will now rule from a gutted and starving capitol. American policy is reaping its fruits in the growing animosity of the Korean people.

A military victory may be achieved by superior American techniques, in a world-wide war, but the fact that America will be isolated from the European peoples, and will continue to be plagued by a hostile and dynamic Stalinist movement (even if it will be underground or Titoistic) result in an increasingly reactionary policy on the part of the victors. The rationalization, let us remember, for support of the war by radicals is that an American victory will have as its causal effect the maintenance of some form of political and civil freedom. But if we accept reality, we can only come to the reverse conclusion: a military victory of the American led forces can only result in a chaotic and hostile wold in which the military triumph can be sustained only through the use of occupation forces, reactionary puppet regimes and increasing political repression.

Lesser Evilism and an Aid to Stalinism

So far we have seen that the "lesser evil" theory is based on a false assumption: that the U.S. can defeat Stalinism by winning a military victory. It can defeat Russia but not Stalinism as a world force.

But this theory may have a dangerous consequence which its "realistic" exponents cannot foresee. It may result in the military victory of Russia. The military importance of mass support should be evident to everybody and for those who can not see too well it should have been made clear by the Korea fighting. The North Koreans were winning the war for two equally important reasons: they were equipped and trained by the Russians and, secondly, they had won the support of a large section of the population. In a third World War, if no third force with a program which can effectively combat Stalinism develops before or during the war, then the greater popular support of the Stalinists may well prove to be as militarily important in a general war as was the case in Korea. If this proves to be the case then the "lesser evilists" will have to accept their refusal to develop an independent third force as their contribution to the victory of Stalinism.

When does a "lesser evilist" begin to fight for the greatest good, i.e., socialism? In other words, when does socialism become the paramount objective to which everything else is subordinated?

If the United States stockpile of atom bombs does the trick and Russia is forced to unconditionally surrender, the conditions which give rise to "lesser evilism" today will continue to exist. Third force movements will not spring up overnight or the day after Russia is defeated. The main battle will continue between the American occupation forces and its puppet regimes on the one side and the Stalinist underground on the other. Won't we have to make a choice then according to our radical "lesser evilist"? Will it not still be true that the American forces, despite the fact that they will be using methods which are inimical to the best interests of democracy, will remain the "lesser evil" compared to the Stalinist underground? The answer is that the acceptance of the "lesser evil" philosophy in this war is a vicious circle and no one can logically escape its maze-like interior. To defend the U.S. on the basis of lesser evilism in the war can only mean to abandon the concrete and direct struggle for socialism after the war as well.

Post-War Democratic Movements

It has been argued that an American victory in the war would unleash the repressed democratic energies of the workers and peasants behind the Iron Curtain who have already gone through the hell of living in a totalitarian country. But if this is true in which direction will these yearnings for freedom develop? What will be the obstacles? Will this desire for freedom be satisfied by the American authorities? Doe any one seriously believe that if a democratic movement developed in Eastern Europe following the collapse of Russian armies that its aspirations for land and freedom would be satisfied by the conquering American armies? Let us be realistic. A Poland or Czechoslovakia or any Eastern European country "liberated" from the Kremlin yoke will have to overcome the American imperialists to achieve its objectives. The allies sought by the Americans will not be the Polish or Czech worker and peasant but the remnants of the bourgeoisie and the clergy within the country, and those in exile. These will be Truman's allies during and after the war. And they will make the claims on expropriated land, on nationalized industries, seek positions and privileges. They will be the trusted puppets. Whatever power is entrusted to native elements will be given to the old class enemies of the workers and peasants. The Stalinist puppet regime will be replaced by an American sponsored puppet. A democratic movement in Eastern Europe will have to fight immediately and directly against American imperialism. And what will the "lesser evilists" then say? Will they support an anti-imperialist democratic movement? Or will they be consistent and argue that reactionary American sponsored will have to be supported, only temporarily, of course, and the democratic movement suppressed, only temporarily of course, until the Stalinist underground has been decisively crushed. For isn't it clear that if the Americans are engaged in battle with genuine democratic movements in Eastern Europe they will be weakened in their struggle against the greatest evil, Stalinism, which will continue to wage war, even if it is guerilla and underground warfare, in Western Europe and all of Asia as well as in Eastern Europe and Russia.

Thus, if the prediction of the lesser evilists that an American victory will unleash democratic forces in Eastern Europe is correct, it is not a point in defense of their position for they must be in favor of frustrating such "premature" developments. And if a democratic movement is to develop in Eastern Europe will it not be in a much better position to achieve its objectives if it can seek support from powerful anti-imperialist democratic and socialist forces in the rest of Europe and Asia. But this necessary major Third Force can never develop on the basis of a "lesser evil" policy. We have already demonstrated that subordinating socialism to the "war effort" means to abandon the very possibility of developing a Third Force movement and program which can gain the enthusiastic support of large numbers of people. It is during the war that radicals will have to develop this Third Force and it is only by clear cut opposition to both Russian and American imperialism that they have any chance of success.

This is looking at the problem realistically.

Socialism and Internationalism

Socialism is an international philosophy. It is politically and morally untenable to advocate a supposed socialist position in one country and clearly anti-socialist policy in another. More than that, if a so-called "socialist" policy in one country logically leads to anti-socialist deeds in another then the error, from the socialist point of view lies with the original policy. A social science, too, must be consistent. This fact has real meaning for our discussion. If a pro-war radical can support Washington in a war, presumably in the interests of socialism, then what are the logical responsibilities of socialists in all other lands and how do these responsibilities correspond with the fight for democracy and socialism? To be more concrete, if a radical endorses the war then what does he tell is comrades to do in a fight against American, Dutch, English and French imperialisms? Does he press them to continue the fight for freedom against imperialism and its war-time allies or to abandon the struggle, (temporarily, of course!) for national independence? To be consistent and honest he would have to insist that socialists and nationalists in colonial countries not only withdrew from but condemn and not only condemn and fight against any nationalist, democratic movement which continues to fight to liberate their land from the grip of their imperialist oppressor. For nationalists movements were to carry on an armed struggle for their independence against, say, France or England, they might well deplete the military energies and morale of these important allies of the United States, thereby weakening if not eliminating them as military factors in an all-out war. It would be demanded of our "lesser-evilist" then, if he is to be taken seriously, that he attempt to dissuade or stifle the nationalists from their fight for national independence. Thus we can see that in regard to the colonial question, as with everything else, to support U.S. imperialism in the war develops a logic of its own which demands in the concrete the submission to imperialism. Also, we have already demonstrated how this appeal to nationalists would not only be ineffectual but would help push the nationalists into the arms of the Russian demagogues.

The anti-war socialist is in no such predicament. He not only continues to encourage anti-imperialist movements but urges them to take advantage of every favorable opportunity to gain their freedom. For this policy would tend to strengthen democracy in the colonies, could prevent inroads into the nationalist movements currently being made by the Stalinists and would give an impetus to the democratic and socialist forces all over the world. These are the realistic consequences of an anti-war point of view.

War and Democratic Rights

But we need not go so far afield to see that the support of "the war to save democracy" is self-defeating. Again, we have to ask ourselves what are the consistent responsibilities of the radical who supports and the war to democratic rights at home. Democracy includes the right to speak, the right to organize, to strike, to leave a job and seek a new one, the right to belong to a political party of one's own choose; these are some of the democratic rights for which socialists must fight. But these are the very rights which are being violated by the Truman Administration. They are liberties which are proving particularly cumbersome to Washington in the present crisis. Perhaps there are excesses committed even from a capitalist point of view, but the important thing to note is that the general movement towards an authoritarian American is necessary to a capitalist nation's preparation for war and the trend must continue.

A capitalist war economy is an extremely sensitive structure. It can fissure easily; and fissures can become cracks which may grow to shattering proportions. The importance of high production requires that the labor movement be restrained. It must be tied town to the government through its bourgeois minded labor leaders and through anti-labor legislation. Democratic rights become a yoke. Criticism and opposition must be toned town and where they are not reduced voluntarily they will have to be subdued legislatively. Non-conformity becomes a menace to a socially bankrupt class engaged in a total struggle for its very existence.

These are more than dangerous possibilities. Local and national assaults on our democratic rights are already under way and are intensified daily as part of the military, political, economic and psychological preparations for war. It is not only the Communist Party which is persecuted. They are the most seriously affected, now, but it is apparent that all who oppose the war, who agitate for workers to strike for better conditions, who oppose reactionary legislation will be severely penalized. Even the "lesser evil socialist" who is tainted with non-conformism and a bad reputation he is trying to forget will suffer from the righteous fury of a crusading America - despite his martial opposition to Russia.

But what does a pro-war radical propose concerning the inroads made into the more democratic aspects of American life? Whether he likes it or not he must condone the general tendency, criticizing excesses if he wishes, but accepting the necessity for this government to prepare for total war in the only way it possible can. If the main task is winning the war then political and labor activities which might limit America's military effectiveness must be curbed. This is the reasoning of Washington and it is correct from their point of view. But it is also correct from a pro-war "socialist's" point of view. To be realistic, he must condemn strikes in basic industries (no matter how justified he admits the workers' demands are); to be practical, he must advocate limiting the freedoms of speech and press for revolutionary socialists and pacifists since their anti-war agitation for the ideas of democracy may prove effective; to be level-headed, he should advocate Universal Military Training and compulsory ROTC immediately as elementary steps to prepare for battle with the Russian behemoth.

These planks are not the accepted program of most pro-war radicals - as yet. But aren't they required of them? Realism can not brook excessive timidity and a moment of realistic reflection will indicate that suppressing serious strikes, restricting and denying democracy for anti-war "troublemakers," is the responsibility of any pro-war individual. These are the only means whereby capitalism can fight Stalinism and the pro-war radical must accept the consequences of his willingness to fight Stalinism within the framework of capitalism.

The path trod by the pro-war radicals will be made tortuous by the thorns of conscience. Some who are confirmed "realists" will walk the path gingerly and conscience will give way to "practical considerations"; others who have started on this road will see that it becomes a one-way route, with no detours, to a reactionary and inextricable anti-democratic swamp, and will retrace their steps.

The revolutionary socialist, ie., the democratic socialist, has as his main task, at all times, the raising of the class consciousness of the working people. To make the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited realize that they are a class apart from all others; to convince them to act in their own interests - the interest of the overwhelming majority of the population; to educate them to the point where they not only think of themselves as an independent class, but as socialists who are prepared to educate their class brother. Once a socialist abandons this educational role he abandons socialism. Education not only refers to formal, technical media (classes, readings, lectures, etc.) but education in the class struggle itself. To educate in the class struggle means to deepen that struggle. It means to support unions in their organizing drives; to support the workers in all their fights for better conditions, to fight for their democratic rights and urge them on to newer and more decisive battles. Socialism does not merely consist of explaining the merits of the future classless society or of making profound historical analyses. It means, above all, the support of the working class struggle in the immediate period.

This theoretical premise of socialism bears directly on our discussion. The pro-war radical, the "hard-headed realist," will usually withdraw in horror from this principle during war-time. He will argue that if the American labor movement fights for its rights too often it may have such a dire effect on the front that the only result will be a victory of Stalinism. Therefore, he suggests to the labor movement that it confine its activities to various labor boards, government agencies, arbitration, etc. for the duration of the war. After the war, perhaps, strikes will be in order.

The argument is seductively plausible. It has the charm of frankness as with so many of the pro-war radicals' "realisms". But the realism is illusory. The argument is mechanical, based on statistics, not on any political understanding. What is omitted is an understanding of the change that will take place if a war-time American working class is willing to carry the class struggle to such an extent. This will not be the politically backward working class of today which accepts the war. A working class which strikes during war-time will know the effect of these actions as well as its pro-war advisors. But they will also know that the war is not being fought for them, for it is completely unrealistic to think that the American working class will ever attain this degree of militancy without reaching a political maturity which will provide it with an understanding of the imperialist nature of the war. It will not merely engage in strike, but will make its own demands on how the war is to be conducted; it will be a working class infinitely more sympathetic to socialism; it will be, in short, a working class which is developing a social program opposed to Stalinism and capitalism, and increasingly prepared to carry it out. It is the height of unrealism to think that the labor movement during wartime will function schizophrenically, developing a revolutionary fervor on the economic front without a parallel political development. The whole political complexion of the United States will change given a working class which is striking en masse. The union leadership of today will be considerably more influential if not powerful, the class struggle will clearly become a political conflict, and, as we have already pointed out, the workers themselves will have a much greater political understanding.

Thus the prosecution of the class-struggle provides the only realistic opportunity for conducting an effective fight against Stalinism, for peace and for socialism. That a striking working class may not be able to take political power, that it may be crushed by the capitalists and/or by the Stalinist armies is always a possibility. Every progressive movement is faced with the possibility of defeat followed by greater reaction. But progress would never be made if this possibility became the prime political consideration.

There is a Choice

In this article we have attempted to demonstrate that support of the American bloc in a war is impermissible from a democratic socialist point of view. Space limitation has forced us to assume that readers accept with us, the insupportable nature of the Russian totalitarian regime. The discussion has revolved around specific pro-war arguments in support of American imperialism. The answers to them are inter-related but they only demonstrate the fundamental socialist principle of the implacability of a socialist taking sides with capitalism in any war fought for its preservation and extension.

A socialist does take sides, though. It is with neither combatant, but with the Third Camp as opposed to the two camps of capitalism and Stalinism. By the Third Camp the socialist refers to all those whose interests are actually allied with socialism: the American worker fighting for a defend wage, the colonial fighting foreign rule, the Russian worker and Polish peasant made servile by a Slave State. The Third Camp is the camp of the dispossessed and exploited. We are on their side. And if they feel that they have common interests with either of the two war camps it is our responsibility to convince them otherwise. Perhaps we will not be successful. The socialist Third Camp is as yet only a potential force. But the organized labor movement is powerful enough throughout the world (except behind the Iron Curtain) and the traditions of socialism are strong. Nevertheless, guarantees can not be given to those who ask "How do I know the Third Camp will succeed?" We do know that neither capitalism nor Stalinism can succeed in solving a single basic social problem. We do know that the potential for socialism exists. More than that we do not need to know for making a political, realistic and moral choice.

Julius Jacobson

Julius Jacobson is the editor of ANVIL and STUDENT PARTISAN. He is a student at Columbia University.

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