Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

E.R. McKinney

A Discussion on Czech Events

(17 May 1948)

From Labor Action, Vol. 12 No. 20, 17 May 1948, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

(Continued from Last Week)

Comrade Howe’s article is a little difficult to deal with. He begins with the observation that “The hearts of all socialists were ... sick with sorrow and apprehension last week.” He suffered a “sense of oppression” and a “feeling of discouragement.” Comrade Howe finds the world preparing for war like a patient who has had such large doses of pain and horror that they seem normal to him. Howe finds the world rushing headlong to its doom. However I am not much impressed or moved by Comrade Howe’s “sorrow,” his “oppression” or his “feeling of discouragement.” I don’t believe that sorrow, oppression and discouragement are very helpful qualities in the struggle against Stalinism or capitalism. Furthermore, sorrowing socialists are not a very sturdy breed. Socialists feeling “discouragement” will not be of much service in the struggle against Stalinism or capitalism. Socialists, that is revolutionary socialists, REAL communists must be made of sterner stuff. It is in times of proletarian setback that revolutionary socialists do not become “sick with sorrow and apprehension ...”

It is in times such as we are passing through today, when “the socialist movement is in an even weaker condition,” than it was ten years ago that revolutionists must not join the petty-bourgeoisie in a frantic flight to the wailing wall. The first paragraph of Comrade Howe’s article could properly appear in a column by Norman Thomas or in a Nation editorial by Freda Kirchwey.

Comrade Howe is correct when he writes: “Only fools and scoundrels can keep talking about European politics as if all is well, as if the working class is reaching the peak of its road. The truth is otherwise.” Howe goes off the other end and there isn’t much difference between those who attempt to talk up a revolution and those who gulp up the victory of Stalinism everywhere. For instance Comrade Howe is for “honest pessimism.” This is the only “basis for useful discussion.” What is “honest pessimism” and what would be dishonest pessimism? I take it that Comrade Howe is addressing himself to Marxists and militant thinkers in his article and not to old ladies, or to disillusioned youth who have been nourished on the theory of the drive “to be a complete man.” If his piece is addressed to Marxists, he will have to tell us what Marxian pessimism is. He will also have to tell us in what way his “honest pessimism” is superior to or more effective than the ‘official optimism’ of the Fourth International.

Heart of the Position

Howe’s discussion of the differences between Nazism and Stalinism is standard Party position and was settled in its main outlines in 1941 when the Party rejected the position that Russia was a fascist state. On the question of Stalinist barbarism, the Trotskyist movement said back in 1935 that nowhere were revolutionists so brutally treated as in the “Soviet Union.” At its 1941 convention the Workers Patty also rejected the position that Stalinism and bourgeois democracy “are equally reactionary.”

Along with Judd and others Howe takes the position that the Stalinists will not seize power without the support of the working class. This of course, if true, makes Stalinist totalitarianism qualitatively different from Nazi totalitarianism. This makes of Stalinist rule, at least at the beginning, a sort of benevolent totalitarianism. From this point Comrade Howe gets to the heart of his position with the question: “Why did the Czech workers help the totalitarian bandits seize the government?” He replies:

“I think the answer is that the support by the Czech workers of the Stalinists is based on a unique mixture of reactionary and revolutionary motivations ... The workers support the Stalinists because they want socialism – that is certainly true; but they also support them because their conception of what socialism is has been debased and corrupted as a result of the cataclysmic declines and the barbaric experiences of recent history. In other words the ‘revolutionary’ kernel of their reasons for supporting Stalinism is encased in a reactionary shell.”

This is very bad but Howe hasn’t finished with this theme. The whole period since the 1920s has been one of “terrifying experiences.” These experiences have tended to destroy first “the initiative of the workers and, second, their conception of what the aim of their struggle was ... the working class and with it all humanity has become an object of manipulation by totalitarian parties.” It isn’t so easy to get hold of all of this but we must try.

It is clear that Howe has surrendered or has been completely oppressed by the totalitarian wave of the future. He bows before inexorable fate. True he calls for. Socialism and holds that “it is still possible for men to act,” but the perspective is “dark, very dark.” Aside from the manipulation of “all humanity” by totalitarians; the atom bombs are poised to wipe out all humanity. I say again, revolutionists must be made of sterner stuff. No matter how dark the future, it is the business of all humanity who call themselves Marxian revolutionaries to face the facts resolutely and without fear and trembling; without “sorrow” and “pessimism,” and wailing. Is a Marxist revolutionist merely one who “accepts” Marxism? Or better, one who accepts Marxism in the bright days of spring but seeks other consolations during the dark days of the winter? I say again that it is exactly now that the Marxist is the invaluable and the indispensable man. But he must be a dry-eyed man, one who stands firm and a beacon light to a working class traduced and misled by Stalinism.

It Is clear from the above that I do not accept the analysis and the conclusions of Judd and Howe. I think that both of them have misunderstood and misinterpreted what transpired in Czechoslovakia. These positions expressed in Labor Action are another example of the danger of inadequate and superficial analysis. It is made worse when the analyses are made in the grip of fear and trembling.

The contention is made that there is “something new” in the situation. The something new is the support of the Stalinists by the workers in the seizure of power. I have already pointed out some of the flaws in this argument above. I want now to discuss the event in a more positive way. The workers are not at the high level nor the low level argued by Howe. They do not “want socialism” nor are they against capitalism in any way except the most elementary. This means that they are primarily concerned with more immediate necessities such as goods and services. This is certainly true of the workers of devastated, war-ravaged and poverty-stricken Europe. If this is not true and one makes the claim that the Czech workers want socialism and are against capitalism on any higher level of political thinking, then it will be very difficult to maintain the Howe thesis that the Czech workers do not know the difference between Stalinism and socialism. In another way the position of Judd is a refutation of the Howe thesis. Where Judd says that the Stalinist program appears progressive and revolutionary to the workers he is in support of Howe: they don’t know the difference. But Judd has them smart enough and politically developed enough to know that one should reject bourgeois democracy as a bankrupt social order, in favor of a revolutionary program and socialism. The dilemma in Czechoslovakia it seems was that while the workers’ were highly political on one day, they were stupid and backward on the day following.

Already Had Command

Now what is the probable answer to what transpired in Czechoslovakia? I believe it is the following. First, far more weight must be given to what Judd calls “techniques” than he or Howe does. The Stalinists already had command in the country before the so-called seizure of power. Stalinist seizure of power is in no essential different from a Hitler seizure of power. There is no need to inject some really mystical ideological element into the situation as Judd does. There is certainly no need for Howe’s metaphysics or his lachrymose retreat. There was the Stalinist party, the Stalinist-led action committees, militia and the Stalinist-led unions. The coup had been well-prepared in advance and the workers had been bribed by benefits or intimidated and terrorized. Even those workers who dissented could have no effect; they could easily be silenced. The Czech workers had no assistance, no guidance and no protection of any sort. Comrade Howe should try to think this through. He is here in the U.S., and yet mere reading of what the Stalinists were doing several thousand miles away, filled him with sorrow and trembling. What would he have done if he had been in Prague where the Czech workers were?

Furthermore, it must be emphasized again that industry was already 75 per cent nationalized before the seizure of power. This is a good place to discuss Stalinist nationalization and the workers’ response. It is the contention that the workers supported the Stalinists because of nationalization. Let us assume that this is true. It does not follow from this that they confuse Stalinism with socialism. All that one can say is that there is confusion over what nationalization is and what is its relation to socialism. But one can make this charge against others: the Socialist Workers Party, for instance and the Fourth International. It can be said correctly that the Czech workers, along with others, think on a rather primitive and instinctive level. They have heard that capitalism is the main enemy, therefore any group which is against capitalism is to be preferred to capitalist parties. Furthermore, if it is correct to expropriate the capitalist class and to support the taking of the property by the state, then it is correct to support that group which advocates such actions. This is not confusing Stalinism with socialism, or accepting Stalinism as socialism. More correctly put, it is the result of the failure of the anti-Stalinist Marxist revolutionists to reach the working class with sound Marxian propaganda and education. There has been far too much pure and simple and merely vituperative anti-Stalinism hurled at the working class, which to many workers must have appeared as so much yelping at the heels of those who have been “successful.”

The Howe position is an example of this. The Czech workers supported the Stalinists. They supported the Stalinists because workers today do not know the difference between Stalinism and socialism. It is as simple as that. There is no hint that the workers perhaps do not have a complete understanding of this new anti-capitalist phenomenon which is Stalinism. What is going on is an illustration of the fact that the mass of workers understand neither Stalinism, capitalism nor socialism. This holds for the workers of the United States and of Czechoslovakia. It’s about time that all of us who claim to be Marxists and working class politicians understand this; stop our whining and snapping; and descend from our pedagogical ivory towers to the proletarian grass roots.

Understanding Stalinism

I say that workers do not understand this new Stalinist anti-capitalism. They are not alone in their ignorance. What chance have they had to understand? Could the Czech workers learn about Stalinism from the capitulationist Social-Democracy? Could they learn from the Czech liberals? Could they learn from the Fourth International which is just as muddled about the nature of Stalinism as the Czech workers. We have to remember too that up to the fall of 1941 the Workers Party held the position that Russia is some kind of workers’ state. Was that because we didn’t know the difference between Stalinism and socialism?

If Comrade Howe’s argument is correct anti-Stalinist workers in Czechoslovakia should have kept quiet when the putsch was taking place. If the workers were consciously giving support to Stalinism because they think Stalinism is socialism, opposition to the Stalinist seizure of power would result in the anti-Stalinists being liquidated as reactionary opponents of socialism; as pro-capitalist enemies of the people. Good political sense would have indicated that anti-Stalinists should wait until the eyes of the workers were opened. Their slogan should have been: “After Stalin we come.”

It is necessary to mention one other aspect of the “support” given the Stalinists by the Czech workers. The Stalinist movement appeared to them as a native movement, a Czech anti-capitalist upsurge. This perhaps obscured the Stalinist insides of the movement. That is why I, for one, take the position that the Stalinists in each country, outside of Russia, of course, must be looked at as invaders, as outside conquerors. Insofar as the native Stalinist bureaucrats act to establish bureaucratic collectivism, they are just as much the representatives of Moscow as is Molotov in the UN. That is, the Gottwalds are an integral part of a worldwide set-up headed by Moscow. The Gottwalds and the Fosters only support “their own” governments when those governments are in a bloc with Moscow, as during the late war. Also it must be stressed that the stability of every Stalinist regime rests ultimately on the Russian army.

The Workers Party has characterized Russia as a bureaucratic collectivist state. We believe this to be the most scientific description of this new political monstrosity. We do not say that the last word has been said nor that enough has necessarily been said. The Stalinists are the supreme opportunists of history. They are not the most inept of opportunists. Combined with this is Stalinist terror and ruthlessness. Not mere terror and ruthlessness but efficient and effective terror. I believe that Judd underestimates this in his analysis.

As I see it the position of Comrades Howe and Judd is off the mark. Both of them seem to have the feeling that the Czech workers have let them down. Next it will be Italy. Then France. Next the United States! Then where will “socialists” take refuge from Stalinism?

Ernest Rice McKinney Archive   |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 3 March 2018