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M. Morrison

Sidney Hook’s Attack on Trotskyism

(July 1943)

From Fourth International, Vol. 4 No. 7, July 1943, pp. 212–215.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

When Sidney Hook attributes failure of nerve to all those who, overwhelmed by the unexpectedness and hideousness of the war, retreat into the realm of religion and mysticism, he is on solid ground and makes out a very good case. (See his articles in the last three numbers of Partisan Review.) In every period of great upheaval and violence many persons in the general progressive movement give up the struggle for a better world as utterly hopeless and find solace in the abstractions of religion and metaphysics. Insofar as Hook attacks all forms of religious belief and insists on the use of reason and scientific method no thinking person can have any quarrel with him. But Hook then goes on, in the same articles, to create an amalgam by including the Trotskyists among those who have lost their nerve when confronted by the problems of the war. In doing so he has not only done violence to common sense but, one is tempted to say, he is actually attempting to forestall the accusation that he himself has lost his nerve. He has not taken refuge in religion, but he has found peace and safety in supporting the war.

It is difficult to conceive how, even in the remotest sense, failure of nerve can be ascribed to the Trotskyists, who worked out a basic theory before the war, anticipating all the arguments presented by the supporters of the war, and remained firm in their convictions after the outbreak of the war. Failure of nerve is a term appropriate to those who, because of the unexpected, change their ideas, but is hardly applicable to those who predict an event and, when it occurs, follow the theory which they had formulated beforehand. Whatever the Trotskyists and their theory could be accused of, they can hardly be accused of a failure of nerve.

Three things (among many others) can be said about those whose nerve failed them when the war came. They changed their ideas about the war; they support it; they face no possible prosecution at the hands of the government. All three are applicable to both Hook and the religionists and not one is applicable to the Trotskyists.

But let us dispense with this terminological argument and proceed to the main issue – whether Hook or the Trotskyists are correct in their respective positions on the war.

Hook’s False Description of Our Stand

To help him in his argument Hook presents a completely incorrect picture of the Trotskyist position. According to him the Trotskyists consider the war of “no concern to socialists”; believe that Roosevelt and Hitler “should be fought at the same time”; “that Roosevelt should be fought first because Lenin taught that the main enemy of the working class is its own government.” What Hook does is to take some isolated phrases found in revolutionary socialist literature and present them as the systematic position of the Trotskyists on the war.

The real position of the Trotskyists can be summarized as follows: no support to any power fighting the war for imperialist purposes; continuation of the struggle for socialism during the war. Essentially that was Lenin and Trotsky’s position during the First World War. It is true that in addition, other ideas and slogans were advanced and discussed during the First World War which leftist sectarians still insist upon placing at the center of a revolutionary program. These leftists do not understand that certain ideas and phrases were valuable during the First World War because they served the purpose of sharpening the cleavage between reformist and revolutionary socialists and of educating revolutionary cadres in intransigeance after the unexpected political collapse of the Second International. But these ideas were not and could not be part of the essential position of the revolutionary Marxists towards imperialist war. For example, there is no justification for giving the phrase “revolutionary defeatism” a meaning separate and apart from the general Marxist attitude towards the war. Since revolutionary socialists never believed in helping an enemy government defeat their own government, the expression “revolutionary defeatism” can be correctly understood only in the sense of continuing the revolutionary struggle for socialism during the war. Likewise the slogan “the main enemy is at home” is only another way of saying that so long as the proletariat does not possess state power it has no chance to struggle for its own interests against any foreign oppressor and must necessarily confine its efforts against the capitalist enemy at home. The basic idea of the revolutionary Marxist position towards an imperialist war is: no class peace during a reactionary war.

Hook is distorting our position when he says that the war is of no concern to the Trotskyists. Nor is it correct to say that the Trotskyists are “neutral.” They do not stand aside and view the war with indifference. They conceive their duty to be to educate the masses to the real nature of the war, to help them in their struggles against the capitalists during the war and to prepare them to take governmental power in order to abolish war and fascism. This is neither indifference nor neutrality.

Correctly understood, the position of the Trotskyists on the war makes completely irrelevant such a question, raised by Hook, as whether the Trotskyists are willing to permit Hitler to invade England without lifting a finger to oppose him. Non-support does not mean that the Trotskyists, any more than others, can refrain from working or fighting. So long as we Trotskyists are supported only by a minority of the population there is nothing for us to do except to submit in action to the position accepted by the majority of the population. Nor can our position of non-support directly affect the military outcome of the struggle. Either the working class comes to power under the leadership of the Trotskyists, in which case the war against Hitler is immediately transformed into a war for socialism against capitalism, or the working class remains subject to the capitalists and then the Trotskyists have no alternative other than to work and fight as other workers have to do.

The Dilemma Which Faces Hook

The attitude of the Trotskyists may have an indirect effect on the military struggle only in the sense that they defend the right of the workers to strike against the employers for higher wages and better conditions. Hook does not say whether he supports or condemns strikes. If he carries his support of the war to a logical conclusion he should do what the Stalinists and other reformists supporting the war do: condemn the strike of the miners.

If, on the other hand, he does not permit his logic to interfere with his sympathies for the workers, and he supports the strike of the miners, then he is doing just as much to “hamper the war effort” as the Trotskyists who do not support the war. It may be said that John L. Lewis supports the war but still calls the miners out on strike. But John L. Lewis is not a logician. Logic demands that he who supports the war should oppose any continuation of the class struggle because it may affect the military outcome of the struggle.

The central question is whether one believes in continuing the struggle for socialism during the war. Hook may claim that, although he supports the war, he still believes in continuing the struggle for socialism. He favors an independent Labor party and certain economic demands for the workers. But he does not treat the question of how the workers shall fight for their demands. The strike weapon remains the primary means of achieving the economic demands of the workers, and Hook evades this crucial question.

Perhaps Hook will claim that, if the opportunity is afforded during the war, he will favor the taking of power by the working masses. But, if the majority of the people want to establish a socialist government during the war, Hook must reckon with the overwhelming probability that the capitalists will resist the attempt of the workers to take power. A conflict will ensue which cannot fail to affect the outcome of the military struggle.

It is only by posing the questions of one’s attitude toward strikes or to an attempt by the workers to take power that we can discuss intelligently the question of how far we are willing to permit the military front to determine our attitude in the struggle on the home front. Either Hook believes in giving to the military struggle precedence over all other considerations, in which case his attitude of fighting for socialism during the war is a mere pose. Or he really believes in supporting the workers in their struggles during the war, in which case his support of the war is just as bad for the military front as the non-support of the Trotskyists.

Obviously one cannot avoid assuming certain risks. The victory of a foreign oppressor is certainly an evil. To cease the struggle for socialism is also an evil. Revolutionary socialists consider the latter the greater of the two evils. For to cease the struggle for socialism during a reactionary war is to cease to struggle for it at any time. Hook may prove to be an exception, but the verdict of history upholds this general principle.

Suppose the British Labor Party were to change its character and attempt to lead the workers to power during the war. It must certainly be assumed that the British capitalists will offer resistance and in the ensuing struggle the military front might be endangered. But then one must consider the tremendous gains which would come from a victory of the British working class. It would immeasurably increase the chances for victory over Hitler. Not only because the English people would throw their hearts and souls into a war for socialism, but because of the repercussions within Germany of a socialist victory in Britain. Hitler could not possibly stand up against it for long. The risk that British labor runs with its policy of supporting the war and of class peace is infinitely greater than the risk it would assume with a policy of non-support and making a serious effort to establish a socialist government.

The Character of the War

Our refusal to support the war is based on the fundamental premise that it is a war for imperialist purposes. Almost daily new evidence piles up to prove that assertion.

Upon what does Hook base his support of the war? In his articles in the Partisan Review he does not expressly say either that this war is imperialist in character or that it is one for democracy against fascism. Twice he uses the expression of a “war against Hitlerism,” leaving the impression that he considers the war to be against Hitlerism as a system; in other words, that it is a war against fascism.

If Hook could prove that this is a war for democracy against fascism, he would convert the Trotskyists to material support of the war. By our attitude to the Civil War in Spain we showed that, if we consider a conflict to be one between bourgeois democracy and fascism, we give material aid to the forces representing bourgeois democracy. Hook has not, as far as I know, undertaken to prove the impossible, namely, that this is a war for democracy against fascism.

Although he does not state flatly that he considers the war to be imperialist in nature, his articles can be “explained only on the assumption that he is of that opinion but considers its imperialist character unimportant in comparison with other factors. Those liberals and Social Democrats who claim this is a war for democracy are in constant difficulty. The conduct of the war is such that it is impossible to reconcile it with the idea that the war is being fought for anything else but imperialist interests. Many liberals have decided to recognize the war in its true colors and yet to support it on the simple proposition that the working class has greater rights in England and America than in Germany, and that it is better to live in democratic imperialist countries than in fascist imperialist countries. Hook is in that group.

It is of course undeniable that the workers still have greater rights in democratic imperialist countries than in fascist countries. The question is whether this furnishes any kind of an adequate criterion upon which to base a policy of supporting the war.

Acceptance of this criterion reduces itself to the proposition that those workers should support the war who have greater rights. On this basis the Southern Negroes should not support the war, for it would be difficult to contend that their rights are any greater than those of the German, Italian or Japanese workers. On this basis, furthermore, Hook should have urged the workers of Greece, the government of which was as brutal a dictatorship as that of Hitler or Mussolini, not to support the war. He should give the same advice to all workers in countries allied with the United States and England that are under dictatorial regimes. I am certain that Hook can name a few countries both in South America and in Europe that are allied with the United States and are far from democratic.

The Trotskyists support the war of the Soviet Union and of China; in the case of the Soviet Union, on the ground that it is a workers’ state although a degenerated one; in the case of China on the ground that its struggle against Japan is a struggle of a colonial nation against an imperialist nation. The fact is, and will undoubtedly be admitted by Hook, that the totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and in China are just as bad as those in Germany, Italy and Japan from the point of view of lack of democracy. On the basis of Hook s criterion, then, there is no reason why the Chinese workers should support the war.

Hook does not deal with the question of the support of the war by the Chinese, Soviet and other workers living under a dictatorship. If he flatly stated that these workers should not support the war, I would be compelled to admit that he is at least logical. To be logical and still maintain that the workers of the dictatorship countries allied with the United States and England should support the war, it would be necessary for him to contend that the victory of the United States and England will, in some mysterious way, bring democracy to all dictatorships now allied with the democratic capitalist countries. This is a proposition that Hook will hardly advance.

The Consequences of the War

In supporting the war Hook relies mainly on his central proposition: “If Hitler wins, democratic socialism has no future. If Hitler is defeated ... it at least has a chance.” The consequences of a war, says Hook, are relevant in deciding what attitude a socialist should take towards it. It is quite true that the consequences to which a war leads is a factor of vital importance in determining the attitude of a socialist towards it. But the important question is what consequences a socialist must consider germane in determining his attitude towards a war.

The criterion of consequences is used by Marxists in a very precise and restricted sense. By the term “consequences of the war,” insofar as it is a relevant factor in determining support or non-support of a war, Marxists understand not all possible or probable consequences, but such as inevitably flow from the victory or defeat of one side or the other.

The consequences of a victory of the North in the American Civil War could have been nothing but a shift of power from the slaveocracy of the South to the capitalists of the North. Marxists therefore supported the North because the capitalist system of the North was progressive in comparison with the outmoded form of production prevailing in the South. The consequences of a victory of a colonial country over an imperialist country would inevitably be the weakening of imperialism. Marxists therefore support a colonial country as against an imperialist country.

The consequences of a victory of German and Japanese imperialism would be that the markets, raw materials, and spheres of influence now under control of English and American imperialism would be transferred to German and Japanese imperialism. The consequences of a victory for American and English imperialism would be the elimination of rival imperialisms.

Lenin thought that the consequences of a defeat for Russia in the First World War would be revolution. And so it turned out. But Lenin did not for that reason support the imperialist enemies of Russia. Marxists have always said that social upheavals will follow this war. They did not, for that reason, favor the war.

One can make out a plausible argument for the proposition that defeat of the United States by Japanese imperialism is very likely to lead to a great strengthening of the American revolutionary movement. It would be such a blow to American capitalism that it would place the sharp alternative of fascism or socialism on the order of the day. But no revolutionary Marxist would use that speculative possibility as a basis for supporting Japanese imperialism.

It is my personal opinion that the defeat of Hitler is more likely to lead to revolutionary upheavals in Germany and the rest of Europe than the victory of Hitler. That may be a reason for my wanting to see Hitler defeated, but it is no reason whatever for me to support any imperialist power which fights and can only fight for imperialist objectives. As a Marxist I base my position on the motive forces which brought the war into existence and the consequences of the war which are directly related to these motive forces.

Hook, on the other hand, uses the term “consequences of the war” in a much broader sense than that given to it by Marxists when they refer to consequences of the war as a factor in determining their attitude towards it. He would have us determine our attitude towards a war not by an analysis of the objective factors but by speculating on possible and probable results.

In addition to this basic factor of the character of the war, there are other factors that weigh heavily against the one selected by Hook. The Trotskyists, by refusing to give support to a war waged for imperialist purposes, thereby indicate their solidarity with the millions of enslaved colonial peoples. They indicate also their solidarity with the masses of Germany, Italy and Japan who will be worse off if their countries are defeated. I am afraid that many German workers argue like Hook: it is terrible to be under the yoke of Hitler but it will be worse to be under the yoke of our foreign enemies. They therefore conclude they must support German imperialism. Hook’s support of the imperialists will scarcely help those German workers to free themselves from their identically false position.

It is highly significant that the Trotskyists, under the most adverse conditions, are building a revolutionary party without which no successful socialist revolution can come, even if Hitler is defeated. Are they doing that because they do not support the war? Perhaps it would be too difficult theoretically to make out a cause-and-effect relationship between non-support of the war and building a revolutionary party. History, however, has proved at least once that they who did not support an imperialist war and continued the struggle for socialism during the war were the ones who led workers to power. And it stands to reason that those who believe in continuing the struggle for socialism during the war are certain to be building a party for that struggle; the others are too busy supporting the war to build a revolutionary party.

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